House of Lords
Thursday, 21 June 2007.
The House met at eleven o’clock: the LORD SPEAKER on the Woolsack.
Prayers—Read by the Lord Bishop of Coventry.
Anti-social Behaviour Orders
My Lords, the effectiveness of the Government’s anti-social behaviour policies was independently assessed last year by the National Audit Office and by the Youth Justice Board. Both confirmed that our twin-track approach of support and sanctions works. We have driven down perceptions of anti-social behaviour by four percentage points from the baseline of 21 per cent in 2002-03 to 17 per cent in 2005-06.
My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for her reply, but is she aware that often the tagging devices are either damaged or removed? Is she further aware that female officers are sent out on their own and can sometimes work until 2 am, travel 300 miles and be confronted by guns in the house? Can this be right?
My Lords, I am not able to confirm the facts given by the noble Baroness. There is an issue in relation to those who seek to remove a tag. Anti-social behaviour orders are seen as preventive and are usually imposed before someone has committed an offence for which they are sentenced and then tagged. I can assure her that everything is being done to ensure that enforcement is followed through.
My Lords, that is not true. Anti-social behaviour orders are cutting reoffending and are better controlling the individuals who are subject to them. By the third intervention, 93 per cent of those who have had an anti-social behaviour order have desisted from such behaviour entirely. I regret to tell the noble Lord that he is simply incorrect.
My Lords, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer, made a Statement about prison overcrowding this week. In the light of that, will the noble Baroness have a word with him and the Sentencing Guidelines Council to ensure that less use is made of custodial sentences for those in breach of anti-social behaviour orders?
My Lords, the noble Lord will know that we have made it very clear that prison should be used only when it is appropriate and the best possible alternative. He also knows that anti-social behaviour orders can be enforced in ways that fall short of imprisonment if that is the effective way of dealing with the matter, but the emphasis has to be on what will be effective in stopping criminal behaviour.
My Lords, I very much endorse the import of what the noble Lord says in relation to acceptable behaviour contracts, which are very successful. However, it depends on the stage at which the individual is dealt with, because some people’s behaviour is so gross and out of control that it is absolutely appropriate to go straightaway to an anti-social behaviour order. I agree with the noble Lord that acceptable behaviour contracts are incredibly successful, are being properly used and are having a great impact.
My Lords, will the Minister resist the assault that is being mounted against ASBOs? In so doing, will she take into account the fact that people like me, when canvassing in inner London areas and council estates, find that people there embrace ASBOs and say that they have been the best thing that has happened for them? Will she be very cautious indeed? Yes, let us make sure that ASBOs work correctly, but let us resist the attempts to withdraw them, because that would certainly not be welcomed by many of our Labour supporters in inner London areas.
My Lords, I endorse what my noble friend said. If you go to areas that are subjected to anti-social behaviour, you hear from all the people there what a blessing they have found the orders to be. They say that the orders have made their lives much more tolerable and that their lives were not tolerable before. The Government are very proud indeed of having introduced that measure.
My Lords, precisely how many people are in prison at the moment for breaching anti-social behaviour orders? What comment does the noble Baroness have on Anne Owers’s report in the 2006 annual lecture to the Judicial Studies Board that it is clear that anti-social behaviour orders are widening the net of the mentally ill in prison?
My Lords, I do not have the precise figure, but I will see whether I can get it. The most important thing to understand is that breaches of anti-social behaviour orders must be dealt with robustly, and they are being dealt with robustly to enhance compliance. We do not accept that the introduction of anti-social behaviour orders has inappropriately broadened the net. If one looks at the YJB’s report last year, one will see why we say that.
My Lords, is it not the case that there is nothing fundamentally flawed in the concept of the ASBO, provided that the order is made in an appropriate case as a last resort, rather than as a first resort, and provided that its objective is clear and its terms are precise, so that it can be stated at any time whether there has been a breach of the order?
My Lords, can we deduce from the question asked by the spokesman for the Official Opposition that the position of the Conservative Party now is to oppose ASBOs, when in fact they are supported by Conservative councillors and magistrates up and down the land? I simply cannot understand the contradiction.
My Lords, is it not the case that there is a small but nevertheless significant group of young people who are being given ASBOs for significant but low-level misbehaviour and who, having breached those ASBOs, have been back to court two, three or even four times? All that happens is that the ASBO is extended and strengthened. There are no real sanctions available other than custodial sentences, which the magistrates believe are not appropriate in such cases. That minority of young people are laughing at the system.
My Lords, very few people are now laughing at the system, because the breach procedure is robust. It is interesting that we are told on one hand that we are much too rigorous in enforcement and on the other that we are not enforcing the orders enough. Proportionality is very important, and the way in which we are dealing with this now is correct.
Employment: Unskilled Jobs
My Lords, in 2004 the Government commissioned my noble friend Lord Leitch to undertake an independent review of the United Kingdom’s long-term skills needs. His interim and final reports drew on a comprehensive range of evidence and found low-skilled jobs accounting for a falling share of employment. The Government plan to publish a full response in early July, which will set out the measures that we will take to meet the challenges of a higher-skilled economy.
My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that reply. Is he aware that the estimated number of unskilled jobs has fallen from 8 million in the 1960s to 3.4 million today and that a further fall is projected? Is he further aware that the Chancellor of the Exchequer has said that, by 2020, only 600,000 unskilled jobs will actually be needed? What action is being taken to raise skills levels, following the important speech last night of the Chancellor of the Exchequer?
My Lords, raising the skill levels of the population, young and older, has been central to our policies since 1997. We have increased education spending by 50 per cent in real terms since 1997, which has enabled a substantial improvement to take place in school standards. It has also enabled a range of further education programmes to take place, including, for example, Skills for Life, the programme aimed at improving basic skills of literacy and numeracy in the adult population. The Government have spent £3 billion on Skills for Life since 2001 and nearly 2 million adults have seen their literacy or numeracy improved as a result of such courses. We have also introduced the new Train to Gain programme, which works with employers to identify lower-skilled employees and give them free or heavily subsidised programmes leading to level 2 or 3 qualifications. We are spending about £400 million a year on that. We have substantially increased the number of apprenticeships. I could go on. There has been a very substantial programme of work, but we will set out more still when we respond fully to my noble friend Lord Leitch’s report early next month.
My Lords, given the importance of the skills agenda, why do we have to wait until July for the Government’s response to the Leitch report? As each week goes by, more and more young people are being left behind and all we have heard from the Government is a deafening silence. I cannot understand why we have waited over half a year for this report. Could it be that we are simply waiting for a new Prime Minister?
My Lords, we are only a few days away from July. I am all in favour of expeditious action in these areas but I do not believe that that is an undue delay. With regard to the deafening silence, I commend to the noble Baroness the brilliant speech that the Chancellor of the Exchequer made last night at the Mansion House. Far from being a deafening silence, it was a very capable exposition of policy in this area and our commitment to improving it.
My Lords, in the light of the noble Lord’s answer to the last question, is he prepared to indicate when he last went into a pub or restaurant in the London area and was served by somebody British? Does he not accept that, as the demand for skilled operatives increases substantially within the United Kingdom, there remains a significant demand for unskilled labour which is not being fulfilled by British workers?
My Lords, in respect of my noble friend’s reference to expeditious action, is he aware that not 45 years ago from that Dispatch Box, in his maiden speech, Lord Snow answered exactly the same question about exactly the same problem? Governments have come and gone since then. What does that suggest to my noble friend?
My Lords, this Government will not be going any time soon, and I hope that, by the time we do, we will have transformed policy in this area. We have made very significant strides in recent years, due in no small part to our progress in education at school level. The very substantial improvement we have seen in school results will feed through into the skills of the adult population in due course. Let me say to my noble friend, who has played a big part in this work, that that is due in no small part to the substantial improvement in the quality of teaching and learning in our schools. No group of people will be more important in taking forward this agenda than teachers in our schools. Developments such as the national teaching awards and others that celebrate the achievements of teachers, with which my noble friend is closely associated, are having a transformative impact in this area.
My Lords, I decline to answer that point. A moment ago the Minister referred to apprenticeships increasing in number, but still there are not enough. I am sure he would agree that there is a great demand. What will he do to ensure a better completion rate of apprenticeships? That is a great concern. Will the Government consider some form of recognition for apprenticeships, such as a diploma or something of that nature?
My Lords, the noble Lord is absolutely right to raise the issue of completion rates of apprenticeships, which, frankly, we accept have been too low. We want to raise the completion rate significantly. We are working with employers’ organisations to see that that happens. I take on board the noble Lord’s point and I shall come back to him on it.
My Lords, as a Member of your Lordships’ House who occasionally, with his wife, visits public houses for lunch, I ask whether my noble friend will turn his attention to the skills that need upgrading in the hospitality and tourism industry. It is a very important industry, and sometimes I feel we are lacking in that area.
My Lords, my noble friend makes a valuable point. We are looking at work we can do in the hospitality and tourism area, including the establishment of a national skills academy and the introduction of new specialised diplomas, which will focus on leisure and tourism as a subject that can be taught in schools. Once those diplomas are introduced, they will lead to worthwhile qualifications for young people, including real skills in that area, as they go into the job market.
Terrorism: UK Ministers
My Lords, no Ministers of the Crown elected to serve in the Government of the United Kingdom have been convicted of terrorist offences. Ministerial appointments within the devolved Administrations are matters for the party leaders in those Administrations.
My Lords, I notice that the Minister chose not to answer the Question on the Order Paper. It did not refer to Ministers of the Crown; it referred to Ministers. Would he now care to list the precedents for the appointment within this kingdom of Ministers with convictions as terrorist gunmen—in authority over Her Majesty’s subjects and indeed their children? Perhaps I may ask on a personal note, as government policy seems to be in flux, whether the noble Lord himself would feel entirely comfortable sitting in a Government of any kind alongside a convicted gunman?
My Lords, on a personal note, let me say that all members of the Government respect the noble Lord’s position with regard to issues in Northern Ireland and the way in which he has conducted himself in the past. We are in a new situation since 8 May. All members of government in Northern Ireland committed themselves to non-violence and to pursue the position through peaceful and democratic means. Of course the noble Lord is right that we may be in uncharted waters and creating new precedents. That is how peace is being brought to Northern Ireland.
My Lords, I should declare an interest: I have consulted my noble friends who have been named as potential Cabinet Ministers before asking this question. While we all respect, as the Minister said, the position which the noble Lord, Lord Tebbit, comes from, I was glad that the Minister said that we must move on from here. I am sure he would agree that, as far as the people of Northern Ireland are concerned, the future is about tomorrow rather than yesterday. Yesterday weighs far too heavily in the historical memory of Northern Ireland and it is time that we should move on. Does the Minister agree?
My Lords, I am grateful for those remarks. I emphasise that the prime obligation of all who serve in government in a democracy is to the people. All Ministers in the devolved Administration are elected by the people of Northern Ireland, and we respect that.
My Lords, will my noble friend confirm that the position referred to in the Question applied equally when the first wave of devolution took place in Northern Ireland towards the end of 1999? Will he further confirm that, if Dr Paisley and the DUP are happy with the present arrangements, surely other people can be relaxed about the difficulties described by the noble Lord, Lord Tebbit?
My Lords, since I am unable to drag out of the Minister a reply to either the Question or the further questions that I put to him—since he finds difficulty in letting the words escape from his lips—I offer him another question, one about the future. What lesson does he think that terrorists today will draw from the appointment of a convicted gunman as a Minister in this country?
Taxation: Non-domiciled Residents
My Lords, the Government’s review of the rules on residence and domicile that affect the UK tax position of individuals is ongoing. In conducting the review, we are considering the key principles of fairness, support for the UK economy, and simplicity and ease of use of the system.
My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that Answer. Many of the super-rich permanently living in this country are classified as non-domiciled residents. That means that they pay no tax on income earned abroad. With careful tax planning, which they can easily afford, they end up paying little tax either abroad or in the UK. Does my noble friend think that fair? Secondly, can he give some indication of the loss to the Exchequer as a result of that concession?
My Lords, as the whole House will recognise, there is an element of unfairness in the most graphic forms of this, such as when a wealthy individual identifies that he can pay tax at a lower rate than his cleaner can. However, these are difficult issues. We recognise the important part that our taxation arrangements play in the development of the UK economy. No one is being accused of breaking any tax laws or bending any of these rules; they are using the law as it stands. Our task is to see how we can make the law fairer, while guaranteeing that all those who invest and develop business in this country are treated appropriately.
My Lords, the student is living in England and has been in English education, so when they go to Scotland they are in the same category as all other students in England. All university systems have to adopt a particular strategy for students who are overseas and therefore in the category of non-domiciles. The general position in all university administrations is that such people pay. The difference in Scotland is that they are bound by European arrangements also.
My Lords, there is, of course, a big difference between normal domicile and domicile for tax purposes. Is my noble friend aware that many professional people are concerned about the abuse of dubious claims, which are often accepted, of being domiciled for tax purposes? Would he care to publish or give me now a clear position, if there is one, of the tax position in this area, because there is concern everywhere within the system that it is being seriously abused?
My Lords, of course the tax authorities apply tax accurately and are, therefore, working to a clear set of rules with regard to this situation. But, as my noble friend indicated, domicility is not a tax concept; thereby hangs the difficulty, of which the Government have been aware for some time. Our domicility rules go back to the 19th century and all Administrations since then have been governed by this position. We are of the view, for all the reasons that my noble friend advanced, that the issue requires revision and we are carrying out a review of the position.
My Lords, does the Minister accept that the review to which he referred started in 2002, that most people who have looked at this issue believe that no action whatever is being taken and that the concept of a review is being used as a fig leaf for the Treasury not grasping this particular nettle? Can he assure the House that the review will now be brought to a speedy conclusion and its results published?
My Lords, I am wrestling with the image of coping with nettles when one is wearing a fig leaf. As far as the review is concerned, a report in this autumn’s Pre-Budget Report will indicate the stage that we have reached, but we all recognise the degree of public concern about this issue.
My Lords, I declare an interest as being non-domiciled—I retain my domicile of origin, which is Australia, although unfortunately I am not in the super-rich category. Is the Minister aware that once you have lived in this country for 17 of the past 20 years, you are deemed to be domiciled and are caught in every possible way for taxation, including inheritance tax, which does not exist in Australia? Is he also aware that in Australia I have to pay 48 cents in the dollar, which is higher than the 40 per cent rate here? If you brought money over here, would you be able to reclaim tax, because, if you bring money from another country, you are given a tax credit if that country has an agreement? Does the Minister agree that this matter is not only quite complicated, but is time limited for people who are super-rich, because of the “deemed” provisions?
Well, my Lords, I am not setting myself up as the noble Baroness’s tax adviser at this point. The House will derive some encouragement if I emphasise the fact that, as the noble Baroness accurately described, the domicile rules are circumscribed in such a way that, after a period, individuals are liable to full UK taxation.
My Lords, if the Minister is minded to follow up the second question of the noble Lord, Lord Mitchell, on examining the opportunity cost to the Exchequer, would he at the same time produce a balancing calculation of the extent of the economic contribution made by such individuals to this country’s economy and, indeed, the tax that has arisen from that?
My Lords, that is why the concession is there in the first place. The noble Lord identified that we want business taxation to be fair, of course, but we also want to encourage the development of the British economy. We have adopted that position with considerable success in recent years. The noble Lord is right. If it is identified that a small group may be taking advantage of the rules as they stand and there is great concern in the country about fairness, it is right that the Treasury should look at that while bearing in mind the point made by the noble Lord.
Business of the House: Debates Today
My Lords, I beg to move the Motion standing on the Order Paper in the name of my noble friend Lady Amos.
Moved, That the debate on the Motion in the name of Lord Howell of Guildford set down for today shall be limited to three and a half hours and that in the name of Lord Lucas to two hours.—(Lord Rooker.)
On Question, Motion agreed to.
Working Time (Amendment) Regulations 2007
Companies (Political Expenditure Exemption) Order 2007
Regulatory Reform (Game) Order 2007
Regulatory Reform (Financial Services and Markets Act 2000) Order 2007
Official Secrets Act 1989 (Prescription) (Amendment) Order 2007
National Assembly for Wales (Legislative Competence) (Amendment of Schedule 7 to the Government of Wales Act 2006) Order 2007
My Lords, I beg to move the Motions standing on the Order Paper in the name of my noble friend Lady Amos.
Moved, That the regulations and orders be referred to a Grand Committee.—(Lord Rooker.)
On Question, Motion agreed to.
Offender Management Bill
My Lords, I beg to move the Motion standing in my name on the Order Paper.
Moved, That the amendments for the Report stage be marshalled and considered in the following order:
Clauses 1 to 5,
Clauses 6 to 10,
Clauses 11 to 38,
Schedules 3 to 5,
Clauses 39 to 41.—(Baroness Scotland of Asthal.)
On Question, Motion agreed to.
rose to call attention to the results of the foreign policy pursued by the Government since May 1997 and to the current international standing of the United Kingdom; and to move for Papers.
The noble Lord said: My Lords, it is an odd fact that, while pollsters and opinion experts keep telling us that voters are not much interested in foreign affairs and that all politics are local, nevertheless it is foreign policy issues which more often than not turn out to be the force that tumbles kings, presidents and prime ministers and unseats Governments. I think most of your Lordships will agree that it is certainly foreign policy that will mark the so-called “Blair legacy” most prominently. While there have been undoubted successes, to which I shall refer, I believe that they are far exceeded by the failures and that, when the record is weighed in the balances of history, it will be found severely wanting.
I begin with the doctrine of liberal intervention, which was recently reaffirmed by the Prime Minister on his farewell tour of Africa. This is a sort of cousin of the original doctrine of ethical foreign policy, as proposed by the late and eloquent Robin Cook, which rapidly and not surprisingly came apart under the pressure of events. I think that it was Thucydides who first warned about the problems of ethical foreign policy well over 2,000 years ago, so perhaps a little more reading of history would have helped to avoid some of the pitfalls in the first place.
Today, we have seen the dispatch of armed forces here, there and everywhere. While there has been plenty of intervention, the liberal or moral bit, which is bringing peace and democracy to the countries invaded, has not been as successful. In fact, if we are frank, it has been a truly catastrophic failure in places. The armies that we have sent out have not returned, and the peaceful liberal democracy has not emerged, while of course enormous strains are being imposed on our military resources and financial means and on our world reputation as well.
The Ministry of Defence will tell you that that is no surprise as none of it was planned. Your Lordships will remember that, when the Cold War ended and the wall fell and people talked about the peace dividend, it was carefully decided that the United Kingdom would plan and budget its military resources for the long term to fight one major war operation and one minor subsidiary operation. That was the strategic plan. Of course, today we are fighting two major wars and engaging in a whole string of lesser operations. Indeed, we are warned this morning by an authoritative ambassador that one of these wars could last for another 30 years, so no wonder the word is “overstretch” and that we are finding it hard to stay the course.
All this is part of a much larger picture of setbacks and failed strategies. At the outset of 1997, the grand vision we were offered was of Britain as a bridge between the USA and Europe. We were going to be with the Americans “to the end”, and yet we were also going to be wholehearted partners in Europe. That bridge, as we all know, was a fantasy; or if there was one, what there was of it lies crumbled on the river-bed. In the real world, Labour foreign policy has had five major pillars: the European policy, the links with Washington, the Middle East strategy, Africa and the poorer world, and the links with the fast-rising Asian powers—and with prickly Russia, which really falls into neither category. In all these areas there have been major setbacks, damage to the UK and severe loss of leverage. I shall comment on all of them briefly in the time available, although I know that we have already debated European Union questions ad nauseam in your Lordships’ House. I am afraid that there will be a lot more to come on that subject in the coming days.
All I would add at this stage on the European front is that, in all the debates about an amending treaty, could we please be spared this constant bureaucratic demand, this itch for “more efficiency” in the central EU machine so that the sausage process can turn out more and more regulations? We are told that this is why we must transfer more power to the centre, why we need a Foreign Minister to speak for us at the UN—although that is in question—and why we must have a two-and-a-half-year president who will of course be a five-year president and a sort of celebrity Mr Europe. We are told that all this is necessary in the name of efficiency. It is democracy, not efficiency that we should be putting first in establishing our European policy.
Generally, we have let our European policy—and we have always been very good Europeans, whatever else is said—be dictated by someone else. As I said in the debate last week in this House, it is the total loss of initiative by our own policy-makers which one finds so humiliating. Instead of pushing with creative vigour for a modern, decentralised and flexible Union, we have let others promote their, to my mind, outdated concepts and let the grass grow under our feet, with the result that we are at this moment being trapped into a camouflaged constitution which nobody here, quite rightly, wants and from which no amount of red-line drawing will protect us.
I turn to transatlantic relations. As everyone knows, these have been marked most clearly by a limited ability—some would say total inability—to influence President Bush and his friends, despite enormous commitments of resources, loyalty, good will and obedience. Looking back, it strikes me that the model that the Prime Minister, Mr Blair, should have followed was really set by the wily Harold Wilson, who I admit was not a much loved figure on our side of the House but was an extremely skilled operator in relations with America. He knew exactly how to stay friendly with the United States while avoiding like the plague entanglement in the disastrous Vietnam imbroglio. The outgoing Prime Minister should have learnt from that model, and I hope that the incoming one will do so.
In the Middle East the list of disasters hardly needs repeating. Iraq remains a confused muddle. We are, I believe, thinking about but cannot yet work out ways of disengaging our troops from Basra and Iraq. Iran proceeds on its own not very sweet way despite threats, resolutions and visits. On Palestine and Israel, the Prime Minister long ago said that he was committed to striving for,
“a secure Israel and a viable Palestinian state”.
We have neither, nor any prospect of either at present. On the Israelis in Lebanon the Prime Minister backed completely the wrong policy horse, as growing numbers of wiser Israelis and others outside now realise.
In the end it is the rising Asian powers and Russia that stand the best chance of ordering the Middle East. Asia is, after all, where most of the Middle East’s oil actually goes nowadays. The solution is no longer in the West’s hands. I would certainly counsel Mr Blair against accepting, in a new job, any new poison chalice from Washington based on this flawed thinking. Meanwhile our Gulf state friends wait in deep apprehension of an American bombing trip against Iran which would turn regional disaster into global catastrophe.
On Africa, the Prime Minister has unquestionably raised the profile of debate—I am absolutely ready to concede that—and if words could cure all, then all of Africa would now be prospering. But unfortunately the reality and the promises are somewhat removed. Chinese influence is growing in the African continent. The Darfur horror, which is partly linked with Chinese oil ambitions in Sudan, continues almost unabated. Zimbabwe remains a deepening stain on the African story. And the trumpeted aid commitments at Gleneagles and elsewhere have been watered down and become what the somewhat naïve but well-meaning Bob Geldof has called “a total farce”, while other crusaders who also believed all the targets, declarations and so on speak rather more bitterly of “a betrayal”.
On Russia, our relations have grown worse and worse. The Russians are undoubtedly very difficult to handle and are in an aggressive mood fuelled by their enormous oil and gas revenues, which have enriched them. All I would suggest is that those who go round demanding a common EU energy policy in face of Russian actions and Gazprom’s activities should think more carefully about continental Europe’s large and growing dependence on Russian gas—it is going to get much bigger, not smaller—and whether this country really wants to be entangled in it. Given our growing reliance on gas imports—40 per cent of our electricity is now sourced from gas—my view is that we would do far better to rely on our trusted friend Norway and on frozen gas imports than to become involved in the continental Russian gas system.
Somewhere in this list of setbacks we have to fit the view of the present Foreign and Commonwealth Secretary, Mrs Beckett, who thinks that the number one foreign policy issue is climate security. That aspiration is certainly an awesome one and it may be right—although the power to change the elements used to be accorded only to God and not to man—but, right or wrong, I question whether proclaiming targets and goals for controlling the weather 40 years hence is actually going to achieve much. It would, I think, be much wiser to concentrate on more immediate energy security and efficiency needs and on urgent, immediate environmental issues where we can do something practical rather than just sign aspirations for decades ahead. If we get the short term wrong, we can forget all about a low-carbon longer-term future.
Our real interests now lie increasingly in Asia. It is with the cutting-edge nations such as India, Malaysia, Australia and Japan, and obviously China, that we need to build, or rebuild, far stronger links. They will determine our fate on global warming and everything else. The tragedy is that the one potential network that would truly help us in this task has been ignored and neglected under current foreign policy. I refer of course to the Commonwealth, the forgotten C in the name of our FCO. In a world where the information revolution has replaced blocs and superpowers, here really is the network for the future for us in Britain —a gigantic, trans-continental, multi-faith series of linkages with common values, a common language and common aims of peace and development, friendly to America but not prepared to be Washington’s poodle or lapdog. The incoming Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, said the other day in India that our foreign policy should be based on Europe, our partnership with America and the Commonwealth. I hope he means it, because if anyone tried to sit on that three-legged stool at the moment, it would tip over. It is ridiculous that every British citizen pays £50 a year towards the European Union but only 20p a year—less than the price of a second-class stamp—for the Commonwealth. There is an imbalance and it has to be corrected.
All these setbacks are not the Government’s fault—that is absurd—but a sailor is expected to trim his sails skilfully to the wind. Surely it might have been better to follow the Harold Wilson example on the American decision to invade Iraq before plunging in quite so easily and, as it turned out, on false information. It might have been better to think twice about the fundamental error in the Washington doctrine that democracy could be packaged and exported by overwhelming force. It might have been better to seize the initiative on EU reform with our growing band of like-thinking allies rather than drift along behind Paris and Berlin. It might have been better not to raise so many hopes about African development which could not be fulfilled. It might have been better to explain openly that we live in an international relations network, not a regional bloc, and that while our role is in Europe, our destiny lies in wider fields. Above all, it might have been better to have been humble rather than humiliated, although I do realise that humility is not an easy ingredient to put in a PR package and to spin effectively.
I think that this Government would be more loved if they shared a few frank appraisals about our world problems with the people rather than bossily denying that anything has gone wrong. A great deal has gone wrong and there is a vast repair job awaiting whoever comes next. I know that government has become many times more difficult in the age of information revolution, with every laptop owner an expert and anarchy e-empowered, but it would be much easier to accept and forgive the Government’s foreign policy disappointments and endless setbacks if there was a little more sign that Ministers in this Government understood that too. The outgoing Prime Minister said:
“We need to change dramatically the focus of our policy”.
I hope the incoming Prime Minister does just that, because it is about time. I beg to move for Papers.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Howell of Guildford, for introducing the debate today. He did so, of course, with his customary expertise and elegance. I thank him for setting the scene, at least so far as he sees it, so clearly.
The noble Lord has, indeed, set us an unanswerable question. Just how much of what is happening in the world today can be said to be the result of the foreign policy of this or any other Government? It is unrealistic to imply, as he does, that any Government’s foreign policy can ultimately change another country these days. In the past that may have been so, but his premise is, frankly, out of date. Now the emphasis is on self-determination, internal reform and increasing prosperity. Respect for the rule of law and human rights are arguably far more potent factors in changing countries than outside foreign influence is. If real change and lasting reform are to be successful, they have to be home-based, home-grown and sustained at home.
I have looked back to May 1997, when I wound up the first debate about foreign policy under this Prime Minister and this Government. Top of the list were combating poverty, particularly poverty in Africa, and promoting sustainable development through the newly set up Department for International Development. The setting up of DfID was crucial. It is a model that is admired throughout the world. Our policy of separating aid from trade has been an unqualified success in convincing aid recipients of the disinterested nature of our support. Aid still has conditions—of course it does—but they are about internal development of the recipient countries, not about the benefit to British trade. We have led the way over debt cancellation. We have almost tripled aid to Africa and elsewhere. That was the right thing to do; it has made a difference and it is admired around the world.
Our policy of critical engagement has also earned us a reputation for pragmatism and reform, but I well remember being heavily chastised by the noble Lord, Lord Moynihan, and others, for even talking to China and Cuba, or to Spain about Gibraltar or to Argentina about the Falklands. Now such engagement is acknowledged on all sides as the right thing to do, although it was heavily questioned by the party opposite at the time.
In 1997, the then Bishop of Oxford the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries of Pentregarth raised the issue of landmines, which were then killing someone, mostly children, every 20 minutes around the world. The Government campaigned internationally, again with warnings of ghastly consequences if we went ahead. That has been a success, and many of us hope that we shall achieve the same success over cluster bombs.
In 1997, we said that this country should be at the heart of an open, effective and enlarged European Union, and that we should build relationships to the benefit of this country and not shout instructions from the sidelines as our immediate predecessors had done. Yes, Europe is still bureaucratic. It still does not account convincingly for its expenditure. Frankly, it can be infuriating at times. But we have helped to create a Europe that is the largest single market in the world, a Europe whose aid to developing countries is generous and growing, a Europe that countries are queueing up to join, and a Europe that provides prosperity to its citizens and has at its heart the values of democracy, human rights and the rule of law. It is a Europe that is a force for good in the world.
When I was a Minister, I was often asked—the noble Lord, Lord Howell, posed the question again—which matters most to the United Kingdom, Europe or the United States. Of course, the answer has to be both. You cannot choose between the family of which you are part and the lifelong friend whose partnership is irreplaceable. We, and this Prime Minister in particular, are often challenged for what our media, and the noble Lord, have seen as an uncritical relationship with the United States. To be frank, there have been times when I have wished that the Government could say more openly what is said in private to our friends in Washington—things that I have said myself or arguments that I have heard my Cabinet colleagues put—but that self-indulgence is not part of the deal that you do when you become a Minister. You take the jibes of “poodle” and “lap dog”, as they were made today, and you do not protect yourself if it risks the policy that you are pursuing or the interests of your country.
Nowhere is that more true than in the Middle East. First, Iraq. When the history books are written about the Blair years, I wonder whether Iraq will be seen as the greatest foreign policy failure of the past 10 years or whether the emergence of a democratic, peaceful and prosperous Iraq living at ease with its neighbours will change history’s verdict. When I listened yesterday to Iraq’s Foreign Minister, Hoshyar Zebari, there was no doubt about his conviction that the second verdict will be the right one. He thanked the parliamentarians there for giving his country hope for the future and urged us over and over again to stick with Iraq at this difficult time.
The noble Lord, Lord Howell, said that much might have been done better. He did not say at the time when it really mattered what he said today about reflecting on our entering Iraq. We all know that British troops are taking daily risks with their lives in Iraq and Afghanistan. The argument that their intervention is universally hated in the region is simply untrue. Opinion in the region is divided, views are held with passionate conviction on both sides of the argument and the result is still uncertain.
However, the greatest uncertainty in the Middle East is not Iraq; it is not Iran, the increasingly open and prosperous Gulf states or the rapidly developing countries of the Mahgreb. It is what it was 10 years ago: the Israeli-Palestinian conflict—visceral, vicious and often very violent. Ten years ago, government policy was wholehearted support for the peace process as exemplified then by the Oslo negotiations. It was for international legality, the Palestinian need for justice, self-determination and economic well-being, and Israel’s need for and right to security. Much has happened in the past 10 years. The processes have changed, as have many of the key politicians, but the issue is still the same. In the end, it will be land for peace in one form or another.
Frankly, I think that we are now more determined to get stuck in, not merely to encourage with aid and well honed advice. Recent developments in Gaza are truly appalling. I was in the region last weekend. There is talk of a three-state solution, of a lockdown of Gaza as a whole, of further interventions from Iran and Syria and of real fears for brave Lebanon and even steadfast Jordan. But the Arab League is starting to flex its diplomatic muscles, and so, too, should the European Union. We cannot leave this issue to an American Administration who are preoccupied now by Iraq and will soon lose focus altogether when the election bandwagon is rolling. If we have learnt nothing else from the past 10 years, this much we know: the Americans alone have neither the inclination nor the means to solve that crisis. We all have a responsibility and we all must shoulder it.
What has changed most in the past 10 years is international terrorism. Many commentators would have us believe that terrorism is the result of our foreign policy, forgetting that probably the single most significant event—9/11—predated Afghanistan and Iraq, although 9/11 was indeed the turning point. Yes, perhaps our policies have provided the most unprincipled and vicious with excuses for what they do, but they have not provided them with a reason. In any case, what is our alternative—that an elected Government should bend their foreign policy to do things that would pacify terrorists? That suggestion is quite outrageous. For good or ill, the foreign policy of any Government, but particularly that of a democratically elected Government, must be based on an assessment of what is right—for the country and its security and prosperity.
Ten years on, the results are still uncertain and the judgments are still to be assessed. Many of us who were close to the heart of foreign policy for a long time will have many unanswered questions and many sober reflections to keep us company in our quieter moments. However, we also have much to be proud of—much that has lasting value and is of great credit to this Government, to this Prime Minister and to the people who elected him in three elections.
My Lords, I, too, thank the noble Lord, Lord Howell, for securing the debate and for the thoughtful and provocative way in which he opened it. It is a privilege to follow the powerful speech of the noble Baroness, Lady Symons. I shall concentrate on the part that defence has played in the Government’s foreign policy in the past decade and the way in which the Armed Forces have been called on to implement it.
Wars of choice are certainly an optional extra when it comes to formulating and implementing foreign policy objectives. As has been said in this debate and on many other occasions, this Government have been remarkably proactive in their foreign policy engagement with adversaries or with those whom they have perceived to be potentially hostile to our national interests. Whether this policy has been adopted as a broad strategic approach, or on a case-by-case basis, there has been a clear determination in the past decade to engage, to lock horns if necessary and to move against perceived threats, even well before they have developed into any hostile action.
Given that we are a member of the Security Council, the G8, the Commonwealth and other international groupings, and given that we are a stable nation with a remarkable history of empire and experience and with a worldwide and deserved reputation for determination and courage, British Governments understandably like to see us as a major player in the world. However, we must never lose sight of the fact that, just as the Falklands conflict of 1982 gave our international reputation an enormous boost, which ran for a decade, so too will our current and recent performance be taken into account in today’s international judgment. The past alone is not enough on which to maintain our reputation and the respect of others. We must still make sufficient effort to sustain that reputation today.
In the past 10 to 15 years, our Armed Forces have been involved in expeditionary warfare on a scale quite unmatched since the Korean War. In particular, the periods of action, Sierra Leone apart, have not simply involved delivering a short, sharp shock and then returning to the normal peacetime round of exercises and training; they have been spread over months. Indeed, action in Iraq and Afghanistan will be spread over years, so much so that the preparation and training for these and other possible operations have suffered severely.
This Government have shown little hesitation in using our forces to further their policy objectives. Our forces are rightly admired for their ability to respond effectively and in a measured way, but it is now clear that there is a serious and growing mismatch between the demands that have been placed on the Armed Forces in the past decade and their collective ability to deliver.
Buried not far below the surface are the financial restraints—and consequently the capability restraints—on our fighting strength. Not only have the front-line fighting units been reduced in the past decade, with the loss of ships, battalions and squadrons of fast jet aircraft putting more pressure on those that remain; so, too, have the many support activities that are so central to expeditionary warfare. Units such as transport, communications and supply are now dealing with the demands for major operational support in two theatres of actual fighting.
Only the quality and determination of the hundreds of units and individuals in these activities have enabled them, so far, to cope, despite the fact that many equipments are well past their operational lifespan, have been deployed in extremes of climate or lack spares to keep them fully serviceable. Even the most determined and supportive industry cannot replace and make good deficiencies at the flick of a finger. New procurements can take years. The problems with helicopter shortages and adequately armoured vehicles have hit the headlines, but there are many more, less visible but essential, requirements, which take time with training and support to bring into use.
The conclusion to draw from such examples—let alone from the mismatch that is acknowledged to exist between planning assumptions for operations and the actuality of the past decade—is that our forces, and in particular certain parts of them, are overcommitted. Prompt decisions are now vital to reduce and rescale the level of our overseas commitment. But this is to attempt to make good that which has gone wrong. For too long, defence spending has been preconditioned on what can be afforded rather than on what must be provided to meet our expeditionary involvements. The harsh reality of Iraq and Afghanistan is that, for the tasks set by this Government, the Armed Forces are underprovided for.
If we were involved in a major and imminent threat to national survival and security, it would have to be all hands to the pump for our Armed Forces, regardless of their capabilities. But that is a war of necessity. Our involvements in fighting over the past decade have been in conflicts of choice—of our choice. War has been the optional extra. It is morally indefensible to continue like this, putting so many lives at risk, now that the limits of our capabilities have been exposed in action.
Moreover, the types of conflict in which we are currently engaged are not like those with another state, where the outcome—success for us—can be measured and seen in the reaction of the enemy’s Government. Conflict with terrorism does not have the same set of rules. It is not like a game of chess, where there is an outcome that is recognised by both sides. The fight with terrorism is not subject to any such set of rules. In particular, the outcome of conflict with terrorism cannot be—and never has been—an achievement of armed forces. They can help to keep the lid on terrorism, but resolution is a matter of politics, not the gun.
The conclusion must be that if our Government wish to tread the world stage and use the Armed Forces where they see a need for them, they must provide the forces with the capabilities and the staying power that these policies may call for. If that is thought to be beyond our means, Ministers must curb their desires to be world policemen and bringers of good to far-flung corners of the globe.
This is only a new twist to an old lesson about the need to be prepared for war in order to avoid being dragged into one. With the Comprehensive Spending Review coming up, now is the time for this Government to indicate whether they wish to be able to participate in wars of choice anywhere in the world or whether they are resigned to playing the less forceful role of all other European nations. Without a large and sustained increase in the defence budget, it would be wrong for a Government to think that at present strengths the Armed Forces can any longer underwrite global interventions on the scale of the past decade, or in future wars of choice. It is pay up or give up time for this Government.
My Lords, I, too, am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Howell, for introducing this important subject. I speak as a mere layman in political terms. It certainly is not my intention to offer a wide-ranging critique of government policy over the past 10 years. However, I should like to draw the attention of the House to certain ongoing issues in relation to our policy, particularly in the Middle East, which might benefit from further reflection and to which we might pay more attention.
I should like to remind the House of the almost incredible shift that has taken place in how we speak of and experience warfare. The point has been made many times that, until the fall of communism, most warfare was still conceived of in terms of the nation state; that is, in territorial terms. The events of 9/11, to which the noble Baroness, Lady Symons, referred, made it clear that this is no longer necessarily the case. This is perhaps a somewhat simplistic analysis. Nevertheless, in all the talk of the war on terror, perhaps insufficient attention has been paid to the obvious fact that terrorism is not territorial but is systemic. A complementary perspective has just been offered by the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Craig, on this.
Following what many saw as the knee-jerk bombing of Afghanistan in the hope of killing Osama bin Laden, one American commentator suggested that it was like hitting a mature dandelion with a golf club: the original plant might be destroyed but the inevitable spread of the seed would make things infinitely worse. When I met Tariq Aziz in Baghdad before the invasion of 2003, he denied emphatically any connection with terrorism in the normal sense of the word. He of course had plenty of experience of terror in other forms. He assured me that if a member of al-Qaeda dared to set foot on Israeli soil, he would be shot on sight. The original plant, Osama bin Laden, has, of course, not been destroyed, but the seed of al-Qaeda has spread and taken root, most notably, and perhaps most ironically, in Iraq.
To some extent, the systemic nature of the problem has been acknowledged with the talk of winning hearts and minds. Invading and conquering sovereign territory can be only the start of a process. But I wonder whether we pause sufficiently to ask how such language plays into a culture that is so radically different from our own. Is it not the case that phrases like “western democratic values” are heard, not as self-evidently desirable, but as an implicit criticism of Islam, a religion which finds the concept of political pluralism hard, if not impossible, to integrate into its strictly theocratic view of society? The term “democracy” may sometimes need to be relinquished in favour of different forms of culturally appropriate representation such as are to be found in many ancient societies in Africa and the Middle East. Winning hearts and minds is perhaps too readily heard as code for arrogant western imperialism.
This leads me to ask how seriously we take the deeply religious dimension to the current conflict, not only in Iraq but in the Middle East generally. To do this represents a profound challenge to the predominantly secularised basis of most western political theory. The fact of daily life in most parts of the world, the Middle East included, is that religion is at the heart of everything. It is not simply an optional add-on. In Iraq the Coalition Provisional Authority was, in general, lamentably slow to acknowledge the role that might be played by religious dialogue at an early stage after the invasion. Consequently, very little money was put into that process until it was too late. Ayatollah Hussein al-Sadr came to visit me in Coventry before the invasion and he was more willing than most to be approached; but the invitation never came. Ayatollah al-Sadr is the relatively moderate uncle of the now notorious Moqtada al-Sadr.
There is a further aspect of the religious dimension which cannot be ignored. In one sense, this will sound like special pleading, coming as it does from these Benches, but I take courage from the fact that the Pope recently tackled President Bush on this issue. The migration of Christians from the Middle East is due to a multiplicity of factors, religious, social and economic. In percentage terms, the Christian population in towns such as Bethlehem is at its lowest for centuries. The overt persecution of Christians in Baghdad by Islamist extremists has led to a regime of terror and appalling danger: death threats and illegal confiscation of property are commonplace; kidnapping and ransom for religious reasons occur daily. One of the many reasons underlying this persecution is the utterly false perception that Christianity, far from having its origins in the Middle East, is a western import, and therefore all Christians are regarded as stooges of America.
The Government rightly pride themselves on a policy of inclusivity. As a nation, we have in the past 50 years offered hospitality to large numbers of adherents to non-Christian faith traditions, such that the UK is now regarded very much as a multi-faith society. Might the Government, perhaps through the FCO, have a part to play in encouraging a degree of what we might call religious reciprocity? After all, they represent a nation where the clear majority, in all the polls at least, still identify themselves as Christian. The continued exodus of Christians from Iraq and from the wider region diminishes the potential for initiatives aimed at promoting peace and reconciliation, as called for by the Baker-Hamilton report. This migration of Christians from the Middle East not only threatens the church’s existence as a viable and sustainable community in the region but also reduces the valuable contribution that the church has traditionally made to the diverse fabric of middle eastern society.
My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord who opened the debate. He and I share a similar vantage point in that he had the honour of chairing the Foreign Affairs Committee in the other place for two Parliaments and I followed him until 2005, but thereafter we differed.
Of course there are British interests. I recall, as a young diplomat in the early 1960s, seeing a paper prepared by the mandarins called British Interests as a warning to the likely incoming Labour Government that there were common interests. Indeed, there is, and has been properly, continuity between British Governments over great swathes of our foreign policy. That continuity is seen, for example, in our relationships with the newly emerging powers of India and China; in the very skilful handling of the Hong Kong issue by the Conservative Government, which led to a smooth transition and improved relationships with China; and in respect of Russia during the Conservative years, when it was far easier to deal with President Yeltsin than with an assertive and confident President Putin.
It has been said that in 1997 the incoming Labour Foreign Secretary, Robin Cook, announced that there would be an ethical dimension to foreign policy, not an ethical foreign policy. I recall the noble Lord, Lord Hurd, loftily telling the Foreign Affairs Committee that, at most, one might expect a few degrees of difference. There has been a greater difference than that.
For many, Iraq, the invasion and its aftermath have been the defining foreign policy issue of the past 10 years. I suspect that there would have been little difference under a Conservative Government. It is in the public domain that I received briefing from our senior intelligence sources as chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee. Indeed, I recall entering the office as the then Conservative opposition leader was leaving it. He supported both the evidence and the policy. It was clear that the Prime Minister was relying on evidence on weapons of mass destruction that was accepted not only by our own intelligence services but by the intelligence services of friendly countries.
It may be deemed partisan, but to support my proposition that there has been positive and welcome change over the past 10 years I cite the evidence of a number of key witnesses. Perhaps the starting point is that the fundamental improvement in our economy under the Labour Government has brought about greater weight and greater respect for this country in the international community. I invite your Lordships to look with me at a few key areas and to listen to what key allies have said in this respect. First, I refer to relations with the United States, the only superpower and vital to our interests. From 1997 to 2005, I used to visit the US three or four times a year, meeting senior officials from the NSC, the CIA, the Department of State and the Department of Defense. Particularly after 9/11, all doors were open for us and we were perceived, quite properly, as the closest ally, which gave us much influence. President Clinton spoke warmly of the Prime Minister at the Labour Party conference. When interviewed in the Rose Garden on 17 May this year, President Bush said,
“my relationship with the leader of Great Britain has been unbelievably productive, and I have enjoyed working with Tony Blair more than I could have possibly imagined”.
He also said that the relationship,
“has enabled the free world to do hard things. And it’s a relationship that I believe is necessary to do the hard things in the 21st century. And so I honor Tony Blair”.
When asked, “What about David Cameron?” President Bush replied, “Never met him”.
On relations with the European Union, foreign policy is, of course, a matter of seeking to persuade others by forming coalitions which further our interests. Who can forget the isolation of this country at Brussels before 1997 and the difficulties that poor John Major had with his anti-Europeans? Of course, there have been strains, particularly over Iraq, but the United Kingdom is now centre stage, perceived as a member of the team and no longer marginalised. I could call President Sarkozy as a witness but I cite President Barroso, who said on 10 May this year:
“Tony Blair has taken the UK from margin to mainstream EU involvement. He has done this through active engagement and without vetoes. He has brought his energy, commitment and ideas to the benefit of Europe and leaves behind an impressive legacy”.
He mentioned climate change, enlargement and contributing to energy policy. He also mentioned development aid. It is clear that the UK has taken a leading role in the debate on climate change, which was a key factor in the change in US policy announced at the G8 summit at Heiligendamm. On aid, we should look at the figures, which speak volumes about our commitment to the third world. I refer to official United Kingdom development assistance as a percentage of GNI. The figure was 0.51 per cent in 1979, 0.27 per cent in 1990 and falling to 0.26 per cent in 1997. In 2006 our development aid was 0.52 per cent as a percentage of GNI. I cite also the very substantial commitments made at Gleneagles.
Last Friday I attended a conference on HIV/AIDS in The Hague, at which a large number of NGOs were present. Your Lordships would have warmed with pride at the tributes paid to our Department for International Development as a model in that area.
Finally, the noble Lord spoke about the Commonwealth and about giving increasing weight to that unique institution. I have quoted the aid statistics and the Gleneagles initiative. In the 1980s, I was the opposition spokesman on Africa, and I was ashamed of my Government’s policy. I recall our isolation at the 1986 special Commonwealth conference at Marlborough House. I recall the then Prime Minister describing Mandela as a “dangerous terrorist” and receiving the freedom of the apartheid city of Johannesburg. To illustrate the change in our policy on South Africa, I quote President Mbeki on 1 June at Union Buildings in Pretoria, where he said of the Prime Minister,
“you leave the bilateral relations between South Africa and the United Kingdom in very good shape in all respects … we have of course been inspired by the very strong and bold positions taken by the Prime Minister and the British government on the issue of the future of the African continent”.
I could give many more examples drawn from Commonwealth countries, such as Sierra Leone, and from the Balkans. In both, we had very successful humanitarian interventions, and I would be very ready to compare the British Government’s policy in the Balkans in the early 1990s with the success thereafter.
I dismiss this newfound enthusiasm for the Commonwealth. I cite in support the speech made the Commonwealth Secretary-General Don McKinnon on Tuesday, in which he gently but firmly dismissed the Conservative approach. In effect, this Government, in my judgment and from my experience, have been good transatlanticists, good Europeans and good Commonwealthers, and that is good for the UK. We know from talks with the Commonwealth that our Commonwealth partners value the fact that we are good advocates for them in Brussels and Washington. That is good for the Commonwealth and good for us.
My Lords, a fortnight ago, Angela Merkel, the current chairperson of the G8 and the European Union, was reported as saying that the EU-AU conference in Portugal, which is intended to take place later this year, will go ahead as planned even if Mugabe attends. I have seen no denial of that statement, although the Foreign Minister of Portugal has said that he had personally no interest in Mugabe coming to Lisbon. I asked the Leader of the House whether Frau Merkel’s statement had been communicated to the United Kingdom Government, whether it was agreed by our Government, and what was the response if it was discussed. I asked whether the other European Union countries were consulted and whether Portugal, which will be in the chair at that conference, was consulted. That event, if it occurs, will be a fundamental change in the targeted measures against Zimbabwe that have been passed by the European Union in recent years. Indeed, it seems to me that even an invitation to Mugabe would be contrary to those agreements.
What is the present position? Unless the reason for the statement of Frau Merkel is cleared up, it seems to me that it will have serious consequences. It will cause doubt about the policies of the European Union. It could cause dismay among the increasing number of African leaders who are not enthusiastic about Mugabe and who are concerned about the damage that he is causing to Africa. It would enhance Mugabe’s standing and strengthen adulation for him by many African people. If the statement is reversed, there will be anger in many African countries and possibly a boycott by them of the conference later this year.
It seems curious that that statement came a few days after Frau Merkel had admonished Mugabe and called for reform of his policies. What was the purpose of her statement about his attendance in Portugal? Was it intended to discourage him from further terrorism by being gentle and encouraging? Is it not more likely to lead him, unless it is clarified, to rejoice at a surrender by the European Union and strut the stage to show that he is irresistible to members even of the European Union and the G8?
The opposition in Zimbabwe are still devoted to peaceful means; they are suffering brutal beatings and torture, and some are dead at the hands of Mugabe’s people. They will feel astonished, dismayed and betrayed if Mugabe attends that conference unless some explanation is given. If he does attend, many Africans in the conference hall will treat him as a hero, possibly with demonstrations of joy.
So there is a mystery. Why did Frau Merkel make that statement? Is it to do with the mission given to the President of South Africa, Mr Mbeki, by the Dar es Salaam meeting of SADC a few months ago—to facilitate dialogue between the opposition and the Government in Zimbabwe? If so, should we not be told? Is it intended as a means to hold the ring while that mission by President Mbeki is pursued? Could not the Government share this information with Parliament?
It is vital that President Mbeki should be impartial in conducting his mission. He was given the task by an entirely African forum. If he is successful in his mission, Africa will have great reason to be proud. We and the Africans are hoping for a good result. One factor is that the football World Cup is due to be played in South Africa in a few years; if rioting is going on in Zimbabwe, right next door, with people from Zimbabwe flooding into South Africa causing turmoil, that will not be good for South Africa’s World Cup celebrations.
The opposition are still pursuing their peaceful role during President Mbeki’s investigations but they are being very badly treated by Mugabe’s people. I suppose that it is difficult for President Mbeki to stop what is happening on the Mugabe side, but there is no impartiality between the two sides.
Was this matter discussed by the G8? There was no mention in the statements it issued at the end of the conference. Although Africa was one of the main topics, perhaps the G8 did not want to publicise this issue because of its sensitivity, but it did give some the impression that Zimbabwe was not important.
A few years ago a bargain was made, of which the Prime Minister was understandably proud, between the developed and the developing world. The developed world was to give more aid and relieve Africa of debt. The African countries were to observe democracy, good governance, human rights and the rule of law. The developed world promised to spend, and it has spent a great deal. It has not spent everything that it promised, but it is doing pretty well. Some African countries are doing their best to honour their side of the bargain, but Zimbabwe is not one of them. We should attach great importance to a satisfactory outcome of the Zimbabwe problem. If it is resolved by Africa and by President Mbeki’s work, that will be a great tribute to Africa. But the G8 is entitled to look on very closely because, as a result of the bargain to which I referred, it has a legitimate interest in the success of President Mbeki’s task.
My Lords, I, too, am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Howell, for this debate. I intend to focus on only one aspect of foreign policy since 1997—the willingness of this Government, over the past 10 years, to intervene militarily when it has seemed a pressing necessity to them to do so. As a prelude, I emphasise that I share the Prime Minister’s conviction that military intervention to avoid a humanitarian catastrophe can sometimes be a moral obligation.
I intend to look briefly at some of the reasons why we have intervened: in Kosovo in 1999, in Sierra Leone in 2000, with the Australians in East Timor, in Iraq with Operation Desert Fox in 1998, and of course, most recently, in the present war there and in Afghanistan. I do so because I hope to see what lessons might be learnt for the future. We are often told that unless we learn from the mistakes of the past, we are condemned to repeat them. The problem is that we are always in danger of drawing the wrong lessons from those mistakes. Because of the terrible casualties of World War 1, there was a widespread mood of pacifism in the 1930s, which I fear I might have shared. Nothing seemed worse than war. But there was something worse, and only a minority of clear-sighted souls saw it. We did not make the same mistake again in the Cold War but resisted further Soviet expansion so far as we could within the overall restraining factor of the presence of nuclear weapons on both sides. But it is so easy to draw the wrong lesson.
My first worry is that we will be tempted to draw the wrong lesson from the present tragic failure in Iraq. What is going on there is indeed terrible, and the e-mails I receive seem to indicate that it is even worse than the media depict it as being. But it is vital, despite this, to keep the military option open in the future. In the world as it is, this will sadly, but assuredly, be needed at some point. It would only compound the tragedy of Iraq if, as a result of what has gone wrong there, we turn a blind eye to some manifest wrongdoing or humanitarian need in the future.
The second point that emerges is the need for clear United Nations backing. A particular interpretation of contested UN resolutions when there is very far from being a proper international consensus simply is not enough. Successive Archbishops of Canterbury, from Fisher at Suez to today, have urged our Government to give full weight to the authority of the United Nations, even if it does not always endorse our first preferred course of action. As a result of the recent high-level panel report, the United Nations has an extremely sound ethical and political basis for military intervention under its auspices. We need to support and strengthen this basis and, in the future, except in the most exceptional circumstances, work with and through this.
Not unrelated to this is the need for the closest possible co-operation with other European countries where potential military intervention might be involved. This need not be at the expense of our relationship with the United States, as the noble Baroness, Lady Symons, emphasised. But it was the failure of our relationship with France and Germany that was as responsible as anything else for our failure to obtain a second UN resolution before the present Iraq war.
In the excellent debate last Thursday on Europe a number of noble Lords rightly stressed the need for Europe to work together on the military aspect of foreign policy. I know that the Kosovo situation is not fully resolved but it seemed to me that at the outset, as now, the Prime Minister was absolutely right to work so hard to persuade other countries not only that we should intervene militarily, but that we should commit troops. It is true that there was no explicit UN mandate for that, but as Sir Michael Quinlan has written, the 1994 Kosovo operation differed from the Iraq instance in at least four pertinent respects. He wrote:
“It was directed to halting an immediate and manifest humanitarian outrage in full swing; it was not a regime-changing invasion; it was supported by the great majority of countries in the region, and by a wide international grouping of major countries, and effectively validated soon afterwards by the UN itself”.
Those are four very pertinent differences.
Finally, not only do we need a sound basis—a clear set of principles—in addition to the support of the UN to intervene militarily, but we need to apply the principles in a consistent manner. For those of us who are guided by the “just war” criteria, it seemed clear that while the intervention in Kosovo was justified, as it was in the very different circumstances of Sierra Leone and with Operation Desert Fox, those criteria were not met in the case of the recent war.
Those principles are not the only way of stating the considerations that have to be taken into account in order to make a right judgment. Early in his premiership, in an important speech in Chicago on 24 April 1999, the Prime Minister set out a very clear set of criteria for military intervention: first, are we sure of our case; secondly, have we exhausted all diplomatic options; thirdly, are there military options we can sensibly and prudently undertake; fourthly, are we prepared for the long-term; and finally, do we have national interests involved? There was a further point: if we want a world ruled by law and by international co-operation then we have to support the UN as its central pillar.
I would have liked to see that as a further specific criterion. As I have already indicated, I believe that working for the maximum consensus, internationally and more specifically in Europe, is fundamental to the issue of military intervention having a moral basis in the modern world. On the basis of those principles, as well as the “just war” criteria with which they significantly overlap, it was difficult from the outset to see the Iraq invasion as justified. I only wish that those of us who predicted disaster had been proved wrong. I still hope and pray daily that I will be proved wrong and that the original purpose of the intervention might succeed. There is no doubt that the failure to have a unified chain of command in the White House and the failure to plan for the aftermath of the invasion are almost criminally culpable. As Barack Obama has put it, with admirable succinctness:
“Iraq was a diversion from the fight against the terrorists who struck us on 9/11, and the incompetent prosecution of the war by America's civilian leaders compounded the strategic blunder of choosing to wage it in the first place”.
Towards the beginning of his premiership, the Prime Minister said in his Chicago speech:
“The most pressing foreign policy problem we face is to identify the circumstances in which we should get actively involved in other people's conflicts”.
That problem has not gone away. Whatever set of principles we finally decide on for the present Government or future Governments, the present Prime Minister or future Prime Ministers, those principles need to be applied in a very rigorous and consistent way.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Howell, for initiating this important and ambitious debate. However, I disagree fundamentally with almost everything he said in introducing it, as I have on other occasions when we have had a chance to debate these issues.
Boom, boom, boom is the sound of the noble Lord—I am not sure whether he is noble and reverend—stealing my thunder. He said, more eloquently than I could, a few things that I was going to say, so I shall shorten my speech and zap through it fairly rapidly.
I, too, want to refer to the Prime Minister's speech in Chicago in 1999 because that was the most significant in setting British foreign policy for the past eight years. The Prime Minister enunciated a number of principles. I shall miss out the one mentioned by—is it the noble and reverend Lord?
My Lords, by the noble “it's a bit of a muddle” Lord, and concentrate on the others. First, the speech interestingly opens with Kosovo. The Prime Minister said:
“This is a just war, based not on any territorial ambitions but on values”.
“We cannot let the evil of ethnic cleansing stand”.
Whichever way one looks at it, the Prime Minister's influence on Kosovo and its outcome, which is still not completely resolved and remains in the forefront, was fundamental. I think it was he who influenced President Clinton at least to contemplate the use of ground troops there, which was one of the main levers persuading Mr Milosevic to back down and, eventually, brought the conflict to an end. That is the principle of liberal interventionism which has been mentioned several times.
Secondly, he quite rightly said that globalisation has transformed the nature of foreign policy. It is hard to think back because it is now so familiar, but it is clear that the difference between domestic and foreign policy has narrowed massively in a globalised world. They overlap much more. The Prime Minister said:
“We live in a world where isolationism has ceased to have a reason to exist”.
In that world, we still have to promote our national interest, but the nature of national interest has plainly changed. It will not be the narrow kind of national interest of a nation-state-based world; it has to be more global.
Thirdly, there is a very strong plea for multilateralism to which the unmentioned Lord has already referred, and the Prime Minister said:
“We need new rules for international co-operation and new ways of organising our international institutions”.
That became the label for the speech—the new doctrine of the international community. The Prime Minister said that the United Nations has to be at the core of this reworked international community. In his words, it has to be “the central pillar”. He also mentioned reforming the WTO, third world debt and so forth.
Fourthly, Russia was mentioned several times. At that time it was teetering on the edge of economic ruin and, as has been mentioned, is now a much more forceful actor on the global stage because of rising revenues coming from mineral resources and because of President Putin's position, which has restored a great deal of the pride of Russians in the world community, whatever else one thinks about it. Here, the Prime Minister said:
“We simply cannot stand back and watch that great nation teeter on the brink of ruin”.
He went on to say that,
“we will all benefit hugely from a thriving Russia”.
He mentioned the changing structure of world power with the rise of India and China and the fact that the geopolitical system has shifted appreciably away from the past.
Finally, he said that we need to reconcile transatlantic friendship with active membership of the EU. He said:
“We have finally done away with the false proposition that we must choose between two diverging paths—the Transatlantic relationship or Europe”.
I suggest that all those principles apply today in what I will go on to argue is a very different world situation from 1999. The unnamed Lord put the matter far more persuasively than I can in terms of the need not to abandon the principle of liberal interventionism. The tragedy that is unfolding in Iraq—and we have to recognise that it is a tragedy—should not be used as a basis for a new isolationism. There could be a kind of double tragedy if the world stood by in situations where intervention by the world community could avert thousands of deaths. Arguably, such a situation is happening in certain parts of the world at the moment. The principle of liberal interventionism—after all, it is interventionism detached from the aspiration to acquire territory—should still stand in a globalised world, although the conditions under which it is applied are difficult and complex and will vary from situation to situation.
The world has changed substantially since 1999—not so much because of Iraq as because of the wider consequences of American policy under the current American Administration. The major mistake that Labour foreign policy has made over the period may have been not to recognise fully enough the extent of the ideological difference between that Administration and the principles that the Prime Minister enunciated in his 1999 Chicago speech. The American Government set out a very different view of the world. Condoleezza Rice spoke of what she called the “illusory international community”. The American Government showed something close to disavowal of—I will not say contempt for—the United Nations as a major force in world governance. They backed down from certain treaties that were a key part of the multilateral outlook on the world and, most importantly, redefined the world again as a system of power relations in which American interests should have primacy. That is quite different from the Wilsonian traditions of American international diplomacy that have been so important in building multilateral institutions in the first place.
We deal with a different world now, and part of that is the result of the failures of American foreign policy. We face a world in which American power, far from expanding, has shrunk. Everyone can see that no matter how mighty the American war machine, it cannot bring peace even in a single country. The American military cannot fight two full-scale wars at the same time. The idea that the United States wields hard power whereas Europe has a kind of namby-pamby soft power is now thoroughly discredited. For better or for worse, we are in a more multi-polar world, which will not be safer. We need to return to enlightened American global leadership.
I would like to say how much I disagreed with some of the concluding sections of the speech by the noble Lord, Lord Howell. First, it is utterly mistaken to suppose that we live in a world of international economic connections that override regionalism. The world economy is a long way from being a wholly integrated marketplace. It is heavily regionalised, and we stand to gain enormously economically from our proximity to the European Community and the European single market. Think of a country such as Norway that is not a member of the European Union but is forced to sign up to most of its economic provisions. Secondly, his best case scenario would be my worst case scenario, in which Britain pulls back from the United States and has no influence in Europe. The kinds of view of Europe that he enunciated would be the death of British influence in Europe.
My Lords, I, too, am grateful to my noble friend for giving us this opportunity to have a debate on the subject. I am particularly grateful for the skilful way in which he drew up his Motion, giving us all the maximum scope to introduce virtually any topic under the Sun. That being the case, and time being short, I start with the Commonwealth, a unique institution in the world that reflects our history and developments over the centuries. It now includes a country that was never a British colony, and has ways of both expelling members and welcoming them back into membership as appropriate. It has proved itself a flexible institution that can move with the times and maintain standards. Today, hot spots such as Pakistan and Zimbabwe underline the need for the Commonwealth to play a leading role. I therefore fully endorse what was said by my noble friend Lord Howell and wonder with him why the Government have neglected the Commonwealth as an institution for so much of the past 10 years.
Within the Commonwealth, I would like to refer to those tiny countries that form the overseas territories, which have always been an interest of mine. The Falkland Islands have been much in our minds over recent weeks, and Gibraltar, within the European Union, is also a recurring topic. Certain steps have been taken that I very much wish to acknowledge—for example, the change of name from dependent to overseas territories; the voting rights granted for Gibraltarians to the European Parliament; and the resolution as regards tertiary education, enabling students from the overseas territories to attend British universities without paying exorbitant overseas student fees. Those steps are much to be welcomed, but issues remain outstanding. On heritage funding, I cite St Helena as an example—the need to conserve and preserve Jamestown and help the Saints to improve their economy through tourism, which would enable them to be more self-reliant and independent, as many of the other overseas territories now are. Another example of what needs to be done is that, as a result of constitutional change and a decolonising process, the work within the United Nations of the committee of 24 needs more government support. I hope that the Minister will be able to give us some reassurance that those tiny overseas territories will not be forgotten, and that consideration will be given to some of those outstanding issues.
Other noble Lords intend to dwell on the budget restrictions imposed on the Foreign Office by the Treasury. Suffice it to say—it has already been pointed out—that without the costly mistake of Iraq and all the consequent costs of increased security at home, there might be a little more money in the kitty to support the sterling work of our embassies and diplomats overseas. I was shocked to learn recently that reductions of 15 per cent have to be found in the running of our embassies in Europe. No wonder rumours abound that our beautiful embassy in Paris may have to be put up for sale. The budgetary restrictions are evident nowhere more than in Latin America—the other area of the world in which I take a particular interest—with the closure and down-sizing of embassies and the British Council presence, and the consequent falling away of trade and investment initiatives by the BTI, the CBI and various chambers of commerce. It is not unnatural that they follow the Government’s priorities and funding, which lead them to China, the Middle East, and Africa above all.
The Minister takes a great interest in Latin America—it forms part of his responsibilities in the Foreign Office—and I welcome very much his recently launched public strategy paper, Latin America to 2020. Whatever government reshuffles take place in the near future, we all hope that he will remain in the Foreign Office. I, for one, hope that he will be able to see through the policies outlined in his strategy document.
As the noble Lord, Lord Giddens, said, we live in a different world. Whatever the changes, it is vital that the United Kingdom retains a high profile in Latin America, particularly given the current developments led by the at best unpredictable President Chavez of Venezuela, the distancing of many Latin American countries from the United States and, therefore, the West, and the fact that China and India, among the current priority countries of the Foreign Office, are stepping in to trade and invest in Latin America whenever we leave a gap. Can the noble Lord assure us that actions are beginning to follow the words of his strategy document and that any such actions will be sustained?
Europe is of course my other area of interest, partly because of my past as a former Member of the European Parliament and my current work within the Council of Europe. I am rather surprised that there has so far been very little mention of the constitution, but I am sure that this will be addressed by other noble Lords. As I shall be in Strasbourg next week for the session of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, I take this opportunity again to draw attention to the role of the Council of Europe—after all, it represents 46 countries in Europe, including Russia and all the former Soviet satellite states. It is a unique forum that truly represents Europe and enables us to work with Russia, and Russian parliamentarians in particular, when its role and future direction as a neighbour within the Europe and the world are causing grave concern.
In the coming week, we shall also debate the vital issue of intercultural and interfaith dialogue, and I trust that the conclusions of that debate will be accepted and adopted by the Government.
My Lords, I join the noble Baroness, Lady Hooper, in her commendation of the Council of Europe. The more I see of our involvement in the European Union and what it forces us to do, the more I admire the Council of Europe, which operates entirely on a voluntary basis, with no powers of compulsion. It is a most excellent organisation, to which we should pay more attention. I join everyone else in thanking the noble Lord, Lord Howell, for giving us this debate and a good opening speech—an admirable tour d’horizon, which will certainly repay my study in the future, as will the speech of the noble Baroness, Lady Symons, which was very much to the point.
The image that comes to my mind in looking at the present international situation is that of a leaky boat containing a number of unruly amateur sailors. Some are dying of thirst, while others are drinking a good deal more than is good for them. Most seem more interested in quarrelling than in mending leaks and manning the oars together. One officer is aboard in the form of the United Nations, but he finds himself under the unhelpful influence of an overweight, heavily armed bully and tends to be ignored by us, although we were seriously involved in the founding and the early working of the United Nations—it is sometimes forgotten that its first meeting was in Church House and that its first Secretary-General was Lord Gladwyn, a member of the Liberal Party in your Lordships’ House. I find myself more and more distressed when we ignore the United Nations, as we have done in our attempts to bolster America.
America is in denial over the leak problem and its main effort is to get everyone over to the starboard side of the boat to try to harpoon a great white shark that it wrongly believes to be the main threat. Clearly, we need to bring a sense of order and rationality to bear on the international situation.
I would like to bring to your Lordships’ attention a series of reports by the World Bank, the Worldwide Governance Indicators. They capture six key dimensions of governance: accountability, political stability, government effectiveness, regulatory quality, rule of law, and control of corruption. The data for these measurements are robust, reliable and consistent—as we should expect of the World Bank, which has many faults but is not short of professional accountants. Remarkably, and to our comfort, the Worldwide Governance Indicators demonstrate that good governance promotes prosperity and that bad governance brings poverty. The arrow of causality is pointing in the direction of good governance. This is very good news in a world where bad news appears to be the norm. If we wish for international development, we must promote good governance wherever we find it.
Prosperity and human rights go hand in hand. How can this be done? The first and most obvious need is for the UK to set a good example in matters such as peacemaking and corruption. Sadly, this is often far from the case, which should encourage us to redouble our efforts to hold the Government to account, particularly in the area of corruption. Sometimes I feel that we do not look enough at the history of areas where we are joining in to try and help. A greater knowledge of history and of our history in Afghanistan, Iraq and the Balkans would have led us to take a rather more prudent path than we have.
The second tool that we need to bring to bear is to encourage the UN to measure and publicise the performance and behaviour of all Governments. It is rightly said that, if you do not measure it, you cannot manage it. We must measure government records, especially our own, particularly in the field of human rights, and the results must be widely available. The indicators need to be within the reach of any intelligent citizen, and power must be accountable to the citizens it serves. Knowledge is power.
Let us help the United Nations to make knowledge of government behaviour easily available through the annual publication of an index of human rights, as proposed by my party. To that knowledge we should add the knowledge of history. In that way we would help to restore order to the boat, so that all can work together to mend the leaks, to bend to the oars and thus bring ourselves to safety.
My Lords, it is a great pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Beaumont of Whitley. I see that he is in splendid isolation on those Benches, although he belongs to the Green Party. Clearly, the mere whiff of ministerial berths has cleared the Liberal Democrat Benches of those wishing to debate foreign policy. I suspect that it may be down to hearing the words “Lord Ashdown as Foreign Secretary”—that is the price you pay for power.
Before I begin, I wish to say something to the noble Lord, Lord Beaumont, about the human rights index. Fifteen years ago, I was involved in publishing a human rights index for the UNDP Human Development Report. All hell broke loose. Leading members of the United Nations went to the Secretary-General and said not that we were wrong but that the UNDP had no mandate to publish anything about human rights. Therefore, my noble efforts to institute such an index came to nothing. The noble Lord’s party wants a human rights index, and I wish it were in power, but I warn him that it is not easy to publish such a thing.
I have already heard two very good defences of liberal interventionism this afternoon and therefore I do not need to go very far in that direction, as I had intended to do. The alternative to liberal interventionism is pragmatic cynicism, but that was the problem in Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo. It is very easy to say—you can even clothe it in a sort of cultural garb—that that is how those people out there behave: they kill each other and there is nothing that we can do about it; that is their way of life; they do not like democracy and their religion allows them to do these things. Together with the Prime Minister and many others, I believe that we have to take responsibility for what happens in the global village. If there is domestic violence in the global village and you say, “That is that couple’s problem”, you may be condoning death. We have to explain why we do not intervene more rather than why we have intervened.
From the Back Benches, I supported our policy on Iraq and I still take the view that it was not wrong to go in; nor was it wrong to insist that Iraq could become a democracy. It is not yet time to say that the attempt has failed, because Iraq is having two referendums and it has a constitution and a Government. It is not the case that there is mayhem and crisis in Iraq just because we intervened—that would be a very naïve way of looking at the situation. If Iraq were to become a democracy, it would be the only Shia Arab majority state in the Middle East. The tradition over many years has been for Sunnis to rule over Shia Arabs, and therefore attempts are being made not just by the enemies of America and the UK, such as Syria, but also by some of our friends—other Sunni powers—to prevent a majority-based rule in Iraq becoming a reality. We should obviously learn from our long experience in Ireland. Unless you give strong guarantees of rights to minorities, those minorities will be unhappy, especially if they have been used to ruling a country. However, I do not think that we should give up or think that we were wrong.
It is true that the situation has been going on for four years but there have been other crises in the world. We should not forget the recovery period after the Second World War, when it took many more years to establish democratic government. I cite the examples of Japan and West Germany. We are too hasty and too willing to abandon our efforts because we think, “They are strange people out there. They have a strange religion and they wear funny clothes. Let us abandon them and come back to our comfort zone, which does not involve intervening in their disputes”.
At the same time, we are very unhappy about Zimbabwe, but is that because it was a former colony and Iraq is not? Even with regard to Zimbabwe, we have to say that we are not intervening because we believe that President Mbeki will bring about a solution to the quarrel. If we did not say that, we would have to ask why we were not intervening. In this interdependent world, we have to do what Wilberforce forced the Government to do 200 years ago. He forced them to intervene in the slave trade of other countries, telling them to stop it. That was an example of liberal interventionism if ever there was one. After all, it could easily have been argued, as it was at the time, that the Christian Church was not against slavery, and certainly Islam was not, but we had to intervene because we believed that slavery was wrong. That is the right way to proceed in this matter.
Although I do not have time to say very much, I want to mention the Palestine/Israel issue. I do not think that a two-state solution will work, although a three-state solution may be much worse. We have to see the problem in a very different way. There cannot be a land-for-peace solution in a country where there is a very limited amount of land and far too many people wanting it. Europe—that is, France and Germany—was fighting over land in the 19th century, but we do not fight for land now because we have found that economic prosperity can come from other things. About four or five years ago, the noble Lord, Lord Skidelsky, and I proposed a sort of common market in which everyone—Israel, Palestine, Jordan, Syria and parts of Palestine such as Gaza and the West Bank—could become part of a trading network, bringing prosperity to the region. If prosperity were to come to the region with capital and the free movement of labour, we might be able to see a way out of the antagonism which threatens to be much worse for the region than it is already.
We have to think along those lines because political solutions are not in sight. For all that we may say about our commitment or the commitment of the Group of Four or whatever, it is not going to happen because America does not have the power, the clout or the willingness to make Israel come to the negotiating table. By befriending Fatah and ignoring the democratic success of Hamas, we are repeating what happened in Algeria. If we neglect the democratic success of what may be a terrorist organisation, that will bring more terror and more mayhem, not peace and security. It may not be too late for us to reverse that position but I do not have much hope. I think that bringing economic prosperity to the region would be a better idea.
My Lords, it was almost exactly 60 years ago that I first came across my noble friend Lord Howell, or perhaps he came across me. He was highly intelligent and intellectual, with some authority at my prep school, when I was unfortunately caught raiding the headmaster’s strawberry garden with a gang. Life moves on.
Ten years later, I was also involved in raiding ships in the Mediterranean during the Cyprus patrols not long after Suez. The Navy has been always useful in boarding operations. The boarding rules and regulations were constant: you always left a man at the tiller on the boarding boat; you always left a man in the bow; and you always left a lookout in case other people came to pass.
I wonder, as I think back, whether I have had the disadvantage of seeing ourselves as others see us. In the Navy, the most polite thing someone could say when you did something wrong was “Cock-up!”. You could not have a collective cock-up; there was always a responsibility on the part of those who cocked it up. “Cocked up” is a military term, a friendly term; I checked that in the Library so that I should not insult your Lordships. The foreign policy of this country over perhaps 20 years has been one constant cock-up. It has been directed by the wrong policies.
Historically we had a worldwide interest in trade and raw materials, and therefore protected our trade with military forces. We developed our trade and maintained stability in those countries that had their own substantial economic development. Here, I naturally turn to the Commonwealth and the lovely maps I have of the past that mark the natural resources and capabilities of each of those countries. Your Lordships will recall, as my noble friend Lady Hooper has pointed out, that the Commonwealth is quite an amazing institution in that it has no teeth or power but approximately 20 per cent of the world’s population is within it. If you take an ancient map and talk to Mr Sarkozy, show him the French map of Africa and other parts of the world, and then talk to the Danes and the Dutch, you have covered almost all the more difficult parts of the world.
My worry is over what has directed foreign policy. I do not go for this business of aid directing it. I believe in aid and trade. I do not believe that you can do without an adequate military force in order to maintain stability. Here we have a situation where our foreign resources and military forces are under-resourced. It was not so long ago that a Government said that we would never be east of Suez; but nobody would have dreamt that we would have a single frigate covering the whole east coast of Latin America and the Caribbean, yet getting credit for a helicopter being able to shoot out the engines of drug smugglers. Nor would they dream that at the same time we were stopping drugs in that part of the world, we would be encouraging them in Afghanistan—not intentionally, but reluctantly.
I find a situation of considerable instability in my own mind. I have worked in most of these countries, and have usually been forced to move by my employer to where the action was to be. In 1974 the increase in oil prices suddenly made people think about energy. We have the North Sea, but somehow we did not even make that work. The warnings came year after year, when people said, “One-third of all energy supplies come from the Middle East”. But they had forgotten about the “-tan” countries—any country ending in “-tan” is automatically Islamic. Few of us knew the names of those countries. The oil, energy and mineral resources of the former countries of the Soviet Union were well known; that was why they extended their interests: it was not due to the dogma of communism but a realisation that centralised control of natural resources could provide great power.
Although our country was once the greatest trading nation on Earth, we are not really traders any more. For many years I was president of the British Exporters’ Association, whose annual event last year, held downstairs here, was attended by more people than ever. Although 270 turned up, I could not find an exporter, but I could find every financial institution the world had ever created. I was told that the only exports we now do are in the military sector. We import people, but we have created a great economy by being the best place for anybody who is not British to live and work. The tax regime is very favourable, and every internationalist would regard this as possibly the safest haven in the world. It is on that basis that our reputation can be built.
Our foreign policy, I am afraid, has been incorrect. We must remember that there was a period when we supplied military equipment to Iran very willingly. Suddenly, we switched to Iraq. The Soviet Union was supplying India, and we suddenly switched to India from Pakistan. What were our objectives during that period? Did we have a strategy? One thing we knew: the Middle East would be unstable. I almost quote the noble Lord, Lord Desai; there were things I always call the three “T”s. First, there was territorialism: land grabbing. Then, there would be tribalism: which particular group of people should have the right to that land. Then there would be—you could call it revolution or insurrection—terrorism.
When the noble Baroness, Lady Symons, was on the Front Bench, I used to watch her body language with great pleasure when she was defending government policy; you could see that she was not quite in favour of the policy but she was a very good spokesman on foreign affairs. A friend abroad once sent me an e-mail with a photograph attached saying “Is this really your Minister abseiling down some ice wall in the Antarctic? Gosh, the Labour Party really is looking up these days”.
I am trying to say that we have the ability but not the policy. We have to know that the rest of the world is more necessary to us than it is to the United States of America. We have to know, because of our too close association with the United States in the wrong way, that we have now joined it and that our reputation around the world is falling. That is simply because the United States is now regarded as an enemy of the world. It does not wish to be. Often, in order to unite a country in trouble, you must first create fear of your regime. Secondly, you must create a common enemy whom you can hate. It is regrettable that the United States has become an enemy.
On our international policy, I do not believe in multilateralism; I believe in a collection of bilateralisms. We should make and build relationships directly with everybody, and not indirectly through third or fourth organisations. The point was made a little earlier by noble Lords opposite. They were great Europeans, but I remember that when I was treasurer of the Conservative Group for Europe I had to raise money to pay for the British delegation to have support in Strasbourg and the EU because the Labour Party did not want to go into the EU. It does not matter how things may change. We are, in a way, in a strong position at the moment in this country. We have to think that our foreign policy should not repeat the past. The greatest cock-up has been our foreign policy over the past 10 years.
I find it fascinating, my Lords. Whether one agrees with him or not is not the point, but he made some interesting comments today. Also, like every noble Lord here, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Howell, for his interesting and carefully thought-out opening speech.
I will follow up on a speech made by my noble friend Lord Wright in a debate last month and concentrate on the Foreign Office and the Diplomatic Service. It seems that the past 10 years have seen foreign policy gradually transferred into No. 10, with drastic cuts being made in what has always been one of the smallest and most efficient departments in Whitehall. Inevitably, cuts mean careful selection, which is usually disguised as prioritisation—a dreadful word. As a result, the Diplomatic Service appears far less important than it was, which is unfortunate.
After 52 years of close involvement in Latin America, I propose to use that part of the world as an example. I have great affection for and experience of it and I speak with great prejudice on it. I am following up on the interesting remarks of the noble Baroness, Lady Hooper. The noble Lord, Lord Howell, mentioned five strands that are important in our foreign policy, but it was noticeable that they excluded Latin America. The noble Baroness, Lady Hooper, referred to a splendidly interesting policy document on Latin America, which starts with a good opening paragraph on why Latin America is important. However, I am afraid that I did not quite agree with her after that. The document deteriorates somewhat; it subsequently goes into rather a lot of negatives and is rather patronising, implying that Latin America might have a place in the world in about 2010. In my view, it has a place in the world now. It is quite capable of conducting affairs. Its countries participate in the United Nations actively, with two of them attending the G8 negotiations and discussions. They very much have a place at the top table now.
What have we seen in Latin America in the past few years? Four embassies have closed and others are threatened, and the staff in London and overseas have been reduced in quantity and quality. That does nothing for morale in that great institution. It has been noticed and has an effect on our influence in, for instance, votes in the United Nations, which cannot be achieved by osmosis if you are not in the country concerned. As the noble Lord, Lord Selsdon, said, we need to have bilateral relations.
During the past few years, we have unfortunately seen foreign policy slightly dictated by the United States. Latin America is an example. The United States has ignored Latin America for years and we have recently tended to follow it in that respect. That is a great pity because Latin America is a homogeneous region—one of the few regions that is. It is integrated and largely democratic. There are pluralist democracies in all the countries, with the exception of Cuba. Venezuela may follow suit and we have to do something about that. In the past 10 years, we have been following America somewhat slavishly, including into unnecessary foreign wars, as noble Lords have mentioned. The result of our neglect of Latin America, and American neglect of Latin America, is the rise of President Chavez and the division of Latin America into two camps. That has never happened before in what is a largely homogeneous area about which we have great knowledge and in which we have enormous experience. Latin America would like to be much more involved with the European scene.
I noticed that the Prime Minister in waiting has indicated that he proposes to re-establish Cabinet government and restore the civil services to their previous important roles. If that happens, it would be very good news indeed. To have a Foreign Secretary with real authority, as was the case yesteryear, would be excellent, and I hope that it happens. That is not to diminish what the noble Lord, Lord Triesman, has done, because I have enormous admiration for him, as I have said in previous debates. It is unfortunate that he covers the whole world more or less single-handed, albeit with the assistance of the noble Baroness, Lady Royal. That is not satisfactory; it is not a solution. He should be promoted, and I hope that the next Prime Minister will do so. I hope that I have not damaged the noble Lord’s possibilities by saying that. I do not expect him to reply to these comments, but maybe he, and his colleagues in other places, will take note. It would be much better for our Diplomatic Service if it could be restored on a worldwide basis with trade and aid incorporated into its remit so that we had a coherent total foreign policy organised from one large and important ministry.
My Lords, I welcome the opportunity to contribute some thoughts to this debate on foreign policy. While there was much in the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Howell, that I disagreed with, I recall with pleasure working alongside him when he was chair of the UK/Japan 2000 group. I pay tribute to him for the work that he did in that group in building warm and productive relationships with our Japanese colleagues. The noble Lord is not in his place, so I hope that that will be relayed to him. In his speech, he referred in somewhat disparaging terms to a number of issues in government foreign policy since 1997. His comments were instantly and tellingly rebutted in the speech of my noble friend Lady Symons of Vernham Dean, which I commend.
I had the pleasure of working alongside Robin Cook as his deputy in the shadow ministerial team from 1994 to 1997 and in government in the Foreign Office from 1998 to 1999. His approach and the Government’s subsequent approach showed a strong and welcome ethical dimension to foreign policy. As previous speakers have mentioned, that ethical dimension was illustrated in a number of the policies that the Government pursued. It was particularly seen in the early and successful efforts to establish an EU code of conduct for arms control. It was also evident in the action taken in Kosovo and in other areas.
My noble friend Lord Anderson referred to the intervention in Sierra Leone, which was tremendously important in rescuing people from appalling brutality and a savage civil war, in which children were made to become killers and huge numbers of innocent people were murdered or had limbs savagely amputated. An intervention such as that needs an ongoing commitment, and the Government have shown their willingness to commit by the way in which they have remained involved in the poverty reduction strategy and in helping to build up the Government and civil society.
In this connection, I shall ask the Minister a specific question. A few days ago, it was reported in, I think, the Observer that there is a question mark over the payment to Sierra Leone of £15 million to build up public services. I understand that it may have been frozen because of concerns about possible misuse or corruption. Can my noble friend give us an update on that?
It is good that progress is being made towards holding parliamentary and presidential elections in Sierra Leone. It is also significant that the president is standing down after two terms. That is something that we have not always seen elsewhere and it augurs well for a smooth transition in the progress towards democracy in that country, although I am conscious of the difficulties that may exist.
The Government’s overall commitment to Africa through the establishment of the Africa Commission and, particularly, through the lead that they took on debt forgiveness and cancellation are important aspects of their approach to foreign policy since 1997.
It is not surprising that Afghanistan and Iraq have frequently been mentioned in this debate. Like the vast majority of parliamentarians, I was very supportive of the Government’s intervention, alongside other countries, in Afghanistan. Virtually all of us were aware that that meant an ongoing commitment, and I pay tribute to the work that is still being done in Afghanistan and wish it well for the future. I felt differently on Iraq. I was a Member of the other place and spoke in the debate that led to the vote on going to war in Iraq in March 2003. Like many others, I agonised about it. In the end, I could not support the Government because I felt that the inspectors should have more time and I was alarmed by the contrast with Afghanistan, where there had been such impressive international solidarity. That scale of international solidarity was not evident on Iraq. I wanted to see more allies for that cause.
However, I believe that many of the criticisms that were levelled against the Government then and subsequently about the decision to go to war in Iraq were unfair, particularly about intelligence issues. At the time, I was a member of the Intelligence and Security Committee, which is a cross-party committee including Members from your Lordships’ House. As parliamentarians, members of the committee voted in different ways on the decision to go to war in Iraq, but we all agreed on the report published in 2004 that exonerated the Government from sexing up intelligence or dealing with intelligence or intelligence agencies in an improper or politicised way. It is still a good report, which I commend as a good read. It stands up well even in the changed circumstances of today.
Last week, we had a good debate on European affairs, initiated by the noble Lord, Lord McNally. Today the summit is under way. I conclude my contribution to this debate by referring to one or two aspects of our relationship with Europe and to the subject that is currently under consideration. First, I believe that the constitution was an ill judged initiative, particularly since what was likely to result, and what has resulted, is not a constitution but a classic European Union treaty. Indeed, it is a treaty more modest in scope than many that preceded it, such as the Single European Act—a point that was made tellingly in the debate on European affairs last week. The hype about the constitution has, I believe, been counterproductive.
Secondly, I am sad that much of the coverage around the Charter of Fundamental Rights has been negative. I say respectfully to the Government that I wish that they had sometimes sounded more positive about what I believe is fundamentally worth while and is not a threat to Britain in the way that it has been portrayed. The charter is basically a restatement of rights that already exist. Article 51 says:
“This Charter does not establish any new power or task for the Community or the Union, or modify powers and tasks defined by the Treaties”.
So I am puzzled. The European Union has taken the rights of people at work seriously right from the word go, even in the Coal and Steel Community treaties. I hope that my noble friend can explain more fully our position on the charter. Obviously, if there is a genuine problem for Britain, the Government are justified in raising it, but I have not been able to find out so far what that is.
I believe strongly in an outward-looking European Union that deals with the great global issues of trade, the environment and tackling world poverty. However, in saying that, I am conscious that that is a goal to which the Government have long been committed and I applaud their efforts in that direction.
The noble Lord, Lord Howell, concluded his speech by saying that the Government’s successes were far outweighed by their failures. I would put it entirely the other way round and I pay tribute to the humanitarian and internationalist approach pursued by the Government.
My Lords, I rather agree with the analysis of the noble Lord, Lord Selsdon, even if some may have thought it a little brief and perhaps slightly crude. I very much regret that foreign policy since 2001 has been so closely tied to American coat-tails. I would describe the policy of the United States as having been ideological, ill informed and unsuccessful. It has created more enemies than friends. This country has little to show for such close alignment with the United States. We have not promoted our real interests. We have incurred huge expenditure and, as my noble and gallant friend Lord Craig of Radley pointed out, our Armed Forces have become overstretched, sometimes underequipped and not always in the best state of morale.
In Iraq, we were persuaded into war on spurious evidence. Containment would have been far wiser. Four years on, Iraq faces serious internal violence. There are 2 million refugees and many thousands of people are displaced. The country has very high inflation and little justice or democracy. The situation leaves Iran somewhat stronger, while chaos in Iraq puts Jordan and Syria under severe strain. That has affected normal trade, burdened both those countries with refugees and drawn in al-Qaeda.
New opportunities have arisen since the Arab League relaunched its peace plan. The league could well address public opinion in Israel to convince voters of the benefits of free movement and free trade. There is surely scope for the European Union to add its economic weight to the political influence of the Arab states. Such co-operation could not only promote peace but also improve the whole Mediterranean region, thus saving the lives of many boat people.
I am very glad that the honourable gentleman Mr Ed Balls has been studying the economy of Palestine and I trust that full use will be made of his work. Will the Government bring together the European Union and the Arab League, alongside the resources of the Palestinian diaspora and the City of London? Investment to create a prosperous Palestine alongside a secure Israel is greatly needed.
Many mistakes have been made since Israel removed settlers and soldiers from Gaza in 2005. Urgent public works were then identified, but none, so far as I know, was approved, much less started. Then there were elections, which Hamas won. I urged at that time that there should be no preconditions and that every possible channel of communication should be kept open with Hamas. Instead, we had extreme political correctness and were hog-tied by lists of terrorist organisations. The Hamas Government were boycotted and financially starved while Al Fatah was supported and equipped, thus increasing the risks of civil war. To avoid famine and disease, the temporary international mechanism had to be devised. The result was that more money was spent on aid than previously, but aid was less transparent and of poorer quality.
The next major opportunity came this March when eventually, with Saudi help and at the third try, a Government of national unity were formed. Once again the quartet and many others refused to speak to the Palestinian Prime Minister—another round of divide and rule. As we now know, that was against the advice of the UN special envoy. Mistakes will continue to be made unless we recognise that Hamas is democratic and that it is essentially focused on Palestine and not on global jihad. It is different from Hezbollah and totally so from al-Qaeda. It is not, as has been alleged, an agent of Iran. It is a disciplined movement capable of preventing lawlessness, and we have already seen some signs in that direction.
Hamas, I suggest, has already granted de facto recognition to Israel by the following actions: first, by offering a long-term ceasefire; secondly, by seeking to negotiate access between Gaza and the West Bank; and, thirdly, by joining the Government of national unity and accepting their platform. I believe that it is hypocrisy and a double standard to demand that Hamas accepts every point of previous agreements while Israel breaches its obligations over, for example, settlements and the alignment of its wall.
In this respect, I draw particular attention to two articles in today’s International Herald Tribune, one from Hamas and the other by Roger Cohen, who has clearly interviewed Mr Wolfensohn, who, as noble Lords will recall, was the former quartet envoy on the spot. Hamas will not go away just because it is ignored. It is a reality with which we should engage. Any alternative to it is likely to be far more extreme. We should seek to persuade the European Union as a whole to be as flexible and realistic as Norway and Switzerland have been showing themselves to be. We should avoid a three-state solution like the plague. Free access and movement in and out of Gaza and the West Bank are essential for a functioning Palestinian economy, without which Israel will always be insecure. We should work patiently for a new type of power sharing, for which some in Fatah are by now ready.
I believe that the Middle East strongly influences home policy and civic peace here, as we can see from the barriers outside Parliament and from the existence of British-born bombers. Middle East peace is a vital interest for us and for the world. We should pursue it through a more independent foreign policy. That will best be done when we have a competent Foreign Secretary who is responsible for foreign policy, guided by the advice from our missions on the spot and in a way that allows space for voluntary peace initiatives.
My Lords, I shall endeavour to be brief. I have a medical appointment shortly after three o'clock that I am anxious to keep, so I hope that the House will understand if I have to step out early, although my calculations are that I will not. Having said that to the noble Lord, Lord Howell, and my noble friend on the Front Bench, it is perhaps mean of me then to criticise the noble Lord’s opening speech. I congratulate him on organising the debate; it is important.
I shall make three quick points. First, the noble Lord made a very party-political speech. I understand why that may be so, but I am not sure that that is the best way to analyse the issue. Secondly, and more importantly, his speech addressed some of the world issues as if September 11, 2001 had never happened. Thirdly—this is very important—one thing that you cannot do in politics is to give full backing, as the Conservative Party did for the Iraq war, and then have the Front-Bench spokesman of the Conservative Party saying that we should not have done it. That is one thing that you cannot do.
This may sound slightly surprising, but I want the Conservative Party to recover. I do not want it to win the next general election, but I want it to recover because I think that there is a large constituency in Britain that does not feel spoken for and needs the Conservative Party to do that. You cannot do that if you back a war and then disappear down the street in a cloud of dust when the going gets difficult. That is not convincing.
What is the key issue here? A number of speakers have touched on the emerging great powers: India, China and Brazil. That is absolutely right, but in the short term, the issue is the proliferation of unstable, failed and despotic states and of armed groups—terror groups. That is the problem. Some people have said that the problem has come about or got worse because of Iraq. The latter may well be true, but ignores the fundamental fact that those groups were killing people in significant numbers before Iraq and before Afghanistan.
Indeed, the organisations behind the killings in Europe, including the London bombings, can be traced back to our failure to intervene in Bosnia. That is why I am critical of the introductory comments of the noble Lord, Lord Howell. The failure to intervene in Bosnia created some of those groups. White European Muslims being butchered by white European Christians and Europe doing nothing about it was not a convincing sight for the Islamic world. Many of those groups tried to fight in Kosovo. Fortunately, we did intervene then and those groups were marginalised, but they were growing in strength all the time and we in several European countries paid a high price for our failure to intervene.
That brings me to my second point, which a number of noble Lords have spoken about and about which they have made some important points—that liberal intervention is important. We should address that issue because, as the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries, made clear, up to a point you can work out the circumstances in which you should intervene and when you should not. My next point was touched on by my noble friend Lord Desai. The whole of the Royal Navy’s intervention to stop the slave trade throughout the 19th century was unlawful. To put it bluntly, it was an unlawful war, to coin a phrase. That is where lawyers need to get their act together and think about morality and the inchoate state of international law. We were taken to court and lost cases around the world for intervening to stop the slave trade. I am glad that we did that; I hope that everyone is glad that we did that.
Do not forget that this is not just a Western idea. Vietnam intervened to remove Pol Pot. Tanzania intervened to remove Idi Amin. India intervened to remove what was then East Pakistan to form Bangladesh. Then there is Kosovo, and so on. There were many motives for it at the time, but liberal intervention is an important issue in foreign policy now and we need to discuss it much more than we are. Failure to intervene can be just as destructive as intervening and not getting it right. I have said in a number of speeches that I accept that we made some fundamental mistakes in the post-conflict situation in Iraq. Those speeches are on the record, so I shall not repeat them.
The House needs to recognise that we are dealing with despotic, unstable states and armed terror groups. One or two comments that I have heard recently, not just in this House, seem not to recognise that part of the battlefield is the international media. The groups in Afghanistan, in Iraq and elsewhere know that what they have to do to stop democracy, the rule of law and human rights coming into those countries is to kill and terrorise certain people in them: police, teachers and government officials. Killing British or American troops, troops from NATO or from other countries, as they have done in Afghanistan, is part of it, but they do not expect to beat those armies in those circumstances. They want to make it impossible for a Government to develop in those countries who can create security, stability, the rule of law and democracy, as the people want.
I am sorry that the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Coventry is not in his place, but I think that he is making a fundamental miscalculation when he tries to distinguish between cultures on the basis of whether they want democracy. It is true that democracy is a western word, coming from the Greeks, but it is not true that democracy and the concept of law are only western concepts. They have been around in different societies throughout time. Stable societies usually have them in some form, although they may not have been codified as they are now.
That brings me to my final point, which is about Islam. We need to address this. We cannot lecture Islam on which way it should go, but I know from my many constituents who are Muslims that there is a very large body of opinion within Islam that wants to do what it regards, and I regard, as modernising. They recognise that there is a problem not in Islam itself but when Islam tries to run a state, to deal with all aspects of the state and society, if you also want a modernised society.
The problem is that while people, especially in the arc around the Middle East, want all the good things that modernisation brings—most notably the economic wealth and the opportunity to have goods and services that they would not otherwise have—it is very difficult to make that happen within the Islamic framework of a state. I do not think that it is impossible, but it is difficult. We need to understand that. That is why Pakistan has more problems than India. They have a similar background, other than the issue of what role Islam plays in the state. Saying that does not challenge or insult Islam; plenty of Muslims will say that to you. We can engage in that conversation, and it is important that we do so. However, it is also vital that we are clearly on their side and not on the side of groups who think that the answer is a much more rigid interpretation of the Koran that would prevent these countries developing the modernisation that their people actually want and demonstrate that they want by their day-to-day actions.
This issue is very complex, and the debate held here and in many nations should increasingly take the form of deciding how we reform the United Nations to deliver some of the structures that we need. Secondly, how do we intervene liberally rather more effectively than we have done so far? What do we do when we do not intervene, whether in Rwanda or Bosnia? How do we allow and help nations to develop the modern economic and technological framework that they want, with the freedoms that they demonstrate that they want?
My Lords, listening to the debate launched by the noble Lord, Lord Howell, it is very interesting to contrast the experience of the last century with the situation in this new century. In the last century, we saw two devastating world wars and the Cold War, and we had to deal with monsters such as Hitler, Stalin, Mao Tse-Tung and Pol Pot. In this century, we face a very different set of circumstances, and have the opportunity to influence the position and make it much better than it was 18, 50 or 80 years ago.
I remember so clearly when the Berlin Wall came down. I did not always agree with everything that the late Julian Amery said, but I did agree that the end of the Cold War meant that the world was once again safer for conventional conflict. That was a very accurate forecast, because we now face very different threats from those of 50 years ago. The threats are now of failed states, humanitarian disasters, nuclear proliferation, international terrorism, drugs and crime, trade and protectionism, climate change, and communal and ethnic tensions of one kind or another—to give just some examples. Any Government tackling this range of issues need to have as coherent an approach as possible. To achieve such an approach, there needs to be time for reflection before taking very difficult decisions.
There needs to be leadership rather than constant reaction to instant news, and I am hopeful that, with a new Prime Minister next week, there will be a resumption of collective Cabinet decision-making and greater delegation of authority to the Foreign Secretary of the day. There needs to be an end to what we describe as sofa decision-making if we are to take measured decisions based on the collective wisdom and experience of all those who serve in government and their advisers. I am not suggesting that we go back to the days of Lord Pitt, when, as Prime Minister, he was having a conversation with his Foreign Secretary, Lord Grenville, and commented, “We have not heard anything from our ambassador to Paris for three years. If we do not hear from him this year, let us write him a letter”. I am not suggesting that we go quite as far as that, but we do need more measured decision-making.
There has been a great deal of discussion about how we can bring influence to bear. Of course this should be done bilaterally with different nations, but we must work multilaterally if we want to have influence. That works rather like an orchestra in which we all have different instruments to play and different influence to bring to bear, depending on the situation. We must work through the United Nations, NATO and the European Union if we want to have influence. We will not have much influence in the world if we are outside the European Union, pull up the drawbridge and hide behind a moat, like Queen Boadicea. Nor would we have much influence in the world if we were a satellite of the United States. That is not the way forward. Equally, whatever our position with regard to the United States today—I am hopeful that we are now seeing a gradual easing of cowboy foreign policy—we still need it as a friend. There is plenty of evidence from recent history—from Churchill to Harold Wilson and the noble Baroness, Lady Thatcher—that one can be friends but also speak frankly to them. We need to continue to do so.
I am glad that there has been quite a discussion today of the approach that we should have to intervention. Indeed, my noble and right reverend friend Lord Harries dealt with this subject very thoroughly and very well. We obviously need clearer coherent criteria for dealing with regional and country disasters, especially in the Middle East and on the African continent. How do we deal with regime change? How do we deal with humanitarian disasters? My noble and gallant friend Lord Craig warned us in his speech that our service commitments are already overextended. Clearly there is a severe limit to the amount of intervention in which we can be involved. What are the lessons from Iraq and Afghanistan? We must decide how to withdraw from Iraq, leaving it more secure, not less. We have already been warned that we must be in Afghanistan for a long time if we want to make a success of it.
I recall going to Moscow in the late 1970s as part of a parliamentary delegation, which I think was led by the late Lord Cledwyn Hughes. I was asked to put the first question to the head of state, Mr Podgorny, who had just been on a first-ever visit to Africa. I asked him about the Soviet policy on Africa and what his experience was. He looked at me and said, “Mr Luce, you ought to know that going into Africa is easy. Getting out is the problem”. That is always the issue with intervention. We have been groping towards a post-imperial, post-Cold War policy and criteria for intervention, and we have a long way to go. We have heard many contributions on this today, and I shall throw in one or two extra factors before I finish.
First, our Foreign Office, and those of other western nations, needs to have the knowledge and intelligence to be able to take sensible decisions when dealing with particular regions and countries. Moreover, it needs rather special skills for dealing with intervention and the reconstruction of countries, as well as a clear plan and a clear policy. Secondly, we need regional policies, particularly for the Middle East and Africa. One has only to look at the Balfour Declaration of 1917 to see what a gap there is between the ideal and the implementation. We need to realise that everything that happens in every part of the Middle East affects the rest. It needs to be seen as a whole, and we need to work very vigorously with the moderate Arab nations towards solutions.
I hope that I, too, will not ruin the career of the noble Lord, Lord Triesman, when I say that he has been an outstanding Minister for African affairs. I hope that he still will be in a week’s time. Perhaps he will be promoted. I had better move on before I wreck his chances. In Africa, we face such tragedies as the Sudan, Somalia and Zimbabwe. There, again, we need a regional approach. Some African countries, such as Ghana, Tanzania, Senegal, Mozambique, South Africa and Botswana, are developing democratic institutions, and we could sensibly and vigorously work with all of them behind the scenes—perhaps the noble Lord will tell us that we are—to try to influence the situation in Zimbabwe.
I am extremely glad that a number of people have mentioned the Commonwealth today. In 50 years, we have seen an empire transformed into a commonwealth of 54 equal nations, accompanied by massive migration within it, so that many countries, such as our own, Canada, and Australia, are now multicultural, multi-faith and multi-ethnic. That in itself presents a new challenge, which the Commonwealth, with all its experience of this, can contribute a great deal to. On Zimbabwe, the commitment of the Commonwealth at Harare in 1992 to democracy and the rule of law means that the Commonwealth should stand ready to play a leading role in helping them when Mugabe goes.
Finally, there have been a number of contributions on democracy. We must be careful about how we advocate democracy in other countries. Our democracy has evolved from our own history and our own experience, and the same must apply to other countries; it must be home grown. We must respect the fact that democracy must be based on local history and culture, and the circumstances of those countries, even if we are to play a leading role in encouraging it to take place.
My Lords, I am glad to have the opportunity to participate in this debate and I thank the noble Lord, Lord Howell, for introducing it.
It is almost impossible to talk about foreign policy in the past decade without referring to Iraq. It is probably the most disastrous foreign policy decision that has been made by any Government since Suez. And it was made not only by the Government; we should remember that both the two main political parties supported the invasion. There were of course individual—and often distinguished—exceptions in both parties, and the Liberal Democrats did not support it. Nevertheless, there was parliamentary support and we have to ask why so many well intentioned people went along with it.
I did not do so. I spoke against it on many occasions. I did not believe in the dossier. I had also spoken against the earlier bombing—known as Desert Fox—which was undertaken without UN authority. The Iraqi Government claimed to have destroyed any WMD but, although a statement was made to the UN on its behalf, we were told that they could not be believed. In the light of recent history—from the first Gulf War onwards, including the punitive sanctions regime—it did not seem likely that Iraq could possibly pose a threat to anyone. I believed then, and I still believe, that the WMD story arose because of the need to persuade the public to embark upon an invasion that would otherwise lack even a shred of legitimacy.
The question now is what should happen. We are told that our troops should remain because of the insurgency and the threat of full civil war. But is the presence of coalition troops actually bringing peace and democracy or is it part of the problem? Recent reports appear to indicate that 80 per cent of the attacks are directed at coalition troops. Moreover, the battle for hearts and minds does not appear to be succeeding. Support for the war is declining rapidly in the US, as it has in this country. Our continued presence there seems more likely to encourage fundamentalism than the reverse. One hopes that the new Prime Minister will look urgently at ways in which we may rapidly disengage from this damaging conflict.
One of the arguments launched against those of us who opposed the invasion is that we did not object to the conflict over Kosovo, which involved NATO bypassing the UN entirely. Well, I did object, and I still do. The civilian population of Serbia was subjected to 78 days of continuous aerial bombardment. Civilian targets were hit—hospitals, factories, schools and bridges—and a determined attempt was made to destroy the civilian infrastructure. Cluster bombs were also used. The issue was still unsettled since one alleged ethnic cleansing was immediately replaced with another. Over 87 per cent of the non-Albanian population has been forced to leave Kosovo as a result of the continuing brutalities of the KLA. This is an example of the policy of so-called humanitarian intervention.
I can well understand the desire to ensure that repressive regimes are not given the freedom to brutalise their populations. But military intervention by individual states, which always seems to include heavy bombing, is not a method that is likely to secure UN support—nor should it. It is a way of visiting collective punishment on innocent populations. There is, of course, an argument for strengthening international organisations. We need them if there is to be any chance of dealing with situations such as that in Darfur. That may involve reform of the UN, and that in turn means reaching agreement with Russia.
The recent disagreements should not be seen, as they have been in some newspapers, as a return to the Cold War. There should be a realisation that although we may not like some aspects of the authoritarian rule in Putin’s Russia, there is some justification for the objections raised to the decision to base US missiles in Poland and the Czech Republic. Anyone who has visited Russia will be aware that the Second World War still means a great deal to most Russians—even to those who are too young to recall it. They do not like the idea of being surrounded by foreign bases.
Furthermore, it is not surprising that Russia should still have an interest in Kosovo because of its links with Serbia. Nor should it be surprising that the Russian Government have concerns about what happens in the countries that they regard as their “near abroad”. Obviously, the United States has always had interests in the countries of central America and South America, and occasionally it has intervened in them. While we may be concerned about the Litvinenko case, Russia is not the only country that holds that it cannot constitutionally extradite one of its citizens to face trial abroad. The US has a similar provision. All these issues are capable of being resolved. They do not indicate a return to the politics of the Cold War.
Yes, of course we live in dangerous times, but the mood of people everywhere is for peace and stability rather than war. We shall shortly be experiencing a change of leadership in some of the major countries of the world. We must hope that these new leaders respond to the world pressures for negotiated settlements to the problems that face us all.
My Lords, most noble Lords who have spoken in this excellent debate seem to have accepted that British foreign policy since 1997 has not been an overwhelming success, despite talk of the ethical element that Mr Robin Cook mentioned in 1997 and despite, I may say, the Prime Minister’s excellent French, which struck everyone when he first went to Paris in 1997.
What is the explanation? Could it be that the Prime Minister has in recent years wished to control foreign policy himself rather than the Foreign Secretary or the Foreign Office? Is it because the old rules of British foreign policy seem to have lost their validity? For example, it used to be said that the main aim of British foreign policy should be to side with the second most powerful country in Europe against the most powerful. That does not seem to have any relevance today. Or is it because our foreign policy is in many ways beset by great complications? It could be so. Take Europe. What confusion this wonderful idea of Monsieur Jean Monnet has sown in our public life. We still do not really know if we are or are not Europeans. If my noble friend Lord Skidelsky were here, he would recall Lord Keynes telling us of England, in his The Economic Consequences of the Peace, that,
“Europe’s voiceless tremors do not reach her”.
What did Churchill—the greatest Englishman of the first part of the 20th century—really think about European integration? It is very hard to discover. Perhaps above all, how can we explain the fact that the Conservative Party and the Labour Party have, over Europe, made a complete switch in attitudes? I do not need to remind members of the Conservative Party in this House that their party was, for many years—from 1950 until about 1990—the party of Europe. The Labour Party was the party of scepticism, beginning with the famous visit by the late Lord Morrison to the Ivy restaurant where he assured Mr Kenneth Younger and Sir William Plowden that the Durham miners would not wear the idea of the European Common Market.
Of course, we are all friends of the United States. Since 1941 and 1946, when the phrase “the special relationship” was, I think, invented, our relation with the United States has dominated our political life, the only exception being the short period of the Prime Ministership of Sir Edward Heath. Has this United States connection prevented or affected our capacity to lead Europe, even if we had wanted to do so? Even more important, what do we really think now of the post-1989 position of the United States in the world? Despite its setbacks, it continues to be the most powerful state the world has seen since the Roman Empire. Do we think that this dominance is desirable? Should we try to limit it? Was Monsieur Chirac right to question it?
Incidentally, I should recall that the United States had an idea of liberal interventionism long before the arrival of Mr Bush in power. President Roosevelt’s 1905 corollary to the Monroe doctrine justified United States intervention in Latin America—but not in the world in general—if a state of brutal wrongdoing existed. Perhaps that is a concession by the United States in the 21st century to Latin American preconceptions, as desired by my noble kinsman, the noble Viscount, Lord Montgomery of Alamein.
What about the United Nations? This great institution, the jewel of 1945, has been mentioned quite a lot, but still we do not really know whether the ideal of liberal interventionism can be allied with support for the United Nations Charter as the kernel of a new world order such as we might have expected after 1989.
We should take into account a factor which was unspoken before 1989; namely, the re-emergence of religion as a factor in world politics. I refer to not just Islam, but Catholicism and even low-church evangelisation. Are our foreign offices in Europe able to cope with a world in which the divisions created by the death of Caliph Ali in 661AD are more important than the divisions between the Mensheviks and the Bolsheviks in 1905? Is the State Department capable of such a shift in its emphasis? We cannot of course escape from the fact that foreign policy impinges on domestic policy in a way which never seemed to exist before. The threat of al-Qaeda is the most striking in this respect, but we could compare it with the threat of international violence posed by the anarchists in the early part of the 20th century.
In conclusion, we have to continue to accept a conventional, or what sounds a cliché-ridden, position for ourselves in international affairs. We continue to be a very influential, first-class country, if not a super-power, with respected armed services, a fine financial centre, good parliamentary life, a strong culture and unprecedented traditions. This should enable us even now to aspire to lead Europe in the future and so be a natural conduit between Europe and the United States in an Atlantic community, which we should wish to see enriched and which, perhaps, a Foreign Secretary to any new Prime Minister—let us hope that he will be an independent and strong Foreign Secretary—should strive to articulate very clearly.
My Lords, like other noble Lords, we express our thanks to the noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Swynnerton, who always gives the House a very interesting historical analysis going back quite a long way: 661AD may be a record, although I am not sure of his recent speeches. We are grateful to him, particularly for his sensible suggestions at the end of his speech about the linkage between the US, the EU and other leading parts of the global village. I apologise to the noble Lord, Lord Howell of Guildford, for my absence for the first two minutes of his speech due to an urgent phone call. On behalf of these Benches, I thank him very much for what he said—I echo the remarks from others in this debate—especially his sensible guidance about not having got too close to the United States on the mistakes that were made, particularly, in Iraq.
When I was a Conservative many years ago, I had the pleasure and privilege of working at a very humble and low level for the late Sir Edward Heath. I was enormously impressed with his engagement with America as a country and a people and, none the less, his scepticism about some of the aspects of formation of policy in Washington DC. That followed Wilson and the terrible mistakes made in Vietnam when Ted Heath was Prime Minister. All that was a searing experience for all of us. Following those terrible mistakes, America calmed down for a while in terms of its geo-political international policies, with the exception of the Middle East where it started to make more and more mistakes. That may be a long time ago, but that was the kernel of the mistakes we see now.
Perhaps I may thank very much the noble Baroness, Lady Turner of Camden. I agree with everything she said. Her remarks were extremely critical of the Government’s policy on Iraq and she was right to make them. We were proud officially as a party to have marched against the war in Iraq. It was an illegal and criminal act, which has been a disaster for this country in foreign policy terms and a tragedy personally for the Prime Minister who made the hideous mistake of getting far too close to, probably, the worst post-war Administration that the United States has had to suffer, which can be seen in the polls for President Bush now. President Bush is the most mediocre of all the American Presidents, which sometimes is not saying much if one mentions certain other names. None the less, what he has done to his own people, and what the British Prime Minister and the American President have done to the people of Iraq, with this criminal behaviour, is a tragedy from which it will take many years for Iraq to recover.
The destruction of Iraq, the economic infrastructure, the Halliburtonisation of the Iraqi economy and the tragedies, including probably 600,000 civilians killed, are all criminal acts. With the appropriate machinery, the people responsible for making those illegal decisions, without, first, any certification by the United Nations, should answer in the international courts for those mistakes. They will escape that and will not have to do that.
It is a personal tragedy for the Prime Minister, and I do not say those words with any pleasure. In terms of the formulation of domestic policies after 1997, like others, I was most impressed with what the Prime Minister and his governmental team did for this country with some of their reforms and modernisations. On domestic policy, there has been a good show by and large. We of course objected to, argued against and resisted many of the proposals in detail, but the general picture has been very good in Britain. I pay that tribute in a spirit of generosity to the Labour Government.
I am sure that Mr Joseph Corre, a fashion designer, has misunderstood slightly the MBE procedure. In singling out the Prime Minister for some excoriating words, he has said:
“I have been chosen by an organisation headed by a prime minister who I find morally corrupt … [who] has been involved in organised lying, to the point where thousands of people including children have suffered death, detention and torture in Afghanistan and Iraq … To accept this MBE … would mean … I would have to accept the prime minister as someone capable of giving an honour ie an honourable man, which I cannot find it in my heart to do”.
That is a severe criticism—I do not know Mr Corre—and some people might say it goes beyond the normal bounds. However, the Prime Minister’s principal legacy that people will remember is cash-for-peerages—I regret having to say this—and the continuing investigation; the criminal and illegal war in Iraq; the failure to achieve any sensible peace in the Middle East; and the behaviour of a leading representative of the Government in stopping the investigation into British Aerospace and the Saudi Arabian al-Yamamah contract. Those are serious charges which I hope to have answered by the Minister today, if he has time, or perhaps on other occasions.
However, I add my words to what the noble Viscount, Lord Montgomery, said about the two Members of the Government on this Front Bench. In total contrast to my previous remarks, the prosecution and expression of Labour Government foreign policy in this House has always been in highly capable hands with the noble Lord, Lord Triesman, and the noble Baroness, Lady Royall. We thank them sincerely. I wish that they could express themselves more boldly, as the noble Baroness, Lady Royall, tried to do during Questions on Tuesday in regard to the European Union.
I turn now to the way in which the Government are to deal with the European summit. There are foreign policy aspects to it and the EU needs to be engaged in the Middle East road map again. I do not like the idea that is creeping into the press in this country that suddenly the quartet machinery, the road plan and all the other plans that were originally in place have now got to be set aside for some trendy kind of new structure; people are talking about a three-state solution and so on.
In the White Paper on the European Union and the German presidency earlier this year, firm and totally unequivocal words were used. On page 12 at paragraph 56, it states:
“The EU will continue to play an active role in the Middle East Peace Process … in its own right and as part of the Quartet. The focus will be on supporting further negotiations between the two parties and looking to reinvigorate the Roadmap, the best vehicle for establishing a just and lasting peace. The EU will look to expand on practical steps to further the peace process”.
This policy is in ruins. Although people have said that the United States has failed to do what is necessary in the Middle East, no one has mentioned the reality of the 32 vetoes exercised by the United States in the UN which allowed the Israeli Government—I am not criticising the Israeli people; I love Israel as a country and I know it very well—to fail to acknowledge their responsibilities under international law and not respond to what the UN was asking, or insisting on, when Chapter 7 resolutions were involved.
The asymmetry of what is going on in the Middle East is that Hamas, as always, is put on one side; Fatah is now the official Government only, but not elected by the people—most recently the Government were Hamas and still are—and Israel, asymmetrically, is not obliged to make any concessions. It always has to wait until later, as the noble Lord, Lord Blaker, has said on many occasions. These realities show that the foreign policy position without the EU will be weak indeed unless the EU is on equal terms with the United States in the future, has an equal role and the United States listens to the EU as well as to other countries. This is why the summit is so important. Unless those changes come, we will see continued mistakes made by the Americans in other areas as well.
The whole Muslim world, including Muslim communities in Britain and in other European countries, is watching very closely to see whether the unfairness and injustice in the Middle East between Palestine and Israel continues. Even with an agreement on a two-state solution going back to the 1967 boundaries, it would leave Palestine with 23 per cent of the total combined territory. Israel with so much, Palestine with so little, is it not now time for a movement forward and for a just solution to be found? This would show once again that the UN is capable of doing this; that the EU is capable as well; that Russia has a role; and that the United States will listen to others and will insist, quite rightly, that Prime Minister Olmert behaves properly in accordance with the requirements of the Oslo accords, which were never fulfilled on the Israeli side because of its accusations that terrorism prevented it from doing so.
We know the realities when we visit the West Bank. I went there with Sir Gerald Kaufman MP two years ago and saw the stark and dreadful situation there. This cannot go on. It is a total disgrace for the western world. The Muslim community saw how Iraq invaded Kuwait and a year later was expelled—quite rightly, too—but this had nothing to do with removing Saddam Hussein or the other nasty bits of the Iraqi Government. When I was in Baghdad in 1988, on only one visit, the place was full of British and American officials saying that the Saddam Hussein Government were the most wonderful in the Middle East; Iran was the enemy then. Iran is once again the enemy to some in America and we must restrain the neo-cons from excesses in that field as well in order to get a just solution for Iran and its requirements for security as well as those of Israel. Israel has a sacred right to future security. That can only be provided by Israeli concessions and the EU has a major role to play. I hope the Government will endorse my expectations.
My Lords, this has been a wide-ranging debate and I thank the noble Lord, Lord Howell of Guildford, for providing us with the opportunity to have it. He knows, as does the House, that I greatly admire his intellect, although I have great difficulty in coming to terms with his pessimism. The noble Lord is in danger of becoming a kind of reverse Mr Micawber—always hoping that nothing will turn up. None the less, I thank him and all other noble Lords for their expert participation.
The debate could not take place outside a wider framework. As my noble friend Lord Anderson said, we have to be utterly realistic about a rather longer period. So let us take a moment to remember the world between 1990 and 1997. In west Africa, Iraq and Afghanistan brutal regimes defied the international community and continued to rampage, with destruction, devastation and despair being spread and, as my noble friend Lord Soley said, the emergence of unstable entities, without adequate intervention of any kind. During the first Gulf War, Saddam was left in power, murdering the Marsh Arabs and the Kurds. The problems were never resolved. Next door, no serious relationship was achieved with Iran and its fundamentalist conservatives. The problem was never resolved. No progress was made on the Middle East. On our own doorstep, the Balkans were a genocidal horror zone, while the international community, fractured and incoherent, tried to solve the situation with declarations and resolutions. As my noble friend Lord Anderson also reminded us, Nelson Mandela was denounced as a terrorist.
The United Kingdom pursued a policy of regret, condemnation and concern—words and gestures—but very little was achieved. Africa went backwards and we simply lost touch with Latin America, as has been pointed out in the debate, except, of course, we kept in touch with General Pinochet. It is candidly hard to think of a significant initiative directed at China or India, let alone Brazil or Mexico. In Europe we became like a grumbling, distant relative.
Since 1997 we have replaced this neglect with activism and we try to do what is right. Some of the dictators are behind bars; some, I am pleased to say, are facing justice in international tribunals. My noble friend Lady Symons described the path of engagement that is necessary to do this work. She, of course, has to be acknowledged as a central author of the work during this 10-year period. Her analysis of the past 10 years was particularly powerful, as it was based on experience and knowledge. The Balkans are firmly on a path of stabilisation, mutual co-operation and economic reform, which will lead towards membership of a peaceful, democratic European Union. The Blair Chicago speech set out what this broad path would be. I am very pleased that my noble friend Lord Giddens took us through the consequences of that speech.
Of course the world still contains troubled areas, but we no longer sit on the sidelines wringing our hands. We are actively seeking to build security and better societies in Sierra Leone, in Afghanistan, in Kosovo and, with all its difficulties, in Iraq. We have been at the forefront of every effort to bring peace to the Middle East region. We provide huge sums for the peace process and we work for the road map. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Dykes, at least in this respect: we must do so with new energy, and engaging the United States is essential. Because I am well aware of the work that my noble friend Lady Symons did as Minister for the Middle East, I know that these are not easy tasks; no one has cracked them easily on any side of the House or in any party that has had the privilege of forming a Government.
I say to the noble Lord, Lord Hylton, that we shall look at Ed Balls’s proposals on the economic issues but I cannot accept the noble Lord’s analysis of Hamas. Its democratic credentials and attitude to peace, as we look at them today, seem to me to fall very far short of international standards. The noble Lord’s description of them is surprising, if I may put it that way.
The FCO itself has crystallised the UK’s values into key priorities, and 10 years on, there is less conflict in the world, less poverty and more wealth. The noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries, was right to remind us that ending conflict sometimes entails conflict and that there is a cost but that we should always proceed under the umbrella of the international institutions, particularly the United Nations.
Back in 1997, the United Kingdom was still trying to rediscover its international role. I want to be fair to noble Lords who served in successive Conservative Governments. The world was changing rapidly, and coming to terms with it was always difficult. As the Berlin Wall fell the very engine of globalisation, with markets opening and the advent of the internet, revved up to revolutionise the way we connected with foreign lands. During this time globalisation pulled every nation of the world and all the institutions in its wake. The Government acknowledged the reality of interdependency to make sense of these forces, to shape them and to exploit them to the greatest possible extent. We are all still on the high tide of constant change and we always will be.
The noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Swynnerton, made some important points but against this background I suspect that no modern British Prime Minister has ever been disinterested enough in foreign affairs to leave those matters to his Foreign Secretary. Indeed, some senior politicians in the previous Government complained that the Prime Minister had been known to take their cricket bat away and break it.
We have pursued a policy of the deepest engagement with the international community and have built a firm platform to take forward this country’s global objectives. Our standing is high. The noble and gallant Lord, Lord Craig, referred to the standing of our forces. I agree with him, but I am not so certain that the distinction between conflicts of choice and other conflicts is quite so clear-cut. International stability is sometimes the only choice, and our forces are not failing us in dealing with that.
The international institutions were built for the post-war era. That era has gone. They need to reform to be fit for the world in which we now live—the world after 9/11, the introduction of the internet and the Cold War. I refer to the changes that the noble Lord, Lord Luce, so eloquently set out.
Perhaps all the key institutions have the creaking joints of middle age but they are none the less vital for global order, so we work persistently for optimal reform. Some Members of the House have more or less said that the Iraq conflict has destroyed the international community’s instinct to intervene on the right occasions. But as my noble friend Lord Desai put it, the alternative to intervention is leaving matters unresolved, however dire they are. The responsibility to protect calls us to do something better. My noble friend Lord Soley underlined the same point. I simply cannot agree with the comments of my noble friend Lady Turner on Iraq and Kosovo precisely for that reason.
Some have a touching, perhaps even naïve, faith in the international community. It has its limitations and does not always succeed, and constructive criticism can be considered condemnation, although in my mind it is not. Others believe that it is neither possible nor desirable for the United Nations or the European Union to be a leading global actor. Some pay lip service to it but do not really rate its chances of being successful. Others advocate not only a more active Commonwealth but a greatly enlarged one, with an economic and security role, as the noble Lord, Lord Howell, advocated with the greatest clarity in a very important paper at the end of last year. However, I believe that, for all its great strengths and adequacies, such a Commonwealth would probably be beyond its capacity, traditions or its current architecture. But we certainly should not neglect the Commonwealth—I do not intend to do so—or the Overseas Territories. The very important points of the noble Baroness, Lady Hooper, on that are taken to heart. The work for modern constitutions to help the Overseas Territories move forward is really important. There is high expenditure. Examples such as Montserrat tell people that we have certainly not neglected our obligations, even where they constitute a hugely expensive enterprise. We buy into the Latin America strategy that the noble Baroness and the noble Viscount, Lord Montgomery, both mentioned precisely because we can get buy-in now across Whitehall, and that is a change.
Our approach is clear-sighted. I hope that it is constructive. We want the UN, the European Union, NATO and the Bretton Woods bodies to provide strong, effective leadership on all the global issues. We have had some successes. Kofi Annan proposed a fundamental programme of reform in 2005. The noble Lord, Lord Hannay, was one of its architects. We work to make that a reality. My noble friend Lady Quin reminds us that the EU summit is under way, where more construction will be considered. As I said last week in our long and serious debate, a national discussion about the results of that will be imperative. I hope that it will be conducted in the media and elsewhere with more thought and less frenzy. The Fundamental Charter may be thought by some to intrude on our legal and security needs to too great an extent, but we shall see how this debate emerges in the next week.
For 30 years, successive British Prime Ministers have claimed that Britain is at the heart of Europe. I believe that the Government have gone further. We have moved the heart of Europe closer to Britain. Our vision is shared by an increasing number of European states, and more are hungry to join. Jose Manuel Barroso said earlier this year, in a speech that my noble friend Lord Anderson quoted, that the Europe of the 21st century takes its inspiration in many ways from Britain. I contrast that—we are looking at a historical period here—with what another president of the Commission, Jacques Santer, said in 1996:
“You are right in asking whether some people are suggesting that Europe would be better off without Britain”.
Over 10 years we have kept our old friends and made new ones, as my noble friend Lady Symons made very clear. People talk of the international community as if it were some kind of kindergarten—the UK can’t be friends with Europe if it wants to stay friends with America, and we may not be invited to the Commonwealth party if we go to somebody else’s party in Europe. In 1997 we saw that that was the diplomacy of the past. In 1997 the days of the triple alliances and the ententes had long passed, but I am afraid that the mentality lingers on, and it has not yet grasped interdependence as fully and broadly as it must.
This country can maintain a strategic partnership with the United States while engaging meaningfully with the Commonwealth and Europe. We have a proper regard for the significance of our alliance with the United States, and I shall not apologise for it. It is the world’s only super-power, whoever its president may be. We have shown that we can work with President Clinton and President Bush and their Administrations and that the relationship has remained important, as I think the noble Lord, Lord Howell, said it must. My noble friend Lord Anderson had that right. The world benefits from this alliance. It is a close partnership. I shall be candid: our approaches will differ many times on issues such as climate change; but when we work at it, as we did with the G8, we sometimes get the right result. On other occasions our partnership has stood us in very good stead, and we should not forget it.
I fear that the noble Lord, Lord Dykes, and others suggested—although I am sure that they will tell me that I misheard the point—that we can switch—
My Lords, we shall never defy public international law. If it is implied that, as the Liberal Democrat Front Bench said, that was what happened, I simply do not accept it. The point I wanted to make was that we cannot switch in and out of alliances. It is a characteristic of fashion designers that they follow fashion. I do not think that it is an appropriate way for a political party to work.
We have changed the way in which this country conducts its bilateral relationships, and we can see that with many of the significant relationships that have been built with India, Brazil and China, which are very important countries on the world stage. We do it both bilaterally and, rightly, with Europe as well, and I do not see a conflict in doing so.
We have constructed strategic platforms which are resilient and strong to allow us to pursue our foreign policy priorities. Those priorities provide the benchmarks against which we should be judged. Of course we have put energy and climate security at the heart of the international agenda as core foreign policy priorities. Our advocacy in the European Union has paved the way for the European Union to become the world’s first competitive, energy-secure and low carbon economy. Margaret Beckett led an unprecedented debate on that issue in the Security Council.
Things do change. No one predicted in May 1997 that an underground terrorist group would be able not just to commit an atrocity on the scale of 9/11 but to use sophisticated communication devices to undermine Governments, create friction in communities and subvert local grievances into a unified Islamist struggle. Al-Qaeda is the first multinational terrorist network of this kind, and it demands a complex and multifaceted response. We share strategies, intelligence and practical advice with our allies, which reduces the ability of terrorists to strike at us. But any permanent solution needs to tackle al-Qaeda’s success in developing a broad appeal for its ideology; hence our policy of engagement with the Islamic world, which is just as important as anything else that we undertake. I am afraid that the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Coventry cannot persuade me that bin Laden’s international ambitions started with or grew from our intention to defend ourselves.
Our 1997 manifesto promised to reverse the decline in UK spending on development aid. We set out our clear moral responsibility to combat global poverty. The millennium development targets focused that work, which has been significant for this country’s foreign policy. Through Tony Blair’s chairmanship of the Commission for Africa, Gordon Brown’s work on health education and investment, and our presidencies of the G8 and the European Union, we have built a platform for Africa. We have, through our international development Secretaries, reversed the old belief that development is a form of charity. African Governments are no longer our clients; they are our partners. Mugabe is no partner in this equation. I say to the noble Lord, Lord Blaker, that this Government have taken no step to release anyone from their obligations under the common European position on travel for Mugabe. I want that to be clear and on the record.
My Lords, is the noble Lord saying that the statement by Chancellor Merkel was wrong?
My Lords, others will answer for their statements. We say that the common European position has to be observed. It is a unanimous position of the European Community.
The noble Lord, Lord Luce, asked what we are doing in other regards. We work bilaterally with every SADC Government on this question. The African journey is not easy; there are no quick fixes, but there has been progress. We need renewed efforts, for example, on the long British tradition of liberal trade policies, and with good reason, because open markets help lift peoples out of poverty. Globalisation has to be understood and has to be compatible with social justice, because not everyone has benefited from trade and investment liberalisation.
Multinational negotiations can be difficult, but we must continue to have them. I say to the noble Lord, Lord Selsdon, that I am not disturbed that trade has moved into financial sectors and other leading sectors in the world economy. That is the nature of the world economy. The noble Baroness, Lady Hooper, expressed her dismay, if I can put it that way, at the cuts in our network, and the noble Viscount, Lord Montgomery, also mentioned that. It is true that in the current financial circumstances we do not have embassies everywhere, but our network is effective and is in the front rank worldwide. As the noble Lord, Lord Beaumont, mentioned, underpinning everything must be the proper focus on human rights. People must expect their Governments to be accountable, to protect them and to respect the rule of law. That is fundamental, as is the work on corruption.
I want to say a few words about some of the global aims that perhaps do not strike people as immediate. Our military interventions in Sierra Leone, Kosovo, Afghanistan and Iraq have been motivated by the need to protect populations. We have to explain that and describe why we think it is important, and those issues will still be with us over some time. Some issues, such as energy supply, on which we are making progress, will be with us for a very long time. That is helped by the completion of the Langeled gas pipeline, which is a great benefit to all of us for the reasons stated by the noble Lord, Lord Howell.
In the midst of all that, the FCO is well and thriving. Like many foreign ministries around the world, it has had to adapt to new realities. In 1997, most British embassies still had no desktop internet access, no e-mail and certainly no BlackBerries. Prime Minister Pitt would have been utterly confounded by the technologies of this age. We live now in an open society, where there are few secrets and where we have to have a vital and dynamic relationship with everyone.
As my noble friend Lord Giddens said, foreign affairs do not simply happen somewhere else. All the impacts are with us all the time. We adapt to these realities, and we have not compromised the FCO’s quality. We have brought our policy and research departments closer together, as the noble Lord, Lord Luce, was calling for, to give more intellectual depth to our arguments and maintain an historical perspective. We are more efficient while maintaining a greater commitment overseas. I say to the noble Viscount, Lord Montgomery, that we are trying to build up areas such as trade in a more coherent and joined-up way.
We have pioneered a number of innovations which have been important in the past 10 years, such as those in consular and visa work and trying to respond to the vast number of people who travel overseas. We are using our new expertise to deal with subjects such as forced marriage, which were not so much on the agenda or at least not so visible 10 years ago. We are learning all the time.
We are not awkward isolationists. I do not think that anything in the past 10 years represents a worsening from the 10 years before, and, as many noble Lords have said, things are very much better. We have changed because the world has changed. Foreign policy lives in our ministries but also sweeps through the stock exchanges, science labs and NGOs. It is also in everything domestically. Tony Blair has created a platform for progress and dignity for our country. I applaud that achievement over the past 10 years, and if anyone weighs it honestly and dispassionately they will feel that the gains have been significant.
My Lords, it remains for me to thank all those who have taken part in this very good debate. Frankly, I did not expect my initial comments to go unchallenged, nor have they been. There have been some rather fascinating common themes weaving through the debate. First, we must reassess our relations with the American Government, who have made errors. They cannot go alone. The noble Baroness, Lady Symons, who has defended government policy with enormous ability down the years, made that point in her excellent speech. I regard that tradition of ability as fully carried on by the noble Lord, Lord Triesman.
There was a general feeling that we should make more of the Commonwealth; that would be a wonderful achievement, if nothing else, of this debate. The noble Lord, Lord Giddens, said that he was going to disagree with me, but on most things he did not. He said quite rightly that domestic and foreign policy are really all one, and that is the central point. Foreign policy, when clearly set out, defines who we are and holds our nation together. Clarity without is solidarity within. If that message gets over from this debate, that will have made it worthwhile. On that note, I beg leave to withdraw the Motion for Papers.
Motion for Papers, by leave, withdrawn.
Public Sector: IT Projects
rose to call attention to the management of information technology projects by government and public agencies; and to move for Papers.
The noble Lord said: My Lords, I am extremely flattered by the quality of noble Lords who have put their names down for this debate. I am looking forward to it, although I suspect that what I say will be challenged quite heavily by some.
Let me start by saying that this Government have much to be proud of in what they have done in the field of government IT. They have seen through some very successful projects: the DWP payment modernisation system, Consumer Direct, pension credit, Warm Front from Defra and NHS Direct. I could have given a plethora of examples; those who want to know about them may turn to the e-Government National Awards or TickIT for a list. The Government have also made a number of structural improvements in how IT is dealt with in the Civil Service. The gateway reviews are an excellent innovation. Senior responsible owners, chief information officers and the Office of Government Commerce all speak of a Government who have at least an understanding of what is required to make a successful IT project. So why oh why are we faced with the likes of ID cards, the firearms licensing system, the rural payments system and the current mega NHS project? Why are we faced with failure and catastrophe on that scale?
In my preparation for this debate, I have concluded that there are four underlying themes. This Government have a fondness for centralisation, a lack of trust in professionals and others, a tendency to undermine rather than strengthen the Civil Service and a lack of openness. Although that could also have been said of previous Governments, I suspect that these are ineradicable qualities of this Government. However, I have hope for a future Conservative Government. That is what moves me to speak today; I am speaking as much to my own Front Bench as I am to noble Lords opposite in the hope that I can convince them that there are ways to avoid these problems in the future.
I shall not spend too much time dealing with the detailed problems of individual systems. My noble friends Lord Howe and Lady Byford will do that for me, and they will do so much better than I ever could. I want to focus on thoughts about what we should do to make things better in the future. First, we should take the attitude of strengthening rather than undermining the Civil Service. Civil servants are the people who have to see these projects through. My experience of the Civil Service is that the focus is much more on policy origination than on policy delivery. That is how civil servants gain credibility and move their careers on. I have seen this particularly in the context of my wife’s charity, which works for the Prison Service. She and her colleagues have been steadily in post for 13 or 14 years now, but I doubt whether any civil servant whom she has had to deal with in a serious way has been in post for more than 13 months.
The business of high-flyers rushing around like demented bees is no friend to policy delivery. It destroys the whole basis for it. We have to develop within the Civil Service a career stream that is motivated by and rewarded according to policy delivery. People will stick with projects from the beginning to the end and their kudos within the service will be based on that. There are many such posts within commerce, but while the Civil Service does the chief executive officer position well, it seems not to do so with the chief operating officer. These are and should be well rewarded people in the Civil Service. If we can get that going, we will find a much better relationship developing between the Civil Service and the users of government services.
Policy origination often tends to be quite antagonistic where existing users are concerned—we need only look at the relationship between the DfES and teachers. There is a perhaps unnecessary degree of opposition and argument. If you want to be effective in policy delivery, you need to build strong relationships and good communication with users. Those are among the fundamental principles underlying good IT project delivery. Similarly, if we went down that route for the Civil Service, we would find that relationships with providers became much better.
The procurement side of many government departments is less than satisfactory, to put it mildly. Procurement staff tend not to be valued by their colleagues and not really to have the interests of the rest of the department at heart; rather, they focus on their own ways of doing things. Indeed, many instances can be found, particularly in IT projects, where those bidding for a contract are not allowed access to the users of the service. How on Earth can you design a system without being allowed to talk to the users? How can you put in a decent proposal, or innovate or find new ways of doing things, if you are restricted to talking to procurement specialists and do not talk to the users?
That sort of problem arises because of the lack of value placed on this function within the Civil Service. Again, the people heading up these functions in major departments should be well paid. In commerce, they would earn £250,000 a year to head that sort of department. I doubt very much whether that sort of status is accorded within government procurement departments. As we know from our debates on the salary to be accorded to the Lord Speaker, salary and status are closely linked.
Secondly, we need to put much more emphasis on trust. The people who can really make a difference to an IT system are the users. To make something successful, you have to engage the knowledge and commitment of a user group. The buzzword term is “federated systems”. In other words, you do not design a mega-project, because it never works. Instead, you look at individual user groups and give them a mandate to design systems that suit themselves. You then put the central work into making sure that those systems have standards, specifications and interfaces that make it possible to work with the wider IT designs.
That is such a basic principle, and so well known, that it is astonishing that systems such as ID cards and the big NHS project appear to have ignored it entirely and as a result have fallen flat on their faces. It must be the absolute centre of all IT development. Trust the professionals, the people doing the job, and then work with them to produce a really effective system. Beyond anything else, systems developed in that way can continue to innovate and evolve of their own accord. Something that is designed centrally gets stuck and in five years’ time it is out of date. No one knows what to do with it any more because there are no mechanisms for making it fit with changed circumstances.
The third underlying problem is centralisation, which is where politics comes into it. Politicians like things big and they like things fast. They are not around for long. Some Ministers stay in post for two or three years, but that is nothing in terms of the length of a big IT contract. Mostly, they want announcements and results very fast.
If we want to achieve something in our political lives, and it is only natural that we should, we must have in the Civil Service a real expert resource against which those ideas and ambitions can be tested. We need a real understanding of the technologies and their possibilities and of the principles for the development of good IT contracts. If we have such a resource, it must clearly involve a lot of people from outside the Civil Service, but it must also take in IT and delivery specialists from other government departments and give them some experience of real IT professionalism. If we had had that, I do not believe that we would not have been lied to in the way that we were when the ID card proposal was going through Parliament. I do not think that the Government saw it as lying at the time, but they must look back now and realise that what they said about the big centralised database, and about iris and other recognition technologies, was a lie. They were misinformed and misled because they did not have within government the ability to challenge what they were being told by a relatively inexperienced consultant.
If we were to design such an expert resource, I would put it in the Treasury, because, first, the Treasury has a natural power and involvement in almost any major project and, secondly, the problems with, and a quantity of the expenditure involved in, a federated system arise at the interfaces between individual departments or elements of them, and no budgets exist for them. A lot of the problems that have been occurring in police systems, notably the firearms licensing system, seem to have arisen because no one focused on the requirements of those interfaces. In case the firearms licensing system has not surfaced on noble Lords’ radar, I inform them that the problem with it is that it takes more than a minute for a simple drop-down menu to appear on a screen. If you want to transfer a firearm from one force to another force, the process on a computer takes a day. That is entirely due to the lack of bandwidth in the system and the mis-specification of the interface between one system and another. If you have not planned it right, that has devastating consequences, but it is simple to get it right if you think of it first. We need to make sure that this does not happen, because it has happened in other instances.
I turn lastly to openness, the lack of which has certainly been a besetting sin of the Civil Service since I encountered it in a non-IT context when I was on the Front Bench. Bad news does not travel well in the Civil Service. There is a tradition of shooting the messenger. Certainly, Ministers do not want to know bad news. That leads to a tendency among civil servants to say, when a project is going wrong, “Give us another month and we’ll get it right”, and it leads to the building-up of an irrational exuberance that they will be able to solve their problems in the end.
I remember this particularly because I was my party’s agriculture spokesman in the Lords when the BSE crisis broke. It exactly characterised what had gone on in previous years. Everything was focused on the hope that the disease would not infect humans. Every little bit of evidence that it might not was grasped, while there was a lack of questioning about what was really going on underneath, where the evidence was moving and whether the actions that we were taking would really eradicate the disease. When the crisis broke and we were forced to be open, everything changed. We gave all the data that we had to independent experts and, a month or so later, we understood what had been going on. They looked at things differently and could suddenly see what was happening. If we had had that openness earlier on, we would have avoided a lot of the problems.
This Government have had a similar experience on the IT front with the NATS contract, which noble Lords may remember ran many hundreds of millions of pounds over budget and about five years late. It was not until we brought in Arthur D Little to review it and find out what had been going on that all the obfuscation and difficulties were cleared away. Indeed, we have ended up with a successful system. Openness can make an enormous difference to how successful an IT project is, because it focuses people on what is really happening and allows difficulties to be admitted early rather than covered up. I know that that is difficult for civil servants—it is very difficult for politicians—but it is great for making things happen.
If I urge the Minister to do one thing, it is to drop the Government’s opposition to making gateway reviews public. It is like jumping into a cold swimming pool—it will be wonderful when they are in, as it will make such a difference. There is so much good news there, beyond anything else; there are so many things going right. It will make it much easier to catch the problems when they are going wrong, and much easier to admit it.
When there is a real problem, as in the NHS, the Government must—for goodness’ sake—do what they did on NATS and call in an outside consultant. The National Audit Office is just too much part of government to do these things well. The Government must grasp the nettle and do what was done before with such success. It is possible to get these things right, but I do not have a lot of hope that this Government will; their underlying tendencies prevent them. I look forward to my noble friend confirming my beliefs that we shall be much more successful at it. I beg to move for Papers.
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, for starting the debate; it certainly provides me with an opportunity to describe the reality of the Connecting for Health IT programme, and to contrast that with the fantasy and exaggeration presented by its extreme critics—parliamentary and otherwise. As the House will know, I was the Minister responsible for the programme until January, and I will draw on that experience.
Connecting for Health is one of the largest civil IT projects in the world. It is not a catastrophe and has not fallen on its face, as the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, said; it is a highly complex 10-year programme aimed at rescuing the NHS from its position in 1997 as one of the last bastions of paper transactions and garage-designed computer systems. The one thing that you could guarantee about those systems was that GPs could not transfer information about patients electronically to another GP or healthcare provider.
Of course there have been problems, but the programme’s achievements have been remarkable. They follow a four-year programme of extensive user and public/professional consultation and piloting before the letting of contracts in 2003. There has continued to be a willingness to listen and adapt since, especially through the network of hard-working clinical champions interacting with professional users. One can always do better on user involvement, but the critics who claim lack of professional involvement are simply rewriting history. Indeed, the level of professional discussion and involvement has led to the two-year delay on the electronic patient record, and one of my jobs as a Minister was to unblock that logjam, which has now been done.
The contracts for this programme were an “exemplary example” of public procurement. Those are not my words, but those of the former chief executive of the Office of Government Commerce, supported by a June 2006 NAO report. Risk under those contracts rests with the contractors, not taxpayers as all too often has been the case in the past. Last year, Accenture learned that lesson the hard way and moved out of the programme, but without disrupting progress. The credit for the success of the contracts, worth nearly £7 billion over 10 years, goes not to Ministers but to the director of Connecting for Health, Richard Granger, and his talented team, including many doctors. The NAO in June 2006 found that the programme was well managed, was based on excellent contracts, was delivering major savings, had made substantial progress, and was on budget. Now that Richard Granger has announced that after five years running that huge project he will step down towards the end of the year, we should all pay tribute to a remarkable public servant who I hope will be given the recognition that he deserves.
The unfair and unrelenting criticism of the project, and by implication my staff—Ministers can take it but these are day in, day out, attacks on staff trying to do their best for the public and the NHS—becomes all the more extraordinary when one looks at the benefits to patients and to NHS staff that the programme is already producing. For the first time, there is a national spine that provides the capability to move information reliably and securely between 20,000—not 2,000—varied NHS sites, ranging from large acute hospitals to small chemists’ shops. The published reliability figures are impressive, with the NHS experiencing availability of at least 167.9 hours out of a possible 168 hours each week. It is untrue that the system is insecure, because it is the only public sector IT system to use e-GIF level 3 requiring a smartcard and PIN issued only on production of ID and address, with serious disciplinary consequences—including prosecution—for malpractice.
What has been achieved so far is stunning. Using the new secure e-mail system, the 250,000 registered users have now sent their 200-millionth e-mail, helping to speed up patient services. We are ending the ferreting around in hospital basements for old X-rays through the digital picture archiving and communications system—PACS. Some 6,000 new images a week are being generated by PACS, which is now in the majority of hospitals, with 260 million images stored and easily retrievable on the system. This is saving the NHS millions of pounds and reducing patient exposure to radiation.
Patient safety is being further improved by the rapid implementation of the electronic prescription service. More than 2,200 GP systems and 2,600 pharmacist establishment are now live and about 1 million prescriptions are being transmitted each week. EPS will not only make patients safer but will cut fraud and save millions of pounds for the NHS. Patients and their GPs can now book their hospital appointments electronically through Choose and Book. I acknowledge that there have been problems with that in some places, but nearly 4 million bookings have been made and the usage is about 90,000 bookings a month. Of course not everything has gone smoothly. Progress on new hospital patient administration systems has been too slow, with 200 new systems still to be installed. That is partly because we have been too inflexible over local systems—I acknowledge that point—but that is changing quite rapidly.
Finally, there is the big prize of a transferable electronic patient record, about which there has been much controversy. This record of individual patients will make patients safer, save lives, improve whole-population public health and aid medical research and training. I recognise that there are genuine concerns about patient confidentiality and privacy, but we cannot have the patient benefits of this IT system without networking local systems. It is possible to work our way through these concerns, as I and others—including my noble friend and successor Lord Hunt—have been doing. That is why I set up a taskforce with many of the professional critics and asked Connecting for Health to develop pilot schemes for electronically transferring patient records with a scope for people to opt out, but with the dangers of doing so properly explained to them. It is interesting that from these early adopter sites only 0.2 per cent of patients have so far wished to opt out.
Some of my puzzlement over hostility to the programme has been removed, since leaving office, by discovering people working together to campaign against this programme. The campaign seems to be made up of the Foundation for Information Policy Research, the Big Opt Out organisation, the Conservative Technology Forum, Computer Weekly, Medix surveys and the Worshipful Company of Information Technologists, which I only recently discovered. An energetic presence in this network is a Cambridge professor called Ross Anderson. Some interesting e-mails of his have found their way to me. One e-mail of 27 November 2006 says:
“The Big Opt Out org will be a separate campaign (which many of us help). The principal organiser is Helen Wilkinson”—
who I believe is a Conservative councillor. Another e-mail, of 13 February, talks about,
“how we might put the IC on the spot”.
The IC is of course the Information Commissioner. Another e-mail, of 8 March, after Professor Anderson had been asked to be an adviser to the Health Select Committee, says:
“Well I said yes on the grounds that I can probably do more on the inside than on the outside”.
Another e-mail which I particularly like is of 24 May 2007, sent after a lunch with Conservative Front-Bench spokesman Damien Green MP, who is quoted as saying,
“the Tories had taken an uncharacteristically principled line on the ID card and now felt exposed”.
Ross was asked to provide some other arguments—a little less principled, I assume. Finally, in a quote from an e-mail of 20 December 2006, we have something a little closer to home:
“After speaking to Andrew Lansley, Tim Loughton, Malcolm Harbour and Lord Lucas I’m maybe starting to get the message across”.
I have insufficient time to entertain the House with more extracts. I am willing to let them be seen on a private basis by my honourable friend in the other place who chairs the Health Select Committee. In a spirit of bipartisanship, I would encourage Conservative parliamentarians to look closely and sceptically at some of the sources of advice they appear to be using. The Connecting for Health IT programme should not be a political football. Too much is at stake for patients and the NHS.
My Lords, I, too, am most grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, because in recent years there has been a proliferation of information databases on children. Indeed, a recent paper from the Information Commissioner lists 11 of them. They all raise issues of privacy, security and consent. I intend to restrict my remarks today to the proposed national child Information Sharing Index, now to be called ContactPoint, and the much smaller databases of biometric information that some individual schools compile, often without the permission of parents and with the tacit approval of the DfES.
The ContactPoint database is to be universal. It will cover more than 11 million children and will potentially have 330,000 to 400,000 users. We are told that it will cost £224 million, which I suppose must be seen as a bargain in the light of the £12 billion cost of the NHS database and the £18 billion cost of the proposed national identity database. The £41 million per year that the database will cost to run, according to the Government, is a considerable amount of money, but the Government’s figures are disputed by the Information Commissioner, who believes that it could cost up to £1 billion. Perhaps some of this additional cost will be borne by local councils. If so, we should be told. However, the Information Commissioner has pointed out that the database throws up,
“real data protection and privacy issues which need to be addressed”.
The declared objectives of the database are to bring together the various professionals working with each child and to make early intervention easier. Those are both laudable. However, the database will cover every child in the country, including those who have no special needs, and it will have no professional input, save from the school and general practitioner. Thus, there will be many children on the database who do not need to be there.
When the database was first proposed, some of us suggested that the money could be better focused on ensuring that children’s services professionals, who work with the children who do need their services, had reduced caseloads and improved training, thus making sure that they had both the time and knowledge of how to interact with other professionals for the benefit of their young clients. The Government, however, did not agree, so we now need to know how they are getting on with addressing our concerns and when the database will go live. It is scheduled for next year. Is it on target?
Many parents have expressed the same concerns that I raised when we debated the legislation during the passage of the Children Act 2004. There is no such thing as a totally secure database, and a large number of people will be able to access it. Although there is to be a two-part security authentication, the Government have recently seen fit in guidance to advise users not to access it from an internet cafe and not to leave it logged on when not working on their computer. That indicates the potential for misuse. How do the Government propose to monitor this? The sensitive information on the database would be invaluable to the predatory paedophiles who stalk the internet intent on child abuse. Some of it, such as contact with sexual-health professionals, is also very private. In addition, there will be information about the parents—for example, whether they are separated or single, whether they offer positive role models, whether they give the child a healthy diet and whether there is a problem such as drug or alcohol abuse. Therefore, it is not just a database of innocuous information about where the child goes to school, who has parental responsibility and who the GP is; it tells you a lot about the whole family.
Most parents and children will not know what is on the database, whether it is accurate, how to change it if it is not, and who is being given access to it and so on. Although parents and their children will have the right to ask to see the information about them and challenge it if it is wrong, I am sure that few will do so. Can the Minister say how parents will be informed about their rights in this respect and whether he will report to Parliament about how many exercise those rights? There has been some media excitement about the fact that information concerning the children of some high-profile parents will be electronically shielded if they are considered to be at increased risk, but surely the Government can see the potential of risk to all vulnerable children—even those whose parents have never appeared in a tabloid newspaper. We even hear that Ministers may be able to decide to exclude their own children. Can the Minister tell us whether he has any such intention himself?
There are also serious concerns about “function creep” into the proposed national identity register and other databases since the police have had new powers to access information on any database. It is clear to me that this information will be shared much more widely than any of us feared when we were debating the Bill that set it up.
There are also concerns that the database will give rise to self-fulfilling prophecies, where children with a number of “flags of concern”, as they are coyly called, will be treated as potential delinquents. The database will require enormous restraint and professionalism from those who access it. I hope they will all understand its potential for harm as well as good. The sheer size of the database is also a cause for concern. Some commentators are afraid that serious cases might be overlooked because of the amount of time spent inputting and accessing trivia. The same skill of identifying priority cases will be required with this electronic database as has always been required when dealing with a set of paper files. The computer will not replace professional judgment.
Government IT projects have an appalling track record of breaking down. That was even admitted by Margaret Hodge when she told MPs on the Education Select Committee on 9 February 2007 that this gave her cause for concern. So, if professionals are relying on this database to alert them to signs of neglect or abuse, a breakdown could place vulnerable children at even greater risk.
On another closely related matter, I should like to ask the Minister about the much smaller databases of unique biometric information that are being held by schools. As the Minister may know, I have for some time been expressing serious concern about the fact that some schools are taking children’s fingerprints for trivial uses such as registration, school dinners and use of the library, all of which can be better done in other ways. Most of this is done without the express permission of the parents, or even their knowledge in many cases. When I asked about this on 19 March, the noble Lord, Lord Adonis, said that schools receive “fair processing guidance” as to how to comply with the Data Protection Act, in which parents should be consulted about the collection and use of all information about their children.
There is much evidence that that is not happening. How are the Government monitoring whether schools are complying with the Act? However, it has become clear that, in response to concerns, the DfES is working with Becta to produce guidance for schools. I have looked hard and can find no such guidance yet, despite the fact that, on 5 February, in answer to a Written Question from my colleague in another place, the Member for Leeds North-West, the Minister, Jim Knight, promised that the guidance would be available on the Becta website by the end of March 2007. As of this morning it still was not there.
In the mean time, there have been disturbing press reports suggesting that the guidance will not insist that schools obtain express permission from parents or guardians before taking fingerprints. On any interpretation of the fair-processing rules, that cannot possibly be compliant. This is a different kind of vulnerability: vulnerability to identity theft. These databases are not kept on stand-alone computers; they are on the ordinary school computers that are connected to the internet and are therefore vulnerable to attack by hackers. If I were an identity thief, I would get the data about 15 year-olds and wait patiently for a year until they got their first credit card. Then I would pounce. The risk is severe and yet the Government do not seem at all bothered. Besides, if there is nothing wrong with taking children’s fingerprints, why do the Government not ensure that schools are asking parents or at the very least informing them? They are not doing so and that is a disgrace.
My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, on raising this important issue and applaud the thoughtfulness and balance of his contribution. Although our emphasis is different on some matters at least, as he will hear—possibly to his surprise—we are in accord. I also declare two interests: I am a former member of the Cabinet Office Strategy Board, and my wife is the managing director of a technology company supplying to government.
Information technology can transform the effectiveness of almost any major institution. For government, it offers the prospect of new products and services for the citizen, with previously unimaginable speed and convenience. It brings mobility, enhanced capability in the field and services available anywhere at any time. It enables policy-makers to collect and analyse massive amounts of data and to acquire new and penetrating insights. It can facilitate a step change in operational productivity and effectiveness. Technology can enable us to fight crime more effectively, to deliver better health and education outcomes or to improve our overburdened transport system.
Yet no one should underestimate the awesome difficulty of introducing new IT systems in practice. I have been closely involved as a non-executive director with companies that have been among the most successful in the world at deploying technology. I have witnessed at first hand what a herculean task it can be and how much capability is needed to do it well. At the BBC, I oversaw the transition of the corporation from an analogue rustbelt to a digital pioneer. That long journey, with plenty of stumbles and trip-ups along the way, demonstrated to me just how difficult it is to make the right decisions on infrastructure, how hard it is painstakingly to re-engineer core processes and to integrate different systems and what a challenge it is for any organisation and its people to acquire wholly new skills and capabilities.
Whitehall came a little late to a full and rich understanding of how the true power of technology can be unleashed to achieve better public outcomes. Decades of underinvestment in the UK public sector in general and in technology in particular were part of the reason for that. Ian Watmore’s appointment as essentially the Government’s chief technology officer marked a sea change. Now, the Government’s leadership in technology, in the Cabinet Office and the departments, is the strongest functional support in government. I include Richard Granger in that.
Ian Watmore, John Suffolk and their colleagues have professionalised the IT function within Whitehall. Alongside the Office of Government Commerce, they have sought to improve the procurement process. The technology market is very competitive, and government is undoubtedly striking hard bargains. The CIOs have begun to wrestle with cross-governmental issues such as identity and interoperability. They have championed the importance of improving the service to the citizen. If you renew your motor vehicle licence online, sort out your pension entitlements in minutes, not months, or navigate your way to some critical piece of information on Directgov, you will appreciate the improvement that they have wrought.
Most technology in the public sector works seamlessly—it is not a disaster—and we never hear about it, which is the way of the world. However, it is plain that some technology does not work well and some projects have not gone well. We need to learn the lessons of that and improve. Many thoughtful people in the system, and there are many of them, believe that success on large projects would be more assured if the specification process were far more sophisticated than it is now. They believe that can best be achieved by a far more intensive dialogue between the purchaser and potential providers in advance of the formal bidding process and before the specification is carved in stone. Such a Green Paper dialogue would need to involve all practitioners, not just technologists. The line managers and the policy makers must also own the specification, and, eventually, the procurement. The dialogue should cover outcomes and the means of delivering them; it should identify what is deliverable and not just desirable; and it must be a true partnership and joint venture involving all parties.
Once the dialogue is over, the Government need to settle the specification far more speedily than they sometimes do, and to a previously declared timetable. Many suppliers justifiably complain about the length and expense, as well as the limitations of the current process.
I have one last point on procurement. This is not aimed at anybody present. Ministers have sometimes made unachievable demands of systems and have as a result launched a ship holed below the waterline that will never float. OGC needs—and here is the echo of what the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, said earlier—an independent gateway process to vouchsafe that the scope is truly deliverable before the bidding process begins; and, while I am at it, if, wholly commendably, Gus O’Donnell can publish the departmental reviews, could he not, with benefit, extend transparency to the gateway process too?
I have already said that most technology projects in the public sector succeed—they do. None the less, I suspect that the failure rate is higher than in the private sector. I do not think that the reason for that is likely to lie with the technology companies, for self-evidently they work freely across both public and private sectors; rather I fear that the skills gap lies elsewhere and in the public domain. Managing a complex IT project tests the most skilled manager. He or she will face myriad issues, and only a few will be purely technological. Entrenched interests, for example, will dig in and resist system change. Therefore, managing a large IT project normally means managing whole system change. That requires not only a highly and widely skilled senior responsible officer but managers with the appropriate skills set throughout the system undergoing change.
These skills are not yet widely available in Whitehall. Successive Cabinet Secretaries have identified this issue, and Gus O’Donnell is running hard with this particular ball. His vision is to add modern business disciplines to the silky private office skills of the old mandarinate. That process of training has long begun. But until it is complete the driving of many large projects in government will remain significantly underpowered.
There is much to be pleased with. Public sector IT in the UK is undergoing a fundamental transformation. It is a job not yet done, but one very much begun.
My Lords, before we hear from the next speaker I remind all noble Lords that this is a time-limited debate. When “9” comes up on the clock, would you please finish your remarks? Otherwise you will be eating into the Minister’s time, because there is no slack.
My Lords, this debate is long overdue, and I thank the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, for introducing it today. I speak as someone whose total professional career has been in the IT industry: first with IBM, as a systems engineer, and then as an entrepreneur in the services sector. I have also consulted for IBM and Hewlett-Packard. I have never been directly involved in a big IT project, but I know people who have. I am indebted to all those who have helped me with their views, opinions and deep experience in the preparation of this speech.
Political life is not always fair. An impression gains hold in the public psyche and once there it is hard to remove; and so it is with public sector IT projects. Rightly or wrongly, the general view is that Governments—this one or any other—are unable to control those large projects and as a result taxpayers’ money goes down the drain. The truth is that some projects go well and are unsung, but others go spectacularly wrong and grab the headlines.
In my day, the government sector was a no-go area, light years behind the private sector. Less qualified people worked there. Decision processes went on for ever. Life was too short and the rewards uncertain. That has changed. Since this Government came to power, quite correctly in my view, the managerial emphasis has been on information. Without information, you simply cannot manage. Obtaining information is not easy, especially if you are starting with primitive systems. To bring departments from the Stone Age into the 21st century requires massive investment on new and mega-sized systems. That all costs money, lots of money. As they say, with £10 billion here and £10 billion there, pretty soon you are talking about serious money.
Then there was an about-turn. In the late 1990s, all the IT companies became very focused on the public sector. That is where the money was. After the dotcom crash, when the private sector froze, the opportunity presented itself. The problem was that, unlike the private sector, the public sector was not equipped to handle such huge projects. It did not have the people, it did not have the culture and, in particular, it had to deal with snooping politicians who did not have a clue how to ask the right questions.
I should like to analyse why public sector IT projects have had such a dismal time and then make a few suggestions as to how they may be improved. First, there is a problem of scale. It seems to me that the public sector has always favoured the big-bang approach—introducing a fully completed project in one fell swoop. That is a very dangerous game. It is far better and much safer to make the project as small as possible, make sure all the bugs are ironed out and then roll it out slowly.
Then there is what I would call the major problem: the public sector fixation with contracts and penalties. I am afraid that that is part of the Civil Service mentality. Somehow the Civil Service believes that, if you make the contract tight enough and the penalties onerous enough, everything will come good. It is a mentality that says that the supplier is the bad guy who is out to rip us off, therefore we must use the power of the contract to protect ourselves.
I have always had a simple mantra in business: sign the contract, stick it in the drawer and never look at it again. The day that you take it out of the drawer, you are in serious trouble. But, then, I come from the private sector, where we regard suppliers as partners. Our attitude is that there will always be problems, but we sort them out by sitting on the same side of the table, not glaring at each other across the room. Here is the truth about onerous penalties: they do not incentivise suppliers; they make them live in fear. Furthermore, no penalty, no matter how large, will ever compensate for a failed project.
Then there is the problem with the departments’ personnel. Those huge projects take ages to spec, ages to negotiate, ages to procure and ages to implement. Those who start the project are seldom there at the end. How many civil servants are still in post after three years? No one takes responsibility for the project from beginning to end.
Then there is the whole area of consultants. A few years ago, I was consulting for Hewlett-Packard. A new CEO was appointed in the United States. His first act was to fire almost every consultant—including me, I am sad to say. That action resulted in a saving of nearly $1 billion a year. Did the company collapse without those paragons of wisdom present? Not a bit of it. Freed from those interfering busybodies, the company has gone from strength to strength. Consultants are the curse of business. They are used as a crutch, a prop, to support third-rate management. They give senior management an opportunity to abrogate responsibility that should not be abrogated. They are used by insecure and inept managers to cover their backsides, so that they can say when something goes wrong, “Ah well, the consultants recommended it”.
It may seem obvious, but consultants, like lawyers and accountants, are all in it for fee income. Shortening the project by making it easy and simple is not in their remit. It is not how they are assessed at head office. Their incentive is to make every project as big and as complex as possible, and their hope is that it goes on generating fees for ever. I am not joking when I say that we would all be served if every consultant were fired tomorrow. Managers should stand on their own feet and take responsibility for their own decisions, and not hide behind the skirts of overpaid time-wasters.
The result of bad practice in government departments is that many IT companies also behave badly. The suppliers overplay their abilities. They over-promise what they cannot deliver, they underbid on costs, and they try to recapture revenues every time the specification is changed—and the specifications often change. They get themselves into a terrible mess. Let us imagine, if we can, the state of mind that Accenture must have been in, as my noble friend Lord Warner said, when it withdrew from the NHS project. It cost the company £220 million—an amazing figure—to get out of the contract. Clearly, it judged that it was better to cut its losses than to continue losing money hand over fist dealing with the NHS. This is not a triumph of contract, but a total failure of the whole project. I am of the old school, but I really want my suppliers to make a reasonable profit when they deal with me. If they are happy, I am happy. If they are disgruntled, I will have problems. The Civil Service will never understand that, which is why it gets into so much trouble. An arrogance also pervades these big projects—a “we know best” frame of mind. If nothing else, it has proved beyond doubt that it does not know best.
What can we do about it? First, civil servants need to be trained and educated about the nature of contracts and partnership. They should know that, in any project, we are all on the same side. There should be a senior responsible owner on every project. In the private sector, IT is increasingly deemed to be too important to be left to the nerds. One cannot imagine Goldman Sachs having a chief information officer at a junior rank. Data are life and death to an investment bank, and too important to be relegated. It should be the same in government departments. Here is a suggestion. Why does not the whole public sector adopt a uniform delivery infrastructure? Why not make it all one utility, from which various departments can work?
Finally, on the human side of IT, why don’t we market what is out there? The noble Lord, Lord Birt, talked about all the projects that are out there. I bet that most people in the street have no clue about what is going on. A little marketing would really help to make them aware of it. My analysis is simple: make the project small, make the specifications tight, make the suppliers your friends, make the consultants redundant, and make the users want to use your project.
My Lords, the NHS Connecting for Health programme, if its constituent parts are put together, is the largest civilian IT contract in the world. It started in 2002 as the National Programme for IT. The Government’s central vision was to establish an integrated system known as the NHS Care Records Service, consisting of detailed electronic patient records that could be used by GPs and in local healthcare communities. Alongside that is a national summary clinical record known as the spine. In addition, the programme comprises an electronic booking system for patients known as choose and book; electronic prescriptions to enable GPs to transmit prescriptions instantly to pharmacies; an e-mail service for NHS staff; computer-accessible X-rays; and a broadband network known as N3.
To achieve all this, Ministers took a conscious decision to centralise procurement for the entire NHS in England at the Department of Health. This was achieved extremely rapidly. By 2004, contracts worth £6.2 billion had been awarded to four lead service providers, covering the five designated regions of the country. The total cost over 10 years, according to the most recent NAO estimate, is £12.4 billion. Nevertheless, about a year ago, the noble Lord, Lord Warner, was reported as saying that the full cost was likely to be in the region of £20 billion.
My Lords, I am sure that the House will be grateful to the noble Lord. He will be relieved to know that I am not going to make a strident attack on Connecting for Health. Indeed, I support its aims, for the most part enthusiastically. However, in April this year, the Public Accounts Committee in another place published a report on the current state of play. The largest single element of Connecting for Health—the Care Records Service—is running about two years behind schedule. The suppliers to the programme are struggling to deliver. Not only that, but the department has failed to win hearts and minds in the NHS, especially on the question of whether the system will be fit for purpose. Four years after the programme started, there is still huge uncertainty about its cost across the wider NHS and considerable woolliness about the value of the benefits that it will eventually provide.
The noble Lord, Lord Warner, is right: this is not a picture of a disaster. However, the conclusions were nevertheless pretty disturbing. On the surface, the Government insist that everything is on course, albeit delayed. The Prime Minister was informed in February that there were no technical problems with the programme, only a certain amount of difficulty over winning hearts and minds. That advice was manifestly incorrect. In the southern cluster, Fujitsu is installing software supplied by Cerner Millennium. In April of this year, 79 doctors, nurses and secretaries at Milton Keynes General Hospital—one of the pilot sites—signed an open letter stating that, in their opinion, the new care records system is not fit for purpose and should not be installed in any further hospitals. They drew on numerous case studies and cited a catalogue of serious faults.
That situation is worrying enough, but in three of the other clusters the position is, if anything, even worse. The software programme on which the system is to rely has not yet even been written. iSoft, the company responsible for writing it, is in severe financial difficulties as a result of its failure to deliver and is currently under investigation by the Financial Services Authority. As we have heard, Accenture, the main service provider for two of the clusters, resigned last year and in so doing made a provision in its books for $450 million. Its contracts are being taken over by CSC. In CSC there have been no fewer than 10 resignations at very senior management level in recent months. We may well be told that these are not significant, but such events do not serve to reassure the outside observer. Equally unreassuring is the fact that two other key suppliers to the programme—ComMedica and IDX—have also fallen by the wayside.
The line taken by Ministers, which we will probably hear again today, is that it is better to get things right than to rush. Fair enough, but where are we heading? One of the concerns expressed about the Care Records Service is its potential to blow patient confidentiality out of the water. How do you make someone’s medical details available to any NHS doctor in the country while at the same time giving that patient the cast-iron reassurance that there will be no unauthorised access to his file? This is a fundamental consideration, which was not properly thought through when the programme was commissioned. It is one that has come to the fore again in the context of the online application system for postgraduate doctors, MTAS. So insecure was this system that extremely personal details about individual doctors, including their sexual orientation, were accessed by reporters working for Channel 4. It has been said that if the Government cannot guarantee the security of 30,000 doctors, what hope is there for 50 million patients. It is not surprising that in a recent poll only a third of GPs said that they would advise their patients to allow their information go on to the national spine. The Government have agreed that any patient will be able to opt out of the spine, which is surely right. However, I believe that part of the Connecting for Health budget should be directed towards a public information campaign on that issue.
Records held by a GP and made available to the local hospital present little or no difficulty, but when records are placed on a national spine there is a real problem of accountability for the security of the data. Who exactly is accountable? But there is a wider issue here. There are many who believe—I am one—that in a major respect this massive IT programme was not soundly conceived. None of us, I am sure, would argue that holding patient records in electronic format in a GP practice or at PCT level is a bad concept; far from it. But exactly what cost-benefit analysis was done to validate the central vision of a nationally accessible patient database? The answer to that, so it appears, is practically none. The underlying thought was, in truth, a pretty loose one: that it would be handy to have someone’s medical records freely available in an emergency at any hospital in the country. The evidence to support that idea was nil. The overwhelming majority of patients access NHS care within their local community. If you have a heart attack or you are in a car crash miles from home, there are established clinical protocols that should make access to your medical records almost irrelevant.
It is telling that in Wales the Assembly has opted for a much less ambitious and much less costly IT solution. The original estimate for a Welsh equivalent of the Care Records Service was £1.5 billion. That option was rejected in favour of a system costing a mere £3 million. For that sum of money, the Welsh NHS will get a single patient record system available to GPs, local acute trusts and doctors performing out-of-hours duties. In other words, the vast majority of situations for the vast majority of patients will be covered. I am told that doctors in Wales are more than content with this approach. That is the key difference between Wales and England, where stakeholders feel resentful about not being more involved in the procurement process and, above all, lack a sense of ownership of a system that they are being asked to operate. How do the Government propose to remedy this, given that only one-quarter of GPs now say that they support the programme? In 2004, the figure was well over 50 per cent.
I do not for a minute doubt the benefits that Connecting for Health will bring, especially those relating to patient safety; I acknowledge them fully. But there are serious question marks over the programme’s design and the benefits that it will offer at the margin measured against the marginal costs, both originally and now. All that points towards adopting two things that my noble friend Lord Lucas so eloquently argued for: honest and regular re-evaluation, and greater openness, including publication of gateway reviews. Surely that is how this vast and vital project, whose success we must all wish for, stands the best chance of reaching fruition both on time and on budget.
My Lords, I, too, am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, for securing this debate. I assure him that my contribution will be on only the IT area in which I was involved a number of years ago, which is slowly proving to be a success. That was not always the case but, as your Lordships know, large IT systems cost far more than originally expected and generally take much longer than anticipated. It was and still is so with Airwave, the terrestrial, trunked, digital multi-frequency radio service for police and now, thankfully, for other emergency services in England, Scotland and Wales.
Airwave is managed through a programme board made up of representatives from the Home Office, the Association of Chief Police Officers, the Association of Chief Police Officers in Scotland, the Association of Police Authorities and the National Policing Improvement Agency. It is procured by the NPIA and provided by Airwave O2 Limited under a private finance initiative.
I must declare my interest in this area. I was a member of my police authority for 20 years and chaired it for almost eight years until 2001. I was also a member and deputy chair of the Association of Police Authorities and sat on a number of national committees including the Police Negotiating Board and the Police Advisory Board. Moreover, I was a member of the National Crime Squad Service Authority before it was absorbed into the Serious Organised Crime Agency.
Airwave was crucial to the accurate relaying of messages throughout all the force areas on the UK mainland, before which we all had our own systems and hardware, much of which, in my force, North Yorkshire Police, was at the end of its natural life. Indeed, it was so much at the end of its life that I recall us having to cannibalise old radios to make sure that most of the operational ones that were needed actually worked. It was a desperate and wholly unacceptable situation, which only the introduction of a modern, affordable and technically competent radio system could remedy.
I was present when the then policing Minister, Charles Clarke, told a small deputation from the Police Advisory Board that—I will not be able to use the word he chose to use to describe what he would do to the reluctant forces that did not want to purchase Airwave—we would all take it, whatever we thought and whatever the cost, because it was to be the only solution on offer. However, he coated his threat with a promise of more money for forces to purchase the system, on which he was true to his word.
Airwave began its life as the Public Safety Radio Communication Project in the early 1990s. It was to be managed through the Police Information Technology Organisation, which was a public body set up to support police and partnership agencies in the criminal justice community. PITO has now evolved into the National Policing Improvement Agency. Initially, as I well recall, the Government emphatically refused to pay for the PSRCP, knowing that it would cost a huge amount of money, but eventually they capitulated and, in the end, all police forces received a capital grant towards its purchase. A decision was made by the then chief constable of North Yorkshire Police that it was absolutely essential that we were one of the first forces to go “live” with Airwave.
We took operational early access of the system—which meant that we were going live in one district while Airwave, the company name, was still building sites in other parts of the country—in 2001. It certainly had its teething troubles. Rolling it out over such a huge geographic area, with some officers having access and others still using the old system and kit, was hardly ideal. We finally managed to cover the force area by mid-2002.
Officers in Scarborough made the first switchover to Airwave and colleagues within the district soon began to appreciate the benefits from the vastly improved communication in areas where previously their old analogue sets had struggled to get radio coverage—not a pleasant situation to find oneself in when on the tops of the moors, out of radio contact with any help and having to stop a suspicious car with four tough-looking men in it. So it was a great relief to be able to be in contact with the rest of the world in a potentially dangerous situation. Airwave handsets provided emergency buttons for officers, enabling instant radio access to help.
The cost of obtaining Airwave was the single most important factor for forces having to make the decision to purchase. The original arrangement with PITO and O2, formerly the mobile communications arm of BT, for a new radio service for police forces, was that O2 would design, build, finance and operate the service, while PITO and the police would pay charges over 19 years of some £1.5 billion. As we will see in a moment, this is now much, much more. In the 64th report of the Committee of Public Accounts—House of Commons Paper 783 of 2001-02, published on 28 November 2002—the conclusions of the committee were as follows:
“In negotiating a deal with O2, PITO and the Home Office failed to secure any clawback for the taxpayer of additional profits if other emergency services decide to join Airwave or if the system is sold by O2 to overseas governments. O2 was prepared to share the rewards from bringing extra users onto the system only if the Home Office was prepared to share the risk if extra users did not join. Failure to negotiate a clawback agreement was a product not just of O2 being in a powerful position as the only bidder but also the inability of the Home Office to bring the fire service and other safety organisations on board by demonstrating the real benefits that Airwave had to offer”.
So, in the initial stages at least, proper thought had not been given to such a massive investment, and a public sector comparator was not made until much later on in the procurement process. As it happened, the committee felt that at that stage it was doubtful whether the use of a comparator added anything significant to the decision-making process. It suggested that departments needed to think through what financial and other analyses would be needed at each stage of the procurement process to determine and implement the most effective means of ensuring value for money. Can the Minister assure me that this kind of late comparator is no longer a favoured form of doing business and that in future large projects such as Airwave will be managed in a more efficient manner at the outset?
The National Audit Office, in its evaluation of the Airwave project, said in the report of the Comptroller and Auditor General in April 2002:
“When procuring a step change in technology, such as Airwave, it must make sense to develop mechanisms to ensure that the maximum possible benefits are obtained for what will be a considerable investment of public money. This requires the allocation of resources up front to analyse performance before the service is introduced. In this deal, such investment was not undertaken either early enough or in sufficient depth during the procurement”.
The Airwave system is very significant—currently costing around £4 billion—and we must ensure that we get the planned benefits from it.
I understand from the APA that there is still a significant gap in mobile data and information. A number of pilot programmes are running across the UK—in England and Scotland and in non-geographic forces such as the British Transport Police—and the results will help to inform the further work required.
The recent sale of O2 valued the Airwave business somewhere in the region of £4 billion. We need to ensure that full value for money is realised and that the planned and envisaged business benefits accrue. We need appropriate structures and processes to allow this important work to continue. Allied to that, we must ensure that large PFI contracts, which are delivered over a series of years, like Airwave—which, incidentally, is the biggest in Europe—and which are necessarily based on principles of partnership delivery, actually deliver in partnership and that the programme does not accept further costs unnecessarily.
Right at the start of these huge programmes, we need a common vision about what a service will deliver, how that service will be delivered and what degrees of flexibility it will have. If we begin to learn from the many mistakes of the past, we may begin to have large IT systems fit for purpose and fit for the 21st century.
My Lords, I thank my noble friend Lord Lucas for securing this debate. He referred to three matters which struck a chord with me straightaway: the need to strengthen the Civil Service, the need for greater openness, and the fact that the gateway reviews should be held in public. I accept all those points as I hope the Minister will when he responds.
At the end of the day, whatever projects are selected, the Minister overseeing them must take responsibility for their delivery. Ministers must be accountable. In relation to Defra, my own topic, we in this House know that the noble Lord, Lord Bach, to his cost, was the one who took the fall. In the other House, the then Secretary of State, Margaret Beckett, whose idea it was to move to the new system, was not sacked but promoted to Foreign Secretary. That is not a satisfactory situation.
In a Written Answer to my noble friend Lord Northesk, the noble Lord, Lord McKenzie of Luton, stated that,
“public sector annual IT expenditure was £12.4 billion for 2005-06”.—[Official Report, 5/6/07; col. WA 188.]
Annual running costs on operational systems and processes are £1.6 billion. I should be grateful if the Minister would confirm that.
I have a number of questions about the efficacy of this level of expenditure. First, how many of the systems developed within that expenditure are working successfully and how many required remedial work between being signed on and signed off? How many of the systems developed within that expenditure are doing the work they were intended to do to a 98 per cent level of accuracy?
I am not so involved with complaints about the DWP, but I receive the CAB monthly bulletin and from time to time have to pass queries to the right quarters. Therefore, I am aware that the data surrounding child and working family tax credits, both of which were developed relatively recently, are subject to arbitrary change that is often put down to “computer error”. Can the Minister clarify whether that is the case or whether changes were introduced to the original specification?
Enormous changes have taken place in Defra. The move away from food subsidies to the single farm payment constitutes the biggest challenge and change that the farming community has experienced in recent years. Therefore, it is not surprising that I have submitted a bevy of Written and Oral Questions, some of which I draw to the Minister’s attention. Back in January I asked:
“Who was responsible for drawing up and agreeing the specifications against which contractors, whether internal or external, worked to set up the information technology systems used for the single farm payments by the Rural Payments Agency”.
The Answer was:
“The original specification was intended to replace the software supporting the CAP schemes at that time and new elements such as a rural land register and integrated customer register”.—[Official Report, 23/1/07; col. WA 231.]
It became clear that all was not well. The RPA established a CAP reform implementation project, which included representatives of the Defra policy team negotiating the regulatory changes. That in turn led to major changes to the specification for that IT work, which was already under way. The changes involved additional tenders to extract data from legacy systems so that they could be used to inform customers about their historical claims and support the migration of the data into the Accenture-built systems. How many changes were made from the original specifications?
In December 2006, I asked how many permanent staff were involved in setting up and running the IT system. The answer was 184. The RPA had contracted Accenture to develop its IT systems, required under the change programme. That covers development support and ongoing maintenance for the system. The total cost of the contract was expected to be £55.4 million over seven years. Did that include the consultants who were also involved?
The noble Lord, Lord Livsey of Talgarth, asked a Question in October 2006 on the RPA. Later, I asked the Minister whether he accepted the findings of the National Audit Office that there were no checks, matrices or proper management in the arrangements for bringing in the single farm payment. I gave him some examples. The Accenture contract was estimated in November 2003 as being worth £27.5 million, but it turned out by March 2006 to be worth £50 million. The land register contract was estimated at £6.8 million but eventually turned out to be £16 million. The customer communications contract, originally estimated in 2003 at £1.2 million, turned out to be £9.8 million. That is not satisfactory. When the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, responded to my question, he started by saying:
“My Lords, this is not a happy tale”.—[Official Report, 30/10/06; col. 8.]
Clearly it is not.
I moved on to look at the IT consultancy that Natural England is using. It was asked to produce a communications strategy, and it went out to consultation, which cost a mere £69,000, not a lot of money. However, have the information that it came up with and the findings that it recommended been adopted, or has £69,000 been wasted?
I had a reply to a Question about the project Enabling IT system, which was awarded in the financial year 2004-05 in respect of some £850 million. I asked how much of that was spent from 2004-05 to 2006-07. The answer was that in 2004-05 some £28.26 million was spent; in 2005-06 some £111.12 million was spent and in 2006-07 some £147.56 million was spent. The note at the end of the Answer from the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, said:
“The outturn costs have been higher than the initial estimated yearly costs due to the increased demand for IBM services by projects in delivering Defra’s strategic objectives”.—[Official Report, 13/6/07; col. WA 257.]
That is not a happy tale, and I wonder whether other departments have struggled equally with the minutiae that have made these systems not work as they should have done.
Finally, when there is failure in a department, why are bonuses then paid to its employees? How many of those involved in the Rural Payments Agency were beneficiaries of bonuses for the years in which that department failed? It is a tale of incompetence, and I am only sorry to have to reflect it again this afternoon.
My Lords, the House is immensely grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, for initiating the debate. It has been wide-ranging, covering particular examples of public spending in different sectors and departments. In drawing a conclusion on these Benches, I shall not attempt to touch on all that has been said. The debate has had a number of important themes. The first was taken up by the noble Lord, Lord Birt, who pointed out the important role now played by information technology in the provision of public services and the benefits already felt in areas such as benefits payment, healthcare provision, to which I will return, and, as my noble friend Lady Harris said, protecting the public. There are other areas which have not been mentioned where the public and government interact in ways that would not have been possible without this huge expansion, such as obtaining a driving licence and even seeking advice on the suitability of overseas holidays.
The growth of this business of government has resulted in institutional changes within the Government themselves. A Cabinet Minister, the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, chairs a Cabinet sub-committee, and new offices have been established to oversee this work. I raise en passant the question whether Parliament itself has reorganised its operations adequately to maintain a continuing review of this work so as to enable us to consider in a balanced and deliberate way what needs to be done. It has to be said that some of the general principles enunciated in this debate seem somewhat contradictory. For example, the point that the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, made in his opening speech about the danger of placing undue emphasis on centralisation counters, to some extent, the view of the Office of Government Commerce, which has been talking about cross-departmental co-ordination and,
“encouraging public sector organisations to work together in order to act as a better co-ordinated and joined-up client”.
I do not doubt that there is much to be said on both sides of that argument, but it illustrates the difficulty of attempting to cover such a subject in one short debate.
The basis of the present strategy appears to be the November 2005 paper Transformational Government: Enabled by Technology, which espouses an objective to which no one could take exception: that the policy should be devised around the needs of the citizen not the provider. But what follows from that is much less clear. It is certain that we will have to see new systems introduced from time to time and that there will be a need to redesign business processes and for a marriage of new and older IT systems. Each of these raises different problems, and they are not easy. We have been advised by the Public Accounts Committee that 120 mission-critical or high-risk IT programmes and projects are in train across United Kingdom central civil government at this time, each of which no doubt merits close consideration.
The noble Lord, Lord Birt, helpfully pointed to the need to focus on the delivery of IT-enabled business change and said that it was a major challenge. It undoubtedly is, and not just for central government, but, because of public expenditure considerations, that is what we are focusing on. The expenditure involved is simply enormous: it appears to be running at £14 billion per annum. That calls for a response from Parliament on a continuing, considered basis and possibly even a restructuring of our own committees to do justice to our scrutiny requirements.
The possibility of different views on what is happening was well illustrated by the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Warner, about expenditure in the National Health Service. He seemed particularly anxious, perhaps from a partisan point of view, to emphasise that his own record in these matters was beyond criticism and that the Conservative Opposition had got into the trenches on this issue. That is to oversimplify the actuality. The Public Accounts Committee recently produced a balanced report on NHS spending and, as the noble Earl, Lord Howe, pointed out, drew attention to the fact that there was no firm implementation date for the electronic patient records programme. At present, it appears to be two years behind schedule. The report made it clear also that the department has not kept a detailed record of overall expenditure on the programme and that the estimates of total cost have ranged from £6.2 billion to £20 billion. With the greatest respect to the noble Lord, Lord Warner, I do not think that partisanship is appropriate in looking at these facts.
I am trying to confine my remarks to enable the Minister to reply to the full spread of the issues raised. Reference was made to stability within departments, particularly by the noble Lord, Lord Lucas. We have noticed the departure of Richard Granger this week. There will be speculation about why he has gone after five years, when the programme is so far from complete. We have noticed also the departure of James Hall from the national programme for IT in the National Health Service and his being parachuted into the Home Office to take over the Identity and Passport Service, which is a strange translation. The loss of three key suppliers, Accenture, IDX and ComMedica, is also worthy of comment and examination.
In a debate of this kind, we do best to look at the structure of future consideration of these questions. I am bound to say that I do not believe it is black and white. I have no doubt of the great value flowing to the public from IT, but the levels of expenditure are so massive and the risk of the public purse being drained of taxpayers’ money so clear that transparency, which the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, called for, is important in making sure not only that we obtain value for money in short-term contracts but also that the whole process is better understood by those employed to work it.
My Lords, I am most grateful to my noble friend Lord Lucas for initiating the debate and I thank noble Lords on all sides who have participated. This is a subject of great importance and complexity, spanning as it does every government department. Before going further, I must declare an interest as a substantial shareholder in a company that provides information technology services, following the sale of my own IT business to that company last year.
In a book published last year called Digital Era Governance by, among others, Patrick Dunleavy, who is professor of political science and public policy at the LSE, Britain consistently comes bottom of a table of seven nations selected for examination in all aspects of management of government IT projects. Yet, according to a 2004 estimate quoted in the book, the United Kingdom was undertaking up to a quarter of all government IT capital spending across the entire Continent, apparently in an effort to portray the Government as hyper-modernist. So we are the worst at it, yet we persist in throwing the most money at it.
Noble Lords have spoken eloquently of successes and some of the major failures in our country’s central government IT projects. Failures should be the rare exception; tragically, they are not. Despite what the noble Lord, Lord Warner, said, in the NHS the Government do not have a glowing record of delivering IT systems either on time or on budget. I welcome the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Maclennan of Rogart, on that. Of course it is not all bad, but it should be substantially good. The declared cost of the national programme for IT in the NHS was £6.2 billion, as my noble friend Lord Howe said, but the programme is now expected by the Public Accounts Committee to cost over £12 billion. It is not only a matter of cost and timetable; my noble friend Lord Howe spoke eloquently of the detailed issues, and I do not need to repeat them. It is good to hear from the noble Lord, Lord Warner, that he is confident that improvements have been made. We strongly hope that they will be effective.
As we well know, technical problems also dogged the scheme known as Modernising Medical Careers; my noble friend Lord Howe referred to that too. Among other blunders at the Home Office, nearly 200 people applying for jobs were wrongly labelled as offenders when their details were checked by the Criminal Records Bureau. Computer difficulties stalled the official launch of the system and nearly caused the CRB to collapse. Following the Dunblane shootings, legislation was passed in 1997 to pave the way for a national firearms database, implementation of which we are still being promised, no fewer than 10 years and numerous false starts later. Then there is the ID card saga. In May, the Government admitted that the 10-year cost to the scheme had increased from £4.91 billion to £5.5 billion, an increase of £640 million, plus an additional £200 million to provide ID cards to foreigners. There is already evidence that the timescale has begun to slip. Much more worryingly even than cost and timetable, Microsoft’s national technology officer said that ID cards, as proposed, would—not could—lead to massive fraud. The noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, spoke eloquently on her deep concerns about confidentiality and identity theft, both on that and in other areas.
Since 1997, the Department for Work and Pensions and its predecessors have spent £289 million on IT projects that have subsequently been cancelled. Last year, it was reported that 40 per cent of claims were failing to be processed by the customer management system of Jobcentre Plus. By 2010, the Government will have paid £381 million for the Child Support Agency’s failing computer system, described by the Work and Pensions Select Committee as “over-spec, over-budget and overdue”. By March this year, nearly 200,000 child support cases remained uncleared.
At the Treasury, the PAC estimates that fraud and error in the working families’ tax credit scheme now runs at over £1 billion a year, and that the Treasury has,
“still not developed an adequate response to the unacceptable levels of fraud and error in the scheme”.
The system has now wrongly paid out almost £6 billion. Many people on low incomes now struggle with repayment, and recovery of a third is highly unlikely ever to be achieved. In the ASPIRE project, which, when it was awarded in 2003, was priced at just less than £3 billion, the costs have soared to £8 billion. My noble friend Lady Byford referred to some very serious problems at Defra, among other departments. These are not the only examples, but the point has adequately been made. The noble Lord, Lord Birt, and others have spoken of successes and improvements, and this is welcome news, but the Government have a record of projects turning to dust in their hands.
Why do these projects go so badly wrong? Noble Lords, particularly my noble friend Lord Lucas, have mentioned several reasons with which I agree. I shall summarise those that I see as key ones—we all agree that these are complex areas. First, there has been a failure to follow the full evaluation process at the outset. A PAC report in July 2005 found that the first two stages of the evaluation of 254 projects, including assessment of whether the system was feasible, affordable and likely to achieve value for money, had been skipped in no less than one-third of cases.
Secondly, specifications have been changed after initial agreement with suppliers. My noble friend Lady Byford highlighted this problem. This inevitably leads to increased costs. The noble Lord, Lord Birt, spoke clearly of the need for early dialogue between all parties. There is no substitute for much more thorough work before signing agreements in order to get them right first time.
Thirdly, there has been a high turnover of Ministers and, indeed, civil servants, on which the PAC commented forcefully. The length of the normal procurement cycle frequently means that those who initiated a project have gone before it starts. The noble Lord, Lord Mitchell, referred to that.
Fourthly, as my noble friend Lord Lucas mentioned, communications between Ministers and their civil servants have been inadequate. The National Audit Office report of last November found that in no less than 21 per cent of cases of mission-critical, high-risk IT programmes, the Minister responsible had no discussion at all of the project’s progress with the hard-working senior civil servant in charge. Only half had discussions at least once a quarter with the civil servant in question. My noble friend Lady Byford spoke of the vital need for ministerial responsibility.
Fifthly and vitally, there has been a lack of negotiating skills and of project management and IT skills embedded in departments. Several noble Lords referred to this. Evidence to the PAC indicated that there was little or no in-house experience and more than 70 per cent of heads of centres of excellence expressed concern about a lack of skills and of a proven approach to project management within their departments. Programmes that rely on detailed specification and contracts—my noble friend Lord Lucas referred—negotiated by people without sufficient experience of the application to be served or of delivering a major change programme, are usually doomed before they start.
A credible way forward, as the noble Lord, Lord Mitchell, rightly said, is for central government to break major programmes into a series of manageable projects within an overall design architecture. That, at last, seems to be what the Government are finally trying to move to within their Transformational Government agenda, to which the noble Lord, Lord Maclennan, referred. But the legacy of big-system thinking on the part of politicians, suppliers and, indeed, those consultants of whom the noble Lord, Lord Mitchell, spoke forcefully, has yet to be overcome. The risk is that Ministers will become impatient for results and will again start to think over-ambitiously. The noble Lord, Lord Birt, referred to that. That way, I suggest, lies disaster.
In concluding, I select the following few questions from all those that I might have asked the Minister. Will the Government undertake to introduce more openness, something for which several noble Lords called, including publishing the gateway reviews? Central government spent £2.6 billion on IT in 2004. What is an up-to-date figure for such spending? Since 1997, the DWP and its predecessors have spent £289 million on IT projects that have subsequently been cancelled. What is the equivalent figure for the whole of central government? Given the comments of Microsoft’s national technology officer that ID cards, as proposed, would lead to massive fraud, what is the Government’s plan to deal with this? When will the national firearms register come into operation? Lastly, to what extent are the Government addressing the reasons why these projects have gone badly and frequently wrong, some of which noble Lords have identified and which I have tried to summarise into five problem areas?
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, for introducing a debate which has been not only interesting but so wide-ranging that I am trying to think of an area of government policy that has not been covered. The ones that have been referred to have attracted extremely detailed questions. I hope that the House will forgive me if I am not able to answer each of them in great depth. Where I fail, I will of course write subsequent to the debate.
I want to concentrate on the broad principles of this issue. The noble Lord, Lord Lucas, made some very interesting and challenging points, which were followed up in the debate, and I shall seek to reply to those in a moment. Possibly the most interesting thing that he said was that he was not addressing this debate to the Government, on whom he has long since given up, but to some future—I know not when—Conservative Government. If he was looking to his Front Bench to provide a constructive stance on IT, he must surely feel that the noble Lord, Lord De Mauley, has singularly failed him.
The noble Lord, Lord De Mauley, accurately identified some challenging IT issues, and I am the first to recognise that we have areas of difficulty as well as areas of conspicuous success. The House will not be surprised if, in the short time available to me, I comment on some of those areas of success, if only to right the balance of the debate as a whole. However, I do not think that the noble Lord identified an alternative strategy to that of the Government to improve the situation.
We do not think of projects as IT projects. We see the extensive use of systems and technology as being of huge advantage to government, but the technology is merely an enabling contribution. It enables the delivery of some policy change, which invariably means changing the way that we run our departments or interact with citizens. Of course, change is difficult and it gives rise to criticism when not everyone is in sympathy with certain projects that are pursued.
However, I want to emphasise that the complexity of change is now on an unparalleled scale. It is suggested that the Government should be less ambitious, but how, without being ambitious, can the Government serve the public in a modern age with their ever-increasing demands for information and for government to interact with them on a prompt and proper basis? That is why we have introduced a range of systems which bring significant advantages to our nation.
By the same token, such schemes will not produce value overnight. I was not at all surprised, and nor will the House be, that, despite criticism of National Health Service projects, my noble friend Lord Warner immediately identified how the NHS Connecting for Health project has considerably improved the service that we offer the community. He was well aware that, if no one else did, the noble Earl, Lord Howe, would draw attention to some of the problems. We are still in the early days of the project and, as the noble Earl, Lord Howe, noted, it will take years before such a development meets his demands in full. However, unless we lay the ground at this stage and unless we are indeed ambitious with regard to IT, we will not get the delivery that is possible.
It is startling that more than 50 per cent of the NHS has gone from wet-film X-ray images to digital technology in just three years. That is saving lives and money and improving the satisfaction of dedicated health professionals. In many parts of the country, patients no longer need to visit their GPs to collect repeat prescriptions. They can have them sent electronically to their chosen pharmacy, and already 10 per cent of new prescriptions are delivered in this way. Of course, 10 per cent is not 100 per cent, so it can be looked on as a 90 per cent failure. That is merely a reflection of the obvious fact that it takes time for all the local inputs, such as the GP and pharmacist, to be brought into the system. My noble friend Lord Warner largely spoke on the health service and covered areas that I would otherwise have needed to cover. It represents a conspicuous advance, greatly valued by the public, and an indication of how we need to be ambitious. But we also recognise that we will always be open to the charge that, in the short term, we are falling short of the ultimate goal established for such programmes. For instance, citizens can now obtain their passport in four hours for urgent over-the-counter applications, and 99 per cent of passport applications are completed within 10 days. There is not a single Member of this House who cannot recall a time when we have renewed our passports in rather more arduous circumstances. It is another product of IT services and change which brings real advantages to our communities.
The Government produced the Transformational Government strategy in November 2005 and set out—contrary to what has been contended on the Opposition Benches—a clear strategy on how we intend to continue the transformation of public services underpinned by the effective use of technology. It is rightly structured on the key areas we have heard about today; namely, the citizen, shared services, using what we know works and continuing to develop and be supported by IT professionals.
I accept the point that my noble friend Lord Mitchell made in his extremely perceptive contribution, which was also emphasised by the noble Lord, Lord Birt, and the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, who introduced the concept at the beginning of the debate. There is a necessary skills gap which needs closing. The Civil Service was not equipped to deal with the programmes we are introducing, and there is a necessity for enhanced skilling. Several contributors to the debate suggested that the problem was the transition of civil servants who could not see projects through because they were not in post long enough. The aim—and, increasingly, the practice—is now that senior civil servants concerned with these projects are in post for at least four years. It may again be that that is suggested as a limited time against the bedding down of such projects, but I emphasise that the Government are fully cognisant of the necessity for the right skills and experience, that they are built over time and that people must stay in post to see projects through and be answerable.
The noble Baroness, Lady Byford, is right when she says that Ministers are responsible. Of course they are responsible, both for the development of policy and its implementation. She will know that when things go seriously wrong, Ministers must quite properly answer for that. However, within this framework, there are bound to be difficulties as the Government struggle—as do private corporations and companies—with the demands of implementing new technology against a background of a limited level of available skills within the community. They are much in demand. That means that, as time goes on, we get greater security of the efficiency of government provision because we have the right number of people within the departments to ensure that it takes place.
Within that framework, I recognise that there have been problems in the past. Particular problems have been identified with procurement issues, a point emphasised by my noble friend Lord Mitchell. We accept that on some contracts it would be unwise and unsafe to position a small group to take the lead on a large government project. That is why when we call in support we need to call it in from organisations that have large resources because such projects can be beyond the capacity of a small organisation to deliver. A balance has to be struck on contracts. We wish to drive value for money, quality and delivery but government and government services serve the people and the important thing is that people can relate effectively to the service being provided.
I was challenged particularly strongly by almost every speaker about the advantages of greater openness in the process of implementing technology. I recognise that we will be successful with the citizen only when the citizen is aware of what services are being provided, knows how best to make use of them, and is helped to do so.
In one area, I shall disappoint nearly everyone who spoke in the debate. The noble Lord, Lord Lucas, addressed a question directly to me and I shall answer it as best I can. He said that there would be great advantage if there were greater transparency through the publication of gateway reviews. The gateway process has helped to achieve more than £2.5 billion in value-for-money savings. In the Government’s view, disclosure would seriously undermine the effectiveness of the gateway process, as confidentiality is essential to the whole process. The process is a crucial management tool to improve the success of the Government’s projects and programmes. In our view, it is just not in the public interest to put that effectiveness at risk by disclosing the information in the two reports in this case. I recognise that that will disappoint the House. The noble Lord, Lord Maclennan, is always assertive about the necessity for open government. He also raised the issue and I know he will be disappointed by the response. However, a balance has to be struck between the undoubted merits of openness about the Government’s actions and areas such as this where very delicate confidentiality issues are involved.
We undoubtedly have to recognise weaknesses in IT implementation and provision, and the noble Baroness, Lady Byford, mentioned the Rural Payments Agency. As she will know, that weakness has been fully recognised by those speaking from this Dispatch Box. However, the public sector performs some of the most demanding tasks in the world. Europe and the UK can learn much from the private sector about how to respond quickly to consumers’ needs. We are all aware that the very best private organisations can pride themselves on how quickly and effectively they respond to consumers’ needs. Government is, however, a good deal more complex than much of the private provision. We have seen that in today’s debate—which has focused on education, the Home Office, police, agriculture and, particularly intensively, the National Health Service. Scarcely any area of government has not been covered. That is a greater range of issues than the private sector has to address. Therefore, there will of course be illustrations of weaknesses. However, IT introduction is not an untrammelled success story in other organisations either.
We ought to recognise that we are still at the beginning of what the Government regard as their transformational strategy. We recognise that we have a great deal more to do—more on using ICT to improve public services, more on improving the value we create for the investment that we make and more on improving the success rate of our business change programmes.
The IT profession within the public sector now comprises an estimated 50,000 dedicated individuals. Every day, their dedication and hard work supports those who keep the traffic flowing, ensure that benefits are being paid, save lives, educate our children and prevent crime. These services are vital for our people and delivery is of the greatest importance to the citizen. These services are the product of extremely complex processes for the development of public policy and IT will continue to play a crucial role in providing that support. But it would be inconceivable that we could introduce projects of such significance, with the success rate that we have achieved in so many areas, without noble Lords being able to identify areas, as they have today, where we have fallen short of expectations and difficulties have occurred.
In most cases, those occur at the origins of a successful IT introduction. The message that things will inevitably get better and improve tomorrow is not necessarily or automatically welcome, because the evidence shows some difficulties. But in processes of this kind, it is in the very nature of things that the early days will be attended with acute problems. The Government are committed to a strategy and already have successes to their name. We are prepared to provide the resources and manpower to guarantee that we reap the rewards of the investment. I give way to the noble Baroness.
My Lords, I tried to intervene a minute ago but was slightly frowned upon. The Minister indicated that problems happen also in the private sector. But it is no use apologising when we know that the mistakes made with the RPA in 2005 will not be rectified until 2008. Surely that is unacceptable.
My Lords, we are hoping to reach a very high correction rate of such situations this year. But the noble Baroness is right: absolute achievement with regard to such a significant failure cannot be done overnight. Is that surprising? We are addressing a very large number of difficult issues concerning the RPA. As the House will recognise, it produced an unparalleled response by Ministers— not happily matched in any other government department—who recognised an acute and substantial mistake. We should not look on that as illustrative of the future. We should look on it as a case in which the Government learnt a lesson from the mistakes. I have indicated areas of conspicuous success which point to successful implementation of IT in government. That is what I think this debate sought to identify.
My Lords, I was confident that I would learn a great deal from this debate and I was right. I was equally confident that the Government would learn nothing, and I was right. I remain confident that my honourable and right honourable friends will learn a great deal from it, and I trust that my noble friend on the Front Bench will make sure that I am right on that too.
I do not want to part on a sour note with the Minister. I can offer him some good news. He will have been wondering which Liberal Democrat Peer has been offered his job. I can assure him, and I have it on the best authority, that it was not the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley. So he can cross her off the list. I beg leave to withdraw the Motion for Papers.
Motion for Papers, by leave, withdrawn.
Forced Marriage (Civil Protection) Bill [HL]
Read a third time, and passed, and sent to the Commons.
Regulatory Reform (Collaboration etc. between Ombudsmen) Order 2007
rose to move, That the draft order laid before the House on 18 December 2006 be approved.
The noble Lord said: My Lords, the Government believe that the public sector ombudsmen—the Parliamentary Ombudsman, the Health Service Ombudsman and the Local Government Ombudsman—play an important role in contributing to the development and improvement of public services. The Government recognise that in order to investigate complaints as effectively and efficiently as possible, the ombudsmen would benefit from the removal of certain restrictions on their existing powers and working practices to enable them to provide a more efficient and streamlined service to the citizen.
Therefore, the Government have worked closely with the ombudsmen to develop the proposed reforms set out in the draft order. The order would amend provisions in the Parliamentary Commissioner Act 1967, the Local Government Act 1974 and the Health Service Commissioners Act 1993 to enable the ombudsmen to work together more effectively and efficiently.
Principally, the proposed reforms will enable the three ombudsmen to work collaboratively, including consulting each other, sharing information and working together on cases and issues that are relevant to more than one of their individual jurisdictions. The reforms would also enable them to appoint and pay a mediator or other appropriate person to assist them with any complaint that they are investigating.
The Cabinet Office consulted widely on the proposals, including the bodies within the ombudsmen’s jurisdictions and key stakeholders and interest groups. There was broad support for the proposed reforms from the people we consulted.
I will briefly run through the detail of the order. Articles 2, 4 and 6 would add new sections to all three Acts to enable the ombudsmen to conduct joint investigations with one another where a complaint relates to more than one of their individual jurisdictions, and enable them to make joint reports. Articles 3, 5, and 7 would amend all three Acts to enable the ombudsmen to delegate their functions to each other’s staff, if required, to support work on joint investigations.
Articles 8, 10 and 11 would amend all three Acts to enable the ombudsmen to share information with each other in appropriate cases outside the course of their own investigation. Articles 12, 13 and 14 would amend all three Acts to enable the ombudsmen to appoint and pay a mediator or other appropriate person to assist them in relation to any complaint that they are investigating. That would apply to all investigations, not just those undertaken jointly.
Article 15 would amend the 1974 Act to enable the Local Government Ombudsman to investigate a complaint that had not previously been notified to the authority concerned. That provision would be used only in the very small number of cases where the Local Government Ombudsman is convinced that no benefit would be achieved in requiring that the case be considered first by the relevant authority.
Finally, Article 9 would make a technical amendment to the 1974 Act in respect of the law of defamation.
I thank noble Lords who are members of the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee for their work in scrutinising the draft order. The committee considers that the order meets the requirements of the Regulatory Reform Act 2001 and recommends that it is appropriate for it to be made under that Act.
Implementation of the proposed reforms would result in a more modern and accessible service for complainants. The reforms would create more streamlined and efficient complaints-handling processes for the public, for bodies within the ombudsmen’s jurisdictions and for the ombudsmen’s staff. The reforms are also an important element of the Government’s wider public service reform programme, which aims to ensure that public services are able to respond to the challenges and demands of today’s society by redesigning and refocusing services around the requirements of their users. I beg to move.
Moved, That the draft order laid before the House on 18 December 2006 be approved. 10th Report from the Regulatory Reform Committee.—(Lord Davies of Oldham.)
My Lords, as the Minister may know, I have a particular interest in the subject matter of the order because I have introduced several Private Members' Bills, each designed to secure a direct right of public access to the Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration, as is the case with all other parliamentary ombudsmen in all other jurisdictions, Commonwealth or European. On each occasion, I have been told to wait until there are wider reforms. This is a very sensible order that no sane person would oppose, because it is a very good idea to enable the Parliamentary Ombudsman, the Local Government Ombudsman and the Health Service Ombudsman to work together collaboratively.
The very helpful Cabinet Office note accompanying the order refers to the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee of the other place. In paragraph 9, we are helpfully told:
“As permitted by its Standing Orders … the House of Commons Committee also commented in its report on a further matter that arose in their consideration of the proposal. As part of its detailed scrutiny, the Committee noted that the retention of the ‘MP filter’ system, whereby complaints could only be referred to the Parliamentary Ombudsman via a Member of Parliament, was criticised by a number of respondents to the consultation. The Committee approached the Cabinet Office during the initial scrutiny phase about removal of the ‘MP filter’, and records in its report that it was content with the Department’s assessment that a Regulatory Reform Order would not be an appropriate vehicle for making such changes, and that these changes could only be made by primary legislation”.
In the light of that, I have two questions for the Minister, and would be grateful for some information. First, I take it from the above that the House of Commons committee approached the Cabinet Office because it wanted to see some form of the present system in operation—there are ways of doing this—to ensure that the public had a more direct form of public access. The problem was that, even though that was its view, it was persuaded, for reasons that I understand, that this could be dealt with only through primary legislation. Is that the position, and is that why it approached the Cabinet Office? If so, I greatly welcome that.
Secondly, this anomaly has lasted since 1967, and successive Parliamentary Ombudsmen have drawn attention to it again and again as they have sought to be freed from this unnecessary restraint on access to them. This has resulted in far fewer matters of maladministration going to our Parliamentary Ombudsman than to any other, even in Ireland, which has a small population. Is there any hope at all that this reforming Government will make time for primary legislation so that this anomaly can be dealt with? I ask because, otherwise, I may be left in the unfortunate position of boring the House yet again with yet another Private Member’s Bill. I would rather derive some comfort from the Minister.
My Lords, I have supported my noble friend Lord Lester of Herne Hill on other occasions in his quest. He has expressed his case today with his usual clarity and force. I have another question today, which is asked more for information than for anything else. The existing arrangements under the respective Acts allow the appointment of a mediator to assist in finding a resolution to a complaint. So far as I understand it, the provisions of the order, which I regard as immensely sensible, give the ombudsman the power to pay the fees for such a person. I am anxious to learn—if the Minister is not briefed to reply on this point, I will be happy to hear from him subsequently—whether the mediator’s power, which may deal with the immediate issue of complaint, is terminal of the requirement on the ombudsman to report. There is often wider public interest in an investigation conducted by an ombudsman than in the complaint alone. It is therefore of interest to know what the consequences are. If the mediator is simply appointed to resolve a dispute, could he or she draw a line under the issue without full disclosure of his or her attitude to the circumstances that have given rise to the complaint? That would be unfortunate, but the different ombudsmen may already be considering it and the view may be taken that this is entirely a matter for their discretion.
My Lords, I shall respond to the questions of the noble Lord, Lord Lester. The answer to his first question is yes, we did take that approach. The Government have been clear from the outset that the order is not a suitable vehicle for the removal of the MP filter. I know that we are 30 years on, but the noble Lord will recognise that the original Act that introduced the ombudsman was the subject of pretty vigorous parliamentary debate. Much persuasion had to occur before MPs supported it; they did so against a background of anxiety that there was another point of reference, apart from the elected Member, for the redress of a grievance. Democratic theory and widespread historical practice made the crucial question of the responsibility of the Member and the redress of grievance through Parliament fundamental to their role, and it always will remain so. An issue of principle always was at stake. He will recognise that a substantial body of opinion in another place still has anxieties on this score. The noble Lord has made conspicuous efforts to shift parliamentary opinion on this matter, and we applaud him for that. The fact that I am able to answer yes to his first question indicates a shift in perspective. He will recognise that this involves such a fundamental shift in concept that primary legislation is required; this is a rather ineffectual instrument to carry out such a reform.
If the noble Lord introduced another of his Bills, he would, far from boring us, delight and entertain us. Perhaps we can look forward to this issue being considered in the other place—that is crucial to its success—more constructively than has been the case previously. He will also know, so far as the Government are concerned, how precious legislative time is. I cannot give him a programme.
I do not think that the noble Lord was fair when he referred to an anomaly. More accurately, this involves a restriction—he also used that term. One might call it an anomaly if one maintains that the change in thought is now so widespread that the 1975 Act is completely out of date. There is still a balance of argument on that front. He will be aware that it will be generated in the other place. He should not presume the position so strongly as to define it as an anomaly. I am not sure that he advances his case by reducing its significance—“belittling it” is not the right phrase—in that way.
My Lords, first, I must correct one matter. The Minister’s arithmetic is as bad as mine—it is 40, not 30, years since 1967.
Secondly, I referred to an anomaly because the order seeks to bring together three ombudsmen and to harmonise their work, but only one of them will be fettered in terms of rights of access. It is also an anomaly in the sense that no other country in the world imposes such a provision. However, I am extremely grateful to the Minister. It is extremely good news for the citizen if, in the other place, it is realised that this must in some sense change.
Finally, I remind the Minister that I am not pressing for an absolute, unfettered right of access. In one of my Bills I suggested that one could, say, go to the Member of Parliament first and if, after six weeks, the issue did not reach the ombudsman, one should go direct; there are other ways of doing it. I hope that this will be taken very seriously. I commend the fact that the other place is a catalyst for change and I hope that the Government will listen to it.
My Lords, I very much agree with that last statement. I apologise for my earlier mistake, although it was not my arithmetic that was at fault. I was a historian and my history was at fault. I had forgotten the date, which is a different matter entirely.
The noble Lord, Lord Maclennan, will recognise that in general terms there is a real problem about the explicitness with which one reflects on a mediator’s role, for obvious reasons. Parties may be required to shift their position for agreement to be reached. That is better done within a framework of some confidentiality, rather than in a situation in which all cases are open and all parties are likely to see the decisions, and how they are arrived at, quite explicitly. But I do not have a categorical answer to his question, so I will have to write to him.
On Question, Motion agreed to.
House adjourned at 5.16 pm.