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22 Nov 2006 : Column 580

It is with deep regret that I say that while the United States supports the neocons who still surround President Bush even after his electoral setback, the Israelis will be impervious to international opinion. It is no use appealing to the good will of Ehud Olmert, because he does not have any. It is no use appealing to the good will of Amir Peretz or Shimon Peres, because they have sunk the noble identity of the Israeli Labour party into the alliance with Olmert and others. Now we have the Yisrael Betenu party—a racist party that wants to ship off Palestinians—sitting around the same Cabinet table as Labour leaders in Israel. That is absolutely obscene.

On many occasions, I have advocated economic sanctions against Israel. I still believe that if the Israelis will not listen to reason and act with reason, economic sanctions are the only way.

2.21 pm

Mr. James Arbuthnot (North-East Hampshire) (Con): The Gracious Speech did not mention the armed forces or defence as such at all. It did say:

This would be an appropriate place to put in a warm tribute to our armed forces, who put their lives on the line on a daily basis to give effect and meaning to that support.

In the Session ahead, defence will be an absolutely key issue. The Defence Committee will play its part in holding the Government to account and ensuring that their policy is subjected to public scrutiny, that the concerns of the armed forces are heard, and that the House is well informed. At the moment, UK troops serve all around the world, in Afghanistan, Iraq and the Balkans and in a number of other countries, but in the first quarter of this financial year 20 per cent. of our regular forces were deployed, and nearly 26 per cent. of the Army, an unheard-of proportion.

The armed forces are clearly under great pressure. The Secretary of State for Defence has said that they are stretched but not overstretched. Perhaps it is unfair to accuse the Ministry of Defence of refusing to define what “overstretched” means, because it will never accept that our armed forces are overstretched. Any normal definition of the word would mean that the armed forces cannot do what they are being asked to do. Because of the “can do” attitude of our armed forces, they will always do their utmost to do what they are asked. Nevertheless, there are worrying breaches of the harmony guidelines. Some 15 per cent. of the Army had exceeded harmony guidelines at the end of the last financial year. However, some people might suggest that the harmony guidelines are meaningless, because they come into play only when people have been out of their own beds for 10 days.

It is essential that the Government revisit the defence planning assumptions. We have been operating way above those assumptions for years. Everything is suffering, especially training, which is the very root of the high quality of our armed forces. The Defence Committee will address some of those concerns in our forthcoming report on the MOD’s annual report and accounts.

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On equipment, the Defence Committee has highlighted some concerns about equipment shortages, especially helicopters and adequately armoured vehicles, which have been mentioned in the debate already.

Mr. Adam Holloway (Gravesham) (Con): The Defence Committee has discussed the shortages of helicopters. I do not know whether my right hon. Friend is aware that several private companies have made offers to the MOD to provide logistical support, thereby freeing up military helicopters, especially in Afghanistan. Ministers have told us that there would be a problem with liability and insurance, but I understand from at least one of those companies that insurance is available on the open market and the liability questions no longer arise. We may therefore be missing an opportunity to take some pressure off military helicopters.

Mr. Arbuthnot: Indeed. My hon. Friend, who makes a valuable contribution to the Defence Committee, has made those points in the Committee and I know that he will continue to do so.

The House expects and requires that our troops on operations should be equipped to the standard that they deserve and the public expect. The Prime Minister’s undertaking that troops will get the equipment that they need is very welcome, but what exactly did he mean? Where will we find the equipment? Will it be at the expense of the MOD’s other programmes? We are yet to see any concrete results or any clear sign that the MOD is seizing the opportunity that the Prime Minister offers. Perish the thought that it was just spin. We have to ensure that it was not and that he gives effect, as he promised again in Prime Minister’s questions today that he would, to that promise.

The way in which the MOD approaches the acquisition and maintenance of equipment is being radically restructured. The Defence Procurement Agency and the Defence Logistics Organisation will merge in April next year. The DPA spends some £6 billion a year and the DLO some £9 billion. The new organisation will spend some 40 per cent. of the MOD’s budget. I hope that the change will improve the MOD’s through-life management of equipment programmes, but the Defence Committee will consider the implications of the merger in our report on defence procurement, which we hope to publish next month.

The defence industrial strategy, which was published about this time last year, was widely welcomed and we will take evidence from the Minister with responsibility for defence procurement in December. However, perhaps the most important defence decision to be made this Session was not mentioned in the Gracious Speech and that is the issue of the strategic nuclear deterrent. It is surprising that it was not mentioned, although it perhaps will not require legislation. We look forward to the White Paper, which the Minister said yesterday, in evidence to the Defence Committee, would be published before Christmas and would indicate the Government’s preferred option. We have been promised a debate on the issue and it would be
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helpful to know from the Secretary of State for Defence when that is likely to happen. I hope that he will also confirm that the debate will be followed by a vote, which could affect the decision one way or another. The Defence Committee has been engaged in a series of inquiries on the future of the deterrent and we hope to publish a report on the manufacturing and skills base before Christmas.

My right hon. Friend the shadow Foreign Secretary rightly suggested that it was time to review how the UK and our allies approach our collective defence. The Defence Committee is planning an inquiry into the whole future of NATO and European defence in the new year, because it is a crucial issue for the whole of our defence strategy.

My final point—I am conscious that many other hon. Members wish to speak—is about money. This Session will see the outcome of the spending review of 2007. Currently, there is a public focus on the importance of the armed forces. For the first time in many years, I have the sense that a growing number of people in this country believe that we should be spending more on defence. I hope that the Ministry of Defence will feel empowered to argue for a strong outcome in the defence budget, and a reversal of its long-term decline. I hope, too, that the Chancellor of the Exchequer will feel obliged—or even happy—to give it.

2.30 pm

Mr. Tom Clarke (Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill) (Lab): I should like to talk about the Government’s policy on international development. The Queen’s Speech made several references to that important subject, and I welcome what was said about governance, which I assume includes Zimbabwe. I also welcome what was said about Darfur, which was rightly the subject of exchanges at Prime Minister’s questions. It was mentioned by my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary and on several other occasions in this debate. I am also concerned about trade, and I am glad that my right hon. Friend gave us her thoughts on the current situation as she sees it.

This debate is the first on these topics since my International Development (Reporting and Transparency) Act 2006 received Royal Assent the day before we broke up for our summer break. It therefore represents an opportunity to thank the Government and the House for accepting the legislation that I promoted, but I want especially to thank my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Development for the steps he has taken since to ensure its implementation. In a letter to me, he wrote:

He considered that my Act would help the Government in reporting to the House and in introducing the sort of transparency that he believes is important. If time allows, I hope to say more about transparency later in my speech. I therefore congratulate the Department for International Development on its intention to set out the information required under the Act in an annual report to both Houses, and in a statistical report every October or November.

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More widely, I welcome the support shown by non-governmental organisations for the Government’s focus on both the quantity and quality of aid. They accept that we have a responsibility to justify how well resources are being used. NGOs accept, as we do, that Government policy in the modern world is about poverty reduction, including good governance, and that it unashamedly challenges corruption. The White Paper on governance contained 180 action points, with which this country aims to tackle the factors keeping people in poverty.

After all the events of last year—the Gleneagles summit, the Make Poverty History campaign, the great march in Edinburgh and the Live 8 concerts—we welcome the Government’s focus. It is clear that their policies are based on an undertaking to ensure that international development work is competent and honest, both here and in developing countries.

I also welcome the references in the Queen’s Speech to climate change, which the Catholic Agency for Overseas Development has said is the most serious long-term threat to development. The Chancellor’s international finance facility for immunisation is also welcome. It is an extremely positive project, but what is most appealing is that, when it was launched, virtually all the faith group leaders were represented here in London. They wanted to associate themselves with a project that addresses the fact that so many children in 70 countries are dying of preventable diseases. Those deaths can be prevented if children receive the immunisation to which the project is committed.

I welcome the fact that the Government have said that they will commit £1.38 billion to the project over the next 20 years. Even if this Government do not remain in power for that long, I am sure that the commitment will be honoured. That will help our appeals to communities and Churches to buy bonds so that we can implement a policy that will mean that 500 million children will be vaccinated by 2015.

The White Paper on development talks about the Government’s intention to double spending on development education. All hon. Members know from their visits to schools how important that is. For example, in Rosehall high school in Coatbridge in my constituency, I recently heard an excellent debate on these matters, and I saw evidence that the leadership of Mr. Stephen Purdie and Mr. Charles Fawcett had forged a link between Scotland and Malawi. The result was that a village there gained access to clean water that it did not previously have.

Today, the House must call for international co-operation to achieve the millennium development goals. I am acutely aware that Germany, which holds the EU presidency, has a role to play. Recently, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Development assured me, in the House, that the German Government believe that Africa remains very much at the top of the aid agenda. That is very appropriate, given the influence even today of the Brandt report. It was compiled by the former German Chancellor and remains highly relevant to the issues associated with international development and the challenge to global poverty.

I also want to offer my congratulations to DFID on its recent contribution of £90 million towards the implementation of the Tanzanian Government’s national
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strategy for economic growth and poverty reduction. Tanzania deserves praise for its recent progress towards achieving the millennium development goals in primary education and infant mortality. If the EU is to play a greater role, we must continue to strive towards the harmonisation agenda agreed at Paris two years ago. That means encouraging greater Europe-wide multilateral aid. I therefore fully endorse the proposal made by Simon Maxwell of the Overseas Development Institute earlier this year for a new European millennium development goal fund. Initially, it would aim to secure voluntary annual contributions of €5 million, with the objective of increasing the focus on the world’s poorest people by means of setting agreed milestones for the fund. The milestones would be clearly visible to the contributing states and would thus increase accountability to European taxpayers and developing countries.

I welcome the Government’s commitment to setting up a £100 million governance and transparency fund to strengthen civil society and the media so that citizens can hold their Governments to account. Again, I hope that laying out the information required by my Act will serve to set an example and ensure that transparency is accepted as a two-way process.

Finally, I want to touch on a major issue that been raised several times today—conflict prevention. The DFID paper is right to address that matter, and it is absolutely right that the Queen’s Speech should have been so specific on Darfur. I hope that the Government will outline the progress that has been made by the UN Peacebuilding Commission that was recently launched in New York. Those issues are important. The challenge of globalisation is one that hon. Members on both sides of the House want to address. We want to eradicate world poverty, and in doing that we will have the support of the British people. The more information we give, the more transparency we introduce; and the greater the accountability, the more the British people will tell Members on both sides of the House that, on those issues, we are on the right lines.

2.40 pm

Mr. Michael Ancram (Devizes) (Con): I will be blunt: we have spent the past decade umbilically linked to the foreign policy of two American Presidents, and it is time that we had our own British foreign policy once again. In the past five years, the world has changed significantly, particularly in one regard: although the United States is still immensely powerful, her aura of invincibility died in the sands of Iraq and the mountains of Afghanistan. There are now other powers and other challenges, and other forces, such as China, India and Russia, are emerging. That makes redundant the simplistic Bush-Blair analysis of the world, with its view of good versus bad, and democracy against the axis of evil. As a result, the age of hard power is making way for the soft power of dialogue and diplomacy, and our foreign and military strategies need to reflect that.

We, along with the United States, are playing the wrong game by the wrong rules at the wrong time, and we need to cut the umbilical link between our Prime Minister and the United States President. That means that we should come home from Iraq. In Afghanistan, we should pull out of Helmand and concentrate once
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again on the central area around Kabul. As part of reviving the middle east process, we should start to talk not just to Syria, but to Hamas and Hezbollah.

Talk of staying in Iraq

has become meaningless. We are told that that would prevent chaos, but what, if not chaos, stalks the streets of Iraq today? According to the Iraqi Government, 150,000 Iraqis have been killed since 2003, and according to the United Nations, 3,700 people were killed in October alone this year. We are told that staying in Iraq would mean winning Iraqi hearts and minds, yet neighbourhoods are now too hostile for us to enter. The Prime Minister defines “the job” as defeating terrorism, yet there was no terrorism in Iraq until we went there, and it is there now because the absence of the promised comprehensive reconstruction plan created a vacuum into which the terrorists surged. What the Government really mean by when “the job is done” is when the United States President decides, for whatever reason, to bring American troops home, but it is wrong for the safety of British troops to be held hostage to that. I value immensely our partnership with America, but we must never confuse partnership with unquestioning compliance.

We have been in Iraq for three and a half difficult years, and during that time we have achieved much of which we can be proud, but we are becoming part of the problem. Our brave troops in Iraq have done everything that we have asked of them and more. It is time, with honour and dignity, to bring them home. The best hope for a stable Iraq is a focus that is not quasi-colonial—that is the situation now—but regional. James Baker is right: Iranian and Syrian involvement may not achieve our original aim, but it has a better chance of bringing order and cohesion than anything that we can hope to do.

The situation in Afghanistan is hard, too. In military terms, it is, in the long term, unwinnable, so we have to change our approach. Unlike with Iraq, we cannot simply come home, as to do so would reopen the door to the Taliban and al-Qaeda and their international terrorism. However, we should not be in Helmand. As the House knows, we went there on a false prospectus. The best chance of stabilising Afghanistan is from the centre. If we look at history, we see that pacification from the outside has never worked. We need to rebuild confidence in Kabul and in the central area. We must effectively undermine the warlords and drug barons who hold the Afghan farmers in hock—that is the hold that they have over the farmers; the issue is not just the poppy. We must offer the people of Afghanistan better incomes and better lives, and we must abandon the conceit that Afghanistan is a task for the west alone. India, China and the “stans” all have a direct interest in a balanced, non-fundamentalist Afghanistan, and we should seek to involve them.

There is the tragedy of Israel and the Palestinians to consider, too. I fully understand Israel’s need for, and right to, security, but it will never be achieved by blowing up, rather than building, bridges, or by building, rather than pulling down, walls. Walls may protect in the short term, but in the longer term they
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divide and inflame. Our recent history should have taught us that, if nothing else. The abiding goal must be a secure Israel and an autonomous Palestine, living peacefully alongside each other. We, as friends of both, can help to build confidence between them and their neighbours, not least in Lebanon. Last summer’s war, and the destruction and human suffering that accompanied it, has made that much more difficult, and the situation has become much tenser.

The tragic assassination of Pierre Gemayel inevitably made that tension much worse, as it clearly was intended to do. There are those who simply do not want a peaceful middle east, but for all our sakes they must not be allowed to succeed. We should listen to the brave words of Mr. Gemayel’s father, who last night called for peace and prayer in place of violence. There is a new urgency to rebuild trust. I long for the people of Israel to achieve the peace and stability that their history owes them but has never delivered. I long, too, for the Palestinians to achieve a recognition of their rights, which has too often been denied to them; the two are not mutually exclusive.

A new opening narrative is needed, one in which the real concerns, grievances and aspirations of people on all sides are acknowledged and, if not agreed, at least respected. That narrative would become the backdrop against which positive dialogue can begin. The old road map is dead, and its timelines are part of history. In any event, its lack of flexibility was obstructive. A new process must be initiated, and a genuine ceasefire, fully observed by all sides, is a necessary precursor. That itself should be preceded by the freeing of those on all sides who are improperly detained. The new process should include all those who must play a part in securing a two-state solution in a stable middle east. Prospects of renewed engagement with Syria are therefore welcome, but “inclusion” must mean Hamas and Hezbollah, too.

For better or worse, Hamas is the democratically elected majority party in the Palestinian Authority, and Hezbollah is a significant part of the democratic structure of Lebanon. There can be no viable Palestinian state without the participation of Hamas, and there can be no secure Israel without an enduring peace agreement with Lebanon, including Hezbollah. Clearly, Israel cannot, at this time, engage with those who use terror to threaten her people, her security, and indeed her very existence, but others can and should do so.

Iraq, Afghanistan and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict have a common theme, which the Foreign Secretary touched on in her speech. In each case, military action may contain terrorism, but it will not, in the long run, defeat it. Fighting must give way to talking, and our country has a role to play in that. That is why we once again need a British foreign policy.

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