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22 Nov 2006 : Column 642

He went on:

However, we cannot seek closer friendship for our own benefit without recognising the concerns of our potential allies. An obvious example is the frustration expressed by many countries about the United Nations. We must listen to those concerns and, where possible, make the necessary changes. It is in our interests to start taking that approach now, because when such countries reach their full potential, both economically and politically, it is to be hoped that they will remember who their friends were before they became major players, and so include us in their sphere of consideration. We must seize the moment and stay ahead, or risk losing power and influence as the world rapidly changes around us.

Building stronger links with those countries has other advantages, such as co-operation in trying to secure a safer world. Many of those nations have valuable links with countries that are not on such friendly terms with the west as we would like. India, for example, has close relationships with Iran; indeed, during the period of Clive of India, Persian was one of the main languages in that country. Those strong links continue to this day, and that close relationship could be useful, particularly given the present difficulties, and the west must not overlook it when considering dealing with Iran.

In like manner, China is expanding its sphere of influence and taking a much more active role on the world stage. China is probably the only country that can have a proper dialogue with North Korea, and it claimed credit for helping to ensure that North Korea did not repeat its recent nuclear tests by cutting off oil supplies in September and reading the Riot Act to North Korea before restarting and hosting talks.

We should welcome the pressure that China put on North Korea, but China can do more and we should encourage it to do so. China has strong economic links with Iran and should also be encouraged to use its influence in that area. I echo the sentiments expressed earlier by the hon. Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew), who is not in the Chamber at present. He pointed out that China has close links with Zimbabwe and should be persuaded to exert greater pressure on that troubled country. Indeed, the destitute state of Zimbabwe was effectively and passionately described by the hon. Member for Vauxhall (Kate Hoey) earlier.

Mr. Jeremy Browne (Taunton) (LD): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Vara: I am pressed for time so I trust that the hon. Gentleman will forgive me if I do not give way.

Building closer links with emerging nations will also ensure better prospects for Britain’s trade and economy. As the economies of those countries grow stronger, so too our trade prospects could improve, making available huge markets, with huge
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opportunities for Britain’s businesses—but we must be there now and not follow years later.

In February, George Bush made a highly publicised visit to promote the US’s “ambitious agenda with India”. Indeed, over the past five years, US exports to India have more than doubled and American businesses continue to work hard for that trend to continue. Closer to home, The Economist noted that

and cited the example of the recent bid by Tata Steel to acquire Corus. It is crucial that we position ourselves now to ensure that British businesses share the success of those emerging countries.

The huge industrial growth of emerging countries, along with their rising middle classes, will ensure that their people enjoy the benefits of owning motor vehicles, luxury goods and the like, all of which will contribute to the problem of climate change. Closer relationships will assist us in trying to persuade those countries to be more supportive in ensuring that we avoid the catastrophic problems that could result from climate change.

There will doubtless be people who say that the horse has already bolted and that it is too late, but they greatly underestimate our existing strengths. We have the obvious and natural advantage that English is the international language of business and the second language of most of the world. Britain already has business links with many parts of the world, particularly with emerging countries. Moreover, Britain is a leading member of the Commonwealth, which comprises 53 member countries, and we should develop those links even further.

Britain already exercises a fair amount of influence on the world stage, and I think we all agree that we want that influence to continue. We must act now to nurture those relationships.

6.19 pm

Mark Pritchard (The Wrekin) (Con): I am grateful for the opportunity to speak in the debate, and I would like to pay particular tribute to my right hon. Friend the Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague) who made an excellent speech giving us a global perspective. I pay tribute, too, to my right hon. and learned Friends the Members for Devizes (Mr. Ancram), for Kensington and Chelsea (Sir Malcolm Rifkind) and for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke). As a new entrant to this place, it was a privilege and a pleasure for me to listen and learn from their contributions. I commend my hon. Friends the Members for Bournemouth, East (Mr. Ellwood) and for Billericay (Mr. Baron) for their consistency and for the passion with which they communicated their views; they were articulate and to the point.

Britain is a force for good in the world, and if we are to extend that good, we need a foreign service. Tributes have been paid to our diplomats today. However, that foreign service has never been so overstretched, so I hope that Ministers will give a commitment that they will listen to concerns, which are often expressed only in private, about the overstretch of the foreign service, not just about the overstretch of our military. We have some of the best diplomats in the world, and they are respected throughout the world, but however good they
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may be, if they are not physically present that good clearly cannot be recognised and heard. They must be in post, so they need to be recruited, and the appropriate resources for such recruitment must be put in place.

I agree with the Government’s aim of trying to open up the foreign service and the civil service to a wider range of people. However, I hope that that will not lead to quota hunting or, if that happens, any diminution in the standards that have held the foreign service in repute for many generations—indeed, for hundreds of years. We need to ensure that the foreign service recruits the very best people from our universities and puts people in diplomatic posts on the basis of merit and ability, rather than by ticking boxes.

It is right that the debate has been focused on Iraq and Afghanistan, but I hope that the Government are keeping a watch on other important places in the world, such as the Philippines, which has a fragile democracy, and Indonesia, the democracy of which might be destabilised by certain factions in the country. We know that democracies throughout the Asia-Pacific region are subject to shifting public opinion and forces at work inside those countries, because we have seen that recently in Thailand. Although resources are rightly focused on Afghanistan and Iraq, I hope that we will not take our eye off other important countries in the Asia-Pacific region and Latin America.

It is not insignificant that places such as Venezuela and Bolivia have regimes that allow British assets to be seized. Those assets form the pension funds of many people inside and outside the House. It is only right that the British Government should ensure that there are the necessary foreign service resources in all those parts of the world.

The hon. Member for Edinburgh, North and Leith (Mark Lazarowicz) said that a common foreign and defence policy would assist Iraq and Afghanistan. I do not think that he has listened to what the French have said about Iraq and Afghanistan from the very outset. A common foreign and defence policy would undermine what has achieved consensus in the House today: the pursuit of a new era in which we seek collectively to have an independent British foreign policy. Yes, we should work closely with the Americans and our European partners when that is in our national interest, but there is no conflict or contradiction between having a global perspective or caring for those less fortunate than ourselves in countries near and far, and the self-interest to which my hon. Friend the Member for North Essex (Mr. Jenkin) referred. That self-interest, and Britain being a force for good in the world, can come only from a strong Britain, a Britain that is secure. If we are weak and insecure, we cannot be a force for good in the world.

I shall touch briefly on defence issues. In the context of comments that have been made about the Warrior armoured vehicle, I make no apology for mentioning the Army Base Repair Organisation in my constituency. I am grateful to those on the Government Front Bench for their courtesy in replying speedily, on the whole, to my letters on a range of topics. I am also grateful to the Secretary of State for granting a stay of execution to ABRO following the excellent report from the Defence Committee, for which I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Member for North-East
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Hampshire (Mr. Arbuthnot). The Committee rightly pointed out that the attrition of vehicles in both Iraq and Afghanistan meant that repairs were required. Many of those repairs are undertaken in my constituency, and I hope the stay of execution to 2009-10, saving 800 local jobs, will be extended and a permanent solution found for ABRO.

That leads me on to the subject of the Defence Storage and Distribution Agency, which is also in my constituency. It has a superb and committed work force and I hope that the current so-called efficiency savings—a euphemism for cuts—will be reconsidered. We need to get kit out to the front line more quickly than ever, and the frequency has increased.

Many of those who work for the Defence Logistics Organisation at Sapphire house in the neighbouring constituency of Telford live in my constituency. I am concerned that the relocation from Shropshire to Bristol will undermine the important work that Defence Logistics Organisation staff do. We rightly honour and praise, applaud and celebrate the work of those on the front line, and I pay tribute to the Royal Anglian Regiment based in Shropshire, which has been committed in Iraq recently.

We should also praise those who supply our front lines, who provide the logistics behind all operations not only in Iraq and Afghanistan, but in Bosnia, Congo, the Falkland Islands, Canada, Germany and all over the world. I hope that the 6,000 defence workers in Shropshire will have a secure future as the Government recognise that if we are to be successful in the operations to which the Government have committed our armed forces, they need the support of all those important organisations.

Much of the defence industrial strategy is right, but I hope that the Government will recognise that in a changing world the only way that we can be ahead of those who seek to undermine our nation is through technological advantage. That ranges from unmanned aerial vehicles to intelligence intercept technology. I hope that the DIS will be flexible enough to deal with the threats that we face now and in the future. The procurement process needs to be speeded up, so that the nation can remain safe.

6.29 pm

Dr. Liam Fox (Woodspring) (Con): This has been a thoughtful debate. Listening to the contributions from all parts of the House, the thought has gone through my mind more than once today that were the public to see and hear more of the sort of debate that we had today, rather than always being fed the bear pit of Prime Minister’s questions, they might have a much higher regard for the House and the politicians in it.

Let me begin by paying tribute to our troops, who have put their safety on the line for our security day in and day out. In particular, I pay tribute, on behalf of all my colleagues, to those who have paid the price in terms of mortality, morbidity and life and limb. Every citizen of this country owes them a very great debt.

As has been said in many contributions, there is no doubt that many of our forces are overstretched—a point that was made particularly well by my right hon.
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Friend the Member for North-East Hampshire (Mr. Arbuthnot). The harmony guidelines are all but disregarded, the Government are regularly breaching their own planning assumptions, and there is now a strong case to revisit them. When we listen to the contributions made here today and when we visit our troops, wherever they happen to be deployed, we realise that, intellectually, no conclusion can be arrived at other than that our Army is now too small for the tasks being asked of it.

The debate began with a long section of the Foreign Secretary’s speech, and an emphasis by my right hon. Friend the shadow Foreign Secretary, on the situation in the middle east, particularly in Israel and Palestine. At a volatile time in a volatile area, there is a need to maintain a balanced picture and a sense of proportion. Let us remember that Israel is a democratic state with an independent judiciary and a healthy market economy system. Its right to exist, to protect itself and to maintain its borders is indisputable. So is the right of the Palestinian people to determine their future. We all seem to know where we want to end up in a two-state settlement; the question is how we get there. As my hon. Friend the Member for Reigate (Mr. Blunt) said, it is very important, on the way, not to make the problems more difficult than they originally were.

There has been much talk in the debate about Hamas. However, it is worth the House understanding why Hamas came to power. It did not come to power because the citizens of Gaza were more anti-Israeli; it came to power because of the corruption of the Palestinian Authority and the fact that Hamas promised to deliver real changes on the ground in the things that mattered to ordinary people. That must be properly understood.

There has been much talk about democracy, but if democracy were simply about the exercise of electoral mechanics, Gaza and not Israel would be the beacon state in the middle east. My hon. Friend the Member for South-West Devon (Mr. Streeter) made a telling speech about the need to see democracy in a wider sense. Democracy is not just putting a cross on a ballot paper once every five years; Britain was liberal long before it was democratic. We had 200 years between Adam Smith and universal suffrage. Our liberal institutions and values, our independent judiciary, our rule of law that applied equally to the governing and the governed, our respect for human rights, our ability to exercise our individual liberty in a market system and our ownership of property all underpinned our democracy. Perhaps, now and again, we might want to remember that it took us a long time to get to where we are now, and that other countries will not make the transition overnight. The more often we can make that point politically, the easier it is for us to hold public opinion with us here, and to hold public opinion in the countries where we are involved. Extending democracy is a laudable and noble ambition, but it cannot be done quickly.

That is the message that the United Kingdom should have pressed and should continue to press more and more with our allies in Washington. There is no doubt in my mind that there was—perhaps may still be—a shred of simplicity in some of the views in parts of the State Department that the process could take place more quickly and that democracy could be exported in
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line with an unrealistic timetable. Part of our robust partnership with the United States is about our ability to question some of the policy pronouncements that it makes.

In any partnership, there will have to be give and take, and my hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth, East (Mr. Ellwood) made it clear in his comments about the joint strike fighter that if we are to have a meaningful strategic relationship in defence with the United States, it will have to give as well as take. That means that on the software issues, it will have to make sure that the intellectual property transfer comes to a trusted ally. If not, the partnership will be weaker for that.

There was much talk about the wider middle east, including north Africa and Turkey. Stability in north Africa is hugely important for security in the Mediterranean, a region of huge strategic importance to the UK. It is worth looking at the difference between NATO’s approach and the EU’s approach to the problem. The NATO-Mediterranean dialogue is producing some real results. It should be further up the NATO agenda, and I would like to see it given greater emphasis at the Riga summit, but it stands in stark contrast to a failure in the Euro-Med process, where the free trade area that was promised by 2010 as part of the 2004 treaty of Agadir will not happen. If NATO can push ahead to build relations with some of those north African states so that they can look to the Mediterranean and northwards for their prosperity and security, and not south to the Gulf, that will be of enormous benefit to the United Kingdom and our wider security.

That wider security comes into great focus when we consider the question of Turkey, which is a key NATO ally. It is a secular, westernising, liberalising country, moving in all the right directions, sometimes too slowly, but none the less moving in the direction that we would wish to see. It is an important buffer zone between Europe and some of the more militant Islamic states. We in Europe have a simple choice: either we encourage Turkey to move towards us, holding out the hope of membership of the EU, or we risk a Turkish backlash when those in Turkey believe that no matter what changes they make they will never be allowed into the EU, and instead of having a secular, modernising state on the European borders, we find ourselves with a militant Islamic state on the border of Greece. Those French and German politicians who think that playing to their domestic audiences is smart had better start to understand what the strategic consequences of alienating Turkey might be in the longer term.

Much of the debate, reasonably and expectedly, focused on Afghanistan. From the very outset, we have agreed the basic aims of the Government’s policy in Afghanistan: that to create a stable, democratic state that does not allow the nurturing of terrorism is in our wider national interest and failure would be strategically disastrous, for reasons that we have often set out in the House. The cohesion and reputation of NATO would be at stake and we would embolden our enemies—and if we abandon the people of Afghanistan halfway through, who would believe us ever again when we said that we would help? We undoubtedly have a moral commitment that must be seen right through to the end.

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