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12 Nov 2007 : Column 434
5.32 pm

Mr. Michael Ancram (Devizes) (Con): It is always a pleasure to follow the right hon. Member for Islwyn (Mr. Touhig), whose sincere support for our armed forces, and indeed our veterans, is recognised in all parts of the House.

I want to make a few brief points arising from both the Gracious Speech and today’s debate. Once again it was confirmed to us that Parliament, not the people of this country, would be asked to approve the European treaty. I cannot think of a British Government who have shown greater contempt for the people of this country. They are motivated purely by fear: knowing that the British people would reject this surrender document, they deny them the promised referendum for which they—the Government—were given a mandate at the general election. Perversely, they have absolutely no mandate, not even in a footnote in their manifesto, to use their parliamentary majority to ratify what I believe is a constitutionally subversive treaty.

In my view, the British people will never accept this gateway to the country called Europe. I was delighted to hear my right hon. Friend the Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague), the shadow Foreign Secretary, say that the Conservative party would not do so either. He suggested that nearer the time he might consult on the best way forward. May I give him a little premature advice? I believe that if by the time of the next election the treaty is already implemented and a unilateral retrospective veto cannot undo it, we must still have a referendum. However, the price of not having that referendum now is that the one we do have will need to be more fundamental. It must be not an in-and-out referendum of the sort suggested by the hon. Member for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk (Mr. Moore), the Liberal Democrat spokesman, but a referendum seeking a mandate either to renegotiate for an agreed Europe of sovereign nations—which is what we originally joined—or, if our partners refuse that, to renegotiate, quite calmly, the status of the United Kingdom within Europe.

For some months I have been unable to fathom what British national interest was being served by our troops’ remaining in Iraq, and I have to say that I am glad they are now being drawn down. I have nothing but admiration for the courage and dedication of our armed forces and for what they have achieved, but at the same time I, too, am absolutely certain that we have no right to ask them literally to risk life and limb without a clear purpose for doing so.

In 2003, the Queen's Speech spoke boldly of our “rebuilding” Iraq, but no more. We now talk about helping with “political reconciliation”. The truth is that once the same Shi’a in Basra whom we liberated from tyranny began to turn their guns on us, we became part of the problem, rather than the solution. Whatever the official explanations may be, I believe that moving to overwatch at Basra airport effectively recognises that. The fact that there has been so much less violence since that move was made illustrates that point.

I would like to see—it is not the first time that I have said this in the House—all our troops coming home now. If they do and when they do, we should give them a great homecoming of appreciation for what they have done on our behalf, but the truth is that we cannot
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solve Iraq. Nor can America. In the end, Iraq is going to have to solve Iraq, ideally with the combined help of its regional neighbours, which have a direct interest in a stable Iraq: Turkey, which cannot countenance the break-up of Iraq and the emergence of an autonomous Kurdistan; Syria, which is currently struggling economically under the burden of 1 million Iraqi refugees, with more coming across its border every day; Saudi Arabia, which is concerned at the potential threat of a Tehran-driven Shi’ite satellite; and Iran, which is anxious to avoid another Sunni-Shi’a conflict. The Baker-Hamilton report pointed the way to that and the Government should now press hard for its implementation.

Afghanistan is different. There, our overstretched but outstanding armed forces are fighting for a clear British national interest: to prevent the re-establishment of a Taliban-controlled country from which al-Qaeda could again with impunity plan and launch terrorist attacks against the west. As has been sad, our troops have an enormously daunting task. It is not unlike driving water uphill, only to watch it flow back down again after we leave. We need to give our troops all the support that they need, both in manpower and equipment, and in letting them know that they are fighting on behalf of the direct interests of this country. At the same time we need to understand that sponsoring a local tribal leadership, an age-old habit of British Governments in the past, and winning the battle of hearts and minds could be as important as the military campaign itself. Those two must go hand in hand.

We should not underestimate the importance of our relationship with Pakistan either. The traffic between our two countries is significant. An Islamist, nuclear-armed Pakistan, which is not an impossibility, would be an enormous threat to international peace and security, with serious domestic implications for us, too. When we look at what is happening there, we must beware risking throwing the baby out with the bath water in our reaction to current political events.

From Lebanon to the west bank, I have rarely seen the middle east so explosively volatile. Polarisation has led to radicalisation and radicalisation has led to confrontation. As we have heard, the west is now backing one side and Iran is backing the other, and each of us is providing them with the arms for violence in future. Military action is not and has never been the answer in that region. Israel's war in Lebanon last year ironically left Hezbollah greatly strengthened and now Lebanon teeters on the brink of internal conflict again. Palestinian opinion is dangerously polarised. It is dangerous because confrontation will not achieve for Israel the security that she rightly requires; nor will it achieve a viable and autonomous Palestinian state living peacefully alongside Israel. My fear is that it will ensure only another generation of suffering and death.

The proposed meeting at Annapolis fills me with foreboding because failure would be disastrous, yet it is very difficult to see where success can be achieved. In a conference of that sort, there are only a number of ways in which there can be success. They can do one of three things. They can crown a previously negotiated agreement; they can provide a forum for negotiation; or they can launch a new process. In this case, as far as I can see, there is no previously negotiated agreement
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to crown. Negotiations without a unified Palestinian team representing all parts of Palestinian opinion ultimately would be self-defeating. Merely to exchange a few aspirations and economic packages will in the end satisfy nobody.

The real way forward is, as it has always been, through comprehensive dialogue, including all the elements that inevitably must be part of a lasting solution: Hamas as well as Fatah; Hezbollah as well as Signora and Hariri; Syria as well as Egypt and Jordan—they are all ready to talk. I know that; I have talked to them. Without undeliverable preconditions, I believe they should now be invited to join that comprehensive dialogue. If Israel and the United States cannot find their way to inviting them, we should.

The world is changing. The days of undiluted hard power solutions of “shock and awe”, which we will all remember from the beginning of the Iraq war, are past, not least because we are learning that they did not achieve the purposes that they set out to achieve. In the words of the current Lord Chancellor, it would be “completely nuts” to use hard power against Iran. In these days of the Shanghai Co-operative Organisation, of the powerful Russian energy lever and of the clash of ideologies, my view is that we need to dust down our old manuals on soft power backed by hard. We used to be rather good at that. We had better start being rather good at it again soon.

5.42 pm

Keith Vaz (Leicester, East) (Lab): It is always a pleasure to follow the right hon. and learned Member for Devizes (Mr. Ancram), the distinguished former shadow Foreign Secretary. It is no surprise to me that even though he ended by talking about the middle east peace process and Iraq—very important foreign policy issues—he began, of course, with the Conservative obsession with Europe. I have attended 20 Gracious Speech debates—I have not heard the right hon. and learned Gentleman speak on those matters 20 times in those debates, although he has of course spoken on them on many occasions—and it is interesting that the Conservative party policy on Europe tends to harden each time we have a further debate on foreign policy.

The right hon. and learned Gentleman always mentions my Beano moment; my JFK moment. I will remind him of his great moment as shadow Foreign Secretary, when he went round the country on the back of a lorry trying to save the pound. I am not sure whether that was as successful as my campaign as Minister for Europe to try to make Britain more aware of what was happening in the EU. It is sad, however, that these debates are dominated by this “fear” of the EU.

When the right hon. and learned Gentleman was a Minister in a Conservative Government, he signed away vetoes, made agreements and stood up for British interests, in exactly the same way as Labour Ministers have done over the last 10 years. Perhaps it is because the Conservative party has no cause that it has to pick up on Europe. That is why I am pleased that we will have substantial debates on the European Union in the forthcoming parliamentary Session. I am glad that the Government have agreed to make so much time available for proper scrutiny of the European reform treaty because that will be the opportunity for the Opposition to table amendments calling for a referendum
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or to set out their alternative vision of what they believe Europe should be doing. Those crucial issues affect the success of our nation.

Of course, we have to reform how the EU operates because a Europe of six is quite different from a Europe of 27. Enlargement has transformed the European Union—how it functions, how its decisions are made, how it makes the regulations that inevitably come before this House to be scrutinised and that mean that our country inevitably must deal with our European colleagues—so it is vital that we have such debates.

I see that the hon. Member for Hammersmith and Fulham (Mr. Hands) is present. He has been a great champion of the enlargement process. No Member on the Opposition Benches has done more than the hon. Gentleman to champion the rights of the eastern European people who have come here since 1 May 2004. Enlargement has been good for us—there have been benefits—and, because of that, when the crucial decisions are made, we must have a Europe that is much more efficient and effective. Therefore, we will have to examine the treaty in great detail, and some of the issues mentioned by the Liberal Democrat spokesman, the hon. Member for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk (Mr. Moore), might well have to be discussed much more openly. Are those who speak against the reform treaty against Britain belonging to the EU? Is that why they speak so passionately against the reform treaty? There will be an opportunity to examine such concerns, and all the political parties will need to be honest and open about their true feelings.

A few weeks ago, the Chancellor set out in a paper proposals to reform the banking system, and they are now part of the Government’s legislative programme. Seventeen years ago, the Bank of Credit and Commerce International was closed by the then Chancellor and the then Governor of the Bank of England because it was alleged that the BCCI was full of fraud. I well remember 5 July 1991 when the bank closed: thousands of people gathered outside BCCI branches throughout this country and the world—it was the sixth largest private bank in the world—and the then Chancellor and Governor refused to intervene to save the depositors from losing their money. That is why I am so delighted that, 17 years later, the lessons of BCCI have been learned and there are proposals to reform our banking system so that if a bank is in distress and there is a risk that the customers will lose their money, the Bank of England and the Government will be able to intervene and guarantee those people their savings up to a certain amount. The Chancellor mentioned a figure of £100,000, although for Northern Rock the figure is smaller at £35,000. What has finally happened 17 years after the liquidation of BCCI, the largest liquidation in history? The liquidators, Deloitte and Touche, have made millions of pounds, which has all come out of the bank, and the creditors will have got 84 per cent. of their money back, so the original reason why it closed has, of course, disappeared. I hope the banking reforms will reassure people that the Government are serious about ensuring that if such a situation arises again there will be intervention and people’s savings will be protected.

The Government have announced that they will publish a counter-terrorism Bill. In doing so, they rightly did not pre-empt or pre-judge the discussion
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started by the Prime Minister’s statement of July this year that he wanted there to be a debate in the country about the terrorism proposals. As Members know, the Home Affairs Committee is currently investigating the question of the 28-day detention period. The Government have not set out a time limit in respect of the proposed legislation. I welcome that, because if Parliament is to discuss these issues and the Select Committee is to investigate them, it is important that we have a proper debate before the Government reach a conclusion. That is the right approach to adopt and, to be frank, quite different from the one adopted a few years ago when the Government set out their stall with 90 days and did not change their position. That ended in a Government defeat on the Floor of the House and the House adopting the 28-day limit.

The Select Committee is in the middle of its inquiry and has taken evidence from Liberty and from Sir Ian Blair, the Metropolitan Police Commissioner. We have had the Home Secretary before us, and tomorrow the shadow Home Secretary and the Liberal Democrat spokesman will give evidence. The head of MI5 has agreed to give private evidence to the Committee in a week’s time, along with the Director of Public Prosecutions and the former Attorney-General, Lord Goldsmith. We shall conduct a proper investigation and listen to the views of every stakeholder before coming to a conclusion. It would be wrong of me, as Chairman of the Committee, to pre-empt what it will say, but we are willing and eager to engage with the Government in this important process.

Only a week ago, in his private briefing to newspaper editors in Manchester, the head of MI5, Jonathan Evans, talked about the serious threat that people in this country face. He said that the number of terrorist suspects has increased from 1,000 to 2,000. The threat is serious, and of course Parliament takes it extremely seriously, but it is important that the case be made before the Committee. We look forward to hearing from him, albeit in private, so that we can discuss the matter and conclude our report. I hope, and I think the Committee hopes, that we shall be able to do so before Christmas, which will give the Government and the Home Secretary an opportunity to bring forward their proposals, so that we can have a proper debate early next year on whether the detention period should be extended. That is the third most important limb of the Government’s legislative programme.

I welcome the Gracious Speech, which is full of important Bills that I believe will consolidate this Government’s connection with the British people. I hope that, in the coming months, we will continue to debate the issues that I have mentioned, particularly Europe and counter-terrorism, with the vigour and robustness that we associate with the House.

5.52 pm

Mr. Nicholas Soames (Mid-Sussex) (Con): I am pleased to be able to welcome the Gracious Speech. I hope that the House paid close attention to what my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Devizes (Mr. Ancram) said in his important speech, particularly about the middle east.

I shall speak solely about defence. In the week of Remembrance Sunday, I pay tribute to the fallen who died for their country, and think of their grieving
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families. I also remember the wounded and wish them the speediest recovery and a return to health. In this debate on the Queen’s Speech, it is appropriate that we think especially of British servicemen and women of all three services currently on operations in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere, and mention the civilian staffs across the defence establishment, who do so much to keep operations going.

We have a great deal to be grateful for, yet the Government’s management of defence is, frankly, appalling. We have a Secretary of State who is a placeman of the Prime Minister, and a Prime Minister whose fine words on defence are not matched in any way by his Government’s actions. The main problem is, as it has been for the past 50 years, money. That applies not only to the Ministry of Defence but to the Foreign Office. The Government are not being completely straight with the people, the services or the House if they continue to insist that the defence budget is adequate to cope with our present difficulties, let alone the serious problems that loom in the near future. If we are to continue to undertake all our international obligations and conduct major operations on two fronts, as well as defend the country, the Secretary of State for Defence knows perfectly well that the money that has been allocated is nowhere near sufficient and that further money will have to be found.

I warn the Government, as I have on a number of occasions—many of my hon. Friends have done the same—that the armed forces of this country will not be able to deliver the excellence that they do unless the Government meet their obligations toward them.

Mr. Adrian Bailey (West Bromwich, West) (Lab/Co-op): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Soames: I shall not, if the hon. Gentleman will forgive me.

I am talking not solely about the military covenant but about the solid, serious funding required for the running of defence.

Among the raft of dismal performances that make up much of the MOD is the Government’s seeming inability, which I cannot understand, to tell the true story about the remarkable achievements of our troops in both Iraq and Afghanistan. There are wonderful stories of matchless gallantry, heroism and triumph to tell, but where are they reported? Of course, military reporting in the British press is lamentable, but I believe that, if the press were given a greater opportunity to be shown what is going on and to tell the soldiers’ story, it would be of great advantage to the country and particularly to the soldiers on operations.

There are, indeed, tales of great heroism and daring to be told. These men, with a sense of solidarity, closeness, comradeship and mutual support between servicemen and women of all ranks, take the fight to the enemy with great coolness and skill under the most hostile conditions that it would be possible for anyone to imagine, and they draw great strength from knowing that they are supported, that their fellow countrymen care about them and what they do, that their politicians are knowledgeable—they have largely given up hope on that—that the press care and that what they are doing
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is both valued and appreciated. So, Ministry of Defence press department—under the control of the Secretary of State, amazingly—for goodness’ sake get on and do a much better job of informing the wider world of those remarkable stories. For a start, bring back the single service PRs, who are capable of telling the story.

Anyone who visits the troops on operations will be amazed at the high standard of their morale, their positive attitude and their continued sense of purpose at all ranks and in all jobs. That is nothing whatever to do with the Government—indeed, it is wholly despite them—but the country is indeed fortunate to have its troops extraordinarily well led at all levels; officers, warrant officers, senior non-commissioned officers and junior ranks are all of quite exceptional quality. The country loves its armed forces and knows how brilliant they are, but people do not get the opportunity to read about their extraordinary successes and achievements on major operations.

I turn briefly to the scandal of how the Government have handled the Defence Export Services Organisation. Since the Prime Minister came to power, it has seemed to me that he had little purpose other than to accrue power and little idea of what to do when he got it. This Government seem to be in power for no good purpose save just being there. They are inefficient, wasteful and expensive; they are often lazy and unserious, and they carry with them the whiff of something not quite right. The DESO disaster is a perfect example of their failures. It was emphatically not a well thought out strategic change to the machinery of Government. It was a ham-fisted and poorly thought out decimation of four decades of outstanding success and service to this country and its industry.

Mr. Benyon: Does my hon. Friend not think that it is telling that, at the precise moment when the Government have taken their extraordinary decision, the French President is setting up an exact mirror of what DESO was and has personally taken control of defence exports? How lamentable that makes the Prime Minister’s decision, smuggled out at the end of a parliamentary Session.

Mr. Soames: My hon. Friend is right. He led an excellent Westminster Hall debate in which he laid out clearly the great disadvantage that will accrue to British industry as a result of this.

I understand that only nine days after the appearance of an advertisement in The Sunday Times for a new head of DESO, the permanent secretary at the Ministry of Defence was summoned to No. 10 to be told that DESO was to be closed down. The permanent secretary then informed Sir Alan Garwood, the head of DESO, who was not able to inform his staff until the next day. There was no consultation, not even with Sir John Rose, the chief executive of Rolls-Royce or Mike Turner, the chief executive of British Aerospace, and it is my strong belief that the Secretary of State for Defence was himself not fully consulted. As you know, Madam Deputy Speaker, that was also the case when the Prime Minister announced in Iraq the return from there to this country of 1,000 men, most of whom were already back here.

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