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12 Nov 2007 : Column 480
8.38 pm

Mr. Mark Hendrick (Preston) (Lab/Co-op): The Gracious Speech by Her Majesty the Queen outlined the direction and the plans of this Government for the coming months and years. Increased security and the encouragement and spread of democracy are integral to those plans, and I will seek to cover some of the key policy areas that affect our relations with other countries and our national security.

Our national security faces many threats: the threat from climate change; the threat to our energy security; the threat from international terrorism; and the threat from weapons of mass destruction. Many of the threats are overlapping or interrelated: for example, our approach to climate change is very much affected by meeting the challenges that we face in terms of our energy supply and consumption, and indeed our energy security.

Europe has limited indigenous energy production capacity. By 2030, the EU is expected to import 94 per cent. of its oil needs, 84 per cent. of natural gas consumption and 59 per cent. of solid fuel used. The dispute between Russia and Ukraine over natural gas prices in January 2006, and more recently Russia’s dispute with Belarus, highlights the risks of dependence on a limited number of energy suppliers. The disputes did not directly affect exports to Europe, but raised doubts about Russia’s reliability as a source of energy.

The middle east is the most important energy producing region in the world, but one of the most politically unstable. Tensions over Iran’s nuclear programme have intensified concerns about the stability of supply. In Iraq, tens of billions of dollars are required to bring the oil industry’s output back up to its 1978 peak of 3.5 million barrels per day. That capital has not been invested because of the continuing attacks on the country’s infrastructure and work force, and uncertainty about its political and legal structures.

In zones of conflict or where there is political instability, there is considerable scope for “non-state actors” to target oil and gas resources in pursuit of their objectives. Al-Qaeda has threatened to attack what Osama bin Laden calls the “hinges” of the world’s economy—its infrastructure—of which energy is the most crucial element. Two countries where local groups have been targeting foreign oil companies are Colombia and Nigeria. The latter has become a particularly dangerous environment for oil companies and their staff over the past decade. In 2003, Royal Dutch Shell closed its operations in the western Niger Delta region of Nigeria due to increasingly violent unrest.

It is clear that change in climate, resource scarcity and insecure supplies of energy will have a massive impact on our world. The consequences include growing geopolitical tensions over remaining oil supplies, including a new scramble for Africa’s oil and gas. Conflict zones in Africa are associated with the possession of energy sources, and future superpower rivalries may result from the competition.

In his review for the British Government, Sir Nicholas Stern summarised the far-reaching consequences of inaction on climate change, which will include problems with food security; water security; and immigration and migration. Wars fought over limited resources—land,
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fresh water and fuel—have been commonplace throughout history. By reducing those resources in some of the most volatile parts of the world, climate change creates a new and frightening prospect for conflict.

The UK is showing strong global leadership in that area. The Climate Change Bill, outlined in the Gracious Speech, will make our country the first in the world to set out long-term targets to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The Bill will create a legally binding commitment to the Government’s target of a 60 per cent. reduction in carbon emissions by 2050. In doing that, it will create a new approach to managing and responding to climate change in the UK through strengthening the institutional framework. It will also establish clear and regular accountability to Parliament and the devolved legislatures.

In March 2007, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister—when he was Chancellor—announced the new £800 million environment transformation fund, which will help developing countries to adopt low carbon technology, adapt to climate change and preserve their vital and diverse ecosystems. My right hon. Friend the Member for Derby, South (Margaret Beckett), the former Foreign Secretary, took the climate change debate to the Security Council earlier this year, highlighting its importance to international security.

The UK is also committed to action undertaken by the EU. In March this year Britain and other European nations agreed to the following goals, which are to be achieved by 2020—a 20 per cent. reduction in EU greenhouse gas emissions, as compared with 1990 levels; an increase in the use of renewable energy to 20 per cent. of all energy consumed; and an increase in the use of biofuels to 10 per cent. of all fuel used in transport.

Globalisation has led to a number of issues that will be addressed successfully only by co-operating with other organisations such as the EU, the G8 and the United Nations. That is why the Government are committed to working multilaterally. The Department for International Development, for instance, spends two fifths of its budget through the multilateral system. Multilateral action is not a soft option. In Afghanistan, British forces work alongside forces from more than 30 different countries as part of a NATO operation, backed by a UN mandate. That is alongside the development and humanitarian assistance provided by the EU and the UN.

Multilateralism does not replace the need for good bilateral relationships, and that is why the UK will continue to work, and develop its partnership, with the United States. The political reality is that the US not only shares our values but is the world’s largest economy. As such, it has the potential to be an enormous force for good to many nations around the world.

Britain plays a leading role in the EU. The President of the European Commission has commented on the UK’s importance to Europe, and that importance has been demonstrated in many ways. On climate change and energy, UK support was vital in putting the emissions trading scheme in place so quickly. On security and defence, in 2005 Britain was the biggest contributor of troops to European security and defence policy operations. Our Labour Government made Africa a priority for the British presidency of the EU and the G8. As a result of
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that influence, Britain’s special relationships—for instance with China and India—have been enhanced. Those connections will ensure that the UK will always have influence in Europe. Angela Merkel said recently that it would be impossible to imagine the EU moving forward without Britain.

The Labour Government are committed to ratifying the European Union reform treaty, which makes institutional changes that will enable an enlarged EU to work more effectively. There will be more continuity, with six-month presidencies being replaced by two-and-a-half-year presidencies. There will be more efficiency, as the treaty will cap the number of European Commissioners at two thirds of the number of member states. There will be more fairness, as there will be a new, more representative, voting system, and our share of the vote will increase. There will be more democracy, because national Parliaments will get a direct say in EU decision making for the first time, and can challenge a proposal if there is an object by one third.

Mr. Hands: The hon. Gentleman is extolling the virtues of the treaty, but if it is so excellent why is he not willing to fulfil his manifesto commitment to put the matter to a vote of the British people in a referendum?

Mr. Hendrick: The commitment to a referendum was based on the constitutional treaty that was originally agreed. Since then, of course, there has been a period of reflection. People have gone back to the drawing board and redrafted it; it is now not a constitution but an amending treaty to existing treaties.

The treaty will give Britain more weight in the world, as there will be a new high representative for foreign affairs and security policy, and there will be more transparency. In plain words, the rights of citizens of member states will be better than they were. It is important to stress that with all these changes UK sovereignty remains intact. Our tax and social security systems are protected, as are our police and judicial systems. Our labour and social legislation remain unchanged and our independent foreign and defence policy is maintained.

I say to my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary that our diplomatic approach to the middle east peace process, and finding a solution that will yield a viable Palestinian state, are key to peace in the middle east. Palestinians are living in terrible conditions in the west bank, and Gaza is a tragedy. We must do everything in our power to bring about the creation of a sustainable Palestinian state if we are to begin to solve our wider problems in the middle east, and I agree with many of the comments made by my hon. Friend the Member for Battersea (Martin Linton).

As the British ambassador put it, bringing peace to Afghanistan was always going to be

Since 2001, much progress has been made. The Afghan people were able to vote in presidential and parliamentary elections, and they now have their own constitution. Despite much of what has been said today, a great deal of progress has been made, particularly with regard to health. Since 2001, health services have been expanded, reaching 82 per cent. of the Afghan population, and there are now 856 standard health facilities. A great deal of progress has
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also been made on Iraq. In the past four years we have helped to train and equip over 13,000 Iraqi army troops. Three of the four provinces in which British troops are engaged have been handed over, and there has now been a move to Basra city.

Equally, there are still problems in Iran; the situation there, particularly in respect of nuclear development, is a matter of grave concern. As the Foreign Secretary has stated, the UK fully respects Iran’s right to security. However, that should not allow it to undermine the stability and security of its neighbours. An international coalition has been brought together to address concerns about Iran’s nuclear programme.

Since General Musharraf declared a state of emergency in Pakistan last week, thousands of people have been arrested, judges have been dismissed and detained, and rallies have been banned. The British Government have been swift in voicing their concern. Pakistan is a vital partner for the UK in tackling the serious threat of terrorism and extremism. It is also integral to our operations in Afghanistan and the related issues of the proliferation of weapons and drugs. Neither Afghanistan nor Pakistan can be stable while Pakistan is so divided, and greater unity will require a more legitimate Government.

The threats that we face as a nation can be met only by working through international multilateral institutions with our partners and encouraging good governance and democracy throughout the world. We live in very difficult times. We have had 10 years of Labour Governments. Looking forward, I am sure that many threats are still to come. However, the past 1,000 years of our history have shown that we are a nation that can adapt quickly to a fast-changing world, and I am confident that we will adapt to the challenges and threats posed by the 21st century.

8.51 pm

Mr. Adrian Bailey (West Bromwich, West) (Lab/Co-op): I am particularly pleased to take part in this debate on the Gracious Speech in respect of defence. It is most appropriately timed, given that yesterday was Armistice day. I am sure that, up and down the country, virtually all of us took part in Remembrance day celebrations, along with millions of others in an act of remembrance of the sacrifices made by our armed forces in past and current conflicts.

The debate is appropriate because one of the issues raised by our armed forces and the Royal British Legion is society’s perceived lack of appreciation and support for our forces. Related to that is the ongoing debate on what support we should give our troops and their families at home and in theatre. We understand that our armed forces feel that they are not valued; sometimes that can, in part, be the result of the intemperate language used and accusations made in this House and sometimes in the media.

It is perfectly legitimate to have policy positions different from those of the Government and to question the Government when things go wrong. However, in the past few months I have heard inaccurate accusations and comments that call into question the Government’s commitment to our armed
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forces. The Government are totally committed to our armed forces and totally appreciate their strength and professionalism and the sacrifices that they make. Ultimately, we will be judged by the financial commitment that we make. Under this Government, that will be a real-terms 1.5 per cent. increase per year; there were cuts during the five years that preceded the fall of the previous Conservative Government. I shall return to the issue of funding later.

If attendance at Armistice day ceremonies is any indication of public attitudes, there is a growing understanding of the sacrifices made in the past and a feeling that we must do more in future. That is due to a number of factors. First, today’s global media coverage shows daily reminders of the horrors that our troops have to endure and their bravery on the front line in Iraq and Afghanistan. Credit must also be given to the Royal British Legion for the contribution that it makes. It not only supports veterans and their families but plays an active role in local communities by educating young people on the role of our forces and demonstrating how they provided young people with the freedoms that they enjoy today.

It is not fashionable to say so, but the Government must take some credit for their work in providing veterans’ badges, their support for the D-day, VE and VJ celebrations, and their support for the national memorial centre at Alrewas, which was commented on by my right hon. Friend the Member for Islwyn (Mr. Touhig) and is a demonstration of the support that the Government are giving to recognising and remembering the role that our troops play.

In that context, I want to pay tribute to a person from my constituency, the late John Bayliss. On Sunday 4 November, I attended a ceremony at the national memorial arboretum where a tree was planted in memory of John, who was president of the Tipton branch of the British Legion. In that capacity, he was the driving force behind not only raising thousands of pounds for the legion but getting war veterans—ex-servicemen—into local schools to tell young people about their experiences, providing pupils with living history. He was particularly active in supporting initiatives in Alexandra school and Great Bridge primary school. He also provided constant socials and support for war veterans in the locality. It is fair to say that, because of that, in my constituency there is probably a greater level of understanding and appreciation of the work of our forces. John died in June, but his legacy will live on. Others like him work day in, day out in other branches of the legion. They add enormous value to the work that the Government have done on the appreciation of our armed forces.

However, we must recognise that that appreciation will not in itself deal with the range of needs of service personnel, and that must be addressed. The change is being brought about by the expertise and lobbying of the Royal British Legion through its honour the covenant campaign. The issues that it has raised about the way that society views and treats service personnel, and what level of support they should receive, challenge both Government and society. I have heard Opposition Members pray in aid evidence from the campaign in criticising the Government. I would point out that in the recent debate on the third sector review many of them were critical of the Government’s
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support for the role of charities and voluntary organisations in so-called political campaigning, as opposed to party political campaigning. The legion’s campaign for the covenant is a political campaign, but it should be welcomed as a clear demonstration of the importance that voluntary and charitable organisations can have in the development of Government policy.

When I speak to veterans of the second world war, many of whom are on low incomes, I am amazed by the modesty of their expectations from the state, in complete contrast to the enormous sacrifices that they made for it. Successive Governments have failed in the past to provide what servicemen could reasonably expect, and I am pleased to say that this Government are trying to change that. I applaud their efforts to provide a better deal for our current servicemen. While it is important to debate their future needs, it must be recognised that much has already been done to right historic wrongs. Better pay, operational allowances, welfare packages, support for the bereaved and better medical support have all been provided in recent years. That is particularly true for servicemen or ex-servicemen with mental health problems. The money given to Combat Stress, and the support provided for individuals to obtain mental health consultation, is an indication of that.

Housing is still a huge problem for service personnel and their families. I welcome the proposed investment of £5 billion in service accommodation over the next 10 years, but I urge the Government to do everything in their power to help service personnel to buy their own homes, thereby gaining access to the housing ladder. Investment in a home has been the most important single factor in the rise in individual wealth in this country, and if we are to retain service personnel, we must ensure that they do not miss out.

I welcome the announcement of the Command Paper to be published in spring 2008. I feel that now is the right time to debate the issues highlighted by the Royal British Legion. The announcement that the Government are to take stock of current support and set out an agenda for service personnel and their families, and for veterans, is long overdue. A public consensus should be developed and a coherent policy constructed. In the past, improvements have been piecemeal—often in response to particular needs or events. That must change.

It is right that this discussion should take place at a time when the Government are proposing an increase in expenditure. I refer to the 1.5 per cent. per annum increase during the next five years. We must acknowledge as part of this debate that there will be costs. Unfortunately, while I have heard many complaints from Opposition Members, what is lacking is a commitment on their part to spend more to deal with the problems that they have been so quick to highlight.

In the defence debate in this Chamber on 16 October, there was a long discussion on the alleged reduction of defence spending as a proportion of gross domestic product, and about the proportion of the public spending budget that should be devoted to defence. The Conservative party claims that, if elected, it would share the proceeds of growth between public spending increases and tax cuts, which can only mean that public spending would drop as a proportion of GDP. In turn, if the Opposition are to sustain the level of spending proposed by this
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Government, they will have to increase the defence budget as a share of public spending. To date, we have heard no commitment to do so, and when challenged in the debate of 16 October, no commitment was forthcoming.

If there is no such commitment, so much of what we have heard from Opposition Members today will be just hollow rhetoric. Servicemen, their conditions and the support that we give to them should transcend petty political points. I hope that the Opposition will join a consensus with the Government in this debate to provide the funds that the British Legion proposes are necessary to support the covenant.

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