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10 Dec 2008 : Column 627

Although the peace process was covered by just one sentence in the Gracious Speech, I believe that it is one of the most pressing issues facing the Foreign and Commonwealth Office; it is certainly one of the most long standing. I know that my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary has invested considerable time and effort in it, not least through his most recent visit to Israel and the Palestinian territories, Syria and Lebanon. The recent visit of the Israeli President, Shimon Peres, and next week’s Palestinian investment conference in London also demonstrate the Government’s active and dedicated engagement with the peace process.

I firmly believe that the Israeli-Palestinian issue must be resolved if we are to achieve long-lasting peace and security, not just in Israel and a future Palestine, but in the wider middle east and even further afield. As parliamentary chair of the Labour Friends of Israel group, I will give my utmost support to efforts to achieve the Government’s goal of a two-state solution that leads to a safe and secure Israel living side by side with a viable and democratic Palestinian state. There are huge obstacles ahead, however, and it is crucial that the political developments and changes in the US and Israel move the peace process forward. The EU and the Arab world must work together with all parties involved to bring about a sustainable peace in the region. There is a real risk of further violence if we simply stand still. I therefore urge the Government to continue to impress on the incoming US Administration the need to place this issue at the top of their foreign affairs agenda from day one.

It is important, however, that Members in all parts of the House recognise the progress made over the past 13 months. We need to be optimistic about the future. The Annapolis conference, held on 27 November last year, was the launch of the first peace process in seven years, and continuous and comprehensive political negotiations have taken place between the parties. The Israeli Foreign Minister, Tzipi Livni, and the head of the Palestinian negotiating team, Abu Ala, continue to meet regularly. The last Quartet meeting, held on 9 November, saw Israeli Foreign Minister Livni and Palestinian President Abbas inform Quartet representatives of the progress made to date by both parties. Livni and Abbas reaffirmed their shared commitment, as originally pledged at Annapolis, to “joint understanding” and to

The deployment of recently trained Palestinian security forces in the west bank cities of Nablus, Jenin and Hebron to tackle attacks by militants was highlighted by the Quartet as an example of greater security co-operation between the Israelis and Palestinians. Those deployments form part of a security plan conceived by Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, the implementation of which involves co-operation among a number of partners, including Quartet envoy Tony Blair, US security envoy Lieutenant-General Keith Dayton and Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak. The project has been successful and there are now plans to send a similar force to Bethlehem by Christmas and to expand to further cities in the new year.

As well as security improvements, there has been significant economic progress in the west bank. The Israeli civil administration published figures for 2008
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showing a 24 per cent. average increase in daily wages earned by Palestinians in the west bank and a 3 per cent. drop in unemployment. In addition, 2008 has seen a 35 per cent. increase in trade between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, and there has been an 87 per cent. increase in tourism to Bethlehem since the beginning of the year, thanks to improved security conditions. The tourism boom that is expected to rise over Christmas serves shared Israeli-Palestinian interests, strengthening security in the region and bolstering the Palestinian economy.

On 30 November, the Israeli Cabinet approved Israel’s outgoing Prime Minister Olmert’s pledge to Abbas at their 17 November meeting to release 250 Palestinian prisoners. The prisoners will be released on 15 December as a goodwill gesture in anticipation of the Muslim Eid holiday. We must encourage both parties to engage in further confidence-building measures and to do more to implement their road map commitments. For the Palestinians that means dismantling Palestinian militant infrastructure, and for Israel it means freezing settlement activity.

I welcome the Israeli Government’s announcement on 2 November of their intention immediately to cease all funding for illegal outposts in the west bank. In that context, I also welcome the evacuation by Israeli security forces of some 200 settlers from a house in Hebron on 3 December. The settler violence that we have seen in response to that evacuation is unacceptable, and I condemn it in the strongest terms. We should also do everything in our grasp to further empower the moderates. Although there have been some very positive steps thus far, 2009 must be the year of concrete progress towards a two-state solution.

Sadly, the situation in Gaza does not reflect the progress being made in the ongoing negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. The current Israel-Hamas ceasefire that took effect on 19 June is extremely fragile and the agreement is due to end in just over a week’s time. The people of southern Israel have yet to see the benefits of that truce. I commend my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary on visiting Sderot and on his show of solidarity with the people who live there. I have been to Sderot with the Labour Friends of Israel on two occasions as part of parliamentary delegations, and I have seen the growing stockpiles of spent rockets and mortars in the local police station. I have also seen the reinforced roof of the local primary school and the rocket shelter in the schoolyard, which is brightly painted with murals to reassure the local children.

Mrs. Sharon Hodgson (Gateshead, East and Washington, West) (Lab): I, too, was part of the delegation that went to Sderot in September. We all recognise the need to do more about the situation in Gaza, but the terror in which some Israeli people live in Sderot was obvious. Almost two thirds of people there have recognised post-traumatic stress disorder. I wonder whether my hon. Friend will say anything about that.

Andrew Gwynne: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The situation is terrible for the people who live in that town. In the past month, Hamas and other militant groups have fired more than 200 rockets and mortars at Israel, resulting in a number of Israelis being injured.
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Militants based in Gaza have also fired Iranian-manufactured Katyusha rockets, which have a longer range of 20 km. About 200,000 civilians in Israel’s southern communities of Ashkelon and Sderot and in the western Negev communities now live in daily fear of rocket attacks from Gaza.

Hamas and other militant groups continue to use the ceasefire to smuggle arms into Gaza through their illegal tunnels. On 4 November, Israel’s defence forces uncovered in Gaza a tunnel being built by militants so that terrorist attacks could be launched inside Israel, where militants planned to capture more Israeli soldiers. Hamas is still holding the Israeli Corporal Gilad Shalit, who was kidnapped on 25 June 2006 in a cross-border raid from Gaza into Israel that resulted in the death of two other Israeli soldiers. Since that date, Corporal Shalit has been held against his will and the International Committee of the Red Cross has been denied access. Tomorrow marks his 900th day in captivity. I urge the Government to do everything they can to bring about his immediate release.

The situation in Gaza is having a grave impact on the ordinary civilians living there. Israel has allowed increasing amounts of humanitarian supplies into Gaza since the ceasefire, but more needs to be delivered to meet the needs of all Gazans who are directly dependent on humanitarian assistance. The situation is not helped by the fact that militants continue to launch attacks against Gaza crossings. In the most recent of those attacks, on 28 November, militants launched a barrage of 17 mortar shells at the Nahal Oz fuel terminal. One of the mortars hit the IDF base at the crossing, wounding eight soldiers, one of them critically. Despite those security challenges, there is an obligation on all parties to ensure the basic well-being of the Gazan civilian population.

The Annapolis peace process continues against the backdrop of Palestinian disunity. There is also uncertainty surrounding the possible end of President Abbas’s presidential term in January 2009. Egyptian efforts to bring about Palestinian reconciliation are ongoing. We all want Palestinian unity, but it is important to ensure that any new Palestinian Government are committed to the Quartet principles of renouncing violence, recognising Israel and respecting existing peace agreements.

My focus today has been on the Annapolis peace process, but we should not underestimate the potential of the two further, complementary tracks to peace, both of which also came to the fore in the past year. First, the Arab peace initiative offers a real chance for a comprehensive peace between Israel and the Arab world in exchange for lands captured by Israel in 1967. That initiative can support the Annapolis peace process. It is vital that the API is reinvigorated by both the Israelis and the Arabs, with strong EU and US support. I would like to ask the British Government what discussions they have had, alongside current talks, with their Israeli and Palestinian counterparts to encourage their respective negotiating teams to consider the API as a framework for peace. Secondly, Israel and Syria have held four rounds of indirect talks, mediated by Turkey. There have been no further negotiations since the fourth round of talks held in Ankara in late June, but Prime Minister Olmert has expressed a strong interest in holding further talks.

Finally, I want to mention the destabilising players in region. Syria is not alone in supporting, funding and training terrorists operating in the middle east. Iran is
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sponsoring Hamas in Gaza and Hezbollah in Lebanon, which is rearming at an alarming rate in blatant contravention of UN Security Council resolution 1701. Iran is determined not to see a peace process occur and is deploying any means available to sabotage progress.

The middle east peace process is fragile and complex and is vulnerable to external attempts to disrupt it. If we miss the crucial window of opportunity that the Annapolis process offers us, as both the Foreign Secretary and the shadow Foreign Secretary said, it will come at a painfully high cost to innocent civilians on both sides of the conflict. I commend the Government for their commitment to achieving a two-state solution, and I hope that that will actively continue, whatever challenges may lie ahead.

6 pm

Mr. Richard Benyon (Newbury) (Con): It is a feature of being fairly low down the parliamentary food chain that my remarks will be curtailed. It has been an interesting debate, with an opportunity to listen to some of those whom I respect most in the House, not least my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Devizes (Mr. Ancram), who is my neighbour, and the hon. Member for Vauxhall (Kate Hoey), who made a typically courageous speech on Zimbabwe.

This is an interesting time for defence. We know about the draw-down of force levels in Iraq. Despite it being a particularly bloody time in Afghanistan, there are interesting political development there. We hear stories that Mullah Omar, for example, is being invited by President Karzai to Kabul. We wait to see how that situation evolves. Who would have asked themselves in the early 1970s how long Operation Banner would continue in Northern Ireland? Would we honestly have said that we would be there for a further 35 years? I believe that the prevailing wisdom is right and that we will be in Afghanistan for a very long time, but who knows?

Is this not the time for a new strategic defence review? Many of us in the House would like nothing more than to see the armed forces substantially enlarged. We all live in the real world and know that there is nothing in the kitty for a much larger expansion of our armed forces in the next few years. When my right hon. Friends on the Front Bench talk about defence expenditure, Ministers huff and puff and attack us for not being specific about our financial commitments, but they know and their predecessors who were involved in the previous strategic defence review know that it is impossible from the Opposition Benches to give accurate estimates of the expenditure that one wants to achieve in defence. It is not possible through freedom of information trawls or written questions, for example, to find out why there are more than 20,000 people employed in defence procurement and similar areas.

I compliment the Government on the 1998 strategic defence review. I took another look at it the other day. It is a very good document, which described Britain’s place in the world as it was seen at that time, and it tried to balance our understanding of where we in this country feel Britain should be with a resource commitment to our armed forces. Unfortunately, the resource commitment has since been fudged. As part of a future review, we need a close examination of procurement.

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There are two prevailing and polarised views on procurement. One approach, voiced by one of my hon. Friends, whom I informed that I intended to mention his position, is that procurement has been wasteful and even corrupt. It has denied our servicemen on operations the equipment that they need. My hon. Friend and others would argue that it is focused on defence industrial profiles, perhaps in marginal seats, rather than on the equipment needs of our fighting soldiers, sailors and airmen. Those who hold that view argue that it is better to buy equipment off the peg.

The other approach is that procurement is complicated and it takes time to get it right. Weapons systems are complex. Those who take that view would argue that it is a strategic imperative to maintain a diverse defence and aerospace industrial base, and that British defence companies are good for our security and our balance of payments. They would also argue that it makes strategic sense to have long-term relationships with defence manufacturers. So, there are two clear certainties. I am always jealous of those who can be certain about anything in politics. There are certain things about which we can all be certain—I am sounding like Rumsfeld now—but for most of us, issues such as this are not black and white; there is no light and dark, but a large area of grey.

I believe that both the polarities that I have described are to a large extent right and to an extent wrong. Both arguments can select examples from recent years to cite in their own support. The “off the peg” fraternity, for example, will cite a number of shambolic experiences such as the Nimrod fiasco, which has cost more than £2.9 billion more than was originally predicted. On the other side of the argument, those who disagree with the “off the peg” option for complex military matériel will cite the case of the Boeing Chinook Mk III. That has been an absolute fiasco, given that the helicopters still sit in sheds somewhere while people try to sort out the software, which cannot work with our systems.

I hope that a new Conservative Government will ignore any certainties from the past and develop a clear vision for procurement, first by learning from the experiences of urgent operational requirements. Let us face it, those are fairly simple pieces of military kit; a mine-proof vehicle is relatively simple compared with a Chinook helicopter. The good news about urgent operational requirements is the speed with which they can be delivered to the front line. Of course, Ministers do not talk about the fact that a large proportion of the cost is clawed back from the core defence budget in subsequent years.

Secondly, we have to accept that there is a strategic imperative of maintaining relationships and working a skills base across a domestic aerospace and defence industry. There are good reasons for that; there are our own defence needs and there are the wider advantages of a vibrant aerospace and defence industrial base and the benefit that it gives to our balance of payments and employment.

We also need to consider the third issue, which is to do with the speed at which we provide equipment from start to finish. In military jargon, we talk about the “flash to bang” time. As a soldier, I always found that bizarre. It was supposed to be the method that we used to measure the distance that we were from an atomic device that was going off; I never thought that we would be in much of a position to measure that in the first
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place. The “flash to bang” time for the delivery of matériel to our armed forces has been astonishingly long, and that should be one of the core things that we seek to change in future.

Fourthly, we should consider upgrades. Extending the end-of-life date for platforms is extremely important. We can learn from the experiences of the Tornado; the improvements made by British Aerospace on the targeting pod and the complexity of electronic warfare systems can give much extended life. As has been mentioned, the five criteria applied to procurement are capability, affordability, adaptability, interoperability and exportability. I shall talk about the latter soon, but I would add one more: rapidity, which is important.

I draw Ministers’ attention to an article in Jane’s Defence Weekly this week. It discusses the need to find a means of reigniting economic growth across western economies. It says:

It goes on to describe the disappointment in the defence sector. There have been leaks in the Financial Times about cuts to various projects, and that is extremely worrying. Our defence exports are a wonderful way of enhancing our economy and supporting British industry at this time. That makes all the more crazy the decision taken about 18 months ago to close down the Defence Export Services Organisation and replace it with a new organisation based within UK Trade and Investment.

That decision by the Prime Minister, which was taken in his first few days in office, possibly with the encouragement of Baroness Vadera, has destroyed one of the best examples of Government-industry co-operation. In the defence industry, there is a £55,000 per employee added value element to what they do. That is a fantastic earner for our country. I cannot understand why the decision was taken. DESO was a first-class organisation. We have lost a lot of the people who were fundamental to the success of our defence industry, and the new organisation, whatever its merits—I applaud the people who are involved with it—will not be as good. The good news is that it is portable, and as soon as possible it should be transferred back into the remit of the Ministry of Defence, where it can do Government-to-Government sales and people will want to work with it to achieve that.

The Prime Minister’s decision has satisfied neither side. For all the celebrations among the anti-arms trade people, it did not satisfy them because they see that there is still an organisation in Government; and it certainly did not satisfy the defence industry. I hope that we can encourage the people who are still working in the organisation to hang on in there and assure them that they will be valued by a future Government, when they can return to the Ministry of Defence and we can continue with a successful defence industry that can work well for jobs in this country, for our balance of payments and for the future prosperity of us all.

6.11 pm

Mr. Mark Lancaster (North-East Milton Keynes) (Con): It is a pleasure to be able to contribute to this debate. I intend to be brief because I know that other Members wish to speak.

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I was pleased to hear the Foreign Secretary say that he was determined to continue to support our troops in Iraq and in Afghanistan. I wish to focus my comments on one particular issue—the Government’s decision to withdraw the Harrier from Afghanistan and replace it with the Tornado from 1 April 2009. There are many arguments floating around as to why that should be, with conspiracy theories about inter-service rivalries—about the Royal Air Force wishing to finish off the Fleet Air Arm or wishing to maintain control over the future joint strike fighter. I am not qualified even to begin to comment on those conspiracy theories, so I will leave that to somebody else.

Following on from a debate in Westminster Hall, I would like to construct an argument that is based purely on factual answers that I have received to parliamentary questions. Before I do that, I would like to say through you, Madam Deputy Speaker, how disappointing it has been to receive some of those answers from the Ministry of Defence. In the past 10 days alone, we have had to correct the parliamentary record on three occasions. When I first asked whether the Harrier had served in Operation Telic, I was told that it never had, and then, as a result of the answer to Question 239716, we discovered that it had. I asked how much has been spent on operational requirements for the Harrier in Afghanistan, and following the answer to Question 238824, we had to correct the parliamentary record. I asked how many Harrier pilots had served in Afghanistan, and we had to correct the parliamentary record again. I am afraid to have to say to the Minister that I fear that even the corrections to the parliamentary record will have to be corrected in the next few days.

It is not only hon. Members who are getting misinformation. During the debate in Westminster Hall, the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, the hon. Member for North Durham (Mr. Jones), who is now sitting on the Front Bench, said:

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