I hope that the Leader of the House will give us more information about the Government's intentions for the important work carried out by the regional Select Committees, and that he will come back to us as quickly as possible with further details of the Select Committee that he stated would scrutinise the work of the Deputy Prime Minister. Obviously, the Leader of the House may not be in a position to answer all the questions today, but I hope that he will be able to clarify the Government's intentions on the points raised soon.
Sir George Young: With the leave of the House, it may not come as a surprise to the right hon. Member for Doncaster Central (Ms Winterton) if I say that we do not propose to establish regional Select Committees.
On the issue of timing, it is important that Select Committees are established quickly in order to hold the Government to account. That is why we put this motion on the Order Paper at the first possible opportunity, in order that due progress might be made.
That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty, as follows:
Most Gracious Sovereign,
We, Your Majesty's most dutiful and loyal subjects, the Commons of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland in Parliament assembled, beg leave to offer our humble thanks to Your Majesty for the Gracious Speech which Your Majesty has addressed to both Houses of Parliament.
The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Mr William Hague): It is a privilege to open this year's foreign affairs and defence debate on the Gracious Speech, the first of this new Parliament and of this historic coalition Government. It is one of the strengths of this country that a strong thread of bipartisanship runs through large areas of foreign policy.
I am glad that the right hon. Member for South Shields (David Miliband) has just made it into the Chamber in the last few seconds as, in our exchanges across this Table in our previous roles, he and I often reflected that bipartisanship in many areas. He is now standing for another position that I would not wish on anybody, given my experience as Leader of the Opposition. I will not wish him well with that, in case it damages his chances of election-[Hon. Members: "Go on!"] No, I am resisting that temptation. However, for as long as his role as shadow Foreign Secretary lasts, and where appropriate, the briefings and consultations that he extended to me will, of course, always be extended to him.
The agreement of the coalition Government reflects our sense of common purpose and responsibility and sets out an ambitious programme in foreign affairs, as it does in domestic policy. As a new Government, we have the opportunity for some new beginnings in foreign affairs, learning from where there have been mistakes and setbacks, but of course retaining the strengths.
Today's debate takes place against a background of serious economic strain across the world, the continued deployment of 9,500 British troops in Afghanistan-to whom the whole House will join me in paying fulsome tribute-and daily reminders that, more than ever, our prosperity and our security are bound up with those of other nations.
It is no secret that we live in a world where economic might is shifting to the emerging economies and that the relative size of the economies of Britain and the rest of Europe are declining in relation to those powers. In this new landscape, where both threats and opportunities are more diffuse, there can be no suggestion that it is in our national interest for our role in the world to wither and shrivel away. This Government reject the idea of strategic shrinkage. We believe that this would be to retreat as a nation at the moment when a more ambitious approach is required.
If we are to make the most of the opportunities of the 21st century and secure our economic prosperity for the future, our foreign policy must become more ingenious and more energetic, and we should aim to build up our engagement in the regions where those opportunities increasingly lie, particularly in the Gulf, north Africa, Asia and Latin America. At the same time, we must retain our global diplomatic network, increase our close understanding of complex parts of the world, expand our development efforts and enhance our ability to detect and contain threats to our national security, often in unstable and inaccessible regions.
Our security and our economic prosperity require an ambitious and coherent approach to world affairs. Constrained national resources is not an argument against this approach; it makes the case for it more compelling. We will pursue a distinctive British foreign policy that is active and highly activist in Europe, that builds up British engagement overseas in the areas I have mentioned, that upholds our belief in human rights, political freedom, free trade and poverty reduction, and that promotes our national interest. What I like to call our enlightened national interest is no narrow affair; it involves being a force for good in the world as well as seeking the best for our own citizens and society. This approach will require a greater degree of co-ordination of our foreign, defence, development and security policy than ever before, so that our efforts are part of a coherent strategy that can command the widest possible support in this House and across the country.
Paul Flynn (Newport West) (Lab): Why does the right hon. Gentleman disagree with the Defence Secretary, who said that it was his priority to withdraw troops from Afghanistan and that he could see no reason for spending taxpayers' money on defending the education policy in a "broken 13th-century country"?
Mr Hague: The hon. Gentleman has a particular view on Afghanistan, which he often expresses and which we must respect. It would be rather starry-eyed of him to believe that the Defence Secretary agreed with him, however. If anyone had seen our visit to Afghanistan at the weekend, they would have witnessed the total agreement between the Defence Secretary, the International Development Secretary and myself. I will come to the matter of Afghanistan in a moment and deal with the hon. Gentleman's point.
Mr Hague: I love listening to the right hon. Gentleman, as he knows, but he is so entertaining that I think we should store up his intervention for a little later in my speech. I will certainly allow him to intervene when we need a bit of refreshment.
The Government have established the National Security Council to bring together strategic decisions about foreign policy, security and defence policy and development, and we have appointed a National Security Adviser. Unlike the National Security Committee of the previous Government, which seemed to have little discernible impact, our National Security Council is at the centre of decision making in Government on these issues. It has already met three times in the two weeks since we took office, including this morning at the Ministry of Defence, and it will be a major means of involving domestic Departments-many of which have an
increasingly international aspect to their work-in the pursuit of national foreign and security policy objectives, so that foreign policy will run through the veins of the domestic Departments of Government as well as those of the Foreign Office and the Ministry of Defence.
Mr Tobias Ellwood (Bournemouth East) (Con): May I congratulate my right hon. Friend on becoming Foreign Secretary-something that Conservative Members have been looking forward to for a long time? One of the biggest criticisms levelled at the present Opposition when they were in government is that they failed to update the House regularly on what was happening in Afghanistan, and failed to keep the nation involved. May I ask my right hon. Friend to honour his promise to keep this place updated? Perhaps he could begin by outlining what he found on his recent visit to Afghanistan, what is happening in Nad Ali and Marjah, and in impending operations in southern Kandahar.
Mr Hague: I am grateful to my hon. Friend. The brief answer to his question is "Yes, we will honour that commitment" and I shall set out in a few moments how we are going to do that. When we were in opposition, we called for more regular reports and quarterly reviews about the position in Afghanistan to be presented to this House. We shall certainly honour that and we will make a major statement on how we see things before the Kabul conference takes place. If my hon. Friend will allow me to develop my argument in a logical order, I will come on to Afghanistan in a few moments.
I was about to say that in the opening days of the new Government, we have reached out immediately to our allies. The Prime Minister has visited Paris and Berlin, and I had extensive discussions with my European counterparts at the EU-Latin America and Caribbean meeting in Madrid last week. As I speak, my hon. Friend the-
As I speak, the Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, my hon. Friend-I think I can call him that-the Member for Taunton Deane (Mr Browne) is in Madrid for a summit with our ASEAN-Association of Southeast Asian Nations- partners. Within two days of taking office, I met the US Secretary of State in Washington for discussions on Iran and Afghanistan, and over the weekend the International Development Secretary, the Defence Secretary and I made our joint visit to Afghanistan.
Sandra Osborne: I thank the right hon. Gentleman. If he takes the view that all Government Departments should have an input into foreign policy, does he agree that all the Departments should therefore pay their share of the subscriptions to international organisations such as the UN?
Mr Hague: My colleagues in the Foreign Office would be delighted if all Departments joined in paying international subscriptions. That is true, but I think I will take the hon. Lady's point to the Chancellor as an input into the comprehensive spending review.
Mr MacShane: I am grateful to the Foreign Secretary, who is a good Rotherham man. On the issue of the EU-Latin America meeting and political freedom, will he tell us what was in his mind when, in Cuba this winter, he met, with Lord Ashcroft, communist officials from the Cuban Government while Orlando Zapata was dying in prison under communist torture, particularly given that the EU has a rule that there should be no meeting with communist Cuban officials unless there is also a meeting with the democratic opposition? I do not believe that the right hon. Gentleman, then shadow Foreign Secretary, met the opposition, so does he understand how upset people are about that meeting?
Mr Speaker: Order. Before the Foreign Secretary returns to the Dispatch Box, I say that we must have a degree of order in this debate. Interventions are, frankly, already becoming mini-speeches when there is a lot of pressure on time, as many right hon. and hon. Members wish to make a speech. Interventions must be brief; that will be enforced.
Mr Hague: In response to the right hon. Gentleman-I accept his praise as being a good Rotherham man and thank him for that-I would say that when one is in opposition, shadowing foreign affairs, it is very important to increase one's understanding and engagement with the world to the maximum possible extent. He says that there is an EU policy, which indeed there is, but I was preceded in Cuba by two EU Foreign Ministers who also visited the country. It is thus a policy that is not always honoured by all EU nations, which I think the right hon. Gentleman would acknowledge. It is very important to understand and talk to the leaderships of other countries with which we sometimes-and in the case of Cuba, nearly always-disagree. That is, after all, the point of diplomacy-talking to our enemies, adversaries and those who disagree with us, not just talking to our friends. In office, we will want to stand with a united EU policy, but I make no apology for exploring these issues with whoever it is possible to explore them with while in opposition.
Moving on to the point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood), the Prime Minister has made it clear that our top foreign policy priority is Afghanistan. The duty of care that we owe to our armed forces will be at the forefront of our minds. Whatever differences may be expressed in the House on other matters, I believe that we are united in gratitude to them. I also pay tribute to the many British civilians-including those in the Foreign Office-who are working to build a stable and secure Afghanistan.
Our objective in Afghanistan can be expressed quite simply. It is to help Afghans to reach the point at which they can look after their own security without presenting a danger to the rest of the world, with the Afghan security forces and the Afghan state capable of withstanding the range of security threats that are currently present in their country. As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence pointed out, the sooner that they are able to do that, the sooner our troops-who make such sacrifices-will be able to come home.
It is vital for Parliament and the British public to be given regular and comprehensive updates on the situation, and on the progress being made against Government objectives. Let me answer the question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth East by saying that we will begin the quarterly reports to Parliament that we think should have been instituted in the past, delivering on the pledge that the Conservative party made in opposition. The Government will wish to report to the House on where matters stand on Afghanistan before the Kabul conference, and the quarterly report to Parliament will be instituted thereafter.
Mr David Winnick (Walsall North) (Lab): We all pay tribute to British troops in Afghanistan, and rightly so. There is no division of opinion in the House about that. Is the Foreign Secretary aware, however, of growing anxiety about the fact that, after eight years, there is not the slightest indication that this is a winnable war? How much longer are British troops going to stay in Afghanistan, and when are we going to realise that, first and foremost, some sort of political solution-it will not be a military solution-is necessary in that country?
Mr Hague: I think that we also all agree that this is not a problem to which there is just a military solution. That point was often made by the previous Government-it was often made by the right hon. Member for South Shields-and we have always agreed with it.
One of the matters that we discussed with President Karzai in Afghanistan at the weekend was the process of reconciliation for which the peace jirga is about to be called. Sixteen hundred representatives from all over Afghanistan will be asked to come together to give the Afghan Government a mandate to proceed with a process of reconciliation, as well as a reintegration of former Taliban fighters at local level.
Of course there are huge concerns about the situation in Afghanistan, and we must respect those concerns. That is why the Government are spending an enormous amount of time on the issue, and that is why our first foreign policy priority is to show, and to know ourselves, that we have a proper grip on the situation. We must show that we are taking stock of the political situation in Afghanistan and our military role-taking stock not in the sense of deciding whether to support the international strategy there, but in the sense of deciding how best to support it in the months and years ahead.