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In my response to the last Gracious Speech, I suggested a veterans' mental well-being Bill and I hope that the wider spectrum of issues that affect veterans will be considered in the forthcoming Armed Forces Bill. I welcome the commitment in the coalition document to rebuild the military covenant, including the provision of extra support for veterans' mental health needs. My party has recommended a multi-agency support centre for veterans that would provide medical and other support centralised in one place. We also support the
project in Carmarthenshire to make Gelli Aur into a convalescent home for veterans.
We recently published a paper on that very issue and I am on an inquiry panel commissioned by the Howard League for Penal Reform to look into the issue of veterans in the criminal justice system. It is a five-person panel under the able chairmanship of Sir John Nutting QC. We hope to report and give our recommendations to the Government in the next six to nine months. Together, I hope that we can take steps forward to respond to the problems and ensure that veterans get the care and support that they deserve. I hope that the Bill that has been announced will be comprehensive and that it will become a vehicle to introduce these important changes.
We are also concerned about other foreign affairs and defence issues, such as Trident, of course. Its renewal is supported by the Conservative party and some within the Labour party. Who knows what the Liberal Democrats think? They fudged their position in the run-up to the election and have let down a great many people who believed that the party was standing on an anti-nuclear platform. Students were conned by them in that regard, and that is inexcusable.
My party opposes Trident's renewal. There is the cost and the fact that it is a weapon of mass destruction, for which there is no room in a civilised society. I do not believe that holding nuclear weapons puts us in a strong position when it comes to arguing that other countries should not possess them or that they strengthen our stance in disarmament talks. When Presidents Obama and Medvedev announce nuclear cuts, we should not move in the opposite direction.
I welcome the Government's support for a peaceful two-state solution in Israel and I hope that they will take steps to ensure that the Palestinians are not further discriminated against as they have been in the past, not least during the awful bombing of Gaza in Christmas 2008.
I am also concerned about human rights violations in Sri Lanka, where the war ended this time last year. Many people, mostly Tamils, were let down by the international community last year, and we owe it to them to ensure that the peace brings a better standard of living than the conflict did and that fair and independent investigations take place. Perhaps there should be an independent international investigation into the violations of the laws of war, as suggested by Human Rights Watch last week.
Finally, I must welcome what I believe is the cross-party commitment to spend 0.7% of gross national income on development aid from 2013. It is now 43 years since the UN General Assembly first committed to that level of spending. It is high time that it was implemented, and I am pleased that it was in the Gracious Speech.
Mr Mike Hancock (Portsmouth South) (LD): May I say what a pleasure it is to see you, Hugh Bayley, sitting in the Chair as Deputy Speaker? My only regret is that you will not be one of the candidates who will occupy it on a long-term basis; that is the House's loss.
I point out to the hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd (Mr Llwyd), who has just spoken, that there is one Liberal Democrat who knows exactly where he stands. I
am totally opposed to the replacement of Trident and the continued holding of nuclear weapons by this country. There is no ambiguity there.
I congratulate the Foreign Secretary on his speech and the Secretary of State for Defence on the interventions that he made; they were helpful. It is regrettable that there is not a single former Defence Minister on the Labour Benches at the moment. I congratulate the right hon. Member for North East Hampshire (Mr Arbuthnot), who has left the Chamber, on his contribution as the current Chair of the Defence Committee. He has shown honesty in chairing the Committee and owning up to every mistake made by the Governments in whom he served when it came to defence. The first thing he did at the Defence Committee was to apologise for all the mistakes for which he was responsible-and even for some for which he was not responsible. However, we have heard no similar apologies or comments from the current batch of former Defence Ministers from the Labour party.
I congratulate the hon. Members for Bolton South East (Yasmin Qureshi) and for Beckenham (Bob Stewart) on two excellent maiden speeches; the House will look forward to further contributions of equal class and style from them both. The hon. Member for Beckenham raised a very important point that other Members have talked about-the critical role of how we treat our veterans and their families when those veterans return from conflict suffering sometimes grievous injuries. Many have suffered, and continue to suffer, long-term effects, particularly relating to mental health. It is interesting to note the serious concerns that are now being expressed about the long-term psychological wounds that many of our servicemen and women have suffered over the past few years and will, sadly, suffer well into the next phase of their lives.
Coming from Portsmouth-I am sure that I can also speak on behalf of the recently elected hon. Member for Portsmouth North (Penny Mordaunt)-it would be wrong of me not to say that we are very concerned about the future role of the Royal Navy, particularly the naval base in Portsmouth. It is not helpful when leaks from the Ministry of Defence suggest that, once again, the future of the naval base and its 17,000 jobs are very much on the front-line agenda. I was delighted to hear that in fact no such proposition has been on Ministers' desks, and I hope that it will not be. Such leaks and comments are not helpful when people's livelihoods are put at risk time and again. They sap not only the loyalty of the staff and service personnel who work on the naval base but the long-term potential to protect those critical jobs. Long may the carriers be part of the defence of this country, long may they be based in Portsmouth, and long may there be no big question mark hanging over the future of the naval base.
One ship that currently resides in Portsmouth dockyard is HMS Endurance, which has not been to sea since it was returned on the back of another ship after its unfortunate flooding in South America last year. A decision on the future role of HMS Endurance is long overdue, and I hope that one of the first things that the Defence Secretary does is to come clean and make a proper statement to this House about that. Is it going to be refitted, scrapped, or replaced by a bought-in trawler,
as has happened in the past, or is there no longer any need for us to have a ship of that nature going regularly to the Antarctic? One thing is for sure: we need answers to those questions.
On Afghanistan and Pakistan, the right hon. Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Sir John Stanley) talked about the possibility of our taking responsibility for Kandahar. I sat on the Defence Committee when we were told by the then Secretary of State for Defence, John Reid, that all the intelligence that he had received just prior to going into Helmand led him to believe that hardly a shot would be fired, and he certainly did not envisage any casualties. How wrong those words were, but how wrong it was that the intelligence services had got it so wrong about Helmand province. The former Minister who spoke earlier rightly stressed that we should not take on another commitment in Afghanistan unless we are absolutely sure that the intelligence we are getting about Kandahar will materialise and that we will get the support of others in the fight against insurgency and the remnants of the Taliban there. If Helmand was difficult, Kandahar would be twice as difficult because of its historical links and the strong power base that the Taliban and al-Qaeda had there in the past. I urge a lot of caution on that proposal.
On the role of the Royal Navy and other navies off the coast of Africa, the big problem is the rules of engagement that naval captains in the Royal Navy, the American navy and others have as regards what they can and cannot do about stopping ships, boarding ships or even sinking ships that might be engaged in piracy. One of the big drawbacks that allows the problem to continue is the failure to get common agreement on rules of engagement that would allow naval captains in the area to act on their own initiative in difficult circumstances and be sure that they would be supported after the event. I urge the Secretary of State to consider carefully the rules of engagement that are given to our naval personnel engaged in that work.
I wish to raise the issue of the scrutiny of defence and security as a European concept. Under the Lisbon treaty, many matters will cease to be the responsibility of the old Western European Union, which will cease to exist. There will be no national Parliament monitoring of European defence and security, and I suspect that many in the Chamber would not welcome the European Parliament taking on that role.
Mr Hancock: It is, and the European Parliament would grasp the opportunity willingly, but we have to have a proper way of ensuring that there is national parliamentary scrutiny of what is happening in Europe when it comes to defence and security. If we do not, we will be badly letting down the people of this country and our armed forces. I do not want more powers to go to Europe, and I certainly do not want defence and security powers to be scrutinised by the European Parliament with this Parliament having little or no say on them.
I wish also to make a point about EU integration and further countries entering the EU. I was disappointed that there was not a clearer approach in the past, particularly about Turkey, and I hope that in the coming weeks and months we will have a clear indication from
the coalition Administration of what their policy is towards Turkey and greater expansion of the EU. I would very much welcome Turkey being in the EU, as well as Croatia and possibly one or two other countries, but the Government must sign up to a plan for how that can be done.
I echo the sentiments of my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for North East Fife (Sir Menzies Campbell) about the Chinook crash. One of the biggest disgraces during my second spell in Parliament was that in 1997, the Defence Committee refused to carry out an inquiry because of the lead that it was given by one of its advisers, a retired air chief marshal who took the Air Force line that the pilots had to be to blame. We refused to carry out an investigation, but our colleagues in another place grasped the initiative and carried out an inquiry. The results were different from what the RAF came up with. The two young men who flew the helicopter that day deserve to have their reputations returned to them, and that can be done only if there is a proper independent inquiry and all the facts and information relating to the crash are put on the table. Without that, it is a disgrace to the RAF, the Ministry of Defence and this Parliament that those two young men's lives and careers were besmirched by the findings of the RAF board of inquiry, which in my opinion did not give the whole truth of what happened on that day.
Sandra Osborne (Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock) (Lab): May I add my congratulations to the two colleagues who have given their maiden speeches today? Both paid fitting tributes to their predecessors and gave an enthusiastic response to their election to the House. I agreed with the hon. Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart) when he spoke about mental health issues relating to our troops, because there is a Combat Stress base in my constituency and I am well aware of the issues involved. I hope that the new Government will take the matter seriously and provide resources to such organisations.
I pay tribute to the former Chair of the Defence Committee, the right hon. Member for North East Hampshire (Mr Arbuthnot), for his advocacy of the role of Select Committees in the House. They are effective in bringing the Government to account on a cross-party basis, which is very important. It is in my capacity as a former member of the Foreign Affairs Committee that I wish to raise foreign policy matters today. However, I begin by saying that I am privileged to have been elected for the fourth time for my constituency, and I am mindful of my mandate and responsibility as a member of the Opposition. No matter how sad that may be, I intend to fulfil that role to the best of my ability.
I pay tribute to former members of the FAC who are no longer MPs but who made a fantastic contribution to the Committee and the House-Andrew Mackinlay, Greg Pope, Ken Purchase, Paul Keetch, David Heathcoat-Amory, John Horam and Malcolm Moss will all be greatly missed-and to my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford South (Mike Gapes), who has completed his term as Chair. I believe that for the most part, we succeeded in maintaining a cross-party consensus based on the evidence presented to us, and therefore maintained independence as a Committee, which is important for the accountability of the Government to Parliament. I also pay tribute to the right hon. Member for Tonbridge
and Malling (Sir John Stanley), a distinguished member of the FAC, who spoke earlier. I optimistically anticipate that he will be the Chair of the new FAC, should he wish.
In the short time available, I should like to cover some of the issues raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford South, and I make no apologies for reiterating those. In the past few years, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office has suffered because of the problems caused by the decline of sterling, which were highlighted by the former Committee. The withdrawal of the overseas price mechanism-a decision that was made in the 2007 comprehensive spending review settlement-was uniquely risky for the FCO compared with other Departments. Especially in the light of exchange rate developments since that CSR, it is simply not credible to regard the course of currency fluctuations as predictable, or to say that the FCO might reasonably be expected to absorb them.
The FAC agreed with the FCO's permanent under-secretary, Sir Peter Ricketts, that exchange rates should not drive UK foreign policy. Sadly, that was beginning to happen. The FCO lost around 13% of the purchasing power of its core 2009-10 budget as a consequence of the fall of sterling. In addition, the National Audit Office stated that the withdrawal of the overseas price mechanism and the subsequent fall of sterling have had
"a major impact on the FCO's business worldwide".
That the scale of the FCO's financial difficulties was recognised in an agreement with the Treasury for additional resources for 2010-11 was welcome. It also appears to have been recognised that the management of the exchange rate pressures that face the FCO requires support from the Treasury reserve. However, it must be said that that was a long time coming, and I seek assurance on that from the new FCO team.
As I have stated, we all know that times are hard, but while the protection of the FCO's work may not be at the top of the political agenda, there is a strong case to be made for the value of its work in the national interest, which has been affected by the severe cuts it has already made. The budgetary position in which the FCO now finds itself is no fault of its own-it is largely beyond its control-so I was astonished to hear today that there will be a further £55 million of cuts. I am at a complete loss when I try to imagine how those cuts are going to be made. We have already discussed the effects on staff terms and conditions and on subscriptions to international organisations, and the implications for locally engaged staff. I know that it is early days for the new FCO team, but these issues are of the utmost importance, and I hope that they will be high on its agenda, as they will be on the agenda of the new Foreign Affairs Committee.
No one in their right mind would want anything other than the withdrawal of our troops from Afghanistan as soon as possible. It is not a question of the UK being the world's policeman. We have undertaken action as members of the UN and NATO-memberships that carry obligations. Government and Opposition both agreed to join the war and, as I recall, often made much of the development of democracy and women's rights, especially education for girls. Indeed, the Conservative Green Paper on international development states:
"In Afghanistan and Pakistan the confluence of our moral commitment to development and our national interest is particularly clear. Building the capacity of the state in both countries to
guarantee security and stability, deliver development and reduce poverty is absolutely central to defeating violent extremism and protecting Britain's streets."
Colleagues and I had the great privilege of visiting one of those girls' schools. Many of those girls now aspire to higher education. It is not a question of the UK formulating education policy for Afghanistan, but of securing the human right to an education. Human rights are universal, and we have an obligation to ensure them, given that, alongside others, we went to war with Afghanistan knowing its history and the oppressive regime that the Taliban had inflicted on its own people, especially women. Achieving security is the only way that any social advantages that have been won can be maintained, and it would be a tragedy if, their expectations having been raised, the women of Afghanistan were once again left to the mercy of the Taliban.
I welcome the comments about the non-proliferation treaty review, although I am not optimistic about its outcome. I am pleased to see that the new team is taking the issue seriously. I also commend the Foreign Secretary on making his first visit to the US. I am sure that he is aware of the Committee's report on US-UK relations and I hope that it will help to inform the new Government's policy.
I declare an interest, as a supporter of the Justice for Colombia group, in the issue of human rights in that country and the proposed free trade agreement with Europe. Given the human rights travesties and abuses in Colombia, such an agreement would be disgraceful, and I hope that the UK will not support it.
James Morris (Halesowen and Rowley Regis) (Con): It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock (Sandra Osborne) and other right hon. and hon. Members who have contributed to this debate with much more expertise than I possess. As others have said, we are living in a time of great upheaval, not only in this country, but across the world. Those changes are having a direct impact on the people of the constituency for which I was recently elected-Halesowen and Rowley Regis in the west midlands-which lies at the heart of our country and has a proud history of manufacturing, steel working and business enterprise.
Indeed, my grandfather was a steel worker in Halesowen in the 1930s and 1940s. He had an industrial accident when working as a forger in 1947 that meant that he was unable to work in the same way again. My uncle was a print worker in Rowley Regis, another area of the constituency, for a firm in Cradley Heath, so I know the hard-working men and women who have striven, often against the odds, to look after their families and make a better life for themselves.
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