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Lord Marlesford: My Lords, does the Minister agree that there was something in what the noble Baroness, Lady Strange, said and that the lower tax rates are, the less incentive there is for evasion or avoidance? In that context, I welcome the very interesting Written Answer he gave me yesterday on tax rates in all EU countries, which showed that the top tax rate in the UK compares extremely favourably with many other EU countries. I congratulate the Government for maintaining the 40 per cent rate introduced by my noble friend Lord Lawson in 1988 and remind the House that if the 98 per cent tax rate, which was in force when my noble friend Lady Thatcher was elected, were still in force, even adjusting for inflation, it would cut in, from his own Answer, at £86,000 a year.
Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, I do not always read in detail the Answers that I give to Written Questions, but on this occasion I did, with considerable fascination. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Marlesford, that it was very interesting. It was a bit difficult to interpret as the thresholds operate against different levels of top tax rates. It took me some time to understand it, but it does not lead me to support the contention of the noble Baroness, Lady Strange. There are people who will try to avoid taxes for perfectly legal reasons and who will try to circumvent the wishes of Parliament at whatever level of taxation Parliament sets.
Lord McIntosh of Haringey: Yes, my Lords, it prosecutes evasion when it finds it and it seeks to circumventif I may use the word in both directionsavoidance when it finds it.
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Baroness Crawley: My Lords, the MoD is a unified department and operates on a tri-service basis. The changes are intended to bring the communications organisation into line with the rest of the headquarters structure, and ensure that our military and civilian manpower is best utilised. The changes will also improve the department's ability to communicate effectively with the media.
Lord Tanlaw: My Lords, can the noble Baroness make a distinction between a radio communication mast of the Ministry of Defence and a wind turbine? The Ministry of Defence has a blanket objection to the erection of all wind turbines on the basis that they interfere with low-flying aircraft, yet its radio communication masts, which are very similar in many ways, present, I should have thought, the same problem. Can the noble Baroness make a distinction?
Baroness Crawley: My Lords, I am sure that the noble Lord will be able to table a Question on that subject but today I am answering a Question about the reorganisation of the MoD's communications organisation.
Lord Astor of Hever: My Lords, following the Minister's reply to my noble friend, the good reputation of our Armed Forces is partly due to their informal contacts with the media. Does the noble Baroness agree that a free press in a free society is vital? If she does, surely plans to ring-fence service personnel from the media to protect the Government are quite wrong.
Baroness Crawley: My Lords, I think there is some misunderstanding here. The reorganisation of the communications department will not stop the media being able to talk to military personnel at any level; that will continue. I agree very much with the noble Lord, Lord Astor: we fully recognise that the media have an appetite for briefings with and by military officers. We further recognise the benefits for defence of that continuing. Military briefings will continue in
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operational theatre and the media will continue to be granted access to senior and junior members of the Armed Forces.
Lord Redesdale: My Lords, is the Minister saying that the rationale was financial rather than, as has been alleged in the press quite recently, due to political annoyance with the MoD's communications department's briefing of the press?
Baroness Crawley: Absolutely not, my Lords. The changes will improve the department's ability to communicate effectively with the media as well as, as I said in my original Answer, bringing into line the communications part of the MoD with the other joint working sections of the MoD. The Chief of the Defence Staff, General Sir Michael Walker, said of the changes:
The pattern is that nowadays most military operations are organised on a jointthat is, tri-servicebasis. The revised arrangements should meet the needs of defence and represent a professional and coherent military view.
Baroness Crawley: My Lords, my noble friend raises an important point. In future all media inquiries will be channelled through the department's press office, which will, of course, have a strengthened military representation within it as a result of the changes. There will be a one-stop shop, if you like, for media inquiries.
Baroness Crawley: My Lords, as I understand it, the same access will still be available, but certainly initially it will be through the press department. There will not be, as it were, an inability for local newspapers to find out whatever they want to find outthe channel will just be different.
The noble Lord said: My Lords, I would first like to thank the long and distinguished list of noble Lords who have decided to take part in this debate. I particularly welcome the fact that the noble Lord, Lord Robertson of Port Ellen, has decided to take this opportunity to make his maiden speech. I know how much we are all looking forward to hearing what he has to say.
I have deliberately worded the Motion to enable your Lordships to cover a wide spectrum of international affairs this afternoon, and to give you the opportunity to state where you think the Government's international priorities should lie. Perhaps I may, not for the first time, express my regret at the decision, for the last few years, to bracket foreign affairs with defence and overseas development in the debate on the Queen's Speech. I hope very much that business managers will reconsider this in the future. Closely linked though all these issues are, bracketing them together in one debate has simply not given ample scope for a full discussion of foreign affairsa subject in which this House has a unique repository of expertise, shortly to be reinforced by the very welcome introduction of my friend and colleague, Sir John Kerr.
It is perhaps worth emphasising the inevitable gap between setting priorities and sticking to them. We have only to recall the exceptionally high priority that President Bush promised to give to his relations with Mexico within weeks of his inauguration, before the events of September 11 changed the Administration's priorities so dramatically. International affairs, unlike domestic affairs, are never under the sole control of any one governmenteven a superpower like the United States. Foreign policy problems tend to leap out of the dark and to threaten the priority given to even the most carefully considered and long-term strategies.
Nor can any government conduct their foreign policy without taking into account the interests and priorities of other governments including, of course, their friends, partners and allies, and their commitments to those many international organisations, including the United Nations and NATO, of which the United Kingdom is a member. In that connection I might remind your Lordships that we shall next year be holding the presidencies of both the Group of Eight and, for the last six months, the European Union.
There is also an increasing temptation for governments to allow the media to set their priorities for them, with the risk that important, but forgotten, issues tend to be given insufficient, if any, priority. Without claiming any great prescience, I remind your Lordships that in a speech which I made in this House almost exactly nine years ago, I warned of two so-called "forgotten areas of the world" that had no
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prominence at the time, but which later turned out to cause a great deal of trouble and attention; namely, Afghanistan and Liberia.
Some of your Lordships may wish to use the opportunity of this debate to draw attention to some other areas of the world which are today in danger of being forgotten. Indeed, I wonder whether the priority that the Government are inevitably giving to current troubles in Iraq may not be in danger of putting both Afghanistan and the Balkans back on to the "forgotten" list.
Setting priorities also carries with it the inescapable need to give some issues a lower priority, which governments may later come to regret. We have only to note recent complaints by Christian Aid that security needs in Iraq, and for counter-terrorism, are diverting much needed and promised aid from the poorer countries.
I am not arguing that priority setting is pointless. As I know from my former role as accounting officer of the Diplomatic Service, it is an inevitable part of preparing the departmental case for the public expenditure round. One of the difficult challenges for the Foreign Office accounting officer is to ensure that the requirements for the BBC World Service and the British Council are carefully balanced with the requirements of the Diplomatic Service.
The world has never been more dangerous than it is today. It is as important as it has ever been that the network of diplomatic posts worldwide should be properly resourced, both to fulfil their essential role in public diplomacy, in which they must work closely with the British Council, and to ensure their security. As we resource our Armed Forces and our development programmes, we also need to think carefully about the priority that we attach to getting our diplomacy right. One of the disastrous mistakes of United States policy towards Iraq was to leave all the planning, such as it was, in the hands of the Pentagon and to exclude the diplomats and those who had first-hand experience of Iraq. This is a time for more diplomacy, not less.
As for priorities, I should like to draw your Lordships' attention, as I am sure the Minister will, to the excellent booklet produced by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in December last year, entitled UK International Priorities. Although that document is subtitled:
I am told that it was drawn up only after full consultation with other government departments, in an attempt to establish consensus on where the whole Government's international priorities should lie. Not surprisingly, the FCO's paper concludes that our relationship with the United States will continue to be our most important individual relationship and a vital asset, and that the relationship between Europe and the United States will be of paramount importance for the United Kingdom'sand the world'sfuture security and prosperity.
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I hope that we shall hear from noble Lords this afternoon some views on our relations with the United States and with the European Union. On the latter, we have recently had good debates in the House, both on the constitutional treaty and on the European Court of Justice. The Government may argue that we do not have to allocate priority between the transatlantic alliance and Europe, as we can claim to be a bridge between the two. Sadly, the history of our involvement in Iraq over the past year has shown that the Government, in my view unwisely, have put an excessive priority on at least appearing to stand shoulder to shoulder with our American allies, with some damage to our stated goal of remaining at the centre of the European Union.
I have already quoted one previous intervention of mine. I hope that noble Lords will forgive me if I also quote from a passage in my speech in a debate on foreign affairs which I similarly had the privilege of introducing in this House more than six years ago. It has a certain resonance in present circumstances. Having rejected the French description of our relationship with the United States as that of an Anglo-Saxon Trojan horse within the walls of Europe, I continued that,
"it is important, if our relationship with the United States is to add substance and value to our membership of the European Union and vice versa, that we do not give the impressionas I fear has too often been the case in the pastthat we are prepared to give uncritical support to all American policies. Nor is that the way in which we can hope to influence the United States Administration or Congress".[Official Report, 28/1/98; col. 235.]
I do not think that I can better that warning, particularly in the light of our current policies in the Middle East. It may have come as a surprise to your Lordships that I have not concentrated, in my introductory speech, on Iraq or the wider Middle Eastpartly because I wished deliberately to broaden the agenda for the debate, and partly because we quite recently had the benefit of the excellent debate introduced by the noble Baroness, Lady Williams of Crosby. All I wish to say today on that vital area of the world is that I believe that the United States has made a fundamental and dangerous error in failing to put the highest priority on pushing forward the peace process in the Middle East, in spite of personal assurances by President Bush in Belfast that he would do so.
It was, in my view, a disastrous error to have given higher priority to Iraqwhich, as we all now know, had nothing to do with the events of September 11than to the problem which lies at the hub of much of the instability in the Middle East, and of Arab and Muslim mistrust of the West. It is not, of course, just a question of adopting an even-handed negotiating approach vis-à-vis Israel and the Palestinians, although that has sadly been lacking in United States policies. We also need to find ways of encouraging both Palestinians and Israelis, who have a shared and genuine interest in peace, to renounce violence and to find a way forward in negotiation.
I hope that the debate may provide an opportunity for noble Lords to make some practical suggestions. Most of all, I hope that the Minister will be able to assure us that Her Majesty's Government continue to put the highest priority towards ending the unacceptable violence and killing of innocent civilians by both sides; and towards
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achieving a comprehensive and just settlement for the future security of Israel, and for the creation of a genuinely viable Palestinian state, in close co-operation with our European partners and other members of the quartet.
A solution to the Palestinian problem is not only vital in itself, as a means of alleviating the suffering, deprivation and insecurity which it is causing for all concerned. Our own policies towards the Arab-Israel dispute will affect, for better or worse, the extent of mistrust and bitterness towards the West which the unresolved horrors of Palestine and Iraq are likely to leave in Arab and Muslim minds for many years to come. I beg to move for Papers.
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