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Baroness Ramsay of Cartvale: My Lords, I did not say that.

Baroness Northover: My Lords, I am most encouraged that the noble Baroness did not say that. It sounded a little as if that was what the noble
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Baroness was arguing, but I am most encouraged that that was not the case. The EU surely has a key role to play in the situation in the Middle East. Will the Minister tell us what the UK Government are advocating among their EU partners so far as concerns the Middle East peace process?

While the eyes of the Government are on Iraq, what of Afghanistan? Like the noble Baroness, Lady Rawlings, I note that the opium harvest is now up by 64 per cent. Afghanistan is surely in acute danger of sliding back into chaos where drug war lords reign supreme. We welcome the presidential election and the freeing of the hostages, but elections across the country are due next year and in current circumstances the development of Afghanistan as a drug state is in danger of making these almost irrelevant.

I turn to Africa. As others have pointed out, next year the Government will hold the presidencies of both the EU and the G8. The Prime Minister has said that climate change and Africa will be key priorities for him at those summits, always assuming that he is still in power at that point.

I fully endorse what the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Oxford, the noble Earl, Lord Sandwich, the noble Lords, Lord Hannay and Lord Desai, the noble Baroness, Lady Whitaker, and others have said about trade justice, debt relief, fair trade and CAP reform. However, given the time, I want to focus in particular on AIDS. I note that the gracious Speech says that,

It was referring to the UK's children, but we should also look further afield.

There can be no more major disaster coming down the track than HIV/AIDS. The numbers are dire. In the poorest places in the world, exacerbated, of course, by that poverty, but in turn exacerbating that poverty, there is an incidence in some communities of up to 60 per cent. It is having a devastating impact.

Like the noble Baronesses, Lady Greengross and Lady Rawlings, we welcome the Government's strategy on tackling HIV/AIDS, but much more must be done to address this issue, and in particular to get other countries to fulfil their international obligations. Here the G8 and EU presidencies surely offer a key opportunity. I hope that the need to tackle AIDS is not buried among all the other worthy sections of the Africa Commission's report. There is no more important issue on the agenda.

On current trends, in less than a decade perhaps one-third of southern African children will be orphans. International response is simply not in line with the scale of this catastrophe. How can countries meet the millennium development goals on the reduction of poverty if their workforces are dying? The UN warns that in some areas knowledge of agricultural practices is being lost as a generation dies. How are we to get the majority of children into school if they have been orphaned?

How are we to improve the position of women? Women are disproportionately affected by AIDS for biological as well as social reasons. In Africa, there is
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a far higher incidence of HIV among women and girls than men and boys. It is mostly on women and girls that additional caring responsibilities now fall.

The plight of AIDS orphans is just beginning to be recognised. In addition to the trauma of witnessing the sickness and death of one or both parents, AIDS orphans are likely to be poorer and less healthy than other children. They are less likely to go to school, more likely to be exploited for child labour and more likely to be abused. So far, most orphaned children are accommodated within extended families, but even that is not an easy solution. Many extended families have simply been overwhelmed. It therefore becomes vital to get them food and financial support so that the families are not further impoverished.

High on the agenda must be the roll-out of treatment. Everything must be done to keep those who are HIV positive as fit and well as they usually have been in our own society. There is also prevention. In Khayelitsha, a township outside Cape Town, I saw an excellent health centre with youth-club facilities attached where the message of prevention was getting across. I was very pleased to see that DfID was listed as a donor, until I was told that funding had stopped some months before; the funds had gone to Iraq.

The orphan crisis in sub-Saharan Africa has implications for stability and human welfare that extend far beyond the region. AIDS is at epidemic proportions in Africa. Its incidence is rising fast in India, China and, at its fastest, eastern Europe, on our doorstep. But the social catastrophe developing on the continent of Africa is what we all have to face first.

As the noble Lord, Lord Selsdon, pointed out, this has been a kaleidoscope of a debate, ranging from the Cuban blockade to the UN high-level panel. One thing holds all the subjects together; it is the knowledge and interest shown by noble Lords in the problems of the world and Britain's role on the international stage. There is a huge gulf between those who argue that Britain was right to attack Iraq, and those who feel that such actions have made this a much more dangerous world and that Iraq has seriously deflected attention from key problems such as the Middle East peace process, tackling AIDS and climate change. On other areas—debt, trade, aid, tackling poverty—there is more agreement between us, at least on where we all seek to go, even if we disagree on how far and fast we are travelling. I look forward to the Minister's reply.

Lord Astor of Hever: My Lords, it is a great privilege for me to respond to the debate for my party. I hope that noble Lords will forgive me, as time will not allow me to mention all the excellent speeches made today. I join other noble Lords in congratulating the noble Baroness, Lady D'Souza, and the noble Lord, Lord Young of Norwood Green, on their maiden speeches. My noble friend Lord Howell gave the House a masterly tour d'horizon of European and world affairs, and my noble friend Lady Rawlings covered some of the crucial international development issues. I shall therefore concentrate largely on defence matters.
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Before I do, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Grenfell, on the excellent work of the European Union Committee, and my noble friend Lord McColl on the truly wonderful work carried out by the crew and volunteers of the Mercy Ships. My noble and learned friend Lord Howe of Aberavon welcomed rightly the more positive atmosphere relating to Gibraltar. My noble friend Lady Hooper was very upbeat about Latin America, as was the noble Lord, Lord Clinton-Davis, about Turkey. My noble friend Lord Ashcroft spoke about Cuba. His enthusiasm for that country is shared by my wife, who returned from a charity fund-raising venture there yesterday. The noble Lords, Lord Garden and Lord Gilbert, delivered uplifting and very well thought-out speeches; I agreed with almost everything that both of them said.

Last year, in an excellent wind-up speech, my noble friend Lady Rawlings was disappointed to hear no reference in the gracious Speech to Zimbabwe. There is again no reference this year. Meanwhile, as my noble friend Lady Park said, we are witnessing the slow destruction of a people there. Inflation is rampant; press freedom is non-existent; even our cricket correspondents are refused entry; political corruption is rife; and the degradation of farmland is now so great that it can be seen from space. If the Government are taking action to improve matters in Zimbabwe, it would be interesting to know exactly what action is being taken.

The noble Lord, Lord Bach, mentioned Afghanistan. The Prime Minister promised to combat opium production there at the Bonn summit in 2001. Ninety per cent of the heroin that is poisoning British society comes from Afghanistan. What has happened, particularly as Britain is meant to be taking a lead? According to the latest UN report, opium production has increased by 17 per cent over the past year. So, I look forward to hearing from the Minister what plans the Government have to reverse that.

Frederick the Great said:

How then are we supporting our Armed Forces in their operational requirements to support the Government on the world stage?

I shall start with the Army. Regiments that have been on near-continuous operational tours for several years, and are severely overstretched, are being told that their future is under threat. That is no way to support our excellent men and women in the field. It is the wrong message and very bad timing. Indeed, Bruce George, Labour chairman of the Select Committee on Defence, referred to the "idiots" who would cut the infantry now. As my noble friend Lord Monro pointed out, there was no mention of the Armed Forces in the gracious Speech. Surely that was an unfortunate oversight.

I join the noble Lord, Lord Bach, in paying tribute to our Armed Forces. In recent months we have been reminded of their dedication, skill and determination. They are, as he said, a force for good in the world. Like him, and like my noble friend Lord Lyell, I also have
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the privilege of meeting many soldiers. I am always impressed how many young soldiers are already matching Chelsea Pensioners for medals. Kosovo, Bosnia, Sierra Leone, Afghanistan and Iraq have all required a significant presence.

It is odd that the Minister should claim that the current measures represent a sensible rebalancing, while reducing the infantry by 10 per cent. They are committed to a war while simultaneously short of 5,000 personnel, but were banned from recruiting for six months earlier this year. My noble friend Lord Sanderson pointed out that recruitment figures are plummeting in Scotland because of the uncertainty and that once changes have taken place, from past experience, recruitment is likely to haemorrhage.

I wonder whether the Fire Brigades Union, or indeed Gerry Adams, have been consulted about their plans over the next few years? Even if there is a lasting peace in Ulster—still an "if"—the latest International Monitoring Commission report on Northern Ireland pointed out that the IRA and the Provos remain organised on a war footing. The world is full of unpredictable dangers. Four months ago, hardly anyone had heard of Darfur or Côte d'Ivoire. As my noble friend Lord Swinfen said, no effort is being made to achieve the longstanding, but equally long-ignored defence planning assumption that units should enjoy 24 months between operational tours. How will 36 battalions manage that, when 40 cannot do that now? It defies logic.

My noble friend Lord Hurd mentioned the 30 January election in Iraq. In light of the US announcement that it will increase its troop numbers, do Her Majesty's Government have any plans to increase British numbers in Iraq during that period? Can the Minister tell the House what plans the Government have to provide election monitors there?

The world has changed. We on these Benches accept that. We must also change and develop new thinking and implement new approaches for the Army. We agree with the CGS's ambition to end the arms plot and commend him for it.

Naturally, we want to ensure that we remain America's partner of choice—the one reliable ally who can do high-intensity warfare. That costs a lot of money. But not all conflicts are high-intensity and high-tech. Many involve wearisome and dangerous garrison duty.

As my noble friend Lord Swinfen pointed out, the US Army, which is vastly more advanced in technology and technology-based weapon systems than our own—and that before we try developing some of our own systems—is about to recruit 23,000 more infantrymen. Similarly, the Australians, who are also very involved in the front-line of the war against international terrorism, are also increasing their infantry.

My noble friend Lord Monro mentioned the reserves. The award of the first Military Cross to a TA soldier since the Second World War is a reminder of how much our Armed Forces, and the Government, have come to rely on our reserves. Indeed, about 1,200 of them have been sent to Iraq.
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We welcome the fact that, at long last, work has started on preparing a Tri-Service Armed Forces Bill. But I share the profound concerns voiced by my noble friends Lord Howell, Lord Attlee and Lord Campbell of Alloway, and expressed to me by serving officers, that the whole approach to these issues is misdirected. Too much idealism; too little realism.

The military discipline system, in principle and in practice, must of course accord with the requirements of domestic and international law. That is beyond dispute. But what should also be beyond dispute is that individual members of our Armed Forces should be able to take split-second decisions knowing that the system will support them afterwards.

I turn to the subject of the Royal Navy and the carrier programme. Like my noble friend Lord Selsdon, we believe that Britain really needs those ships. We hope that a final contract for the carriers will be signed as soon as possible. But I am concerned when I look at the MPR 2004 project sheet, where the current in-service date of October 2012 is not stated, implying that the Government will not meet that date.

Will the Minister tell the House the Government's plans for the future of the naval bases at Devonport, Portsmouth and Rosyth? With only two repair contracts due to be awarded in 2005—for HMS "Richmond" and "Ark Royal"—there is not enough work to go around. So which of those three do the Government plan to close and what impact will a closure have on the capability of British yards to build the two aircraft carriers?

As with so many other major projects, the in-service date of the Type 45 destroyers slipped in the last year by 18 months to May 2009. The implication is that, with the last of the Sea Harriers going in March 2006, the Royal Navy will have no air defence capability beyond 25 miles for at least three years. In effect, the Government are hoping that the Navy will not face a hostile air defence environment between 2006 and 2009.

The First Sea Lord has said that,

We shall therefore keep the three Type 23 frigates— "Grafton", "Marlborough" and "Norfolk"—thus restoring essential capability at a time of heightened threat. We shall also fit what the Navy really wants—a serious land-attack capability, the Tactical Tomahawk cruise missiles—to the second batch Type 45 destroyers.

The Royal Air Force will lose more than 100 front-line aircraft and 7,500 personnel, nearly a quarter of the RAF. The in-service date for Brimstone, the anti-armour weapon designed to replace cluster bombs, has slipped by another 11 months. That is a concern, not only because the RAF is denied access to what promises to be an effective weapons system, but also because it prolongs the service life of cluster bombs with their legally questionable bomblets. Those too often do not explode on impact, but litter the battlefield long after the conflict is over, providing a hazard to friendly troops and civilians alike.

The noble Lord, Lord Bach, claims to be making even more resources available to defence and providing the longest period of sustained growth for over 20 years. The
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reality is a long way from the hype, and my noble friend Lord Attlee was right to question it. According to the Commons Library, as a percentage of GDP, defence spending is at its lowest now since Ramsay MacDonald led a Labour Government in 1930.

We will increase defence spending by £2.7 billion more on front-line services than the Government's planned expenditure over the next three years. I have read the MoD's 2003–04 annual report and accounts and am concerned to see that losses and special payments for the DLO and DPA combined were over £400 million in closed cases and £942 million in advance notification cases, a breathtaking amount of money. Combined with the £1.7 billion increase in the cost of 20 major equipment projects, that means that the MoD has frittered away nearly £3 billion of taxpayers' money in the past year alone.

Therefore, in view of the informed concern of so many noble Lords, I again ask the Government to make time for the defence changes to be debated in the House, so that the Government may account more clearly for what they are doing and for what they are failing to do. It is the absolute belief of my party that defence of the realm is the first duty of government. Hence our anxiety when we are told that we are to have fewer warships, fewer aircraft and a smaller Army; the more so when we are also told that we are engaging in increasing military commitments and are confronted by continuing threats from terrorism. It simply does not add up.

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