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Lord Ashcroft: My Lords, I apologise for not being in the Chamber for the opening speeches. I was having emergency dental treatment. If, as a consequence, I slur during my speech, I can assure your Lordships it is not the benefit of a fine lunch.
No one can deny that the geo-political environment has been dramatically changed by the ending of the Cold War and the changes that have flowed from it. Over the next few decades, developed states will need to contend with asymmetric threats, in which states and non-state actors avoid direct engagements with an adversary. Instead they will use strategies, tactics and weaponry which are designed to minimise an enemy's strength and to expose perceived weaknesses. Developed states will face strategic weapons of mass destruction threats as the unconventional delivery capabilities of states and non-state actors grow. At the same time, as recent events have shown, the demand for "boots on the ground" will continue to grow.
Thus today, more than ever, it is vital that we ensure that our Armed Forces, the main pillar of our nation's security and defence, are properly equipped, properly trained and thoroughly sustained in every way.
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The truth is that geographic distance, less so than ever before, grants no protection to our country. A faraway threat can become a threat to our own country in a very short time. However, the gap between Britain's strategic reach and its military grasp has recently reached a point of crisis.
While committing our Armed Forces to five wars in seven years, the Government have failed, both in the Strategic Defence Review of 1998 and all the subsequent White Papers, to close the ever widening gap between military means and strategic ends. I regret to say that the Government have failed, and continue to fail, our Armed Forces in almost every significant respect. A raft of highly critical reports from both the House of Commons Defence Committee and the National Audit Office has highlighted in the starkest of terms the MoD's failing of our Armed Forces.
Indeed there are profound and proper concerns. The capability gap is clearly getting wider and the cuts are becoming more damaging to effectiveness, to critical mass and to service activity. The procurement programme is genuinely in crisis. With the last of the Sea Harriers taken out of service soon the Royal Navy will have no close air defence until 2015 and the early withdrawal of the RAF Jaguars by 2007 will also leave a capability gap before Typhoon enters full operational service at the end of the decade.
And now, at a time of increased threat, the Government plan to cut further our already overstretched and undermanned Armed Forces by taking four front-line infantry battalions out of the line at a time when they have never been busier. In addition, they are taking six warships from the Royal Navy when there are already fewer ships of the line than in the taskforce we sent to the Falklands.
The sad truth is that the defence reviews over the past eight years have had almost no measurable impact on the structures or programmes of our Armed Forces, other than to cut, to shrink and to downsize. The obsession with technology, while it has an important role to play, has left the services increasingly ill suited for the missions they will be expected to execute in the future due to a neglect of the realities of human resources and manpower.
The post-invasion phases in Afghanistan and Iraq have proved that the set of missions ranging from very violent counter-insurgency operations to more benign forms of nation-building are the decisive parts of these campaigns. These sorts of constabulary efforts are exceedingly likely in the future.
Let me be clear: I support modernisation. It is important to make the best use we can of technology, to the extent that applied technology enhances our ability to project power and influence events. But new and increasingly sophisticated technology is not the whole story.
The extremely demanding burden of the ongoing war on terrorism is likely to continue for the foreseeable future. Because post-conflict and war on terrorism operations are likely to be of long duration and will vary in intensity, the capabilities required to achieve these objectives must be achieved. Having committed us to the first major war of the 21st century, the Government have
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the obligation to support our Armed Forces so that they can get on with the tasks required of them. The obligation and the task to close the gap between strategic ends and military means cannot be exaggerated.
What lessons have the Government learnt from the operations in the Balkans, Afghanistan and, particularly, Iraq? The lessons they should have learnt is that numbers matter, particularly numbers in infantry. At this time of considerable danger from terrorism at home and abroad, and major military deployments overseas, can there really be any military logic or sense in cutting the numbers of the infantry?
While we on these Benches agree with the logic of ending the arms plot, which can be highly disruptive to soldiers and their families, it makes no sense to any of us to reduce the number of regular soldiers when, at the same time, the Army has to be constantly reinforced on operations by an increasing number of our remarkable TA soldiers, who deserve such great credit.
The tasks the Government ask our forces to perform on their behalf are vital to the freedom we all enjoy. But with the security challenges showing no signs of dissipating, they must stop taking our Armed Forces for granted and ensure that they are properly equipped and funded.
Without the national security which defence capability provides, all our plans to secure economic growth and improve hospitals and education, may rest on sand, for the national life in which these objectives can be pursued in peace and freedom may disappear beyond recall.
I was privileged to spend a day with the Scots Guards in Basra a few weeks ago. It confirmed to me the tremendous achievements of our Armed Forces and the dedication and professionalism, not to mention the bravery, of our servicemen. But the Government must recognise that in asking our Armed Forces to perform ever more demanding tasks, we have a duty to give them the tools they need to do the job for us.
It seems clear that Israel and Palestine hold the key to progress in international affairs throughout a very great deal of the world. Sadly, however, the peace process has suffered setbacks in recent weeks. A decision was taken to build more than 3,600 new houses in Maale Adumin, on the east side of Jerusalem, the whole to be enclosed within a new separation wall. Ariel, another settlement, is to have a barrier erected around three sides of it. Both these moves cut into the West Bank and further isolate Palestinian east Jerusalem.
The Knesset next extended the life of a law of 2002, preventing spouses and close family members living together, where one member is now in the West Bank and another in Israel. This was understandable as a precaution against suicide bombs, but seems unhelpful at present, when ceasefires are working rather well.
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Some 400 extra Palestinian prisoners or detainees were to have been released, but this has not happened; the reason given has been the lack of progress in disarming militants.
Finally, there is uncertainty over the Erez industrial park on the north side of Gaza. The Israeli Cabinet seems deeply split, with one Minister saying that the park must be closed and demolished, and another saying, on the contrary, that it should be kept open. I suggest that the latter course is the right one. The park contains both Israeli and Palestinian businesses employing up to 9,000 people from Gaza. Wages inside the park are much higher than in Gaza where, in any case, unemployment runs at about 60 per cent. Why destroy the livelihood of so many people? If security within the industrial park is the issue, why not have joint or neutral control?
I now follow a line taken by the noble Lord, Lord Alderdice, regarding a framework for progress towards peace. What is the quartet of the UN, the EU, the United States and Russia doing to prevent setbacks such as those I have tried to describe and to ensure progress towards a final agreement? Do representatives of the quartet meet together regularly with well prepared agendas and full minutes? Surely that is most necessary.
Secondly, will the European Union use its economic strength to reward constructive behaviour by the parties and to penalise unhelpful moves? I should like to see enough flexibility in the EU procedures to allow for both carrots and sticks. Will Her Majesty's Government take up this important issue when they assume the EU presidency?
Thirdly, security co-ordination and verification are urgently needed for the now delayed pull-back from Gaza. An American general has been appointed for this very purpose. Is he regularly meeting the parties? Will he ensure that they carry out what they undertake to do? Does he have sufficient resources for his task?
I suggest that it is greatly in the interest of all the external powers not to leave the situation to drift but to be actively engaged in helping it towards a just and lasting solution. Fifty-six years after 1949 and 12 years after the Oslo agreement is too long. International terrorism is most unlikely to be overcome while the conflict remains unresolved.
At the same time as peace suffers setbacks, hugely ambitious new plans are announced. It is said to be possible to pump water from the Red Sea to replenish the Dead Sea; that would also generate large amounts of electricity, because of the difference in levels. The benefits for the whole region could be very great.
The Rand Corporation in California has commissioned a design for a high-speed rail link, with fibre-optic cables, water pipelines, and so on, between Jenin in the north and Gaza in the south. This ARC plan, so called, would connect nearly all the main Palestinian centres of population, making a viable reality out of their embryo state.
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We must surely welcome such far-sighted schemes. I suggest, however, that they will not be able to be put into practice unless the external states decide to do everything in their power to help Israel and Palestine to reach agreement.
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