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Lord Luke: My Lords, I, too, take this opportunity to welcome the noble Lord, Lord Drayson, and to wish him luck in what he will find to be not only an extremely important but, I am afraid, a most onerous portfolio. I also welcome the noble Lord, Lord Triesman. At the same time, I also wanted to say how much I appreciated the courteous and gracious way that the noble Lord, Lord Bach, said, several times, "No I will not be answering any of the questions asked by the noble Lord, Lord Luke". No doubt at the moment he is turning his sword into a ploughshare or should it be his spear into a pruning hook and I wish him well in that.

I was delighted to hear the Minister reiterate the Government's unflinching support for the projected two new aircraft carriers. I therefore do not apologise for confining my speech to that subject as their importance in the defence scheme of things is really overwhelming. Not for the first time, I shall ask a series of questions and I start with one about the Written Statement by the then Secretary of State Mr Hoon on 8 February, which was repeated in this House by the noble Lord, Lord Bach. The main content of that Statement concerned the appointment of Kellogg Brown and Root as the preferred physical integrator of the CVF project. The Written Statement stated that,


What has happened in the ensuing three months? Has the precise role of the PI even been decided? Will their contracts cease in July this year, as I have read? Is it not unlikely that KBR's part in this important project will indeed be concluded by then?

Are the in-service dates for the carriers still 2012 and 2015 respectively? Despite reports in the press that the Maingate is slipping into 2006, I understand that it is still officially timetabled for autumn this year. Will it be early or late autumn? Will the Minister tell the House how the component costing and consequent business case for the project is proceeding?

One of my most important questions is whether the Joint Combat Aircraft in-service date will coincide in any way with the arrival of the first of the carriers. I understand that the weight problem has either been solved or circumvented. Is that correct? What contingency plans do Her Majesty's Government have if the JCAs are late or not forthcoming at all? Will the by then rather elderly Harrier GR7/9 be deployable on the new ships if the JCAs are really late? If not, it is beginning to look as though the long-range foreign operations capability of the Royal Navy, which is so
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important, will be severely limited during the period from 2010 to 2015. What are the contingency plans for that possibility?

Indeed, what are the plans for the disposal of the old carriers, which really will be old by then? Is there any plan to turn one of them into a floating refit maintenance shop for the new carriers, or will that be covered by the MARS project?

Most recent press comment about these carriers has centred on the budget for their construction. I realise that it will not be possible to be definitive about this for a long time. However, can the Minister give any indication about the current thinking on this matter and assure us that the suggested size of the carriers is still 65,000 tonnes each—bearing in mind the importance of having more than enough space for future developments on the technical side and the undoubted fact that steel and air are relatively cheap compared with the possible task of trying to incorporate the "clever bits" on a platform that might be inherently too small?

It has been suggested that considerable cost savings in this project might be achieved by co-operating with our French allies with regard to the design of their projected new carrier. Has that suggestion any weight and has it progressed at all? What steps are Her Majesty's Government taking to ensure that the skills and training needed for individuals who will make, maintain, manage and operate the carriers and the Joint Combat Aircraft will be at the required level to coincide with the building programmes and in-service dates?

A report in the Daily Telegraph on 16 May concerned a proposed hospital ship build project for two of the shipyards where the carriers will be built to fill the work gap caused by delays to the aircraft carrier programme and a slow down in refit contracts for Navy warships. Will the Minister comment on whether that is authentic?

As has already been stated on many occasions in your Lordships' House, we on these Benches believe that the "Queen Elizabeth" and "Prince of Wales" will be ships of which we will be enormously proud. They are absolutely essential if the Royal Navy is to continue to carry out its remit and will be the nucleus of a very formidable fighting force. It is somewhat disappointing that at present there seem to be endless problems and delays and I hope that this frustrating stage of the project will soon come to an end.

2.56 pm

Lord Weidenfeld: My Lords, the key words "culture of respect" in the gracious Speech should extend to and straddle the whole field of international relations, reaching into every regional and thematic aspect of this debate.

Turning to the Middle East, Britain's role both as a European power and a staunch ally of the United States must be one that seeks to narrow the transatlantic gap of still continuing misunderstanding and misperception of issues. America carries most of the burden of the Iraq war, the outcome of which is decisive for all of us—
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supporters or opponents of the operation. Failure in Baghdad will mean failure in Jerusalem, more duplicity in Damascus and deadly danger in Tehran. It will hold all of us to ever costlier ransom. If there is one top table at which the western allies, Europeans and Americans, sit together, we can overcome most adversities. If, as President Chirac might prefer, there are two, we will be played off against each other by emergent forces—new world powers inevitably. One may choose one's metaphor either from the world of physics—through gravitational pull—or the world of animal behaviour—through the provocation of weakness.

In the Palestine-Israel conflict we have, for the first time in four years, a glimmer of hope through the withdrawal from Gaza plan, but I believe that this plan can succeed only if the quartet not only keeps a watchful eye on operations on the ground but also on the accompanying rhetoric of the parties. Even-handedness does not mean praise and plague on both houses; it must mean genuine approval or censure where it justly belongs.

The other day the German Chancellor and the heads of government of Poland and the Baltic states paid homage in Moscow to the fallen subjects of the Soviet Union, whatever their historic reservations may have been. In the same week, the Prime Minister of the Palestinian Authority chose Israel's independence day to mourn the existence of the state of Israel and condemn the United Nations resolution 58 years ago that partitioned historic Palestine into two sovereign states whose Arab portion had more generous frontiers than has ever been suggested since and whose acceptance would have obviated myriad casualties and well nigh all the suffering of the refugees.

General Sharon is today the only leader of Israel who has the guts and the gravitas to carry out the withdrawal plan. He deserves our sympathy, for he risks his job and indeed his life. This is the time to acknowledge that and to cease demeaning and demonising him or casting doubt on what he really intends by the withdrawal and after the withdrawal, forgetting that a successful withdrawal in itself would engender its own dynamic towards a fuller peace, with a coalition government with moderate forces from the moderate right. I also have great confidence in the democratic system and the majority view of the population that a two-state solution—a viable and honourable solution—must be found. I believe that rhetorical disarmament is almost as important as the decommissioning of weapons of terror, and we could and should all contribute to this aim.

What makes it difficult for me to agree with the views of the noble Lords, Lord Wright and Lord Hylton, is the main issue of cause and effect. For them, the intifada is the effect of occupation; for me, the occupation is the effect of the intifada terror that existed there before the first settler pitched his tent on the West Bank. Rejection, non-co-operation and hatred were the watchwords from the beginning, and we must now try to overcome that.

It is encouraging that Mr James Wolfensohn, until recently president of the World Bank, plans to play an important part in helping to heal the economic ills of
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Gaza and parts of the West Bank. We should also welcome the initiatives arising from a meeting here in London, when projects were ventilated and discussed about ambitious loan guarantees to help medium and small companies and enterprises in Gaza. That sort of initiative is very laudable.

This is surely not the time for voices in British academe to recommend the boycott of Israel's universities and centres of research, flagrantly breaching the laws of freedom of learning. The idea of Britain's Association of University Teachers issuing a western-style fatwa against the universities of Haifa and Bar-Ilan is a shattering proof of the discriminatory hostility towards Israel and of the bile and bias against a demonstrably open democratic society. I cannot remember similar moves against half a dozen Arab or African countries where scholars are languishing in gaols figuring very high on the AUT's agenda.

Having recently retired from a 10-year presidency of the board of governors of the Ben-Gurion University of Beer Sheva, I can assure noble Lords of an exemplary spirit of friendship between Israeli and Arab and especially Bedouin students. In Haifa, which has the largest number of Arab students in Israel, my opposite number, Manfred Lahnstein, a non-Jewish German chairman, can bear witness to similar experiences there. It so happens that I recently sat on a discussion panel at the Royal Geographical Society here in London, where an Israeli communist professor from Haifa staunchly defended the Arab case and indeed questioned the very wisdom of the existence of a Jewish state. So much for the lack of academic freedom at Haifa University.

Nothing would galvanise the peace process more than success in the transfer of power and responsibility for internal security to an indigenous government in Baghdad. I belong to the generation who lived through the Second World War, when we had to be patient in times of crisis. How many terrible mishaps, botched expeditions and costly casualties had to be endured before final victory could be obtained? Yet we are indignant today that two years after the military intervention, there is still no complete law and order in the streets of Baghdad and no WMD have been found. Very recently, we learned of two new mass graves of 9,000 and 6,000 corpses respectively, dating from well before the first shots were fired. Though that was duly reported, it received less attention than those disgusting transgressions in Guantanamo Bay, or the deadly—in the truest sense of the word—fabrications of Newsweek, on the flushing of the Qur'an.

We should side with the United States in bringing insurgency to an end and must have greater understanding of the policy of toughness towards those helping the terrorists wherever they see fit. Syria, whose people are ruled by one of the ugliest tyrannies of the Middle East, must be strictly watched. Syria is not only still harbouring headquarters of terrorists but shows little sign of preventing the porous frontiers with Iraq being a thoroughfare and transit route for terror and insurgency in Iraq. Fortunately, a Franco-American consensus helped the process of expelling the Syrians from long-suffering Lebanon, though the
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last word there has not yet been spoken. European chancelleries laid out the red carpets for Assad Junior. Her Majesty even had the young presidential couple for tea; but Bashar Assad, willingly or unwillingly, is retreading the steps of his father and is now a captive of the old tyrant's old cronies.

Only a policy of strength, determination and western unity can bring a solution. The British presidency in European will face the toughest questions and can cope with the solutions only if it is inspired by the will and stamina needed to refashion as much as possible what is left of western unity. That is a challenge for which the Prime Minister is well equipped, intellectually and morally, for which he deserves the nation's fullest support.

3.4 pm

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