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Afghanistan has been much discussed in this House, but it is probably the best example of the comprehensive approach in action. All our actions there are aimed at the overall goal, shared by Prime Minister Karzai's democratically elected Government and all their allies, of creating a stable, secure, and self-sustainable country, free from terrorism and the opium industry.
In the long term, it is essential that Afghanistan develops satisfactory and sustainable basic institutions and infrastructure. Effective governance and alternative livelihood programmes must underpin poppy elimination and advance the Afghan Governments counter-narcotics efforts. I pay tribute to all the work being carried out by DfID, the various aid organisations and the Afghans themselves, but in the short term the Afghan people need to see more improvements in their everyday conditions if they are to continue to reject the insurgents. Where local insecurity still keeps out civilian aid specialists, our Armed Forces will have to shoulder the burden of undertaking essential reconstruction work when under fire or until the environment is safe enough for the civilians to take over.
Helping reconstruction is not a new concept for the British Army. The Volkswagen factory in Wolfsburg and the prosperity of that town owe their survival after the Second World War to a British army officer from Lancashire, Ivan Hirst, who put the bombed-out Volkswagen Beetle factory back on its feet in 1945. Reconstruction under fire is not easy, but we always recognised that the task in Helmand was going to be difficult. That is why we sent in such a strong and well supported task force. It now includes an engineer regiment to maintain the momentum of development until there is sufficient security for civilian aid experts.
There is already encouraging progress in Helmand, where work is under way on roads, schools, clinics, wells and irrigation. At the national level, there have been significant improvements since 2001: the economy grew by 14 per cent last year, more than 4 million refugees have returned and 6 million children, including 2 million girls, are at school. What had been a medieval pariah state is now a fledgling democracy.
In Iraq the continuing sectarian bloodshed is clearly appalling and seriously threatens its progress. However, let us not forget that at any time the Iraqi people are permitted the chance to embrace democracy, they do so. A national constitution has been ratified by a referendum, and a national unity Government are in power. The people have shown that they do not want sectarianism and the rule of the bomb. Despite the difficult security situation, progress is being made on the ground. Access to water has improved, sewage and waste water treatment plants are operating again, and healthcare spending is approaching 30 times its pre-war level.
Crucially, we should remember that the continuing coalition military assistance programme has now trained 312,000 members of the Iraqi security forces. This has allowed us to hand over the first two provinces to Iraqi control, and others will follow. The Iraqi authorities showed that they could handle recent violence in Al Amara without our assistance. However, we must also be realistic about the existence of elements of sectarian extremism in the ISF, and work with the Iraqi Government to root out those who use the cover of an ISF uniform to perpetrate their violent criminal activity.
In Basra, Operation Sinbad continues to make progress, although it is far too early for more than cautious optimism. We have had to learn some difficult lessons since 2003, and Operation Sinbad is an example of where we are putting those lessons into practice. I do not deny that considerable challenges lie ahead, both for the coalition and for the Iraqi Government.
The operational lessons we are learning in Iraq and Afghanistan are leading to an important evolution in our Armed Forces and the support arrangements for them, in both personnel and equipment, to ensure that they remain effective in meeting the challenges the world presents, now and in the future. We have just passed the Armed Forces Act, and I need not repeat our discussion on it. Recently, with Treasury co-operation, we introduced a new tax-free allowance of over £2,250 for each six-month operational tour. This now leaves our troops among the best paid, as well as the most determined and professional, in the world. We are determined to ensure that our forces remain in the first division of military effectiveness.
Turning to a subject close to my heart, over the past year we have published the defence industrial strategy, the defence technology strategy and the Enabling Acquisition Change report. These clearly set out the Governments approach to defence acquisition, in which the needs of our Armed Forces come first. They also list those areas where we judge it crucial to maintain a strong UK industry to maintain sovereign capability.
We have driven forward implementation over the past year. Good progress has been achieved in helicopters, complex weapons and armoured fighting vehicles. The FRES programme now has a clear path to give the Army its essential future medium-weight capability. FRES will see competitions for the systems integrator, the vehicle integrator and the vehicle
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Just as industry must change, so must the Ministry of Defence. This year we announced the merger of the DPA and the DLO to provide a more effective and efficient through-life service building on the best of the two previous organisations. It will emphasise the swift response to emerging operational requirements that allowed us to announce a package of new protected patrol vehicles earlier this year. The first Bulldog armoured fighting vehicles are already on the streets of Basra, and the new Mastiff vehicle will be delivered to theatre less than a year after the requirement was identified. That is a truly impressive performance by the MoD and industry.
Todays complex challenges and the speed of change require a willingness to evolve, adapt and innovate in the Armed Forces, ministry processes and international organisations. The Government will continue to press for them all and for the success of integrated efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan. Current difficulties are widely reported, and no one would claim that all decisions emerging from a turbulent international environment have been perfect. However, we are making progress by diagnosing difficulties, adapting to them and learning what works and what does not. I remain convinced that our aims are right, and I see no realistic alternative to our systematic method. I believe that time will show how far that method will eventually benefit not only the people of this country but also the wider global community, including those countries where our forces are playing their brave part in implementing the comprehensive approach.
Lord Howell of Guildford: My Lords, I thank the Minister for that interesting analysis of a turbulent international environment. The international environment is not only turbulent; it is also extremely dangerous and people are looking for clarity and leadership. I feel that my role today should mainly be that of a herald. When I look at the galaxy of distinguished talent and expertise lined up to speak, I think that I should merely tell of the oratorical wonders that I am sure will come. The questions of security and military operations in Afghanistan and Iraq will be the subject of a later debate, as the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, reminded the House earlier, and I shall leave my noble friend Lord Astor of Hever to comment on the military aspects, as he is an expert in that field.
I begin by saying a few words of welcome and, I hope, encouragement, to distinguished noble Lords who are to make their maiden speeches today. There are no fewer than four of them. The first on the list is the noble Lord, Lord Patel of Bradford, who is a colossal authority in the field of ethnicity and mental health; I shall be fascinated to see how he brings his huge expertise to bear on our debates.
My noble friend Lord Leach of Fairford is a renowned figure in the worlds of finance and European affairs. He played a major and very distinguished role in helping to protect our country from becoming involved in the euro. Most sensible people now agree that that was a good thing. There is more investment in Britain than in any other European country, and that investment continues to grow, which is the proof of the pudding.
The noble Lord, Lord Browne, hails from a place that I love and greatly admire, which is Ulster. I think that I am right in saying that he is one of the first Members, of your Lordshipss House, but not the only one, who has beenand, no doubt, still isa member of the Democratic Unionist Party. I think back 30 years ago to the violence, extremism and polarity of Northern Ireland politics. I never thought that I would be standing at any Dispatch Box with the real prospect, not very far ahead, of Dr Paisley and Mr Martin McGuinness presumably sitting side by side administering, we hopeand our fingers are crosseda more peaceful, prosperous and vigorous Province. The vigour has always been there, and I know that, given the chance, the Province will blossom nicely.
The fourth maiden speaker is the noble Lord, Lord Jay of Ewelme, who is a former most distinguished ambassador in various key posts and who, as the Permanent Under-Secretary of State in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, presided over difficult times. We all look forward enormously to his valuable contribution both to this and future debates.
The idea of a day such as this is for your Lordships' House to debate all aspects of foreign policyand of course there are too many to be covered in a single speech by any of us. But I have to laugh a bit when pollsters and focus group experts, who tend to boss us around and tell us what we should speak about in politics, inform us that the public are not very interested in foreign policy. They say that because they have made a little list of things and told the public to tick a whole lot of boxes, and it turns out that the main interests are schools, hospitals, health, crime, immigration and so on, and that foreign policy comes down the list.
Those of us who are interested in foreign policyand the enormous attendance of noble Lords at this debate shows that it is of considerable interestare entitled to ask: if foreign policy is so unimportant to the pollsters, how is it that both the President of the United States and the Prime Minister of Great Britain are facing their biggest challenges on foreign policy issues? How have foreign policy issues suddenly come to dominate the entire debate, and why in the United States did they dominate the recent elections for the Congress and the Senate?
Of course the answer is that foreign policy is not just an issue like schools, hospitals and all the other things that pollsters write down. It is not a category to be ticked or crossed; it really is a view of ourselves and our purposes. Our foreign policy tells us not merely about what we should do in the world; it tells us about ourselves. It tells us where we stand, what
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De Gaulle said that the people of France should have a certain idea of their country. You do not have to buy the whole of the Gaullist agenda to realise that Charles de Gaulle had the right thought as a leader. In a sense, the issue is even more acute today. People feel buffeted by global issues over which they know that their national Governments have no control, so it becomes all the more important for national leaders to be able to illuminate, clarify and make sense of an extremely dangerous and problematical world, in which some very frightening threats are hanging over us all. That may be called foreign policy, but it is not remote at allit affects us immediately. Our national political leaders have to provide that clarity, and they must be, as President George Bush said in one of his happier moments,
I have to move to more specific points but I say straightaway that, by that standard, United Kingdom foreign policy at present does not reach a very high level. It is in fact, as one kindly commentator put it the other day, a foreign policy in limbo. We are waiting on others. At the moment, we are all waiting to see what Mr James Baker and Mr Lee Hamilton have to say in their Iraq Study Group. When they say something, no doubt we will respond in some way or another.
I know what foreign policy is supposed to be. The Minister set out an interesting and perfectly fair analysis of what one would like to think our policy was. It is meant to be partnership with the United States in dealing with the quagmire and morass of the Middle East and so on, and it is meant to be being at the heart of Europe. Your Lordships will remember the various metaphors used to describe that. We were going to be a bridge between the United States and Europe. Then, at one point, we were going to be a pivot. But today, there is no bridge and no pivot.
Instead, we find ourselves in vast difficulties. In effect, we are chained to the chariot wheel of United States policy in Iraq and waiting for a change in the wind there, if one is coming. In Europe, we held the presidency, but everyone you talk to throughout European capitals knows that our presidency was a flop and that we failed to take the lead. At the moment, the European Union is in a great debate between those who think that another constitution should be resurrected and that integration and more Europe should go forward and those, like the rest of us, who think that, although we love Europe and want to play a part in it, there must be a more flexible, reformed and modern structure than anything that we have today.
Let no one accuse me or anyone else of being anti-American. We love and admire America as the home of liberty, enterprise and independence, but that is not the same as being a dutiful lapdog or poodle of the United States. We do not need to tick all the boxes. True friends of America should be candid friends, not just compliant and obedient friends. Many of usthis goes beyond partyfeel that we could be a little more clarifying and bold in our critique and attitude to the latest utterances from Washington and the latest shifts of policy when they come.
We could do better than just having our Prime Minister operating on a video link giving an input to the Iraq Study Group survey, as he did the other day. I do not feel proud when that happens. It may be that we should be thinking about creating our own Iraq study group. The other place held a debate on that the other day and a number of Members, including those from my party, argued that in due course there should be some kind of inquiry or study group. In the mean time, it does not leave a good taste that it is the Congress of the United States conducting the study and our Ministers and Prime Minister who are giving an input to that. Let us in your Lordships' House at least have a full debate on some aspects of this, without in any way getting in the way of the immense determination and bravery of our military forces on the ground in Iraq, Afghanistan or anywhere else.
Let us consider the prospects for what President Bush has called the new Middle East that he wants. The Prime Minister made a speech on that at the Mansion House last week. When he talked about the need for a whole Middle East strategy, he was right. We need to think not just of Iraq but of its neighbours and, more than that, the entire galère of regional powers in the Middle East. However, the Prime Minister was completely off-beam when he went on to say that it is simple: that we need this whole new Middle East policy and that it is simple. I do not understand that at all; far from being simple, it is immensely complex.
It does not stop simply with our saying that we should bring in Iran and Syria if only they would be more co-operative. If only. The truth is that involving Iran more constructively in the Iraq morass and involving Syria in turn involves a whole sequence of changes of policy and of immensely skilled diplomacy to try to turn what at the moment is very negative into something positive. How will we involve Iran? Obviously Iran has military nuclear ambitions, or it would not be so keen on enriching its own uranium. It also wants to eliminate Israel; that is its official policy. Syria and Iran want to go on feeding Hezbollah to agitate and to make war on Israel more effectively. Syria still wants to dominate Lebanon; it still hankers after colonising it, although it was forced to leave a year or so ago. All these matters must be negotiated and skirted around. All right, let us have a whole Middle East, but that means not only bringing in Syria and Iran but involving Turkey constructively and untangling the Kurdistan problem. It also means bringing in Egypt, which has the best army in the region, as well as the Saudis, who have been very constructive with the Abdullah plan and now with
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All roads lead back to the Israel/Palestine conflict. We should be more of a candid friend to America and say that it is the Americans who must look at themselves and decide which lobbies they will stare down and how they will become totally committed, as they and the powers in the region must be, to securing a resumption of talks between Israel and Palestine on the road map. Obviously the Israelis security must be guaranteed. They have a right to believe that they should be able to sleep in their beds without being murdered, but they will have to face the fact that at some stage and in a phased way they will have to withdraw from the West Bank completely, and that on the West Bank there will have to be replacement forcespossibly largely non-European or even non-Americanthat can guarantee some security and begin to bring Palestine together as a unity instead of a near civil-war country so that it can negotiate effectively with the Israelis.
I do not want to trespass further on your Lordships time, but there is much to say about Europe. Just as we are pro-American, we are good Europeans. We believe in a more flexible Europe. The Movement for European Reform is the key to that, and no doubt we will hear much more about it in the debate. One cannot help noticing that, for all the EUs aspirations to be a world superpower and to strut on the world stage, at the moment it is succeeding merely in losing Turkey. Turkish opinion is turning away from membership of the EU, and the consequences of that could be quite disastrous for those of us in this region.
The basic flaw in much of the thinking out of Washington, London and Brussels on the Middle East is that somehow the Atlantic countries are the centre of the game. They are not. Of course we play a crucial part, but the answers for the Middle East lie just as much in Beijing, Delhi, Tokyo and Moscow as they do in Washington and Brussels. We need the Asian powersthe rising powersboth for security in the Middle East and for our energy security and climate security if we are to solve the carbon problems of the future, which the Foreign Secretary Mrs Beckett and the Prime Minister are rightly so keen to do. We will need China and India to be on side just as much on those matters as on security matters.
I apologise for trespassing too long on your Lordships time, but there is so much to say and so much left unsaid. Britain needs to be good friends with America. Yes, we need to be good Europeans, and we cannot be anything other than totally interdependent in an interdependent world, but we may need other partners just as much. Those partners may be the rising powers of Asia, and a network such as that offered by the Commonwealth might be just as good a vehicle for the future promotion of our foreign policy as relying on our sometimes rather unreliable European partners or our American allies.
I end by noting that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office did not even mention the Commonwealth in its last report, which is a great pity. It indicates that there is a gap in the thinking about foreign policy in this nation which needs to be filled quickly, otherwise we will be in even greater difficulties.
Lord Wallace of Saltaire: My Lords, it is good to follow the thoughtful speech by the noble Lord, Lord Howell of Guildford, much of which I agreed with. I suspect that I agree with rather more of itin particular his critical view of the United Statesthan one or two people on the Conservative Benches. I think I also heard him criticise the Government for not providing a sufficiently positive European leadership. It is good to hear a Conservative make that criticism of the Government. Furthermore, I agree strongly with what he said about the links between foreign policy and national identity. I recall Gordon Brown saying, in a thoughtful speech about Britishness the summer before last, that we cannot resolve the long agonies of Britains relations with continental Europe until we define more clearly what we understand by British identity. As I have pointed out before, that has to be resolved in a debate across the parties. The Conservatives have a slightly different view of Britishness than the Liberals or the Labour Party; we need to have a broader discussion, one for which this House is entirely appropriate, about how to improve the consensus on our diverse societys nationhood. That has to involve the teaching of history and citizenship in schools, and clearly it relates to foreign policy.
Like the noble Lord, Lord Howell, I shall not cover the full remit of foreign policy, defence and international development. I am happy to leave a number of defence issues to my noble friend Lord Garden in his closing speech and those on development to my noble friend Lady Northover. I used to think that the nightmare for me as a Liberal Democrat foreign affairs spokesman would be to turn around at the beginning of a debate and see behind me my noble friends Lady Williams and Lord Ashdown sitting together and to wonder what on earth they would say, because they will say something far more intelligent than I. I look forward to their contributions. I want to focus on one of the closing phrases of the Queens Speech:
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