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24 Jan 2008 : Column 335

Lord Berkeley: My Lords, would not my noble friend agree that the lorries referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Pearson, are all acting highly illegally if they are carrying 42 tonnes of fish, because their maximum gross vehicle weight is 44 tonnes? They are probably at least eight tonnes over weight. Would he investigate where these illegal activities are taking place?

Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, I was more worried about the destination of those lorries. They would certainly be illegal in Whitehall or the Palace of Westminster.

Lord Goodlad: My Lords, would the Minister tell us whether the Government have any figures on the proportion of fish consumed in this country, and in Europe as a whole, that has been smuggled in through the Canary Islands? Recently published figures amount to as much as 50 per cent. The fish are caught by large vessels spending years at sea, many of them placed in the Asia Pacific region, hoovering up large quantities of fish. Has he discussed this problem with the Spanish Government and, if not, will he do so?

Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, that is an additional dimension to the complexity of the position. The noble Lord will appreciate that the European Commission needs to develop a policy that works for those fisheries which are closer to home. It certainly needs to examine the potential abuse identified by the noble Lord. However, inevitably, the main concentration of potential action relates to those fisheries which are in member countries of the European Union.

Lady Saltoun of Abernethy: My Lords, would the Minister agree that the total allowable catch and quota system is bound to lead to large amounts of discarding?

Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, there is no doubt that, by definition, it is a consequence of controls over catches. Equally clearly, however, there was a real danger of certain fishing stocks disappearing entirely. There has been a growth of North Sea cod in the past couple of years and a recovery—not sufficient for the total allowable catch to be greatly increased, but a potential increase of cod—after we had been faced with the danger of it becoming extinct.

Earl Ferrers: My Lords, does the Minister not agree that the common fisheries policy is becoming a farce? The purpose of quotas is presumably to conserve fish stocks. You do not conserve any fish stocks if you net them and kill half of them because you are allowed to land only a few. If that happens, why cannot the fish to be discarded be used for fertiliser or in some form of manufacture?

Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, as I have indicated, we want to see support and investment in the industry so that the catches are more selective and discard does not arise. First, that helps with the process of conservation and, secondly, the fishermen

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go out and return with catches that are marketable, therefore sustaining themselves more effectively. That is surely a constructive approach to the issue, which the British Government are emphasising should be developed by the European Commission.

Royal Navy: Aircraft Carriers

11.30 am

Lord Luke asked Her Majesty’s Government:

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Ministry of Defence (Baroness Taylor of Bolton): My Lords, first, I am sure that the whole House will wish to join me in offering sincere condolences to the family and friends of Corporal Darryl Gardiner, who was killed in operations in Afghanistan last Sunday.

A number of contracts have been placed with the supply chain for design and engineering data and for materials in support of manufacture of the carriers. The key elements of the manufacturing contract have been worked on by industry and MoD teams over many months and are now substantially in place.

Lord Luke: My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for that Answer. I should also like to join these Benches with the condolences that she expressed to the family of Corporal Darryl Gardiner.

Can the Minister say whether the strong rumours circulating that half a billion pounds have to be found in the procurement budget are correct? If so, from which programme will that come?

Baroness Taylor of Bolton: My Lords, there is always speculation whenever there is a Comprehensive Spending Review or planning round. When my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Defence announced the results of the Comprehensive Spending Review last July, he said that the review’s consequences would allow us to proceed with the carriers.

Lord Lee of Trafford: My Lords, on behalf of these Benches I join in the condolences in the earlier tribute. But may I ask the Minister where discussions stand with the French over their interest and involvement in the carrier programme?

Baroness Taylor of Bolton: My Lords, I have discussed this matter with the French on more than one occasion. They are not yet in a position to make a decision on ordering a carrier themselves, but there are excellent relationships between our team and the French and, indeed, French officials have been embedded in the project team from very early days. The French have contributed towards the design and other early costs and we can possibly benefit from common procurement and shared support. However, the French have not yet committed to making a decision on ordering a carrier.

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Lord King of Bridgwater: My Lords, does the Minister accept that it is widely recognised that there are major difficulties in the Ministry of Defence procurement budget? And did not the previous Prime Minister give an undertaking, which I understand has been endorsed by the current Prime Minister, that the cost of the ongoing operations in Afghanistan and Iraq would be a charge against the reserve? And is it not true that up to £500 million has been transferred out of the procurement budget to help meet the cost of the ongoing operations? It appears to be a complete contradiction of the pledges given in this House.

Baroness Taylor of Bolton: My Lords, it is not true that the costs of operations are cutting into the defence budget. The Treasury reserve has provided some £6.6 billion for operations over and above the core defence budget since 2001. We have had a sustained increase in the defence budget over many years; that is to increase. It is true that every Minister in every department would like more money for their priorities. That is obviously the case with defence, as elsewhere. But it is not true that the cost of operations is biting into that budget.

Lord Elton: My Lords, will the noble Baroness answer the question that she has just been asked about the transfer of a large sum from the procurement budget in order to sustain current operations?

Baroness Taylor of Bolton: My Lords, I think that I did answer it by saying that the operations were met by the very substantial money from the Treasury—the £6.6 billion—that was over and above the amount budgeted for defence.

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean: My Lords, will my noble friend be kind enough to remind the House of the specific budget for the aircraft carriers? Perhaps she would also indicate whether she is confident that the aircraft carriers can be delivered within that budget.

Baroness Taylor of Bolton: My Lords, the budget is £3.9 billion, which is the targeted cost. There could be differences. However, it is important to realise that we have an incentivised approach and it is very possible that the actual cost on this occasion might be lower, because we have been discussing with industry a different type of approach to this contract.

Lord Pearson of Rannoch: My Lords, if and when these carriers are built, is it intended that they will be entirely under British control, or is it possible that they will form part of a rapid reaction force?

Baroness Taylor of Bolton:My Lords, I am sure the noble Lord will be reassured to hear that they will be under British control.

Lord Craig of Radley: My Lords, can the Minister remind the House of the estimated in-service dates for these two carriers and whether there will be adequate Joint Strike Fighters to embark on them at that time?

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Baroness Taylor of Bolton: My Lords, the in-service dates for the carriers were set out last July; they were and remain 2014 and 2016. The JSF has not yet got to main-gate stage in terms of ordering or setting specific target dates for when they will be available, but we are committed and have signed up to the concept of main gate on JSF and tests are going ahead. My understanding is that those are on target for STOVL test flights this year.

Sale of Student Loans Bill

11.37 am

Brought from the Commons; read a first time, and ordered to be printed.

Business of the House: Debates Today

The Lord President of the Council (Baroness Ashton of Upholland): My Lords, I beg to move the Motion standing in my name on the Order Paper.

Moved, That the debate on the Motion in the name of Lord Fowler set down for today shall be limited to four hours and that in the name of Lord Forsyth of Drumlean to one and a half hours.—(Baroness Ashton of Upholland.)

Lord McNally: My Lords, will the noble Baroness the Lord President join me in congratulating the noble Baroness, Lady Anelay, on being elected last night as Channel 4’s Peer of the Year? But does she not also find the concept of a popular Chief Whip a contradiction in terms?

Baroness Ashton of Upholland: I certainly will; my Lords; I have already given the noble Baroness a card with a star on it, for she surely is one. We have no difficulty on our Benches with the concept of a popular Chief Whip. I’m sorry if you do.

On Question, Motion agreed to.


11.38 am

Lord Fowler rose to call attention to the position in Iraq and the lessons to be drawn; and to move for Papers.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, in a few weeks’ time, in March, we will come to the fifth anniversary of the start of the conflict in Iraq. It is also just short of 12 months since my noble friend Lord Hurd set out in this House the case for an inquiry into some of the most important questions arising from that decision to go to war. I know that another former Foreign Secretary, the noble Lord, Lord Owen, who is in his place, has also called for an inquiry. I want to renew that call for an inquiry because I know of no other way that the lessons from this conflict can be learnt. Perhaps I can explain why I asked my noble friends on the Front Bench whether I should raise the subject of this debate.

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Three events in the Middle East have had particular significance for me. In 1956, at the time of Suez, I had just joined the Army. I was opposed to the invasion, and in my officers’ mess being a national service second lieutenant and opposed to Suez was not a notably popular position. It was not a popular position, but, as it happens, it was right. In 1967, I was a correspondent for the Times in the Middle East war reporting from Beirut and Amman. I returned to Britain saying and writing that the dominating issue was Palestine, but in the wake of the massive Israeli victory, that was also not a message that everybody wanted to hear. It was not popular, but again it was conceivably right.

In the Iraq conflict my connection was rather different. I did not report it but my stepson did. His name is Oliver Poole and some of your Lordships with long memories may recognise he has the unique disadvantage of having both his grandfather and his stepfather as chairmen of the Conservative Party. At the start of the conflict I listened to him from Iraq—these days communications are so much easier than through the old cable offices—as he made his way with a tank unit from the Kuwait border to Baghdad among American soldiers who had been told that they would be welcomed as liberators. I followed the position as it deteriorated. Where once at the beginning a journalist could go on to the streets of Baghdad to collect material, the position rapidly changed. Travelling security became essential and interviews were constrained to 20 minutes in case news should spread that there was a western journalist in the area. I read of the tragedies: of his hotel blown up, killing not western journalists but Iraqis living nearby; of the destruction in 2006 of one of Shia Islam’s holiest shrines, the Golden Mosque in Samarra, and the retaliation in Baghdad against Sunni mosques there; of neighbours who had lived side by side for generations turning on each other; of militia growing up both to defend and to attack; and of course of the indiscriminate murder and torture practised on both sides, leading to plans announced in Baghdad for the construction of two new morgues to cope with the influx of bodies.

For me there was a major question. Unlike my noble friend Lord Hurd who opposed the invasion from the outset, I, like so many people in this country, had supported the Government’s decision. I had even written to both the Prime Minister and the then Foreign Secretary, supporting them in their efforts to persuade Parliament and the United Nations. I had never done that before and probably will never do it again. It can of course be said, “What right have you, someone who initially supported the invasion, to ask questions now?”. My reply is that in some ways people like me have even more right. Not unreasonably, we trusted the information we were given by the Government. We expected, and had to every right to expect, that proper plans would be made not just for the war but for what would follow. We assumed that Ministers had taken account of the skilled Foreign Office advice available and that decisions were made having proper regard to this advice. We now know that some of those conditions were not met and that, at least in some respects, the public were misled. We know that the weapons of

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mass destruction proffered as one of the reasons for the invasion did not exist. We also know that the Prime Minister, Mr Blair, substantially overstated his case. On 23 August 2002 the United Kingdom intelligence community told the Prime Minister that,

Just over a month later the Prime Minister told the Commons that the picture painted by our intelligence services was,

As the noble Lord, Lord Butler of Brockwell, who I see in his place, said in our debate in February 2007:

I certainly acknowledge the improvement in the security position recently in Baghdad. I also acknowledge that some benefits have resulted from the invasion. The position in Kurdistan is much improved and above all there is the removal of Saddam Hussein, who not only murdered his own people but had already been responsible for the conflict over Kuwait in 1991 and much more. I weep no tears for him but his overthrow alone does not provide legal justification for military intervention and certainly it does not cancel out the massive consequences of the invasion which in my view makes out the case for an inquiry.

First and foremost, there have been the casualties of this conflict—the British troops who have been killed and injured. Regiments such as the Royal Anglians, of which my old regiment is now part, have suffered badly. I pay tribute to their courage and that of all the forces that have fought in Iraq over the past five years. But of course the chief casualties have been among the Iraqis themselves. Some have died in the fighting, some have died in the sectarian murders that have accompanied the fighting, and some have died in the criminality which we have been unable to control. No one knows exactly how many have died. A conservative estimate is 100,000, but there may well be many thousands more; I doubt that there have been fewer. We do know that death has often been accompanied by torture, and that fear has taken hold to such an extent that 2 million Iraqis have been displaced in their own country. Even worse, more than 2 million have fled to surrounding countries such as Syria, Jordan and the Lebanon. The refugees have gained a degree of safety, but at a price. Families have been uprooted and have struggled to survive without jobs and with dwindling or non-existent savings.

In short, the conflict has created the worst refugee crisis in the Middle East since 1948. Against this background, the public in this country, whatever their original stance, are entitled to ask a number of questions which an inquiry is best placed to put. They are entitled to ask for more detail on how the decision to invade was reached. I was a member of the Cabinet at the time of the Falklands. Events moved very quickly after the Argentine invasion, but not so quickly that it was impossible to arrange a full Cabinet meeting at which the Prime Minister asked each of us in turn whether we agreed to the task force being sent. The issue was debated and an alternative view was put.

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Recently, Mr Blair gave a lengthy television interview in which his impatience with the checks and balances of the Cabinet system of government came over loud and clear. In essence, his case was that it could get in the way of action. Of course it is true that it can, but equally it is true that it can act as a corrective to prevent unwise action. Governments usually get into trouble when collective judgment is replaced by the informal meeting of small groups.

At the same time, I would like to know about the nature of the Foreign Office advice. I do not claim for a moment that Ministers should automatically take that advice, although in the policies of the Middle East they would well advised to give it some weight, but the public should be reassured that the full advice reached Ministers and was discussed by them. I hope that, as has been suggested, the Foreign Office was not simply sidelined in this decision. Secondly, the public are entitled to ask what planning took place for the aftermath. It is all very well saying that this was all down to the Americans, but that casts doubt on the whole nature of the alliance.

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