§ The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Mr. Jack Straw)
It a great honour to address the House for the first time as Foreign Secretary. There is a nice symmetry about moving to the Foreign Office from the Home office because both Departments were created in 1782 in the wake of our defeat in America. The first Foreign Secretary, Charles James Fox, had a more distinguished I record than the first Home Secretary, William Petty, who lasted in his post for only five days.
I wish to pay tribute to my predecessor, my right hon. Friend the Member for Livingston (Mr. Cook). In his four years as Foreign Secretary, the United Kingdom's reputation abroad was greatly enhanced. In all the major international groupings to which pie belong, Britain is regarded as a force for good and a partner on which to rely. The prosperity and security of our people have consequently been strengthened.
We shall continue to uphold the values that underpin our security and prosperity and that of our allies. Every human being is entitled to the fundamental freedoms of human rights and democracy. We shall use our influence in the world to help to confront tyranny, oppression, poverty, conflict and human suffering. I aim to build on 282 my right hon. Friend's achievements by pursuing an active and engaged foreign policy to provide practical benefits for the people of the United Kingdom.
There was a time when international relations, though vital, were conducted with little apparent relevance to people's daily lives at home. The direct attention of our citizens was engaged only when the diplomats failed and the national interest had to be determined not around the negotiating table but on the battlefield. How things have changed. On vital issues such as the environment, drugs and organised crime, the boundaries between foreign and domestic policy have become increasingly blurred. If we are to look after our interests at home, we have to be active and engaged overseas.
The interrelationship between domestic and foreign policy is best illustrated by our membership of the European Union. When I arrived at the Home Office in 1997, I was surprised by the amount of European Union work in which I was to be involved as Home Secretary. On asylum, crime, justice and security, I sought to work closely with our EU partners on palpably common European problems. I describe myself as a practical European because I have experienced at first hand the tremendous amount that we can achieve for Britain through engaging constructively in Europe.
In the general election campaign, one choice before the British people could not have been clearer: isolation from the rest of Europe or engagement with it. Of the many conclusions that we can draw from the result, one is incontrovertible. The British people overwhelmingly rejected the isolationist approach to Europe.
I referred to "the rest of Europe" for a good reason. We are, and always have been a European nation. Our monarchy was Danish, then Norman, then Dutch and then German. Engagement with Europe over many centuries, not disconnection from it, took us and the British flag to the four corners of the world.
There have been moments in our history when, in trying to consolidate the gains of the past, we might have cut loose strategically from the mainland of Europe. However, as the historian Norman Davies powerfully argues in his epic work "The Isles", our last opportunity to do that was in the fateful few days in August 1914. Instead, we chose military engagement in Europe, and the die was cast.
We are, and always have been, European. The labels "pro" or "anti" European have therefore long seemed hopeless to me. How can we be pro or anti something that we are? Of course, there was a more recent moment in the early 1970s when the United Kingdom might have chosen a different sort of engagement with the continent of Europe. I know because I took part in that argument. However, that moment, too, has gone. With 15 nation states already members of the European Union and 13 at the door, our destiny as a European nation now lies indissolubly with the European Union.
Yes, the European Union has imperfections, but I suggest that its historic achievement is extraordinary. It has secured peace and prosperity among its members, when previously there was, with dismal regularity, war and destruction. It has made us all richer, safer and stronger and our people can live, work and travel anywhere within the borders of the world's largest single market. The EU is now a major player on the world stage, and we have achieved all this while preserving the nation 283 states at its heart. The fact that Europe is a union of nation states is emphasised by the central role played by the 15 Heads of Government meeting regularly in the European Council.
§ Donald Anderson (Swansea, East)
In case my right hon. Friend should be considered biased in his theme of engagement with Europe, will he consider the view of the former Foreign Secretary, Lord Hurd? Speaking in Hamburg on Wednesday, Lord Hurd said of the recent general election that it had settledthe argument in my own Party that we could gain votes by treating our partners in Europe as enemies, by giving an unbalanced account of what is happening in Europe, and by frightening our citizens at every turn into the unreal fear of a European superstate.
§ Mr. Straw
The hon. Gentleman says, "Don't do it." The fact is that I could not do it. I called up the Conservative party website, which contains a search engine, and typed in the word "manifesto". Back came nothing. I tried again, thinking that perhaps my information technology skills—which go before me—had failed me. I called in an expert, who also typed the word "manifesto" into the website, but nothing appeared. The truth is that the Conservatives have now wiped out their manifesto. Within 10 days of the election, it is no more. It is a non-manifesto for something approaching a non-party.
I was talking about the fact that the European Union is a union of nation states, which is emphasised by the fact that the 15 Heads of Government of those nation states play a central role in the determination of the policy and direction of the EU, meeting in the European Council.
I had the privilege of attending the Gothenburg European Council with my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister last weekend. The full text of the Council's conclusions has been placed in the Library. We made important progress across a range of issues, chiefly that of enlargement, to which I shall return in a moment. Those issues also included agreeing the European Union's first ever sustainable development strategy, which focuses on climate change, public health, food safety, poverty and transport congestion—issues that are important to our economic development.
The sustainable development strategy was led by the Swedish presidency and, as someone who has now observed eight or nine presidencies—all of which have been brilliant—I particularly commend the Swedish presidency for the way in which it has conducted, and continues to conduct, itself, over its six months in office.
The Council endorsed the work that the Swedish presidency has done to advance the European security and defence policy, including work on military capabilities, conflict prevention and the civilian aspects of crisis management. The Council called for early agreement on 284 the European single sky. We shall pursue a range of contacts, including bilateral contacts with Spain, on this and other issues relating to Gibraltar, including the continuation of the Brussels process.
As is customary, the Heads of Government considered important foreign policy developments, including the middle east, Algeria, East Timor and Korea. The appointment of an EU representative based in Macedonia in support of Javier Solana was agreed. The final decision on who that will be is to be made at the General Affairs Council this Monday.
Regrettably, the European Council took place against a backdrop of malicious violence. That raises important issues of security at future EU summits and meetings, and the need for greater co-operation between police forces across the EU. Here in Britain, the police service has wide experience of dealing with public order situations, and knowledge and expertise that may be of use to other member states when planning forthcoming events.
The EU police chiefs' taskforce exists to bring together senior police officers from across the EU to share expertise on common operational issues. We are keen to have an early meeting of this group on that issue. Peaceful protest has a valuable role to play in any democracy, but the travelling circus of violent demonstrators that has accompanied recent high-level international meetings has nothing to do with democracy or, I suggest, the legitimate concerns of voters.
The powers of the EU—yes, they are controversial in some countries; of course we understand that—were conferred on it by treaties agreed unanimously by the democratically elected Governments of all the member states, and implemented in scrupulous accordance with their constitutional procedures. People sometimes complain about the delays in decision making in the EU, particularly in relation to the ratification of conventions and treaties. I think tint that is a price worth paying. The EU is a union of nation states, each of which has to get endorsement for fundamental or significant changes to the way in which the EU operates from its own democratically elected. representative institutions under its own constitution
§ Mr. Campbell
What view has the Foreign Secretary formed of the contribution to the debate about Ireland made, apparently, yesterday by Mr. Prodi, who appeared to suggest that the fact that the Irish had voted against ratification in their referendum would not preclude 285 enlargement? I rather share the view that the right hon. Gentleman has just expressed. What steps will he be taking to ensure that Mr. Prodi properly understands the matter?
§ Mr. Straw
As the right hon. and learned Gentleman will understand, Mr. Prodi acknowledges that that is a matter for himself.
Let me now deal with the Irish referendum. The Nice treaty requires endorsement by the 15 member states, as does any other intergovernmental treaty. It is technically true that enlargement could take place without the treaty of Nice, but it could not take place without any treaty at all, because accession requires treaty agreement by not only the accession states but the acceding states. So, if enlargement were not achieved through the Nice treaty, it would have to be achieved through a treaty of accession, albeit a simpler one. There is no way of doing that through the current instruments, for understandable reasons: they have been agreed by the 15 signatory states. When there has been an accession in the past under existing treaties, legislation has had to be introduced in this House and in other Parliaments to enable us and the other member states to accede to the accession.
In the General Affairs Council last Monday, we acknowledged the fact of the result of the Irish referendum. We also acknowledged that, although there was a low turnout and many people had complained that they did not understand the issues, that was beside the point. This was a democratic vote that had produced a clear outcome under the Irish constitution.
The GAC resolved that, although we regretted the outcome—which, plainly, we did— we respected it. We unanimously agreed—that included the Irish Foreign Minister—that although the Nice treaty could not be renegotiated, the ratification process would continue in the other member states while the Irish Government sought to find other ways of dealing with their people's concerns. It was decided in the GAC resolution that the 14 other member states would be actively engaged in that process. That parallels the arrangements made when there was a similar result in Denmark in 1992. A similar resolution was agreed at that time by all parties, including the then United Kingdom Government, about that approach.
In digesting the implications of the Irish referendum, all member states accept that none of us can or should take public support for the European Union for granted. That is a matter that we all have to consider. The Gracious Speech made it clear that we should introduce a Bill to ratify the Nice treaty in this Session. The Bill was presented to Parliament yesterday and received its first reading. It will be for Parliament to decide whether Nice is accepted, including the first ever increase in the United Kingdom's voting weight, which is very important for this country.
The House will recall that one of the central purposes of the Nice treaty was to facilitate the enlargement of the European Union. Britain is a champion of enlargement, not just to reunite Europe and heal past divisions, but because of a hard-headed, practical assessment of the benefits that that will bring, including to the British people.
§ Mr. Quentin Davies (Grantham and Stamford)
If Parliament rejects the Bill that the right hon. Gentleman 286 has introduced to ratify the Nice treaty, is it his intention to go to a future GAC to agree that enlargement should take place nevertheless and that the vote of Parliament should be set aside?
§ Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)
There are three different votes on the Tory Front Bench. They are all different.
§ Mr. Straw
I know that all the candidates for the leadership of the Conservative party and all their supporters have changed their minds, but somewhere in the recesses of my brain, although this could be a case of mistaken identity, I had the information that the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford (Mr. Davies) is generally in favour of Europe and the European Union and its enlargement.
§ Mr. Straw
Yes it was, because that was the verdict of the British people and we have to respect that. However, we also sought to learn from it and understand the error of some of our ways. I recommend that approach to the Conservative party, because, otherwise, Conservative Members will stay where we were and they will be waiting not 18 years, but a great deal longer.
§ Mr. Duncan Smith
I congratulate the right hon. Gentleman on moving across to his present post. There is an important point that I do not want him to gloss over. Will he give us an explanation? During the general election and the run-up to it, the Prime Minister and the then Foreign Secretary, who has found a different job, both said that any failure immediately to ratify the Nice treaty and any renegotiation attempts would lead to all enlargement being put on hold. Today, the right hon. Gentleman has admitted that enlargement could take place regardless of the Nice treaty. He said so earlier; he should look back at his text. Does he accept that what the Prime Minister and the then Foreign Secretary said was a complete fabrication?
§ Mr. Straw
I know exactly what I said. I did not use those words, and the record will show that clearly. I was 287 trying to educate Conservative Members. It is true that a treaty is necessary for enlargement; it is not true in a legal and technical sense that the Nice treaty is necessary for enlargement. We would have to have an alternative treaty. Nice is what is available at the moment.
§ Mr. Maude
I am grateful to the Foreign Secretary for giving way on this important point. His predecessor spent the months between the Nice treaty being agreed and the general election saying that our belief that the treaty should be renegotiated would hold up enlargement. The Foreign Secretary is saying today, and the Prime Minister said at Gothenburg, that the Nice treaty is not necessary for enlargement. That is what we have always said. The Foreign Secretary's point is that an accession treaty is needed for enlargement. The Nice treaty is not an accession treaty.
§ The Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Geoffrey Hoon)
They will have to do better than that.
§ Mr. Straw
They will all have to do better than that, as my right hon. Friend says. The Opposition are dancing on the head of a pin. I have given the answer to the question, and I shall give it to Conservative Members again. Yes, technically, accession does not require the treaty of Nice. It does require a treaty, however, but this is the important point, and Opposition Members need to think about it. If we were to agree to another 13 member states joining the EU without changing the way in which the EU's institutions operate, those institutions and the decision-making processes of which Conservative Members complain would collapse, because they would seize up under their own weight.
It was critical at Nice that we not only laid out a pathway to enlargement, but achieved, thanks to the work of my right hon. Friends the Prime Minister and the Leader of the House, major changes to modernise the EU that are in the interests of the proper functioning of the institutions and of the United Kingdom.
It was also critical to achieve a relative increase in our voting weight inside the Council, an extension of qualified majority voting where that is in our interests, the continuation of the veto—for example, on tax—where QMV is not in our interests and changes to the way in which the Commission operates, so that it can be relatively slimmed down so as better to operate in changed circumstances in which we shall move over time 288 from 15 member states to 20 or 25 and ultimately, according to the current list, to 28. I hope that that makes the position clear.
To continue on enlargement, at Gothenburg, Heads of Government reaffirmed their irreversible commitment to it. They agreed that the accession negotiations with the applicant countries would continue to gather pace, with the aim of completing negotiations for the first wave of candidate countries in 2002 so that they can participate as EU members in the European parliamentary elections in 2004.
The European Council at Gothenburg was preceded by an EU-US summit and a European Heads of Government dinner with President Bush. The Prime Minister also attended the summit of NATO leaders in Brussels on Wednesday 13 June, at which President Bush was present.
Some say that we have to make a choice between our co-operation with the EU and our alliance with the United States. In our judgment, that is an entirely false choice. The United States remains our closest ally, and by any measure is our single most important partner. Our vital national interests coincide now as much as they ever did, and our strategic partnership in NATO remains fundamental to the national security of both our countries. The point is this, however. The stronger we are in Europe, the stronger our voice is heard in the United States, just as our influence in the EU is buttressed by our close ties with America.
On European security and defence policy, the President of the United States, George W. Bush, made it clear that NATO as well as US-European relations would be strengthened by the initiative, because it will, in turn, help to strengthen European capabilities. In his later speech in Warsaw, the President said:We welcome a greater role for the EU in European security, properly integrated with NATO".On missile defence, the President repeated his undertakings to consult widely with allies and geo-strategic partners.
§ Jeremy Corbyn
I congratulate my right hon. Friend on his appointment. He referred to national missile defence. Does he accept that NMD undermines all the nuclear disarmament treaties of the past 40 years? Would it not be far better if Britain were to use its position of some influence over the United States to say that it is a totally unacceptable development that can only lead to an escalation of an arms race around the world, rather than an opportunity for peace?
§ Mr. Straw
I know, and I look forward to them. However, I do not share my hon. Friend's view on this 289 matter. I am glad that President Bush made it absolutely clear that there is a process of consultation. It is now accepted by all the parties, not only at the Gothenburg summit between the EU and the US but at the NATO Council on Wednesday, where there was an even larger number of member states. The United States has raised its concern, which it believes is shared with the rest of the world, that the strategic threat has changed over the past 30 years. I think—my view is shared by our partners—that we should sit down and engage with the United States about those concerns and the potential solutions to them.
§ Mr. Duncan Smith
The right hon. Gentleman selectively quoted the President of the United States, but fell into the trap of failing to recognise what he was saying. The right hon. Gentleman said that the EU force—the Euro army or rapid reaction force, whatever one calls it—was fully integrated into NATO. It is not integrated at all. It has separate command structures, separate command headquarters and separate planning. There is no plan to integrate it, and there is no way that anything has been agreed to that extent. He knows that what the American President said was a wish list and is not happening.
§ Mr. Straw
First, the words that I used were "properly integrated with NATO", which is different. I chose my words with care—[Interruption.]No, those were the words that I used. If the hon. Gentleman wants to have a go at me, I suggest that he quotes me accurately.
Secondly, of course I quoted selectively from the President's speech, because I would have been here for quite some time had I quoted the lot I had the benefit of listening to every single word of President George W. Bush's address to the NATO Council and I can tell the hon. Gentleman—it is on the record—that he was very supportive of the initiative and recognised the value not only to Europe but to the United States and the alliance.
I have given way a number of times, as is my wont. The price that I pay for that is that I now need to make progress on the remaining issues.
On climate change, there is a clear disagreement between all EU member states and the United States. That was acknowledged in the communiqué. However, the communiqué and the discussions paved the way for dialogue about how to deal with that difference, and secured an important commitment that the US will participate constructively in the climate talks in Bonn.
On trade, the EU and the US reached a joint commitment to launch an ambitious liberalising world trade round at Doha in Qatar in November.
There is no time today for a comprehensive survey of our policies towards the wider world. For example, we have revitalised our efforts to promote trade and inward investment by creating British Trade International, and now by appointing a Minister for Trade, my right hon. and noble Friend Baroness Symons, who reports both to me and to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry.
Nor is there time to do justice to the range of close relationships that we maintain with key partners such as Japan, China, Russia, India, Canada or Brazil. We have important interests, and are actively promoting them, in vital regions such as Asia and Latin America.
290 Let me focus on three such regions where we hope that diplomatic efforts will pay dividends: south-east Europe, the middle east and Africa. We have been watching recent developments in Macedonia with grave concern. We are determined that tensions there will not drag the region back into ethnic violence—if that is possible.
Extremists, of whatever affiliation, should be in no doubt about the UK Government's resolve, or that of the EU and NATO. Macedonia's Government of national unity has our wholehearted support and the full backing of the EU and NATO. Discussions last week with my EU and NATO colleagues showed a common determination not to see Macedonia descend into chaos and bloodshed. The chance for a lasting peace is still there. We want to see the inter-ethnic dialogue launched by Macedonia's President succeed.
I commend the great activity by Javier Solana and Lord Robertson in shuttling to and from the region. I intend to review our position on Macedonia next week when I shall visit that area.
The middle east is another area that is suffering the costs of great conflict. It was the main subject of discussion yesterday evening with Kofi Annan, the United Nations Secretary-General. As everybody knows, there have been severe setbacks over the past year and, once again, violence prevails. However, there is no future, no security, in violence.
The Mitchell report shows the way forward. The Palestinians should make a 100 per cent. effort to halt violence from the extremists and Israel should lift the closures of the occupied territories and freeze the building of settlements.
Israel is entitled to its security, both now and in the future, but the only way to achieve it is through peace and that will come only through a political process that implements "land for peace", brings an end to occupation and allows the emergence of a viable, democratic and peaceful Palestinian state, committed to co-existence with Israel. That may now seem to many a distant prospect, but no other vision for the region offers any lasting hope.
Elsewhere in the middle east, working for peace and stability means continuing to stand up to the threat posed by Iraq's weapons of mass destruction.
As my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister said:Nowhere is the need for action globally greater than in Africa".He has made it clear that Africa will be a priority for him personally and for the Government.
Africa's problems are well documented, but there is hope. In Africa itself, more and more Governments are showing the determination to make things better. President Thabo Mbeki, who visited Britain last week, symbolises that African renaissance, just as South Africa symbolises the growth of democratic pluralism. Nigeria, Senegal, Mozambique, Tanzania, Botswana, Mali and Ghana, among others, are now following that path.
We can make a real difference. I pay a great tribute to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Development. I greatly admired her work when I was less involved with it as Home Secretary. In the two short weeks in which I have been Foreign Secretary, I have been struck by the degree to which this country's reputation has been enhanced by her indefatigable work around the globe, but particularly in Africa. It has been backed by the additional resources that the Government have put into international development.
291 We can make a real difference, and we have proved that in Sierra Leone. Our intervention last year was a clear demonstration of our commitment to peace, stability and freedom. We are now beginning to achieve our objective of rebuilding an effective, democratic state in Sierra Leone.
Military intervention is not, and cannot be, the only policy instrument at our disposal. Effective development assistance is another. Under my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Development, development assistance to Africa has doubled in the last four years to £600 million. There is generous debt relief; help with democratic reform; action in the United Nations; and a thickening of our bilateral relationships across the continent by expanding our network of posts. This year, we shall open new embassies in Mali and Eritrea.
Last year, no new major conflicts broke out in Africa and there were no successful military coups, but there are palpably no grounds for complacency. We continuously seek to improve our efforts there. This year, for the first time, we are pooling Government resources.
Our new conflict prevention fund for sub-Saharan Africa will bring programme funding together with spending on military operations and peacekeeping in budgets jointly managed by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the Department for International Development and the Ministry of Defence. That will strengthen the way in which those Departments work together and deliver more effective British interventions overseas. It will allow us to focus on regional priorities, such as developing African capacity for peacekeeping and ensuring that valuable natural resources, such as diamonds and oil, are used to fuel prosperity, not conflict. Our policies will work best when we work in genuine partnership with African Governments, who in turn show a genuine commitment to improving the lot of their people.
§ Dr. Jenny Tonge (Richmond Park)
So far, the right hon. Gentleman has not mentioned the problem of AIDS, the epidemic of which is threatening economic development throughout Africa. May we have an absolute assurance from him, as I constantly try to get from the Secretary of State for International Development, that we will put a maximum amount of funds into education and condom supply in Africa, and pursue research on a vaccine for AIDS?
§ Mr. Straw
I assure the hon. Lady that we recognise the huge significance and devastating effect of HIV-AIDS across Africa and in other countries. I am unable to commit myself now to specific sums, but we regard the problem as a high priority.
I began by saying that events overseas have an ever greater impact on the daily lives of the British people. That is probably more true of the United Kingdom than of most countries. Isolationist policies have rarely benefited any nation, least of all a country such as Britain which has long earned its living from global contact.
It may be worth the Conservative party contemplating the fact that when it has fallen into the pit—as it did in the early part of the 19th century and again towards the end—the cause of division was tension between isolationist and integrationist policies.
292 We export more per capita than the United States or Japan. We are the fourth largest trading nation in the world, the fifth largest economy, the second largest investor abroad and the second largest home for foreign investment. The British people are travelling overseas more and more—53 million overseas trips last year alone, which is one overseas trip for almost every man, woman and child in the population. We benefit hugely from belonging to the world's most influential networks: NATO, the United Nations Security Council, the G8, the Commonwealth and the European Union. We derive practical benefits from a foreign policy that engages actively with all of them.
We will continue to meet the challenge of global change by building alliances and forging common goals with those who share our outlook, interests and values. In our second term of office, we will continue to deploy an active and engaged foreign policy to underpin the tolerant, secure and prosperous Britain that we were elected to build here at home.
§ Mr. Francis Maude (Horsham)
I apologise to you, Mr. Speaker, and to the House, as I shall not be present for the winding-up speeches. Two of my daughters are being confirmed later today, and my absence would be regretted elsewhere. I have told the Foreign Secretary and understand that he will also not be present, although for a different reason.
I congratulate the Foreign Secretary on his appointment and welcome the entirety of his new Foreign Office team. It is almost unprecedented for there to be such a comprehensive clear-out and replacement of a ministerial team in a Department without a change of Government. There has been some recycling, which is environmentally friendly. We particularly welcome back the hon. Member for Neath (Peter Hain) as Minister for Europe. We rated him rather highly. We did not always agree with him when he was previously in the ministerial team, but he was forthright—I suspect that for the right hon. Gentleman's predecessor he was sometimes uncomfortably forthright on African matters, especially on Zimbabwe. We hope that he will continue to be forthright on other matters. I commend him on the seriousness and thoughtfulness with which he approached his duties then, and we hope that that will continue.
I wish the new ministerial team well. I know from the brief 12 months that I spent as a Foreign Office Minister some 12 years ago—
§ Mr. Maude
No, that was in a later incarnation. As a Foreign Office Minister, I had the most demanding but absorbing time.
The new ministerial team will be served by the finest diplomatic service in the world; it is a Rolls-Royce service. I should like to take this opportunity to express the debt of gratitude that we all owe to the diplomatic service. We should never forget that its work is always onerous and demanding, and sometimes dangerous.
The diplomatic service is a Rolls-Royce service, but Rolls-Royces need good drivers. I do not want to disrupt the even tenor of today's debate by making remarks about the Foreign Secretary's predecessor, but it is fair to say 293 that Britain's standing in the world was not enhanced by his predecessor's conduct of this crucial role. [Interruption.]The Foreign Secretary is getting into dangerous territory by parading his driving licence, given certain events during the last Parliament involving speed limits. I admit that he was not driving at the time, but he should not get himself into that hole.
We hope that this ministerial team will mark a clean break with the past four years, and will take a broader, more confident view of Britain's place in the world. I was interested to hear the Foreign Secretary talk about Britain's place at the centre of a series of interlocking networks—I have used that phrase myself many times. I regret that people sometimes talk about Britain as if we were on the edge. We are not on the edge of anything: we are at the centre of a range of interlocking, overlapping networks. Britain can and should be at the centre of an increasingly interconnected world. That is a source of great strength. Britain can count for something in the world. We do not have to feel that we need to take shelter in an increasingly integrated, common European foreign policy. We should be confident about Britain's role as an independent nation state.
I hope that this Foreign Secretary will take as his first objective the restoration of Britain's standing in the world. I hope that it will not be thought overly partisan if I say that it was a mistake for his predecessor to make so much play of the ethical dimension that he claimed to bring to Britain's foreign policy. It was a mistake, not because we are against ethics in foreign policy but rather the reverse. Britain's foreign policy should have more than an ethical dimension: it should be entirely ethical.
Few Foreign Secretaries in the past would maintain that their foreign policy was anything but ethical. The idea that a foreign policy has a dimension that is ethical and everything else can be unethical is absurd. At its best, Britain has always pursued an ethical foreign policy, and it should not be necessary for a Foreign Secretary to brag about that. It invited ridicule and criticism when the previous Foreign Secretary seemed to apply different criteria and treatment to different countries and Governments on the basis not of their relative conduct but of their size and power. The Minister for Europe, when he was previously in the Foreign office, described the phrase "ethical dimension" as a hook on which we found ourselves. I hope that the new Foreign Secretary will detach himself as quickly and elegantly as he can from that hook and consign it to the memory hole, to use the Minister of Europe's less elegant phase—if I have quoted him correctly.
§ Mr. Maude
Yes, I would certainly argue that. The proposition that Lord Hurd and Sir Malcolm Rifkind were pursuing an unethical foreign policy is absurd. I doubt whether any Foreign Secretary in the history of this country would claim with hindsight that he had never made any mistakes. It is certainly unlikely that the right hon. Gentleman's immediate predecessor could make such a claim. The hon. Lady's suggestion that a Conservative Foreign Secretary was deliberately pursuing an unethical foreign policy is absurd and offensive.
294 We should hear less about an ethical dimension and more about a foreign policy that is ethical—of course, it should be ethical—but which represents Britain's interests and stands up for Britain in the world.
I hope that the new Foreign Secretary will rehabilitate the Foreign Office. It has been sadly diminished during the past four years. More and more matters that were under its aegis have been taken away. Envoys have been appointed by the Prime Minister apparently accountable to no one, and have been conducting much of Britain's diplomatic efforts—I am thinking of Lord Levy in the middle east. There has been no accountability to Parliament, not even through any Minister. I hope that the Foreign Secretary will do something to restore the Foreign Office's ability to be at the centre of Britain's diplomatic effort. The weight on his shoulders is very great, and expectations should be high. We will watch with interest, and scrutinise carefully what he does.
I welcome early indications that the Government propose to take the Commonwealth rather more seriously than they have in the past. A year ago, we launched a commission to investigate ways of maximising its potential. The commission, chaired by Mr. Algy Cluff, reported earlier this year. Its most important conclusion was that the Commonwealth needed to increase its powers to discipline wayward members.
I am delighted that steps are being taken to expand the work and broaden the remit of the Commonwealth ministerial action group. I hope that that will enable the Commonwealth to adopt more robust measures in relation to countries such as Zimbabwe—about which I shall say more later—where millions are fleeing their homes and the infrastructure is on the brink of collapse.
I also welcome the emphasis that the Foreign Secretary placed on international development. It was odd that during the previous Parliament no time, or very little time, was allocated to debate that subject, although a Bill was produced towards the end of the Session. We would like the opportunity to debate such issues more regularly.
Of course everyone wants to see a world free of poverty. We all want children to grow up, wherever they may be, with basic living standards and with access to education and primary health care. In particular, we want children to be free from involvement in violent conflict. We all recognise the reality of abject poverty, and accept that Britain can play a role in helping to raise living standards for those in some of the world's poorest countries.
I think that Members on both sides of the House also recognise that real improvements depend on the existence of a proper framework of responsible government and the rule of law in the countries involved. Increasingly, in today's highly interconnected, globalising world economy, countries can choose whether to succeed or fail. A country that chooses to have the rule of law and an open economy will, by and large, succeed, in the absence of massive natural disasters; but a country that eschews the rule of law that protects investment and human rights, or rejects the open economy, will fail. Much of the ability of poor countries to raise themselves up and improve the conditions of their people rests with the Governments of those countries. Of course we can help, and we should help; but the issue of governance is crucial. Britain, with its ancient history of a living rule of law and its 295 understanding of how institutions can be developed and maintained, can have a real role in promoting that, and I hope that the Government will take the matter seriously.
There is, of course, a role for financial and development aid. We support that role, and hope that it can be maximised. We hope that the contribution and partnership of individuals, charities and other non-governmental organisations can be enhanced, and welcome the impressive work already being done through British development charities, large and small.
We would like to see some reform of the international institutions, to make them more effective and accountable. We regret that no decisive action has been taken to bring about real reform of the European Union's aid programme, which has been robustly criticised by both the Secretary of State for International Development and Commissioner Chris Patten. Everyone who deals with it says that it is bureaucratic and immensely slow, tending to deliver after the problem has been dealt with. It is a creaking, not very good organisation. In the absence of serious reform to improve its operation, we would like a big slab of our development effort—currently channelled through the European Union—to be undertaken bilaterally by the British Government, either directly or, we would hope, through NGOs and in partnership. That is a better way of doing the job.
The contribution of direct financial and development aid will remain important, but I hope we also recognise that the greatest contribution we can make to the elimination of global poverty is a complete and unequivocal commitment to the creation of global free trade. There is no doubt that free trade and globalisation help the rich, but they also help the poorest, and they help the poorest disproportionately. It is cant and nonsense for those in rich western countries to go on about how we should give more development aid to poorer countries, while keeping their markets closed to products that poorer developing countries can provide and sell. We should open up our markets.
§ Jeremy Corbyn
The right hon. Gentleman asserts that globalisation of trade is raising the living standards of the poorest in the world. Does he not recognise that the gap between the richest and the poorest is the biggest it has ever been, and is widening? Living standards are falling in much of sub-Saharan Africa and in parts of south Asia, and unemployment is rising in many of those areas. Is the right hon. Gentleman seriously suggesting that the free market is benefiting the very poorest in the poorest countries in the world?
§ Mr. Maude
The countries to which the hon. Gentleman refers, where living standards are falling, have not established the framework of the rule of law and an open economy. That is not the fault of the people; it is the fault of bad Governments and bad leaders. It is precisely because they have denied themselves the benefits of globalisation and free trade that they are suffering. This is not a matter of controversy, at least between those on the two Front Benches. I have certainly heard the Secretary of State for International Development describe increased free trade as the biggest single factor that can help poorer countries, and she is absolutely right.
296 Those who want a specific example of a fantastic country that has much going for it but is suffering and going backwards at a desperate rate— not because of globalisation, but because of bad government—need look no further than Zimbabwe, which I have visited twice in the past year. It is a painful lesson that the gap between success and failure in any country is very narrow, and can be easily eradicated by the actions of the country's Government.
What is happening in Zimbabwe has nothing to do with international financial institutions, multinational companies, international bond markets or any of the other great demons of globalisation. It has to do with the actions of one man, who happens to be the country's President and who is laying waste to that country, and has declared war on his own people. That is what is bringing Zimbabwe to its knees. Britain should stand robustly against what that mat is doing. Zimbabwe's neighbours should also stand robustly against what he is doing, because it is infecting and contaminating the whole of southern Africa.
I agree with the Foreign Secretary that there is much that is encouraging, particularly in southern Africa. Some countries have made the transition to pluralist, multi-party democracy, and are embracing the open economy and beginning to flourish. Things are not perfect—there is a huge amount to be done—but those countries are taking the necessary steps. Meanwhile Zimbabwe, almost at the centre of southern Africa, is a hideous abscess, contaminating and infecting all the surrounding countries. Britain has an obligation to help, and to support the overwhelming majority of people in Zimbabwe who want to do the right things. President Mbeki was here last week. I hope that the Foreign Secretary encouraged him to move a little away from quiet diplomacy to more robust diplomacy. South Africa itself—we all know it; the Minister for Europe knows it better than most—is suffering badly from the contamination that is emerging from Zimbabwe.
When I went to Zimbabwe, I met not only senior members of the Opposition there but people supporting the civic institutions, who are desperately fighting to retain the protection of the rule of law. They deserve our support; they are very brave people. Conservative Members may think that we have had a terrible reverse—we have lost an election in the past month—but we do not go around in fear of our lives, being threatened and beaten, as politicians do there. Sometimes it may have felt a bit like it, but the worst we get is some ridicule and a bit of abuse. We lost the election but we are still alive and free, whereas those people in Zimbabwe go in daily fear of their lives. They are very brave, fine people and they deserve our support.
We think that the time has come for robust action in relation to the Mugabe regime. It would be intolerable if, when the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting happens in the autumn, Mr. Mugabe were able to be there, with all the red carpet treatment that is accorded to a head of state mingling with respected and distinguished world leaders, and to enjoy the benefits of the propaganda coup that it would afford him. People in Zimbabwe have not forgotten how relentlessly he and his machine milked the propaganda benefits of being received a few months ago by President Chirac and the Belgian Prime Minister, so I hope that the Foreign Secretary will at some stage have something to say about the action that the Commonwealth 297 can take to ensure that Mr. Mugabe does not continue to enjoy the cloak of respectability that is cast upon him by continuing membership of the Commonwealth. When the Commonwealth ministerial action group visits Zimbabwe, which Mr. Mugabe eventually agreed should happen, I hope that he will do all he can to ensure that it has the fullest access to people who will have some revealing things to say about what has been going on there.
The Foreign Secretary talked about the middle east. I agreed with much of what he said. There has never been a more important time for Britain to be involved in the pursuit of peace in the middle east. Prime Minister Sharon has been strongly resisting the vigorous calls to abandon the truce and launch all-out war on the Palestinians. It is essential that he does so. We should all urge him to pursue dialogue above violence and we should all urge the Palestinian extremists to seek a peaceful resolution of their grievances. The Foreign Secretary put it well when he said that the continued security and existence of Israel, to which it is entitled and which we all support, depend on there being a durable peace, but it takes two sides to make concessions.
There has been a huge narrowing of the gap. When I was in Jerusalem in January, I met Faisal Husseini, an eminent Palestinian, now sadly dead. He said something very revealing. Ten years ago, he said, he could not have physically brought himself to say the word "Israel". He could not have made it pass his lips. Ten years ago, Palestinians were insisting that all the land between the Jordan and the Mediterranean must be Palestinian. Ten years ago, the Israelis were claiming, the same for Israel. Now that gap has hugely narrowed. Of course, the matters left to be resolved are the most difficult, but they have to be resolved. I think that enough people on both sides now see that the benefits of peace—the prize of the final process—are so big that it is worth making concessions.
The Foreign Secretary understandably dwelt on Europe a great deal. My party is criticised for being obsessed with Europe, but he devoted an extraordinary amount of time to it. He did not talk about the Indian sub-continent. Some recent developments in relations between India and Pakistan lend some hope—there has been hope before but I hope that it is real this time—of finding a resolution to the violent stalemate in Kashmir. I hope that the whole House will welcome the proposed dialogue between Prime Minister Vajpayee and General Musharraf. I hope that those talks will act as a precursor to an expansion in the relationship between the two countries, which will be beneficial to both sides.
Britain has a role. We are, and should be, friends with both countries. We have, I hope, some influence with both countries. We cannot make things happen there, but we can act to facilitate. I hope that we will be ready to do so. I hope that the new Foreign Secretary will adopt a slightly more delicate approach to these matters than his predecessor did at the beginning of his term—there are still rumblings following his slightly clumsy handling of these matters in his visit to India in 1997. I am approaching this in a non-partisan way, but it did not show the previous Foreign Secretary at his diplomatic best. That might be giving the wrong idea—perhaps it was his diplomatic best, but it was not a good outcome for Britain or for relations between those two countries.
§ Mr. Menzies Campbell
I do rot necessarily agree with the right hon. Gentleman about the conduct or 298 qualities of the previous Foreign Secretary, but I agree with his view about the need for Britain to offer such help as both parties might jointly ask for in relation to Kashmir. However, does he right hon. Gentleman share my unease that it is no longer General Musharraf, but President Musharraf? If we are concerned about the legitimacy of the presence of particular individuals and the representation of particular countries of the Commonwealth at Commonwealth Heads of Government meetings, there must be a sharp issue in relation to Pakistan.
§ Mr. Maude
There is. The whole House will be deeply concerned that General Musharraf has unilaterally assumed the presidency. It may have serious implications for the stability of the country and, obviously, for democracy in Pakistan. We should use what influence we have to encourage him to do what he said he was going to do: to hold proper democratic elections at the earliest opportunity. Of course there are implications for Pakistan's membership of the Commonwealth, currently suspended under what are ironically called the Harare rules, but I hope that Britain will seriously engage with General Musharraf to urge him to introduce a clear, timetabled process towards elections.
Everyone will have been profoundly shocked and saddened by the terrible news from Nepal. I am sure that the whole House would want to express its sorrow to the Nepalese people over the dreadful massacre of much of the royal family. King Birendra was greatly respected and played a large part in bringing democracy to Nepal. It is important that his death does not lead to further disruption in a country already troubled by a Maoist uprising. I hope that Britain, based on its historic links with the kingdom, which are embodied in the Gurkhas, will be at the forefront of efforts to help the Nepalese Government at this difficult time.
Closer to home, the Foreign Secretary talked about the Balkans. It is worrying to hear about the breakdown in peace talks there. I hope that they will be resurrected substantively. A durable ceasefire, an agreement between all the parties in the coalition, and an agreement by the armed extremists that they will proceed towards disarmament are essential precursors to peace.
The Kosovar Albanians should be doing everything they can to ensure that ethnic Albanians end their terrorist activities in Macedonia. I believe that we should be quite unequivocal in our support for the Government of Macedonia. They are a democratic and legitimate Government who are doing a great deal to protect the interests of the Albanian majority.
I hope that the Foreign Secretary and his new team will take a much more hands-on approach to the Balkans than did his predecessor and the previous Minister for Europe. The Select Committee on Foreign Affairs, under the chairmanship of the right hon. Member for Swansea, East (Donald Anderson), had some lacerating criticisms to make of the lack of hands-on contact. That approach, and particularly the failure of the previous Minister for Europe to visit the area at all, is very worrying. There is a concern that politicians lost interest in the region when the conflict was over, the aeroplanes had returned to base and the television cameras had left. That will not do.
§ Mr. Maude
That is excellent. It is delightful that all that will be happening and that Ministers have been so swift to respond to my blandishments and encouragement to take the issue seriously. However, I also urge Ministers to ensure that that is not a one-off visit; continuing engagement in the region is crucial.
I think that the west has failed the people of the Balkans in a big way. We won the war but have not won the peace, which is very unstable indeed. As for serious discussion on a potential final settlement, there is concern that there has been only a vacuum. One does not have to say that a final settlement will be put in place next week, next month, next year or even in the next few years, but a sense of the potential final dispositions must start emerging. If such a prospect is not offered to those in the region who have a legitimate desire for self-determination, they will feel that it is legitimate to fight for it. However, it is not legitimate to fight for it, and they must be discouraged from doing so.
It is therefore important to work towards establishing some outlines of a potential final settlement. However, such a settlement will have to emerge from the international community as one will not spring up spontaneously in the Balkans. Britain should be playing a seminal and central role in that process.
Finally and briefly, I turn to Europe. Obviously, 7 June was a significant political date not only for voters in the United Kingdom but for citizens in the Irish Republic, who had the opportunity to express their views in a referendum on the treaty of Nice, which they decided pretty unequivocally to reject. I hope that that vote will give the Foreign Secretary and his colleagues pause for thought. Ireland is one of Europe's greatest success stories and one of Europe's most flourishing economies. Over time, it has also been one of the European Union's great financial beneficiaries. Yet the citizens of the Irish Republic said no to what is effectively another integrationist treaty. I hope that Ministers will take note of that judgment and not casually brush it aside.
I wonder why the Government are pressing ahead so rapidly with ratification of the Nice treaty when the Irish have made their disapproval so clear. I recollect—I was not in Parliament at the time; I was on my sabbatical—that in 1992 when the Danish people rejected the Maastricht treaty, the then Labour Front-Bench team strongly urged the then Government not to proceed precipitately with a Bill to ratify the Maastricht treaty. They said that the right thing was to delay that treaty until completion of all the renegotiations needed to secure Danish consent to it. I therefore hope that the Foreign Secretary and his colleagues will look back at what they said then. As the Foreign Secretary said today, the circumstances surrounding the two treaties are very comparable. I urge Ministers now to adopt a similar approach to the one they were recommending then.
When an electorate such as the Irish electorate express their view on the specific issue of the Nice treaty, the political elites should not casually brush it aside as if it 300 does not matter. It is very important that public opinion and public support for the European Union should remain high, and it is important that Britain should be actively engaged in the European Union. It is alarming that there is evidence of some growth in antagonism in this country towards the European Union.[Interruption.]The one thing that could fuel that root-and-branch antagonism is a sense that politicians are ignoring legitimate public concerns about the direction of integration.
The Foreign Secretary laughs at that because he does not think it matters. He claims to be concerned about antagonism to the European Union, but it is precisely the idea that senior politicians regard electors' views on the issue as a matter of no concern that is fuelling that antagonism. It is a real concern. I hope that the Foreign Secretary will not simply say, "It is just Ireland and does not really matter. We are going to blast ahead and continue." That would be the worst possible signal that he could send. I hope that he will think again about the approach that the Government are taking.
It is clear both from the Prime Minister's comments at Gothenburg and from the Foreign Secretary's comments today that the Nice treaty is not essential for enlargement. However, in the weeks and months before the previous general election, the Foreign Secretary's predecessor consistently told the House that Conservative Members wanted to stop enlargement because they were against the Nice treaty. Suddenly, all that has changed. Now Ministers are saying that they really did not mean that and that the treaty is not necessary for enlargement. Today, the Foreign Secretary said that the treaty is simply desirable. We can argue about whether it is desirable. A reweighting of votes, for example, will have to happen eventually, but the Nice treaty is not essential for enlargement.
Enlargement should proceed. I hope that the Foreign Secretary and the Government will make it absolutely clear that enlargement will proceed even if there is a continuing problem with Irish ratification of the Nice treaty—there may well be; no one should assume that that electorate will return to the issue and everything will be fine—or a problem with implementation of the treaty. Enlargement should, if anything, be accelerated. Our view is that the Nice treaty will hold back enlargement. We rather agree with the current Prime Minister's comments, made back in 1995, that reform of the common agricultural policy is essential for enlargement to happen. That reform has not happened and is the biggest roadblock to enlargement. It needs to be dealt with now.
We look forward to engaging with the new Minister for Europe on all the European issues. He has, with his customary forthrightness, been very open about his views, and that is a good thing. I do not want to discourage him by dwelling on some of his previous comments because I think it is important that politicians should be able to say what they think without there being lots of gloating afterwards and comments such as, "Look at what you said then. Isn't it inconsistent with what you stand for now?" Nevertheless, I hope that he continues to take the view that the European Union should be democratised and decentralised, as that is precisely our view.
The constant process of centralisation in treaties such as the Nice treaty is harming the European Union. By extending qualified majority voting, such treaties are taking ever more decisions to the centre. No other international organisation believes that more 301 centralisation is the answer. Indeed, all other such organisations are talking about creating multi-centred institutions and decentralisation, creating modern network organisations. The European Union is the only institution whose political leaders still seem to believe that centralisation is the answer. Therefore, as I said, I hope that the new Minister for Europe will continue to be forthright in making the case for decentralising the European Union. We think that that is the right way to go.
Again, I wish the Foreign Secretary and his new team well. They have a very important role, and the eyes of the country will be upon them. We believe that there is the possibility for Britain again to count for something in the world, by standing up for the important values of decency, the rule of law, an open economy and democracy. There is no point prating about human rights unless we are serious about the rule of law, because that is what protects those rights. This country and this Government can stand up for that, but they need to do so in a confident way, not fearful that Britain does not count for enough and must take shelter in an ever more centralised European Union. We hope that the Foreign Secretary will share our confidence that Britain really can count for something in the world.
§ Ann Taylor (Dewsbury)
I do not want to follow the shadow Foreign Secretary on his world tour, but the point in his speech that I will remember is his claim that the Conservative Government of the 1990s had an ethical foreign policy. If he maintains that claim, he will merely prove that the Conservative party has learned nothing from the past and has a very long way to go before it begins its recovery.
I do not normally take part in foreign affairs debates—or in any debates, as I have been silent for the past three years. This is not an area in which I specialise, and although foreign affairs may be the focus of this debate, it can encompass the Queen's Speech as a whole, so my comments will be wide ranging—as, I suspect, will be those of some of my colleagues.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend on his new appointment as Foreign Secretary. He and I have worked closely together over the years. One bonus of his transferring to his new post is that he will no longer be knocking at the door of business managers and asking for legislation almost every other week—and usually getting it, I might add, but, as he would be quick to point out, usually delivering his side of the bargain as well. I am sure that he will enjoy his new role and that we can have every confidence in him.
I was glad that my right hon. Friend emphasised the relevance of foreign affairs to ordinary people. Many people, and especially younger people, realise that many of the problems that we face have to be tackled internationally. Many people are extremely worried about President Bush's recent statements on the environment, and other issues include drugs and international crime. My right hon. Friend was right to draw our attention to the fact that many people are directly affected by such issues and are entitled to be concerned about them.
I share my right hon. Friend's attitude towards Europe, probably going back to the 1970s, but also in its development, shall we say. I accept his definition of himself as a practical European, and would also apply it 302 to myself, not least because many of my constituents know that their jobs depend on our membership of the European Community. They are not short-sighted on these issues and do not take an isolationist approach.
My constituents and, I am sure, those of other hon. Members are concerned about international development. While the general election was rather low key, it was striking that those who raised issues did so in a serious way, and the Labour Government's action on third world debt earned us a great deal of recognition and support, because many people in this country can think beyond these shores and consider other people. I hope that we can maintain our record on that.
There are one or two other issues that I hope my right hon. Friend will consider in his period in office, which I hope will be a long one.
§ Ann Taylor
I am glad that we agree on that.
Because of his experience at the Home Office, my right hon. Friend will be aware of the issue of the entry clearance system for those wanting to come to the United Kingdom. I know from constituency cases, as he will, that although there has been improvement in the system, especially since the very welcome abolition of the primary purpose rule, there are still inconsistencies in how different posts approach different cases. I am sure that, with his constituency knowledge, he will be able to encourage best practice throughout the posts.
I hope that my right hon. Friend will also consider how to end the way in which less reputable so-called immigration advisers charge people for what is often useless advice, especially in the Indian sub-continent, but also here. Many people get ripped off and are charged for straightforward applications or, perhaps worse, for pursuing what are bound to be hopeless cases. We could do more to bear down on such practices.
The shadow Foreign Secretary touched on the issue of Kashmir. Many of my constituents have a close interest in what is happening there. Many families in Dewsbury have relatives who have been badly affected by the conflict. There are many Pakistani and Kashmiri families, but also many who have relatives in the Indian army. He acknowledged that we in Britain cannot solve the problem but, given our historic role, we can use our good offices to try to ensure that there is a dialogue and that we do not lose any opportunity to make progress, which looks possible at the moment. I hope that, if my right hon. Friend visits the Indian sub-continent, he will raise that issue whenever appropriate, as well as in international forums such as the United Nations.
Over the past couple of days, I have listened to a great deal of the debate on the Queen's Speech and I have been tempted to intervene on several occasions, not least when modernisation of the House, programming and the role of Back Benchers have been discussed. My contributions on that will have to wait for another occasion, or I will speak at too great length and not get the chance to touch on the other subject that I want to mention today the improvement in public services, which was an important part of our election manifesto and is one of the reasons why we were re-elected with such a significant majority.
I am very proud of what the Labour Government achieved between 1997 and 2001 in education, and especially the Sure Start system. which will give some 303 young children life chances way beyond what they might otherwise have expected. I am very pleased that we were able to provide nursery education for every four-year-old, and look forward to our being able to extend that to three-year-olds. I was pleased, too, that we could deliver on our pledge on class sizes in infant schools. There is now no child of infant school age in Dewsbury in a class of over 30, and that will inevitably and undoubtedly lead to improvements in their education and their life chances.
However, there is still a great deal to do, as we acknowledged at the election and as my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Skills recognised yesterday. We have rightly said that we will focus on secondary education. It is important that we maintain that momentum, because we must reform and improve individual schools. It is also important for us to maintain a cohesive schools system, as that is the best way of providing real opportunity for every child.
My right hon. Friend yesterday announced an expansion in specialist and beacon schools, and assured the House that it would not lead to a two-tier system. It is vital for us to ensure that it does not do so. That can be achieved by encouraging specialist schools to look outwards and to co-operate with other schools in their areas, rather than to set themselves apart. I am sure that that is possible and that we can build—and, in some areas, rebuild—the community of schools that is necessary to improve the life chances of every child.
My right hon. Friend also mentioned yesterday the important review that she has initiated in respect of the AS-level examinations that were introduced this year. I declare an interest in those examinations, as I have two teenage children, one of whom has just completed A-levels in the traditional way. The other has just completed AS-level examinations. I must say at the outset that the one who did the conventional A-levels wishes that he could have taken the AS-levels, while the one who is doing AS-levels thinks that far too much work is involved, so it is clear that we cannot please all of the people all of the time. My right hon. Friend was right to emphasise the need to broaden post-16 education. The moves that we made in introducing AS-levels were absolutely right, and it is important that we broaden that tier of education.
We have also introduced key skills for first-year sixth-form students, which means that there is an awful lot of work for those who are taking key skills as well as four and sometimes five AS-levels. We must revisit the question of how to ensure that the work load and examination timetable of those young people are appropriate. Many AS-level students have been examined at the end of the year, and not on the modular basis on which some conventional A-levels are currently taken.
I hope that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will ensure that young people who have taken AS-level examinations this year and who will include the results in their forms for the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service in September or October are not disadvantaged. That could happen if their results for the new examinations are there for all to see, but are not as good as their competitors' predicted A-level grades. Such students may, of course, be competing with youngsters who have not taken AS-level examinations, as some schools and colleges have chosen not to adopt them. We must ensure 304 that fair consideration is given to all young people who are entering university and that none of them is disadvantaged by taking a broader curriculum. We must also not forget that these are the children who were guinea pigs at the age of seven, when standard assessment tasks were introduced, and so have seen significant changes during their school careers.
We must turn our minds also to the improvements that we could make in AS-levels and post-16 education generally. I think that we should be open-minded about the scope for introducing a credit-accumulation system for examinations, and perhaps about considering the whole 14-to-19 curriculum, not only the 16-to-19 curriculum. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State was very positive yesterday in expressing her support for a broad curriculum. I hope that that support will be maintained by the Government, not least because we are now introducing vocational GCSEs. We must ensure parity of esteem for those qualifications, so that they are not seen merely as a qualification that is intended for people who are less academic and will not pass other examinations.
The Government set out an ambitious programme in the Queen's Speech and it is on the delivery of that programme that we will be judged in the next four years. I believe that if we maintain our pace and direction, especially in issues such as education, we will not only have justified the confidence that people placed in us in the election on 7 June, but have laid the foundation for significant improvements in our education system that will improve the life chances of every child who passes through that system, as well as the economic prosperity of this country. On that basis, we will be laying the foundations for another victory by a Labour Government in four years' time.
§ 11.5 am
§ Mr. Menzies Campbell (North-East Fife)
In the spirit of the day, may I begin by offering my congratulations to the new members of the foreign affairs and defence teams, who are assembled today? I should also like to offer my congratulations to those who have survived the cut—a golfing analogy that my fellow Fife Member of Parliament, the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, the hon. Member for Kirkcaldy (Dr. Moonie), who has been restored to the Ministry of Defence, will no doubt understand and appreciate.
When the Minister for Europe was moved from the Foreign Office shortly before the election, I wrote to him to say how sorry I was and to express the hope that he would soon be back That prediction has proved entirely accurate, but my prediction about the Foreign Secretary whom he might serve was not as well blessed. None the less, I welcome the Foreign Secretary to his responsibilities. He spoke in his opening remarks about the symmetry of the Foreign Office, but I thought that I may have misheard him, and he was talking about the cemetery of the Foreign Office. I am certain that I was wrong; it would have been a rather pessimistic note to strike in his first contribution in his new office to debate in the House of Commons.
I should like to put on record my appreciation of the right hon. Gentleman's predecessor as Foreign Secretary. I do not want to get into partisan exchanges about his achievements or otherwise. I want simply to say this: throughout his occupation of the high and important office 305 of Foreign Secretary, he behaved towards me with the utmost courtesy. I take some immodest pleasure from the fact that he and I co-operated on a number of projects, not least of which was to produce a document pointing the way for reform of the United Nations in advance of its millennium summit. Substantial parts of that document were contained in the speech made by the Prime Minister at the summit, and I take some comfort from the fact that the Gracious Speech again contains a reference to the Government's commitment to United Nations reform.
I hope that the new regime will not shrink from the ethical dimension. Some time during the previous Parliament, even if the words "ethical dimension" were not replaced, the words "constructive engagement" were suggested as an alternative. I want to suggest that those terms are not mutually inconsistent. I was critical of the Government with regard to the red-carpet treatment that they handed out to Mr. Putin at a time when, in my view, the conduct of the Russians in Chechnya fell a long way below what was justified. It would have been possible to engage with Mr. Putin on issues of common importance, such as European security, while saying all the time, "As long as your record on human rights in Chechnya is so abysmal, you cannot expect to receive all the benefits of a full engagement." To some extent, the Government sold that pass, and one now has to ask what advantage was gained.
There has already been some reference to human rights. I believe that we have an ethical or moral obligation to help others to attain the human rights that we insist upon for ourselves. As the shadow Foreign Secretary hinted, such an attitude is beneficial also to the national interests of the United Kingdom, because repressive Governments who systematically violate the rights of their citizens are more likely to use illegitimate methods in the conduct of international affairs. Countries that promote strong civil liberties are much more likely to provide a conducive environment for business, economic development, investment and trade.
It is no accident that the European Union is based not merely on economic advantage and opportunity, but on an acceptance of democratic values and civil liberties. At least one of the candidate countries anxious to join the EU—Turkey—knows that its chances of being allowed to join depend on a far greater recognition of human rights and civil liberties, and that if it does not attain those standards its chances of accession will be substantially diminished, however economically compatible it may be with the EU.
I suspect that Europe will dominate our debates on foreign affairs for some time to come. I cannot forbear to mention the neat juxtaposition that has brought together the shadow Foreign Secretary and the shadow Defence Secretary, and I am sorry that neither is in his place at the moment. The shadow Foreign Secretary is the man who signed the Maastricht treaty and the shadow Defence Secretary is a man who voted against it. There is talk in the Tory party about the need for a broad church, but I doubt whether the church could be much broader than the now deserted Tory Front Bench.
The Government can count on the support of the Liberal Democrats in the legislation necessary to ensure the swift ratification of the treaty of Nice. The treaty sets out changes to the institutional frame work of the EU that will be necessary for enlargement to be successfully undertaken. It is technically possible to enlarge without 306 using the mechanism of the treaty of Nice, but if we did so every candidate country would gain two Commissioners. A Commission that many people think is already too large would be increased to an unnecessary number of people. More significantly, the achievement in terms of the exercise of Britain's influence that the Government obtained in the treaty of Nice would be lost. We can enlarge the EU without using the treaty of Nice, but we would create a monster if we did, and we would give up a substantial benefit to the people of the UK. That is hardly an argument for setting the treaty of Nice aside and taking some other route to enlargement.
In his speech, the shadow Foreign Secretary made no reference to the issue of qualified majority voting. That was perhaps well advised, because more than half of the extensions to QMV refer to technical portions of the treaty dealing with appointments, rules of procedure and the management of the European Parliament, its committees and courts. That is hardly a case for a referendum. Notably, the shadow Foreign Secretary did not repeat the call for a referendum on the Nice treaty, which was previously part of the Conservatives' position. Perhaps it has been excised from the website, like their manifesto, and should no longer be mentioned.
A further four articles in which QMV is to be extended refer to areas in which Britain opted out—again, no case for a referendum there. The remaining 10 extensions are in areas such as anti-discrimination practice, support for industry, priorities for structural funds and environmental measures. Those do not seem to be of such constitutional importance as to require a referendum. The case for a referendum was not made at the Dispatch Box today by the Opposition and they may, at last, have realised that such a case cannot be successfully argued if one considers the precise terms of the treaty.
Accompanying swift ratification of the treaty by the UK must be an acceptance on both sides of the House that the EU needs to undertake a serious round of reform. It must concentrate its energies on what it does best and not on trying to influence every legislative area of national competence. It should stay clear of areas in which its writ is unnecessary. The intergovernmental conference in 2004 should be used to establish a clear and precise delimitation of competencies between the EU and the nation states on which it relies for its legitimacy.
What we are talking about—I do not shrink from the expression—is a constitution for Europe. It is only through being clear and open about its structures and ambitions that the EU can hope to retain the support of the people of Europe. It is only then that the people of Europe will be comfortable with the institutions that are designed to represent them. We need to know in clear and simple language what the EU can do and what it cannot.
The single currency was the dog that did not bark in the Queen's Speech. As Sherlock Holmes might have observed, it was all the more significant for that, but there have been developments. We are now to adopt a position that is described as one of pro-euro realism. If that is to be the rallying cry, it is unlikely to stir the blood. I cannot envisage the people of Dunfermline, East taking to the streets to chant, "We are the pro-euro realists." Indeed, the Minister for Europe has been quoted as saying that it is necessary to "cool it" when discussing the single currency. Taken together with pro-euro realism, that 307 comment has more than a hint of the deep freeze about it. We are in Lewis Carroll country now, where words mean what those who use them want them to mean.
The five tests are couched in economic language, but they are in substance political. If the Chancellor of the Exchequer came to the Dispatch Box tomorrow and said that all the tests had been met, who would dare to correct him? Joining the single currency is both constitutional and political in its implications, and not simply economic. It is those constitutional and political implications that are the justification for a referendum. If it were simply a matter of economic management, no referendum would be necessary. If it is a political decision, there is an overwhelming need to make the case now, instead of waiting for the relatively restricted period of a referendum campaign. The Liberal Democrats propose to take every opportunity that we can to make the political case for Britain's membership of the single currency, and we would be happy to join in common cause with all who wish to do the same—especially those members of the Conservative party independent enough to reject the five-year principle.
This debate embraces defence, and I welcome back the Secretary of State for Defence and thank him for all the courtesy he displayed to me in the previous Parliament. Such is the cornucopia of talent now available to the Liberal Democrats that I shall not have the pleasure of shadowing him in future. He will be shadowed very effectively by my hon. Friend the Member for Hereford (Mr. Keetch).
I had already read in the papers—and this morning I heard it on the "Today" programme, so it must be true—that the Defence Secretary is to announce the Government's commitment to the two aircraft carriers. I hope that that is so, because the carriers lie at the heart of the expeditionary strategy on which the strategic defence review is based. He will recall that the Liberal Democrats supported that strategy and the conclusions of the defence review, and we will certainly support any announcement he makes that embodies a commitment to the two carriers. Without them, the expeditionary strategy would be sunk. We will need to find the funds to provide the carriers, because if we were not to do so, we would need to embark on a further defence review.
§ Mr. Quentin Davies
On behalf of the Opposition, I may say that we absolutely share that point of view. The carriers are essential as the key point of the expeditionary strategy, and real worries exist about the Government's genuine commitment to them. However, does the right hon. and learned Gentleman agree that there is no point in spending all that money on carriers if we do not have the skilled combat pilots ready, trained and able to fly the necessary aircraft? The fact that we have a deficiency of 125 combat pilots, and only 230 who are combat ready, is an absolute scandal. We will need to know how that issue will be addressed in short order when we have the statement on the carriers.
§ Mr. Campbell
That contribution stands on its own, rather than as an intervention. I agree with a deal of it, if not necessarily with the tone in which it was couched. Indeed, one must also consider the aircraft that will go on the carriers, as well as the carriers themselves. The 308 Government have committed £1.4 billion to the joint strike fighter programme. The success of that programme and the construction of the carriers go hand in hand. They are essentially two parts of the same whole. If the Defence Secretary is committing the Government once again to the two-carrier programme, I hope that he will also say something about the joint strike fighter and the progress of that programme.
We welcome the fact that an arms export Bill is to be introduced. It is the long overdue implementation of a commitment that the Labour party made in opposition at the time of the Scott inquiry. The Scott inquiry pointed out in sharp terms the fact that arms export legislation was outdated and did, not reflect what was necessary or desirable in a modern democracy.
The Labour Government published a White Paper in 1998, and the draft Bill in 2001, but urgent though the issue seemed when Labour was in opposition, it somehow appeared to lose some salience once Labour came into government. I hope that the Bill will be introduced at an early stage. We shall seek to improve it as far as we can to ensure as much openness and transparency as possible in the export regime. We shall look for measures to provide for prior parliamentary scrutiny of selected licence applications. The joint committee of the four Select Committees made some heavyweight recommendations in that regard in the previous Parliament. We shall also insist that the licensing and regulation of arms brokers is properly addressed, and that much greater control is taken of end-user certificates, We shall continue to argue for the ending of export credit guarantee subsidies for arms exports.
We also want the Government to tell us when we will receive the much promised but long delayed Green Paper on mercenaries. We were promised it throughout the previous Parliament, but we have not yet seen it.
§ Mr. Michael Howard (Folkestone and Hythe)
As the right hon. and learned Gentleman is touching on exports, will he say something about his party's general attitude to trade? I do not know whether he was aware of the visible exasperation expressed by the hon. Member for Richmond Park (Dr. Tonge) during the perfectly sensible remarks made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Horsham (Mr. Maude), the shadow Foreign Secretary, about the importance of global free trade and of further liberalisation of trade. Perhaps he could tell us something about his party's attitude to that.
§ Mr. Campbell
My party was the free trade party at a time when the absence of support for free trade in the Conservative party was responsible for one of those periods in the wilderness that have already been referred to. We remain committed to free trade, but no one who is committed to free trade can fail to have some anxieties about the extent to which multinational corporations, which often have turnovers far in excess of the gross domestic product of many countries, are in a position to avoid their obligations us to pay tax or to take responsibility for acts of negligence.
While I am wholly committed to the principle of free trade, I am equally committed to the notion that companies, wherever they are situated, should be obliged to fulfil their legal and ethical obligations. Much of the anxiety that people feel about globalisation, which is 309 sometimes demonstrated on the streets when international meetings take place, is based on the notion that some companies are so enormous that they are above the law. The shadow Foreign Secretary talked about the need to ensure that civil liberty and the rule of law marched robustly side by side. I agree with that, but if there is the rule of law for individuals, there has to be the rule of law for companies too.
§ Mr. Campbell
If my hon. Friend will forgive me, I will make some progress; I know that she takes a close and effective interest in international development.
We welcome the reintroduction of the International Development Bill because we believe that poverty reduction should be at the heart of all Government policies on aid. There was a defect in the previous Bill. Although it was said by implication to bring an end to the notion of tied aid, the Bill contained insufficient measures to make that specific. We hope that in reintroducing the Bill, the Government will make some effort to meet the legitimate criticisms that my hon. Friend made of the Bill during its passage through the House.
I suspect that our dismay was shared by hon. Members on both sides of the House that the Bill fell in the period immediately before the dissolution of Parliament because it could not be given a fair wind by Conservative peers in the upper House. That was curious, because the Bill went through this House on the basis of virtual all-party support—an extraordinary amount of consensus. I cannot remember any debate that was genuinely adversarial. I hope that when the Bill comes back, it will make the swiftest possible passage through this House and the other place to make up for the fact that it was unnecessarily and unduly delayed.
Missile defence is an issue that, in political terms at least, will run and run. I personally remain unconvinced of the case for missile defence. I am unconvinced of the threat assessment on which it is based. As I have said in the House before, the classic analysis of threat takes into account capability plus intent. It is true that the capability to manufacture weapons of mass destruction and their means of delivery is already more freely available. However, if one bears it in mind that totalitarian regimes go to a great deal of effort to ensure self-preservation, why should we assume that they would accept the risk of destruction by using or threatening to use nuclear weapons against the United States?.
It is right to say that the doctrine of mutually assured destruction has its roots in another period, but that doctrine has at the very least been modified by a number of factors since 1972 and the anti-ballistic missile treaty. NATO has adopted the nuclear doctrine of minimum deterrence, and regards nuclear weapons as weapons of last resort. START 1 and 2 have had an effect on the doctrine of mutually assured destruction. The doctrine has also been modified by the nuclear non-proliferation treaty. I argue strongly that it was further modified by the declaration made last year in New York by the five declared nuclear powers at the NPT review conference. All that suggests to me that there is a structure on which it has been possible to achieve a nuclear balance. Of that structure, the 1972 treaty remains a part.
310 How can we be so confident that a unilateral United States withdrawal from that treaty would not affect the structure? The structure is based on mutual obligations and interdependence. Unilateral action by the United States would inevitably disturb that structure. I am not alone in believing that.
Some hon. Members seemed to express the view that in the United States there is monolithic support for national missile defence. It will not have escaped the notice of any of us that control of the United States senate has passed from the Republicans to the Democrats. Senator Tom Daschle, the new majority leader, Senator Carl Levin, the new chairman of the armed services committee, and Senator Joseph Biden, the new chairman of the foreign relations committee, have all expressed reservations about NMD, in almost exactly the same terms as I have done today—so there is no monolithic view in the United States.
We ought to have a much wider debate in Britain than we have had until now. It is disingenuous for the Government to say, "Well, they have not asked us, so we have not felt it necessary to make a decision." We know that there is a nuclear planning cell in the Ministry of Defence. What on earth has it been doing for the past 12 months if it has not given consideration to the effect on Britain's nuclear policy if NMD goes ahead?.
The unanswered question is always, "What of China?" No one in Britain or the United States has produced an acceptable political solution to the obvious reservations of China and the threat that it might feel compelled to modernise and increase its nuclear arsenal if NMD were to proceed.
Iraq has been mentioned briefly during the debate. There are allegations—perhaps the Defence Secretary will take the opportunity to say something about them—that about 23 deaths were caused in the northern part of Iraq by allied aircraft. That was denied by the Ministry of Defence, but has been put forward with a great deal of vehemence on the Iraqi side. Perhaps the Secretary of State will be able to enlighten the House a little further.
One thing that cannot be denied is that the patrols continue both north and south. Those combat air patrols are not expressly authorised by any United Nations Security Council resolution. If one reads the resolutions that are prayed in aid, one sees that it requires a pretty extended interpretation to suggest that they give authority for what is going on. When the Defence Secretary himself gave evidence to the Defence Committee in the previous Session, his evidence, which I have read in detail, was to a large extent based not on the Security Council resolutions but on the general right of humanitarian intervention. The right hon. Gentleman is a pretty confident fellow, but his evidence on that matter as given to the Defence Committee was pretty thin.
The risk is that one of these days the Iraqis will get lucky. One of these days, the air defence system, which we seem determined to suppress, will be successful; if it is not an American pilot or American air crew, it may well be British air crew who are killed or brought down and taken through the streets of Baghdad as an enormous propaganda opportunity for Saddam Hussein.
We know that the patrols now offer no protection of any kind on the ground in the south. In the north, there are reports of allied pilots finishing patrols and returning 311 to Turkish air bases so as to allow Turkish aircraft to take off to harass the very Kurds who have been under allied protection earlier in the day. We need a wholesale review of policy towards Iraq. As I have said, I do not believe that the patrols can be described as authorised in the way that is claimed. There is considerable suspicion that the purpose of those patrols is not to provide protection but rather to continue the degradation of the air defence system in Iraq. In other circumstances that might be justified, but it is not, in my judgment, made legitimate by the legal instruments that are prayed in aid to support it.
§ Mr. Quentin Davies
Is the right hon. and learned Gentleman saying that the Liberal Democrats believe that a major concession should be made to Saddam and a tremendous boost to his power and prestige provided, by our unilaterally withdrawing those overflights without him making any concession, without him accepting the latest UN resolution, without him allowing any UN inspectors back, or doing anything about the 600 missing Kuwaitis whom he abducted? Are the Liberal Democrats saying that, without any concession at all, we should simply hand him this enormous gift?
§ Mr. Campbell
The hon. Gentleman has not been in any middle eastern capitals in recent times. If he had been, he would have both seen and heard the extent to which the policy of the combat air patrols is regarded with distaste and disfavour by Governments in all the middle eastern capitals—[Interruption.]I say, if the hon. Gentleman will allow me, that the patrols do not have any legal legitimacy. They are ineffective in the south; indeed, so ineffective are they that reports were emanating from the Ministry of Defence earlier this year that Britain was unilaterally considering withdrawing from the combat air patrols in the south and leaving the United States to get on with it. France has already withdrawn; only the United Kingdom and the United States are engaged in the exercise—
§ Mr. Campbell
In relation to those patrols, one of these days the Iraqi air defence system will get lucky.
§ Mr. Campbell
No, the answer is not yes. The question cannot be put in the isolationism that the hon. Gentleman finds so convenient. What is necessary is to consider—[Interruption.]I am sorry for the hon. Gentleman if these matters require a level of intellectual engagement that he finds difficult and embarrassing. We have to look at the question of Iraq as a whole. In particular, we have to be prepared to accept that 10 or 11 years after the war we are still pursuing the policies that we embarked on a few months after the war. We have to be willing to maintain the threat of military action as part of a policy of containment. If Iraq were to threaten Kuwait again, the hon. Gentleman would not find me slow to say that we should threaten and, if necessary, use military action in order to deal with that threat.
312 However, one has to look at the wider implications in Arab capitals of the policy to which I have already referred. In particular, one has to look—here I support what the Government have now done—at the question of the maintenance of the non-military sanctions that have resulted, never mind what their objective was, in the degradation of the lives of ordinary Iraqi citizens and have handed to Saddam Hussein an enormous propaganda advantage that he has exploited ruthlessly, not only in Arab capitals but throughout the world.
Along with the United States, the Government appear to be moving, at the United Nations, towards accepting the point of view that the non-military sanctions should be lifted. My view is that the overall policy should be one of military containment accompanied by sanctions on both military and dual-use equipment. The combat air patrols serve no purpose; they are politically damaging and run the risk of casualties among British air crew. That is a pretty compelling reason for bringing them to an end.
I turn to the question of Macedonia. Once again, this is a Balkan state on the edge, it would appear, of civil war. All of us in the House should offer our support and our commendation of the efforts of Lord Robertson, the Secretary General of NATO, and of Javier Solana, as European Union representative, in trying to keep the talks going and in trying to achieve a settlement.
Clearly, the best possible solution would be that the discussions between the Slav and Albanian politicians succeeded, and civil rights and power-sharing reforms were implemented. If such an agreement requires a NATO presence to assist in the process of disarmament, we should most certainly be willing to contribute to that. There is an opportunity for NATO to some extent to redeem our 10-year record in the Balkans, which is not one of which we can be proud. A limited intervention that helped to maintain stability in Macedonia would have the consequence of preventing further regional instability and would also protect the fragile peace in Kosovo and the viability of the NATO mission there as well.
Some reference has been made to the European rapid reaction force. I repeat what I have said on many occasions: neither Britain nor Europe can automatically rely any longer on the United States coming to assist in Europe in conflicts that appear, to US eyes, to be exclusively European and that exclusively affect European interests. The need to ensure that this capability is not a rival to NATO is found first in a formal right of first refusal to NATO, secondly, in ensuring that operational planning remains within NATO and, thirdly, in ensuring that strategic planning remains within NATO.
In an article in the Financial Timesrecently, Mr. Philip Stephens observed rather tellingly that the Europeans can hardly complain of United States unilateralism if they are unwilling to act more coherently in their own defence. I would extend that a little further: we can hardly complain about United States unilateralism if the European members of NATO are unwilling to spend the money necessary to ensure coherence in their own defence.
Foreign affairs outside Europe hardly featured in the general election campaign. The brocard borrowed from the United States, "It's the economy stupid," appeared to rule. However, that does not mean that foreign affairs will not be important. Indeed there are those who argue that one can tell the nature of a Government not so much by 313 their domestic policy but by the way in which they conduct their affairs outside their own borders. We wish the Government well, but we shall endeavour to maintain the same scrutiny of them in this Parliament and in succeeding Parliaments as we sought to carry out in the past four years. Where their policies are consistent with the best interests of the United Kingdom and meet the legitimate concern of people in this country that we should have an ethical dimension to our foreign policy, they will have our support. Otherwise, we shall be critical where we think that it is necessary.
§ Donald Anderson (Swansea, East)
This has a been a good-tempered and constructive debate. I congratulate the right hon. and learned Member for North-East Fife (Mr. Campbell) and the right hon. Member for Horsham (Mr. Maude) on their speeches. That spirit augurs well for debates on foreign affairs during this Parliament.
I looked at the Queen's Speech that was delivered in 1997, after the first major Labour victory, and reflected that one could not learn very much about what happened during that Parliament from it. There were events, such as those in Kosovo, Zimbabwe and Sierra Leone, and they should serve as a corrective for us as we consider the references to foreign affairs in this Queen's Speech. I concede that the references are rather more tightly drawn on this occasion. Perhaps there are fewer grand declarations. However, historians looking back on this Parliament after four or five years will probably find that the Queen's Speech is of limited relevance to what actually happens. Perhaps that should serve as a corrective.
Indeed, looking further back to the beginning of the last major period of Liberal Government—Campbell-Bannerman' s great victory in 1906—and then at "The Strange Death of Liberal England" and the women's movement, the trade unions, the first world war and Ireland, we can see that they appeared to be of limited relevance at the time. Perhaps Ireland and the trade unions will figure more largely in this Parliament than we now anticipate. So perhaps there should be an element of reflection at the beginning.
I had the honour in the previous Parliament to chair the Foreign Affairs Committee. We enjoyed the former Foreign Secretary's co-operation. I believe that he attended the Foreign Affairs Committee more frequently than any of his predecessors. I hope that whoever leads the Foreign Affairs Committee in this Parliament will enjoy similar co-operation from the new Foreign Secretary. The hon. Member for Somerton and Frome(Mr. Heath) was a distinguished member at the time and pressed us, quite properly, to consider the ethical dimension in foreign policy. Whether it was wise to trumpet one's commitment to an ethical dimension early in a Parliament is a moot point. It might have been more prudent to trumpet that commitment at the end of the Parliament, saying, "By our works ye shall know us." That is a matter for consideration, as many hostages to fortune can be created and perhaps there are lessons to be learned from that.
I was saddened by the extent to which, after very hard work by the Foreign Affairs Committee, many of our reports were almost wholly ignored, even when they were, in my judgment, of great value. We worked in a very 314 consensual way. Indeed, all our reports, except that on Sierra Leone, were unanimous. I hope that, away from the yah-boo politics of the Chamber, that spirit will continue in this Parliament. Certainly that spirit provides a model, and I thank Opposition Members and my hon. Friends for working together constructively, and I congratulate them on doing so. In particular, I should like to thank my good friend Ted Rowlands, who is no longer a Member. He did a remarkably good job as Chairman of the Quadripartite Committee, which produced excellent reports on transparency and strategic export controls. He will certainly be missed in this Parliament.
I recall a conversation with a leading business man, who told me that he was dismayed that the Foreign Affairs Committee report on Russia received no mention in the press. Sadly, it received no mention because we did not have even one sentence criticising the former Minister for Europe. Alas, that was the flavour of much of the press reporting. I believe that the Committee did well.
I shall make a further point about the Foreign Affairs Committee and Select Committees generally. When there is another very large majority and when the democratic spirit surely demands a well-informed Parliament, ready to ask the Government the right questions, we need to boost the work of Select Committees. I hope that the all-party Liaison Committee report, "Shifting the Balance" and its subsequent reports will be taken very seriously by the new Leader of the House and that the Whips will be less involved in Select Committees than they have been in the past. I hope that there will be an opportunity to deal with that at the start of the Parliament.
Finally on Select Committees, there is a danger that, given the precedent set in 1997, they will not be established possibly until October. In 1997, the Conservative Opposition chose their leader in mid-June, after which the Front Bench shadow appointments were made, so the Committees had time for perhaps one meeting in July before the recess. In my judgment, it would be wrong to delay the appointment of Select Committees until after the Conservative leadership election, given that it might not be over until September. I hope that the usual channels will find a way to ensure that the Committees are up and running, certainly by the end of July, so that they can select their first inquiries. That is a matter of great importance to the House if Select Committees are to carry out their work as speedily as possible.
I shall turn to one or two matters relating to the new Government's policy—first, the European Union. Although the Opposition tried to make Europe a major focus of the election campaign, the electorate, in their wisdom, thought otherwise, perhaps because of the economy or another reason. I ask the Opposition carefully to consider the wise words uttered this week by Lord Hurd—a distinguished diplomat and former Foreign Secretary—who urged them to reject the view that the Europeans are in some way enemies and not to use Europe to frighten people. The Opposition need to have a far more balanced view on the nuances of Europe.
§ Dr. Julian Lewis
Surely the right hon. Gentleman is setting up an Aunt Sally because the aspect of Europe that featured in the Opposition's unsuccessful election campaign was that of joining the single currency. That was the focus, and the response was that there would be a referendum on the subject. The Government argued 315 successfully that the referendum, not the election, would determine the outcome. He cannot have it both ways and claim that the outcome of the election shows that the electorate rejected the Opposition's policy of opposing the single currency.
§ Donald Anderson
I refer not just to the campaign, but to the tone of the Opposition during the previous Parliament. As a witness in that, I call Lord Hurd, who said that the Opposition should learn that they couldnot gain votes by treating our partners in Europe as enemies, by giving an unbalanced account of what is happening in Europe, and by frightening our citizens at every turn into the unreal fear of a European superstate.I ask even the hon. Gentleman, whose credentials are well known, to reflect carefully on the former Foreign Secretary's wise words.
On broader European matters, ensuring greater stability in Europe is in all our interests because there are massive threats on the periphery of Europe. The right hon. and learned Member for North-East Fife mentioned Macedonia, and there is instability in Ukraine. Happily, there is now greater stability in Russia.
However, we need to consider other areas of potential instability, which threaten any complacency in Europe. They include north Africa, where there are enormous populations and great poverty. The equivalent of the relationship between the Rio Grande in Mexico and the United States is that of the north of the Maghreb and Europe. As the right hon. and learned Member for North-East Fife said, we must also consider the sad reversal of Camp David and the enormous dangers that the crisis in the middle east poses to us all.
The result of the Irish referendum on the Nice treaty is significant. The problem with referendums is that one cannot negotiate with the people. There is no national psychiatrist to diagnose the factors that induced the Irish to reject the treaty on a low turnout. There was a motley coalition, which included anti-abortionists, pacifists, those who felt that small nations would get a bad deal from the treaty and others who perhaps simply wanted to kick their Government. President Mitterrand once said that the French always gave the answer to the wrong question in referendums. Events in Denmark show that it will be difficult to determine what amendments, if any, will be enough to change the views of the people of Ireland.
Enlargement is a major factor. A decisive step was taken at the Gothenburg summit, and enlargement must proceed. The Berlin wall fell only 12 years ago. During this Parliament, recasting the map of Europe will begin and stability will spread eastward. Even those who describe themselves as sceptics about Europe, perhaps for the wrong reasons, will accept that, in our new, expanded Europe, there will be more brakes on the train and greater difficulties in reconciling the more diverse countries that will join from central and eastern Europe. However, that is our destiny.
Let us consider our relations with NATO. No one has mentioned the important speech that President Bush made in Warsaw. In the past, we have been uncertain about the US Administration's views about NATO enlargement. We knew that the open-door commitment existed, but there were rumours that, initially, the US was prepared to 316 open the door only to Slovenia. However, President Bush made a clear commitment in Warsaw recently. He spoke at Warsaw university, and argued that all Europe's new democracies,from the Baltic to the Black Sea and all that lie between should have the same chance for security and freedom … as Europe's old democracies have.In a significant passage, he continued:I believe in NATO membership for all of Europe's democracies that seek it and are ready to share the responsibilities that NATO brings … The question of 'when. may still be up for debate within NATO; the question of 'whether' should not be. As we plan to enlarge NATO, no nation should be used as a pawn in the agendas of others. We will not trade away the fate of free European peoples.President Bush said that when NATO leaders gather for the Prague summit in 2002,The United States will be prepared to make concrete, historic decisions with its allies to advance NATO enlargement.He called for a Europe that included Ukraine and that was "open" to Russia. Historians will surely find that the Warsaw speech was important.
Some talk about a choice that this country must make between the US and Europe. I believe that, while examples such as Echelon, trade disputes and Airbus can be cited, it is in our interests to maintain the closest relations with our key ally, the US, and with our European partners.
When we consider the rapid reaction force in Europe and what the Americans now call missile defence, some argue that there should be a trade-off between them, and that the Americans NA will go soft on the rapid reaction force if we in Europe accept their proposals on missile defence. I hope that we will reject that idea and view both proposals on their merits.
If Europe is prepared to pay the price militarily, there is a strong case for a European capacity, as long as it is involved only when NATO does not wish to be engaged. By our active engagement, we can help to develop the rapid reaction force constructively.
I share the enormous pus misgivings of the right hon. and learned Member for North-East Fife on missile defence. I also share his happiness that that great democracy, the US, is now holding an internal debate about it because of the changed Senate.
Those of us who have expressed anxiety about the boost to the arms race that may occur because of missile defence or son of star wars can now cite some evidence for our view. China has threatened substantially to increase its intercontinental ballistic missiles. In the past week, President Putin said that he is inclined to increase the warheads on Russian missiles. The arms race could therefore receive a major boost, which would be in the interests neither of the US nor of the world.
Perhaps missile defence can be operational, if at all, only in 10 or 15 years because of technological failures and a greater debate in the US about the financial side. I urge my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence not to jump too quickly into bed with the US on missile defence. We should question the capability and the intention, and share the scepticism of many of our allies. We should not be dragged along by the silken thread of the marketing exercise in which our US allies are now engaged.
317 The third world has hardly figured in the debate. I want to concentrate on Africa, but I join others who welcome what the Government have said about the new Bill on strategic arms exports. It is tardy; the Scott report appeared in 1996.
I welcome what has been said about a new commitment to the third world. In the cold war, the super-powers had to bid for the support of the African countries, and dictators could walk tall. They knew that they would not be criticised because their votes were needed at the United Nations. Nowadays, we can view Africa more dispassionately, with no post-colonial guilt. As my hon. Friend the Minister for Europe did, we can talk more brutally and realistically to Zimbabwe and other black dictatorships. We can be more realistic about Africa.
We also have to understand that Africa is an area of enormous concern. We must relate to and build up the regional centres in Africa that are capable of supporting their immediate regions. I am thinking particularly of South Africa. I rejoice at the visit last week of President Mbeki, and we must look to South Africa—which has enormous potential—and to the Southern African Development Community region to see the prosperity and the hope of South Africa rippling out to its region and elsewhere.
I suppose that if one can talk of a sceptred isle, one can talk of a sceptred continent. We in Europe have enormous advantages in terms of our stability, prosperity and democracy. In my judgment, it is in our interest to expand those benefits and blessings beyond our immediate shores not only to the periphery of Europe, but to Africa. It is in our interest, but it is also right for us to do so.
§ Mr. Michael Howard (Folkestone and Hythe)
It is a pleasure, as ever, to follow the right hon. Member for Swansea, East (Donald Anderson). I entirely concur with him on the value of the role played in the previous Parliament by the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs, which he chaired with such distinction. I am sure that his voice will continue to carry great weight on matters of foreign affairs in the current Parliament.
I congratulate the Foreign Secretary on his appointment and wish him well in his new responsibilities. He and I have crossed swords for a number of years in the field of home affairs. I know better than most the mixed emotions with which he will have left the Home Office. I look forward to joining issue with him from time to time on the areas of his new responsibility and I hope that my criticisms—when criticisms I make—will be constructive, as I think that they were, on the whole, in the previous Parliament.
There are clearly important differences between the Government and the Conservative party in some aspects of foreign affairs, most notably, of course in our relations with the rest of the European Union. The Foreign Secretary was quite right to use the phrase "the rest of the European Union" in his speech and he was quite right to dismiss as absurdly irrelevant the categorisations of anti-European and pro-European. He was absolutely right to say that we are part of Europe, but that does not diminish the legitimacy and importance of our engaging in proper debate about the terms on which we engage with the rest of the European Union or about the future course that the European Union should take. I believe that those matters will continue to play an important part in our debates in this Parliament.
318 On foreign affairs in general, there is no need for there to be—indeed, in an ideal world, there should not be—significant differences across the Floor of the House. Of course, scrutiny of what the Government do is essential, but there need not be and should not be any fundamental differences of approach.
I want to make one other preliminary remark before I pass to my main point. The shadow Foreign Secretary, my right hon. Friend the Member for Horsham (Mr. Maude), congratulated the Government on the increased importance that they were attributing to the Commonwealth. However, I was very disappointed that the Foreign Secretary did not really mention the Commonwealth in his speech at all. The word "Commonwealth" passed his lips on only two occasions, unless I am much mistaken, and one of those was when he was describing the title of his office. I was somewhat relieved when he did that, because I had rather thought that, in view of the absence of any substantive discussion of the role of the Commonwealth in his speech, the word might have disappeared from the title of his office. Indeed, I went so far as to check in the front of Hansardthat he still was the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs.
I believe that the potential for the Commonwealth to play a much larger and more influential role in world affairs is considerable. I hope that the Government will take seriously that potential and seek to increase the role of the Commonwealth. It can be a force for good on many international issues of importance.
I want to focus on a different area today. For some time now, it has been apparent that the relationship between Europe—I mean Europe and not simply the United Kingdom—and north America is encountering considerable difficulty. I should perhaps declare an interest, in that I have formed and also chair a non-profit making organisation called Atlantic Partnership, which exists to draw attention to the dangers facing this relationship.
The points of friction between the two sides of the Atlantic have emerged with blinding clarity since George W. Bush assumed the presidency of the United States. However, it is a great mistake to suppose that he is responsible for those points of friction. The truth is that the transatlantic relationship that the new President inherited was already under strain.
It is also true that the differences and difficulties had to some extent been shrouded by the ambiguity that was the hallmark of the new President's predecessor and that still finds many echoes on this side of the Atlantic. The tensions on trade, the environment and defence in particular were already present. They are real and they are acute. Of course, what makes them more difficult to resolve is the fact that fundamental changes are taking place, both in north America and in Europe, which, again, could make it ever more difficult in the years that lie ahead to maintain that Atlantic partnership, which has been such a powerful force for good in the world.
What are those underlying forces, which, in my view, are beginning to drive America and Europe apart? Let us start with north America. The extent to which north America is increasingly preoccupied with the Pacific and what lies beyond has become increasingly apparent in recent years. The centre of gravity in north America has increasingly been shifting westward. California is the 319 most populous state of the United States. Many of the most significant developments take place on the west coast; silicon valley and Microsoft are both there.
Beyond that coast, across the Pacific ocean, lie lands that matter more and more to north Americans. Japan, despite its recent difficulties, remains an economic giant. For the United States, China is both its greatest opportunity as a marketplace of enormous potential and its greatest threat as a potential super-power in the first half of this century.
The increasing preoccupation with other parts of the globe is reinforced by demographic trends in north America. There are growing numbers of citizens of Asiatic descent in Canada and the United States, and the growing Hispanic population in the United States in particular tends to look south to Mexico and the rest of Latin America beyond, rather than east to Europe.
Those trends are mirrored by some of the forces at work on this side of the Atlantic. The factor that contains the seeds of rivalry to a greater extent than any other is the drive towards European integration. Let me say at once that I recognise that by no means all those who espouse the cause of greater European integration are anti-American, and I accept that it is perfectly possible to desire the creation of a politically united Europe and to want that Europe to remain a partner of the United States, but that is certainly not the view of all European integrationists.
Indeed, it cannot be denied that many on the continent of Europe and some in this country are explicitly motivated by a desire to create in Europe a rival centre of power to the United States. Some of them seem to be keen to use any opportunity that arises to strike a position that is different from that of the United States, often with the only purpose of creating and emphasising that difference. If one adds to that the end of the cold war, which was the cement that held both sides of the Atlantic together in the face of the nuclear threat from the Soviet Union, it is not surprising that differences of view on so many of the great issues facing the world have become more and more marked on both sides of the Atlantic.
Those differences have become so well documented that I do not need to spend a great deal of time itemising them. One of the first to surface related to trade. European attitudes to the import of bananas from the Caribbean and of genetically modified and hormone-treated food from north America have aroused strong reactions in north America, while north America's insistence on promoting the export of the latter to the EU has aroused strong reactions in Europe.
The trading relationship will obviously be difficult to manage. There are legitimate rivalries. Commercial interests differ, and Governments are increasingly called on to assist their own companies. Conflicts are inevitable, but the consequences are grave. In my view, it was not the activities of the demonstrators outside the conference halls of Seattle that caused last year's talks on the next trade round to collapse; it was the failure of the United States and the European Union to agree. Had they been able to agree, I believe that a new trade round would have been established, to the lasting advantage not only of Europe and north America but of the world as a whole. There could be no more striking example of the importance of that relationship to the world at large.
320 Defence issues have also led to considerable concern. There has been a great deal of debate on the impact on the Atlantic relationship of the European rapid reaction force. I have spoken about this previously and will no doubt do so again, so I do not intend to spend a great deal of time on it today. However, it is worth noting that the Gracious Speech uses language that has often been used by the Prime Minister in this context—it refers to the European Union's ability to actwhere NATO chooses not to do so".As Conservative Members have pointed out in the past, there is no reference in the appendices to the treaty of Nice that provides a detailed constitution for the European rapid reaction force to limit its ability to act to those situations in which NATO chooses not to do so. Had that language been inserted in those appendices, at least some—although not all—of the concerns of Conservative Members about the development of such a force would have been significantly mitigated.
The right hon. and learned Member for North-East Fife (Mr. Campbell), who speaks for the Liberal Democrats on these matters, laid out three preconditions that he said should be observed if the European rapid reaction force was not to cause some of the difficulties to which I have referred. However, none of those preconditions is met in the language that was agreed at Nice and is set out in the appendices. Moreover, none of them has been met in the structures that have been established so far to take the European rapid reaction force forward. It therefore remains to be seen how it will work out in practice, but the initial omens are not encouraging.
That is not the only element relating to defence that has caused problems for the Atlantic relationship. The United States' plans for its new system of missile defence have undoubtedly led to concerns on this side of the Atlantic. It is perhaps predictable that those on this side of the Atlantic who seek to democrats President Bush conveniently overlook the fact that those plans were supported by the previous US Administration. The right hon. and learned Member for North-East Fife made much of the fact that some of the new chairmen of the relevant committees in the US Senate have reservations about the plans. However, this is not simply a partisan issue in the US—many Democrats support the President's plans. There are clearly considerable concerns over the issue that have yet to be resolved.
The issue that has perhaps led to the noisiest disagreement is that over the way forward on climate change following the Kyoto protocol. Now more than ever, it can be seen how tragic it was that the opportunity for agreement on this issue was missed in the talks in The Hague last November. I have previously paid tribute to the Deputy Prime Minister for the Herculean attempts he made on that occasion to broker an agreement between the US and the EU. As we know, he thought that he had put such an agreement in place, only for it to be rejected at the last minute by his European colleagues. I believe that, had that agreement been allowed to stand, it would have been much more difficult for President Bush to have resiled from the United States commitment to the Kyoto protocol—had he wished, in those circumstances, to doso.My sympathy with the Deputy Prime Minister is the more marked because I was in a similar position in 1992. At that time, in the run-up to the Earth summit in Rio, it 321 looked as though the current President's father would not attend that seminal conference because the US was not then prepared to sign either of the two major conventions that would be on the table at Rio—the biodiversity convention and the climate change convention.
I went to Washington as this country's Environment Secretary, without any publicity. I saw all the relevant Cabinet members. I drafted some amendments to the convention with Robert Zoellick, who is the present Administration's trade representative. I reached an agreement that was acceptable to the rest of the European Union. That made it possible for President Bush Sr to attend the Earth summit in Rio, for the United States to sign the climate change convention, and for real progress be made on climate change in the intervening decade—although not as much as many of us would have liked.
At least on climate change, agreement was reached at Gothenburg last week to set up a high-level group, including personal representatives of the European Union and the United States, to continue dialogue on these issues. That seems to me to be the best way forward. However, as we have seen, climate change is not the only issue giving rise to difficulties.
I commend to the Foreign Secretary the possibility of establishing a standing conference of high-level representatives of the European Union and the United States and Canada. That standing conference should anticipate transatlantic disagreements before they arise, identify them in advance and recommend courses of action that would mitigate them. If those issues have already surfaced—as have many that we have been discussing—that standing conference could provide a convenient forum for continuing dialogue.
However difficult the individual issues that give rise to disagreement may be, I believe it is essential that we all keep in mind the overriding importance of sustaining and promoting the Atlantic partnership that has been such a powerful force for good in the world. If it flounders, the planet we inhabit will be a less safe and a less prosperous place. Friction undoubtedly exists, but it must not be allowed to develop into fracture. It behaves us all to do what we can to avert that danger.
§ Jim Knight (South Dorset)
It is with a great sense of history and responsibility that I speak in the House for the first time as the first Labour Member to be elected at a general election to represent any part of Dorset. Indeed, South Dorset is the first Labour gain from the Conservatives in the area this century, and we look forward to many more such gains, especially in the newly fertile shire counties and in the south-west, where we are still the second largest party.
I take this opportunity to thank the electors of South Dorset again for putting their trust in me to represent them with double the majority of my predecessor. A majority of 153 may not sound much, but I was delighted to get it into three figures.
As a new Member, I am conscious of the need to learn and respect the traditions of the House; at present, it is only too easy to trip over them as I wander confusedly through the corridors full of other Members' offices. I am happy to respect the tradition of paying tribute to my predecessors, the former Members for South Dorset.
322 I take over from Ian Bruce, who will be known to many in the House, as he served the people of South Dorset for 14 years as their Member of Parliament. Although we have been political opponents for the past six years, Ian and I have always had a good working relationship, co-operating when necessary for the good of the area. He has always been polite and thorough, and I was most grateful to him for the kindness he showed to my late father, who corresponded with him after I came 77 votes short of unseating him in 1997.
Ian was one of a long line of Conservative Members for South Dorset—among them, Viscount Cranborne. That line was punctuated in 1962 by the by-election victory of the late Guy Barnett, who took the seat for Labour when the Tories, strangely, were divided over Europe and managed to put up two candidates. I am confident that Tory divisions on Europe are not a precondition for Labour success in South Dorset, but I would certainly encourage the Conservative party to continue its forthright and entertaining argument for many more years to come.
Sadly, Guy Barnett fell just short of retaining his seat at the 1964 general election, but he is still recalled with great affection in Dorset. He went on to serve as the Member for Greenwich, and I know that senior Members still remember him fondly.
What kind of constituency is the Labour seat of South Dorset that I now proudly represent? The beauty is inspiring and the people are kind and generous, but I remind my right hon. and hon. Friends in Government that appearances must not be allowed to hide the many needs of the area.
The south Dorset coast is the subject of a world heritage status bid. From Brownsea island and Poole harbour in the east, past Studland bay, Swanage sea front and Lulworth cove to the start of Chesil beach and the Fleet at Weymouth and Portland in the west, it is spectacular. I am a geography graduate, and, having studied coastal features such as Durdle Door and the longshore drift of Chesil, I am immensely proud that they are now in my constituency.
Beyond the coast, there is equally special countryside: the nature reserves at Arne, Lodmoor and Radipole, the heathland of the isle of Purbeck, the rugged beauty of Portland. All that is just a convenient train ride from Members' constituencies, and I am sure that the Travel Office would be pleased to make arrangements. Indeed, I look forward to seeing the many who will, I am sure, come down for the Tolpuddle rally, which, although it takes place in West Dorset, will take place within a mile of what is now a Labour seat. Yes, one of the crucibles of trade unionism is finally within spitting distance of a Labour constituency.
Some may wish to visit our other tourist attractions. I am thinking particularly of Conservative Members, who may want to take a break from their current campaigning. At Bovington they can visit the tank museum, and view such classics as the Chieftain, the Patton and the Challenger—and if that seems a little too limiting, they could of course pop across the road to visit Monkey World.
Beyond those attractions are great natural resources—for example, the Purbeck stone and Portland stone that can be seen in buildings all over London. We have important oil reserves. We have an international centre for 323 nuclear decommissioning technology at Winfrith, and we have the army camps at Bovington and Lulworth. I was delighted to receive a letter yesterday from Colonel Beer at Bovington, reassuring me that plans to move an armoured reconnaissance regiment into the Stanley barracks were proceeding. There is a delay because of the commitment to provide our armed forces with decent accommodation, but contrary to local rumour put about during the election, the growth of Bovington is set to go ahead, with the welcome boost to our economy that will accompany it.
Further west, in Weymouth and Portland, we have a strong light industrial base, particularly involving defence-related employment, and, of course, the tourism economy, which is vital throughout my constituency.
In many ways we appear to have everything that we need in South Dorset, but we also need our fair slice of the cake. Our education standard spending assessment is one of the worst in the country, our councils desperately need a fairer funding formula, and we need to go on trying to gain attention for those of our industries that are struggling. I am thinking particularly of agriculture, tourism and defence, the mainstays of the economy of the south-west of England and of South Dorset.
Clearly agriculture is suffering, even in Dorset, where we have been fortunate enough not to have any cases of foot and mouth. The low value of the euro is one of the many difficulties that farmers face, as it translates into lower export prices and lower payments from Brussels. I look forward to campaigning for entry into the single European currency in the interests of farmers—just as soon as my right hon. Friends tell me that it is in our national interest to do so.
Tourism has, of course, also been badly hit by foot and mouth. I have tried my best to sell the area to you, Madam Deputy Speaker, and to the rest of the House, as the perfect place to visit—it is natural rambling country—but there is now real hardship among our small tourism businesses, and footpaths have only recently reopened. Those businesses need all the help that they can get.
The seaside resorts also have long—term needs. I hope that Ministers will continue to press in Brussels for their eligibility for European Union regeneration funding. Swanage and Weymouth offer great family holidays by the sea, but are struggling to compete with Spain, Portugal and other countries in the eurozone where our pounds go a lot further than they do on the South Dorset coast.
It is crucial for the South Dorset economy that we retain strong international links, the presence of the armed forces and a vibrant defence industry. Last Sunday I attended the veterans festival in Weymouth, along with many hundreds of ex-service men and women. The area is very proud of its veterans and, uniquely, even has monthly reunions. It is a community that is proud to be British, and proud to look beyond our borders for its friendships.
Defence policy has always been, and will remain, important to the constituency. It is a remarkable tribute to the local people, on Portland in particular, that the area has not suffered more following the closure of the Ministry of Defence establishments in the last decade. It is also a tribute to schemes such as the new deal, the regional development agency and the European social fund that unemployment is now half what it was four years ago, despite thousands of job losses on Portland.
324 I was delighted to hear in the Gracious Speech that we maintain our commitment to NATO and that we will be asked to agree to ratify the Nice treaty. Britain has a unique place in the world. As has been pointed out, our membership of the European Union, NATO, the Security Council, the G8 and the Commonwealth give us a unique insight into and understanding of international affairs. As active and respected players in all those organisations we can punch above our weight in many ways. We must use that influence to work to persuade the people of Europe of the merits of enlarging the European Union. Enlargement must be allowed to proceed.
Many of the countries aspiring to join have fragile democracies that survived the threat from extremist politicians thanks to the promise of entry to the EU and access to that market Enlargement does not come without a cost, but it offers bigger markets, more stability in our region and the further extension of human rights and democracy. Enlargement offers peace and security to us and to our neighbours. Enlargement is good for Britain, and the Nice treaty is good for Britain. I look forward to furthering those arguments in the House. What is good for Britain internationally is good for my constituents, and they are the people whom I shall always seek to serve first and foremost in the House.
§ Alistair Burt (North-East Bedfordshire)
It is with great pleasure and delight that I rise to speak as the newly elected hon. Member for North-East Bedfordshire. It is an especial pleasure to follow the maiden speech of the hon. Member for South Dorset (Jim Knight). His adherence to the traditions of the House, including the small circle of people—the doughnut effect—that he attracted as he spoke, shows that he has learned his early lessons well. He speaks of his new constituency with great relish, enthusiasm acid considerable humour.
The hon. Gentleman's kind remarks about his predecessor, Ian Bruce, are much appreciated by Conservative Members. Ian was a friend and colleague. For a time, he was my Parliamentary Private Secretary at the Department of Social Security. Conservative Members will miss him. The way in which the hon. Gentleman addressed the task of his maiden speech and spoke so fluently and well, bodes well for his career here. We wish him well and look forward to his contributions to future debates.
I will not stretch the credulity of the House with descriptions of an epic boyhood in Bedfordshire, and how I dipped my toes in the River Ivel and listened to the distant halloo of the Oakley hunt. It will not have escaped hon. Members' attention that my childhood home was Bury in Lancashire, which I was proud to represent here for some 14 years. It is with grateful thanks to the good people of North-East Bedfordshire that I am returned as one of the unfortunately named "retreads".
I am proud to be a retread. For those who have served in public life, there is an advantage in taking that experience into a different form of work and experiencing something outside the House for a time. One sees things from a new perspective, finds out from other people what is really on their minds and what they would really like us to talk about, gains a new insight into how they see us, and learns what the price of coffee is in the rest of London, rather than here.
325 I thank hon. Members on both sides of the House and members of staff for the warm welcome that they have given me since I returned. I mention in particular members of the Parliamentary Christian Fellowship and members of the parliamentary football team, who have been very kind to me. I must scotch the rumour that I decided to return to the House on the day I learned that the parliamentary football team now went abroad to play matches against teams such as the Hungarian Parliament. It is not true that that settled my mind, but it did make a contribution.
North-East Bedfordshire is, geographically, a vast constituency. It stretches from Northamptonshire in the north to Hertfordshire in the south, from Buckinghamshire and Milton Keynes to Cambridgeshire and Huntingdon. The historic county town of John Bunyan is neatly skirted around. In all aspects, North-East Bedfordshire is a delight. Domesday book villages nurture listed churches throughout the constituency. The rivers Ivel and Great Ouse flow through the constituency, and the channels of communication are the historic Great North road and the Great North Eastern Railway, which takes commerce right through the constituency to various destinations.
Predominantly rural, the villages of north Bedfordshire and the activities of farming and growing have for generations given a particular shape and character to the people and the land there. There is deep affection for and understanding of the county's heritage. However, we also look to the future of agriculture, which remains one of the nation's great, and most efficient and productive, industries. Agriculture makes a tremendous contribution to national life.
History and attractions abound in the constituency. In Cardington we have the sheds where the great airships such as the R101 were built. The Shuttleworth aircraft collection and the Swiss garden are world renowned. In the north of the constituency, the Santa Pod raceway would provide an enjoyable day out for most hon. Members. At the southern tip of the constituency, Arlesey Town football club brought home the FA vase from Wembley as recently as 1995. In this place, the constituency is also represented, in the Refreshment Department, by the excellent products of the Jordan family, who manufacture healthy food and cereal bars that we all enjoy.
The towns of Biggleswade and Sandy are growing rapidly. People in those towns are employed in modern engineering industries and in high-tech, commercial and retail businesses. However, a growing number of them commute to various other places, particularly London.
Business, local authorities and the voluntary sector come together to promote pride in Bedfordshire. People there are friendly and hard working and very proud of their public services. They are also strongly community minded, as was demonstrated to me on my first constituency engagement, last weekend, at the re-opening of the Great Barford lower school swimming pool, an event which I much enjoyed.
My constituents deserve the very best from those who represent them, and in Sir Nicholas Lyell they had exactly that—a man dedicated to public life, serving constituency, his county, his party and the nation. He will be remembered in the House for his 22 years' service, which were distinguished by his courteous manner and his able holding of some of the major legal offices of state. In 326 Bedfordshire, in both the constituencies that he represented, he is remembered on many doorsteps as a Member of Parliament who worked for everyone. He will be much missed in the county, and as someone whom I must follow, he sets me a great challenge.
Sir Nicholas was my predecessor. However, I should also like to spend a moment on my successor, the hon. Member for Bury, North (Mr. Chaytor), who beat me in the 1997 general election and has retained his seat. On more occasions than were really necessary he has made generous references to me, both in this place and in the constituency. For that I am truly grateful. It has also served the purpose that he sought and ensured that I did not chase him again. I hope that he appreciates that.
I am not sure whether the hon. Member for Bury, North has yet encountered my favourite old constituent, whose cheek and brass neck will take some matching by my new constituents. He came to see me at one surgery, from one of our poorest council estates, sat down and said, "Mr. Burt, I want your help. My front door was wrecked six weeks ago. I told the council, but they have done nothing about it." As a Conservative Member with a Labour—controlled local authority, I eagerly picked up my pen, as the case was money for jam, I said, "Mr. So—and—so, that is interesting. Tell me about it. How did your front door come to be wrecked?" He said, "The police broke it down during a raid." I put down my pen. The case was clearly more difficult than it seemed. I said, "What does that have to do with the council?" He said, "The police told the council all about it and the council could have told me. If I had been there, I would have held open the door for the police and they wouldn't have had to break it down." I looked at him very sternly and said, "You must tell me, did the police find anything in their raid?" Having checked that there was no one else in the room, looking round very carefully, he whispered to me, "Mr. Burt, not what they were looking for.".
Having demonstrated their scepticism about the Government by returning me at the general election, my constituents will have listened to the Gracious Speech with mixed emotions. They all welcome the measures that are obviously intrinsically good, such as the reform of the adoption laws. For those who commute on the trains, the reform of rail safety will be a matter of great importance. However, they all share my wry bemusement about how competition and enterprise can be strengthened, as the Gracious Speech states, by the Government's usual activities of higher taxation and greater regulation.
Bedfordshire's rapidly growing population will be intensely interested in proposals for reforms designed to deliver better public services. Like me, they may feel that past performance does not bode well. We now have fewer police officers, our health authority is underfunded and our Conservative county council—triumphantly re-elected the other week—struggles to provide services for those who are already there, let alone the many thousands of people who will live in the new houses that the Government have asked to be built in the county.
My constituents will expect me to scrutinise carefully the progress that the Government seek to make as set out in the Gracious Speech, and I shall certainly do so. There was deep disappointment, though little surprise, at the lack of a mention of rural affairs. The impact of the crisis in the countryside is very deep and goes beyond the immediate families and into the communities. The loss of 327 about 60 per cent. of farm income during the previous Parliament is an indication of that, and the anger that the farming community felt was expressed at the ballot box.
I am aware of the conventions of the House and do not wish to delve too deeply or be too critical, but Labour Members will know that I will return time and again to this subject. It adds to the bitterness in the countryside that the Government have given such priority to the reintroduction of a Bill to ban hunting. Opinions on the subject are mixed, but its relative importance, given the issues of income and livelihood, is really not very high.
For those who represent rural areas, the future of Europe and of the common agricultural policy is crucial. I am sure that next week Ministers will address the issues of CAP reform and the Government's aims and intentions on the matter will be closely scrutinised. The handling of agrimonetary compensation—the mechanism for resolving the difference in value between the pound and the euro—has not been a happy story and does not bode well. I will seek a commitment that all the support that is available through that mechanism will be applied for. The mid-term review of the CAP will coincide with further discussions on enlargement. We want to ensure that government is relatively joined up in that regard, and that before any treaties are signed, the interests of the agricultural community are well protected.
Both the European Union and this country stand at yet another crossroads. The new Foreign Secretary—an old friend whom I wish well in his new responsibilities—talked about some future issues in a general way, but as the House knows, it is not the general intentions on Europe but the specifics that cause the problem. My party put the issue of Europe right at the heart of its election campaign. It was brave to do so, when every public opinion poll over the preceding four years showed that the public saw it as a less important priority than we did. I believe that we were right to attempt to move public opinion towards awareness of the pressing issues concerning the European Union and our relationship with it, but our tone and our approach have been seriously at fault.
I referred earlier to those with whom I have been working outside the House. Many are Conservative voters but others, who ought to have been Conservative voters—predominantly, ominously, the young—seem to move in circles in which it has become an automatic reflex not to vote Conservative. Our clients were significant UK and international companies, involved with Europe and far from blind to its institutional problems, but I am afraid that too many expressed unease with our approach to the issues. All too often, the potency of our arguments was lost by an almost comic hostility towards Brussels. If we are to play our true role in these debates and to hold the Government to account on issues such as democracy and sovereignty, as our constituents rightly expect us to, we will have to take a much more constructive and realistic approach.
I strongly support what Europe has achieved for its peoples over 50 years of reconstruction, but I am profoundly disturbed at the pace of a process of political integration that seems to have a dubious democratic mandate, and at the continual fudging of the central issue of demarcation regarding what Europe should do together 328 and what individual nations must do individually in order to protect their national integrity and safeguard the significance of their own internal election processes.
I do not believe that a single currency is a panacea for those ills. The debate about it during this Parliament must be informed by a Conservative party that argues its case cogently and reasonably, rather than obsessively, as the public perceived it. Not least among the reasons why I hold that view is that I am not convinced that the Government truly understand that the best way of being positive Europeans is to ask the uncomfortable and difficult questions, rather than to swim with a tide that seems exhilarating at first, but which is fundamentally dangerous as time goes on.
I have two brief final points. First, from my observation of friends outside the House, I agree wholeheartedly with the speeches made during the Queen's Speech debate that have warned us quickly to consider further reform in this place as a means of re-engaging the public in the political process. A Parliament that that is over—dominated by the Executive in theory is now over—dominated by it in practice.
Political parties will have to relax their grip on Back Benchers, who must be prepared to see an honourable career in the House away from the Front Benches. As a House, we can no longer assume that what interests us for hours will interest people outside. People increasingly want their politicians to meet them on their own ground, and to have more unwhipped, thoughtful and honest debates on many issues that are considered to be either Cinderellas or too hot to handle. The media must play their part. They cannot wish for more independent Back Benchers on both sides of the House and then pursue them all with the idea of split and division. In a modern Parliament, the media ensure that the people get the politicians that they want them to have.
Secondly, I would go further than the recent Hansard Society report on the future of Parliament and argue that Select Committees should have the power to initiate, introduce and take forward Bills, rather than merely to make recommendations at the conclusion of an inquiry. That would address the problem that virtually everything that occurs on the Floor of the House is confrontational. Hon. Members are almost obliged to be either for or against a proposition merely because of its origin, when they have usually played no part in either the consultation or the drafting process. If we are to end yah—boo politics, or at least to provide some time when we can take our own decisions on whether to legislate, more independence in proposing legislation might just help us.
People expect a lot of this Parliament, in which I am extremely proud and delighted to be able to take part once again. I assure the House and the people of North-East Bedfordshire that I shall do my very best to represent them, and to encourage the House to meet the expectations of people outside in what I expect to be a challenging and fast Mating Parliament.
§ Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North)
It is a pleasure to welcome the hon. Member for North—East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt) back to the House. It seems like only yesterday that he occupied the exulted position of opposition leader on the planning committee of the London borough of Haringey when I was its chairman. I shall never look at a Jordan's crunch in the same way, having heard his comments.
329 I compliment the hon. Member for South Dorset (Jim Knight) on his speech and his amazing victory in the general election. It is a shame that the village of Tolpuddle is not quite situated in his constituency—it will be another four years before that triumph is achieved.
I shall be brief, as I know that many other hon. Members wish to speak. We should always recognise that we are elected to this place because thousands of people in our constituencies have put enormous faith in us to carry out a representative job on their behalf. I pay tribute and give my thanks to the people of Islington, North for electing me again to Parliament, for the support that they have given me and for their hopes about the second term of a Labour Government. They want us to ensure that the problems of inner-city deprivation, housing shortages and serious childhood poverty will continue to be addressed. In particular, the re-elected Government must recognise and understand that, unless the problems of affordable rented housing in the inner city—especially council housing—are not addressed, the electorate will not be so patient with us. They will be very angry indeed. Far too many children are being brought up in incredibly overcrowded and poor-quality conditions. Those problems must be addressed.
This Parliament will also be dominated by the quality of public services and the delivery of those services. I am a member of Unison, a large public sector trade union, and I was at its conference recently. A great sense of anger was obvious in many of those union members, who have loyally supported the Labour party for many years, about the proposed privatisation of services in the NHS and local government. We should pause and think more carefully about the value and the quality of public employment and services, and their ability to deliver a democratic and accountable service to the people.
During the election campaign, we had a big public meeting in my borough about the future of Post Office jobs. Those jobs are under threat in many parts of this country because of international pressure and the ludicrous competition rules that insist that each national post office can compete with all the others on their own turf. The idea is that that is more efficient, but I beg to differ with that view. I question the idea that Europe is improved by endless competition between public services or by their privatisation.
The rules of competition seem to encourage the break-up of public service, not to encourage it, which is part of a worldwide phenomenon in which people feel that their elected politicians, Governments and parliaments are powerless to do anything. Several people who did not vote in the election—and the turnout was lamentably low everywhere, including in my constituency, where just under half the electorate voted—asked me what elected politicians could do when multinational corporations are so powerful.
I look to the Government, in all their dealings with the World Trade Organisation, the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and all the other international trade organisations and bodies, to remember that the world economy should not be seen as beyond the power of elected Governments. There are some incredibly powerful multinational corporations that hide out in tax havens, the better to plot the transfer of capital around the world, and it is time for elected Governments to assert themselves over those companies and their power. Too often and for too long, individual regions and countries have operated 330 beggar thy neighbour policy of offering ever greater tax concessions and tax holidays to multinational companies to go to that area and do whatever they do for a few years before they move on to the next tax haven. It is time to engender a sense of responsibility into trade and industrial planning around the world. We look to a Labour Government to pursue a policy of fairer and more just trade, and more control over the flow of capital around the world.
The flip side of that issue is that the conditions under which many people work are poor and, in some cases, getting worse. The level of exploitation increases down the chain of production of sports goods, or any other type of clothing, so that the poorest people, in the poorest countries, are paid a pittance—sometimes child labour is used—to produce goods sold as luxury and fashion items in western European stores. It is important that our aim should be not to weaken the International Labour Organisation and its conventions but to strengthen them, so that child labour becomes a thing of the past and every child can expect to go free to school to be educated, instead of being sent to work in a brick or clothing factory. The absolute right to belong to an independent trade union, which can improve conditions for workers, must also be recognised.
My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary, in his opening remarks, talked about the importance of United Nations institutions. I draw the House's attention to some sanguine comments by Kofi Annan on the radio the other morning. He said that the United Nations was underfunded, got all the problems when no one else could sort them out and received all the criticism when it was incapable of sorting them out.
We need the United Nations; it is the only thing that can give us any hope of a sane and peaceful world. We must therefore ensure that every member of the United Nations makes its full financial contributions to it. I hope that the new Foreign Secretary will put whatever pressure he can on the United States to pay up in full both the backlog of its contributions and its current contributions to the United Nations, and that we contribute as much as we possibly can to the other United Nations agencies and institutions, especially the human rights and refugee commissions. Both do extremely important work. Both recognise the denial of human rights, often as a result of economic exploitation, and recognise the plight of refugees around the world.
While we luxuriate in what I believe to be a largely false distinction between economic and political migrants, we should look at why people seek asylum in the first place. In my constituency, I meet people who have been bombed out of their homes in Somalia and whose families have disappeared. and people from many other places around the world. They were insulted as much as I and many others were insulted by the rhetoric that the Leader of the Opposition used in the election campaign. We should have a greater sense of humanity about the victims of the world economic system and the language used against them.
I intervened in the speech of the Foreign Secretary to raise the issue of peace in this world. There are a large number of wars still going on. Many people are dying in those conflicts, which are often economically based. They are wars fought almost as a surrogate battle for a conflict 331 about mineral resources. We must do all that we can to support peacekeeping efforts and ensure that those conflicts are brought to a conclusion.
We still have a vast arsenal of nuclear weapons in this country. President Bush, who can call himself democratically elected only by virtue of the assistance of his brother in Florida, tells us that he has a mandate to introduce national missile defence, which is an untested technology— or one that has been tested only in so far as it has been proven not to work. He is prepared to spend vast amounts of American taxpayers' money on NMD. It is essential for him that the United Kingdom supports NMD and takes part in it by making available Fylingdales and Menwith Hill as listening stations.
I am not alone in the House in opposing NMD. Many Labour Members and some Liberal Democrat Members have said that they are strongly opposed to it and concerned about the future. I hope that, instead of undertaking the consultation exercise with President Bush, we will oppose NMD from the beginning and all that goes with it. It would lead to a new arms race with Russia and China and would bring about not peace but the opposite in the long term.
We shall face many foreign policy and human rights issues in the next few years. I hope that ratification of the International Criminal Court will show that the dictators of the world will have no hiding place in the future. Unfortunately, former President Pinochet was allowed to go back to Chile, where we hope that he is to be put on trial. I ask the Foreign Secretary to recognise that the United Kingdom holds many documents in secret under the 30— year rule or the longer rules that may be of assistance in prosecuting Pinochet for his role in the disappearance of many people in Chile. I ask him to consider releasing those documents so that they can be used against General Pinochet and his henchmen.
We face problems in many places in the world. I draw attention to the danger of an imminent war in Morocco over the future of the western Sahara. The United Nations must go ahead with an independent free referendum so that the people of the western Sahara can decide their future and prevent the whole thing from descending into a war.
People in my constituency live the problems daily. For too long, the island of Cyprus has been divided. I hope that in the second term of a Labour Government we can bring about talks that will lead to the peaceful reunification of Cyprus and the recognition of all traditions in that island.
We have a great role to play in this,but—here I echo the point made by the hon. Member for North-East Bedfordshire at the beginning of the debate—Parliament must be a place where independent, free-thinking voices are readily listened to and heard. It also has to be a place that brings its Government and Executive to account for what they do. That is what makes for better and stronger Parliaments, better and stronger democracy and, ultimately, better government and better legislation as a result. That is the reason that we are elected to Parliament in the first place and I am looking forward to the next four or five years in that vein.
§ Paul Holmes (Chesterfield)
I am very pleased to be able to speak in the debate on the Queen's Speech and pleased but somewhat nervous to be making my maiden speech. I am nervous, first, because I have spent my whole adult life so far as a historian studying and teaching the history of this country, the development of our democracy and the workings of the Chamber: actually to sit on the green Benches and contribute to the debate is more than a little awe-inspiring. I thank the voters of Chesterfield who have placed their trust in me by returning me as the first Liberal Democrat MP for Chesterfield and the first Liberal MP since 1929.
Secondly, I am nervous because I am more than conscious that I follow in the footsteps of one of the leading political figures of the past half-century. Tony Benn, the previous Member for my constituency, was highly regarded in Chesterfield as a good constituency MP who helped a great many local people with a huge variety of problems. He was always willing to take up any cause and never reluctant to tackle his own local Labour councillors when he thought that they were wrong. He extends that approach, of course, to his party nationally and to the present Labour Government. He is a passionate and eloquent advocate of his beliefs to which he always remained faithful, however controversial they were.
I was privileged to hear Tony Benn speak many times in Chesterfield and on occasion, over the years, to put questions to him and debate with him. I disagreed with him on much of what he said but no one could ever doubt the sincerity and passion with which he holds his views. I hope that we shall hear much more from him in years to come, and that has indeed, as he said, stood down to spend more time on his politics. His place in the political history books is assured, beginning with his first entry when he rewrote constitutional law by establishing the right of peers to renounce their title to stand for election to this Chamber.
My constituency was described during the election by Matthew Parris of The Times as a hard-bitten town. I can forgive Matthew much as he was the only national print media journalist to spot and predict openly that we were on course to win Chesterfield, but as an honorary Chesterfieldian—I have lived there for 22 years although not for my whole life—I must defend it against that description.
Chesterfield was an engineering and mining town as well as a market town. Stevenson, the great railway engineer, made it his home in the 19th century and is buried in the church around the corner from where I live. The mines have all gone now, although I had the privilege of going down Markham pit as the guest of Chesterfield miners about two years before the pit was finally closed. Much of the heavy engineering has regrettably gone too, including Markham Engineering, which built the channel tunnel boring equipment. More recent blows have fallen in the past few months on old industries such as Donkins and Dema Glass. However, although the town suffers higher than average unemployment, it is beginning to recover from those blows. New industries, especially light engineering and high-tech computer firms, are locating and expanding in the area.
Chesterfield also has a great deal to offer as a market town, with the largest open air market in the country in continuous use since, the middle ages. A new shopping 333 centre opened last year. The world famous crooked spire is still there. It did not straighten up in shock at the election result as Matthew Parris predicted it might.
Chesterfield has its own place in history with the Revolution House museum. In 1688, it was a small isolated country inn where the Duke of Devonshire and others met in secret to plot the revolution of that year—a revolution that although it contributed to some religious bigotry was none the less a landmark in the development of democracy in this country.
Chesterfield is an excellent tourist base as a gateway to the splendours of the Peak district and to the wonders of Chatsworth house, Hardwick hall and Haddon hall. Wherever one stands in Chesterfield, one can look up and see fields and moorland surrounding the town, giving it a pleasant and open aspect.
We also have an excellent football team, which has done remarkably well in recent years despite problems with its management, its finances and the previous Minister for Sport. Its success in recent years has done much to boost the town's morale and community spirit.
I should like to reassure the hon. Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn) that all Liberal Democrat Members oppose the national missile defence system. It is based on technology that does not work and that will be immensely expensive to develop to a point where it still could not work 100 per cent. The very process of developing that technology will destabilise the 1972 anti-ballistic missile treaty and the many advances that have been made in the past 10 years in the cause of nuclear reduction and world peace.
I almost prefer the system of nuclear-free zones, in which I used to live—first, in Sheffield in the 1970s, and then in Derbyshire in the 1980s. We could always rest secure in our beds in the knowledge that we would somehow be exempt in the event of nuclear war because our road signs told us that we lived in a nuclear-free zone. Perhaps I should write to President Bush with my suggestion; he might take up the idea. Like NMD, it would not work in the slightest, but it is far cheaper and does not destabilise world peace.
I hope that the House will indulge me slightly if I return to yesterday's lead debate, in which I had hoped to make my maiden speech. For the past 22 years, I have been a secondary school teacher. For 12 of those years, I was the head of a sixth form. I also have three children of school age, who are currently at school in Chesterfield. I have some knowledge of our state education system from both sides of the fence—as a teacher and as a parent, or in the horrible words that Governments prefer to use about our public services these days, as a producer and as a consumer.
Two of those who opened Wednesday's debate emphasised that they had not attended public school. I would add my own disclaimer to their comments, and I think that that matters because more than 92 per cent. of our children are educated in the state system, not in the public school sector. As the former Member for Islwyn, Neil Kinnock, said so passionately, they owe their life chances to the state system. I was the first member of my family, living on a large council estate in Sheffield, ever to go to university, and it transformed my life. I very much doubt whether I should have been able to take that opportunity, back in 1975, if my then unemployed father and I had been faced with the prospect of yearly tuition fees and a £10,000 to £14,000 debt on graduation.
334 I have spent the last two thirds of my teaching career working in what have been controversially described as bog standard comprehensive schools. Hon. Members can imagine how my teaching colleagues and I felt about that description of our life's work. However, as I am supposed not to be controversial in my maiden speech, I shall leave the details to hon. Members' imaginations on this occasion.
There is an often—professed vision behind the Labour Government's approach to education, education, education—a vision that I can share and applaud, even if I have doubts about the reality of its implementation. I suggest that all Governments would do well to spend a little more time consulting the work force before launching into schemes that sounded good when their advisers drew them up, but which revealed their flaws when imposed too quickly and without consulting those who have to deliver them. The recent problems with the introduction of AS—levels are a classic example.
Long suggested and generally welcomed by teachers as a valuable way to widen our over—narrow and prescriptive academic curriculum, AS—levels were introduced far too quickly and without enough practical planning. Last summer, I had to scrap a successful and innovative A—level course, and then at very short notice and with no extra money to buy brand new textbooks, which had not even been written for a brand new course, a colleague and I had to prepare and teach the new AS—level. It was February of this year before I attended an exam board course that gave me the final information on how the course would be taught and examined, yet we were already 70 per cent. of the way through teaching it and the course work exams were imminent.
If we as teachers had problems, hon. Members can imagine how the students felt. They have been the guinea pig generation for the national curriculum, for SATs and now for AS-levels, none of which was planned, introduced or funded properly. Of course, hon. Members do not have to take my word alone on that. Nick Tate, the then head of the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority said recently that the AS-level scheme, which he helped to devise, seemed like a good idea at the time. Having just completed his first year as head of a school, he now says that he can see the problems and the miscalculations, which could have been avoided. That lesson should have been learned after the rushed introduction of the national curriculum, which has had several major rewrites since the late 1980s.
Like managers in industry, Governments of all parties would do better if they carried their work force with them after consultation rather than regarding staff as an enemy within who inflict scars upon one's back.
In principle, I welcome the secondary schools review. We should never be complacent; we can always improve. However, I hope that the Government will work through and with teachers and public sector workers rather than imposing measures on them, regardless of their professional judgment.
§ 1.5 pm
§ Ms Bridget Prentice (Lewisham, East)
I am delighted to follow the maiden speech of the hon. Member for Chesterfield (Paul Holmes). I understand his nervousness, but he should not worry about it because we are all nervous when we make maiden speeches, and some of us 335 are nervous about every speech that we make. I welcome the fact that he is another history teacher; that was my profession when I had a real job. I assure him that his skills are much needed here to remind some hon. Members about the history of our country. He follows a great parliamentarian, Tony Benn, but I suspect that he will be more supportive of the Government than his predecessor. I welcome that.
My hon. Friend the Member for South Dorset (Jim Knight) also made his maiden speech, which was excellent. As a history teacher, I have taken pupils to that part of the country, for example, to visit Tolpuddle. I am sure that his contributions to our proceedings will be warmly welcomed in future.
I appreciated the comments of the hon. Member for Chesterfield on national missile defence. A system that cannot be fully operational, even if it is a good idea, should go back to the drawing board. I hope that, when he has the opportunity, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence will express that view to President Bush.
I shall speak briefly about international affairs, but I want to concentrate on local issues. I hope that hon. Members will indulge me, given that the debate on the Queen's Speech covers all the subjects in it. I welcome the measures to improve the delivery of public services. The emphasis on health, education and crime underlines the Labour party's commitment to improving quality of life for all.
The Queen's Speech is historic because it heralds the legislation for a full second term of a Labour Government. Like many of my colleagues, I welcome that. I especially welcome the prospect of a measure to tackle crime and the proceeds from it. I hope that the Criminal Justice (Mode of Trial) Bill will be reintroduced for some offences. I listened with interest to the comments of the leader of the Liberal Democrats in the opening debate, when he talked about the rights of individuals and civil liberties.
I shall not repeat my comments made in previous debates on mode of trial about the myth of trial by jury being a God-given right, which has existed in this country from time immemorial. While we treasure the rights and freedoms that a democratic society enjoys, we can hold them sacred only if they are accompanied by responsibility. As legislators, we have a responsibility to the victims of crime. Ensuring that perpetrators are tried fairly and given sentences that reflect their crimes will deter others and, most important, give victims faith in the justice system. In the past, they have often felt that it did not reflect their needs.
I want to mention two specific aspects that I hope will be developed through the laws that will be passed in this Session and beyond. I shall comment first on international issues. I can tell my right hon. Friends on the Front Bench that I was delighted to hear the Foreign Secretary say this morning that we were European. I think that that is the first time I have heard a Foreign Secretary—or, indeed, any Member of this House —say specifically that we in this country were Europeans. We are not on the edge of Europe. We are not people who occasionally have little forays into Europe, as though it were some other place beyond our understanding. Our place is in the heart of Europe.
336 I hope that we shall make strong and clear representations, in the House and outside it, about our role in Europe and that we shall engage the people of this country so that they, too, will believe that we are at the heart of Europe. I also hope that when we debate the single currency, we shall do so in a positive and strong fashion. I look forward to that debate.
Of course, we rightly feel that we have a strong, close relationship with the United States, but let us not overstate that relationship. The ignorance of our parliamentary system shown by commentators in the United States often appals me. It could he that people in America spend a great deal of time discussing internal matters and rarely engage with news from Britain or the rest of Europe. A commentator in the Washington Postsaid of this general election:Nothing notable there. Almost every Government since 1945 has been re-elected.That shows lamentable ignorance of our democratic process. Almost every Government? Well, yes, so long as they were not Labour ones. I am delighted that, on this occasion, we have managed to re-elect a Labour Government for a second term.
Another commentator reflecting on our re-election two weeks ago—unsurprisingly, one who was a speech writer for the first President Bush—said that we, the Labour Government, were rejecting the leadership of the United States. I cannot think of anything more patronising. No one could say that anyone other than the Labour Prime Minister of this country led when we were dealing with the conflict in south-east Europe. No one could say that anyone other than the Labour Deputy Prime Minister helped to ensure that the negotiations on climate change at Kyoto took place. Furthermore, it is the Labour Secretary of State for International Development who has led the world in trying to increase funding to eradicate world poverty.
When President Bush talks about high levels of receptivity among the leaders of Europe—I must learn this common language that we are supposed to share with our American colleagues—perhaps he might reflect that he could take a lead from some of the actions that we have taken in the past. I hope that my Government will continue their strong support for the European Union, and that they will continue to lead in the European Union and in our efforts to eradicate world poverty and to develop measures on climate change and the environment.
More parochially, I want to talk about getting people in my constituency and elsewhere off benefit and into work. I know, with some sadness, that my constituency has had the slowest fall in youth unemployment in the country. Someone has to come at the end of the list, but I am particularly concerned about that because we also have one of the highest levels of youth unemployment in the country. We need to do more to ensure that the young people in my constituency and elsewhere are given the jobs that they need and deserve.
My colleagues from outside London often think that life in London is very cushy and that we have a fairly high quality of life. I have to tell them that I represent a constituency whose level of unemployment is still much higher than in the country at large. That is despite the excellent work done under the new deal in the previous Parliament. One of the main reasons for that is that the deprivation and poor skills levels in my constituency are holding people back.
337 That is why I believe that we must put more effort into our regeneration initiatives to ensure that those skills levels are increased. We need to go further, not just, and not necessarily, even, in increasing the budgets for those initiatives, welcome though that would be, but in ensuring that the money that we spend is earmarked and well used. That skills deficit remains, and while the ideas are fine, their execution will be the guide as to whether we succeed.
I hope that the execution of those ideas will not be stymied by inaction caused by lack of skills and that the Government make it a priority that partnerships in regeneration deliver, even if that means taking tough decisions and putting aside old prejudices as well as investing and improving the skills of local people.
In Lewisham, we have received handsome sums to help with regeneration, both in the deprived Downham area in my constituency and for the single regeneration budget in Lewisham town centre. The coming of the docklands light railway to Lewisham has been a major factor in generating the potential for new jobs and the SRB for the town centre is both creative and ambitious, but it must be deliverable. That means that those involved must set aside personal aggrandisement and blinkered approaches. They must work together to ensure the success of that regeneration bid, because this is not the time for sitting in happy contemplation of what might be—it is a time for action and obvious delivery on the ground.
The Queen's Speech says that we are to legislate on land registry, so I shall hang on that hook the comments that I want to make about planning laws. It is time that the Government took up the issue and changed the planning laws radically. In my experience in Lewisham, East, planning law is often developed piecemeal, inconsistently and without thorough consultation with the local community. Where consultation does take place, often only lip service is paid to it and there is no engagement with what the local community wants.
In saying that, I am not for a moment advocating nimbyism, which is an abhorrent concept. Indeed, I often admire the fact that the French, for example, can be very creative in their developments and can put modern buildings alongside more historic ones, doing so boldly and courageously. I would have no problem at all with that happening in this country, and I wish that we were a great deal more courageous about the way we develop the land in which we live, so long as developments are not grotesque concrete jungles masquerading as homes, such as those that we built in the 1960s.
I am particularly concerned about speculative planning applications by developers with little or no interest in the local community. I give two examples. First, backfill and infill development is now a regular occurrence in London and we are in desperate need of more housing, but success can be achieved only if a development remains in keeping with the local community, so overdevelopment in a purely residential area will not work. It will not work because of the effects on transport, health and education in the local area, which will be detrimental not only to those who already live in the community, but to those who intend to come into it.
On the other hand, high-density development around a transport hub, with the consequential industrial and other-work uses, is an excellent idea that I hope the Government will encourage. That is why it is wrong to 338 consider backfill in residential areas, but right to encourage the enthusiastic development of high-density transport nodes.
Secondly, residents feel insecure when a developer can come back again and again with a planning application that has been rejected. There is a specific example in Blackheath in my constituency, where a freeholder has tried time after time to build on a six-storey building. Surely we should be able to find some way to prevent that year-on-year worry for residents. After all, we have a system for dealing with vexatious litigants in the courts. Could we not also devise ways of dealing with vexatious developers in our local communities?
One of the problems is that planning officers whose advice councillors rely on are far too timid in front of developers. So scared are they of a case being taken to appeal that they capitulate before the matter is even discussed. Thus developers get their way, whether immediately in the planning committee or under threat of an appeal. I return to the theme about rights having to be conjoined with responsibility. It is time that developers faced up to their responsibility to the local communities in which they wish to invest.
Equally worrying is the way in which the urban development programme can be ignored when it suits. What is the point of a lengthy process of consultation and decision making and of a draft development plan when its contents can be so easily ignored? I hope that the new Department of Transport, Local Government and the Regions will look speedily at our planning laws, not to set them in some neolithic formula but to ensure that they allow for the dynamism of the 21st century and that the views of the local community are not just listened to but acted on.
I should also like us to have a statutory advocate on behalf of local residents where major planning applications are made. I urge local authority legal departments to be just a little more imaginative before advising members that they should agree an application, otherwise the developer will go to appeal. With clear structures in our planning laws, there would be no need for such conflict. Developers would know where they stood and local communities could help to enhance the developments in their patch in a way that was in keeping with the area. That is a form of devolution that the Government might like to consider, given how keen we are on devolution throughout the country.
I make a final plea. Those hon. Members who voted consistently for a ban on foxhunting are determined to see that ban in the course of this Parliament. I sat on the Standing Committee that considered the foxhunting Bill in the previous Session. There is no need for us to go through a lengthy and bureaucratic process to find another Bill. We already have one with its amendments, and I hope that it will be presented in this Session. I know that it will receive a speedy passage through the House. If necessary, let us use the Parliament Act to ensure that it becomes law. My constituents and those of most of my hon. Friends would welcome it.
I welcome much of what is in the Queen's Speech, but I want to see delivery on the ground. I want to see our commitment to diversity, dynamism and creativity in our communities. By giving more power to local communities, we can surely expect to see more successful outcomes for them.
§ Patrick Mercer (Newark)
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker, for giving me the opportunity to make my maiden speech. It is a privilege to follow the hon. Member for Lewisham, East (Ms Prentice) and I congratulate the hon. Member for Chesterfield (Paul Holmes) both on his speech and on his stunning victory in a beautiful town that I know well.
I wish to pay tribute to my two immediate predecessors and one other. Mrs. Fiona Jones was my immediate predecessor in Newark, and her achievements probably speak for themselves. I believe that she is now having more time to spend with her family. Her predecessor, Richard Alexander, was the Conservative Member for Newark. He was a firm friend of the constituency, the voters and the armed forces, on which I shall dwell in some detail in a moment.
I tread in the footsteps of Gladstone—at least, in his Tory footsteps. I remind the House of his prophetic words that his task was to pacify Ireland. We saw on television last night shots of the Ardoyne yet again up in flames. That in itself is not strange, but it was curious to see khaki uniforms on the streets again, rather than the bottle green of the Royal Ulster Constabulary—a sign that things are going very much amiss in the Province.
I have come to politics after 25 years as a regular soldier in the Nottinghamshire regiment, the Sherwood Foresters, followed by time as a defence correspondent with the BBC. What brought me into politics was the men with whom I served in the Foresters and their families, many of whom come from the Newark and Retford area, which I now have the privilege to represent. My father served in the same regiment. More than anything, it was recruiting these men, many from terribly underprivileged backgrounds, taking them into the Army, watching them being made into something special—those who survived—and then watching them go back out into a society that was often less than friendly to them.
Those men, along with many others, have tried to find jobs in my constituency in a failing agricultural community. I was stunned not to see any mention in the Gracious Speech of help for the agricultural community. Many of them tried to find jobs in the transport industry, which has spiralled downwards in decline in Newark and Retford. With our communications relying on the Al and the routes to and from the coast, road haulage is terribly important to us, and it is in a terrible state of decline. The manufacturing industry has also been hammered particularly hard in the past four years.
I feel deeply about the situation, and I feel deeply about the people who have chosen me to represent them, and who—I say with due modesty—gave me a resounding success in Newark against someone who represented policies that have clearly failed in the area.
I shall now break with tradition and go back to the subject of defence. Newark and Retford have a distinguished military history. I shall skate over Robin Hood and go on to the three great sieges of Newark during the civil war. I named my son after Prince Rupert, one of the great heroes of the time. I particularly bring to bear the motto of Newark: "Deo Fretus Erumpe"—trust in God and sally forth. Newark's arms are supported on one side by a fox and on the other by a foxhound, thank God.
In the first world war, Newark and Retford helped to contribute to 22 battalions of Sherwood Foresters, who are commemorated in the constituency of the hon.
340 Member for Chesterfield. There were 11,000 dead from Nottinghamshire who served in that regiment. Two regiments of Sherwood Rangers fought under another great Newark man. Allenby, out in Palestine. In the second world war, there were another seven battalions of Sherwood Foresters, and more important is the area's contribution to our international effort as the home of the free Poles. Marshal Sikorski was buried in Newark, and there are still serried ranks of tombstones in London Road cemetery for the Polish dead of the second world war. There is a substantial Polish community at the heart of Newark, representing those ties over the past 50 or 60 years.
Newark and Retford men and women continue to serve in the forces today providing soldiers for the Queen's Royal Lancers, the Coldstream Guards, the Grenadier Guards, the Royal Green Jackets and the county regiment, the Sherwood Foresters, who are back one operations in Northern Ireland.
One of the great pleasures of canvassing hard in the constituency was that I came across some of my former soldiers. I knocked on a door in Tuxford the other day, and a gentleman answered, smiled broadly at me and said, "Therapist". I immediately recognised him as the man who had been my colour sergeant about 10 years ago in Northern Ireland. A colour sergeant is a man who provides administrative support. He is not one of nature's brightest of men, and we had been on an operation called "Therapist". I had yarned him of the operation and given him detailed orders, s hen he said, "Sir, I know absolutely nothing about this operation—but there is another operation planned for that day called Operation The Rapist." Luckily, I did not have to write to a wife or a mother and tell them that their husband or son had been killed in "Operation The Rapist". None the less, those memories still exist.
I should like to draw to the House's attention the whole business of overstretch in the armed forces. There simply are not enough men and women to carry out the commitments that the Government have forced on the armed forces. Earlier, my hon. Friend the Member for Grantham and Stamford (Mr. Davies) mentioned that we had not enough combat pilots to pilot aircraft off the two proposed new aircraft carriers.
I emphasise, above and beyond all else, the need for manpower in the armed forces. It is no good having the kit, the intention and the policy if we have not the men to carry out the task. So often, the Army in particular will give the impression that everything is under control, be thoroughly positive hid thoroughly straightforward, while not revealing the hurt that it is feeling.
As a defence correspondent in Kosovo, I saw a particular battle group that came to the theatre and was patently incapable of taking the field because it was so badly under-recruited Two companies were made up by soldiers from other regiments, but both those other regiments were wanted for operations in Northern Ireland. You cannot rob Peter to pay Paul incessantly; you cannot send a boy to do a man's job. The armed forces must be allowed to recruit properly and effectively.
In many cases there are regiments that do the job well, and others that do not do it so well. The Army's recruiting structure falls on something called the recruiting group. I suggest that the recruiting group has failed to meet its target of making up a 5,000 shortage in the Army. Yet 341 there are good examples of regiments that keep themselves fully manned: the Coldstream Guards, the Duke of Wellington's Regiment and the Sherwood Foresters. Why are those examples not followed across the armed forces, given that they demonstrate cost-effective, sensible, straightforward, practical methods of recruiting? I believe that only when our forces are up to strength and up to snuff can we ask them to perform the tasks that they are being asked to perform.
Let me return to my earlier point. Soldiers are on the streets of Northern Ireland again. They have not been there for some time. The police have been able to hold the ring in Ulster, but that is clearly no longer the case. We are asking men to do more than may be humanly possible. The commitments in Siena Leone continue, and there is now a suggestion of a further commitment in the Balkans. We cannot do this without asking the armed forces to reach a point that they can simply no longer bear.
Tour gaps are meant to be 24 months; in other words, the gap between finishing a tour and starting another is meant to be two years. Nowhere in the Army is that target being reached—least of all in the specialist arms, where tour gaps in some instances are as short as 10 or even nine months.
There are those who will say that retention is the key to recruiting, but I suggest that it is the other way round. Unless men and women are recruited in number, there will not be enough men and women to do the dirty jobs that the armed forces are being asked to do. Disillusion will spread further than it has already, and more people will leak out of the bottom of the cycle faster than they are being added at the top. I ask the Secretary of State for Defence to examine the matter urgently, and not necessarily to entertain the placebos that are being offered.
I go a little further with regard to the Eurocorps. I do not believe in it, I do not consider it feasible, and I do not think that it is needed. If plans are to be made for it, however, let us get away from the typical cant that we hear. Non-straightforward answers are being given about plans, and there is no thought of adding combat power or fighting power to a corps. It is all very well providing headquarters, staff officers, communications, engineers and the like, but if a Eurocorps is to exist it must be properly recruited, not simply double-hatted, as in present practices.
I conclude by returning to the subject of my constituency. This may seem like a history lesson, but it was Newark men who helped to suppress the Irish rebellion of 1916. Some would say that that was the spark that lit the fire that burns on today. I do not know. I would not like to answer that, but in Balderton cemetery in Newark there are three gravestones of teenagers who were killed in Dublin in 1916 and whose bodies were brought home. In Ollerton, one can see the name of the last man of the Nottinghamshire regiment to be killed in Northern Ireland a few years ago. Let us hope that we see no more Nottinghamshire bones being brought back to be buried in this country because men have been killed in Ulster.
§ Mr. lain Duncan Smith (Chingford and Woodford Green)
I welcome hon. Members on both sides of the House who have made maiden speeches. The first whom I welcome is my hon. Friend the Member for Newark 342 (Patrick Mercer), who made an excellent speech and brings great experience to the House, having been a member of the armed forces and known what it is to serve. His comments about the number of dead from the regiment to which he referred are important because it reminds us of the debt of honour and gratitude that we owe to those who have served in past wars. We seek to ensure that we do not send our young men ever again to face such circumstances. He referred to the need to improve manpower. I shall return to that matter, but that is a powerful point.
I am not sure whether the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt) was a maiden speech. I apologise because I was not in the House when he made the speech. I do not know whether one can be twice a maiden, but if that is the case, I wish him well. I understand that it was an excellent and powerful speech. He referred to reform in the House of Commons, with which I agree. We may want to examine some of his proposals on the writing of legislation and on Select Committees in greater detail when the moment comes. He is welcomed back by all Conservative Members and, I would like to think, many Labour Members, who got to know of his talents during his previous time in the House.
I welcome the hon. Member for Chesterfield (Paul Holmes), who made his maiden speech today. I welcome him partly because his predecessor was a man whom I greatly admired; I think that the whole House did. I did not always agree with him. Hon. Members on both sides of the House probably did not, but the power of his speeches in the House was something to behold. During the Maastricht treaty debates, while sitting on the Government Benches, I heard him make a 10-minute speech. After he had finished, I thought that I might as well pack it in because there was no way in which anyone could compete with both the power of his oratory and the way in which he covered the key subjects, made us laugh and made us cry. [Interruption.] He did not make a maiden today, so the Under-Secretary of State for Defence need not worry.
I hope that that is a tradition that the hon. Member for Chesterfield will follow, although his comments about ballistic missile defence seem to put him at odds with the previous leader of his party. The hon. Gentleman says that the Liberal Democrats oppose ballistic missile defence. I gather that Lord Ashdown favours it and has made a statement.
§ Mr. Menzies Campbell
Without raising the issue to the disadvantage of the House, I suggest that the hon. Gentleman reads not the headline in The Guardian, but the article itself. He will find that the headline and the article are totally inconsistent with each other.
§ Mr. Duncan Smith
I would like to take the right hon. and learned Gentleman's comments at face value. Only a lawyer could refer to the detailed small print, but it strikes me that there is a difference. I gather that the more people listened to the speech of the hon. Member for Chesterfield, the more they began to wonder whether that seat had moved from the Labour party to the Liberal Democrats. Perhaps it is a Labour seat, as his comments and perceptions suggest.
I also welcome the hon. Member for South Dorset (Jim Knight). I understand that he made a good speech and has set the tone for the way in which he will proceed 343 in this Parliament. However, like him, I should like to pay tribute to his predecessor, who was a good friend of Conservative Members. I shall certainly miss Ian Bruce's ability to stand up and ask a question that no one expected, and to receive an answer that he perhaps did not want. It was a talent that he alone possessed and an effect that no one but he was able to produce. I shall miss him greatly. He was a great friend. Nevertheless, I welcome the hon. Gentleman to the House.
The right hon. Member for Dewsbury (Ann Taylor) seemed to make almost a maiden speech. We have not heard from her for so long that we had started wondering whether she had given up the power of speech. As she knows, she and I have served together in Committee. Although I do not agree with everything that she says, I welcome her back to a speaking role.
I shall return later in my speech to some of the comments of the right hon. and learned Member for North-East Fife (Mr. Campbell). However, he seemed to establish a set of conditions for how the rapid reaction force should proceed in its relations with NATO.
§ Mr. Duncan Smith
I know that, and in many senses I rather agreed with the right hon. and learned Gentleman. However, I think that we have to agree that none of the conditions has been met, and that the Government seem incapable of persuading their friends and allies to agree with them—if the Government themselves agree. We are therefore in serious danger of encountering some major problems in establishing the force. I shall return to the issue.
My right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard) made, as ever, an excellent speech. I make it a point to try to attend whenever he speaks in the Chamber. He made an important point about the importance of the transatlantic alliance. I believe that the Government underestimate the way in which that the Euro army—rapid reaction force or whatever one chooses to call it—has set in train a process that may well challenge possibly the most important alliance in the world. As he said, when the United Kingdom and the United States are united, the world is more likely to have peaceful outcomes than it is when we are divided. He made a very powerful point and I very much took it on board.
If I have missed out any speeches, I hope that hon. Members will forgive me. I should like to deal with other aspects of the Gracious Speech.
Although he is not in the Chamber, I should like first to welcome the Minister of State for Defence to his new position. He may like to note that two of his three immediate predecessors in that office headed off in the same direction to become Transport Ministers. It seems to be an almost established practice that Ministers for the Armed Forces who enjoy their job and have fun for a few years subsequently must serve the dog watch, trying to pull together the various possibilities in transport.
I wish the Minister's predecessor, now the Minister for Transport, well in his new brief. We had lots of fun with him in the House. I also hope that the Minister of State for Defence does not eventually find himself at the 344 Department of Transport, Local Government and the Regions. However, I am sure that the Secretary of State for Defence will do something to reward rather than punish him.
I also pay tribute to members of the armed forces. Far too often, as was seen in the general election, they are almost forgotten, and few people seem to care about discussing their problems. The media are not all that interested in the subject. In the general election campaign, many members of the armed forces felt isolated and ignored. There was no serious opportunity in that campaign to debate the extremely important issue of defence. When I asked some members of the media why they seemed uninterested in anything that was being said about defence, they said that it was not really an issue. I like to think that the Secretary of State was pushing for a debate on the issue, but perhaps I am wrong; I do not know.
Nevertheless, we must certainly pay tribute to members of the armed forces for all that they do, and for the way in which they protect our peace and enable us to go about our daily lives without fear of tyranny or threat from anyone. They pursue British policy abroad without any concern for their own safety. Without them we would be a lot worse off.
The Gracious Speech gives us an opportunity to re-examine the Government's performance in defence and to reassess, now that the Government have been re-elected and Conservative Members are still in opposition, how we shall hold the Government to account. Whatever the outcomes of my party's internal discussions, our prime concern here is to hold the Government to account over the next four years and to tell them if they have failed to meet their commitments. I shall certainly do that and I am sure that my colleagues will, too.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Newark said, there are serious concerns about manpower and how the services have suffered. The strategic defence review, early in the previous Parliament, was meant to be foreign policy driven and to be about reshaping our defence priorities in response to the picture unfolding abroad, but it turned out to be mostly Treasury driven. The budget was cut by about £5 billion over four years, and the attempt to reshape our forces to an expeditionary capability was undermined by that heavy cut.
Our armed forces are still being asked to do more with what appears to be less. Retention has suffered badly, and although recruitment has stabilised to some extent, the fact remains that the army, in particular, is undermanned, at about 8,000 men short of the SDR target. There appears to be little hope that the target will be met by 2005. Even the Defence Committee, which is of course Labour dominated, said that it would be realised at best by 2008. That is 10 years after the strategic defence review, and even that may turn out to be an optimistic assessment. That puts huge pressure on those who remain in the forces.
Just before the general election, we learned that all five of our major warships were out of action. As usual, the Ministry of Defence updated its definition of the word "operational", and said that aircraft carriers in port were not out of operation even though their flight decks were covered with tenting and they had scaffolding all over the place. Apparently, they were none the less operational.
345 A document, the fleet risk register written by the First Sea Lord, Admiral Sir Nigel Essenhigh, highlighting the crisis in the Navy, was leaked to The Daily Telegraph. It said that the Navy could not play its role in NATO's joint rapid reaction forcebecause ships are not always fully fit for the task.It also said that "significant armoury shortfalls" have meant that ships are going to sea without enough ammunition to defend themselves and that they are at greater risk of being hit by air-to-sea missiles than at any other time.
When questioned about that on Radio 4, the Defence Secretary showed complacency of a high order even for a man who has a pretty high reputation for complacency in any case. He said that the document gave "an inaccurate picture" of the current state of the Royal Navy and that it was "out of date". I agree that it gave an inaccurate picture: the real state of affairs is even worse, because of the extra ships tied up in port and the failure to order the ships that are needed.
The Royal Air Force, too, has its share of problems—in particular, with the shortfall of fast jet pilots, there are likely to be difficulties in manning the new Typhoons that are due to come into service.
The Army is perhaps the worst hit of all. Just before the general election was called, we learned that internal papers were circulating in the MOD, saying that up to 10 regiments may have to be cut because of the shortfall of about 8,000 men. The Secretary of State quickly denied that, but a curious thing happened during the campaign: the Chief Secretary to the Treasury attacked the Conservative party and our pledge to make it a priority to restore the Army to its full manning strength. We were told by the Labour party that that commitment would cost £1.3 billion more than the current budgetary provision. Will the Secretary of State tell us whether the Labour party, aided by the Treasury, is right to say that meeting that commitment, which is a strategic defence review requirement, will cost £1.3 billion more than is budgeted? Will it cost that much to get 8,000 men back into the Army, or is it that, as ever, the Treasury might have got its figures wrong? Will he tell us one way or the other? I shall even give way to him, if he would like to answer. He does not want to do so.
§ Mr. Duncan Smith
He does not have the money or the answer.
The biggest issue on which we want to focus in this debate is that the Government appear to have learned nothing about what the public think have gone wrong. The public are fed up with spin and relaunch, which are what the Government seem to live by. Indeed, they continued to do so even during the election and are doing so now. We hear continual spin from the Secretary of State for Defence about defence budget increases, but the fact remains that defence spending has fallen since 1997 and is still falling as a percentage of gross domestic product. The increases that he managed to secure in last year's comprehensive spending review are far outweighed by the within-budget savings that have been made on efficiency, asset sales and allocations for smart procurement.
346 If the picture is so rosy, why did a leaked internal Ministry of Defence document entitled "Short Term Plan (STP)/Equipment Plan (EP) 2001" clearly show that the Government propose, as was reported,to reduce the cost of the planned equipment programme by some £1.2 billion over the four-year period 2001–2 to 2004–05?Will the Secretary of State please tell us why that figure chimes so closely with the figure produced by the Treasury, which said that full manning would cost £1.3 billion?.
Even today—and, for that matter, all week—we have found that the Government are continuing their usual practice. Another example of Government spinning relates to the procurement project for aircraft carriers. On Sunday, one of the papers carried a story—of course, the Secretary of State will be asking how it got there—saying that the Government were to confirm that the order for aircraft carriers was going ahead. This morning, the BBC website and even Radio 4 told us that the Secretary of State was to announce today that the order is going ahead.
It appears that the only news that the Government are going to give us is that they are somehow still committed to building the carriers that form the centre piece of the strategic defence review. However, they need to tell us a bit more. They must tell us where the money is, how much they are prepared to pledge and whether the Chancellor, who is not known for his great love of the defence forces, is prepared to accept that work on the carriers should proceed. For example, we have learned that the funding to be announced for the risk reduction exercise, which is critical to the design of the carriers, will be some £25 million. I hope that the Secretary of State is listening, so that he can provide some answers. However, BAE Systems has pointed out that, under smart procurement, that figure should be nearer £350 million. Will he tell us how much will be invested in that part of the project? Will he give an indication of the Government's commitment, or have they now got cold feet? It is no good him shaking his head. There is no order for the carriers, even though they have been relaunched four or five times since they were first trailed in the strategic defence review.
The announcement on the type 45 was made last year, but there has been no decision. We were even told that the order was placed in December, but no single part of those ships has yet been worked on and we have no idea when that will happen. The Navy has no replacement ship on the horizon, does not know when it will arrive and is slipping behind on the programme. The shipyards that were supposed to be building the vessels—especially Vospers—are no closer to knowing whether they can withdraw the redundancy notices that they sent out, or whether they will have to let go of employees. That is the most tragic part of the situation.
This week, there was another reannouncement—this one was unbelievable—about the A400M project. From the way in which the Government have talked about it, one would think that they were buying a thousand of the aircraft. In the Secretary of State's great announcement, nobody mentioned that the number of aircraft to be bought has been cut from 288 two years ago to only 212 this week. How many more will be cut before the next piece of paper is signed but the Government fail to place the order again? It is only an memorandum of understanding anyway, so there is no fixed purpose of procuring those aircraft and no contract.
347 Doubts still remain about the Germans' commitment to the project. They are supposed to be buying some 73 of the aircraft. Does the Secretary of State honestly think that they will ante up to that? BAE has said that if the number falls below 180, the project will no longer be viable, and we are not far from that number now. When will the Secretary of State get round to ordering something and to being firm about what will be bought? I warned him last year that if he did not do something soon, companies such as BAE would be in crisis over what will happen next.
My right hon. and hon. Friends know that this is a cynical Government, but—cynicism of all cynicisms—just two days before the election a wonderful £120 million contract was signed for the Rosyth dockyard to refit the aircraft carrier HMS Illustrious. The Under-Secretary of State for Defence should be careful about smiling about that, because his constituency of Kirkcaldy is close by. However, the one person whose constituency will really benefit just happens to be the Chancellor himself. Why could not the Government have left the announcement for the day after the election? It is an example of the Government's use of pork barrel politics. No wonder the public are fed up of politicians when the cynicism of the Government reaches such new heights. [Interruption.]I am glad that the hon. Member for Nottingham, North (Mr. Allen) is in his place and is now able to speak. It has been so long since we have heard from him—and the right hon. Member for Dewsbury—that I wondered whether they had lost their voices. In the next few days, they may wish that they had.
The Government clearly have no answers on those points, so I shall move on to the issue of the European army or rapid reaction force. The formation of that force, which has been driven by this Government, represents a break with foreign and defence policy in place since the second world war. It does so in a way that—I believe—the Government and the other nations of Europe will come to regret.
At the NATO summit last week, President Bush said that he wouldsupport the concept so long as it doesn't undermine NATO, so long as the notion of ESDP is one that is added value to NATO.However, there can be no doubt that the Government are embarked on a divisive process that will undermine NATO. Non-EU members, such as Turkey, have been excluded from the force and planning for operations will take place independently of the NATO framework. The Defence Secretary has admitted as much himself. Much concern is felt in the US about the issue, as over here.
Despite the President's carefully chosen—as ever—words, it is worth considering the thoughts of a previous director of the CIA, James Wolsey, who was in office under the Democrats. He recently noted:The one and only thing that the United States asked of our European friends was not to establish a separate and independent military planning capability. And, of course, that is precisely what they did.The USA has, rightly, asked European nations in NATO to be able to do more and better, and to be able to get more men and equipment to the place they are required. None of that is happening, even over here. Instead, a set of bureaucratic and divisive structures is being created.
348 For all the talk about improving European defence capability and strengthening the NATO alliance, the fact is that EU defence spending is falling. A recent report by the Institute of Strategic Studies said that it was falling by 5 per cent. a year in constant dollar terms, so I do not know how the Government have the cheek to tell us that the programme will improve the defence capability of the European nations. No one else sees it like that. As my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe said, the terrible future that lies ahead is one of a growing gap between north America and Europe, driven by those on the continent and some here who see the process as one of simply counterbalancing America as a hyperpower.
One issue that is a test of the Government's attitude is missile defence. The Labour party hardly dealt with the subject during the election. It is perhaps the most important strategic subject, and the Government may come to rue their position. In the Labour manifesto there was little more than a waffly statement about waiting to find out what would be decided by the Americans. The Government have given few public signs that they support the concept of missile defence or even made any attempt to explain why they do not.
The most worrying feature is something that other of my hon. Friends may be worried about. The Government still do not put our nuclear deterrent in context or say how it would work within such a defensive shield. In other words, they do not want to talk about it because, as the hon. Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn) would happily agree, most of the Labour party does not want it. It is absolutely opposed to NMD and does not want the Government to support it. Many of the Labour party's allies in Europe do not want it either, but not all of them. The intriguing thing is that other countries have been much quicker to give the United States the support that allies would normally expect.
§ Jeremy Corbyn
Does the hon. Gentleman accept that national missile defence would fundamentally undermine all the nuclear peace treaties of the past 40 years? Is it not time that people told the United States to abandon this foolish project and instead work for world disarmament?
§ Mr. Duncan Smith
It will not surprise the hon. Gentleman to know that I do not agree with that at all. [Interruption.] I am glad to see that he is shocked; otherwise I would be worried. Ballistic missile defence is important. There are unstable nations within striking distance of the United Kingdom, the United States of America and our allies in Europe who have decided that both weapons of mass destruction and ballistic missiles can be used as weapons of terror. They have already embarked on an arms race and they do not believe that the west has the courage or resolve to see them off.
Even though the hon. Member for Islington, North honourably disagrees with the Secretary of State, there is not a problem with the hon. Gentleman's position. My problem is with the Secretary of State's position, because he privately says to the Americans, "Do not worry; we will be there when you finally need us," but dare not lead the debate in public. That is the most shameful part.
At least in the 1980s, the Government were prepared to put their cards on the table and say that they believed in working with the Americans, but this Government skulk 349 behind others. The new Italian Government have welcomed NMD. The Polish Government have welcomed it. The Australians have welcomed it. I gather that the Japanese have welcomed it, but the British Government, who are supposedly the best ally of the United States, have not. That is the most pathetic thing: either be for it or against it, but for goodness sake, climb out of the hole and say something.
The Government will not be able to bring the United States along with them on any other subject if on this big subject they are unable to give an indication of their support. Their support is vital. The Government are trapped by their party. One hundred and seventy three Labour Members have signed an early-day motion on national missile defence, which says that they wholly oppose the Government, and I dare say that more will sign it. I shall welcome future debates on the matter.
The Gracious Speech has given us an insight into the challenges that lie ahead for the Government, a Government who have reduced the standing of politicians and politics to such an extent that the turnout at the election was extremely low. People believe that it is no longer important to vote because the Government do not care what Parliament has to say; they care nothing for scrutiny and criticism. They will ride roughshod over any opinion with which they disagree. We will oppose them until we show the British public that they have failed in the things that they promised to do and we chuck them out at the next election.
§ 2.5 pm
§ The Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Geoffrey Hoon)
I am grateful for the opportunity to draw to a conclusion this part of the debate on the Gracious Speech devoted to foreign affairs and defence. My intention is to try to take a strategic view of the security and defence interests and set a number of current issues in context.
First, however, may I say what an honour it is for me to have been reappointed as the Secretary of State for Defence? It is a great privilege to work so closely with the men and women of our armed forces and their civilian colleagues. To see them in action—planning complex operations overseas in places such as Sierra Leone, helping to tackle flooding and foot and mouth disease at home—is a lesson in how to get things done efficiently, effectively and successfully. I know that the whole House will agree that they are, man for man and woman for woman, the best in the world— [Hon. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear!"].
Before dealing with more specific defence issues, I congratulate hon. Members, especially those making their maiden speeches today. Having devoted months, and perhaps in some cases years, to their efforts to get here, I am sure that, if my own experience is anything to go by, they were more anxious about their maiden speech than about anything that they encountered either in their selection or, indeed, their election campaigns.
I congratulate, therefore, my hon. Friend the Member for South Dorset (Jim Knight) on what was an excellent and fluent speech, giving proper praise to his predecessor, Ian Bruce, who all Members will remember as a determined and persistent questioner—he was a very persistent questioner. My hon. Friend also paid proper tribute to the Dorset coastline and to the considerable defence interests in his constituency. I had a particular 350 view of that combination recently, when I was carried at very high speed in a rigid raider along the coastline by some highly specialist members of the Royal Marines who were based not too far away. I look forward to arranging a similar visit for the new Member in due course.
I also congratulate the hon. Member for Chesterfield (Paul Holmes) on his excellent maiden speech. With his predecessor, he obviously shares a love of history. His affectionate description of hard-working Chesterfield was a complete answer to those The Times columnists who appear to want the whole of Derbyshire to look like a Posy Simmonds cartoon. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will represent Chesterfield very well—during this Parliament.
The hon. Member for Newark (Patrick Mercer) chose not to follow parliamentary tradition in his maiden speech. He did mention the civil war, however, when across the east midlands parliamentary forces achieved great successes against those who sought to subvert parliamentary democracy, ensuring that the newly elected Member for Newark was able to make his speech today. Perhaps, if I may say so, he might have named his son Oliver.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Dewsbury (Ann Taylor) gave a maiden speech of a different kind, addressing the House directly for the first time in three years. She did so with her characteristic clarity. I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Skills will deal with her observations during the debate on Monday. However, my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary asked me to deal specifically with one issue raised by my right hon. Friend the Member for Dewsbury: less reputable immigration advisers. My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary informs me that the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999 contains new powers to regulate immigration advisers and immigration lawyers. Furthermore, powers brought into force earlier this year will have an increasing effect and impact.
Yet another variety of maiden speech was delivered by the hon. Member for North-East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt), back on the field after being sent off by the electors of Bury and now in new colours for North-East Bedfordshire. Such were his personal qualities in his previous incarnation that he was always a well-liked Minister, despite always being associated with the introduction of the Child Support Agency. I met him one day in London during a European election campaign and asked him why, unlike his ministerial colleagues, he was not out electioneering. He ruefully pointed out that, as Minister for the CSA, none of the Conservative candidates wanted him anywhere near them. I wish him well on his return.
There was a final maiden speech—that of a leadership pretender. The hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr. Duncan Smith) provided an interesting insight into what kind of leader he could be. His speech was wholly and completely negative. We will know what he is against, but we will not have the slightest idea of what he is in favour of. He had valuable parliamentary time in which to set out his thoughts, after an election defeat, about what might be the Conservative party's policy on defence and foreign affairs. I should have thought those subjects suitable for a man who wishes to lead his party and, presumably, the country one day, but we heard nothing—not a word, phrase or sentence—that gave us 351 the slightest idea of what he is for. We heard a lot of knocking copy and negative criticism, without any sense of what he might actually believe in. It is a matter of regret that he did not take that opportunity to inform the House about his thoughts and what he is for, as opposed to what he is against.
As I have said, I want to deal with the Government's defence policy in its strategic context. The world is no longer threatened by an east-west confrontation. The cold war is over and is now a decade behind us. The world has moved on since those times. We now face a diverse range of challenges to our national, regional and global security. We need to continue to shift our thinking from that dangerous, if relatively predictable, past to the challenges and opportunities of a much less certain future.
We know that the threats that we face will become more diverse. At the same time, they will probably be less likely to involve interstate wars between similarly armed, conventionally equipped military forces. Where conflicts do occur, they may be prolonged, but probably at lower levels of intensity. During the cold war, we faced predominantly high-intensity, conventional threats. We must now also consider the risks from drugs, terrorism and international crime. There is a significant technological risk that the information age could leave us vulnerable to new forms of attack, and we face the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction to nations or groups who might use them against us or against each other.
In the Balkans and elsewhere, we face instabilities and tensions that could continue to threaten European security. Further work is needed to ensure the former Soviet states' integration into a peaceful and prosperous world order. Further afield—for example, in Africa—environmental, demographic, economic and social changes and pressures will also threaten security. They in turn will lead to pressures for humanitarian assistance and disaster relief operations.
Facing such an unpredictable future means that we need to emphasise the importance of the armed forces' flexibility and responsiveness. We need to minimise the risks to security, by addressing their origins and managing their consequences.
Globalisation has become a fact of life. It necessarily involves a more important role for the international community. Multinational coalitions and organisations will need to be still more effective in responding to the emerging security challenges. That means supporting the United Nations, modernising NATO and developing the European Union's ability to contribute. Increasingly, we will need to build flexible multinational and bilateral relations with other nations to be prepared to deal with the problems both before and as they arise.
That is not to say that there are no longer direct and obvious threats to international security. Saddam Hussein reminds us that some nations are still pursuing an expansionist agenda favoured by tyrants down the ages. We have to be ready to handle such threats to international security and human rights. The security environment is, therefore, far from benign. The risks we face are more complex, less predictable and harder to deal with than those we faced during the cold war.
352 Where does the United Kingdom fit in to all this? The United Kingdom is a major European state; a leading member of the European Union; a major trading nation; and a member of the UN Security Council, the G8, NATO and the Commonwealth. It is, therefore, no surprise that we have an interest in dealing with the full range of today's challenges. Our national security depends on promoting international stability, particularly in Europe, and also more widely. However, we also have a responsibility to lead the international community in responding to the risks that I have mentioned. We have the skills to do so. We have perhaps the most respected armed forces in the world. We are able to make a real difference as a force for good.
When the Government came to power in 1997, we recognised that changes around the world meant that we needed to adjust the range and capabilities of our armed forces to meet new challenges. We recognised that we would usually find ourselves acting alongside other like-minded countries on the international stage, not necessarily alone. We recognised the need to switch from the static structures of the cold war to a flexible, rapidly deployable expeditionary capability.
The strategic defence review did that and did more. It looked far into the 21st century to provide a vision of the role of our armed forces in a changing world. That vision remains valid today, although it was always intended to be dynamic, not set in stone. We will continue to adjust our detailed plans for implementing the SDR to ensure that they remain fully relevant in the light of experience and the developing strategic context.
The SDR re-examined the broad roles and missions that faced our forces. It recognised the growing importance of international peace, support and humanitarian operations. It acknowledged the value of defence diplomacy, using the skills of our armed forces and civil servants to build trust and prevent conflict.
Those conclusions have subsequently been borne out in Kosovo, the Gulf, Sierra Leone and East Timor—places where we have worked with other nations to help people who cannot always help themselves.
The SDR conclusions are borne out when we consider Macedonia today. NATO and the United Kingdom remain ready to assist the Macedonian Government in reaching a political agreement with the ethnic Albanian minority and to play a part in implementing it with military force if necessary. We appreciate the continuing role that Macedonia plays in supporting our operations in the Balkans, and hope that all parties will work constructively to resolve the current problems.
The SDR also recognised the need for new and improved military capabilities, such as strategic lift by sea and by air. It appreciated the need to change force structures and achieve greater flexibility through more joint formations, such as joint force Harrier, the joint helicopter command and the joint nuclear, biological and chemical defence regiment.
The ultimate expression of that joint approach is the joint rapid reaction force—a pool of powerful, versatile forces drawn from all three services that can be deployed to crises at short notice. Elements of the JRRF have already been deployed effectively to East Timor, Kosovo and Sierra Leone. Indeed, in Sierra Leone, the first paratroopers were patrolling Lunghi airport within hours of the decision to deploy.
353 The JRRF concept will be demonstrated again this autumn, through a major exercise—Saif Sareea 2—in Oman with the Sultan's armed forces. It will be our largest exercise for many years. The UK contribution will include more than 20,000 personnel, a naval carrier task group, nuclear submarines, armoured and commando brigades and around 50 aircraft, including C-17s and Tornado GR4s. Few other nations could achieve that level of activity. It also shows our commitment to providing the best possible training for our armed forces.
We are therefore making excellent progress in implementing the SDR. More than half the key measures are now in place. However, it is a long-term process. We always planned that it would not be completed until well into the next decade.
The introduction of new equipment is a good example. The SDR acknowledged that new kit was required to give our forces the required expeditionary capability. It recognised the need for more and better investment to improve efficiency and release more resources for the right capabilities.
On Tuesday in Paris, I signed agreements with European partners on the A400M transport aircraft and the Meteor air-to-air missile. United Kingdom industry has a key part to play in those two programmes; A400M alone will create up to 8,000 jobs in the UK.
I was asked why there was a change in the number of orders for A400Ms. The answer is simple: the United Kingdom's requirement has not changed, but other countries inevitably change their requirements from time to time. It is inevitable that the details of a multinational purchase of a complex, sophisticated aircraft will be resolved over time. That is the history of such projects. If the hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green intends that we should never engage in such projects, despite their considerable benefits to our industry, he should state the position of a Conservative Government in the unlikely event of their being elected.
§ Mr. Duncan Smith
Perhaps the right hon. Gentleman will answer the question that I asked earlier and more than a year ago. When does the contract cease to be viable? Numbers have fallen to 196. That is only 16 above the line that British Aerospace has set. It claims that anything below that is not viable. Everyone wants the aircraft to be produced, but the Secretary of State should tell us the point at which the contract becomes unviable.
§ Mr. Hoon
If the hon. Gentleman had studied the details that were set out in Paris more carefully, he would know that there was a fixed price for the aircraft, and that some contractual negotiations have to be resolved with the prime contractor. Clearly. I would not have signed the memorandum of understanding on behalf of the United Kingdom if I was not confident that the project would go ahead. I think that that is a complete answer to the hon. Gentleman's question.
It has never been intended that the A400M would be a short-term solution to our strategic lift needs. That is why, in the meantime, the first C17 strategic transport aircraft for the RAF arrived at Brize Norton last month, just a year and a day after we announced our intention to acquire the aircraft, and ahead of the contracted date. Together with six new roll on/roll off ferries and four logistics ships to support our amphibious and expeditionary capability, C17 and A400M represent significant increases in our strategic lift capability.
354 Other major programmes are on the horizon: the future joint combat aircraft, JSF; the future strategic tanker aircraft; and the future offensive air system, in which we are looking years ahead to new technologies and concepts that will significantly enhance the capabilities of our armed forces. Our warship building programme will involve more than 30 ships in the next 15 to 20 years. At the heart of this programme are two new aircraft carriers, to which the Government are fully committed. They will be among the largest warships that the Royal Navy has ever had, and they will be built here in the United Kingdom. With the future joint combat aircraft, they will deliver a formidable force projection capability.
The outline of this new equipment—the envy of most other armed forces anywhere in the world—is not one that we would recognise from recent media coverage or from the efforts of the hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green to run down and criticise this programme. There have been inaccurate reports of cuts in Army regiments and cutbacks for the Royal Navy, all of which have been gleefully seized on by the hon. Gentleman, who asked, perhaps rhetorically, why defence had not featured in the general election campaign. I understand that he churned out several press releases every day in a vain effort to interest some of the newspapers in his more extreme claims, but, so far as I could see, they all chose to ignore his ramblings. Perhaps that was because they could not take entirely seriously the claims that he was making.
The reality of what is happening is entirely different. In the past year, the Army has been doing excellent work in Sierra Leone, the Balkans, Northern Ireland and, with the other services, at home in response to flooding and foot and mouth disease. The Royal Navy and Royal Marines have supported 12 short-notice operations, sent amphibious and carrier forces to Sierra Leone, carried out a global deployment, and played a major role in Kosovo and Northern Ireland. The Royal Air Force has continued to fly operational missions over the no-fly zones in Iraq and in the Balkans, provided air defence and air support in the Falklands, deployed to Sierra Leone, and kept up a permanent search and rescue service in the United Kingdom. These do not look like forces that are suffering from a series of cuts.
§ Mr. Hoon
Before I give way, I want to deal with the point made by the right hon. and learned Member for North—East Fife (Mr. Campbell), who mentioned Iraqi claims of casualties as a result of patrols in the no-fly zones. He should recall that the Iraqi regime has routinely claimed casualties on days when allied planes have not even been in the sky. However, I am aware that, on a particular occasion recently, allied aircraft came under attack from Iraqi missiles. Fortunately, none of those missiles hit their intended targets, but one missile was seen to return to the ground, exploding in what was clearly a populated area. Once again, it appears that the people of Iraq have suffered at the hands of Saddam Hussein's regime.
§ Mr. Davies
We, of course, strongly support the Government on Iraq, and I am sorry that the Liberal Democrats have become soft on that issue—perhaps 355 characteristically so. The Secretary of State has set out a number of operations in which our armed forces are doing magnificently, but they are doing magnificently on the basis of numbers that are too low, of being overstretched and of equipment often not coming through. Does the Secretary of State deny the point that I made earlier, which was that the Royal Navy and the RAF are short of 125 combat pilots, that the situation is—on the Government's own projections—getting worse, and that they are going to be short of 132 pilots next year and more than that thereafter? Does the right hon. Gentleman deny that? If he does not deny it, what is he doing about it?
§ Mr. Hoon
I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman gets so excited about these issues. He will recall that I set out clearly and calmly the precise problem that we face as far as pilots in the RAF are concerned. It is a problem being faced by air forces all round the world. There is an airline company at the moment offering £50,000 to recruit new pilots, and it has proved very difficult for military air forces to compete with that kind of inducement.
Nevertheless, as I set out to the House in a detailed statement about that problem, we are addressing it by providing retention bonuses and other financial incentives, which are beginning to have some effect. That takes time, and I have to tell the hon. Gentleman that, having set the matter out shortly before the general election campaign, we have not achieved immediate progress, which perhaps explains his hysterical response. However, we are addressing the issue, as are other air forces around the world.
The point that the hon. Gentleman needs to consider carefully before making such criticisms is, were they accurate, whether the armed forces would be able to conduct operations of such range and quality as those that they carried out last year. I am confident that the armed forces will continue to produce that magnificent effort with the support that they have received from the Government.
Indeed, as the hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green mentioned it, I remind the House that, thanks to the prudence and the efforts of the Chancellor, the Government have provided the first sustained real-terms increase in the defence budget in years—£1.25 billion of new money over and above inflation. [Interruption.]I hear sedentary comments from Conservative Members such as, "Tiny in real terms." They supported a Government who slashed the defence budget by more than 20 per cent. over and over again. How they can sit there and complain about a real-terms increase over and above inflation beggars belief.
§ Mr. Duncan Smith
I have a simple question. In 1997, did the Secretary of State's Government take over a budget that sat at 2.7 per cent. of gross domestic product? Is not it now nearly 2.4 per cent. of GDP?
§ Mr. Hoon
The hon. Gentleman knows full well that, since 1997, there has been a significant improvement in the overall budget available to the Government, because of our extremely good economic record. Therefore, he 356 must concentrate on the real-terms increase and the amount spent on defence—not just in one year, but in three. If he had the slightest decency and the slightest interest in considering the matter positively, he would agree with and approve of it, instead of sitting there criticising the increase despite having supported a Government who cut defence.
I emphasise that the strategic defence review was based, above all else, on the quality of the people in the armed forces. Reducing the operational commitment faced by our armed forces was one of my first personal priorities when I became Secretary of State and, this year, there has been a continued recovery from the exceptionally high operational tempo of 1999. Average intervals between operational tours for units in the infantry, artillery and armoured corps have all showed significant improvements, and that has been helped by improvements in retention. Outflow from the regular forces decreased by 6.3 per cent. in 2000–01 compared with the previous year.
I shall ensure that the hon. Member for Newark is kept up to date with all the latest statistics, because I am sure that he will play a regular part in Defence questions. I welcome his contribution.
§ Mr. Paul Keetch (Hereford)
Will the Secretary of State revisit the carriers, because there has been enormous press speculation in the past few days? If he cannot say anything more concrete than what he announced today, can he tell the House by which month this year, or by which year, he will be able to place firm orders for the two carriers?
§ Mr. Hoon
We are in the middle of a development programme for two sophisticated carriers. To answer one of the points put to me earlier, the money is in the budget. That programme will continue. It is a carefully staged process to ensure that we have the right equipment for those sophisticated vessels. Nothing has changed, so, notwithstanding press speculation, which, originally, was in the negative, I am able to say that there has been no change in the Government's position.
§ Dr. Julian Lewis
If the Secretary of State cannot give us a firm date for a firm order for the carriers, can he give us a firm date for a firm order for the Bowman system, in particular because Thales, which has nearly 15,000 employees in about 500 constituencies around the country, including mine, has made a strong bid? We would very much like an answer.
§ Mr. Hoon
As the hon. Gentleman should know, there are a number of competing bids for the Bowman project. I hope to be able to reach a resolution in due course, but I am not going to give him a firm date at this stage, nor am I going to tell him who is likely to be the winner, as that has still to be decided.
The world is changing, as are the challenges facing defence and how we respond to them. The Government have recognised those changes. That is why we have set in hand, through the strategic defence review—
§ It being half-past Two o'clock, the debate stood adjourned.
§ Debate to be resumed Monday.