Queen's Speech — Debate (6th Day)
Lord Palmer of Childs Hill (Liberal Democrat)
My Lords, in the area of defence, we received the welcome news that under the coalition the defence budget is now at last under control. We know which aircraft we are going to use; we know which ships are in, or will be in, service; and we know what equipment our forces will deploy. The trouble is: have we forecast what conflicts we will need to cope with? Are our forces, who are equipped to fight in Afghanistan, able to use the same equipment in a conflict with a vastly different terrain and climate? Are we treating our service personnel decently, as was debated by your Lordships during the passage of the Armed Forces Bill? Are we ready to provide the housing that is required by service men and women coming back to the UK from Afghanistan and Germany? Are those obliged to leave the armed services prepared for civilian life?
One area of strife that we debate and debate in this House is the Middle East. British rule and influence have historically been strong, whether in running Egypt at the turn of the century or the Palestine mandate. This month, as mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord King of Bridgwater, has seen a threatening hunger strike about conditions of detention in Israeli jails brought to a welcome end that was brokered significantly by the Egyptians. This month has seen a remarkable coalition Government-in this instance, I do not refer to the UK but Israel-where the two largest parties, Likud and Kadima, have come together with others to form a strong coalition Government that could have the will and power to further the peace process. This month has also seen one of that Government's first acts, in seeking negotiations with the Palestinians without any preconditions. I can only hope that our Government do all they can to encourage both sides to the negotiating table and to hammer out a lasting peace formula that will give the Palestinians a sovereign state, sitting alongside a secure state of Israel. It is a fact that neither side will get all that it wants, but that is the price of negotiation and compromise.
The noble Lord, Lord Wood of Anfield, said a lot with which I agree on this subject. However, he mentioned admission to the United Nations. I also wish to celebrate, in time, the admission of the Palestinian state to the United Nations. However, I believe that it is a prize you receive by sitting down at the negotiating table. You do not get your prizes ahead of sitting down. That is the price of negotiation. But I will be there cheering that admission when it takes place.
The noble Baroness, Lady Blackstone, spoke very eloquently and movingly about alleged wrongs and so on. In the time I have for this speech, I cannot deal with her comments-I hope she understands. I throw into the melting pot that wrongs always go around, and one fact that, of the 850,000 Jews who fled Arab lands, 600,000 found a place to stay in Israel. A lot of problems can be sorted out only by sitting down at the negotiating table.
There was welcome news a few hours ago that President Abbas of the Palestinian Authority has made new innovative appointments to a Cabinet, which may be part of the formula at the moment. A former leader of the Palestinians, Yasser Arafat, was once said to miss no opportunity to miss an opportunity. This should be a time when we actually take that opportunity. There are people who say that the Netanyahu Government of Israel are not sincere in what they say about sitting down at the negotiating table without any preconditions. My advice to everybody-Israelis and Palestinians-is, "Sit down; trust that sincerity and see whether it is there". If you do not actually sit down and have negotiations between people who are nominally against each other, or who are against each other, you will never succeed.
We often debate people's rights across the region-those of Christians, Jews, women, gay people, different types of Muslims, Kurds and other ethnic minorities. It is right that the Queen's Speech, as referred to by my noble friend the Minister, expresses the Government's ongoing desire to support such rights across the Middle East and north Africa. In 2011-12, the UK Government funded projects to increase women's political participation in Egypt, protect freedom of expression in Tunisia, increase young people's role in policy formulation in Morocco, bring prisons up to international human rights standards in Algeria, and support public service broadcasting in Iraq. That was not just morally the right thing to do but in our national interest in terms of prosperity and security.
Other noble Lords have spoken about the problem of Iran. Her Majesty said that her Government will work,
"to reduce the threat of nuclear proliferation, including in Iran".
Iran's ambition to be a regional power makes it a meddler and a sponsor of terrorism in the region and beyond. Just this week, Iran stands accused of smuggling arms into Syria. Should such a regime gain nuclear weapons, the region's other Governments would feel that they must also have such weapons, sparking an arms race that would drag in many countries in the wider world, from Europe to Latin America. It is vital that we use all peaceful means to prevent such an outcome.