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Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 9:59 pm on 3rd December 2003.

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Photo of Baroness Rawlings Baroness Rawlings Conservative 9:59 pm, 3rd December 2003

My Lords, it is my great privilege to respond to the debate on behalf of my colleagues on these Benches. I consider it a great honour to do so, although it is a somewhat daunting challenge. This has been a long and fascinating debate. I hope that your Lordships will forgive me if I do not refer to all the excellent speeches that have been made, but I shall try my best.

Before I begin, I want to mention in particular the help and guidance given by my noble friend Lord Vivian in preparing for this debate. I, too, join other noble Lords in congratulating the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Liverpool and the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Boyce, on their remarkable and outstanding maiden speeches. We are most fortunate that they contributed to this important debate today and we hope to hear much more from them both in the future.

While the world is undoubtedly a better place following the end of the Cold War, it is also, in many ways, more dangerous and more unpredictable. My noble friend Lord King of Bridgwater stressed that clearly in his excellent speech, concentrating, too, on the importance of people. We welcome the Government's commitment in the gracious Speech to tackling the threat of global terrorism. It is the most dangerous international threat that we face today—a threat that must be pre-empted. Indeed, almost everything that we have debated today falls within that context.

Many noble Lords, including the noble Lord, Lord Judd, and the noble Viscount, Lord Craigavon, welcomed the good intentions to reduce world poverty and bring about effective debt relief for developing countries committed to reform. There is also the challenge of the millennium development goals, which, I am afraid, the Government are way off meeting.

Two weeks ago, we witnessed the tragic events that unfolded in Istanbul. This House was very sorry to hear of the loss of our Consul-General, Roger Short, and two of his staff, Lisa Hallworth and Nanette Elizabeth Kurma. We pay tribute to all those who lost their lives and we offer our thoughts and prayers to those who are injured or left behind.

If we are to tackle such threats effectively, we must have a clear understanding not simply of what we seek to achieve but also of the resources available to achieve it and whether the two match up. It is in this context that I now turn to address the matter of the military resources available to us.

In response to the closing remarks of the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Guthrie, I must assure him that both our new leader and our party take the defence of the realm very seriously indeed. We on these Benches have always argued that, above all, the first duty of any government is the defence of the realm, both at home and abroad. That includes protecting British interests from military threats as well as the current threat of international terrorism.

I take this opportunity to pay tribute to the bravery, courage, dedication and professionalism of our Armed Forces. As we speak, British troops in different parts of the world are playing vital peace-keeping roles. I also pay tribute to the families of our troops, who have steadfastly supported them. It is vitally important that our troops continue to receive all the support and resources that they need from Her Majesty's Government in carrying out these often dangerous duties.

Given the threats that I outlined a few moments ago, it is vital that we allocate sufficient resources to defence. The Strategic Defence Review stated that 2.5 per cent of GDP should be reserved for defence, but the figure has fallen to 2.3 per cent. In her reply, can the Minister explain why that is the case?

Our Armed Forces are stretched to capacity. Indeed, they are over-stretched, as we have heard today, with operations ongoing in both Iraq and Afghanistan and with little sign of an immediate reduction in our troop commitments in either of those countries.

As at 1st September, the Army was 5,000 below strength. In June, 55 per cent of the Army was deployed on, recovering from or training for military operations. The picture is no better in other branches of the military. Navy warships now routinely take to the seas without their full complement and it is reported that the RAF has cut the number of flying hours devoted to training. Furthermore, since 1997 our forces have been heavily deployed but currently there are 12,000 fewer regulars than we had six years ago.

I am sure that noble Lords on all sides share my concern at those worrying statistics. Such cuts are particularly serious at a time of essential change, especially with the introduction of new technologies. As my honourable friend the shadow defence secretary, Mr Nicholas Soames, said:

"the Opposition most earnestly warn the Secretary of State that, in the present circumstances. . . it would be an act of cardinal folly to use the Army's strength as a peace dividend if normalisation were to occur in Northern Ireland".—[Official Report, Commons, 27/11/03; col. 218.]

The forthcoming defence White Paper is expected to include proposals for restructuring the Armed Forces. We hope that the proposed restructuring is not used as a smokescreen for further cutbacks to our military capability.

Given the situation that I have outlined, we call on the Government to allow sufficient time for the White Paper to be debated properly in this House. I listened, as I always do, with great respect to the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Guthrie, and to the noble Baroness, Lady Park of Monmouth, and their pleas to HMG against more cuts. We on this side of the House will continue to press Ministers on how they plan to meet our growing commitments and the ongoing threat of terrorism with fewer ships, fewer aircraft and a smaller Army. How can we carry out our foreign policy effectively if we risk being denied the tools with which to do the job?

My noble friend Lord Astor of Hever spoke with great sense and wisdom on the importance of the Territorial Army and possible cuts. He raised certain questions and we look forward to hearing the Minister's answers to them.

I turn briefly to the situation in Iraq. We on this side of the House continue to believe that the action that we took in Iraq was right. It is a fact that the regime in Iraq was in clear breach of no fewer than 17 United Nations resolutions. The Government's actions and the actions of our allies and our brave Armed Forces have brought about the end of a vicious reign of terror and have removed a potent threat to regional and international security and stability. We welcome the genuine progress that we have recently seen being made in Iraq, as mentioned by the noble Baroness, Lady Ramsay of Cartvale, in her lucid and informed speech. We continue to press for the establishment of a representative Iraqi administration, but the haste with which that is achieved must not be at the expense of security and stability in the country.

We should be wary of demanding and expecting instant transformations. I remind the noble Lords, Lord Redesdale and Lord Campbell-Savours, who were so worried about the aftermath of the war in Iraq, that it took four years from 1945 through to May 1949 for democracy to flower and a new country, the Federal Republic of Germany, to emerge from the ashes of war, despite the fact that by May 1949 a generous American Government had poured in vast amounts of economic assistance through the Marshall Plan. I was recently reminded of that five-year transition period after attending the memorial service of the late Lord Wilberforce, who had served on the commission and who did such good service in this House. The noble and gallant Lord, Lord Inge, put this debate into the necessary historical context. I agree with him.

It is not new for public opinion to judge America to be found wanting. The eminent writer William Shawcross pointed out to me an article in Life magazine written about the US occupation of Europe by the novelist John Dos Passos in January 1946, just a few months after the end of the Second World War. It states:

"Never has American prestige in Europe been lower . . . All we have brought to Europe so far is confusion backed up by the drumhead regime of military courts. We have swept away Hitlerism but a great many Europeans feel that the cure has been worse than the disease . . . Before the Normandy landings, liberation meant to be freed from the tyranny of the Nazis. Now it stands in the minds of civilians for one thing, looting".

It is of course the easy option to adopt such a position, but it is worth remembering that it was that American-led occupation that created the rich, comfortable, modern society from which we all benefit today.

We welcome the many improvements that have taken place in post-war Iraq but are saddened that many aid agencies have left the country, as we heard from the noble Earl, Lord Sandwich, in his moving speech concerning Afghanistan too. This can only prolong the time that it will take to return Iraq to a level of normality.

We share, too, the alarm expressed by the aid agencies over the diversion of funds away from humanitarian projects around the world, particularly in middle income countries such as those in Latin America and central and eastern Europe, to help with the reconstruction in Iraq. While it is vital that we support the reconstruction in Iraq, this should not be at the expense of our commitments in other parts of the world.

Our membership of the European Union represents a vital strand of our foreign policy, hence I now turn to the proposed European constitutional treaty. I shall not go into the report of the noble Lord, Lord Grenfell, at this late hour as we shall be debating that in detail next Wednesday, but the noble Lord, Lord Wallace of Saltaire, exaggerates about any paranoia on these Benches.

We, as a party, have always supported enlargement of the European Union. I agree that it needs a good treaty not made in haste. It makes sense from both a moral and an economic perspective. Everyone recognises that enlargement brings with it the need to reform the European Union institutions to accommodate the new member states and to enable it to function effectively.

At Laeken, it was recognised that the European Union had lost touch with the peoples of its member states. The Convention on the Future of Europe was a reaction to this disconnection and the need to "reconnect" in some way, and also the need to adapt the European Union to operate effectively post-enlargement.

Sadly, it has proved an opportunity wasted. The proposed European Union constitutional treaty which has emerged addresses neither of these key issues.

As my noble friend Lord Howell of Guildford said in his forceful opening speech, far from simplifying matters, the European Union constitution is wordy and complex. Indeed, it has even left the Government confused. First they said that it was only a tidying up exercise; then it was vital to the enlargement of the European Union; and now it is not necessary to have it at all and the Government may even use their veto. Perhaps the Minister could enlighten noble Lords on all sides by clarifying the current position of Her Majesty's Government in relation to the proposed treaty.

Noble Lords, including the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Boyce, warned us about the proposed European defence project, as did the noble Lord, Lord Gilbert. This project appears thus far to duplicate and compete with the structures of NATO and no doubt to dilute it. I fully support the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Inge, in his tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Robinson, and NATO's importance, especially for the new members from eastern and central Europe.

More importantly, this project could eventually lead to the disastrous decoupling of the United States from the defence of western Europe. We must never underestimate the vital role that the United States plays in providing intelligence and essential transportation, and the contribution that such a commitment makes to our security. That was stressed, quite rightly, by the noble Lord, Lord Gilbert. We are determined that no agreement is entered into that might jeopardise that relationship.

We welcome the Government's commitment to releasing oppressed people from dictatorship and the restoration of democracy around the world. As I set out earlier, that commitment has been realised in the case of Iraq; and we readily pay tribute to the Government for their stance. However, we are disappointed to see absolutely no reference in the gracious Speech to the situation in Zimbabwe, a matter touched on by my noble friend Lord Blaker.

Noble Lords are well aware of the disastrous land reform policy in Zimbabwe, which has contributed to the current food shortage—and has compounded the spread of Aids, as mentioned by the noble Baroness, Lady Northover—in the country through the displacement of farm workers. Zimbabwe is in the midst of a humanitarian crisis.

The Government have taken the opportunity to reaffirm their commitment to restoring democracy around the world, taking decisive action in both Iraq and Afghanistan. Yet, as the people of Zimbabwe look to us to lead the international response to their brutal regime, we appear afraid to take any decisive action, either through sanctions or the Commonwealth. Yesterday the Foreign Office produced a White Paper on its priorities for foreign policy; still no mention of Zimbabwe.

In 1997, the Government were looking for the third way but now they seem to have lost their way. Their foreign policy is incoherent and inconsistent. The Government are tough on dictatorship in Iraq but do little about the situation in Zimbabwe. This is a government which is divided with only one way to go. The gracious Speech shows a government on the way out. We shall do all we can to help them find the way.

We have heard many powerful speeches, which included numerous important questions posed by noble Lords. I have every confidence in the Minister. I look forward to her answering and winding up for the Government in her usual stimulating and effective way, which will certainly do justice to all noble Lords' contributions.