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Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 10:17 pm on 3rd December 2003.

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Photo of Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean Minister of State (Middle East), Foreign & Commonwealth Office, Minister of State (Middle East), Deputy Leader of the House of Lords 10:17 pm, 3rd December 2003

My Lords, I thank all noble Lords who have participated in the debate today. It has of course, as many noble Lords have remarked, been very far ranging in terms of the geography of the countries covered and the nature of the issues discussed.

The over-arching themes of this year's foreign defence and development agenda have been Iraq, the Middle East, Israel/Palestine, Afghanistan and the continent of Africa. We have had, too, our great international institutions—the United Nations, NATO and the EU. Furthermore, the enormous issues in terms of defence capability, the pernicious effects of international terrorism and the efficacy of international aid have all been raised.

We have also enjoyed two notable maiden speeches. We heard from the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Boyce, who was characteristically modest about his own career. I was grateful to him for his remarks about the relationship between foreign policy and defence policy. He spoke, characteristically too, about the importance of valuing properly our Armed Forces. He spoke as only someone who knows our Armed Forces can—with expertise, with commitment and with great affection. We look forward to hearing more from him.

The speech of the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Liverpool was remarkable too. It is good to see that he is so proud of being a good Celt, although I should warn him that some of my Welsh friends might take exception to his remarks about the versatility of the Welsh language. He spoke with great conviction about the contribution of our faith communities. I believe he was right to do so. I look forward to hearing more of his very human blend of wisdom and gentle humour, a matter remarked on by the noble Lord, Lord Mackie of Benshie.

I begin my response with the subject that concerns so many of your Lordships; that is, Iraq. It was touched on by the noble Lords, Lord Howell of Guildford, Lord Redesdale and Lord Mackie of Benshie, the noble Baronesses, Lady Ramsay of Cartvale, Lady Northover and Lady Nicholson of Winterbourne, the noble Lord, Lord Alexander of Weedon and my noble friend Lady Turner of Camden.

The noble Lord, Lord Howell of Guildford, reminded us of his party's support for the Government's action in Iraq. We agree with his remarks about the courage, dedication and sheer professionalism of our Armed Forces, who have served us so well in Iraq and continue to do so.

The noble Lord, Lord Redesdale, struck a somewhat different note. He challenged the legal basis for what the Government undertook, as did the noble Lord, Lord Alexander of Weedon. In one respect, the noble Lord, Lord Redesdale, was right: the legal basis for the war in Iraq was not the removal of Saddam Hussein. But let us be clear: for many Iraqis—the people affected most in that conflict—that was exactly the point. That was why so many of them, then and now, supported what we did. Of course, the noble Lord avoided the question of my noble friend Lord Campbell-Savours. I realise why; those issues are very difficult. The legal base was not the humanitarian argument, but the noble Lord must know that for many in Iraq and elsewhere the humanitarian argument was and is, as the noble Baroness, Lady Nicholson, made clear, the compelling argument.

The noble Lord, Lord Alexander of Weedon, supported by others, presented us again with his unshakeable conviction that the military action against Iraq was not only wrong politically and in principle but, as he claims, unlawful. We have been over that ground on several occasions, not least in a lengthy debate in this House earlier this year.

Let me make our position clear again. Authority to use force against Iraq existed from the combined effects of Resolutions 678, 687 and 1441. All those resolutions were adopted under Chapter 7 of the UN Charter, which allows for the use of force for the express purpose of restoring international peace and security. In Resolution 678, the Security Council authorised the use of force against Iraq. In Resolution 687, the terms of the ceasefire were set out, but Resolution 687 suspended—it did not terminate—the authority to use force under Resolution 678. A material breach of Resolution 687 revived the authority to use force under Resolution 678, and in Resolution 1441, the Security Council determined that Iraq had been and remained in material breach of Resolution 687. That was and remains the legal basis for the Government's action.

The noble Lords, Lord Alexander of Weedon and Lord Howell of Guildford, want the advice of the Attorney-General to be published. The noble Lord, Lord Howell of Guildford, said that there were "ample examples" of the Law Officers advice being disclosed. I was interested in the use of that word, "ample", because my noble and learned friend the Attorney-General made clear in answering a Question on 6th November that he was aware of only two cases in which the Law Officers' advice was disclosed: both disclosures being made for the purposes of judicial proceedings.

There are three other cases in which the views of the Law Officers were disclosed, but not their advice: once in February 1971; once in 1993; and, of course, once by my right honourable friend earlier this year. The noble Lord's argument about disclosure is not strengthened or enhanced by over-egging his pudding. Both the noble Lord, Lord Howell, and the noble Lord, Lord Alexander, make life somewhat difficult if they insist on adopting the maxim: "Don't do as we did when in power; do as we tell you now".

To my noble friend Lady Turner, whose convictions I understand and respect, and in response to her remarks about those who died in conflict, I say, what about the deaths of those whom we have found in the mass graves—the 300,000 bodies? What about the women beheaded in front of their children? What about the children fed into mincing machines in front of their parents? What about the horrors of the possibility of that continuing today?

The noble Lord, Lord Redesdale, raised questions about the Iraq Survey Group. The group produced an interim report on 2nd October, but no date has yet been set for the final report. The interim report was a highly classified document and not published in full, but an unclassified version of the testimony of David Kay to the Congressional Oversight Committee was published, and I understand that it is likely that a similar approach will be used again.

Let us turn to the here and now. A great deal has already been achieved in Iraq and despite recent terrorist attacks good progress is being made. We know that for a very large number of Iraqis life is considerably better now than it was under Saddam's regime. As one man who I met in Baghdad last month said to me, "I can sleep now. I am no longer lying awake at night waiting for the knock on the door". Today, Iraqis can read what they want; they can watch what they want; they have more than 200 newspapers; and they have satellite dishes—all of which were illegal under Saddam. There are 14,000 reconstruction projects going forward; electricity has surpassed pre-conflict levels; clean water supplies are improving every day; almost all of Iraq's 240 hospitals are now functioning; and most schools have newly printed text books.

I must tell the noble Lord, Lord Redesdale, and many other noble Lords that in the most recent Gallup poll in Baghdad two thirds of Iraqis said they believed the hardship they had endured since the removal of Saddam Hussein was worth while. In a poll undertaken by Oxford Research in October and November this year, out of 3,244 responses the most common response to the question, "What is the best thing that has happened in Iraq in the last 12 months?" was, "The fall of Saddam Hussein". That response was made by 42 per cent of those polled.

I take issue with the remarks of the noble Baroness, Lady Northover. I do not know how extensively she has travelled in the Middle East region recently. I have visited the region 10 times in the recent past. But if she will not believe me or other Ministers, perhaps she will believe her noble friend Lady Nicholson about what is happening on the ground. The noble Baroness, Lady Nicholson, has travelled extensively—as extensively as my honourable friend Ann Clwyd—and I must tell her that in all the countries I visited the response on this issue is unequivocal support for what we did in Iraq.

The noble Lord, Lord King of Bridgwater, said that what really matters is what we are going to do next. The real challenge was identified by the noble Lord and by my noble friend Lord Campbell-Savours and it is a real challenge of security. The security situation has, indeed, to be got under control, whether the threat comes from the old regime or from terrorist organisations. But I remind your Lordships that 80 per cent of the attacks are in the Sunni triangle and throughout the country as a whole the security situation is improving.

We hope to see the progressive hand-over of power by the end of June 2004. We hope to see that the legislative authority from the Coalition Provisional Authority turns over to the Iraqis completely by then. But during the next seven months, the CPA, including the 150 UK advisers, will have to work very hard to ensure that. I heard what the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Rochester said and his views about the balance between coercion on the one hand and influence on the other. I agreed with much of what he said, but I hope he will also acknowledge that the Iraqis themselves must settle the question of their fundamental law. It is the Iraqis who must decide on their constitution and what will be best for them when they are in government.

Let me turn to another country where reconstruction is so important and the remarks of the noble Earl, Lord Sandwich. I really do not believe that the picture in Afghanistan is as gloomy as he painted. There are now 4.2 million children who have returned to school this year. There are 2.5 million refugees who have returned to the country and 9 million children have been vaccinated against measles, preventing an estimated 30,000 deaths. Most remarkably of all—and I hope that the noble Earl will note this—the economy of that country grew by some 30 per cent in the year 2002–03.

Many of your Lordships remain concerned about what is happening in the Middle East. My noble friend Lady Ramsay of Cartvale spoke about her reviving hope for an eventual peace settlement. Both she and the noble Lord, Lord Gilmour, remarked on what has been said by the Israeli chief of staff and the former Shin Bet officers. I believe that all noble Lords want to see a comprehensive settlement of the Arab/Israeli conflict for compelling humanitarian reasons and in the name of justice. It provides a focus for anti-western sentiment and it impedes progress on political and economic development in the wider region. The quartet road map remains the way to achieve this vision and we remain actively involved with leaders in the region and the wider international community in helping to translate that into reality. I remind the noble Lord, Lord Gilmour of Craigmillar, that the United States has supported the road map, even though Israel was not happy with it, and has criticised targeted assassination and the security fence in terms unprecedented for a US president addressing a prime minister of Israel.

The ratification of the new Palestinian Cabinet is, of course, a welcome step forward, but we are disappointed that responsibility for security has not been passed to a Palestinian interior minister. Of course, the priority is a visible effort to stop violence and dismantle terrorist capabilities, but, in parallel, the Israelis must freeze all settlement activity and dismantle settlement outposts, re-route the wall and relieve the economic and human suffering caused by the wall and the restrictions on freedom that it implies.

We are gravely concerned about the prospects for peace, and we fear that the window of opportunity for the two-state solution may be closing. We are under no illusions about the efforts needed from all parties. Progress will be difficult, and there will continue to be setbacks. However, we will continue to do our utmost to facilitate a lasting peace.

Many of your Lordships talked about the terrible scourge of international terrorism, including the noble Lords, Lord Howell of Guildford, Lord Gilmour of Craigmillar, Lord Holme of Cheltenham and Lord Hylton, my noble friend Lord Judd and the noble Baronesses, Lady Northover and Lady Rawlings. I have just returned from Istanbul, where I saw for myself the carnage and chaos and spoke to many of those directly affected by the attacks on 20th November. It was a harrowing experience, and I know that your Lordships will wish to reiterate the sympathy expressed to all who suffered. It was a terrible crime, committed by fanatics with no interest in negotiation or accommodation and with no qualms about killing the innocent of whatever faith. I pay tribute to our diplomats from the United Kingdom and our local staff, who have been so heroic in the way in which they have dealt with the horror.

In Turkey, people asked me, "Why us? Why here?". The answer is that such terrible events might happen anywhere that terrorists think that they can make an impact. The terrorist threat that we face is truly global, linking New York with Casablanca, Bali with Mombasa. The appalling truth is that more than 60 nations, on five continents, have been affected. In the past five years, 4,000 people have died at the hands of terrorists. The broader impact is enormous. The dreadful attacks in New York and Washington on 11th September, 2001, are estimated to have cost the world economy £350 billion. Over 200,000 jobs were temporarily lost or relocated. A UN report showed that average income in Bali fell by 43 per cent after those bombings.

Terrorism affects us all, irrespective of race, religion or nationality. It affects men, women and children. It affects those of strong ideology and those of no ideology. It affects those among the most powerful and wealthy in the world and those who have nothing. That is why we have made a point of tackling terrorism as one of our top priorities. Alongside the proliferation of WMD, it is among the main threats that we face. Unprecedented co-operation in intelligence and law enforcement has resulted in the capture of many senior terrorist figures. We should continue those efforts, but the threat will remain.

To have any chance of success, we must use the full range of tools at our disposal—law enforcement, intelligence, diplomacy and military means—and work closely with other countries and international organisations to defend the homeland, which, as the noble Lord, Lord Holme of Cheltenham, said, is our whole fragile planet.

One of the issues that has struck me most forcefully in the past two weeks is the way in which terrorism seeks to exploit any division or any doubt in our international relationships. We often ask ourselves why such terrible events happen, and it is right that we should. However, I say starkly to the noble Lord, Lord Gilmour of Craigmillar, that we must be careful and that we should never, for one instant, transfer the responsibility—the blame, if your Lordships like—for acts of murderous wickedness from where such responsibility rightly lies. It lies with those who plan the attacks, place the bombs and watch the bodies blown apart, the buildings torn down and the hearts and lives broken.

We should remember, as the noble Baroness, Lady Northover, and the noble Lord, Lord Gilmour of Craigmillar, seem to have forgotten, that the terrorists were increasing their activities well before any military action in Iraq and well before any military action in Afghanistan. The noble Lord, Lord Holme of Cheltenham, was right to confront the issue of how we must deny support and succour to terrorists, while addressing vigorously the injustices that allow terrorism to exploit and recruit young people.

The noble Lords, Lord Holme and Lord Judd, and the noble Baroness, Lady Northover, raised questions about aid. The Government are committed to making progress towards the UN target on official development assistance to create a national income ratio of 0.7 per cent. The boost given to international development funds in the 2002 spending review will lead to a 93 per cent increase in development expenditure in real terms between 1997 and 2005–06. By 2005–06, at £4.6 billion, official development assistance will reach 0.4 per cent of gross national income, up from just 0.27 per cent in 1997.

The noble Viscount, Lord Craigavon, made a very important contribution on reproductive health. He also scored a first: he found the one topic on which I have no briefing and on which we were unable to contact any officials. So I hope that he will allow me to write to him.

The noble Lord, Lord Hylton, raised important questions about UN reform. I assure him that the UK supports the UN Secretary-General's decision to set up a high-level panel to look at how the UN tackles threats to international peace and security.

The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Winchester and the noble Lord, Lord Holme, also raised their concerns about Africa. The problems of Africa remain immense but the landscape is changing and there is good news. Ghana, Senegal and Kenya have all seen peaceful transfers of power in the past four years. For all the problems that the right reverend Prelate enumerated, Uganda is among the 10 fastest-growing economies in the world. The recovery of the South African rand is a tribute to the strength and the sound management of Africa's largest economy. Angola is at peace. Sierra Leone is rebuilding itself. The DRC and Burundi are both making fresh starts.

Africa's leaders are making good progress. They have made it clear that they will not wait for the rest of the world to solve the continent's problems. NePAD, the New Partnership for African Development, demonstrates this approach.

I turn to the questions raised by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Winchester about the final report of the UN panel on illegal exploitation of the DRC's natural resources. It contains a number of important recommendations on how both the Congolese people and the international community should do better in the exploitation of resources. We are working with the transitional national government in the DRC on these issues and I shall write further to the right reverend Prelate on the important points that he raised.

The noble Baroness, Lady Cox, raised points about North Korea. I congratulate her and the noble Lord, Lord Alton, on establishing the new group. I found some of the contribution by the noble Baroness, Lady Flather, on Burma a little disquieting. However, she can rest assured that we continue to call on the regime to release the political prisoners including Aung San Suu Kyi.

I turn to the important questions on Europe raised by the noble Lords, Lord Grenfell, Lord Norton of Louth, Lord Radice, Lord Howell, Lord Williamson of Horton, Lord Blaker, Lord Harris of High Cross and Lord Wallace of Saltaire, and the noble Baroness, Lady Harris of Richmond.

The noble Lord, Lord Howell, says that the statements of government supporters are rightly ridiculed because we have not said that the convention is a fundamental shift in the constitutional relationship of Europe and its citizens as he believes it to be. I ask him whether he similarly thinks that it would be right to ridicule the noble Lord, Lord Hannay, whose expertise is unchallenged and who sits on the Cross Benches and is politically objective, who said on 9th September that it was not in any way the most significant of the European treaties. Or perhaps he wants to ridicule our own Lords Select Committee, which said in paragraph 134 of its report of 31st October:

"The extension of EU law in this Treaty seems relatively limited by comparison"— with other treaties. It continues:

"we repeat our earlier conclusion that 'it is clear that the balance of power is going to shift from the Commission to the Member States'".

Indeed, the noble Lord, Lord Grenfell, reiterated that point again today in his excellent contribution to our debate, a contribution on behalf of our own committee, not prompted by party politics but by a clear-headed and objective view of what the treaty may cover.

In particular, I should like to turn to the questions on European defence. European defence issues have exercised many of your Lordships. In addressing them, I must also address the issues around NATO. Like the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Inge, I pay tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Robertson, for his excellent leadership of the NATO alliance. The Government's position remains clear: NATO is fundamental to the UK and European Union security policy. As the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Boyce, said, it is the heart of our defence and the vital hinge between Europe and North America. I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Ramsay, and the noble Lord, Lord Howell of Guildford—nobody disputes NATO's pre-eminent role. The Prime Minister made that clear very recently, but so have our friends in Germany and France. The German Foreign Minister, who spoke to the UK and France recently, said that it is the "alliance par excellence".

Those comments have not just been made in press conference statements. The UK, France and Germany have jointly proposed language for a new EU treaty that removes any reference to a group of EU states operating a collective defence commitment. Instead it states clearly that NATO remains the basis of collective defence. I hope to reiterate the Government's commitment in that respect when I represent the Government at the NATO ministerial meeting in Brussels tomorrow.

The IGC issues have been addressed by the noble Lord, Lord Skidelsky, in a thoughtful and innovative speech, the noble Baroness, Lady Park of Monmouth, and the noble Lord, Lord Blaker. I shall address, not the IGC issues, but those of defence planning, which lie at the heart of most of the concerns that have arisen. The agreed framework has been that EU-led operations are considered only when NATO as a whole is not engaged. Secondly, when the EU considers options for an operation, it has automatic access to NATO's facilities, in particular to those that shape. Any substantial military operation, such as an EU-led operation in Bosnia, would be planned through NATO. But, thirdly, there will be cases where it may make sense for an EU-led nation to lead the planning of an EU mission. We have been over that ground before.

What is now under discussion in the EU is how to develop the EU's capacity for planning. That includes looking at how the EU carries out longer-term planning to anticipate crises, particularly in operations including civilian and military elements. We are discussing those ideas with allies and partners. President Bush has said that he backs the Prime Minister's judgment on that. I note that the SACEUR said this morning on the radio that what matters here is not the principle of developing EU capacity but how it is done. I agree. When the Government are in a position to make an announcement, we shall do so. But I assure noble Lords that we will do nothing that undermines NATO.

Noble Lords raised issues about defence personnel retention. Over the past 12 months, there has been a 4.3 per cent reduction in overall outflow from the Armed Forces. That is good news to add to the record recruitment figures. On capabilities, the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Boyce, said that however clever technology was, it did not deliver the ability to be in two places at once. He is quite right, but I can tell him that, as of 17th November, 38 per cent of the Army were committed to operations, of which 20 per cent were actually deployed on operations, by comparison with 50 per cent committed and 54 per cent deployed in late April. The figures are improving. We remain committed to achieving a balance of commitments and aim to commit personnel to operations for no longer than is absolutely necessary to achieve our military aims. Personnel are withdrawn from operations at the earliest opportunity.

I was grateful to my noble friend Lord Burlison for his comments about the importance of procurement to our regional industrial base. That is a very important issue, and I am very pleased that the MoD has now adopted a defence industrial policy.

I wish to address the questions on defence budgets raised by the noble and gallant Lords, Lord Guthrie, Lord Inge and Lord Boyce. The MoD's budget has not been cut. It remains as agreed with the Treasury and as announced in the spending review of the 2002 settlement in July last year. I remind the noble Baroness, Lady Rawlings, that it is this Government, a Labour Government, who have promised the biggest increase in defence spending period over the next three years—the biggest increase for 20 years. Three billion pounds are to be added over the next three years.

The noble Lord, Lord Astor of Hever, raised questions about the size and shape of the Territorial Army. I can reassure him that the enhancements in home defence outlined in the SDR new chapter will add about 700 TA posts. The new chapter in the Strategic Defence Review 1998 remains the foundation. The shape and size of the capability of our Armed Forces will remain as we said.

I will not address the points made by the noble Lord, Lord Mackie of Benshie, about the Black Watch. I will write to the noble Lord about that matter. Like the noble Lord, Lord Blaker, I was hugely impressed this evening by the breadth of the important issues covered. A number of your Lordships asked questions about specific countries and, when those were raised by only one or two Lords, I undertake to write to them, because we all deserve to go home at some point this evening. Perhaps noble Lords will forgive me if I beg that indulgence.

I end this evening with four conclusions about the foreign policy environment in which we now operate. I do that drawing from my experience as a Minister dealing with foreign affairs and defence since 1997. I dealt with the events of 9/11, the war in Afghanistan, the events in Bali, the Iraq crisis and now, of course, the most recent difficulties that we have experienced with our own staff in Istanbul. First, international terrorism and weapons of mass destruction present potentially catastrophic threats to our security, especially if those two threats come together. They are and will continue to be our top concerns. We must continue to tackle them assertively using every means at our disposal. The security threats cannot be viewed in isolation, however. They are part of a wider global agenda which includes economic development and tackling poverty and diseases such as HIV/Aids—as the noble Baroness, Lady Northover, said—malaria and tuberculosis, environmental degradation, conflict and state failure.

That leads me to my second conclusion. By their very nature, those issues affect collective international interests. There are so many of them and they are on such a huge scale that no one country can deal with them alone. We have to work with others. The challenge is to make the collective effective. For that we need strong international institutions. The United Nations is at the heart of our international system. We need a strong world forum to permit strong collective action. As the noble Lord, Lord Hannay, reminded us, we need the WTO to create a global open trading system and the international financial institutions to bolster economic stability. We also need to move on those issues soon, as the noble Lord, Lord Williamson of Horton, made very clear.

We also need the political will to act, so my third conclusion is that, above all, we must get the United States and Europe to work together. Together, we represent over 50 per cent of global exports. We provide about 70 per cent of total overseas development assistance and nearly 80 per cent of global foreign direct investment outflows. We own over 70 per cent of the world's foreign direct investment stock and we are indeed the liberal democracies who have the same fundamental values. Therefore, I strongly agree with what my noble friend Lord Radice said, and I strongly disagree with what my noble friend Lord Gilbert said. I believe that the choice between Europe and the United States is not a real one. We face the same problems and we need to work on them together. We have complementary assets to bring to the table. Over the past 12 months, the concept of transatlantic co-operation seems to have slipped from view in some quarters. Let us face it on both sides of the Atlantic. We must now restore that mutual political confidence.

My final conclusion is not only that our international agenda is increasingly interlinked, but that foreign and domestic policies are also inextricably intertwined. They are linked on the issues of faith and culture and on the importance of dialogue in this country and overseas with those who share our beliefs and cultures and with those who do not. The Foreign Office and the Home Office have made huge efforts on those issues. I do not share the apocalyptic view quoted by the noble Lord, Lord Wallace of Saltaire. I know that he did not share that view either, but I do think that we have a great deal of work to do on the issue.

That means that international policy is a task for the whole of government. It does not involve just the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the Ministry of Defence and the Department for International Development. It involves the domestic departments, too. They are the Department of Health on AIDS; the Department for Education and Skills on improving standards in poor countries; the Department for Culture, Media and Sport on archaeological issues; and Defra on the environment; and, yes, the Church should be involved as regards interfaith relationships.

The new Foreign and Commonwealth Office strategy paper laid before Parliament yesterday analyses the new international context in more detail. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Wallace of Saltaire, for his kind remarks about it. It sets out our operating assumptions about how the world is likely to change and identifies the United Kingdom's international priorities over the next decade. It is intended to encourage a clearer, more strategic approach across government to the challenges that we face. I commend it to your Lordships.