That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty as follows:
"Most Gracious Sovereign, We, Your Majesty's most dutiful and loyal subjects, the Lords Spiritual and Temporal in Parliament assembled, beg leave to thank Your Majesty for the most gracious Speech which Your Majesty has addressed to both Houses of Parliament."
My Lords, I am sure the whole House will wish to join me in offering sincere condolences to the families and friends of Marines Tony Evans and Georgie Sparks who were killed on operations in Afghanistan last week.
I am also sure that the whole House will want to pay tribute to all the men and women of our Armed Forces who, around the clock, 365 days a year, show their courage, dedication and professionalism in ensuring that the national security interests of the UK are protected. They work tirelessly on our behalf, often in difficult and sometimes dangerous circumstances. It is only right that we today acknowledge those who have been killed or injured in the service of their country. Each of us owes those brave men and women a real debt of gratitude.
This has been a busy year for defence. Our focus has quite rightly been on the ongoing operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, and they are our priority. I shall concentrate my remarks on those issues today. In both these countries, our Armed Forces are working to create the security environment needed to enable political, social and economic change. But let us be in no doubt: we are deploying UK personnel in Afghanistan because it is in our national interest to do so. That is why, as the Secretary of State for Defence has recently highlighted, we have an obligation to ensure that there is a clear domestic awareness and understanding about our mission in Afghanistan, and that the men and women of our Armed Forces, their families and the public understand why we are there.
The answer is simple: Afghanistan must not be allowed once again to become a safe haven for international terrorism. We cannot, and must not, allow the Taliban and al-Qaeda to return. The appalling events of 9/11 may be some time ago now, but we need to remember them and the fact that those events were made possible by the support given to al-Qaeda by the Taliban regime. That attack was intended to create terror and division. Instead, it galvanised a new determination across the world to tackle terrorism at its heart, a determination that we continue to carry forward with our military and civilian commitment in Afghanistan. It is in our national security interest to prevent the re-emergence of such a situation.
Some may ask, "How long will it take?". There is no timeline, but I fear that it is safe to say that the military mission in Afghanistan will not be over quickly. Afghanistan is a counter-insurgency situation, a conflict with no front line. However, we must be resolute, because if we do not deal with one of the main sources of terrorism at its source, it will come to us.
To achieve a secure and stable Afghanistan we have to develop its own capabilities, and we are seeing real progress across a number of areas. The Afghan national army now numbers some 68,000 trained personnel and is starting to take the lead in independent operations, a crucial step towards the goal of self-sufficiency on national security. In Helmand, three infantry battalions and the brigade headquarters are now capable of conducting independent operations with minimal ISAF support. Some 80,000 Afghan police have also been trained, equipped and deployed.
Of course, as your Lordships know, this is not just a UK campaign; it is a truly international effort. Under UN Security Council Resolution 1776, NATO and other allies are working together. Fifty thousand troops from 41 countries are all working to reduce terrorism and promote stability. This calls for strong partnership working and this is happening in the areas where it really matters; for example, when it comes to addressing a shortfall in capability regarding helicopters. The helicopter initiative for Afghanistan launched at the UK/Franco summit earlier this year is proving extremely useful. Four nations—Iceland, Norway, Lithuania and Denmark—have already contributed to funds and several other nations have offered aircraft and access to their facilities. This initiative is gaining real momentum to increase the supply of helicopters ready for operations and the number of suitably trained pilots.
We continue to have other challenges; for example, the air bridge which we have discussed in recent weeks. We are always trying to improve that situation because we know the importance of moving troops back home on leave quickly, but we have to be careful. We have to ensure that we use only the right aircraft with full defensive aid suites because safety remains a priority.
The United Kingdom is still the second largest contributor in Afghanistan. We feel strongly that others should and must pull their weight too. That is why we are pressing other NATO allies to reconsider their contribution. It is important that the international community demonstrates its long-term commitment to Afghanistan. This will mean working with allies to ensure that they can contribute as best they are able, so that ISAF can meet key capabilities demanded by the situation on the ground. It also means improved UN-led international civilian co-ordination.
Those nations committing troops to ISAF have done so because they know the importance of that mission. The nations deployed in the south well understand the challenging operational environment that they meet there, and the need for few caveats and robust rules of engagement. We will continue to work with our ISAF partners to ensure that national caveats are kept to a minimum and do not impinge on ISAF's operational effectiveness.
So we cannot know for certain exactly how long it will take for Afghanistan to become a fully self-sufficient, secure state, but we are committed to supporting the democratically elected Afghan Government in that achievement. Therefore, our mission calls for strategic patience. But eventually, as we are now seeing in Iraq, Afghanistan should be able to manage its own security. Improvement in security is critical if we are to maintain the advances that we have made in enabling the Afghan Government to meet the needs of the Afghan people. We have seen real progress in the past seven years. Six out of 10 Afghans exercised their democratic rights by voting in elections for the first time in more than 35 years. Five million refugees have been able to return home. Where just one in 10 Afghans had access to basic healthcare, that figure is now eight in 10. We recognise that huge challenges remain. The United Kingdom's long-term commitment to the reconstruction and development of Afghanistan is underpinned by the Afghanistan Compact, as well as the 10 year UK-Afghanistan Development Partnership Agreement. Only by helping Afghans to secure their country for themselves will we enable them to govern and develop it for themselves. However, we must recognise our starting point in Afghanistan. It is one of the poorest nations in the world and there are no easy quick-fix solutions. For our troops, the situation is challenging and changing, which is why we have to be responsive to the ever changing threat.
It is important to see this commitment in the context of our wider equipment programme. This year, the total defence budget is £34 billion, and that level of expenditure has grown over time, as the figures make clear. By 2010-11, the defence budget will be 10 per cent higher than it was in 1997, marking the longest period of sustained growth since the 1980s. In addition to the defence budget, some £9.5 billion has been provided from the Treasury reserve to meet the additional costs of operations in Iraq and Afghanistan since 2001. This will increase to more than £13 billion by the end of this financial year. This includes £4 billion approved for urgent operational requirements, which are so important.
I highlight the process of urgent operational requirements, because that process, which is different from the normal procurement process, is proving absolutely crucial in the current operational tempo. The threat in Afghanistan is changing rapidly. In response to our military successes, the insurgents' tactics have changed, becoming more indiscriminate and increasingly using improvised explosive devices.
That calls for flexibility on our part and a recognition that we need to be constantly adapting and enhancing the kit that our forces use. We can achieve this only by working closely with our industry partners. I take this opportunity to thank those companies in the defence sector that are driving through innovation and turning projects around very quickly. I am aware that many in this House have visited some of these companies and they will join me in saying that their commitment and responsiveness is making a huge difference on the front line.
This really is a dynamic process. The military, the MoD and industry are working closer together than ever before, and our processes are improving all the time and getting sharper. The urgent operational requirement process is proving to be a real driver on procurement, particularly when it comes to turning projects around quickly.
I want to say a few words now about Pakistan, which is perhaps the biggest area of complexity that we face. We cannot solve Afghanistan's problems without also dealing with the training and movement of insurgents across the border. Unless the authorities on both sides can work effectively together, neither the insurgency in east and south Afghanistan, nor the instability in Pakistan's border regions can be fully contained. For our troops in Helmand, Pakistan matters a great deal, because the Taliban there are directed and supplied from across the border. Most critically, however, Pakistan matters to us because it is to there that al-Qaeda has retreated and reformed, and it is from there that it casts a reduced but potent shadow across the world. I know that this is of concern to those in Pakistan and Afghanistan, as well as to people in this country. I recently met members of the Pakistan Senate Defence Committee, who talked to me about their concerns on this issue. The so-called "Af-Pak" security question must therefore be at the core of our approach to both countries. In practical terms, encouraging cross-border security co-operation, building on our good relationship with the Pakistan military and supporting the new civilian Government in Islamabad are very important—probably as important as any element in our Afghan strategy.
I want to say a word about narcotics—also an area of much concern. I think we all know that 90 per cent of the heroin in the United Kingdom originates in Afghanistan. We are helping the Afghans to tackle this and there has been some, though limited, progress. This year, 2008, has seen a fall in opium production. Counternarcotics is rightly a police responsibility but today the Afghans do not yet have the capability to discharge that role fully. NATO has therefore authorised ISAF to assist where narcotics targets are linked, as they often are, to the insurgency. This situation is welcome and can, we think, help us to make progress, but it is an area where Afghan forces must increasingly take the lead if we are to deal with this situation in the long term.
I turn to Iraq. In the five years that we have been in Iraq, the country has changed considerably, from a brutal dictatorship that threatened international security to a fledgling democracy. Our policy for Iraq, and indeed that of the coalition, is to work towards a state that is fully independent—a state that is able to manage its own security and resolve disputes through the political process and one that can play a constructive part in the international community. Real progress has been made. Today, the Iraqi Government and security forces have lead responsibility for security in 13 of the nation's 18 provinces. That is a considerable achievement and we should congratulate everyone—the US, coalition partners, the Iraqi authorities and of course our own forces.
The UK has made an important contribution in the past five years to this march of progress—from war-fighting and insurgency control to investing in grassroots entrepreneurship and construction. Before 2006, Basra Provincial Council had never received a budget from the central government and had no experience of planning or delivering public services. Since 2006, it has awarded more than 800 contracts with a value of $650 million, thus delivering the things that really matter to the people of Basra: education, water, power and health. Basra's largest hospital has been refurbished, a prosthetic limb centre has been established as a centre of excellence, and a new children's hospital is scheduled to open in the new year.
DfID's own investment since 2003 has connected 65,000 Basra households to the electricity grid for the first time. Overall, UK reconstruction spending across Iraq to date has totalled more than £700 million. Southern Iraq's future economic prospects are also now beginning to look very positive. The Secretary of State for International Development recently attended the opening of the Basra Investment Commission, and major investors are showing genuine interest in the province. Thousands of travellers are passing through Basra airport as part of the Hajj pilgrimage, which is a significant achievement. So we now see an Iraq that is well on its way to being an independent, democratic and stable sovereign state. There are of course still sporadic attacks and periodic flare-ups, but broadly we are well on the way to an Iraqi-delivered security situation across the nation.
In the south, where the great majority of our forces are based, the security situation has improved significantly as the Iraqi authorities, with UK and coalition support, have developed Iraqi solutions to Iraqi challenges. As UK forces complete their remaining tasks in Basra, the capability of the Iraqi security forces continues to improve. Our military role will again change next year. We will move from a mission focused on large-scale support of Iraqi security forces operations in Basra to a close and more conventional long-term bilateral defence relationship, just as we enjoy with other partners in the region. As we make this transition, the focus of our work there will be very much on the training aspects of our responsibilities.
The two operations, in Iraq and Afghanistan, will remain our top priorities for 2009. While it is a fact that our forces are stretched, they are, as the Chief of the Defence Staff himself has stated, not overstretched. They retain the ability and capacity to respond where needed. The current role being played by the Royal Navy in global maritime security is an example of that. Its contribution to counterpiracy off the Horn of Africa with our international partners, including NATO, is a demonstration of that capability, as is our provision of the operation commander and the HQ to the EU mission to tackle piracy in the area—a contribution that has been warmly welcomed by our European partners.
I started by paying tribute to those in the Armed Forces. We ask a lot of the men and women who serve our country, and we ask a lot of their families as well. We are determined to make sure that they are well supported, well paid and properly looked after. Just a few days ago we debated in this House the service personnel Command Paper that my right honourable friend the Minister for the Armed Forces launched earlier this year. This cross-government strategy involved widespread consultation with the forces, Whitehall, the devolved Administrations and service charities. This is not simply a document with good intentions. It is an important pledge with more than 40 separate commitments aimed at improving the lives of service personnel, veterans and their families. For the first time ever, a Government have set out the nation's commitment in this way. I know that there is widespread support for these measures in this House. It is a tangible and practical support that will form a lasting blueprint for the future. Our forces and their loved ones deserve nothing less. They are the best Armed Forces in the world and we are very fortunate to have them.
My Lords, the House will be very grateful to the noble Baroness for opening the debate on the humble Address with this detailed survey. Of course we join her in the condolences and tributes she made at the beginning of her speech. She concentrated, naturally as it is her ministerial role, on the defence aspects. I shall be seeking to open up some broader issues of foreign policy, on which the House may wish to focus. My noble friend Lord Astor will return at the end of the debate to many of the detailed points raised by the Minister about defence and our brave military forces.
Over many years I have heard some thin gracious Speeches but this time the Speech was, dare I say it, positively anorexic on foreign affairs. We are in the midst of a triple series of major international crises and events, including a hideous global recession with huge political consequences on top of our own home-grown pickle. All this will shake and shape our lives for years ahead, and the gracious Speech had about 150 words on the whole world scene. That is all it could manage. This morning, it was reported by the BBC that there is a competition to tell the whole Christmas story in 30 seconds. Whoever drafted the overseas section of the gracious Speech must have thought that they were competing in it. There was nothing in the gracious Speech about our relations with the United States of America, although the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer, in his brilliant speech yesterday, had plenty to say about America. There was nothing about our very poor relations with Russia, which are very worrying. There was nothing about the importance of our links with the rising powers and wealth of Asia, precious little about looming energy security threats and nothing, but nothing at all, about the Commonwealth.
I was frankly amazed that there was not a single mention of the Commonwealth in the gracious Speech. It is an invaluable network that gives our international position and interests such advantages in the new world now emerging, with power and money lying increasingly in Asia. Other nations look with envy at the positioning and opportunities that our Commonwealth link offers, although here in London we seem persistently to underestimate and neglect them. The Commonwealth embraces at least six of the world's fastest expanding and most dynamic nations. It is no wonder that our other friends, such as the Japanese, have a growing interest in contacts with the Commonwealth and its potential development as a 21st-century platform of democracy and transcontinental cohesion.
Why were all these issues, which are so vital to our national interest, left out of the gracious Speech? It is inevitable that our debates in the next few days are going to be about not so much what was in the gracious Speech but what was not in it. It is probably true to say that three matters of interest are at the forefront of our minds on foreign policy, each marking a potential watershed in world affairs and in our nation's affairs. First, there is the coming financial tsunami. Indeed, it is already here, but the coming consequences threaten a deep and prolonged global recession and are bringing economic and political turmoil in their wake, causing great concern to every citizen of this country. Secondly, there is the advent of a new American President with, we hope, new and fresh approaches to current world crises. Thirdly, most obviously and dangerously, there is the now ever present threat of much more terrorist violence anywhere and anytime, but most bloodily and recently exemplified in the Mumbai slaughter a week ago. I do not propose to say much more on Mumbai while the full story is yet to come out, except to seek reassurance from Ministers that British citizens, who were specifically targeted, are being looked after and to pray that the recent Pakistan/India rapprochement, of which there used to be signs, will not be totally undermined by this horror. Pakistan, the apparent home of the assassins, is filled with countless madrassahs in which hatred and violence are constantly taught. President Zardari frankly admits that the Taliban have "the upper hand". Mumbai is a warning that whatever occurred there a week ago is a direct threat to us all in this country as well.
I speak about Asia, but at the same time, we remain good Europeans because this is our region and Europe-wide stability and prosperity are essential to us. However, we must never let regional EU preoccupations weaken our resolve to maintain and strengthen strong bilateral ties with the newer and richer global powers which are tomorrow's world leaders. That is something that our history and skills uniquely equip us to do. That is where our main interests and the sources of our stability and continuing prosperity will increasingly lie. Noble Lords debated the future of the European Union, some would say ad nauseam, back in the summer. Let me make clear once more how we view this whole issue. Contrary to many slanders, it is not a question of being pro- or anti-European. It is not like that. We on these Benches are not anti-Europeans, although we are certainly anti-rigidity and anti-centralism.
We want a Europe that is democratic, is efficient, retains its endless diversity and is not overambitious. That is why many of us like the tone of the famous Laeken declaration, which called for a less remote EU, and why we were deeply disappointed, as we made clear, in the subsequent power-centralising EU constitution, which was then served up again, after its rejection, thinly disguised as the Lisbon treaty, with its obsession with institutions rather than practical outcomes. We all remember that we on this side were voted down on the treaty. The truly remarkable noble Baroness, Lady Ashton, who I was sad to see go, sprayed us with government arguments at machine-gun speed—I doubt if the Brussels Commission yet knows what is going to hit it.
Since then, our Irish neighbours have expressed their concern through the referendum that we were outrageously denied. Our unease can only have been increased by subsequent events. There is the attempted bullying of Irish opinion, which we think deplorable. The suggestion from Paris that our robust Czech friends are somehow, because of their healthy doubts, not fit to hold the full responsibilities of the EU presidency is equally deplorable.
When will it be grasped that visions of a single EU defence force, which inevitably weaken an already troubled NATO, are remote from all realistic possibilities, as are fantasies about a single voice for EU foreign policy or dreams of the EU,
"pouring money, men and resources", as one Euro-idealist suggested, into the world's trouble spots? Those are inflexible ideas. They are recipes not for action but for delay and committee deadlock. The outcome is always inevitably the lowest common denominator. They are redolent of past thinking which so much favoured superblocs and central control, and defy the common sense of the network age, which calls for patterns of co-operation that are altogether more flexible and adaptable. Other EU attempts at rigidifying bloc organisation and integration leave us just as unimpressed, such as the working time directive, due to be addressed in the European Parliament next week, which is quite unsuitable for our economy.
In our summer debates, we were told again and again by the most learned lawyers in this House that there was no escape whatever from the supremacy of EU law in ever wider areas covered or about to be covered by the treaties. We were told that there was nil possibility of protecting our constitution in the way that bodies such as the German Constitutional Court are empowered and minded to try, starting as it does from the utterly correct view of the EU not as an embryo federal state but as a Staatenverbund, which means a Europe solidly built on nation states.
One wonders whether it will ever be understood here in our Foreign Office or in policy-making circles that citizenship and nationhood go together. As our excellent EU Committee reported under the now sadly ending chairmanship of the genial and noble Lord, Lord Grenfell, the EU Commission's annual policy strategy spoke ambitiously of "putting the citizen first", but citizenship means belonging. It means agreeing to be governed by people whom the citizen may not like. It means agreeing to be loyal or even to die for one's country, knowing that, in the end, the lawmakers can always be held to account and removed—unless, of course, they have first been removed under arrest by the police.
The Lisbon treaty, which so obviously tilts the balance still further against accountable nationhood and in favour of still more institutionalised central power, went sliding through this House, aided and abetted by our Liberal Democrat friends and their manoeuvring, which left most of us dizzy. We all learnt to love the amusing speeches from the noble Lord, Lord McNally, but this time he showed yet another amazing skill as a top-league contortionist. We continue to marvel at his variety of skills.
We say here that if that unpopular treaty, which would certainly have been voted down in France and other member states had they been given the chance, has still not been ratified by some manoeuvre when we take office, the country will have the referendum originally promised by all parties.
As I said earlier, the gracious Speech oddly failed to reaffirm our close alliance with the United States. There is a view in the UK that we have a choice between being with America or with Europe. I do not accept this view for one moment, although the former Prime Minister, Tony Blair, seemed at times to oscillate, to most people's bewilderment, between these two imaginary poles. However, there can be no doubt that our relations with the USA are extremely important, or that they are already undergoing considerable change and are likely to change much further as the direction of the Obama presidency becomes clear.
My hope is that Americans will start to talk less about asserting world leadership and more about co-operation and partnership with other nations within the global network; less about domination and imposing American values worldwide and more about playing on the team in a spirit of mutual obligation and respect for the values and cultures of others. One hears about the American insistence on leadership. Indeed, both the left and the right in America seem to start from the point that America must somehow take over the world and be the top dog again, but those days are gone.
Washington power is receding, Wall Street bankers are no longer masters of the universe, and the financial power is shifting instead to high-saving Asia and the cash-rich oil-producing world. These are now the surplus countries with the money and the sovereign funds, which are being called on to rescue banks, industries, car industries and debt-ridden western nations on both sides of the Atlantic. Frankly, he who pays the piper calls the tune. Only the other day, the Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, was travelling around the Gulf, urging the rulers there to use their enormous funds to buy up British assets. This is the begging-bowl economy to which we have now sunk.
It does not follow either that America's colossal defence-spending, which is vastly bigger than everyone else's put together, guarantees superior power and influence. The asymmetry of warfare changes the balance decisively against the mammoths, making the most expensive military hardware vulnerable to deadly but miniaturised weapons in suicidal hands. Nevertheless, we need to know now exactly how the new Administration will handle the withdrawal from Iraq and how the new status of forces agreement, which the Pentagon clearly dislikes and which defines the American military role for the next phase, affects us. We also need to know what the noble Baroness, Lady Taylor of Bolton, meant by the "long-term bilateral ... relationship" between Britain and Iraq that will now emerge. What are the legal, and many other, aspects of that?
We need to know whether Mr Obama and General Petraeus really still believe that another surge will work in Afghanistan. It seems that the whole Afghanistan strategy is now being rethought; there are reports to that effect in the English newspapers this morning and in the American newspapers last week. There also seems to be the recognition that there is no military solution and that political reconciliation with the Taliban is the only workable way forward. I hope that our input into that thinking is really good and that we are not simply pouring in 4,000 more of our brave troops to follow exactly the same path as before. I hope, too, that we are warning our American friends from experience and history about the dangers of trying to secure any kind of permanent victory in Afghanistan, where one can almost unendingly win ground by day and lose it every night, as our senior military people and diplomats have wisely pointed out.
We need to know whether America will join in engaging Iran more deftly, deploying both stick and carrot approaches, or whether it will carry on with the former axis-of-evil line, which frankly seems to be heading nowhere. We also need to see far more determined support from America, among others, for ending illegal Israeli settlements, for building a viable Palestinian state and for doing everything that it can to end the Fatah-Hamas zero-sum game. There is also an ambivalent Syria to be handled with patience, the dilemma of a still-growing Hezbollah in Lebanon and rising tensions in Egypt. All these things need to be watched. We should certainly work with the Americans, but I question whether we should acquiesce in their insistence on being the leaders and even trying to dominate. We should do more of our own thinking. In sum, our role with Washington should be that of the good but candid friend. We should be solid but not slavish, in the appropriate words of my right honourable friend William Hague.
The key to UK policy in all these complex areas is to have confidence in our own capacities and our own identity to know who we the British are and how we can uniquely and most effectively contribute to global stability. We must certainly work with others in a totally interdependent world, but not be run by others, as too often seemed the case in recent years. If we lack a clear lead and definition of our national purposes and potential, we will lack the inner unity and cohesion to make our own society successful and peaceful. The two go together. Foreign policy is not the poor relation of our national interest. In particular, we must now address some urgent and practical issues directly affecting our national interest and welfare.
First and foremost, there is the question of the morale of our Armed Forces and the problems of equipment delays and inadequacies. My noble friend Lord Astor will return to these in detail later in the debate. It was always a central priority of British policy to have a first-rate, world-class fighting force. That has been allowed to lapse. We will not let that point go and I know my noble friend will make it.
Secondly, we have to ask whether the balance between a clearly underresourced Foreign Office and a much larger DfID budget is the right one, as it is plainly crippling our diplomatic efforts. I notice that even your Lordships' Written Questions to the FCO have gone unanswered for weeks and months on end. The Minister told us that this is due to "an administrative error". This is just not good enough. This department must get its act together.
This is supposed to be the age of soft power. Top-class Armed Forces should go hand-in-hand with the expanding deployment of soft power, cultural diplomacy and non-governmental networking as never before. Your Lordships' House is probably one of the best endowed legislative bodies in the world in terms of sheer experience, international connections, culture, technical knowledge and diplomatic skills. We should surely never rest in demanding that these advantages be fully used in the national interest.
Further vital points must be discussed, particularly as regards Africa. I have not mentioned Zimbabwe, where cholera fills the streets and troops are rioting. It cannot be long before that nation collapses completely, unless and until Mr Mugabe goes. There are many other tragedies in Africa: we have debated the bloodshed in the Congo; Somalia is now a failed state, full of piracy; and there are dangers in southern Africa. No doubt those issues will be raised in the debate.
The most dangerous prospect for this country is that we are about to become again a major energy-importing nation. Security of supplies is again a critical issue of foreign policy. Thanks to dithering over new nuclear construction and overoptimism about costly renewables, we now face a serious possibility of electric power shortages in the coming years. When electric power fails, people die and society is paralysed. For the next few years we will be hugely dependent for power generation on imported gas, probably much of it from Russia, and on bad old coal, probably uncleaned and unfiltered. It will be for the simple reason that the economic carbon sequestration techniques so blithely demanded by our pundits have not yet been invented on a commercial scale.
We have here the full and terrible legacy. From the previous Prime Minister, Mr Blair, we have inherited an overcommitted military, which is involved in two long wars, Armed Forces who lack the support they deserve, an ambivalent national role and purpose, and now possibly black-outs to boot.From the present Prime Minister the legacy will be even worse. By the year after next I understand that we will be spending more on interest payments on our colossal borrowings than on the entire defence and schools budgets combined. The possibility of UK default is now being priced by traders into the market for the first time since the 14th century. These past 11 years have been truly the years eaten by the locusts of spin, incompetence, dithering and defeatism. We cannot have a strong and effective foreign policy or real sense of national unity, pride and purpose until this dismal period is ended and its authors depart the scene. They have sat here too long and they should go.
My Lords, on behalf of these Benches I, too, express our support for the tributes paid by the noble Baroness.
The Queen's Speech mentioned next year's G20 summit on the world economy, NATO, Iraq, Iran, the Middle East, Afghanistan and Pakistan. There was no mention of climate change, Africa, aid, the stalled trade talks and the other areas mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Howell. It was a speech generally thin and vague on intention and timescale, so perhaps we can unpick some of it and suggest other areas where we would urge the Government to be active and on which I look forward to the Minister's reply. My noble friends will also be highlighting a series of important issues in this wide area. I know that we will have an extremely impressive debate around the House and I look forward to it.
If we did not know it before, we clearly know now from our economic problems how something that happens in one part of the world can quickly have catastrophic effects elsewhere. As we seek to tackle our own problems of recession, house repossessions, people losing their jobs, pensions falling through the floor in value, investment in public services potentially being hit over the longer term as the Government cut back, rising taxes and huge uncertainty about the future, it would seem easy to forget the rest of the world. This crisis shows what a mistake that would be. We can see how a decline in the demand for toys in America means that factories in China are closing down and that recycled paper from the UK used in packaging is no longer required, so that companies here go under. The whole chain affects us all. It is therefore welcome that, in dealing with the economic crisis, countries such as China, India and Brazil are now involved. As President Lula of Brazil put it:
"There is no logic to making any political and economic decisions without the G20 members—developing countries must be part of the solution to the global financial crisis".
However, the agreement and the meeting flagged up in the Queen's Speech include only 20 countries. Many of the poorest and most vulnerable nations were not included in the recent summits, yet they may suffer most from the economic downturn. Let us take the case of Botswana. Concern about diamond sales may not be at the top of our agenda, much as we admired diamonds yesterday, but Botswana is hugely reliant on its diamond exports. It is therefore shocking to hear that last month Botswana received no revenue at all from this source, partly because western markets dried up and partly because diamond traders could get no credit. Just think of the effect of that on a country with extensive poverty, an incredibly high incidence of AIDS and little in the way of social protection.
Whatever the obvious moral case for concern, we must also recognise our own self-interest in this. We know that economic pressures force migrations and cause environmental destruction. Stability and prosperity go hand in hand. We know that economic exclusion plays into the hands of those who wish to exploit it for political, often extreme political, ends. We know, close to home, how much easier it was to bring peace to Northern Ireland once prosperity and social justice had made progress.
In this financial crisis, which overarching world organisations are grappling properly with the needs of the poorest countries? Do the developed countries see this area as a priority? Do the Government realise its significance? Can I have an assurance from the Minister that the Government will pledge not to cut development assistance but maintain their commitment to increasing it to their current target of 0.7 per cent of GNP by 2013? In addition, will they look to international action to extend credit to emerging markets that are in problems? As Simon Maxwell of the Overseas Development Institute—I declare an interest as a council member of the ODI—says:
"Development is in everyone's interest".
Yet he also rightly says that international development will not stay on the agenda,
"unless the public understands exactly why it matters".
It may be that it is up to us in the House of Lords to take the longer view.
What of the new Bretton Woods? How do we take forward international structures that can effectively tackle the economic, food and energy crises? We have to recognise that, in historical terms, the United Nations is a recent creation. It is clear that it and its various parts need to evolve further to increase its usefulness.
It is worrying that the Queen's Speech mentioned nothing about climate change, which is clearly an area where there will be great pressure; for example, we hear today that Italy and Poland are resisting the EU stance in the current negotiations. We already know that climate change hits the poorest first. In the Climate Change Bill, the Government made significant and welcome commitments, but what will happen now? Will the Government put muscle behind a green strategy in the UK and the EU for getting out of this recession, or will green policies be sacrificed? If it is the latter, we store up for ourselves far more major problems down the track. Of course, Barack Obama has said that he will engage the United States at last in the battle against climate change, which is extremely welcome. I know that we have huge expectations of the new US President. Politics will constrain him no doubt, but, as we have heard, we see a different mindset, which is enormously welcome.
We may soon see the effect of the change of Administration on policies on Iraq and Afghanistan. The UK has been mired with the United States in Iraq. The Queen's Speech refers to "continued progress" in Iraq. There is still no public recognition by the Government of what an error that war was. Might the Minister feel able to rectify that today? Might he also say something about the timescale for our withdrawal from Iraq? As we have heard, the British role is surely now marginal, reduced to Basra airport. We have heard about the huge commitment and the effect that this operation has had on the British forces. It must indeed be fairly unbearable for families and for the military itself to bear the danger and losses against a background of a lack of public support for this enterprise. We must at the very least make plain our unstinting support for the military's efforts, whatever we felt about the enterprise as a whole.
By contrast, of course, there was international agreement about the engagement in Afghanistan. The noble Baroness clearly recognises the enormous significance of what is happening in Afghanistan by her concentration in her speech on what we are doing there. However, it is surely worrying that Afghanistan is associated with Iraq, in the eyes of some in the UK, as an illegal and inappropriate war. Is this not also an argument for getting out of Iraq as quickly as possible so that these operations can be separated out? I have heard this year disturbing comments, from Conservative MPs in particular, about the impossibility of this task and the need to consider pulling out. Clearly the noble Baroness recognises that. Does the noble Lord agree that there would be serious dangers if cross-party consensus were to break down? Not least, what would be the effect on NATO?
The enterprise in Afghanistan is clearly exceedingly difficult. I remember my late lamented noble friend Lord Garden saying that it would indeed take 30 years. I hear what the noble Baroness says, but I have also seen the recent Oxfam reports that state that Afghanistan,
"stands on the brink of a security, development and humanitarian crisis".
They point to the continued problems of the Afghan and international response lacking coherence, resources and resolve. Lack of government capacity at local level, widespread corruption, a legal system with major systemic weaknesses and widespread impunity for power holders are fuelling public dissatisfaction. Of course, there were moves to make my noble friend Lord Ashdown the UN co-ordinator there. The fact that that did not happen was a missed opportunity.
How does the noble Lord think that co-ordination can be improved? How can we ensure better protection of civilians and, in particular, actions by the international forces that do not make things worse in Afghanistan or Pakistan? Clearly, no settlement in Afghanistan is possible without the involvement of others in the region. The instability of Pakistan, especially in the current economic climate, is particularly worrying. Anyone who visits the region will be immediately aware of the links made with the Middle East.
The Queen's Speech talks of pressing for a comprehensive peace settlement in the Middle East. That is extremely welcome. I note that Tony Blair, now the quartet's representative there, was yesterday arguing that Obama needed to seize this immediately on taking office, and he is surely right. It is reported that Blair has been shocked at the effect of the occupation on the economic prospects for the Palestinian state. I am surprised that he did not know that before, but it is good that it has come home now. This looks like a last chance and, as we know, for the future of both Israel and Palestine, a two-state solution must be engaged with seriousness. As Tony Blair said yesterday, there is nothing more important in relations between Islam and the West than sorting out this problem, so that Israel feels secure and the Palestinians have a state.
The dire situation of those in Gaza should be immediately addressed. It should be recognised as collective punishment, although in a Written Answer to me only the other day the noble Lord avoided saying that. Surely it is time for the EU to press harder. The EU has made an enormous contribution to reconstruction around the world and it should have the authority to speak out. We believe that the EU is a power for good.
It is notable that only three years after the promises of Make Poverty History and the Commission for Africa, Africa gets not even the slightest mention in the Queen's Speech. As cholera and anthrax hit Zimbabwe, the situation becomes even more dire, which had seemed impossible. Today we hear that the health system is breaking down. Zimbabwe has declared the cholera epidemic an emergency, but the MDC was not even allowed to attend the press conference at which this was announced. What hope does the noble Lord have of international pressure being brought to bear on SADC, the AU and the UN to force Mugabe to accept the will of the people of Zimbabwe? In the mean time, as this situation drags on and on, what can be done to alleviate suffering?
We welcome the fact that the noble Lord is so involved in developments in Zimbabwe, Sudan and the DRC. It is indeed excellent to see him bring his UN experience to bear on these problems. Perhaps he might report further on the DRC and negotiations there. As we saw in the debate last week, he clearly recognises the vital importance of cutting the economic roots of those fighting in the DRC, as in Zimbabwe. There has just been another report to the United Nations on the international companies inappropriately operating in the DRC. Does he have the details of the British companies? Will the Government pledge to do what they so feebly did not do before and take effective action against them? Overstretched as we are—I dispute what the noble Baroness said about overstretch in the military—it is not surprising that we can do little in terms of military support. Yet again, our commitment in Iraq has had its effect.
We have seen significant changes in Africa regarding improvements in governance and economic development, but they have shaky foundations. The challenge from climate change, the financial crisis and the world food crisis are more than sufficient to reverse this. When you see the rate of HIV/AIDS in sub-Saharan Africa, the possibility of cutbacks in aid, the likely decline in remittances and the precarious economic situation there, it does not take much to realise quite how progress is potentially undermined. As ever, it is the poorest people who suffer first, with women and children in the vanguard.
What will be the effect on Africa if it is China that makes the most of the West's economic difficulties? Good governance has hardly been a priority for its activities in Africa—although we can hardly complain, given our own history. Even now in the food crisis, we see instances of Asian companies buying up huge tracts of land for their own markets. What will be the impact of that on the poorer developing countries?
Our economic crisis should have brought home what we surely already know: that something that happens in one place in our interconnected world can have a knock-on effect elsewhere. The flu epidemic of 1919 took six months to spread around the world; it took 48 hours for SARS to reach four continents.
What themes came up in the terrible events in Mumbai, which the noble Lord, Lord Howell, mentioned? American, British and Israeli lives were targeted—although it was mostly Indians who were killed—by those whose ideology, it seems, links into acts elsewhere in the world: New York, Nairobi, London, Islamabad and Madrid. We know from what is happening in Afghanistan and the Middle East, as we knew from Northern Ireland, that one needs not only to counter such ideologies but to ensure that those who are ready targets for such radicalisation see themselves and their families as having a future that is fulfilled and prosperous and not as outsiders on the edge of things.
In our current economic crisis, the temptation might well be to turn inwards. Instead, we should surely recognise that what we do nationally and internationally will come back to help or haunt us long into the future.