Queen’s Speech — Debate (5th Day)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 11:02 pm on 15th May 2013.

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Photo of Lord Rosser Lord Rosser Shadow Spokesperson (Defence), Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs), Shadow Spokesperson (Transport) 11:02 pm, 15th May 2013

My Lords, as I am sure noble Lords anticipated, indeed expected, today’s debate has been wide-ranging and has covered a great many issues, from the Chagos islanders to cybersecurity and attacks. That was inevitable in a debate covering Foreign Office, international development and defence matters. However, that is not in any way a criticism. Particularly in a far from secure and stable world, defence policy, foreign policy and our international development goals should be geared towards agreed, co-ordinated objectives and priorities, with our diplomats and Armed Forces working in tandem alongside our international aid and development programmes to deliver them, recognising the role that the use of soft power can play.

Whether that has been the case, or is likely to be the case over the next two years, is another matter. The 2010 strategic defence and security review was not related to Foreign Office or international development goals. It was a straight exercise in rapidly cutting costs at a time when the economy had been restored to growth over the previous nine months. The consequences of rushed decisions were highlighted by a recent National Audit Office report that was scathing about the double U-turn since 2010—which means we are now back where we started from—on the Joint Strike Fighters for our future aircraft carriers. We now learn from

Lockheed Martin, the programme’s main contractor, that US Government spending cuts could inflate the overall cost of the F-35 jet fighter, since a reduction in the number of aircraft under construction at any time could drive up unit costs. What is the Government’s assessment of the possible impact of US Government spending cuts on the cost of the Joint Strike Fighter? Has provision been made in the budget for an increase in cost or would such an increase mean that we have to purchase a smaller number of aircraft?

An indication of just how rushed was the 2010 SDSR came when the Government told us it could be some months—up to another seven months from now since the phrase used was “later this year”—before they could make a decision on whether to offer Afghan interpreters, fearful for their lives as our front-line troops withdraw, the same option to move to this country as was offered to Iraqi interpreters who had served our Armed Forces. The noble Lord, Lord Ashdown of Norton-sub-Hamdon, the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Stirrup, and my noble friend Lady Dean of Thornton-le-Fylde have already spoken on this issue far more eloquently than I could manage.

It seems odd that a Government prepared to make decisions on an SDSR in six months need longer than that to make what is surely a more straightforward single decision on Afghan interpreters. Perhaps it is a case of defence policy being determined by the objectives of others, rather than by co-ordinated Foreign Office, defence and international development objectives. I hope that the Minister will be able to update us on the current situation on Afghan interpreters when he replies and, if he cannot tell us what decision the Government have made, at least explain why it is taking so long to come to a conclusion.

At this point, I refer to the speech made by my noble friend Lady Whitaker and the issue of the Chagos islanders—a matter also referred to by the noble Lords, Lord Ramsbotham and Lord Avebury. The issue is whether they should be able to return to the outer islands. My noble friend referred to the statement made in 2010 by the now Foreign Secretary that he would,

“work to ensure a fair settlement of this long-standing dispute”.

My noble friend asked what the Government were doing or intending to do in the light of that undertaking. I do not know what that statement by the Foreign Secretary was meant to mean. I hope that the Minister will provide a direct answer to my noble friend’s question when he responds.

It is not easy to ensure that defence, foreign office and international development actions are synchronised towards common policy goals if policy is changed for no clear reason. The Government have previously said more than once that they are committed to legislating for 0.7% of gross national income, in line with the UN target, to be spent on international aid and development. Several noble Lords have expressed concern that there was no mention of such legislation in the gracious Speech. No indication has been given about when such legislation may appear. We are now hearing suggestions emanating from the centre of government that UK aid should be redirected to prop up a defence budget facing further cuts—cuts about which the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Stirrup, expressed such powerful concern, to which I await the Minister’s response.

The previous Labour Government’s commitment to meet the UN target of spending 0.7% of gross national income on aid and to legislate on it by 2008 was taken on by the current Government and included in the coalition agreement. I hope that the Minister will be able to tell us what has happened to the undertaking on that legislation in the coalition agreement and what are the Government’s intentions on the issue, including how they consider that the absence of that previously promised legislation will promote international aid and development objectives.

A further area where policy appears to be shifting is over Europe; a number of your Lordships have spoken on that matter. The vision of the larger party in the coalition appears to be that the European Union should be a free trade area and nothing more. The Prime Minister has plans to try to renegotiate the terms of Britain’s membership and then hold a referendum in 2017. Large sections of his party want a referendum on our continuing membership as soon as possible, with a view to securing a no vote. What is clear is that the larger party in the coalition will probably spend much of its time between now and the general election contemplating its own navel over Europe. The statute in this country as it stands provides for a referendum if there is a significant transfer of sovereignty from Britain to Brussels. We have no plans to repeal that legislation. We are not in favour of the status quo and will make the case for reform of Europe but reform, not exit, must be the priority.

The gracious Speech indicated that we will be experiencing a relatively unusual event: a defence Bill that is separate and distinct from the five-yearly Armed Forces Bill. The defence Bill is to address the issue of changes that the Government wish to make in defence procurement arrangements and their intentions in respect of the expansion of our Reserve Forces. There have of course already been changes in the working arrangements between the Ministry of Defence and the private sector, following changes progressed under the previous Government by my noble friend Lord Drayson, which are resulting in improved co-operation and shared knowledge and expertise, particularly in fields of advanced technology, that enable better control of costs and enhanced value for money. It is not clear what impact the changes being contemplated by the Government for future procurement will have on these arrangements, and certainly not what improvement they would bring and how.

The noble Lord, Lord Lee of Trafford, and my noble friend Lady Dean of Thornton-le-Fylde asked the Minister a number of questions about the effect and impact of the proposed GOCO. I will not repeat those questions but I am as interested as the noble Lord and my noble friend are in the answers that the Minister gives. We will want to be satisfied that any proposed changes by the Government will improve the present situation. We will want to be satisfied that any new arrangements involving the private sector will be transparent, ensure that there is value for money and, at the very least, not lead to less information about procurement activity and costs being in the public domain than is the case at present.

The Government’s defence Bill is also intended to help strengthen our Reserve Forces in the light of the decision that with the contraction in the size of our regular forces, the reserves will have a more prominent role. It would be helpful if the Minister could update the House with the progress being made on this issue. What is the most recent assessment of the willingness of business and industry to employ reservists on the basis of the greater commitment that will be required in future, and what is the feedback from existing and potential reservists on their willingness to be away from their civilian career for longer periods than at present? Are the Government still absolutely confident of finding sufficient reservists of the required quality, in the required timescale, to meet the increased role and level of commitment that will be needed under the Government’s future plans? Is there a plan B if the Government’s expectations are not realised and, if so, what is it?

At the beginning of this debate, some hours ago, the noble Baroness, Lady Northover, paid tribute to our Armed Forces—to their bravery and commitment, and to the sacrifice that all too many of them have made on behalf of our country. On this side, we associate ourselves wholeheartedly with those tributes. We owe our Armed Forces clarity and consistency on their role, through co-ordinated defence, Foreign Office and international aid and development policies and objectives. We also owe them a determination to ensure that the resources we provide in all forms are sufficient, appropriate and relevant to ensure that the demands and objectives we place on our Armed Forces can be delivered.