Queen’s Speech — Debate (5th Day)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 11:14 pm on 15th May 2013.

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Photo of Lord Astor of Hever Lord Astor of Hever The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence 11:14 pm, 15th May 2013

My Lords, today’s excellent debate has reminded us repeatedly of the opening words of the noble Lord, Lord Triesman: that we live in an uncertain and unstable world. We are fortunate to be able to rely on the men and women working across the FCO, DfID, the MoD and the agencies. Their dedication to maintaining our security, protecting our interests and promoting our values means that Britain is able to act as a force for good in the world, defending our own citizens and the citizens of other countries when they, too, need defending.

Within the Ministry of Defence, our vision is to deliver a versatile, agile and battle-winning Armed Forces, working effectively with each other and with people ready to lead, to accept responsibility and to spend wisely to protect our security in a changing world. I, too, pay particular tribute to our Armed Forces. Their bravery and professionalism represent the very best qualities our nation has to offer. We owe them, and the families who support them, an enormous debt of gratitude. Their role is difficult and frequently very dangerous. We must never forget the sacrifices that they make on our behalf.

I will now do my very best to respond to the many questions asked during this excellent debate before I run out of time, but if I cannot I will write to noble Lords.

Many noble Lords mentioned Afghanistan. In the Ministry of Defence, current operations in Afghanistan remain our priority. In the light of the changing nature of the operation, we have looked at how we can best deploy what will be declining numbers of troops and smaller amounts of equipment over the next 18 months to deliver the best possible protection to our people while continuing to provide the Afghans with the support they need during this critical transition period.

Brigades deploying to Afghanistan on Operation Herrick have usually done so on a six-monthly basis. This pattern of rotation has worked well for the enduring deployment, but is judged not to be sustainable during the final months of the drawdown period. The Army has therefore decided that the brigade deploying in October—Herrick 19—will deploy for eight months, from October this year until June 2014. The subsequent brigade—Herrick 20—will deploy for six months, from June to December next year when the ISAF campaign concludes, but the deployment could extend up to nine months for a small number of individuals who may be needed to support final redeployment activity post-December 2014. Those eligible will be paid a Herrick drawdown allowance of £50 per day from the seven and a half month point until the end of their tour in addition to their normal allowances.

My noble friend Lord King asked whether we can extract the equipment that we will need. I assure him that we are well on track to withdraw all that we require. We are not putting all our eggs into one basket but are using air, land and sea to bring our kit back.

The delivery of the acquisition and support of defence equipment is one of the key parts of the Armed Forces Bill, as announced in the Queen’s speech. This has been recognised by successive Governments as being in need of reform. There have been attempts to make improvements but, frankly, none has had lasting effect. This Government set up the materiel strategy project to find a radical solution to a persistent problem. The legislation that we are bringing forward will enable us to make the necessary changes should the recently announced assessment phase conclude that a GOCO is the best solution, but we have made no decision as yet. That will follow when we have determined what the marketplace can deliver. The noble Baroness, Lady Dean, asked whether we can have a debate on this issue. I would certainly welcome one and will take it up with the usual channels.

We owe it to the men and women of the armed services to deliver the equipment they need to do the job we ask of them. My noble friend Lord Lee made the point that no other country is currently taking this approach, but that does not mean that we should not. Many are watching with interest, because they too recognise and face the problems that we are trying to solve. I assure my noble friend Lord Palmer that the GOCO contractor will not be a major defence contractor, as potential bidders will have to satisfy us about how they would deal with conflicts of interest. We are not just looking at the market. DE&S+ is the MoD alternative to a GOCO model and is being developed in parallel. The GOCO model will be tested against DE&S+ next year before a final decision is made.

As also mentioned in the Queen’s speech, we are intent on developing the reserves, which were mentioned by a number of noble Lords, including my noble friend Lord Freeman, who I thank for his continued support. The reserves are a vital component of our

Armed Forces. As my noble friend said, 29 have sadly been killed in Afghanistan. The reserves have consistently made and continue to make a significant contribution to the nation’s security at home and overseas. Our plans are challenging, but we are determined to stick with them. Looking forward, reserve forces will be central to our new Future Force 2020 structure, forming a greater proportion of the whole force than in the past. Our future reserves will be a fully integrated component of the Armed Forces.

We recognise the contribution that employers make in supporting their reservist employees. We recognise that they have needs and challenges in a tough economic climate, so we shall work with employers to establish better relationships and to enable them to plan ahead for reservist training and mobilisations. As my right honourable friend the Secretary of State has said, we are looking at financial incentives for those employers to whom it matters: small and medium-sized employers.

We need to increase the size of the reserves, but the numbers that we need are well within historic levels. We are investing an additional £1.8 billion over 10 years to help deliver these changes. The new proposition for the reserves will be set out in the forthcoming White Paper on Future Reserves 2020, to be published by the Summer Recess. The White Paper will set out an extensive programme of measures further to develop and grow the role of the reserves.

The noble and gallant Lords, Lord Craig and Lord Stirrup, were both concerned abut the defence budget. In 2012, the MoD announced that it had balanced its budget. We have now set out a fully funded and affordable equipment programme of nearly £160 billion over the next 10 years to meet Future Force 2020, which has recently been audited by the National Audit Office. The Government are fully committed to increasing the equipment budget by 1% a year from 2015, but of course we have a spending review under way for 2015-16 which will cover the rest of the defence budget. As the Defence Secretary has made clear, there are some genuine efficiencies we can make, but any further significant reductions would have an impact upon capabilities.

Many noble Lords, including my noble friend Lord Dobbs, the noble Lord, Lord Eames, and the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Bath and Wells, were deeply concerned about Syria. After more than two years of bloodshed, this conflict has reached catastrophic proportions. Almost 80,000 people have been killed; there are more than 1.4 million refugees in neighbouring countries; more than 4.2 million civilians are displaced within Syria; and more than 6.8 million people are in dire humanitarian need.

The UK’s total humanitarian funding for Syria and the region to date is £141 million, which has all been allocated, including the £50 million pledged at Kuwait. UK aid is already funding food for more than 140,000 people a month, and water for more than 400,000. We have provided more than 100,000 medical consultations. We know our support is reaching people in all 14 governorates of Syria as well as refugees in the neighbouring countries.

Several noble Lords including the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Bath and Wells and my noble friend Lord Ashdown were concerned that we might be arming the opposition. We have taken no decision to send arms to anyone in Syria. We have always said that the goal of amending the embargo is to create the conditions for a negotiated settlement.

My noble friend Lord Howell and the noble Lord, Lord Williamson, were concerned that the Commonwealth was not mentioned in the gracious Speech. I assure them both that the Government are strongly committed to strengthening our engagement with and role within the Commonwealth. Because of the importance we attach to the Commonwealth, the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary have decided to attend this year’s Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Sri Lanka.

Many noble Lords, as one would expect, touched on the EU, which was well covered by my noble friend Lady Northover. David Cameron has said that if he is Prime Minister, there will be an in-out referendum in the next Parliament. Yesterday the Conservative Party published a draft Bill to legislate for an in-out referendum by the end of 2017. We are examining all opportunities to bring this Bill before Parliament, including as a Private Member’s Bill. As my noble friends Lord Howell and Lord Lawson said, the EU is changing because of the eurozone crisis. As part of these changes we want to negotiate a fresh settlement in the EU that is a better settlement for Britain, and then put the result of those negotiations to the British people. We want to be able to campaign heart and soul for Britain to stay in the EU under that new settlement, and we are confident that we will be able to do so, but the British people must have the final choice.

I was happy to hear that my noble friend Lord Northbrook has had a successful visit to Hong Kong. We want a strong and positive relationship with China, which I believe is of mutual benefit. Our bilateral trade with China is growing faster than that of any other country in Europe, and we welcomed a huge increase in Chinese investment last year. We have more Chinese students than any other foreign nationality, and numbers are still rising healthily. This benefits both countries. When dealing with Tibet this Government’s approach has always been clear and consistent. The Chinese Government are aware of our policy on Tibet.

A number of noble Lords, including my noble friends Lord Bates, Lord Chidgey, Lord Avebury, Lord Sharkey, Lord Hussain, and the noble Lords, Lord McConnell, Lord Collins, Lord Eames, and the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Ripon and Leeds, spoke about our commitment to spending 0.7% of gross national income on aid. The coalition Government are the first UK Government ever to meet this, and we are the first G8 country to do so. I can also assure noble Lords that we remain fully committed to delivering 0.7% of GNI on aid. I can also assure the noble Lords, Lord McConnell and Lord Collins, that only aid which conforms to OECD rules counts as ODA, and we will adhere to that.

We agree with my noble friend Lord Chidgey that good governance should be a core part of new development goals. We also agree with him, and with the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Ripon and Leeds, the noble Lord, Lord Cameron, and the noble Lord, Lord St John of Bletso, about the importance of the development of agriculture to tackle hunger and malnutrition. DfID invests heavily in new farming techniques, and, as my noble friend Lord Bates pointed out, we will host a global Nutrition for Growth event on 8 June as part of the UK’s presidency of the G8. I hope that the right reverend Prelate will be pleased to hear that the priority for the G8 presidency is to push for fairer taxes and transparency.

My noble friend Lord Avebury and the noble Earl, Lord Sandwich, flagged up Pakistan. The new Pakistani Government will have an important responsibility to implement urgently needed economic and tax reforms. DfID works extensively on tax reforms in developing countries. In South Sudan, I can tell the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, that DfID has allocated £40 million to help with humanitarian aid in 2013. In Burma we have provided £2 million for humanitarian support, with a focus on water, sanitation and nutrition. The Foreign Secretary and Aung San Suu Kyi agreed two weeks ago that it was time for the EU to move beyond sanctions.

The noble Earl, Lord Sandwich, was concerned about our continuing commitment to Afghan development. I can reassure the noble Earl that DfID will provide £178 million every year at least until 2017. We are working with the Afghan Government to ensure the protection of women’s rights. In regard to Bangladesh, I can assure my noble friend Lord Avebury that the Chittagong Hill Tracts were raised in the universal periodic review.

My noble friend Lord Eccles and the noble Lord, Lord St John of Bletso, mentioned CDC. A revitalised and reformed CDC is at the heart of the Government’s emphasis on the private sector in development. New investments are made only in the poorest countries in sub-Saharan Africa and south Asia.

The noble Lords, Lord Rosser and Lord Ramsbotham, my noble friends Lord Ashdown and Lord King, and the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Stirrup, were very concerned about the situation of the Afghan interpreters. I will take back the strength of feeling in the House tonight to my department. However, as the Prime Minister restated very recently, people who have laid their life on the line for the United Kingdom will not be abandoned.

My noble friend Lady Nicholson drew attention to the opportunities in Iraq. The noble Lord, Lord Anderson, pointed out the fragile state of Jordan. My noble friends Lord Northbrook and Lord Sharkey made important points about Cyprus. The noble Lord, Lord St John of Bletso, spoke eloquently about southern Africa. I assure him that we will play an active role in ensuring fair elections in Zimbabwe.

I am very grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Grenfell, for his sympathy for me tonight. I have heard enough amusing stories from him to know that he would be a brilliant after-dinner speaker, and I am sorry that I have never heard him.

The noble Lord, Lord Reid, made a very thoughtful speech on cybersecurity. I assure noble Lords that this is an area that we take very seriously and in which we invest a great deal of money, as the noble Lord said. We have trained 37,000 personnel and established a joint forces cybergroup, with close links across industry, government and partner nations. As the noble Lord said, we have committed £650 million over four years to the transformative national cybersecurity programme to bolster cybersecurity.

The noble Lord, Lord West, asked whether we were taking a risk with the two carriers. They are on track to be completed on time. More importantly, the aircraft that they will carry, the Lightning, is on track to have a squadron operational by 2016 for training in the United States. As the noble Lord knows, pilots are already flying the aircraft in United States, and we hope that they will be flying off the first carrier around 2020.

The noble Lords, Lord Ramsbotham and Lord Browne, mentioned the Trident replacement. Certainly I would welcome a debate on this issue, which I understand the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, has asked for. UK nuclear policy remains one of minimum deterrence. We maintain a minimum level of nuclear weapons to guarantee a credible deterrent against any potential aggressor. The UK is fully committed to working towards a world free from nuclear weapons, is living up to the letter and spirit of its international legal obligations, and has a strong record on fulfilling its disarmament commitments.

My noble friend Lady Wilcox mentioned the recruiting and training of 16 to 18 year-olds. The minimum age for entry into the UK Armed Forces reflects the normal school leaving age of 16. There is no intention to change this policy, which is compliant with the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child.

The noble Baroness, Lady Whitaker, asked why the Chagos islanders could not return. We regret what happened in the late 1960s and 1970s. The responsibility for decisions taken then has been acknowledged by successive Governments. However, the reasons for not allowing resettlement, namely feasibility and defence security, are clear and compelling. The Government will continue to look at the issues involved and engage with all those with an interest.

The passion and intelligence of today’s debate show that noble Lords understand that the defence of the realm is, as the noble Lord, Lord West, said, the first duty of any Government. In closing, I will say only this: the task of safeguarding our national security, developing stability overseas and promoting our prosperity does not take place in a vacuum. Above all, our efforts must be credible, and it is this Government who are putting the country back on a sustainable footing.

Motion agreed nemine dissentiente, and the Lord Chamberlain was ordered to present the Address to Her Majesty.