Queen’s Speech — Debate (5th Day) (Continued)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 3:46 pm on 11th June 2014.

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Photo of Lord King of Bridgwater Lord King of Bridgwater Conservative 3:46 pm, 11th June 2014

My Lords, I am pleased to follow the noble Lord, Lord West, in dealing with the references in the gracious Speech to foreign affairs and defence. The gracious Speech states that,

“the United Kingdom will work for peace and security on Europe’s borders”.

My comment on that is “borders wherever they may be”.

In her opening speech the Minister referred to seeking to meet the aspirations of the Ukrainian people. One needs to give consideration to the respects in which we may seek to meet those. If that involves Ukrainian membership of the European Union or of NATO, that needs to be looked at very carefully indeed because we need to show greater sensitivity to Russia in respect of some of the changes taking place in Europe, which may have been entered into with perhaps a lack of sufficient consideration of their implications. Russia may see European Union membership as in some ways a stalking horse in relation to subsequent NATO membership. Indeed, we saw the problems that arose over Crimea.

The gracious Speech refers also to the need for,

“stable relationships between Russia and Ukraine”.

I certainly urge that. In a Statement made in the other place that has not yet been repeated in this House, the Prime Minister referred to the need for better relations. It is welcome that Mr Putin met President Poroshenko in Normandy and that Moscow and Kiev are again engaging with each other. I think everyone in this House will recognise that the way through this situation has to be through dialogue. If it develops into conflict, the damage and distress caused to both countries could be very substantial indeed.

The gracious Speech further states:

“My government will host the NATO summit in Wales”.

The noble Lord referred to that. That will be a very important meeting indeed. There is no question in some minds, perhaps including my own, that a few years ago there was a sense of a job having been done with regard to NATO. Peace and security had been achieved in Europe and NATO meetings seemed to have a slightly old-fashioned look about them. Some of the NATO practices then became very valuable in Afghanistan and, most recently, in Libya. However, as the noble Lord said, there are now some serious issues because we have had to stand to with pretty limited forces. There was a certain nervousness in Europe and in some of the ex-Soviet countries, particularly the Baltic countries, about the events in Ukraine and what looked like a pretty thin and inadequate NATO capability at that time. That will need to be looked at again.

I move on to the greatest crisis that we face at this time. I had already written a note about what I might say, which was that it was impossible to overstate the scale of the crisis in the Middle East. I wrote that before Mosul and the announcement today of what could be a total civil war emerging in Iraq. I see suggestions today that those who have now taken Mosul may advance on Tikrit and may even advance on Baghdad as well, which would cause a crisis. A very distinguished person in that region said to me and a few others who were at a meeting not long ago that his fear was that the Sunni/Shia split that is now developing threatened a conflagration that could spread from Beirut to Mumbai. Actually, he was wrong. It is Mali to Mumbai. There is Boko Haram. There is the situation in Libya, Egypt, Syria, Iraq, Jordan and Lebanon—goodness knows how those countries are surviving some of the pressures on them—and Turkey as well. We know that Somalia is pretty ungoverned space. We know the situation in Yemen. Some may have heard David Miliband talking today about the situation in South Sudan. It is impossible to overstate its gravity. We also have on the agenda our withdrawal from Afghanistan and the undoubted risk that a civil war may develop in that country unless there are some very wise heads involved in trying to resolve the situation.

Against this, we face a massive humanitarian crisis. What does it mean for us? In the first instance, we face a major threat of mass migration out of a number of countries. We can see the horrific stories of what is happening in the Mediterranean and of the number of people who are trying out of sheer desperation to get out of where they are to another country. In the Spanish territories adjacent to Morocco people have stormed the barriers. There are supposed to be 300,000 people waiting in Libya to try to find a way out and into Europe. This is going to be our first challenge.

On top of that, the next challenge we face in this country is terrorism. We have recently discussed the Prevent strategy and the role it can play. The question that arises out of this Queen’s Speech is what it means for defence. I simply make this point and will be extremely brief. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord West. I think there is no question that we face a more dangerous situation. I am not a huge enthusiast for aircraft carriers that need substantial escorts out of the very limited number of escorts that we have, and I would like to see more platforms available for their work. I see that it is said today that the National Audit Office is holding up the publication of a report on the reserves. I am very worried indeed about whether the reserve programme and the numbers for the Army are going to come through. In this dangerous and uncertain world, we now need to look very hard at the situation over our defence expenditure.