My Lords, this debate is of crucial importance to our country. The first duty of any Government is to protect their territory and defend their citizens. We have been waiting a long time for a strategic defence review and the Government are to be congratulated on having completed this review within just five months. Undoubtedly, not every decision that the Government have had to make will achieve a positive resonance with everybody.
In yesterday’s debate on the importance of diplomacy, I made reference to the heightened co-operation needed among the Department for International Development, the Ministry of Defence and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. This cross-departmental approach will strengthen security and provide the structure for an effective programme of international relations that takes our defence requirements into account.
We have a proud tradition of playing a major part on the international stage and our service personnel have demonstrated a courage and strength that have regularly achieved international acclaim. With this debate taking place the day after Remembrance Day, it is appropriate to record our collective gratitude for the risks that they bear, and have borne, and the price that has been paid over generations by brave service men and women. We owe it to them to ensure that they are properly resourced when deployed and adequately looked after once they have ceased to serve.
The context for the strategic defence and security review has been the need, through the comprehensive spending review, to achieve improved balance in our public finances. I know that my noble friend and his ministerial colleagues have presented a cogent and credible case for defence in its widest context. That has been recognised in the settlement that has been achieved. Defence is sufficiently important to ensure that, while every government department must make its contribution to restoring fiscal balance, the defence budget has been relatively protected. As a businessman who is chairman of several companies, I feel that the present economic problems have arisen partly due to the greed of the bankers but, importantly, also because of a lack of control and overspending by the previous Government. We therefore need to take remedial action.
The record in recent times has been frustrating for those serving in our Armed Forces. Despite the changes that have occurred in the world since the last review was conducted in 1998, our service personnel have been overcommitted and underequipped in two major conflict theatres. They have performed admirably, but we should never allow the situation to arise where they have to overcome these hurdles again. I welcome the Government’s commitment to a regular programme of strategic defence and security reviews.
I also welcome the Government’s commitment to ensuring that current operations in Afghanistan will not be adversely affected by the approach adopted in this review. Our troops continue to provide sterling service under very difficult conditions in that country, but it is important that our Armed Forces are adequately shaped in the future and we should not forget the needs of those on the front line. Too often in recent times, the Government’s ambitions have not been reflected in the support provided to our troops. This review gives a clear and categorical undertaking to correct that imbalance.
One of the major causes of the imbalance that has affected our defence policy in recent years has been the failings in procurement. Inevitably, defence procurement projects are expensive and have long lead times. The management of public money needs to be a priority for the Government, not least as we face a considerable period of fiscal restraint, and we must make sure that we get maximum value for every penny that we spend. I hope that the Minister, in responding to this debate, will provide further detail on how he will ensure that future projects are delivered on time and within budget.
I understand that it is the Government’s ambition that future forces, although smaller in size, should retain their geographical reach. The strategic defence and security review recognises the importance of developing and maintaining strong defence relationships internationally. We saw further evidence of the Government’s commitment to this in the announcements last week on deepening our defence relationship with France and I welcome the Government’s proactive approach to developing strong bilateral relationships with our key defence partners.
I wish to develop the theme of international co-operation further. It is likely that, as in recent times, our defence objectives will be most effectively met through international partnerships and alliances. It is proper that our defence posture should be informed by our foreign policy stance. Bringing foreign policy objectives, defence engagements and international development assistance under the co-ordinated umbrella of one cohesive and consistent approach will be crucial in mitigating future threats. The review recognises that and commits the Government to ensuring that our international development programme has a focus on making sure that future conflicts can be dealt with by targeted help and support.
However, there is scope for wider engagement in defence matters, as implied by the review. I wish to enlarge briefly on the scope to do so in respect of Qatar, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Oman, Bahrain and the Gulf region. This is an area in which I have extensive experience-I have travelled widely in it and have business interests there. I also know the ambassadors of these countries. I commend the Government for undertaking their Gulf initiative as a high priority. We should be proactive in expanding our defence relationships across this region. The recent state visit from His Highness the Emir of Qatar within the last couple of weeks has provided a good opportunity to advance and deepen these important friendships.
The 2004 Istanbul Co-operation Initiative offers countries that are part of the Gulf Co-operation Council bilateral security co-operation with the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation. Britain has the potential to create a similar relationship with the Gulf states that involves mutual assistance through sharing intelligence and assistance with border security in connection with the fight against terrorism and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. Such co-operation would also include activities whereby Armed Forces from each country participate in selected military education and training exercises. I would be grateful if the Minister could inform your Lordships’ House as to whether the Government have any plans to adopt the concept of the Istanbul Co-operation Initiative by strengthening our relationship with the Gulf states to the benefit of our national and international security strategy.
In conclusion, we need a coherent policy framework that provides us with an opportunity to head off future conflicts while tackling, in partnership, existing threats. The tests that we face come in a variety of guises and forms, including cyberwarfare and counterinsurgency, as well as more conventional forms of military engagement. The decisions that the Government must take are difficult but they are about striking the right balance. I look forward to the Minister’s response.