John Whittingdale debates involving the Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office during the 2019 Parliament

Mon 13th January 2020
3 interactions (79 words)
Mon 13th January 2020
25 interactions (1,847 words)

Oral Answers to Questions

John Whittingdale Excerpts
Tuesday 4th February 2020

(1 year, 8 months ago)

Commons Chamber

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Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office
Dominic Raab Portrait Dominic Raab
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Following the protocol at international meetings to make sure that the UK is asserting its voice confidently, and in tandem with but independently of our allies, is absolutely the right thing. That is what the referendum required and that is what we are doing.

John Whittingdale Portrait Mr John Whittingdale (Maldon) (Con)
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2. What steps he is taking to support political development in Ukraine; and if he will make a statement. [900586]

Christopher Pincher Portrait The Minister for Europe and the Americas (Christopher Pincher)
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4 Feb 2020, 11:40 a.m.

The United Kingdom is a strong supporter of Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, and President Zelensky’s commitment to reform and fighting corruption. We have provided financial support to the tune of £38 million this year, across multiple areas, and we lead robust sanctions on Russia for its attacks on Ukraine’s sovereignty. We look forward to welcoming President Zelensky to the UK as soon as a date can be found.

John Whittingdale Portrait Mr Whittingdale
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4 Feb 2020, 11:41 a.m.

Will my right hon. Friend welcome President Zelensky’s decision to extend the visa-free regime for UK citizens for another year? Does my right hon. Friend share his ambition for Britain and Ukraine to conclude a new framework agreement as soon as possible, including possible liberalisation of the visa regime for Ukrainian citizens?

Christopher Pincher Portrait Christopher Pincher
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4 Feb 2020, 11:42 a.m.

My right hon. Friend is a doughty champion of Ukraine’s determination to look westward and be a modern European country. We will certainly welcome, as soon as we can, the ratification of such an arrangement, and I congratulate the President on his announcement on visa-free access for UK nationals. That will certainly help trade with the UK, which we want to ensure is successful, but we also need to protect our own borders. The Home Secretary is responsible for border control, but we keep our border policy under constant review, and visas to and from Ukraine is something I discuss with her regularly.

Iran

John Whittingdale Excerpts
Monday 13th January 2020

(1 year, 9 months ago)

Commons Chamber

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Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office
Dominic Raab Portrait Dominic Raab
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13 Jan 2020, 3:51 p.m.

I pay tribute to the hon. Lady for her work in this regard. It is important we send a clear message that BBC journalists—any journalists, and specifically British journalists—cannot be bullied in this way any more than our diplomatic staff. In fact, when I was in Canada with my Canadian opposite number, we launched a new award for those who champion and protect media freedom. Not only are we looking at this individual case, but there is an international campaign to make sure that we provide protection for journalists around the world who, in very difficult circumstances, are willing to speak truth to power.

John Whittingdale Portrait Mr John Whittingdale (Maldon) (Con)
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13 Jan 2020, 3:51 p.m.

Will my right hon. Friend work closely with Ministers from the other countries that lost citizens on Ukraine International Airlines flight 752? Will he perhaps attend the joint investigation group meeting in London on Thursday, which will be attended by the Ukrainian Foreign Minister? Does he agree it is essential that Iran not only allows full investigation of what happened but organises the repatriation of the bodies and pays full compensation to the families of those who were lost?

Dominic Raab Portrait Dominic Raab
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13 Jan 2020, 3:52 p.m.

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. Of course we will be fully plugged in and, indeed, a driving force in the international effort to make sure we get the right answers in terms of the investigation. This point is even stronger now that the Government of Iran have accepted at least a measure of responsibility, but it is crucial that the investigation is fully independent and has an international component so that people can feel confidence in the outcome and the answers. We will work with all our international partners on all the issues he raises, and I certainly want to see justice for the incredible number of people who are still mourning and grieving this terrible loss.

Britain in the World

John Whittingdale Excerpts
Monday 13th January 2020

(1 year, 9 months ago)

Commons Chamber

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Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office
Emily Thornberry Portrait Emily Thornberry
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13 Jan 2020, 4:59 p.m.

It is interesting that, in answering my question, the right hon. Gentleman relies on spending that has happened since 2012. I accept that in 2014 the budget was £15 million and there were 34 staff. My point is that now, in 2020, under this Government, the budget is £2 million and there are four workers, one of whom is an intern. That is the point. We cannot just keep rolling back to previous things. My point is that this started well, but is now trailing off and is no longer a priority. That is an indictment of the current Government. This is what being held to account looks like—[Interruption.] The point is what they are doing now, today; that is what is important. They cannot rely on what happened eight years ago.

If I might move on, I have a fifth point, which is on Iran. I echo everything my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds North East (Fabian Hamilton) said in response to the urgent question earlier. As he rightly said, the rest of the world cannot sit back and wait and see what happens. As we saw with the disgraceful shooting down of the Ukrainian airliner, we are now only one misdirected missile away from not just further appalling loss of life, but an escalation of violence and brinkmanship that could finally topple all of us into war with a country that is five times the size of Iraq and nine times the size of Syria and that has a population of 83 million people. That cannot be allowed to happen.

Hard as it is, I believe that the UN and the EU need to go back to the drawing board, get all the parties around the table, and discuss how we can revive the process of engagement, starting with getting the nuclear deal back on track. What actions are the Government taking to that end?

In closing—I will not take any further interventions—I said at the outset that I have been looking at my past debates with the current Prime Minister, and I note that he is to the art of prescience in foreign policy what Basil Fawlty was to customer service. I looked back at our Queen’s Speech debate in 2017—I believe it was the only one in which he took part as Foreign Secretary—and what is so depressing is that, just like today, I had to point out that there were no new policy initiatives to discuss: a total vacuum where British global leadership should be; no solutions on Iran, Yemen, Syria, North Korea or Libya; silence on Russia, China, Iraq, Afghanistan and the middle east; and a pathetic paucity of action on climate change.

I closed my speech two and half years ago with words that I will repeat now. Unlike the current Prime Minister, every word I said has been proven utterly true and is just as depressingly relevant today. I said:

“Why is…this Tory Queen’s Speech such a blank space with regard to foreign policy?...their sole foreign policy ambition is to stay in lockstep with Donald Trump, whatever hill he chooses to march us up next. That means we are left with a Government who no longer know their own mind on foreign policy because they are beholden to a President who keeps changing his…we could have a Britain that actually has a foreign policy of its own—a Britain ready once again to be a beacon of strength and security, prosperity and values for every country around the world. This Queen’s Speech does nothing to advance that. This Government are doing nothing to advance that.—[Official Report, 26 June 2017; Vol. 626, cc. 424-25.]

Two and a half years later, as someone once said, absolutely nothing has changed.

John Whittingdale Portrait Mr John Whittingdale (Maldon) (Con)
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13 Jan 2020, 5:03 p.m.

I am most grateful to be called so early in this debate, Madam Deputy Speaker, and to follow the right hon. Member for Islington South and Finsbury (Emily Thornberry), who raised some important issues. I wish her success in the campaign she is about to embark on, and I hope her candidacy lasts a little longer than that of the hon. Member for Brent North (Barry Gardiner), who has just left the Chamber.

It is good to see so many hon. Members in the Chamber for this debate, particularly new Members, a number of whom intend to make their maiden speech during the course of it. They bring expertise and knowledge that I have no doubt will be immensely valuable in our deliberations, and I look forward to hearing their contributions.

As my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary knows, I was an enthusiastic supporter of the Vote Leave campaign. I welcome the emphasis placed by the Queen’s Speech on delivering Brexit, which people voted for more than three years ago. I support Brexit not just because I believe in the economic opportunities, but because I believe there is a real role that this country can play in international affairs. We are not little Englanders; we want to look beyond the shores of the European Union. Indeed, many of our greatest opportunities now lie in countries beyond Europe. It is likely within the next 10 years that the five biggest economies in the world will be America, China, Brazil, India and Indonesia. None of them have trade agreements with the European Union, but I hope we will have trade agreements with them as soon as possible within the next decade.

Bob Seely Portrait Bob Seely (Isle of Wight) (Con)
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13 Jan 2020, 5:05 p.m.

The gravity school of economics argues that we always trade more with those closest to us, but does my right hon. Friend agree that the history of the past 200 years suggests the opposite? We have taken beef from Argentina, we have had a closer economic relationship with the United States than with any other single country, and we have incredibly close relationships with India, to which we sold cotton, and with Australia and Canada. Does he agree with me—this is the point he is making—that the gravity school of economics is really rather flawed?

John Whittingdale Portrait Mr Whittingdale
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13 Jan 2020, 5:05 p.m.

I agree with my hon. Friend. It is short-sighted to look at nearby countries only. Our history shows that we have a tradition of trading right across the globe—I am delighted to have the nod of my right hon Friend the Secretary of State for International Trade, who is in her place.

Bob Stewart Portrait Bob Stewart (Beckenham) (Con)
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13 Jan 2020, 5:06 p.m.

I have spent quite a lot of my life serving the country well outside of Europe, and I say in support of what my right hon. Friend says that we still punch well above our weight when we are in Asia or in Africa.

John Whittingdale Portrait Mr Whittingdale
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13 Jan 2020, 5:06 p.m.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend, because he brings me on to the issue that I wanted to raise—

Chi Onwurah Portrait Chi Onwurah
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13 Jan 2020, 5:06 p.m.

rose—

John Whittingdale Portrait Mr Whittingdale
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13 Jan 2020, 5:06 p.m.

But before doing so I will give way to the hon. Lady.

Chi Onwurah Portrait Chi Onwurah
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13 Jan 2020, 5:06 p.m.

The right hon. Gentleman is being generous. I fear that the hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Bob Seely) is confusing gravity with geography. Of course, it is entirely possible to trade with nations around the world, but the issue in today’s integrated supply chains is the speed with which parts can be delivered into advanced automated manufacturing. Is the right hon. Gentleman arguing that it is equally quick and efficient to get a part from Chicago as it is to get it from Munich, for example?

John Whittingdale Portrait Mr Whittingdale
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I understand the hon. Lady’s argument, but this is not a binary choice. I want us to have a strong trading agreement with the European Union, and I am confident that we will obtain that under this Government, but that does not exclude us from also having much stronger trading relationships with other countries around the world.

Suella Braverman Portrait Suella Braverman (Fareham) (Con)
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13 Jan 2020, 5:07 p.m.

Will my right hon. Friend give way?

John Whittingdale Portrait Mr Whittingdale
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13 Jan 2020, 5:07 p.m.

I will give way perhaps one last time.

Suella Braverman Portrait Suella Braverman
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13 Jan 2020, 5:07 p.m.

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend, who is making an excellent speech and many points with which I agree. On the point raised by the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne Central (Chi Onwurah), does my right hon. Friend agree that our focus will rightly be on negotiating a good trade deal with the EU after Brexit day? However, our ability to negotiate with the US is just as important. Both are vital to increase export opportunities for UK businesses, but the US trade agreement is important so that we can increase our leverage with the EU.

John Whittingdale Portrait Mr Whittingdale
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13 Jan 2020, 5:07 p.m.

I agree with my hon. Friend. I hope that we will get on with negotiating those agreements simultaneously as soon as possible.

Coming back to the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart) about the strength of our voice in international affairs, I understand that some of our partners in the European Union will miss our voice within the Council. We have been a strong voice on issues such as standing up to Russia and the imposition of sanctions, but there are many other opportunities for us to have a decisive influence. We are still a member of the United Nations Security Council, and we are the second biggest contributor to NATO. We will play an active role in the Council of Europe and in the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe, where I am proud to be a member of the Parliamentary Assembly.

I want to highlight one particular organisation— I happen to be the chair of the British group—and that is the Inter-Parliamentary Union. I would encourage new Members to get involved in the IPU. It was founded 130 years ago by Randal Cremer, a British statesman, and Frédéric Passy, a Frenchman, and we have recently celebrated that anniversary. It now comprises 179 countries, and its purpose is to strengthen relations between Parliaments. It is possible to pursue issues through parliamentary dialogue that are sometimes impossible to raise between Governments, and I will give one or two examples. It was in 1984 that the IPU invited a delegation to the UK from the Soviet Union. The delegation was led by a then pretty much unknown Russian politician called Mikhail Gorbachev. That led to the meeting between Margaret Thatcher and Mikhail Gorbachev and, as a result, it eventually led to the reform of the Soviet Union. Indeed, it led to the collapse of communism and the break-up of the Soviet Union.

Bob Stewart Portrait Bob Stewart
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13 Jan 2020, 5:09 p.m.

You were probably there, John.

John Whittingdale Portrait Mr Whittingdale
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13 Jan 2020, 5:10 p.m.

I was not quite there.

I also point to the dialogue we have built up over a number of years between parliamentarians from the UK and those of Argentina, and the good relations that now exists between our two countries have been fostered through that dialogue. We also have dialogue with North Korea. I hope we will continue to give our full support to the IPU, which is a valuable organisation for developing relations with countries with which there are sometimes considerable tensions.

John Redwood Portrait John Redwood (Wokingham) (Con)
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13 Jan 2020, 5:11 p.m.

Will my right hon. Friend add the Commonwealth to his list of organisations that will be increasingly important? We have a number of very close ties with the Commonwealth, to which we need to add free trade ties. We will be able to do that once we are no longer represented by the European Union, which has not done it. In connection to that, does he think it would be a good idea for Her Majesty’s Government now to offer practical help to Australia at her time of trouble? A lot of people in this country feel we have close links with Australia and ought to show our sympathy in a more practical way.

John Whittingdale Portrait Mr Whittingdale
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13 Jan 2020, 5:11 p.m.

I agree with my right hon. Friend. There are many people in this country who feel close ties with Australia, despite the geographical distance that separates us. I hope the Government, as I believe they will, will give any help to Australia that is requested.

Soft power allows us to exert a far greater influence in the world than our size would perhaps suggest. The UK is perhaps the most effective country in the world in deploying soft power. We have huge assets, perhaps the greatest of which is the English language, which is the second language of almost every country in the world. We take advantage of that, and students from all across the world want to come to study in British schools and British universities.

We use the British Council to promote UK culture around the world, and I encourage my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State to continue giving full support to the British Council in its excellent work. The other organisation with which I have had some involvement over recent years is the BBC, and I am an absolute supporter of the BBC World Service. The World Service is now approaching its target of reaching 500 million people every week. It is by far the most respected media organisation internationally, and its reports are not regarded as propaganda or fake news. People across the world rely on the BBC World Service.

Catherine West Portrait Catherine West
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13 Jan 2020, 5:13 p.m.

The right hon. Gentleman is making an excellent contribution on the BBC World Service. Does he agree that part of the current issue in Iran is the worrying pressure that BBC Persian journalists are being put under due to the current chaos in Iran?

John Whittingdale Portrait Mr Whittingdale
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13 Jan 2020, 5:13 p.m.

I entirely agree with the hon. Lady. I was delighted to host an IPU/BBC World Service event at which we heard from the head of the BBC Persian service. Its journalists are all based in London, and they dare not travel to Iran. It is their families who are being harassed and persecuted, which is wholly unacceptable, and I know it is one of the issues that my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary has raised and, I hope, will continue to raise.

I chair the all-party parliamentary group on media freedom, and this is an excellent example. I commend the Government’s work on media freedom. It was my right hon. Friend’s predecessor, my right hon. Friend the Member for South West Surrey (Jeremy Hunt), who made media freedom a priority and who hosted the international conference in London last year. I am delighted that my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary is continuing that work and has already told the House about his recent meeting with the Canadians, who have also led on this.

We have made some progress. Forty-nine journalists died last year, which is a historically low figure, but it is still 49 too many. Perhaps worryingly, a greater proportion than in previous years died outside conflict zones and were perhaps deliberately targeted, often by their own Government. Three hundred and eighty-nine journalists are still in prison around the world, with nearly half of them in three countries: China, Egypt and Saudi Arabia.

In her speech, the right hon. Member for Islington South and Finsbury talked about the death of Jamal Khashoggi. I completely agree with her that although we are told that some people have been held responsible, the masterminds behind that murder have not yet been identified. Nor, I suspect, have the masterminds been identified in another shocking case from just a couple of years ago, which is the death of Daphne Caruana Galizia in Malta, a country in the European Union where the ramifications are still being felt. There is still work to do on media freedom, and I am pleased that that was highlighted in the Queen’s Speech and that my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary gives it such priority.

I wish quickly to mention one other issue. As I think you know, Madam Deputy Speaker, I also chair the all-party group on Ukraine. I was delighted to meet the Ukrainian ambassador earlier today, and I am grateful to colleagues from all parties who came and signed the book of condolence for the families of those who died in the plane crash. It is now nearly four years since Russia illegally occupied part of the sovereign state of Ukraine—Crimea—and since the fighting broke out in the east of Ukraine. It is plain that those actions by Russia were in breach of all international law. We have taken sanctions, but they have proved ineffectual so far: the Russians are still in occupation in Crimea and the fighting in Donbass continues. Just last week, another three Ukrainians died in that fighting.

We have a responsibility: first, because we were one of the original signatories of the Budapest memorandum, which guaranteed the sovereign integrity of Ukraine in return for Ukraine’s giving up its nuclear arsenal; and secondly, because a European country has been invaded. I hope we will continue to support President Zelensky in his efforts, but the Gracious Speech also refers to sanctions. I agree with my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary that, now that we are leaving the European Union, it gives us an opportunity to impose stronger sanctions without having to reach agreement throughout the European Union.

Not only would I like to see sanctions against the people responsible for the invasion of Ukraine and, indeed, against those Ukrainians who have previously stolen money—much of which has not yet been found—from their own country, but we should also take advantage of the Magnitsky list, which the House passed yet has so far not been implemented. Media freedom is an excellent example—I commend the report of the Foreign Affairs Committee, which was chaired by my hon. Friend the Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Tom Tugendhat) —of where there is a real opportunity to add teeth to our words about the importance of media freedom by taking out sanctions against those responsible.

I commend the Gracious Speech, particularly for its in emphasis on international affairs and the attention that my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary rightly gave to these issues in his contribution.

Eleanor Laing Portrait Madam Deputy Speaker (Dame Eleanor Laing)
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Order. Before I call the SNP spokesman, may I say to colleagues that I hope we can manage this afternoon’s debate without having a formal time limit? I would particularly like to do that because several maiden speeches are about to be made and it is a much better atmosphere for a maiden speech if the clock is not being watched for every second. We will manage to do it if everybody limits their speeches to around about nine to 10 minutes, which is quite a long time. I hasten to say that if colleagues cannot say it in nine minutes, perhaps they should think about whether to say it at all. It can be done, and if it is, it will show wonderful discipline and show those making their maiden speeches just how the Chamber can work at its best. In mentioning nine minutes, I make no particular criticism of the speeches that have already been given, particularly from the Front Bench, but also from everyone else. [Interruption.] I am digging a hole, so I am going to stop. We have been very disciplined so far; I am sure we will continue to be disciplined.

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Julian Lewis Portrait Dr Julian Lewis (New Forest East) (Con)
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13 Jan 2020, 5:27 p.m.

It was genuinely a pleasure to hear the hon. Member for Stirling (Alyn Smith) express himself in such fluent and consensual terms. The fact that he says his party is willing to agree with Government Members does not come as a surprise to me, because I know from my experience on the last two iterations of the Defence Committee, where I had the pleasure of serving alongside two Members of the SNP, that that is exactly true. That is how it was that, on a cross-party basis, all three parties represented on the Committee were able to agree at quite an early stage that defence expenditure is too low, and that something in the order of 3% of GDP is a more realistic target if Britain is to hold her head up in the world with safety.

Before I develop that theme, however, I want to pick up one point from the excellent speech made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Maldon (Mr Whittingdale), and that is his reference to the BBC, in which he concentrated on the World Service. In about 2011, when the then Sir Ming Campbell and I were both members of the Intelligence and Security Committee, I remember that we learned with alarm of the coalition Government’s plan to stop the ring-fenced funding not only of the BBC World Service but of the vital BBC Monitoring Service based at Caversham Park. We expressed the view at the time that the result of putting that funding on the shoulders of the BBC in return for allowing the BBC to have its usual requested rise in the licence fee would come back to bite us—and so it did, because both those budgets were badly squeezed, and I think I am right in saying that in the end the Government felt it necessary to restore separate funding for the BBC World Service, but sadly not for the BBC Monitoring Service.

John Whittingdale Portrait Mr Whittingdale
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The position is that the BBC continues to fund the World Service, but it now receives an additional grant from the Foreign Office that has allowed it to expand its services. I very much hope that the Foreign Office will continue—and perhaps increase—that funding.

Julian Lewis Portrait Dr Lewis
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13 Jan 2020, 5:28 p.m.

Yes, but the trouble is that no such grant was made to the BBC Monitoring Service, which is our principal source of what is called open-source intelligence—or, as the BBC prefers to say, open-source information. The Defence Committee produced a hard-hitting report entitled “Open Source Stupidity”, because that was entirely our opinion of the effect of that cutback by the coalition Government. It led directly to the closure of Caversham Park, and although BBC Monitoring continues to do very good work, it is a shame and a disgrace that it is not specially separately funded, as it used to be.

Coming back to the main topic, this is, as we know, a debate on Britain’s future place in the world. However magnified, however static or even however reduced our future place in the world may be, we have to be able to keep our country safe. As I never tire of explaining to the House, the basis of any sensible defence policy depends on three concepts: deterrence, containment, and a realisation of the unpredictability of future conflicts. The examples I always give—I fear that people will start joining in in a chorus if I do it again, but I do so nevertheless—are the Yom Kippur war in 1973 that took hyper-sensitive Israel by surprise, the Falklands war in 1982 that took us by surprise, the invasion of Kuwait in 1990 that took everybody by surprise, and the 9/11 attacks in 2001 that took the world’s then only superpower by surprise.

What do I conclude from the fact that most wars in the 20th century—I could give many more older examples —are usually not predicted significantly in advance? I conclude that if we are going to have an adequate defence policy, we have to be able to defend flexibly against a whole spectrum of future potential threats because we do not know which of those threats is going to materialise.