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3.35 pm

Mr. Eric Joyce (Falkirk, West): I hope that the hon. Member for North Dorset (Mr. Walter) will forgive me if I do not follow his general doom-mongering comments. We are fairly tight for time. I shall concentrate on what the hon. Member for North Essex (Mr. Jenkin) said in his opening remarks. I listened with great interest to my hon. Friend the Member for Clydesdale (Mr. Hood), who is no longer in the Chamber. He made a series of pertinent observations at the beginning of his speech. He said that the hon. Member for North Essex can usually be relied on to make a pretty good speech in debates such as this. I would not necessarily agree with everything that the hon. Gentleman says, but he can be relied upon usually to make a pretty good quality contribution. Yet today—many hon. Members in the Chamber, and perhaps some of my hon. Friends, might agree—the hon. Gentleman's speech seemed pretty thin. As the debate progressed I could not help noticing that the Opposition Benches emptied. That was followed by frenetic activity, with the Opposition Whip leaving the Chamber and getting a few Conservative Members to return to their places.

I could not help noticing also that the hon. Member for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman), who I understand is the Opposition's spokesperson on international development, was looking rather concerned. Perhaps she was wondering whether she could make any meaningful interventions in a debate on the military situation in Iraq.

Mrs. Caroline Spelman (Meriden): I do not think that the hon. Gentleman's remarks are in the spirit in which the debate has been conducted. Before he passes comment about the presence of international development spokesmen, he might like to look at the Government Benches. He will find that there are no representatives from the Department for International Development in the Chamber.

Mr. Joyce: This is a debate on the military situation in Iraq, and I thought that the hon. Lady was looking rather concerned that she would be unable to participate. Fair comment has been made, so let us move on.

The Opposition's problem is that basically they do not have a meaningful critique of Government policy. They broadly agree with the Government's position and their actions. They think that there is not a bad general prognosis for the longer term. However, they have to find some thin gruel with which to attack the Government. I suspect that that is why the introductory remarks of the hon. Member for North Essex were a bit weaker than they might otherwise have been in normal circumstances.

I shall reflect on a couple of paradoxes that ran through the hon. Gentleman's comments. The Opposition want to agree broadly with the action taken on Iraq. The hon. Gentleman is reluctant to say negative things about the longer term, but everything that the Opposition say about the situation in Iraq conveys the impression that everything is falling apart. They do not really believe that, and when I hear Opposition Members make such comments on television they are clearly made without any spirit. We can see that in their eyes and hear it in their voices.

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Earlier on, the hon. Gentleman raised the issue of overstretch. The Government made an announcement this week on the deployment of troops to Iraq. The hon. Gentleman talked about the deployment as a problem of overstretch. When he was asked by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State whether he agreed with the deployment, he said that he did. In government, decisions have to be made that may have some minor negative consequence. It is certainly the case that we had 45,000 troops in Iraq and now we have 12,000. My arithmetic tells me that that is not a recipe for overstretch. That is one of the paradoxes that run through the comments of Opposition Members.

By and large, the Opposition, including the hon. Gentleman, understand the need for patience. In due course, small advances will be made here and there. We shall see a gradual reconnection of power, a gradual increase in lawfulness, and a gradual reconstruction of the infrastructure. There will be good reasons for some celebration. No doubt Opposition Members will want to take part in that celebration. However, the nature of their line at present is effectively to deny that any improvement will ever take place. That is not credible and it does not achieve a balance.

Mr. Keith Simpson (Mid-Norfolk): The hon. Gentleman has considerable personal experience as he has served in the Army, and I should be grateful if he would comment on two points. First, my hon. Friend the Member for North Essex (Mr. Jenkin), talked about the positive things at the beginning of his speech and tried to give a balanced view. Secondly, what is the hon. Gentleman's response to the Foreign Secretary's memorandum that was leaked last week and spelt out in dramatic terms the way in which the situation in Iraq was deteriorating, saying that 5,000 UK troops needed to be sent there? That is not something made up by the Opposition—that is the hon. Gentleman's own Foreign Secretary.

Mr. Joyce: I wholeheartedly agree with the general assessment that more troops needed to be deployed in Iraq in current circumstances. The commander on the ground asked for extra troops, and that is exactly what he got. The previous troop level satisfied his earlier assessment. It is terribly important, as the hon. Gentleman will know, that the commanders on the ground state the troop requirement—essentially that is what the MOD has provided. I therefore agree with my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary.

Mr. Francois: Does the hon. Gentleman agree that, as the House has been in recess for two months, the Opposition have done the House a service by using their time to provide the debate today, thus allowing the House to discuss the latest situation in Iraq? Members on both sides of the House have welcomed that opportunity. On the point about overstretch, the hon. Gentleman is right that the Opposition have supported the deployment of troops, but we have pointed out that that has resulted in overstretch for our armed forces. That is not hypocritical—we have supported the action,

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but we have to accept that there are knock-on consequences. Surely, it is perfectly appropriate for the Opposition to point that out in the House of Commons?

Mr. Joyce: They can point out what they want, but the fact is that one cannot make an assumption of overstretch simply because troop deployment is to be increased. The overall deployment level is substantially lower, but the Opposition are using the term "overstretch" as if it were a given—an increase in troop deployment must mean overstretch. That is not the case either now or more generally.

When the hon. Member for North Essex made his introductory remarks, he rightly praised the troops for their contribution to our successes to date, winning the conflict in the first place and their excellent work at the moment. Then we heard that everything is falling apart. I do not know how the Opposition or other Members would feel if they were on the ground, constantly hearing how wonderfully they were doing, but learning that the effect of their efforts was negative or had been neutralised. That is simply not the case, and it does not help the debate.

Mr. Jon Owen Jones: I do not have a clear idea of whether things are getting better in Iraq or worse, but many of my constituents are asylum seekers from Iraq whom I have helped in the past. In the past few weeks, I have seen a number of them. Many of them are from Baghdad, not Basra, and are desperate to get their families out because of the security situation. Last week, I had a call from someone whose wife was in Baghdad—the day before, one of her neighbours had been raped and strangled. The caller said that the security situation in Baghdad is far worse than it was before the war.

Mr. Joyce: I accept what my hon. Friend is saying, and have listened to his comments before with interest—I know that he feels very deeply about this. However, I simply cannot accept that the situation now is worse than it was before when, if someone disagreed with the sons of the regime, they could be dragged off to a zoo, thrown into a tiger's cage to be ripped apart and eaten. Things cannot get much worse than that, and we know that that was a fact of life.

Mr. Jones: I am not saying that the situation under Saddam Hussein was anything but deplorable, but things can be worse than they are for someone who says something against the Government leadership, only to be taken away and thrown to the lions. Someone could be in a position where it does not matter what they say—an intruder might come in, burgle their house, murder them or kill their children. That is a worse position.

Mr. Joyce: I suspect that my hon. Friend and I will never agree on this issue. I simply do not agree that the situation is worse than previously. There is all sorts of evidence to show that that is not the case. For the moment, I guess that that will be the end of my comments on the issue, as we could debate it endlessly. I disagree that the situation is worse, as such a view does not stand up in the light of the evidence.

Ms Dari Taylor: The newspapers have been full of reports—I have no doubts about them, as they have

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been supported by military documents—that Sunni extremists, Ba'ath die-hards and Muslim mujaheddin are all fighting in their different ways to unsettle the situation and put anything they can in the way of reconstruction. Surely to goodness we all understand that the situation is going to be very difficult, and nobody assumes otherwise. Did we not assume that that was going to be the case? Are we not asking the impossible in suggesting that the armed forces should understand everything that is going on and be present in every place where such people can manoeuvre in the community?

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