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Mike Gapes (Ilford, South) (Lab/Co-op): I wish to talk about the situation in Iraq. The Prime Minister is currently in Baghdad and has spoken about the situation there today. He said:

I was in one of the calmer parts of Iraq with the Defence Committee 10 days ago. It was my second visit to Basra in the past seven months, and I shall give the House my   impressions of what I saw in Basra, Umm Qasr and   Shaiba, at the al-Basra oil terminal and on HMS   Marlborough, which is protecting it. I do so having strongly supported military action in 2003, having campaigned for regime change in Iraq for 25 years, and having one of my best Iraqi friends, Barham Salih, as Deputy Prime Minister. I knew him when he was in exile in this country. As the representative of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, he spoke at a meeting I organised in Ilford in 1990.

I have a long commitment to political change in Iraq, but the events since the liberation have not gone as I   predicted. I have to be honest and say that the situation is far more difficult than I thought it would be a year or more after we acted. Before anyone who was against the action jumps to any conclusion, I want to clarify that I would still support that action today, because the situation is infinitely better for the Iraqi people than it would have been under a continuation of Saddam's regime.

When we were in Iraq 10 days ago, the Committee met a large number of Iraqis. We also spent a great deal of time with the British forces serving there. We met members of the Prince of Wales's Regiment, the Black Watch and many others from all three services. My admiration for members of our armed forces increases every time I meet them and see what they are doing and the circumstances under which they serve. I also want to mention their allies. I was driven around by a Danish captain of the DanBat—the Danish Battalion. Its personnel are doing an excellent job alongside our people in Iraq. It is important to recognise that not only the British are serving in Iraq.

Economically, the situation in Basra is probably no better than it was in May. We could still see the legacy of 35 years of neglect, under-investment and decay. I have
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been to the west bank and Gaza. In 1989 to 1990, I   visited parts of the former Soviet Union, including the Baltic states, where there was a sense that nothing had been painted, invested in or improved for many years. Southern Iraq is like that. It is not a direct consequence of the war against Iran or of the two wars of 1991 and 2003. It is part of a systematic, sustained policy of under-investment and suffering of the people in the south.

However, because the Committee had the opportunity, which we did not have in May, to leave the   military vehicles and walk around Basra, we saw a huge amount of goods on sale in the markets and shops. There is a massive increase in imports. Nothing is manufactured in Iraq; everything is imported, from Kuwait or Jordan. Lorries move goods all the time from neighbouring states.

We were told that demand for electricity has doubled since 2003 because of the white goods that have been bought. The tragedy is that although the electricity supply has increased, the impact of terrorism means that the availability of electricity has been cut in the south. There was a period in which people had up to 17 hours of electricity a day, which was much better than they got under Saddam. Electricity in Basra province is now available for about four hours on, 20 hours off. That is not because of the impact of terrorist and insurgent actions in the south, but because of the national grid system. Electricity is diverted from the south to Baghdad and other places because important power lines, in particular those near Falluja, were blown up. It takes weeks to replace them because of the steel and the skilled workers that are needed to put them back.

Oil production has increased. It is up to about 1.8 million barrels a day. That is quite a lot, but Iraq hopes to get to 3.7 million by 2007. Some 93 per cent. of the Iraqi Government's revenue comes from oil. Iraq has the potential not to be a poor country. It could be very wealthy, but its people do not work in the way that we understand it, because the system was built on a form of state control. Food, electricity and water—everything, in fact—was controlled. The legacy of a Stalinist, fascist, Ba'athist system was total control. The private sector was almost non-existent and all the goods on sale were imported, except fruit and other things that could be grown in the country. It will take years—possibly decades—to transform the country so that it becomes a modern dynamic economy.

We are doing important work in the south. The quick impact projects of the British Army are making a big difference, but there are problems. The American Congress voted more than $18 billion to fund reconstruction in Iraq. About 10 to 20 per cent. of that is spent on security. Huge amounts are going to consultancies. About $3 billion has been diverted from water and electricity projects to security sector reform because of the impact of the internal opposition combined with the insurrectionists from outside.

Iraq's borders are porous. No armed forces or police service existed following the collapse of Ba'athism. We have to start from scratch. The Committee saw the excellent work by our people from the Police Service of Northern Ireland and from forces based in Sussex and elsewhere who were seconded there. Those serving policemen and women are doing a great job. I hope that their police authorities will not take short-sighted
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decisions to withdraw them, which is the case in some parts of the country, when their job is so vital over the next few months. A number of police forces are asking people not to renew their contracts and are bringing them back from Iraq at exactly the moment when their work is so vital. We also saw the training of the Iraqi national guard and the way in which its personnel are being prepared for the future.

The elections will be on 30 January—or at least it is hoped that they will be held then; there could be technical arguments about a possible delay. The overwhelming view in the south is that the elections must go ahead. People are enthusiastic about them and want greater control of their affairs. I met the governor of Basra province. Elected members and others from the   Basra provincial council were also present. No one   believes that the international community should leave immediately after the January elections. On the contrary, those elections are for a constitutional assembly and provincial government, but the final election that will determine the democracy of the country is scheduled for December 2005. After that, there will, we hope, be a fulfilment of total democratic control within Iraq.

The Iraqis need support for security, infrastructure and training. My assessment—this is my message to Ministers—is that, just as in Bosnia and in Kosovo, we are talking about a commitment not of one or two years but of several years. We need to be honest and say that we started this process and we have to see it through.

We and our allies in the international community have to do far more. There is not enough support from our Government going into the south of Iraq. We need to do more through the Department for International Development, which, I understand, has hardly any presence in the south, being mainly based in Kuwait and Jordan. The United Nations currently has only three people in Basra; we need far more support from the UN. As was emphasised to us throughout our visit, Basra and the south are not Baghdad. The BBC does not have any journalists in the area, so we do not get the truth: the south of Iraq is doing well and it needs further support.

2.50 pm

Mrs. Angela Browning (Tiverton and Honiton) (Con): I begin by apologising to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and to Front-Bench Members for the fact that I will not be in my place for the winding-up speeches. Unfortunately, I have a speaking engagement this evening which was made before we knew the date of the Christmas Adjournment.

Before the House rises for Christmas, I would like to draw its attention to a situation that has emerged in light of the Iraq war but has wider implications for the functioning of this Chamber. I am talking about ministerial accountability, and in particular the accountability of the Prime Minister to the House of Commons. We frequently hear Members raising, on a point of order, their dissatisfaction with answers, both oral and written. That applies as much to answers given to this House by the Prime Minister as it does to those given by other Ministers.

Quite properly, Mr. Deputy Speaker, whenever we stray into that territory, you remind the House that responses by Front-Bench Members are not a matter for
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the Chair, but I want to raise this afternoon the situation that we now face in light of the statements made to the Chamber in the run-up to the Iraq war and what we now see as the impotence of Back-Bench Members in holding the Prime Minister to account and obtaining from him answers to specific questions. I know of this from my own experience, having asked him about what has become known as the dodgy dossier. He did not answer my question, so I tried to extract a specific answer by repeating it in a written question, which was referred to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. It then waited several months before answering, and I had to badger it several times before I got a reply, and a very unsatisfactory one at that: it basically said that the Foreign Office thought that I had had an adequate reply the first time.

Sometimes we all shrug our shoulders and ask, "Is the Prime Minister Teflon-coated? How come he manages not to answer questions and to get away with things?" That is very frustrating for Back Benchers. However, the matters that led up to this country's going to war in Iraq are serious ones, and they set many precedents. It is unsatisfactory that Members of this Chamber have not had a chance to question the Prime Minister fully on the outcomes of the inquiries that have taken place since we went to war and on the information that has come to light since he made his many statements to this House.

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