17 Oct 2005 : Column 611

House of Commons

Monday 17 October 2005

The House met at half-past Two o'clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions


The Secretary of State was asked—

Armed Forces Parliamentary Scheme

1. Sarah McCarthy-Fry (Portsmouth, North) (Lab): How many hon. Members have taken part in the armed forces parliamentary scheme in each of the last five years; and if he will make a statement. [17610]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Don Touhig): The armed forces parliamentary scheme is an invaluable opportunity for Members to gain a better understanding of the armed forces, and I certainly commend it to the House. Four Members completed the scheme in 2001, 17 in 2002, 21 in 2003 and 11 in 2004. Twenty-two Members are participating in the scheme's 2005 attachments.

Sarah McCarthy-Fry: Portsmouth is, of course, the home of the Royal Navy, and I have spoken to serving naval officers and ratings who greatly appreciate the scheme. Their concern is that fewer and fewer MPs have active service experience, and they think that the scheme enables us to understand the lives of servicemen and women and what they have to do. I should like there to be even greater participation: does the Minister think that there are barriers to participation for Members, and how can we overcome them?

Mr. Touhig: Hon. Members often have time problems with participating in the scheme, which is organised and run by the armed forces, with each service organising visits specific to land, sea and air operations or exercises as appropriate. It is a question of colleagues committing themselves to the time needed, and I again commend the scheme to the House and hope that as many Members as possible will take part.

Bob Spink (Castle Point) (Con): I declare that I am a graduate of the Royal Marines scheme. Does the Minister agree that the greatest benefit of the scheme is that it serves better to inform Members on such issues as the importance of up-to-date, quality kit that is in good condition, particularly when the armed forces are on active service in such places as Iraq? Does he take that message home?
17 Oct 2005 : Column 612

Mr. Touhig: I often say that we sit in this place four days a week making the law on behalf of our country, and that if we do not get out and about to discover the hopes, aspirations and problems that people face, we cannot do that job as thoroughly as we ought to. I agree that learning more about the way in which the armed forces operate and their problems and difficulties, and bringing that information back, is of invaluable help to the Ministry of Defence as it carries out its functions.

Michael Connarty (Linlithgow and East Falkirk) (Lab): As a postgraduate member of the scheme, may I emphasise how important it has been to see our troops in action in Afghanistan and in Bosnia and Kosovo recently? The point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth, North (Sarah McCarthy-Fry) about the need for ring-fencing through an arrangement with the House authorities is an important one. There is a danger that people will not be allowed away at times when there is business in the House. I should like, too, to emphasise that it was good to hear the Scottish troops I met—the Argylls in Bosnia—saying, on the ground, that it was a lot of nonsense to attack the concept of having one Scottish regiment.

Mr. Touhig: If any colleague offers some idea to improve the scheme, we shall obviously listen. We produced a booklet just after the general election, which is available in the Library and which I will happily pass on to colleagues if they have not received copies. We are trying to get as many people to take part as possible, and there is still a waiting list. If people want to join, there is an opportunity to join the scheme. We certainly would not turn away any idea that would help us to benefit Members taking part in the scheme. If we need to have discussions with the House authorities, and if it is appropriate, we shall do so.

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome) (LD): As another postgraduate member of the scheme who two weeks ago was yomping around Arbroath with 45 Commando, may I pay testament to the value of the scheme and the hospitality of the commandos? May I express sadness at the reported loss of a royal marine in training in Scotland over the weekend? May I also, as I think we engage in a two-way dialogue, pass on a comment from members of 45 Commando that, for an elite force, they are still under-provided with gymnasium facilities and a swimming pool at Arbroath—a matter that I raised a year ago but happily raise on their behalf yet again?

Mr. Touhig: I share the hon. Gentleman's expression of regret and condolences on the tragedy that he mentioned.

I hope that colleagues who participate in the scheme and who feel that issues must be brought to the attention of Ministers will feel free to do so. I shall make myself available for a debriefing as often as is necessary. If that impacts on something that the department is doing, I have no doubt that the Secretary of State, as an ex-participant in the scheme, will certainly want to know.
17 Oct 2005 : Column 613


2. Mr. Kevan Jones (North Durham) (Lab): What assessment he has made of the contribution of UK armed forces to the development of democratic and sustainable political structures in Iraq. [17611]

The Secretary of State for Defence (John Reid): United Kingdom armed forces, at the request of the Iraqi Government and under United Nations Security Council resolution 1546, are providing the support, training and security necessary to allow the Iraqi people to build their own democratic future. The success of this weekend's referendum, and the turnout, is the latest example of the contribution we are making together with Iraqi security forces.

Mr. Jones: Does my right hon. Friend agree that an important part of the emergence of democracy—such as the successful elections this weekend—is the building of the country's infrastructure? I have visited Iraq three times in the past two years and I have been impressed by the work of the UK force civic teams, and others, who are helping in the reconstruction. What can be done to congratulate those individuals, some of whom put their lives at risk to help ordinary Iraqis, and to publicise more widely the important role that they play in Iraq?

John Reid: I know that my hon. Friend has taken a deep interest in the issue, to the extent of visiting Iraq on several occasions. He has always balanced the pessimistic and despairing commentaries on Iraq by putting the other side of the coin. I hope that he and other close observers will help to publicise the views of Iraqis, from President Talabani and Prime Minister Jafaari down. This weekend, millions of Iraqis, despite the threat of death against them and their families, cast a democratic vote on a constitution that has been designed and manufactured by Iraqis for Iraqis. That was a significant step forward, and I hope that some of our commentators will balance some of the despairing comments with the progress that has been made, despite all the efforts of the terrorists.

Robert Key (Salisbury) (Con): Since the end of the cold war, Her Majesty's forces have earned a wonderful reputation for peacekeeping, in Iraq and elsewhere. Has any serious thought been given to the creation of a British gendarmerie, given the disruption to military forces of such peacekeeping and the disruption to civilian constabularies, which provide staff for much of the policing? That idea will not be new to the Secretary of State because we have debated it for 20 years.

John Reid: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his comments. In the complexity of response to today's complex threats, the civil-military relationship—including security sector reform, policing and judicial systems—is an integral part of solving problems and we contribute to that. For example, some 100 policemen derived from Britain are in Iraq at present. They have trained some 14,000 Iraqi police and, by next year, we hope that they will have trained 25,000. Other forces bring other specialties to the table. We specialise in armed forces, but the Italians have the carabinieri, who have made a contribution similar to that of the Police
17 Oct 2005 : Column 614
Service of Northern Ireland and, before that, the Royal Ulster Constabulary. We do contribute, but we are always keen to see how that contribution can be developed.

Mr. Geoffrey Robinson (Coventry, North-West) (Lab): Some of us who have not had the opportunities that other colleagues have had to visit Iraq have nevertheless followed developments with alternating concern and hope. Given the earlier successful elections and now the remarkable turnout—which will probably vote in favour of the constitution—we are more positive about the prospects for a democratic Iraq. What does my right hon. Friend see happening from now on, and what does he think of the chances of achieving a firmly based, strong Iraqi Government who are able to administer law and order without the help of outside troops?

John Reid: I thank my hon. Friend for his comments. We should all bear in mind three important points about Iraq, whatever position we took about the intervention there several years ago. The present position is that, first, millions of Iraqi people are showing—by their defiance of terrorism—their commitment to building their own democratic institutions, including even risking death, and they deserve our support. Secondly, our forces are operating, with the rest of the international community, under UN Security Council resolution 1546. We are on the side of the UN at this stage, alongside the multinational forces. Thirdly, the terrorist activity is no longer a reason for us to leave Iraq. Increasingly, it is becoming the most important factor keeping us in Iraq, because the threat from the terrorists is such that the Iraqi security forces—although they are being built up—are still insufficient to counter it. Far from driving us out, the threat and actions of terrorists are one of the main reasons we stay. I merely tell the House today that, according to the latest figures, there are, for the first time, more than 200,000 members of the Iraqi security forces, trained and capable. They are increasingly taking the lead, and we will continue to train them until the conditions are right for us to withdraw.

Mr. Gregory Campbell (East Londonderry) (DUP): I join the Secretary of State in paying tribute to the courage of the people of Iraq and to the courage and dedication of our armed personnel serving in Iraq. Will he assure me and the people of Northern Ireland that he will bear in mind in particular the courage and dedication of members of the Royal Irish Regiment when he is considering the representations that my colleagues and I made to him recently about the regiment's future?

John Reid: Yes, I will bear that in mind. As the hon. Gentleman will know, I met the leader of his party and the leader of the Ulster Unionist party to discuss the matter. I told them that the Armed Forces Minister, who is dealing with the details of the case, and I will try to ensure that whatever changes arise from the peace process in Northern Ireland, those who have served their country during some very difficult decades will be treated with dignity and honour as the role that they have played becomes less relevant and less material to today's circumstances.
17 Oct 2005 : Column 615

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North) (Lab): As someone who continually criticised the shameful abuse of Iraqi prisoners, particularly by the United States, I ask whether it is not unfortunate that a good number of Members who opposed the war, as they had every right to do, have not, as far as I know, in any way criticised the way in which, day after day, innocent Iraqis are being murdered by the terrorists, including a 27-year-old female bank clerk who was murdered simply because she was considered a collaborator for working in her job, which she did because she wanted to help her mother have an operation on her leg. Is not that outright murderous fascism, and should not all Members denounce such murder and criminality at every opportunity?

John Reid: Yes, indeed. Almost all Members are of the same view. There can be no justification for actions that destroy the lives of innocent Muslim children, of the 200 ordinary working-class Shi'a Muslims who were murdered some weeks ago, of the four Sunni representatives who tried to engage in politics in the constitutional convention and were murdered, and of men and women registering for votes. Surely there are very few in this House who would try to justify that action, because whatever view we took about the original intervention in Iraq, the position is now clear: we are either on the side of the Iraqi democrats, the United Nations and our troops, or we are on the side of the terrorists. I salute the courage and the indefatigability of today's Iraqi democrats.

Mr. Michael Ancram (Devizes) (Con): I join the Secretary of State in welcoming the apparent success of the vote on the constitution over the weekend, and I warmly congratulate our troops on their part in the sensitive development of democratic and sustainable political structures in Iraq. The key question now is how long they will continue to be required to do that. Rather surprisingly, the Foreign Secretary last week seemed to suggest five to 10 years. Of course, if the sovereign Government of Iraq asked us to leave, we would leave, but can the Secretary of State give the House a categorical assurance that in any other circumstances, after due consultation with the Iraqi Government and our allies, the decision as to when we have fulfilled our responsibilities and our troops come home will be taken by the British Government, and by the British Government alone?

John Reid: The British Government will always have the sovereign right to make that decision, and we will do so, but we have entered into obligations, and no British Government lightly abandons obligations seriously entered into. Those obligations, which we entered into with the democratically elected transitional Government in Iraq, and which we will discuss with them in December, mean that we will stay there until the conditions are right, first, for us to hand over the lead to the Iraqi security forces and then eventually to withdraw. Those conditions are plain. The criteria on which our judgment will be based include the Iraqi security forces' ability gradually to take the lead; the control of central and local and government in order to compete with the threat against them; and the
17 Oct 2005 : Column 616
level of the threat. Ultimately, the choice will be for the British people and the British Government, but we will act in consultation with the Iraqis, as we agreed.

Mr. Ancram: The right hon. Gentleman and I both know that dialogue always has an important part to play in the development of democratic and political structures, but is there any truth in the rumours and reports that representatives of the coalition have opened, or are seeking to open, channels of communication with certain of the insurgents; and if so, to what purpose?

John Reid: The right hon. and learned Gentleman knows that certain irreconcilable elements in Iraq are irreconcilably wedded to violence, including imported jihadists and elements of the former regime of the fascist Ba'ath party. Others may be tempted to engage in violence because they think that economic progress is not sufficient, or that they have been deprived of political power and so on. To the latter elements, which are not irreconcilable, we would say that, as long as they engage in violence, we will meet that violence with the force necessary to curtail and defeat it, but that if they wish to adopt the political path, we hope that the Government and the majority Shi'a population will reach out their hand to those elements, especially if they are members of the Sunni minority. In other words, as elsewhere, if people are wedded to terrorism, they will be met with the full force of our military power; if they choose the route of democracy and dialogue, we will encourage them.

Mr. Michael Clapham (Barnsley, West and Penistone) (Lab): Does my right hon. Friend feel that the Iraqi constitution puts in place integrity structures that are necessary and sufficient to ensure a sustainable democracy? If so, will he say why he feels that the Sunnis—even though they participated in the voting, which is a good thing—may not have voted for the constitution?

John Reid: I can think of no constitutional settlement that has commanded unanimity in any country. First, about 155 of the 157 articles of the constitution had widespread agreement. Secondly, in a recent gesture, the Sunnis were told that the other elements could be discussed again, even after the election of the Government in December. Thirdly, the rapidity with which three groups—Shi'a, Sunni and Kurd—have come together after decades in which members of the majority Shi'a and Kurd populations were massacred in their hundreds of thousands by Saddam Hussein, is a miracle. As I have said before at the Dispatch Box, a comparison between the two years it has taken to bring together the ethnic and regional parties in Iraq and the 800 years it has taken the four nations of the United Kingdom to resolve our constitutional issues illustrates how far we have come in Iraq, despite all the difficulties.

Next Section IndexHome Page