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Harry Cohen: I am aware that the Conservatives, with some honourable exceptions, voted for the war in Iraq. Does the hon. Gentleman not agree, however, that that was a war of choice? It was very different from the wars that we had fought previously, especially those that
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preceded the second world war. At the time of those wars we had a defence policy that was a policy of defence: war was a last resort. Is the hon. Gentleman now declaring himself to be in favour of wars of choice? Does that mean that if—God forbid—the Conservatives ever won an election and the hon. Gentleman arrived on the Government Front Bench, we would be entering into wars of choice throughout the globe?

Dr. Lewis: I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman does not seem to have understood my point, which was that the choices we make often have deleterious consequences, whichever horn of the dilemma we choose. We have to choose the least worse alternative. In the case of Iraq, I believe that the person who chose the war was the person who, having previously mounted an unprovoked and bloody invasion of another UN member country, proceeded to ignore injunctions from the international community—and that was Saddam Hussein.

Saddam Hussein seems to have behaved in a very strange way. If he knew that he did not have weapons of mass destruction, he was certainly sending very unusual and unwise signals to the world. In obstructing the investigations for so long, he was doing all he could to suggest that he had something to hide. I am not at all ashamed of having made the decision that I made to support the war, given the knowledge that we had then. I do not think that the hon. Gentleman—who of course did not support the war—does our forces any favours by expecting those of us who did support it to say, "We're terribly sorry, we were wrong." Decisions can be made only on the basis of the evidence available at the time, and everything about the way in which Saddam's regime was conducting itself indicated that there was something to hide—something that we could not take the chance of letting him have.

I am glad to say that I have, in a way, received an answer to a question asked of me by one of my hon. Friends a few minutes before the debate began. The question was this: given that we would be debating a report on the estimates, to what extent would we be allowed to wander into substantive issues of foreign and defence policy? I am glad that successive occupants of the Chair have allowed that to happen.

The Government's presentation of a skeletal outline amounts to an opportunity lost. The message conveyed by my right hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hampshire (Mr. Arbuthnot) and his Select Committee is that there is no earthly reason why the Government, and the Ministry of Defence in particular, should not be a great deal more forthcoming. It has been suggested that one reason for the sketchiness of the information in the estimates is that the Government's vagueness about what policy they will adopt prevents them from being more precise in accounting for the large sums whose expenditure they expect us to approve. As the Committee has pointed out, however, that is given the lie somewhat by repeated indications in correspondence from the Ministry of Defence that in its dealings with the Treasury, the MOD adopts a system very different from that which it adopts in its dealings with the House of Commons.

If it is possible for the MOD to ensure that the Treasury is updated so regularly as the time when the expenditures take place unravels, why is it not possible
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for it to ensure that the House of Commons is similarly updated? Is it because of security considerations? I think that my right hon. Friend and his Committee have proved themselves time and again to be capable of being taken into the loop when any confidential material needs to be divulged. It is not necessary to argue that the House of Commons as a whole cannot be trusted with the fine detail; in the Select Committee system we have an apparatus that assuredly can.

According to the report, the way in which the MOD has been satisfying the Treasury's requirements suggests that it regards Parliament, by contrast, as something of a rubber stamp. The Committee demanded that the MOD recognise that the agreement of the Treasury is not a substitute for parliamentary approval, and that giving the Treasury information is not enough. This is not just a question of the quantity or detail of the information; it is also a question of the format. I was relieved to read on page 11 of the report, in paragraph 19, the sentence:

Amen to that. There was very little in the documents, even after the MOD had had three goes at addressing the problem.

The Government have not been slow in producing many bulky reports during the years in which I have been in the House—enough to depopulate more than one rainforest. Why, when it is a question of spending £1 billion at a time, or more, in adjusting the estimates, are we left with documents as small and scrappy as those appended to the report? Page Ev 7 of the report deals with the MOD's second memorandum. Under the heading "Capital DEL"—departmental expenditure limits—we read:

All that happened was that one line in the original report was "broken down" into two lines in the second report. The Minister nods. I can only assume that if my right hon. Friend and his Committee had persisted day in day out, and week in week out, in trying to elicit more information, they might have been given a substantive account of what the MOD money would be spent on—more or less in time for the estimates after next.

More needs to be done, and one wonders why the MOD is not doing it. The suspicion has to be that a civil service "Secret Squirrel society" mentality leads the Ministry to say, "We mustn't tell these MPs too much about how we're spending the money, because if we give them anything to get their teeth into, those teeth may bite." I am sorry to say to the Minister—a likeable chap whom I greatly admire—that it is the job of MPs to get their teeth into such issues, and sometimes those teeth will indeed bite. Indeed, they occasionally do so on behalf of the common cause that we like to think we make when important defence issues are at stake.

My right hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hampshire set the admirable precedent of speaking for only 10 minutes, which is one reason why I am encouraged to be slightly more discursive than I otherwise would have been. Apart from anything else, that showed that he expected all Members present to have read his report, in which everything is set out with great clarity.
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This is my first opportunity to congratulate the hon. Member for North Devon (Nick Harvey) on his new post, and I am genuine in doing so. It is a great privilege to be a defence spokesman for one's party, and I am sure that he will perform that role with great awareness of the responsibilities that it entails. He raised pertinent questions about the long-term financial implications of extended counter-insurgency operations. I was particularly pleased to hear him say robustly that we cannot pull out of these commitments in a hurry, because we do not always hear that in this House. We often hear those who do not like the war, and who wish that we had never gone into these countries, describe the way forward as precipitate withdrawal. But whatever one thinks about the circumstances that led to our entering them, precipitate withdrawal would be a disaster for their peoples.

The hon. Member for Leyton and Wanstead (Harry Cohen) has shown admirable consistency on this issue before, during and after the war, and in the light of his contribution, we can be sure that anything corrupt ever done by anybody in the United States of America will not escape his attention. However, I was pleased to note that he was, as usual, honest enough to admit that those involved in the examples of corruption and exploitation that he described ended up in jail.

It is a pity that those who are killing and maiming innocent Iraqis—they claim to be their representatives, but in fact they support the murderous regime that was there before—are not in jail, or criticised in the manner that our western Governments who are trying to establish a free and democratic system for Iraq are criticised. It is one thing rightly to point out how many people have been killed in Iraq, but it is a sad omission not to point out that many of them are killed in bomb explosions for which the people who claim to be fighting for Iraqi freedom are responsible—and that the latter could not care less who the victims are, so long as they create mayhem and frustrate attempts to reconstruct Iraq.

Harry Cohen: I am afraid that the hon. Gentleman is being much too pious. Through one of its biggest operations in Iraq, the United States is now doing a mass slaughter job. He has also forgotten about other US attacks, such as that on Falluja. I condemn atrocities and killing on all sides; I wish that he would do the same.

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