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25 Oct 2006 : Column 433WH—continued

The Prime Minister immediately said that he agreed with everything that Sir Richard had said.

However, just this week, the argument put to the Prime Minister’s official spokesman was that the job in 2004 included leaving Iraq as a peaceful, prosperous, unitary state, and a “beacon of democracy” to the whole middle east. He confirmed that that was still the aim of British Government policy. It would be helpful if the Minister could confirm which of those two interpretations is correct. They do not seem the same.

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At the same time as the Prime Minister’s official spokesman was saying that, the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs was acknowledging the difficulties that we have faced in Iraq, and, as several Members have already said, that Iraq could break up into three parts. She said that it was up to the Iraqis themselves to decide, adding:

It would be helpful if the Minister explained whether the Government were neutral about the question of Iraq continuing as a unitary state or breaking up. A break-up into three states would have the most profound effect on Turkey and that country’s problems with its Kurdish minority. A NATO ally might be plunged into a difficult conflict, and that would be dangerous. As the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) said, the Government cannot be entirely neutral about the matter. A break-up would affect the stability of the middle east.

The second area worth touching on is whether the Government think Iraqi police and security forces will be able to take responsibility for security. The Minister for the Middle East seems confident that in about a year’s time, Iraqi forces will be able to take over. He told the BBC:

Press reports from United States forces suggest that in their assessment, the forces on the ground are not in as good a shape as that. It would be helpful to have an update from the Minister about our assessment of the progress that the Iraqi security forces have made.

In the Government’s response to the report on UK operations by the Select Committee on Defence, they said:

We have heard only leaks from the Iraq study group, and we do not know what it will conclude, but it has put forward the idea that one US option is to ask Iraq’s neighbours, Iran and Syria, to become involved in the country. Given that the British Government accept that elements in Iran have supplied explosives that have killed British troops, it would be helpful to know whether the Minister felt that involving Iran and Syria in stabilising Iraq would work.

Many people think that Iran is already far too involved in Iraq, and that it fuels Shi’a violence. I am not sure that getting Iran and Syria more involved in Iraq is necessarily helpful. It would be interesting to know the Government’s view, because decisions may come from the US in fairly short order.

Given the unnecessary comments from the Liberal Democrats, it is worth noting that their leader, when he was their foreign affairs spokesman, supported the action taken against Saddam Hussein and, indeed, acknowledged in the House the likelihood that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction. The Liberal Democrats need to be careful when putting forward their points. Their comments were unnecessary. Looking to the future is more helpful than looking to the past, and I look forward to the Minister’s response.
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10.46 am

The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence (Mr. Adam Ingram): I welcome the debate, and I echo the comments of the hon. Member for Forest of Dean (Mr. Harper) about the sacrifices made by all serving personnel in Iraq and elsewhere, and about the grief felt by their families. I am sure that the whole House would agree with his comments.

The debate gives me another opportunity to outline the Government’s position on Iraq in the wake of a considerable amount of unbalanced comment in the media. It is easy to attack the media, but there has been much unbalanced comment in the debate this morning, too.

The hon. Member for Carmarthen, East and Dinefwr (Adam Price) asked for honesty and integrity from Ministers. I ask him to do one thing: stop impugning the motives or intent of Ministers. People have very strong views, and I have been consistent in my view about the justification for what we did and are doing in Iraq. Over time, when we see a peaceful, stable and democratic Iraq in the years ahead, our actions will be justified. I cannot prove that that will happen; nor, however, can those who argue against it prove conclusively that it will not.

Adam Price: Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Ingram: I shall, but I want to make a few points in response to the hon. Gentleman.

Adam Price: I specifically asked the Minister for a clear admission that the reality in Iraq is that the situation is getting worse, not better.

Mr. Ingram: That is not quite what the hon. Gentleman said. He made the comment—

Adam Price: Is that the situation?

Mr. Ingram: We will read the record. That is certainly part of what the hon. Gentleman argued for.

Adam Price: Just answer the question.

Mr. Ingram: I shall come to those points. If the hon. Gentleman wants a debate, he must listen. I have listened studiously to all that has been said, and I ask for the same from him.

The reality is that the Secretary of State for Defence outlined the facts in a statement to the House earlier this month. Our position has not changed since then, so I can assume only that hon. Members have read and understood our position. It provides the answers to their questions.

The hon. Member for Forest of Dean asked about Iran and Syria. We do not have much time to get into the geopolitics of that issue, other than to say that those people who are part of the problem must be part of the solution, otherwise they remain part of the problem. Given my experience of the whole peace process in Northern Ireland, I can tell him that John Major’s Government and Governments further back in history engaged with the republican movement while it was still slaughtering its own citizens and members of
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the British security forces. We must reach out and find a way to deal with the problem. Everything must be tentative in the early stages, but I repeat that those who are part of the problem must be part of the solution, or they will remain part of the problem. We must deal with the problem in terms of the geopolitics of that troubled region.

Mr. Blunt: Is that a welcome indication that the Government will now engage more closely with the Government of Syria rather than pursue a policy of effective boycott and isolation, as they have for the past two or three years?

Mr. Ingram: I ask the hon. Gentleman to hear what I say. I used the word “tentative.” I am not a Foreign Office Minister. [Laughter.] That is not a matter for humour, is it? It is a statement of fact. We shall have a serious debate and the comedians can have theirs.

At all times, discussions must take place, and other ways and avenues will open for us to participate in and develop. If that does not happen, we will not have a functioning foreign policy. It happens at all times. Even in the case of countries with which we have totally broken off relations, we must find points of contact and a way to bring them back into the community of nations. If we do not, we are failing the people of this country. I know that the hon. Gentleman understands that.

Chief of the General Staff, General Dannatt, does not advocate change. I shall give a quote, because he has been quoted out of context. He said:

That is a statement of fact. He also said:

Let us put that in context, beginning with our strategy for success in Iraq.

We are building the capability of the Iraqi security forces and progressively transferring responsibility to the Iraqi civilian authorities. That is a fact that cannot be denied. More than 312,000 members of the Iraqi security forces have been trained and equipped. I shall give a personal experience. In the United Kingdom, at our battle school in Brecon, we have delivered for our own people a high level of training and leadership. We have done that for Iraqi officers as well. I addressed a graduation parade there earlier this year and heard that Iraqi students have exceeded our initial expectations. Those officers return to Iraq as instructors of the highest calibre, able to train thousands more of a new generation of Iraqi soldiers. It is easy to say that, but I must always put it to the test: is what we are doing having an effect? One of the instructor sergeants said to me, “Those officers, with a bit more training, would be as good as the officers coming out of Sandhurst.” That was a soldier judging a soldier. Those who have experience know the quality of our instructor
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sergeants: they are hard taskmasters and hard judges of the quality of officers who will lead men into conflict.

The strategy of handing over responsibility for security to the Iraqis as and when their capability and capacity allow it is working. In the UK’s area of responsibility, the provinces of Al Muthanna and Dhi Qar have already satisfied the necessary conditions to allow their handover to Iraqi civilian control. Over the weekend, in the town of Al Amarah in the Maysan province, it was the Iraqi authorities that responded to unrest and Iraqi security forces that restored calm. Multinational forces were ready to provide assistance if required, but in the event they were not needed. I ask the critics of what is happening on the ground to consider why I argue that that is success and why they believe it is a measure of failure.

We can take encouragement from the conduct of the Iraqi security forces. Their reaction to and control of the situation that I have mentioned and others is a testament to their training and dedication and clearly demonstrates their increasing capabilities. However, we cannot achieve success by military means alone. The political and economic process must deliver results, and that is where the Iraqi Government have a central role. Prime Minister Maliki has undertaken to secure Baghdad, eliminate illegal armed groups, and promote national reconciliation and the rule of law. Does any hon. Member doubt his intent to do that? Is he not the democratically elected Prime Minister? Is it not right that we should seek to help him achieve those objectives? Stemming the violence in Baghdad is proving to be tremendously difficult, which underlines the importance of making political progress on matters such as reconciliation to draw Iraqi communities away from violence and into the political process. It is in everyone’s interest for the Iraqi Government to succeed, and it is crucial that we continue to support them.

My hon. Friend the Member for Newport, West (Paul Flynn) said, if I heard him correctly, that Iraqis are worse off now than they were under Saddam. What utter nonsense. He talked about Ministerial donkeys; “political pygmies” is the phrase that comes to mind when I hear such comments. Access to water is now better than pre-conflict, with 4 million more people having access to it. Sewage and waste water treatment plants are operating again, whereas prior to the conflict none of them were. Health care spending is up to more than 30 times its pre-war level, and through extensive disease control programmes there has been a decline in the prevalence of polio, measles, mumps, rubella and malaria. The UK has pledged more than £544 million for reconstruction in the period 2003 to 2006, and more than £536 million has been disbursed to date.

The hon. Member for Carmarthen, East and Dinefwr mentioned the Marshall plan. To put in place such a plan and to be able to spend money on reconstruction requires security. He said, “Give us a Marshall plan,” but did not say how it should be
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delivered. Should it be delivered on the back of a stable, secure Iraq or on the back of the troubles caused by the militias and ethnic tensions? Phrases do not deliver success in troubled countries; hard action and hard decisions do.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) for his good contribution and for telling us his views. My hon. Friend the Member for Blaydon (Mr. Anderson) made a thoughtful and considered speech. I have heard him express his opinion before, but not in so much detail.

All hon. Members and their constituents who have a view on the subject would benefit from taking some Iraqis to their constituency to hear what they say about the conflict. I remember public meetings in the run-up to the conflict in Iraq, and they were hostile as we tried to justified what we were trying to do. I was alongside Iraqis who had lost family members to Saddam and his brutal regime. One particularly stands out in my memory. He was an old Jew in his 90s who had lived under three dictators, one of whom was Saddam Hussein. He tried to explain why dictatorships had to be removed but was howled down by those who would call themselves the anti-war coalition, which some would call the pro-dictator coalition. [Interruption.] I said that some would say that, having lived under the yoke of the evil of Saddam Hussein.

Several hon. Members rose—

Mr. Ingram: Those who wish to make—

Several hon. Members rose—

Mrs. Janet Dean (in the Chair): Order. I do not think that Minister wants to give way.

Mr. Ingram: You are right, Mrs. Dean. Those who wish to make strong criticisms have to take them as well. [Interruption.] Unfortunately, we do not have time for a debate on the Floor of the House, but there is an Opposition day debate next Tuesday, as my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda pointed out. [Hon. Members: “Apologise.”] I have listened to a much worse rabble than this.

Jeremy Corbyn: On a point of order, Mrs. Dean. Is it in order for the Minister to claim that the Stop the War coalition is pro-Saddam Hussein, when he knows full well that the opposite is the case? He knows people in the coalition consistently opposed the dictatorship of Saddam Hussein.

Mrs. Janet Dean (in the Chair): What the Minister says about the world in general is a matter for him.

Mr. Ingram: Exactly, and I ask hon. Members to recognise the fact that I said that some would use that description, not me.

Mrs. Janet Dean (in the Chair): Order. We must move to the next debate.

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International rail services (Ashford)

11 am

Damian Green (Ashford) (Con): I am grateful for the chance to air this important issue, which I suspect will lower the temperature of the Chamber slightly. The issue affects people not only in my constituency, but throughout Kent and beyond. I shall not take up my full allocation of time, because my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard) also wishes to put his points to the Minister.

The background to this debate is Eurostar’s decision to cut services from Ashford International station when the new Ebbsfleet station opens in autumn 2007. Eurostar is proposing to reduce the services from Ashford to Paris to peak-hour services and, more importantly, to end all services to Brussels. I want to concentrate on the Brussels services. The new service proposals for Paris and other destinations in France will be adequate to maintain proper links. However, ending the Brussels services will be a blow to the development of Ashford, which is an important part of the Government’s sustainable communities programme, and to plans for development and regeneration throughout Kent and other parts of the wider south-east of England.

Before I put my substantive arguments to the Minister, I should like to emphasise the widespread damage that Eurostar’s decision would cause. Since the campaign to reverse the decision was started by hon. Members, Kent county council, Ashford borough council and others who want to preserve the services to Ashford, we have been particularly grateful for the support of the South East England Development Agency. SEEDA is clearly as anxious to see development and regeneration at Ebbsfleet, as part of the Thames gateway project, as it is at Ashford. The agency has made the point that we need a balance of services from the two Kent stations on the international link if we are to achieve properly balanced regeneration throughout Kent. Indeed, starting services at one Kent station but then stopping them a few years later—that is Eurostar’s current proposal for Ashford—casts doubt on the desirability of the entire area as a destination for new international companies to set up their businesses. That would be hugely damaging.

I am struck by the size of the area from which I have received complaints and support for my complaints on the issue, which have come not only from Ashford and the Folkestone area, as one would expect. Big howls of protest have come from Hastings, the regeneration of which is predicated partly on the improvement of rail links to and from Ashford. I have also received strong letters of support from as far afield as Eastbourne. That shows how wide the catchment area that will be affected is if the proposals go through.

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