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The Minister for Local Government (Mr. Phil Woolas): The Department plays a critical role, working effectively with local government and communities to tackle Islamist extremism. We continue to monitor our work at both local and national level, and to build on what we have learned from previous initiatives, such as the “Preventing Extremism Together” project, to inform our policy development.

James Duddridge: Last month, the Secretary of State told the House that action had been agreed on all but three of the 27 recommendations of the “Preventing Extremism Together” taskforce that were addressed to Government. As action agreed is not the same as action taken, can the Minister tell the House howmany of the recommendations have so far been implemented?

Mr. Woolas: Yes I can, and I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for asking the question—it gives me an opportunity to put the record straight, because some misinformation has been perpetuated on this point by mischief makers. Action has been agreed on all but three of the 27 recommendations that were for Government to lead on. Three have been completed—the recommendation about consultation on the Department for Education and Skills Green Paper, expansion of the minority ethnic achievements project, and the extension of equal opportunities legislation to cover discrimination on the ground of faith—and 17 are in progress. The Government have accepted the recommendations and are working on implementing them. Three are under consideration and the Government are deciding whether to accept them. Of the four remaining, alternatives are in place for two, and two are not being taken forward.

Dr. Phyllis Starkey (Milton Keynes, South-West) (Lab): A number of weeks ago, the Muslim Parents Association of Milton Keynes organised a highly successful meeting that was attended by about 200 members of the local Muslim community and people from other faith communities, at which two Imams launched a theological discussion about Islam and how it precisely did not explain the actions of certain extremists within the Muslim community. Will the Minister say what support his Department is giving to moderate Muslim organisations such as the Milton Keynes Muslim Parents Association?

Mr. Woolas: My hon. Friend makes a very important point. It gives me the opportunity to re-emphasise on behalf of the Government what is of course the case: those who use the name of Islam to justify violence and criminal terrorism are to be condemned. The Government’s programme with the mainstream Muslim community, Imams and various organisations to make that point clear includes events to perpetuate the true nature of Islam and to put to bed the arguments of those who use it to justify their violent extremism, and more than 30,000 young British Muslims have attended those events.

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Brownfield Land

21. Mr. John Leech (Manchester, Withington) (LD): What plans she has to change the definition of brownfield land. [108123]

The Minister for Housing and Planning (Yvette Cooper): The definition of previously developed land is based on the land use change statistics from 1985. It is a practical definition for statistical purposes and should most sensibly remain as set out in the new planning policy statement published 10 days ago.

Mr. Leech: I thank the Minister for her reply. Large gardens of houses in south Manchester such as the Rookery and Jessiefield are threatened with development. Does the Minister not accept that
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redesignating gardens as greenfield rather than brownfield sites would afford extra protection against such overdevelopment?

Yvette Cooper: There are practical difficulties in changing the definition in the way that the hon. Gentleman suggests. There is not only the question of how one deals with patios; we do not want to make it harder for people to build extensions in their own gardens and to their own homes. There are ways for local councils to address the problems associated with unsustainable development on garden land. Several local authorities already have such policies, and I suggest that the hon. Gentleman take up the matter with his local council. The new planning policy statement on housing gives local authorities greater powers to have particular policies in this area, and he would be wise to look at that new planning guidance.

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3.30 pm

Mr. William Hague (Richmond, Yorks) (Con) (Urgent question): To ask the Defence Secretary what the implications of recent events are for British policy towards Iraq.

The Secretary of State for Defence (Des Browne): I have always said that lasting progress in Iraq cannot be achieved by military means alone, but will depend on a combination of security, politics and economics. Our security strategy is clear and has not changed. It is not driven by the American political calendar, nor will it be thrown off course by those who use violence and terrorism to provoke sectarian reaction and to stop progress in Iraq.

Our strategy has three main elements. First, we are helping the Iraqis to build up their own security forces—still with a long way to develop, but already with more than 300,000 recruited, trained and equipped. Secondly, as these forces develop we are handing them control, province by province, city by city, moving to the point where they have complete responsibility. Thirdly, we are underwriting that handover process by leaving in place quick-response forces not to do front-line security work, but ready to support the Iraqis if the situation gets out of control. We remain convinced that that remains the right strategy—indeed, the only one that could possibly work.

I welcome the constructive approach of the Iraq Study Group. As I made clear yesterday, its assessment of the security situation is largely in tune with our own. We recognise the gravity of that situation, but I also note the group’s conclusion that there is no magic formula to solve the problems. People should not confuse a difficult situation with a problem of strategy. Our strategy has long included many of the elements that the group has highlighted.

What is changing is the pace at which this strategy unfolds. Prime Minister Maliki and his Government want it to go faster. That is a natural response and, indeed, a welcome sign of increasing confidence, but it also crystallises the great challenge that Maliki faces. On the one hand, to keep up momentum—to reinforce a sense of progress and nationhood—he must show that Iraq is regaining control of its own destiny. At the same time, he must not ask too much too quickly of its developing security forces.

The Prime Minister made it clear during his visit to Washington last week that we have always been open to engagement with Iran and Syria, but it is absolutely vital that the basis for their engagement must be support for the democratically elected Government of Iraq, not support for sectarian or terrorist agendas. Those countries know what they have to do, and they must decide which path they want to follow.

There are some parts of Iraq, especially Baghdad, where the reality on the ground clearly is a long way from the point where the coalition can hand over. This morning’s suicide bombs were another reminder. Part of their motive, of course, is precisely to provoke an escalating sectarian reaction, but Baghdad is not Iraq, and I make no apology for reminding people that 14 of the 18 provinces are relatively peaceful. The security
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situation, and therefore progress along the security strategy, is different in each of these provinces.

In the area under British lead in the south, two provinces have been handed over to the Iraqis, and a third is soon to follow. The fourth, Basra, remains the most difficult challenge, but again, the security situation is a symptom: the underlying cause is rival Shi’a power blocs vying for power. Right now, this is too much for the Iraqi security forces to deal with on their own, and there are real weaknesses in the local police, so unlike in the other three provinces, British forces are still doing front-line work in the main city.

Operation Sinbad is working through Basra city area by area, re-establishing security, building confidence, rooting out corrupt and failing police, and putting Iraqi soldiers on street corners as a sign that the Government are determined to govern. Friday’s Operation Pisa—an impressive operation involving a number of bold “strikes” across the north of Basra city—shows that when we need to act, we do so and we do so decisively. But of course, the key is that these improvements in security are followed, quickly, by progress in governance and by economic regeneration, building momentum and winning over local people to a positive view of the future.

This is our strategy. We will continue to support the Iraqis in overcoming the violence and intimidation that disfigure their country. We will work with them to build a long-term relationship, including training and mentoring to help the security of both the country and the region, and to deal with the ongoing challenge of international terrorism. Both in security and in the parallel strands of politics and economic development we have to accept that how quickly things move will depend on many factors, not all of them directly under our control. In fact, it is a measure of success if the path of progress becomes increasingly an Iraqi one. As I said in a speech last month, we must get used to thinking in terms not just of our strategy but of our role in their strategy.

We continue to insist that we will not cut and run. This is not about political gestures or a trial of wills, but about recognising the challenges we face and also the commitment we have made. We will hand over when it is right so to do, driven not by arbitrary deadlines but by the reality on the ground. I have made clear several times why we will not be drawn into laying out a prescriptive timetable for draw-down, and I note that the hon. Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox) supported that position yesterday. Our strategy will and must remain conditions-based. We will work to ensure that our plans remain clear and realistic, but we will also work to resist cynicism and defeatism as long as we still believe that we are making a difference—as long as we still believe that the presence of our forces is increasing the chance of a positive legacy for their work and their sacrifice in Iraq in the past three years.

Mr. Hague: I thank the Defence Secretary for that response. While we accept much of what he said, does he accept that as the Iraq Study Group described the situation in Iraq as “grave and deteriorating” and as 7,000 British troops are deployed there, the Government should not hesitate to report to the House when major developments arise? Was not the publication last week of the Iraq Study Group’s report
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one such event? As it was important enough for the Prime Minister to fly to Washington immediately, was it not also important enough to warrant a ministerial statement to Parliament in recent days?

To seek to question the Government on that is in no way to lack sympathy with the difficulty of the choices they face, but will the Secretary of State say how the Government were thinking of gauging parliamentary reaction to that major reassessment of American and coalition strategy while the decisions on it were being made? We appreciate that talks between the United Kingdom and the United States are going on, but in that case can the Secretary of State tell us when the Government will be in a position to describe definitively the response of the coalition Governments to the Iraq Study Group?

In the meantime, can the right hon. Gentleman give details about some matters about which it is not premature to ask, in the light of that report? For instance, did the Prime Minister reach an agreed view with the President in their talks on the ISG proposals last week? In particular, did he obtain a bankable assurance that the United States will now make a firm and sustained effort to revive the Israel-Palestinian peace process? Did the President agree to develop the “whole middle east strategy” of which the Prime Minister has spoken?

In addition, in Washington, the Prime Minister described the ISG report as “a strong way forward” and said that

To which elements was he referring when he said that? What will be the objectives of the Prime Minister’s forthcoming visit to the middle east? Can the Defence Secretary tell us what was the result of sending an envoy to Syria a few weeks ago, and have any parallel exploratory talks taken place with Iran?

Is it not the case that the need for internal reconciliation in Iraq, the building up of the Iraqi army and the creation of an international support group—all proposed by the ISG—have already been proposed by many of us in the House? What has been the reaction of the Iraqi Government to the proposal to withdraw the bulk of American forces by early 2008? What assessment have the Government made of the reaction of the Iraqi Government to the report’s conclusions? Do they agree that any international contact group formed must have Iraqi involvement throughout?

Finally, on a defence matter, while those decisions are pending—as they clearly are—are contingency plans being made to provide for British forces to assist in the more rapid training of the Iraqi army called for by the ISG?

Given the myriad questions that legitimately arise from the situation and the apparent imminence before Christmas of an announcement by the President of the United States on the reassessment going on there, will the Secretary of State and his colleagues ensure that the House receives a further full report from the Government before the Christmas recess, so that a full debate on Iraq—the lessons and the prospects—can be held early in the new year?

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Des Browne: I make no criticism of the right hon. Gentleman’s desire to have the issue addressed at the Dispatch Box and I cast no aspersions on his motives. I welcome his positive contribution to the debate in respect of these challenging issues. There is, however, a degree of prematurity about his questions, given that the US Administration are still deliberating on the report’s recommendations. It was, after all, a report to the US Administration. As I understand it, the President will respond some time in the near future.

We are considering the recommendations ourselves, as the right hon. Gentleman pointed out, in so far as they are directly relevant to the area for which we have responsibility and to the issues that I addressed in my remarks this afternoon. There has to be space to discuss the recommendations, as the Prime Minister did when he went to Washington with the principal ally in our coalition—the United States. We must also recognise that the Iraqi Government are, as the right hon. Gentleman said, important contributors to those discussions.

To deal with the specific question about the Iraqi Government’s response, the right hon. Gentleman knows as well as everyone else that President Talabani specifically referred to some of the report’s recommendations in his observation that they are inconsistent with the sovereign position of the Iraqi Government. He has specific concerns—I understand them—about interference with the sovereignty of the Iraqi Government, particularly if the strict letter of some of the recommendations on an international convention or the embedding of forces inside sovereign Iraqi forces were to be misunderstood. Discussions with the Iraqi Government will continue, and in the fullness of time they will come to a considered response, as we are duty bound to do with them.

We agree with the right hon. Gentleman that the approach to Iraq needs to be set firmly in the context of a broader middle east strategy that has to take account of the Palestinian-Israeli situation, which is at the heart of the motives for violence apparent in the region.

The right hon. Gentleman asks about the focus of the Prime Minister’s visit to the middle east. It will be a follow-up to his earlier visit, when he focused on energising the necessary momentum for talks that will hopefully lead to a stable peace in that part of the world. The Prime Minister has indicated his commitment to that and he is taking it forward.

As far as Syria is concerned, we said exactly what I reported—that it must make a constructive contribution to Iraq and must accept its responsibilities as a country that borders Iraq and as a country from which some of the violence and those who perpetrate it travel into Iraq. I have said nothing to the House that I have not said to Syria. To my knowledge, there have been no talks with Iran.

As far as our commitment to the training of Iraqi security forces is concerned, we are very pleased with the progress of the 10th division of the Iraqi army. One indication of how successful our training has been can be seen in the contribution of that division to Operation Sinbad.

Ann Clwyd (Cynon Valley) (Lab): My right hon. Friend will be aware that this morning one of the most important politicians in Iraq visited this House. His
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visit was advertised on the web and five Members of Parliament turned up, together with a large number of peers. If my colleagues are so interested in Iraq, I would have thought that they could have come to listen to al-Hakim, the leader of the Shi’a group in the Iraqi Parliament—the largest political group, representing the largest population group. He answered questions with great dignity and knowledge.

My right hon. Friend should not feel reluctant to come to the House, or guilty in any way, as he has been one of the most transparent Secretaries of State on the subject of Iraq since he took the job, and he is to be commended for that.

Des Browne: I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend for her contribution over many years—predating 2003, I might say—of fighting and campaigning for freedom for the Iraqi people, sometimes at significant personal risk. They have had no better champion for decades. She is right to point out the importance of talking to Iraqi politicians. Few of them get the opportunity to visit us in London and as parliamentarians we should take the opportunity to hear their views on the future of their country. His Eminence Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, whom I will meet later today, is the head of the United Iraqi Alliance and a very significant player in Iraqi politics. He personally has made a significant contribution to freedom in his country and his family suffered extensive violence at the hands of Saddam Hussein. He has lost more than 20 members of his immediate family to that violence, including his brother, who was also a leader of the same organisation. It would behove us to pay some respect to such people, who have views to which we should listen.

Mr. Michael Moore (Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk) (LD): The House will be immensely grateful to the Secretary of State for coming here today, but as the shadow Foreign Secretary has said, most folk will find it extraordinary that nearly a week after the publication of the Iraq Study Group report in the United States the Prime Minister has still not come to the House to make a full statement. That is particularly true given—as has been pointed out—that he was quick enough to fly across the Atlantic to address the American media. I understand that he has also done a presentation for the British media this afternoon.

Like the Secretary of State, I pay tribute to our armed forces who have suffered a great deal in Iraq in the past few years. However, surely Secretary Baker’s report has stripped any remaining grounds for complacency about the situation in Iraq. We could ask why no similar exercise has been carried out on behalf of this country. As the report states, violence is increasing and the situation is worsening. The report states explicitly:

In the light of that report and the Prime Minister’s discussions, is the Secretary of State saying that there has been no change at all in the British strategy for Iraq?

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