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12.52 pm

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome) (LD): Having been upbraided by the Leader of the House on Thursday for not offering Christmas wishes, may I also take the opportunity, Mr. Speaker, of extending to you and the Deputy Speakers, the Clerks, the Officers of the House and all right hon. and hon. Friends and colleagues best wishes for Christmas and the new year?

The Christmas Adjournment debate is always an excellent opportunity to raise all manner of issues, some of which are parochial and of constituency interest, and others that are of great national and international importance. In my brief contribution I shall deal with two matters that tend towards the latter category. The first is a matter that we have not had the opportunity to discuss in a debate because it arose only on Thursday last week—that is, the al-Yamamah arms sale and the discontinuation of the investigation—and the second is the most important issue facing all hon. Members and the country: the ongoing conflict in Iraq.

I understand the reason for the timing of the Attorney-General’s statement last Thursday, in order to avoid market fluctuation. I am less forgiving of its timing in terms of the recess, and the fact that it offered no opportunity for debate will have astonished many people. It will be widely seen as the last nail in the coffin of the so-called ethical foreign policy. It is an extraordinary decision on the part of the Attorney-General to discontinue an investigation at the point that the investigation had reached, before he had had the opportunity to consider the findings of that investigation.

Of course, it is a matter for the Attorney-General alone to make that decision, which makes it all the more alarming that the following day the Prime Minister declared that he took full responsibility for it—a matter to which I shall return. It is also curious that the Attorney-General was able to come to a view that there was unlikely to be a prosecution, when the advice from Mr. Robert Wardle, the director of the Serious Fraud Office, was that the investigation was making good progress, but that it was too early in the process to determine the chances of success.

As we know, the Attorney-General couched his decision in terms of national security—a matter of national security that happened to coincide with the Serious Fraud Office obtaining access to certain Swiss bank accounts held by Saudi nationals. He stressed time and again that the decision was not based on commercial considerations. Indeed, he was required to do that because under the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development convention, article 5 states that investigation and prosecution of the bribery of a foreign public official

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That is why the Attorney-General made those points. However, article 5 goes on to state that the investigation and prosecution should not be influenced by

So, on the face of it, the Attorney-General’s decision seems curious and open to challenge.

I shall make three brief points in respect of the decision. First, I am concerned about the role of the Attorney-General. This is the most political of Attorneys-General. He has made a number of decisions that were very near to the fine distinction between legal and political decision making, but surely his first responsibility is the duty to uphold the law. The rule of law in this instance is subject to the statute that we passed so recently, the Anti-terrorism, Crime and SecurityAct 2001. No other consideration should have been at the forefront of his mind. It may be necessary to return at some stage to the role of the Attorney-General and the requirements placed upon him.

Andrew Selous (South-West Bedfordshire) (Con): Would the hon. Gentleman have been happy to see the loss of 50,000 British jobs if the investigation had continued?

Mr. Heath: It is transparently the case that I would not have been happy to see the loss of those jobs, but nor am I happy to see the loss of the integrity of the legal system of this country and its international reputation. That is also of importance.

Mrs. Curtis-Thomas: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Heath: No. I want to make progress.

The second consideration is the continuation of other prosecutions and investigations. As we know, BAE is being investigated in respect of events in Chile, Romania, South Africa, the Czech Republic and Tanzania. I am particularly concerned about Tanzania and the order for a £28 million air control system that is way beyond anything that Tanzania could reasonably need or want, as a result of a loan from a British bank on terms which are unclear and for purposes which are unclear. I have raised questions about the matter previously.

I want to be assured that sufficient resources will be applied to the Serious Fraud Office investigation to ensure a speedy and complete consideration of all aspects of the evidence associated with those cases. It is also in the interests of BAE that matters be swiftly brought to a head in respect of those countries. There is a great danger that we are seen as a country prepared to prosecute in the case of weak countries without oil or strategic interests, and not prepared to continue a case in the instance of a country which at present we have a strategic interest in protecting, although were the rather fragile Saudi regime to fall, we might find those arms in the hands of a very much more unfriendly regime.

Dr. John Pugh (Southport) (LD): Does my hon. Friend agree that it would be timely and would help to clear the air if the National Audit Office report, which is the only one that has never been released into the
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public domain, were so released? Does he further agree that this House has it in its gift to make that happen if it wants to?

Mr. Heath: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. He has pre-empted my third and last point on this subject, which is that it is unprecedented for the NAO to prepare a report for a Committee of this House and for it not to be published. If the House has any integrity, it will insist on the publication of that report. It is a matter that my right hon. and hon. Friends and I intend to pursue, and one that we hope will be brought to a conclusion.

Simon Hughes (North Southwark and Bermondsey) (LD): My hon. Friend knows that we have similar concerns about this matter. Given what the Prime Minister said on Friday, and given that the Shawcross doctrine set out here by Hartley Shawcross in 1951 made it clear that it would be entirely improper for any part of such a decision to be taken by anybody other than the Law Officers, does my hon. Friend agree that it is time to consider whether the Law Officers, though nominated by the Government, should be subject to the approval of Parliament and that Parliament should be entitled to withdraw that approval if it does not believe that they are doing their job properly and independently?

Mr. Heath: My hon. Friend makes an important point. The constitutional position of the Attorney-General and the Solicitor-General needs to be considered with the greatest care. They have a responsibility not only to the Government but to this House and to the country. Too often, the Attorney-General has been brought into political debate on matters where it would be far better if a greater degree of independence were demonstrated.

I want to move on to the biggest issue faced by any of us—Iraq. I make no apologies for doing so. On the last count, I have in the lifetime of this Parliament asked for debates on Iraq 14 times during business questions and six times on other occasions. I cannot understand why the House has been prepared to accept not being given the opportunity to debate Iraq properly.

From the outset, I pay tribute to the forces who are working so hard and under such difficult circumstances both in Iraq and in Afghanistan. I have a particular constituency interest in the air crew associated with RNAS Yeovilton. I also have 3 Commando Royal Marines—40 Commando—stationed very near to my constituency. Last year, I spent some time with the Royal Marines under the armed forces parliamentary scheme, and finer, more professional fighting men I have never met. I have huge admiration for what they have done in Iraq and in Afghanistan. I include in that the men of the Assault Boat Squadron whom I had the privilege of meeting.

We need to accept the scale and the awfulness of the situation in Iraq, where we have lost about 3,000 coalition troops and countless numbers of civilians—literally countless, because no one has authoritative figures—have lost their lives. It is increasingly recognised in the United States, with the publication of the Baker review. Colin Powell, of all people, is today
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reported as saying that the United States—and by virtue of our association with the United States, ourselves too—is losing the conflict and that it is a “grave and deteriorating situation”. Even the new US Defence Secretary, Robert Gates, has said that failure in Iraq would be a “calamity” that would haunt the United States for many years. There is a general realisation that the Pandora’s box that we have opened in Iraq will be very difficult to close.

There is also mounting criticism in this country, notably from the armed forces themselves, withSir Mike Jackson and Sir Richard Dannatt commenting on the exposed and extended position that the armed forces are now in. As a House, we should have as one of our prime responsibilities the care and support of the young men and women whom we send to war on behalf of this country. We should ensure that they have the equipment and support that they need to do their job not only effectively but safely.

John Bercow: Does the hon. Gentleman accept that the demand for a dedicated debate and for regular statements on this subject does not come only from the original opponents of the war? I voted for the war and would do so again. Nevertheless, the Government must accept that whatever their view of the current situation, they have a basic responsibility either to defend their record or to explain their errors. The responsibility to debate is an absolute responsibility, irrespective of what Ministers think of our opinions or those of the public.

Mr. Heath: The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. I respect those who took a different view at the time of the war; they did so for a variety of reasons. As he knows, I was against the war and explained why in the debate that took place on, I think, 18 March. Having recently looked at that speech, I see no reason to resile from any of the comments or opinions that I expressed. I accept that others have taken a contrary view. That does not absolve any Member of this House from their responsibility to scrutinise Government policy in this area properly, nor does it absolve the Government from being fully accountable to the House on the most important foreign and defence policy issue in recent memory. The unwillingness of the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary to come before the House to answer for that policy should be deplored.

Without wishing to reopen the sores of that debate or our current difficulties in looking back at some of the matters that were put before the House, I cannot allow one issue to go without comment. As we know, the weapons of mass destruction on which so much of the Government’s initial case was based were not found. I said in my speech that I did not doubt the Prime Minister’s sincerity in saying that he believed that they were there. However, that sincerity has been brought into doubt by the evidence of Carne Ross, former First Secretary at the United Nations, who said in his evidence to the Foreign Affairs Committee:

the Government—

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That was not the complexion of the evidence laid before the House by the Prime Minister or by other Ministers at the time.

We have also heard from Professor Bulmer-Thomas at Chatham House. Again, it may be a retrospective view, but it is nevertheless an important contribution. He talks of the “disaster” in Iraq and the damage to the United Kingdom’s international influence. I cannot indulge myself by taking too much of the House’s time, but I have to say that the United Kingdom’s authority in foreign affairs has been enormously damaged by Iraq. We are seeing the evidence of that not only in the Prime Minister’s lack of influence with the President on Capitol Hill, which has been the subject of blunt assessments, but in the region itself, where the Prime Minister is making belated but well-intentioned attempts to secure some sort of coalition around further progress on middle east talks. The fact is, however, that his association with the war in Iraq means that he is unable to play the pivotal role that we would want for this country.

John Hemming (Birmingham, Yardley) (LD): On the original decision to go to war in Iraq, does my hon. Friend agree that the Prime Minister needs to answer to this House as to why he rejected proposals from the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq for a change to the rules of engagement in the southern no-fly zone that would have obviated the need to invade Iraq to remove the Ba’ath regime?

Mr. Heath: There are a great number of things for which the Prime Minister needs to be accountable. A full inquiry into the circumstances surrounding the onset of the conflict will be necessary in due course; however, there are also matters in the here and now that require our immediate attention. I have already indicated that the safety of UK forces is of paramount importance.

We now need a properly based strategic review of our position, but not one that is identical to that of the United States. We cannot piggyback on the Baker review. We should look at the implications of the current situation for British foreign and defence policy. That cannot happen soon enough. The outcome of that should be a phased withdrawal, which should come sooner rather than later, although I do not make the mistake of assuming that we could immediately withdraw forces. Nobody sensible would say that, but we have to make speedy progress towards that end.

Lastly, there is the issue of the machinery of government. One of the things that was displayed throughout the decision-making process on Iraq was the Prime Minister’s presidential style, and the lack of consensual arrangements in Cabinet and the wider Government. It was recently proposed that this country should perhaps have a national security council, as the United States has. There is much to commend in that proposition. A standing committee that looked at all sides of our foreign and strategic policies would be of great benefit and if nothing else, might put a brake on the ambitions of a Prime Minister who is influenced too much by forces outwith the United Kingdom and who is tempted along roads that are not in our national interest.

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I do not expect the Deputy Leader of the House to be able to answer all the points that I have raised. It is no disrespect to him to say that some of those matters are beyond his terms of reference as Deputy Leader of the House. It is for the Prime Minister, the Foreign Secretary and the Secretary of State for Defence to answer on those points, to come to the House at regular intervals and to make reports to the House, but it is for the Leader of the House and the Deputy Leader of the House to provide the opportunities to debate what is the most important matter before us today.

1.12 pm

Mr. Adrian Bailey (West Bromwich, West) (Lab/Co-op): I join others in wishing everybody—the staff of the House and you, Mr. Speaker—a happy Christmas and a good new year. At Christmas, it is appropriate to reflect on those people who strive day and night in one’s constituency to make their local communities better places. The Government can provide money and capacity, but they cannot substitute for the efforts, enthusiasm, vision and drive of local people, armed with extra resources and determined to make their local communities better.

Nowhere is that more important than in a constituency such as mine, which is traditionally a manufacturing constituency. It was devastated in the ’70s, ’80s and early ’90s, when it lost a large chunk of its manufacturing and the jobs that went with that. It is a constituency with historically low aspirations and low educational achievement, because for generations young people left school at the earliest opportunity and went into work in local factories. Above all, it is a constituency in which it was necessary for the Government in 1997—with their priority of education, education, education—to deliver.

Before I come to some of the local achievements, I should stress that although the major manufacturers have disappeared from my constituency, there are still a large number of enterprising small companies that compete successfully in the highly competitive global market. Unusually, we had the reopening of a foundry last year—the first opening of a foundry for many years—at Hercunite, which is an investment by Hitachi that specialises in a high-quality eco-friendly car exhaust system. That is a clear demonstration that where entrepreneurial expertise and investment are allied to national and global ecological priorities, it is possible to carve out a niche market and be successful. Only last Friday I had the privilege of opening a bed and mattress factory, Dreams. That is another demonstration that an enterprising business, committed to working in this country and to using the pool of dedicated labour that has historically been found in my constituency, can be successful and create jobs.

However, I want to focus on education in particular, because there is an issue concerning investment and delivery. In my constituency, education funding has increased in real terms by some 48.7 per cent. per pupil since 1997. There have been reductions in class sizes, more teachers and more support staff. All too often, people look at the league tables and say that an authority is not delivering, but the statistics demonstrate that our authority is delivering. In 1997, 48 per cent. of pupils in my constituency reached reading level 4 in English at
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key stage 2. In 2006, the figure was 71 per cent. In maths, the relative figures are 45 per cent. and 69 per cent. Those figures are still lower than the national average but, significantly, they are above what was the national average in 1997. Moreover, the gap between my constituency and the national average has halved. Those figures can be reflected at key stage 3—children’s achievement at the age of 14—and in GCSE performance.

I should like to mention two schools in particular that have reached a level of excellence. The first is Round’s Green primary school, which serves one of the most underprivileged and multicultural areas in my constituency, and is one of the top 100 performing primary schools in the country. The other is Wood Green sports college in Wednesbury, which serves a multicultural community and where one third of the children are on free school meals. The school has demonstrated that sporting achievement and excellence can go hand in hand with academic achievement. It is the top performing school in the borough. Last year it sent 70 pupils to university and it recently won The Daily Telegraph top sports college award. Wood Green sports college has demonstrated that involving children in sport and raising their self-confidence and self-esteem has a crossover to academic achievement, and that sporting excellence and academic excellence can go hand in hand.

Building on that experience, the local authority is promoting the academy programme. Sandwell academy, in a neighbouring constituency, is already recruiting and will soon be followed by Willingsworth school in my constituency. Willingsworth school is sponsored by the Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce, which is a clear demonstration that there are bodies outside the area that are committed to and confident in investing in schools there. I hope that—the Deputy Leader of the House might make a note of this—Willingsworth school will get a fair wind from the Government as it jumps through the necessary hoops to become an academy.

One problem in my constituency was the number of bright young students who left at 16 to go to either neighbouring selective colleges or colleges outside the area. The purpose of promoting the academy programme and schools such as Wood Green school is to keep those young people within the borough in order to demonstrate its rising educational achievement and to provide an incentive to the younger students as they go through the same process.

To sound a cautionary note, the building schools for the future funding is welcome and has the potential to transform schools in my constituency, but I hope that those schools that are already performing do not lose out in the funding allocation and subsequent tranches. It is important that we continue to invest in those flagship schools that meet the Government’s objectives.

Sections of the local community have missed out on the educational investment provided since 1997. Hon. Members who have read the social exclusion action plan will have noted that, although there has been a general improvement in levels of affluence, education, opportunity and achievement, it highlights the problem of a hard core of people who were hitherto caught in a cycle of deprivation and non-achievement.

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