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Dr. Ladyman: Clearly, I shall have to put that right in future. I have not read the report to which the hon. Gentleman referred but I have spoken to SOSREP since he gave the interview, and he was concerned that some of his comments might be taken out of context. I believe that he was trying to explain to the journalist that the vessel had suffered significant damage and that there was a risk of further break-up. Consequently, he appropriately put together several contingency plans based on what might happen under those circumstances. One hopes that they will not be necessary. Every time a container is taken off the ship, the stress on it becomes less and the likelihood of break-up or further damage is reduced. I hope that we
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can get through the process without further major spillage. If we can get all the oil off by the end of Sunday, the risk of serious oil pollution is minimal. Plans are therefore in place if the worst happens, but that is not expected at the moment.

Local authorities should make an appropriate claim through the civil courts for the recovery of their costs. We will support them in that. We have spoken to the owners’ representative and been informed of their views. They are being constructive and helpful and do not appear to penny-pinch in any way. I am therefore confident that we can resolve everybody’s claims satisfactorily.

A marine Bill would have made no difference to the incident. Such a measure would not alter SOSREP’s decisions in such circumstances. When SOSREP is faced with the possibility of environmental catastrophe if a ship is allowed to sink in deep water, he has to take account of myriad things. Of course, he will consider the environmental sensitivity of a particular area, and weigh up whether less sensitive areas are an option. Ultimately, however, he must make sure that the vessel can either be put into a harbour safely or beached safely. A marine Bill would not have made any difference, and nor would any other device that Devon county council has been asking for to protect that stretch of coastline. By taking action we have protected the coastline, as the area would have suffered from pollution for many years to come had the vessel been allowed to sink at sea.

John McDonnell (Hayes and Harlington) (Lab): May I draw the House’s attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Interests as the convenor of the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers parliamentary group?

The House is now aware that the vessel was British-flagged and that it was grounded in 2001. Is the Minister also aware that maritime unions have blacklisted the company that owns the vessel because of its operations, standards and practices? May I suggest that it is now a matter of urgency that we look again at how British flagging procedures secure the health and safety of working practices on British-flagged vessels?

Dr. Ladyman: I understand my hon. Friend’s concern over the issue. He and the unions with which he often works have made representations to me about the issue previously. I can tell him—perhaps I should also have said this in response to the question from the hon. Member for Rochdale (Paul Rowen)—that the MAIB investigation will consider all the factors that contributed to the event. If it turns out that the management, crewing or communication among the crew of the vessel was responsible, or that the MCA could have done something better to prevent the incident, that will emerge in the findings, which will be published in the accident report. I assure my hon. Friend that action will then be taken.

Mr. Hugo Swire (East Devon) (Con): As the local Member of Parliament, may I pay tribute to the excellence of the contractors working around the clock on the beach in Branscombe who have already removed 50 tonnes of scrap metal and have 100 tonnes to go? The Minister is absolutely right: it should be said loudly and clearly that Branscombe is open for
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business. I urge Members to come and see that for themselves during their Easter and summer holidays. It is a great place, and they would get a warm welcome.

Given the principle that the polluter pays, to whom should my constituents make claims if they have suffered loss of bookings? Whom does the Minister think would make up the shortfall, if there is any, both in the short and the longer term?

Dr. Ladyman: First, I pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman for the way in which he has represented constituents and for his constructive approach to the issue. None of us would have liked this type of accident in our constituency, and he could have been forgiven for getting angry about it, but he has not done so; he has dealt with it professionally and appropriately.

The hon. Gentleman is right to pay tribute to the contractors and to say that Branscombe is open for business. I understand that the vessel is something of a tourist attraction at the moment, and I have no doubt that the businesses of Branscombe are cashing in on that. In the spring and summer, I hope that people throughout the country will continue to take their holidays and visit there, and I hope that many Members of the House do so too. When the risk of pollution has passed, I hope that the sight of the vessel offshore will act as a tourist attraction to bring more people to the village.

If anyone has any difficulty in understanding to whom they need to make an appropriate claim, they should, of course, take advice. If the hon. Gentleman wants to discuss such issues on behalf of his constituents in future, I would be happy to meet him to ensure that everybody knows exactly what they need to do.

Mr. Adrian Sanders (Torbay) (LD): The Minister rightly praised the RAF and the coastguard, but he was remiss in not congratulating the salvors who are working 24 hours a day. But for their fantastic work, the disaster in Lyme bay would have been much worse.

Given the history of the vessel, why was it not taken into Falmouth or Plymouth? If that action had been taken, rather than going past Torbay and the entire length of the Jurassic coast to get to Portland, the vessel would never have had to be beached.

Dr. Ladyman: The vessel did not go to those ports because the direction of travel of the wind and tides at the time was such that the assessment was made that it would not reach them. As I said in my initial statement, there is no provision at Falmouth for the offloading of containers even had the vessel managed to reach there. The decision taken was appropriate. Such matters are always judgment calls. There will always be people who, with the benefit of hindsight, say that the vessel could have gone here or there. The man in command must make the decision in a short space of time, however, and he must do what he thinks is best. That is what SOSREP did, and I am afraid that we must back him when he does that.

On the salvors, I did thank SOSREP and his team. Indeed, his wider team consisted of much more than salvors: it included environmentalists, the owners’
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representative, people who were brought in from the MCA, and others who were brought in to make recommendations on tides and the inventory of the cargo so that we knew exactly what we were dealing with. It has been a real team effort, and the salvors have been very professional.

I should also particularly thank the French authorities. The French Minister, Monsieur Dominique Perben, telephoned me the next morning to thank us for our efforts. He has continued to make resources available to us for the rescue, and we have had a further conversation since then. The resolution of the issue has been a good example of teamwork not only in SOSREP’s team but internationally.

Mr. Oliver Letwin (West Dorset) (Con): May I thank the Minister for the effective way in which he has kept my hon. Friend the Member for East Devon (Mr. Swire), me and the hon. Member for South Dorset (Jim Knight) informed about the matter? I visited the beaches affected in West Dorset last week, and I was delighted to see that they have all been properly cleared, as well as being impressed by the people doing that work.

I gather, however, that about 20 per cent. of the oil remains to be taken off the vessel. The Minister will be aware that a fairly large number of oiled birds have been beached, particularly in Abbotsbury in my constituency. I hear that that oil has been taken off by a hot-tapping procedure. Does he feel that it will be removed from the vessel without further environmental damage to the east in my constituency?

Dr. Ladyman: Again, I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his constructive attitude. He will be aware that, at one point, we thought that his constituency would have the benefit of the vessel. He faced up to that with equanimity, and I can tell his hon. Friend the Member for East Devon (Mr. Swire) that he did not tell SOSREP to move it down the coast; that decision was taken entirely by SOSREP.

I am glad that the right hon. Gentleman has visited the site: I am glad that it is now being cleaned up, and we need to keep it that way. As one of his colleagues has suggested that Ministers have not visited the site, let me put on record that I visited the salvage operation team on Monday, and the Minister for Local Environment, Marine and Animal Welfare visited an RSPCA site to see the operation to clean up the birds. We made those visits privately, so that we did not create a media scrum and detract from the real work going on. The right hon. Gentleman is right that there have been a number of oiled birds, but that is always the case. Although the number has increased, it has not done so dramatically, but any further damage must be dealt with.

On the issue of hot-tapping, the oil remaining on the vessel is in a difficult tank to reach. The process is slow, and the oil is very cold and thick, so it must be warmed up before it can be removed. I am as confident as I can be that it will all be safely removed by the end of the weekend. Of course, things can go wrong, but, thankfully, it looks like the weather will be okay. Once all the oil is off the vessel, I think that we will be able to say that there will be no serious environmental consequences as a result of the incident.

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Points of Order

12.49 pm

Pete Wishart (Perth and North Perthshire) (SNP): On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. Yesterday in Prime Minister’s questions and again today in business questions, the Prime Minister and the Leader of the House refused to answer any questions on the cash for honours investigation. Given that no one has been charged in the investigation and given that there is no sub judice, surely Ministers can answer questions about a matter of supreme public interest.

Madam Deputy Speaker (Sylvia Heal): I must inform the hon. Gentleman that that is not a point of order for the Chair.

Judy Mallaber (Amber Valley) (Lab): On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. This morning in Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs questions, the Department’s officials allowed a question on discussions by Ministers with the Indian Government on climate change, but transferred my question on what discussions they had had on tropical rainforests, a key factor in relation to climate change. Given that I am sure that Environment Ministers would like to discuss that very important part of their remit with hon. Members, can you advise me how that can be proceeded with so that DEFRA officials allow this important subject on to the agenda for discussion with Members?

Madam Deputy Speaker: I am afraid that that is a matter for the Department. I suggest that the hon. Lady pursues it with the relevant Ministers.

Mrs. Nadine Dorries (Mid-Bedfordshire) (Con): On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. When I voted for the Equality Bill, I voted with good intentions. However, nowhere in the Bill did it say that it would compromise the beliefs of the Catholic Church. Christianity has been here for more than 2,000 years and it will be here for a long time after this Government have gone. If I could vote again on that Bill, I would not do so. Will you advise Members on how they can be better informed about what will be contained in a Bill in future?

Madam Deputy Speaker: That is not a point of order. It is a matter of debate and argument. It is inappropriate to put that to the Chair.

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Defence in the World

[Relevant documents: The Fifth Report from the Defence Committee, Session 2005-06, on the UK deployment to Afghanistan, HC 558, and the Government’s response thereto (Sixth Special Report, Session 2005-06, HC 1211), and the Thirteenth Report, Session 2005-06, on UK Operations in Iraq, HC 1241, and the Government’s response thereto (Twelfth Special Report, Session 2005-06, HC 1603).]

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn. —[Liz Blackman.]

12.51 pm

The Secretary of State for Defence (Des Browne): I am grateful for the opportunity to open this important debate on defence in the world. Let me start by paying tribute to the work of the UK armed forces, the Ministry of Defence’s civilian staff, members of other Departments and members of the services, including the police and the Prison Service, who are deployed around the world, working in difficult, often arduous circumstances, defending our interests and security. We owe them a great debt of gratitude.

Rarely in recent years have we had demonstrated so clearly the role that our armed forces play in the world. Right now more than 20,000 personnel are overseas working in the defence of the UK, its people and its interests. We are undertaking two major campaigns and a host of other tasks to deliver security, enable development and reconstruction, build confidence and strengthen the security capacity of our friends and allies. Nowhere are those aims more relevant, or the challenges to them more pronounced, than in Iraq. I was there yesterday—my fourth trip in the nine months that I have been in this job. As ever, I was immensely proud of the work that all our people are doing there, both civilian and military, working together to improve the life of the Iraqi people.

The 12 million Iraqis who voted for peace and opportunity remain resolute in the face of far too many days marred by sectarian murder and terrorist atrocities. The politicians who represent those people tell me that Iraq is making progress—frustratingly slow perhaps, but outside Baghdad and the surrounding areas the situation is far from the hopelessness that is often played out on our TV screens, although it is understandable that those incidents of violence attract the attention of our media. That is not to say that all is well. Security is still the No. 1 problem, but perhaps what people back here in the UK do not realise is that 80 per cent. of the violence is concentrated within 30 miles of Baghdad. That is why I have welcomed the US and Iraqi Governments’ new plan for Baghdad without any sense that it is inconsistent with our approach. The security situation there demands it, whereas in the south the environment is different.

I met Prime Minister Maliki and a number of Ministers from across the Iraqi Government and discussed the new Baghdad security plan with them. Their energy and commitment to making the plan work was both impressive and, to some degree, inspiring. They are behind the plan, and they tell me that the people are behind the plan, but it is up to them to make it work. It has to be an Iraqi-led plan, using significant Iraqi resources, if it is to succeed. While the
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US is putting in more troops to help support the plan, the Iraqi army is increasing its presence in the city and will be right beside them. In addition, the Iraqi Government are investing $10 billion in reconstruction and infrastructure projects. The investment is crucial because, as I have said so often about Iraq and Afghanistan, the answers are never purely about what the military can do. That is why this plan has to be a plan for all Iraqis, Sunni and Shi’a alike. Consequently, I welcome Prime Minister Maliki’s pledge that sectarian interference will not be tolerated.

I was in Baghdad during the festival of Ashurah and met Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, who told me that that morning he had been to speak at a celebration of the festival in a part of the city where a Sunni shrine and a Shi’a shrine are close together. He told me with some pride that thousands of people from both sides of the sectarian divide had gathered to celebrate without signs of trouble. He is a very devout man and has witnessed many festivals of that kind, albeit all too few when Saddam Hussein ruled Iraq, but it was clear to me that the experience had moved him.

In recent days there has been talk of a split between us and our American allies. That is simply not true. I met several of the top US generals in Baghdad, along with Ambassador Khalilzad. Our goals—the UK goals and the US goals—remain the same: to help the Iraqis build the capacity to protect and govern their society. But Baghdad and Basra are different places. There is less violence in Basra and, by and large, the violence is of a different nature, without the poisonous sectarianism that infects Baghdad.

Operation Sinbad is drawing to a close in Basra. It has had some measurable effects, and public support for the operation is good and reported violence is down markedly. That is not just a glib assessment. I spoke to young soldiers who told me of the measurable difference in the attitude of the people. They are responding to our support and take comfort in knowing that we are prepared to take on the murderous militia, much of which we believe is funded, trained and equipped by Iranian elements.

Mr. James Arbuthnot (North-East Hampshire) (Con): I agree with all that the Secretary of State has said so far. However, did he not find it alarming that the remarks of the United States ambassador created the impression that there was insufficient communication between the United States and the United Kingdom on whether the UK should gradually withdraw its forces and hand over control to the Iraqis?

Des Browne: I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his support. I know that it comes from a substantial knowledge base of what is going on in Iraq. I admit that I was disturbed by the interpretation of the part of the interview with Ambassador Khalilzad that was extensively reported in the UK. I was less concerned when I read the whole interview, and I was entirely reassured when I had the opportunity to spend time with the ambassador and to satisfy myself that he fully understood what we were doing. Indeed, he had been part of a process of discussion over many months about the application of our strategy for Basra. Part of
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the problem may be that there is sometimes a tendency to abstract parts of sentences or whole sentences from extensive interviews and to over-interpret them. In essence, the problem arose because Ambassador Khalilzad honestly conceded that there was not agreement on the detail of the plan at that point in the discussions. That was interpreted as being disagreement when it was just an indication that discussions were ongoing.

The right hon. Gentleman will probably already know that very senior officers are embedded deeply into the command of all the coalition forces throughout Iraq. They are greatly valued, not just by our American allies but by the Iraqi Government, and they play a significant role. When I was in Iraq General Lamb, the senior British military representative in Iraq and currently No. 2 to General Casey, was in charge of the coalition forces. He was the commando because General Casey was out of the country. Against that background, the idea that there was no discussion and conversation between us and our allies about our operational plans is fanciful. Let me reassure the right hon. Gentleman and the House by saying that over-interpretation of one part of a very detailed interview may have misled us all for a short time.

At the start of Operation Sinbad our forces were leading the way, but by the final stages the Iraqi army was out in the lead. That is a sign of progress. It is not a guarantee of success, but it is progress that the people of Basra can see. As well as the improvement in the security situation, thousands of jobs have been created through investment in both short and long-term projects. For example, $12 million has been invested in date palm farming, and Operation Sinbad has created about 25,000 short-term jobs along with the hope of more than 3,000 permanent jobs. More than $30 million has been invested in the improvement of water and electricity supplies. The operation has concentrated on the “last mile”, conveying those vital services to people’s homes and schools. When, in due course, that work is married up with the long-term investment that the Department for International Development has been responsible for making and overseeing in Basra’s water and electricity infrastructure, the benefits will be delivered to homes, schools and other buildings. So things are getting better.

Mr. David Kidney (Stafford) (Lab): The Staffords—as the Staffordshire Regiment is known—are on their second tour of duty in Basra, and the thoughts of Staffordshire people are with them. We wish them a safe return home. My right hon. Friend has mentioned Operation Sinbad several times. The next major review of our troop levels in Iraq will take place after it has finished. Will my right hon. Friend give us a rough idea of when it will finish and how long the review will take?

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