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The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Mr. Parmjit Dhanda): My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. Up
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and down the country it is important that people should have the right to vote. We should make all our polling stations as accessible as possible. I hope that her local authority will hear what she has said. All local authorities up and down the land should ensure that as many people as possible have the opportunity to vote.

T8. [197714] Mr. Richard Benyon (Newbury) (Con): West Berkshire’s Conservative-run administration inherited from the Liberal Democrats a lamentable 18 per cent. of household waste being recycled. That is now rising to 50 per cent., with a power from waste contract resulting in 79 per cent. being diverted from landfill. Will the Secretary of State join me in congratulating them?

Hazel Blears: I am delighted that local authorities in general have raised the amount of household recycling from 7 per cent. some years ago to 32 per cent., and some authorities are doing extremely well. Where local authorities are doing well, I am pleased to congratulate them. The hon. Gentleman inherited the previous state of affairs from a Liberal Democrat council. The record of Liberal Democrats, where they are in power, is pretty lamentable. If anybody looks at Liverpool council at the moment, they will see the state that it is in: it is officially the worst managed council in Britain.

T10. [197716] James Duddridge (Rochford and Southend, East) (Con): What discussions has the Secretary of State had with the Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform in relation to the impact on local communities of the closure of our vital post offices?

Hazel Blears: I have had discussions with the Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform on post offices. I welcome the intervention of local authorities of all political persuasions in looking at whether councils could play a bigger role in putting services through the post office, or indeed in hosting post offices in their own organisations. I am keen to encourage them to do that. I am also keen to encourage co-operatives, mutuals, village shops and a whole range of different ways of providing what are sometimes essential services to local communities.

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Speaker’s Statement

3.30 pm

Mr. Speaker: Yesterday the hon. Member for Aldershot (Mr. Howarth) raised a point of order on the release by the Ministry of Defence of the outcome of a procurement exercise for tanker aircraft in advance of its notification to the House. I have looked into the matter. I am satisfied that Ministers took reasonably appropriate steps in the circumstances to inform Members, and subsequently to inform the House. But I repeat my determination to ensure that wherever practicable, the House is the first to hear of such important announcements.

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3.31 pm

The Secretary of State for Defence (Des Browne): With permission, Mr. Speaker, I would like to make a statement on the security situation in Basra. Before I begin, I would like to pay tribute to the courage of all our servicemen and women serving in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere. I know that the House will join me in paying tribute in particular to those who have been killed or injured in the line of duty, most recently Lieutenant John Thornton and Marine David Marsh, killed in southern Afghanistan on Sunday, and the soldier killed in Iraq last Wednesday. I know that all our thoughts are with them and their families and friends.

Our policy in Iraq consistently has been to get the Iraqis to a point where they can take control of their own destiny and security. To that end, in December 2007, we transferred responsibility for security in Basra province to the Iraqi authorities. Of the four provinces in southern Iraq for which we had responsibility, Basra was the last to transfer under provincial Iraqi control.

The transfer of security responsibility means Iraqis taking the lead in solving the challenges and problems that they still face in their country. It therefore means Iraqis taking decisions on their own future and taking responsibility for implementing those decisions. As the Foreign Secretary and I made clear when the multinational force transferred security responsibilities to the Iraqis, the UK military’s role in Basra was changing rather than ending. No longer were we in the lead, although our forces remained on hand to support the Iraqi security forces. But let me be absolutely clear: our forces continue to do a vital and necessary job in Iraq. Their roles include training and mentoring in the Basra area and on Iraq’s borders, providing capabilities such as fast jet support and surveillance for Iraqi operations, and facilitating reconstruction. We describe this mission as operational overwatch. We will continue to work alongside the Iraqi security forces in southern Iraq until they are able to ensure security without our support.

One of the reasons why the Iraqis needed our continuing support into 2008 was that they and we recognised that improving security and enforcing the rule of law in Basra would require action over the longer term. As the Iraqi Government have made clear, the main problems in Basra are criminality and militia elements that act outside the law and are unwilling to embrace democratic politics. While UK and coalition forces have done much to deliver broad levels of security, over the longer term only the Iraqis can tackle successfully criminal activity and political violence, which are often linked to social and economic factors. The events of the last week should be seen in that context.

When I visited Iraq three weeks ago, I was briefed in detail about the Iraqi plan for improving security in Basra by General Mohan, the commander of the Iraqi security forces in Basra. General Mohan then visited Baghdad the following week to present the same plan to the Government of Iraq for endorsement. Prime Minister al-Maliki formally announced his intention to
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accelerate the implementation of the plan at a meeting on Sunday 23 March, where both the US and the UK were represented at a very senior level.

Let me be clear: what we have seen over the last week is action being taken by the Government of Iraq to fulfil their responsibilities for security in a province that has transferred to Iraqi control.

The Iraqi security forces, under the personal supervision of their Prime Minister, commenced Operation Charge of the Knights last Tuesday. As I have explained, it is an operation intended to tackle criminality and those in the city who continue to act outside the law, as a means of improving security for the people of Basra. The planning, timing and execution of the operation have been led entirely by the Iraqi Government and their security forces, and the Prime Minister’s presence and leadership in Basra demonstrate the importance that they attach to it.

Since last Tuesday, the Iraqi security forces have been conducting cordon and strike operations against criminal elements across Basra, supported by efforts to encourage militias to give up their medium and heavy weapons. An operation of that kind in a challenging urban environment was never likely to produce immediate success, and indeed the Iraqi Defence Minister, Abd al-Qadir, has acknowledged the strength of resistance that the Iraqi security forces have faced. But Iraqi operations continue, and the Government of Iraq are making steady progress towards achieving their aim of ensuring respect for the rule of law by all parties and factions. Moqtada al-Sadr’s call on Sunday for his followers to abide by a ceasefire and work with the Government of Iraq to achieve security is a demonstration of that progress.

It is too early to give a definitive or detailed assessment of how the operation has gone overall, and it would be quite wrong to seek to do so while the Iraqi security forces continue to conduct their operations in Basra and elsewhere. The situation remains fluid, although levels of fighting in Basra have reduced since the weekend. That trend has been reflected in other areas of Iraq where tensions rose in response to the operations in Basra.

In the other provinces in the multinational division south-east area, the Iraqi security forces have dealt successfully with the security challenges that have arisen in Dhi Qar and Al-Muthanna, and though there is more tension in Maysaan, militia elements there appear to have been complying with Moqtada al-Sadr’s statement. In Baghdad, too, the security situation has stabilised, and the curfew has now been lifted.

We and our coalition partners are providing support to the Iraqis in line with our commitments under overwatch and in accordance with our usual rules of engagement. Requests for support are being made through the coalition, and I can confirm that UK forces have continued to meet all their obligations as part of the multinational corps. The support that we have provided is similar to that given in previous incidents, most recently during the disturbances in Nasiriyah and Basra over the Shi’a Ashura festival in January. It is important that the House understand the extent of that support. During the last week, British forces have—as part of the coalition effort—provided
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surveillance, flown fast jet missions over the city as shows of force and used our helicopters to help to resupply the Iraqi security forces.

Logistic support to the Iraqis has included food, water and ammunition. Medical care is being provided to wounded Iraqi security personnel. We have a small number of liaison staff working in Iraqi headquarters, and as far as ground forces are concerned we have so far deployed elements of one of our three battlegroups, using tanks, armoured vehicles and artillery to provide in extremis support to Iraqi units in combat on the ground. We have deployed elements of another battlegroup to resupply one of the Iraqi headquarters. Once again, I pay tribute to the professionalism of our forces in those complex operational circumstances.

In October, we announced our plan for drawing down UK troops from southern Iraq, from 5,000 at the time of the announcement to around 2,500 by the spring, dependent on conditions on the ground and military advice. At the end of the year, when UK forces moved into overwatch in the last province of Basra, we reduced force numbers to around 4,500. Since then, numbers have been reduced further, to their current level of around 4,000.

Before the events of the last week, the emerging military advice, based on our assessment of current conditions then, was that further reductions might not be possible at the rate envisaged in the October announcement, although it remains our clear direction of travel and our plan. In the light of the last week’s events, however, it is prudent that we pause further reductions while the current situation is unfolding.

It is absolutely right that military commanders review plans when conditions on the ground change. I am sure that hon. Members would not expect us to do anything else, so at this stage we intend to keep our forces at the current level of around 4,000 as we work with our coalition partners and with the Iraqis to assess future requirements. I expect to be able to update the House on force levels later this month.

What is happening in Basra is a manifestation of our policy to give Iraqis control of their own security. That road will not always be smooth. It will require political and economic progress and reconciliation, as well as military action. I commend the continuing efforts of the British business man Michael Wareing to galvanise economic development in the south, working with companies and investors from Iraq, neighbouring countries and the wider world. I have no doubt that, despite the challenges, that combination of security, political and economic support is the right way to bring about lasting stability in Basra and beyond.

Dr. Liam Fox (Woodspring) (Con): I begin by associating myself and the Opposition with the tributes made by the Secretary of State to those killed and wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan for the sake of the security of the people of this country. We are in their debt and our thoughts are with their families and friends.

I think both sides of the House agree that for our forces to remain in Iraq we need a military and not just a political role for them. To have our troops rocketed and mortared just to provide political cover would be
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wholly unacceptable. The Secretary of State has set out what he believes the military role now is, and on that basis I have a number of specific questions for him.

First, how much control do we really have over events in the area in the south of Iraq? At the meeting on 23 March, did our commanders agree with bringing forward General Mohan’s offensive? When the Secretary of State says we were represented at a very senior level, was it military or civilian and what was the exact level? Surely, it is not acceptable for us simply to end up mopping up if we do not have a say in what operations are being carried out and how. From what the Secretary of State has just told us, it appears that our commanders had only 48 hours’ notice, yet they had to deploy more than one battlegroup, with tanks, armoured vehicles and artillery. Is that an acceptable model for the future?

Secondly, the Secretary of State was briefed by General Mohan, as were several of us during his recent visit to the House—we raised it on the Floor during our last discussions. At that time, General Mohan said that although he believed he had sufficient men to deal with the militia threat, he was short of equipment—in particular, medium-range artillery, electronic jamming equipment and off-road capability. He also said at that time that he believed that the Government in Baghdad were slow to provide that because of pressure being applied from the Iranian Government. What representations have our Government made to get more equipment available more quickly to the Iraqi forces themselves, so that they can better deal with the situation that they face and not have to rely so much on British equipment?

Thirdly, although we welcome the Iraqi Government taking on the militias and we all hope that they succeed in doing so, what if things do not go according to plan and the situation deteriorates further—something that we all hope will not happen? Under what circumstances would British troops ever be redeployed into Basra city and who would take such a decision? Would it be so important that it would be taken by Ministers, not just by commanders on the ground?

We have seen in recent months only a small reduction in total numbers on Operation Telic, to around 5,500 now in the region—considerably more than in Iraq itself. Have the Government completely ruled out redeploying any of those back to Iraq if the situation deteriorates further? What are the cost implications of keeping our numbers up to a higher level than the Government anticipated and said only a few months ago, because that will clearly have a marked effect on the overstretch of our armed forces?

I am afraid that the Government have been caught too often on the over-optimistic end of the spectrum. Only two weeks ago, in the Government-produced national security strategy, they said that

That is simply not true in either Afghanistan or Iraq. What will they do now in the light of the changed circumstances?

I hope that the Government have now learned not to play party politics with projected troop numbers. That the Prime Minister’s performance last October reflects badly on him does little to help the families of those
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who will now be separated from them for longer than the Prime Minister led them to believe. We should spare a thought for them today. They are willing to make the sacrifices; they just expect the truth.

Des Browne: First, I thank the hon. Gentleman for his opening remarks. I am sure that they were appreciated by the whole House. I also thank him for his consistent support for our military, wherever it is deployed. He is entirely consistent and stalwart in that regard. I am grateful to him for that, and I know that our troops are, too.

I first challenge the peroration of the hon. Gentleman’s question, which was that there was something either dishonest or misleading about the information that was given to the House by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister. I personally take great, detailed care to ensure that, in relation to matters to do with both Afghanistan and Iraq, I keep the House updated. I ensure that every statement that comes from the Government keeps the House updated. [ Interruption. ] It is what should be expected of me. [ Interruption. ]

Mr. Speaker: Order.

Des Browne: Great care was taken with the information that the Prime Minister gave the House in October: that information and the plan reflected the best military advice. The circumstances and conditions have changed, and the military advice has changed. There is no question of anyone using troop numbers for party political purposes, but there is a question of troop numbers being used in the way that the hon. Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox) constantly calls for, so that people have some indication of the sense of direction—particularly the families of those people who are deployed to dangerous environments.

The hon. Gentleman is constantly calling for detailed information. He is constantly calling for me to come to the Dispatch Box to anticipate where we will be in a particular period, and to the extent that I am able to respond to those questions, I do so. I do not think it appropriate subsequently, when my responses are qualified by the conditions or military advice—the conditions and the military advice change—to suggest that that anticipation is in any way misleading. It is not.

The second point that I want to make is that questioning whether we—the United Kingdom—have control over what is happening in southern Iraq is, with all due respect to the hon. Gentleman, not to understand fully the position that I explained in some detail at the beginning of my statement. This part of southern Iraq is under provincial Iraqi control, which means that the Iraqis have prime responsibility for security.

Dr. Fox indicated assent.

Des Browne: The hon. Gentleman suggests that he knows that. The Iraqis have control.

At the meeting, an assessment was made of whether the Iraqis could deal with the situation. I quote:

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