Previous Section Index Home Page

Is not the present situation that a very violent military conflict has broken out between two Shi’a armies? We are providing logistical and military support in extremis to one of those armies, the Iraqi
1 Apr 2008 : Column 639
army, although the Iraqi Prime Minister gave us no warning of his change to the timing of the attack. No doubt he has swept aside whatever advice he had had from the British and the description of the operation that had been given to the Secretary of State himself only a short time before. Surely the purpose of having 4,000 people in Basra now is to make sure that they are in adequate numbers safely to withdraw, because they do not appear to be playing any useful or predictable part in the political development of the country.

Des Browne: I think that the right hon. and learned Gentleman misrepresents the position in Iraq. Our forces, and those personnel who support them from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the Ministry of Defence and the Department for International Development, have been making significant progress, not only in training the Iraqi security forces, but in helping the democratically elected Iraqi Government, after decades during which the country was destroyed by the tyranny of a dictatorship, build an Administration who are increasingly becoming more competent and able to serve their own people. With respect, it is a gross misrepresentation to suggest that those achievements have not been made by those people, who have put their lives on the line.

The right hon. and learned Gentleman asks me how long it will be acceptable for me to come to the Dispatch Box to express condolences for the deaths of troops in operations. I do not think that it will ever be acceptable for me to do that—that is not a word that I would use. I find it deeply difficult—not for me, but for the people who I know grieve over those who have lost their lives. That will never be acceptable as far as I am concerned. As the right hon. and learned Gentleman will understand, I would much rather not have to do it at all.

During my time as Secretary of State for Defence, I have had some difficult statements to make from this Dispatch Box, but I do not recollect that I have had to make a series of statements of the type that the right hon. and learned Gentleman describes. I have never made a statement at this Dispatch Box of that nature.

This is the point at which provincial Iraqi control is being tested by the Iraqi Government themselves taking responsibility and taking decisions. It is a very difficult thing that that Government have chosen to do. There are many positive aspects to the fact that they are prepared to do it, not least the even-handedness of the Government’s approach and the fact that the Prime Minister took responsibility for it. It is a difficult thing to do. We need to stay with these people and support them, in the way that we have been doing, to the extent that they need to see this through.

Sarah McCarthy-Fry (Portsmouth, North) (Lab/Co-op): Last month, I had the privilege of spending some time with our troops in Basra who are monitoring, mentoring and training the Iraqi security services, and doing a superb job. Does my right hon. Friend agree that, although in the short term it is not possible to reduce the number of troops, it is in the long-term interests of everyone, not least the Iraqi people, that we have sufficient troops there to do that job, which will eventually enable the Iraqi security services to manage the job on their own?

1 Apr 2008 : Column 640

Des Browne: My hon. Friend describes what we seek to do very eloquently and straightforwardly. We have, over a period of some years now, progressively been handing over responsibility across the whole of the south—indeed, the coalition has been handing responsibility to the Iraqi security forces across the whole of Iraq. Many determined terrorist and other elements have tried to stop that progress. There have been setbacks. There has been a significant improvement in security in Baghdad, but I have always described that security as fragile. The fragility of that security has been exposed over the past week or thereabouts, but it has sustained. The important thing about the nature of the progress is that every time it is challenged, and every time it sees off that challenge, it emerges from those circumstances stronger. The Iraqi people deserve the opportunity to have a secure, democratic future, and they will not get it unless we support them through this process.

Willie Rennie (Dunfermline and West Fife) (LD): Five months ago, to the sound of trumpets, the Prime Minister announced the reduction to 2,500 troops. Why is he not here today to listen to this statement? He should be here—

Mr. Speaker: Order. The hon. Gentleman asks his questions on the statement; he does not ask about the presence or the absence of any right hon. or hon. Member.

Willie Rennie: When I visited Basra last year, it was made abundantly clear that the minimum force protection was more than 4,000, and that was confirmed last year by the Armed Forces Minister to the Defence Committee. Is it not time simply to withdraw our troops from Iraq, because they serve little purpose, their lives are being endangered, and they are there only at the behest of President Bush?

Des Browne: None of those assertions is true. I cannot believe that anybody who understands what our troops have done very bravely over the past week in support of the Iraqi security forces could suggest that they are there for no purpose. They are there for a very obvious purpose, and they have shown it over the past six days.

Harry Cohen (Leyton and Wanstead) (Lab): Will not the reduction to 2,500 by the spring be seen as a broken promise among a long list of broken promises in Iraq? Have not the Government been bounced by a factional Iraqi Government, the US forces who want to pull the strings, and new-empire-building generals? Is it not still an occupation that is massively unpopular both in Iraq and in this country? People will ask, “What has changed since the disastrous Blair policy?” What has changed?

Des Browne: My hon. Friend’s position on this issue is well known, and I suspect that his question is informed by his views on whether we should be in Iraq in the first place rather than an assessment of what is happening. I deny almost all the assertions that were contained in his question. There is a very clear direction of progress. It was never going to be progress that was not subject to changing circumstances and conditions on the ground. I am just thankful that our
1 Apr 2008 : Column 641
planning was such that we have the ability to be able to adjust when necessary, and that is what we are doing at the moment.

Mr. Edward Garnier (Harborough) (Con): The Secretary of State said that the British forces are providing “in extremis” support to Iraqi combat units. Does not that imply that our generals in the south are having to respond to decisions taken by other armies, and that we are therefore the victims of events rather than the leader of a strategic plan?

Des Browne: We are part of a coalition and, in southern Iraq, we are part of a coalition that is going through a process of transition. We cannot have a situation where we hand over control to Iraqi forces and keep control ourselves. That is not possible. We handed control to them through a process known as provincial Iraqi control and came back into overwatch, making decisions on when we would deploy to support them according to the circumstances in which they found themselves and their ability. We did so in the context of being part of a wider coalition, consulting our allies. That is exactly what we do. There is no problem with our continuing to proceed in that fashion, and it does not subject our troops to any of the risks that the hon. and learned Gentleman suggests.

Mr. Edward Leigh (Gainsborough) (Con): What did the Secretary of State’s words mean, when he referred to marking time and sending in artillery only “in extremis”? Is not our position becoming untenable or, indeed, something of a farce? The militias know that we will never have the political will to send in ground troops—the only way to defeat militias is on the ground. What are we doing there? Should we not just stop marking time and make a decision to go in and retake the city or, even better, start our withdrawal because we are making no difference?

Des Browne: The hon. Gentleman asks what “in extremis” support is. It is support provided to Iraqi security forces in circumstances where they were in extremis and, to be candid, needed our support in order to extract themselves from that set of circumstances. We deployed our artillery against people who were mortaring them. We deployed other troops who made their presence near to the situation very visible, so that they could be seen by the enemy, allowing Iraqi security forces to be extracted. That is exactly what we did in those circumstances.

I referred to marking time to summarise the part of the statement in which I explained that we would review the circumstances in the light of recent developments and that I would then report back to the House. What I mean by that is that we do not intend to continue the reduction of our forces in the meantime, while we review circumstances and wait for the situation in Basra to develop further to see which way it settles.

Mr. Douglas Hogg (Sleaford and North Hykeham) (Con): Does not the statement we have heard demonstrate the folly of the policy on which we have embarked? Is it not a fact that the disestablishment of
1 Apr 2008 : Column 642
the Iraqi army at the time of Saddam Hussein’s fall was the direct cause of the Iraqis’ failure to gain control of the streets of Basra and elsewhere in Iraq? The Government were associated with that decision. Is it not also a fact that our inability to reduce our forces in line with our planning demonstrates that the difficulties associated with getting out are a very powerful reason for not having gone in in the first place?

Des Browne: I do not think that I would be able to assist our troops in the circumstances that they face in Basra in any way if I concentrated my time or resources, when making decisions, on assessing whether a decision that was made five years ago was right or not. I am much more interested in the decisions that we need to make now concerning the ambitions of the Iraqi people, their security forces and the troops there for whom I have responsibility.

Mr. Crispin Blunt (Reigate) (Con): Is the Secretary of State as dismayed and embarrassed as I am that a large number of the criminal forces against whom this operation has been directed consist of the police whom we were responsible for training? There is every possibility that we shall repeat this process in Afghanistan. When are we going to have an inquiry into the matter?

Des Browne: The early attempts to create a police force in Iraq had exactly the results that the hon. Gentleman describes, as criminal elements came out of the police forces and may, indeed, have deliberately gone into them in order to obtain training. Under the generalship of General Jalil, of whom the hon. Gentleman may be aware, we have dealt with that very problem during the past year or more: a significant number of police officers have been dismissed from the Iraqi police force, while others have been retrained to ensure that that situation does not occur again. We have learned significant lessons from those early days of police training, and we shall implement them in Afghanistan to ensure that we do not repeat the problem.

Mr. Bernard Jenkin (North Essex) (Con): May I remind the Secretary of State of what the Select Committee on Defence heard last time we were in Iraq? The military advice, to which he keeps referring, was that 5,000 was the minimum viable number for the base in Basra. Was it not therefore the height of folly to advertise a reduction in the number of troops in Basra in advance of withdrawal, even if that were the Government’s intention? Does not that leave us more vulnerable than we would have been, having advertised weakness and invited the intervention of hostile forces?

Des Browne: With respect, the elements of the hon. Gentleman’s question do not follow in the way that he suggests. The number of troops in the contingency operating base in Basra had no relevance to the behaviour of the militia in relation to the operation. The two matters are not related. I do not intend to swap military advice from the Dispatch Box with him. I know the military advice that I was given, and our decisions, plans and report to the House were entirely consistent with it.

1 Apr 2008 : Column 643

Patrick Mercer (Newark) (Con): How much does the Secretary of State see the hand of Iran in the fighting of the past few days? What discussions has he held with the Iranian Government about it?

Des Browne: I have had no discussions with the Iranian Government in the past few days about that matter. I have no doubt that Iranian interference in Basra and in wider southern Iraq has had some influence on those whom the Iraqi security forces have been engaging in the past six days. I have no evidence of malign involvement by Iran, specifically in the past six days, but there is no question but that some of those people have been trained and equipped by Iran. I have made no bones about the strategic threat that Iran poses to that part of the region. Its involvement in southern Iraq is only part of its malign intentions for the region.

1 Apr 2008 : Column 644

Offshore Oil and Gas Industries (Health and Safety)

4.26 pm

Mr. Frank Doran (Aberdeen, North) (Lab): I beg to move,

In July, we will mark the 20th anniversary of the Piper Alpha disaster, when 167 workers were killed in the world’s worst offshore oil and gas accident. There is no doubt that, following the implementation of Lord Cullen’s report, safety in the North sea has improved significantly, but recently there has been an increase in concerns. Much of the infrastructure offshore is old and requires high maintenance and investment to sustain it. There is concern that companies are cutting corners to save money or keep equipment operating.

In 2003, two workers were killed by a gas leak on the Brent Bravo platform. In the criminal and the fatal accident proceedings that followed, serious shortcomings in maintenance on the part of Shell, the operator, were highlighted. However, the problems are not limited to one company. Between 2004 and 2007, the Health and Safety Executive’s offshore safety division carried out an asset integrity programme involving targeted inspections of nearly 100 platforms. The report, now known as the “Key Programme 3” report, had some worrying things to tell us about conditions in the North sea. It states:

The offshore oil and gas industry is crucial to the economy of this country. It makes a massive contribution to the balance of payments and to Government tax revenue. It employs about 400,000 people—approximately 20,000 offshore—and accounts for 20 per cent. of the investment made in manufacturing industry in this country each year. It is also one of our most dangerous industries. It needs the highest standards of safety, but there are barriers to those high standards, which I can wrap up in one sentence. Oil companies are resistant to change, especially when it has an impact on their internal working arrangements and relationships. On most offshore facilities, only a small number of employees are employed by the operating oil companies. The majority are employed by contractors, which usually means one large offshore service company and a number of smaller contractors providing specialist services.

The senior person on a production platform is the offshore installation manager, who has all the powers of a ship’s captain. One of the more unpleasant aspects of the offshore culture is the NRB or “not required back” system. Because of their unique status, OIMs can order anyone off the facility or insist that a person is “NRB-ed”. The employer has no say in the matter. That means that unless an employer can find another job for the worker, onshore or on another platform, the
1 Apr 2008 : Column 645
employee will be dismissed. Employment tribunals have ruled that such dismissals are fair, because the contractor is obliged to accept the decision of the client.

That is a not a dark secret, hidden away by the oil industry employers. I am told by union officials that it is a standard part of offshore contracts that the contractor has to accept the situation. The industry body, Oil and Gas UK, publishes guidance for employers on NRB. That guidance is currently under review. Even at a time of serious skills shortages in the industry, the NRB culture remains. That culture leads to a sense of job insecurity offshore and, from there, to low morale among the work force.

In 2003, the Government introduced regulations to implement the working time directive offshore. For the past four and a half years, the oil industry has fought against implementation. The unions have won the legal argument twice, in the employment tribunal and at the employment appeal tribunal. After the expenditure of several hundred thousand pounds on legal fees by both sides, the major companies are finally accepting what was obvious to anyone who seriously studied the regulations in 2003—that those workers who do not receive the holiday entitlement set out in the regulations are entitled to extra holidays. The industry had serious issues on which it needed answers, but none that could not have been negotiated with the unions in the normal way.

In the meantime, a work force who had to suffer a long history of having a two-class employment system—first class for those who worked for an oil company, and second class for those who worked for a contractor—developed a real sense of grievance. They felt that they were being denied the holiday time to which they were entitled and which was already enjoyed by their first-class co-workers in the oil industry. The industry approach seemed a particularly insensitive and ham-fisted way of dealing with a human problem and one that took no account of the effect on the morale of the work force.

Then, there is the permit to work system. At the root of virtually every significant accident in the North sea oil and gas industry, including Piper Alpha, is a failure in the permit to work system. Every company insists on keeping its own individual system; yet the pattern of work offshore nowadays means that many workers, particularly those with special skills, work on a number of installations. In each different workplace, they have to deal with a different permit to work system.

Next Section Index Home Page