Previous Section Index Home Page

18 Dec 2008 : Column 1246

The Prime Minister: My hon. Friend has taken a long-term interest in that. DFID has worked mainly in the Basra area over the past few years. It has set up the Basra development commission and worked with a number of business men to bring jobs and industries to Basra. One very interesting project is being run on the model of the Prince’s Trust in Britain, where young unemployed people are taken on through individual firms. I think that everybody welcomes that, and it could be applied to the rest of Iraq. That is why DFID’s interest and the work in terms of civil society will now move from Basra to other parts of Iraq to seek to build better institutions for the future and give new hope of jobs and prosperity to people in all parts of Iraq.

Adam Price (Carmarthen, East and Dinefwr) (PC): The Prime Minister’s predecessor once referred to the blood price that would be necessary as a result of the war in Iraq. Given the huge scale of the human cost—the hundreds of thousands of Iraqi, British and American lives lost—can the Prime Minister in all conscience say that that was a price worth paying?

The Prime Minister: Making decisions about war is very difficult indeed, but this House considered all the factors involved, made its decision and then implemented that decision. I can also say to the hon. Gentleman that we should be proud that 100,000 troops in all have at one time or another given service in Iraq, and they have done their duty by the country. At one point, we had 46,000 troops in Iraq; we now have 4,000, and we are now bringing the number down as we finish our mission at the end of May. I believe that we should say to our troops that we are proud of what they have done.

Mark Durkan (Foyle) (SDLP): The Prime Minister has made a number of announcements that are welcome today and that will be even more welcome when they happen. Obviously, we wish safety to those deployed in the meantime and in the future. Those of us in Northern Ireland parties have had some engagement with the budding parliamentarians of Iraq, and we wish them and their people well in the opportunities and challenges that they face, including coming to terms with the toll of their loss, not just over the past five and a half years, but before. Will the Prime Minister tell us to what extent the prospect of troop withdrawal has been ensured by regime change in America, and will he also acknowledge that many democrats in this country are still sincerely scandalised by a war that was waged on false premises, with dodgy legal advice given in this Chamber, and under false assumptions?

The Prime Minister: So that the hon. Gentleman understands the sequence of the decisions, let me remind him that last July I said, and the Defence Secretary said to the House, that we had four specific objectives that we wanted to achieve in Iraq and that once we had achieved them there would be a fundamental change of mission. These objectives included greater security by training the Iraqi forces, making the holding of local elections possible, and moves, which we are now taking and working on, to improve the economic development of Iraq, so that people have a stake in the future. It is on the basis of these objectives that we now make our decision that our mission will end by 31 May next year at the latest. I believe that we have followed through the
18 Dec 2008 : Column 1247
tasks that we set last July in a way that shows that there has been real progress, and that is why I hope that the hon. Gentleman agrees that the motive for today’s decision is that we have completed the tasks we set.

Patrick Mercer (Newark) (Con): I am sure the Prime Minister will agree that despite the large number of American troops left in the Basra area, the withdrawal of British troops will create a power vacuum. Will he outline the contingency plans for the re-engagement of British troops? That assumes, of course, that the extra numbers relieved from there have not been sent to Afghanistan.

The Prime Minister: We have moved on from our previous operation, where we had combat troops on the ground every day in the front line in Basra and the surrounding areas. We have moved from that position of combat to one of overwatch over the past year. We have moved successfully to that position, and the number of incidents taking place in Basra has, of course, been cut very substantially since the operation that was also organised by Prime Minister al-Maliki took place in Iraq. There has been a very big reduction in violence. I am satisfied that the Iraqi troops are in a position to keep order themselves, but, of course, this is now a matter for the Iraqis. The agreement says that the relevant Iraqi Minister could come back to us to ask for further assistance, if he chooses to do so, and that is a matter for him. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will agree that whereas a year ago the situation in Basra was full of violence and incidents against British troops took place almost every day, we now have a situation where there is at least a minimum amount of security and Iraqi forces can take charge of the job themselves. That is what we hope to continue in the future.

Kerry McCarthy (Bristol, East) (Lab): I welcome today’s announcement and the confirmation that we will continue to play a role in Iraqi life, particularly in economic development and promoting democracy. Will the Prime Minister assure us that the role of women in Iraqi society will be a central theme of our work there, particularly access to educational opportunities, involvement in economic life and representation in parliamentary democracy?

The Prime Minister: My hon. Friend is right to raise that question. We have continued to discuss with the Iraqis the position and representation of women in national life in Iraq. I think she will agree that the best guarantee of the future representation and freedom of women in Iraq is the strongest possible democracy in Iraq.

Robert Key (Salisbury) (Con): When Her Majesty’s forces return home, will the Prime Minister ensure that each and every one of our servicemen and women is made aware of the support services available to them both when they get home and for the rest of their lives, and of the fact that they have won the right to priority treatment in the national health service? Will he ensure that the Secretary of State for Health issues a circular making it clear that it is Government policy that for the rest of their lives servicemen and women have priority?

18 Dec 2008 : Column 1248

The Prime Minister: I am glad that the hon. Gentleman has allowed me to mention the paper that was produced by the Defence Secretary on the range of services that should be available to servicemen and women and ex-servicemen and women. Those were set out in the paper that we published a few months ago. Such services include: better access to education—for example, the chance for someone to study once they have left one of the armed forces; better access to doctors and to health services, particularly for people who have to move between different areas of the country and often find themselves relegated down the list; and better help for people who have problems that have to be dealt with after a long period of service. I assure the hon. Gentleman that the Defence Secretary is putting more money into this service, and particularly so when a large number of people will be coming home, finally, from Iraq.

Mr. Andy Reed (Loughborough) (Lab/Co-op): I congratulate the Prime Minister and welcome today’s statement. As he knows, I did not agree with our going to war in the first place, but I must admit that a great deal of progress has been made and that it would have been wrong to withdraw our troops in view of the initial problems. I particularly welcome the progress that has been made, but he must acknowledge that regime change was not one of the options on the table as we went to war in 2003. I agree that this is a mature time, when we must learn the lessons, and I am sure that the Prime Minister knows there is a danger of the same sort of thing happening in Afghanistan. Will he reassure me and the House that things have been carefully thought through, so that we have an exit strategy from Afghanistan and we will not be spending the next few decades trying to sort out that problem, too?

The Prime Minister: My hon. Friend has raised the question of Afghanistan, which involves one major difference: a 41-nation coalition is involved in Afghanistan and is committed to the success of Afghan democracy. We are reviewing what we can do together to make for better outcomes in Iraq. What I am certain of is that we must complement the military strategy in Afghanistan with what we can do to train up Afghan army and police forces to bring economic development to those areas that are dependent on narcotics when they could be dependent on other crops and other farming ways of life and to build up the local institutions, working with the tribes and an efficient central Government in Afghanistan. The nature of that new strategy will also have to take into account the relationship between Afghanistan and Pakistan, so that we can stop the flow of terrorists from one country to another.

Sammy Wilson (East Antrim) (DUP): I, too, pay tribute to the many who served their country in Iraq and to those who died doing so. I pay particular tribute to the hundreds from Northern Ireland who served in the Royal Irish Regiment and other regiments during the past six years. On a recent visit to Basra, I was particularly impressed by how professional, proud and passionate those who are serving there are about the role that we are playing. Much work still needs to be done to train the police, to secure the area against destabilisation by insurgents from Iran, to build the infrastructure in the poorer areas of Basra and to protect minorities, especially the Christians. Will the
18 Dec 2008 : Column 1249
Prime Minister tell us what plans have been put in place to ensure that the outstanding tasks are completed and not left undone?

The Prime Minister: I am pleased that the hon. Gentleman was able to visit our troops in Iraq, and, in particular, in the Basra area; they will be pleased to hear what he has said. He pays a particular tribute to the troops from Northern Ireland, as I do. They are very much part of the exercise in Iraq, and I met some of them yesterday. I agree with him that the social conditions in Basra have to improve, which is why, for example, we have built two water towers in the poorest areas, and why we are continuing to contribute to the building of schools and hospitals, as well as to the provision of jobs. He talks about the police forces. Yesterday, I met the policemen who have come from Britain to help train the police forces in Iraq—they are, and feel that they are, making a difference. The important message that we should send our troops in Iraq this Christmas is that they are making a difference—they are making real improvements to the lives of Iraqi citizens. Whatever differences there were over the causes and outbreak of the Iraqi war, it is important to recognise that all our troops have made a significant difference to this civilisation of Iraq.

Harry Cohen (Leyton and Wanstead) (Lab): Will the Prime Minister confirm that more Labour MPs than Liberal ones voted against the war? Given that more than 1 million Iraqis have died, that there are 4.7 million refugees, that there is mass unemployment and that their economy has been devastated and replaced by one that has been privatised and put in the control of overseas corporations, will the Prime Minister give an honest assessment of why the occupation failed to win the hearts and minds of the majority of Iraqis?

The Prime Minister: If my hon. Friend were to visit today, he would see a different picture from the one that he describes. Yesterday, I was at the port of Basra, which had been completely unable to function under Saddam Hussein—it was unable to have any trade successfully going through it and wrecks in the port made it impossible for other ships to enter. As a result of British and other action, that situation has been changed and the port is now in a position to be a thriving port for the future. People will then get jobs and that will enable them to build their livelihoods, international trade will form around Basra, and, of
18 Dec 2008 : Column 1250
course, given its history of oil production—five sixths of Iraq’s oil is produced in the south—Basra will be able to be a very prosperous place in the future. I do not think that anybody can tell us that the individual population of Iraq benefited from Saddam Hussein’s reign.

Mr. Keith Simpson (Mid-Norfolk) (Con): The Prime Minister just alluded to the fact that the Americans, with some assistance from us, are reassessing the campaign in Afghanistan from top to bottom. I urge him to think again about initiating an inquiry into lessons from Iraq. There are obvious historical precedents—for example, the Mesopotamia inquiry in the first world war, which helped the conclusion of the campaign in 1917-18. The Americans are very open about this, so why aren’t we?

The Prime Minister: I think that the hon. Gentleman is conflating Iraq and Afghanistan in a way that, on reflection, he would not wish to do. The Afghanistan war is being fought by a coalition of 41. There is a review taking place of how we can best detach the Taliban from the people of Afghanistan. That is a totally different position from where we are in Iraq, and he should recognise that. We have put more troops into Afghanistan because of the danger of the guerrilla warfare being managed by the Taliban, and we continue to look at that particular problem. Generally, our strategy in Afghanistan is to complement our military action with measures that will increase the Afghans’ ability to run their own country. The review in Afghanistan is completely different from what he is talking about in Iraq.

John Barrett (Edinburgh, West) (LD): The Prime Minister has never detailed what the Government believe to be the number of civilian deaths in Iraq. Much work has been done on that, and the lower estimates are around 100,000. If the Prime Minister cannot give details today of his estimate, will he confirm that the Government will do some work on it, so that we can know the answer to the question?

The Prime Minister: It is not a matter for the British Government: it is for the Iraqi Government to examine what has happened in their country. Only they will be in the position to obtain the full information. I cannot see how from here or from just Basra the British Government could conduct such a survey. However, I acknowledge the loss of life and the suffering of the Iraqi people, and British forces are trying to improve the Iraqi people’s conditions of life and standard of living.

18 Dec 2008 : Column 1251

Business of the House

12.31 pm

The Leader of the House of Commons (Ms Harriet Harman): With permission, I shall make a statement about the business for the week commencing 12 January:

Monday 12 January—Second Reading of the Business Rate Supplements Bill.

Tuesday 13 January—Second Reading of the Saving Gateway Accounts Bill.

Wednesday 14 January—General debate on Iraq: future strategic relationship.

Thursday 15 January—Topical debate: subject to be announced, followed by a general debate on armed forces personnel.

The provisional business for the week commencing 19 January will include:

Monday 19 January—Second Reading of the Policing and Crime Bill.

Tuesday 20 January—Motion to approve European documents relating to a European framework for action and European economic recovery plan, followed by a motion to approve European documents relating to financial management, followed by a motion to approve European documents relating to EU-Russia Relations.

Wednesday 21 January—Opposition Day [1st Allotted Day]. There will be a debate on an Opposition motion, subject to be announced.

Thursday 22 January—Topical debate: subject to be announced, followed by a general debate, subject to be announced.

Through you, Mr. Speaker, may I also offer my best wishes for Christmas and the new year to all hon. Members and, on behalf of all hon. Members, may I offer all our best wishes for Christmas and the new year to the Clerks of the House, the Officers of the House, the catering team, the cleaners, the police, the Doorkeepers and all who keep the House running smoothly? Everyone deserves a good Christmas.

Mrs. Theresa May (Maidenhead) (Con): I thank the Leader of the House for her statement. She is here fresh from her performance at Prime Minister’s questions yesterday. As this is the season of good will, I thought that it might be helpful if I were to point out a few mistakes that she made. First, she said that the Conservative party

As my right hon. Friend the Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague) pointed out, that is categorically not the case.

Secondly, the Leader of the House claimed, in column 1095, that we opposed the right to request flexible working for parents with children under six, but the official record of the debates on flexible working shows that my hon. Friend the Member for Runnymede and Weybridge (Mr. Hammond) said from the Front Bench:

18 Dec 2008 : Column 1252

The right hon. and learned Lady’s third error was to claim that the Conservative national loan guarantee scheme

Well, that is a different view to that taken by the Federation of Small Businesses, which said that it

I am sure that the Leader of the House, not wishing inadvertently to mislead anyone, will be keen to correct the Hansard record on these points as soon as possible.

The Leader of the House has confirmed that on 17 January there will be a general debate on armed forces personnel. Last week, when I asked why the Defence Secretary had not made an oral statement on the delay in the procurement of two aircraft carriers, the Leader of the House said:

It would normally be out of order to discuss procurement in a debate on personnel so will she now change the title of that debate to include procurement?

Yesterday, on a point of order, my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes (Mr. Steen) said he had learned that the Government were set to ratify the Council of Europe convention against human trafficking. No statement has been made to the House and he was not informed, although he is chairman of the all-party parliamentary group on trafficking. Can the Leader of the House confirm whether the convention has now been ratified and explain why that welcome news was not given in a statement to the House?

Last week, I raised the fact that the Housing Minister had cancelled provisions allowing sellers to put their homes on the market before a home information pack had been completed. Yet days after she condemned home owners for exploiting that loophole, her own Department did exactly that when advertising the ex-Home Secretary’s former grace and favour home. If the Government are going to insist on measures that will do nothing to help our ailing housing market, they should at least have the decency to adhere to them themselves. May we have a debate on double standards in Government?

Finally, as this will be a difficult Christmas for many families as they tighten their purse strings, they must be galled to see the Government wasting taxpayers’ money. The Department for Transport introduced an efficiency programme that was supposed to save £57 million but has cost £81million. The Ministry of Justice has spent £130 million on refurbishing an old office block, at a cost of £915 per square metre—18 times more than a standard refurbishment. I can only assume the current Lord Chancellor has been taking design advice from Lord Irvine of Lairg. Finally, we hear that the taxpayer is paying for training for the Culture Secretary to improve his public speaking, for the Home Secretary to boost her confidence and for Lord Mandelson to learn how to use a BlackBerry. I suppose that he is more used to issuing instructions than to taking them. May we have a debate on Government profligacy?

Next Section Index Home Page