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14 Jan 2009 : Column 230

Bills Presented

Welfare Reform

Presentation and First Reading (Standing Order No. 57)

Secretary Purnell, supported by the Prime Minister, Mr. Chancellor of the Exchequer, Mr. Secretary Straw, Secretary Alan Johnson, Secretary Hazel Blears, Mr. Secretary Hoon, Secretary Ed Balls, Mr. Secretary Denham, Mr. Secretary Paul Murphy and Mr. Secretary Jim Murphy, presented a Bill to amend the law relating to social security; to make provision enabling disabled people to be given greater control over the way in which certain public services are provided for them; to amend the law relating to child support; to make provision about the registration of births; and for connected purposes.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time tomorrow, and to be printed (Bill 8) with explanatory notes (Bill 8-EN).

Coroners and Justice

Presentation and First Reading (Standing Order No. 57)

Mr. Secretary Straw, supported by the Prime Minister, Mr. Chancellor of the Exchequer, Secretary Jacqui Smith, Secretary Alan Johnson, Mr. Secretary Woodward, the Solicitor-General and Bridget Prentice, presented a Bill to amend the law relating to coroners and to certification and registration of deaths; to amend the criminal law; to make provision about criminal justice and about dealing with offenders; to make provision about the Commissioner for Victims and Witnesses; to make provision relating to the security of court and other buildings; to make provision about legal aid; to make provision for payments to be made by offenders in respect of benefits derived from the exploitation of material pertaining to offences; to amend the Data Protection Act 1998; and for connected purposes.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time tomorrow, and to be printed (Bill 9) with explanatory notes (Bill 9-EN).

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Iraq: Future Strategic Relationship

1.24 pm

The Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. John Hutton): I beg to move,

Our debate this afternoon is rightly focused on Britain’s future relationship with Iraq. As right hon. and hon. Members on both sides will be aware, in the past few days we have passed an important milestone. On 1 January, the Government of Iraq assumed full sovereignty for the whole country from the coalition. That is a truly remarkable achievement for a country that, at times, has looked at risk of being sucked under by a wave of terrorist extremism.

The termination of the security aspects of the chapter 7 United Nations Security Council resolution is not only confirmation of Iraq’s regained sovereignty, but evidence of its re-emergence as a new democracy—one that no longer represents a threat to its regional neighbours or its own people. That we have reached this stage at all is testament to the hard work, commitment and, above all, sacrifice of coalition service personnel and civilians, as well as to the service and sacrifice of the Iraqi security forces themselves.

Angus Robertson (Moray) (SNP): I am grateful to the Secretary of State for allowing such an early intervention. We now have a timetable for withdrawing from Iraq, which is the right and proper thing to do. When will we finally have a timetable for an inquiry into the worst UK foreign policy disaster in living memory?

Mr. Hutton: I do not accept the last part of the hon. Gentleman’s comments at all; I shall come to the first part in due course.

I am sure that hon. Members will join me in expressing our profound gratitude and admiration to all the British forces who have served in Iraq since 2003. In particular, I pay tribute today to the 178 UK personnel who have died on operations in Iraq and the many hundreds who have been wounded, many of them very seriously indeed. All of us in this place and, I believe, the vast majority of the people of Iraq will never forget their sacrifice in the cause of freedom and security.

We continue to work with the Iraqi Government to bring to justice all those responsible for illegal acts against British citizens, including those suspected of involvement in the murder of the six Royal Military Police in June 2003. I am very pleased that we have made progress on that investigation in recent months, and I hope to see further developments in due course. I stress to the House that we remain committed to doing everything that we can to secure the safe release from custody of the five British citizens taken hostage in May 2007.

A new chapter is now opening in our relationship with Iraq, and I want to begin with the issue of security. The security situation in Iraq has transformed over the past year. Today, violence across Iraq is at its lowest level since 2003. Although still capable of appalling atrocities, al-Qaeda in Iraq has suffered severely at the hands of both Iraqi and coalition forces.

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Mr. Tobias Ellwood (Bournemouth, East) (Con): A few moments ago, the Secretary of State mentioned terrorist extremism and he has just mentioned al-Qaeda. Will he admit to the House that al-Qaeda was not in Iraq in any substantial form before March 2003? A question has been put to him about an inquiry; there are huge questions to ask about why terrorism was allowed to grow after we went into the country. Why did we not have a plan for peace after the initial war? That is why the House is asking for an inquiry.

Mr. Hutton: At the time of the military intervention in March 2003, we were grateful to have the full support of the Conservative party as Her Majesty’s Opposition. We never made the point—neither in 2003, nor at any other time—that we were intervening in Iraq because of al-Qaeda. The hon. Gentleman should remind himself of the reasons for British and coalition intervention in Iraq in 2003.

It is interesting to hear the grundling and grumping from Conservative Members when they get the whiff of opportunity. I am trying not to be partisan today, but I certainly will be if people want me to be. Personally, I do not want to be. We are always stronger as a country when we stand together and we did stand together in the face of an unspeakable and barbaric dictatorship. As I said, Iraq is now a democracy, and not a threat to its regional neighbours or its people. In intervening, we stood up for the authority of the United Nations and the UN Security Council resolutions.

Mr. Ellwood rose—

Mr. Edward Davey (Kingston and Surbiton) (LD) rose—

Mr. Hutton: I shall not give way to the hon. Member for Bournemouth, East (Mr. Ellwood), as I have just done so. I give way to the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Mr. Davey).

Mr. Davey: Can the Secretary of State confirm that, prior to the decision to go to war, the Government received from the British intelligence services information and judgments that if the war occurred terrorism in Iraq would increase?

Mr. Hutton: I cannot confirm that, I am afraid. [ Interruption. ] Well, the hon. Gentleman asked me the question and I have given him my answer.

Mr. James Gray (North Wiltshire) (Con): I entirely acknowledge that the Conservative party did indeed stand shoulder to shoulder with the Government. None the less, will the Secretary of State accept that he was slightly incorrect a moment ago when he said that the Conservative party had wholeheartedly and altogether supported the Government? Many of us abstained, as in my case, and, of course, quite a large number of Conservative Members of Parliament voted against the war.

Mr. Hutton: The hon. Gentleman is responsible for how he votes in this House. He has drawn attention to his voting record on Iraq, and I am grateful to him for doing so.

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Mr. Bernard Jenkin (North Essex) (Con): I supported the war, and I have not demurred from that decision. Nevertheless, the point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth, East (Mr. Ellwood) is very relevant. I arrived in Basra a few weeks after the invasion and was asked in Anglo-Saxon terms by the general officer commanding, “Where the hell is DFID?” There was no plan to capitalise on the first 100 days, and many of the bloody consequences that we have dealt with stem from that early failure of lack of planning. Will the Secretary of State admit that that is an issue that we should explore, not least because we need to learn some lessons for Afghanistan?

Mr. Hutton: I want to talk about an inquiry in a minute when I get to that part of my speech. I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman personally for the support that he has given and for the fact that he has been consistent in the views that he has taken on Iraq. Consistency in politics is a pretty good commodity.

Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North) (Lab) rose—

Mr. Hutton: I will give way to my hon. Friend in a second— [ Interruption. ] No, indeed, and I want to make this clear to my hon. Friend as well. I fully respect the views of all hon. Gentlemen and Ladies in this House about these issues. We are invited into this House by the electorate, we come here and we are entitled—in fact, it is our responsibility—to exercise our judgment in these matters. I have no criticism of people’s positions on this, but I am afraid that I have less sympathy with those who change their position at the whiff of political opportunism—I have no time for that whatsoever.

Jeremy Corbyn: I thank the Secretary of State for giving way. What estimate can he give us of the number of civilians who have died in Iraq since 2003 and the number of Iraqis who are still in internal or external exile from that country? What investigations will the British presence and any other presence undertake into the effects of the use of cluster bombs and depleted uranium weapons on the people of Iraq for generations to come?

Mr. Hutton: As my hon. Friend will know, I am not in a position to answer his question about the number of Iraqi civilian casualties. It has never been the job of the British military to quantify across Iraq the totality of civilian casualties. That is simply not a job we could do; first and foremost, it is the job of the Iraqi authorities. I am not going to stand here today and say that there have not been significant, appalling loss of life in Iraq since 2003. It has been an extremely difficult campaign, and the violence and terrorism that it has engendered have been significant—the point that I think that the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton was trying to make.

The purpose of this debate is to talk about the future relationship between the United Kingdom, and our allies and partners, and Iraq. I perfectly understand the desire of hon. Members in all parts of the House to go over the decisions that led up to the invasion of Iraq. The hon. Member for North Essex (Mr. Jenkin) referred to the role of other Government Departments in the campaign in Iraq. I am sure that when an inquiry is established, these are appropriate issues that can be looked at. I am not in a position today to say to the House when such an inquiry will be established—those are matters for my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister. I want to deal with that issue in more detail in due course.

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Mr. James Arbuthnot (North-East Hampshire) (Con) rose—

Mr. Hutton: I give way to the Chairman of the Defence Committee.

Mr. Arbuthnot: In some of the interventions that have been made so far, it has almost been suggested that history began in 2003—yet before that time, the number of people who were being killed in Iraq was absolutely horrific. The story of 2,000 villages being wiped out in 1988 by the use of chemical weapons by Saddam Hussein is something that cannot just be ignored by this House. Admittedly, it was not the reason we went to war, but let us not pretend that history began in 2003.

Mr. Hutton: The right hon. Gentleman has made the point much better than I have. I agree with his comments. That is not the reason we went to war— that is also very clear from the comments made by my former right hon. Friend Tony Blair in this House on many occasions, and by others since. We should not forget the past in Iraq. It is appropriate to remind ourselves in debates such as this about the legacy of Saddam and the brutal, murderous regime that he presided over. Iraq, in case there was any doubt about this in any part of the House, is a better place— [ Interruption. ] It is a better place without Saddam and the Ba’athist regime that he represented than it was with the Ba’athist regime. [ Interruption. ] As for the hon. Gentlemen who are grumbling away, I am sure that we will all have to put up with listening to their speeches in due course. The hon. Member for Carmarthen, East and Dinefwr (Adam Price) will have a chance to make his speech; I just want to get on with mine, if that is okay.

I want to start with the issue of security. As I said, the security situation in Iraq has been transformed over the past year.

Sir Menzies Campbell (North-East Fife) (LD): The Secretary of State has drawn attention to the circumstances of Iraq under the reign of Saddam Hussein. Does he recall that in the Scott inquiry report, the learned judge who conducted that inquiry recorded the fact that within some weeks of the events at Halabja, the then British Government extended the amount of credit that they were willing to give to Saddam Hussein for purchasing British manufactures?

Mr. Hutton: Indeed, I am aware of that. I am afraid that I do not accept responsibility for that; those were the actions of the previous Government, and, I have to say, not a very credible series of actions.

Today, violence across Iraq is at its lowest level since 2003. While still capable of truly appalling atrocities, al-Qaeda in Iraq has suffered very severely at the hands of coalition forces. Increasingly—this is the positive side of it—Iraqi authorities are able to deliver security on the ground with only limited coalition support. Coalition forces have trained and equipped more than 560,000 Iraqi security forces personnel since 2004, meaning that there are about four Iraqi security personnel for every coalition soldier deployed in that country. In parallel, the coalition has worked very closely with the Iraqi Defence and Interior Ministries to develop their capacity both to support the front-line security forces and to exercise effective oversight of them—something that is very important in a functioning democracy.

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No one should be complacent, and we certainly are not, about the security situation across Iraq as a whole. Violence remains at an unacceptably high level in some parts of the country, and undoubtedly significant security challenges remain. However, I believe that there is now good reason to be optimistic about the future of Iraq. That is very much the mood—as I found for myself and other right hon. and hon. Gentlemen have too—in the city of Basra and in and around southern Iraq. The Defence Committee reported last July that the security situation in Basra was “a world away” from what it had been the year before. Very recently, the US ambassador in Iraq, Ryan Crocker, spoke of the situation in the south of Iraq as being “an extraordinary transformation”.

I saw that for myself during a visit to downtown Basra last year. The locals with whom I spoke were confident in the ability of the Iraqi security forces to preserve the peace that they now enjoy and were optimistic about the future. We should celebrate that. I believe that that sense of optimism is now widespread across Iraq. A few days ago, I spoke to the British commander in Basra, Major-General Andy Salmon, who is doing a fantastic job there—I hope that that is also the view of others in this place. He reported that morale among our military and civilian personnel in Basra is extremely high. It is high because they are confident that they will leave behind a positive and lasting legacy—not just of improved security but of increasing prosperity, about which I want to say more in a few moments.

Basra is now reaping the dividends of coalition strategy in southern Iraq. Since 2003, UK forces have worked tirelessly to provide security, while simultaneously developing the capacity of the Iraqis themselves so that progress can be sustained over the long term. We have trained more than 20,000 Iraqi soldiers since 2004: first, as part of building up the 10th Iraqi army division in south-eastern Iraq; and, since 2007, training the 14th division in Basra itself.

UK personnel have also helped the coalition to train Iraqi naval personnel and marines and more than 22,000 policemen. That long-term project to empower the Iraqis has proved instrumental in transforming the security situation. Only a year or two ago, as we all know, the situation was very different. Our presence in Basra—and I accept this—was acting as a magnet for militia violence and as a propaganda tool for extreme nationalists. We knew, as the Iraqi Government knew, that the British armed forces could not by themselves solve all Basra’s security problems. It was essential that the Iraqis took the lead. We therefore developed, in consultation with the Iraqi Government and our coalition partners, a strategy under which we made a calculation about the right moment for UK forces to withdraw from the centre of Basra—very much on our own terms and to our own time scales—and adopted a role of tactical overwatch. The Iraqi authorities were given control of security. As General Petraeus, who personally approved the strategy, said at the time, that was

and it began rapidly to change the security dynamics in Basra. It is one thing for a nationalist Shi’a militiaman to aim his rifle and to shoot at a British soldier whom he perceives as an occupier; it is quite another for him to shoot a soldier wearing the uniform of his own country.

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