Mr. David Lidington (Aylesbury) (Con):
The debate has been mostly thoughtful and, on occasions, passionate. I would draw out from it three themes which have been
expressed by most contributors in all parts of the House. First, there has been pride in the courage and professionalism of our armed forces. Secondly, there has been regret at the enormous cost of the Iraq war and the subsequent violence, the deaths, the physical and mental scars, the refugees who have gone to neighbouring countries and the many displaced families within Iraq. Thirdly, throughout the debate there has been an expression of hope that Iraq can at last, after turmoil and suffering, look to a more stable and prosperous future. That hope has been coupled with a determination across party political boundaries in the House to help the people of Iraq meet the challenge of reconstructing their economy and society.
There have been a number of noteworthy speeches. Everyone in the House enjoyed the contribution from the hon. Member for Pontypridd (Dr. Howells) relishing his new-won freedom, and the words of the right hon. Member for Cynon Valley (Ann Clwyd), who spoke with an acknowledged history of commitment and dedication to the welfare and rights of the ordinary people of Iraq that is unmatched in any part of the House.
The hon. Member for Stockton, South (Ms Taylor) and my right hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hampshire (Mr. Arbuthnot) made telling contrasts between the violent society that they had observed in Iraq just a couple of years ago and the more peaceful state of affairs that prevails today. As we all know, our troops will, in large part, be coming home in about six months. In that context, I want to raise one point that has not been alluded to so far. I ask the Minister to give a clear pledge that when the troops return we will not abandon any of the Iraqis who put at risk their lives and the safety of their families by working for the British armed forces or the British administrative authorities in Iraq. Those people deserve more than our thanksif their lives are at risk on account of what they did on behalf of our forces or civilian staff, they deserve our sanctuary as well. I hope that the Minister will be able to guarantee that the cases still being considered will have been properly and fairly decided by the time the troops pull out and that the Government will have arrangements in place to deal properly, fairly and sympathetically with any new cases that come to light after July this year.
The main point of disagreement in what has been a considerably consensual debate has been about the case for an inquiry into the decision to go to war and into the subsequent conduct of the war. Various speeches, notably that of my hon. Friend the Member for Gravesham (Mr. Holloway), but also that of my hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth, East (Mr. Ellwood), have highlighted particular examples of when things went wrong and where it would be sensible, and good government, to learn and apply the lessons. We heard about the lack of a proper reconstruction plan and about the last-minute switch in the plans, when British forces deployed not in northern Iraq but in the southern provinces. We heard about the lack of adequate planning to ensure that reconstruction and development work was brought in swiftly in support of the Army. I cannot help adding that with hindsight it would have been helpful had there been at the time a Secretary of State for International Development who was interested in planning to work in support of the armed services. The Prime Minister of the time carries a responsibility for not ensuring that his Ministers were acting in a properly co-ordinated fashion.
We need an inquiry for two reasons. First, we must learn the lessons. Secondly, we must establish what, as is evident from this debate, is still lackinga degree of consensus about the facts. As I contrast what my right hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hampshire said with what the hon. Member for Leyton and Wanstead (Harry Cohen) said, I find not only disagreement about how to interpret particular events, but profound disagreement about what actually happened. A serious inquiry by Privy Counsellors, with access to all the people and documents relevant to the decision to go to war and its subsequent conduct, would establish what happened with greater clarity.
I was disappointed by the Secretary of States comments on that point. For the most part, I agreed with his speech and thought it a high-quality contribution. However, he seemed to be saying that the time was not yet ripe for an inquiry and that the Prime Minister would take a decision in due course. The Government gave no hint about the criteria that they would use to decide when the time was finally right to hold such an inquiry. Will it be the end of July, when the bulk of the troops come home? Will it be after the 400 troops left to train Iraqis are withdrawn? Will there be a delay until the very last military adviser of any kind is finally brought home from Iraq? I have to say to the Secretary of State, in sorrow rather than in a spirit of outrage, that his response on this point did not do him justice. We heard the voice of the Secretary of State, but we got the words of the Prime Minister. We got secrecy, not openness, and in place of accountability, we got evasion. I reiterate to the House that if a Conservative Government are elected at the next general election, that inquiry will be held without any further delay.
There is such a contrast between how the British Government have behaved and the conduct of the United States, where both the Executive and the legislature have commissioned successive inquiries to examine what went right and what went wrong and have then published and discussed their findings openlyand they have not been afraid of trenchant criticism coming out of those inquiries. Any Member of this House can go to the internet and read the draft report of the inspector general on Iraq. Let me quote a couple of examples of the sort of criticism in that report. The inspector general talks about the
poor integration of inter-agency efforts bred by weak unity of command and inconsistent unity of effort
the blinkered and disjointed pre-war planning for Iraqi reconstruction.
Those are charges that have been levelled this afternoon, and during other debates in this House, about the United Kingdoms planning and preparation. Whether or not they are true, they should be examined by people who have access to all the relevant records.
Rightly, however, the focus of the debate has been more on the future of Iraq than on its past. The future strategic relationship of this country and Iraq is important not only in terms of bilateral relations but in terms of our policy towards the region as a whole. For the most part, what has been said in the debate has been couched in terms of hope and optimism for the future. However, my hon. Friend the Member for North Essex (Mr. Jenkin) gave us a cogent word of warning when he spoke of how in the past we sometimes promised things that, in
the event, we were unable to deliver. We need to temper optimism with a hard-headed appraisal of the problems that face Iraq today and that will continue to face it in the foreseeable future.
While the speech by the hon. Member for Leyton and Wanstead was largely over the top, he was right when he reminded us of the daily violence and intimidation that still take place in Iraq. This week, the Pentagon submitted its latest quarterly progress report to the United States Congress. The report said that security incidents had reached their lowest level since systematic counting began in 2004. That is welcome, without any qualification. It said that inadequate supplies of food, water, electricity and health care had replaced security as the chief concern of Iraqi citizens. But it went on to say that
the underlying sources of instability in Iraq have yet to be resolved. Iraq remains fragile because its major power brokers do not share a unified national vision.
In the run-up to the imminent regional elections, we see political tensions not only between the main ethnic and religious groups in Iraq, but within those groups as well. Once those elections are out of the way, there will be further political jostling ahead of the referendum planned for the summer on the United States stationing of forces agreement, ahead of the national elections at the end of the 2009 and ahead of the decision on the future of Kirkuk.
Political tension and rivalry in Iraq can lead to the abuse of human rights. I join the right hon. Member for Cynon Valley in urging the GovernmentI think that the Government will be happy to agreeto keep our attention on the human rights record in Iraq. We must maintain a dialogue with the Iraqi authorities in all parts of Iraq about human rights, and we need to ensure that the record of Iraq is examined, as those of other countries are, through the appropriate international bodies.
The hon. Member for Croydon, Central (Mr. Pelling) and others were right to discuss the continuing persecution of some religious minorities. In recent weeks, I have met delegations from some of the Christian communities in Iraq, who have told me about the pressure that they have been under not just, as is commonly known, in Baghdad and Basra, but in areas of the Nineveh plain that are the traditional centres of Christian culture in that country. The smaller minorities, such as the Yazidis and the Sabbateans, have probably suffered even worse, with large proportions of those communities having given up and fled into exile.
I turn to the challenge of Iraqs economy. As my hon. Friend the Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox) urged, the Government should give a higher priority to helping British business take advantage of the opportunities opening up in Iraq. I am getting rather tired of the fact that in every country that I visit in the middle east, I hear from the host Government something along the lines of, Well, wed like to work more with you British, but youve rather let the French, the Germans and the Italians steal a march on you in recent years. I hope that the Government will not let those economic opportunities for our country slip, given that our country has sacrificed a great deal in soldiers lives and taxpayers money to support the policy being pursued in Iraq.
The extent to which Iraq makes a success of economic development is bound up with political stability in getting a proper rule of law introduced and observed
throughout the country. Significantly, there has to be agreement on the sharing of petroleum revenues. It is dismaying to see that such an agreement has still not been reached, despite the fact that for several years the political parties in Baghdad have said that they had done a deal and were on the verge of introducing legislation. We still seem to have a stand-off between the Kurdish regional government and the central Government in Baghdad. Given that a number of oil industry experts believe that Iraqs reserves may even match those of Saudi Arabia, it is urgent that agreement is reached, and I hope that whatever diplomatic work Britain can do to facilitate that will be pursued.
Finally, there is the question of Iraqs regional role. My hon. Friend the Member for Woodspring touched on its relationships with Iran, Syria, Turkey and Saudi Arabia. I hope that the Government will continue to encourage those of our friends in the Arab world who have not yet done so to station ambassadors permanently in Baghdad. Given Iraqs close links with the Iranian Government, it might be possible for her to help to provide Britain and the United States with a conduit for contact with the Iranian regime at a very senior level. I would be interested to hear the Governments view on that.
In the longer term, it seems to me that if we are to get a stable arrangement for collective security in the middle eastsomething along the lines of the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe has often been discussedIraq should play a key role in the effort. It is both proudly Arab and now friendly with Iran, and it could play an important part in creating a stable, more prosperous future. The hope and objective of our policy must be not just for Iraq to be sovereign, politically stable and prosperous, but for it to play a leading and constructive part in shaping a better future for the whole of that very troubled region.
The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Bill Rammell): We have had a genuinely good debate, and there has been a fairly large degree of consensus in the contributions. Our focus is shifting from a military relationship with Iraq to a whole-Iraq approach that centres on close co-operation with its Government and people, across the spectrum of politics, economics, human rights, culture, education and trade.
As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence said at the beginning of the debate, Iraq has genuinely made huge progress since 2003. After years of suffering under a tyrannical regime in which its citizens had no say in how the country was governed, it is emerging as a democracy in which all Iraqis now participate, have a voice and can enjoy the right to choose their local and national leaders and, importantly, hold them to account.
Sometimes when we debate the situation in Iraq and its future, there is still far too much amnesia in some quarters about Iraq under Saddam Hussein. I say that not because I want to go back over the debates that preceded the intervention in 2003, but to help to explain how difficult it is for Iraqis to escape the long shadows of decades of what can be described as fascism, and therefore how far they have travelled in such a short period.
It is a reality that Saddams brutal dictatorship defined society in almost every imaginable way. Pupils and students had to toe the party line and were unable to express themselves, and civil servants had to doff their cap to the Baath party and never allow their imagination or concern for ordinary people to override their obligations to Saddam Hussein. People were tortured and slaughtered in their hundreds of thousands. I recall my first awareness of what Saddam was doing, when I was a student at Cardiff university in the early 1980s and Saddam sent his hit men out to assassinate students in south Wales. I will need an awful lot of persuading to be convinced that Iraq is not a much better place for the passing of Saddam Hussein.
My right hon. Friend rightly started by paying tribute to the 178 troops killed in Iraq. I have had the opportunity and privilege of visiting our troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, and I have developed nothing but profound respect for the role that they play. All of us in the House, and our fellow citizens across the country, owe them an enormous debt of gratitude for what they do on our behalf.
The hon. Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox), the Opposition spokesman, made a speech with which I agreed in large part. He started by highlighting the price that we have paid for our interventionand there has been a pricebut he then said that he did not believe that Iraq would have been better off without that invasion. I endorse that view, and it is welcome coming from an Opposition Front Bencher. Over the past couple of years, it has not always been clear that the force of conviction with which the Opposition agreed that we should tackle Saddam Hussein in 2003 is as strong now. I therefore welcome that statement.
The hon. Gentleman asked me about the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reforms representation in Baghdad. I could respond with a cheap shot and say that representation would be much less if there were a 1 per cent. cut in every Departments budget. However, I will respond to the point seriously. In 2006, when the security environment was at its most difficult, representation was withdrawn because, given the security concerns, there was not the interest from British business. Nevertheless, the huge improvement in security has rekindled that interest. UK Trade and Investment has reviewed the position and three new UKTI positions will be filled in Iraq in the next few weeks to help British businesses identify trade and investment opportunities. We will continue to review the required resourcing.
The hon. Gentleman asked me specifically what the Government and the country are doing to support economic development in Basra. We have done and are doing a huge amount. The Basra Investment Commission attracts investment and offers advice about commercial opportunities. The Basra Development Commission, which Michael Wareing co-chairs, genuinely brings
international and regional private sector expertise to the area. A youth unemployment taskforce aims to provide training placements for unemployed youths to work with local businesses. With our support, the National Investment Commission facilitates visits to Iraq for the most interested investors, and 19 have taken place so far. That demonstrates our continuing commitment.
Bill Rammell: I do not believe that evidence exists to support that claim. After the debate, we will undertake an analysis and I will write to the hon. Gentleman. Such claims are made in the Chamber but the evidence does not bear them out.
The hon. Member for Woodspring also asked about the legal position of our troops. It is clear, following the agreement that was reached before Christmas and the exchange of memorandums of understanding, that our troops have the necessary reassurance about their legal position. He asked about the difference between the legal arrangements for our troops and those for the forces of the United States. The honest, genuine answer is that they perform different missions. Our troops focus on naval training, and training and mentoring the 14th division in Basra rather than combat operations.
My hon. Friend the Member for Pontypridd (Dr. Howells), who is a genuine friend, made an excellent speech, which brought his experience, understanding and knowledge to bear. I gave him a note, which said that I had passed on his request for diplomatic immunity in Paris, which he may need following his speech. Nevertheless, he spoke powerfully and rightly highlighted the suffering of Christians in parts of Iraq. The Government of Iraq have made the right response, with increased security and a commitment to investigate. As a result of those measures, Christians are returning.
I strongly agree with my hon. Friends refutation of one of the weakest arguments against the war with Iraqthat it was all about oil. As he said, if it was about oil, we could have gone about things more easily and effectively through cutting a deal with the Iraqis, as several other nations did.
Mr. Holloway: It is all very well to say that, but it is disingenuous of the Minister to suggest that all is rosy and wonderful, and that we dealt with Saddam, which was a greater goodof course, it probably waswhen we would happily have kept him in power if he had dealt with weapons of mass destruction.
Bill Rammell: We made it clear that the reason for going to warrightly, in my viewwas Saddam Husseins failure to comply with resolution 1441 and to provide reassurances about weapons of mass destruction. He did not give the reassurances, and that is why we went to war. Nevertheless, I believe that our entering into that conflict means that Iraq is a better place for his passing.
The hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Mr. Davey), who leads for the Liberal Democrats, said that he and his party were so concerned about the invasion of Iraq that they voted against it. That is correct. I believed that the Liberal Democrats were wrong at the time and I still hold that view today. He
was then intervened on by the hon. Member for Woodspring, who leads for the Opposition, who asked an interesting question, which the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton ducked. The hon. Gentleman who leads for the Opposition asked him whether he felt that Iraq and Iraqis were better off now that Saddam Hussein was gone. His response was to quote an opinion poll giving the feelings of Iraqis about coalition forces. He knowsand the House knowsthat that is a very different issue. The reality is that the vast majority of Iraqis feel that they are better off.
Mr. Davey: Hansard will show that that was not the full answer that I gave to the hon. Member for Woodspring. I gave a much fuller answer than the one that the Minister quoted. Let him answer this question. He admitted to the hon. Member for Gravesham that the reason for going to war was weapons of mass destruction. Will he confirm to the House that no weapons of mass weapons were found and that the reason for going to war put to the House was never proven? The Government were wrong and the Conservative party was wrong, too.