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We will no doubt debate and discuss what is happening in Afghanistan at future times, but noble Lords should not make connections between troop reductions in one country and troop increases in another country. They are very different situations, with which we will endeavour to keep your Lordships House up to speed.
Lord Bramall: My Lords, I, too, thank the Leader of the House for repeating the Statement made by the Prime Minister in another place, in which he gratifyingly and deservedly praised our forces. However, although he anticipated that there would be some reductions in future, he was careful to give no definite dates for their withdrawal, implying as he said in a recent press interview that they must stay until the job is done. How that is exactly quantified, even with the detailed list of tasks contained in the Statement, is not at all clear. After all, it was only a short time agoabout six monthsthat he was completely confident that our forces had indeed achieved over the four years all that it was possible for them to achieve in that part of the country and that they had achieved a great deal both in peace enforcement and latterly in what he described as the overwatch of training.
As a result, British forces were withdrawn from Basra city and it was stated at the time that a larger and quicker withdrawal of forces would be possible than now appears to be the case. Therefore, my first question for the noble Baroness is: what has really caused the change of heart, other than perhaps an
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Baroness Ashton of Upholland: My Lords, I am grateful to the noble and gallant Lord. Within the Statement, I set outI thought quite clearlythe issues that we believe we need to continue to deal with, including consideration of the troop level that we need to maintain. To recap quickly, those issues are training the 14th Division, preparing Basra airport for transfer to Iraqi control, pushing forward on economic development and providing the necessary support for provincial elections. My right honourable friend was very clear in another place and in my discussions with him that those are important aspects of securing the future of Iraq. Until we have secured them, we need to make sure that we have the appropriate levels of personnel. There is no short-term expediency in this. It is about honouring the obligations that we have to the Iraqi people.
Lord Fowler: My Lords, I was in Basra two or three months ago and I entirely confirm what the Prime Minister and the noble Baroness said about the improved security position there. However, I also confirm the dire position of hundreds of thousands of refugees. That must never be forgotten. In particular, we must not forget our duty to the interpreters who have worked so loyally for the British forces.
Several of us have been pressing for some time for an inquiry into the invasion of Iraq and the circumstances surrounding it so that we can learn the lessons from that. There has never been any legitimate reason, frankly, for refusing that inquiry. Do the Government now agree that such an inquiry can be set up? It is overdue and the whole nation would benefit from it.
Baroness Ashton of Upholland: My Lords, I commented earlier on the fact that the noble Lord continues to press on the issue of interpreters. As I said, if I can get specific details of how many are currently in the UK, I will do so and make sure that he is informed of that.
We have already said that any further inquiry should be done at the appropriate time. We have already had four separate, independent inquiries, including the House of Commons Defence Committee and Foreign Affairs Committee reports and the Ministry of Defence report on lessons learnt. There is plenty of information, which noble Lords will have had the benefit of looking at, about the issues that brought us into Iraq and those that continue. Our belief is that any further inquiry should be at an appropriate point, which is certainly not now.
Baroness Tonge: My Lords, the noble Baroness made the very interesting comment that more healthcare and education services are available now than was the case before the war. How many new healthcare centres and schools are we building? I am not talking about the healthcare centres and schools that we are repairing or the ones that we destroyed. Could she also tell us how many academics and doctors have been killed or have become refugees over the past five years and what effect that has had on civil society?
Baroness Ashton of Upholland: My Lords, the noble Baroness knows that I cannot give her specific details about any casualties, unfortunate and terrible though they would be. My point was about the breadth of the Iraqi peoples ability to access high-quality services, which were certainly unavailable under Saddam Hussein, as is well recognised, and about the importance of ensuring that, in a democratic Iraq, every Iraqi is able to access high-quality services in health, education, housing and all the areas that the noble Baroness and I would agree are very important.
Lord Hannay of Chiswick: My Lords, does the Minister agree that the Statement indicates how far we are from cracking the problem of Iraqs neighbours? Critical comments about Syria and Iran are undoubtedly well deserved, and problems continue on the northern frontier with Turkey. Does this not demonstrate that we will never have a stable situation in that region until there is some multilateral framework in which Iraq and all its neighbours participate and in which they commit themselves to respect one anothers borders and sovereignty, not to interfere and to work together for economic development? That idea crops up from time to time and then invariably disappears like a mirage. I have no doubt that some of the regional participants are responsible for the absence of progress, but is it not important to reinstate that idea, now that things are going a bit better, as an important medium-term objective that we should all pursue?
Baroness Ashton of Upholland: My Lords, as the noble Lord knows, the Secretary-Generals announcement in September 2007, which led to the Iraqi neighbours conference in Istanbul on 2 and 3 November, was part of the process of trying to bring greater stability to the region. It is also important that within the region in which we operatethe European Unionand with our role in the United Nations we work supportively together to tackle some of the issues that the noble Lord rightly refers to. That will be incredibly important in next few months.
Lord Hylton: My Lords, I welcome the positive points in the Statement. Does the noble Baroness, like me, welcome yesterdays write-off of loans to Iraq made by a prominent Gulf state? Can she give us any good news on the progress of the hydrocarbons Bill before the Iraqi Parliament, which is important for the development of Iraqs own resources and state revenue? Finally, the importance of the refugees return has
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Baroness Ashton of Upholland: My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord. I think that we all welcome the United Arab Emirates important write-off, which I read about yesterday. Hydrocarbons are very important indeed. The Bill has not yet gone through, but I completely agree with the noble Lord that it is important for the future of oil in the region. Local non-governmental organisations and other international organisations are important in looking at issues facing refugees returning to their homes in Iraq. Freedom of religion is very much part of the work of the Ministry of Human Rights in Iraq.
Lord Marlesford: My Lords, can the Leader of the House confirm that current coalition military operations in Iraq are being carried out with the authority of a Security Council resolution? Can she remind us what proportion of Britains £40 billion defence expenditure is being spent on operations in Iraq? As we are carrying out a disproportionately large amount of the military operation in Iraq, does she regard it as reasonable that Britain should also be paying the whole cost of that contribution? Are the Government doing anything to secure some sort of burden sharing with those on whose behalf we are carrying out our military operations? I say that in the context of the financial cash-flow crisis that the Government face, which, as the Minister will probably recognise, could well result in government borrowing going up by £70 billionthat is, another 5 per cent of GDP.
Baroness Ashton of Upholland: My Lords, I am not going to speculate about where government borrowing might go. As the noble Lord will know, the defence budget is about £34 billion for 2008-09; I do not have the breakdown of exactly what is being spent in any current theatre of operation. We are certainly operating within the UN Security Council resolution. However, as I indicated in the Statement, our ambition is to move to a bilateral agreement with the Iraqi Governmentwhat I might describe as a more normal arrangement between Britain and a state with which we are collaborating to deal with the issues that it faces.
Lord Williamson of Horton: My Lords, can the noble Baroness give the House information on the current value and volume of oil exports from Iraq? What is the forecast for the following year? Iraq is an oil-rich state and the volume of resources available from oil determines the Governments capacity to achieve an improvement in infrastructure and the standard of living. If she cannot answer today, perhaps she could do so later in writing. This is a vital element. We talk about the military, but not much about the huge potential resources in Iraq.
Baroness Ashton of Upholland: My Lords, I agree with the noble Lord. YesterdayI cannot find them nowI was reading the precise details of Iraqi oil production and projections for the future. The noble Lord is completely right that this is an oil-rich state with huge reserves of oil and great potentialhence the question asked by the noble Lord, Lord Hylton, about hydrocarbons legislation, which is an important element of that. We must work closely to ensure that we provide the technical support necessary to enable Iraq to exploit its oil reserves appropriately.
Baroness Royall of Blaisdon: My Lords, before I adjourn the House, I place on record on behalf of the whole House our heartfelt thanks to the staff of the House for their sterling work over the past few months, which have been challenging for us all. Without them we certainly could not have achieved what we have achieved. I wish all noble Lords and all the staff a happy Recess.
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