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Commons Chamber

Volume 451: debated on Tuesday 31 October 2006

House of Commons

Tuesday 31 October 2006

The House met at half-past Two o’clock

Prayers

[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions

FOREIGN AND COMMONWEALTH AFFAIRS

The Secretary of State was asked—

European Union Constitutional Treaty

There is no current consensus on the way forward for the constitutional treaty. The June European Council agreed that the German presidency will present a report to the European Council in 2007, based on extensive consultations with the member states. My right hon. Friend the Minister for Europe will make a statement shortly on the broad principles underpinning our approach.

The EU is often critical of other countries that act in an undemocratic way. Given that the constitutional treaty is dead in the water after being torpedoed by France and Holland, what is the justification for the Commission pressing on regardless with the external action service—the EU’s diplomatic service, which also has its own embassies—and the External Borders Agency? What is the legal basis for those budget lines?

I understand the desire among Conservative Members to see this issue dead and buried, but a number of member states have ratified the treaty. The hon. Gentleman is right to say that two member states have rejected it after referendums, and that is a difficulty. All member states are considering the way forward.

Yesterday, hon. Members across the Chamber welcomed the Stern report, one of whose conclusions was that action at European level was needed to tackle climate change. Does that not emphasise the need for the sort of reform and streamlining of European procedures and institutions that will allow us to meet that urgent task?

The two legitimate and equally good points that my hon. Friend makes are not necessarily related. Like him, I welcome yesterday’s report and discussions but the EU has played a leading role in matters to do with climate change without changing its structures or how it operates. I am confident that the EU, whatever its structures, will continue to play a positive role in a matter in which, as a group of member states, it has a deserved reputation.

My hon. Friend the Member for Scarborough and Whitby (Mr. Goodwill) has just said that the European constitution was dead in the water, so does the Foreign Secretary agree that any European court that refers to the charter of fundamental rights would be acting ultra vires—beyond its legal powers?

I am not a lawyer, so I am always cautious about a phrase like “refers to”. Although the hon. Gentleman is right that the charter does not have force, the question whether anyone would be allowed to refer to it is quite another matter.

I want to raise another technical point with my right hon. Friend. As I understand it, under the existing treaties, the present Commission has to be reduced to 15 after 2009. [Interruption.] The lights are going out in England. [Hon. Members: “Next!”] I am sorry, Mr. Speaker, I shall try and switch myself off. After 2009, in addition to losing the services of Mr. Peter Mandelson, which I know that the whole House will regret, we may find that we are not able to nominate a Commissioner from the UK. In other words, we will have no representation on the Commission. This is a technical, juridical point, so I realise that my right hon. Friend may not be able to answer today, but will she write to me and place a copy of the letter in the Library? This is a very important matter, as we may need a new treaty.

I always prefer to write to hon. Members about technical and juridical matters, but I think that my right hon. Friend is leaping several steps ahead. Existing treaties do require us to take another look at the Commission’s size after Bulgaria and Romania join the EU, but I am sure that he will find that all member states will take a keen interest in how many Commissioners there will be after then, and what their responsibilities will be.

The Foreign Secretary says that there is no consensus about the future of the constitution, but two weeks ago she told EU Foreign Ministers that it was a grandiose project that had failed. If she was prepared to say that to them, why will she not repeat it in this House? Will she tell us what she believes, and make it clear whether the Government intend to proceed with ratifying the treaty?

There is no intention to proceed with that at the moment because, as I said, there is no consensus. I appreciate that the hon. Gentleman is drawing on press reports, but he is not entirely correct, as I made those remarks to the media and not to EU Foreign Ministers. [Interruption.] I am about to answer the hon. Gentleman’s question. I was being asked whether the UK believed that the treaty was completely dead, and so on—the sort of questions that are raised continually in this House. I said that one of the EU’s perceived weaknesses, across a range of matters, was that people involved in it sometimes had grandiose projects, and that those projects fail when they become too elaborate. However, I was not speaking specifically about the constitutional treaty.

Uganda

The political situation in northern Uganda remains fragile. We welcome the progress made so far at the Juba talks. The Lord’s Resistance Army—the LRA—and the Government of Uganda must now maintain their commitment, show restraint, and implement agreements reached to date. Only then will there be a solution that brings long overdue peace and justice to the people of northern Uganda.

I thank my hon. Friend for that response. What is the Government’s view on the representation of the Acholi people in those talks? Are the Government prepared to fund technical assistance, or give other support, to ensure that community voices are heard during those discussions?

Yes. Up to 2 million Acholi people are still in dreadful displaced people’s camps because they will not go home until the Lord’s Resistance Army stops killing them and abducting their children. Uganda has a plan for such a moment, but it has not been tested yet. We shall certainly do everything that we can to assist in that peace process.

I welcome the Minister’s comments that the British Government will do all that they can to assist the peace process. However, does he acknowledge that, if we manage to secure peace in northern Uganda, aid will still be required to redevelop and re-establish the land, so we need to ensure that the international community, which is currently putting in $200 million a year in aid, redirects that money for development, and that it goes to northern Uganda and is not diverted elsewhere?

I agree with the right hon. Gentleman’s analysis. The situation in northern Uganda is so desperate that, even though there are very worthy potential recipients of any aid in southern and eastern Uganda, all the money that is set aside must end up going on trying to reconcile the situation in the north, and on redeveloping and rebuilding the infrastructure, because it is badly in need of that.

I welcome the Government’s response to what are truly dreadful circumstances in northern Uganda. In view of the belief of some commentators that the threat of International Criminal Court action is delaying the peace process, what does my hon. Friend envisage in terms of reconciliation and those people who have perpetrated what are probably some of the worst acts of this century? Does he see a role for that in attempting to bring the two sides together in the near future?

I certainly agree that the way forward is reconciliation. There will not be a military solution. We must try to bring all sides together. However, we as a Government cannot resile from the position that we have taken, which is that there must be no impunity for the war criminals. That is absolutely vital; the crimes that they have committed are horrendous. I also do not believe for one minute that we would have seen any progress if there had not been the threat that international action would be taken in the ICC against the leading individuals in the Lord’s Resistance Army.

North Korea

I have spoken to the US Secretary of State on a number of occasions over the past few months on the handling of North Korea, including in the wake of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea’s claimed nuclear test. We agreed that the test was a clear threat to international peace and security, and that there must be—as there has been—a robust response from the United Nations Security Council. I am delighted to be able to tell the House that it has just been announced that the DPRK will return to the six-party talks.

I am grateful to the Secretary of State for that response, but given that there is a long and well-documented history of North Korea illicitly obtaining nuclear material and exporting weapons systems that it has developed, can she give us further information on what will be done to enforce the embargo requirements of the United Nations resolution if North Korea does not come up to scratch at the talks? In particular, what will be the United Kingdom’s role? Will any Royal Navy assets be involved, for example?

We are not at present in a position to answer that—and especially the last part of the hon. Gentleman’s question, as he will appreciate. Obviously, everyone will now have to assess what the new position is, but I think that the whole House will take some comfort and reassurance from the fact that North Korea has decided to return to the six-party talks.

When the Foreign Secretary next meets the US Secretary of State, will she ask what contribution it is thought is made to peace and stability by the flotilla of US nuclear-armed warships in the waters around Korea? Does she agree that a non-nuclear and reunified Korea is in the interests of all the people of that part of the world, and should not the US and other Governments withdraw troops and weapons at a very early date from the Korean peninsula?

It is the wish of the international community to see de-nuclearisation of the Korean peninsula. Although I understand the legitimate concern that lies behind my hon. Friend’s question, we should recognise that it was pressure from the whole international community on North Korea that brought about this result.

I am sure that the Foreign Secretary was very pleased to hear the news from North Korea, and that the whole House hopes that it proves to be the case. But given that North Korea signed an armistice at the end of the Korean war with the United Nations, not the Republic of Korea, and that Great Britain holds the deputy command of the UN forces in South Korea, can the Foreign Secretary assure the House that, following her discussions with the US Secretary of State, there will be no withdrawal of Britain’s commitment to UN forces in South Korea as part of that role, which some in the Ministry of Defence would like to see happen?

If I may say so, the hon. Gentleman raises a rather different issue, but in the aftermath of the decision that has just been announced, everyone will be reassessing their involvement and addressing the question—properly raised by the hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill)—of where we go from here. But let us take at least a brief moment to say thank goodness that the six-party talks are on again.

Is the Secretary of State aware that, despite China’s public lack of enthusiasm for sanctions, it has privately refused to sell a single tonne of crude oil to North Korea in the month of September and sold all its available crude oil to the United States? As that may have had a very impressive impact on Kim Jong Il, will she encourage China to continue that policy not just until North Korea returns to the talks, but until it abandons its nuclear aspirations?

I am indeed aware of this issue and I have had a number of conversations with the Chinese Foreign Minister on exactly that. He has always assured me not only that China takes this issue just as seriously as the rest of us, but that it was doing everything that it could to put and maintain pressure on North Korea. We should all welcome China’s behaviour in this respect as a member of the international community—sharing and exerting its responsibilities.

Bulgaria/Romania

4. When she next plans to meet the Foreign Ministers of Bulgaria and Romania to discuss EU enlargement. (98351)

Both my right hon. Friend the Minister for Europe and I have met the Bulgarian and Romanian Foreign Ministers on a number of occasions; indeed, I met the latter only yesterday. We expect next to meet them during normal EU business at Council meetings.

How much damage to Britain’s reputation as a champion of enlargement has been done by the Home Office’s decision to impose restrictions on Romanians and Bulgarians when they join the European Union? I appreciate that both the Foreign Secretary and the Minister for Europe are reported as being opposed to the proposals, which are unworkable, unmanageable and unnecessary. How long after 1 January 2007 will those proposals be reviewed?

I discussed this issue at some length with the Romanian Foreign Minister yesterday. He told me that although there was naturally some concern, Britain’s reputation as a partner and friend of Romania is so strong—as a result of the efforts of successive Ministers in my Department over many years—that this issue is not enough to make a difference, and that it remains the case that Romania views Britain as one of its strongest allies and closest friends. It has been decided that the labour market will be opened gradually, and that the proposals announced by my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary a day or so ago will be reviewed after a year. I cannot give my right hon. Friend a precise date now, but I can assure him that that review will be very careful and thorough, as the House would wish.

I wonder whether the Foreign Secretary discussed with the Romanian Foreign Secretary the hideous activities of the criminal gangs that work in Romania and Bulgaria and traffic human beings out of those countries and into western Europe. What steps can she or the Government take to help Romania and Bulgaria to stop the waves of people coming over from Belarus, Ukraine and Moldova, as well as Turkey, into this country? The trafficking of human beings is a major problem and I should like to hear what she has to say.

The hon. Gentleman is entirely right that it is a major problem, and we are giving a great deal of assistance, support and advice to both Romania and Bulgaria in tackling those issues; but as he knows, successive Governments have taken the view that one of the merits of enlargement is to raise standards in the applicant countries, and then as they become new-member countries, in a way that will begin to tackle some of the problems at source. I do not dispute the hon. Gentleman’s remarks; it is still a serious issue, but I can assure him that the authorities in Bulgaria and Romania are striving to tackle it and are doing so with help from us.

Everyone’s Child—Romania is a charity based in my constituency that does wonderful work supporting 70 children with HIV/AIDS in that country. Will my right hon. Friend give the House a progress report on how Romania is reforming its child care services as a condition of joining the European Union?

I cannot volunteer at this moment to give my right hon. Friend a great many details, but I can certainly assure him that we judge that Romania is indeed moving towards making progress on protecting the rights of children, and also with living conditions, and that it is now in line with UN texts. That work will continue and the improvement will, I believe, continue as Romania moves into full membership of the EU. I share my right hon. Friend’s view that that is extremely important.

Will the Foreign Secretary remind the Foreign Ministers of Bulgaria and Romania that under regulations passed by the House on 30 April all citizens of those countries will have unrestricted right of residence in this country from 1 January, so the only people who will be inconvenienced by the Government’s proposed worker registration scheme are those who want openly to register as employees and pay tax? So why are the Government creating maximum ill will in those two applicant countries to minimum effect?

I do not accept that we are creating maximum ill will, as I said to my right hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, East (Keith Vaz) a moment ago. Indeed, I can tell the right hon. Member for Wells (Mr. Heathcoat-Amory) that the Foreign Minister of Romania was clear yesterday that it is his opinion that there is not likely to be much flow of people into this country—[Interruption.] I can only tell the House that that is his opinion; he based it on people movement and labour movement flows over recent years. However, the position is one that we shall continue to monitor, which is the reason for the proposals made by my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary a few days ago.

Following the outrageous and intemperate attack on Government policy by my right hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, East (Keith Vaz)—uncharacteristically—will the Secretary of State make sure that the Bulgarian and Romania Governments recognise that the restrictions on labour market entry are due to the pressures on many of our communities caused by unrestrained immigration? Constituencies such as mine where unemployment has risen by 8 per cent. over the last year have to be given some time to adjust to the influx of eastern European labour.

I can only say to my hon. Friend that I understand the concerns that he expresses on behalf of his constituents. It is not my understanding that there has been a substantial impact everywhere of the work force flows that we have seen hitherto, but certainly it is the case that the Government have taken a decision to observe and monitor this transition and to review the position next year.

Iran

5. What recent assessment she has made of the political situation in Iran; and if she will make a statement. (98352)

We remain deeply concerned about the political situation in Iran. Respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms continues to deteriorate, and Iran is increasingly isolated as a result of its support for terrorist groups, its attitude towards Israel and its role in Iraq and Lebanon. The regime is thus preventing Iranians from enjoying the political and economic benefits that would flow from an improved relationship with the European Union and the rest of the international community.

I am grateful to the Secretary of State for that reply, but we have of course all seen the reports that the United States of America may be seeking Iran’s co-operation in the next stage of the operation in Iraq. Does the right hon. Lady think that there is any contradiction between such an approach on one hand and, on the other, attempts to isolate and censure Iran both for serious breaches of the nuclear non-proliferation treaty and for human rights abuses?

No one is trying to. In so far as Iran is isolated, Iran is isolating itself. In particular, with regard to breaches on the nuclear file, the international community has bent over backwards to offer Iran what it says that it wants: access to modern civil nuclear power. I do not think that there is any inconsistency. We recognise that Iran is a major player in the world and the region, and that it could play a very positive role, and we would like to see it do so.

Following that question, may I say to my right hon. Friend that I thought that her interview on the radio some weeks ago about the position in Iraq and how it relates to Iran was admirable? It showed clear and forward thinking. Does she believe that, for a future constitutional settlement in Iraq that was stable and that allowed the withdrawal of British and American troops, there would need to be an understanding on that constitutional position that had at least a large measure of support from the Iranian Government and also the Syrian Government? If she does believe that that has to be taken into account, will she indicate to the House what kind of initiatives she might be willing to take?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his kind remarks, but I hope and believe that we are a long way from considering a different kind of constitutional settlement in Iraq. There is a great deal still to be done in Iraq—I do not want to pre-empt the debate later and I know that you would not wish me to do so, Mr. Speaker—but we remain of the view that it is in the interests of the people of Iraq for the country to be united and to remain united, and for the Government to be united and to work on the security and services issues that are of such concern to their people.

My hon. Friend makes an important and serious point about the influence that either Iran or Syria can have in the region, but all that I would say is that I know that he will forgive me if I tread with considerable caution, because, after all, it is the people of Iraq in whose hands the future of their country must lie. I am in no doubt at all from conversations that I have had with members of that country’s Government that there would be great resentment if it were believed that other countries were trying to run theirs.

May I ask the Foreign Secretary, for whom I have great regard and respect, how we can improve our relationship with Iran? She indicated in an earlier reply that she believes that Iran is highly influential in its particular region of the world. Like her, I believe that perhaps Iran is the linchpin of a peaceful settlement in the middle east. What can be done by our Government, and the House through the Inter-Parliamentary Union, to improve our relationship with Iran and its current leadership?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his kind remarks. I know that he is well aware that I return his regard and respect, due to the exchanges that we have had in the House over many years. [Interruption.] It is all right, we are moving on. However, the question that he is asking is one of the most difficult in present-day foreign policy and one that everyone is mulling over in their minds. How is it possible to improve a relationship with a country that, on the one hand, says that it wishes for that improved relationship, but, on the other, does not engage, even in the most favourable circumstances, in constructive dialogue with the rest of the international community? For example, we continue to offer Iran a way out of the dispute over the nuclear file. The door remains open on those negotiations and we would be willing to undo any steps that were taken, if Iran were to come into compliance with the International Atomic Energy Agency advice.

With regard to the role played by organisations such as the IPU, I share the hon. Gentleman’s view that that kind of parliamentarian-to-parliamentarian relationship can be of merit and value and I would welcome any steps taken in that regard.

How much more difficult is the Secretary of State’s task of protecting and promoting United Kingdom interests in relation to Iran and persuading Iran to comply with the International Atomic Energy Agency when a leading Opposition spokesperson writes in The Daily Telegraph that he thinks that Iran should be allowed to have a nuclear weapon? I am referring to the hon. Member for Henley (Mr. Johnson), who I understand aspires to be in government, as a member of the shadow Cabinet. Given that that is also read in Iran, does it make the situation more difficult?

I share my hon. Friend’s view that that is extremely unhelpful. One can only hope that in Iran they are as aware of the reputation of the hon. Member for Henley (Mr. Johnson) as a jokester as people are here.

Not dissenting entirely from the Foreign Secretary’s last comment, may I ask whether she shares the legitimate concern that in the nine months since Iran was referred to the Security Council, no concrete measure to curtail its pursuit of nuclear weapons has been agreed—not for want of trying by the British Government, I recognise? Will she be redoubling the Government’s efforts in the coming days to ensure that a strong Security Council resolution on weapons programmes, arms sales, visa bans and asset freezes will be agreed so that the united resolve that has been shown over North Korea can also be shown over Iran?

The discussion as to the content of any such Security Council resolution is quite difficult. We said in Vienna during some of the earliest talks that we had—certainly during my tenure in this office—that we wished to proceed incrementally precisely so that we could ratchet up pressure, but be ready to reduce that if it appeared to be having an effect and causing Iran to move. That is what we really want. No one wants to implement sanctions; we want to get into negotiations on the basis of Iranian agreement. We will keep up the pressure. Indeed, I can tell the right hon. Gentleman and the House that I was having conversations on exactly that matter with the relevant people only this morning.

Darfur

6. What recent discussions she has had about the continuation of the African Union force in Darfur; and if she will make a statement. (98354)

The African Union force plays a vital role. It is imperative, as an interim step, that the force stays and is strengthened until a United Nations force arrives. We were the first country to finance the African Union force and we will continue supporting it until a UN force deploys. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Development discussed the force when visiting Darfur on 16 October.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that considered reply. Given that the United Nations has been no more effective at protecting life in Darfur than it was in Srebrenica or Rwanda more than a decade ago, does he agree that the time has now come for the international community unambiguously to accept the responsibility to protect, to ignore the posturing by the Sudanese Government, and to set about enforcing the no-fly zone over Darfur so that the African Union force can at least have some cover when it is offering invaluable protection to vulnerable civilians?

The hon. Gentleman has made some very sensible suggestions. This test for the United Nations is as great as any that it has faced over the past 20 years. If we do not step up to the mark, if nations do not realise that the situation is desperate—we are trying to alter it through diplomacy—and if we cannot step up our action, I fear that we will live to shame our behaviour on Darfur.

My hon. Friend will be aware that Salva Kiir, the vice-president of Sudan, is visiting London. I and other hon. Members had the opportunity to meet him yesterday. The message from Salva Kiir is that the comprehensive peace agreement will come under enormous strain until and unless the Darfur situation is sorted out. Cleary there is a split in the Government in Khartoum, and, in the meantime, there has to be some bolstering of the AU forces. Does my hon. Friend agree that the sands of time will run out unless action is taken to bolster those forces and that this Government have a great stake in making sure that that happens?

I agree very much. Ministers and senior officials are engaging international partners to ensure that there is unified pressure on the Sudanese Government to accept a UN force, agree to a ceasefire and commit to a renewed political settlement with the rebels. We have a team of diplomats working in Darfur with parties to the Darfur peace agreement to bring non-signatories into the political process. We are assisting the African Union to implement the Darfur peace agreement.

The United Kingdom has not been mean in its financial assistance to the African Union. We have pledged a total of £52 million in financial assistance to AMIS, including £20 million pledged in this financial year. We are the second biggest bilateral humanitarian donor to the Darfur crisis, and since April 2004 we have contributed over £190 million in humanitarian assistance to Sudan. As the hon. Member for Buckingham (John Bercow) just told us, however, we have to do a lot more, and that means galvanising the opinion of UN member states to take much tougher and more focused action.

The whole House is united in its horror and disgust at the killings and suffering in Darfur, the scale of which was underlined by the expelled UN envoy Jan Pronk, when he said that the Sudanese armed forces

“are trampling all over”

Darfur

“and are still trying to gain a military victory.”

Further to the question by the hon. Member for Buckingham, will the Minister tell us whether enforcement of the no-fly zone is actively being considered?

On the broader issues in Darfur, does the Minister agree that China and Russia hold the key to the credibility of the United Nations in this instance, and that they must robustly ensure that the resolution is implemented in full?

It is difficult to understand, in diplomatic terms anyway, why Russia, China and, of course, Qatar abstained in the crucial vote on Sudan, although we are glad that they abstained rather than trying to veto any movement on this issue. We have to consider all means of trying to put pressure on the Sudanese Government to make progress on this issue, and there is a range of options that we can look at, including sanctions and proper monitoring of military activity. We must do everything that we can to try to enforce the African Union mission force so that it becomes more, not less, effective. However, we must remember that its remit runs out on 31 December, and our aim must be to get a UN force in there to do what it, and no one else, can do.

I am very heartened by the Minister’s statement that the UN force is on the way out there. The remark by the hon. Member for Buckingham comparing this situation with Rwanda is very telling. I spent time in Rwanda during the summer and read extensively on that and Darfur; the similarities are incredible. People are talking about civil war when what we are watching is genocide committed by a Muslim-Arab Government on a non-Muslim and prominently Christian population of Africans. To do the job properly, we need the forces to have not only the necessary numbers, but the right rules of engagement. What will be the rules of engagement for the UN force which will make the mission effective and stop this genocide now before it is just like Rwanda—something for which we will apologise for the rest of this century?

The UN force will be operating primarily under chapter 6 but partially under chapter 7, which gives it the right to take action against armed groups who are blocking the peace process. That will be a step forward.

I know that my hon. Friend has done a lot of work on this dreadful situation, but I have to say to him that there are many hundreds of thousands of Muslims who are being put under the hammer by the Sudanese Government forces, the Janjaweed and so on. We must not assume that this is a religious war. Elements of it are an attempt by the Khartoum Government to hit opposition of all sorts. We must be careful to recognise that a great many Muslims are suffering at the same time.

It is reported in the press this morning that the Vice-President of Sudan will be seeing the Prime Minister this afternoon. Can the Minister give the House an indication of what those talks might contain? The humanitarian situation, which was described by the UN as being the worst in the world, the number of people killed, the 2 million displaced people and now the increasing tide of refugees into Chad, which is destabilising that country, are totally unacceptable. Will the Prime Minister tell the Vice-President that if he does not allow the UN force into Sudan by 31 December, the British Government will go back to the United Nations to seek a renewed mandate under chapter 7, so that a force can go in by force to improve the situation?

As I am sure the hon. Gentleman knows, the United Kingdom cannot do that alone. We must try to persuade other Security Council members to act with the same determination as this country to bring peace to that region and to put pressure on the Sudanese Government. Everything the hon. Gentleman says about that dreadful situation is true, and I know that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister will be repeating that to a Sudanese politician who has done a great deal to try to bring about reconciliation, especially in the south of Sudan, and who should be congratulated on that.

Afghanistan

The Government and the international security assistance force—ISAF—recognise the importance of engaging with local communities to help deliver security and as a key element of the work of provincial reconstruction teams—PRTs—which are helping to deliver better governance and support reconstruction and development. The United Kingdom, through its military personnel and civilians based in its PRT in Helmand, regularly engages with local community leaders.

I thank the Minister for that constructive answer. Does he acknowledge that working with the traditional tribal structures is as important as working with the Government in Kabul in order to secure a lasting peace? I have recent e-mails from a paramount chief in Afghanistan, who calls for massive development work and also for direct negotiations with tribal chiefs to bring peace and weaken the Taliban’s grip. Will the Minister comment on that, please?

After many trips to Afghanistan, it is clear to me that there will not be some kind of military victory in Afghanistan in one day or in the future; there must be political engagement. For that to be successful, all parties must recognise the structure and the culture of Afghan society. That means engaging with tribal jirgas and understanding the importance of that tribal culture. In some parts of Afghanistan, it determines what happens on a day-to-day basis, so if we ignore it, we do so at our peril.

If my hon. Friend engages in talks with tribal leaders, will he ensure that justice for women is on the agenda? Although we all applaud the progress made by women in education and in democratic elections, violence against women, particularly honour killings, is on the rise. Human rights workers—Afghan women—have been killed, and there is a high rate of child marriages and abduction of young women. In our dealings with Afghanistan, will my hon. Friend ensure that Security Council resolution 1325 is fully implemented?

Yes, indeed. My hon. Friend is right to highlight those matters. It is written into the Afghan constitution that women’s rights are equal to men’s rights, and that they should have equal protection and enjoy every opportunity that men do. That does not happen, of course. In reply to the question from the hon. Member for Southport (Dr. Pugh), I noted that in many places Afghanistan still has a profoundly tribal culture, which means that we must take those issues on as well. That means working with the new Parliament, which has a high percentage of women Members, in order to fight for the changes that my hon. Friend has defended so often in so many venues. We stand by her. Those are some of the most important issues facing the new Afghan Parliament, and we will do everything we can to support it.

Does the Minister recall that the chairman of the House international relations committee in the United States has called on the US Administration to alter their strategy against opium production in Afghanistan, describing the poppy eradication programme as “a failure”? I recognise the immense difficulties in that area, but opium cultivation in Afghanistan has increased by 59 per cent. this year. Are the Government considering changing their strategy? Is there full agreement between the UK, US and Afghan Governments on the most effective way forward, and what is it?

We confer regularly—day by day and week by week—with the Afghan Government and the other allies in Afghanistan about that question. The right hon. Gentleman is right to highlight the increase in the opium crop in the past 12 months, which is shocking and disappointing. He should examine the UN Office on Drugs and Crime report—I know that the executive summary only has been published, but I hope that the full report will be published shortly. In some provinces, the remit of the democratically elected Government has been extended and means something—for example, improvements in infrastructure. However, that remit has hardly touched other areas, such as Helmand province, which we have just moved into, and such provinces are where the greatest increases in opium poppy production have occurred. We must learn a lesson from that. It is possible, and it has been seen to be possible in more stable regions such as Mazar-i-Sharif, to see a decline in opium production, where it is clear to farmers that they can grow something else because there are other markets such as those for fruit and wheat. It will be a long haul, and we were all too optimistic about the possibility of decreasing opium production.

Iran

Iran has not taken the steps required in Security Council resolution 1696 and the International Atomic Energy Agency board resolutions, which would allow talks to begin on the basis of the generous proposals presented by Javier Solana on behalf of the E3+3 in June. I chaired a meeting of E3+3 Foreign Ministers in London on 6 October, and we agreed that there is now no option but to seek a new Security Council resolution imposing sanctions. We have begun consultations with partners.

I went on the Inter-Parliamentary Union delegation to Iran in June, when I was able to eyeball parliamentarians. Is the Foreign Secretary aware that the Iranian economy is in a fragile state and is haemorrhaging money in order to subsidise basic supplies to keep the masses placated? Until recently, the Guardian Council consistently vetoed legislation on money laundering in a country through which the bulk of the heroin trade passes and which has given large sums of money to terrorist organisations. Given that the US Administration have taken steps to isolate the Iranian regime financially by blocking the access of Iranian banks, what steps is the Foreign Secretary taking to encourage UK financial institutions to follow suit and to work with her European counterparts to isolate the Ahmadinejad regime financially and in terms of trade?

We have led the way in trying to persuade people to help to counteract money laundering. As I said in reply to an earlier question, we remain in close contact with our EU colleagues and our Russian, Chinese and American colleagues on the most effective way to deal with the position in Iran. We are anxious to try to maintain the balance between exerting firm and clear pressure on Iran to come to the negotiating table and not giving those who want to call off the negotiations the excuse to do so.

Middle East

9. What recent assessment she has made of prospects for peace in the middle east; and if she will make a statement. (98357)

My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister visited the region from 9 to 11 September and met key leaders. We welcomed the commitment by Prime Minister Olmert and President Abbas to meet without conditions. The Government remain fully engaged and continue to call on the Palestinians and Israelis to make progress on the road map, to which both President Abbas and the Israeli Government remain committed.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that one of the important building blocks of any durable peace is that the democratic rights of all people in the region are respected and upheld? In that context, is he aware that the Inter-Parliamentary Union, at its 115th assembly, expressed its deep concern at the continuing detention of more than 30 elected Palestinian parliamentarians? Has he made representations to the Israeli Government about their being either released or charged, and what has been the Israeli Government’s response?

My hon. Friend is right. This does not help the peace process in any way whatsoever, nor does it set a good example of how a democracy should be treated. We might not agree with the Hamas Government—we certainly disagree with them about many things—but those parliamentarians have been elected by the Palestinian people and they should be released. At the European General Affairs and External Relations Council meeting of 17 to 18 July, we continued to support the EU position that those parliamentarians should be released forthwith.

Do the Government believe that there is any prospect of Hezbollah disarming if the Shebaa Farms area is not surrendered by Israel to the United Nations or directly to Lebanon?

Shebaa Farms must be a central feature of the post-conflict discussions that take place between all parties in the region. The hon. Gentleman, who is extremely interested in this subject, knows as well as I do that there is also a dispute as to who Shebaa Farms belongs to. Is it Syrian? Is it Lebanese? Is it to be regarded and negotiated on as part of the Golan heights package? It is a difficult one. It is clear to me from the discussions that I had in Beirut in the middle of the bombardment in July that Shebaa Farms is a central issue that must be addressed if we are serious about getting a permanent peaceful settlement in Lebanon.

Does my hon. Friend consider Iran’s repeated threat to wipe Israel off the map as a serious threat to the renewal of the peace process given Iran’s continuing support for terrorism and its policy of acquiring nuclear weapons?

It is difficult to understand why Iran makes these threats. It is interesting that when I speak with the Iranian ambassador, he tries to tell me that it is a rhetorical device that I should not take any more seriously than I take anything else that is said. I do not think that that is what international diplomacy can afford to be about these days, especially not from a country that is hell-bent, as far as I can read it, on developing a nuclear bomb. President Ahmadinejad has difficulties enough at home in trying to meet the election pledge that got him elected after that cooked-up election with a list of candidates personally picked by a kind of fascist theocracy. Instead of threatening another sovereign state, he ought to be concentrating on trying to tap the enormous potential in Iran—great natural resources, a huge population, and a great culture—to make that country wealthier in line with his election promises.

Does the Minister agree that in any two-state solution there can be no stable Palestinian state without the exclusively democratic participation of Hamas, and no secure peaceful Israel without an agreed and permanent ceasefire from Hezbollah? In that regard, what discussions are the Government having, if not with the Government of Iran, at least with the Government of Syria?

Certainly, we must step up our discussions with all the parties in the area, which will unquestionably include the Syrians. We are beginning to understand that there is a way out. The war in the Lebanon was horrendous and a lesson to us all. It could easily have spilled over into other areas. We must intensify all the negotiations, which must be region-wide, to reach an all-middle east settlement. I hope that not only the nations named by the right hon. and learned Gentleman but the states of the Gulf become more involved in determining that middle east peace process. If that happens, we can begin to make progress.

I am sure that you will be concerned to know, Mr. Speaker, that among the 35 Members of Parliament properly elected by the Palestinian people who are in jail in Israel is the Deputy Speaker of the Palestinian legislative council. There can be no excuse for keeping those people in prison. Will my hon. Friend make every attempt to get them either released forthwith or properly charged with a criminal offence?

I agree with my hon. Friend, and I know that she has done a great deal of work to try to bring that about. I hope that she continues that work, as there are few Members who have such a reputation in the middle east, as well as in the House. We rely very much on her analysis of such extremely difficult situations. This, however, is a relatively simple question. Those imprisoned are important parliamentarians, with whom we may not agree—we may be vociferously opposed to what they stand for—but who have nevertheless been elected by the Palestinian people and must be able to speak on their behalf.

Darfur

10. What assessment she has made of the effectiveness of United Nations policy and the resolutions of the UN Security Council on Darfur. (98358)

The UN is playing a critical role in efforts to resolve the appalling conflict. Successive Security Council resolutions have offered significant UN assistance, imposed sanctions, referred the situation to the International Criminal Court and underlined the consequences of non-compliance. Resolution 1706 mandating a UN force demonstrates the UN’s continued commitment to Darfur. We are pressing Sudan to accept the UN deployment, which remains the best opportunity to secure lasting peace.

In the late 1930s, the failure to take effective action against the Italian invasion of Abyssinia led to a complete loss of credibility for the League of Nations. The awful, complex situation in Sudan and Darfur is not the same, but what can the UK Government do, as a permanent member of the Security Council, to ensure that the UN, the only truly international peacekeeping show in town, maintains its credibility?

This is a test at least as pointed and severe as Rwanda and Srebrenica. We cannot afford another Srebrenica or Rwanda. The hon. Gentleman is therefore right. It seems to me that the challenge is not just to focus the eyes of the Security Council, although it would be good if all its permanent members were focused on resolving the issue, but to provide an example to the world of how the United Nations can act under difficult circumstances to rescue huge numbers of people from the most dreadful fate.

What discussions have we had with the Chinese Government about Darfur? Are not they the key to breaking the deadlock?

I would not agree with my hon. Friend that the Chinese Government are the single key, but there is no doubt that they are an important interlocutor. My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary and other Ministers have spoken frequently to the Chinese about the matter, and we will continue to do so. The Chinese play a very important role, and not just, incidentally, in relation to the amount of oil that they buy from Sudan, which is nevertheless an important variable in the equation.

Pakistan

12. What recent discussions she has had with the Government of Pakistan on security issues; and if she will make a statement. (98360)

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State met the Pakistani Foreign Minister, Khurshid Kasuri, at the margins of the UN General Assembly on 19 September. They had a comprehensive exchange of views on security issues.

Does the Minister agree that it is easier for Britain to co-operate on security with Pakistan if the latter observes basic human rights? What assessment has he made of the recent Amnesty report, which says that elements in Pakistan’s security forces are responsible for large-scale disappearances, illegal detention, rendition and torture?

Human rights are certainly at the centre of our relationship with Pakistan. There are great problems in Pakistan—there is no question about that—but President Musharraf has made a number of extremely brave decisions, and has taken initiatives to try to reinforce human rights in a country that suffers hugely from terrorist problems, from Balochistan right up to the north-west frontier. We must do all that we can to encourage, in the most constructive way, the case for enhanced human rights in Pakistan, but we should understand, too, that President Musharraf has made great strides in bringing that country into a more civilised and democratic state.

Even given what the Minister has just said, does he have any evidence whatever that Pakistan’s intelligence and security officers are involved in supporting terrorist activity—and not only terrorist activity in Afghanistan, but terrorist activity aimed, indirectly, at the interests of this country?

We have many worries about the infiltration of terrorists and weapons across the borders, especially the borders of Helmand, Kandahar and perhaps Nimruz provinces with Balochistan in Pakistan. President Musharraf has tried to reassure us that he has complete control of the Inter-Services Intelligence agency in Pakistan. I really believe that he has been trying to bring elements of the ISI firmly under Government control, because it does his Government no good in the eyes of the international community to be seen to be helping, or even just to be suspected of helping, in any way the terrorists who are killing British, American, Dutch and Canadian soldiers on just the other side of the border.

Termination of Pregnancy

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to reduce the time limit for legal termination of pregnancy from 24 to 21 weeks; to introduce a cooling off period after the first point of contact with a medical practitioner about a termination; to require the provision of counselling about the medical risk of, and about matters relating to, termination and carrying a pregnancy to term as a condition of informed consent to termination; to enable the time period from the end of the cooling off period to the date of termination to be reduced; and for connected purposes.

The aim and objective of the Bill are to reduce the number of abortions that take place each year in Britain. That figure has reached 180,000, or 600 a day, and rising. There is now far greater knowledge and awareness, and much less stigma, surrounding the issues of pregnancy. The morning after pill can now be bought over the counter and there are pregnancy home-testing kits that can be used in the very early stages of pregnancy. The aim of my Bill is to reduce the number of abortions performed, and I wish to concentrate on social abortions that take place between the 21st and 24th weeks of pregnancy.

In 1990, when the House set the abortion limit at 24 weeks, viability—the date at which a foetus could survive outside the womb—was the principal consideration. Science has moved on, and so should the debate. Advanced medical scanners are now used by people such as Professor Campbell, one of the UK’s most highly respected neonatologists, and I am grateful to him for his help and insight. The images produced by ground-breaking foetal monitoring techniques show the layperson how a foetus looks and behaves in the mother’s womb. The images are moving, and there is no doubt that they have informed public opinion. However, they simply reaffirm information that the medical profession has known about for some years, which is why the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists states that for late abortions foeticide must take place first.

To put it simply, the professionals insist that a foetus must be put to death in the womb before it is aborted. The majority of abortions over 20 weeks take place using foeticide. Guidelines were drawn up recently because doctors simply do not want to perform abortions on babies they think may have a chance of survival or who may be aborted alive. In accordance with Royal College guidelines, a late abortion takes place over two days. On day one, a lethal injection is inserted into the foetal heart—I will spare hon. Members the details of the way in which that procedure is executed. When the doctor is convinced that the foetal heart has completely stopped, labour is induced and the foetus is delivered using forceps on day two.

Many doctors think that a foetus is sentient—that is to say, conscious—from 18 weeks. Many of us have seen scanned pictures in the newspapers showing the smiles, the thumb-sucking and the kicking, and it is hard to disagree. Doctor John Peebles, a leading foetal development consultant from University College hospital said only last week:

“For social terminations we have to say that 24 weeks is not justifiable because you have to induce labour, but first go through the process of foeticide. Therefore doctors in my position would support a lowering to 21 weeks.”

Doctors do not like foeticide and they do not like late abortions. They have to perform 3,000 abortions a year on babies of over 20 weeks’ gestation for social reasons. There is evidence that what we are debating from 20 weeks could be a sentient being.

Some doctors argue that babies are sentient from 18 weeks—at that point, the foetus is no longer a collection of cells and embryonic fluid. If we accept that, and I believe that the evidence is compelling, we are morally obliged to reconsider the legality of late abortions. Some Members may question the science of viability and claim that perhaps only a few babies would survive. Some Members may take issue with the point of sentience, waiting for yet more concrete scientific proof. There may even be Members who think that foeticide is an acceptable practice. It is a prescribed practice by the Royal College, but anyone who supports the upper limit of 24 weeks endorses foeticide.

If we put the three together—viability, sentience and foeticide—the evidence is overwhelming and compelling. The time has now come to reduce the limit to 21 weeks. It is 2006—not 1967 and not 1990. Time and medical technology have moved on, and so has the mood of the nation. Polling this year showed that the overwhelming majority of British people support moves to end late abortion for social reasons. We now know beyond doubt—thanks to the comprehensive, respected Ferguson study undertaken over 25 years—that women who have abortions subsequently have twice as many mental health problems and three times the risk of major depressive illness as women who have not had an abortion or who have carried a pregnancy to term.

Last Friday, The Times published a letter from 12 leading UK professors, consultant psychiatrists, obstetricians and doctors calling for a revision of the Royal College guidelines, stating that we now have a duty to inform women of the risks associated with having an abortion. My Bill calls for a 10-day cooling-off period that would give the mother breathing space, allowing her time to think, to be counselled and advised of the risks of abortion and to be guided through the options, which should include the possibility of carrying the pregnancy to term. I call that a woman’s right to know and to choose, because without information, what choices does a woman have? A period of informed consent is about empowerment—it is about whether or not the decision to abort is fully thought through. It is about making an informed decision.

Many pro-choice campaigners describe abortion as a relief to most women. I am sure that it is a relief from the panic-ridden, helpless situation in which many women find themselves, but as well as relief they experience an overwhelming sense of grief and trauma. Whereas relief is a temporary emotion, the grief and loss may last for many years. In fact, they may not even set in for many years.

With the introduction of a cooling-off period, whenever a woman says to herself “If only”, she would in future be able to reassure herself that she was helped, that she had thought long and hard and that she was given all the knowledge and advice that she needed. She will take comfort from the fact that a decision was not rushed or panicked, but well thought through. That does not happen now. The British Pregnancy Advisory Service website advertises that from the point of seeing a doctor, abortion will be performed in five days. That is abortion on demand.

In the countries where informed consent has been introduced, the number of requested abortions has dropped dramatically. With a period of informed consent in this country, together with a reduction in the number of late abortions, the Bill will achieve its aims and objectives—to reduce the number of abortions performed each day and to assist women in making calm and well-thought-through decisions.

The third part of my Bill is designed to ensure that after the 10-day cooling-off period, when the woman decides to proceed with the termination, those 10 days are not added to the waiting period. Time has moved on, science has moved on, and so has public opinion. Respected medical opinion—the country’s leading neonatologists and foetal development consultants—thinks that it is time to reduce to 21 weeks. Even the public agreed in a recent study that late abortion was cruel and believe overwhelmingly—85 per cent.—that it should be abolished. I believe that it is time for Members to respond. After all, we passed the Act a long time ago.

I do not have all the answers. As with any Bill, the detail would need debate and amendments, and there are hon. Members with far greater wisdom and knowledge than me who would like to contribute. The Bill at least brings the debate into the open. It is wrong that it has been suppressed for 16 years. As I have said, it is not about a woman’s right to choose, but about a woman’s right to know.

I rise to speak against the Bill with a feeling of great responsibility—in particular, responsibility to the silent majority, the one in four women in this country who have had a termination of pregnancy in the past, but who do not talk about it. After all, this is the last great taboo. Those women will listen to the debate with concern—not, perhaps, for themselves, but for their daughters and grand-daughters and their right and ability to make similar choices, if necessary, in the future.

Abortion has recently been made a matter of debate by those who want a reduction in the upper time limit or even the complete abolition of abortion in this country and abroad. It is a campaign that is fuelled and funded by religious conservatives from Washington to Rome—[Interruption.]

Order. The Bill’s promoter was heard in silence and the same courtesy should be given to the hon. Lady.

The campaign has then been extended to these shores, where it has no place. The Abortion Act 1967, which made abortion legal in this country, was a great gift of choice from that Parliament to the women of Britain. Parliamentarians like David—now Lord—Steel and my own predecessor in Calder Valley, the late Lord Houghton, who developed and enacted that legislation, showed great courage and are owed a huge debt of gratitude by any woman who has ever found herself with unplanned and unwanted pregnancy. By a single legislative Act, they consigned the harrowing spectre of back-street abortion and back-street butchery to the history books.

In 21st century Britain, there is no place for a law that discriminates against individual and entire groups of women, that encourages confusion about entitlement and that allows some individuals the right to impose their will and their morality on others, risking the physical and mental health of thousands of women. All those who believe in rights and taking responsibility, freedom of choice and personal autonomy will oppose this ill-informed Bill. It aims to reduce the abortion time limit from 24 to 21 weeks, introduce a 10-day cooling-off period after a woman has already decided that she wants a termination, and insist that the woman undergoes counselling during that 10-day period, whether she requests it or not, yet it perversely proposes that an abortion should be accelerated if a woman confirms that she wishes to end the pregnancy.

I am gravely concerned about the Bill’s impact on women generally. No new scientific evidence exists to suggest that foetal viability is now 21 weeks. The British Medical Association, the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists and the Royal College of Nursing do not believe that there has been sufficient technological improvement to merit a reduction in the current limit. The Nuffield Council on Bioethics has no documented evidence of survival below 24 weeks.

A very small proportion of women need late terminations. Those who do have compelling reasons and often face extremely difficult or unusual circumstances, perhaps the catastrophic long-term illness of another, older child. No one involved takes decisions about late terminations lightly. Contrary to tabloid disinformation, no scientific breakthroughs have occurred to cause a reduction in the current limit. Restrictions on legal rights would leave some women in a desperate predicament.

Reducing the time limit of 24 weeks would have an adverse impact on the small number of girls or women who seek late abortions. Some women would be forced to give birth to unwanted children, some would travel abroad at great expense at a time when they were vulnerable, and some would inevitably resort to illegal abortions and risk their lives. In 1967, the UK Parliament rightly decided that those alternatives were no longer acceptable.

Late-term abortions are rare. In 2005, less than 1.5 per cent. of all abortions took place after 20 weeks. Of those, less than 0.6 per cent.—a tiny fraction—were carried out at 22 weeks or later. Those that take place do so for specific and often heart-breaking reasons. This ill-informed measure does not even take into consideration the plight of women who have a wanted pregnancy but discover a foetal abnormality at a later stage. The first opportunity of detecting an abnormality is often by scan at approximately 18 to 20 weeks. The current 24-week limit allows a woman and her partner time to consider a very difficult decision. Reducing the limit could mean that they would be rushed into making a decision or were unable to decide in enough time to allow the abortion to go ahead, if that is what they wanted.

A cooling-off period would simply prolong the anguish of a woman who has already decided that she cannot continue with her pregnancy. It would effectively reduce the time limit further and might prevent a woman from getting the termination that she desperately needs, even if she presents before 12 weeks because, in many parts of the country, access to post-12-week abortions is restricted. The earlier the abortion takes place, the less invasive it will be, and the possibility of complications is also reduced.

Of course, counselling should be available to those who want it, but it should be non-directed and non-compulsory. Making it a requirement to accessing an abortion goes against the rationale of counselling. Unless it is properly regulated, it could be distressing and misleading. There should be no delays for a woman who seeks an abortion. The stop-start approach in the Bill will unfortunately lead to even longer delays than those that currently occur.

I heard the hon. Member for Mid-Bedfordshire (Mrs. Dorries) on the radio this morning, saying that the Bill’s objective is to reduce abortion rates per se. Ultimately, we all want to reduce abortions. [Interruption.] Of course we do. Nobody likes abortions. We also want to reduce the gestation period following which abortions take place. However, restricting access to services is not the solution, and reducing the time limit is certainly not the solution.

As I have said many times in the House, the best way of reducing the number of unintended pregnancies is to improve women’s access to contraception, as well as educating women and men about sexual health. This cruel Bill—for it is a cruel Bill—is an attack on women’s reproductive rights. It would force a very small number of very vulnerable women to continue pregnancies against their will and would deny every woman seeking an abortion the ability to make her own choice within the time scale that is appropriate to her.

I say to hon. Members: “By all means vote for the Bill if you really believe that a woman should be required to continue a late-diagnosed pregnancy, even if her health is at risk or the foetus is abnormal. Vote for the Bill if you do not believe that such difficult decisions should, wherever possible, be made within families.” But I also say to hon. Members: “Vote against the Bill if you are pro-life, if you are pro-quality of life, if you are pro a woman’s life. Vote against the Bill if you are pro-women’s rights, because women’s rights are human rights. Vote against the Bill if you are pro-reproductive rights, because reproductive rights are also human rights. Vote against the Bill if you are pro-humanity, because it is cynical, cruel, ill-informed and, above all, inhumane.”

Question put, pursuant to Standing Order No. 23 (Motions for leave to bring in Bills and nomination of Select Committees at commencement of public business):—

Opposition Day

[Un-allotted Half-Day]

Iraq

We now come to the main business, and I inform the House that I have selected the amendment in the name of the Prime Minister. Also, to accommodate the nationalist parties, I have decided that there will be an eight-minute limit on speeches in the Opposition day debate. That will apply after opening speeches, and until we come to the final two winding-up speeches.

I beg to move,

That this House believes that there should be a select committee of seven honourable Members, being members of Her Majesty’s Privy Council, to review the way in which the responsibilities of Government were discharged in relation to Iraq and all matters relevant thereto, in the period leading up to military action in that country in March 2003 and in its aftermath.

It is an honour to move this motion on behalf of my hon. Friends and of right hon. and hon. Members on all sides of the House of Commons. It is the culmination of a long campaign, and it is a debate that is long overdue. The motion has cross-party support because the issue at its heart is far bigger than one of party politics. It is about accountability. It is about the monumental catastrophe of the Iraq war, which is the worst foreign policy disaster certainly since Suez, and possibly since Munich. It is about the morass in which, regrettably, we still find ourselves. It is also about a breakdown in our system of government—a fault line in our constitution that only we, as Parliament, can fix. Fix it we must, if there are not to be further mistakes and other Iraqs under other Prime Ministers, in which case we shall only have ourselves to blame.

If the hon. Gentleman will allow me, I shall not. I intend to be as generous as I can, but I wish to develop my arguments. We need to hear as many voices as possible in this debate, and there is a time limit on speeches, but I shall give way to interventions.

The debate on 18 March 2003 was one of the most momentous—some would say calamitous—debates in the House of Commons in modern times. The Prime Minister gave one of the great performances of his life; it was full of certainty and undaunted by doubt. But unfortunately, we now know that much of what he told us that night was false. It is no wonder that democratic politics has haemorrhaged public confidence. Only we in this Parliament can stem that flow; we can rebuild some of that trust by holding a proper inquiry into what went on.

What could an inquiry usefully do? There will inevitably be a range of views within the House, which is why we need a sufficiently broad remit. But three central questions need to be answered. How could the Government take us to war on claims that turned out to be false? When precisely was the decision to have this war made? Why has the planning for, and conduct of, the occupation proved to be so disastrous? Maybe the hon. Member for West Bromwich, West (Mr. Bailey) can give us some answers?

I quite understand that the hon. Gentleman feels very deeply about this issue. But do his electorate in Wales and the electorate in Scotland consider it to be the most pressing issue affecting them?

I have to tell the hon. Gentleman that, like many other Members, I have constituents who are now on their third deployment to Iraq, and, yes, they want us to debate this issue. Some would argue—like the hon. Gentleman, no doubt—that we should not even have this debate while troops remain on the ground in Iraq. If we follow the logic of the Government’s argument, the graver the mistake—and, therefore, the greater the danger to which our troops are exposed—the less the Government should be required to defend their record.

Would the hon. Gentleman care to remind the House that the argument that we should not debate these matters when troops are operational is precisely the argument that was made in the Norway debate, and which, happily, was rejected by people like my father, who voted against Chamberlain and brought in Churchill?

The right hon. and learned Gentleman makes the point very well. We need to turn the logic of the Government on its head. We need to do so precisely for the sake of our troops. We have been led into this quagmire by way of a false rationale and without a clear strategy, and we need to debate the Government’s appalling record. The troops deserve nothing less.

I wish to make some progress, if I may.

Almost on a weekly basis, we see senior military figure after senior military figure making yet another devastating assessment of the Government’s policy-making capacity. Lord Guthrie said that the policies are cuckoo. Lord Inge said that there was a lack of clear strategy at the Ministry of Defence. Most damning of all was the verdict of the current head of the Army, who said that

“history will show that the planning for what happened after the initial…war fighting phase was poor, probably based more on optimism than sound planning.”

Unfortunately, we have not seen that kind of honesty from any Government Minister to date. However, it is fair to say that the Foreign Secretary came perilously close when she said that history may judge the Iraq war to have been a disaster. Unfortunately, we do not have the luxury of waiting for history’s verdict; we need some answers and action now.

A Government who were prepared to parade before our eyes dossier after dodgy dossier of carefully edited intelligence will not now let us read any of the intelligence on what is happening on the ground. We have had no comprehensive statement to date of Government policy. In February last year, the Prime Minister promised the Liaison Committee that General Luck’s audit of coalition security strategy in Iraq would be published. For the record, I quote the Prime Minister:

“I have seen a draft that is still under discussion…When there is a finished article, it will be published.”

It never was.

Before the Government come back and say, “That was not our fault; the decision not to publish was made in Washington”—like so many other foreign policy decisions under this Government—I should point out to Treasury Ministers that they have not published a single word of Sir Ronnie Flanagan’s assessment of the UK’s contribution to Iraqi security sector reform, which was completed 10 months ago. Of course we understand that parts of these reports have to be withheld for security reasons, but does the Foreign Secretary really believe that Parliament can do its duty in holding the Government to account if we get no information about their strategy?

There are two Iraqs: the Iraq of George Bush and the Prime Minister, where things are going to plan and getting better all the time; and the real Iraq of murder and mayhem, whose future is uncertain. The state of denial that characterises the Government’s policy now mirrors the state of delusion that characterised their policy in the run-up to war. The Prime Minister told us that night that it was “beyond doubt” that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, even though the intelligence supplied was packed with doubt. He rattled off the huge quantities of WMD that he said had been left unaccounted for. Then he treated us to the punch-line:

“We are asked now seriously to accept that in the last few years—contrary to all history, contrary to all intelligence—Saddam decided unilaterally to destroy those weapons. I say that such a claim is palpably absurd.”—[Official Report, 18 March 2003; Vol. 401, c. 762.]

Well, not as things turned out. In my more uncharitable moments, I am reminded of that famous Aneurin Bevan put-down during the Suez crisis. He said, “If Sir Anthony Eden is sincere in what he is saying—and he may be, he may be—then he is too stupid to be Prime Minister.”

To be fair—

Before I give way to the hon. Gentleman, I should like to state as a matter of record that I do not believe that the Prime Minister is stupid; that is a wholly unwarranted and unfounded accusation.

The difficulty that I and many others have with the idea of a fresh inquiry is the partisan response to the previous four inquiries, whereby those who did not wish to accept what they heard simply rejected them as whitewashes. Does the hon. Gentleman accept the Butler inquiry, the Hutton inquiry and the all-party inquiries that we have already had?

I have heard this charge of political opportunism—[Interruption.] Well, I have to tell the hon. Gentleman that, facing as we are elections in Wales and Scotland, and given that we have one of the most unpopular Prime Ministers in history, political opportunism should mean that we would like to keep him there. In fact, we are doing what is right on a cross-party basis. On the inquiries to which the hon. Gentleman referred, the key issue is: how can the Butler and Hutton inquiries have been genuinely independent of the Executive when their remit and membership were decided by the Prime Minister himself? When you are in the dock, Mr. Speaker, you are usually not allowed to make decisions about the charge sheet, the judge and the jury.

Does the hon. Gentleman recall that during the debate on the Hutton inquiry the Prime Minister actually confessed that he was unaware that there was evidence that the weapons of mass destruction for which he was looking were just defensive weapons—artillery shells or small-calibre weaponry? He was unaware of that at the time, as was Hutton, so we had a situation in which the Prime Minister was making representations to the House on evidence that he did not understand and had not read.

Absolutely. The responsibility of Ministers to tell the truth is not just in making sure that they say what they believe to be true, but testing it against the facts—actually getting into the detail—and there is plenty of evidence, as the hon. Gentleman says, that that did not happen in that case.

Is not this symptomatic of the way the Government address such important issues? They held several narrowly defined inquiries, rather as they did with foot and mouth, so that we never got the full picture, which is of course very much to their benefit.

Absolutely. The wording of our motion reflects the wording of the Franks inquiry, so that there can be a broad-ranging inquiry and we can learn lessons, to avoid repeating mistakes in the future.

Does the hon. Gentleman share my view that one of the things at stake this afternoon is the credibility of Parliament, and that the key responsibilities of Parliament are to scrutinise the Executive and hold it to account? If we fail to fulfil those responsibilities in relation to the Iraq war we shall further deepen the growing and worrying imbalance between Parliament and the Executive.

The hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central (Mark Fisher) has laid bare the constitutional question, which is at the heart of the debate, about restoring the balance of power between Parliament and the Executive.

Some have accused the hon. Gentleman of opportunism in choosing to debate this subject on an Opposition day, but does he agree that the people of Wales are keen to get to the truth of the matter and that what we really need today is a sober and considered debate rather than point-scoring—primarily by a very defensive Government? Does he hope that rather than putting party political interests first we can make the interests of democracy and our mistakes in Iraq the primary consideration in our debate?

I agree, and I pay tribute to courageous Members on both sides of the House who have declared support against their party line. Some things are genuinely more important than party politics, and it is a good day for parliamentary democracy when we see beyond party loyalty and look at issues of principle.

I have been generous, but I must make some progress because we need to hear as many Back-Bench speeches as possible.

I want to return to some of the Prime Minister’s statements that were out of kilter with much of what he was being told. To give just one example, on 3 April 2002 he said: “We know that he”—Saddam Hussein—

“has stockpiles of major amounts of chemical and biological weapons.”

But in the previous month, the most that the Joint Intelligence Committee could come up with was:

“We believe Iraq retains some production equipment, and some small stocks of chemical warfare agent precursors, and may have hidden small quantities of agents and weapons.”

So “may” became “we know” and “small quantities” became “major stockpiles”; that was the pattern in the presentation of the case. Small changes in emphasis and the selective use of intelligence were repeatedly used to transform a threat from minor to dire and doubtful to definite, and caveats and caution to blood-chilling certainties.

Evidence that would have undermined the case was held back. The Prime Minister frequently cited the defection of Hussein Kamel, Saddam Hussein’s son-in-law, and his admission in 1995 that Iraq had indeed had an extensive WMD programme. However, what the Prime Minister omitted to tell the House was that Hussein Kamel also told UN inspectors in 1995 that he had personally ordered the destruction of all biological, chemical and nuclear weapons, and that that had happened.

Most indefensible of all was justification of the war in Iraq on the basis that it would reduce the likelihood of a terrorist attack, even though the intelligence services were saying the opposite at the time.

Does the hon. Gentleman also concede that any inquiry should look in some detail at the circumstances under which the UN weapons inspectors, led by Hans Blix, were withdrawn from Iraq in January 2003 and not allowed to go back, having confirmed that they believed with 99 per cent. certainty that there were no such weapons of mass destruction in Iraq?

As we have learned over the past few days, with the leaked Cabinet minute and the leaked national intelligence estimate from the United States, the invasion of Iraq has increased the threat of terrorist attacks. It is a sad indictment of the Government that we learn more from leaked Cabinet papers than we ever do from a Cabinet Minister speaking at the Dispatch Box. I hope that this afternoon will be an honourable exception.

Another critical issue surrounded by confusion and controversy was the timing of the decision to go to war. We were told right up to the last few days before the debate in the House that no decision had been taken, but there is now compelling evidence that the Prime Minister had already made a decision to invade a year earlier. As early as March 2002, the Prime Minister’s foreign policy adviser, Sir David Manning, was assuring Condoleezza Rice of the Prime Minister’s unbudgeable support for regime change. Days later, Sir Christopher Meyer sent a dispatch to Downing street detailing how he repeated that commitment to the US Deputy Defence Secretary. The ambassador added that the Prime Minister would need a cover for military action:

“I then went through the need to wrong-foot Saddam on the inspectors and the UN Security Council resolutions.”

Yet throughout that period, the Prime Minister was insisting that the war was not inevitable and no decision had been made.

Most incredibly of all, in the most recent leaked memorandum, we read that, in a meeting with the Prime Minister, the President even suggested provoking a war with Saddam by flying a US spy plane bearing UN colours over Iraq and enticing the Iraqis to take a shot at it. That is the clearest suggestion yet that the UN was being used not to prevent war, but as a pretext for beginning it.

Will the hon. Gentleman tell the House whether, in his preparation for this debate, he had discussions with any representatives of the Iraqi Government? Has he had representations from the Iraqi trade union movement? Is it not right that the voice of ordinary Iraqi people who support their democratic Government and the actions taken should be heard in this debate?

I would welcome the opportunity to go to Iraq. I have been trying to go, but I was told by the former Foreign Secretary that it was not safe for a Member of Parliament to go to Iraq. That is a sad indictment of the state of affairs on the ground. Those who will support the motion include Members who opposed the war and those who supported it.

I need to make progress.

There is no shame in changing one’s mind when new facts come to light. Ask the Attorney-General. He changed his mind three times in three weeks. He finally decided on 13 March 2003, after talking things through with his secretary, that his 7 March opinion was wrong after all and that, to quote the Attorney-General’s recent disclosure to the Information Commissioner,

“the better view was that a further resolution was not legally necessary”.

Incredibly, that U-turn was not based on a detailed paper setting out the legal arguments. The Attorney-General who, by his own admission, is not an expert in international law, did not ask for legal advice until after he had come to his decision. [Interruption.] The Minister is shaking his head. I am reading from the Government’s own disclosure to the Information Commissioner, which states:

“It was also decided to prepare a statement setting out the Attorney’s view of the legal position and to send instructions to counsel to help in the preparation of that public statement.”

So the Attorney-General decided what the legal position was, and then asked for legal advice. You could not make it up, Mr. Speaker—well, you could if you were the Attorney-General, apparently.

The Attorney-General went on in the same disclosure statement to admit, crucially, that the revival argument—the notion that the use of force authorised by resolution 678 from the first Gulf war was capable of being revived by the Security Council—“was and remains controversial”. Finally, a full three years on from the invasion, we have an unequivocal admission from the Attorney-General that his statement to the House that the war was legal was “controversial”—his word, not mine.

The hon. Gentleman has said one thing this afternoon with which I wholeheartedly agree: the people of Wales will be looking at the debate with interest. However, many service families will want to know his view not about the beginnings of the war and whether troops should have gone to Iraq in the first place, but about whether they should remain there now. Is it his position that they should leave immediately?

With the greatest respect to the hon. Gentleman, he knows my position because we debated that a week ago. We are having a different debate, but my position—[Interruption.] I would gladly debate this with the Prime Minister any time. Let us have—[Interruption.]

Let us have this debate now. I would welcome the opportunity to have a debate about the withdrawal—[Interruption.]

Order. Mr. Hall, it is not your function to heckle an hon. Member constantly, especially when I have given an instruction. I am looking at a few other Members who should behave themselves as well.

There is a fundamental breakdown at the heart of the Government that is continuing to affect decisions that are being made now. The Government have made a catalogue of errors that have resulted in problems on the ground. As hon. Members have said, the problem was that we had not government by Cabinet, but government by cabal. The delicate checks and balances of our constitution were swept away. Cabinet was sidelined and Parliament was misled—[Hon. Members: “Order!”] I did not say by whom.

There is a problem at the heart of our constitution and tonight we need to reapply the constitutional brakes. The military men have been lining up to criticise and so have the mandarins. A letter from Sir Michael Quinlan, of all people, a former permanent secretary at the Ministry of Defence, said that the Prime Minister

“exerted or connived … to mould legal advice to his preference and failed to disclose fully … even that moulded advice; and … so arranged the working of the cabinet that colleagues had no timely or systematic opportunity to consider the merits of his policy in an informed manner”.

Lord Butler made the same point in an interview in The Spectator. He pointed out that decisions were made on the prime ministerial sofa, rather than in meetings with minutes around the Cabinet table, with all that that meant for both the quality of, and proper accountability for, decision making. Pluralism in the Government, a proper role for Parliament and the Cabinet and a truly independent civil service are there to act as a check on hubris in government. That is why we need to recalibrate the constitution of this United Kingdom and rebalance power for the benefit of Parliament, at the expense of an over-mighty Executive. We are otherwise reduced to the sorry spectacle of an Attorney-General changing his mind to save his political master’s skin.

Let us remind ourselves once again of the central fact: we fought the war because of an arsenal of weapons that proved to be non-existent. Many thousands of people have paid with their lives for that mistake, and the same mirage of deception and disinformation continues to cloud our understanding of what is happening on the ground.

To clarify the point for my understanding, will the hon. Gentleman have the courtesy to tell the House whether he thinks that British troops should withdraw now?

We had a full debate, which I led, and my position is absolutely clear. Where was the right hon. Gentleman?

The constant hailing of non-existent progress by the Government is an insult to those who genuinely appreciate what is really happening in a worsening situation. It is a scandal that, as yet, not a single Minister has unequivocally admitted that things in Iraq have gone wrong. Both in the run-up to the war and in its aftermath the Government’s policy has been characterised by a cocktail of wishful thinking, self-delusion and evasion. The sequence of events that led us to commit our armed forces to a war that was illegal and unnecessary is as yet unexplained. The strategy for removing them remains unpublished. The inquiry that we are calling for is not only essential to understanding what happened three and a half years ago; it is imperative in understanding where we go from here. It is impossible truly to discern the problems on the ground in Iraq unless we appreciate what went wrong—the mistakes and misjudgments that took us there in the first place.

History does not repeat itself, as Mark Twain once said, but it does rhyme. Fifty years ago today, our Government began bombing Egypt under the cover of darkness. That invasion, too, was based on a falsehood. Anthony Eden secretly colluded with Israel and France, and kept Parliament in the dark. It is a matter of debate as to whether the Prime Minister deliberately deceived us, but one way or another we were certainly misled. The evidence clearly suggests that he had privately assured President Bush that he would join the invasion. Here was a Prime Minister so deluded by his determination to do what he believed to be right that he began to think not as primus inter pares but as an acting head of state. It is time now to tell the Prime Minister and all future Prime Ministers that they are not presidents, and that the policy of this United Kingdom does not always have to be the policy of the United States.

I beg to move, To leave out from “House” to the end of the Question, and to add instead thereof:

“recognising that there have already been four separate independent committees of inquiry into military action in Iraq and recognising the importance of learning all possible lessons from military action in Iraq and its aftermath, declines at this time, whilst the whole effort of the Government and the armed forces is directed towards improving the condition of Iraq, to make a proposal for a further inquiry which would divert attention from this vital task.”

The motion before the House today calls for the creation of a new inquiry

“to review the way in which the responsibilities of Government were discharged in relation to Iraq…in the period leading up to military action in that country in March 2003 and in its aftermath.”

The question that I want to put to the House is not so much why—because of course it is perfectly sensible and legitimate to say that there will come a time when these issues will be explored in the round and in full, so that we can learn whatever lessons we can from them—but rather, why this specific inquiry, and much more to the point, why now.

Unlike at the time of the Falklands war we now have a framework of Select Committees that carry out independent inquiries. I recognise that the official Opposition have tabled an amendment that suggests a Falklands-type inquiry in the next Session of Parliament, without pointing out that that begins in just two weeks. I am afraid that I think that that, too, is not sensible. It avoids none of the dangers of sending the wrong signals at the wrong time and distracting resources and attention from where they are most needed. Indeed, it risks appearing to set a deadline for our operations in Iraq which would be politically and militarily damaging.

Not for the moment.

There have already been two parliamentary Committee reports on Iraq: the Foreign Affairs Committee report, “The Decision to go to War in Iraq”, and the Intelligence and Security Committee report, “Iraqi Weapons of Mass Destruction—Intelligence and Assessments”. There have been two further independent reports: the Hutton inquiry into the circumstances surrounding the death of Dr. David Kelly CMG, and the Butler review of intelligence on weapons of mass destruction. Is this the moment to take a decision and a step of the kind recommended in the motion? My answer is a resounding no. There is absolutely nothing in the unquestionably difficult and delicate situation in Iraq today that makes this the obvious and right time.

So the Foreign Secretary can give a firm commitment to the House that an inquiry will be held as soon as our troops leave.

What I am saying to the House, and what I shall say repeatedly, is that this is not the time for making these decisions. I will tell the hon. Gentleman why. Our words in the House today will be heard a very long way away. They can be heard by our troops, who are already in great danger in Iraq. They can be heard by the Iraqi people and by their Government, many of whose members I know many hon. Members in all parts of the House have met—people whose bravery and fortitude is humbling and who still need our support, not the rehashing of issues that have been gone over umpteen times in the House.

The Foreign Secretary asks why now. What if, God forbid, Parliament has to vote to send our brave armed servicemen and women into war again? We need an inquiry now to ensure that the British people can once again trust the Government. I do not think that that is possible, but I hope that in the House today the Foreign Secretary will agree to an inquiry in order that future wars can be built on trust and on the full backing of Parliament and the people, without mass deception.

I do not take any lectures from Conservative Members, who never, ever gave the House a vote about sending troops into action, including on some occasions when I do not necessarily dispute that it was right to send them, including on occasions without United Nations authority.

I give way to the hon. Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Mr. Maples), who I believe is a member of the Foreign Affairs Committee.

The Foreign Secretary prayed in aid the Select Committee’s report. I was a member of that Committee, and I have to say to her that her predecessor and the Government obstructed the Committee’s proceedings at every stage possible, refusing to produce witnesses and documents.

I am sorry; I do not accept that in the slightest, and I shall tell the hon. Gentleman why. I followed—from a slight distance, I concede—many of the discussions and many of the requests from the Select Committee.

Not for a minute. I am in the middle of answering a previous intervention. I followed those matters as carefully as I could, and I observed—and I observed it from Committee members who had ministerial experience—people asking for papers and for disclosures which they, as former Ministers and experienced Members of the House, would never for a single second have contemplated disclosing. I reject utterly the suggestion that the Committee did not get full support.

Does the Foreign Secretary think I am exceptional, in the sense that not one of my constituents has asked me to press for an inquiry into the causes of the war? However, many of my constituents are troubled about which moves we should make in the best interests of the people of Iraq. Many of them would be appalled at the fact that much of the debate is looking backwards. There will come a time when accounts are settled, but my constituents are desperately concerned about the right moves for the future.

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend, who I know is held in high regard in all parts of the House. What he says is also my experience, and I expect that he speaks for Members in all parts of the House who may not all wish to acknowledge it.

Several hon. Members rose—

I shall make a little progress, if I may.

What happens in the House today will be heard not only by those in Iraq—the people and the Government—but by those whose intention it is to do us harm, whether in Iraq or beyond. Again, I ask the House to consider whether now is the time to send a signal—every Member of the House knows in their heart that this is true—which many will undoubtedly interpret as a weakening of our commitment.

Several hon. Members rose—

I shall give way in a moment.

There is an important tradition in the House that all political parties give our troops and are seen to give our troops their full support while they are in conflict. That is a precedent which it would be dangerous to break.

The Foreign Secretary would get rid of the dissention this afternoon and send out a fairly united message if she said that there will be a Franks-type inquiry into the invasion of Iraq and its aftermath as soon as the troops are withdrawn. I cannot understand whether she is saying that she accepts the need for such an inquiry but that the time is not ripe, or whether she is saying in weasel words that we have had enough inquiries already. If she accepted what will be forced on the Government in any event—a Franks-type inquiry when the hostilities have ceased—we would send a united message from this House.

I am surprised that the right hon. and learned Gentleman cannot understand what I am saying, because it is clear and simple: today is not the time for making these decisions. [Interruption.]

As for the right hon. and learned Gentleman’s contention that a Franks-type inquiry is required, I refer him to the discussion in this House in July 2003 when one of my former colleagues, Mr. Tam Dalyell, who was summoned to give evidence to the Franks inquiry, commented on how inadequate it was.

I have been on my feet for seven minutes, and I have made very little progress.

It is now more than three years since the Government committed UK forces, as part of an international coalition led by the United States, to military action against Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq. Saddam Hussein had repeatedly and openly defied the authority of the United Nations, and before UN Security Council resolution 1441, which was carried unanimously because of the unanimous conviction that he represented a serious danger to the international community, he already stood in material breach of 17 separate UN resolutions. He refused fully to co-operate with the weapons inspection regime imposed on him as someone who had both possessed and used weapons of mass destruction. The international community as a whole—not just the United States and the UK—believed that he had developed and wished further to develop WMD capability.

Does the Foreign Secretary realise that her opposition to an inquiry into the origins of the Government’s policy on Iraq would be more convincing if the Government were not simultaneously bitterly opposing any debate on the future of their policy in Iraq? Is she not ashamed that, in the three years since the war, the Government have not initiated a single debate on the subject in this Chamber? The United States Congress was permitted a full debate on the matter as recently as June. Is it not appalling that, when the Government have been responsible for such an arrant misuse of their powers, this Chamber has not been allowed to debate the matter?

The right hon. and learned Gentleman is talking complete nonsense, as he must be well aware. He is a former Secretary of State for Defence, and he knows that there are five defence debates a year and that there are debates on foreign policy, all of which are in Government time. Of course it is open to people to debate those issues.

The Foreign Secretary seems to be saying that an inquiry now would be wrong, because our forces are in the field. Indeed, she has accused the Conservative party of never having succumbed to such a debate in the past. How does she answer the historical fact that in May 1940, while British troops were fighting and losing a campaign in Norway, a Conservative Government allowed a debate in this Chamber in which the Labour party, the Liberal party and some notable people from the Conservative party conspired to vote against the Government of the day, which led to the resignation of the then Prime Minister and the installation of a coalition Government? When our troops are in a campaign, that is surely when this House—a democracy—should be allowed to debate their conduct.

I did not say the words that the hon. Gentleman has put into my mouth, and I am sorry if he misheard me. I continue to take the view that this is not the time for this debate. Moreover, I have been reminded that the motion to which the hon. Gentleman has referred was taken on the Adjournment and was not a motion to bind the Government of the day.

I am willing to give way, if I have time, but I must get on with my speech.

The decision to take part in military action was not taken lightly or trivially. In an unprecedented step, it was the subject of a full debate and a vote in this House, which was right. Committing British troops to a war is one of the most solemn decisions that any Government can ever take, but we did so because we judged, and because this House judged—the hon. Member for Carmarthen, East and Dinefwr (Adam Price) talked about voices being heard; some 52 Members of this House spoke in that debate—that the threat to international peace and security was very real and very grave. The original decision to take military action provoked fierce debate in this Chamber and across the country, and I have no doubt that it will continue for much time to come; but the decisions we take in the weeks and months to come should surely have as their priority what is best for Iraq and its people, here and now, as well as the impact that any decision we make may have on our troops in the field.

Last December, more than 75 per cent. of the Iraqi people elected a new Parliament under a permanent, new constitution; and let us not forget that they did so under threat of death from those who sought only destruction in Iraq. This spring, that Parliament elected a new Government of national unity representing all Iraq’s main political parties, and for the first time in their history the people of Iraq began a bold attempt to share power equitably among the nation’s ethnic and confessional populations.

I will not give way for the moment.

I do not in any way underestimate the terrible difficulties that many people in Iraq are facing. Many of them have to cope today and every day with the kind of terrorist horror which so profoundly shocked our own country last July. As I have said, their bravery in the face of that threat is humbling. The Iraqi Government, headed by Prime Minister Maliki, are barely five months into their term. From the outset, they have faced a daunting array of political and economic challenges of a kind with which any Government in the world would struggle to deal. Overshadowing all else has been a relentless and rising tide of murderous violence, some of it a very deliberate effort to destroy the fragile foundations of Iraq’s democratic system.

Cannot the Foreign Secretary understand that a good part of the deep frustration expressed by this House arises because the Prime Minister refuses to come to this House and lead a debate on current and future policy on Iraq? Given General Sir Richard Dannatt’s recent comments, and the fact that the situation seems to be deteriorating, will the Foreign Secretary now encourage the Prime Minister to come to this House and lead a debate?

I am sorry, but I do not think that that is what is inspiring the comments and the mood in the House today. Perhaps it would be better if it were, but I do not believe that it is.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the seriousness of the issue deserves more than the partisan opportunism that we are seeing among those on the Opposition Benches who voted for the war?

My hon. Friend is entirely correct.

Elsewhere, we have seen a spiral of retaliatory sectarian killings. Here, too, existing ethnic tensions have been carefully exploited by those who have no interest in Iraq becoming a fully functioning state and every interest in dragging it back into chaos and lawlessness. It is this violence that has held up and disrupted the supply of essential services to Iraqis; it is this violence that has meant that the political framework is taking longer to develop; and it is this violence that is holding millions of ordinary Iraqis back from a better future for themselves and their families. That is why Prime Minister Maliki has made tackling the violence his Government’s highest priority. We are in Iraq at the express request of that Government and with the full support of the United Nations, and so our responsibility is to support the sovereign Government of Iraq in their objectives.

The Iraqi Government and the coalition forces are currently engaged in a critical attempt to make Baghdad more secure. In Basra, British troops are in the middle of a similarly vital mission to take on the violent extremists and lay the foundations of long-term security. The challenge faced by the Iraqi people in those two cities, as elsewhere in the country, is not purely military. Much of the current violence has political roots and it will be through determined political efforts—led by Iraqis—that it will ultimately be addressed. There can be no substitute for strong political leadership in Iraq. We have strongly supported Prime Minister Maliki’s commitment to national reconciliation and have worked hard to bring all Iraq’s political and clerical leaders fully and wholeheartedly behind it, because that offers the best chance of building a consensus among Iraq’s divided communities, all of whom are suffering from the current levels of violence, and of isolating those who are trying to drive the Iraqi people further from one another.

At the same time, we are urging Iraq’s political leaders to move ahead without delay in taking crucial decisions on the country’s future. We are offering strong support for their work to reach agreement by the end of the year on a new law setting out the future of the oil and gas sector, which is central to Iraq’s economic regeneration. We are actively encouraging the Iraqi Parliament to pass new legislation—again, by the end of the year—setting out how the militias can be disbanded and reintegrated into society. We are pushing the Iraqi Parliament for a decision on reforms to the process of de-Ba’athification, as well as on how the agreement to review the new constitution will be implemented. Those are all difficult as well as complex issues—otherwise, they would have been solved long ago—but if we get them right, we can create a new, more positive political dynamic in the country.

Prime Minister Maliki wants to make rapid progress towards the Iraqi Government and security forces assuming responsibility for the country’s security.

While praising our troops’ contribution both in the war and today, will the Foreign Secretary please return to and address the motion?

I am explaining why the motion is so profoundly misconceived. The future of Iraq and its people is at stake, and that is what really matters. If the signal sent from the House casts doubt on our support for what is happening in Iraq, for the actions of our coalition forces, and for those who are not in our forces but who are engaged in trying to support the people of Iraq, ultimately, that will be utterly to their disadvantage.

I am sorry, but I must continue my speech.

The Government share the Prime Minister’s determination—as, I have no doubt, does every Member of the House—to see responsibility pass to Iraqi police and security forces. That is fundamental to the coalition’s strategy for progressively scaling down military support to the Iraqi Government. British soldiers are doing an astounding job in the most difficult of circumstances, as they do whenever and wherever they are called on; so, too, are a large number of British civilians—civil servants, policemen and women, aid workers and many more, many of whom I met in Basra not long ago. I am sure that all Members, whatever their view of the motion, would recognise the bravery and sacrifice of those people. That contribution is essential in support of the future in Iraq.

The new Iraqi army is getting more capable and more confident. It is increasingly non-sectarian. Two of the 10 divisions of that new army have already been transferred to the direct control of the Iraqi Government, and more will follow in the coming months. Therefore, in spite of the violence, we are seeing major strides towards equipping the Iraqi Government with the tools that they need to protect their people without relying on indefinite help from the international community. Two entire provinces—

Order. I think that it has been made clear to the hon. Gentleman that the Foreign Secretary is not giving way at the moment.

Two entire provinces, al-Muthanna and Dhi Qar, have already been handed over to Iraqi control, and more will soon follow. In our area of responsibility in the south, we hope that Maysan province will also have been handed over by the end of the year. A central aim of our current efforts in Basra is to get that province to the point where it, too, is ready to be handed over to Iraqi lead security control. We hope that that can be accomplished at some point next spring. We share the hope recently expressed by the commander of the multinational force in Iraq that all 18 provinces can be handed over to Iraqi control by the end of 2007.

I will give way, as the hon. Gentleman has risen on many occasions, but this must be the last time that I do so.

This debate is not about the conduct of policy in Iraq now, but about whether we should hold a Select Committee inquiry into the way in which the war has been and will be conducted in future. My hon. Friend the Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Mr. Maples) made the valid point that the inquiry by the Foreign Affairs Committee was thwarted by the Government, which the Foreign Secretary refuted. I would like to quote what the report says—

Order. The hon. Gentleman is a very experienced Member of the House and knows that interventions must be brief.

On the hon. Gentleman’s final point, the inquiry was followed by the Intelligence and Security Committee and the Butler reports, which considered the issues in depth. I would say to him, and to those Opposition Members who have been muttering and grumbling, that what I am talking about—the present position in Iraq—is exactly the point. That position is difficult; we do not dispute that at all. It is also extremely delicate. We are at what could be a turning point in Iraq, and this is not the time to do what the hon. Member for Carmarthen, East and Dinefwr did in moving the motion, and rehash all the debates and arguments that have been held over and over again, not only in the House, but in a succession of inquiries.

Is the Secretary of State aware that when the Deputy Prime Minister of Iraq was in the House last week, he made the point that any decisions on the future of Iraq, including on the deployment of US and British troops, should be made according to the needs of Iraq, and not of the political agendas of either the US or the UK? Does she agree with that, and does she think that the Opposition parties’ motion is helpful or unhelpful in that regard? [Interruption.]

I utterly agree, and I simply tell Opposition Members that they do not have much cause to complain, as I have given way only once to a Labour Member. My hon. Friend is entirely right that the motion is not helpful to the people or the Government of Iraq, but it is not intended to be.

No.

We expect the Iraqi Government to request an extension of the UN mandate under which we are currently operating until 2007, and if they ask for ongoing support, we will provide it. I take very seriously, and hold strongly, the view that at this critical juncture, when Iraq’s future hangs so clearly in the balance, it would be plainly and simply wrong to heed those who argue for us just to wash our hands of responsibility and walk away.

We have been working hard in recent months with the Iraqi Government and our international partners to develop an international compact for Iraq, modelled on the Afghan compact, so that the international community can provide further involvement and support for the people of Iraq, and we are keen to use that opportunity to encourage its neighbours to engage fully in the country’s stabilisation and reconstruction. An important step forward on that initiative was taken at the UN-hosted meeting that I attended in New York on 18 September, and a further preparatory meeting is taking place in Kuwait today, so critical decisions about the future of Iraq are being taken today even as we debate the issue in the House.

We would, of course, like two of Iraq’s neighbours—Iran and Syria—to play a similarly positive role in promoting stability and development, although the Iraqi Government themselves are convinced that at present those two countries are doing precisely the opposite. We will continue to pressure them to take a different approach, but it would be naive to imagine that that is a straightforward task. I have set out the objectives and strategy that we, our allies and the Iraqis are currently pursuing, and I can see no credible alternative.

I will give way, for the final time. [Interruption.] It is only the third time that I have given way to a Labour Member.

I thank my right hon. Friend for giving way. I think that the real issue today is the huge number of Iraqi lives that have been lost—

Those lives have been taken as a result of action by the insurgents. Our troops are there to make sure that action does not take place. Every day, a huge number of people in Iraq lose their lives, and what Opposition Members have done today is encourage that process. What we need to do—

Hon. Members: Withdraw!

I thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker, for your guidance. What I meant to say was that actions taken here are watched throughout the world and that there are people who will capitalise on these actions and further put at risk the lives of our service people in action—[Interruption.]