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Commons Chamber

Volume 455: debated on Wednesday 24 January 2007

House of Commons

Wednesday 24 January 2007

The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]



That an Humble Address be presented to Her Majesty, That she will be graciously pleased to give directions that there be laid before this House a Return of the Report from the Right Honourable Sir David Hirst, Chairman of the Spoliation Advisory Panel, in respect of three drawings now in the possession of the Courtauld Institute of Art.—[Liz Blackman.]

Oral Answers to Questions

International Development

The Secretary of State was asked—

Islamic World Group

1. Whether he plans to support from his departmental budget the Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s Engaging with the Islamic World Group. (110689)

We have no plans to offer financial support over and above the increased support that the Engaging with the Islamic World Group already receives from the FCO budget. However, we work closely with the FCO on poverty reduction, improving governance and education reform, which all contribute to progress on the group’s objectives.

I think there is a problem. Engaging with the Islamic world is a central British policy objective. The Foreign Office budget is under enormous pressure and will be reduced in the comprehensive spending review. The Department for International Development’s budget is increasing, so would it not make sense for it to help fund the policy of engaging with the Islamic world, which would surely make its work in relieving poverty in countries such as Pakistan, Indonesia, Yemen and Jordan, to name but a few, much easier, and would also support wider British policy objectives that are of central concern to this country’s security? Surely they involve the Department.

I should have thought that the hon. Gentleman recognised that our increasing aid programme in countries such as Pakistan, Bangladesh and Yemen contributed to engagement with the Islamic world and the broader objectives of the Engaging with the Islamic World Group in the FCO. The Prime Minister announced a doubling of our aid programme to Pakistan only last year. One of the key priorities of that increased aid will undoubtedly be investment in education. Given the focus on and concerns about madrassahs in Pakistan, that is a positive example of the way in which DFID support complements other broader Government objectives.

For Arab nations in the Islamic world, the best way of communicating is undoubtedly through Arabic. If the Under-Secretary agrees, what is the Department doing, in liaison with the Foreign Office, to increase the number of Arabic speakers in both Departments?

We have a substantial number of staff based in, for example, Yemen, and we have plans substantially to increase our aid programme there. The head of our office in Yemen has to go on a course to learn Arabic and other members, some of whom we employ locally, can also speak Arabic. Training in Arabic is offered and, as our aid programme in such countries grows, having Arabic speakers is, as the hon. Gentleman said, essential. It is part of the training that our staff are given.

Rising Sea Levels

2. What help his Department is providing to help communities in developing countries threatened by rising sea levels. (110690)

We are providing assistance to improve climate monitoring in Africa and develop climate risk screening in both Africa and Asia. We are giving support to help Governments to reduce the risks when disasters happen, for example, in Bangladesh. The Department is also the largest donor to the United Nations adaptation funds, which help developing countries to assess and manage climate change risk, including rising sea levels.

The Secretary of State will know that a one-meter rise in sea level could make 200 million homeless, that the leaders of Tuvalu are already in the process of abandoning their homeland and that 300 Pacific atolls could disappear under water this century. That will cause a huge refugee problem. What will the Government’s response to that be? What discussions has the right hon. Gentleman held with his European Union counterparts on the matter?

The hon. Gentleman is right about the potentially devastating consequences, above all for the poorest countries of the world, if sea levels rise as predicted. First, we must support the Governments of the countries that will be affected to work out how they will manage that process. Secondly, we must get international agreement on a new climate change treaty, which will have to involve all the countries of the world, including some of the larger developing countries and China. Before long, China will become the largest carbon emitter in the world, although not in per capita terms, for obvious reasons. We must respond urgently to the problem, and all of us, globally, will have to consider the way in which we manage the movement of people. People will not stay where they live either to die of thirst or to drown because sea levels are rising.

Will the Secretary of State acknowledge the important role of the UK space industry in accurately mapping some climate movements, especially water levels, throughout the country? Will he ensure that some African countries get the benefit of the research and data that the industry provides?

I join my hon. Friend in paying tribute to the industry’s skill and expertise. One of the other practical things that we do is support countries in Africa better to understand the changing nature of their climate and its impact on them. Not only south and south-east Asia, which the hon. Member for Lewes (Norman Baker) mentioned, but parts of west Africa and coastal areas in east and southern Africa, including some large cities, would be similarly affected if sea levels rose.

Do the Secretary of State and his Department—or, indeed, the United Nations—distinguish between rising sea levels and sinking land masses? The hon. Member for Lewes (Norman Baker) described the circumstances in the Pacific, but those areas that are just 5m above the sea are in fact not influenced very much by climate change. It is a geological phenomenon in the Pacific that causes those atolls to sink. What really matters, of course, is what happens to the people, whether as a result of rising sea levels or of sinking land mass. However, there is an important distinction between the two phenomena, and it devalues the debate about climate change if people muddle them up.

I take the hon. Gentleman’s point, but as he acknowledges, the net result for the people who are living there is the same. It is important that we understand the nature of the changes that are taking place; but notwithstanding the phenomenon of sinking land mass to which he referred, the biggest global problem that we face is the impact of human activity on our climate, including the effect that it will have on rising sea levels.

The Treasury Committee is looking at climate change following Sir Nicholas Stern’s report for the Treasury. One of his conclusions was that it is the poorer countries—particularly in Africa—that will suffer if we do little or nothing about this. What strategy does DIFD have for a climate change element in its negotiations, particularly with African countries?

We are doing four things. First, we are providing support, so that better information is available about the nature of the change that is taking place. Secondly, we are providing help with adaptation. We are a significant contributor to the global environment facility, and we are also supporting United Nations funds. Thirdly, we are strongly backing the World Bank’s energy investment framework. One of the dilemmas that developing countries face is that they need, and will invest in, more energy—China is a good example of this—but they need to do so in a way that does not add to the problem. Fourthly, we are looking at our own programmes and asking ourselves what impact they will have on climate change and whether we could do things differently. At the moment, we are doing that specifically in four countries: Bangladesh, China, India and Kenya.

Rising sea levels create significant challenges, including conflict prevention, security, infrastructure degradation, water-borne diseases, soil salinisation and the potential for 50 million environmental migrants by 2010. The Department for International Development must provide assistance in incentivising environmentally sustainable technology transfers and building adaptive capacity in vulnerable communities. The Department has regularly and recently been criticised for not focusing sufficient time and resources on adapting to climate change. Despite what the Secretary of State has said, it is clear that his Department has much more to do. When will he make the interaction of climate change and international development spending one of his Department’s top priorities?

Being a fair-minded person, the hon. Gentleman will acknowledge that that is exactly what we did in the White Paper that we published in July. A central theme in the White Paper was that we all need to take the challenge of climate change more seriously. I have already set out the practical steps that we are taking. We are building capacity, including taking on additional staff with expertise in this area, so that we can respond to the challenge. With respect, I think that the hon. Gentleman’s strictures are a bit unfair.

Following the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Nuneaton (Mr. Olner), may I ask what work is going on between the Departments and British science to deal with catastrophic events that cause a rise in sea level, such as tsunamis? What work is being carried out to develop predictive science in this field?

One of the consequences of the terrible tsunami that struck recently is that arrangements are now being put in place for a system that enables countries to have reasonable warning that catastrophic events of that kind are likely to occur. The second practical step that we are taking is to set aside 10 per cent. of the money that we put into disaster relief to enable countries better to prepare to deal with the consequences of any subsequent disaster. In that way, we can help them not only to deal with the immediate consequences, but to prepare for the consequences of the next disaster, should it occur.

Doha Round

3. What steps he is taking to secure further progress on the development aspects of the Doha round of trade talks. (110691)

We welcome the recently renewed discussions on the Doha round and are working closely with EU member states, the US and other World Trade Organisation members at all levels to help to break the deadlock in negotiations. We continue in particular to push for progress on the issues of greatest concern to developing countries, especially improved market access and a reduction in trade-distorting subsidies.

I thank the Minister for that reply, and particularly for his comment on improved market access. Farm subsidies and tariff barriers cost poor countries twice as much as they receive in aid. Does the Minister agree that only through fundamental reform of the common agricultural policy will the EU fulfil its moral obligation to make poverty history?

I agree with the hon. Lady’s first point about the need to make further progress in reducing subsidies. One of the great examples to demonstrate the veracity of that is cotton, as subsidies to US and EU cotton farmers have helped to depress cotton prices. The World Bank estimates, for example, that farmers in west Africa lose some $75 million to $100 million per year as a result. In relation to her second point, we have already seen progress on common agricultural policy reform. We have said that we want to do more on that, and preparatory work has started. Substantive discussions will take place at the mid-point in the current EU budget review process in 2008-09, when we hope to see further evidence of progress.

Does my hon. Friend agree that giving the least developed countries the technical support that they need is one of the best ways to ensure good development outcomes at Doha? What support is the Department giving to those least developed countries, because, despite the extremely good work of the South Centre, for instance, they are generally woefully under-resourced at those talks?

My hon. Friend makes an extremely good point: the whole international community has a responsibility to make sure that those least developed countries have proper representation in the World Trade Organisation negotiations. That is one of the reasons why we have provided direct financial support to the LDC group, including help in Geneva, where it is based, to commission research and analysis to define its trade positions. Through our direct country programmes, we have also helped Lesotho and Zambia, for example, to secure the analysis and expertise that they need to formulate their own policies in country. We continue to provide resources to help those developing countries which need to recruit negotiators, such as £1.6 million worth of support to the Caribbean to fund its regional negotiating machinery.

Given that Benin, Burkina Faso, Mali and Chad depend on cotton for between 30 per cent. and 40 per cent. of their export earnings, but that the United States spends more than $3 billion a year subsidising 25,000 inefficient but politically powerful cotton producers, does the Minister agree that the United States should recognise that its policy is morally objectionable and has the effect of exacerbating the plight of some of the poorest people on the planet?

I accept the hon. Gentleman’s point, and I hope that he will accept, in light of my answer to his hon. Friend the Member for St. Albans (Anne Main), that we believe that substantial progress on cotton can be made in the WTO talks, to make an immediate difference to some of the poorest people in parts of Africa. We need our American allies to show flexibility and to give some ground in the talks. We also need the European Commission to do so. I know that constructive discussions have taken place between the Trade Commissioner and his American counterpart, and we will continue to do all that we can to help to further those negotiations, get the necessary progress and end the deadlock that we have seen up to now.

What reports have Her Majesty’s Government received about the outcome of talks over the weekend between the European Trade Commissioner and the US trade representative? Irrespective of the outcome of Doha, will my hon. Friend continue to press colleagues in Europe for more aid for trade, so that developing countries get the maximum benefit from concessions such as “Everything but Arms” and are able to export more to Europe?

As I indicated in my answer to the hon. Member for Buckingham (John Bercow), the discussions that have taken place between Peter Mandelson and his American counterpart seem to have been constructive. More progress and flexibility in the American position is needed, and I hope that we will soon see further evidence of that. I also accept my hon. Friend’s point about the need for further progress on aid for trade. That will be particularly important to help the least developed countries to take advantage of progress in the WTO round. He will be aware that my right hon. Friends the Secretary of State and the Chancellor of the Exchequer announced a further increase in our target for aid for trade spending back in September. Obviously, we will continue to encourage our allies in Europe to make similar commitments.

There have recently been warm words from Europe and America about reinvigorating the Doha talks, but I am not convinced that there is any real political will behind that. It was certainly not at the top of the agenda of the President’s “State of the Union” speech last night. What new and different steps has the Secretary of State taken recently to break the inertia and take advantage of the different political landscape that now exists in the American Congress?

I congratulate the hon. Lady on her appointment as shadow Secretary of State for International Development. Let me repeat what I have said in response to earlier questions. The EC representative, Peter Mandelson, has taken part in constructive discussions, as did my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister on his visit to the United States just before Christmas. My right hon. Friends the Chancellor of the Exchequer and the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry held useful and productive discussions with their Indian counterparts last week, and we continue to talk to our allies in Europe with the aim of advancing the EC’s position further.

There are signs of progress, but we still have some way to go. Obviously we need to do more to lock down the deal which, as I think is recognised by Members in all parts of the House, is fundamental if developing countries are to make the progress that we all want in order to achieve the millennium development goals.

Given that the Doha development round was always meant to be about development, does the Minister not feel that there is a marked lack of urgency and vigour in the way in which the negotiations are being pursued? Why does he not inject some momentum by pushing the European Union to offer—in addition to cuts in agricultural protectionism—complete duty-free and quota-free access to European markets for manufactured goods? Apart from benefiting European consumers, would that not help countries such as India, which, after all, contains more poor people than the whole of Africa put together?

As I have said in answers to earlier questions, I welcome the renewed round of constructive discussions with the United States. Until that development, we were blocked from achieving the outcome that we all want, but now we are seeing progress towards agreement in the negotiations.

I acknowledge the truth of the hon. Gentleman’s comment that the European Commission and EU member states need to give ground. We are continuing to work with allies across Europe to encourage the Trade Commissioner to do just that. We all recognise that more progress is needed. The Government do have a sense of urgency: this is a priority for my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, for my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and for other Ministers. We will continue to do all that we can to ensure progress in the negotiations.

Sub-Saharan Africa

The latest United Nations assessment, published in June 2006, shows that progress towards each of the millennium development goals in sub-Saharan Africa as a whole is either slightly or seriously off track. However, many countries in the region will achieve some of the goals by 2015, or make substantial progress towards them.

I thank the Secretary of State for his reply, but I am particularly keen to learn what progress has been made in the supply of clean water to the many people in sub-Saharan Africa who lack safe drinking water.

The short answer is “not enough”. That is one of the reasons why the Government are committed to doubling, and then doubling again, our investment in clean water and sanitation by 2010-11, but we need three things to happen in the world. First, we need more investment in clean water and sanitation. Secondly, we need to ensure that the money invested is used effectively to ensure supplies for the people who need them. Thirdly, we need the right structures in the world to help to make that happen. Currently we do not have the right structures, and I should like to see some changes.

I know that the Secretary of State is aware of the close connection between the millennium development goals and progress in the battle against HIV/AIDS. He will also be aware of the recent growth in the XDR strain of tuberculosis in South Africa. Is his Department making every effort to ensure that we are as successful in supporting the distribution of drugs to tackle TB as we are in supporting the distribution of antiretroviral drugs to tackle HIV/AIDS?

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to draw attention to the close relationship between AIDS and TB and to the fact that people with AIDS are more susceptible to TB. One of the most practical things that we are doing to support the point that he has made is to contribute to the global fund which was set up to fight those three great diseases: AIDS, TB and malaria. As he will be aware, we are a very significant contributor. We have pledged to put £359 million into the global fund between when it started and 2008.

I welcome the work of my right hon. Friend and his Department on improving the MDGs on infant and maternal mortality, which are most off-track in sub-Saharan Africa. Does he agree with the World Health Organisation, which is organising a conference here in March, that much greater political commitment is needed from the African Governments in sub-Saharan Africa if we are to stop the needless deaths of 600,000 women a year in child birth?

I agree with my hon. Friend, who I know takes a close interest in those matters. The fundamental problem is a lack of capacity and, in particular, not enough doctors, nurses, clinics and hospitals. We have therefore increased the aid programme to Africa, and put our efforts into debt cancellation. As she will be aware, the debt deal done at Gleneagles has enabled Zambia to introduce free health care in rural areas for the first time. That should enable more people, including pregnant mothers, to get access to the health support that they need.

The Secretary of State is clearly right to be concerned that, while we will probably meet the millennium development goals in Asia, we are way off course in Africa. Does he accept that we need to focus more on outputs and outcomes? Will he look seriously at the proposal that we have made for the establishment of an independent aid watchdog in Britain, like the ones established by the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and in Denmark, to monitor the quality and effectiveness of aid to ensure continued public and taxpayer confidence in the British aid programme?

I am currently considering proposals that would address that very issue, which we have been concerned about for some time. It is true to say that, as the aid budget rises, the public will increasingly want to be assured that every penny that we are putting into that budget is spent effectively. In every waking moment of this job, I am concerned above all about the difference that our effort makes. It is not about inputs so much; it is about the difference that we make to people’s lives.

Thank you, Mr. Speaker. One of the millennium development goals is access to clean drinking water. Will my right hon. Friend join me in congratulating my constituent, Mr. Brian Kite, on his Chembe water project, which has brought clean drinking water to more than 2,000 people in that village in Malawi? We know that 1 billion people do not have that access. That project provided it for just £2.50 per head. As it costs so little, could we do more and encourage other countries to do more to pursue that millennium development goal?

I am happy to congratulate my hon. Friend's constituent on the practical contribution that he is making to one of the most fundamental tasks that we have, which is to ensure that people have enough clean water to drink. It shows that everyone can make a contribution. The Government are playing their part with the increased investment to which I referred earlier.

International Corruption

5. If he will make a statement on his role as ministerial champion for addressing international corruption. (110693)

Ministers approved the UK anti-corruption action plan in July 2006. The plan aims to improve the UK's capacity to investigate foreign bribery, stop money laundering and recover stolen assets, promote responsible business conduct in developing countries, and support international efforts to fight corruption. I shall report on progress to the Prime Minister in February.

The anti-corruption action plan that the Secretary of State has just referred to included a promise to investigate and to prosecute bribery cases. Was he consulted on the decision to drop the Serious Fraud Office investigation into BAE’s arms deal with Saudi Arabia? If so, did he advise fellow Ministers that that decision would probably put us in breach of article 5 of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development convention on bribery?

I was not consulted, and I would not expect to be consulted, because that decision was properly taken by the director of the Serious Fraud Office after discussions with the Attorney-General. The hon. Gentleman should not read into that decision—which was taken for reasons that have been clearly set out—that the Government are not determined to fight international corruption. The steps that we have taken—in particular to increase the capacity of the Metropolitan police and the City of London police to investigate foreign bribery and money laundering, the implementation of the third money laundering directive, and the success that we have had in returning money that was stolen from Nigeria—demonstrate how determined we are to make a difference.

If the Secretary of State is not consulted on such an issue, what on earth is the point in having a ministerial champion to address international corruption?

It would be improper for me to be consulted because that is an operational decision, and, quite properly, that responsibility rests with the director of the SFO and the Attorney-General. Indeed, if I had been consulted on an operational decision, the hon. Gentleman might have been the first person to complain about it. My responsibility, which I take seriously, is to make sure that, together with colleagues in the Cabinet, we put the right legislation in place and, above all, that we do practical things, including increasing the capacity of the police to investigate. I am sure that it will not be long before we see the benefits of that.

Prime Minister

The Prime Minister was asked—


Before listing my engagements, I am sure that the whole House will wish to join me in sending our condolences to the family and friends of Private Michael Tench of A Company, 2nd Battalion the Light Infantry, who was killed in Iraq at the weekend. He was only a very young man, but his country should be very proud of him and of the work that he and his colleagues have been doing in Iraq in the service of our country.

This morning I had meetings with ministerial colleagues and others. In addition to my duties in the House, I will have further such meetings later today.

May I associate myself with the Prime Minister’s comments and send my own condolences to the family and friends of the soldier mentioned?

Will the Prime Minister join me in congratulating O2 on the work that it is doing in the United Kingdom by bringing a state of the art call centre to Glasgow, creating more than 1,500 jobs in that city? Does he also agree that it is important that companies such as O2—not only British companies, but foreign companies—invest in this country to ensure that growth in the economy continues, and that separation would stop that happening?

I congratulate O2 on the investment that it is making in Scotland; I welcome that investment very much. That should be set against the background of some 200,000 extra jobs in the Scottish economy, the unemployment claimant count the lowest for 30 years and a very strong Scottish economy. Separation would, of course, put all that at risk by undermining the stability of the economy. I believe that the Union is good for Scotland, but also that it is good for England; it is good for the whole of the United Kingdom. We have such a strong economy because the UK works well together.

I join the Prime Minister in paying tribute to Private Michael Tench, aged only 18, who was killed in southern Iraq on Sunday. He died serving his country, and we should be proud of him.

The latest crisis in the Home Office is that the Home Secretary is writing to courts up and down the country pleading with them not to send convicted criminals to prison. Will the Prime Minister give a guarantee that he will not deal with this failure in prison planning by introducing yet another scheme to release criminals early?

First of all, I must correct the right hon. Gentleman on what the Home Secretary said; he is simply reminding the courts of existing sentencing policy as set out in legislation. Let me tell him one other thing: not only will there be 2,000 extra prison places in this country by the end of this year, but as a result of the investment in prison places there will be a further 8,000 on top of that. Might I also remind Members that every penny piece of that investment in prisons is investment that the right hon. Gentleman voted against?

Let us be absolutely clear that the Prime Minister’s answer gives no guarantee, so another early release scheme might well be on its way, with dangerous criminals being released on to our streets. Will he at least guarantee that all options, including emergency prison accommodation, prison ships and Army camps, will be considered before any early release scheme?

All options, of course, are kept under consideration all the time, but let me point out to the right hon. Gentleman that the very reason why we have an issue to do with prison places at the moment is that there are 40 per cent. more dangerous, violent and persistent offenders in prison than in 1997, despite crime having fallen rather than risen. One additional reason is that we now have 2,000 prisoners in prison with indeterminate sentences, precisely because of the seriousness of the offence. That was introduced in the Criminal Justice Act 2003, which the right hon. Gentleman voted against.

Violent crime has doubled, and we have been telling the Prime Minister to build prisons for the last 10 years. Now, is it the Government’s policy to split the Home Office into two entirely separate Departments?

The issue about the future structure in the Home Office arises, as the right hon. Gentleman knows, from the review announced by the Home Secretary last October, which has to do with terrorism and security, not prison places. Let me just remind him that since 1997, 20,000 extra prison places have been created, which has required an investment running into billions of pounds. It is in part as a result of tougher sentencing that there are more people in prison, and I repeat: every single measure of tougher sentencing and extra investment he has opposed.

The Lord Chancellor said that splitting the Home Office in two was a “very, very serious proposal”, and indicated that he thought that it was time to do it. Can the Prime Minister tell us whether the Chancellor of the Exchequer agrees with splitting the Home Office in two?

I have already explained that as a result—[Interruption.] As a result of the review that was announced by the Home Secretary—[Interruption.]

The review announced last October is about the structures of the Home Office to do with security and terrorism. There are proposals that the Home Secretary has made, and we will make an announcement on those in the next few weeks. However, whatever the different structures in the Home Office, there is only one way in which we shall be able to deal with the problems in our prisons—to build more prison places and make sure that we have violent, serious and persistent offenders behind bars. Let me repeat once again: all of that investment—all of it—has been opposed by the right hon. Gentleman. Incidentally, since we are talking about this Government’s record on crime, according to the British crime survey of all recorded crime, crime has fallen; it doubled under the Tories.

I think that the Prime Minister will find that the Chancellor does not want to break up the Home Office—he just wants to break up the Home Secretary. There is no point even considering this proposal unless the Chancellor has agreed it. The Prime Minister is not going to be here for very long, so let me ask him again—he can ask the Chancellor now—does the Chancellor back splitting the Home Office, yes or no?

As I have just explained to the right hon. Gentleman, proposals were put forward by the Home Secretary. The Government will come to a view on those within the next few weeks, and we will make an announcement to the House in the normal way.

However, when the right hon. Gentleman is talking about the relationship between the Home Office, prisons and policing, let me make it clear that there is absolutely no way that we can deal with the current issues in respect of prison places unless we are going to build more. We are building 8,000 more prison places, but the investment necessary to do that is investment that he voted against, as he did the tougher sentences. So it is no use his coming to the Dispatch Box and saying, “Make sure that no serious or violent offenders are let out of prison.” They are in prison precisely because of this Government, and he opposed the measures.

It is a pretty simple question: does the Chancellor want to break up the Home Office—yes or no? [Interruption.] We have got prisoners on the run, weak borders—[Interruption.]

We have got overcrowded prisons, and all that the Government can do is float half-baked schemes for breaking up the Home Office that they cannot even agree about. Have not this Government now become like the ship stranded off the Devon coast? They are washed up and broken up, and they are just scrabbling over the wreckage.

I think that that probably sounded better in rehearsal than it did at the Dispatch Box. The truth of the matter is that we are building more prison places and people are staying in prison longer, and as a result of the legislation in 2003 we now have indeterminate sentences for violent and sexual offenders. The fact is that crime has actually fallen, not risen, and we have extra numbers of police and community support officers. All of that has taken legislation and investment, and the right hon. Gentleman has voted against both. So the one person who has no credibility on this issue is the person who has opposed the very proposals that are necessary to deal with it. The truth is that the Tory party, which used to be the party of law and order, now votes against the tough measures and the investment.

Does my right hon. Friend share my concern about the growing power of private equity companies? Increasingly, they are in pursuit of a quick buck and quick profit. They cut back on investment and the skills of workers, and they asset-strip rapidly. That is a worrying situation, because such companies now employ more than 3 million British workers. Does he share my concern, and can he do something about it?

Although I am sure that there are the situations of abuse to which my hon. Friend draws attention, I think that private equity companies in this country have provided a valuable basis of investment in British industry. The way of dealing with the issue that he outlines is to ensure that we have proper protections for the work force. In that regard, let me tell him that this Government will never withdraw from the European social charter, which has provided such excellent protection for our work force. That is in distinction to some other parties that I could mention.

May I associate myself with the expressions of sympathy and condolence that the Prime Minister made in relation to the young soldier who was killed? On this occasion, can we also remember those who have been wounded, some grievously, and whose lives have been deeply affected by that as a result of their service in Iraq?

General Dannatt has said that our presence in Iraq exacerbates the security situation. Later today, in the debate in Iraq, we will set out our proposals to bring the troops home by October. Should not the Prime Minister set out his proposals in that debate as well?

As I have already indicated, when the operation going on in Basra that allows us to reconsider the configuration and deployment of our forces is finished, I will of course come to the House and report on future strategy for British forces. I have to tell the right hon. and learned Gentleman, first, that he does not represent General Dannatt accurately: that is not his view. Secondly, let me tell him that for us to set an arbitrary timetable—that is what it is, and it is arbitrary because it is not attached to the conditions in Iraq and simply says that we will pull British troops out in October, come what may—would send the most disastrous signal to the people whom we are fighting in Iraq. It is a policy that, whatever its superficial attractions may be, is deeply irresponsible—which is probably why it is Liberal Democrat policy.

If the Prime Minister feels that strongly, he should come and debate the issues this afternoon. What can possibly be more important than that the Prime Minister should be here to debate the issue of Iraq at a time when the lives of British forces are at risk every day? Is not that the kind of leadership to which we are entitled?

I am debating the issue with the right hon. and learned Gentleman now. I entirely agree that British forces are doing a fantastic job in Iraq in circumstances of difficulty and danger, but let us remind ourselves of why they are there. They are there under a United Nations resolution with the full support of the Government of Iraq—[Interruption.] The right hon. and learned Gentleman shakes his head, but let me remind him that in 2003, after the conflict and the invasion of Iraq, there was a United Nations resolution that specifically endorsed the multinational force. We are there with the agreement of the Government of Iraq. When I spoke to the vice-president of Iraq, himself a Sunni, just a few days ago, he made clear how disastrous it would be to set an arbitrary timetable for withdrawal. The very way that we can ensure that the sacrifice of our troops has not been in vain is to see the mission through and complete it successfully.

May I thank my right hon. Friend for visiting my home city of Brighton and Hove earlier this week to announce new local funds to tackle antisocial behaviour? Now Brighton and Hove is one of 40 respect programme areas, and we will be able both to set up parenting schemes and fight crime more effectively. Will my right hon. Friend assure my constituents that the money will not be a one-off, bringing hope for only one year, but will be repeated year on year?

Of course decisions about funding will be taken in the comprehensive spending review, but my hon. Friend is right to say that the Respect action areas and the funding that goes with them have made a real difference. I know that Opposition Members claim that it is all just a gimmick, but people can see that the new laws on antisocial behaviour are being used in many communities in this country. They can also see the new partnerships between the police and local communities that make sure that we deal with the menace of antisocial behaviour. Those who continue to oppose the measures on antisocial behaviour are completely out of touch with the majority of people in this country.

Q2. May I tell the Prime Minister that a Government decision to rob the prudently managed primary care trust in my constituency of £8 million to plug other deficits in the health service is resulting in damaging cuts for the mentally ill and people with a learning disability? Can he give a categorical assurance that the Health Secretary’s pledge to repay that and other top-sliced funding in three years will be fully honoured? (110675)

It is precisely for that reason that we are introducing the new financial measures that will mean that the situation about which the hon. Gentleman is complaining will not arise in the future. I might just point out that his party is opposed to those reforms, but I am sure that he will accept that his area has received an increase in funding of something like 30 per cent. I understand the challenges and difficulties that arise as we transit to a better financial system, but the one thing that the hon. Gentleman cannot complain about is the amount of money that the Government have put into primary care in his area.

The report from the Police Ombudsman for Northern Ireland shows that a serial killer was protected by special branch and paid by the state for years. That would be a national scandal anywhere else. Does the Prime Minister accept that that collusion was a fact, not a myth? Is it not a disgrace that three former heads of special branch—Chris Albiston, Ray White and Freddie Hall—failed to co-operate with the police ombudsman’s investigation, although two of them have attacked her report and her office? Can Ronnie Flanagan, who presided over a culture of “anything goes, but nobody knows” be credible as chief inspector of constabulary? Will the Prime Minister rethink plans to install MI5 as continuity special branch in Northern Ireland, as that would put it beyond the reach of key powers of the police ombudsman?

First of all, although I agree with the hon. Gentleman about what has taken place, I completely disagree with his analysis of what MI5 is doing in Northern Ireland. It is simply not correct to say that it will have any role at all in civic policing. Secondly, we deeply and bitterly regret any collusion that has taken place, as we said at the time, and any impropriety on the part of anyone working for special branch throughout those years. However, I am sure that the hon. Gentleman would want to acknowledge that as a result of the changes made some years ago, that cannot happen any more, and it is precisely as a result of the additional scrutiny that we now have that this matter has been uncovered and laid bare. It is important that we make sure that such things can never happen again. We must deal with those responsible, and that is obviously what we are doing.

Q4. In view of the changed political circumstances in the US Congress and the fact that President Bush actually mentioned the words “climate change” in his “State of the Union” address last night, will the Prime Minister renew his efforts to persuade the US to follow the UK’s lead and sign up fully to international measures to combat climate change? (110677)

Yes, and I believe that this debate is moving in a completely different and more positive direction. First, we have to take measures here, and the climate change Bill that we will shortly publish will set out exactly what steps Government, business and individuals can take. Secondly, we need to make sure that the European emissions trading system is more effective. Thirdly, we need international agreement, through the G8 plus 5 dialogue that we established at the Gleneagles summit. I think that there is a different attitude around the world to this issue, and that the signs from the “State of the Union” address are positive. However, we must make sure that we get a binding international framework that allows us to tackle the problem at the only level, ultimately, where it can be tackled—by making sure that we have an agreement with all the major countries, including America, China and India. I am more positive and optimistic about that possibility than I have been for several years.

Q5. On the day that Howard Hunt, who organised the Watergate break-in, has died, will the Prime Minister confirm that if a close aide is charged, he will leave office? (110678)

Q6. Despite increased investment in public transport in recent years, the situation for my constituents who use First Group’s disastrous commuter trains and unreliable and expensive buses is dire. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the abysmal state of public transport in the Greater Bristol area would be much improved by setting up an integrated transport system, such as is found in areas with a passenger transport executive? (110679)

I entirely understand why my hon. Friend raises those concerns, and obviously, as a result of what happened earlier in the week, there has been a great deal of debate about First services in Bristol. I am glad that the company has—I think—taken some measures to try to address those concerns. In respect of governance, the road transport Bill, which is due in draft later this year, will enable improvements to be made to transport governance arrangements in cities, including those involving passenger transport authorities. I think and hope that the point my hon. Friend raises may find some echo in the arrangements that we shall announce later this year.

Q7. My constituents in Cambridgeshire, and many others in the country, are increasingly concerned about where their food comes from, so it is good that two weeks ago the Prime Minister personally attended the launch of the Just Ask campaign, to encourage consumers to ask where their food comes from—but why have his Ministers blocked four separate Bills that would require country of origin labelling? (110680)

I do not know the precise reasons regarding each of those measures, but obviously there has to be a balance. We need to make sure that people can ask, and indeed that they do ask, so that producers of goods in this country can benefit from people’s desire to eat produce from the UK. On the other hand, we have to balance that with making sure that we do not have bureaucracy that actually undermines—[Interruption.] I am sure that many Members on the Opposition Benches would be the first to take us to task if we were to enter into arrangements whereby rather than the Just Ask campaign, which is voluntary, we ended up with compulsory labelling.

Q8. Does the Prime Minister agree that there is a need to change the law to ensure that there are positive obligations on company directors and their equivalents in public bodies requiring them to ensure that their organisations comply with the Health and Safety at Work, etc. Act 1974? (110681)

I understand entirely both the point that my hon. Friend makes and why it is important to make it clear that large as well as small organisations will be caught by the legislation. Sometimes there can be greater practical difficulties in bringing prosecutions against those in larger organisations, because there is a different chain of command in bigger companies, but the basic provisions of the measure should apply to large and small alike. I shall come back to my hon. Friend specifically on the issue he raises.

Q9. In October my constituent, Mrs. Jeanette Crizzle, tragically died from leukaemia, having been unable to find a suitable bone marrow donor. This coming Monday, in Kettering, the Jeanette Crizzle trust will be launched by her husband Adam, with the shadow Secretary of State for Health. Its aim will be to monitor and promote more blood, organ and bone marrow donations across the country. Will the Prime Minister confirm to the House his Government’s commitment to launch a donation awareness campaign in all secondary schools in September? (110682)

I am sure that the whole House will want to send condolences to the family of the hon. Gentleman’s constituent and to support the trust that has been set up in memory of Mrs. Jeanette Crizzle. We are indeed developing an education pack for schools to promote donation among 14 to 16-year-olds, and that pack will be offered to every school from this September onwards. In addition, we are looking at how we can build up our organ donation levels to those of other European countries. A taskforce is looking at recommendations and it will report shortly. I very much hope that that will align our thinking with that of the voluntary organisation that the hon. Gentleman has just mentioned. This is a serious question, particularly for people who suffer from leukaemia, as Mrs. Crizzle did; there is a real opportunity to make a difference in saving lives if we can extend the organ donation range.

Q10. We are all aware of the crimes and atrocities carried out by the IRA, which we obviously all deplore and fought against. However, arising from what was said earlier, should there not be a thorough investigation into the findings of the Northern Ireland police ombudsman, who referred to outright collusion between elements in the Royal Ulster Constabulary and loyalist organisations? She said that some 15 murders may be involved, so is not the reputation of our country at stake here? I hope that my right hon. Friend will look further into this. (110683)

May I reassure my hon. Friend that although the ombudsman said herself that she did not see the need for an inquiry, action will none the less be taken as a result of her report, which will make sure that those who are responsible are properly and rightly dealt with? It is also fair, as far as the reputation of our country is concerned, to make it clear that as a result of measures taken some years ago, this type of collusion has been stamped out; it does not happen and has not happened for several years. As for what happened before then, the ombudsman’s report provides the basis for us to act on it.

I also want to emphasise one thing implied by the first part of my hon. Friend’s question. While we are talking about the activities—the wrong activities—of a small number of people in the former Royal Ulster Constabulary, it is also right to pay tribute to those who lost their lives in withstanding terrorism. The main body of those officers were doing a difficult job in very difficult circumstances. I hope that, as a result of the measures that we now take, we can satisfy people that there is no possibility of this ever happening again.

Q11. I join the Prime Minister in the comments that he has just made, and let us not forget that more than 300 RUC officers lost their lives in Northern Ireland, in protecting the community from terrorism. Thousands of those officers, including those in special branch, saved countless lives in Northern Ireland through their actions. Will the Prime Minister join me in saying that the only way forward now is for all parties in Northern Ireland unequivocally to give their support to the police and the rule of law—without any conditions? (110684)

It is right that if we want a stable and lasting peace in Northern Ireland, it can only be on the basis of unequivocal support for the police, the rule of law and the system of criminal justice there. I also think that the one thing that is now very clear is that the Police Service of Northern Ireland and the changes that we made over the past few years provide a completely different context in which policing can take place. That is why I think that there is now a possibility for moving forward on the basis of a power-sharing Executive on the one side, and full support for the police and the rule of law on the other.

Q12. This Government’s decision to overturn the stance of the previous Administration in respect of compensation for former miners has meant payments of more than £50 million to miners and their families in the Wigan borough. During the war, many men were conscripted into the pits and performed a vital role in the war effort. Will my right hon. Friend ensure that that is recognised by the award of a medal for these Bevin boys—and as quickly as possible, so that they can wear it with deserved pride? (110685)

I can tell my hon. Friend that over the next few weeks we will be announcing proposals to give recognition to the Bevin boys and the extraordinary work that they did in service of their country in the second world war. They often worked in very dangerous and difficult conditions underground, and as a result of their work we were able to sustain our war effort, so it is entirely right to find an appropriate way of recognising their service.

Against the carefully chosen backdrop of HMS Albion, the Prime Minister promised to increase defence spending. That was taken by our beleaguered armed forces as a firm commitment, so what are they to make of the humiliating dismissal given by one of the right hon. Gentleman’s Ministers in the other place, who referred to the Prime Minister’s speech as merely one contribution to the debate, which

“will, of course, be regarded very seriously and very importantly indeed.”—[Official Report, House of Lords; 17 January 2007, Vol. 688, c. 647.]?

Is that not evidence that the Prime Minister’s authority is disappearing rapidly in our country?

Let me just point out to the hon. Gentleman that over the past few years we have, in fact, increased defence spending—after years of the Government whom he supported, who cut defence spending by a third. What is more, wholly contrary to what is put out by the Conservative party, defence spending—when we add in the additional money from Iraq and Afghanistan—has kept constant as a proportion of national income, despite a growing economy. In the 10 years before we came to office it was cut by about a third—again, as a proportion of gross domestic product. So let me tell the hon. Gentleman that I did indeed make the commitment that our armed forces would be properly supported. They will be properly supported. That is the commitment of this Government; it was a commitment never given or honoured by the previous Administration.

Q13. As secretary of the all-party mountain rescue and search teams group, may I make a plea to the Prime Minister? Those voluntary organisations receive little assistance from the Government in England and Wales—unlike in Scotland—and we need to help them to navigate their way through the morass of Departments. As the Prime Minister clears his desk to leave at the end of the financial year, will he please give some consideration to meeting representatives of the group and the organisations themselves? They help people who are lost and need to find a direction—and no better legacy could be achieved by anyone. (110686)

I would be delighted to meet the group that my hon. Friend draws attention to—although the timing may be another issue—but I can assure him that we are well aware of the fantastic work done by the volunteers who work in mountain rescue. Of course, the decision to support mountain rescue is made by chief constables in their local areas, but I can assure him that the Government will continue to do all that we can to support them.

Point of Order

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I seek your guidance about an apparent breach of planning law by two Ministers and our ability to question them in the House. Last June, Government inspectors removed plans for a large development in my constituency, just north of Harlow, as part of the draft east of England plan. The Minister for Higher Education and Lifelong Learning, the hon. Member for Harlow (Bill Rammell), denounced that decision. However, I now understand that, on 13 July 2006, he privately met the Minister for Housing and Planning, in clear breach of the Government’s planning policy statement 11, which says that such representations

“would undermine the examination process and be prejudicial to other participants.”

That meeting has proved to be prejudicial, for on 19 December, on the day the House rose, the Government reversed the inspector’s decisions, as the Minister for Higher Education and Lifelong Learning sought. My constituents believe that both Ministers breached the regulations, making the whole east of England plan liable to legal challenge. Given that, yesterday, Government officials refused to release the papers for that meeting, can you advise me, Sir, on how I, on behalf of my constituents, can hold both Ministers to account?

It is not directly a matter for me, but the hon. Gentleman can pursue these matters through parliamentary questions and by seeking Adjournment debates. Of course, parliamentary questions can be written and oral, and he can challenge the Ministers during oral questions in their slot on the Floor of the House. Those are ways in which he could pursue the matter.

Access to Inland Waterways

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to make provision for access by the public for non-motorised boating purposes to the inland waterways of England and Wales; and for connected purposes.

It was a great pleasure for many hon. Members when, a few years ago, we passed—against a certain amount of opposition, I seem to remember—our right to roam legislation, which culminated in the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000. That Act was originally intended to encompass equal access to inland waterways; but unfortunately, that got deleted at the later stages of the preparation of that Bill, so there is no presumed right of access by the public to inland waterways in England and Wales at the moment. That is not the situation in Scotland. When the Scottish Parliament passed its equivalent of right-to-roam legislation in the form of the Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2003, it covered inland waterways in exactly the same way as it did access to land.

It is the Government’s position that access in England and Wales should not be a problem and is not a problem, and that voluntary access agreements will deliver what is needed. However, the reality is quite different. There are 41,000 miles of inland waterways in England and Wales that do not have a public right of navigation. Only 510 miles of mostly highly restricted access has been negotiated. Some agreements apply only for a few days of each year, adding little to the 2 per cent. of inland waterways with a public right of access. Ultimately, access is in the hands of the riparian owners—the fishermen. But if they refuse to engage in negotiation, there is no way forward for canoeists or others to make progress.

The Environment Agency has worked for two years to put voluntary access agreements in place. In October last year, it reported its achievement: 45 miles of access had been negotiated, much of which was already the subject of access agreements and was accepted for canoeing. Two years of negotiation have produced an extra 20 miles of access, much of which is subject to considerable restrictions and complex arrangements. Even the Environment Agency was unable to contact all the riparian owners. When it was unable to gain permission, it assumed a right of access. That sets a precedent and clearly there are some legal connotations.

The Bill would clarify the matter and would provide a legislative framework. For example, the River Teme is 60 miles long, but only 1 mile of access has been negotiated and that for only certain days of nine months of the year. The River Wear is 50 miles long; 7 miles of access has been agreed. It is absolutely clear that voluntary agreements do not work. We cannot rely on them. If we want to promote public access, legislation will have to be involved. There is no other way. The Bill sets out to redress the situation. I am most grateful to the British Canoe Union, which has done the spadework on this project and has produced a draft Bill, which I expect to be published if the House accepts my motion. The Bill is essentially a read-across from the Scottish 2003 Act, with a few tweaks to remove minor problems that have arisen. It codifies responsible access to and along water. It protects the environment and the activities of canoeists, anglers, other users and landowners, who are all required to adhere to an access code. A code similar to the Scottish outdoor access code would be developed to support the Bill.

A legal right of access would provide more recreational opportunities for a group of people—including canoeists, swimmers, boaters and members of the general public—who want to use the water for recreational and educational purposes. That would have knock-on benefits for public health. The recreational aspects of canoeing would coincide effectively with the Government’s “everyday sport” and the Welsh Assembly’s “climbing higher” strategies to encourage more participation in activities. That would be possible if there were more access to rivers.

I remind the House that at the last Olympics, 40 per cent. of the UK’s medal tally was won by athletes who practise their sport sitting on their bottoms in boats—by sailors, canoeists and rowers. Canoeists won a silver and two bronze medals, and the future looks good, because a total of one gold, three silver and one bronze medal was won by the British team at the recent world youth championships in Australia. Such results are achieved in spite of, rather than because of, the training opportunities available in England and Wales. Whitewater canoeists have to go to Scotland or Wales for training, and if they want to use Olympic-class facilities, they have to go to Holland. That is not a good starting point for our teams as they prepare for the 2012 Olympics.

Another virtue of wider rights of access would be reduced pressure on accessible parts of waterways that are overused and overcrowded. Given the seriousness of the position as stated by the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, I do not expect immediate Government support for my Bill, despite the fact that its proposals are in line with some areas of Government policy. I do not have any illusions about the success rate of ten-minute Bills in reaching the statute book. None the less, I hope that the Government consider their position and allow the Bill at least the chance of a Second Reading and the possibility of proceeding to Committee. I hope that I can convince them of the merits of my case, and I commend the motion to the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Dr. Desmond Turner, Charlotte Atkins, Mr. Michael Meacher, John Bercow, Joan Ruddock, Dr. Howard Stoate, Mr. Gordon Prentice, Peter Bottomley and Sir Robert Smith.

Access to Inland Waterways

Dr. Desmond Turner accordingly presented a Bill to make provision for access by the public for non-motorised boating purposes to the inland waterways of England and Wales; and for connected purposes: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time on Friday 23 February, and to be printed [Bill 52].

Iraq and the wider Middle East

[Relevant documents: Uncorrected minutes of Evidence taken before the Defence and Foreign Affairs Committees on 11 January 2007, House of Commons 209-i, Session 2006-07.]

We now come to the main business, and I inform the House that there will be a 10-minute limit on Back-Bench speeches.

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Liz Blackman.]

The middle east is a region that engages every aspect of foreign policy, not just our security with regard to conflict, proliferation and terrorism, but the security of our economy, energy supplies and climate. It is a region that is critical to our deeper goal of building a safe, just and prosperous world for all. This afternoon, I will concentrate on four areas: first, of course, Iraq itself; secondly, Iran and Syria; thirdly, the middle east peace process; and, finally, I shall make some comments on the wider political and economic reform that is needed in the region.

For the purposes of our debate I will address each subject in turn, but for the purposes of analysis and policy making they are, of course, intimately linked. What happens in Iraq has direct consequences for political developments across the region. Iran and Syria present very distinct challenges to the international community, but both have the ability to play a pivotal role for good or for ill in Iraq, in the middle east peace process and in the region as a whole. The conflict between Israel and the Palestinians, as has long been recognised, is a festering sore at the core of the region’s politics. We need and have a strategy for the middle east that recognises both the scale of the challenges and the links between them. I shall first speak about Iraq.

As the disastrous conflict in Iraq has rightly been referred to as Blair’s war, will the Foreign Secretary inform the House of Commons of what is so important about the Prime Minister’s engagements this afternoon that he cannot be present in the House to take part in the first debate on Iraq in Government time since the war began?

I do not recall whether the right hon. and learned Gentleman was in the Chamber—he may well have been—when the Prime Minister made it quite clear that, as we move towards the end of Operation Sinbad and its assessment, he will indeed report personally to the House. He shakes his head, but he is a little unlucky, because I have been in the House long enough, and have a good enough memory, to recall on how many occasions Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, and indeed Prime Minister John Major, addressed the House. The double standards of those on the Conservative Benches, although probably inevitable, are somewhat undesirable.

As I was saying with regard to Iraq—

If the hon. Gentleman does not mind, I will make a little progress with my speech.

Our fundamental objective in Iraq has been and remains to develop the capacity of the democratically elected Government of Iraq, and in particular to increase their ability to provide security and basic services to the Iraqi people.

The Iraqi Government of national unity have only been in place for eight months—something that we often overlook. Governing by coalition is never an easy job, and doing so in a country that has been riven by decades of terror and oppression, and in which there is no tradition of government by consensus, is harder still. What is being tried in Iraq today—genuine power-sharing among the different major communities—has never even been tried before. Prime Minister al-Maliki has made a clear public commitment to bringing about national reconciliation. As I said to Vice-President Tariq al-Hashimi last week—I think that a number of Members met him on his visit—we strongly support that commitment to national reconciliation, and we recognise how important it is to the future of Iraq.

In a moment. We have this month urged Prime Minister al-Maliki to redouble his efforts with all communities to demonstrate that his Government are pursuing a national and non-sectarian agenda, and we are providing help and support, including by sharing our experience from Northern Ireland.

I thank the Foreign Secretary. On 25 October last year, at Prime Minister’s questions, the Prime Minister told us that he would be

“happy to debate Iraq at any time.”—[Official Report, 25 October 2006; Vol. 450, c. 1515.]

Why should we believe him now that he says that he will debate it at some point in the future? Why was he so anxious to talk us into this disastrous war, but so reluctant to explain how we will get out of it?

Frankly, that is rather a silly remark. First, the Prime Minister has given a very clear and simple commitment that that there will be, we hope, a clear, potential turning point in Iraq in the not-too-distant future, as Operation Sinbad comes to a close, and that he will certainly come to the House at that point. All of what the hon. Gentleman says totally neglects the fact that no Prime Minister in the history of this country has put themselves before the scrutiny of Parliament more than this Prime Minister. For example, he, and he alone, agreed to the long-standing request of Select Committee Chairs from both sides of the House, and appeared before the Liaison Committee—for, if I recall correctly, several hours. He is not a Prime Minister who can be accused at all of avoiding the scrutiny of the House. He has set precedents that no previous Prime Minister of any party has been prepared to set.

I take on board what the Secretary of State says about reconciliation, but does she agree that whatever one believes about whether Saddam Hussein deserved the death penalty, the manner of the hanging, and the way in which it was handled, was an absolute disgrace and an outrage? Why was she, and the Prime Minister, so slow to condemn that?

I do not think either of us was—certainly, I was not slow to condemn it. There was extensive comment. What is much more important is that the Government of Iraq deplored and condemned it. They were horrified at what had been done, which was clearly never intended. Someone was acting on their own volition and in a way that has caused great difficulty for all concerned.

My right hon. Friend mentioned that the Prime Minister would come to the House at the end of Operation Sinbad or, as she said, when a turning point has been reached. How will we judge when that turning point has been reached?

That is what the Prime Minister will come to the House to report.

The greatest challenge that the relatively new Iraqi Government face is ongoing violence. Eighty to 90 per cent. of that violence takes place within a 30-mile radius of Baghdad. In contrast, the four southern provinces account for around 4 per cent. So progress in Baghdad is of immense strategic and symbolic importance to the whole of Iraq.

On 6 January Prime Minister al-Maliki signalled his firm intention to get to grips with sectarian violence in Baghdad and Anbar. His words were:

“We will not allow anyone to be an alternative to the state, whether the militias or anybody else, regardless of their affiliations”.

He went on to say:

“We will confront them firmly”.

On 10 January, President Bush said that the United States would help the Iraqis to deliver greater and more lasting security to the capital. It is the joint judgment of the Iraqi and the American Governments that the Baghdad security plan, including the announced increase in troop numbers but, equally importantly, increased resources for reconstruction, is the best way to achieve that goal.

In the course of her speech, will the Foreign Secretary give us some accurate estimate of the number of Iraqi civilians who have been killed since 2003, and the current death rate on the streets of Baghdad and other cities? Does she think Operation Sinbad will make the situation worse or better?

First, my hon. Friend asks me for the figures from the beginning of the year. From memory, the Iraqi Government estimate that 12,500 people or thereabouts were killed during the year ending 31 December 2006. He knows that there are other widely and wildly varying estimates, but the figure that the Iraqi Government have given is based on returns to the Ministry of the Interior. Secondly, the most recent month for which I have figures is December-January, and the figure is about 1,900. There has been an increase in the past couple of months.

With regard to Operation Sinbad, I know of no evidence whatever to suggest that it is making matters worse or that it is likely to do so. What matters much more than my opinion about it is the opinion of the people of Basra. I am grateful to my hon. Friend for enabling me to share this information with the House. In December 2006 polling in Basra showed that 92 per cent. of people felt more secure in their own neighbourhoods, and 50 per cent. felt that the police service was effective at protecting their neighbourhoods, which is up from 39 per cent. when Operation Sinbad began. Perhaps more importantly, 75 per cent. believe that the police service will be better this year. The figure for those who believe that the police service is capable and professional is 67 per cent. Again, that is a substantial improvement.

That is only one survey, and I do not intend to suggest to the House that it is conclusive. We should not overestimate the significance of one survey. However, it is a piece of evidence that comes not from my assumptions, still less from the assumptions of my hon. Friend—[Interruption]—but from the opinions of the people of Basra, whom I would have thought the House might treat with more respect.

The Foreign Secretary mentioned reconstruction and the importance of helping the Iraqi Government with that. What assistance is being given to the Iraqi Government to find the millions—some say billions—of pounds that former President Saddam squirreled away in foreign bank accounts?

Investigations along those lines are continuing and no doubt will take some time. Although it would, of course, be desirable to find and return any moneys that were stolen from the Iraqi people, the Iraqi Government have substantial revenues and have received substantial sums from both the United Kingdom and the United States to help with reconstruction, so they are not waiting for the return of that money in order to make progress.

I will give way to the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy (Mr. Llwyd), then I must make progress.

I thank the Foreign Secretary for giving way. She mentioned the build-up of American troops. Is she aware of the comments today of the ingoing commander, Lieutenant General Petraeus, who said he could guarantee no success, even with the extra so-called surge?

I am not aware of the general’s precise words, but I am not the slightest bit surprised at his sentiments. Given the propensity of both politicians and journalists to ask people to give absolute guarantees of something for which nobody could possibly give a guarantee, I think he was very wise in his use of phraseology.

It might be helpful to the House if I took a few of the remaining interventions and then got on with my speech.

I am grateful to the right hon. Lady. She has painted a positive picture of what is happening in Iraq. Of course there have been positive movements, but does she agree that about 100 people being killed every day is, to many people, a testament that the country is at civil war? Can she also say how many of the 18 provinces have been handed over to Iraqi control?

No, I do not agree that there is civil war. What is much more to the point is that the Government of Iraq do not accept that. Of course there is terrible sectarian violence, which is extremely damaging. There is some slight evidence to suggest that it is beginning to be more widely accepted among the people of Iraq how damaging that is. It is within the memory of all Members of the House that it was the declared aim of al-Qaeda in Iraq to provoke sectarian violence in order to try to create civil war. However, it has not yet done so, although I accept that the situation is extremely dangerous. The Government of Iraq resist the notion that there is a state of civil war.

On the matter of Iraqi civilian deaths since the finish of the war, I know that the Government do not like the figure of 665,000 cited by The Lancet, but the House of Commons Library paper just published quotes the Iraqi Minister of Health as giving in Geneva the figure 150,000. What does the Foreign Secretary make of that?

What I make of it is that an awful lot of people have hugely varying assessments and it is extremely hard to know what the reliable figure is. My hon. Friend quotes the figure given in The Lancet, which I recall saying at the time was an enormous extrapolation from the sample that had been collected. It is clear that there is great disparity between the various figures that have been given, and there is a natural tendency for people to give the figure in which they have the greatest interest.

My right hon. Friend said that the American Government and the Iraqi Government were standing together, and that the American commitment of extra troops had been welcomed in Iraq. Is it not also the case that the six-nation Gulf Co-operation Council, Egypt and Jordan have also welcomed the extra commitment of troops by the United States?

My right hon. Friend is right. She may be aware that in an interview with al-Arabiya some little time ago, the Prime Minister of Iraq made it clear that from his point of view, the proposals for the Baghdad security plan are the strategy of the Iraqi Government, as well as of the American Government.

Has my right hon. Friend any estimate of Iraqi civilian deaths or of the deaths of Iranians and Kuwaitis when Saddam Hussein was in power?

My right hon. Friend is, as so often, entirely right. I find it astonishing that people so readily dismiss all the terrible suffering caused in various ways in different countries by Saddam Hussein, to the ludicrous degree that some even suggest that there is an equivalence between his behaviour and his record and that of democratic politicians, which is farcical.

I fear that I must get on.

The House has shown great interest in the implications of the new Baghdad security plan for our involvement in southern Iraq. The Defence Secretary and I discussed that at some length and in some detail on 11 January at a joint session of the Defence Committee and the Foreign Affairs Committee. I do not intend to repeat everything that was said then.

However, one point bears repetition. We have always said that our approach in Iraq and the level of our commitment there must be governed by conditions on the ground. At this point, I recall that I did not answer the question about provinces. Three have already been handed over to Iraqi control—Muthanna, Dhi Qar and Najaf.

We have not set arbitrary timelines. Like our coalition and Iraqi partners, we have tailored our approach to tackle most effectively the challenges in our area of operation. As we have explained repeatedly, the challenges in southern Iraq differ significantly from those in Baghdad and its neighbouring provinces, which have heavily mixed populations and, tragically, suffer from intense sectarian violence. In the overwhelmingly Shi’a south of Iraq, the challenge is to improve the quality of governance and the capacity of the Iraqi security forces, and to reduce crime and the role of the militias.

Our troops and diplomats operate in a dangerous and difficult environment. The House has been consistent in its praise for their professionalism and courage. I pay tribute to them again. Their combined military and civilian efforts have led to positive change in Basra in recent months. The murder rate is down. The number of kidnappings has fallen. Significantly more police stations in Basra province have reached the standard required for transition to Iraqi control.

We have made important progress in unlocking investment in the region’s future by the Iraqi authorities. Our provincial reconstruction team has helped the Basra provincial council gain approval for more than 300 new projects funded by the Iraqi Government.

President Bush reaffirmed in his 10 January statement that he expected lead responsibility for security in all 18 provinces of Iraq to be handed back to the Iraqi authorities by November. We support that aim. As the House knows, decisions on the transfer of individual provinces are made jointly, with the Iraqi Prime Minister having the final say. As I said, three provinces have already been transferred. Two—Dhi Qar and Muthanna—are in our area of responsibility. The third, Najaf, is in the US sector and was transferred last month.

In the light of the progress that I have already described, we remain confident that, at some point this spring, we will be able to recommend that Basra province, too, is ready for the process of transition. The Prime Minister told the House on 10 January that, as Operation Sinbad draws to a close, an assessment of progress in Basra will be made, following which he will make a statement.

The transfer of authority is an important step. It marks a new stage in the development of a stable, independent and democratic Iraq. It does not, of course, mark the end of the international community’s support for the Iraqi Government and the Iraqi people.

The role of some of Iraq’s neighbours is deeply worrying. Iran continues to supply weapons, training and funding to extremists operating in the south of Iraq and to Hezbollah in Lebanon. The Iranians should be in no doubt that, in the long-term, they have as much, if not more, to lose as anyone else from encouraging instability in Iraq. In this respect, as in others, the Iranian regime has a clear strategic choice to make. On the one hand, it can provide its young and talented population with all the benefits that they would get from a new partnership with the rest of the international community. To do that, the Iranian Government must meet the requirements of the International Atomic Energy Agency board, backed by the United Nations Security Council, for their nuclear programme; play a constructive role in Iraq, in the middle east peace process and throughout the region; and end their support for terrorism.

The alternative is for the Iranian regime to lead the country and its people into increasing political, economic and cultural isolation. Iran has consistently tried to portray itself as the victim of a vindictive policy led solely by the US and the UK. It has repeatedly hoped to exploit perceived differences between members of the Security Council. However, it has badly and repeatedly misjudged the situation. At the end of last year, the Security Council unanimously adopted resolution 1737. It is plain even to the Government of Iran that the entire international community calls on them to meet their obligations.

When the Iraq Study Group report was first published, the Government broadly welcomed it. A key recommendation was that a conference or meeting should take place in Baghdad and that Iran and Syria should be directly engaged in it. That is indispensable if the Iraqi Government are to survive as coalition troops are withdrawn. Why have the Government gone back on their support for that recommendation? The report states that

“a nation can and should engage its adversaries and enemies to try to resolve conflicts and differences consistent with its own interests.”

It is not impossible to continue disagreeing with Iran about its nuclear programme while engaging with it on the future of Iraq. Why are the Government not leading that?

First, we broadly welcome the analysis—the proposals in the Iraq Study Group’s report are interesting and worthy of further consideration. That does not mean—and I do not believe that those on the Iraq Study Group took it to mean—that everything that was said should be agreed and supported. The hon. Gentleman knows that we continue to maintain links with Iran and that we have recently increased those with Syria. We are doing everything we can to encourage those countries to take a more positive approach and engage more positively with Iraq. Some small steps in the right direction have been taken. Syria has opened an embassy in Baghdad, which we welcome.

Continued consideration will be given to the way forward, but I say in all honesty to the hon. Gentleman that I am not sure whether the sort of conference in Baghdad that he suggests would be of as much help as the Iraq Study Group thought.

I hope that the Foreign Secretary will forgive me if I take her back to an important point. She set a time line for handing over provinces in the Basra region—I believe that she mentioned November. I appreciate that the Prime Minister does not want to set an arbitrary date and I do not ask for that. However, discussions must have taken place about that in Government—surely the right hon. Lady could share the Government’s thinking on the matter. Is she saying that, assuming things go well, British troops may be home by November?

I have not set a timeline. The hon. Gentleman invites me to share something with hon. Members that we have shared repeatedly, but appears to go in one ear and out the other. We have told the House time and again that we never have set and never will set a specific date, deadline or timeline, because it would be dangerously irresponsible. We will make a judgment on the conditions.

However, it is fair and legitimate for people to have some idea of the ongoing judgment of the Government and the Iraqi Government about the conditions. It is our current view, and that of the Iraqi Government, that, if things continue as they are, we may be in a position to hand over to the Iraqi Government responsibility for all the provinces in November—in the spring, we hope, for Basra. However, we have repeatedly said that it will depend on the conditions and circumstances at the time.

Does the Foreign Secretary agree with what the Prime Minister wrote in the current edition of Foreign Affairs? He said that the reason for the invasion of Iraq was not regime change but what he called “values change”. If she does agree, will she explain how it is possible to change people’s values through military force? To which other countries does that doctrine apply?

The Prime Minister, as ever, made a sensible point that it is important to try to encourage the development of the sort of values that inspire most people in most countries in the world: wanting a peaceful and better life for their children. Sadly, in the case of Iraq, military intervention was necessary to create the circumstances in which the politics of that country could be released to afford an opportunity for a democratic Government of unity to form. We hope that, in time, they will encourage the same sort of values and experiences in Iraq as we have here.

Has my right hon. Friend had an opportunity to see early-day motion 625, which, curiously, states that this country does not see Iran as the enemy? No one in the House would want to go to war with Iran, but is it not a bit difficult to see it as a potential friend or ally while it continues to host holocaust-denial conferences, refuses to recognise—and calls for the annihilation of—Israel, oppresses its own people and still intends to pursue its nuclear ambitions?

My hon. Friend is entirely right. No one wishes to be an enemy of Iran, but it is difficult to be as much of a friend to the country as we would like while it continues to pursue the policies that he has identified. I also view with some bewilderment the notion—which I understand is current in some circles—that it is a thoroughly bad thing for the Government of the United Kingdom to maintain their nuclear arms, while it is perfectly all right for the Government of Iran to have them.

I welcome the dialogue that the Foreign Secretary described between the UK, Iran and Syria, particularly in regard to the work that the E3 have been doing. Will she confirm, however, that it is still the Government’s position that a strike by Israel or the US against Iran would be inconceivable, and that any military action would be unjustified?

I have been quite consistent and clear in saying that nobody is contemplating such action, and I sincerely hope that we never reach a time when anybody does. There is, however, something that people tend to leave out of the equation. I often wonder how many people have actually looked at the offer that the international community made to the Government of Iran, which would give them everything that they could conceivably want to develop a programme of modern civil nuclear power—which is what they say is their objective. That has an effect on these areas.

Will the Secretary of State commit herself to the long-standing policy of building relationships with Iran and Syria? It will be difficult, and there are real threats, but will she continue to make it a priority, despite what other allies think, in recognition of those countries’ significance in the region?

I entirely accept my hon. Friend’s point that Iran and Syria are countries of great significance in the region. We have said that continually, which is why we have maintained contacts with them and why we continue to aspire to being able to make those contacts on a much more friendly and open basis. My hon. Friend will know, however, that it is not always easy to make a friend of someone who keeps trying to spit in your eye.

I apologise to my hon. Friend, but I must get on. I realise that I have been speaking for half an hour.

Iran must also meet its international obligations and standards in the way it treats its own people. After China, Iran executes more people than any other country in the world. Recently, for example, 10 Ahwazi men were sentenced to death for alleged terrorist activities, although we understand that the men did not have adequate access to lawyers and that the trial was held behind closed doors. We urge the Government of Iran to allow those men a fair and public hearing.

As for Syria, we continue to be concerned about the nature of its involvement in Iraq, Lebanon and Palestine. We recognise, however, that some positive steps have been taken recently. The Syrian Government have re-established full diplomatic ties with Iraq, the Syrian Foreign Minister has visited Baghdad, and the Iraqi Interior Minister has been to Damascus to talk to the Syrians about disrupting what the Iraqis perceive to be a flow of fighters and weapons across the Syrian-Iraqi border. President Talabani spoke about the same issues when he visited Syria last week.

On the other hand, I fear that we are still looking for evidence that Syria is ready to play a constructive role in promoting stability in Lebanon, or in supporting President Abbas’s efforts on behalf of the Palestinians. Syria, like Iran, faces a strategic choice: either to act responsibly or to continue to support terrorism and hold back progress in the region. We will continue to engage diplomatically with both countries.

As the Prime Minister has repeatedly stated, progress on the middle east peace process must remain our highest priority. The UK and the international community continue to support the Palestinian people, including through the temporary international mechanism, to which the UK alone will contribute £12 million this year. Last year, the European Union spent €680 million supporting the Palestinians—more than in any previous year.

We welcome the recent agreement between Prime Minister Olmert and President Abbas on the release of $100 million in Palestinian tax revenues and on the easing of restrictions on movement and access. These practical steps are an essential foundation to the effort towards a comprehensive peace and a two-state solution, and an end to the cycle of violence.

Does the Secretary of State acknowledge that, welcome as the increase in aid to the Palestinian people may be, it does not in any way replace the loss of the $90 million a month that the Palestinian Authority do not get because Israel has withheld the revenues that it collected? How can the poverty that is plunging people into real hardship in Palestine be reversed without additional funding to enable services and the functioning of the economy to continue?

We have continued to provide support, but the right hon. Gentleman is right to say that it cannot make up for the loss of revenues. That is why we have continually urged the Israeli Government to release those revenues and why I am so pleased to see the $100 million now flowing into the coffers of the Palestinian Authority. It is important that we offer our support in order to reduce the humanitarian dangers in Palestine, which I accept are very real.

My right hon. Friend has not yet commented on the position of women in Iraq, drawing comparisons between their human and civil rights and quality of life now and four years ago.

My hon. Friend will appreciate that I have now moved on to talk about the middle east, but she has made a fair and legitimate point. She will know that it is now enshrined in the Iraqi constitution that there should be proper rights of the kind to which she refers and, indeed, considerable involvement by women in the governance of Iraq. I expect that she, like me, has met some of the Iraqi women MPs who are playing their part in trying to improve their country.

May I put it to my right hon. Friend that time is running out for a two-state solution in the middle east, and that, if such a solution proves impossible, we might sooner or later have to contemplate a one-state solution in which Israelis and Palestinians, however painfully, have to learn to live alongside each other in a single state?

Israelis and Palestinians do need to learn, however painfully, to live alongside each other. The alternative is even more appalling. I accept that it is not easy to envisage speedy moves. I do not accept, however, that time is running out for the two-state solution, not least because, although it would be difficult, it is probably the most likely best outcome—if I may put it like that.

Given the construction of the barrier wall, razor wire fences, ditches and access roads to Israeli settlements on the west bank, if the Secretary of State believes in a two-state solution, where does she believe the borders of the Palestinian state should be?

The hon. Gentleman is inviting me to talk about the final status negotiations. He will know that it is the express view of the European Union that the basis of consideration should be something along the lines of the 1967 borders. However, exactly where those borders should be ought to be in the hands of the parties, and it will be if we can get the negotiations going.

I am sorry, but I must make some progress.

There have been recent positive developments. The Gaza ceasefire is holding, Prime Minister Olmert and President Abbas have met, and I believe that there is a new willingness on all sides to address some of the fundamental issues that underpin the conflict. We will encourage and support that, working closely with the Americans and with our EU and Arab partners. The Prime Minister was in the region last month, and I intend to go again shortly. Secretary Rice visited last week, and we then held detailed talks here in London, covering both the need to re-energise the political process and practical ways to support President Abbas and to help the Palestinian people. Our common goal is to see accelerated implementation of the road map, and real progress towards peace and stability for both sides. As the House may know, the next step is a meeting of the Quartet on 2 February.

These points of tension in the region—Iraq, Iran, Syria, Israel-Palestine—all present different problems and demand and deserve individual attention, but they are also affected by, and pivotal to, wider political and economic reform in the region. Long-term stability in the middle east demands a truly comprehensive approach—what the Prime Minister has called a “whole Middle East strategy”. Of course, that means resolving the big conflicts, but it also means helping economies in the region to modernise, create more jobs and attract more inward investment. It means giving young people in the region—men and women alike—the tools and the education to embrace globalisation. It also means making progress towards more open politics, more accountable government and better respect for individual rights.

The challenges that we face in the region should not blind us to significant and positive developments across the middle east and North Africa over the past few years—developments that often have profound implications for the UK. From an admittedly low base, foreign direct investment is now growing. In Egypt, it has risen from just over $2 billion a year to more than $5 billion, including very substantial UK investments. Shell is about to make the largest ever investment by a British company in Qatar. BP is the biggest foreign investor in Algeria.

On the political front, we have seen the first elections in Saudi Arabia, universal suffrage in Kuwait and the most successful elections in Yemen's history. There has been an improvement in the rights of women: in Egypt, women can now divorce; in Bahrain, the Supreme Council for Women has been established; and in Morocco, there is a new, fairer family code.

It would be wrong to overplay such progress but, broadly, it is heading in the right direction. The people in the region are leading that change, but we can help them. We are doing so partly through our political relationships.

Order. The Foreign Secretary has said that she will not take any more interventions. It must be remembered that, to assist Back Benchers, I have put a 10-minute limit on speeches, and interventions have an impact on the ability of Back Benchers to make a speech.

Thank you, Mr. Speaker. I am conscious of that, and that is why I have been trying to make progress.

Certainly, there are many on the so-called Arab street who are suspicious of British foreign policy. However, we are still seen by many local politicians not only as an honest broker in the region but as a close ally and friend. That is one of the reasons why the UK was entrusted with the job, during the Lebanon crisis, of flying the first international envoys into Beirut. It is why, when Libya wanted to come in from the cold, it made contact with the British Government. It is also why we can discuss the reform agenda with the Saudi Arabians through our “two kingdoms dialogue”.

We use that political influence to encourage locally-led political and economic reforms, and back it up with money and expertise. That includes the small-scale but highly targeted work of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s global opportunities fund: for example, supporting a youth parliament in Bahrain; teaching business and leadership skills to women in Kuwait; and strengthening non-governmental organisations in Saudi Arabia.

Last November, we hosted the Yemen donors conference in London. More than $4.5 billion was pledged in support of Yemen’s national reform agenda, and we announced a fivefold increase in our own aid programme: about $225 million over the next four years. This afternoon, I shall go to Paris to discuss how the international community can support reconstruction and reform in Lebanon. The UK has already committed more than $50 million to Lebanon, including humanitarian relief and 47 Land Rovers for the Lebanese armed forces. At the Paris conference, I will reaffirm our determination, which is shared across the House, to stand by the Government and people of Lebanon.

Alongside that work, the UK is influencing how the international community spends its money, making support for reform one of the main priorities. During our G8 presidency, the Forum for the Future established a $50 million foundation to support democracy, and a $100 million fund to support regional entrepreneurs. We are strong advocates of the recently proposed EU governance facility, which will provide additional funding to those countries that make the most progress on good governance. The exact size of that fund is still being decided, but we are talking about hundreds of millions of euros.

The challenges that we face in the middle east are complex and, as the whole House recognises, intensely difficult. But they are not completely intractable. The political prize is immense: we can help the people of the region to overcome a legacy of underdevelopment and conflict and give them the chance to carve out better lives for themselves and their families. That is the task to which this Government are committed.

This is a debate for which many in the House have been calling for some time. British troops have been in action in Iraq for nearly four years, and it is high time that the House of Commons took stock of what has happened. I say to Ministers that there is also a strong case for a similar debate on Afghanistan in the near future.

Whether we supported or opposed the invasion of Iraq in 2003—[Interruption.] There is every variety of view on the Labour Benches about that. We must all, however, face up to the fact that the situation in Iraq now is grim and serious. We must learn from what has happened, not minimise some of the things that have happened. The Foreign Secretary was asked about the number of civilian casualties and gave a figure of 12,500 last year.

I will certainly do so in a moment.

The UN Assistance Mission for Iraq, however, gives a figure of 34,452 civilian casualties. It is important for the House to get those matters straight.

We know that a great deal is at stake. Given the importance of the issue and the strength of feeling in the House about it, I have no hesitation in saying that the Prime Minister should attend this debate. It is not acceptable to Conservative Members, and quietly unacceptable to many Labour Members—perhaps not so quietly, as they are nodding their heads—who worry about such matters, that the Prime Minister, having been so keen to lead such debates in the run-up to the war when things were going fine, now prefers, with the whole issue in the balance and 130 British lives lost in Iraq, to skulk out of the Chamber to attend to something else.

According to The Sunday Times, the Prime Minister’s spokesman said:

“The Prime Minister never attends these debates, whatever the subject.”

We now have a Prime Minister who never attends debates, “whatever the subject”. The Foreign Secretary indicated that there was hope for a turning point soon, and that the Prime Minister would then make a statement. Where would the House have been in the second world war if Winston Churchill had only come along when a turning point was in prospect or had been reached? It is sad that the Prime Minister prefers the mentality of the bunker to the open thinking of debate.

The Conservative party was sold this war on a false premise. We were lied to by the Government. I keep meeting Conservative Members who tell me that if they knew then what they know now, they would have voted against this war. Will my right hon. Friend say that we will not be dragged down into the mire by this discredited Government? The more we attack this war and our presence in Iraq, the more we speak for the British people.

I must say that I do not fully agree with my hon. Friend about that. I voted for the invasion of Iraq, as did the great majority of the House, and I think that the problem has been in the execution and the inadequate planning for the occupation of Iraq, on which there is also a wide consensus across the House.

I suppose that my question has been slightly stolen. I take on board the right hon. Gentleman’s comment that we must face the facts as they are now, and every sensible person accepts that. Given the Government’s reluctance to apologise for taking us down a road to war on that false prospectus, will not he and his colleagues on the Opposition Front Bench apologise for also taking that route? The evidence presented to him was no different from the evidence presented to all those who took a different view and were shown to be right.

I understand the hon. Gentleman’s question, but I do not think that it is up to the Opposition to apologise for believing the Prime Minister’s assurances to the House. I take a different view, in any case. I believe that the overthrow of Saddam Hussein was right, but that the failure to plan for the aftermath of that has been a tragic mistake and that we are now living with the consequences.

I believe, and I think that the hon. Gentleman would agree with me about this, that if we did support the war, we must recognise that in many respects it has gone wrong—[Interruption]—as we did; and we must have the humility and thoughtfulness to learn from that. That is one of the tragedies of the Prime Minister not coming to a debate like this. I want to concentrate my remarks on what should happen next, but it is important to point out that there is something of a consensus across the House on where matters have gone wrong. It was the majority feeling in the House in March 2003, as the right hon. Member for Neath (Mr. Hain)—now Secretary of State for Northern Ireland—put it, that:

“in the end we as a government feel we cannot walk away from this situation, leaving Saddam Hussein unchecked, able in the future to attack the world”.

But I suspect it is now also the majority view of the House that, as the Secretary of State for International Development told the Fabian Society recently:

“The current situation in Iraq is… grim, so let us be clear about that truth.”

The right hon. Gentleman said:

“the intelligence was wrong, the de-Ba'athification went too far, the disbanding of the army was wrong and, of course, we should have the humility to acknowledge those things, and to learn”.

That is the voice of a member of the Cabinet, and that is precisely my view.

These errors do indeed appear to have been fundamental, and without them we need not have had the parlous situation that we have today. We also know, from documents published in recent months, that much military advice to send a vastly larger number of troops to Iraq from the United States to help control the country after the invasion was ignored, and that those in the US State Department who attempted to plan for the administration of the country after the invasion were sidelined.

That is a lesson to us all for the future that embarking on military action alongside another power requires confidence in our own Government that our allies have a satisfactory plan. Indeed, there are so many lessons to be learned, not only about the conduct of war and of occupations, but about the management of our relationship with the United States, that the case for a high-level Privy Council inquiry into the conduct of the war in Iraq is overwhelming.

The right hon. Gentleman has probably noticed that the leader of every mainland party is in the Chamber today except one, the Prime Minister. Does he agree that the Prime Minister should be in the House today, helping us with our inquiries on Iraq?

I think that the hon. Gentleman may have already gathered my answer to that from what I said earlier. Certainly, the Prime Minister should be here. It is unimaginable that an Attlee, a Callaghan, a Churchill or a Thatcher would not have been here to debate a situation in war. But I have already said that and I want to make progress.

The right hon. Gentleman seemed to be working towards this in his speech, but I will ask him in any case whether he accepts that some of the decisions made in 2003—such as de-Ba’athification, the disbanding of the army and the disbanding of the police force—were made by the United States Administration under Paul Bremer, despite advice from the British Government and our representatives in Iraq.

Of course, without an inquiry we do not know what advice was given by the British Government at the time. That is one of the things that an inquiry should be establishing, and if that were the case Ministers would have much less to fear from an inquiry than they might otherwise.

As far as one can tell, Ministers agree with the case for an inquiry. On 31 October, the Secretary of State for Defence said on television that there would be such an inquiry, just after the Foreign Secretary had resisted announcing one in the House. We may differ as to when, but our case is that if an inquiry beginning with events in 2003 does not commence at least before the end of 2007, it will be found that many memories will have faded and many e-mails will have disappeared. If Ministers do not announce such an inquiry before the end of this parliamentary Session, we will ask the House to debate a specific motion requiring them to do so.

The most important issue of all, of course, is what to do next. The Iraqi people need—the whole region and the world need—a rapid improvement in the stability and security of their country. They, and the world, need their country to survive intact, for while it is all too easy to talk of partition in the armchairs of western capitals, the practical reality on the ground would mean bloodshed, disorder and foreign intervention possibly dwarfing anything that we have seen so far.

When my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition and I visited Basra and Baghdad a few weeks ago, we came back with several things very clear in our minds. The first, not surprisingly, was that our troops perform dangerous tasks with extraordinary skill, and with calm and courage, in the face of great adversity; but there is no doubt that their own security situation has deteriorated dramatically over the past two years. They are not able to operate in Basra with the freedom that they enjoyed in the aftermath of the invasion, and it is clear that there has been slowness in meeting some of their practical needs for equipment and protection as they operate in a theatre of war. Shelter against mortar attacks in their barracks for which hostile militias have the precise co-ordinates is lacking, as is the foam necessary to protect Hercules transport planes against catastrophic damage from small-arms fire. While we should recognise that supplying military operations is difficult, we should also see the Prime Minister’s constant and obviously meaningless assertion that the troops will always have everything they need in that light.

From what we could see, there is a limit to what British troops can achieve in the city of Basra once Operation Sinbad is completed, and its completion appears to be imminent. Provided that the Iraqi army is able to take over as necessary in the city of Basra, we therefore have no disagreement with the Government’s apparent intention of withdrawing several thousand troops later this year. But implicit in that announcement is that several thousand will remain, presumably to guard the air station at Basra and do what they can to protect the border with Iran. Perhaps when he winds up the debate, the Minister will be able to expand on what the role of the remaining troops will be at that point, whether all deficiencies in their equipment will have been addressed, and whether it is militarily feasible for a smaller force based around the Basra air station to protect itself against coming under siege from encroaching militia attacks.

Looking beyond Basra to the overall situation in Iraq, we reached the view—along with my hon. Friend the Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox), the shadow Secretary of State for Defence—that three things were essential to bring the situation under control: a more rapid build-up in the strength and capabilities of the Iraqi army, an intensification of pressure on the Iraqi politicians to achieve the political agreements generally characterised as “reconciliation”, and the creation of an international contact group, including members of the UN Security Council and nearby states, to help buttress and support the Government of Iraq.

In other words, the situation needs more Iraqi leadership and greater international support and involvement. In our view those remain vital issues, and without any one of them being implemented to the necessary extent the future looks bleak. That is why we welcomed the report of the Iraq Study Group—the Baker-Hamilton report—which was broadly in line with our own assessment, although we did not agree with all its proposals. A fixed timetable for the withdrawal of US troops from Iraq would create military inflexibility and give insurgents their own timetable for operations, something that the leader of the Liberal Democrats, the right hon. and learned Member for North-East Fife (Sir Menzies Campbell), must bear in mind. He must also bear in mind his comment in the House in November 2003:

“Nothing could be worse than handing over to an Iraqi Government, however constitutionally founded, a security position that they were incapable of dealing with.”—[Official Report, 27 November 2003; Vol. 415, c. 168.]

I fear that his proposal for a total withdrawal by October would be a situation that the Iraqi Government would be “incapable of dealing with”, and would bring great bloodshed in its wake.

With that exception, the broad thrust of the Iraq Study Group’s recommendations seemed to make sense, particularly its advocacy of a huge increase in the number of American troops embedded with or training Iraqi troops from 4,000 to 20,000, and the creation of an international support group of the kind that I have just described.

Was the right hon. Gentleman surprised to hear the Foreign Secretary say, in response to an intervention from the hon. Member for North Essex (Mr. Jenkin), that the regional security conference recommended in the Baker-Hamilton report would not achieve anything? Yesterday, the Iraqi Foreign Minister, Hoshyar Zebari, announced the creation of a regional security conference along those lines. Surely the United Kingdom Foreign Secretary should be supporting that important diplomatic initiative, not undermining it.

The hon. Gentleman’s intervention brings me to an important point. I was surprised by one or two things that the Foreign Secretary said, and they did relate to the Baker-Hamilton report.

The Prime Minister gave evidence to the Iraq Study Group, apparently emphasising the importance of a fresh attempt to engage with Syria and Iran. After he flew to America the moment the report was published on 6 December—considering Iraq, that day, to be so important that he had to go straight to the White house, in contrast to today, when he did not stay in the House—he said that the Baker-Hamilton report

“offers a strong way forward”.

The Foreign Secretary said today that she thought it was worthy of further study, but at the time she said that it was

“thoughtful, substantial and quite profound.”

She also said that British officials had contributed to it and that the thinking of the Iraq Study Group was

“broadly in line with our own”.

She said:

“we will come to our own conclusions, which we will share with our American allies.”

It would be interesting to know what conclusions the Government came to and how they were passed on to the United States Administration, for the fact is that Ministers welcomed not only the Baker-Hamilton report, but the different strategy announced by President Bush earlier this month—even though it differed markedly from the Baker-Hamilton approach.

As a firm advocate of the transatlantic alliance, I say to the Foreign Secretary that saying we approve of one thing when thinking in Washington is going one way in December, or we think it is, and then saying that we approve of something quite different when the thinking in Washington changes in January, does no favours for the transatlantic relationship because it gives the impression that we will say yes to anything the White House wants to do.

I fully concur with the sentiments my right hon. Friend has expressed about the inability of this Government to engage positively with our American ally, but where is the consistency in supporting Iranian engagement in the stabilisation of Afghanistan and in refusing to engage with Iran in the stabilisation of Iraq? Is there not an inconsistency in that position?

My hon. Friend must bear in mind the Iranian attitude to efforts to engage with it. I will come to that in a moment. On that matter, I think that there will be a bit more agreement with the Government than on the things that I have just mentioned. If he will forgive me, I will come to Iran in a moment.

Can the right hon. Gentleman clarify for the record what his attitude is to President Bush's proposal to increase American troops—the “troops surge”?

That is the very point that I am coming to. We should be clear that there are many things to welcome in the President’s plan, including fresh attempts to speed up economic reconstruction, an unspecified increase in the training of the Iraqi army and great pressure on the Iraqi leaders to achieve the national reconciliation on which everything else depends. To try to achieve those things is right and is far superior to a policy of simply abandoning the Iraqi people to their fate, but it is also true that certain important things are missing from that strategy that were recommended in the Baker-Hamilton report, including the creation of an international support group, direct talks without pre-conditions with Syria, the provision of more resources to Afghanistan and direct talks with Moqtada al-Sadr. Very little attention has been given to the immense problem of 50,000 people a month fleeing Iraq, which can create a looming refugee and political crisis in neighbouring states such as Jordan. Those things are missing from that plan.

Are we not justified, given that previous attempts to flood Baghdad with larger numbers of troops have not achieved their objectives, to be somewhat sceptical about the deployment of 20,000 additional US troops, however much we may hope, as I am sure we all do, that they will succeed? That is our attitude to the President's announcement.

Is it not the case that British and US strategy in Iraq is not easily separated? The Secretary of State for Defence said on 11 January to the Select Committee on Defence:

“if you disturb the Shia in the Shia Sadr City in Baghdad will the Shia in the Shia flats in Basra rise up in arms? We are well aware of that possibility”—

yet the current plan, it seems, is for us to withdraw from Basra while the Iraqi and American forces go into Sadr city. The House is therefore entitled to know whether UK and US military plans are still being closely co-ordinated. Would not it be better to have a robust exchange of views with the US Administration and then implement an agreed strategy, rather than fail to have such an exchange and then implement different ones? An example is the all important training of larger Iraqi forces. As that is now an important part of the American plan, albeit on a scale perhaps not big enough, is there to be any British involvement or contribution to that, supporting that vital objective?

The Government appear to have had very little influence over some of the recent decisions in Washington. We would like to know from the Minister, when he winds up, what they are going to do to recover that influence and what they are going to do to keep alive some of the proposals in the Baker-Hamilton report that have not yet been adopted, but may become even more advisable in the months ahead.

That brings us naturally to the question of how to deal with Iran and Syria, often spoken of in the same breath but, of course, quite different countries in different strategic situations. I think that we are all in favour of engagement with Iran on the right terms, and the former Foreign Secretary, now Leader of the House, made strenuous efforts to engage with the Iranian Government. So far, those efforts have been rewarded with Iran's flagrant defiance of the UN Security Council and breach of the non-proliferation treaty, with every appearance that its Government are bent on a nuclear fuel and nuclear weapons programme.

It has surely been right for Britain, the other permanent members of the Security Council and Germany to make a generous offer to Iran about assisting with the development of civil nuclear power. That offer, so far, has been spurned. On 23 December, the UN Security Council once again gave Iran a deadline to suspend all of its enrichment-related and reprocessing activities. Is it not now vital, while maintaining the “incremental and proportionate approach” called for by EU Foreign Ministers this week, to present an increasing number of usable sticks as well as to hold out the appealing carrot to Iran? Like the Government, we do not advocate military action against Iran, although like them we think that it would be unwise at this stage to rule anything out, but there are signs of division in Iranian politics about the best way for them to react, and now is surely the time to maximise the peaceful pressure on Iran to begin constructive dialogue.

The right hon. Gentleman will be aware of the pressure on the Baha’i community in Iran. He will also know that, literally, lives are at stake on account of the hard-line approach that Iran has taken towards the Baha’is. Does he agree, therefore, that we are talking about a matter of life and death and that the best thing that the Foreign Office and the UK could do would be to provide a powerful rationale for Iran to take seriously the rights of those ethnic minority groups, including the Baha’is, who face the death penalty over crimes they have not committed?

The hon. Gentleman makes a strong point about human rights in Iran, and the Foreign Secretary made strong points about that in her speech. I think that we will all agree with him about that, but overriding the whole problem with Iran is the need to deal with its nuclear programme. That has to be absolutely top of the agenda, of course, but with human rights very strongly part of our agenda with Iran as well.

This week's agreement by EU Foreign Ministers, implementing the UN resolution and preventing Iranian nationals from studying proliferation-sensitive subjects in the EU, falls short of what is necessary. Surely there is a strong case for the EU to act with the United States in applying more extensive travel restrictions and, above all, financial restrictions, which could have a more serious effect on the Iranian Government's ability to do business.

It was rumoured in advance of Tuesday's meeting of EU Foreign Ministers that some financial measures would be agreed, yet none emerged from the meeting. We would like to know whether the Government failed to advocate such measures—financial sanctions against Iran—or whether they were rejected by other EU states. To fail to show strength now, along with a readiness to talk, when that strength might actually have an effect, would be a very serious failure of foreign policy. Unless Iranian plans are knocked off course, the consequences within a few years will be the spread of nuclear weapons programmes to other nations in the middle east. We would live with the consequences of it for generations to come.

I hope that I can help the right hon. Gentleman. The Foreign Ministers meeting agreed that the criteria identified by the United Nations should indeed be assessed against the position of organisations and of individuals to see what further steps could be taken. Officials have been sent away to work on those steps, so a decision in principle was taken to move forward in exactly the way and for exactly the reasons that the right hon. Gentleman is identifying. Detailed work on that will continue and I hope that it will come back to the next Foreign Affairs Council in February.

We hope that that bears fruit, although I am referring to measures that go beyond the measures agreed at the UN Security Council. I am referring to the European Union, alongside the United States, taking measures that go beyond that. [Interruption.] I think that the Foreign Secretary is indicating some assent to that. She will have the strong support of the Opposition if the Government are able to secure those measures. Otherwise, the non-proliferation treaty, a fundamental pillar of a relatively peaceful world in recent decades, will lie broken and ruined. It is time for EU nations to do more.

My right hon. Friend will recall that the Iranians seized some of our service personnel in the Shatt al-Arab. Does he share my concern that the Iranian Government have so far still refused to return our military and radar equipment that they seized in the Shatt al-Arab?

My hon. Friend is right. He refers to yet another difficulty that has arisen in recent months with the Iranian Government. That is why we advocate that as well as being open to dialogue with Iran, we must increase the pressure on Iran to engage in constructive dialogue with the rest of the world.

The Iraqi Foreign Minister, Mr. Zebari, was quoted on the wires yesterday as welcoming the Iranian-Syrian initiative for a regional conference of Foreign Ministers and as saying that invitations will immediately be sent to Iraq’s other neighbouring countries, including Egypt. Does the right hon. Gentleman not see anything to welcome in what seems to be a constructive initiative?

Of course I welcome the Iraqi Government working with their neighbours. One of the advantages of setting up the international support group—or the international contact group as we described it before the Baker-Hamilton report was published—is that if a better dialogue develops with Syria and Iran they could be added to such a group. However, although we should be in favour of strong relations between Iraq and its neighbours, we must not lose sight of the immense difficulties that there will be for the world if the Iranian nuclear programme goes unchecked.

The case of Syria is parallel but different. There has clearly, and rightly, been a recent effort by the Government to explore constructive engagement with Syria, but such efforts are unlikely to work without the full support of the United States, and it is not clear that that has been forthcoming. Syria has much to gain from settling its differences with Israel and with the west in general, and the world has much to gain from Syria playing a more constructive part in the international community. There are rumours of useful back-channel diplomacy between Israel and Syria—would it not be a mistake of historic magnitude if the United States were to prevent or dissuade Israel from following up those talks as constructively as possible? I hope that the Minister can explain in his winding-up speech what the up-to-date position is with regard to contacts with Syria and what support is being received from the United States on this issue.

On wider middle east issues, there will be much agreement in all parts of the House on what we wish to happen. The legitimate Government of Lebanon deserve support against the attempts to overthrow them. Hezbollah’s manoeuvres helped to distract attention from the total failure to enforce United Nations resolutions requiring the disarmament of militias in south Lebanon, and it has emerged stronger from the war of last August, as was widely predicted.

We also all want the limited signs of hope in the middle east peace process to turn into more substantial progress once again. The Prime Minister toured the region before Christmas, but little has been said about what was discovered or whether anything was achieved. There are tiny signs of hope—the international community has maintained its support for President Abbas and maintained pressure on Hamas to foreswear violence and recognise Israel. A ceasefire has been implemented in Gaza. The Israelis have transferred £100 million of taxes to the office of the Palestinian President. We support the Government’s involvement in the continuing operations to deliver assistance to the Palestinian people, and we would welcome an assessment from them of the impact that that has made and of plans to extend it.

Nevertheless, formidable obstacles remain to be overcome before there can be any real progress on resuming the road map towards peace. Taking in the entire region, with all its conflicts or threats of them, the situation across the middle east represents one of the most alarming combinations of international events since the second world war. There is deep anxiety among some of the Gulf states that Shi’a-Sunni conflict could spread beyond Iraq, and that nuclear weapons could spread beyond Iran, and there is some desperation to see progress in Israeli-Palestinian talks.

Whatever happens in the coming months, the politics of the middle east are likely to be a central preoccupation in the framing of British foreign and defence policy for years, or decades, to come. In the light of that, is it not time to stand back and take a wider strategic view? British influence in the middle east is patchy, and our efforts to maintain it have been patchy, too. A few days before Christmas, the Prime Minister visited the United Arab Emirates for the first time, and rightly agreed to regular security talks between our countries. It is important that that is not an isolated initiative. Should there not be, across parties and pursued over the long term, a major drive by the United Kingdom to elevate our economic, cultural, parliamentary and diplomatic links with many of the countries of the Gulf—and, indeed, with countries in north Africa?

We are not engaged in a clash of civilisations, and it is vital that we deepen our friendships with many Muslim nations. Their enthusiasm to reciprocate is undoubted. The best hope for long-term stability is for there to be a deepening of contact between the middle east and the wider west. Fewer mistakes would have been made in Iraq if an understanding of local society had been present in Washington—and possibly London. It must be right to make the addressing of this issue a major theme of British foreign policy, and it must be right to do so now.

Order. I remind Members that Mr. Speaker has placed a 10-minute limit on Back-Bench speeches, which operates from now.

I agree very much with the concluding remarks of the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague). We are facing a fundamental crisis. As King Abdullah of Jordan told Members of both Houses in November, we are facing three concentric threats at the same time. However, although he referred to three—Iraq, Lebanon and the Israel-Palestine dispute—we now have the situation in Somalia, too, which is also potentially explosive and could have knock-on consequences in the entire region and the whole of Africa.

Our country should do far more internationally. I hope that when the Minister replies to the debate he will be able to say that the Foreign Office has looked at the Foreign Affairs Committee recommendation that extra money should be given to the BBC World Service Arabic television service that is due to open in the autumn of this year. Although it will cost £19 million, it will be able to operate for only 12 hours a day; but the Committee has pointed out that for a mere additional £6 million it would be able to broadcast 24 hours a day to the Arabic and middle eastern regions. That channel is a vital tool for communicating to that region good news and stories that give a balanced perspective. At present, the region relies on the very well funded al-Jazeera, which is subsidised by the Government of Qatar. It is able to broadcast in that region, and there are also some other channels, but the BBC World Service Arabic television service is vital to get diversity and pluralism, and a wider debate than is currently available. I hope that the Government will respond positively to that request.

Let me turn to the situation in Iraq. As someone who voted for the invasion in 2003, and who spent many years supporting the Iraqi people’s struggle for democracy and pluralism, and who has many Kurdish friends—some still in Iraq, some outside it, and some in our country—I have to say that things have not turned out the way that I had expected. [Interruption.] It is all very well for Members to laugh, but the fact is that my Kurdish friends told me—and they were right—that they were campaigning, as I was with them for 25 years, against the crimes of Saddam. We were prepared to fight and campaign very hard for pluralism and democracy. What we all underestimated was that, because of the nature of the Saddamite regime, there was a complete removal of any sense of respect for other groups in that society.

What we face today is not just the consequence of the failings of the current Iraqi politicians or the crass mistakes of the coalition provisional authority—Paul Bremer and the Administration in 2003 and 2004—but is also the consequence of Ba’athism and its apologists. Many of those who are so critical today of the situation in Iraq—including people who were members of the 1980s Governments who supported Saddam when he invaded Iran—must also bear responsibility for the current situation.

I am confused by what the hon. Gentleman just said. When the Prime Minister used to speak on this subject in the House he made it explicit that Saddam Hussein could stay in power, and that he was happy to sanction that, if Saddam complied with the United Nations resolution. So removing Saddam Hussein was not the reason why Britain went to war, and we should not be using it retrospectively to make a case for a failed Government policy.

Fortunately for the hon. Gentleman, I am not the Prime Minister. I am explaining my reason for voting as I did, which was my belief in supporting the Iraqi democrats, the Iraqi left and the Iraqi Kurds and Shi’as, who had suffered under the oppression of Saddam. That was my view then and it remains my view now. Those of us who took that position then faced a choice. There was an historic opportunity to rid the Iraqis of the person who had been their oppressor for all those years. Had we taken the opposite view, could our consciences have been clear of the feeling that we had betrayed our friends? Many of us had that dilemma, which I shall discuss.

This debate is all about learning lessons. We have had the memoirs of Paul Bremer of the coalition provisional authority, but unfortunately the British Government have blocked publication of the memoirs of our man in Baghdad, Sir Jeremy Greenstock. Would it not be helpful if the Government lifted that block and we heard what Sir Jeremy had to say?

My hon. Friend tempts me into an area that would take a long time to deal with. I refer him to the evidence session before the Foreign Affairs Select Committee a few weeks ago, at which Sir Jeremy Greenstock gave us his views. If my hon. Friend reads the transcript, he will get some more information.

The essence of the issue is whether we take the view espoused by those who hold the neo-conservative view in the United States—such as Robert Kagan and the American Enterprise Institute—or an “ethical realist” view, to use a current phrase, of how countries should behave in an international context. The establishment in the last few weeks of the Iraq study group provided an opportunity. At last, there was perhaps the chance to move away from the malign influence of the legacy of Donald Rumsfeld and past events, and toward a more realistic view of, and approach to, engaging with Iraq’s neighbours. Indeed, the shadow Foreign Secretary referred to some of the recommendations in that group’s report.

Such a view is, as I understood it, very close to the position of the British Government, of the Conservative, Liberal Democrat and Labour parties, and of the broad body of international opinion. President Bush implied that he would go down that route. He appointed Robert Gates, who had been a member of the Iraqi study group, as the successor to Rumsfeld. However, although the US Administration have made cursory mention of the group, the essence of their position today is rejection of all the essential details of the group’s most important recommendations.

That presents us all with a fundamental dilemma. Will a surge of 22,000 additional troops, as President Bush seems seriously to believe, shift the balance significantly, or will the Americans have to come up with a new strategy in six to eight months’ time? It is extremely doubtful that the current American strategy will work—and if it does not, we will have wasted several months in which alternative approaches could have been taken. Of co