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Commons Chamber

Volume 490: debated on Wednesday 25 March 2009

House of Commons

Wednesday 25 March 2009

The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock

Prayers

[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions

International Development

The Secretary of State was asked—

Guyana

1. What work his Department is undertaking with the Government of Guyana to promote the preservation of the rain forest in that country. (266024)

We regularly discuss forest protection with the Guyanese. We are working directly with the Government of Guyana, and through the World Bank, to help Guyana to conserve its rain forests. We expect a national consultation on that work to begin in Guyana next month.

Will the Government consider proposing at the Copenhagen climate summit at the end of the year—as has been suggested in Guyana—international oversight of the Guyanese rain forest, so that it can become an important carbon sink and present a potential low-carbon investment opportunity?

The short answer to the hon. Gentleman’s question is yes, but, if I may, I shall give him a slightly longer answer. We need to get right the international oversight and the whole question of deforestation and forest degradation. The hon. Gentleman will know that a number of other rain forests are hugely important internationally, and we need to think about how best we can work with countries. We are giving resources not only directly to the Guyanese but to a number of other countries, to help them to deal with exactly this issue.

Does my hon. Friend recall that in January, in a reply to a question from me, his Department said that some of its officials would be meeting their opposite numbers in Guyana? Was that meeting fruitful, and has it been followed up? The question is all the more important because, as he will know, the loggers are not the easiest people with whom to deal.

My right hon. Friend is right in saying that the loggers, particularly the illegal loggers, are very difficult to deal with. We have been working for some time, not only in Guyana but in a number of other developing countries, to help Governments to tackle illegal logging. As my right hon. Friend says, we have been meeting the Guyanese regularly, and we are helping them to develop a national strategy to manage their rain forest. As I said to the hon. Member for Croydon, Central (Mr. Pelling), a national consultation on those measures will begin shortly in Guyana.

In 2005, floods caused economic damage to 60 per cent. of Guyana’s GDP as a result of changing weather patterns. What is being done to help the poorest developing countries to adapt to the effect of changing weather patterns and climate change?

We are working with a range of developing countries, including Guyana. The Department is not only providing resources directly through its bilateral budgets but is working closely with international organisations such as the World Bank. We are providing a number of developing countries with staff with expertise who will be able to help them to develop their own strategies for tackling climate change.

As the Minister knows, the great majority of the world’s remaining rain forests are within the boundaries of developing countries. We have heard about the international supervision that may emerge in Guyana. What is the potential for a carry-over to other nations? I am thinking not least of the difficulties that can be caused by bribery, corruption and instability in the regimes of some of the countries where rain forests are located.

My hon. Friend makes a key point, as did my right hon. Friend the Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill (Mr. Clarke) before him. If we are to tackle the problem of deforestation, we must work with those countries to improve forest governance. We have already been working with the forest Ministries of a number of developing countries, and with other parts of their Governments, to tackle corruption and improve the quality of governance. I am sure that my hon. Friend will be interested to learn that from 1 April we shall be strengthening still further our public procurement guidelines on the use of timber from rain forests in developing countries more generally.

The Minister has described the support that his Department is giving to various areas, including Guyana. The Norwegian Government have just provided $1 million for the land regularisation scheme in Brazil, which is another area of concern. Does the Minister support that scheme, and is the Department funding it as well?

We are not funding it directly as yet, but we are working with the Brazilian national bank, which is looking into the issue. The Brazilians have dramatically stepped up their work to tackle deforestation, and we have been working with a number of players, including the national bank, to support that work. The hon. Gentleman might recall from previous discussions that money is available from the climate investment funds at the World Bank. When it comes on line, Brazil may well wish to apply for direct help of that kind.

HIV/AIDS

2. What recent discussions he has had with his international counterparts on global efforts to tackle HIV/AIDS. (266025)

DFID Ministers and officials maintain an extensive dialogue with key international partners. I have recently discussed AIDS issues with senior figures at the global fund, the World Health Organisation, the UN Population Fund and the World Bank, and with Ministers during recent country visits to Nigeria, South Africa and Uganda.

I thank the Minister for his reply. Thanks to the co-operation of branded pharmaceutical companies, generic competition in HIV drugs has reduced first-line drug prices for patient treatment from more than $1,000 a year to less than $100. As well as persuading his other Government counterparts to take HIV seriously, what more can the Minister do to persuade more companies to adopt an enlightened, co-operative approach and help reduce prices for second-line HIV drugs, which are so desperately needed as they do save lives, but which remain very expensive?

My hon. Friend raises an important issue. Our aim is to reduce the cost of HIV/AIDS drugs by £50 million a year over the next few years. Only this week, I wrote to UNITAID asking it to set out a timetable for the launch of a patent pool for HIV medicines. I welcome GlaxoSmithKline’s recent commitment to explore the potential for patent pools to make the development of new medicines for neglected tropical diseases easier, and I believe the time has now come for other pharmacological companies to respond positively to this initiative and join forces so that we can make the contribution to driving down prices and improving access to HIV/AIDS drugs.

Antiretroviral drugs are rightly being made more affordable and generally more available, thanks to the support of the United Kingdom, the United States of America and organisations such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Education is vital, and we should be focusing some of our attention on prevention. What discussions has the Minister held with his opposite numbers about ensuring that education is made available so that the message about how people can avoid getting HIV in the first place can be communicated, and particularly about trucking routes in some countries, such as India, and in Africa?

The hon. Gentleman makes a very important point. The new American Administration’s recent announcement about removing some of the ideological and philosophical barriers that prevented us from engaging internationally on prevention and education presents an opportunity for the world community to come together and make a greater impact. We have announced an unprecedented commitment of £1 billion for the global fund and £6 billion to strengthen health systems, but the hon. Gentleman is right to say that we must look innovatively and imaginatively—perhaps through community leaders, faith group networks, informal networks and peer influence—at educating populations in every country. We have to use all the tools at our disposal to ensure that we get across the strongest conceivable message about HIV/AIDS. I also believe that the South Africans’ change in policy will significantly help us in Africa.

My hon. Friend knows that HIV/AIDS particularly affects women and children in the poorest countries. What are he and the Government doing to work with other countries to make sure that at a time when the economic situation is giving such difficulty, particularly to the poorest countries, the international community none the less keeps up its commitment to supporting the poorest in tackling such tragic diseases as HIV and AIDS?

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right, and I pay tribute to the tremendous work she has done over many years on these issues. The Prime Minister has made it absolutely clear that this is not the moment for the world to retreat from its commitment to the developing world, such as through his advocacy through the World Bank of a vulnerability fund to ensure we protect the most vulnerable at a time when the recession will hit them the hardest, and the reform of international institutions to make sure they are far more responsive to the needs of the developing world, and our hosting last week in London of a meeting of senior African leaders to ensure that they have a strong and clear voice in the forthcoming G20 summit. It is important that as we fix the international economic system we make sure that that fixing advantages, rather than disadvantages, the developing world.

The Minister, to his credit, is known for his outspokenness. Will he make sure that his international counterparts recognise that confronting the dreadful disease that is HIV/AIDS is not just about access to drugs and condoms, important though those things are? If we are to tackle this disease, we must confront, head-on, the true cause: men behaving in a sexually promiscuous manner in too many countries throughout Africa and elsewhere. Will he impress upon his counterparts the fact that issues of public awareness and education are vital if we are to get under the skin of this disease?

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said that I was not outspoken any longer—I rarely disagree with him, and I am not going to start now.

The hon. Gentleman rightly raises the important issue of the role of women in society, and highlights the fact that the way in which men in many developing countries see relationships is a major part of the problem. In that sense, we need strong political leadership to make clear the appropriate role of women in society and to empower women in local communities. We must make it clear that we give them the opportunity to fight for their rights. We also need a very clear zero-tolerance approach to violence against women to be enshrined in developing countries’ legislation.

Organisations such as Concern Worldwide stress the need for conditional linkages between the issues of HIV/AIDS, and nutrition and food security. Will the Government do more to support efforts to integrate HIV prevention, mitigation, care and treatment with programmes dealing with livelihood, nutrition and food security?

The hon. Gentleman makes a very important point; we need to make a link between rural communities, agricultural development, food security and diseases. We want increasingly, at a local level, to integrate our responses, bringing together health, education and food security. The aim is to operate in an integrated way, rather than in silos.

The global downturn makes health care in the least developed nations increasingly problematic. Will the Minister reassure the House that the UK Government will press ahead with prevention programmes and will not be deflected either by the falling value of the pound or the sincerely held but mistaken views of others?

The Prime Minister has made it absolutely clear that our commitment in respect of 0.7 per cent. of gross national income by 2013 remains as strong as ever, so there will be no retreating from our commitments. We are the second-largest bilateral donor in terms of health systems and the attack on diseases in the world—as I said in my answer to my right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Durham (Hilary Armstrong), this Government will not retreat from our commitments. More importantly, we will provide leadership on occasions such as meetings of the G20 and the G8 to make sure that other international leaders do not walk away from the commitments that they have made, largely as a result of leadership shown by our Prime Minister and this country.

Gaza (Reconstruction)

3. If he will take steps to ensure that funding under pledges for reconstruction in Gaza made at the Egyptian donor conference will not be channelled through Hamas. (266026)

5. To which programmes his Department plans to allocate the £30 million announced on 1 March 2009 for the reconstruction of Gaza; and if he will make a statement. (266028)

Participants in the Sharm el Sheikh conference expressed their intention to deliver reconstruction aid to Gaza through existing international and regional financing mechanisms. The £30 million that I announced will be spent through those mechanisms and through non-governmental organisations that are not affiliated with Hamas and have robust monitoring systems. Priority programmes will include the repair of homes and schools, the clearance of unexploded ordnance and the short-term creation of jobs.

I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer, and I commend the British Government’s commitment to getting aid into Gaza to support the urgent reconstruction. Given that Hamas recently stole United Nations aid and has allowed unexploded weapons under its guard to go missing, does he agree that it is now important to get an increased Palestinian Authority presence in Gaza to monitor the crossings and to free up the aid so that it gets to ordinary Palestinians, who desperately and urgently need that help?

My hon. Friend raises a number of different points. When I was in Gaza recently, I took the opportunity to discuss with John Ging, the head of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency there, concerns about the misappropriation of any aid resources. He was able to assure me that at the point at which we met the supplies were getting through, and that we had robust monitoring mechanisms and continue to do so. On the Palestinian Authority, we of course welcome the fact that, under the auspices of the Egyptian Government, reconciliation talks are under way. On the specific issue that my hon. Friend raises about authority at the border posts, it is, of course, the European Union’s position that we have offered assistance through the EU border assistance mission. We hope that we will be able to find a way through by a combination of the political reconciliation talks that are under way and maintaining in the minds of the international community the continuing importance of the Palestinian Authority.

I welcome the Secretary of State’s announcement about additional aid for Gaza, but what steps can he take to ensure that dual-use materials such as metal pipes do not fall into the hands of militants to be converted into weapons, but are used to improve the lives of the people of Gaza?

There is of course a long-established and trusted list of dual-use materials. It is a matter of great regret, therefore, that that has not been the basis on which the Israeli Government have made judgments in recent weeks, when there have been long disputes about whether rice should be allowed into Gaza, although pasta is allowed in, or about whether paper should be allowed in. That gives a sense of the scale of the challenge that the international community continues to face. We have been clear and unequivocal that we do not want the misappropriation of any materials and in our condemnation of the continued rocket attacks on the Israeli population, but we have been equally robust in saying that there needs to be full and unfettered access for those items that constitute humanitarian provision.

I am slightly surprised to hear the Secretary of State say that when he was in Gaza the head of UNRWA, John Ging, said that supplies were getting through, because that is not what he said to me when I was in Gaza recently, nor what he said to a cross-party group in this very place yesterday afternoon. He did say that UNRWA is unable to go about its business in Gaza because of a lack of armoured vehicles. He also said that UNRWA was chronically underfunded. Given that this country pledged £47 million at the outset of the crisis—very little of which has got into Gaza—will the Secretary of State now show some leadership by talking to the Israelis to insist that UNRWA armoured vehicles get through to Gaza?

The hon. Gentleman is labouring under a misapprehension following my previous answer. The point that I was making about John Ging was that he was clear that the aid that he was supervising was getting through to the people of Gaza who required it and was not being misappropriated by Hamas. Consistent with the position that the British Government have taken, John Ging—speaking on behalf of UNRWA—has very deep concerns about the range of items being allowed through the crossings and into Gaza.

When I visited Gaza, I took the opportunity to meet Isaac Herzog, the Israeli Social Affairs Minister, and press directly the case about the armoured vehicles and the wide range of items that are not being allowed to enter Gaza. Only as recently as yesterday, those efforts were reinforced by one of my colleague Ministers who made the point again directly to Isaac Herzog. Of course, a new coalition is emerging in Israeli politics. Let us hope that the dialogue that we have begun in recent weeks—although it has not achieved what we would all wish to see—makes more progress in the weeks ahead than it has done so far.

It is essential, of course, that every assistance possible be given to the innocent people in Gaza, but can the Secretary of State assure people in the United Kingdom that that assistance will not be misappropriated by those who caused the problems in Gaza in the first instance?

I have just explained that we use tried and tested mechanisms that provide robust supervision. Oxfam, an organisation with which the hon. Gentleman will be familiar, now distributes drinking water by water tanker to up to 60,000 people every day in the worst-affected parts of Gaza. Since 27 December and the outbreak of the conflict, the World Food Programme has distributed two months of rations to more than 296,000 people in Gaza, and UNRWA, the organisation led by John Ging, is reaching up to 1 million beneficiaries with food assistance. Those are practical examples of the difference that the generosity of the British people and others in the international community is now making to the lives of ordinary Gazans.

My right hon. Friend personally, and this Government, have a magnificent record in assisting Gaza, but is it not lamentable that the money that he provides simply goes to rectify the wanton devastation inflicted savagely by Israeli forces in Gaza? Does he agree that the real obstacle to reconstructing Gaza is not Hamas, loathsome though it is, but what is about to become the most extremist Government in Israeli history?

We have been unequivocal in our condemnation of the rocket attacks that have continued from Gaza into the Israeli population, but we have been equally clear that the Government of Israel have heavy responsibilities. One of the most dispiriting aspects of my visit to Gaza was sitting with a group of Palestinian business people who told me of their investments in factories in Gaza in recent years—at a cost of being called quislings by the Hamas authorities because they were willing to trade with Israel—and of how, during the final hours of the conflict, ahead of the unilateral declaration of the ceasefire, they watched the devastation of the industrial region of Gaza when there was no apparent activity from Hamas forces in that part of the territory. There is a huge amount of work to be done and it is vital that the humanitarian effort continues, but, beyond the humanitarian effort, it is critical that a comprehensive middle east peace plan emerges in the weeks ahead. I hope and trust that the new Israeli Government under formation at the moment will take that forward.

The Secretary of State will be aware of growing concerns in the NGO community about the apparent contradiction between EU and UK law on whether NGOs can continue to support public officials such as teachers and nurses. Will the Secretary of State offer some clarity and confirm that British NGOs will be able to continue to provide vital services in Gaza without the fear of prosecution under EU law?

The position that the British Government have adopted for some time has not changed. We urge the agencies involved to maintain the greatest possible distance from Hamas. We recognise that there might be circumstances in which there is proximity within Gaza, given Hamas’s present role, but none the less we are clear that those mechanisms that I have spoken of already need to be upheld. We need to be able to offer assurances to the British people that the aid to which they have generously contributed is not being misused and misappropriated.

Will the Secretary of State bear in mind in these exchanges that the appalling devastation in Gaza was brought about by Israel? More evidence has come to light in the past few days that Israel has in fact committed war crimes in Gaza—crimes against humanity. Although I have no time for Hamas at all—obviously not—the fact remains that far more should be done by the international community first and foremost to help the people of Gaza and secondly to try to ensure that those who have committed war crimes are brought to justice.

I hope that my answers today have given some comfort to my hon. Friend that we are taking decisive action in providing the humanitarian support for which I know there is widespread support on both sides of the House. We are extremely concerned by the reports of killings of innocent civilians during Operation Cast Lead. The Israeli Government are carrying out an investigation into the allegations, led by Defence Minister Ehud Barak, and he has stated that the findings will be examined seriously. It is important that these investigations are carried out, not least given the severity and seriousness of the charges that are being levelled.

Two months on from the end of the conflict, as hon. Members have pointed out, the humanitarian situation in Gaza remains absolutely desperate. We all accept that we must take every measure to avoid aid being diverted by Hamas to other ends, but the Secretary of State himself has expressed concerns about the Israeli Government, who are allowing through only about a fifth of the humanitarian assistance that the NGOs and others say they need. Is it not time that the Secretary of State spelled out what steps the Israelis must take to let that assistance in and what will happen if they do not do that? For the sake of the NGOs, will he spell out the difference between legitimate co-ordination with officials in Gaza and illegitimate engagement with Hamas?

I have of course met the NGOs that are working in Gaza. I reiterate at the Dispatch Box today that if they have concerns they can come and talk to us directly in the Department. In relation to the point on the Israelis, the hon. Gentleman is right to recognise that we continue to have deep concerns about the level of access that is being denied—in terms not simply of the quantity of aid, but of the range of products that are being allowed in—and about international aid workers’ inability, in certain circumstances, to enter Gaza to offer their expertise in the light of the continuing humanitarian situation. That is why I have raised that issue with the Israeli Government and why, only yesterday, we once again raised it with Isaac Herzog, the Social Affairs Minister.

St. Helena

We expect the consultation to start in April and take 16 weeks. The consultation document will set out details of the timetable and of how people can participate. We will run the exercise in line with the Government’s code of conduct for holding public consultations.

As my hon. Friend is aware, Swindon has the largest St. Helena community outside London. What hope can he give my constituents, who are British citizens, that their families will not be left stranded and that the consultation will not delay the introduction of 21st century transport links for that very remote island?

My hon. Friend is always a keen advocate for her constituents, especially the Saints in Swindon. I reassure her that the consultation document, when it is produced, will make it absolutely clear that we remain fully committed to providing access to St. Helena.

Is the Minister aware of the view across the House that the Government are guilty of a breach of faith and of dithering in their handling of this matter? What will the new consultation tell him that he does not already know from the past nine years of this process?

I do not recognise the circumstances that the hon. Gentleman describes. I am not going to prejudge the outcome of the consultation exercise, but I look forward to reading his contribution—and perhaps that of his constituents on the Falcon Lodge estate in Sutton Coldfield, for instance—to see whether they think that it is right, in the current economic circumstances, to spend the amount of money that is being considered on an airport for St. Helena.

Does the Minister not understand that Ministers’ handling of this matter has been shameful, as the hon. Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Meg Munn), the respected former Foreign Office Minister, has eloquently explained? The people of St. Helena are British citizens, so do we not have a duty to them to resolve this issue? Is not it time that he and his colleagues got a grip?

At a time of global downturn, we are talking about 50 million people around the world being unemployed. An extra 90 million people will earn less than $1.25 a day, and it is expected that an extra 3 million children will die as a result of the global downturn. We have to take all those circumstances into account when making a decision about spending the amount of money that we are talking about on an airport for St. Helena.

Prime Minister

The Prime Minister was asked—

Engagements

I have been asked to reply. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister is today in New York, meeting UN Secretary-General Ban ki-Moon as part of a range of meetings to discuss the world economy, prior to the G20 meeting in London.

When I met my constituents in Highway ward on Saturday, they told me that the single biggest issue was their rising fear of burglary. Measures such as the security fund that help people to make their homes more secure are very important and necessary. Will my right hon. and learned Friend give me an assurance that the Government will do all they can, while working closely with the police, to combat that growing fear?

The Home Secretary can give that assurance, as do I. Against the background of concern about burglary, I know that my right hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, North (Joan Ryan) will reassure her constituents that there are more police on the beat and tougher penalties against those who are caught and prosecuted. I know that she supports police community support officers, and she can reassure her constituents that burglary across London has fallen by half.

Three weeks ago, I asked the right hon. and learned Lady about the Government’s failure to implement the working capital scheme, which is meant to provide loan guarantees to help businesses. She said then that the scheme was being finalised. The scheme has received state-aid clearance from the EU, and the Government said that it would be up and running from 1 March. Is it not unacceptable that it is still not up and running, and that still no loans have been guaranteed under it?

As the right hon. Gentleman said, we now have state-aid approval for that working capital scheme, and I can tell the House that, under the agreement with Lloyds and the Royal Bank of Scotland, £5 billion will now be released to business. The tax payment deferrals, which give businesses direct cash help through deferring their tax payments, have meant help for 93 businesses all around the country—[Interruption.]

Ms Harman: If the Opposition had their way, it would not even be 93 businesses, but under our programme it is 93,000 businesses. We are taking action to give direct support to businesses and to families, and to back up the economy in the face of an unprecedented global financial crisis.

More than 2 million people are now unemployed in this country, and thousands of businesses have gone under. The job recruitment scheme announced in January has been delayed until April. The mortgage support scheme is also not up and running. This is a matter of cross-party concern. The hon. Member for Coventry, North-West (Mr. Robinson)—he knows a lot about loan guarantees—said on the radio this morning:

“We have always been behind the game…As far as industry is concerned we don’t have those schemes working yet.”

Does the right hon. and learned Lady not agree with her hon. Friend, with all his Treasury experience, that the Government are still behind the game?

The right hon. Gentleman is wrong about the job recruitment scheme. We said that the extra help for people who have been unemployed for six months would come in from April this year and it is on target. There would be more unemployed if there were the cuts in capital that the Tories propose. It would be more difficult for the unemployed if there were cuts in jobcentres. The reality is that we are putting money into the economy, with a fiscal stimulus for money direct to businesses and to families, whereas the Opposition would take no action and make the recession worse and longer.

My party called for a national loan guarantee scheme all the way back in November and the Government have dithered about it ever since. They are all over the place. The Prime Minister is on his way to Chile. The Business Secretary has just arrived in Brazil. Should he not be implementing those schemes instead of unpacking his Speedos on a Latin American beach? Is it not time to get on with those things?

On the fiscal stimulus, yesterday the Governor of the Bank of England warned against another significant round of fiscal expansion when the deficit is already as big as it is. This morning, the gilt auction has apparently failed for the first time in many years. Was the Governor of the Bank of England not right to give that warning?

As far as the gilts are concerned, the head of the Debt Management Office has said it would be wrong to read anything into the result of one auction. He says that

“the amount of debt we are raising is sustainable.”

The Opposition’s proposal for a loan guarantee scheme would not have guaranteed anything to anyone because there was no money behind it. On the action we are taking in the face of an unprecedented global financial crisis, in November, in the pre-Budget report, we said we would have a fiscal stimulus to help with investment in housing, in transport and in apprenticeships. That is what the country needed. The country needed it and the Governor of the Bank of England backed it—only the Tories opposed it.

I now notice that the Government are too ashamed of the VAT cut to mention it in the list of what they did last November. Let us be absolutely clear about what the Governor of the Bank of England said yesterday:

“I think the fiscal position in the UK is not one where we could…engage in another significant round of fiscal expansion.”

For a Governor of the Bank of England to speak in that way, ahead of a Budget, is exceptional and extraordinary, especially when the Prime Minister was in the very act of proclaiming a fiscal stimulus before the European Parliament. It is a defining moment in the debate in this country about how to deal with the recession. Today, the right hon. and learned Lady speaks for the whole Government and the Chancellor is sitting alongside her. Do they agree with the Governor of the Bank of England? Yes or no?

I agree with the right hon. Gentleman that it is a defining time, because whereas we take the necessary action, the Conservatives would do nothing. It is a defining time because this weekend, they decided to press ahead with their plans for tax cuts for just 3,000 millionaires. At the same time, they preach financial rectitude.

The right hon. Gentleman said that I had missed out the VAT cut; well, I am sorry, and I will rectify that. I will mention the VAT cut, which will put £275 into the budget of every family in this country. I will also mention the help for pensioners that started in January this year. I will mention the help with extra child tax credit. The big, defining dividing line is that we want to make sure that we give help to 22 million families with tax cuts, whereas the Conservatives’ priority is to give £200,000 each in tax cuts to just 3,000 millionaires.

The question was about the Governor of the Bank of England. I know that inheritance may preoccupy the niece of the Countess of Longford, but it is no good attacking our policy, which is to reward people who have saved hard and worked hard all their life, and which, when we announced it, the Government tried to copy. Let us be very clear what the Governor of the Bank of England said:

“I think the fiscal position in the UK is not one where we could…engage in another significant round of fiscal expansion”.

The question to the Leader of the House today is whether she agrees with the Governor of the Bank of England—yes or no?

The Budget will be on 22 April. The Governor of the Bank of England agreed with us when he said that our fiscal stimulus was “perfectly reasonable and appropriate”. When it comes to fiscal measures, how can the right hon. Gentleman justify £2 billion of public money being squandered on 3,000 of the richest people in this country? That is unfairness and irresponsibility.

The CBI said this week of the British economy that

“a further significant fiscal stimulus is unaffordable”.

The ITEM Club said that

“there is really very little room for manoeuvre”.

The chief executive of the Audit Commission said that we are facing an “Armageddon scenario” because of the “scale of indebtedness”. The Governor of the Bank of England said the words that I have now read out twice to the right hon. and learned Lady—that this country cannot afford another substantial, significant fiscal stimulus. May I give her, in my last question, a third opportunity to agree with the Governor of the Bank of England? Otherwise, the nation will rightly conclude that the Government are now in open disagreement with the Bank of England, and are no longer in control of either the public finances or the policies of this country. Yes or no—does she agree with him?

This country will rightly conclude that while the Tories say that they have changed their ways, they have not. I want to make it quite clear that while we are investing—we will continue to invest—they call for cuts. When our Prime Minister is working with world leaders, they drift off to Europe’s far right. While we are giving tax cuts to millions of people, they would give tax cuts only to millionaires. They have set out their stall: it is the millionaire’s manifesto.

Is my right hon. and learned Friend aware of the predictions of a serious increase in youth unemployment this summer? Does she therefore agree with the independent member of the Monetary Policy Committee and others, who think that there should be a strong fiscal stimulus specifically targeted at ensuring that young people can get jobs this summer?

The extra investment of £2 billion in our jobcentres will particularly help young people. We have made more investment in training, and a central part of the fiscal stimulus is more investment in apprenticeships. I fully support the points that my hon. Friend makes.

Yesterday we had a very British coup d’état when the Governor of the Bank of England sent his tanks down the Mall, effectively seized control of the British economy through his command of monetary policy, and put the Government under house arrest. If the Prime Minister still thinks it is worth his while returning from a sunny exile in south America, what freedom of manoeuvre do he and the Government have in respect of taxation and public spending?

I know the hon. Gentleman understands that it is important that we work internationally as well as taking action in this country. It is important that every Government in the world support their economy so world trade can get going again. I know that he agrees with that, so I do not know why he decries the international action that the Prime Minister is taking. With reference to the Bank of England, it was this Government who made the Bank of England independent as to its interest rates.

I think this discussion is about what the Government do at home, as well as what they do abroad. Would it not be sensible for the Government to concentrate now on taxing and spending more efficiently and fairly, to withdraw the pointless cut in value added tax, using the money to focus it on targeted investment in affordable housing and public transport, and to provide a tax cut for people on low pay, paid for—fully financed—by people who are very wealthy and who, under this Government, have enjoyed extraordinary tax reliefs, allowances and tax avoidance opportunities?

The VAT cut was one of a range of measures and it is only temporary, for one year. We agree with the hon. Gentleman about the importance of investing in housing and public transport. We agree with him, too, that when it comes to bringing the public finances back into balance, it must be done fairly. Those who can afford most should contribute most. That is why we propose a new top rate of tax of 45 per cent. on income over £150,000. I hope that he will support it, even if the Tories will give support only with tax cuts for millionaires.

MRSA and C. difficile rates are falling significantly at Nottingham University Hospitals NHS Trust, Derby Hospital NHS Foundation Trust and Ilkeston community hospital, all of which serve my constituents. Is this not down to the hard work of NHS professionals, coupled with the targeted investment put in by the Government? Will my right hon. and learned Friend take the opportunity to congratulate all involved?

I will. I know that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health has led that, and has led the NHS team in making that a target so that patients in hospital know that they can be safe. That is a result not only of the extra investment, but of the hard work from cleaners through to nurses, doctors and all the teams in the hospitals. I agree with my hon. Friend.

Q2. A new European Commission report shows that despite prohibition, the illegal drugs trade is thriving, creating what United Nations drugs director, Antonio Maria Costa, calls a “staggering” criminal market, destabilising health policies and entire countries. Will the Leader of the House convey my request to meet the Prime Minister to propose a comprehensive impact assessment of current drugs policy, so that we can start tackling this crisis in an evidence-based way? (266010)

I will pass on the hon. Gentleman’s request for a meeting with the Prime Minister, who I know will agree that we need to provide all the support we can to those who have become addicted to drugs, and crack down hard on the dealers and traffickers.

Is my right hon. and learned Friend aware of Conservative Barnet council’s scheme to cut entirely the warden service for its sheltered tenants? This is causing considerable fear and anxiety among—[Interruption.]

Order. The hon. Gentleman is allowed to be heard. [Hon. Members: “Reading.”] Order. Let me decide. If he is doing anything wrong, I will decide.

The Conservative council’s plan to cut the warden service is causing considerable fear and anxiety among many elderly and vulnerable people in my constituency, who rely on the wardens not just for safety, security and reassurance, but for the small things that make life worth living—

Order. The hon. Gentleman has been here long enough to know that a supplementary should not be read. Perhaps he could put the note down and ad lib.

Will my right hon. and learned Friend raise the matter with the leadership of Barnet council? Does she agree that it is a case of same old Tories, same old cuts?

That is why we will defend public investment and public services, and make sure that the economy can be put back on the path to growth so that we can protect people in this country, such as my hon. Friend’s older constituents.

Q3. Will the Leader of the House help save 225 jobs at Polytec Holden in Bromyard? The company makes components for car manufacturers, and the Royal Bank of Scotland, which has had £45 billion of taxpayers’ money, will not lend it money to tool up. Will the right hon. and learned Lady arrange a meeting between my constituents and the noble Lord Mandelson, so that we can co-ordinate funding from a state-owned bank to a state-sponsored car industry? (266011)

I will arrange a meeting between the hon. Gentleman and his constituents and the Business Secretary. We are determined to make sure that we help those who are working hard in important British industries such as the automotive industry.

President Obama’s economic fiscal stimulus package is worth $787 billion, and more than half that is being spent at state level. In contrast, in the UK the Labour Government, supported by the Conservatives, are cutting devolved public spending by £1 billion in Scotland, by £500 million in Wales and by more than £200 million in Northern Ireland. How can that be sensible or socially just?

We are not cutting investment in Scotland and Wales—far from it. But we are saying—and I am sure that the hon. Gentleman would agree with this—that at a time when public spending is tight, we need to make sure that every single penny of it is wisely spent.

Q4. Yesterday, the Government announced their national security strategy. After the 7/7 bombings, the then Prime Minister made it clear that his highest single priority was the deportation of foreign terror suspects from this country. Can the right hon. and learned Lady tell the House how many foreign terror suspects have been deported? (266012)

My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary has said that we have excluded 150, and we are absolutely clear that we will take action to deport those who are a threat to national security. I am sure that we are all in total agreement on that point.

Suppose that the Government were to seek advice from either side of the House about the gross unfairness of bunging a few rich people tax cuts while the majority saw tax increases; that is what would happen if the Tories’ inheritance tax proposals went ahead. Would my right hon. and learned Friend prefer the advice of the shadow Business Secretary before or after he was muzzled?

The shadow shadow Chancellor gave his right hon. Friends the opportunity to find their way out of the decision that they had made, and they unwisely chose to ignore it. What are people to make of a party that opposes tax cuts for 22 million people and, instead, chooses to squander £2 billion of scarce public money on the super-rich?

Q5. The Armed Forces Pay Review Body submitted its report to the Prime Minister on 29 January. Why should our personnel serving in the field still have no idea whether they will get any pay rise by Wednesday next week? Does the delay reflect more about the Government’s attitude towards the armed forces, or is it another example of dithering incompetence? (266013)

The Government have been unswerving, and rightly so, in our commitment to our armed forces. The Minister of State for Defence will open a full day’s debate on the armed services tomorrow, and I am sure that he will address that point.

President Obama has written an article today that says that trillions of dollars have been lost in the world economy, banks have stopped lending and tens of millions of people will lose their jobs. Will I get an undertaking that the Prime Minister will work with President Obama to ensure that the message goes out that people and their futures matter in the economy and that this Government will ensure that employment is at the top of the G20 agenda?

My right hon. Friend’s passion and commitment on this issue shows that he takes the view that we do—that the action that we are taking on the economy is to protect people who otherwise face the threat of losing their jobs or their homes. As for the fiscal stimulus that we have undertaken, this country needs it, and all other countries are now looking to do it: only the Tories oppose it.

Q6. Can the right hon. and learned Lady ask the Prime Minister to reassure my constituents that when he recently met the President of the United States, he picked up some tips about getting back ill-gotten bonuses from overpaid bankers? Can she set out for the House the start date for doing so, or, if not, at least the Prime Minister’s timetable for beginning to think about it, or if all else fails, his aspirations for a miracle? (266014)

The Prime Minister has made it absolutely clear that there should be no reward for failure and that he does not want banks taking risks with other people’s money. The Financial Services Authority, under Lord Turner, has issued a report on tightening up financial regulation and remuneration policy. We are working internationally on this as part of the G20 agenda. As far as Sir Fred Goodwin is concerned, UK Financial Investments Ltd. is on to it.

Does the right hon. and learned Lady understand that there is considerable anger in Northern Ireland today about the fact that a number of suspects being questioned in relation to the terrorist murders of two young soldiers in my constituency of South Antrim and of police officer Stephen Carroll have been released by order of the court because of technicalities? Will she and the Government assure my constituents that everything will be done to ensure that justice is done and that evil men are taken off the streets of Northern Ireland?

I can absolutely assure the hon. Gentleman that that is the situation. We want to ensure that those who have committed this atrocious crime are brought to justice. We support the police and the prosecuting authorities in their work, and we support the peace process.

Will my right hon. and learned Friend support the establishment of a national centre for asbestos-related diseases, which would be a virtual centre committed to finding better treatments and a cure?

We support the work to carry out research on finding the causes and cures of work-related diseases. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for the work that he has done in the House of Commons over many years to bring to the House’s attention the tragedy of people simply going to work and being made ill by their work. We have put £12 billion extra into our science budget, part of which is for research that will find the treatments and cures that he has asked for.

Q8. Now that the Information Commissioner has ruled that the Government have been wrong, on several counts, to refuse my request for a list of possible sites for the new Titan prisons, will they now abandon their policy of choosing sites without consulting local residents and publish that list of sites so that local people and stakeholders can have their say? Otherwise, all the rhetoric from the Prime Minister saying that he wants greater transparency in politics will be seen to be nothing more than hot air. (266016)

The Justice Secretary assures me that there will always be consultation when such developments are being considered. If the hon. Gentleman has a particular concern about his constituency, I am sure that he can meet one of the ministerial team to discuss it.

Wakefield metropolitan district council has set up an innovative mortgage assistance scheme which, in the first six months of its operation, has prevented 11 families from becoming homeless. Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that more councils should adopt that sort of scheme to show that local government is on people’s side during the recession rather than telling them that they are on their own?

It is very important that we do not leave people to sink or swim and do not say that the recession should take its course, and that we step in to help people who fear that the loss of their job or a fall in their income might cause the loss of their home. That is why we have put extra investment into the social security budget to enable people to claim help with their mortgage interest after 13 weeks instead of 39 weeks; it is estimated that that has already helped 10,000 people. I am glad to hear that my hon. Friend’s local council is working to that effect as well.

Q9. For every pound spent by Governments around the world on conflict prevention, about £2,000 is spent on military and defence budgets. Can the right hon. and learned Lady give any assurance to the parliamentarians from around the world meeting in London this week to discuss conflict prevention that there will be a greater UK Government commitment to conflict prevention and, in the short-term, to bringing about a resolution in Sri Lanka? (266017)

The hon. Gentleman is right to draw the attention of the House to the situation in Sri Lanka, which remains grave. The Government are committed to supporting a range of conflict prevention, stabilisation and peacekeeping activity, focusing on countries where the risk of impact of conflict is greatest. We have had an unprecedented increase in our international development budget, part of which was to deal with conflict resolution. Conflict resolution involves international action—not just this country working alone, but with other countries around the world.

Q10. Some 150 jobs will be lost at the Manchester Evening News and other Greater Manchester Weekly Newspapers as all the local newspaper offices are closed, and great titles such as the Tameside Advertiser and Stockport Express are consolidated in central Manchester. Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that local newspapers are the lifeblood of local democracy, and will she join the Greater Manchester MPs in calling on the Guardian Media Group to think again? (266018)

I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend. It is certainly the Government’s position that local and regional newspapers, radio and television are important and, as he says, part of the lifeblood of this country. That is why Lord Carter and the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport are working on this important issue, which was raised in a debate in this House last Thursday.

Q11. South Thames college in Wandsworth was advised by the Learning and Skills Council to submit its redevelopment programme in two halves. The first half of that project is complete, but the second half now hangs in the balance. If it is not finished, the students’ learning environment will be severely disrupted. Does the Leader of the House agree that it is madness to put such projects on hold, and can she assure South Thames college that it can finish the project that it started? (266019)

This Government support better further education and more investment in colleges—[Hon. Members: “We all do.”]—in my constituency as well as hers. Opposition Members say, “We all do.” Actually, no. Their policy is to cut funding for it by £600 million. I am sorry, the hon. Lady might not remember this because she was not in the House at the time, but when we came into Government, does she know how much money was in the further education college budget? Precisely zero pounds, and we have increased it by £1 billion. She can leave it to us: we will invest in further education. But if her party got into government, that would be the end of it.

Speaker’s Statement

I have looked into the circumstances surrounding the publication of the White Paper on the UK’s strategy for countering international terrorism, which were raised by the hon. Member for Reigate (Mr. Blunt) yesterday. I regret that Members were not able to get hold of that document earlier, after it had been laid. In future, I shall require Government Departments to make copies of documents available in the Vote Office as soon as they are formally laid in the Journal Office.

Points of Order

A few moments ago, in a question to the Leader of the House, who is leaving the Chamber as I make this point of order, which is unsurprising, I asked about the UK Government’s plans for public spending cuts in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Those cuts have been discussed by the Prime Minister and the First Ministers of Northern Ireland, Wales and Scotland. They are a matter of fact, but the Leader of the House, from the Dispatch Box said, “We are not cutting public spending”. Only three short weeks ago, in reply to a question from my hon. Friend the Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy (Mr. Llwyd) regarding the knighthood of Sir Fred Goodwin, the Leader of the House was forced to correct what she said in this Chamber. How can we secure a change, today, on this question?

The hon. Gentleman must not use points of order to extend Prime Minister’s questions, at which the Leader of the House was deputising for the Prime Minister.

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. When can we get clarification of the statement from the Leader of the Houses and of the factual position, as it was outlined to the First Ministers of the three devolved legislatures?

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Much obliged to you. The Labour First Minister in Wales is fighting the £500 million cuts that the Leader of the House denied today. I wonder why he is doing that.

You will have to ask the First Minister. He is a very nice man and I am sure that he will be able to answer you.

Cohabitation

Motion for leave to introduce a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to provide certain protections for persons who live together as a couple or have lived together as a couple; and for connected purposes.

In the summer of 2006, I met a woman in Wakefield who was homeless. My constituent and her 14-year-old daughter were both sleeping on sofas in the living room of a friend’s one-bedroom flat. The woman’s long-term relationship had broken down. She had lived with her male partner for many years, brought up their child, and contributed to all household bills. However, when their relationship broke down, my constituent was entitled to nothing from her ex-partner. She moved out of the family home, to which she was unlikely to be entitled to a share unless she could prove to a court that there was a common intention of joint ownership, either by agreement or by financial contribution to the property. The courts could not consider what might be a fair outcome because she was not married. My constituent and her daughter were left destitute. She had discovered, in the hardest possible way, that there is no such thing as common law marriage. The burden of providing for her and her daughter fell on the state and the taxpayer.

I was delighted to discover at the time that the Law Commission had published a consultation paper on cohabitation in May 2006. It produced its final report in July 2007, which stated:

“The result of the current law’s inadequacy is hardship for many cohabitants on separation, and as a consequence, their children… And in many cases relationship breakdown may lead to reliance on the State in the form of claims to welfare benefits and social housing”.

My right hon. and learned Friend the Leader of the House told the House in October 2006 that legislation would be introduced in 2007 to give new legal rights to the 4 million people who live together. Those rights would also protect their 1.25 million dependent children—children who have no choice about their parents’ living arrangements, but suffer devastating hardship on the breakdown of their parents’ relationship. The old label for those children was illegitimate. Here and now, in the 21st century, they remain literally illegitimate—outside the law. In March 2009, here we are, still awaiting the Government’s proposals.

The case for reform was and remains clear. It is long overdue. In 2004, the General Synod of the Church of England passed a motion, which reaffirmed the centrality of marriage but also

“recognises that there are issues of hardship and vulnerability for people whose relationships are not based on marriage which need to be addressed by the creation of new legal rights.”

There is an appetite for this Bill in both Houses, and the measure is largely based on the Law Commission’s 2007 report. The wise, noble and learned Lord Lester of Herne Hill introduced the Bill in the other place on 13 March. It is supported by Resolution, an association of 5,500 family lawyers. Before publishing it, there was a public consultation, with nearly 200 responses from: the Law Society of England and Wales; the family division of the High Court; the Family Law Bar Association; Families Need Fathers; Refuge, and many other solicitors, academics and individuals. Lord Lester has placed their responses in the Lords Library.

There is also an appetite for the Bill throughout the country. The 2008 British social attitudes survey stated that nearly nine out of 10 people think that a cohabiting partner should have some financial provision if the relationship has been long term and involves children.

Our society has a duty to protect children, whatever family circumstances they find themselves in, but the law as it stands leaves children in poverty when their cohabiting parents’ relationship ends. Today, one in three babies are born outside marriage, compared with just one in 20 in 1963, and 44 per cent. of all children in England and Wales are born to unmarried partners. The proportion of unmarried women who cohabited with a partner trebled between 1979 and 2002, but without a claim on the family home, the mother, who is usually the children’s main carer, becomes homeless. If we are serious about our pledge to end child poverty in this country in the next 10 years, the Bill will have a huge part to play.

However, we need to be clear. The Bill does not give cohabitants the same legal protections as marriage does. Marriage and civil partnership are special and offer specific protections and benefits. The Bill would create a legal framework that applies only on the breakdown of a cohabiting relationship. It may even remove the incentive to cohabit in order to avoid the financial costs of a divorce, which many people do now. The Bill would also allow couples to opt out of those protections to maintain their freedom of choice as individuals.

People meet, they fall in love and they move in together. They may decide not to get married for a variety of reasons. There may be the romantic ideal of true love, and who are we in this place to argue with that? There is the ideological objection to the institution of marriage. People may have left an unhappy marriage and be reluctant to embark on another marriage, whether happy or unhappy, or they may have witnessed their parents’ unhappy marriage and decided, for whatever reason, that marriage is not for them. People may feel too young or be too career minded, or they may be just trying things out with the other person. But they all have one thing in common: rare is the couple who consult a lawyer before they take the step of moving in together.

There is, I have discovered, what sociologists call “optimism bias”, whereby people believe that their love will last for ever—and in some cases, of course, it does. However, it is not surprising that people who are not lawyers should be ignorant of the law or that they may know the law, but allow inertia to creep in. However, the harsh reality is that men and women, whether gay or straight, who live together without a marriage or civil partnership can face devastating poverty and homelessness when their relationship ends.

The Bill would also provide protection for Muslim women who may be married in a religious ceremony abroad, live with their husband in this country for many years and, on the breakdown of the marriage, discover that they were never legally married in this country and that they have no rights whatever.

In July 2007, the Ministry of Justice concluded in its research paper on its “Living together” campaign that

“There is a need for a presumptive scheme giving cohabitants (and particularly cohabitants with children) automatic rights and obligations…This is particularly important for those in uneven relationships or where one partner is less committed than the other.”

The Department also pressed for a more consistent message from the Government and policy makers on the non-existence of common-law marriage, saying:

“Currently, the contrast between the acknowledgement of cohabitation in welfare support systems and the lack of acknowledgement of it in family law is contributing to general confusion about the legal position of cohabitants.”

The Department for Work and Pensions recognises cohabitation when establishing people’s benefit claims. It takes into account the duration of the relationship, the performance of household duties and the degree of mutual commitment. Yet when one partner dies, the cohabitant has no right to a bereavement grant, as they are not treated as the other’s next of kin. Currently, therefore, cohabitants have all the responsibilities but none of the rights that marriage bestows. Other Commonwealth countries, including Australia, New Zealand and Canada, give protections to cohabiting couples without detriment to marriage.

The law as it stands is unfair, uncertain and illogical. It penalises the vulnerable and, in particular, the children of cohabitants. The law does not recognise the choices that people make in the 21st century and it does not promote equality of outcomes for families. The Bill is long overdue, humane and compassionate. It promotes fairness social justice and equality before the law, and I commend it to the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Ordered,

That Mary Creagh, Hilary Armstrong, Liz Blackman, Natascha Engel, Ms Sally Keeble, Fiona Mactaggart, Lynda Waltho, Mr. Andy Slaughter, Dr. Evan Harris, John Bercow and Mr. Gordon Marsden present the Bill.

Mary Creagh accordingly presented the Bill.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 3 July and to be printed (Bill 81).

Opposition Day

[9th Allotted Day]

Iraq War Inquiry

I inform the House that in both debates, I have selected the amendments in the name of the Prime Minister.

I beg to move,

That this House welcomes the Prime Minister’s announcement of 18 December 2008 that a fundamental change in the British forces’ mission in Iraq will occur by 31 May 2009 at the latest and that at that point the rapid withdrawal of the British troops will take place, taking the total from just under 4,100 to under 400 by 31 July 2009; notes that following this announcement there remains no reasonable impediment to announcing an inquiry on the war in Iraq; and calls for such an inquiry to be conducted by an independent committee of privy counsellors, and to review the way in which the responsibilities of Government were discharged in relation to Iraq, and all matters relevant thereto, in the period leading up to military action in that country in March 2003 and its aftermath, and to make recommendations on lessons to be drawn for the future.

This is the third time in this Parliament that I have proposed this motion—or something very similar to it—and it is the fourth time that the House has debated the need for a full-scale and wide-ranging inquiry into the origins and conduct of the war in Iraq. It will come as no surprise to anyone that with the withdrawal of British troops from Iraq now imminent and the political and security situation in that country substantially improved in recent times, we are once again returning to this issue a year to the day since we last did so and six years this week since the start of the conflict.

Although it is therefore now a familiar topic for the House, the content of our debate today may be somewhat different from that in previous years, for we are now approaching a new situation in which Government arguments against an inquiry, which have grown steadily thinner as these debates have gone by, have now all but evaporated. In previous years, we made the argument that an inquiry should be commenced irrespective of the circumstances prevailing at the time, but now even those circumstances no longer provide the excuse for not commencing it.

This is not to say that we have been wasting our breath entirely in previous debates, for in each debate the common ground in the House has grown larger as the arguments against an inquiry have been diminished by the passage of time. It is now common ground, I think, that the events surrounding the Iraq war have been so important in shaping world affairs in recent years, made such an impact on the lives of millions, involved our armed forces in such effort and sacrifice, been so fraught with accusations of mistakes made and planning inadequately done and become so relevant to what is happening elsewhere in Afghanistan or to what might happen in other places in the future that it would be inconceivable to turn our minds for ever against inquiring into those events and trying to learn from them.

The right hon. Gentleman refers to the passage of time. He will, of course, be aware that the passage of time since March 2003 is equivalent to or greater than that of world war two.

That is absolutely right, and it is a point that I have made in at least one of the previous debates, and the hon. Gentleman may have made it, too. Yes, it is now six years since the start of the conflict, which is longer than the duration of the entire second world war.

Faced with enormity of these issues and the extent of public expectation that an inquiry will be held, the Government have long since given up the argument that no inquiry may be necessary at all, although it was their starting point in 2006, when this series of debates began—a debate that was launched by the nationalist parties. At that time, the right hon. Member for Derby, South (Margaret Beckett), who was Foreign Secretary, was very careful not to commit the Government to an inquiry at all, saying that

“this is not the time for making these decisions.”

She also said:

“Unlike at the time of the Falklands war we now have a framework of Select Committees that carry out independent inquiries.”—[Official Report, 31 October 2006; Vol. 451, c. 172.]

True enough, that careful stonewalling was breached within minutes of the end of that debate by the right hon. Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Des Browne), who was Secretary of State for Defence. He went out to St. Stephen’s entrance and said:

“When the time is right, of course there will be such an inquiry”.

Government sources then said that he had made a “slip of the tongue”. However, it was not many months—16 May 2007—before the right hon. and learned Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman), showing early on in the Labour party’s deputy leadership election the skill that she is now employing in the leadership manoeuvring, said:

“I think that when the troops do finally come home, which we all hope will be as soon as possible, there will need to be an inquiry and I think that we also need to look at the circumstances in which we went in but at the planning and preparation for the aftermath as well, and we will need to learn lessons from that.”

By the time that we returned to the issue on the Floor of the House in June 2007, ministerial resistance to the idea that an inquiry might be necessary had totally collapsed.

Does my right hon. Friend, like me, deprecate the evidence prayed in aid in the Government amendment that it would be improper to have an inquiry while our troops are in the field, given that historical precedent shows that, for example, in 1940 the Norway campaign was the subject of a full parliamentary debate in the House, and indeed precipitated the downfall of the then Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain?

Yes, my hon. Friend makes one important analogy, which is very attractive to us as it involves the downfall of a Prime Minister. Come to think of it, that idea is probably quite attractive to the Foreign Secretary. There are closer analogies, which I will come to in a moment.

I was going back two years to June 2007 and the Government’s arguments of that time. Their claim that four separate inquiries had already taken place, therefore obviating the need for any further inquiry, met ridicule in this Chamber and outside it, given that one of those was the Hutton inquiry into the death of Dr. David Kelly, another was the Butler report on the use of intelligence and the other two were deliberations by Select Committees, at least one of which had complained loudly that it had little access to information and no co-operation from the Government.

When Ministers were brought back to the Dispatch Box that June, they had themselves occupied a new defensive position, now insisting that there would of course be an inquiry at the appropriate time, but that to commence it there and then would, in the words of the former Foreign Secretary, the right hon. Member for Derby, South, send a message of “disunity” and possibly

“convey to others”

the much wider

“impression that this country’s commitment to Iraq is weakening”.

That was a bogus argument, but it was a new bogus argument and therefore quite interesting on those grounds. The idea that a militiaman in a Baghdad suburb would be emboldened by the news that the British Government were trying to learn from mistakes—when he could already have read about adverse opinion polls, huge demonstrations and serious divisions among western nations at the UN Security Council as plentiful examples of disunity—did not constitute a serious argument.

Did my right hon. Friend note that, at the beginning of the debate, there were only eight Labour MPs present not on the Front Bench, including the Parliamentary Private Secretary? Does that show that Labour MPs are ashamed of their Government’s position? Does the absence of the Leader of the House show that she is ashamed of the position and wishes that the Government would change it?

I do not think that those on the Government Benches now take enormous pride in the Government’s position. Indeed, the variants on this motion that I have tabled in recent years were defeated only by quite narrow majorities, given the balance of parties in the House. I am sure that a huge number of Labour Members want an inquiry to commence, and commence now, as I shall come to argue.

To be fair to the then Foreign Secretary, in 2007, she made the further and more substantial argument that

“while our troops remained actively engaged and facing real danger in Iraq, it would be wrong to launch such an inquiry.”—[Official Report, 11 June 2007; Vol. 461 c. 539-45.]

Many of us in the House have never agreed with that line of argument. Those of us who talk regularly to members of our armed forces, as I do at Catterick garrison in my constituency, have formed a clear view that most of them would welcome an inquiry at any time, since they, above all, are the people who have had to wrestle with the consequences of mistakes that have been made and are extremely interested in ensuring that such mistakes are not repeated. Their morale would be raised, rather than lowered, by knowing that an appropriate inquiry was going on.

There is the further consideration that in an extended conflict—as the hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Mr. MacNeil) said, the Iraq war has gone on for longer than either of the world wars of the 20th century—waiting for the end of all hostilities before learning from any mistakes is a grievous error. Our predecessors in the House launched an inquiry into the Dardanelles campaign while the first world war was raging, and indeed into events in Mesopotamia in 1916 while military operations continued there. Nevertheless, that was an argument until, in the course of last year, our troops were no longer actively engaged on a daily or large-scale basis.

At that point, the Government’s defence against starting an inquiry changed again and was redefined on 10 December last year by the current Foreign Secretary, who said that

“we do support an inquiry into the origins of the Iraq war, when our troops are safely home.”

So, the mantra that an inquiry could not begin while our troops remained actively engaged has turned out not to represent the real reason the Government would not set up an inquiry in recent years; it was simply one of a number of excuses, and its ceasing to be relevant has led them to abandon it in favour of another, much weaker excuse.

Even now, it seems that the Government have to be dragged slowly to the course of action that they know is right and inevitable. The Foreign Secretary said, also on 10 December:

“We are not going to hide behind the idea that the last troop must have come home”.—[Official Report, 10 December 2008; Vol. 485, c. 565-6.]

but given their record of steady retreats from one excuse to another, it would not now be surprising if they tried to hide behind that.

Is not my right hon. Friend’s point reinforced by the wording that the Government have chosen for their amendment, which talks not about the return of our troops, but says that it would be inappropriate to have an inquiry

“whilst important operations are underway in Iraq to support the people and government of Iraq.”?

As it is the Government’s intention to help the people in government in Iraq over the next few years, does that not imply that the Government have, yet again, changed their criteria and are grasping anything they can to prevent having any inquiry at all?

As usual, my right hon. and learned Friend is absolutely on the nail. I have pointed out how the Government have retreated from one argument to another. It may be the next stage of the retreat to argue that an inquiry cannot begin even when the troops are safely home, but I think that the Government know that they are in the last stages of their retreat—perhaps it is the last stage—on this matter.

The Government have started to indicate that some kind of inquiry may be established later this year, but rather fittingly for a Prime Minister who said that he would end the culture of spin and treat Parliament with greater seriousness than his predecessor, the suggestion that they will hold an inquiry has been made not to Parliament, but to the News of the World on Sunday.

It was reported on Sunday:

“Gordon Brown is set to order an inquiry into the war in Iraq, the News of the World can reveal. Senior sources”—

this is the end of the culture of spin—

“at the Ministry of Defence suspect the review will be announced”—

[Interruption.] I used to write an excellent column in the News of the World, but the Prime Minister of the nation is meant to announce things to Parliament, not in a column in the News of the World.

The News of the World continued:

“Senior sources at the Ministry of Defence suspect the review will be announced in Mr. Brown’s speech to the Labour Party conference this autumn.”

This “review”—notice it will be a review rather than an inquiry—will, said the paper,

“have access to intelligence used to justify the invasion and records of the Cabinet’s discussions before the war. It is also expected to review the Army’s performance in the invasion and its aftermath.”

This is a small classic in trying to use spin to wrong-foot the intentions of Members of Parliament, suggesting that the matter is all in hand while already seeking to water down what an inquiry would look at, and indeed whether it would be an inquiry at all.

If Ministers think that they will get away with a “review”, which looks at the decisions made before the war and the performance of the Army, they have another think coming. When somebody as senior as Sir Hilary Synnott, the diplomat who was put in charge of governing southern Iraq, says in his book—[Interruption.] I did refer to that book last year. Sir Hilary Synnott was so pleased that I did so, I thought that I would please him by referring to it again, because this part of the argument remains the same:

“Hardly any Whitehall departments got involved with Iraq. There was none of the mobilising of the government machine—with cabinet committees, ministers and individuals nominated to deal with specific tasks, and taskforces—such as happened during the second world war…Instead, there was an ad hoc cabinet committee, where both chairmanship and participants changed.”

When someone like that presents such an argument, it is clearly vital for a real inquiry to be able to look at the functioning of Government across the board, and to do so in the period after the invasion of Iraq as well as before it.

I shall sweep across the Chamber, starting with my hon. Friend the Member for North Essex (Mr. Jenkin).

I am most grateful to my right hon. Friend. Is not the point that he is making particularly relevant to the conduct of Government policy in Afghanistan? It is being conducted by a Cabinet Committee that meets once a fortnight, rather than the whole Government being engaged in the effort.

What I am saying may be relevant to that. We do not know what an inquiry will say. However, I think that there are grounds for concern about the way in which Government have made important decisions about national security in recent years. Certainly, it appears from recent deliberations about Afghanistan that several different reviews are in progress in Whitehall at one time—some within different Departments, some between officials of Departments, and some between Ministers, including the Foreign Secretary—rather than the issue being looked at as a coherent whole. That may well be one of the lessons to be learned for the future.

Will my right hon. Friend join me in congratulating 7th Armoured Brigade, who did a fantastic job in moving into Basra during the invasion and creating a relative peace? What happened then was that they looked over their shoulders expecting some form of stabilisation and reconstruction plan, and there was none to be seen. Is not the reason we require an inquiry the fact that other Departments, especially the Department for International Development, were not there in strength to support the good work that our military had done?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. That is a reason for an inquiry. It appears from what has been said and written about the aftermath of the invasion of Iraq that the Department for International Development was indeed not ready to follow up what other Government agencies, and the Army, had achieved, and that it had been decided at the highest ministerial level that it would not co-operate in the planning for the aftermath.

The right hon. Gentleman said that the News of the World had mentioned the possibility of an inquiry. Does he recollect some of the news headlines at the time, which set the mood of the nation in the run-up to the war? The Sun carried the headline “Brits 45 mins from doom”, while another newspaper carried the headline “Ready to Attack: 45 Minutes from a Chemical War”. What is in a newspaper can set the mood of the nation. The mood has changed, however, and I think that therefore people need the inquiry.

Of course the mood has changed. The circumstances have moved on in six years. But I think that people who opposed the war in Iraq, of whom I imagine the hon. Gentleman was one, and people who supported it—all those people—want to make sure that we have learnt from whatever mistakes are made. That is why there is such common ground on this issue.

I am enjoying my right hon. Friend’s speech very much. Does he agree that the contribution made by north Yorkshire has been exceptional? Will he argue that we should broaden what the motion says about the aftermath to include those who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder and the way in which they are being dealt with in the north of England, where there is no treatment available?

Of course that should be looked at as well. Because we both represent constituents in north Yorkshire, my hon. Friend and I are extremely conscious of the role of our armed forces and the circumstances in which they work. Perhaps that should be examined even more urgently than, and separately from, the conduct of the war in Iraq.

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for giving way again.

Further to the point made by the hon. Member for Edinburgh, West (John Barrett), I imagine that if the headlines had said the exact opposite of what the Government wanted them to say, the Government would have got up and countered them.

When the right hon. Gentleman quoted from a book to which he had also referred in a debate last year, the mirth on the Government Benches betrayed the Government’s attitude. They hope that the passage of time will lessen the need for and the consequences of an inquiry. The reality is, however, that the inquiry is needed not just for the past and not just for the present, but as much for the future, to prevent such errors from happening again and, importantly, to prevent other countries from acting in the same way.

I think that we got the point, Mr. Speaker. Yes, of course that supports the case for an inquiry—and yes, there was a bit of mirth on the Government Benches, but many of the arguments for an inquiry do remain the same. One of the points I am making is that it is the Government’s arguments that have changed. They have become steadily thinner over time, and now they are very thin indeed.

An inquiry should be at Privy Council level, and should be able to study how relations with our key ally were managed; the use of intelligence; the functioning of the machinery of Government; why poor decisions were made in some cases, and dissenting opinions were overlooked; why expectations of what would happen in Iraq turned out to be wrong; why the insurgency was not anticipated; and why—in the words of Jonathan Powell, the Prime Minister’s chief of staff at the time—

“There was planning, but it was planning for completely the wrong thing.”

It should also study our success or otherwise at nation-building. It should examine the way in which the Department for International Development, the Foreign Office and the armed forces work alongside each other. That point has already been made by many of my hon. Friends.

It begins to look as if Ministers have it in mind to set up an inquiry that would perhaps be more limited than most Members of the House and the vast majority of people in the country would wish. Moreover—importantly—it looks as if they want to set it up at such a time that its proceedings could reasonably be concluded only after the latest date for the next general election, after they can be held accountable for the results. There is no other explanation for their behaviour, since there is no reason on earth why an inquiry of the necessary wide-ranging kind cannot be established now.

I have put before the House in previous years arguments that grow stronger with the passage of time. I have argued that memories will be weaker, and relevant documents more likely to have been dispersed, with each year that goes by, particularly as some of the events and decisions to be inquired into took place as long ago as 2002. The Foreign Secretary has tried to deride that argument in the past, but the idea that the recollection of Ministers and officials remains perfect, however many years go by, is not credible. It suggests that they have powers of retention and memory that would have to be superhuman.

Even when an inquiry is announced, it will doubtless take some weeks or months to assemble its members, to recruit its staff, to prepare its programme of work, to identify where it must seek relevant material, to create a timetable for evidence-taking, and so on. If Ministers really wanted an inquiry once our troops were no longer actively engaged, they would have announced one already, but even if we accept that they want to have one when the troops are safely home, the fact remains that there would be nothing to stop them nominating the inquiry, giving it its powers, and starting it on its preparatory work now, so that the taking of its evidence could begin this summer.

Last time we debated this subject, the Foreign Secretary said:

“The Franks inquiry was set up after the end of the Falklands conflict...only after all the troops had come home from the Falklands.”—[Official Report, 25 March 2008; Vol. 474, c. 56.]

It may have escaped the Foreign Secretary’s attention, but at no time have all the troops come home from the Falklands. There is still a detachment of troops there now. When Baroness Thatcher first announced the inquiry to the House on 8 July 1982, there were far more British troops deployed in the Falkands than there are in Iraq today, along with many warships.

The Prime Minister has already announced—on 18 December—that a “fundamental change of mission” will take place by 31 May at the latest, and that by 31 July only 400 British troops will be left in Iraq, the majority of them dedicated to naval training. In any case, our legal authority to be in Iraq expires at the end of July. The timetable for withdrawal has therefore already been set. The UN mandate by which we were in Iraq in recent years has, of course, already expired. Our troops are no longer engaged in combat activity. The statement by the Iraqi defence spokesman on 31 December made it clear that the agreement superseding the UN mandate stipulated

“that they will not be engaged in combat activity, and that their activities will be exclusively confined to the purposes of training and support.”

The head of the Army, General Sir Richard Dannatt, said at Christmas:

“We have now concluded the operation, or are about to conclude the operation, in Iraq, on the basis that the job is done.”

When we take all those facts together, we can see that no substantial argument remains against the immediate announcement and rapid establishment of the inquiry that the nation demands. If it is necessary to have an inquiry, as Ministers have accepted, there is no longer any reason linked to the safety of our troops to delay one, and every reason of scrutiny, accountability and learning for the future to begin one as soon as we can. The only remaining explanation for the non-appearance of an inquiry is either ministerial self-interest in delaying its onset and therefore its outcome, or a reluctance to get around to it at all.

The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right about the need for an inquiry now. Does he agree that it is important that the accountability of that inquiry runs to Parliament and not to the Executive, given that Parliament was, in my view, given misleading information in the past? I remember the former Prime Minister saying, “If only you could see some of the things that come across my desk, you would vote for the war.” If only we had seen them, because then more hon. Members would have voted against.

I think that it is important for it to be a Privy Council inquiry because the results would be laid before Parliament. The hon. Gentleman and I have had a small difference on this matter in the past, in that he originally proposed a reinforced and special Committee of this House. That would suffer the disadvantages that its membership would comprise only Members of this House, and that it would probably have to have a governing party majority, so it would not be the independent inquiry that I am advocating, able to draw on the expertise of people from outside Parliament. I do not think this needs to be an inquiry conducted in Parliament, but its results need to be laid before Parliament.

I had not intended to give way again as I am trying to get on with my speech, but I shall give way to my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Mr. Leigh).

Does my right hon. Friend share my sadness at the fact that we need a full Falklands-type inquiry because our Select Committees are so weak? Under the Osmotherly rules, we cannot insist on particular officials appearing before a Committee and we cannot look at advice given to Ministers. Our Select Committees are therefore not strong enough, unlike congressional committees.

Does my right hon. Friend also agree that we need an inquiry because since even the Hutton inquiry a wealth of material and information has come out by way of freedom of information requests and other means, which clearly show that the intelligence reports were misrepresented and mispresented by the Government at the time? For example, we have only recently discovered that there was a body called the coalition information centre, a propaganda unit within the Foreign Office; it has since disbanded, but that body played a key role in the drafting of the dossier.

My hon. Friend makes a powerful point, and he has been instrumental in making sure that some of these documents come to public attention. It is when we take together the mixture of freedom of information items that have come out into the public domain—as well as freedom of information decisions that have been overturned by the Justice Secretary in respect of Cabinet minutes—and all the memoirs and other statements that have been written by so many people, that we see that it is important to look at these matters in the round, and for an inquiry to be able to consider them together.

I shall now sum up.

I must finish my argument, I think. [Interruption.] Well, due to public demand, I shall give way to the hon. Gentleman.

The right hon. Gentleman mentioned the Dardenelles. Given the comments made by very senior members of the military, does he believe there is a case for an admiral or a general to serve on the inquiry?

Yes, I think there probably is a good case for that. Provided that they are respected for independent judgment, their being able to bring military expertise would be a very valuable asset. That is all for consideration, however, and what we should be deciding today is that such an inquiry should be established.

I repeat today that if no inquiry is established by the time of the next general election, one of the first acts of a new Government will be to establish one. Additionally, I wish to make it clear to the Foreign Secretary that if an inquiry is established that is merely a review, or that has inadequate scope and powers to carry out the necessary tasks, and it is still continuing its work beyond the next general election, an incoming Conservative Government will reserve the right to widen its scope and increase its powers as may be necessary. Ministers may delay in an effort to reduce the force and relevance of what they know must come, but in the end we will learn the necessary lessons, and we will learn from what went wrong in the functioning of the machinery of government itself.

There is an utter determination in most quarters of this House that we will get to the heart of these matters and that the processes and functioning of government—and maybe of Parliament—will be improved as a result. It can only be to the discredit of current Ministers that they have no wish to see such learning and improvement commence, even though they have now run out of reasons for that not to commence. The House of Commons would be doing them a favour if it pushed them today into the right, necessary and complete course of action, and it would be doing what is right for this country as well.

I beg to move an amendment, to leave out from “House” to the end of the Question and add:

“notes the Resolutions of this House of 31 October 2006, 11 June 2007 and 25 March 2008 on an Iraq inquiry; recognises the heroic efforts of the British armed forces in Iraq who have a continuing role which this House should be careful not to undermine; further recognises that a time will come when an inquiry is appropriate, but declines to make a proposal for a further inquiry at this time, whilst important operations are underway in Iraq to support the people and government of Iraq.”

I have recently had the privilege of meeting some of our troops and their commanders in Basra. Their dedication to duty, their commitment and comradeship and, above all, their immense bravery should be an inspiration to us all, and is a credit to the country. Whatever the divisions of this debate, nothing should—or will, I am sure—divide us from saluting them together for the way in which they have carried out their tasks in Iraq.

This Government amendment makes the same point as the Government amendment that the House supported at this time last year. The reason is simple: the situation in Iraq has changed, in the main for the better, since the debate last year—I will set that out—but the number of British troops, and their role and position, has not changed. Until it does, the case for caution against declaring “mission accomplished” and turning our attention to an inquiry remains strong.

No. I will do so in a few moments.

In important respects the work of our troops carries dangers, especially—I say this although it is paradoxical—as the date for the completion of their work comes closer. One civilian was killed at the Basra airbase in a rocket attack earlier this month, so the sole focus of Government activity at this time—across the Ministry of Defence, the Foreign Office and the Department for International Development—is to secure the most smooth and effective conclusion to the bulk of British military engagement in Iraq, and the most smooth and effective increase in British economic, political, educational and cultural engagement in Iraq.

I will be very happy to give way in a moment, after I have set out my argument.

The Government amendment says clearly and unambiguously that there should be an inquiry. The reason is simple: there are important lessons that could be learned. Indeed, as the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague) pointed out last year and has repeated in his speech, Iraq has involved British troops for a longer period than world war two. Every country is unique, and the Iraq experience of post-conflict reconstruction is important. We all know that building the peace in Iraq has been much more difficult than winning the war. The debates about de-Ba’athification and the disbandment of the Iraqi army have been well aired and it is right that they are looked over again.

No. I said I will give way in a few moments, after I have set out my argument.

The time to focus on an official inquiry is when the troops come home to safety, not when they are still exposed to danger in Iraq. Precedent supports this, and so does common sense. For the avoidance of doubt, I was asked on 10 December if that meant every troop coming home, and I gave a very clear answer: we are talking about combat troops, not every troop, and I will set out the timetable again in a moment.

I am now very happy to take interventions from all those Members who sought to speak, but I shall give way first to the hon. Member for Gainsborough (Mr. Leigh).

I am grateful to the Foreign Secretary for giving way. Will he give a commitment today that we will set up this inquiry as soon as practicable after 31 July? That is a given, is it?

The Foreign Secretary seems to be living in a parallel world in terms of what is actually happening with our troops at Basra airport. They are not going out on patrols, and they are not involved in operations in Basra. They are bunkered up at the airport itself. They are doing some work with the Iraqi army, but in fact they are busy handing over not to the Iraqis, but to the Americans. Will he spell out exactly what he is trying to justify by saying in his amendment that we are involved in operations when we are not?

I am afraid that that is just not correct, and I am happy to go through why it is not correct. One obvious reason is that they are providing not simply training, but mentoring for Iraqi troops which by definition involves more than going outside—

No, it involves more than that. I will give some further detail, and I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Armed Forces will do so, too.

The Foreign Secretary said a moment ago that the precedent is for the inquiry to be established after all the troops—or the vast bulk of them—have been withdrawn, rather than, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague) suggested, the initial steps being taken before they are withdrawn. Would the Foreign Secretary care to tell us of one occasion on which that precedent occurred?

No, the hon. Gentleman has not killed that one off, with respect. British troops will remain in Iraq after 31 July if all goes according to plan, but they will not be combat troops. In the case of the Falklands, the enemy had surrendered, so by definition the troops were no longer in danger in the Falklands when the inquiry was set up in July 1982.

I am sure that the whole House shares the Foreign Secretary’s admiration for those who have served and are serving in Iraq. He very much admires their courage, so why are the Government not showing the same courage and saying “We have nothing to hide, we are not hiding behind anything and we agree to this inquiry”? Why are they not being as courageous as our soldiers have been?

I do not think that any Foreign Secretary should come to this place claiming that he is being as brave as the people who are serving in our armed forces around the world—I certainly do not make that claim, and I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman reduces the argument to that point. The Government have taken a very consistent position since the debate last year and we will take it again in the debate this year. The right time for an inquiry is when our combat troops have come home, and I am happy to detail why the situation in Iraq requires that.

The Foreign Secretary said in answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Mr. Leigh) that an inquiry would be announced after 31 July. He will, of course, be conscious of the fact that that will be about a week after this House rises for the summer recess. Will he therefore give an assurance today that a statement will be made to the House before it rises for the summer recess confirming that the inquiry is to go ahead? If he is not prepared to give that assurance, will he explain why not, given that we know that 31 July is the decisive date?

The former Foreign Secretary should know better; the idea that we decided on a troop withdrawal plan and chose 31 July as the date for its conclusion because Parliament will not be sitting at that time is, frankly, risible. [Interruption.] We will do this after British combat troops have been withdrawn, and that is the right thing to do. [Interruption.] That has been the position that we have set out over the past year, and I believe that it is the right position to hold. It has nothing to do with the Labour party conference; it is a simple position that the Government have articulated again and again and again.

The Foreign Secretary will know that I made no reference to the Labour party conference. I simply said that he had confirmed that the combat troops would be back by 31 July, so there would no longer be an obstacle to announcing a statement. He must know that an inquiry of this importance ought to be announced to the House of Commons. There cannot possibly be any objection to announcing on, shall we say, 20 July—10 days or so before 31 July, when the House is still sitting—that the inquiry is to be established and what the terms of reference will be. He must appreciate that if he declines to give that assurance, it would appear either that he is going to make that statement when the House is not even sitting—that would be a disgrace—or that he is looking for an excuse to leave it until the autumn, thereby delaying the time by which the inquiry would ultimately report. He must realise the suspicion and deal with it now if he is to command the respect of the House.

I am sorry that the right hon. and learned Gentleman puts it in that way. We have been completely clear, in last year’s debate and in this year’s debate, about the Government’s position on this point. Our position is that once combat troops come home is the right time to establish an inquiry. We will establish that inquiry with the full respect for Parliament and all of its Members, for precedent and for the need for the inquiry to look into both the conduct of the war and the conduct of the peace-building afterwards—that is precisely the sort of comprehensive look that the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks, who speaks for the Opposition—

After I make some progress I shall be happy to bring in further hon. Members.

The UK has a strategic national interest in a strong, stable, non-hostile Iraq, confident in its territorial integrity and acting in accordance with international law. As the first majority Shi’a democracy in the Arab world, it can help to bridge the Sunni-Shi’a divide in the middle east. As one of the traditional places of Shi’a authority in the world, with a track record of a humane tradition, a revived Najaf can offer an alternative to the radical Shi’ism expounded by some in Iran. It is important, therefore, to recognise the progress that has been made in Iraq since our debate last year. The change from the savage conflict of three years ago is remarkable, and the progress is to be welcomed. It brings withdrawal closer and, for the purposes of this debate, it brings an inquiry closer, because, at every stage the key for us has not been dates; it has been what our troops are doing in Iraq.

I shall make some progress and try to bring in the hon. Gentleman a bit later.

Thanks to the brave work and dedication of our troops and their coalition partners, as well as the improved capacity and commitment of the Iraqi security forces, the number of security incidents across the country is down to its lowest level since 2003. The provincial elections held on 31 January passed without major incident and included the Sunni parties and Sunni voters. Although key pieces of legislation are still outstanding, in the past year the Iraqi Parliament has agreed new laws on investment, de-Ba’athification, detainees and the powers of provincial government.

Although that progress is significant, anyone who has spent any time in Iraq will say that in some parts of the country the security situation is still fragile and reversible. The threat from extremist groups—that seems to be dismissed by the Conservative party—as well as from militias and terrorists, remains. Roadside bombs and suicide attacks are still a danger to the lives of ordinary Iraqis. Attacks this month in Mosul, at a Baghdad police academy and at a market in Babil remind us of the enduring dangers posed by terrorism in Iraq.

Although progress has been made in politics, compromise is painfully slow and, as in the rest of the world, the global economic downturn is having an impact in Iraq. So, after the loss of many thousands of lives, including 179 British defence personnel, and the spending of billions of dollars, Iraq needs careful and deliberate international support as it moves to be fully in command of its own affairs.

No, I just want to make a bit of progress.

That is why some 4,100 British troops are deployed in southern Iraq—that is more or less the same number as were there this time last year. As agreed with the Government of Iraq, they still have a number of tasks to complete. Their work to mentor and train the 14th division of the Iraqi army is ongoing. The Royal Navy continues to patrol the Gulf area and to contribute to the defence of Iraqi territorial waters and oil platforms, and the Royal Air Force provides vital support, both to UK troops and as part of the coalition air effort. Each of those tasks is vital in order to ensure that Iraq continues the progress of recent years.

We are now, however, approaching a key moment in the timetable for the draw-down of British troops. In July last year, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister set out how UK troops would move carefully and deliberately, guided by the situation on the ground, from a lead role to an overwatch role. Next week, on 31 March, the first step will be taken, with the absorption of Multi-National Division (South-East) within Multi-National Division (South). This is not the replacement of British commanders by Americans, but a new coalition force structure reflecting the changes going on in Iraq and with a larger geographical responsibility. As my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister told the House,

“the fundamental change of mission ... will take place by 31 May 2009 at the latest. At that point, we will begin a rapid withdrawal of our troops, taking the total from just under 4,100 to under 400 by 31 July.”—[Official Report, 18 December 2008; Vol. 485, c. 1234.]

The Government of Iraq have indicated that they want the UK to continue to provide military training and education. We are offering to provide support to officer training through the NATO training mission in Iraq, and to supplement that with attendance at staff and other training. We are also discussing with the Iraqi authorities how we can best meet their ongoing requirements for maritime support and naval training. Our plan, which has been agreed by the Government of Iraq, is to withdraw combat troops by the end of July. As we draw down our military engagement, we will step up our effort to support and rebuild the Iraqi economy and to help Iraqis ensure that their critical infrastructure works. Of course, our diplomatic relationship will remain essential, and we will maintain both a substantive embassy in Baghdad, and missions in Basra and Irbil.

I shall give way after I have finished this paragraph. The planning for the safe withdrawal of most of our troops, and the development of a plan for the role and position of the remainder, is being undertaken with great care in the Ministry of Defence. The Foreign Office is orchestrating, week by week, the realignment of Britain’s relationship with Iraq as military forces are reduced. The Department for International Development is continuing to work to help the Government of Iraq to deliver services to their people and to be in a position to take advantage of the strong interest of international investors. I said that I would give way to the hon. Member for Gravesham (Mr. Holloway), so I shall now do so.

Does the Foreign Secretary accept that there are lessons to be learned from Iraq and that there are mistakes that we are repeating? Is it not a shame that even the MOD has binned its internal critique of the conduct of our operations in Iraq?

I am always wary of the attempt to put Iraq and Afghanistan in the same paragraph, as I believe they are fundamentally different theatres. However, there are important lessons from the Iraq experience. As I will say in a moment, the MOD has carried out significant internal reviews, as well as having the benefit of external reviews, as has the Foreign Office, and those are fed in week by week. The hon. Gentleman may well have important points about the way in which strategy and tactics are being put into practice. We should certainly be learning the lessons, but that does not require us to wait for the full-scale official inquiry that we are debating today.

Yesterday, I met a delegation of Iraqi Members of Parliament, representing all the diverse communities in that country, and they wanted a message sent to the British people to say, “Thank you for what you’ve done to get rid of Saddam Hussein and please keep supporting us in our transition to democracy.”

Will the Foreign Secretary ensure that the inquiry, when it happens, is not narrowly focused, but looks at the totality of the UK relationship with Iraq before, during and since the conflict, and includes the complicity of the Conservative Government of Baroness Thatcher with Saddam’s regime during the Iran-Iraq war?

I hear what my hon. Friend says about the need for the inquiry to look beyond the immediate context of the war, and especially at the conduct of the peace-building.

I sincerely thank the Foreign Secretary for recognising in his speech and in the Government amendment the professionalism and bravery of our troops, which the Opposition failed to do in their motion. Will he confirm that any inquiry will not reveal the identity of any individual member of the troops so that nobody is put at risk?

One advantage of a Franks-style inquiry, as recommended by the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks, is that it would operate in private and could preserve the confidentiality that is important for all our troops.

The Foreign Secretary has conceded that an inquiry will take place. Will he assure the House that all the papers prepared for the Cabinet before the invasion of Iraq in March 2003 will be revealed to that inquiry so they may be properly studied, unlike the decision that was taken to challenge the Information Commissioner’s decision that they should be released to the public?

There will certainly be full co-operation with the inquiry, including in respect of the important papers that my hon. Friend mentions.

The Foreign Secretary mentioned the operations of the British forces in Iraq. Can he say how many personnel, based in Iraq, London or elsewhere, would be involved in any inquiry? What would be the problem with replacing those people so that they were free to engage in an inquiry now?

I have not mapped that out, but it would be a substantial number. In the Foreign Office, it would involve people who are working in our Iraq unit at present who are resolutely focused on this delicate passage of time. As British troops withdraw, we have to make it clear to the people of Basra that we are not abandoning Iraq, but are continuing to remain engaged with it. I am happy to confirm that substantial effort will be dedicated to an inquiry. It would be important for the Government to co-operate fully with it across Departments.

I do not accept that development and planning have been compromised by the absence of an inquiry. There have already been four inquiries into aspects of the war in Iraq, although they were not official inquiries with access to all the papers. In 2003, both the Foreign Affairs Committee and the Intelligence and Security Committee, and then a year later the Butler inquiry, examined the decision to invade Iraq, focusing on the accuracy and adequacy of the intelligence, and of course the Hutton inquiry looked into the circumstances surrounding the death of Dr. David Kelly.

Our military, diplomatic and development strategies have consistently been adjusted and updated in the light of events and those inquiries, and in the light of reviews that we have undertaken inside the Government. Some of them have been made public, but others, for obvious reasons, have not. For instance, the Ministry of Defence carries out regular reviews of operations from the strategic to the tactical level. Its reviews have made recommendations on matters ranging from the military kit to counter-insurgency strategy or the relationship of security to economic and political change. DFID’s approach in Basra has evolved significantly over time, from the initial priority of focusing on the dilapidated infrastructure—work that has benefited more than 1 million Iraqis—to a focus on developing Iraqi economic capacity.

Of course our experiences in both Afghanistan and Iraq have had a significant impact on the workings of the Foreign Office, with greater emphasis on cross-departmental planning and working, including through the tri-departmental stabilisation unit. More resource is being devoted to post-conflict planning and delivery as well as the development of a much smarter approach to risk management. The accumulation of internal lessons learned over the past six years, as well as internal reviews conducted, is all material that an inquiry could draw on.

I was interested to hear the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks say last year that he favoured an inquiry along the lines of the Franks inquiry, which he referred to as “the model inquiry”. The Franks inquiry was set up after the end of the Falklands conflict. The fact that it was conducted in private meant that it had access to all the relevant papers. In that respect, it was significantly different from the US Baker-Hamilton report. Franks was not a judicial inquiry so it did not require its witnesses to have lawyers. There were no leaks or interim findings to distract from the final conclusions and recommendations.

Of course, it is important to remember that Franks looked only at the run-up to the Falklands war in the wake of Lord Carrington’s resignation. Most discussion of the case for an inquiry into Iraq has not favoured limiting an inquiry to the lead up to the war, but is instead more interested in the conduct of the war and its aftermath. The Government have never demurred from that view.

Can the Foreign Secretary give an assurance to the House that when an inquiry is eventually held, it will not be confined just to the conduct of the war and events afterwards, but will focus—as part of its terms of reference—on that very important period of the run-up to the war and what was told to this House and the nation, which was clearly less than the whole truth about the nature of the so-called threat and our potential response to it?

I have been very careful not to start placing limits on what an inquiry could look at. The purpose of the inquiry will be to learn lessons. I do not see any point in repeating what other inquiries have done, but it should be a comprehensive look at the planning and conduct of the war, as well as the peace-building afterwards.

In deference to the seniority of the hon. Member for Louth and Horncastle (Sir Peter Tapsell) I shall give way, but it will have to be the last intervention.

Does the Foreign Secretary understand that the main interest of the country will be in the run-up to the war, because it is widely believed that in the summer of 2002 the then Prime Minister, Mr. Blair, and President Bush entered into a conspiracy to invade Iraq and spent the succeeding months until March 2003 manipulating public opinion, falsifying the intelligence information and deceiving the leaders of the Conservative party? That is one of the most shameful episodes in British history, if it is proved to be true—as a proper inquiry would prove.

I do not accept that caricature of the period before 2003. Nor do I accept that the vast bulk of interest is in the run-up to the war. For those with conspiracy theories, that may be their interest, but those of us concerned with British operations in the future are interested in the lessons of the war itself and the peace-building effort afterwards. It is important to emphasise the post-war aspects as well as the wartime conduct.

Can the Foreign Secretary explain why our major ally, the US, continues to examine and review the lead up to the war and the lessons to be learned, and to do so in public? It is not a bogus argument; it is a fact. Many Americans are amazed that we do not do the same.

That is a bogus argument. As I have just said, the Baker-Hamilton inquiry did not have access to the sort of secret papers that everyone in this House believes that an official inquiry should have access to. Although it is correct that America is a country that conducts numerous internal reviews—as we do, too—America has not had the sort of official inquiry that the hon. Gentleman’s party is asking for.

Iraq was a source of great division in this House—within parties and between them—as well as in the country. Those divisions will not be erased; nor, above all, will the loss suffered by the bereaved families of our troops lost in action; nor, indeed, will the loss of Iraqi lives. We can never pay tribute to them often enough.

The future of Iraq should engage us all, whatever position we took on the war, because peace and security in Iraq is not only vital to regional stability but critical to the UK’s interests on human rights, counter-terrorism and energy security. Once our armed contribution has concluded and our combat troops have returned home, we should invest the time and effort to learn thoroughly any further lessons. For now, all the efforts of our professional and experienced staff—from our soldiers to our diplomats and aid workers—need to be focused on creating the best possible transition from a predominantly military relationship to a predominantly economic, diplomatic and cultural relationship with Iraq. That is what the Government will be doing and I believe that it is what the House should be doing, too.

The right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague) forensically showed how the Government’s position on an inquiry has evolved over time. I hope to add to his analysis by showing that each of their arguments along the way was bogus. I have decided that that is the right approach, given the speech that we have just heard from the Foreign Secretary, who was still unable to make any strong argument f