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Volume 696: debated on Tuesday 27 November 2007

asked Her Majesty’s Government:

What plans they have to remember the lives lost in the Iraq war and to commemorate the fifth anniversary of the invasion of Iraq on 20 March 2003.

My Lords, the sacrifice made by those killed on operations is remembered in many ways, including by name on the magnificent new Armed Forces memorial in Staffordshire. Events of commemoration are generally held to mark the end of an operation and to remember those who have lost their lives or been injured. We will consider how best to mark the end of operations in Iraq at the time.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reminder of the memorial in Staffordshire. But 20 March will be the fifth anniversary of the invasion of Iraq, which is longer than the First World War. First, is it not time for the Government to consider the final phase of withdrawal by that date? Secondly, should not a commemoration be linked to 20 March and to those now in Iraq being brought home? The bereaved and wounded also should be remembered in a ceremony of commemoration—not celebration—on 20 March.

My Lords, it is clearly right that we should remember and commemorate on all occasions those who have given their lives and our sympathies are always with their families and, indeed, with those who have been injured in activities. As to withdrawal and the end of operations, the Prime Minister set out the situation very clearly in a Statement in another place on 8 October and our policy has not changed. We have constantly said that UK forces will stay in Iraq until we have provided the opportunities that are required to give the Iraqi security forces the necessary confidence and ability to take over their responsibilities. We have announced our intention to reduce troop levels, dependent on conditions, by spring 2008. There are two separate matters: the drawing to a conclusion of the operations there, which has to be done in an orderly way for the benefit of the people of Iraq; and the later responsibility that we all have of remembering those people who have made sacrifices during this campaign.

My Lords, does the Minister recognise that there is a strong feeling in this country that we should do more than remember those who have died fighting for us? We should do more to honour soldiers who serve this country so devotedly—perhaps as the Americans do, but which we fail to do. Will she consider that?

My Lords, recently we have seen the opening in Staffordshire of the significant national memorial to all those who have been killed on duty or as a result of terrorist action. It is right that we should do all that we can. Everyone in the House will be pleased that at remembrance services this year the turnout was very good and the involvement of young people was very high, which is only right. We have said recently that we are looking at how we might mark further homecomings and support those who are returning. We have a responsibility to make sure that the nation as a whole appreciates the work of the Armed Forces.

My Lords, I think every one of us would want to remember the lives lost in the Iraq war, whether it has been three, four or five years. The noble Lord, Lord Roberts, has mentioned five years, and in his second question asked if we should not be withdrawing our troops on the fifth anniversary. What do the Government think would happen in Iraq if we withdrew before we fulfilled our responsibilities?

My Lords, my noble friend makes a significant point. We will withdraw troops on the plans that have been proposed, subject to conditions on the ground. We have made progress. British troops have now handed over security responsibility in three of the provinces in southern Iraq and there are plans to hand over the fourth next month. However, everything we do in southern Iraq and elsewhere must be based not only on ensuring that the country is as secure as possible but on providing the economic stimulus that we are working towards in Basra, in line with the handover next month. It would be wrong to set arbitrary dates and leave the country high and dry.

My Lords, while recognising the importance of remembering those who have lost their lives in this conflict, will the Minister agree that looking after those who have been injured in it is an equally important responsibility of the Government and the nation? Will she undertake to do even more to help those who have been injured at an early stage of their adult life?

My Lords, I know that the noble and gallant Lord is aware of the new arrangements we have made for compensation and the changes to the schemes that are being introduced because he took a direct interest in the debate we had recently on this issue. It is right that we should do all that we can to support those who have been injured and the families of those who have been killed. The new compensation schemes that we recently introduced break new ground and provide better arrangements than those we had previously.

My Lords, in her winding-up speech last Thursday the Minister said there was a good chance that by about next March we would have reduced the number of our troops in Iraq from 5,000 to 2,500. She then went on to say,

“But we still have an important job to do.”.—[Official Report, 22/11/07; col. 995.]

Is there a minimum number under which it is no longer worth maintaining forces in southern Iraq, particularly without a large number of other allied forces to support us? When we are down to 2,500 troops, what is the important job that remains to be done which we are able to do?

My Lords, I said that the targets we were setting were based on conditions. At the moment conditions are favourable to the reduction we have been talking about, but we must not make absolute promises that do not take account of how conditions might change. The work that is being done there consists of mentoring and helping the Iraqi security forces to ensure that they have the proper professionalism to do the job that is needed in that area.

My Lords, are the Government proposing, or consulting on, a memorial day separate from Remembrance Day? If so, will the Minister confirm which of our brave men and women will be remembered on Remembrance Day and which of them will be remembered on a separate memorial day?

My Lords, were that to be the case, the two would not be mutually exclusive. As I said earlier, at this stage we are not suggesting any particular dates for commemorating people who have lost their lives in Iraq. We will consider that at the appropriate stage, but I think everyone recognises that Remembrance Day in November is the one day on which the country can unite to remember those who have been lost in all conflicts.