HC Deb 26 January 2004 vol 417 cc15-7
15. Huw Irranca-Davies(Lab) (Ogmore)

What steps his Department has taken to help the reconstruction of Iraq. [150168]

The Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Geoffrey Hoon)

Since the end of major combat operations, the Ministry of Defence has supported some 750 quick-impact projects, which have improved the immediate situation, as well as preparing the ground for broader reconstruction efforts. Experts from the UK armed forces have also contributed to the emergency infrastructure programme in the south that is funded jointly by the Department for International Development and the coalition provisional authority. As a result, supply routes, such as the rail link between Basra and Umm Qasr, have been reopened, while the repair of bridges over the River Hamdan has strengthened vital transport infrastructure. Clean-water provision has been restored through our construction of the water pipeline from Kuwait to Umm Qasr and repairs to the Umm Qasr water treatment plant, and we have also made extensive repairs to the electricity grid.

Separately, we are helping provide the security needed for other reconstruction activity to flourish. Significant progress, for example, has been made in developing Iraq's own security sector. There are now around 60,000 Iraqi security personnel operating across the country.

Huw Irranca-Davies

I thank my right hon. Friend for that exhaustive update on the quick-impact projects that are under way. I must pay personal tribute to the work of our troops in carrying out this important work. Will my right hon. Friend ensure that he prioritises within the Department the work in hospitals and schools? Beyond the quick-impact projects and the benefits that they will bring, it is the long-term benefits that will be brought through health and education projects that will lead to the prosperity and health of the Iraqi people.

Mr. Hoon

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his observation. He might like to know that we supported the refurbishment of more than 90 schools in our area of operations. Another 140 further refurbishment projects are under way. As for the health service in Iraq, we have completed 65 general health projects, 16 hospital projects, 32 health centre projects and seven veterinary centre projects.

Mr. Crispin Blunt(Con) (Reigate)

The Secretary of State will agree that one of the most important contributions that the Army can make to reconstruction in Iraq is maintaining internal security and public order, as evidenced by dealing with the recent riots in Basra. Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that it would be wholly unacceptable if, six months after the end of the major operations in Iraq, our armed forces did not have sufficient riot control equipment in Basra?

Mr. Hoon

If there is any serious suggestion to that effect, I hope that the hon. Gentleman will raise it with me directly so that it can be investigated. Certainly, all the television programmes that I have seen providing footage of the operations conducted by British personnel have shown how expert those soldiers are in dealing with the threats to order that we have seen from time to time in southern Iraq. They have used precisely the same kind of techniques and equipment that I myself have seen them use when they have been training in Northern Ireland.

Mr. Kevan Jones(Lab) (North Durham)

I and other members of the Defence Committee visited Iraq last year and saw some of the sterling work that is being undertaken by MOD personnel in some of the quick-win projects. Will my right hon. Friend join me in paying tribute to the work of staff not only of the MOD but from the Department for International Development, the Foreign Office and the non-governmental organisations, who are making a real difference in regenerating schools and putting infrastructure in place—work which is unfortunately not widely reported in the British media, but which is making a real difference in Iraq?

Mr. Hoon

I am grateful to my hon. Friend and his colleagues for their visits to Iraq. That is much appreciated by troops on the ground, who appreciate the interest shown by visiting Members. I am delighted that he saw so much that is positive about progress in Iraq. That bears out all the reports that I have received. Although there are continuing concerns about security—less in the south than in other parts of Iraq—real progress is being made in reconstructing the country.

Mr. Boris Johnson(Con) (Henley)

Given that a vital part of the reconstruction of Iraq is presumably the discovery and removal of weapons of mass destruction, may I remind the Secretary of State of an answer that he gave to me more than six months ago, when I asked him whether the failure to find weapons of mass destruction undermined the legality of the case for war? He gave a four-word answer, which was, "They will be found." Does the right hon. Gentleman still believe that? If not, does he not think that it is about time that the public saw all the legal opinion upon which the Government based the case for war?

Mr. Hoon

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on his ingenuity, but he needs to check more carefully the precise circumstances in which military action was taken. It was taken on the basis of resolution 1441. We know that Saddam Hussein had used weapons of mass destruction previously; 1441 was given by the United Nations to Saddam Hussein as a last opportunity to co-operate with the international community. The coalition forces judged that he had failed to take that last opportunity. I am sure that a fair-minded observer of these affairs, as the hon. Gentleman is, would reach that conclusion.

Harry Cohen(Lab) (Leyton and Wanstead)

But is not unemployment in Iraq, including in the UK-occupied sector, running at a rate of about 70 per cent., and is not the UK following the approach of the United States of privatisation and foreign contractors, and in the case of the United States, corrupt sweetheart deals? There is plenty for the state to do there. Should there not be a massive programme of public spending and public ownership to get those Iraqis back into work? Would that not be better for the Iraqis and safer for the troops?

Mr. Hoon

I am sure my hon. Friend recognises that it is public money that is going into Iraq—largely the public money provided by the US taxpayer. It is not entirely surprising, therefore, that the US tends to look first to its own companies to provide assistance. Nevertheless, there are significant opportunities for British companies to participate in projects in Iraq, which they are doing, and for other countries that are not even members of the coalition.