HC Deb 19 July 2004 vol 424 cc8-10
5. Mr. Richard Bacon (South Norfolk) (Con)

If he will make a statement on the current situation in Iraq. [184472]

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

I have to inform the House that a United Kingdom Puma helicopter crashed this morning at the airfield in Basra. I regret to report that there has been one British fatality. It appears unlikely that hostile action was the cause, although it is too soon to confirm any other details.

Elsewhere in Iraq, the Iraqi Interim Government are well established, and are working to ensure that the conditions are right to hold full elections to a Transitional Assembly early next year. The task of preparing the elections themselves falls to the Independent Electoral Commission of the United Nations, which has been operating since May. I understand that arrangements for holding a National Conference to advise the Interim Government are also well advanced.

Significant security challenges remain, but the Iraqi Interim Government have made clear their determination to confront them. We are providing support where necessary, and helping to modernise, train and equip Iraq's own security forces. There are now over 230,000 recruited Iraqi security personnel, including some 90,000 police. More than 20,000 reconstruction projects have begun, building and redeveloping schools, hospitals, bridges and roads across Iraq and providing employment for hundreds of thousands of Iraqis.

Mr. Bacon

May I offer my condolences to the family of the Puma helicopter victim this morning. I am sure that other Members join me in doing so.

The Butler report shows that the Government took the country to war on the basis of flawed intelligence. Was that because the Government did not know what they were doing, or because they knew what they were doing but tried to hide it? Either way, is it not time, rather than for promotions for people like John Scarlett, that someone took responsibility for the mess and resigned?

Mr. Hoon

The Butler report was a thorough examination of the relevant facts. I am sure that, if the hon. Gentleman looked at the report properly and comprehensively instead of seeking to select certain aspects of it, he would recognise that Lord Butler and those who joined him in producing the report did not criticise any individual member of the Government or, indeed, any individual civil servant. It is wrong of the hon. Gentleman to come to the House and make such attacks on an individual who does not have the opportunity to respond.

Mrs. Alice Mahon (Halifax) (Lab)

May I also offer my condolences with regard to the tragic loss that the British Army has suffered today?

My right hon. Friend paints a rosy picture about the Interim Government, but may I put it to him that the Interim Prime Minister of Iraq has agreed to an occupying force bombing the country's own civilians yet again in Falluja? We now hear that women and children were killed in that bombing. How can anybody have any faith in such a Government?

Mr. Hoon

I was not, I hope, painting a rosy picture to the House. I recognise that there are still significant security challenges to be faced, but they are now being faced increasingly by Iraqis themselves. I hope that they, like the Prime Minister, whom my hon. Friend mentioned, are in the best position to judge the appropriateness of the action being taken. I am sure that the Iraqi Prime Minister is right to recognise that it is necessary to take action against those who will attack not only coalition forces, but, increasingly, the Iraqis themselves. It is not surprising, therefore, when the Iraqi Prime Minister authorises the sort of action that is necessary to deal with those attacks.

Mr. Paul Keetch (Hereford) (LD)

The situation is indeed still serious in Iraq, with the news of the car bomb this morning, and the shooting and downing of the Puma helicopter, to which the Secretary of State referred. We send our condolences to the persons involved.

Does the Secretary of State agree that, whatever honest disputes we on the Liberal Democrat Benches and many on his Back Benches had about the decision to go to war last year, we all now want Iraq to be a stable country working towards the beneficial prospects of a democratic Iraq? We support the role of our forces and civilians in the responsibility that they now have, but what message does he have for those on some other Benches who now suddenly claim that they were misled into war? What is his opinion of their view now?

Mr. Speaker

Order. I do not think that the Secretary of State should air that view at the moment. There is a debate tomorrow on the Butler report. This question is about the current situation in Iraq.

Mr. Hoon

I have made this point before, but I make no apology for repeating it: whatever views right hon. and hon. Members took of the decision to take military action against the regime of Saddam Hussein, the situation that confronts us now is the one that the hon. Gentleman referred to; it is vital that we rebuild the country, provide stability for the Iraqi people and restore Iraq as a rightful member of the international community. Right hon. and hon. Members will, understandably and rightly, have different views of that decision to take military action, but surely we must all now unite in wanting to see Iraq restored as a stable, tolerant and ultimately democratic country.

Mr. Andrew Miller (Ellesmere Port and Neston) (Lab)

May I join colleagues from all parts of the House in what they have said with regard to my right hon. Friend's comments about the person lost in the Puma this morning?

My right hon. Friend will have heard the Prime Minister praise the role of the Cheshire regiment, which is currently serving in Iraq. When I last saw the regiment, immediately after active service in Bosnia, I came across many young men who had faced very serious traumas and needed a great deal of support post that period. Will he assure me that, on their return, members of the regiment will get every possible support to ensure that the horrors that they faced do not live with them for the rest of their lives?

Mr. Hoon

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising that vital point on behalf of not only the Cheshires, but all those who are currently serving with such distinction in Iraq and, indeed, other theatres around the world. I assure him that efforts have been made to learn the lessons of previous conflicts and deal with the stresses that arise as a result of the horrors seen by members of our armed forces. If those efforts are not producing the right results, we will re-examine the matter, but efforts have been made to learn the lessons.

Mr. Keith Simpson (Mid-Norfolk) (Con)

Conservative Members also send our condolences with regard to the crew of the Puma. From previous questions, it is obvious that the British sector in Iraq is currently stabilised by the professionalism and bravery of the British armed forces. Given Conservative Members' experiences of talking and listening to members of the British armed forces, the Secretary of State should think very seriously about turning the British Army into regional regiments to deal with manning in Iraq. That would undermine the morale of regiments such as the Black Watch, the Royal Welch Fusiliers and others, which will turn into unloved regional regiments, rather like the unloved regional assemblies.

Mr. Speaker

Order. The hon. Gentleman is going back to Question 2.

Mr. Michael Clapham (Barnsley, West and Penistone) (Lab)

May I add my condolences on the helicopter crash? My right hon. Friend knows that the monitoring board was established in May 2003 to ensure that Iraqi oil revenues were not misused, but we now hear that a report prepared by KPMG suggests that as much as $1.4 billion may have gone to the American contractor Halliburton. If that allegation proves to be true, does he agree that that is a scandalous misappropriation and will he call for further investigations?

Mr. Hoon

Those allegations are subject to investigation. It is important that we ensure that oil revenues are used properly for the purpose agreed by the United Nations.