HC Deb 01 March 2004 vol 418 cc600-2
4. Claire Ward (Watford) (Lab)

What recent steps the Department has taken to assist the post-war reconstruction of Iraq. [156732]

10. Mrs. Joan Humble (Blackpool, North and Fleetwood) (Lab)

What steps the Department has taken to assist the post-war reconstruction of Iraq. [156738]

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

Our principal role in Iraq is to help to provide the conditions for reconstruction. A crucial aspect of that involves developing Iraq's own security capabilities. That is why I announced last December the deployment of an additional infantry battalion and two additional platoons of Royal Military Police to Iraq. They and other experts are helping to train Iraqis in modern, accountable security methods that respect human rights and international law. We aim to give the Iraqis the ability to defend their country against terror, violence and crime. Over 100,000 Iraqi security personnel are now operating across the country.

We also contribute directly to reconstruction. The armed forces, working with the Department for International Development, with the coalition provisional authority and with Iraqis, have opened supply routes such as the rail link between Basra and Umm Qasr, repaired key bridges and strengthened vital transport links. They have restored clean water provision to Umm Qasr and most of Basra, and helped to refurbish infrastructure, hospitals and schools.

Claire Ward

Can my right hon. Friend reassure the House that he has no proposals to reduce the funding available to our military while they are in Iraq reconstructing essential facilities? Will he prioritise the reconnection of electricity and water supplies, which are essential for the Iraqi people?

Mr. Hoon

I can give my hon. Friend that assurance, and I look forward to the Conservatives offering a similar assurance. This Government's current budget for defence represents the largest planned increase in defence spending in more than 20 years, in stark contrast to the cuts proposed by the shadow Chancellor, of which the hon. Member for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Soames) apparently had no notice at all. So far as other reconstruction projects are concerned, I expect the British armed forces to continue their excellent work in providing basic essentials to the people of southern Iraq. They do that job with extreme professionalism—a professionalism that would be likely to be damaged by the cuts proposed by the Conservatives.

Mrs. Humble

Is my right hon. Friend aware that, along with other Lancashire Members, I met representatives of the Queen's Lancashire Regiment when it returned from Basra last year? We learned that it had been involved in reconstructing 30 local schools and two orphanages, that it had worked to train the local police support unit in Basra, that it had maintained fuel supplies and much more. Will he therefore join me in congratulating the Queen's Lancashire Regiment, in particular, and the other units that have been doing such vital work in reconstructing Iraq?

Mr. Hoon

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for her question. I was able to see for myself the excellent work done by the Queen's Lancashire Regiment. It has made a significant contribution to the stability of Basra, where it is involved in patrolling the city as well as planning and organising the training of the Basra police support unit, as my hon. Friend mentioned. It is also practically engaged in a number of reconstruction projects on the ground.

Mr. Paul Keetch (Hereford) (LD)

While I of course acknowledge the excellent work done by our forces in the reconstruction of Iraq, does the Secretary of State agree that continuing concerns at home about the legality of the action in Iraq must be affecting the morale of the forces involved in that work? Will he tell the House precisely whether he knew of the anxieties of the chiefs of staff about the legality of the conflict before it began? Did he pass those concerns on to the Prime Minister?

Mr. Hoon

Unlike the hon. Gentleman, I much prefer to rely on the words of the then Chief of the Defence Staff, Lord Boyce—as he is now—when he made it plain over the weekend that he had had none of the doubts apparently reported in the newspapers. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the Liberal Democrats prefer to believe the bad news that they read in the newspapers rather than the good news from members of our armed forces.

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

The whole House appreciates the heroic work of British personnel engaged in the post-war reconstruction of Iraq. Nevertheless, the Government have some questions to answer about the slow preparation for such an eventuality. Does the Secretary of State believe that the failure in planning was due to the delay in obtaining a definitive opinion on the legality of war from the Attorney-General? The Ministry of Defence had to work closely with the Department for International Development, and it still does. Does the Secretary of State believe that the then Secretary of State for International Development, the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Ladywood (Clare Short), was dilatory in her preparations for the post-war reconstruction of Iraq because of her doubts about the Attorney-General's opinion?

Mr. Hoon

I wonder whether the hon. Gentleman believes that cutting £1.5 billion from the defence budget would help preparations, because that is his policy—[Interruption.] That is what he comes to the House believing in. As recently as 6 January, the hon. Member for Mid-Sussex said: you can't do defence on the cheap. He also said that he would be "lobbying hard" to secure more funds for defence. We now know the result of his lobbying. We know that he has lobbied so successfully that the shadow Chancellor proposes to cut £1.5 billion from defence—[Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker

Order. I call Shona McIsaac.

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