HL Deb 02 April 2003 vol 646 cc1312-5

3 p.m.

Lord Smith of Clifton asked Her Majesty's Government:

What steps they are taking to ensure British firms get a fair share of the contracts for the post-war reconstruction of Iraq.

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, we are discussing a range of issues with the United States authorities, including the post-Saddam administration and reconstruction of Iraq, which should be endorsed by a UN Security Council resolution. United Kingdom companies have a great deal of experience in the Middle East, and we wish to see them play a substantial role in the redevelopment of Iraq's essential infrastructure. We will continue to discuss with British business how they can best contribute to the development of Iraq for the benefit of the Iraqi people.

Lord Smith of Clifton

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for that Answer. May I take from that Answer that the Government support the view of General Colin Powell that the post-war reconstruction of Iraq should be under United Nations auspices, including the letting of commercial contracts?

Secondly, does the Minister regard it as unseemly, if not downright obscene, to observe privateers, literally "red in tooth and claw", scrabbling to make a quick buck out of the current carnage and conflagration? Will she assure your Lordships that Her Majesty's Government will discourage any such appalling behaviour on the part of British firms?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, let me say plainly and without equivocation that this conflict is emphatically not about business opportunities. Our aim remains the disarmament of Iraq and the liberation of the Iraqi people. But United Kingdom companies, perhaps as well as other companies, have a great deal of knowledge and expertise to offer regarding redevelopment issues. We would like to see them play a substantial role in the humanitarian effort and the redevelopment of Iraq's essential infrastructure and, where appropriate, we will support them in so doing.

I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Smith of Clifton, about post-war construction being part and parcel of a United Nations effort. I hope I made that clear in my initial Answer by saying that we very much hope that these efforts will be endorsed by a UN Security Council resolution.

Lord Howell of Guildford

My Lords, does the Minister agree that Iraqi construction companies appear to have considerable skills, as all those enormous statues of Saddam Hussein indicate? More seriously, they have built extensive infrastructure in Iraq over the years. Does she also agree that the real kind of infrastructure that needs reconstructing is the detailed sort—in the courts, medical services, local government, and in a thousand and one areas of everyday life? That is where we must bring to bear all possible help to enable Iraq to recover from the dark night that it has been going through.

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, the skills needed by the Iraqi people are those that will bring them water, roads and the essential infrastructure to make their economy work again. The noble Lord is quite right that in addition there will be issues concerned with schooling and the reconstruction of civil society. We must not forget how much Iraq has slipped down the league of economically viable countries during the past 12 years and how the way in which it has been governed has acted to the detriment of its people. Of course I agree that there must be all sorts of ways in which the reconstruction is approached, through the civic as well as the physical infrastructure.

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, following on from my noble friend's Question, I understand that it is desirable that companies in Britain should be able to play a part in the reconstruction of Iraq. But is it not also desirable that Iraqi companies should play a part in the reconstruction of their own country and not just see all the contracts go to countries outside?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, emphatically so. I hope that this will be approached not just by United States, British or other overseas companies but by companies operating in partnership with Iraqi companies in trying to build a better future for the people of Iraq. In doing so, it will be essential for the people of Iraq, with the skills to do so, to be heavily involved in that endeavour.

Lord Campbell-Savours

My Lords, is not the issue not who owns the company but that the company employs local labour?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, that may indeed be very important. These are early days, and we have already had some discussions with the United States of America about these issues. They have set up the Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Aid to deal with this. Of course it is right that, in seeking to establish public services and civilian infrastructure, the local labour force is used and the skills to which other noble Lords have referred are utilised.

Lord Roberts of Conwy

My Lords, is there not a great danger that we are running ahead of ourselves, because Saddam has not yet been defeated and nor has an interim government been set up to succeed him?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, it is for that reason that I believe we have been very sensitive to this important issue. Your Lordships have on previous occasions raised not only humanitarian issues but those concerning the reconstruction of Iraq. My noble friend Lady Crawley answered questions on humanitarian issues but there is a point at which there is an interface between when an activity is humanitarian and when it becomes about reconstruction. So where humanitarian issues end and reconstruction issues begin is not an entirely clear-cut science. I cite the importance of building roads to get aid to the people who need such roads; however, those roads might be to do with the reconstruction of the future of the country.

I do not believe we are running ahead of ourselves. We are trying to do this sensitively, but it is sensible to have proper contingency planning. When your Lordships ask questions about the future of Iraq, as you rightly do, we should not say that we cannot answer them because it is in the future. We should be able to say that contingency plans are in place.

Lord Hardy of Wath

My Lords, although Saddam Hussein is still there, is it not reasonable to suggest that EU member states or any other state which took a particularly careless view of UN sanctions over the past two or three years should not expect the lion's shares of the orders that may accrue once Iraq is satisfactorily liberated?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, I think that the international community will approach this in a spirit of co-operation. It is enormously important that we get a United Nations Security Council resolution on this. That is being discussed not only in New York but also in capitals. However, as the British Minister for Trade, I am bound to say that I look to UK companies to play their part in this important work.