HL Deb 20 April 2004 vol 660 cc155-8

3.9 p.m

Lord Wallace of Saltaire asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether British influence over the Coalition Provisional Authority is commensurate with the United Kingdom's contribution to the security and reconstruction of Iraq.

The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean)

Yes, my Lords. Since the adoption of UNSCR 1483 on 22 May 2003, the working relationship has functioned well at a variety of levels: politically, militarily and technically. Of course, on occasion there are differences of emphasis and opinion but, in terms of security, the British military dominates in the Multinational Division (South-East) and, in terms of reconstruction, British companies are involved in contract awards worth more than 1.65 billion US dollars.

Lord Wallace of Saltaire

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply. Does she accept that noble Lords on these Benches are extremely concerned that the British Government should have proper influence over all levels of decisions taken by the Coalition Provisional Authority? We note, for example, as is now published in Washington, that, while at the talks President Bush was willing to accept the Prime Minister's request that the UN should have a "vital role" in the reconstruction of Iraq, the National Security Adviser, Condoleezza Rice, told him very firmly, we are informed, when he got back that he should no longer use that phrase.

In 10 weeks' time the situation will change. We are also told in Washington that the Coalition Provisional Authority will become the US Embassy. Can we be reassured that the British Government will continue to have an active influence in the role of multinational forces after the transfer of sovereignty to Iraq?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, it is important to remember that the provisional authority is a coalition. A coalition by its very nature has a variety of opinions, which are resolved through discussion and compromise. That is the case with the CPA. I remind the noble Lord that, so far as concerns internal relationships in the United States, the President of the United States is the President of the United States, not Miss Condoleezza Rice. What the President says is what we must rely on.

After 1 July there will be two embassies: an American Embassy and a British Embassy. There will be a difference after 1 July. At the moment, the offices currently occupied by David Richmond and those occupied by Ambassador Bremer are linked by a private office and there is daily contact. After 1 July, there will be separate embassies—ours will be the biggest that we have in the Middle East—but mechanisms are being set up and there will be a great deal of interchange between the two offices in order to have oversight over what is going on after 1 July.

Lord Avebury

My Lords, if the relationship is as good as the Minister claims, why did Sir Jeremy Greenstock refuse the Prime Minister's urgent request to remain at least until the end of the CPA on 30 June? Could we exert whatever influence we possess to ensure that coalition forces adhere to the Geneva Conventions, particularly Article 57 of Protocol 1, which says that forces should refrain from any attack which, may be expected to cause incidental loss of civilian life". disproportionate to the military advantage anticipated? Will the Government propose to our US allies that the international fact-finding mission established under Article 90 of Protocol 1 be invited to inquire into the alleged grave breaches of the Geneva Conventions being committed by coalition forces?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, the whole question on the noble Lord's last point is what one deems disproportionate. In the past few weeks there have been attacks from terrorist elements resulting in great losses of civilian life. The important point in what the noble Lord quoted is the question of proportionality; it is always the important point. Of course our forces abide by the issues of proportionality under the Geneva Convention.

The noble Lord asked whether the relationship was as good as claimed, when Sir Jeremy Greenstock was going before the handover period. Sir Jeremy Greenstock has been admirably generous in the time that he has given to the work that he has undertaken in Iraq. He was prevailed upon to come back from retirement to undertake that work, and I for one do not begrudge him a single moment of the time that he has now decided he wants to spend doing other things. I am delighted to say that in his successor, David Richmond, we have an enormously able diplomat. It is regrettable that others have cast some doubt on his seniority—the noble Lord did not do so. As the Minister directly responsible for that part of the world, I take the opportunity from this Dispatch Box of saying how delighted I am that we have somebody of Mr Richmond's ability undertaking the work at the moment.

Baroness Rawlings

My Lords, how do Her Majesty's Government plan to combat the decline in NGO and business involvement in Iraq, as staff are increasingly pulling out due to the increase in security problems and kidnapping?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, the increase in security and kidnapping problems over the past weeks are now being addressed. Having looked at the overnight dispatches and those over the past couple of days or so, I am happy to be able to tell the noble Baroness that there is a quieter period at the moment. Nobody can guarantee how long that will be sustained, but current reporting indicates that there is a quieter period.

The noble Baroness referred to a decline in NGOs and business. That is not the case. When I was in Iraq very recently, I spoke to a number of officials from NGOs, which are enjoying a good relationship with British and American aid agencies. In my initial response to the noble Lord, Lord Wallace of Saltaire, I made the point that we were gaining quite a number of contracts, whose current value is more than 1.65 billion US dollars. We have a number of others in the pipeline. I hope that the noble Baroness will also be pleased to know that we expect contracts and aid provision to increase in volume over the next couple of months or so.

Lord King of Bridgwater

My Lords, while the Minister is giving her customarily vigorous defence of the Government's position and the situation in Iraq, everyone in this House knows that the situation at the moment is extremely worrying. It is extremely difficult to get an accurate picture of the situation. I repeat the plea publicly that I have made to the Leader of the House privately: there must be a better system for the Government to keep people informed on the actual situation in Iraq. It is no good for the Prime Minister to stand up and say that everybody knows that things are going better generally in Iraq, and that the news reporting of the overall position is not accurate, if we have no way of establishing that overall position.

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, the noble Lord refers to my "customarily vigorous" report; I hope that it is also customary in its accuracy. It is difficult on occasions for a government to keep people informed when it is very hard for some parts of the media to want to pick up some of the better news coming out of Iraq. I have just come back from the United States of America. I was very struck to read on the front page of a United States journal a report about the way in which medical facilities were going to the Iraqi people and allowing those who had been injured to recover from facial or leg injuries, and a range of other points.

I have never seen a report like that without comment in the British press. In my view—it is a personal view— it is regrettable that we get no such reports in the British press without a great deal of overlay of editorial comment. It was startling to see in the US press reporting without comment about some of the good things happening in Iraq. I hope that parts of our media and press will listen to what the noble Lord has said and perhaps recognise that they, too, have responsibilities in this matter.