Iraq (Reconstruction)

– in the House of Commons at 12:30 pm on 12th November 2003.

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Photo of Hilary Benn Hilary Benn The Secretary of State for International Development 12:30 pm, 12th November 2003

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I wish to make a statement on progress on reconstruction in Iraq.

As hon. Members are all too aware, security is a continuing concern, particularly in and around Baghdad. US forces are bearing the brunt of these attacks, but the UN and international aid agencies are also being targeted. I am sure that the whole House would wish to join me in condemning the recent bombing of the International Committee of the Red Cross and this morning's attack at the headquarters of the Italian military police in Nasiriyah, which has claimed a number of lives.

Of equal concern have been the attacks on the Iraqi people themselves, including the assassination of Aqila al-Hashimi—one of only three women members of the governing council—who was shot the day after I met her in Baghdad. Regrettably, there have been other victims, including religious and civic leaders, judges and police officers, and ordinary Iraqis caught up in bomb blasts.

Those who attack the Red Cross and Iraqis working to rebuild their country are desperate to stop reconstruction happening. We cannot let them succeed.

In these circumstances, however, it is understandable and right that the ICRC and the United Nations should review their security procedures and the way they work in Iraq, even if that means temporarily pulling back on some of their operations and pulling out some of their international staff. We stand ready to help them to finance additional security measures, where appropriate, to try to limit the effect on their capacity to help with reconstruction. We will continue to support those agencies, their local staff and the non-governmental organisations still working in the country.

However, that is only part of the picture. Political violence is largely concentrated in one part of Iraq: Baghdad and its surrounding areas. The situation is more stable in the northern provinces, and in the south-east, which I visited in September. Security is being maintained by the UK-led multinational division and the local police.

For most Iraqis, life is gradually improving. Last month, electricity supply rose above pre-conflict levels for the first time, which has allowed much-needed maintenance to take place during the cooler months when demand is lower. Food distribution is working, and supplies will continue after the UN oil-for-food programme ends this month. In addition, 1,500 schools have been refurbished; 70 million new textbooks are being distributed and attendance rates are back to pre-conflict levels. Fuel supply for domestic consumption is meeting demand. Almost all Iraq's 240 hospitals are now in operation and routine immunisation of children has resumed.

Clean water supplies are improving in much of the country, with sewerage plants being rehabilitated. Forty thousand Iraqi police officers are on duty. They are being trained and equipped. Criminal justice is being restored, but without the terrible repression that characterised Saddam's regime; and 170 newspapers are now on sale in the streets, enabling Iraqis to express their views freely.

As well as recognising the enormous contribution of the Iraqi people to these achievements, I want to take this opportunity to pay tribute to the skilled and dedicated work of UK forces and of other UK nationals, both in southern Iraq and elsewhere, for their courage and for their determination to help Iraq to rebuild itself.

Progress is also being made on the political and constitutional process, with a healthy debate under way on how best to create a genuinely representative system. UN Security Council resolution 1511 expressed support for this process and asked the UN to strengthen its role as far as circumstances allow. It also asked the governing council to set out by 15 December a timetable for the electoral process. This will provide the context for decisions about the transfer of executive and legislative authority, recognising that the coalition's aim has always been to hand Iraq over to its people as quickly as possible so that they can have control of their own political destiny.

Iraq's Ministers, appointed at the beginning of September, are taking increasing responsibility for developing and implementing policies. The governing council has gained growing recognition internationally, including from the Arab League and the UN General Assembly. It played a prominent role at the annual meetings of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund in Dubai, and governing council members and Ministers made their presence felt at the Madrid donors' conference at the end of last month. That conference raised pledges of at least $33 billion in grants and soft loans in the three years up to 2007, significantly exceeding expectations. Seventy-three countries participated, underlining the breadth of international support for securing a better future for Iraq.

In Madrid, I set out our commitment to reconstruction in Iraq with a pledge of £544 million. This includes the £209 million that the Department for International Development has already committed for humanitarian and reconstruction assistance, and £296 million over the next two years. We are considering how best to use this funding to support reconstruction, development and poverty reduction.

The pledges raised in Madrid, alongside oil revenues, foreign direct investment and commercial loans, are expected to meet Iraq's investment needs for the next four years. I can also tell the House that agreement has now been reached between the UN, the World Bank and the coalition provisional authority on the terms of reference of the international advisory and monitoring board, which will oversee the use of Iraq's own resources being channelled through the development fund for Iraq.

The Iraqi people deserve the chance that they now have for a better future; they have waited for it long enough. Much remains to be done on security to counter the violence of Saddam loyalists and others who want to deny the Iraqis this chance, but the best way we can prevent them from succeeding is to continue with reconstruction and political change. As I am sure that the House will agree, that is why we must all remain committed to the economic and social reconstruction of Iraq and to a better life for its people.

Photo of John Bercow John Bercow Shadow Secretary of State for International Development

I am grateful to the Secretary of State for his statement and for his courtesy in providing me with advance sight of it.

I shall begin on a consensual note by echoing the Secretary of State's condemnation, expressed on behalf of hon. Members of all parties, of the despicable terrorist acts that have been committed. Their purpose is to prevent reconstruction and a return to normality. They must not be allowed to achieve that purpose. I also endorse the glowing and justified tribute that the right hon. Gentleman paid to our troops and to the other British nationals who are working day after day in the public interest of the people of Iraq. We recognise and applaud that work, and hope that it will continue. Of course, some good work has been done, and the Secretary of State is entirely entitled to draw attention to the successes that have been achieved in relation to schools, hospitals, water cleanliness and so on. But we are the Opposition, with a responsibility constructively to probe, and I have a number of points to put to the right hon. Gentleman.

First, the Secretary of State referred with approval to the growing recognition of the governing council's work. I was pleased to hear what he had to say, but I ask him to tell the House how that squares with press reports about the evident dissatisfaction of the Bush Administration with the governing council, by which they are frustrated and which they believe to be divided and incapable of making the necessary decisions within the required time scale.

Secondly, the right hon. Gentleman will know that when the Foreign Secretary was asked on the "Today" programme this morning what he would like to see come out of the emergency talks in Washington between Ambassador Bremer and White House officials, the Foreign Secretary replied:

"I am not party to the talks, nor party to his return".

Why is Her Majesty's Government not party to those talks, given that HM forces are in southern Iraq, where security is, to put it mildly, highly precarious? Would it not make sense for us to be fully consulted? What kind of message does that send, ahead of President Bush's visit to the United Kingdom? Will it not seem as if he is coming here to tell the Prime Minister what will happen in Iraq, rather than to discuss with his staunchest ally what can most usefully be done to increase security and provide for reconstruction?

How can the Secretary of State explain or justify what his right hon. Friend Clare Short described as "poor preparations" for post-conflict Iraq, given that on 24 September 2002 the Opposition, in the form of my right hon. Friend Mr. Ancram, the shadow Foreign Secretary, underlined the need for a comprehensive plan for securing a new Iraq? We underlined that point on 15 October, 8 December, 16 December, 20 January, 21 January, 27 January, on 30 January, and—yes, Mr. Deputy Speaker, you can guess what comes next—a host of other occasions that time does not permit me to list today.

On 3 February, the Prime Minister tried to reassure the House that

"We are well aware that we must have a humanitarian plan that is every bit as viable and well worked out as a military plan". —[Hansard, 3 February 2003; Vol. 399, c. 36.]

That is on the record—but we, and millions of other people, see no evidence of the existence of such a plan.

Moreover, our suspicions were confirmed on 28 October when Sir Jeremy Greenstock, referring to attempted reconstruction, admitted:

"There was a slow start, and we are now trying to catch up on that".

Why does the right hon. Gentleman not undertake, in the public interest, to publish the Government's original post-war plan so that we, and others, can judge for ourselves how well or badly prepared the Government were? I call on him to give that commitment today.

On 8 November the Red Cross announced that it would temporarily close its offices in Baghdad and Basra. That followed similar decisions by Médecins sans Frontières, Save the Children and Oxfam. What confidence does the Secretary of State have—I hope that he does possess such confidence—that conditions will improve sufficiently to allow their safe return, and within what time scale does he expect that return to take place?

The Secretary of State again referred, with alacrity, to the Madrid conference last month and the plan for reconstruction outlined there. However, I must return to a crucial theme of concern to millions of the most vulnerable people in the world—the plight of those 140 million people living in poverty in middle-income countries. The Prime Minister said on 25 April that help would continue to be provided for those people, and that they would not be expected to pay the price or foot the bill for Iraq's reconstruction.

The Secretary of State's written ministerial statement on 14 October made no mention of imminent cuts to much-needed programmes; such news was provided only on 6 November, less than a week ago. In the light of the decision that he has made, I think I am entitled to ask the right hon. Gentleman precisely which, and how many, needed projects will suffer, how development will be retarded, and what estimate he has made of the numbers of those who will suffer as a consequence?

A specific point of concern to many people is the prospect of re-establishing the spinal injuries unit. The right hon. Gentleman will be well familiar with that, and will know that it was blown up when United Nations headquarters were bombed. The Opposition, in the form of my hon. Friend Mrs. Spelman, the former shadow Secretary of State, have repeatedly asked for some Department for International Development funding to be made available to help with the re-establishment of that vital unit. To date and to my serious regret, the Government have refused to take that simple but practical step, which would not only bring immediate relief to sufferers, but show the people of Iraq that we were genuinely committed in practical terms, through deeds as well as words, to their successful and secure future.

May I conclude by saying to the Secretary of State—whom I regard it as a great privilege to shadow—that no hon. Member doubts the decency of his intentions, but many people in the House and throughout the country doubt the capability of the Government to deliver in deeds what they have promised in words? On the strength of the track record to date, it is difficult to escape the conclusion that, while Ministers prevaricate in Westminster, the people of Iraq are desperately trying to get on with their lives. Is it not the truth that, whereas the Government, notably in the form of the Prime Minister, displayed courage and statesmanship in the conduct of war, the reality is that they have been guilty of dither and abdication of responsibility in failing to prepare for the peace?

Photo of Hilary Benn Hilary Benn The Secretary of State for International Development

I welcome the hon. Gentleman on his first appearance at the Dispatch Box on a statement. I am sorry about the way that he ended his observations and his legitimate questions, to which I shall endeavour to respond, because no hon. Member listening to what I have described and the discussions and statements that we have had previously on Iraq could doubt the Government's determination—indeed, the determination of hon. Members on both sides of the House—to try to get this right.

I also welcome what the hon. Gentleman said about our forces and our staff, because it will be much appreciated by those people, who are working very hard, and his condemnation of the attacks—the result of the work of those who frankly will stop at nothing to try to undermine the process.

On security, I think the hon. Gentleman will recognise that while it is the case that life for ordinary Iraqis is getting better and their security is improving, for the coalition forces, the international aid agencies, the UN and the Red Cross, the security situation is getting more difficult. Those two things are happening at the same time.

On the governing council, as the hon. Gentleman will be aware it came together from a disparate group of people, some from outside the country and some who had remained throughout the Saddam years. It is finding its feet. Its members are getting to work together and they represent a range of interests. In taking the first steps towards establishing democracy in Iraq, we have to start somewhere, and it was entirely right and proper to bring together a group of people with a range of interests who represent different parts of that complex country.

All I would say in describing what I saw of the governing council's members in Madrid is that their confidence and authority are increasing as they are getting involved in the work of taking decisions, in consultation and discussion with the coalition provisional authority, about the future of the country. As the hon. Gentleman will recognise and as my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary made clear on the "Today" programme this morning, a process is going on to work out how best to do that and increasingly to transfer responsibility to Iraqis. That is the subject of continuing high-level consultation between the United Kingdom and America.

On preparation, we have already set out the steps that we took to prepare for the outcome of the conflict. As the hon. Gentleman will probably be aware, DFID, in particular, rightly prepared for the potential worst outcome—a humanitarian crisis—so all the things that we put in place were in anticipation of that because, frankly, if we had failed to prepare for that crisis, we would have been rightly criticised. Thankfully, that did not arise because the conflict was very short.

I accept what the hon. Gentleman says about the start of reconstruction having been slow, but all I ask him to acknowledge is that real progress has been made, and I simply ask those hon. Members—including Mr. Ancram—who have said that swift enough progress is not being made to acknowledge that we have seen real progress, particularly in the past couple of months.

Photo of Hilary Benn Hilary Benn The Secretary of State for International Development

In a sense, never mind the planning when we can see the product of the improvement that results from the work that has been done and the planning that has taken place at every stage. So look at the evidence of the progress.

On the position of the Red Cross, I cannot say what the timetable might be for the return of the Red Cross's international staff. That is a decision for the Red Cross and other agencies to take on the basis of their assessment of the security position. What the House needs to remember, however, is that a considerable number of Iraqi staff of the international agencies, including the Red Cross, are continuing to work in Iraq. That is why the reconstruction work continues. It has an effect, but the Iraqis who work for those organisations, and the Iraqis in the Ministry of Health and others, are getting on with the job. That is why I hope that the reconstruction process will continue, and the evidence suggests that that is the case.

On the spinal injuries unit, about which the hon. Gentleman rightly says that his predecessor was very concerned, he may or may not be aware that the Ministry of Health and the CPA have undertaken to carry out repairs to it, which I am advised will create 30 beds. Our work through the World Health Organisation and others is to build the establishment of primary care, because, ultimately, we must focus our efforts somewhere. I understand the importance of the spinal injuries unit, and I am pleased to be able to report to the House that, as a result of representations made by ourselves and others, that process will take place.

On the middle-income countries, first, we made a pledge that Iraqi reconstruction would not affect humanitarian work or funding for emergencies, and it has not done so. Secondly, as was touched on in oral questions, it has not affected middle-income programmes this year, and the great bulk of the money for Iraqi reconstruction has not come from that source. In any event, we were committed to the change of moving to 90 per cent. of our bilateral funding being allocated to the poorest countries. I think that that is the right policy, and I hope that the hon. Gentleman will support it. My other point is that it would be a mistake to look at Britain's support for middle-income countries solely in terms of our bilateral programme, as we make a very significant investment through the EU and the multilaterals. In Latin America, for example, the UK share of EC spending and multilateral spending in 2001, which is the last year for which figures are available, amounted to £68 million. A significant programme of work continues in those countries, including those from which we propose to withdraw—in most cases slightly earlier than we already intended to do, long before Iraq arose as an issue—and it is important that we recognise the contribution that the UK is making.

Photo of Tom Brake Tom Brake Opposition Whip (Commons), Shadow Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Communities and Local Government), Liberal Democrat Whip

I join the shadow Secretary of State in thanking the Secretary of State for providing an advance copy of the statement today. I also join him in condemning the attacks on Iraqi citizens, the Red Cross, UK and US troops, the Italian police, as we have heard today, and Iraqi governing council members. I, too, pay tribute to the work that is being done by the various organisations and forces in that region.

First, does the Secretary of State agree that the best way of speeding up reconstruction in Iraq is to increase and bring forward the involvement of the UN? Can he set out why he believes that there is a better prospect of the pledges that have been made on Iraq being delivered than, for instance, the Tokyo pledges on Afghanistan, in respect of which I am afraid to say the money has not been forthcoming? Can he comment on the reasons for Paul Bremer's emergency recall and whether there are any implications for Iraqi reconstruction? Can he also set out whether there have been any discussions between his Department or other Departments and Paul Bremer about the prospect of British companies and companies from other countries being involved to a much greater degree in the projects that will be funded by the US?

Can the Secretary of State comment on reports, to which the Conservative spokesman alluded, about the threat to the Iraqi governing council and whether it was going to be replaced by a Loya Jirga or something similar? What implications would that have for the reconstruction in Iraq, and what impact would it have on a timetable for elections and handover of sovereignty, which the Iraqi governing council is expected to deliver by 15 December? On an associated point, can the Secretary of State clarify exactly what Sir Jeremy Greenstock's role is in relation to Iraqi reconstruction? Does he in fact have a defined role? Can the Secretary of State comment on whether he has heard rumours of unhappiness associated with Sir Jeremy, and rumours that Sir Jeremy does not think that he currently has a particularly well-defined role in Iraq?

On the question of the Red Cross, clearly, the Secretary of State is not able to provide us with a timetable as to when the Red Cross is likely to return, but can he comment on any parameters or criteria that it will require to be met before it can consider its return? One of the unintended consequences of the reconstruction of Iraq, which has already been alluded to, is the diversion of funds away from middle-income countries. Can the Secretary of State clarify whether any assessment of those projects, and the impact on them, was made before the diversion of funds was announced? Can he explain why those projects, which were previously deemed priority projects, are no longer so deemed? Does he believe, as I do, that people in Romania and Egypt, for instance, will find it hard to understand the reasons why they are having to pay for reconstruction in Iraq?

Iraq's future clearly hangs in the balance, and I urge the Secretary of State to use his office to ensure that Iraq does not descend into chaos, which would be at great cost to Iraqi citizens.

Photo of Hilary Benn Hilary Benn The Secretary of State for International Development

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his words on behalf of those who are working in Iraq and his condemnation of the bombings and attacks that have been taking place.

In answer to the hon. Gentleman's first question, the best way to speed up the reconstruction process is to be able to maintain the rate of progress in improving the lives of ordinary Iraqis, as that builds confidence in the process and people feel that things are getting better, which they are. A second way is to ensure that there is a clearly defined political process that the Iraqi people can see has as its purpose the quickest possible transfer of responsibility for decisions about the future of their country—something that has been denied to them for 30 years under Saddam. That is what the discussions that continue to take place between ourselves, the Americans and the governing council are all about. In response to the hon. Gentleman's point about Sir Jeremy Greenstock, he plays an extremely important part and is a pivotal figure in precisely those discussions.

On the question of pledges, it is for each country that has made a pledge to honour the commitment that it has given. I can speak only for the UK Government, and I assure the House that we intend to honour the pledges that we have given about the money that we will make available for the reconstruction of Iraq.

On the so-called threat to the Iraqi governing council, a live political discussion about the political process is taking place, as my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary made clear earlier today, about how we balance the drawing up of a new constitution, the way in which that will be done, who will participate, and at what point it leads to elections. What the UN Security Council resolution, which was unanimously supported, achieved was international support for that process, and it is the job of the Iraqi governing council to report back by 15 December on exactly what should be the timetable for those different stages. That is the right process, because it is the Iraqis who should determine that and nobody else.

On the Red Cross, I cannot tell the hon. Gentleman what criteria the Red Cross might use. It will depend on its assessment of the position. I simply point out to the House that the Red Cross is staying in the north of the country and it has said that the withdrawal is temporary.

On reallocation, in relation to Romania and Egypt, to which the hon. Gentleman referred in particular, we had already planned to withdraw from those countries. There has been a real debate within DFID, long before Iraq, about what we add in the work that we do in middle-income countries. We used to have a programme in the Pacific, but we no longer have one because we have been concentrating our efforts on the poorest countries of the world—hence the commitment to get 90 per cent. of our spending to those countries by 2005–06. I repeat that I believe that that is the right policy.

Finally, to return to threats to the Iraqi governing council, I simply say to the House that the threats to the Iraqi governing council about which I am worried are the threats from those who are trying to kill the people who are putting their lives on the line to try to give the Iraqi people the chance of a better future and who deserve the support of the entire House in that endeavour.

Photo of Ann Clwyd Ann Clwyd Special Envoy to PM on Human Rights in Iraq

My right hon. Friend is right that reconstruction in Iraq is continuing apace. I was there only a few weeks ago and saw exactly what was going on. There could be faster progress but the security situation, as he rightly described, makes it more difficult for reconstruction to happen at speed. The governing council should be given responsibility as the interim government of Iraq until there can be elections. Also, the Iraqis themselves should be given responsibility for security because they know the people, streets and places and could find those who are responsible for some of the atrocities that are being committed. May I urge my right hon. Friend to consider those matters because such progress would be right for Iraq? Although the Iraqis should be given responsibility for security, the coalition should stay in Iraq until its stability and security are secured.

Photo of Hilary Benn Hilary Benn The Secretary of State for International Development

First, I acknowledge the role that my hon. Friend is playing, both as someone who has been passionately interested in Iraq for many years and as the Prime Minister's special envoy on human rights. I agree with her entirely about the need to build the Iraqis' capacity to take responsibility for security as quickly as possible with, of course, the continuing support of the coalition forces. That is precisely the process that is taking place. The new Iraqi army is starting to emerge and the civil defence force, the border police and the facilities protection service are looking after the products of reconstruction, which some people have been trying to undermine and blow up. There are now 40,000 police on the streets and training is taking place, so it is no accident that several of the bomb attacks have been against the people who are training the police and the places where that is happening. The Iraqi people want security, and providing more police officers will help to produce Iraqi-led and Iraqi-owned security. That should reinforce the determination of all of us not to allow the people who are cynically trying to undermine the process to succeed.

Photo of Martin Smyth Martin Smyth Independent Ulster Unionist, Belfast South

I appreciate the concerns about the slowness of development, but could that be because of the speed of the success of the forces? Since we understand the problem of terrorism, I assure the Secretary of State that our sympathy is with the Iraqi people in these days. Has the west provided police trainers in the numbers that were wanted? There was an outcry last month about that, so why was there such delay? The Red Cross stands for the suffering servant and redemption, so we hope that the time will come speedily when it will return to where it was always needed. We welcome the continuing service of those in northern Iraq and elsewhere.

Photo of Hilary Benn Hilary Benn The Secretary of State for International Development

The hon. Gentleman is right to say that because, with hindsight, part of the slow start to the process was due to the speed with which the conflict ended—people expected it to go on for much longer and anticipated a humanitarian crisis that did not emerge. He is right about police training. Efforts are under way as we speak to get more police trainers into Iraq because that is an important way to help with training. We all wish the Red Cross every success in trying to protect its staff and making a judgment in due course about when it will be safe for its international staff to return. It has played a really important role in the country for many years and a significant part of the funding that we gave in preparation for the reconstruction was to back its work.

Photo of Mr Alan Howarth Mr Alan Howarth Labour, Newport East

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the bombing of the UN headquarters in Baghdad on 19 August was not only a terrible tragedy in terms of lives lost and injuries caused, but dismaying because it led to the UN's decision, which was understandable enough, to withdraw its international personnel from Iraq? Surely it is important that there should be no perception that the UN has abandoned the field to terrorists and that it should be seen to be playing a full and authoritative role in Iraq during the period of reconstruction and transition. When does he expect UN international personnel to be back inside Iraq?

Photo of Hilary Benn Hilary Benn The Secretary of State for International Development

I agree with my right hon. Friend about the importance of the UN's role and about the degree to which that was recognised by several resolutions, including resolution 1511, which gave UN authorisation to the multinational force in Iraq. I think that hon. Members will find that the resolution says that, in recognition of the difficulties and risks that the UN faces because of the attack, its involvement should be as circumstances allow. The UN has an important role to play in supporting the process and, indeed, that was the work of Sergio Vieira de Mello before he was killed in the bomb blast in August. The UN, with the governing council and the coalition, plays an important part in discussions to reach decisions on how to take the political process forward because that would be the most significant contribution, alongside improving the lives of normal Iraqis, that would allow the process to succeed and maximise the chances of Iraq having the better future that it deserves.

Photo of Andrew Murrison Andrew Murrison Shadow Minister (Health)

The Secretary of State has painted a fairly upbeat picture of progress in Iraq, which is understandable enough. However, he cannot deny that the security situation is deteriorating. I fear that we will not see much progress unless it improves. In that context, will he comment on moves to establish a British theatre internment facility to take over much of the work currently done by the American internment facility in Umm Qasr? Will he explain how the approach of such a British facility would differ from that of the American facility?

Photo of Hilary Benn Hilary Benn The Secretary of State for International Development

The House will probably be aware that the hon. Gentleman has recently returned from service in Iraq. I acknowledge his point about security, as I did when I replied to Mr. Bercow, because two things are happening. First, there is no point in hiding the fact that the security situation has become more difficult for our forces and international aid agencies because those who are trying to undermine the process have become more adept at attacking those who are leading the reconstruction and more determined to do so. Secondly, however, life is beginning to get better for ordinary Iraqis. There are two different types of security in the country at the moment and we need to acknowledge that when forming a judgment about how things are going. The standards that would be applied in the internment facility would be in keeping with those that apply elsewhere and for which British forces are rightly well known.

Photo of Kali Mountford Kali Mountford Labour, Colne Valley

The whole House will acknowledge that the Iraqi people suffered many hardships under Saddam before the conflict. The true measure of progress will be when a point is reached at which ordinary people feel that they are being delivered goods and services better than they were under Saddam, rather than by reference to plans that we made before the conflict. What progress is being made on achieving that? Although much has been said about the governance of Iraq, surely it is a sign of a truly civic society when governance happens locally. Has there been any progress on establishing such a society for local communities, districts and towns?

Photo of Hilary Benn Hilary Benn The Secretary of State for International Development

My hon. Friend makes an important point about the glue that holds a democracy together and makes it work. Many things are happening in Iraq because of the freedom that has become available, and the development of the free media is one example of that. As I flew over Baghdad, I saw satellite dishes all over the rooftops, although they were banned under Saddam. The meetings that I held in Basra were with members of the local governing council, the local women's organisation, the chambers of trade and commerce and representatives of journalists and writers. A lively process is taking place in which local government plays an important part, although it does not get much coverage or publicity. The House will want to try to get a balanced view of what is happening. Everyone acknowledges that there are security difficulties because we read about them every morning in newspapers and see them on our television screens. However, another story is that of the Iraqi people taking advantage of the opportunity that they have to build themselves a better life. It is important that we encourage them in all the work that we do. Although we make an important contribution, the Iraqi people's contribution to rebuilding their own country will make the difference.

Photo of Patrick Cormack Patrick Cormack Conservative, South Staffordshire

In view of the fact that continued close co-operation between British and American forces in Iraq and between the British and American Governments is essential to the safe reconstruction of Iraq, does the right hon. Gentleman think it appropriate for President Bush to share his thoughts with Members of both Houses when he is here next week?

Photo of Hilary Benn Hilary Benn The Secretary of State for International Development

It is not my place to be drawn on that particular question. However, it is important that the dialogue between the UK and the United States is shared as widely as possible because, frankly, the responsibility is shared between all of us in this House and Congress as well.

Photo of Lynne Jones Lynne Jones Labour, Birmingham, Selly Oak

When does my right hon. Friend envisage Iraq ceasing to rely on imports to supply such a large proportion of its fuel needs? Does he agree that it was always unrealistic to suggest that Iraqi reconstruction could be financed from its oil revenues? Does he also agree that support should be in the form of grants, not loans, with the occupying powers bearing the brunt of the responsibility for that burden?

Photo of Hilary Benn Hilary Benn The Secretary of State for International Development

Oil production is important to Iraq's economic future, as my hon. Friend knows. At the moment, oil revenue is used to support the process of reconstruction. The money goes into the development fund for Iraq and pays the salaries of teachers, doctors, police officers and others, many of whom receive higher salaries now than they did under the Saddam regime. One thing that needs to be done to improve oil production further is to ensure the continuity of the electricity supply to the pumping systems and refineries. That is why the sharp increase in electricity production over the past month and a half is so important. Iraq is also in a period of lower demand because of the colder weather. Further investment to increase production capacity to the target of 6,000 MW next year is important. In addition, we need to build up the security of the installations, infrastructure and pipelines. People are still trying to blow them up simply because they want to undermine oil production and the generation of revenue to support reconstruction. We need to do both those things.

As far as grants are concerned, if we give the right support now, which is why the Madrid donor conference was so important, get the politics right and deal with the security problem, Iraq's wealth, the astonishing capacity of its people—it is a highly educated population—and its proud culture and history will enable the country to take off. The House should remember that, 30 years ago, gross domestic product per head in Iraq was the same as that of Portugal, which demonstrates how much the Iraqi people suffered under Saddam.

Photo of Mr Paul Marsden Mr Paul Marsden Liberal Democrat, Shrewsbury and Atcham

I appreciate the genuine sincerity of the Secretary of State's commitment to rebuild Iraq, but seven months after the supposed end of the war he admitted in a written reply to me on 22 October that there were still shortages of antisera, anti-cancer and local anaesthetic drugs in Iraqi hospitals. Will he urgently review the situation with a view to ensuring that full medical supplies get through to the Iraqi people?

Photo of Hilary Benn Hilary Benn The Secretary of State for International Development

I gladly undertake to do that. I discussed the problem with four of the UK staff seconded from the Department of Health who were working at CPA south in Basra. They told me that the solution is to get the distribution system right and for hospitals to anticipate when they are about to run short of drugs so that they place orders sufficiently in advance of that happening, so it is partly about systems. The Red Cross played an important role in that and its national Iraqi staff will continue to do that work.

I shall look into the specific cases that the hon. Gentleman raised. Part of our funding has been used to support improved drug distribution. The Iraqi hospital system is recovering from the nightmare that it has been through. Iraqi doctors, nurses and other staff have worked hard to keep the system going. The hospitals now function and we must support them to ensure that they have the drugs that they need to provide the best service for their patients.

Photo of Mrs Helen Liddell Mrs Helen Liddell Labour, Airdrie and Shotts

My right hon. Friend gave a welcome and balanced analysis of the situation, which I found greatly reassuring. People have inevitably concentrated on the public sector expertise available in Iraq, but there is considerable expertise in the private sector in the UK, not least among Iraqis who were exiled during Saddam Hussein's regime. What mechanisms exist to use that expertise? Is it realistic to use it now given the security situation in Iraq?

Photo of Hilary Benn Hilary Benn The Secretary of State for International Development

My right hon. Friend raises an important point about the long-term future of Iraq's economy, which was highly regulated with many state-owned enterprises. The real engine of reconstruction will be economic development, as is the case in many countries. It is important to make use of the resources and skills to which she refers. That process will take time. Economic reform must have regard to the circumstances that people are in now, including the unemployment level. One benefit of the reconstruction work, including the work funded by the UK, is to let contracts to Iraqi companies and to provide jobs for Iraqi workers. That helps to deal with the problem. In the long term, however, decisions need to be taken on the future structure of the Iraqi economy. It is my clear view that they should be taken by the governing council because they are so important for the country's future.

Photo of Mr Archie Norman Mr Archie Norman Conservative, Tunbridge Wells

While I in no way want to belittle the progress that has been made in rebuilding Iraq's infrastructure, is the right hon. Gentleman aware of the continuing decrepit state of the banking system? The Foreign Office still says that there is no way of getting cash to British citizens in Iraq, let alone foreign nationals or Iraqis, with the consequence that people like Mrs. Jones in my constituency cannot get money to her relatives. More serious than that, perhaps, is how hard it is for businesses to get funds to invest in Iraq and Iraqi businesses. The Foreign Office cannot offer advice on when the situation will change. Can the Secretary of State enlighten us?

Photo of Hilary Benn Hilary Benn The Secretary of State for International Development

I cannot, but I undertake to look into that problem and to get back to the hon. Gentleman. Many changes have taken place, including the successful currency transformation, which took up much time and effort. However, I understand the concern that he expresses on behalf of those who want to pass funds on to people in Iraq.

Photo of David Winnick David Winnick Labour, Walsall North

As one who fully supported freeing Iraq from Saddam's tyranny—that tyranny should be borne in mind by next week's demonstrators—I none the less have the feeling that not enough is being done to explain the objectives of the occupying forces to the Iraqi people. That plays into the hands of the terrorists and criminals. The mass media should be used far more in Iraq to explain what is intended because there is much misunderstanding, to say the least, in Iraq over what is to be done over the next few years.

Photo of Hilary Benn Hilary Benn The Secretary of State for International Development

My hon. Friend raises an important point. Having spoken about the satellite dishes that I saw on many Baghdad roofs, I suspect that they are pointed principally at al-Jazeera and al-Arabiya—

Photo of Hilary Benn Hilary Benn The Secretary of State for International Development

One would like to think that BBC Parliament was popular viewing in Baghdad and Basra. We live in hope.

My hon. Friend David Winnick made an important point. It is the responsibility of the Iraqi governing council to explain the part that it plays in ensuring that the political process gives the Iraqi people the chance to take decisions on their future. I am sure he is right that more needs to be done on that front, in the same way as more needs to be done in the UK to give a more balanced picture of what is happening in Iraq today.

Photo of Hywel Williams Hywel Williams Shadow PC Spokesperson (Work and Pensions), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Health)

The Secretary of State will be aware of the dissolution yesterday of KADEK, the Kurdistan Freedom and Democracy Congress. That took place to facilitate the setting up of a new organisation that would be more democratic and decentralised, and untainted by the past. Does the Secretary of State welcome that positive move to allow Kurdish people to discuss matters with the dominant nation states in the area, and will he share with the House his thoughts on the value of greater decentralisation in Iraq and greater self-determination for the Kurdish people in the country's reconstruction?

Photo of Hilary Benn Hilary Benn The Secretary of State for International Development

I certainly welcome the opportunities for greater political diversity, discussion and free debate that are opening up in Iraq as a result of the disappearance of Saddam's regime. As for the hon. Gentleman's point about the way in which the country should be structured and run in future, my view is that that is a decision for the Iraqi people, which is why the constitutional process is such an important part of reaching a decision on the issue that he raised.

Photo of Chris McCafferty Chris McCafferty Labour, Calder Valley

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for confirming that food supplies will continue after the oil-for-food programme finishes at the end of the month. However, will he also confirm the existence of an unpublished Bremer directive to end the public distribution system by June 2004? What is the Government's position on maintaining the public distribution system, which is clearly important for Iraqi welfare?

Photo of Hilary Benn Hilary Benn The Secretary of State for International Development

My hon. Friend has drawn attention to an issue that needs to be addressed. The fact that 60 per cent. of the Iraqi people were dependent on the food distribution system for their staple diet is an indication of the state of despair in which the country found itself. The fact that the public distribution system has continued to work effectively is important in providing stability while other reconstruction work takes place. Over time, however, the system will have to change, and discussions are taking place on the right form of system, the pace at which changes occur, and the way in which the system will eventually work. The most important thing in the course of those discussions is to ensure that there is no disruption in the availability of food. We shall apply that test to any decisions that are made.

Photo of Crispin Blunt Crispin Blunt Conservative, Reigate

I am sure that the Secretary of State has read Simon Jenkins's article in The Times today which, if accurate, shows that his statement that there is a healthy debate about the political and constitutional process contains, unusually for him, more spin than substance. If the rest of Mr. Jenkins's analysis is correct, the fact is that there has been a catastrophic failure of British influence with the Americans in the past 15 months. The Foreign Secretary's statement today that he has not even been consulted on Mr. Bremer's talks with the Administration simply demonstrates that, with the Pentagon taking the lead rather than the State Department, and with the dismantling of the Iraqi army, some fundamental decisions have been made from which British influence was wholly absent. We are now in a position of having responsibility without power. Will the Secretary of State and the rest of the Government do their best to address the situation at which we have now arrived?

Photo of Hilary Benn Hilary Benn The Secretary of State for International Development

I have not read the article to which the hon. Gentleman referred, and I do not accept the description of the situation that he has just given.

Photo of Tom Clarke Tom Clarke Labour, Coatbridge and Chryston

In thanking my right hon. Friend for his comprehensive statement, may I ask whether he is aware of the concerns of the Kurdish representatives on the Iraqi governing council about northern Iraq? Those of us who have seen the tremendous transformation in health and education since the early '90s—there are now two universities, road infrastructure has improved and so on—share the view that that progress should continue. However, we also share concerns that have been expressed about neighbouring states and their objectives, and I would be grateful for his view on that. Is he convinced that the standing of northern Iraq and its boundaries and human rights are being respected by neighbouring states, including Turkey?

Photo of Hilary Benn Hilary Benn The Secretary of State for International Development

It is very important that all countries, particularly neighbouring states, act in a way that supports the political, economic and social process of reconstruction in Iraq. I am acutely aware of the position of the Kurdish part of Iraq, what it has gained from the protection provided in the past by the no-fly zone and the opportunities that have opened up with the fall of Saddam. It is important that we respect that, and that the Kurds play a full part in decisions within Iraq about the future structure of the country. One of the great merits of the governing council in the form in which it was established is that it recognised the Shi'a, the Sunni, the Kurds and the Iraqi Communist party in an effort to represent all the interests of the country, while acknowledging that Iraq is a complex country with a difficult history and that making decisions about its future governance will require much careful debate and discussion. I am sure that the process that is now in place will ensure that the Kurdish people and the Kurdish part of Iraq can play their part in reaching those decisions, because we want to build on what has been achieved.

Photo of Julian Lewis Julian Lewis Shadow Minister (Defence)

Is it not precisely because this is such a complex situation that it is unfortunate that Britain is not being consulted when the Americans are making key decisions about what is to be done? The Secretary of State, as always, was comprehensive in his reply to the shadow Secretary of State, but he did not address the point about the Foreign Secretary or, indeed, any Government representative not being included in the discussions between the Americans and Ambassador Bremer? I think that the Secretary of State is old enough to remember what happened in the run-up to our withdrawal from Aden, when the security situation was coming under control, only for a premature announcement to be made that we were going to withdraw. That was intended to pacify people, but it encouraged the terrorists. It is important that we are not panicked into hasty action and that the Americans are not either. With our experience, there may be some things that we can usefully tell them about such a process.

Photo of Hilary Benn Hilary Benn The Secretary of State for International Development

I shall resist the temptation, because I would probably be ruled out of order, to discuss the experience of our withdrawal from Aden in 1967. Discussions are taking place all the time between all the parties in the process, including Ambassador Bremer, whom I met when I was in Baghdad and with whom Jeremy Greenstock has regular discussions. One should not confuse what appears in some newspapers with the reality of the debate. Everybody in the process should reflect on what has worked and what has not, and the way in which we can change what we are doing in response to changing circumstances. That is the sensible thing to do. As a result of those discussions, the Iraqi governing council will take decisions and make recommendations on 15 December that will chart the way forward.

Photo of Mr Harry Barnes Mr Harry Barnes Labour, North East Derbyshire

Is my right hon. Friend aware that Saddam Hussein, like Adolf Hitler, had his people dragooned, incorporated and controlled by three mass organisations—one for women, one for young people and one for trade unionists? Now that those organisations are free to act, they are often in desperate need of office facilities, education and other provisions. The Foreign Secretary met the general secretary of the TUC and trade union leaders last week to discuss the situation of trade unions in Iraq, but what progress has been made in assisting those bodies, including organisations for women and young people, in playing a full role in the development of civic society?

Photo of Hilary Benn Hilary Benn The Secretary of State for International Development

My hon. Friend made an important point about the contribution that civil society can make to the rebuilding and reconstruction of Iraq. I can give him a practical example of support provided by the CPA in the south. Towards the end of September, I met a women's organisation in Basra that is being offered meeting space in the CPA headquarters so that it can come together to discuss issues in the town. It expressed appreciation to Sir Hilary Synnott, the head of CPA south, and me for giving them access to those facilities. It is important that we do everything that we can to encourage people who are bringing Iraqi civil society back to life, because it was cruelly repressed, as my hon. Friend said, under Saddam. That is an important part of rebuilding the country.

Photo of Richard Younger-Ross Richard Younger-Ross Liberal Democrat, Teignbridge

The answer to the question asked by Rev. Martin Smyth is that only two members of the police have been allocated. Although the Secretary of State did not say so, that was certainly the answer the last time that I asked. Will he expand on the restructuring of the power industry, particularly the rebuilding of power plants? I have asked before when that restructuring would begin, but I was given vague answers. No one would say when the contracts would be let or whatever. Will the Secretary of State tell us when they will be let, or are they still stuck in red tape in Washington?

Photo of Hilary Benn Hilary Benn The Secretary of State for International Development

I undertake to write to the hon. Gentleman to give him a comprehensive answer on the current state of play in relation to those contracts.

Photo of Joan Ruddock Joan Ruddock Labour, Lewisham, Deptford

My right hon. Friend will know that in post-conflict situations, violence against women escalates. Will he ask his officials to look at Iraqi micro-projects such as the Baghdad women's shelter that is being run by the Organisation of Women's Freedom in Iraq, and which is giving support to women escaping honour killings? Small grants to such projects could do much to save lives and to give Iraqi women more confidence in the coalition.

Photo of Hilary Benn Hilary Benn The Secretary of State for International Development

I gladly undertake to ask my officials to look at the project to which my hon. Friend refers. I will write to her, and perhaps we can discuss it.