Part of Oral Answers to Questions — Leader of the House – in the House of Commons at 3:30 pm on 8th October 2007.

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Photo of David Cameron David Cameron Leader of Her Majesty's Official Opposition, Leader of the Conservative Party 3:30 pm, 8th October 2007

May I start by welcoming the Prime Minister's statement? I hope that he will agree that statements on our troops should always be made in the House of Commons. I join the Prime Minister in paying tribute to the 25 servicemen who have died in Iraq and Afghanistan since we last met. We owe them and their families a huge debt for their professionalism, courage and sacrifice.

The whole country will welcome the fact that more of our troops are coming home, and no one will be more relieved than the families of the troops concerned. Could the Prime Minister clarify one point in that regard? He spoke about 500 logistic staff who will be based outside Iraq. Can he confirm that they will be moved from Iraq, or are some of them already based in neighbouring countries?

May I also welcome today's announcement about the Iraqi interpreters? People who have risked their lives for Britain should never be let down by Britain.

In Iraq, our overriding objectives should be to maximise the success of the mission and to minimise the danger to our troops. With that in mind, I wish to ask the Prime Minister about three main issues: the reduction in troop numbers, the goals and the safety of our remaining troops, and the steps being taken towards a political settlement.

On troop numbers, decisions should clearly depend on the build-up of the Iraqi army and the state of security in southern Iraq. Is the Prime Minister satisfied that the border between Iraq and Iran can be policed effectively, in what is called the second stage of overwatch, without the involvement of British troops? Is the Prime Minister satisfied that the 13,000 Iraqi troops that we have trained in the south are sufficient to maintain the security of southern Iraq?

That question leads to the second issue: the goals for our remaining troops and their safety. When troop numbers continue to be reduced, there comes a point at which they will lack a critical mass and cannot protect themselves properly. Is the Prime Minister absolutely satisfied that the reductions will not take us past that point? Furthermore, does he think that that is the minimum number necessary for such protection?

As the Prime Minister has said, Basra air station was subject to attack even before the move out from Basra palace. Is he now satisfied that the protection at Basra air station is adequate?

One of the purposes of the overwatch role is to deploy the troops again if necessary. So can the Prime Minister tell the House under what criteria such redeployment would take place, who would make that decision, and what size of force is required to make the potential to redeploy credible?

However much the international community does, there is clearly a limit to what outsiders are able to achieve. It is up to the Iraqi communities themselves to come together and achieve political stability. As anyone who has been to Iraq knows, political progress is painfully slow. The independent Government Accountability report in the United States last month said that just three of the 18 benchmarks that had been set for the Iraqi Government had been met. Will the Prime Minister confirm that no de-Ba'athification law has yet been enacted, and that laws governing the distribution of Iraq's oil revenues have been drafted but have not yet been passed?

The Prime Minister spoke about neighbours conferences. Does he agree that it is now time for a permanent international contact group, with a permanent secretariat, to ensure co-ordination with Iraq's neighbours on the crucial issues facing the country?

It is essential that we learn from the mistakes in Iraq and that we do not repeat them in Afghanistan: too little co-ordination, too little political progress and lack of a realistic plan. Now that more troops are coming home, may we have the independent inquiry we need to learn the lessons? The Chief of the Defence Staff said that when it comes to reporting on progress all we get are

"snapshots...sometimes really good and sometimes really bad".

Does the Prime Minister accept the need to provide Parliament with full, regular updates on progress in Iraq and Afghanistan, and will he take up our proposal for at least a full quarterly report?

On reflection does the Prime Minister agree that the way in which he made the announcement about troop withdrawals last week and the way it was briefed to the press were mistakes? He promised to make such announcements to the House of Commons, but he did not. He promised that 1,000 of our troops would be brought back before Christmas, yet is it not the case that 500 had already been announced and 270 were already back in the country?

I have to say to the Prime Minister that this is of a different order of magnitude from what we have had from him over the past decade. This is not double counting of Government spending. This is not just spinning the good bits of a Budget. This is about dealing with people's lives and the families of our brave servicemen, and does he agree that this is not an acceptable way for a Prime Minister to behave?