Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 12:59 pm on 24th January 2008.

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Photo of Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean Labour 12:59 pm, 24th January 2008

My Lords, I, too, welcome the fact that the noble Lord, Lord Fowler, tabled this debate—not least because Iraq remains a matter of huge and continuing importance in our domestic and international politics. As I understand it, the noble Lord has argued that, as a supporter of the war originally, he is convinced that too many questions remain unanswered about the way in which the decision to go into the conflict was taken and about what will happen in relation to planning for post-conflict Iraq. He argues that the time is right for an inquiry because we need to learn lessons.

Some lessons are already very clear and we could think about how to act upon them now. We need clearer, and more generally acknowledged principles about when it is right and legal to take military action that entails going into another country. I believed at the time—and believe now—that our action was legal; others honestly disagreed.

However, in the course of my time as a Minister in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the criteria for taking military action in other countries changed, most noticeably in relation to Kosovo, where we introduced the idea of overwhelming humanitarian disaster being a sufficient cause to take military action in another country. The rules by which the UN operates do need to be looked at dispassionately and a real effort made to get better international consensus.

There is another clear lesson about intelligence. Raw intelligence is not available either to the public or to Ministers, and should not be because, all, or most, intelligence reports are drawn from a wide variety of different sources, all are subject to judgment and open to different degrees of interpretation. To attempt to publish as much as the Government did, in the form that we did, raised more and more questions. It was done from the very best of motives.

However, we need to think about how we deal with that sort of intelligence in the future. How much should go into the public domain? How should that be presented and when? We need to take those decisions calmly and clearly—not in the heat of a huge argument about who was right and wrong and who knew what when. That is something that we could be considering now. Therefore, those are two lessons that are clear already.

On the question of an inquiry, let me say that, speaking as someone who was a Foreign Office Minister at the time, I would welcome one—but only when conditions in Iraq make that possible and right.

I now turn to "the position in Iraq", as the title of the debate of the noble Lord, Lord Fowler, asks us to do. I want to concentrate on two areas—security and economic development. On security, everyone acknowledges, even after yesterday's bombing attacks, that there are many fewer incidents now than there were this time last year. The surge has been a real factor, certainly in security around Baghdad. I think that every commentator acknowledges that there has been a reduction in the level of day-to-day violence around Baghdad.

Engagement with the Sunni tribal leaders has led to real improvements. There are local citizens groups among the Sunni community. A decision to take real consultation initiatives with the Sunni tribesmen about the al-Qaeda threat has been successful. Areas that were virtually bandit country and the heartlands of al-Qaeda in Iraq, where only the US marines were able to operate last year, are becoming safer. Obviously, that is around Al-Aubar and Sala Hadeen. All commentators are noting changes in turnaround; from what I have heard from our observers on the ground, it has been dramatic and significant. That has meant that there has been a reduction in violence of about 60 to 70 per cent. We are back to the levels that pertained at the end of 2003—too high, but going down. Intra-Shia fighting—that is, fighting between Shia groups—has diminished. A ceasefire that was initially agreed temporarily seems to be holding. Last week, the attempts of Shia extremists failed to spark off a resumption of Shia violence.

The capability of the Iraqi security forces has also improved. Last night, they saw off the violence in Basra with only air cover from the British forces, but they took on everything that happened on the ground. Will it last? It has been acknowledged—by even the most critical parts of the media, albeit grudgingly—that there have been real improvements. The next few weeks will give us further indications.

The noble Baroness, Lady Nicholson, spoke with great authority on the economy. There are a few facts that we need to bear in mind. The Iraqi economy is growing—by 6 per cent last year. That is in striking distance of a number of neighbouring Arab economies. Inflation is down from 60 per cent in 2006 to 16 per cent—the calculation of the now independent Central Bank of Iraq.

Employment was, as the noble Lord, Lord Goodlad, said, running at about 60 per cent in 2006, but it was down to 19 per cent at the end of last year. These are important figures. The Iraqis are benefiting from the increase in oil prices. They are not squandering the money. It is being invested in physical and human infrastructure—in health and education.

Around Basra, we have seen the Iraqi-run and Iraqi-based Basra Inward Investment Agency, the Basra Development Fund—with start-up money for small and medium sized businesses—and the Basra Development Commission. All of these are important economic indicators and have led to a 54 per cent increase in British exports to Iraq in areas that are also important indicators of economic growth, such as industrial machinery and road vehicles.

Our trade associations are starting to go back into Iraq. The Middle East Association and British Expertise took trade missions towards the end of last year. The MEA is planning more this year. UK companies are active in electronic banking, medicine, wider healthcare and construction, including developing the Umm Qasr Port.

Another lesson is that judgments in these areas are still evolving. Finding sources of information that widen our perspective is enormously important. It is disappointing that, when Iraqi politicians come to this country and talk to us in Parliament, sometimes few active politicians turn up to hear them.

One last lesson I have learnt is that British foreign policy dictates our defence policy. We are never in any doubt that defence policy is dependent on and subordinate to wider foreign policy priorities. It is important to know how our allies will operate. It is disconcerting to find our close allies operating on the basis that defence policy leads foreign policy. However, the fact that Pentagon was in the lead, not only on operational prosecution of the fighting—which was right and proper—but also on post-conflict handling in Iraq, was in stark contrast to our own position. Speaking as someone who was a Minister at the time, that was a very difficult realisation. It was another hard and painful lesson and one from which I hope that we have all learnt.