Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 1:26 pm on 22nd July 2008.

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Photo of Baroness Ashton of Upholland Baroness Ashton of Upholland President of the Council, Privy Council Office, Leader of the House of Lords and Lord President of the Council (Privy Council Office) 1:26 pm, 22nd July 2008

My Lords, I am extremely grateful to both noble Lords for their remarks. I thought that the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, began in a rather philosophical frame of mind, which is important as we consider what is changing, particularly in Basra and with the role of the British forces there.

There is no doubt that the improvements are real. Noble Lords will have the benefit of reading the Select Committee report from the other place, with the information that it has put in the public domain. We are very pleased with the progress—although, as noble Lords would expect, we are cautious about making sure that it is not as fragile as it has been in the past and that it will enable Baswari people to be able to live normal lives in exactly the way that noble Lords have described.

The Provincial Reconstruction Team will remain where it currently is until the time is right for it to move. I shall say nothing more about that, for the obvious operational reasons that noble Lords would expect. Both noble Lords asked about troop reductions; we have been clear that any proposals to reduce troops would have to be on the basis of intelligence at the time and what was being told to us by the military command at what was thought to be the most appropriate moment. It is important, with my right honourable friend bringing the Statement to another place and me bringing it to your Lordships' House, that we keep this House up to date with the current thinking and that noble Lords are able to see the progress that is made. But we will not put artificial timetables on it; any timetables that are put will always have the conditionality that circumstances must allow for them.

We look forward to the bilateral relationship that I mentioned in the Statement between the Iraqi Government and ourselves. We, of course, agree that the long-term future of Iraq will be appropriately secured when people are able to return home and continue the lives that they had before. I, too, saw the reports about interpreters; as noble Lords know from a number of questions after previous Statements, not least from the noble Lord, Lord Fowler, we believe that we should treat these important people appropriately. I absolutely accept the relevance and importance of their role. It is my understanding that that is being done. I do not have numbers for how many are here; if I am able to get them I shall ensure that the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, and others are aware of them.

For obvious reasons, I shall not discuss the role of the French President or the voices in the USA on any of these issues, particularly on Afghanistan, and noble Lords would not expect me to after this particular Statement. None the less, the Government are mindful of what is being said and we will make sure that we keep in touch with what voices are raised in any country on these important issues. This is not about populism; it is about making sure that we achieve the objectives that we have set ourselves in Basra. I hope that noble Lords will accept from the Statement that we have made important movement in the right direction.

The noble Lord, Lord Avebury, focused in his opening remarks on reconstruction and I agree with him that it is important. It is an emphasis that my right honourable friends the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State for International Development have rightly placed on the work that we are doing. It is important to ensure that there is economic investment, that we support the role of small businesses and the growth of enterprise and, as we indicated, that we provide support and training for teachers, support for the health service and so forth.

I do not agree with the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, about our being there. It is certainly true that we no longer have Saddam Hussein in Iraq. It is also true that many of the opportunities in health and education and even the supply of basic necessities for people were available to only part of the population. We are involved in making sure that the whole population in Iraq is able to enjoy the basic amenities of life and continuing and developing economic opportunities. As I said, we will consider troop reductions as appropriate. Those troops who are based in Basra know how long they are there in terms of their tour of duty. We continue to keep the situation under review and work closely with the commanders in the ways that I mentioned.

Both noble Lords referred to the situation with Iran. We know about the relationship between Iran and Iraq. Iran has a legitimate interest in the future of Iraq. There have been strong cultural, religious and economic ties. We welcome and encourage what we would regard as a healthy and constructive relationship. But Iranian actions run counter to the professed desire for a stable, prosperous Iraq. There are serious concerns about continued Iranian support for illegal Shia militia groups in Iraq. We know that elements of the Iranian state are providing material, training and funding against the Iraqi security forces. Of course, that undermines the elected Government of Iraq and causes further violence. We and the Iraqi Government have made it clear to Iran that it needs to cut ties and links with those groups and improve security on the border with Iraq to prevent the transfer of weaponry. Coalition forces continue to work to counter threats caused by illegal armed groups and to prevent the malign external support for them.

We will no doubt debate and discuss what is happening in Afghanistan at future times, but noble Lords should not make connections between troop reductions in one country and troop increases in another country. They are very different situations, with which we will endeavour to keep your Lordships' House up to speed.