Iraq (Humanitarian Aid)

– in Westminster Hall at 4:00 pm on 7 April 2010.

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Photo of Keith Hill Keith Hill Labour, Streatham 4:00, 7 April 2010

I mean it when I say that it is an honour to speak my final words in this Chamber, and indeed the House, under your chairmanship, Mr. Howarth.

Four weeks and three days ago, on Sunday 7 March, I was in Iraq as an election monitor for Iraq's second set of parliamentary elections since the overthrow of Saddam Hussein in 2003. My election observation took place in the Kurdish city of Dohuk, some 80 km from the Turkish border. At precisely the same time, my hon. Friend Eric Joyce was in Basra, several hundred kilometres to the south, also as an election monitor. I am grateful for his participation in this debate. I shall describe what I saw on 7 March and explain why Britain's programme of aid to Iraq is important-important in its humanitarian assistance, in repairing the country's infrastructure and in strengthening its governance arrangements. I hope that that assistance and support will be sustained.

At this point, I place on the record my huge gratitude to our consul general in the Kurdish region, Jeremy Macadie, and his team and my thanks to Chris Bowers and his Foreign and Commonwealth Office team and to Lucia Wilde and the Department for International Development team in Baghdad for their help in the preparation of this speech.

What I saw in Dohuk was an impressive demonstration of a free and fair election. In Dohuk, the turnout was more than 70 per cent. In Iraq as a whole, despite the threats and despite the bombings in Baghdad, the turnout was more than 62 per cent. In Baghdad, it was 60 per cent. In Britain, at our last general election, we managed 61 per cent.

At the half-dozen or more polling stations that I visited, I saw men and women casting their votes freely and in secret. With one or two regional exceptions-the older men in Kurdistan in their characteristic baggy trousers and elaborate headscarves-what I saw in person replicated the images that I watched in the television coverage of the polls across the whole of Iraq: the voting usually taking place in a small school classroom; the plastic blue-topped ballot boxes; the bottle of purple dye taped to the table at the side of the ballot box for people to dip their forefinger in as proof of having voted; the three cardboard voting booths; the lists and voting instructions on the walls; lines of blue and white tape to guide electors into the polling centres; men and women in separate lines to be frisked before they entered; the election officials sitting at school desks, one with the register and another to tear off the ballot paper; and the very large ballot paper, because there were many parties and, as well as voting for a party, the elector had to express a preference for the order of the candidates on the list.

In addition to the five or six election officials, inside each polling station there were a similar number of scrutineers-party representatives and representatives of non-governmental organisations, which might be human rights or women's organisations. For a British observer, it was unexpected to find a multiplicity of party representatives in the same room as the voting, but that was not a bad check against fraud.

Equally unexpected was the counting of the votes in the same polling stations at the conclusion of the voting, but the counting was closely observed by the party scrutineers, and the result was posted up at the most immediate local level. That did, on reflection, serve to make later tampering far less easy. Although the count that I observed took two and a half hours at the end of an already long day, it was done with humour, grace, commitment and efficiency. The election officials and scrutineers were mostly young people in their 20s or 30s and many were women-a good harbinger, I thought, of the future of democracy in Iraq.

That is not to say that the elections were without flaws and defects. There are in Iraq a very large number of internally displaced persons-up to 2.8 million-hence the continuing need for significant humanitarian aid. The names of the IDPs were not always on the registers, although when they were, I found it extraordinary and impressive that in Dohuk there was provision for such displaced persons to cast a vote on the ballot paper of their home town, be it Mosul, Kirkuk or even Baghdad. Problems were also reported with the registers for the security forces, who voted two days before the general election so that they could be on duty on polling day.

Nevertheless, and notwithstanding the painfully slow process of the central aggregation of results from nearly 50,000 polling stations throughout the country, what I saw and the positive judgment that I made seem to reflect the response of the thousands of Iraqi and international election observers. The three main independent Iraqi election observation networks-Tamouz, Hammurabi and Shams-said:

"The electoral process went well".

According to the International Election Monitors Institute,

"the essentials of a democratic election were in place."

According to the United Nations, the elections were "credible" and "a significant achievement". In the words of the UN special representative, Ad Melkert,

"7 March was a triumph of reason over violence."

Indeed, when an incumbent Prime Minister complains about the result, that is a fair guarantee that the election has been fair and free.

It is plain to me, from my experience of election monitoring in two African countries and now Iraq, that generally people like to vote. They like to take some ownership of their lives. However, it is equally plain that people will lose confidence in the democratic system if it fails to meet their basic material needs or to offer them reasonable standards of governance. They need an economy and an infrastructure that work and a state that protects its citizens. That is where the British aid programme comes in and why it is so important.

I have mentioned that there are 2.8 million internally displaced persons in Iraq, with a further 2 million dispersed around the region. Their needs have been the most urgent, and I welcome the £170 million that DFID has contributed since 2003 to provide food, water, shelter, medical care and protection to those most vulnerable people. Iraq is probably no longer in humanitarian crisis, but I should be grateful for my hon. Friend the Minister's assurance that humanitarian aid will continue where necessary.

I also welcome the several hundred million pounds of British aid that have gone towards rebuilding Iraq's dilapidated infrastructure, especially in the south around Basra. There have obviously been considerable improvements in electricity supply. Hundreds of thousands of people now benefit from clean water. There have also been important improvements in health care and education facilities. The Iraqi people have deserved that assistance in starting to recover from the years of neglect and mismanagement under Saddam Hussein.

However, I am conscious that Iraq is not among the poorest countries. It already ranks as a lower middle income country. With the third largest proven oil reserves and 10th largest gas reserves in the world, its potential wealth is clearly enormous. The key questions are how it manages that wealth, whether its people benefit from it-Iraq is third from the bottom of the 2008 corruption perceptions index-and how far its Government recognise their responsibility to provide for their own people. Those challenges go to the heart of governance, the rule of law and human rights in Iraq.

It is excellent, therefore, that DFID has provided technical support to improve the decision-making and administrative systems of the office of the Prime Minister and of the Council of Representatives, the Iraqi Parliament. I find it fascinating and important that in advance of the recent general election, DFID supported Iraqi cabinet office preparations for a transition of Government. DFID has also worked with the Ministry of Finance to improve its operation. In 2009, DFID's budget preparation support helped to secure for the first time cabinet approval of the budget strategy and the submission of the 2010 budget with a clear statement of guiding priorities and a medium-term fiscal framework. Similar capacity-building work has taken place with the Basra provincial council to enable it to take forward more than 800 reconstruction projects since 2006.

It is evident that the FCO, working closely with the European Union integrated rule of law mission for Iraq, is also doing good work in strengthening the criminal justice system in Iraq, not least in helping Iraqis to develop their forensic capacity. It is easier to trust the state that does not torture its citizens.

Led by my right hon. Friend Ann Clwyd, the Prime Minister's special envoy to Iraq on human rights, to whom I pay the warmest possible tribute, the FCO has done good work in human rights, including encouraging the Council of Representatives to pass legislation in 2008 to establish the Iraqi national human rights commission.

I accept that as the country begins to achieve its economic potential, the UK's overall aid programme to Iraq will decrease. At the same time, however, all the DFID and FCO interventions in the area of government and the rule of law play a vital role in consolidating democracy in Iraq.

Photo of Andrew Pelling Andrew Pelling Independent, Croydon Central

It is a great privilege not only to hear what the right hon. Gentleman has to say but to take part in his final debate here. He has been such a successful Member for Streatham.

May I ask whether there was any discussion about moving on and taking advantage of the wealth that could be created in Kurdistan? Was there any discussion of the opportunity for direct air flights from London to that part of Iraq, so as to promote trade with the UK and, therefore, wealth in that region?

Photo of Keith Hill Keith Hill Labour, Streatham

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that intervention, and for his exceptionally kind words. We are close constituency neighbours in south-west London.

The answer to his precise question is yes. The matter of direct air flights from the UK to the Kurdish region was raised with me, specifically flights to Erbil. The hon. Gentleman may be aware that Austrian Airlines has three direct flights a week and Lufthansa is about to start flights there. There is a desire on the part of the Kurdish authorities and Kurdish entrepreneurs to strengthen their business links with the UK, and they are certainly keen that such flights should be instituted. I am extremely grateful to the hon. Gentleman for allowing me to put that expression of desire on the record.

I return to my argument that DFID and FCO interventions in the area of government and the rule of law play a vital role in consolidating democracy in Iraq. I therefore hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will be able to offer a strong reassurance that such interventions will continue to form part our aid programme to Iraq.

Last week, as I was beginning to think about what I might say today, I happened to read an interview with Mohamed el-Baradei, the former head of the UN nuclear watchdog and perhaps a candidate in the next Egyptian presidential elections. Mr. el-Baradei offered a severe critique of the west's involvement in middle east politics, in the course of which he said:

"The west talks a lot about elections in Iran, for example, but at least there were elections-yet where are the elections in the Arab world? If the west doesn't talk about that, then how can it have any credibility?"

Actually, there have been elections in Iraq. Parliamentary elections were held in 2005, provisional elections were held in 2009, and parliamentary elections were held again last month. Each time, as far as we can see, they were freer and fairer than previously. This time, the elections delivered a result that may reshape alliances across communities and perhaps boost national reconciliation.

It is true, of course, that tensions still run deep. There are still appalling bombings by a perverse and apparently irreconcilable minority, yet the election in 2010 was unquestionably democratic, and democracies tend to be less cruel to their citizens and more peaceable to their neighbours. That was a prize worth winning. I hope that the UK will continue to give priority to helping Iraq strengthen its democracy.

Photo of Eric Joyce Eric Joyce Labour, Falkirk 4:14, 7 April 2010

I thank you, Mr. Howarth, for your forbearance in allowing me a couple of minutes; I also thank the Minister.

I thank my right hon. Friend Keith Hill; at the end of a pretty salubrious parliamentary career, he made a fine speech about Iraq. That is on top of his many other fine speeches. My right hon. Friend may be best remembered for being a close aide and support to one of our great Prime Ministers.

It was a great privilege to take part in the same scheme as my right hon. Friend and observe what was going on during the Iraq election. I went to Basra, and was hosted by the astonishing Alice Walpole, our consul general there; she runs a flawless operation. It was a super time. We had a one-day tour of Iraq-not long for a politician, but short for a soldier-and I saw much of what my right hon. Friend described. It was a good trip; we went round a bunch of polling stations, which seemed to be perfectly well run. There was enthusiastic participation and a pretty good turnout.

It was interesting from a broader perspective. We now know that Mr. Allawi got a larger share of the vote, but most people thought that al-Maliki, the current Prime Minister, would receive the larger number of votes. It was striking that the parties had to rely on support across the religious denominations. A Sunni could not demand Sunni votes, and Sunnis made it clear that if a politician demanded their vote because he was a Sunni or a Shi'ite he would get short shrift. As it was, Mr. Allawi's party seems to have done the best, primarily from Sunnis with Shi'ite support; for Mr. al-Maliki's party, it was the other way round. I was in Basra, and saw substantial support for Mr. al-Maliki. A coalition has not yet been put together, but we shall see.

The FCO staff that put together the programme that my right hon. Friend mentioned were super, as we have come to expect. Inevitably, I still get letters about my having been fairly vocal in support of the Iraq campaign from people who still will not take back their great opposition. I cannot put them right on all of those points, some of which are entirely valid.

We all know that the post-war reconstruction effort could have been a great deal better. However, as my right hon. Friend said, my right hon. Friend Ann Clwyd has done much work in that respect, and we can be sure of Britain's effort between then and now; it has been exceptional. The aid programme has been extremely successful, and the efforts of our diplomats in Kurdistan, Baghdad and Basra have been equally exceptional. In a way, we tend to forget about that, I guess because people's interests have moved across to Afghanistan. However, our hard-working diplomats and their support staff, and the contractors and security staff there, are all doing great work. I understand that, from a financial point of view, Basra in particular is the subject of some interest at the FCO. The Department cannot keep all its posts open, but I hope that its post at Basra can be kept going for the moment.

I thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Streatham for allowing me the great honour of speaking directly after him in his final debate. Perhaps we should reflect on the fact that in 1979, Iraq had a similar GDP to Portugal; within a few years of Saddam taking power, its economy was in pieces. With the elections, we started the long process of moving towards welcoming Iraq as a modern country, again similar to today's Portugal.

Photo of Michael Foster Michael Foster Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for International Development 4:18, 7 April 2010

I congratulate my right hon. Friend Keith Hill on securing this debate. I pay tribute to his work in the House over a number of years. It would be remiss of me not to record the breadth of his contribution.

My right hon. Friend has been a Parliamentary Private Secretary at the Department of Environment, Transport and the Regions, an Assistant Government Whip, an Under-Secretary of State at the DETR, deputy Chief Whip, and Minister of State at the Office of Deputy Prime Minister. Then, as my hon. Friend Eric Joyce said, he was PPS to Tony Blair when he was Prime Minister. On a personal level, my right hon. Friend was Minister when I tabled a Back-Bench amendment to what became the Transport Act 2000; he kindly accepted it, to great plaudits in my local newspaper. He found fame in my local newspaper for meeting a colleague of mine while surfing; his exploits surfing on the beaches of Cornwall have also been noted.

As one of the observers of the elections in northern Iraq a month ago, my right hon. Friend speaks with some authority about the transformation that has taken place. I respect and value his comments-and, indeed, those of other Members who contributed to the debate. It is worth pausing for a moment to reflect on how far Iraq, its Government and its people have come since Saddam Hussein was overthrown in 2003. External debt is down from 326 per cent. of GDP in 2005 to 68 per cent. in 2009, Government investment increased six-fold between 2005 and 2008, and in 2005, Iraq held its first democratic election. None the less, as Members have noted, more than 20 years of conflict and neglect have taken their toll. Iraq remains a poor country; nearly a quarter of its people live in poverty, and thousands more have left in search of better prospects for themselves and their families.

The UK Government have been staunch allies to Iraq, contributing some £744 million to reconstruction efforts. The Department for International Development has played a key role, disbursing more than £500 million, nearly £200 million of which in humanitarian assistance. DFID has channelled its humanitarian funding through international organisations such as the United Nations and the International Committee for the Red Cross, which are best placed to help the most vulnerable in Iraq. Money on its own, however, is not a measure of success. It is important to look at the outputs and what has been achieved with that money. So far, our money has brought 2 billion litres of safe drinking water to deprived households, schools and hospitals. It has helped to rebuild more than 1,000 schools, to provide food on an ongoing basis to around 1 million displaced and vulnerable people and to repair more than 4,000 emergency shelters for displaced Iraqis.

UK aid, together with that of the wider international community, is working. The number of refugees returning to Iraq is increasing, albeit slowly, and the number of registered refugees has dropped. Food insecurity, a good indicator of real impact, has dropped by 12 per cent. Although humanitarian aid is important, it is only the first step in any sustainable development programme. That is why we have focused our attention on helping Iraq to rebuild its own capacity. Given Iraq's economic potential, our priority is to help it manage its economy and financial resources more effectively while creating the right environment for investment. Through lending our practical expertise to the Iraqi equivalent of the Cabinet Office, for example, we have helped to smooth preparations for the transition of government.

Physical infrastructure is also vital to a country's long-term growth, so we have provided nearly £100 million to secure or improve power and water supplies to more than 1 million Iraqis. Understandably, a lot of our early work focused on Basra, and our efforts were often delivered in partnership with the UK military. More widely, we have worked on a number of large-scale projects to improve water and power supply. Overall, international efforts have yielded very real benefits for ordinary people. To take just one example, where people once had an average of four to eight hours of electricity available per day, they now have more than 15 hours of supply.

In the long-term, however, the Iraqi Government must take a more active role, both in maintaining existing infrastructure and by investing in new supply. DFID has been working with the relevant Government institutions in Iraq to train and support them in taking the lead in ongoing reconstruction and development. Ultimately, Iraq's future will depend on its people and on their ability to revitalise the country's economy. Alongside its humanitarian and reconstruction support, DFID has also developed a small business finance programme that will provide some 1,000 loans, a quarter of them to women. The programme has already paid out more than $1 million.

We have also secured work placements for more than 200 young people as part of our youth employment pilot programme; another 200 are currently undertaking training before starting their placement. We are working with the Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs to develop a programme that can be rolled out across the whole country, because we want lasting change in Iraq. DFID's role in future will focus on engaging with others. For example, we could work with Iraq's Ministry of Finance in matters of public financial management; the Ministry of Labour in youth employment; the British Council in tertiary education; the UN in humanitarian assistance or the World Bank in Iraqi policy and programmes.

Iraq is a country with enormous potential. Confidence in its economy is growing and security is improving. The real challenges now lie in helping its people to manage their resources so they can deliver better public services and generate growth while at the same time making political processes more effective on the ground. We can only meet such challenges by working in partnership with other donors, the wider international community and, most importantly, with the people of Iraq itself.

Sitting suspended.