Iraq (Humanitarian Aid)

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 4:00 pm on 7th April 2010.

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Photo of Keith Hill Keith Hill Labour, Streatham 4:00 pm, 7th 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.