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2.50 pm

The Lord Bishop of Norwich: My Lords, may I add gratitude from these Benches for the Statement? Like others, I pay tribute to the professionalism and courage of our military forces, who have served so spectacularly well in Iraq, and in extremely testing circumstances. I am sure that many families who will continue to bear the effects of bereavement and injury will greet today’s Statement in a telling way. It is a relief that our forces are coming home: indeed, an answer to many prayers. Yet the withdrawal of our forces must not, in any way, conclude our interest in and commitment to the people of Iraq. Were we to give that impression, would it not lead to even greater cynicism, at home and abroad, about our motives for prosecuting that war? I am grateful, then, for many elements of the Prime Minister’s Statement.

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There was, however, a telling omission, on which I have some particular questions for the Minister. Does she recognise that the Christians in Iraq have been among those most adversely affected by this war? Does she acknowledge that they are now severely reduced in number and, in the past five years, have exchanged the status of a respected and historic minority for an experience of fear, intimidation and, indeed, persecution? Is it not tragic that two western powers with a strong Christian tradition may, unwittingly, have almost eclipsed one of the longest surviving Christian communities in the world? Does that not suggest a worrying degree of religious illiteracy among those who advised on prosecuting the war? It makes you wonder what the rest of their advice was like. What assurances can the Minister give that the Government will continue to seek a better future for Christians in Iraq, and indeed for other religious minorities there? It is not simply the Christians who have experienced such changed circumstances.

I have one other question. Some of our military personnel have experienced extended and intense, frequent terms of service in both Iraq and Afghanistan. What special measures are in place to monitor the psychological effects of such service, which may only be revealed over a long period? Among the lessons to be learnt, we surely need to avoid any sort of echo of the problems following the Gulf War.

Baroness Royall of Blaisdon: My Lords, on the situation of Christians in Iraq, we utterly condemn any religious intolerance. We condemn attacks on Christians wherever they are—especially, in Iraq, those that took place in Mosul, which caused tremendous suffering, particularly for the Christian community.

I assure the right reverend Prelate that we will continue to press the Government of Iraq to protect all communities, and to take tough action against those responsible for any acts of violence and intimidation, regardless of political, ethnic or religious affiliation. There is, one may say, a ray of hope, for I understand that the Iraqi parliament has just passed legislation to establish a national human rights commission that will seek to improve and embed human rights. It will also have a scrutiny function. The UN will be supporting its establishment, and that scrutiny function will help to ensure that the Christians and other religious minorities have a much safer and more secure situation.

The right reverend Prelate also spoke of the returning troops, and the long-term effects that the difficulties they have encountered might have on them. I reassure all your Lordships that we are closely monitoring our troops when they return from theatres. There are now special units precisely to monitor the troops, and much more action on the mental health front, as we recognise that when people return from those theatres they often suffer mental problems and anguish. They need to be assisted in whatever way is possible, but things on that front are improving, and I assure noble Lords that we will continue to work hard in that specific area.

Lord Hannay of Chiswick: My Lords, does the Minister recognise that the Statement made only the most fleeting reference to regional security? Now that

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the withdrawal of combat troops—by both the UK and the United States, and by others—is operating within a finite timetable, would she not agree that the Government should really put its efforts into the urgency of trying to get some kind of sub-regional organisation for security, confidence-building measures, economic co-operation and the like? This has been an extremely fragile region, and looks as if it might become even more so in future.

The Government cannot, of course, achieve that on their own, but an Iraq whose neighbours are expressing no more than verbal commitments to its territorial integrity, or to non-interference, will be very vulnerable. An Iraq in which those commitments are embedded in regional organisations, such as we have seen in other parts of the world, could be a great deal more stable. Could the Minister say something about the Government’s intentions in that respect?

Baroness Royall of Blaisdon: My Lords, the Government recognise that regional co-operation is extremely important in ensuring the security of each individual country in that region. I do not have the facts and figures at my fingertips on quite how the Government are going about bringing people together to ensure that regional co-operation, but I will certainly write to the noble Lord and put a copy of that letter in the Library.

Lord Lee of Trafford: My Lords, apart from the troops who will stay in Iraq on a training mission and, no doubt, some specialist units who will be heading to Afghanistan, we will be bringing back quite sizeable forces to this country. Are the Government satisfied that we will have accommodation available of the quantity and quality which those troops are entitled to expect? I am conscious that the Defence Minister is in her place; it is appreciated. Perhaps the noble Baroness, Lady Taylor, could write to me on that issue.

Having put up with the dangers and deprivations of Iraq, it would be quite outrageous if only substandard accommodation was available. I know that the Government are working on a fairly sizeable upgrading programme for accommodation; nevertheless, I hope that they may have considered accelerating that programme, which would obviously benefit our forces that are coming back. In wider economic terms, it would also benefit our construction industry on a regional basis.

Baroness Royall of Blaisdon: My Lords, I recognise that when our troops return from such operations, they deserve the best possible accommodation that we can provide. The Government have an enormous programme of improvements, precisely so that when they come home they will be accommodated appropriately.

I understand that, over the past year, we have invested £700 million in accommodation. There will be another £3.1 billion of improvements to family and single accommodation over the next 10 years. Over 26,000 new, en-suite single bed spaces have been delivered in the past five years, and a further 28,000 are due over the next five. I recognise that it must seem extremely slow to those who are not living in accommodation of the level that they have a right to expect, but we are on the case and will continue to press ahead.

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Lord Ryder of Wensum: I express my own tribute to the skill and professionalism of the British Armed Forces in Iraq. I welcome today’s Statement because it marks the beginning of the end of one of the most foolish acts of British foreign policy. Is the Minister aware that the picture she paints of Basra is not a complete one? Over the past 12 months in Basra, religious deaths have increased by 70 per cent while convictions have stayed static. Is she further aware that the Iraqi commander in Basra—referred to, I think, in the Statement—said a fortnight ago that vast tracts of Basra were still in the hands of militias and insurgents and that he needed at least another two brigades to begin to come to terms with the problems he was confronted with. Is she aware that, although this is one of the most regrettable pieces of British foreign policy, she must not give the impression that the work undertaken so courageously by our troops in Basra has been as successful as the Statement seems to imply?

Baroness Royall of Blaisdon: My Lords, the noble Lord is expressing his point of view and seeing things from his particular perspective, and I accept that that is how he sees it. However, things in Basra have improved greatly. Clearly the situation is not fantastic there, but people now live in a much more secure situation than they did. They have electricity, healthcare, education and access to clean water, things that they did not have before. As I said earlier, we should not forget that Saddam Hussein was a tyrant. I accept, though, that there are still problems and there is much more to be done. However, I am also confident that the security forces in Iraq have been well trained by our troops there, and I think things will continue to improve.

Lord Soley: My Lords, does my noble friend accept that there are two aspects to any inquiry that may be held? I think all of us accept the need for an inquiry into the post-conflict situation. Many of us recognise that the failure to provide sufficient troops after the successful invasion and the dismemberment of the Iraqi state without forces being put in place to maintain security was a serious matter. Many of those aspects are known but still deserve an inquiry.

That is, however, not the end of it, as some people imply. If we take the long view, there is the question, to which my noble friend has already alluded, of how we deal with psychopathic killers in charge of nation states. In 1991 we chose not to remove Saddam Hussein; we left him in power, despite the fact that at the time we had the support of the regional powers. The question then became: how many people died in that period? There were literally thousands, if not hundreds of thousands. This is not a zero-sum game. When you choose to remove a dictator, many deaths may follow; if you choose to leave the dictator in power, many deaths will certainly follow and the United Nations will continue to be flouted, as it was by Saddam Hussein. The issue is complex. I am in favour of an inquiry, but I do not want it to be just on the immediate issue of the post-conflict situation, important though that is.

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Baroness Royall of Blaisdon: My Lords, I recognise that any inquiry would have to cover many aspects. I do not know what the criteria for such an inquiry would be, but it seems eminently sensible that it should look at the difficult issues that my noble friend has outlined. That is precisely one reason why we are working and pressing for reform of the UN.

With regard to Saddam Hussein, I know that many people believe—and I understand why they believe it—that he should perhaps have been finished off, if one might put it like that, at the end of the first Gulf War, but it would not be appropriate for me to comment. It is necessary, though, for us as a society to consider how we deal with tyrannical rule.

Lord Kirkwood of Kirkhope: My Lords, the Prime Minister’s reference in his Statement to a phase of reconstruction is very welcome. The excellent job that our Armed Forces have done should now leave a phase to open up where reconstruction and commercial activity can recommence.

There is a sense in-country in Iraq that we are concentrating exclusively on Basra. Anyone who knows anything about Iraq knows that Baghdad is the crucible of the country; it is the nexus and the focus of all national life, culture and everything else. I can say with conviction, since I have first-hand knowledge, that the British Trade International support there consists of one low-grade person; she is very good and works very hard, but that situation is completely inadequate for the phase we are about to enter.

I am pleased to hear that the Secretary of State for Trade is going there in the new year. Will he make sure that he goes to Basra and that the embassy mission there is left with an adequate amount of professional support to encourage businesspeople to go, and to assist them with travel? Travel to Baghdad is quite difficult at the moment, and to get there people need Foreign and Commonwealth Office help. At the moment the FCO is actually discouraging people from going because it believes the situation is too dangerous. It is not too dangerous for our international competitors, and it is time we started taking an active interest in commercial development in Baghdad.

Baroness Royall of Blaisdon: My Lords, we have been focusing on Basra because that is where our responsibilities lay in southern Iraq, but that is not to say that we should forget the rest of the country. I note what the noble Lord says about only one person from UKTI being in Baghdad, but of course that person will be working in partnership with other people, I hope. Possibly that will be strengthened—I do not know, but I will look into that. We want Iraq to succeed economically, and we want to ensure that our businesses can benefit from that country’s potential. We will do everything we can to ensure that that happens.

Earl Attlee: My Lords, I remind the House of my interest as I am still a serving TA officer. I was in Iraq in early 2003 on Op Telic 1. I have been involved in peacekeeping operations before, but Iraq was my first and only war—thank God. At the time the legality

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and the necessity of the operation did not concern me as I was a lawful combatant. Now, though, I, too, think it is time to start a full inquiry into all aspects of the war, and I agree entirely with the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Soley.

The Minister said that the inquiry cannot start until all our troops have left, but does she agree that we will have a number of troops in Iraq for a considerable time, perhaps at least 10 years, engaged purely in training? Does her comment about “all the troops” refer to the perhaps 50 troops on training operations, or does it refer to the withdrawal of all the combat troops?

I welcome the drawdown in Iraq, although of course it is much later than planned or expected. We are doing serious harm to our Armed Forces by operating at double medium scale plus when we are scaled and resourced only for single medium scale operations. We can now concentrate on the more strategically important operation, Operation Herrick in Afghanistan. But does the Minister agree that the Statement does not mean that we can redeploy to Afghanistan all the military capability that is currently in Iraq? Rather, it means that we can concentrate all our efforts, not just the military ones, in Afghanistan. Of course there will be enhancements to our capability in that country, but the main opportunity must be to get our Armed Forces’ training back to where it should be. Does she agree that we have been training for “the” war and not for war in general? That, of course, is the hidden cost of exceeding the defence planning assumptions.

The Minister talked about elections. What is the situation regarding justice and the rule of law in Iraq? How far have we come with regard to that pillar of development?

Baroness Royall of Blaisdon: My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Earl for raising the fact that the TA has been and is in Iraq. We should all remember that the Territorial Army does a very fine job, working on its own account but also supporting our regular troops wherever they are.

It was interesting to hear the noble Earl agree with my noble friend about the remit of an inquiry. I do not know whether other noble Lords saw some soldiers being asked on “Newsnight” the other night about their view of relations in Iraq, where they had been serving. They said that they left the politics of the situation to the politicians, but that they were fiercely proud to have done a good job in Iraq. I thought, “Chapeaux!”.

We always do what our senior military personnel say we have the capacity to do. We do not overwork our capacity. I can assure the noble Earl that there will not be a straight switch of troops from Iraq to Afghanistan.

We of course train our troops for specific wars, but we also train them for war in general.

Baroness Bonham-Carter of Yarnbury: My Lords—

Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, our 20 minutes are up.

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Parliament: Communication with the Public


3.11 pm

Moved By Lord Norton of Louth

Lord Norton of Louth: My Lords, I am delighted to have the opportunity to raise the issue of how Parliament communicates with members of the public. It is crucial to the health of our political system that there is effective communication between Parliament and public. Parliament does not, and should not, operate in a vacuum. What we do should be accessible to members of the public, and we should be alert to the views, and the knowledge, of people outside the Palace of Westminster.

I quote from the report of the Hansard Society Commission on the communication of parliamentary democracy, chaired by the noble Lord, Lord Puttnam:

“The public have an absolute right to know what happens in Parliament, as well as a right to participate. The public should be able to understand proceedings, to contribute to inquiries and to access all forms of information about Parliament”.

The commission recommended a major overhaul of Parliament’s communications structure. The report was published in 2005. Since then, we have seen some significant developments and I think it essential that I open by acknowledging what has already been achieved.

We have come a long way since the days when reporting the proceedings of Parliament was an offence. Members of the public can now not only read our proceedings but watch them on television. Recent years in particular have seen a major investment in resources. All public meetings are webcast, either via audio, automated web camera or broadcast video coverage. Broadcasters have greater opportunities to broadcast from within the Palace. The amount of material that is available on the Parliament website is extensive. Visitors to the site can read and download anything from committee reports through to deposited papers. Users can sign up to a wide range of alerts through QuickSubscribefor new material published on the website. There is extensive educational material, ranging from the Education Service website through to the excellent research papers and notes prepared by the Libraries of the two Houses. The material is notable in terms both of its quantity and its quality. The website is now far more user friendly, with further enhancements planned.

Both Houses have created information offices. I know that I speak for the House in commending the Information Office of this House for its outstanding work. What it does on limited resources is remarkable. I am a great consumer of its resources in speaking to schools and other organisations; the feedback is always excellent. Its latest publication, a detailed guide to visitors, is a good pedagogic tool.

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The Education Service, supported by both Houses, has revamped its website and we will see in due course a dedicated visitor centre. There is a parliamentary outreach programme, which has now seen the appointment of officers not only in Parliament but also, experimentally, in selected regions. In your Lordships’ House, the Lord Speaker has been at the forefront of the outreach programme, which has encompassed the Peers in the schools initiative as well as the blog, Lords of the Blog,which enables a number of us to engage with members of the public.

We are thus not starting from scratch; we are building on what has been an impressive array of developments, hence the Motion's reference to “enhancing” Parliament's capacity to communicate with members of the public. What more, then, should be done?

There are two points that inform my recommendations. The first is that we need to go further to keep pace with what is happening outside Westminster. There are significant changes in the very nature of politics. Some people are losing interest in politics; others are not losing interest but rather diverting their attention away from political parties to interest groups. There has been a phenomenal growth in the number of interest groups over the past 40 years. The membership of political parties has seen a major decline as the membership of interest groups has increased. We need to be in a position to engage both with those who come together to form particular groups and those individuals who believe that politics, and what Parliament does, is not for them. There have also been major changes in the means available for communication, especially electronic means. We have exploited those means to some degree, but we need to go further and ideally be ahead of other organisations in communicating with the public.

The second, and in many respects consequential, point is that communication should not be seen as flowing only in one direction. The emphasis has been on making material available to those who wish to access it. There has been less attention given to enabling members of the public to communicate with Parliament. We put information in the public domain, but we do not necessarily create the means for the public to respond to that material. I quote again from the Puttnam commission report:

“Where the public expect institutions to be responsive to their concerns, Parliament provides almost no opportunities for direct voter involvement, interaction or feedback”.

It is essential that we see communication as a two-way process, and not one where we are simply ensuring that people can follow what we are doing.

In looking at changes, we can therefore consider them under the headings of “opening up Parliament to the public” and “enabling members of the public to communicate with Parliament”.

In terms of opening up Parliament, the starting point must be the recognition that uploading material on to a website means that it is in the public domain but not necessarily that members of the public are aware of it. Parliament’s role is essentially passive rather than proactive. Committees, like government departments during consultation exercises, may alert

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bodies on their mailing lists—in essence, the usual suspects—but not do much beyond that.

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