COSTS OF IRAQ & AFGHANISTAN (FRONT BENCH) – 20 March 2006

Dr Julian Lewis: When I first entered the House in 1997, it was not long before the bright, shiny new Labour Government came out with a bright, shiny new Labour foreign policy. That foreign policy was to be an ethical foreign policy. We do not hear too much about that these days, not because we think that our foreign policy is not ethical, but because the experience of office has shown the Government that foreign policy and, by association, defence policy, is often not a matter of positive ethics but of deciding which is the lesser of two evils.

That has been illustrated by a number of speeches today, not least that of my Hon. Friend the Member for Reigate (Crispin Blunt), comparing the differing objectives between wishing to clean up the trade in opium from Afghanistan, and not wishing to forge an alliance between the local farmers who depend on growing opium and the Taliban and other extremists and insurgents who were not normally in any form of prior alliance, but who could be forced into an alliance if we are heavy-handed about achieving the anti-drugs objective. In other words, one must sometimes choose the least worse policy.

That was also implicit in the speech of my Right Hon. and Learned Friend the Member for Kensington and Chelsea (Sir Malcolm Rifkind) when he said that it looked as if Iraq were ending up with a Government far more pro-Iranian, in terms of the alliance of the two adjacent countries' Governments, than one would ever have wanted. He did not say this explicitly, but I detect an underlying belief that the policy that was followed for years, and subsequently denounced on so many occasions – the policy of supporting Saddam Hussein – was completely unethical, which it probably was. It is likely, however, that when discussions were held in the Foreign Office in his day, the argument would have been, "Yes, but what is the alternative – some sort of axis, nexus or alliance between extremist fundamentalist Governments in adjacent countries?" It is not easy to choose between those two evils.

The point is that a choice between evils must often be made. There is no morally free "get out of jail" clause that can be invoked by those burdened with the responsibility of deciding on a foreign policy or a defence policy in the modern world, which is peopled – as no doubt were the mediaeval and ancient worlds – by some very nasty regimes.

Harry Cohen: I am aware that the Conservatives, with some honourable exceptions, voted for the war in Iraq. Does the Hon. Gentleman not agree, however, that that was a war of choice? It was very different from the wars that we had fought previously, especially those that preceded the Second World War. At the time of those wars we had a defence policy that was a policy of defence: war was a last resort. Is the Hon. Gentleman now declaring himself to be in favour of wars of choice? Does that mean that if – God forbid – the Conservatives ever won an election and the Hon. Gentleman arrived on the Government Front Bench, we would be entering into wars of choice throughout the globe?

Dr Lewis: I am sorry that the Hon. Gentleman does not seem to have understood my point, which was that the choices we make often have deleterious consequences, whichever horn of the dilemma we choose. We have to choose the least worse alternative. In the case of Iraq, I believe that the person who chose the war was the person who, having previously mounted an unprovoked and bloody invasion of another UN member country, proceeded to ignore injunctions from the international community – and that was Saddam Hussein.

Saddam Hussein seems to have behaved in a very strange way. If he knew that he did not have weapons of mass destruction, he was certainly sending very unusual and unwise signals to the world. In obstructing the investigations for so long, he was doing all he could to suggest that he had something to hide. I am not at all ashamed of having made the decision that I made to support the war, given the knowledge that we had then. I do not think that the Hon. Gentleman – who of course did not support the war – does our forces any favours by expecting those of us who did support it to say, "We're terribly sorry, we were wrong." Decisions can be made only on the basis of the evidence available at the time, and everything about the way in which Saddam's regime was conducting itself indicated that there was something to hide – something that we could not take the chance of letting him have.

I am glad to say that I have, in a way, received an answer to a question asked of me by one of my Hon. Friends a few minutes before the debate began. The question was this: given that we would be debating a report on the estimates, to what extent would we be allowed to wander into substantive issues of foreign and defence policy? I am glad that successive occupants of the Chair have allowed that to happen.

The Government's presentation of a skeletal outline amounts to an opportunity lost. The message conveyed by my Right Hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hampshire (James Arbuthnot) and his Select Committee is that there is no earthly reason why the Government, and the Ministry of Defence in particular, should not be a great deal more forthcoming. It has been suggested that one reason for the sketchiness of the information in the estimates is that the Government's vagueness about what policy they will adopt prevents them from being more precise in accounting for the large sums whose expenditure they expect us to approve. As the Committee has pointed out, however, that is given the lie somewhat by repeated indications in correspondence from the Ministry of Defence that in its dealings with the Treasury, the MOD adopts a system very different from that which it adopts in its dealings with the House of Commons.

If it is possible for the MOD to ensure that the Treasury is updated so regularly as the time when the expenditures take place unravels, why is it not possible for it to ensure that the House of Commons is similarly updated? Is it because of security considerations? I think that my Right Hon. Friend and his Committee have proved themselves time and again to be capable of being taken into the loop when any confidential material needs to be divulged. It is not necessary to argue that the House of Commons as a whole cannot be trusted with the fine detail; in the Select Committee system we have an apparatus that assuredly can.

According to the report, the way in which the MOD has been satisfying the Treasury's requirements suggests that it regards Parliament, by contrast, as something of a rubber stamp. The Committee demanded that the MOD recognise that the agreement of the Treasury is not a substitute for parliamentary approval, and that giving the Treasury information is not enough. This is not just a question of the quantity or detail of the information; it is also a question of the format. I was relieved to read on page 11 of the report, in paragraph 19, the sentence:

"The Supplementary Estimates are very hard to understand by any but the most expert reader."

Amen to that. There was very little in the documents, even after the MOD had had three goes at addressing the problem.

The Government have not been slow in producing many bulky reports during the years in which I have been in the House - enough to depopulate more than one rainforest. Why, when it is a question of spending £1 billion at a time, or more, in adjusting the estimates, are we left with documents as small and scrappy as those appended to the report? Page Ev 7 of the report deals with the MOD's second memorandum. Under the heading "Capital DEL" – departmental expenditure limits – we read:

"The Department's estimate for Capital Expenditure in Request for Resources 2 relates principally to equipment purchased as Urgent Operational Requirements ... and accelerated capital repair costs on equipment in operational use".

All that happened was that one line in the original report was "broken down" into two lines in the second report. The Minister nods. I can only assume that if my Right Hon. Friend and his Committee had persisted day in day out, and week in week out, in trying to elicit more information, they might have been given a substantive account of what the MOD money would be spent on – more or less in time for the estimates after next.

More needs to be done, and one wonders why the MOD is not doing it. The suspicion has to be that a civil service "Secret Squirrel society" mentality leads the Ministry to say, "We mustn't tell these MPs too much about how we're spending the money, because if we give them anything to get their teeth into, those teeth may bite." I am sorry to say to the Minister - a likeable chap whom I greatly admire - that it is the job of MPs to get their teeth into such issues, and sometimes those teeth will indeed bite. Indeed, they occasionally do so on behalf of the common cause that we like to think we make when important defence issues are at stake.

My Right Hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hampshire set the admirable precedent of speaking for only 10 minutes, which is one reason why I am encouraged to be slightly more discursive than I otherwise would have been. Apart from anything else, that showed that he expected all Members present to have read his report, in which everything is set out with great clarity.

This is my first opportunity to congratulate the hon. Member for North Devon (Nick Harvey) on his new post, and I am genuine in doing so. It is a great privilege to be a defence spokesman for one's party, and I am sure that he will perform that role with great awareness of the responsibilities that it entails. He raised pertinent questions about the long-term financial implications of extended counter-insurgency operations. I was particularly pleased to hear him say robustly that we cannot pull out of these commitments in a hurry, because we do not always hear that in this House. We often hear those who do not like the war, and who wish that we had never gone into these countries, describe the way forward as precipitate withdrawal. But whatever one thinks about the circumstances that led to our entering them, precipitate withdrawal would be a disaster for their peoples.

The Hon. Member for Leyton and Wanstead (Harry Cohen) has shown admirable consistency on this issue before, during and after the war, and in the light of his contribution, we can be sure that anything corrupt ever done by anybody in the United States of America will not escape his attention. However, I was pleased to note that he was, as usual, honest enough to admit that those involved in the examples of corruption and exploitation that he described ended up in jail.

It is a pity that those who are killing and maiming innocent Iraqis – they claim to be their representatives, but in fact they support the murderous regime that was there before – are not in jail, or criticised in the manner that our western Governments who are trying to establish a free and democratic system for Iraq are criticised. It is one thing rightly to point out how many people have been killed in Iraq, but it is a sad omission not to point out that many of them are killed in bomb explosions for which the people who claim to be fighting for Iraqi freedom are responsible – and that the latter could not care less who the victims are, so long as they create mayhem and frustrate attempts to reconstruct Iraq.

Harry Cohen: I am afraid that the Hon. Gentleman is being much too pious. Through one of its biggest operations in Iraq, the United States is now doing a mass slaughter job. He has also forgotten about other US attacks, such as that on Falluja. I condemn atrocities and killing on all sides; I wish that he would do the same.

Dr Lewis: I can assure the Hon. Gentleman that I have barely begun to be pious; I have a lot more piety left in me. In referring to Falluja, he has reminded me of the report that says that after the attack on Falluja, al-Zarqawi was in the hands of American forces but unfortunately was not recognised and was allowed to go free. I am happy to acknowledge that that was a failure – but had he been recognised and not been allowed to go free, that operation would have been justified by his capture alone.

My Right Hon. and Learned Friend the Member for Kensington and Chelsea spoke with massive authority, and although I do not agree with him on this occasion, it is always an intellectual treat and an object lesson to hear him present his case. I was slightly surprised at the rather strict criteria that he applied to the basis for military interventions. He said that they should happen only when a country is attacked, or where a treaty with another country triggers us to go to war. I was surprised that he did not also mention the newer criterion of humanitarian intervention, although I would not argue that it was cited in the case of Afghanistan or Iraq.

Sir Malcolm Rifkind: I did in fact mention a third consideration that might justify war: when there is a sufficient degree of international support, through the United Nations Security Council or even some other method, to give legitimacy to action that would otherwise not be defensible.

Dr Lewis: That is exactly what my Right Hon. and Learned Friend said, but he did not say that when the country in question is not being attacked or about to be attacked – be it one's own country or a country for which one has responsibility – there is a newer, more debateable criterion: that a humanitarian disaster is unfolding in that country. I am sure that he had that in mind in outlining his third criterion, but he did not mention it. I make that point because it illustrates that international law is not set in stone; it evolves as time goes on.

We have to recognise that the threat currently faced by western countries is so irregular and so unmindful of existing laws and conventions – indeed, those responsible for that threat deliberately set out to flout them – and so new, involving as it does the existence not only of weapons of mass destruction but of groups who, if they got their hands on those weapons, would unhesitatingly use them, that international law may need reviewing. Those who do not recognise that point presumably argue that in no circumstances should we intervene – not even if the country in question makes the most reckless and bellicose pronouncements, and not even if there is high-grade intelligence suggesting that its Government are about to acquire weapons that could well be passed to groups that would unhesitatingly use them.

That was the basis on which the Prime Minister convinced the House of Commons that we needed to act, and at that time Ministers had good reason to believe that that was the true situation. I only regret that certain notorious spin doctors were allowed to over-egg the pudding. The lesson of history is that if we are honest with the British people about the limitations and content of our knowledge they will trust us, and that we betray that trust at our peril.

Richard Younger-Ross: I am listening to the Hon. Gentleman very closely. He made the case for a pre-emptive strike where there is an imminent threat, but he seemed then to wander away from that, almost implying that a case exists for pre-emptive strikes in general. Does he think that such a case could be made in respect of Iran?

Dr Lewis: What I am saying is that there are conceivable circumstances in which military action might be necessary even if a threat was not imminent, if a country that was not bound by the normal conventions, understandings and value systems of the international community were about to acquire mass destruction weapons. I do not think that, under the existing narrow interpretation of international law, such a situation would count as an imminent threat. I say quite clearly that I believe that there are some circumstances in which some regimes should be prevented from acquiring weapons of mass destruction. I make no apology for saying that – and particularly not to the hon. Gentleman, who came late to the debate, although I was delighted to take his intervention.

I will conclude my remarks by making a couple of brief references to the other contributors. The Hon. Member for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney (Dai Havard) made a strong defence of Parliament having its say, even when it can be embarrassing to one's own side. My Hon. Friend the Member for Gravesham (Adam Holloway) made a strong point about the apparently conflicting motives of our strategy in Afghanistan, but I have referred to that already. In support of what he said, I draw the House's attention to an article in today's Financial Times, "Afghan officials face public fury as farm aid fails to materialise". It refers to one of the more northerly provinces and quotes the district governor in that impoverished area as saying:

"It would have been far better if we had promised nothing and simply told villagers that growing opium is against the law".

The disappointment that has arisen in that part of Afghanistan at the failure of compensation for not growing opium to arrive is clearly proving a source of grave irritation, friction and potential danger for our forces.

My Hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth, East (Tobias Ellwood) took the radical view that a process of managed partition – what he called a velvet revolution – might be the answer to the situation in Iraq. I commend him for persevering with a view that at present may seem unorthodox. The strange thing is that solutions that start out by seeming unorthodox sometimes end up being adopted and vindicated in the future.

The Hon. Member for Colchester (Bob Russell), as always, spoke up for the Army units based in his constituency. Again, he took the very robust view that we should stay as long as the Iraqi Government want us to. I have already referred in suitably complimentary terms to the excellent contribution by my Hon. Friend the Member for Reigate.

In conclusion, the Committee has done a great service to the House of Commons, both by putting the Ministry of Defence on the spot about the inadequacy of the detail with which the estimates have been put forward and also, as my Right Hon. and Learned Friend the Member for Kensington and Chelsea pointed out, by giving us an opportunity to debate some of the substantive issues that the Government have not been in a hurry to bring to the Floor of the House, at least since the General Election. The Government should have the courage of their convictions. There is nothing to be afraid of in airing these matters in the House of Commons. Various Labour Members have debated them time and again when the opportunity has arisen. We debate these matters without rancour. We do not always come to an agreement, but at least we agree that the opportunity for a debate provides the best possible way of allowing an intelligent electorate to make up their minds.

[The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence (Mr Adam Ingram): ... I found myself agreeing with much of what the hon. Member for New Forest, East said, although I will not tell him which parts of his speech I agreed with and which I did not. As ever, he made a thoughtful contribution. I share his view that it is Parliament's role to hold the Government to account. ... ]