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Commons Chamber

Volume 402: debated on Thursday 3 April 2003

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House Of Commons

Thursday 3 April 2003

The House met at half-past Eleven o'clock


[MR. SPEAKER in the Chair]

Oral Answers To Questions

Environment, Food And Rural Affairs

The Secretary of State was asked



What percentage of local councils she expects will reach the 2004 targets for the percentage of household rubbish recycled. [106682]

I cannot predict now what percentage of local authorities will reach their 2003–04 targets. Evidence up to 2001–02 suggests that good progress has been made. That will be augmented by schemes that have been or are being introduced to improve performance.

I thank my right hon. Friend for the extra money received by Cambridgeshire waste partnership for the recycling strategy, particularly for the £3.5 million grant announced earlier this year. Will my right hon. Friend look again at the effectiveness of local councils' recycling strategies, particularly in view of some of the claims that are being made. The Liberal Democrats in my constituency sent out a leaflet claiming that 16 per cent. of household rubbish was being recycled, whereas Cambridgeshire waste partnership claimed that only 13 per cent. was recycled. Will my right hon. Friend look into that and—

I am pleased that Cambridge succeeded in the challenge fund and that, as a result, it can increase its recycling rate from about 15 per cent. to, I hope, about 26 per cent. in the current year. On my hon. Friend's particular point, local authorities are under a statutory duty to provide accurate information for each best value performance indicator. That information is subject to audit, so any issue about the accuracy of the performance claimed against any indicator should be brought to the attention of the district auditor.

The hon. Member for Cambridge (Mrs. Campbell) has had an answer to her question from my hon. Friend the Member for Guildford (Sue Doughty), and the hon. Lady is incorrect in the assertion that she makes.

In respect of targets, if local authorities dramatically increase recycling, as both we and the Government want, is it not important to have a strong market for the goods collected, so that they are not sent to landfill? What are the Government doing to identify markets to deal with the large increase in recycled products that will occur?

:We are aware that a successful recycling strategy must have three elements. One is stretching targets, which will increase recycling beyond what would otherwise be the case. We believe that setting statutory recycling targets for local authorities will achieve that. Secondly, adequate funding is necessary. I have repeatedly pointed to the increase in the revenue support grant through the £140 billion challenge fund, and the 60 per cent. increase in private finance initiative money. The third element is, of course, markets. We set up the waste and resources action programme, which is a business at arm's length from Government, to find innovative methods of recovery and reuse of recycled products. It has a £40 million budget and I am aware of several innovative examples, which I want to see multiplied across the economy.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that, for all the good work that the Government have done in this sector, if we do not secure a faster rate of increase in the landfill tax in next week's Budget and if we do not set up a strategic waste authority to co-ordinate the different aspects, we will not make further progress and we will not hit the targets?

The Government are well aware of that. We have extremely tough landfill targets to reach. As I have said repeatedly, instead of doubling landfill under the "business as usual" scenario by 2020, we are seeking to reduce it by two thirds by that date, which is extremely demanding. There are two main measures to achieve that: one is the landfill tax escalator—my hon. Friend makes a fair point about the rate of increase, and Ministers have been paying considerable attention to that and will respond to the strategy report shortly—and the other is the Waste and Emissions Trading Bill, currently proceeding through the House. Indeed, I left its Committee proceedings five minutes ago. That Bill will set physical limits on the amounts that can be sent to landfill and progressively reduce them year by year.

As the Minister will know, last weekend certain journalists had been briefed to the effect that the Government propose to change the law to allow householders to be charged for the collection of rubbish from their homes. I understand that the Secretary of State persuaded the Deputy Prime Minister of the need for that. Will the Minister confirm whether the Government have decided to adopt that policy?

That is certainly news to us, but one often learns much from the press about what the Government are alleged to be about to do. I suggest that the hon. Gentleman awaits the Government's response to the strategy unit report, which will be published around Budget time. Such a change in the law was just one of the recommendations in that report. The Government are giving careful consideration to it and we shall make our response shortly.

National Park Boundaries


What plans she has to extend the boundaries of national parks. [106683]

I have no plans at present to extend the boundaries of any of the existing national parks in England, and I am advised that the Countryside Agency has no plans to undertake any reviews.

I congratulate the Government on their wholly admirable handling of the national parks agenda thus far, but will my right hon. Friend examine the possibility that discrete areas just outside national park boundaries could be added to the national parks without going through a review of the entire parks boundaries? If that were possible, would not it be a good way to protect some of our most valuable landscapes, as it would give them the extra protection that national parks status guarantees? I am thinking particularly about the east and south of the lake district.

:I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his remarks about the Government's record. He is right that, at present, the procedures that must be followed for even a relatively small-scale and discrete area review are substantial, and much the same as those for a new national park. That is the position, and I am not able to change that at present. However, I take my hon. Friend's point that we must take such issues into account, not least because national parks are of great value to the nation. I cannot offer my hon. Friend a remedy in the short term, but I can undertake to give careful thought to the point that he makes.

When the Secretary of State considers the national parks, will she bear it in mind that, however important the quiet enjoyment of national parks is for visitors, it is also important that people can earn a living inside the national parks? The foot and mouth disease outbreak showed, among other things, how dependent most people living in national parks are on the tourism industry, which is often not high value, and on agriculture, which is going through a crisis. Will the right hon. Lady bear it in mind that we should look to the parks having an economic purpose, as well as an enjoyment purpose, so that the parks can live in their own right, and not be exclusively playgrounds for people who come in from outside?

The right hon. Gentleman makes a very powerful point, with which the whole House will agree and sympathise. It is precisely to take account of such matters that my right hon. Friend the Minister for Rural Affairs and Urban Quality of Life presided over a joint conference with the regional development agencies about a year ago. Some further work is being undertaken on the back of that conference, and we anticipate a further report, probably in June. I entirely take the right hon. Gentleman's point, which is valid and important.

I, too, congratulate the Government on their attitude to the national parks. Following the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for West Lancashire (Mr. Pickthall), will my right hon. Friend look at the system employed in places such the parc d'Armorique in Brittany? Small areas worthy of protection that are not within the park's boundaries can be brought into the park quickly and easily.

Again, I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who makes an interesting point, and highlights an example of how others manage these things differently. As I said to my hon. Friend the Member for West Lancashire (Mr. Pickthall), I cannot undertake to make the changes that she suggests at the present time. However, I can certainly undertake to give consideration to the example that she gave, as we will to the proposals that may be put forward by others. I am confident that my right hon. Friend the Minister of State will be very happy to discuss the detail of these matters with my hon. Friend.

The Secretary of State knows very well the peak district national park, which attracts more than 20 million visitors a year. Recently, the Government produced a report on the governance of national parks that proposed a reduction in the number of parish representatives involved in running a national park. The proposal may have been well meaning, but does the Secretary of State understand that it would be greatly resisted in the peak district? Will she give very careful consideration as to whether she should go forward with the proposal?

We always keep such matters under very careful consideration. I shall certainly agree to look again at the points that the hon. Gentleman has made. However, I assure him that the Government are trying, as everyone would wish, to get the right balance between the representation of the different interests, who all have the right to a voice.

Sewage Works


If she will make a statement on the consultation on proposals for the statutory control of odour and other nuisance from sewage works. [106684]

The consultation ended on 28 March and we have received more than 100 responses from local authorities, water companies, professional bodies, local groups and members of the public who have experienced odour problems from sewage treatment works. My officials are collating the responses and I hope to be able to make a further announcement to the House before the summer recess.

Constituents of mine in Bromborough, who have long suffered from the problems associated with a landfill site, are now plagued with foul smells emanating from a waste water treatment plant. As my right hon. Friend will know, the loss of a test case by Liverpool city council against United Utilities effectively rules out powers of enforcement against odour nuisance. Can he assure my long-suffering constituents, who are now also threatened with ammonium nitrate being dumped in the vicinity, that his Department will act with all possible speed to find a resolution to the problem?

Yes, indeed—we want to get a resolution as soon as possible. In many parts of the country, water companies and local authorities, together with local residents, can and do tackle such issues in a pragmatic and speedy way. They do not need to wait for the outcome of the consultation or, indeed, for new legislation in order to behave in a sensible and grown-up manner in trying to deal with a matter that is a nuisance to local constituents. I am not familiar with the case that my hon. Friend mentions, but I will he happy to discuss it with him if he would find that helpful.

Castle Point suffers from bad odours from sewage plants, but also from Pitsea landfill tip and from the Coryton oil refinery, where there have recently been terrible odours. Will the Government make available specific funds for the excellent Castle Point borough councillors to monitor those odours and to deal with them?

Those responsibilities lie with the Environment Agency as well as with the local authority, and I suggest that the hon. Gentleman looks at what is available to both those bodies at the present time. The consultation deals specifically with the smells that emanate from sewage treatment works, so that is the issue to which I should respond.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that this is a serious problem? I must declare an interest, because I live quite close to our local sewage works. The reality is that again we have a problem with United Utilities, which will not spend the money to provide a good sewage facility without any odour. Is it not right that we need legislation, and when will we get it?

I can understand my hon. Friend s concern if he is in close contact with the problem. Many hon. Members understand it through the experience of their constituents, but he has direct experience. These matters should be capable of being dealt with by a common-sense approach. We undertook the consultation because it was discovered that in some parts of the country—not many, but a significant number—problems were not being solved at a local level, and we want to deal with that as quickly as possible. I would encourage water companies, local authorities and local residents to get together to see whether such matters can be dealt with speedily and sympathetically at a local level.

Bovine Tb


What steps she is taking to reduce the incidence of bovine TB. [106685]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs
(Mr. Elliot Morley)

We are working hard to reduce the incidence of bovine TB and are spending £35 million to £40 million a year on a programme of public health protection measures, which include cattle testing, cattle controls and research.

Last autumn, in response to industry calls, we introduced a package of measures aimed at helping farmers under TB restriction and improving the diagnosis of the disease.

What assurance can the Minister give to the farmers of Hazel Grove, Mellor and Compstall that the insidious spread of bovine TB into Cheshire is being brought under control? Will he end the long delays in on-farm testing that seriously disrupt farmers, and will he intensify the testing of road kill so that the disease can be tracked properly on its spread through the country?

On the first point, road traffic accidents are a very important way of examining badger carcases, and we have extended that practice as far as possible to give us more information.

As regards Cheshire, we are keeping a close eye on the situation in relation to TB spread. I recently met a delegation of farmers from the National Farmers Union to discuss the matter, and they had some thoughtful ideas about controls on cattle movement, which are an important factor.

We have made good progress in reducing the backlog that built up as a result of the foot and mouth epidemic, and we are trying to ensure a speedy turnaround of testing wherever possible.

The Minister will be aware that the Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs is about to produce a report. I will not predict what the report will say but, from the evidence that we heard, it is fair to say that we still have a scientific challenge to face up to. The different sides of the argument are hard to bring together. Is the Minister aware that the old Select Committee on Agriculture called for a plan B? That should in no way undermine the work of the independent scientific group, but we have to be aware that options may have to be kept open. Would the Minister care to comment on that?

We will certainly have to consider a range of options to deal with bovine TB. We have already done that, for example, in the measures that we have put in place for on-farm movements and controls, for the extension of the gamma interferon test, and for research into the epidemiology of the disease. As my hon. Friend suggests, there is a polarisation of opinion on the causes of bovine TB. That is why we have the Krebs study, and that is why we have to approach this issue on the basis of science, to examine all the possible pathways of the disease and to help us to understand how it spreads and is transmitted.

Is the Minister aware that, in south-west Wiltshire, the badger population has for a decade been out of control and out of balance, and that for five years bovine TB has been spreading rapidly? Only this week, my local branch of the National Farmers Union told me that farmers west of Salisbury are desperate about the slow progress of successive Governments in addressing the problem. Will the Minister treat this as a matter of urgency in a rural economy that is already in crisis?

The Department regards this as a priority issue, and that is why we have committed so many funds to it and instigated so much scientific research.

Badger populations have increased in some areas—although not all areas—and the link between badgers and bovine TB is an issue. However, it would be a mistake to focus entirely on that link. We understand and accept that the badger population is a reservoir for disease, but we do not understand the epidemiology or the way in which disease can spread between cattle and badgers. We are not sure that a programme of badger culling is the best use of resources or the most effective way of controlling the disease. The current study will look into that. I would not want to go back to a failed policy that did not stop the spread or increase of the disease.

Will my hon. Friend confirm that this year's figures show a worrying increase in positive bovine TB tests in Staffordshire? Will he take a personal interest in whether the resources available are adequate to deal with the increasing challenge—especially the human resources? Will he confirm that a vaccine is still some way away?

There has certainly been an increase in Staffordshire, which was the result of the halt in testing in 2001 and the backlog that came with it. Because of that loss of a year, I would caution people about evaluating the current figures until probably midsummer, when we will have a chance to see what the true spread and increase has been. At the moment, the figures are distorted by the backlog.

Vaccine development is part of our approach in our research into both badgers and cattle. We have committed just about all the resources that we possibly can to that development but, at the moment, there is no sign of even a near-breakthrough in the development of a suitable vaccine.

The Minister suggests that there is uncertainty, but one thing that is absolutely certain is that the disease is moving much faster than the Government. The profound concerns of farmers have, reportedly, been dismissed by the Minister as being based on folklore. I am sure that he will want to retract that or apologise for it. As my hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury (Mr. Key) suggests, the problem is rapidly getting out of control. The disease is spreading and is having a devastating effect. Will the Minister give specific answers to these questions? What steps are being taken and what timetable does he envisage for the development of a vaccine for the eradication of bovine TB in the whole wildlife reservoir population—not just badgers—and also in susceptible farmed animals?

Independent scientific groups say that a vaccine is probably 10 years away—although even that is a difficult figure. However, I warn the hon. Gentleman against using phrases such as "out of control" to describe the spread of the disease, because of the current distortion of figures. We need to examine the figures carefully, in a proper analytical way, rather than throwing around such phrases.

There have been calls from some farming organisations to restart badger culling outside the trial areas, but there is no evidence to suggest that that would have a positive effect on controlling the disease. We need to evaluate all methods of control—testing, movement control, biosecurity and vaccine development—as well as wildlife receptors. It would be a mistake to focus on one particular aspect and to think that by dealing with that we could solve the problem.

Departmental Staff


If she will make a statement on her plans to reduce the number of senior staff in her Department. [106686]

There are no plans to reduce the number of senior staff in the Department.

In view of that slightly surprising reply, will the Minister explain public reports a few weeks ago that the Secretary of State's intention was to be the first member of the Cabinet to set an objective of reducing her Department's bureaucracy by 20 per cent? Why has she subsequently backtracked on that public commitment?

The hon. Gentleman should not always believe everything that he reads in the papers. He was clearly determined to ask the question that he had prepared. I have given an answer that dismisses that rather facile approach.

As the Minister said, the intention may be for there to be no such reduction, but the Select Committee on Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs, of which I am a member, was distinctly unimpressed by the Department's IT strategy, which envisages a selling-off of the information functions to the private sector. Will that not lead to a loss of experienced, committed and talented individuals that DEFRA, in its present position, cannot possibly afford? Surely, for a Department to sell off core resources, such as information, is like St. Thomas' hospital over the river selling off its surgery department to Sainsbury's butchers.

I could simply answer "no" and leave it at that. I am afraid that my hon. Friend gives a complete mischaracterisation of what is going on in DEFRA. The Office of Government Commerce review has just been completed, which demonstrated how DEFRA had lifted its game in improving IT. We try to use the best industry standards to provide high quality IT for the future, which is badly needed due to the desperate situation that we inherited. We have every intention of improving IT, as we intend to improve senior management. We have made great strides during the past 18 months and will continue to do so.

I am relieved to hear that the Minister has no intention of cutting senior staff in DEFRA by 20 per cent. In my experience, DEFRA civil servants are of the highest quality, so I am glad about that. In that case, however, what does the right hon. Gentleman intend to do about the Select Committee's report? I remind him that it states that DEFRA

"must undergo … structural and cultural change. We have doubts about the abilities of management to oversee such a period of change."
Will the Minister answer some questions about staffing in that context? First, why are officials of the former Department of Environment, Transport and the Regions paid more than their equivalents in the former Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food? Secondly, how much money does he plan to save for the Treasury as a result of the senior staff review? Will it be more than the £20 million set aside for early retirements? Thirdly, if, as reported in the Financial Times on 13 January, "mandarins" are to undergo psychometric testing to assess their leadership abilities, would it not he reasonable for Ministers to undergo the same tests?

We are proposing to use those tests on the Opposition, as they need testing more than we do. Again, the hon. Gentleman should not believe everything that he reads in the papers. We are seeking to narrow the gaps between the payment of staff and a lot of progress has been made, but he will appreciate that dealing with that issue is expensive. The purpose of the work that has come from the senior staff review is to lift the quality of staff, particularly senior staff, throughout the Department, and a great deal of progress is being made in that regard. I agree with the hon. Gentleman about the high quality of the staff in DEFRA, and they are lifting their game throughout the Department as a result of the leadership that they are being offered.

Fallen Stock


If she will make a statement on the disposal of fallen stock on farms. [106687]


What assessment she has made of the financial impact of the new fallen stock regulations. [106688]


What recent representations she has received regarding the disposal of fallen stock. [106690]

I have received a number of representations expressing concerns about introducing the new rules on the disposal of fallen stock. That will clearly have a financial impact on farmers, and the Government continue our dialogue with the industry about introducing a national fallen stock collection and disposal scheme as the best way of addressing those concerns.

I should declare an interest as a farmer, although I own no stock. What has the Secretary of State got against farmers? This measure will mean that the disposal of a dead sheep may cost more the value of a live beast. It is unscientific and illogical. Will the Government now ban the burial of human corpses?

The hon. Gentleman says that the measure is unscientific, but the basic regulations were put in place precisely as a result of a report from the EU Scientific Committee. They have been extensively discussed across the EU, and there is general agreement that they are desirable. I reject utterly the suggestion that the Government are in some way attempting to penalise farmers. After all, we are not required to put Government resources behind the scheme that we propose to adopt to try to form the basis of a national scheme, but we have done so.

Will the Minister confirm that, last year, DEFRA was given a report by an independent scientist, showing that biodigestion is a very useful alternative technology in dealing with fallen stock, as it is biosecure and environmentally friendly? What discussions has she had with the European Commission in respect of including that method of disposal among the approved options?

I am aware that the hon. Lady and, indeed, some of her colleagues have raised that issue, and I accept that it does sound interesting. Unfortunately, it is illegal at present, but I am conscious of the interest in the proposals to which she refers, and she will like to know that we have referred them to the scientific authorities in the EU for consideration. However, we cannot pursue that option at present.

The Secretary of State may wish to be aware that many Suffolk livestock farmers in my constituency believe that information from her Department on the change to the fallen stock regime has been both unhelpful and unclear. In the light of that, has she worked out a mode of enforcement for the new regime, and, if so, will she publish it?

I shall begin where the hon. Gentleman ended. Enforcement is, of course, a matter for local authorities, which enforce regulations of that kind, but I am sorry to hear that individual farmers find the existing guidance less clear than they would wish. We will be writing shortly to all farmers about the new rules and what they need to do to meet them, and we intend to include proposals for a national helpline, as well as arrangements for a voluntary subscription scheme.

On-farm incineration is a legal alternative for the disposal of fallen stock. When does my right hon. Friend intend to issue the information and guidance for farmers about the use of on-farm incineration?

I believe that some information and guidance is already on the DEFRA website. We are certainly mindful of the fact that, as my hon. Friend will know, there is substantial availability of such incineration capacity, but it has to meet the required standards, and we will work with the industry to ensure that that is the case during the next few months.

Is the Secretary of State aware that many hon. Members feel that on-farm disposal is the most environmentally sound option? Will she say a little more about encouraging biodigestion or on-farm incineration, so that we do not see lorries travelling up and down the country collecting fallen farm stock at huge cost to individual farmers and with environmental costs to the whole country? Will she take this opportunity to rule out any further Government move to end woodland burials or the burial of pets in gardens?

The hon. Gentleman's final point takes us down a slight sidetrack, so I shall return to the main point that he makes. It is valid to say that people will be concerned and that we should be concerned about the biosecurity implications of transport. Equally, as he raised the issue of costs, I say to him that the national collection and disposal Industry has come forward with proposals to the Government for what it believes will be a very sound operational scheme. It has identified the fact that it believes that there could be a substantial reduction in costs if such a scheme were fully utilised.

Will my right hon. Friend adopt a flexible and proportionate approach to this matter? It should be flexible in the sense that, if agreement cannot be reached but is in the offing, the deadline of 1 May should be extended. It should be proportionate when it comes to hill farmers, because there is a case for sheep carcases being allowed to remain on site for conservation and for wildlife purposes.

I certainly undertake to consider my hon. Friend's point. There has been extensive consultation on this issue for at least a year, and we are anxious to resolve the matter, not least because, if there is scope for agreement to some kind of national scheme, that will make an enormous difference to the way in which we can operate it.

In view of the fact that the regulations need to be implemented on 1 May, this is not just a fiasco that is waiting to happen but a fiasco that is bound to happen. What efforts did the Government make to ensure that the country has the ability to have a sensible derogation for remote rural areas, as is now the case in Scotland? In view of the Secretary of State's answers, will she ensure that farmers have ample opportunity to be consulted? As will inevitably be the case, the implementation and enforcement of the regulations will be delayed if the farming community is properly consulted on the Government's proposals to deal with this issue.

I am afraid that I reject the notion that this is a fiasco. We have been consulting the farming community for, as I said, at least a year. The hon. Gentleman seems to believe that there will be a problem with implementation and that it will be a fiasco because, in some way, the capacity will not be there to deal with the stock. That is not the case. We are told by the collection and disposal industry that there is ample capacity. It is absolutely possible for the regulations to be implemented on the due date.

Of course, we want a better, good national scheme that, as the industry advises us, could significantly reduce the costs that farmers are liable for now. That seems to be to everyone's benefit. That is what we shall write to individual farmers about in the very near future.

On 28 February, officials from the Secretary of State's Department told the National Farmers Union that they would issue detailed guidance on on-farm incineration within the following two weeks. When is this guidance going to appear?

Detailed guidance is certainly under preparation and it was my impression that it was going out—

The hon. Gentleman says within two weeks, but it was certainly my impression that it is going out in the next few days or week. Although there is detailed guidance about how on-farm incineration can be effected, I repeat the point that I made to the hon. Member for St. Ives (Andrew George). The industry assures us that there is capacity and scope to deal with this problem now.

Does this not show yet again that the incompetence and confusion in the Secretary of State's Department is stopping effective and clear advice from getting to farmers and others who will have to cope with the regulations in about three weeks? We are told that the advice on incineration that was promised a fortnight from the end of February is still being drafted, and we are told that the Department is getting together its letter to send out to all farmers as soon as possible. Can she confirm that article 32 of the animal by-product regulations expressly allows for temporary derogations from those regulations and that the United Kingdom has, in fact, already sought and obtained delays on issues such as the use of used cooking oil in animal feed? Is not the sensible course of action now for the Secretary of State to apply urgently for a derogation from the fallen stock provisions of the regulations so that a proper, effective scheme can be put in place and so that farmers do not face the confusion that they face now and will face from the beginning of May?

Let me repeat that the industry is perfectly aware of the implications. The regulations are not something that has come out of the blue—we have been discussing them with the industry for a full year. There is capacity to deal now with the problem of disposal, and there is no practical need for a derogation. The hon. Gentleman may be losing sight of the key fact that the regulations were introduced in the first place on the basis of scientific advice that the present arrangement was undesirable and should be ended as soon as possible. That is what we are working towards. We very much regret that, unfortunately, it has not proved possible to persuade the representatives of farming organisations to agree to what the collection and disposal industry say is a perfectly practical and viable scheme.

I remind the House that the industry believes that a national scheme in which people voluntarily participate would operate at substantially lower costs than the present arrangements. It estimates that it would cost about 40 per cent. less for adult cattle and 60 per cent. less for adult sheep. It is on that basis that we shall write to farmers, urging them to tell us whether they would comply with and join a voluntary national scheme.

Endangered Species


What recent representations she has received from local and regional wildlife trusts concerning the future of native endangered species. [106689]

I regularly receive a number of representations from many sources including the wildlife trusts, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, the Mammal Society and English Nature.

Many of my constituents are concerned about the survival of one of our best-loved species, the red squirrel. While I do not advocate the ruddy duck solution for grey squirrels, will my right hon. Friend te11 me what action the Government can take to create controlled zones for the greys so that their remorseless spread is halted? Will she look at ways of ensuring support for cross-regional co-operation in the areas most affected? In England, joint action is necessary in the north-east and Cumbria and, in Scotland, in the adjoining area of Dumfries and Galloway.

My right hon. Friend makes an important point—I entirely agree that that kind of co-operation is necessary. She will probably be aware that the Government's emphasis has been to seek to protect the red squirrel by protecting the habitat where it is most likely to survive rather than to interfere in the habitat of the grey squirrel. There is no doubt, sadly, that grey squirrels have a considerable advantage in, for example, broadleaf woodland.

The Government continue to discuss with the relevant partnership of organisations a range of protective measures to try to enhance the survival capacity of the red squirrel. I share my right hon. Friend's view that red squirrels should be protected—they are charming creatures that we would like to preserve.

Will the Secretary of State take the opportunity to pay tribute to the Worcestershire Wildlife Trust for its work in a partnership that is seeking to reopen the old Droitwich canals? The trust's intelligent, pragmatic and sensible approach to possible threats to endangered and rare species along the banks of those waterways has led to a successful grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund and Advantage West Midlands to secure the reopening of those canals. Does she agree that that proves that it is possible to protect endangered and rare species while achieving beneficial change in the countryside?

I am happy to endorse everything that the hon. Gentleman said. It is both noticeable and welcome that local partnerships are springing up across the country. The hon. Gentleman is right that the important thing is that, where possible, we act at the point of endangerment, or preferably before, rather than try to retrieve a situation that we have let go beyond repair.

Dorset And East Devon World Heritage Site


What plans she has to visit the Dorset and east Devon world heritage site. [106691

I had an excellent visit to the Dorset and east Devon coast world heritage site last year, and discussed its management and development with the local steering committee and with my hon. Friend. I am looking forward to a further visit next month as part of the south-west coast path silver jubilee celebrations.

I look forward to welcoming my right hon. Friend again to that important natural world heritage site, the only one in England and Wales. Does he agree that it is important that we improve the interpretation of such sites? To that end, what recent discussions has he had directly or through the Department for Culture, Media and Sport with the natural history museum to explore with the museum the possibility of investment in a major facility somewhere along the coast, ideally in south Dorset?

I am aware of those discussions, although I have not been involved directly with them. The Government office for the south-west, in which DEFRA is represented, is working closely with the jurassic coast steering group. I am impressed by the partnership working—the determination and teamwork—in my hon. Friend's constituency and in that part of the country.

Coastal Erosion


If she will make a statement on her policy on coastal erosion. [106692]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs
(Mr. Elliot Morley)

The policy aim is to reduce the risks to people and the developed and natural environment from coastal erosion by encouraging the provision of technically, environmentally and economically sound and sustainable defence measures.

I thank the Minister for that reply, which raises a concern about another part of the north Norfolk coast, in addition to the one about which I have already written to him, Happisburgh. I refer to Cley and Salthouse, where over a period of five years the Environment Agency developed a multi-objective scheme along the lines that the Minister described to benefit people, property and conservation. A massive sum was spent on developing the scheme. Last year, it seems that DEFRA suddenly pulled the rug from under the Environment Agency and determined that instead of a multi-objective scheme, only conservation would be covered, and people and property would be dealt with separately. Now we are back to square one, after a massive investment—

Order. That is turning into a speech. The Minister has probably got the drift.

The Cley and Salthouse scheme is well known to me, although the hon. Gentleman's interpretation is not correct. The approach that we take in DEFRA is an integrated approach, whereby environmental factors are considered alongside issues of people and property, as they are in Cley and Salthouse. The delay there arose from the fact that there was one preferred option, which was a clay bank scheme. English Nature raised some reasonable objections to that, relating to the loss of fresh water, the balance between preserving freshwater lagoons and saline lagoons, and whether a scheme could involve the retreat of the shingle bank to a lower profile, which may overtop more but would nevertheless provide adequate levels of defence. It is that detail which is currently under discussion, and that is the reason for the delay.

My hon. Friend is only too aware of the tremendous investment that the Government have made in the stabilisation of the Yorkshire heritage coast. Many people in our community welcome that. Has the additional request for support for that scheme been considered? In the light of his earlier answer, will my hon. Friend reaffirm the Government's commitment to all members of local communities being able to have their say in such schemes, which may sometimes be controversial?

I confirm that. With any flood or coastal defence scheme, the Environment Agency or the local authority takes great steps to involve local people. We want to take their views into account. I am familiar with the details of the Scarborough scheme, which involves a major financial commitment on the part of the Government to protect the people of Scarborough. I know that there are issues of cost overrun. Cost overruns are not unique in any kind of major scheme, and we will of course examine the details of the overrun. I should make it clear that we do not automatically provide the additional cost, but if there is a valid reason for the additional expenditure, we will consider it carefully.

Utility Regulators (Price Reviews)


What steps (a) Ofgem, (b) Oftel and (c) Ofwat are taking following the 50th Report by the Committee of Public Accounts in Session 2001–02 on Pipes and Wires to simplify the information requirements they place on companies and to change the period over which price reviews are conducted. [106693]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs
(Mr. Elliot Morley)

Neither energy nor telecommunications policy is the responsibility of my Department. The Office of Water Services advises me that it has taken account of the Committee's recommendations in its approach to the next periodic review of water price limits. Ofwat has streamlined the information required from companies into two main submissions and has shortened the length of the period over which the review is conducted from three to two years.

I am pleased to hear that reply. The Minister will he aware that regulated water companies complain that much of the information that they give Ofwat is not used. Is he keeping up the pressure on Ofwat to ensure that all the information that it requires from the companies is proper and valid, so that we avoid useless paper chases in Whitehall?

I accept that, while regulation is important, as we are dealing with monopoly companies that must be regulated, bureaucracy should be kept to a minimum. As a matter of coincidence, I met Philip Fletcher, the regulator, yesterday in one of our regular meetings to discuss water issues. I know that his work and the information that he collects, some of which we discussed yesterday, are essential in the very complex task of price fixing and taking into account the needs of consumer protection, the environment and companies themselves. I believe that he is taking steps to be as efficient as possible and that the information that is collected is put to good use.

Paragraph 4.4 of the report describes the often perverse effects that the regulator's pricing policies can have on water and sewerage companies. As a result, I believe that a problem has been created in my constituency, as Yorkshire Water tells me that an over-prescriptive policy regarding the capital programme is preventing it from replacing inadequate sewerage, which is causing sewage to spill into the houses of local residents. Can my hon. Friend offer me any help in this matter? Will he meet me and one or two others to discuss the problem?

I am very happy to meet to discuss individual constituency cases and problems, so I offer my hon. Friend that assurance. I am not all together convinced about the claim to which he refers. I do not know all the details involved, but I can say that price fixing has an element relating to capital investment that is essential to meet the environmental and quality standards that consumers and the public want, many of which are important commitments in legislation and directives. Within that, there is provision for the sort of maintenance that we would expect from any water or sewerage company. I know that sewage flooding is an issue and that it is under discussion in relation to the next price-fixing round, but without knowing all the details, I am a bit sceptical about the suggestion that the capital programme is preventing action on such flooding.

In the context of the next round of discussions on water charges, one of the factors in which the Minister's Department will be closely involved is helping to quantify the costs of implementing the water framework directive. Will he tell the House what progress he is making to assist water companies in coming to conclusions on the costs of implementing that very important directive?

It is an important directive and the biggest ever to have come out of the EU. It provides some major benefits, and we should not forget that. It is true that there are potential costs. Part of the problem is that some of those costs will be met by work that is currently under way, including, for example, on the waste water directive and work that we are implementing in nitrate vulnerable zones relating to diffuse pollution. I think that our figures on cost implications will become more accurate as time progresses. The implementation date is 2015, but I think that we will have a clearer idea of the costs and commitments in about 2005.

Fluvial Strategy (River Trent)


If she will make a statement on the progress of the fluvial strategy for the River Trent. [106694]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs
(Mr. Elliot Morley)

I understand from the Environment Agency that its study leading to a flood management strategy for the fluvial Trent is proceeding well. The agency currently anticipates that it will be completed in March 2004.

I thank the Minister for his answer. The communities of Willington, Barrow upon Trent and Shardlow in my constituency are waiting with anxiety for the outcome of the report, which they hope will give guidance about both the true nature of flood risk in their villages and the appropriate defence measures that can be devised. Can he give me some assurance that they will receive some interim guidance on the progress of this very important study?

Yes, I can. I know that my hon. Friend takes a close interest in flood defence and I understand that the test options for flood management should be complete in July 2003. There should be an interim progress report in April 2003, which his constituents will be able to see. The Trent is a very complex river system in which I have to declare an interest, as it forms the western boundary of my constituency. Such a study offers a wide range of benefits for helping us to understand the whole management of water and the best options for protecting communities.

Presumably, the fluvial strategy that the Government are following for the River Trent will not be dissimilar to strategies for the rest of the country. Will the Minister confirm that the fluvial strategy encompasses dredging and that such rivers are dredged as frequently today as they were five or 10 years ago?

I can confirm that if the strategy identifies that dredging should be an aspect of river management, it will be done. I caution that dredging often has limited benefits for a variety of reasons. Nevertheless, it could have a role to play and if such a role is identified, dredging will form part of the strategy that we will implement.

Radioactive Waste


If she will make a statement on the arrangements for the disposal of low-level solid radioactive waste in the UK. [106695]

Solid radioactive low-level waste is safely disposed of at Drigg in Cumbria, apart from a small proportion, which is kept in store.

I thank my right hon. Friend for his answer, but what is his response to the claims of the Radioactive Waste Management Advisory Committee that the United Kingdom's radioactive waste inventory does not take account of low-activity waste, facility decommissioning or clean-up costs, including those for contaminated land, and that any perception that low-activity waste can be dealt with at Drigg is misplaced?

We are aware of the issue. Drigg has sufficient capacity until 2050 with regard to current arisings, but my hon. Friend asks about low-activity waste. We are reviewing the best way to deal with waste that is only likely to be contaminated: soil or building rubble from the decommissioning and clean-up of nuclear sites. That will be a significant issue for the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority. I am sure that it will give its view, as will the new Committee on Radioactive Waste Management, which will examine the delivery of our plans for the disposal of low-level waste.

Sheep Identification And Traceability


What discussions she has had with the European Commission about the EU proposal on sheep identification and traceability. [106697]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs
(Mr. Elliot Morley)

Officials have held high-level discussions on these proposals with the European Commission and my noble Friend Lord Whitty contributed to a brief discussion on the proposals during the Agriculture Council on 27 and 28 January.

I am grateful to the Minister for that reply. Does he agree with the National Farmers Union Scotland that the European Union proposals would effectively close the Scottish sheep industry? Will he do everything possible to bring the highly regarded Scottish flock identification system, which is supported by farmers, vets and the Government, to the attention of the Commission?

We have raised our concerns with the Commission about its proposals several times and said that they are inappropriate given the size of our sheep flock and the fact that we have recording procedures, as the hon. Gentleman says. We must seriously address the traceability of sheep. We believe that electronic identification is ultimately the right way forward. Harmonisation rules on that are not yet in place, but the current proposals are not satisfactory. We shall continue to make representations to the Commission on the matter.

Silkstream Flood Defence Scheme


If she will make a statement on progress with the Silkstream flood defence scheme. [106701]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs
(Mr. Elliot Morley)

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has approved the Environment Agency's proposed Silkstream flood defence scheme, subject to satisfactory resolution of negotiations with landowners. I understand that the agency is undertaking those negotiations and has commenced detailed design, with a view to starting construction in late summer 2004.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that answer, but can he do anything to speed up the scheme? It is already a year behind schedule, and summer 2004 is six months later than the date that was given in the previous answer at the beginning of the year. Will he ascertain whether anything can be done to make some progress on the scheme, which is long overdue and badly needed by my constituents?

My hon. Friend has raised the issue for some time and I sympathise with his frustration about the progress that has been made. I understand that negotiations with landowners constitute one of the problems because land needs to be acquired. However, I believe that they are concluding and I hope that progress will be made quickly.

Iraq (Military Operations)

12.30 pm

With permission, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I should like to make a further statement about military action in Iraq.

We are now two weeks into the campaign. The coalition continues to make remarkable progress, following the main outlines of our military plan. Since my last statement on 26 March, coalition forces have established a presence in northern Iraq and are moving ever closer to Baghdad. Another important phase has been reached as the first troops engage Saddam Hussein's republican guard divisions on the approaches to the city.

At the same time, British forces are consolidating their position in the area in and around Basra. I do want to repeat the warning that I gave in my first statement to the House some two weeks ago: do not underestimate the task that still faces our forces or the length of time that it may take to complete. We are still very much in the second phase of steady progress that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has set out.

On behalf of the Government, I want to extend our condolences to the families and friends of those servicemen who have lost their lives in recent days. I would also like to mention those who have been injured, some seriously, since the start of military operations, either in combat or in the usual course of their duties: 39 United Kingdom battle casualties are currently being treated in theatre and 35 have been evacuated. I know that the House will join me in sending our very best wishes for their speedy recovery.

In the conflict, we have been accused by commentators of underestimating the resistance of the Iraqi regime. We always knew that the regime would fight, but, as democratic states that observe the rule of law, we have been shocked by the extent of the Iraqi regime's capacity for brutality and killing its own people.

Every aspect of what we do is rightly and understandably held up for public scrutiny. In contrast, Saddam Hussein's murderous thugs go about their brutal work out of sight of the media. Some have been surprised by the caution with which the Iraqi people have greeted coalition forces, but that should not be surprising. The regime has deployed every horror in maintaining its stranglehold on power—torture, rape and execution.

In recent days, our forces on the ground around Basra have been appalled by the actions of the regime's thugs as they struggle to maintain their grip on the city. On 25 March, there were disturbances in Basra that irregular regime forces suppressed with mortar fire against their own people. On 28 March, when between 1,000 and 2,000 people were preparing to leave Basra, regime militia opened fire with heavy machine gun and mortar fire. Since then, irregulars have routinely been firing on civilians in the south-east of Basra. That is the sort of brutal suppression that has been going on in Iraq for very many years.

Despite its protestations to the contrary, the Iraqi regime shows no greater respect for the country's cultural wealth than for its people. The coalition is taking every precaution to avoid damage to the holy sites in Najaf and Karbala. By contrast, we know that Saddam Hussein has plans to damage the sites and blame the coalition. Indeed, his forces have used the site at Najaf as a defensive position, firing on United States forces, who commendably did not return fire.

The steady advance of the coalition continues. Our strategic grip on Iraq is tightening. In the south, British forces continue to operate in the al-Faw peninsula, the southern oilfields and the Basra area. The 7th Armoured Brigade is preventing Iraqi forces in Basra from hindering the main advance, while establishing corridors for the safe movement of civilians and humanitarian aid.

We have been striking key regime targets in the area. Those operations have included successful attacks from the air on the Ba'ath party headquarters in Basra, and by 7th Armoured Brigade on the intelligence and militia headquarters in Basra and the local state security organisation headquarters in Az Zubayr in the south of Basra.

In the area of Abu Al Khasib, in the south-east outskirts of Basra, 3 Commando Brigade have engaged substantial Iraqi forces, capturing significant numbers of enemy forces, including senior Iraqi officers. This daring raid resulted in the death of one Royal Marine. There were, in addition, a number of casualties. On the night of 31 March, 16 Air Assault Brigade, with artillery and air support, engaged Iraqi forces, destroying an estimated 17 tanks and five artillery pieces, as well as other Iraqi vehicles and infantry positions. We are now focused on building the confidence of the local people. We will continue to patrol aggressively, striking hard at the regime and its militias. Key suburbs of Basra have now been taken. We will go further into the city at a time of our own choosing.

Further north, elements of the United States army's Fifth Corps have now passed through Karbala and are moving towards Baghdad. US forces have been engaging with the Medina and Baghdad republican guard divisions, and have secured crossings over the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. The lead elements of the US 3rd Infantry Division are now on the outskirts of Baghdad. More than 9,000 Iraqi prisoners of war have been taken by coalition forces. Royal Air Force aircraft have contributed to the close air support of these forces. They have also attacked Iraqi forces in the field, and have continued to degrade the regime's command and control facilities, and the combat capability of the security forces that support it.

Coalition forces have taken the utmost care over the targeting of the air campaign. Every effort has been made to minimise the risk of any civilian casualties or damage to the civilian infrastructure. The House will be aware of the explosions in market districts of Baghdad on 26 and 28 March, and of reports of significant numbers of fatalities and injuries. Neither of the marketplaces was targeted by the coalition, and we continue to investigate how these tragic events might have occurred. We have long been familiar with the false claims of civilian casualties made by Saddam's regime, and it would be foolish to accept these claims at face value without proper investigation. What we do know, however, is that the air defence commander in Baghdad has been replaced, partly because of concerns that Iraqi surface-to-air missiles had been malfunctioning, failing to hit their targets and falling back on Baghdad.

Offensive operations are, however, only part of the picture. The expertise and flexibility of our forces are essential to the battle to win the confidence of the Iraqi people. The Iraqi people have been terrified. More than half the population of Iraq have only known life under Saddam Hussein and his apparatus of fear. The older generation have an appreciation of his cruelty that is often borne out by bitter personal experience. That is why it is so important that, in a number of areas in which UK forces are operating, there is a growing sense of return to normal life. Some people are going back to work.

The United Nations has now declared Umm Qasr a permissive environment, allowing UN agencies to begin their work there. Essential services such as water and electricity are being restored and even improved, in part owing to the skill of the Royal Engineers with the help of the International Committee of the Red Cross. The Umm Qasr water treatment plant, which can treat up to 3 million litres a day, is now operational. In addition, the water pipeline constructed by UK forces from Kuwait to Umm Qasr is complete, delivering up to 2 million litres of drinking water daily—enough for 160,000 people a day—and providing vital temporary relief.

Schools and markets are being reopened, and the 7th Armoured Brigade has removed Ba'ath party thugs from the Az Zubayr medical centre—where treatment was previously available only to those close to the regime—to enable access for ordinary Iraqis. Humanitarian aid is being distributed. The security situation in a growing number of areas is such that troops are patrolling on foot rather than in armoured cars, and have in some cases been able to exchange their combat helmets for berets.

The United Kingdom's armed forces are putting the full range of their expertise and experience to use, with striking effect. The Royal Marines have disabled the last remnants of the Iraqi navy, and the port of Umm Qasr is under coalition control and open to shipping. Royal Navy mine countermeasures vessels continue operations to expand the navigable width of the Khawr Abd Allah channel. They have discovered 105 mines so far—11 laid in the water, and a total of 94 intercepted on Iraqi tugs and patrol boats.

These operations are crucial to the humanitarian operation, bringing vital supplies to the Iraqi people. On 28 March, the Royal Fleet Auxiliary vessel Sir Galahad unloaded its humanitarian cargo of around 300 tonnes of water, medical supplies, food and equipment for providing shelter. Water and perishable goods have already been distributed in the Umm Qasr area; other supplies are being stored until such time as they are required. Two Australian ships, each loaded with some 50,000 tonnes of grain, are expected in Umm Qasr shortly.

The United Nations oil-for-food programme was re-established by Security Council resolution 1472 on 28 March. That is an important milestone for the people of Iraq, but it will take time to take effect. Therefore, 1 (UK) Division has authority to spend up to £30 million for special humanitarian purposes within the first month and a further £10 million is available for "quick impact" projects such as restoring electricity and water supplies.

After two weeks of military operations against the Iraqi regime, the coalition continues to make progress. Every day, we are further weakening Saddam Hussein's control over Iraq and moving another day closer to the end of his appalling regime and the liberation of the Iraqi people.

We are engaged in an important and determined effort to convince the Iraqi people of our commitment to them, their political security and their economic welfare. Above all, we are committed to seeing through what we have begun—removing the regime that has terrified the Iraqi people and impoverished the nation for two decades. That will take time, but we have made an excellent start. There is still more to achieve, and our servicemen and servicewomen will continue to brave difficulties and dangers in the process. I know that the House will join me in wishing them well.

I certainly join the Secretary of State, as I am sure the whole House does, in wishing our armed forces well. May I also join him in paying tribute to those who have given their lives while carrying out their duties in Iraq? Although it has to be said that we have suffered remarkably few casualties, every loss is keenly felt and we extend our deepest sympathies to their families and loved ones.

I also join the Secretary of State in his tribute to the work of the British armed forces, who have shown and are showing not only that they can fight, but that they care and that they can feed, bring water to and tend the wounds of the Iraqi people. Will he endorse the view that there is now clear evidence that we can win the hearts and minds of the Iraqi people? We can continue to take great pride in our armed forces' courage and achievements—and will the Secretary of State join me in paying tribute to the unsung heroes, our special forces?

Can the Secretary of State say more about his expectations for Basra? May I endorse his view that we must let our commanders take Basra in their own time, which may yet take many days if we are to keep civilian and our own casualties to the absolute minimum and to build the confidence of the Iraqi people in our good intentions? As that is likely to take longer, may I again press him on the issue of reinforcements—that is, additional troops who would allow existing troops to take rest periods before continuing their duties?

The troops in Iraq have endured 15 days of continuous operations, day and night, and the Prime Minister told the House yesterday that
"contingency plans are indeed in place".
Please will the Secretary of State set out what those contingency plans are for reinforcement, not replacement, troops? What units are warned to deploy, even if, in the event, it emerges that they are not needed?

It is welcome that the Fire Brigades Union called off its recent threatened strikes, but the threat of strikes later this month remains. Surely if there is a choice between allowing strikes to go ahead or having reinforcements available, the law should be brought to bear on the FBU's threats, as we have been advocating for some time.

May I also pay tribute to United States forces, who have fought many stiff and successful battles? Will the Secretary of State join me in congratulating US forces who are showing such a clear understanding and sensitivity for the Shi'ite religious sites, mentioned in his statement, at Najaf and Karbala? He has confirmed that US forces have refused to return fire at Iraqi forces who have deliberately held themselves up there.

Can the Secretary of State also explain what expectations he has for Baghdad? US forces are still only fighting outside Baghdad. Does he agree that speculation in the press on the early fall of Baghdad is simply not realistic?

Turning to the discussions on post-conflict Iraq, which will continue to depend on the role played by our armed forces, will the Secretary of State clarify how the Government are approaching the key issues? Everyone agrees with the goal that the Prime Minister set out yesterday that Iraq
"should be run by Iraqi people on the basis of a broadly representative Government"—[Official Report, 2 April 2003; Vol. 402, c. 909–11.]
But what will happen between the end of the conflict and the establishment of such an Iraqi Government?

Clearly coalition forces will have de facto responsibility for overall security. What role do the Government propose for the United Nations? Will the initial transitional Government be led by the United States, and what will be the British involvement in that Government? Will there be a role for NATO, where Colin Powell is at this minute meeting representatives of European Governments?

What is the Secretary of State's opinion of the view expressed on Radio 4 this morning by the British major-general Albert Whitley, who I understand may be given a role in an initial transitional administration? Such an administration may have to last for many months. Is not a vital component the early involvement of the Iraqis themselves? Will the Government endorse the call made this morning by my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition for a conference of Iraqi leaders and anti-Saddam dissidents, including the Kurds—preferably in coalition-occupied Iraq—as soon as possible, to demonstrate the coalition's commitment to the Iraqi people at all stages of this process and to show that we come to enfranchise them, not to rule them?

I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman's comments about our armed forces and indeed those of the United States—all who are engaged in difficult and sometimes very dangerous military operations.

The hon. Gentleman is right to say that we need to continue to win hearts and minds. I think the evidence I gave the House of what is occurring in southern Iraq is an indication of that, but, as I said, we must not underestimate the fear imposed on the people of Iraq over decades of control by a ruthless, brutal regime. It will take time to win those people's confidence, and our commitment to them above all else is crucial. I say that without qualification.

Coalition forces continue to tighten their grip on Basra. As I said, we will continue to patrol aggressively and continue to strike at the remaining elements of the regime who are in the city and still intimidating the local population. I repeat that we have no need of additional forces; there will be replacements as and when we need them. The need to replace British forces in the front line who are performing high-intensity tasks is not an issue, as commanding officers do that routinely. It is part of the way in which our forces are organised, to ensure that those in the front line are not allowed to become overtired owing to the operations in which they are engaged.

The hon. Gentleman is also right to say that we should not allow speculation about the timetable for the fall of Baghdad. As we have seen around Basra, it is much more sensible and appropriate for us to proceed at our own pace rather than that suggested by those who commentate on these events, not just to protect the lives of the civilian population but to have proper regard to the safety and security of our own forces.

I entirely agree that our ambition—our early ambition—for the post-conflict period is for Iraq to be run by the Iraqi people. Certainly coalition forces will be responsible for providing security in the period immediately after the end of any conflict, but I hope that period—once the regime has been removed—can be as short as possible, consistent, obviously, with the needs of security on the ground. I do not accept that it helps at this stage to make suggestions about the length of any transitional administration. We want an early involvement of the Iraqi people, and we want to work towards a representative Government as we have in Afghanistan.

I thank the Secretary of State for giving me an advance copy of his statement, and echo his comments, and those of the hon. Member for North Essex (Mr. Jenkin), about the British armed forces. The thoughts of the whole House will be with the families of those who have lost their lives, the missing, the injured and, of course, those who are still fighting. I echo particularly what the Secretary of State says about the defence of religious sites in Iraq, which is vitally important.

May I ask about the humanitarian efforts? I welcome the sight of British troops in berets and, indeed, Tam o' Shanters, patrolling the streets of Umm Qasr.

Are any more UK ships being loaded with humanitarian aid to take into Umm Qasr and will some of the problems affecting the distribution of that aid be dealt with?

This operation was initially intended to find, secure and destroy weapons of mass destruction. Will the Secretary of State tell us what progress has been made in that regard?

The Secretary of State mentioned that some 9,000 prisoners of war have been taken. Is it not imperative to winning the battles for the hearts and minds of the people of Iraq that all prisoners of war are treated under the terms of the Geneva convention? Will he assure the House that that is being done and that all Iraqi forces will be treated in the same way? Will he explain what is happening about the transfer of prisoners from US to UK control, which I understand is now happening?

The Secretary of State will be aware of reports this morning that British forces have used cluster bombs in Iraq. Does he not agree that the unintended consequences of using such weapons can have a terrible impact on the civilian population and, indeed, on our own forces? I am sure that we all remember the two Gurkhas who tragically lost their lives in Kosovo while clearing up unexploded bomblets. Will the Secretary of State confirm that if such bombs are used, he will notify the aid agencies and others in the area of their presence and give a commitment that UK forces will be involved in clearing unexploded ordnance?

Finally, I welcome what the Prime Minister said this week about parcels for our troops. Will the Secretary of State outline in more detail when this programme will begin? The well-being and security of servicemen and women in the area must be our first priority.

I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman's observations. The humanitarian effort will certainly continue. The crucial contribution made by British forces is the widening of the channel and the extension of the berthing facilities in Umm Qasr, which will continue. As I said, we anticipate that further ships will contribute to that effort.

As yet, we have not made significant finds of weapons of mass destruction, but as I have told the House before, we have made discoveries of extensive protective clothing issued to Iraqi forces, which we believe could have been issued only in preparation for their own use of chemical weapons. No coalition forces have such weapons and we would certainly never use them.

I can give the hon. Gentleman the assurance that he asked for about the observance of the Geneva convention in respect of prisoners of war. In practice, several prisoners of war have been transferred from US to UK control, particularly when the prisoners were taken in the course of the US forces' rapid progress north. Given the UK's consolidation in the south, it is sensible for the UK to be responsible for such prisoners.

I can confirm that British forces have used cluster bombs, which, as I have told the House before, are the most suitable weapons for dealing with wide-area targets. If we did not use such weapons on appropriate occasions, we would put our own and coalition forces at greater risk. I have had the privilege on several occasions of seeing British explosive ordnance disposal forces clearing up unexploded ordnance—not just our own, but often the devices left behind by other countries. I pay tribute to their courage and to the tremendous work that they carry out, often in difficult circumstances.

I am delighted that the Prime Minister announced the free parcel service. As he said, it should begin as soon as the operational situation in the Gulf allows—effectively when a degree of stability is achieved—but I emphasise that service personnel and their families can already send air letters and e-mails to each other free of charge, and we should not underestimate the importance of that effective means of communication.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that although it is easy to criticise and attribute blame from cosy TV studios equipped with computer graphics that do not fight back, it is not so simple for our brave men and women in Iraq who have to face split-second life-and-death decisions about whether they are facing a civilian or a member of the Iraqi militia dressed as a civilian? Do our military top brass not have better things to do than answer well rehearsed questions from journalists who seem to have first-class honours degrees in hindsight, and most of whom would probably run a mile if a 40-watt bulb popped next to them?

My hon. Friend tempts me. It is fair to say that we have had some indications from commanding officers that some embedded journalists—who are doing a tremendous job of communicating the details of what is taking place in Iraq back to the UK and elsewhere—have perhaps occasionally exaggerated the nature of the conflict, particularly if they are unused to gunfire, when they have reported back to the UK. Commanding officers who have read reports have sometimes been surprised to discover that they were in heavy conflict when they thought that a few bullets were whizzing overhead.

My hon. Friend's presence, and my knowledge that his son is in the Gulf, reminds me that we should pay tribute to our reservists, who are doing an absolutely tremendous job not only in the Gulf, but back in the United Kingdom filling in for those who have gone to serve in the theatre. I hope that my hon. Friend will allow me to praise not only his son, but many others who are serving their country in a way that is quite different from their ordinary everyday lives. I am particularly grateful to our reservists.

In reply to the report on friendly fire, issued by the Public Accounts Committee, the Government said:

"Recommendations will be made by April 2003"—
that is, now—
"on how the UK armed forces could most effectively collect and analyse information about incidents of misidentification in order to bring about overall improvements to combat ID."
What is the status of those recommendations: are they ready, are they implemented, and will they be published?

As I indicated to the Committee, considerable work was done in preparation for this conflict and many technological improvements were made to our equipment. However, as tragic incidents have recently demonstrated, there is no simple technological solution to the problem of friendly fire. Sadly, in the heat of conflict, mistakes are made. Every incident will be thoroughly investigated and we will continue to learn lessons, but I hope that the hon. Gentleman will not hold me to a particular date at this stage.

May I say, first, that I believe that the use of cluster bombs is deplorable? Will the Secretary of State provide some clarification of the deaths of the two soldiers to which the Prime Minister referred last weekend in the United States? Were they executed, or were they, as the Army chiefs said, victims of war dying in action? Was it a war crime by Iraqi officialdom, or a failure of intelligence reporting to the Prime Minister, perhaps even a failure of spin? Some clarification would be welcome.

No doubt right hon. and hon. Members will raise the issue of cluster bombs, but my hon. Friend really has to face up to the facts. Certainly there are risks with cluster bombs, as there are risks of all munitions failing. The percentage failure rate is small, but it leaves a continuing problem, which I accept and recognise. That is why the explosive ordnance disposal people bravely risk their lives to clear up such problems. Balanced against that, my hon. Friend must face the issue of whether he would allow coalition forces to be put at risk because we are not prepared to use that particular capability. Without cluster bombs, we would have to use far larger ordnance to deal with the same problem. We would have to use far larger weapons to deal with deployed tanks, for example, which is the sort of target against which cluster bombs are used. I do not think that there is a simple answer to this issue. As I have indicated to the House on many previous occasions, we use the weapon only when it is absolutely justified, but if it is, it is because it will make the battlefield safer for our armed forces—and I am not prepared to compromise on that.

As to the two soldiers, as the Prime Minister indicated, there is intelligence information about the cause of death, but I do not think it helps at this stage to go into it in any greater detail. There will certainly be a further investigation into the background, but I can tell my hon. Friend that we shall ensure that the relatives are properly communicated with in respect of the circumstances, and that we have clear evidence of war crimes having been committed by Iraqi forces.

A number of soldiers facing combat in Iraq will suffer from combat stress, post-traumatic stress and other mental health problems, sometimes for many years after they have left the forces. What planning and co-ordination is the Secretary of State and his Department pursuing with the NHS and strategic health authorities to provide the treatment that those mentally scarred soldiers may well deserve?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising this important issue. We have spent a great deal of time identifying and dealing with the problem. For the forces that we have deployed, there are measures in place that will allow the symptoms of combat stress to be identified at an early stage. My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Defence is medically qualified and has a particular interest in this area. He has followed through the arrangements that have been made and which are available, and will continue to do so.

I want to ask my right hon. Friend about the post-conflict situation in Iraq. At the very least, there seems to be some difference of emphasis in what is coming from the State Department and the Pentagon about precisely what should happen in Iraq, post-conflict. Some of us are worried that the more extreme elements in the Pentagon are almost talking about a military colony being run from the US after the conflict is over. Will my right hon. Friend say what discussions he has had with his counterparts in the Pentagon, and whether he has had any success in tempering some of the more extreme views that have been expressed?

Again, I would not always believe what I read in the Washington Post any more than I would always believe what I read in all of our admirable daily newspapers. I know full well that the ambition of my US counterpart is exactly the same as mine—to see Iraq restored to its own people, and British forces removed from Iraq as soon as possible.

May I associate myself with the Secretary of State's comments about our brave dead and wounded, to whom I pay tribute? Given the rumours and reports that between 1,000 and 4,000 jihadists are flowing into the region, will the Secretary of State say how seriously the threat is being taken? Without going into details, will he say what techniques or practices will he used to protect our forces against them?

There is a threat. It is something that we are extremely concerned about, not least because of the appalling incident when an apparent suicide bomber killed four US marines. As I indicated to the House—I believe it was on Monday—that has an impact not only on the safety and security of coalition forces, but on how they are able to deal with the local population. That emphasises once again how impressive is the behaviour of British forces in the south. They are trying to deal with the Iraqi population as they would deal with the British population. We must have regard to the risks involved when people are prepared to kill themselves in some fanatical attack on coalition forces, but efforts are being made to address the issue. It is a serious concern, and we will continue to deal with it.

May I join other hon. Members in welcoming the statement on the free postage for our armed forces? The issue has been raised with me on many occasions in my constituency. We all understand that it will take time to work out the details, but can my right hon. Friend give the House an assurance that all post offices will be given accurate information about the details of the scheme? One problem at the moment is that different post offices react in different ways.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising that issue. The British Forces Post Office will coordinate the new scheme. Full details of the free packet service for families will be published in due course. However, my hon. Friend's question at least gives me an opportunity to urge right hon. and hon. Members to discourage their constituents, if they can, from seeking to use the new scheme before the details have been published. I know that there is a great deal of concern in the country, and that people want to help. We will have the details published as soon as we possibly can but, in the meantime, it would be helpful if right hon. and hon. Members could at least use their persuasive powers to ask people to delay sending packages just yet.

I thank the Secretary of State for supplying me with an advance copy of his statement, and I associate myself, the Scottish National party and Plaid Cymru entirely with the thoughts that have been expressed about our service personnel and their families back home. As has been mentioned, the battle for hearts and minds is crucial for the peaceful future of Iraq. The Secretary of State will be aware of the major speculation in Washington today about post-conflict Iraq, the security situation there, Iraqi self-government and the management of oil resources. Why will the Government not announce their full support for a lead UN role, post-conflict, before Iraqi self-government is established? Is it perhaps because the US Administration are already handing out the jobs?

Again, there is a good deal of speculation in US newspapers, as there is in UK newspapers. What is important is that we put in place the elements necessary to allow the Iraqi people to run their country. As I indicated in my statement, the first element has been decided at the UN—the re-establishment of the oil-for-food programme. Once the oil begins to flow, it will provide a considerable source of revenue that can be spent in Iraq properly, rather than on Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction, as was the case in the past. We also want there to be UN support for the situation in Iraq. The UN can support the rebuilding of a country in a variety of ways, and the model that we set out in Afghanistan was broadly welcomed by everyone involved. It seems to be working extremely well, and there is no reason why that process could not be the appropriate one.

There were graphic television images yesterday of the impact of a cluster bomb that was dropped, I believe, on the town of Hillah, south of Baghdad. Will my right hon. Friend assure the House that cluster bombs will not be dropped on the streets and urban areas of Basra, especially as I applaud the Government's intention to win the hearts and minds of the local population?

I also saw some graphic images, but I hope that my hon. Friend and others will suspend their belief—certainly when those graphic images are the product of Iraqi minders taking television crews to particular locations. No television crew in areas controlled by the Iraqi regime has freedom of movement. It is very important to recognise that, and to accept that crews will be taken to places where the Iraqi regime wants them to go. However, I do not doubt that there are occasions when cluster bombs and other munitions can cause civilian casualties. I regret those casualties: they are a consequence of conflict, and we try to minimise them, if at all possible. I can certainly tell the House that so far it has not been necessary to use cluster bombs in and around Basra.

Whatever our views were before the conflict, with a war under way it is essential for the morale of our troops that they understand that they have our unstinting support and concern for their welfare. Will the Secretary of State confirm that the coalition will not allow its actions to be determined by media pressure for quick results; and that, if taking longer means saving coalition and Iraqi lives, a few adverse headlines are a price well worth paying?

I wholly agree with the hon. Gentleman. That is precisely the point that I set out in my first statement about military operations two weeks ago, when I warned that this would not necessarily be a rapid conflict. I said that it would take time and that there would be risks and dangers. That remains as much the case today, as coalition forces advance near Baghdad, as it did two weeks ago.

May I join my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State in paying tribute to our armed forces for getting humanitarian aid as quickly as possible into Umm Qasr? However, it might be worth reminding ourselves that the humanitarian catastrophe in Iraq was in play long before intervention began. There were 500,000 children dying of malnutrition and a quarter of the country was without clean water. None the less, will my right hon. Friend tell the House about the role that military personnel are playing now in Basra to supply food, water and medicines? Will it remain a priority of the coalition forces to bring humanitarian aid to a country that has long been without it?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who is absolutely right to emphasise the catastrophe caused to the people of Iraq by Saddam Hussein's regime. That is one of the reasons why I said that the ambition of our Royal Engineers in working with excellent international organisations such as the International Committee of the Red Cross is not simply to provide the same facilities as were available to the Iraqi people before, but to improve on them—to ensure that there is a regular, reliable supply of pure water and that people are properly fed, clothed and housed. Those are not unreasonable ambitions for a country of the size and wealth of Iraq. It is certainly how Iraq should be, and we want to play a part in allowing the Iraqi people to develop their own country for themselves.

The Secretary of State will be aware of the very close links that existed before the conflict between elements of the Shi'as in southern Iraq and elements of the Iranian regime. What assessment has been made of the threat from that quarter, and what impact is that likely to have on British troops in the south of the country, who will clearly be affected?

I do not believe that there is such a threat. We have been in close contact with the Iranian Government, and we have sought to allay any concerns about the potential for misunderstanding. That is a very good example—I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising it—of the importance of the religious sites. The four key sites of the Shi'a are in Iraq. They are as important to the Iranian people as they are to the Shi'as in Iraq, and it is vital that they be protected and preserved.

I offer my concern and sympathies to the relatives of all the military who have been lost and of all the civilians who have been killed. May I, however, draw my right hon. Friend's attention to the high number of children who are being killed? We can look to International Red Cross reports and other sources on that, not to Iraqi thugs. The two market bombings killed a high number of children. If he wants information on the second bombing, he can go to yesterday's edition of The Independent, which gives the number of the missile.

Will my right hon. Friend also comment on the hospital report in Basra, where 250 have been reported killed and 1,000 injured by allied bombing, many of them children? Women and children were killed at the US checkpoint. Of the 11 dead at Hillah, which was mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Hillsborough (Helen Jackson), nine were children. That has been verified by independent sources. Will we he keeping a toll of the number of civilians and children killed; and if we do get into urban warfare, have any projections been made concerning the number of civilians that might be killed?

My hon. Friend is quite right to emphasise the risks of conflict, particularly to children, and I assure her that every effort is made to avoid those risks as much as we can. I would caution her, though, against relying on particular accounts—

If she will give me the opportunity, I will explain why I would caution her. First, if she read carefully the original account of the first marketplace bomb set out in graphic detail in The Independent newspaper, as I am sure she did, she will have seen that the source of the information suggesting that it was the responsibility of coalition forces was someone the journalist spoke to in the marketplace. That was the source of the allegation that it was a coalition responsibility.

As regards yesterday's piece, which I also read with some care, the allegation is that because a piece of a cruise missile was handed to the journalist, that somehow proved that what took place was caused by coalition forces. I have to tell my hon. Friend that a considerable number of cruise missiles have been targeted at Baghdad in the past two weeks. I can also tell her that we have very clear evidence that immediately after these two explosions representatives of the regime were clearing up in and around the marketplace. Why they should be doing that, other than perhaps to disguise their own responsibility, is an interesting question. What is important about this is that all of us should look very sceptically at such reports and rely only on known and agreed facts.

In welcoming the humanitarian aid that is now going into Iraq, is the Secretary of State aware of yesterday's report by UNICEF expressing concern that aid is delivered in packets of the same yellow colour as the bombs that are being dropped? There is a risk that children may come across unexploded bombs and think that they have found humanitarian aid. There was a similar problem in Afghanistan, where the colour of the packaging was changed from yellow to blue. Will changes be made in this case?

My right hon. Friend answered the question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Hillsborough (Helen Jackson) about cluster bombs. He may have seen reports in the press regarding casualties in the Hillah hospital. Those reports have been endorsed by Human Rights Watch, which suggests that cluster bombs were dropped on residential areas. The indication therefore is that the battle for Baghdad may well cause very high casualty rates among civilians. Would he agree that the point at which Baghdad is surrounded should be the point at which we invite the United Nations to broker a peace deal?

I set out clearly in relation to Basra, and by analogy in relation to Baghdad, that we are not going to be driven into action as a result of commentators or of pressure from outside. We will take our time and do the job properly, minimising civilian casualties, but also having proper regard to the safety and security of our forces. What I cannot understand about my hon. Friend's comments, though, is the idea that he could contemplate, after so much determined effort, the continuation of Saddam Hussein's regime. If he had accompanied his observation by saying that an absolute precondition was the removal of Saddam Hussein, I might have more sympathy with it.

My party, too, sympathises with the losses of our troops and the civilian casualties. We sympathise with the troops who have been involved in some of those civilian casualties, because we have seen it happen that people are not prepared to fight as soldiers, but are prepared to fight as terrorists.

May I ask for confirmation that the money for humanitarian aid to which the Secretary of State referred has been earmarked by the Ministry of Defence for that purpose and is distinct from the humanitarian aid that will be going through the Department for International Development?

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right in his observations about terrorism. He and his colleagues have had often bitter personal experience in representing areas that have been plagued by terrorism for far too long. There is little doubt that much of the expertise of British soldiers, which I rightly praise, derives from their experience of dealing with difficult situations in the north of Ireland.

As far as aid is concerned, we have found in previous situations of this kind that very early projects are necessary. I gave the examples of reconnecting electricity and ensuring that a pure water supply is immediately available. The people who are best able to achieve that in the early days after a conflict are British soldiers, who do the job extremely well with the range of skills that they have within their ranks. The money that I identified is money from the Government—it is not earmarked as being specifically from the Ministry of Defence, but is money that the Government are making available for the kinds of early projects that are so important in allowing people to get on with their ordinary lives after a conflict.

Is my right hon. Friend in a position to inform the House of the nature of the discussions between Secretary of State Powell and the Turkish Government about northern Iraq, and is he in a position to reassure the Kurds about Turkey's intentions?

As I indicated to the House previously, a number of very clear messages have been sent to Turkey. Turkey is a NATO ally and we have regular conversations with it. Secretary Powell's visit to Turkey is part of that continuing process. I do not underestimate the political sensitivities in the north of Iraq, and we have regular regard to that both in discussions with Turkey and in discussions with representatives of the Kurdish community there.

Last week in New York, when members of the Select Committee on International Development met senior officers of the UN Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs, we were slightly surprised by their surprise that they were going to have to move considerable volumes of humanitarian food and non-food aid over lines into disputed territory. What prospect does the Secretary of State think that coalition forces have of being able to assist with such movements, especially if there is to be, for example, a long siege in areas such as Baghdad?

The hon. Gentleman raises a difficult issue. No one would pretend that our forces can easily move food into areas that the hon. Gentleman calls "disputed" but that are, in many cases, fairly bitterly fought over. I would have to be convinced that such arrangements could be carried through safely by our forces and, in addition, that the food aid would reach the people for whom it was intended. Unless and until the regime loosens its control over places such as Basra, it will be very difficult to satisfy either of those conditions.

Will the Secretary of State provide a written statement, or ask the Secretary of State for International Development to do so, to address the questions that the hon. Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry) has raised? The Secretary of State will be aware that 16 million Iraqi people—60 per cent. of the population—were wholly dependent on oil-for-food arrangements before the conflict began. Hon. Members on both sides of the House would welcome a statement on how quickly the volume of food aid under the new oil-for-food arrangements will match the arrangements that were in place before the war. I appreciate the logistical problems that British and American troops will face, but we would like to have the best estimate of how quickly the volumes of food aid will increase.

My hon. Friend is right to raise this issue, which we will continue to look at. The safety, stability and security of the areas in which food aid is delivered are important and must be a prerequisite. I have spoken about the UN's assessment of the situation in Umm Qasr. We want more and more areas of Iraq to be liberated, made safe and made secure so that international organisations can deliver food and other assistance.

Assessments that I have seen do not suggest that—at present, at any rate—there is an acute shortage of food in southern Iraq. There have been concerns about the lack of pure water supplies, which is why we are addressing that issue so swiftly. However, I am not being told that there is an immediate food crisis.

Will the Secretary of State join me in paying tribute to those serving from RAF Leeming, RAF Linton-on-Ouse, Allenbrooke barracks and Dishforth airfield? They number some 445. Obviously, this is a very anxious time for the families and friends who are left behind. Especially worrying are the graphic pictures that are reaching them in what is virtually 24-hour coverage—particularly pictures from the front line. That must be having an impact on people's performance. This is not a television programme or a film; this is for real. Can the Government impose some parameters, or some limited controls, on media coverage in these circumstances?

I join the hon. Lady in her tribute, not only to those who are serving but to the families who wait behind—often understandably anxious. I have had the privilege of visiting a number of families, as have other members of the Government and members of the royal family. A determined effort has been made to recognise the contributions that families make at this especially difficult time. That is why we have appealed to the broadcasters to display sensitivity and understanding in the images that they broadcast. I know that families are anxious and I know that the broadcasters do recognise their responsibility in this respect.

Has my right hon. Friend had time to read the accounts of the journalists who have just been released from the Abu Ghraib prison in Baghdad and their horrific accounts of other people in that prison who are subjected to daily beatings and torture? Will he give a clear message to the regime about prisoners of war? We do not expect our prisoners of war, under the Geneva conventions, to be treated in that way. Will he assure the families of those prisoners of war that he will make representations again on this point?

I have read those accounts and they are truly appalling. I have read other equally disturbing accounts of the mistreatment of prisoners. Those accounts lead me to take the clear view that war crimes have been committed by elements of Saddam Hussein's regime.

Does the Secretary of State agree that false claims about civilian casualties have been given credence by the conduct of BI3C correspondents in Baghdad? Is it not an insult to BBC licence-fee payers that they are, in effect, being forced to subsidise Saddam's propaganda machine? If CNN and al-Jazeera are withdrawing their correspondents from Iraq, is it not time for the BBC to do likewise?

That is obviously a matter for the BBC. All I would ask is that all who watch these programmes—and this applies equally well to the broadcasters and journalists who are there—consider carefully the material that is put in front of those broadcasters and journalists by their Iraqi minders. All the journalists have people who supervise their movements. In such circumstances, we are right to be suspicious that they are not able to pursue freely the kind of investigations that we would expect journalists to be able to pursue in a free society.

There have been some civilian casualties for which I am sure that even the Secretary of State would accept that there is a clear line of responsibility. They would include the seven women and children who were killed at a checkpoint and the 15 members of a single family who were killed when their lorry was attacked by an Apache helicopter. Will the Secretary of State tell the House whether current UK rules of engagement allow for such attacks on civilians; whether the rules of engagement for UK troops differ from those of US troops; whether he will place in the House of Commons Library the details of the two sets of rules of engagement; and whether he will confirm that, as has happened previously, any UK troops who were involved in instances of unjustified killings of civilians would be likely to face criminal charges?

We do not comment in detail on rules of engagement, and certainly not on those of the United States. I would be a lot more persuaded by my hon. Friend's observations if, at the same time as mentioning the tragic deaths of seven women and children, he had also mentioned the deaths of the four US marines who were killed in a deliberate car bomb attack, perpetrated by a fanatic. In such circumstances, it is perhaps perfectly understandable—although I am not excusing it in any sense at all—that soldiers who are having to deal with a difficult situation at a checkpoint and who know that four of their comrades have been killed in that way are perhaps reacting in a way that we might not want them to. That is not to say that the accounts that have been given, again, by particular journalists are necessarily the only version of events that we should all accept. An investigation is going on into what went on at the checkpoints, and it is important that we await the outcome of that before judging the facts quite so prejudicially.

I too would like to place on record my full support for the coalition forces, my sympathies to all who suffer because of this conflict, and my admiration for the efforts that are being made to get humanitarian aid to those who need it. I ask the Secretary of State to share my disappointment that the conflict has prevented a group of disabled athletes who were to be guests in my home town of Lame from coming to Ireland to compete in the Special Olympics. Will he reassure them that, in the event of the conflict being over before the games start in June, they will still be most warmly welcomed in the United Kingdom? Will he again affirm that our enemy is Saddam Hussein, that Saddam Hussein is the enemy of the Iraqi people, and that he has got to be got rid of?

I agree with the hon. Gentleman's final observation. We have no quarrel with the Iraqi people and we believe that Iraq will be a much better place once Saddam Hussein's regime is removed.

The hon. Gentleman will forgive me, but I am not familiar with the situation of the disabled athletes. However, if he writes to me, I will consider the matter as sympathetically as I possibly can.

If it is right that every aspect of what we do is held up to public scrutiny, and as several reputable British journalists have already died in Iraq attempting to make that true for the public, perhaps the Secretary of State would care to amend his reply to my hon. Friend the Member for Doncaster, North (Mr. Hughes), which seemed to support the calls for the censorship of British journalists that were emanating from around the House? If the Secretary of State is not prepared to accept what journalists are saying to us, will he please accord some validity to what the International Red Cross says about its perception that excessive force is being used on women and children? I am perfectly prepared to accept that the coalition is attempting to reduce civilian casualties, but surely it behoves the coalition to examine what is coming from the International Red Cross and to amend its procedures accordingly.

What I was inviting the House to do was to contrast the situation in which journalists are accompanying coalition forces right on to the front line and are able to send their material back uncensored to our homes for us all to see in real time, and the public attention that goes with that and the public debate that often accompanies it, with the situation in those parts of Iraq controlled by Saddam Hussein's regime, where we simply cannot see the kind of brutality that we are aware takes place. I also made comments, which I stand by, about certain reports on particular incidents. I have read those reports extremely carefully and I am certainly prepared to consider criticism of the behaviour of coalition forces if it is warranted. What I am not prepared to do is to accept at face value an account of an incident given by a man in a marketplace in Baghdad, and it is simply absurd to suggest—

Order. The hon. Lady must listen to the answer. It may not be the answer that she is looking for, but she must listen.

Order. Sometimes, the question that has been asked is not always answered to the satisfaction of the Member.

All I am saying—and I see no reason why my hon. Friend the Member for Hampstead and Highgate (Glenda Jackson) should have any difficulty with it—is that before rushing to judgment we should allow a proper investigation to take place. The difference in a democratic society is that we allow such investigations. We face up to the issue and are prepared to recognise that we may have some responsibility, but at the same time we do not rush to judgment in blaming—in this case—coalition forces without a shred of corroborating evidence other than evidence supplied by Saddam Hussein's regime.

Earlier on, the Secretary of State made two welcome comments. The first was about the contribution of the Territorials and the second was about the situation facing families. The right hon. Gentleman is aware that regular units have family officers and that Territorial units would have such officers if they were going into battle as regular units. Will he make sure that the families of all soldiers serving in the Gulf receive the same high standards of care as regular soldiers expect?

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. Reservists are pooled from a wide variety of places in the United Kingdom and they do not necessarily have the same facilities as are available to regular forces, which, for example, allow families to meet and information to be passed on. We are addressing that and the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, who is responsible for reservist matters, is looking into the matter with some urgency in order to establish a proactive system, which means that we shall go out and contact the families of reservists to reassure them and give them the support and help that is available to families of our regular forces.

Business Of The House

1.34 pm

With permission, I should like to make a statement about the business for next week.

MONDAY 7 APRIL—Commons consideration of Lords Amendments, followed by remaining stages of the Industrial Development (Financial Assistance) Bill, followed by motion to approve a money resolution on the High Hedges (No. 2) Bill.

TUESDAY 8 APRIL—Second Reading of the Anti-Social Behaviour Bill.

WEDNESDAY 9 APRIL—My right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer will open his Budget statement.

THURSDAY 10 APRIL—Continuation of the Budget debate.

FRIDAY 11 APRIL—Continuation of the Budget debate.

MONDAY 14 APRIL—Conclusion of the Budget debate.

The provisional business for the week after the Easter recess will include:

MONDAY 28 APRI—Commons consideration of Lords Amendments to the European Parliament (Representation) Bill, followed by remaining stages of the National Minimum Wage (Enforcement Notices) Bill [Lords], followed by Commons consideration of Lords Amendments.

I should also like to inform the House that the business in Westminster Hall for the first two weeks in May will be:

THURSDAY 1 MAY—A debate on the report from the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee on the Financing of Terrorism.

THURSDAY 8 MAY—A debate on the report from the Public Administration Committee on the former Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions.

I thank the Parliamentary Secretary for that business statement.

Is it not about time that we had a debate on political donations? Would the Parliamentary Secretary confirm the recent story that Lord Sainsbury has apparently given £2.5 million to the Labour party? Is it any coincidence that a ministerial reshuffle is coming up? We know that, because the Parliamentary Secretary told us last week. Is it a coincidence that a Minister has given the Labour party £2.5 million just ahead of a reshuffle? Could it be anything to do with consolidating his position? In any case, does that mean that the Labour party is now the party of the rich? It would seem that such matters deserve immediate attention in the House and I hope that the Parliamentary Secretary will give us an urgent debate on them and related matters.

On 27 March, the Parliamentary Secretary said:
"I am sure that the Prime Minister will want to report back to the House at the earliest opportunity on his important discussions with President Bush and the Secretary-General of the United Nations."—[Official Report, 27 March 2003; Vol. 402, c. 454.]
By my calculations, four parliamentary days have passed since then, but we have not yet had a statement from the Prime Minister. So something is wrong there, not least because the Prime Minister told us yesterday:
"I intend to make a further statement on Iraq before the Easter recess."—[Official Report, 2 April 2003; Vol. 402, c. 908.]
There are seven parliamentary days until we rise for the Easter recess on 14 April. Has the Parliamentary Secretary had a chat with the Prime Minister about the meaning of "earliest opportunity"? Is the Parliamentary Secretary as let down and disappointed as I imagine he must be that the Prime Minister has failed to honour the commitment that the Parliamentary Secretary made to us on the Prime Minister's behalf only last week? Will he tell us when the Prime Minister will honour us with a statement on Iraq; or is the Prime Minister too busy organising his reshuffle to come to the House and tell us about Iraq? While we are on the subject of the reshuffle, where the devil is the new Leader of the House?

On the right hon. Gentleman's first point, I should be delighted to have a debate on party political funding—although I think that we shall he unable to find time for it—because it would enable us to remind the House and the wider public that we have actually reformed the system of party political funding. The only reason that we know where political parties get their money is because of what the Government have done. We still have absolutely no idea where the Conservative party got any of its money during the 18 years when it was in power. Such a debate would also give me and others the opportunity to congratulate Lord Sainsbury on his public-spiritedness. I made an interesting calculation overnight: Lord Sainsbury has set the rest of us a good example but, if the reports are true, he is contributing a lower proportion of his wealth to the Labour party than I am. If the right hon. Gentleman is accusing me of trying to curry favour with my ministerial colleagues, he is barking up the wrong tree.

On the question about the Prime Minister, the shadow Leader of the House may be interested to know that during the six weeks of military action in the last Gulf war, under the then Conservative Government, seven oral statements were made to the House. In the first two weeks of the present campaign, there have already been six statements. Yesterday, the Prime Minister made it clear that he intends to make another statement before the Easter recess. The right hon. Gentleman may like to know that during the previous Gulf war, under his Government, the then Prime Minister made only two statements during the whole six-week duration of the conflict.

The right hon. Gentleman cannot have it both ways. He constantly complains that there has been no reshuffle, and he now accuses the Prime Minister of spending too much time organising one. I do not know whether his speculation is true, but I draw his attention to the words of the Prime Minister's official spokesman, who, when asked yesterday when there would be a new Leader of the House, replied "Shortly."

I would welcome a debate on political party funding, because it would give the Minister an opportunity to repeat the information that he gave me the other day about the amount of state aid that has been given to the Conservative party since its defeat in 1997. If I recall the figure correctly, it is some £15 million. Now that the leader of the Conservative party is in the pay of the Government, the House should be given an opportunity to decide whether we are getting good value for public money.

May I endorse a point made by the Conservative spokesman? I am delighted to have his support, because two weeks ago, he and his colleagues seemed to pooh-pooh my suggestion that we needed a new Leader of the House.

Will the Minister please give us an indication of when he expects to receive the Wicks committee report on the politicisation of the civil service, with special reference to special advisers? Can we have a statement and debate? Has he seen the very interesting day-to-day chronicle in The Independent today, headed "How the deafening noise of war 'buried' Labour's bad news"? Does he agree that we do not have to accept the Jo Moore conspiracy theorists' approach to those matters to recognise that some very important decisions and announcements have been made in recent weeks and buried quietly—very low-key announcements.

Such as a major U-turn by the Deputy Prime Minister on capping council tax rises and, not least, the issue that has just been raised about donations to the Labour party. Could we please have an opportunity to discuss the role of those responsible for communications in the civil service as soon as possible?

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to draw attention to the generous increases which the Government have ensured that both Opposition parties receive from the taxpayer to help fund their offices. I am glad that he would welcome a debate on party political funding, as would I.

I am afraid that I cannot answer his question on the Wicks committee, but I shall endeavour to find out and write to him.

I saw the report in The Independent today, and I found it a rather desperate piece of newspaper spinning. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman is aware that there has been lots of news that people have not paid very much attention to because of the conflict going on in Iraq, including a continued rise in employment, which is at record levels since records began, and a very big rise in the minimum wage, which has been criticised by the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats—something which I am sure all my colleagues will wish to remind the electorate in the run-up to May's elections.

Does not the statement that we have just heard from the Secretary of State for Defence reveal the need to hold a debate on the reconstruction of Iraq after the war? For example, if the Iraqis are to run Iraq, will they determine the contracts for the reconstruction of their country? Will there be a role for the labour movement in Iraq? There is a big tradition of trade union activity in the docks in Basra and the oilfields, often suppressed by regimes, and 1 million people turned out in demonstrations on international labour day in Baghdad way back in 1959. However, there might be a problem with President Bush, as the leaders of those activities, often at the cutting edge of the labour movement in Iraq, have always come from the Iraqi communist party.

As I said, the Government have an unprecedented good record of coming to the House to make statements on that issue. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Development has already made such a statement and I expect that she will wish to return as time goes on to update the House and give hon. Members an opportunity to question her on that. I cannot promise to find time for such a debate on the Floor of the House before the Easter recess, but it is the sort of subject about which hon. Members may wish to apply for a debate in Westminster Hall. However, my hon. Friend's questions emphasise the importance of moving as quickly as we possibly can to ensure that post-Saddam Iraq is run by the Iraqi people for the benefit of the Iraqi people.

The Secretary of State for Defence has been very good in coming to the House to give statements; but, by contrast, the Secretary of State for International Development has been noticeable by her almost complete absence. One way in which the Opposition can usually address the failure of Ministers to come to the Dispatch Box is by using Opposition Supply days. We are now nearly halfway through the parliamentary year and, so far, we have been allocated only four out of the 17 Opposition Supply days. Would it not be fairer to have a more even allocation of Opposition Supply days throughout the year; otherwise, in May or June, or sometime later this year, we will have not Opposition Supply days but Opposition Supply weeks. That seems very unfair.

I take on board the hon. Gentleman's point, but I am sure that he understands that there are sometimes periods of very heavy Government business, with the inevitable consequence that Opposition days sometimes get bunched up. That has happened in the past under all Governments. I appreciate his appreciation of the regularity with which the Secretary of State for Defence has come to the House. Today's statement was his fourth in just two weeks since hostilities began, and, as I said, there have already been as many statements in two weeks under this Government as there were in six weeks during the previous Gulf war under the Conservative Government.

I endorse what my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Derbyshire (Mr. Barnes) said, but I put it to my hon. Friend the Minister that he will know that there has been very heavy fighting in Najaf, Karbala and Nasiriyah. No one knows the humanitarian consequences of that fighting, and the International Red Cross is asking when it will get access. Will my hon. Friend discuss that with the Secretary of State for International Development and ensure that she comes to the House for a further discussion of the humanitarian situation?

I will certainly pass on my hon. Friend's request and those of other hon. Members for the secretary of State for International Development to come to the House to make a further statement before the Easter recess. I would simply point out to my hon. Friend that the Red Cross and Red Crescent are already doing an excellent job in those parts of Iraq—

I know that they do not have access to everywhere, but I would point out to my hon. Friend that the Iraqi regime has given them no access to our prisoners of war, which is an absolute scandal, and she may like to draw attention to that as well.

When the acting Leader of the House receives representations, as he undoubtedly will, from the Liberal Democrats for greater shares in debate, more parliamentary time and so on, will he bear in mind that the Liberal Democrats' so-called effective opposition is represented here today at this important business statement by not a single Liberal Democrat Back Bencher and that, apparently, none is here either to take part in the important debate on the Adjournment, when hon. Members have the opportunity to raise matters of importance to their constituents?

Perhaps Liberal Democrat Members are out in the country, worrying about their local council seats.

My hon. Friend will have received a letter from Mr. Speaker about the courtesies that Members of the House should extend to one another. Can we have a debate about ministerial courtesies to Members of Parliament? I was informed only yesterday that the Minister responsible for community and race relations would be visiting the city of Leicester. That gives hon. Members absolutely no time to make arrangements to greet Ministers warmly when they come into their constituencies or when they see constituents. I do not blame the Minister himself, but he has a vast number of civil servants who could perhaps drop a note to hon. Members to tell them well in advance that they are coming, so that we can be prepared for those important visits. Will my hon. Friend either provide time for a debate or write to Lord Filkin and remind him of those responsibilities?

I will happily write to the noble Lord to remind him of the usual conventions of the House.

Will the political funding for the Conservative party be affected by the grave news that 12.5 per cent.—one eighth—of its entire parliamentary party in the Scottish Parliament has defected in the past two days to a new party of some kind?

One eighth of 16 is two, but I am more concerned about the staff resources available to the Cabinet Secretary, who, despite having the entire home civil service at his disposal, has not managed to answer the letter of 14 March from my hon. Friend the Member for North Tayside (Pete Wishart), which demonstrated how holding a Budget in an election period broke the Government's own rules of guidance on political announcements. Will the acting Leader of the House arrange for a debate on that? Will he examine the staff resources available to Sir Andrew Turnbull, because we would not like the suspicion to be created that it is embarrassing that the Chancellor of the Exchequer should be trying to do that and fiddle an election campaign—a point that has already be deprecated this week by the Electoral Commission?

The hon. Gentleman makes an interesting point, because today's Financial Times reports that his party was making much about a letter that it had received from the Electoral Commission, which it has also written to me. It makes it quite clear that decisions on the Budget

"fall outside the remit of the Electoral Commission"
and that there was
"no reason … why a budget should not be presented during an election campaign".

The single biggest issue that is raised in my constituency is the miners' pension surplus. Will my hon. Friend consider securing a debate on that matter, as it would be very welcome in mining communities such as mine?

I cannot give my hon. Friend the assurance that we will be able to secure time on the Floor of the House for such a debate. I know that the issue that she raises is of great concern to her constituents, and it would make an excellent subject for a debate in Westminster Hall. As she knows, the share of surpluses taken by the Government is the contribution that schemes pay for a guarantee of pensions, which is looking increasingly valuable for the schemes' members given the current difficulties in the financial markets, particularly for pensions.

All of us in the House would accept the democratic right of people to protest. However, a number of impromptu protests have gone through the west end every weekend. They are causing great difficulties to traders, particularly in Oxford street, Regent street, Piccadilly and the Strand, all of which are in my constituency. Will the Minister ensure that the Home Secretary or another Home Office Minister comes to the House to make a statement to ensure that Government policy contains a fair balance between the interests of public protest and those of traders in central London? Will that statement place particular emphasis on the policy for weekend protests and the expected protest on 1 May?

I am not sure that I will manage to persuade a Home Office Minister or my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary to make a statement on that issue. However, if the hon. Gentleman cares to provide me with the details of the disruption that has been caused, I will happily pass them on to my right hon. Friend for his consideration.

Will the acting Leader of the House cast his mind forward? The House adjourns on 14 April for 13 days. The Government are pursuing a war against the people and the Government of Iraq, and there are large numbers of military and civilian casualties. Instead of having such an Adjournment, could the House not meet continuously through that period to receive reports and be able to debate this important and serious issue?

I would have more sympathy for my hon. Friend's request if he had not said that we were pursuing a war against the people of Iraq. Nothing could be further from the truth. We are pursuing a war to disarm Saddam Hussein of his weapons of mass destruction and to liberate the people of Iraq so that they can get on and build a new country for themselves in their own interests.

My hon. Friend is right, however. There are no plans at the moment to recall Parliament during the Easter recess. The Government keep the situation under constant review and, as we have with statements and debates, we have an extremely good record of recalling Parliament when that is necessary.

Is the Parliamentary Secretary aware of the number of the petitions signed in my constituency and up and down the country by the customers of small high street pharmacies who are concerned about their closure? Could we have a debate on the Floor of the House to explore the way in which the range of services provided by high street pharmacies could be expanded to assist over-burdened GPs and accident and emergency departments, and to increase customer choice?

I am sure that there will be a chance to debate these issues further before the Government come out with their final response to the report. Like the hon. Lady, I have received masses of signatures and petitions from my local pharmacies, and I know that it is an issue of great concern. I think that I am right in saying that she attended the recent cross-cutting debate in Westminster Hall that was supposed be about issues concerning elderly people. Because of the interest in community pharmacies, the debate was almost totally dominated by that subject.

May I draw my hon. Friend's attention to early-day motion 257 that is in my name and is entitled "Low Income Debtors and Poverty"?

[That this House notes the extent of debt amongst those on a low income with over three million people entering into debt on their doorstep through extortionate lending; believes tackling debt and financial exclusion must be given priority in the Government's anti-poverty strategy; and calls for coordination of the current fragmentary approach setting departmental policies and actions within complementary strategies to tackle financial exclusion and eradicate poverty, focusing on reforming the Social Fund, tackling extortionate lending and promoting affordable credit through credit unions.]

The motion has received the support of 212 Members on both sides of the House, and highlights the plight of 3 million people in Britain on low incomes. Every day, unscrupulous and massively overcharging moneylenders on the doorstep draw them deeper and deeper into debt. Although I welcome the Government's efforts and actions to tackle poverty and social exclusion, a full debate in this Chamber—we have had one or two in Westminster Hall—would provide Ministers with an opportunity to give us a proper joined-up plan of action to end this rip-off, so that we get better financial support to the poorest in our society.

My hon. Friend raises an important subject. I know from experience in my constituency that this problem causes misery to a great many people. I cannot promise him that we will be able to find time for a debate on this subject alone before the Easter recess, but he should be able to work the subject into a speech that he might like to make in the debates on the Budget. We will then be able to debate as a whole not just that issue, but all the other measures that the Government are taking to tackle poverty.

Following the highly pertinent inquiry from my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis), may I reiterate the call for an early debate on the subject of effective opposition and participation in elections? Does the Parliamentary Secretary agree that such a debate would provide a first-class opportunity for the Labour party and the Liberal Democrats to explain why, as has been reported to me today, those two parties have failed to find candidates to contest no fewer than five seats on Aylesbury Vale district council against the excellent Conservative candidates who will be seeking election?

I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman is so disappointed that some of his local Conservative candidates will not face excellent opposition in the local elections. I am sure that that will come as a disappointment to all the Labour voters in that area. All parties do what they can to attract as many candidates as possible, and I know from my experience that there are plenty of places in the country where the Conservatives have difficulty finding enough candidates.

My hon. Friend will have noticed that al-Jazeera, the Arabic channel, has been having some problems in Baghdad recently. I have several times over the past week made representations to the House authorities asking that at least one Arabic channel should be placed alongside the 24 channels at our disposal in the House. It is important to see the images that the Arabs are seeing, so that we can better judge the progress of the war and assess why certain people react in certain ways. Does he have any news on that?

I have no news for my hon. Friend, because this matter is not within my responsibility; it is a matter for the Serjeant at Arms. I know that he is aware of my hon. Friend's request and, if other hon. Members feel the same as she does, I urge them to make a similar request. These decisions tend to be made on the basis of the strength of feeling among Members of the House.

Will the acting Leader of the House consider the case of PowderJect and the possibility of a debate on that subject? Will he also consider the case of another Labour donor, Paul Drayson, who has just been put on the final shortlist for a contract for the latest batch of smallpox vaccines worth more than £50 million? Is he aware that PowderJect is currently being investigated by the National Audit Office for possible irregularities in a £32 million contract for the first batch of vaccines after the Minister of State, Department of Health, the right hon. Member for Barrow and Furness (Mr. Hutton), revealed to me in a written answer on 15 October 2002 that the Government could have gone straight to the ultimate manufacturers, the east German company, IDT, and probably saved the taxpayer £20 million? When will the NAO report be published? Can the Parliamentary Secretary confirm that it will not be published and therefore buried on Budget day?

No, it will be published. If the implication of the hon. Gentleman's question is that a decision on something as important as the smallpox vaccine would be based on a party-political donation, that is a preposterous thing to suggest. His point would carry more credibility if his party had declared a single one of the donations that it received in the 18 years that it was in power.

Has my hon. Friend had a chance to study the press release that was put out by my hon. Friend the Economic Secretary to the Treasury this morning, indicating the determination of the European Union to take action over the proof of origin of produce coming from the illegal settlements in the west bank? Will he arrange for a debate, in the Chamber or elsewhere, to allow us to consider that EU agreement, which was entered into in June 2000? We suspect that the Israelis have been breaking one part of it ever since.