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Engagements

Volume 403: debated on Wednesday 9 April 2003

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Q1. [107852]

If he will list his official engagements for Wednesday 9 April.

This morning I had meetings with ministerial colleagues and others. In addition to my duties in the House, I shall have further such meetings later today.

I am sure that the whole House would once again like to express its deep condolences to the families of the servicemen and others who have lost their lives during the last week of the conflict in Iraq. Again we salute their courage, and give our heartfelt gratitude for their sacrifice.

May I associate myself with the Prime Minister's words about those who have fallen in battle in Iraq?

May I ask the Prime Minister, however, whether he is aware of another battle—the battle to save Britain's pharmacies in the light of the Office of Fair Trading report? Will he assure me that his Government will not introduce any policies that would fundamentally threaten the future of Britain's pharmacy network, and the remarkable job that pharmacies do for people throughout Britain?

Of course it is vitally important that we maintain the pharmacy network. It is also important, however, that we pay due attention to reports that are given to us about the virtues of competition. I am sure that we will strike the right balance between those two objectives.

As the coalition forces move deeper into the Iraqi cities, they are uncovering, being guided towards and being shown torture chambers, rape rooms and other horrifying evidence of the brutalities committed by Saddam and his henchmen—a sickening picture of the killing inflicted on innocent people. Will my right hon. Friend ensure that this evil is eradicated from Iraq by ordering the hunting down of these people-butchers?

I think we would also want to express our deep regret at any loss of innocent civilian life during the conflict, It is, I am afraid, the unfortunate consequence of war, but my hon. Friend is absolutely right to draw attention to the plight of people in Iraq under Saddam—not just the torture chambers and the routine barbarity, but the literally thousands of people killed and brutalised every year by Saddam's regime. According to recent estimates from some of the non-governmental organisations, some 1 million children are suffering from malnutrition as a result of the way in which the country is run. I hope that when we assess the humanitarian picture, for all the difficulties that naturally exist there at the moment, people will understand that for the vast majority of people in Iraq the absolute humanitarian priority was to be rid of the regime of Saddam Hussein.

In the last three weeks, British and American troops have defeated Iraqi forces and taken Basra, and it now seems that the regime is fast losing its grip on Baghdad. Even as we speak, Iraqi people are celebrating in the streets. This has been one of the most brilliantly executed campaigns of recent history. May I join the Prime Minister in paying heartfelt tribute to the professionalism and bravery of British troops in Iraq, and in remembering those who have given their lives for this country?

I congratulate the Prime Minister on the role that he has played, standing together with our American allies, in liberating the Iraqi people and ousting this evil dictator. He will recall, however, that at the end of the last Gulf war Iraqi generals signed a document of surrender on behalf of the Iraqi regime. The current regime is in complete collapse, it appears, and we all want to prevent further unnecessary loss of life. Given that, from whom do the Prime Minister believe—or from whom do his advisers believe—the coalition can now accept an unconditional surrender?

First of all, in respect of our troops and what they have done in the past few weeks, I wish to record once again our pride in their enormous courage, professionalism and skill, and to pay tribute, in fact, to the coalition troops as a whole, because the American troops, in that remarkable advance on Baghdad, also showed their professionalism and skill. Indeed, I pay tribute—because it is not always possible to do this—to the Australian and other special forces, and to other support staff, who have played their part, too.

In relation to who we would take a surrender from, it is extremely difficult, as we speak, to know what is left of the governing higher ranks of Saddam's regime. I think that the best way of answering that would be that we must be clear that whoever we accept a final declaration from to the effect that, so far as Saddam's regime is concerned, the war is over, whoever it is has that proper authority. I cannot at the moment make a judgment as to who that may be, but one thing that we must—

I will resist all temptation at this point. So we will have to wait and see.

On Monday, certain reports indicated that the Defence Secretary appeared to make light of some of the looting in Basra. However, this morning, as looting spread to Baghdad, the aid agency said that it would not deliver aid to Basra until security was ensured. I also understand that there are now reports that members of the regime are using the disorder to cover themselves while they remove evidence from government buildings. Will the Prime Minister confirm that British troops are now policing the streets in Basra and arresting looters? Given that British commanders have recently said that their forces are thinly stretched, does he believe that policing in Iraq will require reinforcements either from the UK, or perhaps from some other countries?

The answer to the latter point is that it may do; again, we just cannot be sure at the moment. However, in respect of Basra, our armed forces are doing their very best in what is a difficult situation. I think that there is bound to be a certain amount of disorder, and probably a certain amount of lawlessness, in the aftermath of the collapse of Saddam's regime in places such as Basra. But the troops are doing their level best to restore order. There is an inhibition on them, however. This is what I think would be called in military jargon a semi-permissive environment: in other words, it is not yet fully secure for our troops.

Obviously, our military commanders want to make sure that, in employing whatever troops they employ, as it were almost on policing duties, they do not put their lives at risk. Subject to that, they do believe that the situation is more under control today than it was yesterday. They are also meeting local officials to try to make sure that, within the local community, order is restored. Just before I came to the House, I was briefed on the fact that some of the local leaders are now coming forward and offering their assistance in making sure that this policing happens. Indeed, some of those people who looted and took property yesterday are returning it.

Returning to the weapons of mass destruction, there have been potential finds of illegal missiles, chemicals and suspect warheads. Does the Prime Minister agree with me that there should be an independent verification by UN weapons inspectors, and what steps are being taken to ensure that this should happen?

We are in discussion with the United Nations about this. Plainly, it would be a good idea from every perspective to make sure that there is some sort of objective verification of any potential weapons of mass destruction that are seized. As we speak, there is obviously an investigation going on into certain of those weapons that were taken a few days ago, and tests are being carried out. However, it is important, I think, for the international community as a whole that, as we establish control—and, indeed, as people working on these programmes are free to come forward and speak to us—we make sure that a legitimacy is given to this, so that there can be some objective assessment of the truth of the situation. Certainly, so far as we are concerned—perhaps this allows me to say this once again—we have no doubt at all that these weapons of mass destruction exist. I say to people who sometimes say, "Why haven't you been finding them as you've gone through the country?" that the truth is that there has been a six-month campaign of concealment. It is not surprising that we have not found them. We need the evidence of the experts and scientists, but we are convinced that we will get it.

Over the past few weeks, the war of words between Syria and the United States has escalated. Does the Prime Minister share US concerns about Syria, and what does he believe that Syria must do now to ease those concerns?

There are two issues, the most immediate of which is the suggestion that Syria was supplying arms or equipment to the Iraqi regime for the war. Syria has assured us that that is not the case, and I made it clear in a recent conversation with President Bashar that it would be unacceptable. Secondly, there is a longer-term issue, which is the need to make sure—especially if we are moving forward with a process of peace in the middle east—that all support by countries such as Syria for terrorist organisations and those who want to destroy any prospect of peace in the middle east ceases, and ceases entirely.

The whole House would agree that the reconstruction of Iraq must be run by the Iraqis. However, there must be an interim authority, which is to be run by General Garner. Will the Prime Minister confirm whether that interim authority will have the specific endorsement of the United Nations?

Two processes are involved. One is the office that will be run by General Garner and others, including British people, in the immediate post-conflict situation. Then, as soon as possible, the interim authority should be an Iraqi interim authority and we should develop that as soon as we can. That is why we are suggesting a series of ways to ensure that we find out who are the proper representatives from the different groupings in different parts of the country and bring them all together. In that process, the coalition forces will have a role and the United Nations should have a role. I see no reason why, if we approach the problem sensibly and given that Kofi Annan has now appointed a special adviser, we cannot do that in a collaborative way. If we do so, the interim authority is likely to have the legitimacy that it needs. It is important that it has that legitimacy and is seen to have it in the outside world. If, as we said yesterday, the United Nations has a vital role in that process, it will make the task all the more easy to do.

I note the Prime Minister's remarks. He will be aware of President Chirac's unhelpful remarks yesterday saying almost exactly the opposite, which means, in a sense, that we may not be able to achieve such a resolution. However, the International Development Secretary has said that, without a UN resolution, coalition troops will represent "an occupying army" with no legal right to reconstruct Iraq. Does the Prime Minister share her view?

In respect of President Chirac's remarks, it is important to look also at the remarks of the German Chancellor and of the spokesman of Kofi Annan, the UN Secretary-General, who gave a broad welcome to what was said yesterday. There will obviously be many negotiations and discussions about the problem. In the end, it depends on whether people want to reach an agreement or not. If they want to reach an agreement, it is perfectly easy to do so. Yesterday, President Bush could not have been clearer in saying that the UN should have a vital role, not just in humanitarian aid, but in relation to the reconstruction of the country. I believe that we should wait and see how it develops. We are in constant discussion with the countries concerned. Indeed, I am due to speak to President Chirac later today, and, with good will, we will reach a way through.

One of the reasons for going into Iraq was to establish the rule of law. Can my right hon. Friend give an undertaking that none of the prisoners taken by Her Majesty's forces will be transferred out of their custody until their position has been properly established by independent tribunals, and that they will not be sent to Guantanamo Bay without there being a proper reason for it?

I can certainly assure my hon. Friend that any of our prisoners of war will be treated fully in accordance with international law, which lays down strict rules in respect of that matter and we shall abide by them.

In paying tribute to the courage and professionalism of our armed forces, does the Prime Minister agree that we owe it to them—[Interruption.]

Does the Prime Minister agree that we owe it to them as much to the innocent Iraqi civilians to win the peace, having successfully prosecuted the war? Does he agree that it will be vital that relationships with Russia and our European allies are properly re-established so that we can get into Iraq the funding that will be central to the reconstruction?

It is obviously vital that we do all we can to make sure that Iraq gets the future that we have set out for it. I hope that Russia and other countries will co-operate with us in that regard. In the end, the critical thing will be to make sure that we deal with the immediate humanitarian situation and that the Iraqi interim authority is run by Iraqis who are genuinely representative of the whole country. We set out a process yesterday that allows us to get there and I hope that Russia and other countries co-operate with us in it.

When the Prime Minister met the American President, was the President able to indicate whether the American Administration would accept the Israeli Government's interpretation of the middle east road map—that it is all subject to possible amendment at a future stage?

The road map is not just a set of steps in a process, but a set of very clear undertakings that must be entered into by both sides. The road map has been drawn up by the United States, the EU, Russia and the UN. I do not doubt that there will be all sorts of representations made about it. However, the fact is that the road map is there as a way through. Therefore, in its essential particulars, we must abide by it and make sure that it is implemented. That is why the right hon. Gentleman will have heard the United States President say, once again, that we are committed not just to publishing the road map, but to implementing it. Of course people will make representations—they are bound to—but implementing the road map means exactly what it says.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the reconstruction of Iraq, particularly following the decades of neglect by Saddam Hussein, needs the involvement not just of the UN and all its agencies, but the World Bank, the IMF and the G8 countries? Should not our main concern be that once the media spotlight is off Iraq, we maintain our commitment to the restoration of prosperity and democracy?

I agree entirely. However, I should point out that the conflict is not yet over, and there are still difficult things to do. As we speak, there is still intense resistance—not broad spread among the Iraqi people, but among those parts of Saddam's regime that want to cling to power. It is not over yet, but I agree with my right hon. Friend that it is essential that we make sure that we commit to the reconstruction of Iraq. It is fair to point out that Iraq—unlike Afghanistan, where we had to deal with a country with few immediate resources—is potentially a wealthy country. The tragedy of Iraq is that its wealth has not been used for the Iraqi people. When we read that Saddam Hussein's wealth appears to be $3 billion, while his people live in poverty—60 per cent. are dependent on food aid—we can see just how much there is to be done. However, with the natural wealth that there is in Iraq, that is work that can be done.

Q2. [107853]

Notwithstanding the tremendous success of our troops, sadly there have been large numbers of civilian casualties. Hospitals in Baghdad are crying out for urgent assistance. Can the Prime Minister assure the House that coalition forces will do all they possibly can to get that assistance there as soon as possible?

Of course we will do that and, as we speak, teams are working alongside American troops in order to do so. I should point out two particular problems. One is that, as parts of Saddam's regime have moved out of areas, they have cut the power, harming our ability to provide humanitarian assistance and power, particularly to hospitals and other necessary areas. The second is that it cannot be pointed out too often that we make every effort to avoid civilian casualties, but there is a problem because of Saddam basing the headquarters of some of his special republican guard and local security services in the most densely populated residential areas. That makes it all the more difficult for us to act in a way that preserves as much civilian life as we possibly can. That said, probably more care has been taken with targeting in this military conflict than any in recent times.

Q3. [107854]

Is the Prime Minister aware of the reported deaths of almost 1,000 civilians in one day last week? Those deaths were not televised; they took place in Africa, in the Democratic Republic of Congo, in a conflict that has claimed almost 4 million lives, making it the deadliest war since world war two. Will the Prime Minister use his influence to use the upcoming G8 meeting to increase the numbers of UN observers and peacekeepers? Will he ensure that just because those deaths were not televised, the victims will not be forgotten?

My hon. Friend makes an entirely justified point. I assure her that we are working closely with the UN and other troop-contributing countries to ensure the deployment of what was supposed to be almost 9,000 UN peacekeepers. They were mandated by the UN last December and we are trying to insert them into the situation there. Once again, we exhort all parties to abide by UN Security Council resolution 1468, which condemns violations of human rights and international humanitarian law and calls on all parties to cease their hostilities immediately. I assure my hon. Friend that, even with public attention naturally focused on Iraq, we continue to be as active as we possibly can on this issue.

Is the Prime Minister pleased or saddened by reports that the tests for the UK joining the euro have not been met?

I am afraid that the hon. Gentleman will have to wait until the assessment is made.

Q4. [107855]

My right hon. Friend will be aware that Thanet council, working closely with the Government, has worked wonders in regenerating the district, creating business parks and even a new university campus. However, we still have great difficulty in getting developers to prefer to work on brownfield sites and the renovation of existing houses over developing greenfield sites. Will my right hon. Friend ensure that we focus attention on making sure that arrangements are in place that will encourage people to develop our old Victorian towns?

I entirely agree with my hon. Friend on the issue that he raises. It is extremely important that we make every effort to develop brownfield sites and to make sure also that we take back into use homes that have been empty for a long time. Without in any way previewing what my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer is going to say later, I hope that my hon. Friend stays around for the Budget statement.

In considering precisely what role the UN will have in postwar Iraq, will the Prime Minister reflect on the record of the UK and the US in building durable democracies in Germany and Japan? Does he not think that that record compares rather favourably with the UN's record in Somalia?

The reality is that there are examples of the UN working well, and of its working less well. What is clear is that the UN does not want the sole responsibility in the matter, and in any event that is simply not practical. What is important, however, is that the UN is involved and, as we said yesterday, that it has a vital role. We will be the occupying forces. If we set up the Iraqi interim authority in the right way, working with the UN, we will get a representative body that can then take charge of its own country. The key thing is to make sure—perhaps through joint commissions, as happened in Afghanistan and elsewhere—that we get a broadly representative Government. As I said a moment or two ago, I believe that this is a situation where, if people want to find a proper solution, they can. The fact that Kofi Annan has appointed a special adviser is important, as it allows us to work with him. With good will, we will get this job done in the best way for the Iraqi people. This matter should not be a diplomatic wrangle: it should be about what is best for the Iraqi people for the future.

Q5. [107856]

In the USA, prominent proponents of war with Iraq are now demanding regime change in Iran and Syria. Does my right hon. Friend recognise the consternation that is caused by the conjunction of that with comments about those countries made by Rumsfeld, Rice and even Powell, and the aggressive strategic theories of the Bush Administration? Will the Prime Minister impress on our US allies that a precedent has not been set for further pre-emptive wars without international consensus, in the middle east or elsewhere?

What is actually being said by the US Administration and ourselves is that any actions being taken by Syria and Iran at the moment should not interfere with the proper progress of the military conflict, nor with building Iraq properly for the future when the conflict is over. That is why we have said to both Syria and Iran that it is important that they do not provide military help to people who are engaged in action against coalition forces. I think that that is a perfectly reasonable position, and I respectfully say to my hon. Friend that I would not read any more into it than that.

Given the growing importance of humanitarian aid in the war against Iraq, and given the fact that we send nearly £1 billion to the EU overseas aid package—money that is largely spent by Brussels for political purposes, as evidenced by the fact that the top 10 recipients are all countries bordering the EU—will the Prime Minister now override his Secretary of State for International Development and divert that money to Iraq, which is where it is far more desperately needed?

The debate over humanitarian aid in the EU is of long standing. In fact, my right hon. Friend is one of many Secretaries of State in different parts of the European Union who have been asking for changes in that regard.

I have to say two other things to the hon. Gentleman. First, the aid that we give to those surrounding European countries is still important, because they are countries that are undergoing a process of reconstruction. Secondly, I have no doubt at all that the European Union—we will be able to discuss this further next week—will want to give full humanitarian assistance to Iraq. The EU naturally has a role to play in that, and can play it very well.

Q6. [107857]

Given the vital importance of the small business sector to the well-being of our economy, and given that many small businesses tell me that their staff are their greatest asset, will the Prime Minister explain the benefits to the small business sector of the new rights for working people?

That is an important issue. We have changed the rules to enable more small employers to claim back 100 per cent. of maternity, paternity and adoption payments, so we are improving the situation for them. We are also significantly increasing maternity pay and the length of time that people can take in unpaid leave, and taking measures on flexible working. That will give more and more people the opportunity to balance work and family life. It is also good for employers because, as my hon. Friend rightly says, staff are their main asset.

The Prime Minister will be aware that a great deal of discussion is going on about a new police college in Northern Ireland. Does he share my concern that strand 1 of the agreement has been breached by the offer of the Republic of Ireland Government to fund some £30 million if it is built in Ebrington in Londonderry, which would support only one political party? On Budget day, would we be right in assuming that perhaps the 30 pieces of silver is now $30 million?

If the hon. Gentleman will forgive me, I will not give him an answer off the top of my head: I will have to correspond with him about that.

Q7. [107858]

Does the Prime Minister share the pleasure that pupils, teachers, governors and parents must feel on the publication of the international study yesterday showing that English primary school pupils are among the best readers in the world; and will he go on working with his right hon. Friend the Chancellor to ensure that the strong and stable economy, which underpins the investment that helps to achieve that success, continues?

We certainly will continue that work. For England to be third behind Sweden and the Netherlands out of 35 countries, ahead of France, Germany, the United States and many other countries, is a tremendous tribute to what has happened in our primary schools over the past few years. It has happened because of reform through the national literacy and numeracy strategy and investment that represents the largest-ever increase in education funding that this country has ever seen. That is why it is very important to continue that investment, not cut it by 20 per cent.

Q8. [107859]

Is the Prime Minister aware of the desperate state of farming in this country, which is borne out by the latest news that Brandons turkey factory went into receivership yesterday? Will he ensure that common agricultural policy reform does not work entirely to the disadvantage of British farmers and to please French and German farmers?

Of course we will. We also recognise that the farming industry has been undergoing a huge period of structural change, which it has been undertaking for several years. The best way to proceed is through the Curry commission, which we established some time ago. I am sorry for the hon. Lady's constituents whose jobs will be lost as a result of the changes that have been announced, but I assure her that we will continue to try to get the best deal we can out of the Agriculture Council.