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Volume 404: debated on Wednesday 7 May 2003

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If she will make a statement on the humanitarian situation in Iraq. [111519]

The humanitarian situation in Iraq is improving, but there are still serious challenges. Progress has now been made in restoring water, power and health services in many areas. Order is being restored, but it is still a significant problem. The World Food Programme is building up supplies of food and working to reinstate the distribution system of the oil for-food programme. Sixteen million people depend on that, and they might start running out of food in the middle of this month. Getting salaries paid so that health, education and police services can be reestablished is also an urgent priority.

I congratulate my right hon. Friend and her Department on the excellent efforts that they are making in relation to humanitarian aid, under difficult circumstances. Does she have any information that she can share with the House today on UN plans to establish a permanent set-up in Iraq?

I am very pleased to be able to tell my hon. Friend that the UN has now returned to the north, with, I think, 90 international staff. Local staff are also in the region. In addition, we have 21 international staff in Baghdad, and we have 50 staff in the south. We will shortly be taking over responsibility for co-ordinating humanitarian efforts from the US Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance. It is very important and good news that the UN is back in Iraq, and matters should move forward from that.

What precise efforts are being made to clear up the cluster bombs used in Iraq?

The hon. Gentleman draws attention to a very important question. There are reports of lots of serious accidents, and of lots of children losing limbs and being injured by explosions from unexploded ordnance. The UN is trying to map the locations of such ordnance in the country and to give priority to beginning the removal process, starting with the most dangerous areas. The return of the UN should speed up that work. However, the situation is very urgent, and we must do better.

Is my right hon. Friend aware of the number of Iraqi reconstruction groups being set up in Britain, primarily by Iraqi exiles in this country? Is her Department in a position to help those organisations in any way? Does my right hon. Friend know when telecommunications with Iraq will be re-established, so that those groups will be able to contact their families and others, and help in the reconstruction programme?

I am aware that there are a lot of such groups. I also know that my hon. Friend has one in his constituency, and he has been in touch with me about it. We urgently need agreement in the UN Security Council to bring into being an internationally recognised interim Government in Iraq. We will then get the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank involved, and real reconstruction can begin. I am sure that all the groups to which my hon. Friend refers can bring lots of skills and ability to the reconstruction of their country. The failure to get political agreement is slowing that process. We must all work to try and get the international community to unite, as my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary its doing.

Similarly with telecommunications: major reconstruction depends on the sort of political progress that I have described. I suggest that any individuals unable to get in touch with their families should contact the Red Cross, whose staff can usually find out how people are, and where they are.

Does the Secretary of State agree that it is important that representatives of Iraq should be encouraged to take part in all international events? Will she lend her support and encouragement to our Government to facilitate the travel of the Iraqi special Olympics team, so that they can come and compete in the international special Olympics event being held in Dublin in June?

I certainly agree that we should do all we can to get Iraqi people engaged in such events. It is a matter of urgency that they take up their rightful place, in their own country and in the international system. I have no personal information about the special Olympics team. Does that involve people with disabilities?

I should be grateful for any information that the hon. Gentleman can give me on the subject, and I shall certainly do what I can to facilitate matters.

I have just returned this morning from a visit, with the British Limbless Association—(Interruption.]

I was visiting Kuwait to see the Iraqi children who had been evacuated there as a result of their injuries. The children are receiving excellent treatment from the doctors in Kuwait, but I am all too aware that they are just the tip of the iceberg. An unknown number of Iraqi children have no chance of getting such treatment. Will the Secretary of State make a commitment to establish, as part of the reconstruction of Iraq, a centre dedicated to the treatment and rehabilitation of other victims, so that they can lead the independent lives that they want?

There is no doubt that the reconstruction in Iraq is about rebuilding lives and I share the hon. Lady's commitment to that. I have discussed the issue at length with Jacob Kellenberger, president of the International Red Cross, which takes the view that the level of skills and the talented doctors in Iraq mean that, by and large, children do not need to be brought out of the country. We need to get the Iraqi systems up and running and reinforce them. If children cannot be treated there, they should be kept in the broader region, if possible. We must take the advice of those who are working in the country. I accept the hon. Lady's objective to help Iraqi children and reconstruct their lives, and we should organise in the best possible way to achieve that.