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Volume 406: debated on Thursday 5 June 2003

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What action she is taking to ensure that women play a full part in a new Iraqi Government. [116564]

As well as meeting a representative group of Iraqi women exiles, we arranged last week for a meeting of about 40 Iraqi women in Baghdad with Ambassador Bremer and John Sawers, the UK special representative in Iraq. That meeting was also attended by my hon. Friend the Member for Cynon Valley (Ann Clwyd), who is now the Prime Minister's special representative on human rights in Iraq. In due course, I, too, shall be going to Baghdad to help to support Iraqi women's participation in the political and reconstruction process.

I thank my right hon. Friend for that reply. It is heartening that there are moves to get women involved, as I am sure that, like me and many of my constituents, my right hon. Friend will be aware of the many images from Iraq showing that all the people involved in shaping the new Government are male. I fear that that does not augur well for the involvement of women in Iraq's Government. Is she as concerned as me that, if the Baghdad conference does not take place, women will be further excluded from any interim authority that is set up?

My hon. Friend raises an extremely important point. She and I were both concerned that so few women attended the last conference held in Baghdad, and indeed in Nasiriyah. After the women's meeting last week, a steering group of seven women was set up. They are focusing on ensuring that women come forward and become part of the Iraqi interim administration. I agree that that is especially important if, as now seems likely, security considerations and the state of political debate make it impossible for the Baghdad conference to go ahead as initially planned.

Certainly, we believe that women should play a full and active role in governing Iraq, but the priority right now is that they are not safe and that they cannot live normal lives. There are daily abductions of women and girls throughout the country. For example, on 13 May, 13 girls were abducted at gunpoint from a school in central Baghdad, perhaps to be sold into prostitution or for human trafficking—who knows? Given that the coalition forces are legally obliged to maintain the rule of law, can the Minister tell us what is being done to prevent such crimes and to bring those responsible for them to justice?

The hon. Lady is right. The women at last week's meeting made it clear that of course security is a top priority for them, just as it is for the coalition administration. We are working closely with the American Administration and the coalition provisional authority in Baghdad, as well as in Basra—where the security situation, although not perfect, is considerably better—to put in place much more effective policing-type security to protect the citizens of Iraq and, of course, to continue protecting coalition troops.

However, let me stress that my hon. Friend the Member for Cynon Valley, who is still in Baghdad and with whom I was in touch only yesterday, was heartened by the signs of normal life returning to Baghdad, including large numbers of women collecting their children from school on the school run. It is not all bad news from Baghdad, and several of the Iraqi women with whom I am in touch in Britain are already planning their return to Iraq. Indeed, they are being encouraged by their families to do so.

I congratulate my right hon. Friend on the superb job that she is doing in promoting the interests of Iraqi women. Will she particularly look at the fact that the US-led administration have appointed only male lawyers and male judges to the group that is working up a new legal code for Iraq? She will appreciate, as I do, the critical nature of the legal code when it comes to ensuring women's rights in Iraq in the future.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend, not only for her comments but for the very active role that she has been playing in this whole process. She makes an important point, and I will bring it urgently to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary and of John Sawers. In my discussions with Iraqi women and with a broader group of women from Muslim communities in Britain, it has become clear that we need to ensure that women Muslim scholars are fully engaged in the development of the new legal code in Iraq.