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Iraq (Humanitarian Aid)

Volume 401: debated on Wednesday 19 March 2003

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12.30 pm

(urgent question)

To ask the Secretary of State for International Development if she will make a statement in response to the Select Committee on International Development's report on humanitarian contingency planning for Iraq.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs
(Mr. Mike O'Brien)

rose

Order. The hon. Member for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman) asked for an urgent question, which I have granted. I am not responsible for the identity of the Minister who comes to the Dispatch Box. [Interruption.] Order. He is a very good Minister.

I apologise on behalf of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Development, who is doing her job in New York today discussing—[Interruption.]

Order. Mr. Fabricant, you get very excited at times. We are considering a serious matter. I have granted the urgent question and I can stop it if such behaviour continues in the Chamber. The hon. Member for Meriden asked for the urgent question and she is happy with the Minister.

Thank you, Mr. Speaker. As you say, the matter is serious and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Development has asked me to reply to this important question about the way in which we tackle the crisis in Iraq.

The Government strongly welcome the Select Committee on International Development's fourth report, which was presented to the House a week ago. We will give a detailed response to its various recommendations in due course. However, one of the crucial matters that it raises is the way in which the Government would move forward in the immediate post-conflict situation to try to resolve some of the humanitarian issues, and especially whether we would seek a United Nations resolution—or, indeed, more than one—to take the process forward.

I confirm that we shall seek a further resolution to deal with the humanitarian issues. We shall try to transfer the oil-for-food programme to the United Nations Secretary-General to enable him to keep the process functioning and use UN facilities to do that. We will also seek a new UN resolution to provide authority for reconstruction and development work, and a proper mandate for any interim authority that is likely to operate in the territory of Iraq when Saddam Hussein is removed. We will also try to ensure the rapid delivery of humanitarian aid, to affirm Iraq's territorial integrity and to allow UN sanctions to be lifted, thus enabling food and other necessary items to arrive.

We shall also enable an international reconstruction programme to facilitate the use of oil revenues for the benefit of the Iraqi people and to endorse a post-conflict administration in Iraq, which will lead to a representative Government who would uphold human rights and rule of law for all Iraqis.

Thank you, Mr. Speaker, for granting this urgent question on a serious and pressing matter. We appreciate that the Secretary of State for International Development is on her way to the United Nations in New York, as the Foreign Secretary announced, to seek a fresh Security Council resolution. That was contained in the text of the motion that we debated yesterday. We wish her success. But we are surprised that the answers to our question are to be given by a Foreign Office Minister, given that the Select Committee report calls for an immediate statement from the Department for International Development. Given that the Under-Secretary for that Department is present, it appears to us that there has been some dispute about who should answer the question.

The Secretary of State issued a written statement last Thursday, but it fell far short of responding to the 23 recommendations and conclusions in the Select Committee report. As it says on page 2 of the report, in the first stages of any conflict it is the military forces that will have primary responsibility for the initial delivery of humanitarian assistance. Is the Minister aware, however, of the concern of the non-governmental organisations—some of which are already in Iraq and the surrounding countries, ready to help—about the blurring of responsibility between military action and humanitarian relief?

The report is highly critical of the lack of consultation with the NGOs; indeed, we understand that such consultation has commenced only in the last two weeks. What is being done to improve information sharing with NGOs and to co-ordinate the UK and US aid agencies? Who is co-ordinating work with the military? Is it the Department for International Development, the Ministry of Defence, USAID, or the US Department of Defence? We need to know who is co-ordinating this work.

It is reported that the oil-for-food programme, which has been providing 60 per cent. of the Iraqi population with food aid at a cost of $250 million a month, has been suspended. What assessment has the Department for International Development made of how to substitute food relief on such a large scale? In a written answer to the Chairman of the Select Committee on International Development, it was stated that DFID had no more contingency funds available for 2002–03, although the Secretary of State has said that the Chancellor has allocated an additional £10 million. We understand, however, that the Ministry of Defence has been granted an additional £50 million for humanitarian relief purposes. Does this mean that the Ministry of Defence will take the lead on the humanitarian side in the early stages?

What estimate have the Government made of the total sum that will be required to finance a meaningful post-war reconstruction of Iraq, and for how many years do they estimate that such a programme will continue? The International Development Committee concluded that it was as yet not convinced that there was, to use the Prime Minister's words,
"a humanitarian plan that is every bit as viable and well worked out as a military plan".
We wholeheartedly agree with that conclusion. When will the Secretary of State herself make a statement to the House to prove us wrong?

May I first deal with why a Foreign Office Minister is dealing with this matter? I was in Washington last week, talking to USAID about precisely this issue, and discussing with the US Administration some of the terms of the resolutions that we will seek to put to the United Nations. It is currently envisaged that we will be putting at least two such resolutions to the UN. The first will deal with the immediate issues relating to the oil-for-food programme and humanitarian assistance. A further resolution will deal with some of the more complex issues relating to the humanitarian issues that will arise in the months to come. Both resolutions follow from the recommendations made in the report.

I hope that I have dealt at least to some extent with why I am answering rather than my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for International Development, although no doubt I have not done so to the hon. Lady's satisfaction.

The 23 recommendations are being examined, and a full and detailed response will be made in due course.

The non-governmental organisations want to ensure that they are fully apprised of the developing situation. Through DFID, we have been holding weekly meetings with the NGOs. One of their complaints is that they do not know all the details of precisely what will happen at various stages. There has of course been concern about the revealing of some military operations, but I think that we can now be much more open with the NGOs about what is likely to happen, and deal with many of the questions that they have been asking. I hope that the meetings will enable them to feel that they are receiving the information that they want.

The hon. Lady asked who was co-ordinating the aid with the military. A number of steps are being taken. DFID has two advisers on humanitarian issues, who have been posted with 1 Division and will work with the military. They are experts on not just human rights but humanitarian issues applying to the military. The military will be the first in there, and are responsible for ensuring that they operate in a proper humanitarian context. There is also a humanitarian expert from DFID with the Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance—ORHA—the American organisation that expects to administer the post-conflict situation.

The key problem is that 60 per cent. of Iraqis depend on the oil-for-food programme because of the way in which Saddam Hussein has run the country. It is crucial for the programme to go on functioning. The UN resolution under discussion is intended to ensure that it does so, and we shall be transferring responsibilities for the administration of the system to the UN Secretary-General.

As for resources, £100 million of bilateral humanitarian aid has been allocated since 1991. There is £10 million of new money for the contingency plans of the UN agencies. The Department has secured £70 million from the contingency reserve, and the military have a further £30 million for humanitarian and human rights purposes. The military will have responsibility at the beginning for ensuring the early delivery of humanitarian aid, which is why they have that £30 million. While the military operations are in progress they will also do humanitarian work, which will be followed up by the NGOs as security is established. The UN will then be brought in to ensure that the whole process is administered properly. There will, therefore, be proper and effective co-ordination.

It was clear from my discussions with USAID that—along with DFID, for which it has nothing but praise—it has a detailed humanitarian plan to ensure that the various possible post-conflict scenarios can be dealt with. The Committee was worried that there might have been no detailed planning, but according to what I see and have been able to establish from discussions between DFID and USAID, the planning has been done and the humanitarian effort will be conducted properly.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman) on tabling this urgent question, and I pay tribute to the work that she has done on this issue over many weeks in the run-up to this crisis. In the light of this morning's somewhat cobbled together response, I am quite relieved that the Secretary of State is staying in her post for the next few weeks—even if she will be incarcerated in the Tower of London come July.

The humanitarian situation is going to be dire, and we demand to know, and should have known long before this, exactly what the Department's contingency plans are. I want to move the Minister on to post-conflict reconstruction. It seems to us that the USA already has very advanced plans, even to the extent of awarding contracts to American companies. What part is Britain playing in post-conflict reconstruction, and what British companies will play a part in it? Exactly how much money are the British Government going to spend on post-conflict humanitarian aid or reconstruction? Can we have an assurance that that money will not come out of DFID's budget, which is meant for the very poorest people in the world? Finally, can we also have an assurance that the oil revenues that we are told will be put in trust for the people of Iraq will not be used to repair the damage done by American bombers in the next few weeks?

I confirm that, as part of the UN resolutions, we want to make it very clear that every single penny of the oil money that has not been plundered by Saddam Hussein already should go to the people of Iraq. It is very clear that the discussions that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State is having in New York and in Washington are in order to ensure that the resources are available to deal with the post-conflict situation, and that the oil money that will be put in trust for the people of Iraq will be deployed exclusively for their benefit. We want to ensure, and to be quite unequivocal, that that is our intention.

On British companies, USAID has at this stage used primarily American resources to let a number of contracts to American companies. We have received reassurance from the US Administration that many of those companies will subcontract up to 50 per cent. of the work that they will do as part of the humanitarian response, and that will be available to other countries to bid for. USAID assured me that the country that it works with most effectively is Britain, and that the Department that it works with most effectively is DFID. So British companies currently operating with DFID and other Government Departments will be able to undertake, and to bid for, contracts through the American companies. We are very conscious of this issue, and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will discuss the detail of how this will be done in Washington.

The hon. Lady asked exactly how much money will be spent, and she is rightly concerned about the idea that resources intended for the very poorest might be diverted elsewhere. It is our intention that that should not happen, and, as I have said there is provision in the contingency reserve. We want to protect the money that is already being applied for the very poorest, and to ensure that those resources are maintained and allocated properly. However, we also want to ensure that we deal with our responsibilities to the people of Iraq, and we will do so.

My hon. Friend will be aware of the consequences of the use of cluster bombs and depleted uranium weapons in the Gulf war. Nearly 2,000 Kuwaitis have been killed or injured since that war by exploding bombs, and there are many birth defects and cancers in Iraq. Ministers have failed to deny that such weapons will be used in the coming conflict. Assuming that they are used, what special arrangements will be made to deal with their humanitarian consequences?

I have seen in Afghanistan some of the damage that can be done by the weapons deployed in conflict situations. It is important that we support the good work being done by various NGOs in trying to ensure that there is a proper clean-up of the results of conflict. As my hon. Friend will know, the Ottawa agreement does not make the use of cluster bombs unlawful. At this stage, I cannot say what the intentions are in respect of those weapons. However, when it comes to targeting, we are determined that the coalition forces will do everything possible to ensure that they avoid civilian casualties, and to avoid creating circumstances that will cause civilian casualties in the aftermath of a conflict. We are very conscious of the matter, and we will seek to deal with it.

I have two straightforward questions for the Minister, about food security and internally displaced people. It is estimated that, between now and the end of March, 460,000 tonnes of food aid will be needed in Iraq. Only a third of that amount is immediately available. How is the rest to be funded and delivered?

On IDPs, practically no provision has yet been made to provide refuges for people internally displaced as a result of the conflict in Iraq. Who is getting a grip on providing and funding such refuges?

A lot of planning has been done on food security. We have talked to the various NGOs that may have to deal with some of the IDPs, and to the countries that may be affected as people try to move towards their borders. We have been seeking agreements with other countries about how they will respond to the refugees coming towards their borders. We have also been talking to the military, who will obviously come across IDPs very quickly. We have discussed how they will ensure that those people's safety is guaranteed and how they will ensure that IDPs get the humanitarian aid that they need as quickly as possible. There are plans in place, therefore, to deal with both the issues that the hon. Gentleman raised, but I shall ask my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State to give him a more detailed response.

As my hon. Friend knows, thousands of Kurds died unnecessarily in 1991 because neighbouring countries shut their borders. That underlines the point made by the Chairman of the Select Committee on International Development, the hon. Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry). Turkey and Syria shut their borders, but Iran was the exception. That has been known for some time. I understand that my hon. Friend the Minister is standing in, so I shall not press him too hard on the matter, but I am sure that somebody will have had talks with the neighbouring countries by now. I am sure that the House is keen to know what the response has been.

Secondly, the Kurds are already moving out of the area, heading towards the mountains and the villages where their relatives are. The UN forces have gone, leaving the Kurds with the keys to the doors of the buildings where there are food supplies, blankets and tents. However, they have not left any way to transport those items. This is an urgent matter, and I hope that the Minister will look into it very soon.

Obviously, the situation in the north, where the Kurds are, is somewhat better than elsewhere in Iraq. There at least we can make some provision to deal with some of the humanitarian issues involved. We are in discussion with representatives of the Kurds in the north about how to go about that, and how best to ensure that they can deal with any refugees who come their way.

We do not anticipate that large numbers of people will seek to cross the Turkish border. I spoke to Syria's President Bashar al-Assad a couple of weeks ago, about the circumstances in relation to that country. At the moment, although they are not anxious to have large numbers of people cross their border, the Syrians are making some provision to assist the ones who may come in Syria's direction.

We anticipate that most people will head towards Iran. I have also talked to the Iranian Foreign Minister and others about how Iran will deal with that eventuality. The Iranians are working with us to minimise the problems that refugees who go towards Iran may face.

There is a lot of discussion going on, with Syria and Iran, and, obviously, with Kuwait. We are also talking to the people who are in control in the Kurdish area of northern Iraq.

The Minister will realise that his handling of the urgent question today is not inspiring confidence. His reply to my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry) on IDPs was not good. In the previous Gulf conflict, the western relief programme was hampered by the absence of UN High Commissioner for Refugees personnel. The UNHCR did not play its usual co-ordination role—which we are all concerned about this time—because its mandate did not cover IDPs. Will the Minister say whether that is still true, or will the UNCHR be able to play its full role in any relief programme, irrespective of the status of those people?

The International Committee of the Red Cross will obviously have an important role in the whole process, as will the UNHCR. Those organisations clearly have a responsibility, and there is no question but that they will accept it. Obviously, some of the organisations were reluctant to enter into discussions at too early a stage, as they needed to cover their international positions. However, we are now in a position to enter into detailed discussions with them. We have started preliminary discussions already. We will follow up on those, and ensure that these matters are dealt with.

The hon. Lady began her question with some rather curmudgeonly remarks, and I am sorry to disappoint her. However, we are trying to ensure that we deal with these matters seriously. If she wants to make points that are rather silly and pathetic, that is a matter for her.

We have been told that Saddam Hussein has put in place a military plan to divide his country into quarters. There is no doubt that that will make it extremely difficult for people to move around inside Iraq. Given what my hon. Friend the Member for Cynon Valley (Ann Clwyd) said about the movement of people to the borders, does my hon. Friend the Minister think that there is a really urgent need to revisit the negotiations with neighbouring states about the acceptance of refugees? Is there not an urgent need that food, medicine and shelter be provided for the people who arrive at those borders?

Substantial negotiations have already been held with each of the Governments involved about matters of food and shelter. My hon. Friend is right to say that Saddam Hussein's apparent proposals for deployment of his military forces may make it difficult for some refugees to flee. We do not know yet how he will try to manage that deployment, but we will certainly guarantee to talk to the adjoining countries to ensure that they are aware of the support that we can provide. We will also ensure that the UN agencies and the other NGOs are engaged, and we will do everything that we can to protect the humanitarian needs of all those who have to flee from any conflict.

Some people are worried about what our troops might be doing when they go into the territories that the House is discussing but, as in the past, so in the future, they will be working to help the people who need their help. I am sure that the Minister will agree about that. Does he share my concern that Oxfam representatives, speaking for the NGOs, told the "Newsnight" programme the other evening that they would not seek finance from the UK or the US? Where will they get their finance? On Monday evening, I asked the Foreign Secretary about the fact that the $130 million appeal for UN humanitarian aid had realised only $30 million. Who has supplied that $30 million?

The NGOs will have to decide how they want to deal with any particular request for money. Some may feel that they want to make requests, and in those circumstances we will discuss such requests with them. Some may decide that they do not want to do so. There is nothing that we can do about that, but we hope that they will become engaged in the relief process.

On the availability of resources, DFID has made a call on its contingency reserve. We want to ensure that sufficient resources are available to enable humanitarian efforts to be carried out.

Can the Minister clarify the time scale for the necessary resolution at the UN Security Council to restart the oil-for-food programme, given the comments of the UN coordinator to the Select Committee that that could take up to four weeks?

As regards the time scale for the initial humanitarian resolution, the objective is that it should be done almost straight away. Provided that we can complete the discussions with the UN, we would hope to be able to do it within a matter of days or a week or so. The wider humanitarian effort may require a little more discussion in the Security Council; we have draft proposals that we hope to discuss with other members of it. That may take a week or two.

On the oil-for-food programme, we have already worked on plans to ensure that it keeps operating. The basic structure exists for its broad administration, but we will have to ensure that when the coalition forces are in Iraq, and the NGOs follow them up, the necessary administrative structure is in place to ensure that everyone gets the food and other resources that they urgently need.

The Minister won the respect of the House when he was sacked for revealing the communications between his old Department and others. He seems to have been reappointed on the condition that he does not repeat the offence or gives the impression that no communication is taking place. Will he now tell the House which Department is co-ordinating this very important humanitarian operation? If it is DFID, why is not the excellent Under-Secretary of State for International Development giving us much more informative answers, as I am sure that she could? If it is not DFID, does that reflect the uncertain status of the Secretary of State for that Department?

The right hon. Gentleman is a former Secretary of State, and I expect something more from him than cheap comments like that. We are dealing with issues of conflict, refugees and ensuring that lives are protected. The cheap comments that he comes out with make his questions barely worth answering, but let me try to do so in any event.

He asked which Department is co-ordinating the operation. Obviously, DFID is co-ordinating it through other Departments and committees. Cabinet Committees are also dealing with the issue, and DFID is co-ordinating some of the operations between the UN and the various other NGOs that will deal with the post-conflict situation.

The reason I am answering questions is that I have just come back from Washington, where I discussed the terms of the UN resolutions and the detail of how the post-conflict humanitarian circumstances will be dealt with by the United States and by this country.

Does the Minister share the concerns of the civilian NGOs who want to follow any conflict as soon as possible with civilian aid in Iraq? Is he aware that the cost of militarily delivered humanitarian assistance in Afghanistan was $7 for a certain item that could be delivered by civilian humanitarian aid at a cost of 30 cents per item, and that it is therefore important to get the civilian NGOs into Iraq as soon as possible? Does he agree that conflict reconstruction in Iraq will arise from three sources—the previous Gulf war, the neglect of Iraq by Saddam Hussein and any destruction that occurs in this conflict—and that it would therefore be wrong for the entire revenues of the oil programme in Iraq to be used for that? Can he say a little more about the extra resources that his Government will make available directly to DFID for humanitarian efforts in Iraq not only now, but in future?

We have been clear that the oil money will be put into a trust and will be used for the benefit of the people of Iraq. There is also substantial further American money that is being deployed for humanitarian and aid purposes, as well as the resources I mentioned earlier that will be deployed by the British Government, and we anticipate that other countries will wish to make substantial contributions, as will the United Nations.

As for the cost, it is true that military costs will be higher than those of NGOs. The problem with Iraq, however, is that although some NGOs have operated there in the past, there are very few of them and they do not operate freely. Furthermore, many of them will withdraw in the next few weeks. Post conflict, therefore, the military will be there first. It is best that they are in a position quickly to deliver the aid that is needed, so they have been resourced to do that. However, as soon as we are able to do so, we will bring in other NGOs—the UN and other organisations—to ensure that aid is deployed, as the hon. Gentleman says, more cheaply, but, more importantly, more effectively.

Will my hon. Friend look at paragraph 25 of the report, which records the UN's estimate that during the Gulf war between 15,000 and 30,000 refugees died from infectious diseases such as measles, diarrhoea, cholera and typhoid? Will the Government ensure that refugee camps have not only sanitation and clean water, but immunisation for refugees as they arrive and health care for those who are ill?

I assure my hon. Friend that there are provisions to deal with the availability of water supplies in any refugee camps that may need to be set up and to ensure, in terms of the military operations that are conducted, that there is as little disruption as possible to proper water supplies so as to minimise the problems that we may face post conflict.

On immunisation, it is enormously important that if any refugee camps are set up there are effective immunisation programmes to ensure that infectious diseases are not spread within them. We shall certainly put in place the medical and other facilities to ensure that effective immunisation programmes are set up.

Is the hon. Gentleman aware that those of us who gladly gave support to the Prime Minister yesterday, and who admire enormously the national leadership that he is giving, nevertheless attach almost equal importance to the subject that we are discussing? Does he accept that it is absolutely incredible that he should be answering these questions? We are sorry that the Under-Secretary appears to have lost her voice, but it is important that whoever is in charge of these matters—the Minister said that it is the Secretary of State—should enjoy the confidence of this House. One Minister has lost her voice; the other should lose her job.

I have passed on to my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary the hon. Gentleman's sympathy for the loss of her voice. I assure him that it will come back and will be as strong and effective as ever. I am fully aware that the House attaches enormous importance—as do my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Development and I—to the issue of humanitarian aid, and we will make sure that the Government treat it as a very high priority so as to ensure that that aid, and the human rights back-up that is also required, is in place.