HC Deb 28 January 1991 vol 184 cc655-67 3.32 pm
The Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. Michael Heseltine)

Mr. Speaker, with permission I will make a statement about the United Kingdom response to the environmental damage taking place in the Gulf.

The oil spill in the Gulf appears to be the largest ever. It is 35 miles long by 10 miles wide. It appears to contain some 8 million barrels of oil and it is moving down the Gulf at 15 to 20 miles per day. Words are inadequate to condemn the callousness and irresponsibility of the action of Saddam Hussein in deliberately unleashing this environmental catastrophe.

There is a threat to desalination plants and fresh water supplies, to birds and other wildlife, to fish, sea mammals and shellfish, and to local communities dependent for their livelihoods on the sea.

With our allies, the United Kingdom is playing a full part in the world's response to this abomination.

First, we must stem the flow of oil. The United States has already acted on this decisively and, we believe and hope, effectively.

Secondly, we must assess the way in which the oil may flow so that we can assess likely consequences. Action is in hand in the Gulf itself to do that. To supplement it, United Kingdom scientific resources are already being mobilised. Existing computer models at the Meteorological Office and Proudman oceanographic laboratory are being urgently adapted to help give the best possible predictions of the likely behaviour of the slick in the Gulf.

Thirdly, we need to assess possible effects on marine life. The United States is already sending experts. The Natural Environment Research Council is co-ordinating urgent work to bring together here in the United Kingdom information that we have on marine life and effects that could be useful in the Gulf.

Fourthly, in common with other countries, the United Kingdom is taking practical steps to help to protect desalination plants and sensitive coastal areas and inlets. The airlift of an initial 70 tonnes of equipment from the stores maintained by the oil industry will go ahead today, with a further flight tomorrow. Further material will be available if needed. My right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for Transport is looking sympathetically at requests that we have received from the Saudi Government for the loan of small numbers of skilled pollution control experts and advisers. We anticipate being able to respond later today. The Department of Transport will meet European Community colleagues tomorrow to consider whether the Community should send in its standing task force of national experts on oil pollution response. We shall be urging strongly that it should do so.

For the longer term, the United Kingdom is considering now how it will be able to help with the clean-up and restoration of the habitats and human settlements affected once it is safe to do so. We are making arrangements to assess and bring together the contribution that United Kingdom bodies outside Government, whether public, private or voluntary, can make.

The first responsibility for dealing with the environmental problems facing the Gulf lies with the Gulf states themselves. We do not yet know what final form the arrangements for co-ordinating their efforts will take: matters are still developing fast. But, whatever they may be, the United Kingdom stands ready to play its full and immediate part. We shall be in touch later today with Saudi Arabia and the other states most closely involved with a first indication of the help that we can offer.

Meanwhile, the United Nations Environment Programme is today announcing its intention to take a lead on improving environmental communications and co-ordinating technical expertise. I have been in touch with UNEP to establish what we can offer by way of expert staff or other help.

On Wednesday, the Environment Ministers of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development meet in Paris. I shall be calling then for all OECD members to respond to this disaster and to take action according to their experience, equipment and skills to offer help to the Gulf states likely to be affected. But there is a wider issue. It is not only war that creates risks. It seems important to recognise the ongoing dangers of environmental calamity which arise from time to time which go way beyond national frontiers.

I mean to raise with OECD colleagues the proposal that we should set up a working party to recommend what more effective preparations we could undertake to cope with these disasters. I have in mind that there should be a register setting out available expertise and available facilities on which affected nations could draw in times of crisis. In this context, we shall be pressing for an early conclusion to the work already in hand in the International Maritime Organisation to put into effect a full-scale international convention on preparedness and response in relation to oil pollution and to set up regional centres to pool resources.

The whole House will be appalled at the environmental damage threatening the Gulf. The Government are determined to do all they reasonably can to assist those faced with the consequences of this outrage. We also intend to inject a new urgency into consideration of the wider issues raised by environmental threats that require co-ordination above the national level.

Mrs. Ann Taylor (Dewsbury)

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his statement and the information that he has provided today. I am sure that all hon. Members will agree that any deliberate destruction of the environment, particularly on this scale, is a desperate act which cannot be justified and which could in itself be considered a war crime.

Will the Secretary of State clarify the position with regard to the source of the pollution? It seems clear that the major source of the pollution is the Sea Island oil terminal which has been opened deliberately by the Iraqis. What assessment has been made of any environmental consequences of allied attacks on oil tankers in the area that were reported last week? There has been a great deal of speculation and counter accusation about that point.

The Secretary of State said that expertise and help will be sent from this country. We welcome that, because we have a great deal of high quality and varied expertise, which should be utilised now and when the conflict is ended.

Will the Secretary of State ensure, however, that the technology and advice that are given are appropriate not only to the problem of oil pollution but to the ecosystem in that area? The right hon. Gentleman must be aware that, on occasions, clean-ups can cause more problems. Will the Secretary of State ensure also that the help that we can give is offered quickly and in advance of any discussions about who should pay for that work? Can the Secretary of State tell us more about the problems of and the potential threat to water supplies in Saudi Arabia and the rest of the area as a result of the crisis?

There is an urgent priority to protect the desalination plants, but we must bear in mind the fact that the toxic components of oil, PAHs—that is, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons—are potentially dangerous in the long term. They can cause cancer and can create a serious hazard. Does the Secretary of State know whether the Government of Saudi Arabia and other areas in the region have the capacity to monitor toxins of that kind? This might be one direct way in which this country could help by providing expertise.

Finally, does the Secretary of State agree that, this weekend, we saw the environment used as a weapon in war by Saddam Hussein and that, whatever the military consequences of that may or may not be, the main victim of the attack has been the environment itself, which leaves every one of us, wherever we may live, much the poorer?

Mr. Heseltine

I thank the hon. Lady very much for the welcome that she has given to what we have said. Our view is that the deliberate decision to open five tankers is responsible for the seepage that has caused such devastation. The second point that the hon. Lady asked me about is whether the solutions that we are applying will preoccupy themselves not only with the oil problems but with the ecosystem of the Gulf. I can give her that assurance. We have significant expertise in this country. That leads me to the hon. Lady's third point, which is whether we will ensure that such help is available quickly. We have made the offers. The expertise that we possess is known, and we shall make it obvious to those who might have recourse to it that that help is available.

On cost, the Saudis have already agreed to pay for the shipment of supplies that is either just about to leave or has already left for the Gulf. My own Department took a small decision to absorb costs within it yesterday, but the broader issues are clear. The environmental threat is the key issue, and the question of apportioning responsibilities for payment will be dealt with as a secondary priority to that, although one cannot lose sight of the matter entirely.

Water supplies in the individual countries concerned are more appropriately a matter for the Governments of those countries. It would not be right for me to try to speculate on how the Saudis or any of the other countries involved feel about the threat to their desalination plants. Monitoring toxins is a matter that comes within what I have already said—in so far as we have expertise, that expertise is available.

Sir Bernard Braine (Castle Point)

If one adds the uprecedented and deliberate assault on all the peoples—mainly Muslim—living in the Gulf region to the mass murder two years ago of thousands of Iraqi Kurds by the monster Saddam Hussein, and adds to that the deliberate rape and destruction of a small, independent and peaceful state, is it too early to ask that the international community should start to think in terms of bringing that man, if he survives, before an international tribunal so that, for all time, those monstrous crimes should be recognised and abhorred?

Mr. Heseltine

I am sure that everyone shares my right hon. Friend's indignation at the outrage that has taken place, but it would not be appropriate for me to speculate on the wider issues that he raises.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

May I ask hon. Members to confine their questions to the statement and not to bring in wider issues.

Mr. Simon Hughes (Southwark and Bermondsey)

May I thank the Secretary of State for his statement and for the British Government's offer to assist in the rescue operation? I also welcome the news that UNEP will take the lead in co-ordinating the international rescue. I am sure that the whole House shares his view that, whatever the dispute over territory and whenever there is a resort to arms, such an attack on the environment is inexcusable and unjustified in all circumstances.

It seems that the immediate concern is that the experts are able to do their jobs efficiently and are protected from injury and death. Could he lead the way to an international agreement that such experts receive the same immunity as the Red Crescent and Red Cross, so that in future we have an international environmental agency which can protect the environment in the same way as the Security Council has sought to protect the peace?

Mr. Heseltine

The hon. Gentleman raises an interesting and important matter, which will undoubtedly be given consideration in the international forums in which such matters are discussed.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for what he said about the UNEP initiative. Dr. Tolba, the executive director, will issue a statement today explaining his intentions. I understand that a team is to go to the Gulf immediately to seek better communications in the light of the sporadic information about the environment that is available. The team will be headed by a British citizen, Dr. Michael Gwynne, the head of UNEP's global environment monitoring system. Another team of technical experts on oil spills will work particularly closely with the Saudi authorities.

Mr. Robin Squire (Hornchurch)

For the avoidance of doubt, will my right hon. Friend confirm from the Dispatch Box that all the evidence that the Government have suggests that the oil slick is the result of a deliberate act and did not follow from some inadvertent accident resulting from the hostilities? At the forthcoming OECD meeting, will he underline the fact that many of us in Britain expect the fullest co-operation from each of the members of that organisation in this non-military but vital endeavour to save whatever aspects of nature can still be saved?

Mr. Heseltine

I am extremely grateful to my hon. Friend. I repeat that it is our view that five tankers were deliberately opened to cause the spillage. I shall bear in mind what my hon. Friend said about the activities that will flow from the OECD meetings. Today I started the process of contacting my colleagues in the organisation with that in mind.

Mr. Tony Benn (Chesterfield)

Is the right hon. Gentleman not aware that warnings by King Hussein and others that this would be the inevitable consequence of war made to the Government at the very beginning? Does he accept that it is not convincing to suggest that, when allied military planes destroy installations in Iraq, it is a military triumph, but that, when this weapon is used, it is an act of environmental terrorism? Is he not aware that all modern warfare, involving the bombing of civilians, with the casualties that follow, and modern technology, is an organised act of terrorism? Does he agree that the sooner that the war is brought to a conclusion, the sooner lives can be saved and the environment protected?

Mr. Heseltine

Everybody will share the right hon. Gentleman's view that the war should come to an early conclusion. The easy, quick and effective way in which that can happen is for Saddam Hussein to withdraw his forces from Kuwait. The House will not lose sight of the fact that the right hon. Gentleman appears to condone the awfulness of what is happening. It is obvious that, unless we are prepared to resist and confront this man, he will have the opportunity to blackmail us with any technique at his disposal.

Mr. Jonathan Aitken (Thanet, South)

May I first thank my right hon. Friend for an admirably swift and comprehensive response to this tragedy? Does he agree that this environmental and vicious act of war by Saddam Hussein is likely to be particularly devastating because the Gulf is an enclosed and shallow sea, in which little self-cleansing by tides and waves is possible? Does he agree that speed is of the essence in the cleaning-up operation, because the huge oil slick must be prevented from turning into even more devastating sludge and foam? Is my right hon. Friend aware that the priority appears to be skimming equipment and nets, particularly in areas of intake for desalination plants?

Mr. Heseltine

I very much support what my hon. Friend has said. The equipment that is on its way from this country includes equipment of that sort. It is indicative of the speed with which we think this matter must be addressed that we have got this process under way as quickly as we possibly can. My hon. Friend is perfectly right to say that the ecosystem of the Gulf does not self-purify with the speed of much deeper, rougher waters. That adds to the urgency of the situation.

Mr. Peter Shore (Bethnal Green and Stepney)

This is an evil and reckless act by an evil and reckless man. [HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear."] Can we be told a little more about the effect on the desalination plant? I know that this presents difficulties, but if the right hon. Gentleman could tell us what percentage of the Saudi water supply is potentially at risk if the desalination plants are affected, it would be helpful.

Mr. Heseltine

A high proportion of Saudi water comes through desalination plants, but it would not be appropriate for me, as a Minister in an allied Government, to give indications of the sorts of problems with which the Saudis themselves should most properly deal.

Mr. Barry Field (Isle of Wight)

I am sure that my right hon. Friend is aware that the Isle of Wight leads the world in the manufacture of skimming technology and clean-up equipment, such as the frogmat boom. Can he reassure the House that, if necessary, the troops will be allowed to assist the company on the Isle of Wight to ensure that the equipment is flown directly from Bembridge airport to the Gulf? Can he confirm the Government's position on stockpiling mechanical equipment in future, as we have seen that the ecosystem of the Gulf is so delicate that dispersants cannot be used?

Mr. Heseltine

I am sure that we would wish to give every facility to the urgent despatch of equipment, if one felt that the narrow, additional number of hours required to move equipment between one airport and another in the United Kingdom was time-critical. My hon. Friend can feel reassured that, before we take a decision about the use of an airport, we shall be satisfied that we are not prejudicing the undertaking to which we are committed by moving equipment to a different airport from the one which he suggested. Stockpiling is, in the first instance, for the coastal states concerned. The broad issue of how much countries are prepared to deploy in resources for this purpose must be for them, but I hear clearly what my hon. Friend has to say.

Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow)

Why is the House of Commons surprised that this dreadful and catastrophic thing has happened? [HON. MEMBERS: "We are not."] Were we not told repeatedly by scientists and, specifically, in c. 403 on 19 December during the Consolidated Fund Bill debate, of the ecological consequences of a military option? The pumping of oil into the Gulf was predicted as it was predictable. Is this not a case of sheer ministerial incompetence? Why are the 70 tonnes of equipment not there already? These Ministers are not competent to run a war.

Mr. Heseltine

The hon. Gentleman will realise that there have been many warnings of many environmental threats as a result of what Saddam Husein can do. The issue is coping with them as effectively as necessary and we are taking those steps. The countries whose coasts are most affected are those who, outside the war zone, are bound to take the lead in such a circumstance. That process is now under way.

Mr. Dalyell

The Government were told, told, told.

Mr. Heseltine

If the hon. Gentleman understands the full implications of this matter, he will know that this House has clearly expressed its determination to resist Saddam Husein in his illegal occupation of Kuwait. There were bound to be risks associated with that process. Not to have confronted Saddam Hussein would have led to larger and more damaging risks in future.

Mr. Anthony Steen (South Hams)

I wonder whether the Secretary of State remembers that, last May, 1,100 tonnes of oil were spilt into the English Channel as a result of the holing of the Rose Bay outside Brixham in south Devon and that it took six Dakotas spraying for four or five days on top of that oil slick, a number of ships with vacuum cleaning equipment to filter the oil through the ships and clean it, as well as thousands of volunteers to clean up the coast, to deal with the problem. Was anything learnt from that experience? I wonder whether it has been estimated how many Dakotas and such ships, as well as volunteers, would be needed to clean up the slick in the Persian Gulf?

Mr. Heseltine

There is one vital point about which my hon. Friend will want to think: the slick is in a war zone. The House will doubly regret the fact that, yesterday, when allied aircraft inspected the slick, they were fired upon by Iraqi ground forces. I am afraid that it is a question not of considering what use we can make of Dakotas or volunteers, but of how we deal with the slick once it moves from the military war zone into an area where civilian forces can be deployed.

Mr. Bernie Grant (Tottenham)

Will the Secretary of State accept that we are all concerned about the environment, and that we are not prepared to take any lectures from Conservative Members about that?

Will he confirm that, however disastrous the environmental effects of the oil spillage, they are not as disastrous as the effects of bombing innocent civilians in Iraq? Is he also concerned about the effects on the environment of bombing chemical and nuclear factories in Iraq? Given Saddam Hussein's threat to bomb the deep wells in Kuwait, what steps has the right hon. Gentleman taken to prevent that disaster?

Mr. Heseltine

The most effective answer is to remove Saddam Hussein from Kuwait, and that is precisely what we are doing. The hon. Gentleman must bear carefully in mind the fact that those chemical factories, which are the source of such anxiety, have already been used by Saddam Hussein in attacks on his own people. The risks exist, and that is one reason why we must take his threats so seriously. There is no escape from the implications of that, as the House, by overwhelming majority, has recognised.

Mr. Patrick Thompson (Norwich, North)

Following this appalling and uncivilised act, my right hon. Friend will be aware that many individuals and organisations throughout the country have volunteered support and help. What response can my right hon. Friend give those people?

Mr. Heseltine

I am very grateful to my right hon. Friend for raising that matter. We have been very impressed with the number of people from environmental movements, and other citizens, who have offered help. We would have expected no less in the circumstances. We have asked the Nature Conservancy Council to co-ordinate the applications that we have received to see what capabilities lie behind them, so that, when it is considered safe and appropriate for such facilities to be drawn upon, we shall be in a position to offer them to the Gulf states.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North)

Has not this act of undoubted environmental terrorism, together with all the other crimes committed by those who run the regime in Iraq, shown that, once again, we can expect nothing better? What has occurred has not weakened, but strengthened, the resolve of the British people that this war must be seen through to the end until the Security Council resolutions have been duly implemented and Kuwait is free of enemy occupation.

Mr. Heseltine

I think that the hon. Gentleman speaks for the whole House; I wish only that it was not apparent that some of his hon. Friends have different views. The fact is that Saddam Hussein has used chemical weapons against his own people, he has attacked innocent Israeli citizens to try to widen the war, and he has unleashed an environmental disaster on the Gulf. Anyone who now fails to understand the urgent need to remove the threat of that man by driving his forces from Kuwait simply does not understand the nature of the man himself.

Mr. Nicholas Soames (Crawley)

In the midst of this awful disaster, will my right hon. Friend pay tribute to the exceptional skill of the American pilots who bombed and destroyed the manifolds at the pumping station yesterday?

Mr. Heseltine

I am sure that the whole House would welcome the opportunity to do precisely that. The environmental disaster already exists, but it could have been a great deal worse if we had not been able to stop the flow.

Ms. Joan Ruddock (Lewisham, Deptford)

In a radio interview this morning, the Secretary of State was asked for his response to Jordan's request for a ceasefire to clear up the oil. He said that Saddam Hussein, having been capable of letting loose the oil and destroying the environment, would of course do much worse if he had a nuclear capability. Because this disaster was predicted, I ask the Secretary of State to tell us what information he has about the environmental consequences of destroying Iraq's nuclear capability on the ground, and to tell us the environmental consequences of the use of any one of the 700 nuclear warheads on American ships in the Gulf.

Mr. Heseltine

The hon. Lady will want to bear in mind the consequences of Saddam Hussein having a fully developed nuclear capability, the dangers of which would greatly outstrip the much lower dangers that flow from the question that she asked. The fundamental question is: does the hon. Lady believe that we should give in to blackmail of any sort—nuclear, chemical or environmental? Once the dictators of this world get the impression that giving in is on offer, there will be no stopping the price that they seek to extract.

Mr. Anthony Beaumont-Dark (Birmingham, Selly Oak)

Does my right hon. Friend accept that this is an environmental crime unique in its enormity and that Opposition Members—fortunately, they are few—who do not join the whole House in condemning Saddam only encourage this evil man to continue his fight?

Mr. Heseltine

I very much hope that Saddam Hussein will draw no such conclusion, because my clear understanding is that the overwhelming majority of Opposition Members are as appalled as my right hon. and hon. Friends and I are by what has happened. We hear from a small and wholly unrepresentative minority among the Opposition.

Dr. Dafydd Elis Thomas (Meirionnydd Nant Conwy)

As a member of that unrepresentative minority, may I ask the Secretary of State to accept that I have been condemning Saddam Hussein for more than 10 years, arid that I will continue to do so?

I condemn the environmental damage done to his own people through chemical weapons and the environmental damage to the whole Gulf through the oil spillage. The right hon. Gentleman has been telling the House that that environmental damage is an acceptable risk in the prosecution of this war, from the point of view of the Government—

Mr. Beaumont-Dark

Of course it is.

Dr. Thomas

The hon. Gentleman clearly endorses that viewpoint. How much more environmental damage does the Secretary of State regard as an acceptable risk?

Finally, we welcome the moves through UNEP, and the OECD initiatives, but why should we have to wait for an act of war like this before such international co-operation takes place?

Mr. Heseltine

I do not regard the risks as in any sense acceptable, but they were not created by the allies. They exist because Saddam Hussein has built up a chemical and conventional capability on an horrendous scale and he is now building a nuclear capability on an even larger scale. The hon. Gentleman must face the logic of that. He either thinks it right that Saddam should do that and is prepared to live with it, or he joins those of us who believe that this man poses threats that are unacceptable and that the United Nations stand is therefore wholly right.

Mr. Phillip Oppenheim (Amber Valley)

Is not the implication behind the remarks of those who are now falling over themselves to tell us that they told us so that we should have given in to Saddam Hussein's blackmail? Does not this brutal and vicious act, which will result in the suffering and deaths of hundreds of thousands of creatures in the Gulf, show what an evil man Saddam is? Will not the wildlife of the Gulf probably prove to be ultimately his most enduring and innocent victims?

Mr. Heseltine

I very much share my hon. Friend's anxieties and hope that his forebodings will not come to pass. That will depend on our being able to cope with the environmental risks expeditiously. I also agree with the first of my hon. Friend's observations. Once one has come to conclusions about the nature of the man, about his military capability and about how he is ruthlessly prepared to use it, one can take only one logical decision: it is the one that we have taken—to withstand this man's determination to occupy Kuwait.

Mr. Alan W. Williams (Carmarthen)

May I bring the Secretary of State back to what my hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell) said about warnings of this disaster? Does he recall the Secretary of State for Energy, a member of the War Cabinet, telling us on 4 January that suggestions of a global environmental disaster are entirely misplaced"? That was the Government's response to those warnings. Now that there is an oil slick 20 times the size of that from the Exxon Valdez, what are the possibilities of Iraq re-starting the flow of oil despite the bombing; and will the Government now take seriously the warnings given by Saddam Hussein months ago that he would set fire to the Kuwaiti oilfields?

Mr. Heseltine

Of course, one was very aware of the warnings that came from many people. The only implication of accepting them was that one was prepared to be blackmailed by anyone who had the power to carry out such threats. That position is not one that we are prepared to tolerate. The hon. Gentleman referred to the observations made by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Energy following the extreme forecasts from Jordan. My right hon. Friend was speaking about the firing of oil wells. I spent part of last Friday morning at the Hadley centre for climate prediction and research, when it was quite apparent that the advice of which my right hon. Friend spoke is supported by world-class expert opinion in this country.

Mr. Kenneth Hind (Lancashire, West)

Does my right hon. Friend accept that many people in this country feel that a man who shows such contempt for human life, wildlife and the environment should himself become a target in the war, and ought to be removed—as that is the one way that we can protect lives, preserve the environment in the Gulf, and avoid any similar acts in future?

Mr. Heseltine

My hon. Friend, I know, expresses a view that is widely shared. However, the Government are committed to upholding United Nations resolutions, and the military judgments that flow from them must be accounted for by my right hon. Friends the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs or Secretary of State for Defence. I am here to talk about the environmental issues that are the subject of my statement.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. I must protect the business that is before the House, but I will allow questions to continue for a further 10 minutes. Otherwise, I may have to impose a 10-minute limit on speeches in the subsequent debate. I ask hon. Members to ask brief questions on the statement only, and not on wider issues.

Mr. D. N. Campbell-Savours (Workington)

May I, as a supporter of the implementation of the United Nations resolution that unfortunately but inevitably led to the war, put it to the Secretary of State that my hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell) raised a very valid point? In the light of his warnings, why did not the allied forces bomb the tank facilities on the seafront at Kuwait that feed the sea pipeline from which much of the oil has flowed? If that pipeline had been bombed several days ago, it would have prevented the environmental disaster that my hon. Friend predicted.

Mr. Heseltine

I am not sure whether the world would have understood if, by bombing such a pipeline, we ourselves had been responsible for the spillage that flowed into the Gulf as a result. Although the scale of the disaster would have been much lower, it would have put a totally different construction on our attitudes towards the preservation of the environment.

Sir Antony Buck (Colchester, North)

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the simple message is that it does not pay to give in to blackmail of whatever type—and that we are here confronted with ecological blackmail? Can our armed forces assist in cleaning up that awful catastrophe?

Mr. Heseltine

At this moment, no British service men are involved in the environmental consequences or their abatement. It is a matter for the military commanders on the ground to decide whether or not it is appropriate for them to become involved.

Mr. Harry Ewing (Falkirk, East)

Is the Secretary of State really telling the country that, despite everything that he learned during his time as Secretary of State for Defence and the vast experience that he gained during his time as a national service man, he was so naive that he did not imagine that such a catastrophe would occur? Does he now acknowledge that it is a consequence of war of the type that, over the past four or five weeks, he and his colleagues firmly denied would arise? The Secretary of State talks about Saddam Hussein using chemical weapons on his own people, but has he conveniently forgotten that he was a member of the Cabinet that gave Saddam Hussein £1 billion after he had used chemical weapons against his own people?

Mr. Speaker

Briefly, please.

Mr. Ewing

The right hon. Gentleman makes certain accusations against my hon. Friends—but he should look home, to his own record.

Mr. Heseltine

I think that the hon. Member has completely misunderstood the British Government's approach towards Saddam Hussein's build-up of armaments. There are no grounds whatsoever for the allegations that he has made. If he asked me, "Were these risks and the warnings built into the risk of war?", the case is only answerable in the affirmative, but what conclusions does one draw from that? There is only one conclusion —that one cannot allow oneself to be subjected to nuclear, chemical or environmental blackmail.

As to how one copes with the individual warnings, given that there are a legion of them, it must be a matter for the individual countries concerned, or for the allies, to determine how best to deal with the situation. At the moment, there are no grounds for saying that we could have got equipment into the area faster than we are now doing. It is a war zone, and it is not possible to treat the oil slick in the way that we would have treated it in ordinary peacetime circumstances.

Mr. Henry Bellingham (Norfolk, North-West)

Further to the question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich (Mr. Thompson), is the Secretary of State aware that a number of small businesses in East Anglia may well have the technology to help clear up the consequences of this appalling act of eco-terrorism? Will he ensure that those small businesses are given every encouragement by his Department.

Mr. Heseltine

My hon. Friend will understand that we have widely publicised our response, and we have made it clear that we shall do all that we can to help the Gulf states in these circumstances. It would be appropriate for small businesses to show some of the enterprise for which they are characteristically admired, by coming forward with their own offers.

Mr. Harry Cohen (Leyton)

This oil pollution is clearly an environmental outrage for which Saddam Hussein is primarily responsible, but, will the Secretary of State, who went to the War Cabinet meeting this morning, comment upon the article in The Observer yesterday by Julie Flint, which says: US bombers attacked two tankers at a Kuwaiti oil terminal on Tuesday. Is that true, and can we have an assurance now that the allies will not bomb any more tankers?

Mr. Heseltine

I have told the House that the oil slick and the appalling problems that we now have to confront, flowed from the deliberate release of oil from five tankers. That is what the responsibility amounts to. I do not think that it is proper for me to give answers to what could easily turn out to be questions of military judgment in confused circumstances. If that has to be confronted, it will be accounted for.

Mr. Jacques Arnold (Gravesend)

Are not oil tank farms of this sort fitted with fail-safe systems to stop such spillages; furthermore, are they not fitted with earthwork systems to contain any such spillages? If that is the case, is it not absolutely clear that this incident was deliberate, and was yet another example of the absolute inhumanity of that repulsive regime?

Mr. Heseltine

My hon. Friend comes to the heart of the matter. There is no doubt in our minds that this was a deliberate act, with appalling environmental consequences for the Gulf.

Mr. Win Griffiths (Bridgend)

At the meeting which the Secretary of State had this morning, did the team around the table discuss an Australian-manufactured chemical called Sokerol, which is marketed in Europe by a company in my constituency? The company made the Ministry of Defence an offer before the Gulf war started to make the chemical available because, unlike most chemicals, it is an oil-absorbent, which is non-toxic, non-carcinogenic and completely biodegradable. Was that discussed, given the fact that many warnings were issued about what might happen in the Gulf?

Mr. Heseltine

We did not discuss specifically any particular chemical at any meeting I have had today. We determined to draw together all the best information and all the offers that we had received, to evaluate them in so far as we have the capacity to do so, and then to inform the Gulf states of where we can help. I will ensure that the chemical to which the hon. Gentleman refers is put forward for special consideration to ensure that we have not overlooked anything.

Mr. Simon Burns (Chelmsford)

In the light of the despicable ecological devastation caused in the Gulf over the past few days, will my right hon. Friend accept that his comments earlier today about the possibility of a ceasefire to allow time for clearing up were particularly welcome? Will he now confirm, fairly and squarely, that a ceasefire would not save one bird, one fish or any lives, or ensure that the Gulf spillage could be cleared up? Quite simply, it would play into the hands of Saddam Hussein, and achieve nothing else.

Mr. Heseltine

I could not have put it more effectively. It seems clear to me that a man with Saddam Hussein's record, if given any respite, will claim credit for it; and the respite will do nothing to undermine his ability to start all over again the moment that hostilities begin.

Mr. Tony Banks (Newham, North-West)

However the tragedy occurred, it amounts to a crime against the planet. It is worth reminding the Secretary of State and the House that, when the Opposition were telling the right hon. Gentleman what a maniac Saddam Hussein was, the British and American Governments were cuddling up in bed with the monster. That is what this is really all about.

Will the Secretary of State pledge that all the necessary resources will be made available to the volunteers from animal welfare groups who are prepared to go into the Gulf, even while it is a war zone, to try to rescue some of the animals that are now victims of the collective insanity of man?

Mr. Heseltine

When talking about crimes, the hon. Gentleman should concentrate more of his effort on talking about the criminal who perpetrated the crimes.

It would be entirely wrong for us to suggest to the military commanders the introduction of a civilian presence of the environmental nature suggested by the hon. Gentleman. This matter must be judged by the military commanders, in the light of the circumstances. The presence of such people would immediately mean that the military would have to look after them, protect them and spend a great deal of their time ensuring that there was no enhanced risk to them; that would not be justified in the circumstances.