HC Deb 14 November 1997 vol 300 cc1159-64

11 am

Mr. Michael Howard (Folkestone and Hythe)

(by private notice): To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs if he will make a statement on recent events in Iraq.

The Minister for the Armed Forces (Dr. John Reid)

Saddam Hussein is continuing to defy the clearly expressed will of the United Nations and the international community by refusing to allow the UN Special Commission—UNSCOM—to carry out weapons inspections and, now, by expelling UN personnel.

It is essential for that region and for the rest of the world that UNSCOM should be allowed to carry out its work. We know that Saddam Hussein still has the capacity to produce weapons of mass destruction. UNSCOM is crucial to ensuring that they are all destroyed.

It is clear that Saddam Hussein has misjudged the will of the United Nations. Security Council unanimity was once more demonstrated yesterday in a further presidential statement. The British Government are determined to stand firm against Saddam Hussein. We know that he is a dictator who has demonstrated a total lack of interest in the welfare of his own Iraqi people. He has shown by his past actions and history that he is a threat to regional peace and security.

The Government are consulting closely with other members of the Security Council to explore to the full diplomatic means of resolving the situation. The Foreign Secretary met the US Secretary of State, Mrs. Albright, in Edinburgh this morning to discuss the position. We remain hopeful that Saddam Hussein will realise that co-operation with UNSCOM is the only way for Iraq to progress towards a lifting of sanctions.

As a sensible precautionary measure, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence yesterday decided to move HMS Invincible from the Caribbean to the Mediterranean. Today, he has decided to reduce the notice to move of Harrier GR7 attack aircraft from 1 Squadron from five days to 48 hours, effective from Monday. I stress that it is a sensible precautionary measure. No decision has been taken to deploy Harriers or to move Invincible to the Gulf. We continue to support diplomatic measures and we trust that there will be a sensible response from Saddam Hussein.

Mr. Howard

I am grateful to the Minister for his reply. I assure him and the House that the Government will continue to have the Opposition's full support for the position that they have taken.

Will the Minister confirm that it is the United Nations and the world community, not the United States, who are being defied by the Iraqi dictatorship and that what is at stake is access by one of the world's most evil regimes to weapons of mass destruction? While we all hope that it may still be possible to resolve this crisis by diplomatic means, will the hon. Gentleman confirm that force has not been ruled out? Will he further confirm that Security Council resolution 687 provides sufficient authority for military action to be taken if necessary, without any further resolution by the Security Council?

Finally, what can the hon. Gentleman tell the House about the readiness of the United Kingdom to play its part in enforcing the Security Council resolution?

Dr. Reid

I thank the right hon. and learned Gentleman. I confirm his comments on Saddam Hussein's defiance, not of any individual country, but, through the United Nations, of the whole international community. The right hon. and learned Gentleman correctly pointed to the evil nature of the Iraqi regime. We do not need to study the books or the crystal ball to know that—it is in our historical experience. I agree with him about the nature of the threat resulting from the expelling of UNSCOM. It is not a formal United Nations presence in Iraq; it is a vital instrument in maintaining a careful watch over, and probing further into, the holding of terrible weapons—biological, chemical and other—of potential mass destruction.

I assure the right hon. and learned Gentleman that we are doing everything to achieve and support a diplomatic solution. This morning, the Foreign Secretary agreed with Mrs. Albright the need for a diplomatic solution. Therefore, I stress that the carrier move and the Harrier move, of which I have just informed the House, are sensible precautionary measures within the context of the Government's support for a diplomatic solution.

Force is not ruled out, of course. We are not ruling out any options, including military, but we hope for a diplomatic solution. We have acted throughout within the ambit and on the express will and legitimacy of the previous UN resolutions. It is absolutely essential for purposes not only of legality, but of international morality and the widest possible political support that we do that. I assure the right hon. and learned Gentleman that we will continue to do that.

Mr. Donald Anderson (Swansea, East)

Are any other members of the Gulf war coalition, apart from the United States and ourselves, taking similar sensible precautionary measures?

Dr. Reid

I cannot give my hon. Friend details of what other measures are being taken. I assume that our colleagues—especially permanent members of the Security Council—are involved at all levels in our efforts, primarily public and diplomatic. However, I hope and expect that sensible measures, other than diplomatic, are being taken by all those who wish to be prepared for every and any contingency.

Mr. Peter Brooke (Cities of London and Westminster)

Will the Minister accept at least my congratulations on the fact that the lessons we learned about dictators more than 60 years ago have not been forgotten by the Government in the way that they seem to have been mislaid by some of our allies?

Dr. Reid

We would wish to stress at the moment the unanimity with which our allies are approaching the matter. We all come from different experiences and individual national positions. Thus far, there has been unanimity. We wish to ensure that any future action has the widest political support, whether on a diplomatic or any other basis.

As I said in answer to the right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard), we have always operated within the ambit and on the basis of the UN resolutions. Perhaps I should make it clearer than I did previously that those resolutions already validate the use of force under such circumstances.

Mr. Simon Hughes (Southwark, North and Bermondsey)

May I thank the Minister for coming to the House and assure him that all that he has said this morning has the complete support of the Liberal Democrats? It is imperative that UNSCOM be allowed to continue its work because it has already regularly found stockpiles of the sort of hugely dangerous weapons of war and destruction that the hon. Gentleman mentioned. We know that the Iraqi Government have used chemical and biological weapons as part of their dictatorship apparatus and activity, and are therefore able to use them again. The UN needs to be supported and it is quite right that our forces and warships are put at its disposal so that it may be back in operation in Iraq, rooting out those weapons, at the earliest opportunity.

Dr. Reid

I thank the hon. Gentleman for the points that he makes. He reinforces the point—of which I think the British people will and should be aware—that it is not a matter of some formal imposition as a result of abstract United Nations resolutions. UNSCOM's work and the measures taken by the United Nations are absolutely vital if we are to ensure that weapons of mass destruction with terrible, terrible consequences are, first, identified and, secondly, disposed of.

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will agree that it is worrying that more than two weeks have elapsed since the Iraqis' decision to withdraw their co-operation with US UNSCOM personnel. It is clear that Iraq has moved weapons of mass destruction and equipment during that period, making UNSCOM's task that much more difficult when it resumes its activities. Even one or two weeks can make a dreadful difference in such circumstances.

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes) for highlighting that point and for the support shown by him and by the right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe. They have expressed not only to the British people but to Saddam Hussein the fact that we are committed—first through diplomatic and every other measure that we can employ—to ensuring that those weapons of mass destruction never again threaten either the region or any other part of the world.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

Does my hon. Friend agree that if the narrowly based coalition decides to attack Iraq, the chances of hitting the tyrant Saddam are very small, but that the chances of inflicting death on innocent people, women and kids in Iraq are very high? I note his desire to continue with some form of diplomacy, but will he consider another possibility? When United Nations forces have been sent to other areas on previous occasions, it has sometimes been specified that certain countries should not send component parts of that force. Everyone agrees that one of the problems behind the latest decision by Saddam was that there were too many Americans in the inspection team. Before people are slaughtered, would it not be a good idea to call his bluff, and to consider the proposition that there are other countries in the world that could provide component parts of the inspection team? That is diplomacy. Perhaps it will resolve the issue without killing innocent people.

Dr. Reid

I say with great respect to my hon. Friend that others might not regard as diplomacy giving Saddam Hussein a veto in dictating to the rest of the world how to implement resolutions. It might just be interpreted as appeasement, and we certainly do not want to go down that path.

Iraq's decision to expel United States personnel on 13 November is unacceptable. The Security Council—not a narrow coalition, but the entire Security Council—is united in its opposition to that act. The decision to proceed with the expulsion of United States personnel was a further attempt by Saddam. Hussein—as demonstrated in the presidential statement of that day—to face the united opposition of the entire United Nations Security Council.

I tell my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) that we are in the vanguard of pushing for diplomatic and political solutions to the problem. We will not, however, rule out any measures that may be necessary to implement the will of the international community. We certainly cannot start from the basis that diplomacy means giving Saddam Hussein a veto over the views of the rest of the world.

Sir Sydney Chapman (Chipping Barnet)

In commending my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard) for tabling the private notice question, and the Minister for his answer, may I ask the hon. Gentleman to agree that Saddam Hussein is an evil man who is a threat to the peace and stability of the middle east region and a potential threat to the peace and stability of the world? Does he agree that, as long as Saddam Hussein has the capability of manufacturing nuclear, biological or chemical weapons, he will remain a threat? Moreover, does he agree that the only reason that economic sanctions have been imposed on Iraq is that Saddam Hussein has not taken the measures necessary for them to be withdrawn, to bring succour and help to the Iraqi people?

Dr. Reid

I agree with the hon. Gentleman. As for the nature of the regime, by his deeds shall ye know him. No words that I can use could illustrate the situation more amply than the actions of Saddam Hussein himself. He has not only inflicted evil on his neighbours and presented a threat to the international community, but he has inflicted evil on the Iraqi people themselves—including the marsh arabs—and used gas and chemical weapons on Kurds in northern Iraq. He remains a threat not only to his neighbours but to the stability of the entire region. The weapons that comprise that threat are horrible indeed. They are potentially weapons of widespread mass destruction.

I stress again that we are committed to ensuring that every diplomatic and political avenue is travelled to meet the will of the international community, and to ensuring that Saddam Hussein remains fully compliant with UNSCOM and Security Council resolutions. The bottom line is that we cannot allow Saddam Hussein to dictate to the international community the terms on which a settlement will be resumed.

Mr. John McDonnell (Hayes and Harlington)

In view of the cataclysmic dangers that we may now face as we step down a path possibly to military action, may I ask my hon. Friend to liaise with the Leader of the House to ensure—through you, Madam Speaker—that, early next week, we have an emergency debate on the implications of recent developments and the potential for regional war, which may break out because of military action?

Dr. Reid

We wish to ensure that both sides of the House are involved in continuing discussions. On my hon. Friend's specific question, such a debate will, of course, depend on events. I stress again that—as outlined in this morning's discussions between my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary and Mrs. Albright—we are intent on finding a diplomatic solution to the situation. Therefore, it is too early to respond directly to such a request. We wish to ensure the widest possible support for some form of international diplomatic solution—commensurate with maintenance of the will of the United Nations and previous resolutions, which have had widespread, indeed unanimous, support.

Mr. Simon Burns (West Chelmsford)

May I press the Minister further on a point raised by my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard) in his original question, on the issue of resolution 687? Does the Minister agree that the resolution is enough in the current and unfolding circumstances?

Dr. Reid

I think that I have already answered that question; the answer is yes.

Mr. Barry Gardiner (Brent, North)

I thank my hon. Friend for the way in which he has placed the matter before the House. Although the types of military preparations that have been taken by the Government are right and proper, and justified under resolution 687, does he agree that it is far more important that the diplomatic solution is enforced? More weapons have been discovered and destroyed since UNSCOM began its work than were destroyed in all military operations during the Gulf war. Does that not show exactly why we should be seeking a diplomatic solution?

Dr. Reid

Yes, indeed. I agree that a diplomatic solution is better from everyone's point of view: first, because of the assistance that the resulting period of stability provides to allow the identification and destruction of weapons of mass destruction and to ensure that they will never be deployed in anger, and secondly, because it avoids the potentially cataclysmic effects of any other measures that have to be used. That is why I stress that we are committed to finding a diplomatic solution to the problem. That has been reiterated this morning in the discussions between the US Secretary of State and my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary.

I am grateful for the opportunity to stress that point so that we can place in context the deployment of HMS Invincible, which was announced by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence, and his decision to prepare to deploy the Harriers. HMS Invincible is being deployed, not to the Gulf, but to the Mediterranean. I welcome the opportunity to assure the House that it is a sensible, precautionary measure in the context of our continuing commitment to find a diplomatic solution to a problem created not by us, or the international community, but by the President of Iraq.