HC Deb 02 April 2003 vol 402 cc908-18
Ql.[106144] Mr. Andrew Robathan (Blaby)

If he will list his official engagements for Wednesday 2 April.

The Prime Minister (Mr. Tony Blair)

This morning I had meetings with ministerial colleagues and others. In addition to my duties in the House, I will have further such meetings later today.

With your permission, Mr. Speaker, I wish to inform the House that I intend to make a further statement on Iraq before the Easter recess. The Government will continue to keep the House fully informed.

Also, I am sure that the whole House will want to pass on its sympathies to the families of British servicemen who have tragically been killed in the service of their country in the past week. Again, we pay tribute to their courage and dignity and we pass on our condolences and sympathy to their families and their friends.

Mr. Robathan

When, God willing, this war is successfully concluded, the Prime Minister will have to deal with the proposed European Union constitution put forward by the Convention on the Future of Europe. In what way has he modified his enthusiasm for a single European common foreign and defence policy in the light of recent events?

The Prime Minister

I have always believed that the common foreign and security policy should not be communitised, should not be within the Commission, but has to remain intergovernmental. That is the position that the Government have set out and it is the position that we will maintain.

Q2. Mr. Bob Blizzard (Waveney)

My constituency is suffering today from a devastating blow—the news that Shell is to close its base in Lowestoft completely. The loss of the hundreds of jobs that are directly involved and the effect on local supply-chain businesses will punch a gaping whole in a town that is not unused to economic misfortune. Will my right hon. Friend ensure that all Government agencies do everything they can to mitigate that disaster and to help those who lose their jobs? Will he also look at what can be done to help towns such as Lowestoft where there are many good, hard-working people but, because of the town's peripheral location, it is hard to attract new businesses when we lose industries that have been there for so long?

The Prime Minister

First, I offer my sympathy to my hon. Friend's constituents who are likely to be made redundant as a result of that announcement. I am sure that Jobcentre Plus and the other agencies will work to ensure that the rapid response service that we now put in place where large-scale redundancies are announced will work with his constituents and their families to ensure that they are redeployed within the company or found jobs elsewhere. As I know from my constituency, the rapid response service has been immensely successful where it has been put in place. I can assure my hon. Friend that it will be in place in his constituency and I have certainly taken on board his final comments.

Mr. Iain Duncan Smith (Chingford and Woodford Green)

May I join the Prime Minister in paying tribute to the courage of our armed forces and sending condolences to the families of those who have fallen, and in making it absolutely clear that we have the resolution to finish this job? The United States has now decided to send significant additional troops. Will the Prime Minister assure the House that contingency plans are in place for both replacement and additional British troops to be sent out to the Gulf?

The Prime Minister

I can assure the right hon. Gentleman that contingency plans are indeed in place to meet any eventuality, in particular the replacement of troops. At present, we do not believe that we need additional troops—we believe that we have the troops to do the job—but of course, we keep that under constant review. I am pleased to say that the way in which the British forces have performed in the southern part of Iraq, but also throughout Iraq, has been magnificent. We can take immense pride in them.

Mr. Duncan Smith

The Prime Minister is absolutely right to say that we can have immense pride in our own forces, who are performing brilliantly. However, the right hon. Gentleman knows that the Government must plan for every outcome. To ensure that extra troops are available if needed, two things surely need to happen. First, the Prime Minister must bring an end to the threat of strikes by firefighters. Will the legislation that he has published guarantee that there will be no further strikes, so that troops can be released without endangering the public? Secondly, the Prime Minister may need to reduce our other overseas military commitments. What discussions has he had with NATO allies to get them to share some of those burdens?

The Prime Minister

Some of those burdens are indeed shared by our allies. It is important that we continue to discuss that with them. We receive regular advice from our own military as to the troop deployments that we have and that we can afford to have without stretching our troops too far.

I hope that the fire dispute will have a satisfactory outcome when the Fire Brigades Union conference is recalled, but our legislation will of course be effective and will ensure that we are in the best possible position to bring the strike to an end should people take the view—and they would take it quite wrongly—that they should carry on strike action which to be frank I do not believe has any real support anywhere.

Mr. Duncan Smith

It is essential that the wider Arab world knows that this is a war to liberate and not to occupy Iraq, and a war to remove a dictator who has killed Muslims in their millions. Everyone will want to ensure that the war does not escalate. The United States has warned Syria and Iran about becoming involved. Why does the Prime Minister believe that that was necessary?

The Prime Minister

What the Americans said—and we back them up in saying it—was that we would not find it acceptable if equipment was transferred from Syria to Iraqi forces in the field, or if there was any suggestion of any support being given by any elements in Iran to troops who are attacking coalition forces. However, we maintain relations with both those countries to ensure that those things do not happen. It is important—particularly in relation to Iran—to recognise that we are in constant contact with them to ensure that the situation is not exacerbated in any way.

The right hon. Gentleman referred to Saddam Hussein and it is worth emphasising one particular point. We have a concern, based on intelligence that we have received, that the Iraqi regime intends to damage the holy sites—religious sites—with a view to blaming the coalition falsely for that damage. That is precisely what Saddam did in 1991, when the regime attacked and desecrated first the Imam Hussein shrine in Karbala and then the shrine of Imam Abbas. I would like to emphasise to the House and to the wider Arab and Muslim world that we are doing everything that we can to protect those holy sites and shrines. I hope that people understand that the fact that Saddam is prepared to use such tactics, as he did before, underlines once again the true nature of his regime.

Mr. Duncan Smith

I agree fully with the Prime Minister. His answer leads to questions about post-Saddam Iraq. There appears to be some confusion about what the Prime Minister believes will be the role of the United Nations in post-conflict Iraq. Last week, the right hon. Gentleman told me that any post-conflict Iraqi Administration will have the UN's full endorsement."—[Official Report, 26 March 2003; Vol. 402, c. 283.] Will the Prime Minister clarify whether it should be for the United Nations to run a post-conflict Iraq or to endorse a different Administration running a post-conflict Iraq?

The Prime Minister

That is a good question because it enables me to make this point clear. As soon as possible, Iraq should not be run either by the coalition or by the UN but should be run by Iraqis. It should be run by Iraqi people on the basis of a broadly representative Government who will protect human rights and be committed to peace and stability in the region. I am quite sure that that is what the vast majority of Iraqi people want.

Mr. Duncan Smith

I hear the Prime Minister's answer, but he knows that there is a debate in the UN in which two different views are being expressed. It appears that the United States Government are indicating that they want the UN to endorse a US administration of post-Saddam Iraq, while some European Governments are letting it be known that they want the UN itself to run a post-Saddam Iraq. What view does the Prime Minister hold with regard to either of those two views?

The Prime Minister

I do not doubt that there are differences within the UN; my experience of the past few months has taught me that it would be unusual if there were not. However, I think that those differences are reconcilable. Once the conflict ends, the coalition forces will be there and it will be important that we, the coalition countries, work in close consultation and partnership with the UN to try to develop the right type of Iraqi interim authority, which will be Iraqi in nature. As I said, I think that if we understand that it is in everyone's interests to get as quickly as possible to the point where the Iraqi Government is indeed Iraqi, not either UN-based or coalition force-based, we will approach this along the right lines. I do not doubt that there will be some differences of opinion as to exactly how we handle the transition, but, if I may say so, it is probably best that those differences are resolved as amicably as they possibly can be, because that is in the long-term interests of the people of Iraq.

Mr. Duncan Smith

The Prime Minister's answer shows, however, that there will be some interim period even if we do resolve this matter. During that period, British troops will still be involved in the post-conflict security and reconstruction of Iraq, although it is possible that we may not at that point have secured a UN mandate for reconstruction before the conflict is over. Will the Prime Minister clarify what would be the legal position of our troops in such circumstances?

The Prime Minister

Of course we must act within the law the entire time, but until the conflict is over the fact and the law are the same: the coalition forces are there and they have certain legal obligations that they have to administer. The moment the conflict ends, it is important to have in place a UN resolution that governs the situation, so that we provide both for humanitarian aid and, as we said in our Azores statement, for the endorsement of any post-conflict Iraq. There will be difficulties when we make the transition to the Iraqi interim authority as to precisely what the negotiations in the UN bring us, but the one point in common, whatever the differences, is that everybody understands that the situation has to be UN-endorsed. I believe that with the right will, we will get that UN resolution. This situation differs from all the discussions that we had over the so-called second resolution that we did not get, because in this case everybody in Europe—even those who oppose our position—and ourselves and the United States know that for all sorts of reasons we must have that UN endorsement.

Mrs. Irene Adams (Paisley, North)

My right hon. Friend will be aware that one of the small comforts that our troops have in Iraq is receiving a parcel from home. Is he aware, however, that the Scottish Daily Record has highlighted the prohibitive cost to hard-pressed families of sending such packages to the troops? Will he use his good offices to encourage the Secretary of State for Defence to consider reducing the price of sending packages from service families to their loved ones in Iraq?

The Prime Minister

I think that I said to the House last week that I would look into that issue, and I am pleased to say that my right hon. Friend the Defence Secretary advises me that as soon as the operational situation llows—at the moment, there are problems getting packages to servicemen and women at all because of the operational situation—families will be able to send packets to their loved ones entirely free of charge. There is one qualification, which is that given the constraints on transport capacity the packets will have to be sensibly sized, but subject to that they will be free of charge.

Mr. Charles Kennedy (Ross, Skye and Inverness, West)

Going back to the earlier exchanges, given the Foreign Secretary's proposal that there should be a post-military conflict United Nations-led conference on Iraq, can the Prime Minister clarify whether that idea has the active endorsement of the President of the United States?

The Prime Minister

Of course it is the case that we will need the UN to be involved, because it is a matter of agreement on both sides of the Atlantic that any Iraqi interim authority has to be UN-endorsed. The exact way in which we do that is what we are debating at the moment. We managed to do it highly successfully in Afghanistan, and I believe that there is no difficulty at all in getting the proper partnership between the coalition forces and countries and the United Nations.

Mr. Kennedy

Given that within just the past few days the Prime Minister has been to see President Bush on precisely this matter, can he be more specific about what the thinking is? Do he and the President of the United States envisage that the post-conflict Administration will be UN led or American led? Which will it be?

The Prime Minister

As I was trying to say before, we want to ensure that it is led by Iraqis—by the Iraqi people themselves. The process of transition from the conflict to that should be done by both the UN and the coalition forces. That is the necessary thing to do. The coalition forces will be there in the country; there is no way that they will suddenly disappear from the ground. In the immediate aftermath of the conflict, of course the coalition forces will be there. The UN has made it clear that it does not want to lead an Iraqi Government; what it wants is the ability to work with us, in partnership, to make sure that we assemble the broadest possible representation from within Iraq itself. I understand why people want to put those differences between ourselves and the United States, but the most intelligent way of proceeding is to recognise the basic principle that any transitional arrangements and the Iraqi interim authority must be UN endorsed. The rest is a matter of working in partnership with the UN, which, if we behave sensibly, we should be able to do easily.

Joan Ruddock (Lewisham, Deptford)

Does my right hon. Friend believe, however, that we can win hearts and minds when there is an announcement from the United States that immediate post-war Iraq will be run by a former general who is president of an arms company and a declared supporter of Israel, and that a group of American Ministers will administer the Departments?

The Prime Minister

First of all, I again ask that my hon. Friend discount some of the stories about Americans running every part of this. As I said, there is bound to be a situation of transition where the coalition forces are de facto in control. That is necessarily the case, but our aim is to move, as soon as possible, to an Iraqi interim authority that will be run by Iraqis. As for the hearts and minds battle within Iraq, I ask my hon. Friend, as I ask others in the House and outside, to recognise that there are scenes that we do not see and that there are also events whose significance we cannot always determine until afterwards. If I may give one graphic example: in the first Baghdad street market bombing, it is increasingly probable that that was not a coalition bomb. It is taking us time to investigate this, but there was no target near it. We do not believe that that was one of our bombs, yet it obviously caused huge distress and also huge concern about the coalition forces' action. Increasingly, in the south of Iraq, where Iraqis really believe that we are here to stay, they are coming out and saying clearly that their total commitment is to liberate their country from Saddam. Of course, they do not want us to run their country any more than they want Saddam to run their country, but they recognise that if we hand the country over to the Iraqis—as we will—the Iraqi people will have their first chance for decent government in more than 25 years.

Q3. Mr. John Randall (Uxbridge)

Can the Prime Minister give the House an assurance that, once the people of Iraq have ultimately been liberated, no member of the Ba'ath party will be given political asylum in the United Kingdom?

The Prime Minister

I do not think that I can dictate the rules of asylum as they apply, but I can certainly tell the hon. Gentleman that that certainly does not seem to be a very suitable case for asylum—let me put it like that.

Ms Oona King (Bethnal Green and Bow)

May I return to the question about religious holy sites in Iraq? The Prime Minister is probably aware that after Mecca, where the Prophet was born, and Medina, where the Prophet lived, one of the next earliest holy sites founded was at the city of Basra, where British troops currently are. Will the Prime Minister assure me that those British troops are made aware of the significance of the area that they are in, and will he assure me that every effort will be made by the Government to protect those holy sites that are of such significance to Muslims around the world?

The Prime Minister

I can give my hon. Friend that assurance completely, and tell her that that is a matter of constant discussion, not just between the Government and the military in the field, but also between ourselves and the United States. We shall make every attempt that we can not just to refrain from attacking those sites but to ensure that we protect them as well. That is what we are trying to do.

Q4. Angela Watkinson (Upminster)

What role did the future of Gibraltar play in the Prime Minister's negotiations with Jose Maria Aznar in securing the support of Spain for the war against Saddam Hussein?

The Prime Minister

None whatever.

Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North)

Many who just heard the Prime Minister's remarks concerning Iran and Syria will be very disturbed by them. Can he give an assurance to the House and the public that there is no question of either the coalition forces invading Iran or Syria, or of any further Turkish incursions into the north of Iraq, which would extend and prolong this dreadful war?

The Prime Minister

First, as the Foreign Secretary and I have made clear on many occasions, we have absolutely no plans to do the things of which my hon. Friend is, I suppose, accusing us. Secondly, in relation to Turkey, we have made it very clear that it is important that Turkey abides by the agreements that we have made with it, and I have to say that, so far, it has.

Q5. Mr. Stephen O'Brien (Eddisbury)

The Prime Minister will be aware of the deep concern about the outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome, originating in Asia, but now with sufferers in Australia, North America, Germany and the United Kingdom. With relevant Departments in the US and Canada, international businesses and now, from this morning, the World Health Organisation issuing directives advising against non-essential travel to countries in Asia badly affected by this pneumonia-like virus, but without any advice from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office—so far, none appears on its website—what advice does the Prime Minister give to the residents of the United Kingdom to protect their safety against that virus?

The Prime Minister

The Foreign Secretary has just informed me that, later today, we will issue travel advice to people in respect of that issue.

Q6. Mr. Ben Chapman (Wirral, South)

While the focus of the press has understandably been elsewhere, I wonder whether my right hon. Friend has noticed speculation about the prospect of some NHS services being charged for—new forms of co-payments, as they are called. Does he accept that, although my constituents understand that if we are to improve NHS services across the board, massive investment is needed and that has to be paid for—they are pleased to see that going in—they would be less happy if any NHS service were to be provided solely on the basis of ability to pay? Can my right hon. Friend give me a categorical assurance that that is not part of the Government's plans and will not be part of them?

The Prime Minister

I can give my hon. Friend that assurance, yes. The NHS will remain as it is—free at the point of use—and the massive investment that we are putting into the NHS will, as it is doing already, deliver the changes that we need to see in the health service, but we hold to the important principle that the NHS should be there on the basis of need, not on the basis of ability to pay.

Q7. Mr. Adrian Sanders (Torbay)

Given the friendship between this country and Egypt, will the comments of President Mubarak yesterday that this war could create 100 bin Ladens affect its prosecution by coalition forces?

The Prime Minister

I take anything that President Mubarak says extremely seriously because he is a wise man and good friend to this country. I believe that the question of how this turns out in the Arab and Muslim world will be dependent on what happens once this conflict is won. If people can see that the Iraqi people are given freedom, the ability to have a proper representative Government and protection on human rights and are able to enjoy their prosperity, I believe that across the Arab and Muslim world the message will be positive. I understand entirely that it is not now. That is hardly surprising given some of the claims that are made about coalition forces, but I believe that there will be a point when we can turn round and prove to people—this is the obligation on us—that this was indeed a war of liberation and that the people of Iraq are indeed the principal beneficiaries of it.

Q8. Mr. Huw Edwards (Monmouth)

Does my right hon. Friend agree that, when this conflict is over, there may be a need to review the constitution of the United Nations, especially on the enlargement of the Security Council, so that it can become a more effective and stronger body for the resolution of conflict in the 21st century?

The Prime Minister

I agree that there are issues to do with that. The difficulty always has been that, whenever people attempt to enlarge the Security Council, the issue is to get unanimity on exactly who should come on to it as permanent members. For that reason, it has always been difficult to reach agreement. I agree that there are issues concerning the UN as an institution that we need to take account of, but the main thing is to try to make sure that we reach some deeper consensus at a global level about what the proper agenda for the world in terms of both security and justice is for this century.

Mr. Nigel Waterson (Eastbourne)

What would the Prime Minister say to my constituents in Eastbourne who are facing a 38 per cent. increase in their council tax this year, especially in the light of Government figures slipped out last week that show that up to 30 per cent. of elderly and vulnerable people who are entitled to help with their council tax never claim benefit?

The Prime Minister

First, as was pointed out by my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister before Prime Minister's Question Time began, we have made a massive increase in the funding to local councils, an increase far greater than the Conservatives. Secondly, the hon. Gentleman is right to say that there are still people who do not claim the benefit rebates and other help to which they are entitled. However, those entitlements have risen enormously as a result of the measures that the Government have taken, which in almost every instance the Opposition opposed.

Q9. Claire Curtis-Thomas (Crosby)

I have today received a letter from Archbishop Patrick Kelly expressing his grave concern about the Israeli wall. As my right hon. Friend will know, as we speak, the Israelis are constructing a wall 200 miles long and 8 m high that will divide communities, decimate fertile Palestinian land and completely surround the city of Qalqilia with its 30,000 inhabitants. Does my right hon. Friend agree that this latest manifestation is odious in the extreme? Will he do all that he can to ensure that it is removed as part and parcel of the road map to peace that is currently being negotiated?

The Prime Minister

It is important in the context of greater security and progress that we ensure that everything possible is done to allow the two-state solution to develop.

I am of course sympathetic to any measures that are necessary in terms of security because I understand the problems that the Israeli Government have faced with terrorist acts against their civilians. On the other hand, I think that it is now the settled view throughout the world that the best way of resolving the issue is the two-state solution. One part of that is a viable Palestinian state, and that state does indeed have to be viable. Therefore, it is important that whatever measures are taken in respect of security, people realise that when we approach the ultimate goal of the two-state solution, it will have to be on a basis that allows that Palestinian state indeed to be viable.

Mr. Edward Garnier (Harborough)

Does the Prime Minister agree that the passing last Thursday by the United Nations Security Council of the so-called third resolution—the oil-for-food resolution—demonstrates that the gap between the coalition on the one side and France and Russia on the other is perhaps not as large as some might think? Would he care to comment on the future chances of sensible resolutions in relation to Iraq given that the United Nations has recently elected Libya to chair the UN Commission on Human Rights?

The Prime Minister

My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary helpfully tells me that the UN Commission on Human Rights is separate from the UN Security Council.

Mr. Garnier

I know that.

The Prime Minister

And I was about to say to the hon. and learned Gentleman that I knew that too. [Interruption.]

But look—[Interruption.] There are issues to do with the UN, and some of those issues are obviously to do with the UN's credibility, though I think that for all its faults most people still recognise the UN as the right forum for legitimacy in the international community.

The first point that the hon. and learned Gentleman makes is correct, which is that the oil-for-food resolution that is being passed is an indication that there is a preparedness to try to work together. That will be particularly important when we come to the next stage, which is the post-conflict situation in Iraq. It will be important to use that as a means of bringing the international community back together again.

Q10. Jim Sheridan (West Renfrewshire)

It is right and proper that the Government's attention should be focused on the middle east, but I am sure that my right hon. Friend agrees that it would be wrong to lose sight of domestic issues, particularly the question of antisocial behaviour and youth crime throughout the UK. Could he therefore assure the House that there will be sufficient funds for those agencies and devolved Governments who are committed to deal effectively with that very important issue, which affects many people in our communities?

The Prime Minister

What my hon. Friend says is absolutely right—we should not forget the importance of the issue of antisocial behaviour. I know that the Scottish Executive are putting something in the region of £l0 million into initiatives across Scotland to tackle it, and here there will be the new Anti-Social Behaviour Bill, which will put a whole range of new powers and penalties into the hands of our police service, allowing them to deal quickly and effectively with the issue, which is a real problem for many communities in our country.

Mr. Alex Salmond (Banff and Buchan)

Has the Prime Minister read the eye-witness account by William Branigin of the Washington Post of the shootings near Karbala, which resulted in the deaths of seven women and children, many of whom were under five? Such deaths may be the inevitable and tragic consequence of war, but given the emotions that they stir up throughout the Islamic world, do they not make a powerful case about why it is a very bad idea for a combatant country to run a post-war Administration in Iraq?

The Prime Minister

First, in relation to the particular incident, of course it was a tragedy—a terrible tragedy. A full inquiry is being conducted, and we offer our condolences, I am sure, to the families of those who died. I hope that the hon. Gentleman understands that it is a very difficult situation for those soldiers at the checkpoints as well. I think that people will understand that, while accepting what a terrible tragedy it is. I hope that the hon. Gentleman also realises—this is the point that I was trying to make earliery—that tragedies that we do not see and that we do not hear of are also happening, carried out by Saddam's people in Iraq at present. To give an example that has come in the last 24 hours, reports from Basra and elsewhere say that young people who are refusing to fight have literally been shot in front of their parents—shot deliberately. The hon. Gentleman shakes his head, but—

Mr. Salmond

Answer the question.

The Prime Minister

I am sorry, but these things are relevant because they give a balanced picture of what is happening. No one is in any doubt about the appalling nature of war, but it is also right to point out those things that are not receiving the same publicity. As for post-conflict Iraq, surely it is important that we all agree that the best guarantee that it will have the support of the Iraqi people is that Iraqis are in charge of it. I can assure the hon. Gentleman that, whatever the process of transition, as soon as possible that will be the case. Iraq in the end should not be run by the Americans, the British or any outside force or power. It should be run, for the first time in decades, by the Iraqi people.