HC Deb 10 April 2003 vol 403 cc435-50 2.15 pm
The Secretary of State for International Development (Clare Short)

With permission, I should like to make a statement about the humanitarian situation in Iraq, and the international planning for post-conflict rehabilitation and development.

As the House knows, it is now 22 days since military action began. Coalition forces are occupying a large part of Iraq, including parts of Baghdad. British forces are occupying much of the south-east. Our forces have been providing humanitarian assistance in the areas that they occupy, in line with their obligations under the Geneva convention and the Hague regulations. The Treasury has provided £30 million to fund these efforts, and my Department is continuing to provide advice on humanitarian issues to the UK armed forces.

In most of the country, food is not currently a major problem. The oil-for-food programme distributed additional rations in central and southern Iraq before the start of the conflict, so supplies will not run out for many families until the end of April, and we hope that the oil-for-food programme can be re-established by then. There are not, so far, the large numbers of internally displaced people and refugees that were feared. The risks remain, however, that people may move if there are shortages of food or medical supplies, or if the fighting escalates. The UN system has made contingency plans to cope with large movements of people.

The main humanitarian problems to date have involved water supplies in towns and cities to the west and south of Baghdad, where power supplies have been disrupted. Disruption to water supplies presents a real threat to health. In some areas, supplies have now been reconnected, or tankers are supplying water. The Royal Engineers built a valuable pipeline from Kuwait into Umm Qasr, from which water is being tanked to other towns. However, in other areas, the problems remain. We are monitoring the situation very closely, and are looking to do whatever we can to resolve the problems. UK forces are doing all that they can to restore power supplies in the areas that they control.

Over the past few days, we have also received reports of an increasingly serious humanitarian situation in Baghdad. Hospitals are overwhelmed with casualties. Electricity is mostly out of order. Some parts of the city no longer have piped water. Most hospitals are using back-up generators and stocks of additional water pre-positioned by the International Committee of the Red Cross in recent weeks. These are now beginning to run out.

We heard yesterday from the ICRC of violent looting in Baghdad—much more violent than what went on in Basra. The ICRC has a real fear that there will be a breakdown in law and order. There are reports of a hospital being looted and of individuals attacked and, in some cases, raped. The ICRC has said that it is temporarily unable to pursue its emergency assistance mission in Baghdad. That is very serious, as the ICRC is the organisation that gets to hospitals and keeps things running. We have offered to do all that we can to help, and since we received that complaint arrangements have been made to secure the ICRC warehouse in Baghdad. The warehouse stores lots of generators and hospital supplies, so it would have been a disaster to lose it.

The ICRC's senior logistician has been killed in Baghdad. I am sure the whole House would like to offer our condolences to his family and friends, and to express our support and admiration for the work that the ICRC is doing in keeping water, energy and medical facilities functioning in this very difficult situation. It really is a very fine organisation. The whole world should admire it.

There has also been looting, as the House knows, in Basra, Umm Qasr and elsewhere in the south. In Basra, some water plants have been looted and rendered unserviceable. UK forces are working with local leaders to try to restore order as soon as possible.

There are reports today that the Kurds have entered Kirkuk, and that looting is also taking place there. We are also monitoring that situation very closely.

As soon as it is safe to do so, UN agencies will return and take over responsibility for co-ordinating humanitarian support, in accordance with humanitarian law and principles. The UN has considerable experience of this role and is well prepared for operations in Iraq. Last week, the UN security co-ordinator assessed some parts of southern Iraq, and a number of UN agencies and NGOs have made initial visits to those areas. The UN will proceed area by area rather than wait for the whole country to be safe, so that it can return with the humanitarian NGOs as soon as it is safe to do so.

In the north of Iraq, local authorities, UN agencies and NGOs are providing assistance. There are some displaced people, but the great majority are being accommodated by relatives or local authorities and assistance is being provided where it is needed. The World Food Programme has succeeded in getting food over the Turkish border and it is now being distributed.

There are serious problems with unexploded mines and ordnance, some of which date back to the 1991 war, and border areas are heavily mined. The coalition is providing information to the United Nations Mine Action Service on mines and unexploded ordnance of which it is unaware. UNMAS is mapping that and is planning a programme to raise awareness of the dangers and mark affected areas and make them safe. We are supporting the Mines Advisory Group and will contribute to further humanitarian mine action through our response to the UN appeal.

On 28 March, the UN launched its flash appeal for Iraq. I committed £65 million—$100 million—from the UK on the day the appeal was launched, and contributions from the US, EU, France, Germany and the Netherlands bring current commitments to more than $1.2 billion. The total appeal was for $2.2 billion for six months, and the UN hopes that it will be partly funded by the oil-for-food programme.

The total DFID commitment to support humanitarian work in Iraq is now £115 million, made up of £32 million to the Red Cross, £78 million to the UN and £5 million to NGOs. Another £95 million is available for further contributions in response to evolving needs. In addition, the Chancellor announced yesterday that he would set aside a further £60 million for DFID to claim from the Treasury if and when needs arise.

The House will be aware that I have made a commitment—and I believe that it is widely supported—that I will not redirect funds to Iraq from other emergencies such as southern Africa, Ethiopia and Eritrea, Afghanistan or the west bank and Gaza. Neither will I divert funds from ongoing programmes supporting development for poor people elsewhere. The Treasury has generously contributed funds so that help for Iraq is not bought at the expense of other poor and needy people.

When I made my last statement on 24 March, I said that the most important priority was to restore the operations of the oil-for-food programme. On 28 March the UN Security Council unanimously approved resolution 1472, giving the Secretary-General authority to adapt the programme to changed circumstances so that it could continue to operate for 45 days. The World Food Programme estimates that most Iraqis' current household food stocks should last until the end of April, while the UN, Red Cross and NGOs can provide assistance to cover a short gap in the programme.

The scale of need, with 16 million Iraqis totally dependent on the programme and most families partially dependent on it, means that it is critical to get the oil-for-food programme working again as quickly as we can. The World Food Programme concluded contracts last week to buy a further 400,000 metric tonnes of food aid for Iraq, which it intends to use to replenish the oil-for-food distribution system. Supplies should start reaching the region by late April, but they will reach people only if we can keep the distribution system in place. That means helping Iraqis to keep in operation 55,000 separate outlets across the country, 45,000 of which are in the centre and south of Iraq. In some parts of the country, they are still doing so. In others it will be a greater challenge, but we will work hard at it and I will keep the House informed.

We are also working on plans for reconstruction and development. The Geneva convention and the Hague regulations impose obligations on occupying powers. The House should not be disturbed or embarrassed because I am using a common term in international law. The Attorney-General advised us that it was perfectly proper under resolution 1441 and previous resolutions to take military action, but our forces have the legal status of an occupying power in an occupied territory. That is no secret and I repeat that there is nothing embarrassing about it. It is all covered by the Geneva convention and the Hague regulations. As I was saying, they impose obligations on occupying powers to provide for humanitarian needs, to keep order and to keep the civil administration operating.

Major reform and reconstruction require the authority of a legitimate Government authority. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and President Bush made clear in their Hillsborough communiqué that they plan to seek the adoption of a new UN Security Council resolution that will affirm Iraq's territorial integrity and make provision for an appropriate post-conflict Administration for Iraq. The UN has a vital role to play in helping the Iraqi people to establish a broad-based and fully representative Iraqi interim authority as soon as possible.

The establishment of a legitimate Government is an essential precondition for the engagement of the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and the international community to provide support to the Iraqi interim authority. Without the full involvement of the bank and the fund, rehabilitation would be less effective and more difficult.

Iraq is a naturally wealthy country with considerable oil resources, educated people, strong institutions and a proud history. It should be a prosperous middle-income country. In order to make progress, there will need to be agreement to reschedule and restructure Iraq's huge debt and reparations claims. Currently, there is little economic activity in Iraq apart from oil exports, which fund a massive programme of handouts through the oil-for-food programme. The reform effort will need to support Iraq in a transition from a centrally planned impoverished economy to build a modern growing economy. It will be possible to phase out the oil-for-food programme as the economy develops.

The atmosphere in the wider region is currently tense and angry, and the conflict has caused economic decline in neighbouring countries. Economic development in Iraq will benefit its people and the wider region, but we must also remember that there is a severe humanitarian crisis in the west bank and Gaza strip and that progress in the middle east requires full implementation of the road map and the establishment of a sovereign Palestinian state alongside Israel by 2005. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and President Bush reaffirmed their commitment to the implementation of the road map at the Hillsborough talks.

Events on the ground in Iraq will change day by day. As the military phase of the crisis comes to an end, the priority will be to provide order and humanitarian relief and to establish an Iraqi interim authority so that the longer-term reconstruction effort can begin. I will keep the House informed. Reports on the humanitarian situation are being placed in the Library of the House each weekday morning.

Mrs. Caroline Spelman (Meriden)

I should like to thank the Secretary of State for letting me have a copy of her statement in advance. I welcome the swift progress of the military campaign. Although the humanitarian position in Baghdad remains serious, a lengthy siege of the city could have been a major humanitarian disaster.

I join the Secretary of State in expressing my condolences to the family and friends of the ICRC worker killed in Baghdad. The ICRC reports that hospitals are stretched to their limits as a result of the fighting, which is worrying. When will Baghdad be safe enough for NGOs to deliver emergency supplies, or are coalition forces already doing so? When will the power and water supplies be restored?

There is an urgent need for the restoration of law and order. The chaotic scenes of violence and looting that we have seen in Basra are preventing aid organisations from delivering vital aid to Iraq. Does the Secretary of State believe that it is currently safe enough for them to work there? If aid agencies are unable to enter Iraq for some time, does she accept that the coalition must discharge its responsibilities under the Geneva convention to deliver aid?

Given that the war is not over and that our forces will still be engaged in fighting the remnants of the Iraqi regime, how well equipped are our troops for keeping the peace in their humanitarian role? The Secretary of State said that the UN agencies will return as soon as it is safe to do so, but is it not a Catch-22 situation? Does she agree that there is a key role for the UN in maintaining order in Iraq now?

The Secretary of State said that the success of the oil-for-food programme depends on good distribution, which is absolutely key. However, where it is not working, are coalition troops manning food convoys, or will UN or Iraqi nationals do that? Given that the most serious food shortages are in southern Iraq, is the port of Umm Qasr working to its full capacity? We understand that only one navigation channel is open, and only for shallow shipping.

The question remains about the extent of the UN's role in the reconstruction of Iraq. In an earlier statement, the Foreign Secretary said that his opposite number now disputes that President Chirac said that the reconstruction of Iraq was a matter for the United Nations and it alone. That is very different from saying that the United Nations should have a vital role. What does that difference augur for a UN resolution on the reconstruction of Iraq? The Secretary of State has said that, without such a resolution, coalition forces will be an "occupying" army under international law. However, given the coalition's rapid progress, a resolution on reconstruction will be required sooner rather than later. If we do not get a resolution soon, what does the Secretary of State believe will be the legal position of our troops in Iraq? Does she stand by her statement of 26 March that the coalition has no authority to reorganise institutions or establish a new Government"— [Official Report, 26 March 2003; Vol. 402, c. 277.] That statement seems to contradict what she said in today's statement.

We welcome the extra funding that the Chancellor has announced for humanitarian relief and reconstruction in Iraq. However, we are concerned to hear that only just over half of the UN appeal for funds has been pledged. Does the Secretary of State agree that a key lesson from Afghanistan is that a lack of funding can seriously hold back reconstruction? That could prove a problem in Iraq, too.

If our troops are to be welcomed as liberators and not as conquerors, Iraqis must be closely involved in the process of reconstruction. Will the Secretary of State say what is being done to ensure that Iraqi companies, Iraqi teachers and Iraqi doctors and nurses are fully involved in the rebuilding of their country? What consultation is taking place with Iraqi opposition groups on the form of a new Government?

I commend the troops, who have done so much to liberate the people of Iraq over the past three weeks. I also pay tribute to the courage of the people of Iraq who have come on to the streets to celebrate the downfall of Saddam's regime. We must mirror the success of the military campaign with an effective programme of humanitarian relief. The end of Saddam Hussein must herald a new beginning for the people of Iraq.

Clare Short

Let us all hope that there is not a lengthy siege of Baghdad. Yesterday's scenes were very welcome, but Baghdad is not yet safe or secure and the fighting is not yet over. We must not act prematurely—the situation is very dangerous. I cannot tell the hon. Lady when the UN will be able to return to Baghdad, and the NGOs tend to go in when the UN goes in. It is the Red Cross that moves in when circumstances are so difficult, but even the Red Cross is not operating at the moment, which is the real risk to Baghdad. However, we are talking to our military—who, in turn, are talking to our coalition partners—about ensuring that the Red Cross's supplies are secure and that hospitals are made secure. The Red Cross has to gain access to Baghdad and the coalition can help in getting the water supply working and getting basic drugs in.

As I said in my statement and as I have made clear before, the aid agencies will return. The UN is ready. It has a system of reviewing security, after which individual NGOs will review their own security. That is beginning to happen in the south. The progress will continue, dependent on the military situation.

As I have made clear—repeatedly, I had thought—under the Geneva convention and the Hague regulations the coalition has duties of humanitarian care until such time as things are safe, when the UN will return and take over the role. That is why the military has humanitarian advisers and why the Treasury has provided resources. There are food supplies that are not needed; the shortages have been in water, power and health supplies to some hospitals.

There has been enormous muddle in the debate on the UN's role in reconstruction.

Mr. William Cash (Stone)

In the hon. Lady's mind.

Clare Short

There is no muddle whatsoever in my mind. If the hon. Gentleman is muddled, that is a great pity, because the position in international law is absolutely clear and has been agreed by all countries. By the authority under which we are taking military action, our forces are occupying forces in occupied territory, with duties under the Geneva convention and the Hague regulations to supply humanitarian relief to civilians, to keep order and to keep the civil administration running. The forces are empowered to make such changes as are necessary to keep the civilian administration running, but they are not entitled to bring a new Government with sovereign authority into being or to make big structural reforms in the country. That is absolutely clear and is agreed by all international lawyers. There were differences of view about the authority for conflict, but there are no differences whatever on this issue. The hon. Gentleman should go back to school if he thinks that that is not the case.

The resolution that will be needed in the Security Council, to which President Bush and the Prime Minister have reaffirmed their commitment, is not for humanitarian relief or for the troops to do what they have to do under the Geneva convention, but is to bring into being a Government with legitimate authority. Of course, in the meantime, our troops will consult local people in all the towns where they are operating and will take advice on issues such as whether policing can be up and running again. However, for the restructuring of the political system in Iraq, a Security Council resolution will be needed to give proper authority.

The hon. Member for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman) said that only half the UN appeal had been funded. However, given that such a short time has elapsed, I think that that is quite good. There are billions of dollars in the oil-for-food programme; it is a question of getting that money released and getting food supplies into the country. Ships are bringing food in, but the big problem will be distributing it to people across the country.

I do not agree that a lack of money has held back reconstruction in Afghanistan; it has been a lack of order outside Kabul.

I agree absolutely with the hon. Lady that Iraqis must be engaged in rebuilding. The Iraqis are a very proud people and there are lots of educated people. The distribution system for the oil-for-food programme depends on Iraqi people. Iraqi engineers have been keeping the oil industry going, often using old technology. We must not put them to one side. They must be engaged in running their country in the interim before taking the lead in setting up the new Iraqi interim authority.

Dr. Jenny Tonge (Richmond Park)

I, too, thank the Secretary of State for being allowed advance sight of her statement. My party joins in sending condolences to the families of everyone who has been killed in this conflict—civilians, military personnel and voluntary workers.

The right hon. Lady acknowledged that the security situation in Iraq is dire and that stopping looting, fighting and further damage to infrastructure is of prime importance in allowing the NGOs and the UN to do their work. While we wait for that, will she answer a few specific questions? When will humanitarian corridors be set up? Will more British soldiers be needed to keep them secure? We have heard a little about Umm Qasr, where the deep port is not yet open, but will the right hon. Lady comment on the news that insurance companies are not insuring boats that use the port, which is inhibiting the delivery of aid?

I am sure that we have all been appalled by the harrowing pictures of civilians who have been injured during the conflict—in particular, the pictures of children. I understand that the Red Cross and Médecins sans Frontières is not operating in Baghdad at the moment and that conditions in hospitals are appalling. When does the Secretary of State expect more medical supplies to arrive? Are Army medical staff able to help in any significant way? Has any thought been given to airlifting wounded civilians—especially the children—out of Iraq to receive treatment in other countries while the situation remains as it is?

When does the right hon. Lady expect clean water to be available to all Iraqis in Basra and Baghdad? What is being done about reports that the illegal selling of water by truck drivers is going on all over the country? Will she consider making a statement to the House on the humanitarian situation in the west bank and the Gaza strip? That issue is of great concern.

Clare Short

I am sure that we all agree with the hon. Lady that the loss of any life regrettable—and all innocent civilian life. We send our condolences to all the families involved. Stopping the looting is of enormous importance, even for emergency humanitarian operations. The UK military had to secure Basra and ensure that our troops were safe, but the priority now is to stop looting and restore order so that humanitarian relief can flow, the Red Cross can gel access to hospitals, and the UN can come in to start the big humanitarian operation.

We favour not corridors but humanitarian space. We do not want narrow ways in; we want to open up bigger parts of the country for normal humanitarian operations. That is what the UN wants rather than humanitarian corridors. The UN thinks that there can be some return in the south and individual NGOs are planning their return.

A lot of food is already on the seas. Ships are on their way to Umm Qasr with the massive supplies of food that are needed to get the oil-for-food programme up and running again. I am not aware of a problem at the port, but I shall double-check and will get back to the hon. Lady.

Insurance companies always increase their prices massively in crises such as this. Expensive insurance is available and it is being paid for. The experience was the same in Afghanistan and in other crises. I shall double-check that point, too.

The situation in Basra will progress quickly and our troops will be able to ensure that there is enough power. Lack of power means that the water supply is not being used to full capacity. The Red Cross has patched it, but our forces and our engineers will be able to put it right.

The situation in Baghdad is much more unstable and much more worrying. Fighting is still going on and the Red Cross cannot operate at present. The priority is to secure its warehouse and to get Red Cross workers back into the hospitals. There are Red Cross supplies in the city, but the problem is getting access to them. Similarly, appeals have been mounted to help people such as the poor little boy who lost both his arms, as well as his parents, but there are problems in getting access to many of the injured in hospital. Iraqi doctors are bravely working long hours, but they have no water or electricity and they are running out of drugs. The absolute priority is to get the Red Cross in to reinstate those emergency supplies.

The allegations about illegal sales of water relate to the pipeline to Umm Qasr built by British armed forces. Water sales are not illegal in the sense that, in a very hot country with limited water, people actually make their living by supplying water. However, our troops have stopped those sales for the time being. When some people have no water and the poorest have no access to it, it is not right to charge for water.

I do not know whether there will be time for me to make a statement to the House on the west bank and Gaza. However, I shall certainly try to arrange for a written statement, as the situation there is bad.

Mr. George Foulkes (Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley)

I have no doubt whatever that my right hon. Friend is the best person to lead our reconstruction efforts in Iraq. Does she agree that it is unhelpful to focus on alleged disputes and on the legalities? In circumstances such as these, the problem is to get everyone involved, to get enough resources, to achieve co-ordination and to keep interest going when the media spotlight turns away. I know that my right hon. Friend is involving the UN and its agencies, the rich countries, the European Community and the NGOs, but will she ask the World Bank, whose spring meeting will be held soon, to make a commitment to give resources for the long-term support of Iraq, which will need support from every possible quarter?

Clare Short

I wholly agree with my right hon. Friend. Whatever the position taken by any person or country during the run-up to the conflict, everyone must be agreed on ending the conflict, getting humanitarian supplies running again, ensuring that the future of the country is better than its past and moving forward on the peace process in the middle east so that the whole region can have a better future. We need to work to bring the international community back together. The World Bank and the International Monetary Fund cannot engage with the problems unless there is a legitimate Government. Many countries—for example, Japan—traditionally are big suppliers of aid; they want a legitimate Government and a Security Council resolution. Whatever people's views were before the conflict, everyone should use all possible influence to achieve the Security Council resolution so that we can work with the UN to set up a proper interim authority. That is certainly what the Government are doing.

Tony Baldry (Banbury)

I thank the right hon. Lady for the briefings posted daily on her Department's website; they are extremely helpful to everyone who wants to understand the situation.

I do not think that there are great differences between hon. Members on what is being attempted in respect of humanitarian space. Presumably, the UK Army, UK NGOs and others will focus on Basra to try to create the largest humanitarian space so as to reinstate power and water supplies and then move out from there. Will the right hon. Lady try to enlist the help of UK NGOs, many of which have considerable experience in water provision? The other day, members of the Select Committee were with the World Bank, whose president made it clear that the bank wants to support Iraq as soon as possible. However, he made it clear to us, in terms, that the bank could not do that without specific UN authority.

Clare Short

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. Many tributes have rightly been paid to our armed forces for their courage, but when they undertake their duties as peacekeepers, under the Geneva convention, they are undoubtedly the best in the world. They built on their experience in Northern Ireland, Kosovo, Bosnia, Sierra Leone and East Timor, and brought ISAF—the International Security Assistance Force—into being in Kabul. In their work in Basra, they are a model for the world and we can all be enormously proud of what they are doing. They want to undertake their duties under the Geneva and Hague regulations and hand over to the UN as soon as it can operate. That is clear. Their intention is to fulfil all the proprieties correctly. In the meantime, they will do everything in their power to achieve order and to keep things running.

Not many UK NGOs operated in what was Baghdad-controlled Iraq; more of them have experience in the north. Some are preparing to return and when they do so they will do a good job, but we must be careful not to displace Iraqis. They are a proud, educated people with a strong tradition of running the oil-for-food programme. We need complementary relationships, but Iraqis must lead wherever possible.

The hon. Gentleman is right: the World Bank and the IMF have conducted analytical work and are preparing for a needs assessment, but they cannot operate without a legitimate Government, and that requires a Security Council resolution.

Helen Southworth (Warrington, South)

What plans does my right hon. Friend have to involve Iraqi women in the reconstruction of the new Iraq, so that they can play a full part, professionally and politically as well as domestically, in creating the new Iraq?

Clare Short

Half the population of Iraq is aged under 15. As the country has crumbled, education for the younger generation has been less good. However, there are many highly educated Iraqis, including many women, who already play a significant professional role in the administration of the country. As was said earlier, Iraq is like the former Soviet Union, where people had to join the Communist party if they wanted to be a teacher. Many members of the Ba'ath party are not the real leaders of the regime, and they will need to remain in their jobs so as to continue to run their country. Women will have a role. All over the world, when the UN brings new legitimate Governments into being, it has made a point of ensuring that women are represented in those Governments.

Alistair Burt (North-East Bedfordshire)

The scale of the task to be undertaken indicates that, whatever the resources of our forces, they must be joined as soon as possible by humanitarian aid agencies. In giving evidence to the Select Committee when it examined the possible consequences of conflict, the NGOs made it clear that it would be difficult for them to operate without UN authority. That is why it is vital to indicate precisely what will happen and when. Although some NGOs have decided to re-engage, is the Secretary of State confident that the facts on the ground now mean that the first responsibility of aid agencies, regardless of who is actually in control and what the legalities may be, is the people of Iraq? Is she confident that agencies have put aside any concerns that they may have had before the conflict and that they are ready to be engaged on the scale that is necessary to support our forces and deliver properly to the people of Iraq?

Clare Short

There is absolutely no need for a Security Council resolution of any kind for the humanitarian system to operate. The UN has a duty, always and everywhere, if there is safe access, to help people on any side of any conflict. The UN is clear about that. The only question relates to operational safety. As soon as any part of the country is safe, the UN will say so. The UN has good systems for checking safety and the NGOs tend to follow its advice. Movement into the south is beginning. The UN is the bigger operator and the NGOs help to deliver services at the end of the line. Neither the UN nor the NGOs have any doubt about operating. There have been arguments about NGOs operating with the military; NGOs have reservations about that. The military operate under the Geneva convention and will hand over to humanitarian systems as soon as possible. That handover will not be a problem for our NGOs and our military.

Tony Worthington (Clydebank and Milngavie)

The Prime Minister and the President of the United States made good progress earlier this week in saying that there is a vital role for the United Nations. Everybody is saying that humanitarian aid is necessary. Normally, that would be undertaken by OCHA—the Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs—which is a well-established United Nations organisation. We now also have ORHA—the Office for Reconstruction and Humanitarian Affairs—which was set up by the United States Government under General Garner. There cannot be two co-ordinators. Does my right hon. Friend believe that we are on the way to solving that problem?

Clare Short

A clear solution is available. The coalition's duties under the Geneva convention and the Hague resolutions are very considerable. To ensure that civilians are properly cared for in humanitarian terms, given the situation in Baghdad—[Interruption.] If the shadow Attorney-General, who appears not to understand the law, would stop heckling, he might learn something. We need to secure order, to get oil-for-food up and running and to get policing back. Those requirements are all covered by Geneva convention regulations on looking after civilians, keeping order and keeping civil administration running. That would be a proper role for ORHA. The UN's role is needed in the bringing into being of a legitimate Government with sovereignty. The UN can operate as soon as there is safety—it does not need any authority—and it should lead on humanitarian issues.

Mr. Simon Thomas (Ceredigion)

I thank the Secretary of State and her officials for keeping hon. Members of all parties informed about the developing humanitarian situation—that is welcome. Will she confirm how much money is already held in the oil-for-food programme account unspent? That money could be released to the considerable benefit of the development and reconstruction of Iraq. Is a UN resolution required to release those resources and, if so, will the proposed new resolution that is being discussed include such provisions?

Will the Secretary of State confirm when sanctions on Iraq will be lifted? What steps need to be taken in the UN in terms of a resolution to that effect, so that there can be economic development that is not just based on the sale of oil? Will the UN resolution that she is discussing include the lifting of sanctions? Finally, what will she be doing in the next week or so to ensure that the resolution is finalised?

Clare Short

The oil-for-food programme involves all the oil that is legitimately sold from Iraq. All the money goes into a UN account that funds the purchase of food, medical supplies, basic repairs to water and sanitation systems, and so on. There is about $2 billion in the fund. Since the passing of the UN resolution to which I referred, more food is being purchased. Much of the wheat comes from Australia and therefore has to travel by sea for some time. About $5 billion is tied up in outstanding contracts. An attempt is being made to weed out those contracts that will not be fulfilled to release the money so as to make more orders. Much of the oilfield has been secured, and when oil starts to flow again, money will flow again. We have to keep the system running until the economy can grow, then it can be wound down.

The new resolution was required to give the Secretary-General the authority to act, because under the previous arrangements the Iraqi Government made orders, and they were in no position to continue to do so. That role has been taken by the UN. The authority was given for 45 days, and there will need to be arrangements to roll it forward. There is general agreement that sanctions should be lifted as soon as possible. We need a properly verified process for looking for chemical and biological weapons and for getting rid of them. Sanctions should then be lifted as rapidly as possible so that the economy can start to recover and trade with neighbouring countries can resume.

We are all working on the UN resolution that will help to bring into being a legitimate interim Iraqi authority. The main thing is to improve the atmosphere of relationships in the international system. I am going to the World Bank spring meetings with the Chancellor this weekend, and we shall do some work on that so that the World Bank can engage with the situation.

Ann McKechin (Glasgow, Maryhill)

I strongly agree with my right hon. Friend about the necessity of the UN's involvement in the creation of the interim authority, especially to aid reconstruction. Does she share my concern about the comments made in the past 24 hours by the US Secretary of State, Colin Powell, to the effect that the coalition, not the UN, should determine the membership of such an interim administration? Such moves are likely to make a UN resolution to support it more difficult, which will in turn make reconstruction much more difficult.

Clare Short

I agree with my hon. Friend that there have been many different voices in Washington that are amplified into New York, and they do not help. However, what President Bush said at Hillsborough did help. He made very strong and clear comments about the need to involve the UN in the process. He is the President, so the right guy is saying the right things.

Gregory Barker (Bexhill and Battle)

The Secretary of State said in her statement that reconstruction requires the authority of a legitimate government authority. Does she realise that under the fourth Geneva convention of 1949 and the Hague regulations of 1907, the coalition forces represent a legitimate authority? Would it not be appalling if the serious business of the reconstruction of Iraq and the absolute imperative for re-establishing civil society were held up for a day, let alone weeks or possibly even months, while horse-trading went on at the UN?

Clare Short

The hon. Gentleman might find international law irritating, but we need a law-abiding world with strong multilateral institutions. Under the law that we have, the reconstruction and rehabilitation of Iraq can move forward very well. The real safety of that country depends on Iraqis feeling that they are in the leadership as regards the reconstruction of their country, and the UN is needed to bring that about. That is the view of virtually every Government in the world, but not, clearly, of the hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Harry Barnes (North-East Derbyshire)

The peculiarity of the oil-for-food programme is that the distribution of food was in the hands of the Ba'ath party, as it was coterminous with the state. That gave it a tremendous amount of extra influence over the 60 per cent. of the population who depended on that programme. The Secretary of State said that the World Food Programme has contracts for a further 400,000 metric tonnes of food that will replenish the existing distribution system. Will that distribution system be subject to radical change? If the individuals from the Ba'ath party who terrorised people turned up again, that would not be helpful in establishing a peaceful Iraq.

Clare Short

My hon. Friend is right. That is one of the tragedies involved in the prolongation for 12 years of what was meant to be a short-term sanctions regime. The people of Iraq became increasingly dependent on an overweening state, and as the economy shrivelled, handouts were all that most people had, and the regime was strengthened. That is a regrettable feature of the prolongation of the sanctions regime. We have to get the programme up and running because of the sheer scale of the operation that is needed to keep people fed in the short term. My hon. Friend is right that it was used punitively, and we have to ensure that people who were excluded are included in future distribution. We need to get it up and running again in order to phase it out as rapidly as possible. Without it, however, getting food to everyone in need would be an enormous task, and the international system has never done anything on that scale.

Mr. Paul Marsden (Shrewsbury and Atcham)

I congratulate the Secretary of State on her commitment to getting humanitarian aid into Iraq. Although I agree that Iraqi hospitals are in a terrible state, that is the result not only of the bombardment, but of 12 years of economic sanctions. What more can be done to give those injured civilians access to specialist medical facilities in this country and across the west?

Clare Short

The hon. Gentleman is right. The state of the hospitals and the water and sanitation systems was terrible before the conflict began. Since then, there has been some cutting off of energy supplies and power supplies. Many people are without water. Hospitals with large numbers of injured people have no power and no water, and are running out of drugs. The International Committee of the Red Cross is the heroic organisation that is operating in that situation. It has supplies pre-positioned throughout the country, and its people have been enormously brave throughout the conflict in reconnecting power, bringing in generators and moving water in. The biggest worry is that the Red Cross is not operating in Baghdad. That is the priority; then we must go step by step. At the moment, we have to maintain supplies of water and basic drugs—hospitals are running out of painkillers.

Mr. Tom Clarke (Coatbridge and Chryston)

May I declare an interest as chairman of the all-party Kurdistan group? At our annual general meeting on Tuesday, a number of Kurds who attended expressed huge admiration for the tremendous work that the Secretary of State has done and continues to do. They understand, as common sense suggests, that there will be a period of transition before formalisation and the involvement, for example, of the United Nations. Does my right hon. Friend agree that, when that occurs, it is right to accept her advice to try to build bridges with all other nations, including the neighbouring state of Turkey? Without that, it will not be possible to rebuild northern Iraq, and the whole of Iraq, in the way that that was done following the conflict in the early 1990s.

Clare Short

I agree very much with my right hon. Friend and I am grateful for his remarks. Of course, the transition period will comprise Geneva convention obligations to keep things running; the UN humanitarian system running increasingly, and subsequently, I hope; consultations with local communities; and a process to bring the interim Administration into being. I hope that all that will run together very soon. Building bridges and connections, and getting co-operation from neighbouring countries are also important, and work on that has been going on. Tension has always existed between Turkey and the Kurdish area of Iraq, but things have gone well up to now, and we must keep that going. Turkey had sealed the border and getting humanitarian supplies through was a problem, but they are coming through now and being distributed in the north. I agree with my right hon. Friend's point, we are working on it, and there is similar progress in relation to humanitarian supplies coming in from Iran. All of us need to unite to give the people of Iraq a better future and to work together for the middle east peace process.

Mr. Chris Mullin (Sunderland, South)

May I welcome my right hon. Friend's assurance that resources will not be diverted to Iraq from other areas of the world that face very serious problems? Does she think that our allies and international institutions will take the same view? Is there not a danger that events in Iraq, serious as they are, will distract attention from, for example, the catastrophic situation in the Congo or the looming famine in Ethiopia and Eritrea, where millions of lives are at stake?

Clare Short

My hon. Friend is right that that is always a danger. When humanitarian catastrophes occur, those that command media attention tend to get priority. The people affected by the non-media-attended crises are equally important, however, and they must be properly cared for. The World Food Programme's appeals are bigger than they have ever been in its history. The WFP is worried that, even if it gets the money, its systems, capacity, logistics and the people responsible for moving masses of food around the world will be under strain. My Department has wonderful draw-down arrangements with logisticians, engineers and health workers, as my hon. Friend knows, and we have put those at the service of the World Food Programme. There is no doubt that international systems will be very strained, in terms not just of money but of the capacity to move and attend to all the emergencies in the world. We must work hard to make sure that that is done.

Mr. Andrew Miller (Ellesmere Port and Neston)

Despite the differences between nations about the strategy for dealing with Saddam Hussein, the whole House will welcome the contributions made to the UN fund by the EU, particularly by France and Germany. Will my right hon. Friend convey to her opposite numbers in France and Germany how much we welcome that contribution, and will she urge other EU partners similarly to look at their responsibilities, as the EU has an important role to play in this important reconstruction programme?

Clare Short

Yes, indeed. The Netherlands has also contributed individually, as well as through the EU. I will be having a working dinner in Washington, in the margins of the World Bank meeting, with a number of Development Ministers, including my colleagues from France and Germany, to achieve the purpose to which my hon. Friend refers.

Mr. Andrew Love (Edmonton)

My right hon. Friend mentioned in her statement the need to reach agreement to reschedule and restructure Iraq's huge debts and reparation claims. Two weeks ago, I was at the UN, and I was staggered to discover that those could amount to up to a third of the income of the country. Does my right hon. Friend accept that not only rescheduling but, in some cases, cancellation of some of those reparations payments should be treated as a matter of urgency if that country is to get back on its feet, restructure and rebuild its economy?

Clare Short

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The level of debt and claimed reparation payments is so great that they could lock a naturally wealthy economy into an inability to recover: shades of Germany after the first world war. It is very important that we get this right. Paris Club and London Club arrangements exist for rescheduling and writing down debt. It is a UN matter in relation to compensation, but the matter needs attention; otherwise, a corset will be placed around the economy and it would never recover.

Mr. Neil Gerrard (Walthamstow)

I welcome what my right hon. Friend said about the duties of occupying powers to make sure that humanitarian aid arrives and civil administration is rebuilt. Am I correct in believing, however, that it would not be legitimate for an occupying power to enter into long-term contractual arrangements with private companies that would be binding on a future legitimate Iraqi Administration? Is there any truth in the reports that we are hearing that, for example, a particular American company is already being given a long-term contract to run the port of Umm Qasr?

Clare Short

My hon. Friend's understanding of the law is basically right. In relation to much of the publicity about USAID, the development agency, and contracts with American firms to spend the money available for the first phase of the humanitarian duties under the Geneva convention of the US armed forces, they have been talked about in such a way that they sound like permanent contracts. That would not be legally possible, and most reputable companies would not accept such contracts, because they would know that that was not legally possible. It is possible to have contracts—the port has to be kept running—but the long-term future of the port will be a matter for the Iraqi interim authority when it comes into being. It is important to get the World Bank and the IMF involved to bring standards of transparency and to ensure the proper letting of contracts, and to advise the interim authority in that regard.