HC Deb 27 January 2003 vol 398 cc547-52
1. Mr. Desmond Swayne (New Forest, West)

What recent representations he has made to EU Defence Ministers regarding Iraq.[93168]

The Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Geoffrey Hoon)

Before answering this question, I should be grateful for the House's permission to pay a brief tribute to one of my distinguished predecessors, Viscount Younger of Leckie, who died yesterday. George Younger was a well-liked and respected Member of this House for 28 years from 1964 to 1992. He served as Secretary of State for Scotland between 1979 and 1986 and was Secretary of State for Defence between 1986 and 1989. I am sure that the House will join me in sending our sincere sympathies to Lady Younger and other members of his family.

I have discussed Iraq in the context of talks on a range of defence issues with a number of European counterparts. In particular, I met my French and German counterparts last November and my Italian counterpart earlier this month.

Mr. Swayne

I thank the Secretary of State for his gracious words about Lord Younger.

Given the different views that are now clearly emerging in European capitals, which are reinforced by the remarks of Mr. Solana, are not the emphasis and policy so different as to make nonsense of a common European defence policy?

Mr. Hoon

I am not sure that I agree that there are such different views. The only country that has specifically ruled out the use of military force is Germany. There was an agreement at the Copenhagen summit to support United Nations resolution 1441, and I anticipate that at its meeting today the General Affairs and External Relations Council will again issue a unanimous declaration supporting resolution 1441, making it clear to the Iraqi Government that they have a final opportunity to resolve the crisis peacefully. I do not detect the disunity that may be implied by the hon. Gentleman's question.

Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North)

Does the Secretary of State not recognise that Britain's position is, far from being in the mainstream, quite isolated from the rest of European opinion, that nobody in Europe believes that resolution 1441 gives authority to take military action and that the overwhelming majority of public opinion in this country and throughout Europe is strongly against military action? Will he confirm that there is no question whatever of Britain, alongside the United States, taking unilateral action to attack Iraq and that instead he will listen to the voices of reason and peace that are so loud in Britain, Europe and the United States?

Mr. Hoon

I believe that I have already answered the first part of my hon. Friend's question. I simply do not accept that Britain is isolated; moreover, in all the meetings and discussions that I have had with European counterparts there is a consistency of view about the need to ensure that Security Council resolution 1441 is implemented. If my hon. Friend looks at the terms of the resolution, he will see that it calls for further discussion by the Security Council before any further action is taken, and that is precisely the British Government's view.

Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire)

In wishing the Secretary of State well at this very difficult time, may I ask how many of his counterparts in the European Union have said that they would be prepared to place forces at the disposal of a coalition against Saddam Hussein?

Mr. Hoon

I do not believe that all countries have yet made that announcement. They are all determined, as we are, to seek a political and diplomatic solution to the problem before resorting to military force. I refer hon. Members to the recent statement by President Chirac of France in which he said that it was necessary for French forces to be ready for any eventuality.

Mrs. Alice Mahon (Halifax)

Did the Secretary of State discuss with Ministers the Pentagon battle plan "Shock and Awe", which in the words of the US military strategist Harlan Ullman would have a Hiroshima effect and take down the city, presumably killing thousands and cutting water and power? Is not such a plan a war crime, and will the Secretary of State tell his friends in the White House that we will have nothing to do with such barbarity?

Mr. Hoon

As I have indicated to my hon. Friend on previous occasions very recently, no decisions have been taken about military force. Clearly there have been decisions about the contingencies necessary, and I hope that she agrees that it is necessary clearly to indicate our willingness to use force in order to support the diplomatic and political process at the United Nations, which is supported by this Government.

Mr. Boris Johnson (Henley)

Given the widespread anxiety among people who are perfectly willing to be persuaded that there is a case for war against Saddam Hussein, will the UN weapons inspectors, if they ask for more time to carry out their inspections, be given that time, and if so, how much more time will they be given? Who will decide how much more time they should be given?

Mr. Hoon

I am sure that if the hon. Gentleman is patient and waits a few more minutes, the initial report by the weapons inspectors will be made to the United Nations Security Council in New York. We will be in a much clearer position to answer his questions when we see the nature of that report.

Mr. Bernard Jenkin (North Essex)

May I first thank the Secretary of State for his extremely kind words about Lord Younger of Leckie, who was not only an esteemed statesman, but a great friend of many Conservative Members? The right hon. Gentleman's words will be of great comfort to Lord Younger's family.

I question what the Secretary of State calls unity in the European Union on the matter of Iraq. Does he agree that the only person who gains from the present disunity is the dictator Saddam Hussein? No Government have done so much to sell the idea of a common EU defence than this one, but Europe is clearly more divided than ever. As he reads the words of the EU high representative attacking the Government's policy, does he agree with the United States Secretary of State, Colin Powell, that that is the old Europe speaking, or is it, indeed, the new Europe, which is more divided from the US than ever?

Mr. Hoon

Again, I have dealt with unity. On one factual matter, however, the hon. Gentleman should look at the signature at the end of the Maastricht treaty, which first gave expression to the concept of developing European defence. To the best of my recollection, that was signed by a Conservative Prime Minister, presumably supported at the time by both a Conservative Foreign Minister and a Conservative Defence Secretary. He should have regard to that as a matter of historic record. However, I agree to the extent that it is important that there should be unity of purpose, as demonstrated by the unanimous vote of the UN Security Council on resolution 1441 and the Copenhagen European Council. I am sure that it will also be demonstrated by the General Affairs and External Relations Council today. All those bodies have given consistent support to the agreed international position adopted by all countries.

Mr. Jenkin

I think that President Chirac would be surprised to hear that the Government believe that Europe is speaking with one voice on the issue. The Government clearly said this morning that Iraq's failure to make a full declaration in December and its failure actively to co-operate with the weapons inspectors is a material breach of UN Security Council resolution 1441, which says that serious consequences must follow. Even if we cannot get unity in Europe, is that the view of the whole Cabinet? Will the International Development Secretary express that view and stick to it when she appears before the House of Commons on Thursday? How can the Government expect to win public support for their policy if there is any doubt that the Cabinet is united?

Mr. Hoon

The hon. Gentleman is well aware of the doctrine of collective Cabinet responsibility to which all Cabinet members subscribe. I have no difficulty in pressing on him the various constitutional law text books that I used to read. I can even give him an old tutorial paper if he wishes to study the detail.

On unity, I will not upset the hon. Gentleman further by quoting President Chirac again, but the President has made it clear to French forces that they need to be ready for military action should that be decided by the French Government. That is precisely the position of the British Government. If British forces are needed, they will be available to support the will of the international community.

2. Paul Flynn (Newport, West)

Whether he intends to amend the information, which he provided for the dossier on Iraq published on 24 September 2002.[93169]

The Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Geoffrey Hoon)

The British Government's assessment of Iraq's weapons of mass destruction, published on 24 September 2002, was based on the work of the Joint Intelligence Committee. The dossier provides a detailed assessment of Iraq's weapons of mass destruction capabilities, including chemical and biological weapons, as well as efforts to acquire nuclear weapons. There are no current plans to amend it.

Paul Flynn

So much for the value of British intelligence. All the sites mentioned in the dossier have been visited by UN and International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors. The Government say that they have discovered no signs of any weapons of mass destruction and no evidence that those sites were ever used for their production. We also know that on the day on which the report was published, journalists visited the sites and found some of them derelict and the others used for benign purposes. Is it not crazy that the House took that piece of evidence from the Government in good faith, because we now know that it was a piece of vacuous propaganda? Would it not be greater folly if we continue to trust the intelligence that we have and make up more fairy stories about the threat from Iraq, so sending our soldiers to kill and be killed on the basis of further falsehoods?

Mr. Hoon

I am sorry that my hon. Friend appears willing to believe the Iraqi Government before his own Government. It is perfectly likely that since the publication of the dossier of weapons of mass destruction the Iraqi Government have moved large quantities of material. Indeed, there is already some evidence of that. Before reaching the conclusions that my hon. Friend appears to have reached, he should at least have assessed the probability that Saddam Hussein has not co-operated entirely with the weapons inspectors—a matter that, I anticipate, they will make clear in the weeks ahead.

Mr. Simon Thomas (Ceredigion)

Will the Defence Secretary take the opportunity to reissue that dossier, fully taking into account the assessment of Hans Blix and the Security Council, and will he add to it his own assessment of the humanitarian cost and the cost to the civilian infrastructure of a war in Iraq so that people of this country can decide whether they support such an effort?

Mr. Hoon

Of course, since the publication of the dossier, a United Nations Security Council resolution has been passed authorising the weapons inspectors to go about the task of investigating the whereabouts of weapons of mass destruction, so it would not make sense at this stage to attempt to duplicate their work. They are doing that work on behalf of the international community and we support their efforts very strongly.

Mr. Bill Olner (Nuneaton)

Does my right hon. Friend not connect the weapons of mass destruction that Saddam Hussein now has with the weapons of mass destruction that we know he used against his own people in the past?

Mr. Hoon

My hon. Friend is quite right. Indeed, one of the significant omissions from Iraq's declaration before Christmas concerned its failure to account for large amounts of chemical and biological equipment recorded by UNSCOM way back in 1998. It has made no effort whatsoever to explain to the world what has happened to those items and, indeed, to a range of other materials that clearly fall into the category of weapons of mass destruction.

Mr. James Gray (North Wiltshire)

The Government have produced a dossier on weapons of mass destruction, and have produced a separate dossier on human rights abuses in Iraq. The third string in their justification for what is happening at the moment is the alleged links between Saddam Hussein and terrorist groups, particularly al-Qaeda. Will the Secretary of State produce a dossier laying out precisely what those links are, as some people believe them to be a little thin?

Mr. Hoon

We are aware that there are well-established links between the Iraqi regime and terrorist organisations. The links with al-Qaeda are much less strong, as I have made clear to the House over a period of time, and certainly the case for a connection with the events of 11 September 2001 is not at all persuasive. Nevertheless, it clearly can be argued that Saddam Hussein has consistently supported terrorist groups. Part of the concern, as set out by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister the other day, is that at some stage his weapons of mass destruction may fall into the hands of terrorist groups willing to use them.

Mr. Malcolm Savidge (Aberdeen, North)

One of the moral justifications given by Britain and the United States for contemplating war against Iraq in 2003 is that in the 1980s Saddam used chemical weapons obtained from us and other major powers against the Iraqi people. Is speculation that we may use nuclear weapons against the Iraqi people designed to demonstrate our moral or our military superiority?

Mr. Hoon

My hon. Friend proceeds on a wholly false basis. The use of force against Iraq would be in support of an agreed United Nations position once there had been a discussion in the UN Security Council on the proper course of action. I want to make it clear to my hon. Friend that efforts to bring Iraq into line are efforts of the international community—something with which I would have expected him strongly to agree.

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