HC Deb 27 January 2003 vol 398 cc553-6
4. Dr. Nick Palmer (Broxtowe)

What assessment he has made of the progress of weapons inspections in Iraq. [93171]

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

We maintain regular contact with UNMOVIC and the International Atomic Energy Agency about the progress of inspections. Dr. Blix and Dr. el-Baradei will be reporting to the United Nations Security Council later today. Dr. Blix had a meeting with my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister on 17 January at which he told the Prime Minister that, although the inspectors had encountered no direct obstruction in carrying out their tasks, the onus was on Iraq to be more proactive in its co-operation.

Dr. Palmer

Polls consistently show that two thirds of the public are prepared to support the Government in military action if the inspectors report consistent obstruction and the Security Council endorses that. I have had that view confirmed by my own constituency poll. However, there is widespread concern that we will plunge in, regardless. Does the Secretary of State agree that if the inspectors ask today for more time to reach a conclusion, most people would want Britain strongly to support that request?

Mr. Hoon

As I indicated to the House earlier, it is probably best that we should wait the relatively short time before Dr. Blix reports to the United Nations Security Council to see what, if any, requests he makes. I draw my hon. Friend's attention to what my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister said yesterday, namely, that the inspectors have got to be given the time to do the job". That is the British Government's position. We want to see them complete the task set out by the Security Council, but we want them also to be allowed to carry out that task by the Government in Iraq.

Mr. Paul Keetch (Hereford)

I associate myself and my right hon. and hon. Friends with the words of condolence to the family of Lord Younger. Does the Secretary of State agree that the weapons inspectors must be given the time to perform their tasks, and that it should be the United Nations, after listening to Dr. Blix, that should decide on the timing of such inspections? It was the strong view of many members of the armed forces whom I met last week in Kuwait, that any force should be UN-authorised, and that although there are concerns about climatic conditions in the Gulf, it should be the UN, not the weather, that determines the timing of any conflict. Can the Secretary of State confirm that British forces remain under US Centcom command and will stay under Centcom command if hostilities break out? What plans are there to redirect or withdraw British forces, should the US engage in military action in which the UK does not participate?

Mr. Hoon

I would have been much happier with the hon. Gentleman's question if he had said not that the weapons inspectors require more time, but that they require to see disarmament. That is central to the United Nations Security Council resolution, around which there was a unanimous view on the part of the Security Council. We want to see the Government of Iraq accepting their responsibilities to disarm under Security Council resolution 1441. That is the position of this Government and of the other 14 members of the Security Council, as well as of the European Union, NATO and every other responsible Government in the world.

Mr. Jonathan Djanogly (Huntingdon)

Does the Secretary of State give any credence to the rumours that the United Nations inspectors have not been getting the level of information that they required from western intelligence sources? If that is the case, why is it the case?

Mr. Hoon

I know that there are rumours to that effect, but I can assure the hon. Gentleman, as I assure the House, that this country in particular has co-operated fully with the weapons inspectors and has ensured that both equipment and information have been made available to them, which I believe has allowed them better to do their job.

Glenda Jackson (Hampstead and Highgate)

What credence does my right hon. Friend attach to recent reports that the issuing of protective clothing to Iraqi troops is proof positive, despite denials, that Saddam Hussein has and intends to use weapons of mass destruction? Does that mean that the issuing of protective clothing to British troops means, despite denials, that we have such weapons and also intend to use them?

Mr. Hoon

The authenticity of the report is obviously a matter for the BBC, which I think was first responsible for broadcasting it. That particular report is certainly consistent with previous reports that this Government have received and, indeed, with the dossier that we published last September. Obviously, it is a matter of grave concern to this country and other members of the international community that Saddam Hussein has weapons of mass destruction, including the sort of chemical weapons against which it would be necessary for Iraq to protect its forces with the sort of equipment that the BBC has described. I can assure my hon. Friend that such chemical weapons are not part of the United Kingdom's arsenal.

Ann Clwyd (Cynon Valley)

Since the Kurds of northern Iraq are likely to be in the front line of any military action, and since chemical and biological weapons have been used against the Kurds in the past, has any consideration been given to providing the Kurds with protective clothing in the event of military action?

Mr. Hoon

My hon. Friend is right to express concern about the population of northern Iraq. That is precisely why British forces risked their lives in order to protect people in the area because of previous appalling attacks on the Kurds. Obviously, we do not control the ground in northern Iraq, which is a difficult part of the world. While it is arguably safer than many other parts of Iraq, it is still extremely dangerous territory.

Mr. Edward Leigh (Gainsborough)

May I press the Secretary of State further on the question asked of him by my hon. Friend the Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Djanogly), which I think is one of the key questions? I believe that the Prime Minister is absolutely sincere in saying that Saddam has weapons of mass destruction, and I understand that this is not a game of hide and seek. Does the right hon. Gentleman accept, however, that what the public do not understand is that while the Prime Minister is saying there is clear evidence, the UN is finding so little? May I press him further to reassure the general public and the House that all the information that he has that convinces him that Saddam is in possession of such weapons is passed to the UN inspectorate, so that we can get clear evidence in front of the British people?

Mr. Hoon

I do not think that it is a great surprise to the weapons inspectors that there are weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Weapons inspectors have been in Iraq over many years since the end of the Gulf war, bearing in mind that it was a condition of the ceasefire that Iraq should abandon its programmes for the development of weapons of mass destruction. I accept that the issue is convincing the present set of inspectors that they have found proof on the ground that there are weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, but, equally, I invite hon. Members to look carefully at the terms of the UN resolution. It is a question of ensuring the co-operation of Iraq with the terms of that resolution. There is an obligation on Iraq to produce the material that it has. Although it has made a declaration, it is already clear that that declaration is insufficient, but we certainly await the further report of the weapons inspectors to take the matter further at this stage.

Forward to