HL Deb 11 October 1999 vol 605 cc9-12

3.10 p.m.

Lord Beaumont of Whitley

asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they will press for the lifting of those sanctions on Iraq which affect baby food, bandages, stethoscopes and school books.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Baroness Scotland of Asthal)

My Lords, I hope the House will be pleased to know that sanctions do not prevent Iraq importing the goods mentioned by the noble Lord. Imports of food and medicine have always been allowed. And under the oil-for-food arrangements Iraq is permitted to export oil to fund the purchase of these and other civilian goods including medical equipment, educational materials and spare parts to repair the electricity, water and sanitation and oil sectors. Some 5 billion dollars has been set aside already this year for the purchase of such goods.

Lord Beaumont of Whitley

My Lords, I am delighted to hear the Answer from the Minister. What steps are Her Majesty's Government taking to ensure that such very necessary goods are in fact reaching those people they should reach bearing in mind that until recently there was in that country a death rate of infants aged under five of something in the order of 4,000 or 5,000 a month? Is there nothing that Her Majesty's Government can do to see that appalling figure reduced?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

My Lords, much of course must depend on Iraq itself and Saddam Hussein. Since the sanctions were imposed, arrangements have been in place to allow Iraq to import food, medicine and other essential civilian goods. Under the oil-for-food arrangements, Iraq is permitted to import a wide range of humanitarian goods, in part to rehabilitate the Iraqi civilian infrastructure, including the oil industry. The present phase of oil-for-food, which will expire in November, will be the most valuable yet with oil exports expected to value up to 6.5 billion dollars, 4.3 billion dollars of which will be available to fund the humanitarian programme. There is no restraint at all in relation to the provision of food or help for the under-fives. Much will depend on how the Iraqis themselves utilise that basis.

Lord Moynihan

My Lords, from these Benches I warmly congratulate the Minister on her first appearance at the Dispatch Box answering a Question on foreign affairs. I have given her private office notice of the question I wish to raise. What action are the Government taking to pressurise the Iraqi regime to allow the United Nations to take a larger role in the distribution of medicine and food in southern and central Iraq given that child mortality rates have fallen in northern Iraq where the UN controls distribution under the oil-for-food programme but have increased tragically and disturbingly in southern and central Iraq where Saddam Hussein's regime is in charge of distribution?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

My Lords, the Government continually call on Iraq to engage more constructively with the UN in the implementation of the oil-for-food programme. Our new draft resolution would allow the UN to take a greater role in the programme. There are high rates of infant and maternal mortality, and that is a matter of serious concern. The United Kingdom has advocated and supported initiatives aimed at targeting the humanitarian effort to help the most vulnerable. The whole of Iraq is subject to the same sanctions regime, but the UNICEF report notes—as the noble Lord pointed out—that rates in the north of Iraq, which is not controlled by the Baghdad regime, are substantially lower. We would suggest that that is more evidence that it is the Baghdad regime which is primarily responsible for the suffering of the Iraqi people. Of course it is entirely in Saddam Hussein's own hands as to how most effectively to address this issue. This Government strongly urge him to address it as a matter of priority for the Iraqi people.

Lord Monkswell

My Lords, from this side of the House I warmly welcome my noble friend to the Dispatch Box. Is she aware that Iraq is one of the most fertile parts of the Middle East and as such has the capacity to grow food to feed its people? There is no real need for it to import food. Can she confirm that the unrestricted import of agricultural machinery and spare parts for agricultural machinery is allowed under the sanctions regime?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

My Lords, I can confirm that. I can also confirm that when it comes to food, Iraq is so well placed that it is selling food to some of its neighbours and trying to sell food to other neighbours. I believe that that emphasises the information we have that it is very much Saddam Hussein's own determination that he wishes the people of Iraq to suffer. We will take no part in that. We have done everything we can to support the Iraqi people so that they can take advantage of all the issues outlined by the noble Lord. It is for Saddam Hussein to make the choice as to whether or not his people continue to suffer in this way.

Baroness Williams of Crosby

My Lords, we on these Benches also congratulate the Minister. Although we shall greatly miss her predecessor on foreign affairs Questions, we are sure that she will bring both radiance and brilliance to the Government Front Bench. I wish to ask a slightly wider question based on the replies the Minister has already given. With regard to the United Nations resolution supported by France, is consideration being given to the possibility of offsetting sanctions against a resumption of United Nations inspections, which I understand is today a lively issue in London, Washington and Paris?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

My Lords, the position as regards sanctions remains very much the same. The noble Baroness will know that the UK has been at the forefront of Security Council efforts to find a comprehensive way forward on Iraq. In particular we have been working closely with the rest of P5 and we have made good progress on bridging the few remaining gaps. We believe that with a little more flexibility on all sides, there is scope for further agreement. The UK and the Netherlands have circulated a draft Security Council resolution which, if adopted, would implement the vast majority of the recommendations of the three panels established by the Security Council in January. Our draft would create a new body to continue UNSCOM's efforts to answer the outstanding questions on disarmament and to implement the panel recommendation that these be dealt with under a reinforced monitoring system.

Lord Rea

My Lords, what are the obstacles to the British-Dutch proposals mentioned by my noble friend? Will she see that they are accepted by the United Nations as soon as possible because the effects of the sanctions on the ordinary people of Iraq are at the moment very severe? They do not harm Saddam and his friends.

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

My Lords, Her Majesty's Government are doing all they can to persuade all the members of the council of the force of their arguments. There is of course a measure of flexibility and difference of opinion, but we shall not refrain from continuing to force those arguments. Overall, our solution seeks to offer Iraq a clear path to the suspension and eventual lifting of sanctions while maximising humanitarian assistance to the Iraqi people and giving us the assurance we need on weapons of mass destruction. A Security Council united behind the proposals will provide the best chance of persuading Iraq to re-engage with the UN and to avert a further crisis. However, we do have to take into account that there are sensitivities on this issue and, while we press with vigour for agreement, we need to take all members with us.