HL Deb 12 May 2003 vol 648 cc6-8

2.51 p.m.

Lord Astor of Hever

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper. In doing so, perhaps I may, on behalf of these Benches, congratulate the noble Baroness on her appointment as Secretary of State for International Development. I am sure that I speak for the whole House—clearly I do—in wishing her well in that important position. I hope that her appointment will not stop the noble Baroness performing her important role in this House.

The Question was as follows:

To ask her Majesty's Government what steps are being taken to help secure food and medical supplies stored in Iraq.

The Secretary of State for International Development (Baroness Amos):

My Lords, I begin by thanking the noble Lord, Lord Astor of Hever, for his very kind wishes. I am absolutely delighted, as the House can imagine. This House has a strong interest in international development issues which crosses parties and which I hope will continue.

As part of their obligations under the Geneva Convention and Hague regulations, coalition forces are working to protect hospitals and storage facilities containing food and medical supplies. There is not currently a widespread shortage of food. The World Health Organisation reports that the overall stocks of medical supplies are sufficient. There are a few specific shortages of specialist drugs that it is working to address. DfID has committed £115 million for support work by humanitarian agencies in the current crisis.

Lord Astor of Hever

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness for that response. The WHO has predicted a possible cholera outbreak in Basra. What contingency plans have been made to deal with that and to replenish medical supplies in Iraqi hospitals, which are running short as a result of looting and the continued insecurity?

Baroness Amos

My Lords, the noble Lord is absolutely right. The WHO has confirmed 16 cases of cholera in Basra in the past 12 days. It is important that noble Lords remember that cholera is endemic in southern Iraq at this time of year. A cholera taskforce has been established, bringing together the WHO, UNICEF, the Department of Health and NGOs. There are reported to be sufficient stocks of relevant medical supplies, but there are some difficulties in distribution as many vehicles have been stolen. We are looking at that as a matter of urgency. In addition, DOD has cholera kits sufficient to treat 11,000 people on standby in Kuwait.

The Lord Bishop of Portsmouth

My Lords. I am sure that many Members of the House would like to second the congratulations of the noble Lord, Lord Astor, and I do so myself. I am sure that the noble Baroness is aware that the problem goes far deeper than has been outlined and that although Iraq expects a bumper wheat harvest, only two thirds of it is certain because of high petrol prices and farmers' inability to use machinery. Does not the root of the problem lie far deeper? Is there not a need for Iraq to be helped to be Iraq and for that poor country to move towards some sense of stability in the long term?

Baroness Amos

My Lords, the right reverend Prelate is absolutely right. While the humanitarian crisis is not on the scale that was predicted—for example, in terms of the movements of internally displaced people—and there are food and medical supplies available, the security situation remains a matter of grave concern. The right reverend Prelate also referred to the high prices of petrol. That is why the reconstruction effort is so important and why the UN resolution that is under discussion in New York is so important. They will pave the way for the establishment of the interim Iraqi authority that will take over the administration.

Baroness Northover

My Lords. I congratulate the Secretary of State on her new position. Her appointment is extremely welcome, as we have heard. On all sides of this House, and across the development community, her hard work and commitment are justly recognised.

Does the noble Baroness agree that our key aim in Iraq must be to restore security and to assist, as the right reverend Prelate indicated, in the establishment of a legitimate Iraqi government who can oversee all areas, including the security of medical supplies and food? In light of Clare Short's resignation, does she feel that the United Nations is being offered an appropriate role in trying to move forward the establishment of that legitimate Iraqi government?

Baroness Amos

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, the right reverend Prelate and others for their very kind wishes. Our priority must of course be the restoration of security. That is why the coalition forces are working so hard on that. We have managed to achieve that to a degree in the south. There is still fighting in Baghdad and that is why the situation there is so difficult. With respect to the importance of establishing a legitimate Iraqi government, the noble Baroness was absolutely right. The role of the UN is critical to that.

There are three key issues with which the new resolution deals. The first is the role of a special UN coordinator. The operative paragraph in the draft resolution is paragraph 8. It sets out a substantial mandate for a special co-ordinator to play a full part in all aspects of post-Iraq activity, from humanitarian efforts through to economic reconstruction, human rights, rebuilding police capacity, promoting legal and judicial reform and the political process. I hope, in the light of my comments about the scale of the role envisaged for the UN's special co-ordinator, that the noble Baroness will appreciate that we continue to see a vital role for the UN in that process.

Lord Wright of Richmond

My Lords, as one who has put to the Minister a number of critical and, I hope, testing questions on foreign policy aspects of Iraq and the Middle East over the past few years, I join in the congratulations and thank her for the courteous, helpful and well informed way in which she has always dealt with those questions.

Baroness Amos

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Wright. I am sure that those testing questions will continue.