HL Deb 15 September 2003 vol 652 cc658-60

2.40 p.m.

Lord Redesdale

asked Her Majesty's Government:

Why information about the two vehicles suspected of being involved in the production of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq is restricted under Exemption 1c of the Code of Practice on Access to Government Information.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Ministry of Defence (Lord Bach)

My Lords, Her Majesty's Government have a duty to protect information provided in confidence by foreign governments. As I made clear in my answer of 8th September to the noble Lord, our continuing investigations into the suspect vehicles are based primarily on such information. For that reason, I am withholding the details under Exemption 1c of the Code of Practice on Access to Government Information.

Lord Redesdale

My Lords, is not the Government's refusal to give the information an abuse of the code which the noble Lord has just mentioned because, in an earlier paragraph, the code refers to public interest? Obviously it is in the public interest to know whether the suspect vehicles were used as mobile weapons of mass destruction laboratories. If they were, that is rather odd because the vehicles are not mentioned in either the Foreign Affairs Select Committee report or the Intelligence and Security Committee report. If they have no links to the weapons of mass destruction programme in Iraq, then perhaps it is also in the public interest that we should know that vehicles which have British components on board were not being used for that purpose and that therefore the allegation should not be made.

Lord Bach

My Lords, I refute entirely that it is a wrong use of the code. We shall not release information passed to us in confidence by foreign governments, nor would we expect other governments to release information that we have provided to them in confidence. We have said that coalition forces are actively pursuing intelligence leads, documentation and individuals connected with Iraq's WMD programmes. Gathering and collating evidence of WMD programmes from the various sources is a long and complex task. Frankly, the noble Lord needs to be a little more patient and to give the Iraq Survey Group time to complete its task on this and other issues. However, we intend to provide an update once we are in a position to do so. Indeed, my right honourable friend the Prime Minister said on 2nd July that the findings of the ISG should be publicly available.

Baroness Williams of Crosby

My Lords, these two vehicles are most significant, having been mentioned in the US President's State of the Union address in January and having been referred to in the White Paper presented by the CIA and the DIA in the United States at the end of May 2003. Given that, can the Minister tell us something wholly within the sphere of Her Majesty's Government? Were the British-made components on the vehicles supported by any form of export subsidy and has that export subsidy been repaid or, in effect, is the United Kingdom still the legal owner of the component parts of those vehicles?

Lord Bach

My Lords, I am not in a position to be able to answer the noble Baroness in the terms that she suggests. We currently assess that the vehicles were built in Iraq using Iraqi components and standard industrial components that had been obtained from several different countries, including the United Kingdom. The components of British origin would not have been restricted under the sanctions regime.

Lord Astor of Hever

My Lords, when does the Minister expect a response from the Iraq Survey Group, which he mentioned?

Lord Bach

My Lords, we hope that the survey group will report as soon as possible, but we accept that it will take as long as is necessary to investigate the programmes. I notice that the Liberal Democrat Benches laugh at that answer. I believe they should think slightly more carefully about laughing at an answer like that. This matter needs very careful consideration so we do not jump to conclusions one way or the other. If they are suggesting by implication that there is some kind of cover-up here, they should be very careful indeed or put that allegation to me directly.

Lord Newby

My Lords, would the Minister care to comment on the suggestion that the two vehicles, far from being used to manufacture weapons of mass destruction, were used to manufacture hydrogen for use in barrage balloons?

Lord Bach

My Lords, I understand it is possible that the vehicles were used either for the manufacture of hydrogen or biological material, albeit both imperfectly.

Lord Redesdale

My Lords, I thank the Minister for his reply. However, considering the Written Answer he gave earlier, we believe that this is an abuse of the code. Therefore, we shall probably take this matter to the Ombudsman.