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Benefits (Personal Advisers)

25. Mr. Ian Pearson (Dudley, South): What services will be offered by the personal adviser to people applying for benefits through the single gateway. [58393]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Social Security (Angela Eagle): The personal adviser will help benefit claimants of working age to explore ways in which they can overcome barriers that prevent participation in the labour market. The adviser will be able to provide information and advice on the options that are available and a personalised calculation of potential in-work income.

The personal adviser will also help individuals to gain access to a range of services such as child care provision, specialist counselling, housing support and training.

Mr. Pearson: I thank my hon. Friend for her reply. Any measure that sensibly cuts bureaucracy and introduces clarity into the system has to be welcomed, but can she help to explain whether we are talking about one gateway or two? Do people have one personal adviser or two? Can she assure me that just one person is advising people on the gateway and those who enter the new deal?

Angela Eagle: My hon. Friend must not mix up the new deal programmes that have been launched throughout the country with the 12 pilots of the single gateway, which will begin in June next year and be extended in

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November. We hope to learn lessons from those pilots and then consider whether to extend them throughout the benefit system.

Madam Speaker: Mr. Patrick Hall? Mrs. Sylvia Heal? Mr. Andrew Mackinlay?

Mr. Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock): I am here.

Hon. Members: Not for long, though.

National Insurance

29. Mr. Mackinlay: What plans he has to change the rules on employers' contributions to the national insurance fund. [58397]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Social Security (Mr. Stephen Timms): I am delighted that my hon. Friend is here.

From April 1999, the point at which employers start to pay secondary class 1 contributions will be raised to a new "earning threshold" set at the level of the personal tax allowance--which is £83 per week, as announced by my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer, on

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3 November, in the pre-Budget report. Additionally, the current multiplicity of employers' contribution rates for different earnings levels will be abolished and replaced with a single 12.2 per cent. contribution rate payable on earnings above the new earnings threshold. Employers will no longer have to pay contributions on the portion of earnings below the earnings threshold.

Provision for the changes was made in the Social Security Act 1998--which made provision also for the introduction of a new class 1B employers' national insurance contribution, so that treatment of contributions on payments and benefits to employees included in a pay-as-you-earn settlement agreement can be aligned with the tax treatment. Regulations to give effect to all those changes will be laid before both Houses in due course.

Mr. Mackinlay: I concentrated on that reply with considerable vigour. May I ask the Minister what he will do about employers--such as P and O Stena, and Cable and Wireless--who have the practice of paying their employees offshore, thereby avoiding paying national insurance contributions? That practice is not only unfair but unpatriotic. Should it not be stopped, immediately, by legislation? What does he say?

Mr. Timms: I am aware of the concerns expressed by hon. Friend, which we are closely examining.

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3.30 pm

The Prime Minister (Mr. Tony Blair): Madam Speaker, with your permission, I shall make a statement on the situation in Iraq.

As the House will know, on Saturday I had authorised substantial military action as part of a joint US-UK strike against targets in Iraq. British Tornado fighter bombers were about to take to the air, and I had already spoken to the detachment commander to thank the detachment for its bravery and professionalism, when we received word that the Iraqis were telling the United Nations Secretary-General that they had backed down. I should like to explain to the House why we were ready to take such action, why we decided to stay our hand, and why we remain ready to strike if the Iraqis do not fully comply with their obligations.

Let me first put the events in context. Security Council resolution 687 of April 1991, containing the ceasefire terms for the Gulf war, obliged Iraq to accept the destruction of all its weapons of mass destruction and not to develop such weapons in the future. The United Nations Special Commission was established to oversee those processes, with the International Atomic Energy Agency. A further resolution required immediate, unconditional and unrestricted access to any places and records in Iraq that inspectors wished to inspect.

The seven years since then have been a constant struggle between Iraq and the weapons inspectors, who have been backed by the full authority of the UN. The inspectors themselves have been harassed and threatened. Iraq has deceived and concealed and lied at every turn. A deliberate mechanism to hide existing weapons and to develop new ones has been in place, involving organisations close to Saddam Hussein, particularly his Special Republican Guard.

Despite all the obstruction, UNSCOM and the IAEA have been remarkably successful in uncovering and destroying massive amounts of weaponry, particularly following the defection of Saddam Hussein's son-in-law, Hussein Kamel, in l995. He was murdered on his return to Iraq the following year.

UNSCOM has destroyed, for example, more than 38,000 chemical weapon munitions, 690 tonnes of chemical weapon agents and 3,000 tonnes of precursor chemicals. Furthermore, 48 Scud missiles have been destroyed, as has a biological weapons factory designed to produce up to 50,000 litres of anthrax, botulism toxin and other agents. Without the weapons inspectors, that deadly arsenal would have been available to Saddam Hussein to use against his neighbours. Who can say with any confidence that he would not already have used it?

Huge question marks remain, for example, over 610 tonnes of unaccounted-for precursor chemicals for the nerve gas VX; over imports of growth media capable of producing huge amounts of anthrax; and over missile warheads, particularly those designed for chemical and biological weapons. Iraq has denied weaponising VX, but analysis of missile warhead fragments in a US laboratory showed traces of VX. Further tests were carried out in French and Swiss laboratories. A multinational group of experts concluded in late October that the original US tests were accurate, that the French laboratory had found

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evidence consistent with the trace of a nerve gas on one fragment, and that all three laboratories had found evidence of Iraqi attempts to decontaminate the warheads.

The simple truth therefore is that, before the Gulf war, Iraq had built up a vast arsenal of weapons of mass destruction. It has been trying to hide them, and to acquire more, ever since. Despite UNSCOM, Iraq still has weapons of mass destruction capability. We do not know precisely how many, but it still has the skills, the engineers and the equipment to make more. Saddam Hussein has used these weapons before, including on his own people. I am in no doubt that he would use them again, given half a chance.

Let us not forget either that Saddam's conventional military capabilities remain at a very high level: more than 1 million men under arms, including 75,000 in the Republican Guard and 15,000 members of the Special Republican Guard, 2,700 main battle tanks and nearly 400 combat aircraft. That is what he continues to spend his money on, rather than the welfare of his own people.

In October 1997, Iraq sought to exclude US personnel from UNSCOM teams. In the face of international pressure, the Iraqis backed down then, but continued to try to impose controls on the so-called presidential sites. In January 1998, Iraq again objected to US and UK personnel, made explicit a ban on access to eight presidential sites, and threatened to end co-operation with UNSCOM if it had not completed its work by May 1998. We, the Americans and others made it clear that we would use force if Saddam did not change his mind.

On that occasion, Kofi Annan, the Secretary-General of the UN, negotiated a memorandum of understanding under which Iraq confirmed its acceptance of all relevant Security Council resolutions and its readiness to co-operate fully with UNSCOM and the IAEA. This averted military action at the 11th hour. The Security Council's endorsement of this MOU stressed that any violation of it would have the severest consequences for Iraq.

Iraq subsequently resumed superficial co-operation, but on 5 August this year suspended everything but the most routine monitoring when its demand for a declaration saying that it had fulfilled all its disarmament obligations was rejected. A further Security Council resolution in September suspended reviews of sanctions in consequence but endorsed the idea of a comprehensive review of Iraq's compliance with its obligations.

On 30 October, the Security Council unanimously agreed terms of reference for the review, holding out the clear prospect of a statement of the steps that Iraq still had to take, and of the likely time frame for their completion, assuming full co-operation by Iraq. Astonishingly, this offer was rejected by Iraq on 31 October, and the Iraqis then announced that they were ceasing all co-operation with UNSCOM. The Security Council unanimously condemned this on 5 November as a flagrant violation of Iraq's obligations.

I have set this out in detail because it is important that we understand what is at stake. We are talking not about technical breaches of UN resolutions, but about a pattern of behaviour that continues to pose huge actual risks for Iraq's neighbours, the middle east and the entire international community.

Let me now return to the events of the last few days. Following the Iraqi decision to break off co-operation with UNSCOM on 31 October, despite the offer of a

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comprehensive review, we and the Americans decided that if Saddam Hussein did not return to full compliance very quickly, we were ready to mount an air attack to reduce substantially Iraq's threat to its neighbours, in particular by degrading its weapons of mass destruction capability, and its ability to develop, control and deliver such weapons.

We did not want a lengthy military build-up of the kind that there had been in February, or endless rhetorical warnings, but we did make it clear that if Iraq did not return to full compliance very quickly indeed, it would face a substantial military strike. A private warning was delivered directly to the Iraqi permanent representative at the UN on Thursday 12 November, giving no details about timing, but leaving no doubt about the scale of what was intended.

Saturday afternoon, London time, was set for the start of the attack. I gave final authorisation that morning for the use of force. I did so with regret, and with a deep sense of responsibility. I saw no credible alternative. The UK's weight in the planned strike would have been substantial, including nearly 20 per cent. of the tactical bomber effort.

Just over two hours before the attack was due to start, we received word that the Iraqis had told the United Nations Secretary-General that they were responding positively to a final letter of appeal which he had sent to them the previous night. We decided that the attack should be put on hold for 24 hours to give us a chance to study the details of the Iraqi response.

The first Iraqi letter appeared to agree to resume co-operation with UNSCOM and the IAEA. It was described as unconditional by Iraqi spokesmen, but the full text of the letter, and in particular nine assurances that the Iraqis were seeking about the comprehensive review--they were listed in an annex--left that unclear. We and the Americans spelled out that that was unacceptable, and that there could be no question of any conditions.

During the course of Saturday night and Sunday morning, the Iraqis offered a stream of further written and oral clarifications, making it clear that their compliance was unconditional, that the nine points were merely a wish-list, not conditions, that their decisions of August and October to withdraw co-operation had been formally rescinded, and that the weapons inspectors would be allowed to resume the full range of their activities in accordance with UN resolutions, without let or hindrance. I have placed the text of the Iraqi letters in the Library of the House.

The clarifications, taken together, mean that Saddam Hussein has completely withdrawn his positions of August and October. No concessions of any kind were offered to him in exchange. There was no negotiation of any kind. Nor could there have been. Nor will there be in future.

We do not take Iraqi words at face value. Long experience has taught us to do the opposite. However, we had asked for unconditional resumption of co-operation, and, in the face of the credible threat of force--in this case very imminent force--Iraq offered that resumption. In those circumstances, we and the Americans have suspended further military action while we bolt down every detail of what the Iraqis have said, and while we

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test the words in practice. The Security Council decided last night that UNSCOM and IAEA inspectors should resume their work in Iraq immediately. They will be in Iraq tomorrow, and they must be afforded full co-operation in every respect.

As ever, we do not rely on the good faith of Saddam Hussein. He has none. We know, however, that under threat of force, we can make him move. We will be watching with extreme care and a high degree of scepticism. Our forces remain in place and on high alert. We and the Americans remain ready, willing and able to go back to the use of force at any time. There will be no further warnings. The inspectors will now carry out their work.

There are in my view two substantial and fundamental differences between the Iraqi climbdown this time and the climbdown in February. First, there is now a very clear diplomatic basis for action without further need for long discussion in the Security Council or elsewhere. In February, we allowed a long time for negotiations. This time we allowed only a short period. If there is a next time, there will be not even that. If there is a next time, everyone will know what to expect, as President Chirac and others have made clear.

Secondly, the world can see more clearly than ever that Saddam Hussein is indeed intimated by the threat of force. Many so-called experts told us that Saddam wanted military action--even needed it--to shore up his position internally and in the region. His complete collapse on Saturday gives the lie to such bogus analysis. When he finally saw, correctly, that we were ready to use force on a substantial scale, he crumbled. I hope that other countries more dubious of the use of force may now see that Saddam is moved by the credible threat of force. He has exposed the fact that his fear is greater than his courage. Let us learn the lesson of that.

If there is a next time, I shall have no hesitation in ordering the use of force. President Clinton's position is the same. The USA and the UK, with far greater international support than ever before, have Saddam Hussein trapped. If he again obstructs the inspectors' work, we will strike. There will be no warnings, no wrangling, no negotiation and no last-minute letters. The next time co-operation is withdrawn, he will be hit.

We have no quarrel with the people of Iraq. On the contrary, we support the desire of the overwhelming majority of them for freedom from Saddam Hussein. They find themselves in a desperate position. I have no doubt of the genuine suffering of many, though not, of course, the elite and those who keep in them in power. We do what we can through our aid programme. Under the oil for food arrangements, the Iraqis can import as much food and medicine as they want, and I hope that we will hear no more echoes here of cynical and hypocritical Iraqi propaganda about this. If Saddam Hussein wants to import more, he can do so freely. If he wants the sanctions position to change, the solution is in his hands through fulfilment of his obligations.

This is far from over. It is merely in a different phase. Our course is set: complete compliance and nothing less, and we shall not be moved from that course.

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