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24 Sept 2002 : Column 142—continued

Mr. Keith Simpson (Mid-Norfolk): The Liberals.

Mr. Keetch: It is quite clear that the anti-Liberal Democrat unit set up by the Conservative Opposition has gone into overdrive because they are concerned that Liberal Democrat Members are asking these questions.

If diplomacy fails, would the Prime Minister be willing to support military action that is not supported by the United Nations or even by some of our NATO allies? I hope not. Has he considered the consequences for our other joint military operations? I hope so. Will there be, as has been called for on both sides of the House, a further debate, with a full vote, before more of our armed forces are committed to further military operations? There ought to be such a vote, because President Bush is prepared to give one to the US Congress, and the British people would find it hard to understand why a British Prime Minister, with a majority the size of the current one and the unflinching support of the official Opposition, would not be prepared to allow such a vote in the House.

Some hon. Members have said that we are about to start military action, but of course we are already engaged in military action above Iraq in the no-fly zones. I should like to reiterate that the Liberal Democrats believe that further military action should be a last resort; it should be considered only if Iraq's recent offer to re-admit inspectors is violated, if clear and incontrovertible evidence is presented to the international community to show that disarmament cannot proceed in any other way, if all possible steps have been taken to obtain a new UN resolution, if there are clear military objectives, and if the military action carried out is designed so far as possible to avoid civilian casualties.

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Moreover, we should also consider the implications for the wider middle east and the complications for the so-called campaign against terrorism. Where will that leave us? The Government should consider carefully and prepare for the humanitarian consequences of any action that takes place.

It has been said that our quarrel is not with the ordinary people of Iraq. That is true. Yet again, this crisis shows that occasionally our armed forces will be called upon to fulfil war-fighting as well as peacekeeping roles. If we ask them to defend us, we have a duty to ensure that they have the best equipment and resources to do the job.

As the Minister of State will know, the recent British exercise, Saif Sareea II, in Oman highlighted many technical shortcomings in our military equipment in the desert. I need not remind him about the concerns that have been expressed about the SA80 rifle, the boots that melt in the sun and the tanks that jam in the sand. If there is to be action, will our troops be properly equipped?

We all know that Saddam Hussein is adept at exploiting divisions in the international community to buy time, so the Liberal Democrats believe that we should keep up the pressure on Iraq, but at the same time we must keep the door to diplomacy open. So I say again that the Liberal Democrats are united—[Interruption]—unlike the Conservative party, in our scepticism of the Government's strategy.

We remain unconvinced that the case for war has as yet been made. We believe that a diplomatic approach could still work and in the priority of ensuring the return of weapons inspectors. We are firm in our resolve that Saddam Hussein should know that prevarication has consequences, and we speak for many people beyond the House in saying that, if military action is to be considered, there should be a substantive vote in the House of Commons.

9.18 pm

Linda Gilroy (Plymouth, Sutton): There can be no hon. Member who does not have some constituents in the armed services, but some of us have thousands, as has been mentioned, and early in the career of any such Member comes the constant preoccupation—if it is not already there—to monitor and consider such issues, the scale of the threat and the proportionate action to that threat.

In addition to that consideration, my constituency has been host to a small community of Iraqi asylum seekers during the past two years, and their concerns and those of the volunteers and religious communities who help them with their legal, health and education services are a constant reminder of just how vile the regime that we talking about is. It is also a reminder of the strength of longing and the preparedness of the Iraqi community in exile in this country to return and to try to build a better country when they may be given the chance to do so.

Many hon. Members have mentioned their constituents' concerns, and I am a great believer in not just waiting for people to come to me with their concerns because that very often gives a slanted and skewed version of the range of our constituents' concerns. So, over the past month, I have been trying to be proactive—ringing my constituents

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and party members to ask them what they make of the present situation. I have been asking not the sort of closed question that is so often put to people, "Are you in favour of war?" but the more open question, "What do you make of the current situation?" Many have expressed much more thoughtful and considered views than the natural response to the closed question, which, inevitably, is "No" in about 90 or 95 per cent. of cases.

People have expressed concern mainly by saying, "Well I'm not sure; I don't think there is a threat that warrants the sort of action that people are talking about," or, "I just don't know enough about it. There ought to be some more information available to us to help us share the problems that are surrounding us." There are others who say, "Yes, I do believe that there is a scale of threat that warrants some action, but nevertheless I feel that I need some more information."

Those of us for whom the issue is a preoccupation know that much of that information has been present for a long time. It is evident in the books that have been written by the weapons inspectors—by Butler, Ritter and Tim Evan among others. It is there on the United Nations website, and in the reports of UNSCOM and the United Nations Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission. It is there in the dossier of the International Institute for Strategic Studies that was published last week. We also receive a host of briefings from the House of Commons Library and, indeed, I am not sure that I heard any Member make particular reference to an excellent briefing from the Library which was published on 20 September.

The report that we have received today does not add that much more information to what is available from all those sources, but it serves a very useful purpose by bringing the information together and by putting into language that is accessible to our constituents the breadth and depth of the suspicions that many of us have shared, that thousands of scientists in Iraq have been very busy.

The dossier has made such information more accessible, but sadly it confirms that the devil has found work to ensure that those scientists have not been idle. It is clear that there are now greater and growing resources of weapons, matérials, know-how and, indeed, means of their delivery. Doing nothing to stem that growth is no longer an option—[Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker: Order. There are far too many conversations going on in the Chamber. That is impolite and unfair to the hon. Lady who is addressing the House.

Linda Gilroy: The emphasis on the role of the United Nations, which has emerged more clearly over the past week and today, is very welcome. The likelihood of weapons inspectors standing any chance of being allowed to do their job quickly, fully and effectively, bringing to an end the 11-year cat and mouse game, which one commentator has called cheat-and-retreat flouting of the UN resolutions, has been one of the big worries for my constituents and myself. I must say to the hon. Member for Glasgow, Kelvin (Mr. Galloway) that to think that journalists can rush around Iraq verifying something that stretched and challenged highly skilled, equipped and trained weapons inspectors is laughable.

Like most in this House and in my constituency, I have attached great importance to doing everything possible to work through the United Nations as the international body

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that fulfils the capacity to meet our aspirations of a more stable world, rather than failing our aspirations and leaving us hopeless. To achieve that, when dealing with someone of Saddam's character and track record, we must face him with a credible threat of force that will have the certainty of removing what he so assiduously seeks to retain in building up his lethal armoury in the way that today's assessment makes clear that he is doing. I have a very strong preference for making sure that every effort is made to do that through the UN. That policy would underline the point about its importance, as it is the best available way of building the broad coalition of interests that, in the long term, will stand us in the strongest stead in meeting the challenges that this century is clearly going to hold for us.

Two years ago, four or five of us went to the UN with a delegation to look at how the body could work to bring peace and stability to the world. As a first time visitor to New York as well as to the UN, I was struck by the labyrinthine nature of the UN and the huge challenges of trying to make the body work in all our interests. It is now under the leadership of Kofi Annan and he has gone a long way to making the body more workable. However, we should not underestimate the grave difficulties that lie right at the heart of it in the Security Council to bring about the effective leadership that can make the task that we face in Iraq work. One has only to read the accounts of what happened in 1998 and 1999 to understand that there was ambivalence right at the heart of the UN about the work of the weapons inspectors. That shows what a difficult task they will face when they return to Iraq.

Two years ago when I was on that delegation, I bought in the bookshop at the UN a copy of Dag Hammarskjold's meditations "Markings". I cannot remember the exact quotation so I paraphrase one of his earliest meditations. He said that, to find the right road, we should not look down at every next step but keep our eye on the far horizon. In fact, we will need to do both in the months ahead. However, like most people in the House and in my constituency, I strongly believe that the best chance of stability, security and sanity in the world must have the UN firmly at its compass.

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