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17 Oct 2002 : Column 495—continued

Llew Smith (Blaenau Gwent): Will the Secretary of State explain to the House in what circumstances he would consider the use of nuclear weapons?

Mr. Hoon: I have set out to the House on a considerable number of occasions that it has not been the policy of this or any Government to set out the precise circumstances in which a nuclear weapon would be used, not least because the purpose of retaining nuclear weapons is to deter. To set out precisely the circumstances in which we would use such a weapon would eliminate the effect of the deterrence. I am sure that my hon. Friend was aware of the answer that I was likely to give to him, as he has asked me that question before. However, for the avoidance of doubt, I am grateful for the opportunity of repeating it.

Mr. Graham Allen (Nottingham, North): On a slightly different matter, my right hon. Friend underlines that action should take place, if possible, in an international context—if, indeed, action is to take place in Iraq. Will he allow the House to be privy to the legal advice that the Attorney-General has given to the Government, some of which appeared in The Guardian last week? It would be helpful for colleagues in the House to understand the legal context and the legitimacy of any action that may or may not take place.

Mr. Hoon: My hon. Friend is a very experienced Member of the House and I am surprised that, after so long here, he still believes what he reads in The Guardian. I can assure him that there was not advice from Her Majesty's Law Officers. Moreover, he well knows that it is a long-standing convention that Ministers do not disclose the legal advice, or other advice, that they receive.

Glenda Jackson (Hampstead and Highgate): Perhaps my right hon. Friend might clarify for me the Government's view at this moment, in this context, of an international community. He referred to the need for the international community to act together to tackle

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international terrorism. On the issue of a strike against Saddam Hussein, it would seem that the international community has reduced to two sovereign states, namely the United Kingdom and the United States. Is he saying that this now constitutes the international community and that we will engage against Iraq if the rest of what I understood to be the international community stays where it is, firmly saying no to a pre-emptive strike?

Mr. Hoon: I am sorry that my hon. Friend takes that view of the international community. Even a superficial reading of today's newspapers—[Interruption.] I did say Xsuperficial." A superficial reading of the newspapers would demonstrate that the international community is engaged in a discussion in the United Nations and, probably as I am speaking, efforts are being made to produce a new Security Council resolution. That is involving the Security Council and other members in trying to establish the clear view of the international community. With the greatest respect, I disagree with my hon. Friend.

Mr. Bernard Jenkin (North Essex): I do not often make common cause with the hon. Member for Nottingham, North (Mr. Allen), but on this question I do. The Opposition have previously called for a proper explanation of the legal basis on which pre-emptive action against Iraq might be taken. It is not usual for the Government to publish their legal advice, but there are precedents, and I submit that in these circumstances the precedent is a valid one. The new Bush doctrine on pre-emptive strikes is an important development in security law. The question of pre-emption is touched upon in the Government's defence policy document on the new chapter to the strategic defence review, and it is incumbent on them to establish that what they are proposing or contemplating has a clear basis in international law.

Mr. Hoon: I am surprised to hear the hon. Gentleman suggest that this is a new development. If he checks carefully the use of the word Xpre-emption", he will find it first referred to in the 19th century. I realise that that may be new for some Conservatives. However, the hon. Gentleman will find that there is a well-established 19th century doctrine of pre-emption based on the concept of self-defence, which allows a sovereign state to take action to protect itself in the event of an imminent threat. The document that he refers to, published by the United States Administration, is based firmly on that tradition.

Mr. Jenkin: I am delighted to hear the Government agreeing with the Bush national security strategy. However, the question is not whether pre-emption is a new concept but whether we are adjusting what we regard as an imminent threat in the new security climate. It is very difficult to establish what is an imminent threat. We want to be sure that what we judge to be an imminent threat is securely founded in international law.

Mr. Hoon: If the hon. Gentleman reads carefully what he has just said, he will realise that he is arguing in a circular manner. He is now asking me to apply the principles of international law to a situation that has not

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yet arisen. In those circumstances, he will understand perfectly well why it would not be sensible for me to answer his question.

Mr. Paul Keetch (Hereford): The Secretary of State referred to the debate that we had on the recall of Parliament, but of course there was no vote on that occasion—[Interruption.] Well, there was no substantive vote on the deployment of British troops. The Leader of the House has suggested that there should be a substantive vote on the deployment of British troops. Indeed, the President of the United States has sought and received support from both Houses of Congress. Does the Secretary of State believe that there should be a vote before British troops are deployed into action?

Mr. Hoon: My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and the Leader of the House have both set out the Government's position in this matter. It will obviously be resolved when and if that time comes, but as the time has not yet come, it is not necessary for me to answer that question at this stage.

Mr. Mark Prisk (Hertford and Stortford): The Secretary of State seems to be suggesting that moving from the historic basis of our defence in the past 40 years—namely the principle of deterrence—to a principle of pre-emption is a minor step that does not need full explanation. Surely to goodness we need to have that debate, whether we agree on the principle or not; it is no good trying to tiptoe past it.

Mr. Hoon: On the contrary, I was not suggesting that there had been a change. I was suggesting that for the past 40 years we had lived perfectly comfortably with the concept of pre-emption and deterrence. If I did not communicate that clearly to the hon. Gentleman, I sincerely apologise, but that is the position.

Paul Flynn (Newport, West): Does my right hon. Friend agree that the main cause of the acts of terrorism that we have witnessed is a belief—almost certainly a mistaken belief—among Muslim communities throughout the world that they have been badly treated by the western Christian communities? Is not the worst way to deepen that suspicion and encourage more acts of terrorism to invade Iraq before there is a just settlement in Palestine?

Mr. Hoon: I simply do not accept what my hon. Friend says. If he thinks very carefully about al-Qaeda and the appalling attacks that it has perpetrated over very many years, many of which have seen Muslims as its victims, he will realise that he is talking nonsense, if he will forgive me for saying so.

Mr. Jim Cunningham (Coventry, South): How confident is my right hon. Friend that he will get the support of the United Nations? My colleagues and I receive many letters from constituents expressing their concern that we go through the United Nations.

Mr. Hoon: That is the Government's position and we are trying to achieve our policy on that. As I said when

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answering an earlier question, we are using all our efforts to secure that international consensus behind our position.

Several hon. Members rose—

Mr. Hoon: If hon. Members will forgive me, I wish to make a little progress. I shall give way again in a moment.

We want to achieve that end through the United Nations, without recourse to military action, but we must show Saddam Hussein that we have the resolve to act. Recent history demonstrates that he will not give up his ambitions out of the goodness of his heart. We have to show that we are prepared to back our words with action, however reluctantly. It is for Saddam Hussein to avoid conflict by agreeing to abide by United Nations resolutions, granting genuinely unfettered access to weapons inspectors and obeying international law. The Government have the resolve and the will to act if he is so mistaken as to put the world's determination to the test.

The issue remains a difficult one for all of us. No one takes these decisions lightly or without careful consideration of all the options. That is why it is so crucial that we have a clear policy underlying those options.

Mr. Mohammad Sarwar (Glasgow, Govan): President Bush has made it abundantly clear that if the United Nations does not act to punish Iraq, the United States will act alone, with or without UN backing. Does the Secretary of State agree with him? Secondly, does my right hon. Friend agree with me that unilateral action against Iraq will fracture the international coalition? Now is the right time to stop using the words Xinternational community", because only three heads of state support this war: Ariel Sharon and President Bush supported by our Prime Minister.

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