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7 Jan 2003 : Column 21—continued

Parliamentary Timetable

34. Helen Jackson (Sheffield, Hillsborough): To ask the President of the Council what further changes to the standard timetable of the House he is proposing during this year. [89170]

The Parliamentary Secretary, Privy Council Office (Mr. Ben Bradshaw): The House has recently agreed significant changes which begin today. These include, for the first time, having an annual parliamentary calendar which will give some predictability to our timetable, a change that has been warmly welcomed by Members on both sides of the House. There are no current plans for further changes but the Modernisation Committee will, of course, monitor and assess the impact of the recent reforms.

Helen Jackson : I thank my hon. Friend for that reply. He will know that I welcome the new year and the new timetable, and hope that they will both be happy for all of us. However, as we settle into the new regime, can my hon. Friend assure us that proper practices of political scheming—much loved by Members of this House—and the valuable work undertaken by the usual channels will continue and thrive under the new regime?

Mr. Bradshaw: It is certainly beyond my powers and, I suspect, beyond the powers of any Member here to put an end to what my hon. Friend describes as political scheming.


The hon. Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire, representing the House of Commons Commission, was asked—

Select Committee Hearings

35. Mr. David Kidney (Stafford): What proportion of public hearings of Select Committees in this Session could be viewed by internet users in real time? [89171]

Sir Archy Kirkwood (on behalf of the House of Commons Commission): Up to this morning, there have

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been 110 public meetings of Select Committees in the current Session of which 28—some 25 per cent.—were webcast.

Mr. Kidney: How long will it be until that figure is 100 per cent?

Sir Archy Kirkwood: It may be some time. The hon. Gentleman takes a genuine interest in those matters, and I thank him for that. He will know that a webcast experiment was conducted in 2002 through joint offices in both Houses. It involved four channels covering Xgavel to gavel" proceedings in the House of Commons, the House of Lords, Westminster Hall and one Select Committee at any given time. That experiment is being reviewed. We hope to have options that flow from the review, and I hope that the Board of Management will take some decisions later this year.


The President of the Council was asked—

University Visitor

36. Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham): Will the President of the Council make a statement on the exercise of his responsibilities as Visitor in respect of universities? [89173]

The President of the Council (Mr. Robin Cook): As President of the Council, I exercise the role of Visitor in respect of 17 universities and colleges. In that capacity, I determine petitions from students and, occasionally, from staff who have exhausted all internal complaints and appeals procedures. I received 35 such petitions last year. None required a visit to the university concerned.

Mr. Bercow : I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman. Without casting any aspersions on his academic credentials as a product of Aberdeen grammar school and Edinburgh university, does he agree that his role as Visitor in respect of a number of universities is, following Bagehot, a dignified rather than an efficient part of our constitution? Dare I say that it might be a suitable subject for consideration for reform by the Modernisation Committee?

Mr. Cook: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for not calling into question my academic qualifications for the post, but I can assure him—I think this will bring him some relief—that we have reached agreement with the universities on the appointment of an independent adjudicator for students. It is our intention and that of the universities that the adjudicator will be up and running for the next university session. From then on, those cases referred to me and to the other Visitors will be referred to that independent adjudicator. That simple solution will ensure that we have a proper mechanism, but one that we have negotiated in agreement with the universities themselves.

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Iraq: Contingency Preparations Update

3.32 pm

The Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Geoffrey Hoon): With permission, Mr. Speaker, I would like to make a statement on Iraq.

In a written statement to the House earlier today, my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary set out the Government's policy objectives for Iraq. Those objectives make clear our commitment to the disarmament of Iraq's weapons of mass destruction and to the United Nations process. They set out our vision that Iraq should become a

I am confident that this is a vision which is shared by all Members of the House.

Furthermore, the statement puts our policy on Iraq in the context of the Government's wider agenda: our efforts to resolve related issues, including the middle east peace process; wider political engagement with Arab countries and the Islamic world; efforts to counter the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction; and the elimination of terrorism as a force in international affairs.

Those objectives restate the Government's absolute commitment to act in conformity with international law, including the UN charter and international humanitarian law. I commend them to the House.

In publishing those objectives, the Government are restating their full and active support for UNMOVIC and the International Atomic Energy Agency. Together, those organisations have about 110 inspectors working in Iraq and have already completed more than 200 inspections. We are now looking to them to investigate urgently the gaps in Iraq's declaration of its weapons of mass destruction programmes, which, as my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary made clear on 19 December, fails to give a satisfactory account of Iraq's activities in this area.

UNMOVIC and the IAEA will next report formally to the Security Council on 27 January. That is not necessarily a decision point on Iraqi compliance. In fact, under resolution 1441, UNMOVIC and the IAEA are required to report immediately to the Security Council any Iraqi interference or non-compliance. The council would then meet urgently to consider the situation. It follows that non-compliance could be declared at any time, either before or after 27 January, as a result of Iraqi failures.

While we want Iraq and Saddam Hussein to disarm voluntarily, it is evident that we will not achieve that unless we continue to present him with a clear and credible threat of force, so the policy objectives also make it clear that we must continue with military planning and preparations. Before the recess, I described to the House the contingency planning and preparatory activity that we had set in hand for that purpose. I now set out two further specific steps that we are taking.

The first step relates to reserves. On 25 November and 18 December, I explained the preparatory work that we were undertaking to identify the potential requirement

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for reserves. Reservists play key enabling roles in support of all three services. Reservists, however, cannot be brought into active service instantly. They require notice in order to be able to set their affairs in order and to go through a mobilisation process that includes medical checks, the issuing of equipment, and any necessary training and preparation for the tasks that may be required of them.

Against that background, and to keep open a range of military options, I have today made an order under section 54(1) of the Reserve Forces Act 1996 to enable the call-out of reservists for possible operations against Iraq. That does not mean that a decision has been taken to commit British forces to such operations, but it is an essential enabling measure to ensure that if such operations become necessary they will be properly supported with the skills and expertise that our reserve forces provide.

Following the making of the order, the armed forces will issue call-out notices as required in order to mobilise those individuals who may be needed. That process is likely to be incremental. The overall scale of mobilisation will depend on the continuing evolution of our contingency planning. It should also be borne in mind that experience shows that the number of call-out notices issued needs to be significantly larger than the number of individual reservists likely to be required. It would therefore be misleading, as well as undesirable for reasons of operational security, for me to give specific numbers or details at this stage. However, we envisage initially sending out sufficient call-out notices to secure about 1,500 reservists, and we will issue further notices as appropriate. The Government take seriously their duty to call out reservists only when it is absolutely necessary. We understand the impact of call-out both on reservists and on their employers. I pay tribute to the valuable contribution they make to the overall strength of our armed forces.

Secondly, in my statement on 18 December, I described the long-planned deployment of naval task group 2003 to the Gulf and Asia-Pacific regions, and said that we were also considering the deployment of additional maritime forces early in the new year. I have now authorised the deployment of a number of additional vessels and units later this month, which will represent a significant amphibious capability. The group will conduct training in the Mediterranean with a view to proceeding to the Gulf region if and as required.

The objective is to ensure the readiness of a broad range of military capabilities. Preparatory steps of this nature are necessary in order to keep military options open. It is likely that we will want to make further deployments in the coming weeks for the same purpose. We are taking steps to ensure the readiness of units and equipment, and the availability of appropriate chartered shipping and air transport in which to deploy them.

The planned deployments in the next few weeks will now include the aircraft carrier HMS Ark Royal; the helicopter carrier HMS Ocean; the destroyers HMS Liverpool, HMS Edinburgh and HMS York; the frigate HMS Marlborough; the Royal Fleet Auxiliary vessels Argus, Fort Victoria, Fort Rosalie and Fort Austin; the landing ships logistic Sir Galahad, Sir Tristram and Sir Percivale; a mine countermeasures group initially comprising HMS Grimsby and HMS Ledbury; and a submarine, as originally planned for naval task group

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2003. We plan to deploy amphibious forces in HMS Ark Royal, HMS Ocean and associated shipping, including headquarters 3 Commando Brigade, 40 Commando Royal Marines and 42 Commando Royal Marines with all supporting elements.

None of that means that the use of force is inevitable. Despite the speculation that will arise as a result of these announcements today, it remains the case that no decision has been taken to commit those forces to action. But, as I said on 18 December, as long as Saddam's compliance with UN Security Council resolution 1441 is in doubt, as it continues to be at present, the threat of force must remain and it must be a real one.

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