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30 Jan 2003 : Column 1042—continued

Opposition Day

[4th Allotted Day]

Iraq (Humanitarian Contingency Plan)

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst): I have to inform the House that Mr. Speaker has not selected the amendment in the name of the leader of the Liberal Democrats.

2.16 pm

Mrs. Caroline Spelman (Meriden): I beg to move,

May I begin by drawing the attention of the House to a point that has been made to me by several colleagues? It is extremely difficult at this time of day to attend both the Chamber and Standing Committees whose meetings start at 2.30 pm. Members may not be in the Chamber not because of lack of interest in the subject of our debate, but because they have to be at a Standing Committee meeting in a quarter of an hour's time.

One of the most serious decisions a Prime Minister will ever have to make is whether to send our troops to war. The announcement last week that we are sending a quarter of our Army to the Gulf, while not making war inevitable, brings it a step closer. Furthermore, Hans Blix's statement to the Security Council this week provides clear evidence of Iraqi non-compliance, which, if it persists, will be met with military force.

It is understandable that many people are cautious in their support for action against Iraq. Humanitarian aid organisations are warning of the catastrophic impact that war is likely to have on the Iraqi people. The Conservative party is responding to those warnings by initiating this debate: it is the responsible thing to do.

So far, there has been a worrying silence from the Government on the humanitarian aspects of war against Iraq. It is worth pointing out that we have had no statement from the Secretary of State for International Development on the humanitarian preparations that her Department is making, despite having heard several statements from the Secretary of State for Defence on the military build-up that is taking place, and numerous statements from the Foreign Secretary on the diplomatic steps that he is taking.

The written answers that hon. Members have received have been oblique and, I must say, generally uninformative. Hon. Members may contrast that silence

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on the humanitarian effort with the debates held in Parliament after 11 September. Then, Parliament was provided with regular updates on the situation in Afghanistan. The Secretary of State seemed happy to make statements and respond in debates about the actions that she was taking to deliver aid to the Afghan people.

When Parliament was recalled, the Prime Minister said:

During his speech to the Labour party conference, the Prime Minister promised that

During the Afghan campaign, the House debated not debate only the military but the humanitarian strategy. We debated the effectiveness of the international aid effort and how it might be made more effective. We were able to reassure our constituents that we were taking the humanitarian effort seriously and we were able to reassure ordinary Afghans that our conflict was not with them.

I hope that today's debate will help to bring some balance to our understanding of the situation in Iraq.

Mr. Henry Bellingham (North-West Norfolk): My hon. Friend is right to mention Afghanistan. Looking a little further back in time, does she recall that during the Kosovo conflict there was substantial emphasis on the Government putting in place a clear humanitarian strategy?

Mrs. Spelman: My hon. Friend is right. So far, our preparations for war in Iraq have been in marked contrast to the preparations for both those wars.

If the wider war on terrorism is to succeed, it is crucial that we do not forfeit vital international support by pursuing a war against Saddam Hussein without a comprehensive humanitarian strategy for helping the innocent Iraqi people.

Our main concern today is the sustainability of the aid programmes on which the Iraqis depend in the event of a war against Saddam Hussein's regime. When war could be just six weeks away, it is vital that the international community builds a comprehensive strategy for delivering humanitarian aid to the people of Iraq. We seek reassurance from the Secretary of State that there are comprehensive humanitarian contingency plans. Some of the statements that we have heard in recent weeks do not give us confidence that that is the case.

Let us consider refugees. After the Gulf war, 1.8 million Iraqi refugees went on the move. That is 18 times the number of refugees who fled Afghanistan. On Tuesday, however, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees admitted to BBC News Online that its preparations were in the initial stages and,

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Is that really acceptable when war might be a matter of weeks away?

On 16 December, I asked the Secretary of State what discussions had taken place with Iran, Jordan, Syria, Turkey, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia—all the countries on Iraq's borders—about their policy of accepting refugees from Iraq. The answer came back, "None." I repeated that question on 27 January and got the same answer. Will the Secretary of State explain why little preparation appears to have been made for coping with an exodus of refugees? There are still 2 million Afghan refugees in Iran.

Miss Julie Kirkbride (Bromsgrove): I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing an important debate on a subject that needs a public airing—a debate that I hope will encourage Ministers to take more action. She is not ungenerous by nature, but could she help the House by telling us why she thinks the Government have been so laggardly in promoting this other aspect of the fight against terrorism?

Mrs. Spelman: I am afraid I cannot see into the minds of those on the Government Front Bench. My hon. Friend enables me to observe that although their hearts may well be in the right place in the sense that they want to help the Iraqi people, their seeming obduracy and unwillingness to debate humanitarian strategy could have an adverse morality—working against the very people whom we are all trying to spare unnecessary pain.

Mr. Alex Salmond (Banff and Buchan): Will the hon. Lady give way?

Mrs. Spelman: No, I wish to continue on the subject of refugees.

After 20 years of civil war in Afghanistan, there are still 2 million Afghan refugees in Iran, which already finds that a difficult burden to bear. Given that almost 1 million Iraqis crossed to Iran during the Gulf war, what support is Iran being provided to prepare for an exodus of refugees? Will Iran be in a position to cope when 900,000 refugees start to head for its border in two months' time? Surely now is the time to prepare for such a large-scale movement of people, not when they are on the move and it is already too late.

Glenda Jackson (Hampstead and Highgate): Perhaps the hon. Lady will explain Conservative policy on Iraqi refugees. Would the Conservatives merely dub them potential terrorists and lock them up the minute they arrived in this country, which certainly seems to be their policy in general?

Mrs. Spelman: This is not a debate for political point scoring; it is on a very serious subject. If the hon. Lady listens to the rest of my speech she will hear our policy. As she knows, we operate under the Geneva convention, by which we have a legal duty to provide a safe haven for genuine refugees. She knows that to be our position.

As the Secretary of State made clear in her statements to the media—

Mr. Salmond: Will the hon. Lady give way?

Mrs. Spelman: I wish to proceed on the subject of refugees.

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Iraq is already a desperately poor country and life under Saddam Hussein is appallingly bleak. The country's infrastructure remains damaged after the Iran-Iraq war and the Gulf war. According to the United Nations there are already about 1 million internally displaced people. More than 10 per cent. of all children die before their fifth birthday and a quarter of children are chronically malnourished. Children aged under 14 now comprise almost half of the Iraqi population. The sanitation system has all but collapsed and 60 per cent. of Iraqis—16 million people—depend on monthly food rations. Most Iraqis are now dependent on international aid programmes, a large part of which are funded under the auspices of the United Nations oil-for-food programme. Under Saddam Hussein, the effectiveness of that programme has already been severely disrupted. There is a real possibility, however, that that vital channel for the delivery of aid will be cut off altogether if there is a war. I hope that the Secretary of State will be able to tell the House what alternative measures are being prepared to replace the programme if it is suspended for several months.

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