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House of Commons

Wednesday 26 February 2003

The House met at half-past Eleven o'clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]


Transas Group Bill (By Order)

Order for Second Reading read.

To be read a Second time on Wednesday 5 March.

Oral Answers to Questions


The Secretary of State was asked—

Health Services (Afghanistan)

1. Linda Gilroy (Plymouth, Sutton): What recent discussions she has had with non-governmental organisations about rebuilding health services in Afghanistan. [98726]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for International Development (Ms Sally Keeble): My officials are in regular contact with NGOs in both Kabul and the UK. NGOs continue to have an important role to play in service delivery, especially as Government capacity is still weak. They have helped to immunise children against polio and measles, and have saved an estimated 30,000 lives. The Department for International Development has financed a number of these health activities.

Linda Gilroy : I thank my hon. Friend for that reply. Does she accept that the continuing insecurity, especially outside of Kabul, hampers reconstruction and aid work? In its discussions with NGOs and aid agencies, has her Department explored their concerns about the capacity of joint reaction teams to bring that much-needed security?

Ms Keeble: I begin by paying tribute to the work that my hon. Friend has done with the Save the Children Fund to raise money for a clinic in Afghanistan. I certainly agree that improving security is one of the key challenges. The aim of the teams to which she refers—they have since been renamed provincial reconstruction teams—is to extend the authority of the Afghan Government, and to help to secure the development of

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a stable environment in the regions. We have been talking to the NGOs about this matter, and I believe that we are due to have further consultations this week.

Joan Ruddock (Lewisham, Deptford): Does my hon. Friend agree with the Minister for Women's Affairs in Afghanistan that jobs for women are now absolutely critical, especially given that so many widows are supporting children? Will my hon. Friend undertake to ask her officials to speak to the Minister in Kabul about the possibility of providing funds for some of the many projects that she has identified?

Ms Keeble: I agree about the importance of tackling gender equality issues and job opportunities for women. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has met the Minister for Women's Affairs, and we will certainly take forward discussions in the way that my hon. Friend suggests. Perhaps we can correspond about that issue.


2. Bob Spink (Castle Point): What aid is planned for Iraq following the resolution of the current political situation. [98727]

The Secretary of State for International Development (Clare Short): The people of Iraq are already suffering a humanitarian catastrophe. Some 60 per cent. of the people in this naturally wealthy and highly educated country are dependent on handouts from the oil for food programme. One third of children in Baghdad-controlled Iraq are chronically malnourished. If the UN authorises military action to force Saddam Hussein to comply with his disarmament obligations, it is essential that great care be taken to minimise any harm to the people of Iraq, who are already very vulnerable. This means very careful targeting of military action, and ensuring that order is maintained, that food distribution is quickly resumed, and that the health, water and sanitation infrastructure is rehabilitated as soon as possible. Planning is in hand for all of this. My greatest worry is that there is not yet agreement that the UN should have the lead role in a post-conflict Iraq. Without that, there would be significant legal and other difficulties for the working of the international humanitarian system.

Bob Spink : I am grateful to the right hon. Lady for that very comprehensive reply. Last week, the hon. Member for Falkirk, East (Mr. Connarty) and I travelled to northern Iraq, and we visited the Parliament, refugees and hospitals. The Iraqi Kurds, who asked us to speak for them, support the Prime Minister's moral policy, but they do need protection and aid. Is the Secretary of State aware that only one third of the oil for food programme is getting through to Kurdistan, and what can be done about that? Will she ensure that during and after any conflict, food and medical aid will continue to get through to Kurdistan, and does she agree that Turkish troops must be kept out of Kurdistan, unless the Kurdish leaders specifically invite them in, for humanitarian reasons?

Clare Short: I agree that, if there is to be military action, it is essential that the authority of the UN be

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upheld. If such action is to be authorised by the UN, making sure that the people are protected, and that feeding continues, will be crucial. The people are in very bad shape, and 60 per cent. of them are dependent on oil for food, which would be likely to break down. It is a very large-scale operation, and it would be essential to act quickly to keep food moving in Kurdistan and in the rest of the country, and to get the medical infrastructure working. In fact, the people of Kurdistan, which has the same UN sanctions and oil for food as the rest of the country, are in much better shape. That shows the way in which Saddam Hussein has manipulated the UN regime against the interests of his people. I note what the hon. Gentleman says about Turkish troops, and I shall make sure that that is conveyed to the appropriate authorities.

Ann Clwyd (Cynon Valley): My right hon. Friend will know that I paid a separate visit to northern Iraq, where the main concern is that Saddam Hussein may again use chemical weapons against the Kurds. People especially want to know what protection we can give them against those possible chemical attacks. Chamchamal is the mountain top on the road down from Kurdistan to Kirkuk. From there, one can see Iraqi troops on the hills, and they have rockets. The fears of the Kurds are very strong indeed. Will my right hon. Friend say what practical protection we are offering the Kurds?

Clare Short: I agree that the risk, in both Kurdistan and Baghdad, that chemical and biological weapons will be used by Saddam Hussein in a way that inflicts harm on Iraqi people is one of the most serious that we face. I assure my hon. Friend that those risks and dangers are being carefully thought through and that we are trying to minimise them, but I am afraid that no one can give an absolute guarantee that they can be prevented. However, every effort will be made to bring help to any people who might be affected.

Mrs. Caroline Spelman (Meriden): On 12 February, the Secretary of State told the International Development Committee that the military had not taken into account all the humanitarian risks that might result from military action. What did she mean when she said that she had struggled to be listened to by the military? Has communication improved?

Clare Short: I take the old-fashioned view that it is right to tell the House of Commons the truth, and not to pretend that all is well. If there have been delays in the military giving consideration to humanitarian risks—and there have—I have to tell the House of Commons that that is the case. There has been improvement, but getting agreement on a UN lead is absolutely key, and that is not in place. More work needs to be done to face up to all the eventualities.

Mrs. Spelman: Briefings given to hon. Members for today's debate by non-governmental organisations working in and around Iraq express concern that the Secretary of State has not been working closely with them in preparation for the humanitarian consequences of a war in the area. I recognise the sensitivities of military planning, but will the right hon. Lady explain why there has been so little consultation or sharing of

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information with NGOs, many of which have years of experience of working in Iraq and extensive experience of humanitarian relief and rehabilitation?

Clare Short: One of the least attractive aspects of some NGO behaviour is the attempt to grandstand and appear in the media when there is a crisis. We have had close relationships over a long period of time with some NGOs working in northern Iraq and with an even smaller number in Baghdad-controlled Iraq. My officials have met representatives of NGOs to talk about the present situation. As I made clear to the Select Committee, NGOs would not be operational in the early stages, as they are not the first call to get things right, but we are in contact with them. I really do not think that anyone should grandstand on these issues.

Mrs. Spelman: The whole House is aware of, and sympathetic to, the doubts and concerns that the Secretary of State has publicly admitted about the prospect of war in Iraq. However, does she accept that the effect of those doubts has been to prevent her from engaging properly in all attempts to discuss what humanitarian plans would be in place to mitigate the consequences of war? Does she also accept that, ironically, that could have grave consequences for the people of Iraq?

Clare Short: No. I think that the hon. Lady is engaging in cheap and inaccurate point scoring—another example of grandstanding about this crisis. She put this proposition in a debate some time ago, and I answered her fully. Her simplistic view that we should get on with the war, after which my Department and a few people can clean up, is ill informed. I and my Department have been fully engaged in trying to get the world to face the humanitarian risks and make preparations. I have explained that to the hon. Lady before, but she goes on with her cheap point scoring.

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome): In her discussions with those planning the military contingencies, has the Secretary of State discussed the imperative of ensuring that Basra is occupied at an early stage, is maintained as a safe haven—

Mr. Speaker: Order. There is so much noise in the House that it is unfair to those who are listening to the question.

Mr. Heath: Has the imperative that Basra should be maintained as a safe haven and a port of supply been considered? Is there an arrangement that might ensure that that is secured, thus avoiding displaced people finding their way into states that are incapable of supporting them?

Clare Short: I can assure the hon. Gentleman that there is detailed thinking about Basra, and I do not think that I can say any more than that.

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3. Michael Fabricant (Lichfield): What contingency plans she has in place for aid to Iraqi displaced persons following possible conflict with Iraq; and if she will make a statement. [98728]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for International Development (Ms Sally Keeble): My Department is holding regular discussions with international organisations about contingency planning for a range of eventualities in Iraq. In the event of substantial population movements, we would expect the International Committee of the Red Cross to be the lead international agency in helping internally displaced people and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees to take the lead in providing assistance to refugees. In addition to our regular contributions we are giving an extra £3.5 million to support UN contingency planning for humanitarian relief in Iraq.

Michael Fabricant : I thank the Minister very much for that helpful answer, but she will be aware that the UNHCR is predicting that possibly 3 million people will be displaced following a regime change. I fully understand that neither the United Kingdom nor the United States can act alone, but what steps is her Department taking to encourage the UN and other powers to ensure that those people can be cared for after a regime change, which, I believe, is now inevitable?

Ms Keeble: I remind the hon. Gentleman that, in addition to any scenario that has been predicted, there are a substantial number of internally displaced persons—between 1 million and 2 million—now in Iraq as a result of the appalling regime there. I do not want to speculate on the outcome of any action, but our Department, as my right hon. Friend has said, is putting every possible effort into strengthening the UN role and response to deal with any humanitarian crisis afterwards.

Mr. Harry Barnes (North-East Derbyshire): The Secretary of State told the House on 30 January that, if there is a war in Iraq, and without good organisation, there would be a humanitarian nightmare if large-scale ethnic fighting broke out in Iraq. What action is the Department taking to ensure such organisation in the event of the nightmare of an attack on Iraq?

Ms Keeble: Quite a number of scenarios are being considered, and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has done a great deal of work to try to make sure that those eventualities do not occur and that we prevent the nightmare that my hon. Friend mentions. We are currently working very closely with the UN to consider what those scenarios might be and to ensure that we have a properly supported UN system in place to take the lead.

Mr. Crispin Blunt (Reigate): It is the Government's position that resolution 1441 already provides the authority to use force against Iraq. If that force is used in those circumstances and UN authority and agreement has not been reached for the post-conflict administration of Iraq, it will be absolutely essential that the Department for International Development is fully involved in assisting with the civil administration of Iraq

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to ensure that the American military are in that position for the minimum amount of time. Will the Minister assure the House that her Department is making every effort to ensure not only UN agreement, if possible, but the full deployment of all the Department's resources to make sure that post-conflict Iraq is administered in a way that will ensure a peaceful settlement there?

Ms Keeble: As usual, the hon. Gentleman has hit on one of the key problems that we face: the legal position of the humanitarian assistance that is provided after any conflict that might take place. We are working very hard to resolve those issues and to strengthen the position and role of the UN. We are also obviously taking careful cognisance of the humanitarian problems that could unfold. I can assure the hon. Gentleman that no Department is more focused on that than the Department for International Development and no person in the Government is doing more on that than my right hon. Friend.

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