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13 Mar 2003 : Column 430—continued

Mr. Cook: I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for the sombre way in which he approached the grave and serious situation that we are dealing with. I am grateful to him for his welcome for what I said about our willingness—indeed, our keenness—to come to the House as soon as we are able to do so.

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The right hon. Gentleman asked whether I would make a business statement tomorrow. That is not ruled out. I will be in the precincts tomorrow, should it be required. We should, of course, bear in mind the time difference between London and New York. In effect, if there is anything for us to know, we will know it by the time we wake up tomorrow. There are unlikely to be any developments in New York in the time that we are sitting tomorrow, but if necessary and if it is appropriate, I shall make a business statement tomorrow.

The right hon. Gentleman asked about the Attorney-General's advice. He accurately summarised the situation. The Attorney-General's advice is, as a general rule, confidential—indeed, that is set out in the ministerial code—but there is provision in exceptional circumstances, by agreement, for his advice to surface. I will reflect on what the right hon. Gentleman said and make sure that my colleagues are aware of what he said. These issues will, I am sure, be fully debated and explored in any debate that we have on Iraq.

I repeat to the House what has been said at the Dispatch Box by a number of my colleagues: there can be no question of a British Government going to war if it were not sound of its legal basis and if it was not confident that it was acting within international law, nor would the British Prime Minister under any circumstances take that action if he believed he was acting outside international law.

On the international humanitarian relief that may be required should there be action in Iraq, and which is required now, even without any military action in Iraq, we welcomed the report from the Committee. It is important that all possible focus be given to the humanitarian need to respond to what may happen in the course of action, and to the very real humanitarian need of the people of Iraq, 60 per cent. of whom even now are fully dependent on food aid. It is for that very reason that the Department for International Development has already made available £7 million simply for planning and preparation. It will continue to do so intensely and will seek any appropriate opportunity to keep the House informed.

Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall): We, too, welcome the commitment given to us by the Leader of the House about a prior debate and decision in this House regarding any hostilities undertaken by British troops. May I also welcome the support that we are now receiving from the Conservative Front Bench with regard to the request that we made to the Prime Minister, through my right hon. Friend the Member for Ross, Skye and Inverness, West (Mr. Kennedy) yesterday at Question Time, that the advice of the Law Officers be given to the House? Is there not a very important constitutional principle here? I accept what he said about "exceptional circumstances", but is it not right to say that the Law Officers are answerable and accountable to Parliament, not to the Government of the day? Surely it must be an exceptional circumstance when very important issues of international law are being challenged in the way implied in the statement of the Secretary-General of the United Nations? Should

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there not be a second Security Council resolution, is it not absolutely essential that the Law Officers make a statement prior to any debate in this House?

I wonder whether the Leader of the House heard or read the transcript of the very important interview given by the right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke), now de facto leader of the Conservative Opposition, on the "Today" programme yesterday when he made it absolutely clear that there are precedents, mechanisms and means by which the Law Officers have to give an answer to the House on an issue of such importance. [Interruption.]

Mr. Cook: I am not sure that the hon. Gentleman achieves consensus in the House with his observations, but I did, indeed, hear the interview to which he referred and I can understand why the right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke) may remember the previous precedent, as it was the Maastricht debates, which I am sure are written on the heart of everybody who was a member of the Cabinet at the time when those debates took place within the Government.

I hear what the hon. Gentleman says. He mentioned that advice had been challenged by lawyers. We must recognise that in the present developing state of international law, there will always be room for more than one view, if not 25 different views. Whatever may be said on behalf of the Government about the advice that has been received, I would not wish to commit myself to the proposition that it will not be open to challenge. It is in the nature of these things that lawyers will challenge any proposition.

Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North): Does the Leader of the House accept that many people outside the House will find it simply incomprehensible that there is to-ing and fro-ing in the UN about not getting support for a second resolution, a determination by the United States to go to war and an apparent decision by the Prime Minister and the Cabinet to go to war without any resolution or legal basis whatever, and yet this House, which is representative of the ordinary people of this country, is denied the right to a debate and vote in advance of British troops being sent in? Is there any reason why there cannot be a debate today, tomorrow or even over the weekend so that the British people can see what their MPs are saying and voting on in advance of the start of a war?

Mr. Cook: Of course, I fully understand the passion to which this issue gives rise and the very strong feelings held by my hon. Friend and many others both in this House and in the country. I can only say to him that, as a member of the Cabinet, I am not aware of any decision of the sort to which he refers. I would also say that we have been quite clear that we will come to the House whenever there is any decision in New York in order either that the House can endorse any second resolution or that it may debate and vote upon a motion in the event that there is no decision on the second resolution. I genuinely believe that the right time for the House to consider and reach a decision on this matter is when the process in the United Nations has come to a close. In the

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meantime, I hope that all hon. Members will join me in expressing the best possible support for the British Government's efforts to get unity in the United Nations.

Sir Teddy Taylor (Rochford and Southend, East): Will the right hon. Gentleman consider allowing time for a debate next week on the growing practice among Ministers of delaying indefinitely replies to questions for a named day by saying that they will reply "as soon as possible"? In that connection, will he consider an issue that I raised with you, Mr. Speaker, on Tuesday, regarding detailed questions about the biological warfare material provided by the United States to Iraq and to the Iraq atomic weapons commission on which information is required urgently by the House, but on which Ministers are simply failing to give any knowledge or information, although they have it available to them?

Mr. Cook: Of course, the point with which the hon. Gentleman concludes is a very important issue of substance. Having had some experience of answering questions in the Foreign Office, I say to him that if he tables a question about material that may have been transferred back in the 1980s by another power, while that information may be available, it is not entirely surprising that it cannot adequately be pinned down within the five days required by a named-day question. If he wishes to pursue what I fully accept is an important issue, although it goes back some years and involves another power, he may have to be prepared to show a little more patience than is allowed for by a named-day question.

Mr. Eric Joyce (Falkirk, West): My right hon. Friend may be aware that there was an especially well-attended debate in Westminster Hall yesterday on community pharmacies. The debate was opened by the hon. Member for Totnes (Mr. Steen) and the Under-Secretary of State for Health, my hon. Friend the Member for Tottenham (Mr. Lammy) responded to it. However, for my constituents, health is a devolved matter and the perspective of the Department of Trade and Industry is equally important. Will my right hon. Friend find time for a debate on that important issue over the next while?

Mr. Cook: I am aware that the matter was debated in Westminster Hall yesterday and I am fully aware of the substance of the issue, which has been raised in business questions for the past four weeks. I fully understand the widespread concern in the House about the security and stability of the local pharmacy service, which is so important to our constituents. I have spoken to the Secretaries of State for Trade and Industry and for Health to alert them to the concerns that have been expressed in the House during business questions, and they are both fully cognisant of the great importance of the matter to the public. I assure my hon. Friend that the Department of Trade and Industry will be fully involved in any future decision. We will seek to ensure that we take on board the importance of having regard to competition principles, but also try to ensure that they operate in a way that is consistent with the

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Government's health policy and our commitment to a health plan to ensure that pharmacies are available to all members of the public.

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