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17 Mar 2003 : Column 721—continued

Mr. Straw: "Imminent" means that we are hoping to see the full publication of the roadmap once Abu Mazen has been endorsed and has accepted the post. There will then be an interlocutor for the Quartet to deal with. Informal copies of the road map are publicly available on the website and I shall ensure that one is placed in the Library of the House.

Tony Wright (Cannock Chase): I thank my right hon. Friend for fulfilling his commitment to enable the House to vote again on this issue, although we all recognise that we are probably at the end of the road tonight. Does he understand why some of us who are not anti-American or pacifists, and who have supported every other military action that the Government have taken, have found it difficult in these circumstances to support this military action? We knew that Saddam Hussein could be disarmed only through a process that was like drawing teeth, and that we had to back that with the use of force, but is not this the first time in this country's history that we will wage war on a country that is actually getting rid of some of its weaponry under UN auspices?

Mr. Straw: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his remarks. I have been in the House now through four different sets of military action and it is fair to point out that this is the first time—and I am glad that it has been supported on all sides—that the Government have followed a clear process of ensuring that every debate takes place on a substantive resolution. I know that there was some scepticism that we would not introduce a resolution until after military action had taken place, but I hope that the House is reassured that we are doing exactly what we said we would do and are ensuring that the House has both the power and the responsibility in respect of this matter before any action is taken, not after. I am glad that we have set that precedent for the future.

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Let me pick up on my hon. Friend's analogy about drawing teeth. Drawing teeth is not just difficult but is possible only if the patient has his mouth open. In the case of Saddam Hussein, if I may continue the analogy, we have a patient who most of the time has his mouth closed and who from time to time bites the dentist. In those circumstances, achieving compliance from this so-called patient to draw the teeth becomes impossible.

Mr. Stephen McCabe (Birmingham, Hall Green): I acknowledge the efforts of my right hon. Friend and the enormous efforts of the Prime Minister to try to secure the additional UN resolution that so many of us wanted. Is not the choice before us now stark? People can, however unintentionally, give further succour to this dangerous, evil tyrant, or they can support our armed forces and show the will and determination that are needed finally to disarm this butcher.

Mr. Straw: Like my hon. Friend, I do not impugn the motives of anybody in this House, but we all have to think very carefully about the consequences of what we are doing. If we were to weaken our resolve at this stage, it would be Saddam Hussein who would be emboldened and millions and millions of Iraqis who would be plunged into further desperation and despair as they saw the one hope of liberation disappear.

John McDonnell (Hayes and Harlington): I hope that we will have time tomorrow to debate the rights and wrongs of this war, but may I make this one appeal? I return to the point that was raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, Deptford (Joan Ruddock) about civilian casualties. Today, reports are coming through from Baghdad of parents who are desperately trying to find room on buses to Jordan for their children. Would it be possible—through the United Nations and perhaps through an independent country such as Jordan—to make an offer to evacuate the children of Baghdad before the bombing starts?

Mr. Straw: I doubt very much whether that would prove possible. [Hon. Members: "Why?"] I am about to explain why. The reason why I think that it would not be possible is that I do not think, for a start, that there would be any compliance by Saddam Hussein. I recall, during the last Gulf war, that, far from trying to ensure that children in Baghdad were placed in safe places, he ensured that they were used as human shields.

Mr. Tony McWalter (Hemel Hempstead): My right hon. Friend has given a clear indication tonight that he does not think that the process of inspection could ever produce the effective decommissioning of weapons of mass destruction—which is the object of this whole enterprise—even though that process did achieve significant results in 1998. As the inspectors themselves have never claimed that the process would prove futile, does my right hon. Friend have no confidence in the weapons inspectors whatsoever?

Mr. Straw: I have every confidence—and I have expressed that confidence—in the weapons inspectors. With respect, my hon. Friend misunderstands what I have been saying. Weapons inspection systems can work, and weapons inspectors can work, where there is

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compliance by the country concerned. When South Africa came into compliance, I understand that it took nine inspectors just three months to verify South Africa's disarmament of its nuclear installations. Twelve years after Iraq was ordered within 45 days fully and completely to comply with its disarmament obligations and to begin the disarmament process with the inspectors, the weapons inspectors have still laid out 29 separate chapters, in 173 pages, of incomplete disarmament obligations. As long as this regime is in place, and as long as it is refusing to co-operate, the inspection process becomes well-nigh impossible.

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Business of the House

9.40 pm

The Parliamentary Secretary, Privy Council Office (Mr. Ben Bradshaw): With permission, Mr. Speaker, I should like to make a short statement about the business for tomorrow.

There will now be a debate on Iraq on a Government motion. The business for the remainder of the week will remain unchanged and there will be the usual statement on Thursday.

May I say how sorry I am that my right hon. Friend the Member for Livingston (Mr. Cook) is not making this statement? I hope that the whole House will join me in paying tribute to the outstanding contribution that he made as Leader of the House.

Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst): May I echo the Minister's words about the right hon. Member for Livingston (Mr. Cook)?

I very much welcome the statement. It is right that we debate the matter tomorrow. Will the Minister confirm, however, that the debate will start at 12.30 pm and continue until 10 o'clock, when the votes will be held?

Mr. Bradshaw: Yes, I can confirm that.

Mr. Andrew Stunell (Hazel Grove): May I add our words to those of the Minister and the shadow Leader of the House in support of the work carried out by the right hon. Member for Livingston (Mr. Cook) in his role as Leader of the House?

I remind the Minister that the Foreign Secretary—[Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker: Order. Hon. Members must let the hon. Gentleman speak.

Mr. Stunell: The Foreign Secretary told the House just a few moments ago that there was a tendency for nations that have voted on 1441 to change their interpretation of it.

Mr. Speaker: Order. This is a business statement. The time for the hon. Gentleman to raise that issue has passed. Perhaps he will catch my eye tomorrow.

Mr. Simon Thomas (Ceredigion): May I associate Plaid Cymru and the Scottish National party with the Minister's comments on the former Leader of the House?

Tomorrow's vote will be desperately important and many of us will want to oppose the Government. Although they are not legally bound to pay attention to the vote, will the Minister give an undertaking—an assurance—that the Government will be honour bound to pay attention to it? If so, every Member's vote will count, and it will therefore be a real vote on whether we should go to war or not. Will he also give an undertaking that if the vote goes against the Government, they will not go to war?

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Mr. Bradshaw: The Government have bent over backwards to honour their commitments to the House and I am confident that they will do so again tomorrow by giving the House an unprecedented opportunity to express its will.

Chris Grayling (Epsom and Ewell): Will the Minister tell the House whether the Prime Minister will lead the debate tomorrow and how much time he will spend in the Chamber?

Mr. Bradshaw: Yes, the Prime Minister will lead the debate tomorrow. I do not know how much time he will spend in the Chamber, but I suspect that it will be a lot.

Mr. Speaker: I have a statement that may help the House.

The Secretary of State invited me in the course of his statement to specify a time by which amendments to the Government's motion on Iraq must be submitted. Members who want their amendment to appear on the Order Paper tomorrow morning must, of course, table it before the House rises tonight, but I will consider for selection any amendment that is submitted in good order before 10 am tomorrow.

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