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20 Mar 2003 : Column 1094—continued

Mr. George Galloway (Glasgow, Kelvin): Is it not the ultimate in spin-doctoring propaganda for the Minister to be quoting Dr. Hans Blix in aid of his statement—[Interruption.] The Chief Whip is heckling me but this is a free Parliament and I will be heard in it—[Interruption.]

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Mr. Speaker: Order. The hon. Gentleman will be heard.

Mr. Galloway: Is it not the ultimate in spin-doctoring propaganda to be praying in aid Dr. Hans Blix, who has just denounced the action that the Minister has been boasting about this morning—as have an overwhelming number of world leaders, including some of our closest friends, partners and allies? Will the Secretary of State give a straight answer to this question: given the view in the advice of the overwhelming number of unpurchased international legal experts that this action is illegal, what assurance will he give British forces that they will not face prosecution in the International Criminal Court by other countries for the actions that he has ordered them to carry out today?

Mr. Hoon: I will defend my hon. Friend's right to be heard—as I will also defend the right of the opposition in Iraq to be heard; and I should be much happier if he emphasised that more frequently than he has sometimes done in the recent past. I assure him, as I have assured the House on previous occasions, that the actions of our armed forces are entirely lawful and based on the clear advice of the Attorney-General, which has been set out for the benefit of Members.

Mr. Humfrey Malins (Woking): May I raise with the Secretary of State the issue of British civilians serving alongside our troops in the Gulf? In the event that those civilians are injured or wounded, will they receive the same protection through war pensions, insurance cover or the like as apply to our military personnel?

Mr. Hoon: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for reminding me of something that I normally mention: the contribution made by civil servants, especially from the Ministry of Defence and other Departments, to such military operations. We should not forget either them or their families in the efforts that are being made. I assure the hon. Gentleman that they will receive appropriate entitlements, according to the arrangements that normally prevail for their service.

Kali Mountford (Colne Valley): On the news this morning and in the House this afternoon, my right hon. Friend said that he cannot engage in a propaganda war, giving an hour-by-hour update to the press. However, can he ensure that the House receives accurate information, which is as full and complete as is possible and practicable, as soon as he can provide it?

Mr. Hoon: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising the issue of accurate information. It is important that what the Government say in response to incidents is accurate and timely. Sometimes, the needs for accuracy and timeliness can be difficult to reconcile, but it is important that the Government's comments on particular incidents are based on the most accurate information that it is possible to obtain.

Mr. Andrew Robathan (Blaby): Every Iraqi soldier is some mother's son and most Iraqi conscripts are as innocent as any civilian, yet we hear today that soldiers trying to surrender have been turned back by Kuwaiti border guards, and possibly sent back to execution. Will

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the Secretary of State ensure that all coalition allies realise the value of taking Iraqi prisoners of war, and that they treat them well and use them to get others to surrender to show the Iraqi people that our battle is with the regime and not with them?

Mr. Hoon: As I indicated in Defence questions, I know that the hon. Gentleman has considerable knowledge and expertise in that area, so he will understand that the situation on the Kuwaiti-Iraqi border today is somewhat sensitive. It is perhaps understandable that Kuwaiti soldiers might be suspicious of those who might, initially, be trying to surrender. However, as I indicated to the House earlier, efforts are being made; I made a ministerial statement last week indicating that extra British forces will be deployed specifically to deal with prisoners of war and to carry on the good work that the hon. Gentleman has conducted in the past.

Lynne Jones (Birmingham, Selly Oak): We all hope that our troops will come home safely, but I am concerned about my right hon. Friend's selective quote from Dr. Hans Blix. On the radio this morning, the chief weapons inspector cast considerable doubt on the likelihood that Saddam Hussein possesses weapons of mass destruction. Given that the whole invasion is predicated on the dubious assumption that Saddam Hussein has links with al-Qaeda and other fundamentalist terrorist organisations, and that he would supply them with weapons of mass destruction to attack the US and other western countries, what evidence does my right hon. Friend have—or what evidence has he been supplied with by the American Government—that there are such links between the Iraqi regime and al-Qaeda? It is not sufficient to say—

Mr. Speaker: Order.

Mr. Hoon: What I said was that Hans Blix was disappointed that his inspection work had not brought clear assurances from the Iraqis about the absence of weapons of mass destruction. There is no argument about that. I am not aware that any Government, whatever their position on the need for military action, have disputed the fact that Iraq possesses weapons of mass destruction. That has not been disputed even by countries opposed to military action. It is important not to lose sight of the reason for military operations: to enforce the will of the United Nations to remove the threat of weapons of mass destruction, either, as the Prime Minister has said, when they are in the hands of the Iraqi regime itself, or when there is a risk that they might fall into the hands of unscrupulous terrorist organisations such as al-Qaeda.

I have answered the question about links before. There are clear links between the Iraqi regime and al-Qaeda. We are not sure of the precise nature of those links, but we are certainly aware that they exist. It is important that we continue to monitor that.

Andrew George (St. Ives): Four hundred personnel from RAF Culdrose in my constituency have been deployed to the Gulf and I know that their commitment, courage and professionalism will be much appreciated by the House. Although I realise that the Secretary of

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State cannot release into the public domain operational details about deployments over the coming weeks and months, will he ensure that Members of Parliament with large numbers of constituents in the region at least have a private channel of communication so that they can obtain information that might reassure the families of their constituents?

Mr. Hoon: I am sure that appropriate arrangements can be put in place. As I indicated to the House, I want to follow previous practice and ensure that when it is justified details will be made available daily to all Members. However, if the hon. Gentleman has particular concerns about constituents and their families they will certainly be addressed by the Ministry of Defence.

Mr. Ben Chapman (Wirral, South): I greatly welcome the assurances about the minimisation of civilian casualties and the fact that our strikes will be specifically and carefully targeted. I accept the cautionary note struck by my right hon. Friend with regard to the length of the campaign. However, the campaign could be shortened by encouraging Iraqi defections. What overt measures are being taken to that end, other than military action? What soft measures are being taken, by way of broadcasts and leaflet drops? What are the targets? Are they at the higher or lower level of Iraqi society or throughout various strata?

Mr. Hoon: A detailed information campaign has been under way for some time to achieve precisely the objective that my hon. Friend describes: the collapse of the regime. We know that the regime is not supported by the overwhelming majority of the Iraqi people—but for the appalling intimidation practised by that regime, it would have collapsed many years ago. Those information operations will continue.

Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire): Further to the question put by the hon. Member for Wirral, South (Mr. Chapman), will the Secretary of State confirm that the BBC World Service is being used as extensively as possible to broadcast to the Iraqi people? Is he satisfied with the co-operation that he is receiving from that service?

Mr. Hoon: As a great admirer of the BBC World Service and its objective, independent voice in the world, I am sure that those in Iraq who are able to listen to it will benefit from its services.

Alan Simpson (Nottingham, South): The United Nations has asked for the immediate establishment of a fund of $53 million to provide for emergency humanitarian aid in Iraq. Can the Minister say what contribution the UK is making to that? Can he also give the House an assurance that we will respond to a particular concern that is being raised in Britain already—namely, the demand that whatever contribution Britain makes, it should be through agencies that have clean hands, which would at least

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allow us as a Government to avoid having to explain the morally ambiguous position of bombing the children, then offering to feed those who survive?

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