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24 Mar 2003 : Column 38—continued

Mrs. Caroline Spelman (Meriden): I thank the right hon. Lady for coming to the House and for giving me advance sight of her statement. At this time, I do not intend to dwell on the personal difficulties that she has faced over the past few days.

We accept the Secretary of State's apology for her inability to answer our urgent question last week, but why did the Government decide to field a Foreign Office Minister to answer questions on the work of the Department for International Development? It was not an edifying sight when the Secretary of State's deputy had to whisper answers to the hapless Foreign Office Minister.

Will the Secretary of State give an assurance to hon. Members on both sides of the House that she will give us opportunities to debate these issues, as well as placing statements in the Library, and, for those of us who enjoy information technology, posting them regularly on the departmental website? We share a sense of disappointment that more progress was not achieved during the meetings in New York, and I would like to ask the Secretary of State how much she attributes the continued difficulty in getting resolutions out of the United Nations to the intransigence of France and to the loss of confidence of the US Administration in the capacity of the United Nations to perform its role. Why has not the Prime Minister persuaded President Bush that there must be a UN resolution authorising the reconstruction of Iraq? What would be the legal position of the Army and our armed forces if no such resolution were passed?

In the absence of a UN lead in co-ordinating the humanitarian relief effort and the plans for post-conflict Iraq, does the Secretary of State accept that it will be the military that delivers the humanitarian aid in the first instance? Is her Department now giving every assistance to our armed forces? Now that she has confirmed that the oil-for-food programme has been suspended, will she tell us how long we have in which to avert a serious crisis? She referred to two months' worth of rations, but, within that, will she make it clear whether we have days or weeks? Given the sheer scale of the relief required, and her news that the coalition forces will not be able to use the oil-for-food programme distribution network, how long will it take to get agreement on this issue? Will the Secretary of State tell the House whether sufficient

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quantities of food and supplies have been pre-positioned on Iraq's borders for this purpose? It is one thing to have humanitarian stocks on ships moored in the Gulf; it is another to have them where they can easily be brought into the country.

The Secretary of State will be aware of the predicted exodus of refugees from Iraq. Is there any sign of large-scale movement of people to the borders? There are reports that Kurds are fleeing towns in the Kurdish region of northern Iraq and heading north. Does the Secretary of State agree that there is a danger that a large number of Kurdish refugees heading for the Turkish border could push the region into serious ethnic conflict? What is the Government's strategy for preventing such a humanitarian disaster? Is the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees running refugee camps in the region? If so, do they have sufficient supplies of food and shelter?

Different amounts of money have been bandied around in terms of our contribution to the humanitarian relief effort in Iraq. Has the Department for International Development been given any new money? If so, how much? Will the Secretary of State also tell us about the £30 million given to the Ministry of Defence for humanitarian relief? When she says that we will make an appropriate contribution to the United Nations, over and above the £13 million, how much will that be?

If the military strategy is to avoid destroying the infrastructure of Iraq, to enable reconstruction to take place when the war is over, the disruption to the water and electricity supplies in Basra needs a prompt humanitarian response. Do the Government have plans to create humanitarian aid corridors in Basra and across Iraq, or will the International Committee of the Red Cross be allowed through our coalition lines?

We warmly welcome the Secretary of State's restated commitment to the Government's intention to press for the publication of the road map for peace in the middle east. Following what the Prime Minister has said, will she confirm that that will happen in a matter of days, once the new Palestinian Cabinet has been formed?

So much is at stake in this conflict; the credibility of not only the Secretary of State but our country is on the line. Will she give us an assurance that she will put all her personal concerns to one side, in her effort to do everything possible to get aid through to the needy people of Iraq? Our allied forces have now advanced well into Iraqi territory, and I wish them well as they continue to face great dangers. The fate of the people of Iraq depends on a speedy victory by the allied coalition over Saddam Hussein, and on the quality of our humanitarian response.

Clare Short: I would like to tell the hon. Lady that I have absolutely no personal difficulties. I had some concerns about the run-up to the crisis and about the divisions in the international community, but now we are clear that we want the conflict to be over as rapidly as possible with the minimum of civilian casualties, a good humanitarian effort and a rapid reconstruction of the country. There is no difference between us; there is no problem about that.

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The fielding of a Foreign Office Minister was my decision; he had been recently involved in humanitarian issues. I am sorry, as I have said, that the briefing was inadequate and that the House was inadequately answered, but my visit to New York and Washington was important: it just simply had to be.

On the question of debates in the House, as the hon. Lady knows, that is a matter for the usual channels. I see her right hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border (David Maclean) sitting there, and I would be more than happy for us to debate these issues more frequently.

Progress in New York was very good; I do not know from where the hon. Lady got the idea that it was not. After all the bitterness and division—the bitterness became very great—the first priority was to get the work moving forward on passing a resolution on oil for food, so to do so in such a way is extremely good indeed. It is likely to be passed shortly, and talks are taking place about the possibility of the resolution for reconstruction. I had constructive talks throughout and I am hopeful of progress.

The hon. Lady seems to be under a misapprehension. There is no need for any UN resolution for the UN system to be involved in humanitarian relief—that is a duty everywhere at any time. The UN is not there because of the conflict, but it is ready and poised with people and supplies in the region. It will move in as soon as it is possible for it to do so. That answers her question significantly on the possibility of averting a crisis.

The oil-for-food programme has no engagement with coalition forces. It brings enormous supplies into the country—$10 billion-worth a year—and there is an Iraqi system for distributing it, but the head of that system will be taken off that role. However, the UN will be working to maintain the system so that people continue to be supplied. The military will have no part in that.

On refugees, different projections are bandied about, but, obviously, we have to prepare for a series of eventualities, because depending on what happens there will be smaller or larger numbers of refugees. At the moment, there are not large-scale movements of people. Kurdish people are moving up, but not to the border, and going to stay with family. They are moving out of areas where they think they might be vulnerable because of history, but we have to ensure that supplies are in place for them.

Yes, the UNHCR has pre-positioned supplies. As I said in the statement—I gave the hon. Lady a copy—the MOD £30 million has come directly from the Treasury. The money that has been disbursed by my Department up to now has all come out of its contingency reserve. I am talking with the Treasury, as I am sure Members can imagine, and I am expecting some help in order to make a generous contribution to the UN flash appeal and the Red Cross flash appeal.

On Basra, as my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister said, the Red Cross, in the wonderful role that it still fulfils even in times of conflict, is in there and has already restored more than 40 per cent. of the water supplies to people. It is still working, and our military is preparing further arrangements for water supplies if there is any future difficulty.

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As my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister said, President Bush is committed to taking the road map forward. The new Palestinian Prime Minister wants to form his Government before it is received, and we hope that all that will be done shortly and the road map published.

Dr. Jenny Tonge (Richmond Park): The military action so far appears to have captured an awful lot of desert and to be bypassing many towns and cities of southern Iraq. The port of Umm Qasr is still blocked and a humanitarian crisis is developing in Basra. How is humanitarian aid to be delivered to the people of southern Iraq, alongside the military action occurring now, as promised?

How soon will the middle east road map be published? Will it be subject to amendment by Israel, or will it stand as published? We have heard that £30 million is being provided for humanitarian relief, but what contribution will be made to reconstruction? Will it come from donor countries or the proposed trust fund to be set up for Iraqi oil reserves? That is an important issue.

Following the total failure of diplomacy in respect of the second resolution, how long does the Secretary of State think it will take to stop blaming the French and secure consensus in the United Nations for a reconstruction resolution to heal the rift in the international community?

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