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14 Apr 2003 : Column 612—continued

Jobcentre Plus

15. Mr. Andrew Dismore (Hendon): If he will make a statement on Jobcentre Plus services in north London. [108719]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Malcolm Wicks): Jobcentre Plus services in the north London district are provided through our network of social security offices and jobcentres. Those will be replaced with new, integrated Jobcentre Plus offices in 2005–06.

Jobcentre Plus will continue to provide the same high level of service that has already helped over 1,300 people to move into work through the new deals in my hon. Friend's north London constituency.

Mr. Dismore : As my hon. Friend is aware, I am very concerned about the lack of consultation on some of those changes. Can he explain why jobcentre customers and clients have so far not been consulted on the changes when offices close? In future, will customers be consulted?

Malcolm Wicks: I understand the question. Indeed, we shall have the opportunity in the Adjournment debate at a late hour tonight to discuss that important subject further. We intend to provide jobcentre services in the resource centre in my hon. Friend's constituency, and a job point will also be located in a local library. People can also phone Jobseeker Direct, so his constituents will be able to make full use of the excellent Jobcentre Plus service.

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Child Care

16. Caroline Flint (Don Valley): What progress is being made to provide child care for parents seeking work. [108720]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Maria Eagle): Since 1997, about 650,000 new child care places have been created, benefiting over 1.1 million children, which means that we are well on track to meeting our target of creating new places for over two million children by 2006. From this month, a child care partnership manager will be working in every Jobcentre Plus office to ensure that barriers to employment relating to child care are tackled and to encourage customers, where sensible, to consider a career in child care.

Caroline Flint : I thank my hon. Friend for that answer. She knows that I am fully aware of how much

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the Government have done to support families and, in particular, child care for parents in work and those seeking work. Will she consider the issue for lone parents, especially the need to settle their children in child care before they begin work as well as the necessary payments to cover that period? In addition, will she consider low-paid workers, in particular lone parents, who may find themselves out of work through no fault of their own? What measures can be taken to ensure that their children remain in settled child care before they embark again on a new job?

Maria Eagle: My hon. Friend is right that parents, particularly lone parents, when considering going to work need to feel that their children are safe and in an appropriate environment. My right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer announced in his Budget last week the idea of taster weeks to allow lone parents to check out child care provision so that they are sure that it is appropriate for their child before taking it up and going to work.

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Iraq and the Middle East

3.30 pm

The Prime Minister (Mr. Tony Blair): With permission, Mr. Speaker, I shall make a statement on Iraq.

I should emphasise at the outset that the conflict in Iraq is not yet over. There will be tough times ahead, and fighting as well as peace building still to do. However, less than four weeks from the commencement of the war, the regime of Saddam is gone, the bulk of Iraq is under coalition control and the vast majority of Iraqis are rejoicing at Saddam's departure. Whatever the problems following Saddam's collapse—and in the short term they are bound to be serious—let no one be in any doubt: Iraq is a better place without Saddam. This was indeed liberation, not conquest, and the Iraqi people, given a chance, are every bit as much in favour of freedom as people anywhere in the world.

Our commitment now is clear. Just as we had a strategy for war, so we have a strategy for peace. Iraq will be better—better for the region, better for the world, better, above all, for the Iraqi people.

British forces have performed in Iraq with extraordinary skill, professionalism and compassion. We can be deeply proud of them. We also send our warmest congratulations to the American forces who bore the brunt of the advance on Baghdad, and did so with remarkable military skill. As we mourn our own soldiers who have fallen in the line of duty, so we mourn theirs. Our thanks too to the Australian and Polish forces who helped, to the Spanish forces and to the over 40 or so countries that have given support.

We grieve also for the loss of journalists and others killed in Iraq and for Iraqi civilians and many of those conscript Iraq troops forced into the front line. If the forecasts of mass carnage proved thankfully wrong, none the less, innocent people died along with the guilty, and it places upon us a special and profound responsibility for Iraq's future.

Let me give an assessment of the current situation. The south of Iraq is now largely under British control. The west is secure, and in the major town of Al Qaim fighting is diminishing. In the north, Kurdish forces have retired from Kirkuk and Mosul, leaving US forces in control. US forces are in and around Tikrit. They are meeting some resistance. But in essence, all over Iraq, Saddam's forces have collapsed. Much of the remaining fighting, particularly in Baghdad, is being carried out by foreign irregular forces. In Baghdad itself, the Americans are in control of most of the city but not yet all of it.

As is obvious, the problem now is the disorder following the regime's collapse. Some disorder, frankly, is inevitable. It will happen in any situation where a brutal police state that for 30 years has terrorised a population is suddenly destroyed. Some looting, too, is directed at specific regime targets, including hospitals that were dedicated for the use of the regime. But it is a serious situation and we need to work urgently to bring it under control.

Basra shows that initial problems can be overcome. I am particularly proud of the role that British forces, ably led by Major General Robin Brims, have played in Basra.

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Iraqi technicians and managers are now making themselves known to British forces. Together we are restoring many key services. Most public health clinics are operational. UK forces have supplied oxygen to Al Basrah general hospital and are providing other medical support where they can. About 200 policemen have reported for work. Joint patrols started on 13 April. In surrounding towns, looting has either ceased or is declining, local patrols are being re-established and co-operation with city councils is going well.

Baghdad is the principal problem, though again the main looting is in areas not controlled by the American forces. It is, it must be said, still a highly dangerous environment for US soldiers. However, around 2,000 police officers have reported for work, there are some joint patrols in being and the head of the civil police department, not to be confused with the special security forces, has ordered police to return to work.

Some hospitals, where possible, are now being guarded and the first medical supplies are being flown in, but it is still very difficult. Staff are naturally still scared, water and electricity are a problem, but every effort is being made to improve the situation. As we speak, residents in some parts of Baghdad at least are now returning.

On weapons of mass destruction, of 146 possible sites known to us, investigations have begun in seven but, in any event, we know that for six months before the return of UN inspectors, Saddam put in place a systematic campaign of concealment of weapons of mass destruction. Until we are able to interrogate the scientists and experts who worked on the programmes, and the UN has a list of some 5,000 names, progress is bound to be slow. A specialised team, however, is beginning work and we are in discussion with allies and the UN as to what the future role of the UN in such a process may be.

Shortly, we shall begin formally the process of Iraq's reconstruction. We see three phases in this. In the first phase, the coalition and the Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance will have responsibility under the Geneva and Hague conventions for ensuring that Iraq's immediate security and humanitarian needs are met. The second phase, beginning a few weeks after the end of the conflict, will see the establishment of a broad-based, fully representative Iraqi interim authority. Working with the UN Secretary-General, coalition military leaders and others will help the Iraqi people to identify which leaders might participate in that interim authority. Once established, the interim authority will progressively assume more of the functions of government. The third phase will then bring into being a fully representative Iraqi Government, once a new constitution has been approved, as a result of elections which we hope could occur around a year after the start of the interim authority.

In each phase, the UN will, as President Bush and I have said, have a vital role. I will have bilateral meetings at the Athens European Council with Kofi Annan and others. I welcome Kofi Annan's decision to appoint a special adviser, and I am pleased that at this weekend's World Bank and International Monetary Fund spring meetings all countries agreed that the two institutions should start looking at needs in Iraq as soon as the security situation allows. But the essence of all that we do is, as we said at Hillsborough, to ensure that Iraq is

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run by and for the Iraqi people. Iraq is a nation with a creative people, potentially wealthy, with a dynamic and prosperous future ahead of it. They do not need to be run from the outside by the US, the UK or the UN, and they will not be.

I also discussed the wider middle east peace process at Hillsborough with President Bush. He reiterated his commitment to the publication and implementation of the road map for peace.

There will be intense diplomacy over the coming days and weeks. It will be important to rebuild international relationships that have been fragile in these past weeks, to reach out and show common cause with all who now want to put the past behind us and work together for a stable and prosperous Iraq and for a peaceful middle east. With good will, that can be done, and, for the coalition, I can say that that good will exists. I hope that it is reciprocated. In Europe, there have been divisions. Between parts of Europe and the US, there have been divisions. Indeed, in many countries, in many parties, there have been divisions, but at least there is now a clearer basis for future agreement. As the full horror of Saddam's regime has become better known, so I believe there is acceptance that it is good that Saddam is gone. As the Iraqi people taste the fruits but also the travails of freedom, so there is a common will to help them to prosperity and greater democracy. There is a huge desire across the world to see definitive progress on Israel and Palestine based on the two state solution, proposed so forcefully by President Bush last June. There is also, I hope, a recognition that a world split into rival poles of power can result in much discord but little advance for any new global order.

I am more convinced than ever before that partnership, not rivalry, is the best basis for future European-American relations. And for all the difficult times over the past few months, I remain committed to the United Nations, committed to making it more effective, committed to the notion that we need its legitimacy for the international community to be worthy of the name. But the surest way to make it so is to unify the nations that lead it. That will be a challenge in the weeks ahead.

So we are near the end of the conflict, but the challenge of the peace is now beginning. We took the decision that to leave Iraq in its brutalised state under Saddam was wrong. Now there is upon us a heavy responsibility to make the peace worth the war. We shall do so. We shall do so not in any spirit of elation—still less of triumphalism—but with a fixed and steady resolve that the cause was just, the victory right, and the future for us to make in a way that will stand the judgment of history.

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