Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Joan Ruddock (Lewisham, Deptford): My hon. Friend the Minister was just asked about the civil nuclear facility at al-Tuwaitha. I want to follow up on that question, as 500 radioactive barrels were looted from that site, and used by local villagers for water storage. Is he aware that the US is offering only $3 for each returned barrel, whereas a new barrel costs $15? Will he congratulate Greenpeace, which is collecting contaminated barrels and giving out new ones free? Equally importantly, or even more so, will he press for the International Atomic Energy Agency to be given the full mandate that it is seeking to tackle this serious humanitarian and radiological crisis?

Hilary Benn: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that question, and I apologise to the hon. Member for

3 Jul 2003 : Column 559

Richmond Park (Dr. Tonge) for not responding to her point on the same issue. The House will be aware of the reports that the population in the area of the al-Tuwaitha nuclear facility had taken drums and containers and that they had emptied low-enriched uranium from them and taken them off for use as water storage. I was not aware of the steps being taken by Greenpeace, although it sounds like a commendable initiative.

To date, the World Health Organisation has not received any reports of suspected radiation sickness in local hospitals, although it has received reports of possible exposure to risk. Consequently, it has sent a team to the area to assess local health facilities and patterns of admission, and whether there have been any reported cases of exposure locally. It would be sensible to reflect on what that teams report, but I shall bear in mind the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, Deptford (Joan Ruddock).

Sir George Young (North-West Hampshire): I recognise that real progress has been made in difficult circumstances, but is not it worrying that the mood of the average man in the street seems to be changing? It has gone from relief to disillusionment and now—worryingly—to resentment. Will the Minister share with the House the strategy that exists to win back the hearts and minds of ordinary people in Iraq?

Hilary Benn: I accept the right hon. Gentleman's point. Two things need to be done: we must make progress on security and get the political process moving as quickly as possible. There has to be clarity about the timetable, as the hon. Member for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman) noted earlier. Improving people's day-to-day lives and providing clarity about how long it will take for the Iraqi people to have the chance to take decisions about their country's future are the best things that we can do. We must continue to work hard at that to overcome the frustration that of course people feel. There is a great wish, especially after 25 years of trauma, to get on with establishing a new future for the country. The responsibility on the coalition is to make sure that those two things can be achieved.

Mr. Dalyell: The hon. Member for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman) spoke gently and politely, but I have seldom been so angry with an Opposition statement. What on earth did the Opposition think would happen? The shadow Foreign Secretary and the shadow Defence Secretary goaded the Government into this folly. You are all in it together—

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. The hon. Gentleman is a long-standing Member of the House. He knows that he must direct his questions and remarks to the Minister who is making the statement to the House today.

Mr. Dalyell: My question is very precise. It concerns British troops. The first wave became gradually acclimatised, and that is all very well, but we are now sending members of the services straight into the sweltering heat of Basra, where temperatures reach 52 degrees. Given the security position in which our forces find themselves, how on earth can they be expected to keep their cool throughout? We are asking a heck of a

3 Jul 2003 : Column 560

lot of the Army. I ask the same question as my hon. Friend the Member for Halifax (Mrs. Mahon): for how long do we delay bringing in the UN? The right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young) is right to say that things are turning sour. People are moving from acceptance to outright hostility. Our forces are seen more and more as an occupying army, and not as a liberating army. We ought to understand the consequences of that.

Hilary Benn: My hon. Friend will be aware that there is agreement across the House on the need to make progress as quickly as possible to address the points that he raises. He asks specifically about how the British forces who will be arriving in Iraq shortly are meant to cope. My answer is, simply, that I would expect them to cope with exactly the same professionalism and dedication to their duties as those who will leave shortly have demonstrated. As I think all hon. Members will recognise, their work has made a great contribution to the improvement that has taken place, especially in the south and particularly in Basra.

Mr. Michael Portillo (Kensington and Chelsea): Does the Minister recall that on 4 June the Prime Minister crowed to this House that those who said that Iraq might turn out to be his Vietnam had been proved wrong? Given the continuing level of allied casualties, would not the Prime Minister have shown less hubris if he had simply said that he did not know what lay ahead in Iraq, but that he would be resolute in seeing the task through to the end?

Hilary Benn: We certainly do need to be resolute and to see the task through to the end. I believe that those who choose to make analogies with Vietnam are mistaken, principally because the starting point was the overthrow of Saddam's regime. A majority in the House voted for that, although I recognise that there are hon. Members who did not support the decision. I repeat that we would not be having this discussion about a new future for Iraq if the action had not been taken, but the scale of the task facing us is very considerable. We owe it to the people of Iraq to see it through.

Mr. Harry Barnes (North-East Derbyshire): Rebuilding Iraq and establishing democracy there would be greatly facilitated if the UN were in charge, but will my hon. Friend say what role the new and developing free trade union movement will play? Trade unionists are united by common interests, rather than being divided into sectarian and ethnic groups. They will form the bulk of voters in a new Iraq, and they will also be the workers who will accomplish the reconstruction and rebuilding of the country. If the unions are to have a role, what will be the attitude of the US towards them?

Hilary Benn: The UN plays a very important role in the political process, particularly because resolution 1483 has given Sergio de Mello special responsibility for overseeing the establishment of the political process. His contribution and report to the Security Council on that process will be very important in taking the matter forward. I agree about the importance of supporting the establishment, in all aspects of Iraqi life, of the institutions of a functioning democracy. The trade

3 Jul 2003 : Column 561

union movement has suffered enormously, and the Government certainly wish to encourage that and other aspects of civil society. They will all contribute to the process of enabling the new democracy to be more than just a constitution and words on a document. We want it to be a living and breathing entity that enables the Iraqi people, over time, to take control of the destiny of their country.

Rev. Martin Smyth (Belfast, South): I may be accused of benefiting from hindsight, but the Minister will accept that at an early stage I expressed concern about the consequences of the war. Does he agree that searches need to be conducted sensitively, especially when men burst into houses in which women have normally been sheltered? We must understand the views on Islam on that issue. When the Minister spoke about there being three months before the donor countries conference is held, I could not help but think that that was a bit like the waiting lists in the health service. Given the magnitude of the task they face, is it not possible to call the countries together sooner, so that they can start their planning earlier?

Hilary Benn: On the hon. Gentleman's first point, he is right about the importance of being sensitive to local culture and custom. I know that UK forces are acutely aware of the need for that sensitivity, and it is something that they hold dear to their hearts when they carry out their work.

On the hon. Gentleman's second point, we have already made progress on bringing the donors together for the UN flash appeal. A further meeting was held in New York last week, which included representatives from Iraq who discussed what they felt would be needed for the future of the country. That has brought forth additional funds to support the money that has already been pledged. It is right that we should allow the World Bank, the IMF and the UN to make the detailed assessments. In one sense, three months is a long time, but we are talking about long-term reconstruction, so it is right that we should give them the chance to do that work as we shall have a more informed donors conference in October once that work has been completed.

Lynne Jones (Birmingham, Selly Oak): I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Halifax (Mrs. Mahon) that any objective observer must conclude that there was a near total lack of preparation for the post-war needs of Iraqi society. However, I also agree with the Minister when he says that we need to do more than restore services to pre-war levels. When will services be restored to even those minimal levels, to cater for humanitarian needs and, for example, broadcasting and communication? What action is being taken to distinguish between those Ba'athists who are loyal to Saddam Hussein and those who joined the Ba'ath party only from expediency, who do not have a record of corruption and abuse and can, therefore, contribute to the reconstruction of Iraq?

Next Section

IndexHome Page