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House of Lords

Wednesday, 20th March 1996.

The House met at half-past two of the clock: The CHAIRMAN OF COMMITTEES on the Woolsack.

Prayers--Read by the Lord Bishop of Sheffield.

Iraq: Imprisoned Kuwaitis

Lord Molloy asked Her Majesty's Government:

    Whether they will make further representations to the United Nations to encourage the early release by Iraq of imprisoned Kuwaiti men, women and children.

The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Baroness Chalker of Wallasey): My Lords, we most recently raised this issue at the UN when the Security Council reviewed sanctions against Iraq on 7th March. At all meetings of the Tripartite Commission we have repeatedly made clear to the Iraqis our concern at the lack of progress. We shall continue to press them to provide substantive information on individual cases.

Lord Molloy: My Lords, I thank the Minister for that Answer. Is she aware that in November Kuwaiti officials met to discuss the fate of hundreds of men, women and children and all that happened was that those people were put in gaol? I find it amazing that the only Government who are making endeavours to end this terrible farce are the British Government. It is not fair for Britain to have to do all the work, with some help from America and the Commonwealth countries. When a solution has been achieved so many countries will be cashing in to receive the honour. Is the Minister aware that I compliment our Government and hope that other Governments will give them aid?

Baroness Chalker of Wallasey: My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for his comments and for the interest he takes in the matter. Perhaps he will not agree with me but, in order to be fair, I must say that Iraq has been marginally more co-operative in the technical sub-committee which was set up by the Tripartite Commission to speed up the review of the ICRC case files. However, the fact that there is little substantive progress is due to delays in presenting information on the case files.

We shall support any measures that we can to speed that up. We shall continue to maintain the profile of the subject whenever the Security Council reviews the matter. It is critical that Iraq is brought to comply with the relevant UN Security Council resolutions.

Lord Hailsham of Saint Marylebone: My Lords, is it possible that there may be a more sinister explanation

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of the disappearance of those people? Does my noble friend have in her possession any information about their continued existence and safety?

Baroness Chalker of Wallasey: My Lords, sadly, my noble and learned friend may well be right. We have news of only two people on the original list. One is already known to be dead and the other is a Kuwaiti woman who is happy to stay in Iraq because she is married to an Iraqi. We have no knowledge of the rest. We shall continue to press the matter but there are grave problems in finding out the information from so tight and secretive a society as the Government of Iraq.

Lord Mayhew: My Lords, does the Minister agree that despite the brutal nature of the regime and Saddam's barbaric treatment of members of his own family, we must always work on the assumption that those unfortunate Kuwaitis are alive and that therefore it is our duty to help them? We congratulate the Government on what they are doing.

Baroness Chalker of Wallasey: My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Mayhew, who is absolutely right. Until we have sad knowledge to the contrary we must assume that all these people are alive. The recent deaths of the defector Hussein Kamel, the son-in-law of Saddam Hussein, and Kamel's brother and other family members underlines the total brutality of the Iraqi regime. It was yet another case of extra-judicial execution, which is all too commonplace in Iraq.

Baroness Blackstone: My Lords, I was not clear about the Minister's earlier answer to my noble friend. Do the Government support the lifting of sanctions in a limited way to allow for the export of some oil on condition that the proceeds are used for humanitarian purposes, or do they agree with the former President of the United States, Mr. George Bush, that there should be no lifting of sanctions even in a limited way until all the missing Kuwaitis are accounted for?

Baroness Chalker of Wallasey: My Lords, we welcomed the unanimous adoption of the Security Council's Resolution No. 986 which would allow Iraq to export some oil in return for humanitarian goods. It was designed to alleviate suffering and was not a relaxation of sanctions. But Iraq quickly rejected the scheme. Saddam Hussein is not prepared to accept terms for the distribution of help to northern Iraq, which is where the problem lies. We finished one set of discussions late last night and there will be further discussions on the matter in early April. We can only hope that light will dawn and Iraq will accept that it can export oil in return for humanitarian goods.

That does not mean that we do not help Iraqi people who are suffering. The noble Baroness may know that on Tuesday of this week I announced help in providing clean water to the Shi'ites in southern Iraq who are suffering desperately. That is no help to the regime but it helps the people who are suffering. We are trying to help, therefore, but it is Saddam Hussein who ought to be trying to help.

Lord Avebury: My Lords, while not denying the importance of the hundreds of people to whom the

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Question refers, does the Minister believe that there is any possibility of persuading Saddam Hussein to relent in the difficulties that he has raised in implementing Resolution No. 986 on the distribution of funds to the Kurdish people in northern Iraq who have been suffering the double embargo of the United Nations and the Saddam regime? In any such distribution, will the United Nations ensure that an even-handed approach is taken as regards the separate enclaves which are controlled by the two parties, the KDP and the PUK?

Baroness Chalker of Wallasey: My Lords, I am not sure that I can answer the noble Lord's last point. However, I hope that the whole House knows that neither food nor medicine are subject to sanctions. Of course we sympathise with the plight of the Iraqi people. We shall continue to support the efforts of the UN and, indeed, of the non-governmental organisations which are allowed to operate in Iraq.

It is notable that, since April 1991, the United Kingdom has contributed over £73 million worth of aid to those poor people. But the relaxation of the import embargo calls for compliance with the relevant resolutions. They relate to all the areas which concern the noble Lord, Lord Molloy--for example, Kuwaiti detainees, human rights, the treatment of Kurds in the north and of Shiahs in the south and the failure to return large amounts of stolen Kuwaiti property. Therefore, despite the complications, we are pressing for a resolution of those matters and we shall continue to do so in order to help the ordinary people of Iraq.

Lord Molloy: My Lords, is the Minister aware-- as I was made aware when I visited some of these places, and was duly moved by what I saw--that many people of the Arab lands feel so much for Great Britain, which they say has done a great deal for them? Once again, I should like to ask whether it would be possible for our Commonwealth countries, as well as the United States of America and other countries, to get together to ensure that this brutal regime does not continue to cock a snook at justice and fair play?

Baroness Chalker of Wallasey: My Lords, that is exactly what we are trying to do through the United Nations Security Council. I believe that that is the way to do it. I do not believe that there is any other body which could have the same influence.

British Rail: Sale of Land Holdings

2.44 p.m.

Lord Berkeley asked Her Majesty's Government:

    What is their policy in respect of the sale of former British Rail land holdings.

The Earl of Courtown: My Lords, the Government's objectives for the British Rail Property Board are for British Rail to manage its property in accordance with

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best commercial practice and to identify and dispose of all its underused or surplus land and property at a proper commercial price.

Lord Berkeley: My Lords, I thank the Minister for that Answer, which in fact deals with just half of the property which was divided up when British Rail split from Railtrack. There is also the question of Railtrack's property. Is the Minister aware of the Government's statutory duty through the regulator to encourage rail freight? I have received complaints from both present and future rail operators around the country stating that the British Rail Property Board and Railtrack are thwarting their plans by selling off railway-connected land for supermarkets and so on, rather than leasing such property at what should be peppercorn rents for those operators. Is it not scandalous that short-term profit motives are preventing rail freight business from developing? Can the Minister please comment?

The Earl of Courtown: My Lords, as the noble Lord said, after the Railways Act 1993 was put into effect property was divided between Railtrack, which took on the operational property, and the British Rail Property Board for British Rail, which took on non-operational property. As regards the non-operational property, Railtrack was consulted over which areas of land would be placed on the list and they are being marketed as time goes by to gain the best possible price. If people in industry and in various other areas are concerned over the sale of such land, they should make their requests and desires known to the British Rail Property Board which can then notify them of any property being sold.

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