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House of Lords

Monday, 17 May 2004.

The House met at half-past two of the clock: The LORD CHANCELLOR on the Woolsack.

Prayers—Read by the Lord Bishop of Salisbury.

The Lord Chancellor: Leave of Absence

The Lord Chancellor (Lord Falconer of Thoroton): My Lords, before public business begins, may I take the opportunity to inform the House that I am to undertake a ministerial visit to Chester on Friday, 21 May, when the House will sit? Accordingly, I trust that the House will grant me leave of absence.

Iraq Survey Group

Lord Redesdale asked Her Majesty's Government:

Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, Her Majesty's Government fully expect the work of the Iraq Survey Group in uncovering Iraq's intentions towards and programmes for weapons of mass destruction to continue beyond June, until all reasonable avenues of investigation have been explored.

Lord Redesdale: My Lords, could the Minister expand on what he means by "all reasonable avenues" have been explored? It appears that the Iraq Survey Group is not fulfilling any meaningful function. Will he also explain whether the Government now believe that there are no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and say whether they will publish all the findings that have so far come out since the resignation of the head of the Iraq Survey Group?

Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, a huge amount of information is being analysed at present. It is clear that the group's work is very far from complete. Noble Lords will recognise that the difficult security situation in Iraq has not been conducive to the group fulfilling its role as fully as it would have expected and hoped to do. Nevertheless, it is on course to continue its work and will, as I indicated in my original Answer, continue beyond June.

Lord Astor of Hever: My Lords, following the Minister's response, will he confirm that the reason the survey group has found, and will find, no convincing evidence of weapons of mass destruction is because there was none to find?

Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, some very interesting material indeed is emerging about the intentions of the regime and the potential threats that it posed. We are not in a position to reach conclusions
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on that at present. However, the group has uncovered substantial degrees of evidence of programmes for which Saddam Hussein's government were responsible. It is important that the group be given the opportunity to fulfil its remit, which is what it intends to do.

Lord Campbell-Savours: My Lords, is it not curious that some Members of the House seem to believe that weapons of mass destruction programmes do not pose a threat?

Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, my noble friend is right. The whole House will recognise not only that Saddam Hussein was capable of being brutal towards his own people but also that he clearly had ambitions as regards his regional role. There was direct evidence of that in the first Gulf War when he was restrained in relation to Kuwait. As my noble friend has indicated, Saddam Hussein clearly had ambitions and was prepared to pursue certain strategies, which would very much be against the interests of all in the Middle East and in the West, to help to fulfil those ambitions.

Lord Marsh: My Lords, would the Minister consider it reasonable for noble Lords to ask him "to come off it"? Is he not fully aware that there are literally dozens of countries around the world today with programmes of all kinds of weapons of mass destruction? If we are to deal with them all, surely we shall have a bit of a problem.

Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction is a problem, but we should take joy in the fact when we are able to restrain some who otherwise would have presented such a danger. I believe that we can take some satisfaction from the fact that Libya has withdrawn from a position that it had pursued for a number of years, as can the people of Iraq, and the wider world, from the destruction of the Saddam Hussein regime.

Lord Lamont of Lerwick: My Lords, do the Government still agree with a view expressed by the Prime Minister that the regime change by itself could never be an adequate justification for the invasion of Iraq?

Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, as far as the Government are concerned, it was absolutely clear that the regime of Saddam Hussein, and his ambitions, presented a threat both to his own people and to the wider world. Therefore, it is also clear that whatever the difficulties—who would seek to underestimate the enormous difficulties that face the forces in Iraq at present?—the fact that Saddam Hussein's regime is no more is of conspicuous benefit to the Iraqi people.

Baroness Walmsley: My Lords, does the Minister accept that we did not go to war on the basis of the intentions that he mentioned in an earlier answer, nor did the Prime Minister mention ambitions? He
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mentioned 45 minutes. Can the Minister say at what point the Government will accept that there are no weapons of mass destruction, nor were there any?

Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, it is too early to say that with the conviction indicated by the noble Baroness. That is not the position of the Iraq Survey Group. It has unearthed a welter of evidence about the malign intentions and capabilities of the regime. Therefore, within the prevailing security difficulties that the group faces at present, which we all hope will improve as a consequence of the transfer to the new arrangements at the end of June, it is absolutely right that it should be able to pursue its work with vigour and reach its conclusions.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon: My Lords, does my memory serve me wrong or is it a fact that the Government went to war in Iraq on the basis that it had weapons of mass destruction that were a threat to British interests, particularly in Cyprus, and could be used in 45 minutes? Does not the noble Lord agree that that was wrong and that, in the light of what is happening in Iraq at present, it would be best if British troops were withdrawn?

Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, it is rash and bold for the noble Lord to suggest that the withdrawal of British troops would benefit the Iraqi people. It must be recognised that dissident forces in Iraq are constantly perpetrating outrages, not least the one this morning, which took the life of the president of the Iraqi Governing Council. We all regret the outcome of that horror and sympathise with Ezzedine Salim's family. However, there is a job of restoring security in Iraq. It is clear that British forces play their role in that at present and will need to do so until we can achieve new arrangements in which the Iraqi people will determine their own future. Even under those new arrangements, external assistance may well be needed until full Iraqi security capacity has been developed.

Sierra Leone

Lord St John of Bletso asked Her Majesty's Government:

The Lord President of the Council (Baroness Amos): My Lords, the UK is the largest bilateral donor to Sierra Leone. We have set out our commitment to support Sierra Leone's long-term reconstruction and development in a 10-year memorandum of understanding under which we will provide up to £120 million over the first three years. This assistance takes the form of support for security sector reform, improved economic and political governance and
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direct budgetary aid. In addition, UK forces are providing training and advice to the Sierra Leone armed forces.

Lord St John of Bletso: My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness the Leader of the House for that extremely encouraging reply. Her Majesty's Government are to be congratulated on the pivotal role that our Armed Forces have played in restoring peace and stability in that country. Can the noble Baroness outline the drawdown schedule of the United Nations troops, British troops and military observers in the light of the fragility of peace in and along the borders with Liberia? How confident are Her Majesty's Government that the Royal Sierra Leone Military Forces and police are sufficiently trained and equipped to avert a resurrection of violence, whether it be through banditry or is organised?

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