PMQs – 12th March 2003 – Hansard

The Prime Minister was asked—

Q1. [102266] Peter Bradley (The Wrekin): If he will list his official engagements for Wednesday 12 March.

The Prime Minister (Mr. Tony Blair): This morning, I had meetings with ministerial colleagues and others. In addition to my duties in the House, I will have further such meetings later today.

Peter Bradley : Which is the lesser threat to global security: allowing more time for Iraq’s disarmament or, in disarming Iraq—particularly in view of the French President’s commitment to exercise his veto—dividing the international community? Will the Prime Minister give an assurance to the House that so long as there is a prospect of rebuilding an international coalition under the authority of the United Nations, he will resist US pressure for precipitate action?

The Prime Minister: I will certainly do everything I can to make sure that the international community stays united at this time and that we achieve a second UN resolution. The reason why we should have such a resolution, as my hon. Friend’s question implies, is that, for many months now, we have been waiting for Saddam Hussein to come fully into compliance with the resolution that was passed unanimously by the UN. It is time that he did so. If he does, even now conflict can be averted. But the worst thing that could happen is for the will of the UN to be expressed so clearly, for him to defy that will and for no action to follow at all.

Mr. Iain Duncan Smith (Chingford and Woodford Green): Can the Prime Minister guarantee what he said to me last week: that there will be a vote in the UN on a second resolution?

The Prime Minister: Yes, it is our intention to put a vote to the UN on a second resolution. We continue to work for that, flat out, and we will do that in a way that most upholds the authority of the UN.

Mr. Duncan Smith: If such a vote takes place, it may not be carried or it may even be vetoed. The House of Commons and the British people have a right to know now where the Government stand in that event. Is it now the case that if there is no second resolution, the United States will go to war without the UK?

The Prime Minister: In respect of the latter part, where the right hon. Gentleman asks about the United States going it alone, let me say this to him and to the House. It is true that the United States could go alone and, of course, this country should not take military action unless it is in our interests to do so. It is the British national interest that must be upheld at all times. But I believe that it is important that we hold firm to the course that we have set out because what is at stake is not whether the United States goes alone or not, but whether the international community is prepared to

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back up the clear instruction it gave to Saddam Hussein with the necessary action. That is why I am determined to hold firm to the course that we have set out.

Mr. Duncan Smith: The Prime Minister will therefore be aware that, particularly overnight, there has been some confusion among our allies and among various parties including his own. To clear up that confusion, will he confirm today that he could commit British forces to a war without the backing of a second resolution, although he still intends to go for that, and we agree with him?

The Prime Minister: I have set out on many occasions the circumstances in which we would take action. At the moment, however, the best thing is to go flat out for that second UN resolution. I am trying to do so, and it might help if I were to tell the House the types of things that we are discussing with other partners in the UN at the moment. What we are looking at is whether we can set out a clear set of tests for Iraq to meet to demonstrate that it is in full compliance—not partial compliance but full compliance. For example, based on what the inspectors have already found, it should produce either the thousands of litres of anthrax unaccounted for or the documentation showing that it is destroyed. For example, given that, since the last resolution in November, not one Iraqi scientist has been interviewed outside Iraq, where they and their families can be guaranteed safety, we should make sure that Iraq is allowing those interviews to take place. For example, Iraq should produce the unmanned aerial vehicles, which can spray chemical and biological poison, or, again, produce the documentation showing that they are destroyed. If we set out those conditions clearly, and back them with the will of a united UN, we have a chance, even now, of averting conflict. What we must show, however, is the determination to act if Saddam will not comply fully.

Mr. Duncan Smith: I agree with the Prime Minister, and he has confirmed in that answer that he keeps the option of committing British troops to war with or without a second resolution. Does the doctrine of Cabinet collective responsibility therefore apply to that position?

The Prime Minister: Yes, of course it does.

Mr. Duncan Smith: The Secretary of State for International Development said that she would not support military action without a second resolution. I remind the Prime Minister that, amazingly, she called him “reckless”. The Prime Minister can either have Cabinet collective responsibility or his Secretary of State for International Development. Which will it be?

The Prime Minister: I agree that it is an embarrassment to find myself in agreement with the right hon. Gentleman, or him in agreement with me, on the issue of Iraq, but we are agreed. Rather than scoring points, which are perfectly acceptable and which I

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understand, at this point, when we are facing momentous decisions for the country, it is probably better that we discuss the substance.

Mr. Duncan Smith: The Prime Minister knows that we agree about the principles of what he has been trying to do. I must remind him, however, of exactly what the Secretary of State for International Development said. It is remarkable. She said that

“the current situation is deeply reckless; reckless for the world, reckless for the undermining of the UN . . . reckless with our government, reckless with his own future”.

Surely if the right hon. Gentleman cannot convince his Cabinet, it will be very difficult to convince the British people. Surely the Prime Minister’s big tent is not big enough to include both the Secretary of State for International Development and Donald Rumsfeld. It is time for him to choose: which will it be?

The Prime Minister: The one thing that I have found in the last few weeks is that I have not been short of advice from anyone on this issue. The most important thing for us to do as a House, never mind as a Government or a country, especially with our armed forces facing the potential of action, is to come together, to work hard in the United Nations to secure the second resolution and to try to make sure that we send the strongest possible signal to Saddam Hussein that he must disarm or face the consequences. I say again to the right hon. Gentleman that it is better to concentrate on that than on the points that he has just made.

Q2. [102267] Tony Wright (Cannock Chase): The whole House will want to pay tribute to the Prime Minister for his tireless efforts to resolve the present crisis through the United Nations. But may I take him back for a moment to January 1998, more than five years ago, and to a letter written by several members of the Republican right in the United States, including Donald Rumsfeld and Paul Wolfowitz, to President Clinton? In one sentence of that letter, having said that American interests in the Gulf now require military action to get rid of Saddam Hussein and to produce regime change, they say:

“American policy cannot continue to be crippled by a misguided insistence on unanimity in the UN Security Council”.

It says nothing about disarmament, nothing about human rights and nothing about terrorism. Is not that the smoking gun?

The Prime Minister: Again, one of the things that I have found is that I cannot actually answer for the comments of every member of every Administration around the world—including, occasionally, even my own, as has just been pointed out. I would say to my hon. Friend simply this. Rather than debate the wealth of conspiracy theories and comments from the Republican right or the Democrat left, or this part or that part, why do we not just work out what is the right thing to do and do it? We should work out the right thing to do, whatever anyone else may say. We went through the United Nations because we believe in it, but I said at the beginning—when we went down the UN route in September last year—the UN must be the way of dealing with this, not the way of avoiding dealing with it. That is why it is important now, four and a bit months

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on when Saddam is not fully complying, that we come to the crunch and take a decision. We have tried to provide, within the UN framework, a set of conditions that allow us to test clearly, based on what the UN inspectors have said, whether he is fully in co-operation or not. What I urge, even at this stage, is for countries to get behind that and help us with it, because that is the best way to achieve disarmament peacefully.

Mr. Charles Kennedy (Ross, Skye and Inverness, West): Has the Attorney-General advised the Prime Minister that a war on Iraq in the absence of a second United Nations resolution authorising force would be legal? What advice has the Attorney-General given?

The Prime Minister: I have said on many occasions that we as a country would not do anything that did not have a proper legal basis to it.

Mr. Kennedy: This week UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan has said that in the absence of a second UN resolution we would be acting in a way that breached the UN charter. Is Kofi Annan wrong?

The Prime Minister: No, what Kofi Annan has been saying—and I agree with him—is that it is important that the UN comes together. That is why we are trying to provide a basis, a compromise even at this stage, that allows us to resolve the matter properly. I say to the right hon. Gentleman and to the House that it is complicated to get that agreement at the UN when one nation is saying that whatever the circumstances it will veto a resolution. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman would accept that we cannot have such a situation and that we have to ensure that we deal with the issue in the terms of resolution 1441, which we all—including the right hon. Gentleman—agreed upon.

Q3. [102268] Mr. Mark Lazarowicz (Edinburgh, North and Leith): While the attention of the world is understandably focused on Iraq, the everyday crisis in Israel and Palestine continues and worsens, particularly for millions of Palestinians but also for many Israeli citizens. Can my right hon. Friend tell the House what steps he is taking to keep alive what faint hope exists in the middle east peace process, and in particular, will he call on the new Israeli Government not to take the opportunity of the focus on Iraq to further undermine the already precarious position of Palestinians and their society?

The Prime Minister: I agree entirely with what my hon. Friend says and I emphasise to him that we remain firmly committed to taking forward the middle east peace process. I welcome the decision to appoint Abu Mazen as Prime Minister for the Palestinian Authority. That is a good, forward and progressive move, and I hope that it will get an echo from the Israeli side. I believe that there will be very few people in the middle east and the Arab world who shed tears for Saddam

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Hussein, but people everywhere—not just in the Arab and Muslim world—genuinely want to see the middle east peace process back on its feet and going forward.

Mr. Richard Shepherd (Aldridge-Brownhills): What was the legal basis in international law for war against Yugoslavia, and if that did not require a UN resolution why does the Iraqi situation require one?

The Prime Minister: As the Foreign Secretary has pointed out, resolution 1441 gives the legal basis for this. The reason we have been seeking a second resolution is, as I said to the Liaison Committee when I appeared before it, that it is highly desirable to demonstrate the unified will of the international community.

Q4. [102269] Mr. Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield): Is my right hon. Friend aware that many of us believe that he has done the right thing over many months in restraining the American President from taking precipitate action, and in working instead through the United Nations? Is it not important, as the hours and days tick by, that he use all his efforts to tell President Bush that we need another UN resolution and that there is no need for an unseemly haste to war?

The Prime Minister: My hon. Friend is right in saying that it is important that we do everything that we can to achieve that second UN resolution. To be frank, many people thought that we might be in action even now, but we are not. We have delayed precisely in order to try to bring the international community back round the position that we set out in 1441. I go back to that the whole time. It was at the heart of the agreement that the United States take the multilateral path of the United Nations. The agreement was very simple. The United States had to agree to go through the United Nations, and to resolve this through the United Nations, but the other partners inside the United Nations agreed that, if Saddam did not fully comply and was in material breach, serious consequences and action would follow. The fact is, he has not complied. Four and a half months on—indeed, 12 years on—he has not complied. That it why it is important that we bring this issue to a head now and get it resolved. I remain, as I say, working flat out to get it resolved through the United Nations. That is easily the best thing. It will be a tragedy for the UN, when faced with this challenge, if it fails to meet it. However, we have to ensure that the unified will, as set out in 1441, is implemented.

Mr. Andrew Robathan (Blaby): May I bring the Prime Minister to matters domestic, and in particular education, education, education? Is he aware that Leicestershire is the worst funded education authority in the country under the new education formula spending shares? Last week, I had a meeting with some 30 governors, all of whom will have to set deficit budgets because their funding from the Government this year is 1 per cent. less in real terms than it was last year. The governors are talking about redundancies. Will the Prime Minister address this matter, and is he surprised that people in Leicestershire believe very little that he says?

The Prime Minister: We have increased education spending by a massive amount. All authorities have

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received an above-inflation allocation in their grant. As we are, for a moment, discussing domestic issues, the other point to make is that, while the hon. Gentleman is getting to his feet and calling for even more money for our education service, he appears not to be aware that his Front Bench is calling for 20 per cent. less money.

Q5. [102270] Mr. Colin Challen (Morley and Rothwell): Given that, tomorrow, there will be a day of action across the European Union opposing the general agreement on trade in services; and given that the EU’s requests for the liberalisation of services under the current GATS negotiations have recently been published, does my right hon. Friend agree that the time has come for a moratorium on the negotiations until we in the developed world can carry out detailed and thorough impact assessments—of the environmental impact, for example—that will result from a liberalisation of services?

The Prime Minister: I understand the concerns of my hon. Friend and some non-governmental organisations on GATS. When we talk to the developing countries, they tell us that they are keen for things to move forward. Whatever we do, it is important to put their interests first, because they are desperate to get the markets liberalised.

Mr. Elfyn Llwyd (Meirionnydd Nant Conwy): When will this House have a vote on whether to commit troops to war in Iraq? Does the Prime Minister agree with his defence Minister, who said yesterday that war was “pretty damn inevitable”? If so, why?

The Prime Minister: I think that what my hon. Friend said was that, if Saddam Hussein refuses to disarm voluntarily, conflict becomes inevitable. That is the position that we have set out throughout.

I have made it clear on many occasions, as has the Foreign Secretary, that—subject to the security and safety of our troops, which must come first—we believe that it is right that this House has a say on this issue. People will then be able to see the stand that we take, and people will then have to make up their minds as to the stand that they take.

Q6. [102271] Mr. Win Griffiths (Bridgend): What plans he has to visit Indonesia to discuss with the President of Indonesia the campaign against international terrorism.

The Prime Minister: I have no plans at present to visit Indonesia but I have been in contact with President Megawati. My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary discussed counter-terrorism with President Megawati when he visited Indonesia in January.

Mr. Griffiths: I recognise my right hon. Friend’s desire for a peaceful outcome to Iraq’s compliance with United Nations Security Council resolutions, so will he accept that Indonesia—the largest Muslim nation in the world and emerging from dictatorship to take on the virtues of democracy and tolerance, but the victim of extremist Islamic international terrorism in Bali last October—desperately needs a peaceful outcome to the present

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Iraqi crisis, and support from the United Kingdom Government for its reform programme and in combating extremist Islamic terrorists?

The Prime Minister: First, I pay tribute to the work that my hon. Friend has done in this area and to the inter-faith work that he has carried out to promote greater understanding between the Muslim and Christian religions. I agree entirely with what he says about Indonesia. We are funding, to the tune of several million pounds, the transition of Indonesia to full democracy, helping it to develop the institutions that it needs and making sure that democratic participation in Indonesia is as full as it possibly can be. I agree with him entirely. Indonesia is a very important country for all sorts of reasons, not least because it has such a large Muslim population. It is important that we in the western world work closely with Indonesia to assist its progress.

Mr. Julian Brazier (Canterbury): I echo the remarks of the hon. Member for Bridgend (Mr. Griffiths). Will the Prime Minister accept that the key to stability and moderation in Indonesia and other similar Islamic states lies in the west—in particular, America and Britain—being seen to be even-handed in those situations in which Muslims are oppressed, especially those in Palestine and Kashmir?

The Prime Minister: I agree that the even-handedness of our approach is essential. That is why we have worked as far as we can—it is obviously a bilateral dispute—to assist the parties to reach agreement in Kashmir. I can only repeat what I said earlier about the middle east process. The plight of the Palestinians—and, indeed, the plight of innocent Israelis blown up in terrorist attacks—is dire and requires our attention. It would be the best signal of even-handedness that we could give right across the Muslim world if we were prepared to show the right energy and commitment to the middle east peace process. I will do everything that I can to ensure that we and others do that.

Q7. [102272] Kate Hoey (Vauxhall): May I thank my right hon. Friend for taking two days last week out of his very busy schedule to spend in Northern Ireland? Does he agree that it is important that, when dealing with terrorism, we do not operate with double standards? Can he give me and the people of Northern Ireland an assurance that he will not allow any deal to be entered into with the Irish Republican Army that allows terrorists on the run to evade the criminal justice system?

The Prime Minister: We have said that the issue of so-called on-the-runs has to be dealt with, and we have said that it should not be dealt with by way of an amnesty. We are looking at the right way of doing that. I hope that my hon. Friend will also agree that, for all the difficulties, the Northern Ireland peace process over the past few years has yielded enormous benefits. The fact that we are actually talking about a situation in which

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we can have a permanent end to violence in Northern Ireland is a huge tribute to everyone who has been involved in the process since 1997.

Q8. [102273] Dr. Vincent Cable (Twickenham): Is the Prime Minister aware that, yesterday, the American Government issued invitations to five American corporations led by Mr. Cheney’s Halliburton group to bid for the reconstruction of post-war Iraq and pointedly excluded British and foreign firms? Is the Prime Minister not embarrassed to have given such unstinting loyalty to an American President who regards international co-operation with such contempt and war as an opportunity to dish out contracts to his cronies?

The Prime Minister: I do not agree at all with the hon. Gentleman in relation to that. In respect of the American President and international co-operation, I remind the hon. Gentleman that it was as a result of many requests made to the US President that he went through the United Nations last year. I think that it is right, now, that the will of the UN is upheld. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will agree with that.

Ms Dari Taylor (Stockton, South): The contract for the aircraft carriers has been placed—the first stage—and offers great investment opportunities for our manufacturing industry. What advice would my right hon. Friend give to all involved so that we see maximum benefit from this contract in terms of new products and new markets and not just excellent employment opportunities but greater employment opportunities?

The Prime Minister: What my hon. Friend says is right. There is an additional point to consider, too. As a result of what is happening in, for example, the shipbuilding industry generally, skills and technology are being developed in this country. The order has had an enormously beneficial productive impact on our manufacturing base, and I congratulate all my hon. Friend’s constituents who have been involved in it.

Q9. [102274] Mr. James Gray (North Wiltshire): The Prime Minister still commands majority support in his Cabinet, but does he feel that he needs support from the parliamentary Labour party, this House or, perhaps, the country as a whole before he commits us to war?

The Prime Minister: I have said all the way through that it is important, as I said a moment or two ago, to have a vote in the House, subject to the caveat I have always entered. I hope that the hon. Gentleman also understands, however, that it is important that I set out, as Prime Minister, what I believe to be right in this country’s national interest. I have tried to do that over the past few months and believe that I have set out my position. I think there is a real threat to this country from the twin sources of international terrorism and weapons of mass destruction and if we do not deal with them, our world and our country will be a less secure and more dangerous place. I hope that the hon. Gentleman and other Opposition Members will join us in that endeavour.

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Alan Howarth (Newport, East): Does my right hon. Friend agree that divisions in the UN, NATO, the European Union and, indeed, this House only give comfort and opportunity to Saddam? Does he also agree that a deadline receding into the summer heat haze is not a serious interpretation of “serious consequences” for incomplete compliance which were unanimously resolved by the Security Council last November? Given that Saddam has both motive and capacity to equip terrorists with chemical and biological weapons, does he further agree that it is an urgent necessity to disarm him whether or not there is another UN resolution?

The Prime Minister: I think the point that my right hon. Friend makes is absolutely right and he sets out precisely why we need to take action. The idea that we could leave British and American troops down there for months on an indefinite time scale, without insisting clearly that Saddam disarms, would send not only a message of weakness out to Saddam, but a message of weakness right across the world. That is why it is important that it is dealt with. I hope that even now those countries that are saying they would use their veto no matter what the circumstances will reconsider and realise that by doing so they put at risk not just the disarmament of Saddam, but the unity of the United Nations.

Q10. [102275] Mr. John Randall (Uxbridge): Does the Prime Minister accept that I, and many of my constituents, would like to be convinced of and to believe his stance on Iraq? Does he also accept that it would greatly assist us if he published the legal advice that his Government have received?

The Prime Minister: It is not the convention to publish legal advice, but it is the convention to state clearly that we have a legal base for whatever action we take, and of course we must have such a legal base. I understand the concern and the strong arguments on the other side, but the argument for the hon. Gentleman’s constituents and others is surely this: in circumstances in which we believe Saddam is a threat—I think most people believe that—and in circumstances in which we demanded that he co-operate fully with the United Nations and he has not—and everyone accepts that—unless we act and enforce that co-operation, we are setting the will of the United Nations at naught and are also saying to Saddam, “You can carry on building these weapons of mass destruction and we will do nothing about it.” If we send the message to Saddam that he can carry on and that we do not have the will to stop him, I ask the hon. Gentleman and his constituents what credibility the will of the United Nations will have the next time either he or another tyrant or dictator tries to arm themselves with such weapons? That is why we have to act.

Mr. Derek Foster (Bishop Auckland): In these momentous times, by his heroic efforts to seek a second resolution in the United Nations, I believe that the Prime Minister has the overwhelming support of

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Members on both sides of the House. Are there not two great prizes for all his activities? The first is the credibility of the United Nations in seeking to enforce its resolutions because without that it will lose all credibility. The second is the ability to continue to persuade the President of the USA to go down the multilateralist route.

The Prime Minister: The point that my right hon. Friend made at the end is very important. We all agreed to take the multilateral route last November. Let us be clear, not everyone in every part of every Administration may have wanted to take the multilateral route, but we did so, and on the basis that Saddam had a final opportunity to disarm and that if he did not comply fully, unconditionally and immediately with UN inspectors, he would be in breach and serious consequences would follow. Not a single person—not a single person in Europe; not a single person in the rest of the world—believes that he is co-operating either fully or unconditionally, and certainly not immediately. My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. What is at

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stake is the integrity of the multilateral process. Unless we uphold it now, we are never going to be able to uphold it in future times.

Q11. [102276] Andrew George (St. Ives): On a domestic matter, the Prime Minister’s chosen rural tsar, Lord Haskins, has said that it is a good thing that small farmers are having to leave the industry. Last year, 15,000 farmers left or were forced out of the industry. Was that a cause for concern or celebration in Downing street?

The Prime Minister: I am afraid I have not caught up with Lord Haskins’s comments, but of course not. The reason why we have tried to increase the amount of money going into agriculture is to support our farming industry, but it would be cruel to pretend to people in that industry that there does not also need to be change and reform. For that reason, we set up the commission headed by Don Curry, which has had immense support in the farming community. We are providing the funding to implement it, and I would hope that the hon. Gentleman would support us in doing so.

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