PMQs – 19th March 2003 – Hansard

The Prime Minister was asked—

Q1. [103487] Mr. David Rendel (Newbury): If he will list his official engagements for Wednesday 19 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.

Mr. Rendel: Now that it seems inevitable that, sadly, there will be immense destruction in Iraq over the next few weeks, and given that the Select Committee on International Development reported earlier this year that less than half the necessary funds for the reconstruction of Afghanistan had been contributed, can the Prime Minister assure the House that he, the Chancellor of the Exchequer and the Secretary of State for International Development will ensure that sufficient funds for the reconstruction of Iraq are provided swiftly?

The Prime Minister: First, I should say to the hon. Gentleman that the purpose of the reconstruction programme post conflict in Iraq is not, in fact, primarily to do with the consequences of any military conflict, but is actually to do with reconstructing the country after the years of Saddam Hussein and his rule. Secondly, I would say to him that, yes, we will ensure that the funds are available—indeed, funds have already been earmarked for the purpose—and the Secretary of State for International Development, the Ministry of Defence and the Treasury are doing all that they can to make sure that we co-ordinate with American allies and also with other UN partners to ensure that the funds are available and also that the programme is available, so that in the post-conflict situation in Iraq the people of Iraq are given the future that they need.

Mr. Stuart Bell (Middlesbrough): Will the Prime Minister note that, at the present time in the Gulf, we have 37 Army chaplains, 12 RAF chaplains and 19 to 20 Royal Navy chaplains? Does that not reflect the great support of the churches for our armed services at this time? Should that not be reflected not only in this House, but in the country?

The Prime Minister: I know that my hon. Friend, because of his special responsibilities and interests in this matter, is deeply knowledgeable about the armed forces chaplains. They do an excellent job for our armed forces. At this moment in particular, the thoughts of the

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whole House, no matter what position we take on Iraq and the conflict, will be with our armed forces wishing them well and wishing them safety.

Mr. Iain Duncan Smith (Chingford and Woodford Green): Following last night’s vote, does the Prime Minister agree that British forces serving in the Gulf should know that, irrespective of how individual MPs or even parties voted, the whole House of Commons backs them and wishes them Godspeed and a safe return?

The Prime Minister: I am sure that the whole House will endorse those sentiments. Whatever positions people have taken—and we understand the reasons for that—I know that everyone in this House wishes our armed forces well, wishes that, if there is conflict, it will be over as quickly and as successfully as possible and would like to pay tribute to their dedication and commitment on behalf of this country.

Mr. Duncan Smith: As Saddam Hussein has rejected every single offer to disarm or leave the country, is it now a reality that the removal of Saddam Hussein has become an explicit war aim?

The Prime Minister: It is the case that if the only means of achieving the disarmament of Iraq of weapons of mass destruction is the removal of the regime, then the removal of the regime of course has to be our objective. It is important that we realise that we have come to this position because we have given every opportunity for Saddam voluntarily to disarm, but the will not only of this country but of the United Nations now has to be upheld.

Mr. Duncan Smith: Given the Prime Minister’s answer, the whole House also will have heard the statement by President Bush that any Iraqi commander who commits a war crime will be prosecuted. Will he confirm that that dictum goes right to the top and, despite some reports of immunity, includes Saddam Hussein himself?

The Prime Minister: There was a possibility, if Saddam Hussein was prepared to leave voluntarily, quit Iraq and spare his people the conflict, that we could have ensured that that happened. The circumstances in relation to any immunity might then have been different, but it is reasonably clear, I think, that that will not happen. I think that it is very important that those in senior positions of responsibility in Saddam Hussein’s regime realise that they will be held accountable for what they have done.

Mr. Duncan Smith: When I asked the Prime Minister in the past about his plans for post-conflict Iraq, he was, quite legitimately and understandably, reluctant to give full answers because he would not have wanted to give the impression that conflict was inevitable. Now that war is looming and Saddam Hussein’s days are clearly numbered, will he tell us what plans there are to put in place a civilian representative Government in Iraq?

The Prime Minister: We are in discussion now with not just the United States, but other allies and the

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United Nations. We want to ensure that any post-conflict authority in Iraq is endorsed and authorised by a new United Nations resolution, and I think that that will be an important part of bringing the international community back together again.

We have set out a vision statement for Iraq and the Iraqi people, and it might help if I highlight one or two of its aspects. First, we will support the Iraqi people in their desire for

“a unified Iraq within its current borders”,

and we will protect their territorial integrity. Secondly, we will protect their wealth, and I repeat again that any money from Iraqi oil will go into a UN-administered trust fund for the benefit of the Iraqi people. There should be freedom in

“an Iraq which respects fundamental human rights, including freedom of thought, conscience and religion and the dignity of family life”,

and there should be freedom from the fear of arbitrary arrest. There should also be an

“Iraq respecting the rule of law, whose government reflects the diversity and choice of its population”,

and who help to rebuild Iraq, for the Iraqi people, on the basis of unifying the Iraqi people. Those principles of peace, prosperity, freedom and good government will go some way toward showing that if there is a conflict and Saddam Hussein is removed, the future for the Iraqi people will be brighter and better as a result.

Mr. Marsha Singh (Bradford, West): Now that the Prime Minister has received a mandate for war, will he take this opportunity to reassure the world that it is a war against Saddam Hussein, and not the Iraqi people and Muslims? Will he also reassure our Muslim communities that he will not allow them to be scapegoats for anything that might happen in the Gulf?

The Prime Minister: I thank my hon. Friend for what he said because I know that it will be heard and considered closely by people in this country and abroad. Let me make it quite clear that our quarrel is not with the Iraqi people because the Iraqi people are the principal victims of Saddam Hussein. Our quarrel is with Saddam. He is the person who has been responsible for killing thousands—indeed, hundreds of thousands—of Muslim people both in his wars and through his internal repression. I know that the vast majority of the Muslim community in this country are good, law-abiding people who contribute an immense amount to our country, and we are proud of our country as a multicultural and multiracial society.

Mr. Charles Kennedy (Ross, Skye and Inverness, West): As, of course, the whole House will associate itself with the expressions of support for our armed forces and their families at home, may I ask the Prime Minister about the related issue arising from the past few days: the middle east road map? What is the status of that in the eyes of the British Government, given that the Israelis seem to feel that it can be altered as it progresses?

The Prime Minister: Our commitment is total to the middle east peace process and to the road map being published. That is the clear commitment that has been

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given not only on our behalf, but on behalf of the President of the United States. Of course, both the Palestinian Authority and the Israeli Government can make their comments, but the road map is not simply a set of principles, but a detailed process for reaching the point of establishing a viable Palestinian state and an Israel that is confident of its security and recognised by all its neighbours. We are totally committed to ensuring that the road map is fulfilled.

Mr. Kennedy: Will the Prime Minister also reassure the House that he will maintain pressure, as he has already, on the American Administration to ensure that they continue to back the momentum for that process?

The Prime Minister: It is worth quoting what the President of the United States said last Friday on that subject because it indicates the degree of commitment that he has given. He said:

“The government of Israel, as the terror threat is removed and security improves, must take concrete steps to support the emergence of a viable and credible Palestinian state, and to work as quickly as possible toward a final status agreement.”

He went on to say:

“We expect . . . a Palestinian Prime Minister will be confirmed soon. Immediately upon confirmation, the road map for peace will be given to the Palestinians and the Israelis.”

He then said:

“America is committed, and I am personally committed, to implementing our road map toward peace.”

That is his commitment and my commitment, and we will work hard to ensure that it is delivered.

Mrs. Alice Mahon (Halifax): It is widely reported in today’s newspapers that the United States intends to use a new bomb that will melt the Iraqi communications systems. Will this bomb also melt the equipment that is used in hospitals and that runs the water and electricity supplies in Baghdad? Will the Prime Minister assure us that it does not melt people?

The Prime Minister: In any military conflict, we will operate in accordance with international law. Any weapons or munitions that are used will be in accordance with international law. I assure my hon. Friend that we will do everything that we can to minimise civilian casualties and, indeed, to maximise the possibilities of a swift and successful conclusion to any conflict.

Q2. [103488] Mr. Andrew Rosindell (Romford): While our thoughts and prayers are with our brave servicemen in the Gulf, will the Prime Minister reflect on one thing? Given the disgraceful and spineless attitude of the French Government, is it not highly dangerous and irresponsible to contemplate tying British defences into a European common defence and security policy?

The Prime Minister: If that was a bid for the Foreign Office badge of diplomacy, it somewhat failed. I simply say to the hon. Gentleman that it is important that we make sure that we participate fully in any debates about European defence. The purpose of our participation is to make sure that European defence is fully compatible with our membership of NATO. I appreciate that there

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is a disagreement between us and the Opposition, but I genuinely believe that the worst thing that we could do in any debate about European defence would be to leave the chair empty. If I can put it more diplomatically than the hon. Gentleman, those who might oppose our vision of how European defence matures over years would then be strengthened.

Q3. [103489] Mr. Martin Caton (Gower): International humanitarian law prohibits military attack that fails to discriminate between combatants and non-combatants or that disproportionately impacts on civilians. Can my right hon. Friend assure me that, in the war on Iraq that the House sanctioned last night, we will not be employing cluster bombs and that electricity, transport and water infrastructure will not be targeted?

The Prime Minister: I simply say in relation to any weapons or munitions that we use that we will use only those that are in accordance with international law and with the Geneva convention. That is the responsibility of the Government and is the commitment of this Government and has been of other British Governments in the past. We will do everything that we can to minimise civilian casualties. The reason why, in respect of any military action that we take, we get legal advice not merely on the military action itself but on the targeting is to make sure that that happens. Of course, I understand that, if there is conflict, there will be civilian casualties. That, I am afraid, is in the nature of any conflict, but we will do our best to minimise them. However, I point out to my hon. Friend that civilian casualties in Iraq are occurring every day as a result of the rule of Saddam Hussein. He will be responsible for many, many more deaths even in one year than we will be in any conflict.

Mr. Peter Robinson (Belfast, East): Can the Prime Minister tell the House anything of his plans in terms of the state of readiness for homeland defence? What state of a war footing is the United Kingdom on in the now more likely event of international terrorism?

The Prime Minister: We have made detailed preparations for the possibility of any terrorist attack, as I am sure the hon. Gentleman knows. We have also spent several hundred million pounds ensuring that we have both the equipment and the planning in place. I will not go into the details of each part of that, but I assure him that we are well aware of the risk that this country—indeed, all countries—suffers and faces at the moment. We are doing everything that we can to prepare against it.

Q4. [103490] Chris Ruane (Vale of Clwyd): The UK, along with dozens of other nations, stood shoulder to shoulder with the US over Afghanistan and now Iraq. That loyalty has been rewarded by the Bush Administration with the imposition of steel tariffs, the withdrawal from test ban treaties, the introduction of farm subsidies in America, and contempt for the International Criminal Court. The President rubbished and reneged on the Kyoto and Johannesburg treaties, and scuppered my right hon. Friend’s attempts to open dialogue with the Palestinians in January. Can my right

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hon. Friend use his now legendary powers of persuasion to convince President Bush to develop a world vision worthy of his great nation?

The Prime Minister: I gather from my hon. Friend’s remarks that he is not a total fan of President Bush. There are important things that President Bush has agreed to, and it is as well to balance my hon. Friend’s remarks with those. First, President Bush took the case of Iraq to the United Nations. He was asked to do so and did so, and he agreed resolution 1441. I say and say again that it was not he who walked away from that deal.

Secondly, in respect of the middle east peace process, my hon. Friend will have heard the words that I spoke a moment or two ago, quoting President Bush and his commitment to that. He is the first American President to commit himself to the two-state solution of a state of Israel and a viable Palestinian state.

We are working closely on a new UN resolution in relation to reconstruction.

There are disagreements about trade, but those are familiar disagreements, not merely with the present American Administration, but with previous American Administrations. A couple of years ago, under the previous Administration of a Democrat President, I spent a large part of my time dealing with the issue of cashmere sweaters. Those things happen, and America is not the only country with which we have the odd trade disagreement. I understand what my hon. Friend is saying. It is important that we use our influence to develop that global agenda, and I believe that we can do so.

Mr. Iain Duncan Smith (Chingford and Woodford Green): Does the defeat of the Government’s asylum legislation in the Court of Appeal yesterday make the achievement of the Prime Minister’s target of halving asylum applications by September more or less likely?

The Prime Minister: I am pleased to say that because we won on the legal principle, that is not affected.

Mr. Duncan Smith: The Prime Minister is the only person who can claim defeat in the Court of Appeal as a triumph. The asylum organisations have all said that the policy is now in tatters. Surely this is the latest setback for a Government who introduced vouchers, then scrapped them; scrapped the white list, then re-introduced it; and have been forced by the courts almost weekly to change their policy. Small wonder that last Friday the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees published a report that shows that for the second year running Britain has the worst record of all the industrialised nations. Is it not true that under the present Prime Minister we have become the asylum capital of the world?

The Prime Minister: First, the right hon. Gentleman is wrong about the judgment. The judgment supported the principle that if people do not claim in time, they do not get their benefit. There are changes to the procedures in individual cases that we can make without disturbing that basic principle. Of course, the right hon. Gentleman will hold me to account on the pledge and

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commitment that we have given. If he looks carefully at the asylum figures for the end of last year, once the new asylum legislation came into effect, he will see that there was already a 25 per cent. drop in asylum claims. I am pleased to say that, as will become apparent in due course, that progress has continued well.

Q5. [103491] Lynne Jones (Birmingham, Selly Oak): Saddam Hussein has been offered immunity from prosecution if he leaves Iraq. On what authority was that offer made, what message does it send to other corrupt regimes, and what is my right hon. Friend’s strategy for a return to a world order in which decisions are taken lawfully through the UN, rather than by the world’s superpower? Or is it too late? With his help, has the foundation stone for the pax Americana already been laid?

The Prime Minister: First, the reason why we were prepared to offer such a possibility was to avoid war, which is, after all, what I thought my hon. Friend wanted. If she was saying that President Bush had been too soft and should have said that we would remove Saddam Hussein in any event, I could understand that. We wanted to try to avoid conflict by having him voluntarily disarm. Then, if he refused to do so, we were prepared to give a further chance to resolve the matter peacefully by getting him to leave the country. Now we are faced with the prospect of leaving him in place without disarming him, or making sure that we remove him from power. I earnestly ask my hon. Friend to consider this.

If we remove Saddam from power, as I believe we will have to because it is the only way of disarming Iraq of weapons of mass destruction, the people who will rejoice most will be the Iraqi people who will be free of a murderous tyrant who has done nothing but damage to his country. If she wants to know what Iraq could be like, she should talk to the people in northern Iraq who, because of British and American pilots in the no-fly zone, have been able to build something of their country, and she will see that the true impulse of the Iraqi people is for greater freedom, democracy, prosperity and the rule of law.

Q6. [103492] Mr. John Randall (Uxbridge): What lessons does the Prime Minister think could be learnt for a post-war Iraq from the current situation in Kosovo?

The Prime Minister: First, I would say that people in Kosovo, as people in Afghanistan, whatever the difficulties, are infinitely better for being removed from the rule of brutal dictators, whether Milosovic or the Taliban. Secondly, we must stay in for the long term. It will be easier over time, but in Kosovo, as in Afghanistan, we cannot make a short-term commitment. We must make a long-term commitment to reconstruction and rebuilding those countries. But for all the difficulties in the Balkans at the moment, most obviously after the appalling assassination of the Serbian Prime Minister recently, the Balkans is at a point where it has a better prospect for peace and prosperity than probably at any time in the past 100

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years. That is because we were prepared to take military action in order to remove the regime that was preventing that prosperity from coming about.

Phil Hope (Corby): The Prime Minister will be aware that it was this Government who introduced the historic national minimum wage in the teeth of fierce opposition from the Conservative party. On behalf of temporary workers, particularly in my Corby constituency, may I thank the Government for the announcement today that the national minimum wage is to rise by three times the rate of inflation? But will my right hon. Friend consider lowering the adult rate so that 18-year-olds can qualify for the higher rate and applying a youth rate to 16 and 17-year-olds to prevent exploitation of young people in the workplace?

The Prime Minister: The point that my hon. Friend makes about young people is one that is often made. Our concern has always been to ensure that we do nothing to disturb the employment prospects of young people, but we keep the matter under review. I am pleased to say that we have published the fourth report from the independent Low Pay Commission and, as he rightly says, it will mean that the minimum wage for adults rises from the present £4.20 to £4.50 in October, and then to £4.85 in October 2004. More than 1 million people are now benefiting from the minimum wage, many of them low-paid women workers, and, combined with the working families tax credit, literally thousands of families throughout the country in every constituency are benefiting from this Labour Government’s drive towards greater equality.

Q7. [103493] Chris Grayling (Epsom and Ewell): During the next few weeks our humanitarian response to the Iraqi crisis will be as important as our military one. Given the monumental mess that the Secretary of State for International Development has made this week of her own position, what confidence can we have that she is now the right person to do that job?

The Prime Minister: We can have the confidence of the experience over many years in which that Department has gained a reputation throughout the world for the humanitarian assistance that it has given. That is as a result of the co-operation that has taken place not just between that Department and other Departments, but with the United Nations and with the American Government. I can assure the hon. Gentleman that we will put every effort into the humanitarian assistance that is required, and we will make sure, in particular, that as military action develops we are able to take care of the Iraqi people in a way that Saddam Hussein has not been able to do.

Q8. [103494] Mr. Gordon Marsden (Blackpool, South): The Prime Minister, in his powerful speech yesterday and again in his response to the Leader of the Opposition this lunchtime, has confirmed that it is crucial that any post-war settlement for Saddam Hussein’s Iraq involves the UN in the administration and control of the oil revenues. We all know that during the next few weeks the logistical pressures on the Government, particularly on the Prime Minister, will be enormous, so can he reassure the House that he will talk

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to the Foreign Secretary to insist that the detail of that arrangement is pursued with the utmost vigour with the Americans and involving the EU partners, both prospective from the enlargement countries and those that we have at the moment, including those who did not agree with the Government at the Security Council?

The Prime Minister: There are two aspects. The first is the humanitarian relief that is necessary as military action gets under way, on which the Department for International Development, the Foreign Office and the Ministry of Defence are working closely, obviously, with our military allies, particularly the US. Indeed, I took a meeting on that issue this morning. The second aspect will be humanitarian assistance in the post-conflict situation, which should be done under a UN resolution, as in relation to the administration, and of course we want to involve as many countries as possible.

Q9. [103495] Mr. Mark Oaten (Winchester): Does the Prime Minister believe that the United Nations needs to reform? If so, in what way should it reform, and what role will he have in that?

The Prime Minister: There are issues, obviously, in relation to the UN Security Council and reform of it, which we will have to discuss with others, but the issue is not really institutional; it is whether we can construct a sufficiently strong partnership between Europe and America and a global agenda around which people can unite. If they cannot unite politically, no amount of institutional tinkering will help us resolve those problems. That is why, at the end of this, we need a period of reflection to see how we put that partnership back together, and how we construct the global agenda that would bring in a lot more people to our way of thinking. That, whatever the institutional arguments in the UN, is what is essential.

Mr. Frank Cook (Stockton, North): Now that military units are moving into what was previously the demilitarised zone in Kuwait and Iraq, will my right hon. Friend offer the House an assurance today that correct records and registers of inoculations, medication administered and weapons used in different sectors will be kept so that the parents of serving men and women can be assured that the right kind of inquiries can be made in the event of any condition arising akin to that which is called Gulf war syndrome?

The Prime Minister: I am sure that my hon. Friend’s point is justified. I know that procedures are already in place to do that, and, if he will allow me, I will write to him setting those out in detail. His point, however, is obviously important for the security and safety of our armed forces personnel.

Q10. [103496] Mr. James Gray (North Wiltshire): Despite what the Prime Minister said to my hon. Friend the Member for Romford (Mr. Rosindell) a moment ago, the fact is that a common European defence policy is central to the new draft constitution for Europe. Why

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will he not allow the people of Britain the right to have a referendum so that they can have their say on the matter?

The Prime Minister: Probably for the same reason that the Conservatives did not have one on Maastricht—[Interruption.] I know that they have changed a little bit in the meantime—[Hon. Members: “Oh.”] May I ask Conservative Members to please sort this matter out among themselves, and come back later? The purpose of European defence is in relation to circumstances in which NATO does not want to undertake an operation but European defence has the capability of doing so.

Mr. Gray indicated dissent.

The Prime Minister: The hon. Gentleman shakes his head, but that is true. The best example of that is Bosnia in the early 1990s. Because, at that point, America did not want to become engaged, we did not have the capability of protecting people in Bosnia. As a result of that, thousands of people died, and we are still in Bosnia more than 10 years later.

Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow): Were cathedrals such as Durham, Lincoln or Wells to be damaged, what

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would we feel? What precautions are being taken about Kerbala, Najaf, Ur, Hatra and the other great sites? That will be difficult, given that, as at Samarra last time, Saddam may place military objects near the ancient sites.

The Prime Minister: I am glad that my hon. Friend recognises the propensity towards total irresponsibility of Saddam. I assure him that we are fully committed to the protection of cultural property. That is not merely the Government’s position: we are also committed to that under the Geneva conventions. I understand that the Foreign Secretary has talked to him about that, and we will do everything that we can to make sure that sites of cultural or religious significance are properly and fully protected.

Q11. [103497] Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire): On a domestic matter, does the Prime Minister support in principle the devolution of student funding arrangements to the Welsh Assembly, given that the Labour-Liberal Democrat partnership has requested that?

The Prime Minister: The Secretary of State for Wales informs me that discussions about the issue are under way.

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