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Mr. Brown: On the issue of footpaths, I give the hon. Lady the assurance she seeks. I have the matter under active consideration with the devolved authorities and I hope to make a further announcement shortly.

As the hon. Lady probably knows, I do not have direct responsibility for the activities of the MLC. She asks about the likely duration of the export bans. It will differ, depending on whether European Union trade or bilateral trade with third countries is involved, because all have slightly different rules of their own. However, we shall never get the bans lifted until we have disease-free status--confirmed disease-free status. In future, we might be able to get the ban regionalised so that parts of the United Kingdom can export again, but it is premature to speculate along those lines today. We simply do not know whether there are animals still incubating the condition, so further quarantine and disease-control measures are required.

Mr. Owen Paterson (North Shropshire): I believe that the Minister terribly misjudged his response to my hon. Friend the Member for South Staffordshire (Sir P. Cormack). At a time of national crisis, which this is, the Minister's real duty is to report to the House at every necessary opportunity.

None the less, I thank the Minister's private office because, on Saturday afternoon, its staff were most helpful in arranging a licence to be given to my constituent Mr. Richard Bradshaw, who had 17 decomposing carcases in his yard and could not move them without a licence. However, this morning, anomalies have been revealed in the regime for fallen stock and casualties, in that Mr. Bradshaw has been told that he cannot move cattle that have an OTM22 form; although they have been deemed healthy enough for human consumption, the animals must be left on the farm to decompose for seven days. The arrangements have been made in haste and the Minister is caught on Morton's fork. Will he give me a clear answer tomorrow on how casualties will be dealt with while the crisis lasts?

Mr. Brown: As well as dealing with the problems of the hon. Gentleman's constituent, my private office now

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has to help to prepare for the debate, as do veterinary authorities and senior officials in the Ministry. I repeat that it is distinctly unhelpful to try to make me do things in addition to bearing down on the disease. Nevertheless, I shall ensure that the perfectly proper point the hon. Gentleman makes about how fallen stock and casualties are dealt with is addressed. He is right to say that we have been licensing movements under very strictly controlled conditions to deal with the problem, but complications arise in connection with issuing general licences for normal disposal routes: because they go from farm to farm, such established routes provide a means by which the disease might be spread.

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Iraq (No-fly Zones)

5.48 pm

The Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Geoffrey Hoon): With permission, Madam Deputy Speaker, I should like to make a statement about coalition operations to enforce the no-fly zones over Iraq.

Ten years ago today, we celebrated the success of Operation Desert Storm, the coalition operation to expel Saddam Hussein's forces from Kuwait. The contribution of the United Kingdom, which included the deployment of 50,000 service personnel, was a significant one on which we can look back with immense pride.

Since the end of the Gulf conflict, the overall aim of the policy adopted by successive Governments has been to contain the threat to regional security posed by Saddam Hussein's Iraq. That policy has been successful: without our efforts, Saddam would have been free to maintain and develop his weapons of mass destruction and conventional military capability, and free to bully and threaten his neighbours with impunity, as he did in the past.

A further aim of our policy has been to limit Saddam's ability to kill and terrorise his own people. That is why we have conducted patrols of the no-fly zones since the early 1990s in support of United Nations Security Council resolution 688, which demanded an end to his brutal repression. The zones have served a vital humanitarian purpose over the past decade in constraining Saddam's ability to carry out such repression, particularly in relation to the Shias and the Kurds.

The patrols are justified in international law as a legitimate response to prevent a grave humanitarian crisis. Without them, Saddam would be free, as he was prior to their establishment, to use aircraft and helicopter gunships against innocent civilians. The humanitarian consequences would be as unconscionable as they were in 1991. Many tens of thousands would be displaced from their homes, thousands would lose their lives, perhaps--as happened in 1988 at Halabja--following the use of chemical weapons.

Since January 1999, Saddam's air defence units have made sustained and concerted efforts to shoot down United Kingdom and United States aircraft. During that period, there have been more than 1,200 attempts to target them, using surface-to-air missiles and anti-aircraft artillery. Coalition aircraft are legally authorised to respond to those attacks in self-defence. They do so entirely in accordance with international law, attacking only those military facilities that contribute, as part of the Iraqi integrated air defence system, to the threat to coalition aircraft.

Military commanders must manage the risk to service personnel. Over recent weeks, the Iraqis have significantly increased their efforts, amounting to a qualitative and quantitative increase in the threat. In January, there were more surface-to-air missile attacks than in the whole of 2000. The Iraqis have used new tactics, including the use of radars and command centres located outside the southern zone to cue offensive systems within it. That threat to our service personnel is real and present.

The operation on the evening of 16 February was therefore planned and carried out against that background. It was a proportionate response in self-defence, taken solely to reduce the risk to our aircrew carrying out routine humanitarian patrols of the southern no-fly zone.

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As such, it was entirely in keeping with all such operations conducted over the period since January 1999, when Iraq started attacking our patrols. The operation was planned and cleared by Ministers on both sides of the Atlantic. Targets were carefully selected and precision-guided weapons used to minimise and, if at all possible, avoid any risk of civilian casualties.

Six targets were engaged, comprising elements of the Iraqi integrated air defence system, including military radar, command and communications sites. Five were north of the zone; all were directly involved in threatening coalition aircraft. Aircraft conducting patrols of the northern no-fly zone have previously engaged targets south of the 36th parallel, but this was the first occasion on which coalition aircraft had attacked targets outside the southern no-fly zone--that is, above the 33rd parallel--since Operation Desert Fox.

RAF participation included four Tornado GR1 strike aircraft, supported by two Tornado F3 air defence aircraft and two VC10 tankers. A Nimrod reconnaissance aircraft was also airborne at the time. All our aircraft returned safely, as did those from the United States. The operation was a success. Both weapons dropped by the RAF hit their intended target, a military communications site. Overall, we are confident that the coalition caused significant disruption to the Iraqi integrated air defence system, degrading its ability to threaten our aircrew. We will, of course, monitor the situation very carefully over the coming weeks.

There have been Iraqi allegations of civilian casualties. No military action is without risk, and we deeply regret casualties, if any were caused. We have no means of verifying Iraqi claims, but we learned long ago to distrust them. In 1999, for example, Iraq claimed on some 30 occasions that there were civilian casualties on days when coalition aircraft did not actually release any weapons, and on several days when they were not even patrolling over Iraq. We know that, on a number of occasions, Saddam has alleged civilian casualties when only military personnel have been injured.

The operation was conducted in response to a deliberate escalation on the part of the Iraqis. Our action does not represent a change in policy. RAF aircrew undertook a difficult and dangerous mission with great skill and great bravery. Faced with a substantial increase in the threat in recent weeks, it was right that we took the minimum necessary steps to reduce that threat.

Mr. Iain Duncan Smith (Chingford and Woodford Green): First, let me thank the Secretary of State for his courtesy in giving me a copy of the statement in advance, to assist me in my response. May I make it clear from the outset, on behalf of the Opposition, that we support the decision to carry out the air strikes? I disagree fundamentally with those who say that the strikes were provocative and will only make matters worse. I agree with the Secretary of State that, while we seriously regret any civilian casualties, the figures for such casualties, as given by Saddam Hussein, are not necessarily to be trusted.

I should like to pay tribute to the RAF and other service men in the Gulf. The events of the past few weeks have clearly shown us that they continue to risk their lives in the service of their country and in support of its allies. The House owes them a debt of gratitude for that service alone.

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Whatever anyone says, there is no question but that the weapons' radars were targeting allied aircraft, as the Secretary of State said. When I was in the United States, that was made clear to me, and it has also been clear from briefings over here. I understand that, apart from the radars, missiles and anti-aircraft guns were fired in the last few weeks. Will the Secretary of State clarify that? Admittedly those weapons may not have been as accurate, because the Iraqis kept switching their radars off, but will the Secretary of State confirm that our aircraft were genuinely under threat in the period preceding the strikes?

It makes no difference if the sites that were attacked were outside the no-fly zone, because the Iraqis were targeting aircraft flying within the no-fly zone. That point has often been missed. Those sites therefore became legitimate targets. Does the Secretary of State agree that those who talk about heightened tension in the area miss the point that it is Saddam Hussein who destabilises the whole region and that he alone creates the problem to which we have to react strongly?

Does the Secretary of State agree, and will be say so before the House, that Saddam Hussein has continued to develop chemical, biological and nuclear weapons of mass destruction and the means to deliver them through ballistic missiles? Although there have been many reports on that from the UK and the US, I was intrigued to learn that, at the weekend, German intelligence was reported as showing that Iraq is now capable of producing nuclear weapons within the next three years. That intelligence also confirmed that Saddam Hussein continues to work on his biological capability and can produce such weapons at short notice, should he require to do so. Does not all of that confirm the view of Richard Butler, ex-head of the United Nations Special Commission, who made it clear that that capability continues to grow, regardless of sanctions?

I want to press the Secretary of State on that point. As someone who has fully supported the sanctions regime and the no-fly zone--I do not vary from that--let me ask him this: does he not agree that there is a problem over the implementation and effectiveness of the policy as it stands? Will he confirm that some nations, including one or two that are members of the European Union, do not appear to wish to stand by the sanctions? Regardless of the fact that they signed up to them, they continue to breach them. Does he not agree that the reaction of some of his European Union partners to the bombing is regrettable? Is it not regrettable that they were not able to support the action, and does that not throw some light on the fact that they are still unable to give full support? Is the Government's position on the Euro defence force not thrown into relief, as they have had to act, not for the first time, with the United States?

Will the Secretary of State confirm that Saddam Hussein is using nations in Europe and elsewhere, including those that are proliferating weapons of mass destruction for hard cash, to bypass sanctions and grow his threat? I was concerned that, during a television interview yesterday, the Secretary of State seemed to indicate that there is a difference of opinion between the US and the UK on the overall purpose of our policy on Iraq. Will he clarify that? He indicated that British policy stopped short of any involvement in toppling Saddam Hussein. I am aware that that has been a continuing policy. However, given that we know with whom we are dealing and that Saddam Hussein has demonstrated on

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many occasions that he abides by no treaties, has no regard for human life and continues to regard himself as a legitimate threat to others in the region, is it not time to consider whether it is still feasible to deal with him as we have so far tried to do? Is it not fair--the US is perhaps now coming to terms with this--to try to deal, not with him, but with what we do ultimately to replace him, and find another regime that will be more peaceable, reasonable and less threatening in the region?

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