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30 Jan 2003 : Column 1051—continued

Clare Short: I absolutely agree with the hon. Gentleman's point. I, like many other Members, have large numbers of Iraqi refugees—largely Kurdish but not exclusively so—in Ladywood who come to see me at my advice bureau. Most of them are highly educated and would be a great asset to a rebuilt Iraq. Our arrangements for asylum seekers need to be flexible to take in people who are facing persecution, and to assist those people to return to their countries, if their countries are liberated, to help rebuild them, as we have been doing in relation to Afghanistan. It is not a lead issue for my Department, but I agree with the hon. Gentleman, and we have tried to do that with regard to Kosovo and Afghanistan. Let us hope that, before long, we will have a free and democratic Afghanistan and that some of those refugees seeking asylum in our country will be able to return home to a free country.

As I was saying, the fallout from the sense of double standards about the world's urgency in dealing with the problem with Iraq, and lack of urgency in dealing with the problem of Israel and Palestine, is a great danger to the future of the world. It is causing enormous tension, hostility and anger throughout this country, but, even more so, throughout the Muslim and Arab world. I believe that the view of the old and the new Europe is that we should do all in our power to move forward on that issue, and that the world would be in much better shape if we were able to do so.

While I welcome the concern among the people of our country that there should not be a war that inflicts great suffering on the already long-suffering people of Iraq, it is our duty to send the firm message to Saddam Hussein

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that this time the UN is in business, is invincible and will not go away, and that there must be disarmament. I agree very much with my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary that the threat of military force needs to be exercised to avoid, if possible, the use of military force.

Mr. Andrew Robathan (Blaby): I know how deeply the Secretary of State cares about such issues. Suffering will occur if there is war, and there will be mayhem and death. Of course no one would welcome a war, but does she accept that death is already being inflicted on young people in Iraq—those under 14 who make up half the population—and older people by the tyrant Saddam Hussein? In the past 12 years since the end of the Gulf war probably hundreds of thousands of people have been killed by the Government in Iraq.

Clare Short: I agree that Saddam Hussein is a terrible tyrant. There is evidence of gross torture and I have heard deeply chilling stories from asylum seekers in my constituency. The humanitarian situation across the country is terrible, and we should think of the humanitarian consequences of any possible military action, which is the value of the debate. We should also consider taking military action if it is necessary to minimise suffering and to maximise the speed with which Iraq is reconstituted so that it gets up and going and its economy is improved.

Mr. Alan Duncan (Rutland and Melton): There is little disagreement between hon. Members on both sides of the House about the current situation, but as the right hon. Lady just said, the key consideration is the preparation of contingency plans for any humanitarian problems that might emerge. May I take it that in the remaining moments of her comments she will inform the House exactly what her Department is doing, because at the moment we have almost nothing to go on? The purpose of the debate is to seek details from her. We would love those to be forthcoming in the minutes left.

Clare Short: I regret taking that intervention because it was silly. I am setting the scene for the difficulties we face. Of course I will come on to the humanitarian considerations. The hon. Gentleman is simply involved in the same cheap point scoring as the hon. Member for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman). It is necessary to prepare to minimise harm if military action is taken and to make arrangements for the reconstruction of the country as rapidly as possible. To achieve that, we need to ensure that the UN takes the lead in the reconstruction, as it did in Kosovo, East Timor and Afghanistan. That needs to be agreed across the international community.

Neighbouring countries do not want to talk to other countries about what they might do for humanitarian purposes in the event of war. The public opinion in their countries is raging about the prospect of war. That is one of the dangers. The UN is making preparations, but it was cautious of doing so early on. It was also careful about whom it talked to because it did not want to say to the world, "The UN is preparing for war."

Mrs. Spelman rose—

Clare Short: The hon. Lady can stay seated for a moment while I finish. She started by trying to score

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cheap points. [Interruption.] She did. That is my opinion and I will make my view clear. All parties have recently been more willing to prepare for all contingencies, including the military in the United States of America, but it has not been easy to get discussions and analysis going across the international system to prepare for all those. Anyone who pauses to reflect intelligently on the strains and tensions across the international system because of the crisis would realise why that has been difficult. Greater movement to that effect has taken place recently. The hon. Lady got the true answers to her questions, but my Department has been working for a considerable time on all contingencies. That work is developing and we are getting more co-operation from some of our international partners which was difficult to get before.

Mrs. Spelman: I specifically asked about discussions with neighbouring countries. I am sure the right hon. Lady is aware that the leaked UN report has an assessment of how many refugees might go in which directions and which countries are willing to open their borders. I asked about that because refugees might have to move through lines of British troops. The Ministry of Defence and the Department for International Development need to co-ordinate on that. I hope to get a more ample answer in the light of that UN report.

Clare Short: If the hon. Lady followed the details of other crises, she would know that that is the responsibility of the United Nations. It takes the lead on that. I note that she had a meeting with Larry Hollingsworth. He performed badly in that role in the Kosovo crisis and we had great difficulties with UNHCR's performance, as the Select Committee on International Development made clear at the time. But the UN will take the lead, for which it is preparing. It is also trying to predict possible risks, in so far as anyone can do that, and sharing that information with partners in the UN system.

As has been said, the humanitarian situation is already a tragedy. The population of Iraq is largely dependent on food handouts. Its agricultural sector is operating way below capacity. Almost a third of all children in the centre and south suffer from chronic malnutrition. The prevalence of low birth weight babies has increased more than five times in the past 10 years. Iraq's under-five mortality rate is 131 per thousand live births, which is worse than the Democratic Republic of Congo or Mozambique. Death from diarrhoea and acute respiratory infections, both easily preventable, account for 70 per cent. of child mortality. More than half of Iraqis living in rural areas have no access to safe water. The average Iraqi child under five suffers from 14 bouts of diarrhoea a year.

Mr. Simon Thomas (Ceredigion): The right hon. Lady knows that child malnutrition in Iraq has improved slightly over the past year or so. That is probably down to the success of the oil-for-food programme and the UN food programmes in Iraq. I hope she will tell us a little more about how the oil-for-food programme will continue, especially post-conflict, and assure hon. Members and the people of Iraq that there will be no

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exploitation of Iraq's oil resources for the benefit of multinational corporations. Those resources should purely be for the benefit of the people of Iraq.

Clare Short: I will deal with the oil-for-food programme. It is important. I give the hon. Gentleman the absolute assurance, on behalf of Her Majesty's Government, that the oil resources of Iraq belong to the people of Iraq and should be used for their benefit and to reconstruct the country if there is military action. First, however, let me put some of the realities of the humanitarian situation on the record.

The country's infrastructure is in chronic disrepair. Hospitals, clinics, sanitation facilities and water treatment plants suffer from a terrible lack of maintenance. The result is that the Iraqi people's lives are perilously fragile. Their coping strategies have been worn away by years of misrule. The public facilities to help them cope are run down, often to the point of uselessness.

Ann Clwyd (Cynon Valley): Will my right hon. Friend draw a distinction between northern Iraq, which is under Kurdish rule, and the rest of the country, which is under Saddam's rule, and highlight the differences between the two? Both parts of Iraq are subject to sanctions. The people in northern Iraq are subject to Saddam's sanctions in addition to UN sanctions, but the circumstances of the people there are very different to those in Saddam's Iraq.

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