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Mrs. Taylor: I have nothing to add to what I said about the issue of abortion. The vote was about devolution, but there were some hon. Members who saw it as a conscience issue, and they sought the authorisation of the Chief Whip to vote as they did. That is the end of the matter.

On listed events, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport is, as I said, trying to get the opinion of the House, and to allow hon. Members to tell him what their priorities are. I cannot promise an early debate on the matter, but if hon. Members take up my right hon. Friend's offer to listen to their views, they can make their views known in that way. It is questions to my right hon. Friend on the Monday that we return from the Easter recess.

Mr. Derek Twigg (Halton): My right hon. Friend will be aware that a number of weeks have passed since the publication of the report on the scrutiny of evidence about the Hillsborough disaster, and she will know that I have asked many times for a debate. Can she tell us whether we are close to finding time for one, and can she confirm that it is hoped that that debate will take place between Easter and Whit?

Mrs. Taylor: My hon. Friend has raised this serious matter several times. I have expressed my sympathy with him in his desire for a debate, so that the families affected by that disaster can feel that every aspect has been discussed. I cannot give a date for such a debate today, but I am hopeful that we shall have a debate between Easter and Whitsun. He asked whether we were close to a debate, and that is as far as I can go at this stage: I believe that it might be possible to get a debate between Easter and Whitsun.

Mr. Tony Baldry (Banbury): Will the Leader of the House consider arranging a debate on farming in

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Government time as speedily as possible? The farming community is concerned that the Government do not appreciate the seriousness of the situation in the countryside.

The right hon. Lady will recall that one of the first actions of the Government was to abolish the regional panels. Those were panels of farmers and others, which used to give advice to Ministers on what was happening in different parts of the countryside. Those have gone, so Ministers no longer have that line of communication.

The farming community will be surprised to learn that the Minister of Agriculture is to spend much of the Easter recess travelling through China. They would prefer him to travel through the United Kingdom to discover the state of British farming. Please may we have an early debate on the state of farming in the UK?

Mrs. Taylor: The hon. Gentleman says that Ministers do not have a full appreciation of problems. I reject that entirely. Perhaps Conservative Members do not have a full appreciation of the significant steps that have been taken by my right hon. Friend and his colleagues at MAFF, not least the extra aid to livestock producers and the agreement by the Agriculture Council on 16 March to lift the export ban on beef from Northern Ireland. My right hon. Friend and his colleagues take matters very seriously, and they are entitled to some recognition of the progress that they have made.

Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle): Last October, we learned that the Lord Chancellor had decided not to proceed with a judicial appointments commission as set out in the 1994 Labour party policy document "Access to Justice". The Lord Chancellor said, however, that he would report to Parliament annually on the exercise of his powers to appoint judges. I recall him saying that it was his intention to present a report to Parliament in April.

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Given the importance of the issue and the reservations expressed by many hon. Members on both sides of the House about the appointment of judges, is there not a powerful case for allocating time later this month to debate that report?

Mrs. Taylor: My hon. Friend, who has raised other requests at business questions, knows the pressure on time. I will consider what he said, but I cannot promise him a debate. It is questions to the relevant Minister on the Tuesday after we return from the Easter recess.

Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East): Does the Leader of the House realise that the inadequacy of her answers to my hon. Friends the Members for Macclesfield (Mr. Winterton) and for Surrey Heath (Mr. Hawkins) makes it all the more necessary that, in her capacity as Chairman of the Modernisation Committee, she should explain to the House next week how the Government's attitude towards whipping practices allows a three-line whip to be put on a vote, which hon. Members are not allowed to break, but which two Whips are allowed to break? How can she seriously maintain that Whips alone wanted to exercise their conscience, and that other hon. Members had the opportunity but chose not to do so?

Mrs. Taylor: The hon. Gentleman could not have been listening to what I said earlier; nor can he be aware of the remit of the Modernisation Committee, which has nothing to do with the whipping in the House.

Mr. Ben Bradshaw (Exeter): Will my right hon. Friend do what she can to ensure that a copy of the Clarke Tilt report on the British film industry is placed in the Library and the Vote Office? That was promised a week ago, and it still has not happened.

Mrs. Taylor: I shall look into the matter, and try to remedy the situation.

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Opposition Day

[4th Allotted Day--Second Part]

International Arms Trade

4.48 pm

Mr. Menzies Campbell (North-East Fife): I beg to move,

A debate on the international arms trade is particularly timely today, for three distinct and important reasons. First, it is approximately two years since the publication of the Scott report. Secondly, only a few weeks ago, Britain was ready to go to war, if necessary, to eliminate Saddam Hussein's programmes of weapons of mass destruction. Thirdly, the Government are currently engaged, with the support, I hope, of all right-minded Members, in efforts to obtain an effective European code of conduct on the arms trade.

Mention of the Scott report allows us to remind ourselves of one or two features of that event. It is worth reminding ourselves that the central conclusion of the Scott report was that the Conservative Government deliberately failed to inform Parliament of Government policy on arms sales to Iraq. They survived the debate on the Scott report by one vote--as a result of persuading three Democratic Unionist Members to stay away and twisting the arm of Mr. Rupert Allason. One might think that that is hardly an expression of overall confidence in the House.

More than any episode, the arms-to-Iraq affair exposed the Tory Government for what they were. When the Leader of the Opposition goes on a circuit of the spa towns of Edwardian England saying to the collected membership of his party that the trouble was that the party allowed itself to be perceived as arrogant, the truth is that it was not perception but reality. The Conservative party was arrogant, and the Scott report underlined the extent of that arrogance and the degree of cynicism withwhich the Conservative Government regarded their responsibilities to Parliament.

In The Observer on 18 February 1996--about two years ago--the conclusion was reached that

We now know that Britain did more than that. There is now clear and credible evidence that Britain laid the foundations for not only the nuclear and chemical programmes but the biological weapons programme that was being pursued in Iraq. It was Iraq's possession of those weapons and anxiety about the threat of their use, or of their actual use, that was the cause of the United Kingdom's being willing to deploy armed forces in the Gulf and, if necessary, to put the lives of those men and women at risk to prevent Saddam Hussein from utilising these programmes.

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Some of the details of the biological weapons programme are now well known. We know, for example, that British and Swiss companies exported to Iraq large quantities of the growth media in which biological weapons are cultivated. Between 1987 and 1988, 39 tonnes of growth media were exported by two companies. That was enough for Iraq to produce four tonnes of deadly bacteria. Exports of the media in such large quantities are highly unusual. Indeed, sales of growth media for sound medical reasons are usually counted in pounds and not tonnes.

In addition, Britain trained many of the key Iraqi scientists. The covert biological weapons research programme was directed by General Amer Saadi, who obtained a masters degree in chemistry from Oxford university, and Rihab Taha, who had a doctorate in microbiology from East Anglia university. The procurement of supplies was controlled by one Ahmed Murthada, a British-trained engineer who led Iraqi research into the warfare uses of ricin, a toxin that derives from castor beans.

We know that British support was not confined to training or the supply of ancillary materials. There is now evidence to show that there is an irresistible inference that some of the anthrax that Iraq obtained as the foundation of its programme originated in Britain. It has emerged that Iraq obtained much of its anthrax supply from a United States company--the American Type Culture Collection, which is known as ATCC--with a base in Rockville, Maryland.

Between 1985 and 1989, Iraq obtained at least 21 strains of anthrax from ATCC and about 15 other class III pathogens, the bacteria that pose an extreme risk to human health. It has not been reported that many of the anthrax strains were British. Extensive American investigative journalism has revealed that they had been sold to ATCC, notwithstanding the fact that the company was well known to be re-exporting pathogens without restraint, not least to Iraq.

It was pretty easy to obtain pathogens from ATCC in the 1980s. It was necessary to submit a written request on headed notepaper from a credible but not necessarily reputable institution--[Hon. Members: "The House of Commons?"] Those who suggest House of Commons paper are perhaps doing us less than justice. It was necessary to agree to responsibility for the receipt, handling, storage and use of the material, and then demonstrate in a short telephone conversation that one was scientifically literate. For the payment of a $78 fee, one could have access to deadly material. No more was required. It could hardly have been easier.

I have asked the Government recently in written questions whether any pathogens were exported direct to Iraq. I expected to receive confirmation that they were not, but in a written answer I have been told that the Department of Trade and Industry says that it has no way of telling whether any anthrax or other pathogens were exported direct to Iraq. Apparently no records are kept of destinations.

The DTI indicated that the remaining records of applications--there are records of applications but not of destinations--for licences to export to Iraq were in the Scott report. I doubt whether you will stay awake through the long hours of the night poring through the appendices to the Scott report, Mr. Deputy Speaker, but if you do it

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will be unhelpful and unrewarding. The appendices shed no light on any possible export of pathogens to Iraq. However, they raise other concerns about chemical weapons.

In the mid to late 1980s, Iraq made numerous attempts to purchase special chemicals from the United Kingdom, many of which are known as precursors--the vital ingredients for chemical weapons. Many of the export applications were blocked, but some were not.

In 1985, Iraq was able to import small quantities of chloroethanol and potassium fluoride, precursors for up to six different nerve gases. In 1989, an application was received for a licence to export phosphorus trichloride--a precursor to yet more nerve gas--but there is no record of whether that application was approved or refused. As far as we know, subsequent orders for these and other chemicals were refused, but the records attached to the Scott report are full of gaps. We have no way of knowing which chemicals were sold to Iraq or, more particularly, to what use they were put.

Recent events when UK forces were deployed to the Gulf--when their lives might have been at risk--show the price being paid for the failures of the Conservative Government in these matters. The country is entitled to say that we need protection against a recurrence. I think that the best protection against recurrence is domestic parliamentary scrutiny.

When the Foreign Secretary made his coruscating speech on the Scott report, one sentence summed up the strength and determination of what he had to say. He said:

The damage caused by secrecy has been acknowledged by the Government in their White Paper on freedom of information, which was published at the end of last year. The opening line reads:

    "Unnecessary secrecy in government leads to arrogance . . . and defective decision-making."

A little later, on page 18, it states:

    "Commercial confidentiality must not be used as a cloak to deny the public right to know."

There is no reason in principle why Parliament should not exercise scrutiny over arms exports, or exports of dual-use technologies. It happens elsewhere. There is a system to that effect in Sweden--one of the most successful arms manufacturing countries. Commercial confidence does not appear to be breached.

If we can have parliamentary scrutiny of Government communications headquarters and the intelligence services, as we now have by a Committee whose members are drawn from both Houses of Parliament, surely we can have scrutiny of defence and defence-related equipment without any prejudice to the national interest.

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