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2.44 pm

The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Mr. Peter Hain): After the recent media debate on Iraq and sanctions, I am pleased to have the opportunity to respond to my hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell), whom I congratulate on securing this debate.

I also pay tribute to my hon. Friend's long, genuine concern about the suffering of the Iraqi people. Unlike some critics of the United Nations sanctions, he has consistently argued with sincerity, as has my right hon. Friend the Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn), and has avoided the petty, personalising attacks of the kind that we have seen recently. I do not question their motives, and I know that they do not question mine. I want to see the long, bitter suffering of the Iraqi people end as soon as my colleagues do, even if we differ about how to achieve that.

I reassure my right hon. Friend the Member for Chesterfield that this speech was not written in Washington; it was written on my computer, although drafted by officials.

My hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow has proposed change in two specific areas--public health and contact between Iraq and the British people. I welcome these ideas, which are entirely consistent with our thinking, and with UN Security Council resolution 1284. We can make progress, as my hon. Friend suggests.

Last year, Britain put a great deal of effort into piloting the resolution through the Security Council. My right hon. Friend the Member for Chesterfield speaks of the international community. The entire international community has backed that resolution. It is the official policy of the international community and of the UN, and it reflects Britain's long-standing and deep-seated commitment to the disarmament of Iraq and the well-being of the Iraqi people.

Kofi Annan, the UN Secretary-General, in his recent report to the Security Council, was hopeful that effective implementation of the resolution's humanitarian provisions would further enhance the impact of the oil-for-food programme on the humanitarian situation. With the oil price high, and Iraq's output steady--at around 2 million barrels a day--potentially $12 billion could be available this year for that humanitarian programme. That is big money. Critics of sanctions seem wilfully to ignore the real culprit in the denial of humanitarian relief, which is readily available under the UN's programme.

Talking of critics, can I put on record the facts--as opposed to the myths--about the recent humanitarian flight to Baghdad planned by my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Kelvin (Mr. Galloway)? I wanted the flight to go ahead. It could have done so. Contrary to the rather bizarre accusations that I have seen, I did not block this flight to deliver more medicines to Iraq. The UK

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Government did not prevent the flight, nor did the US Government. Nor did the UN--in fact, it gave its specific approval on 8 March through the Sanctions Committee.

Preparations were proceeding smoothly until about a week before the flight was due to go, when my officials learned that the intention was to take 207 people, including many journalists and others who could not possibly have been assisting a mercy mission. The organisers were informed that the UN Sanctions Committee would not have agreed to the flight because the number of passengers called into question the humanitarian nature of the flight. We suggested that the number be brought down to under 30, and the organisers agreed to this. We did not specify who those people should be, but did seek further details, as required by New York.

I specifically promised to secure the agreement of the Sanctions Committee, and, indeed, this was secured. To my astonishment, the flight was suddenly cancelled. Only the organisers know why; perhaps the propaganda value of a late cancellation, mischievously ascribed to me, was more advantageous.

Resolution 1284 gives the UN a new platform for its dealings with Iraq. Three months on, there has been welcome progress on implementation. Hans Blix has taken up his post as executive chairman of the new arms body, UNMOVIC. Yuli Vorontsov has been appointed as the high-level co-ordinator for Kuwaiti issues. We hope that he will be able to bring his massive experience to bear on the intransigents in Iraq who are preventing progress on efforts to determine the fate of more than 600 prisoners of war still missing since the Gulf war.

Rightly, the immediate focus of resolution 1284 has been on its humanitarian provisions. I should remind the House that these are unconditional. There is no longer any limit on the volume of oil that Iraq can sell to fund the humanitarian programme. The UN's procedures have been simplified and speeded up.

Let me also set the record straight on our handling of contracts in the Sanctions Committee in New York. That Committee exists to ensure that the resolutions are fully complied with. It is therefore obliged to do all that it can to prevent the supply to Iraq of any goods prohibited under the resolutions. It also makes many of the decisions on contracts under the humanitarian programme, and therefore has to meet the humanitarian imperative too. That is not an easy balancing act, and we think that we get it about right.

We are not prepared to abandon the scrutiny of contracts, although virtually all the other Committee members do, for whatever reason. However, nor do we wish to hold up or block the delivery of vital supplies, whether that means medicines or parts for Iraq's oil industries--including the spares to which my hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow referred.

We put on hold only 1 per cent. of all contracts. There is no way that such a tiny proportion can be responsible for the undoubted suffering in Iraq. Critics should also acknowledge the problem of dual-use goods: for example, chlorine has a bona fide use in water treatment projects, but is also a constituent of mustard gas, which was used in the attack on Halabja, so it is absolutely right that we should know when and how it is going to be used in Iraq. We are pressing for improved United Nations monitoring of dual-use goods inside Iraq, which would reduce that

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percentage still further. We will continue to urge all those on the committee--I mean all--to take a similarly balanced approach.

Security Council resolution 1284 provides for the suspension of sanctions if Iraq co-operates. That that new opportunity is enshrined in a British-drafted Security Council resolution is a further example of our willingness to think imaginatively about the challenge posed by Iraq. Suspension is available, if Iraq wants it, and the Iraqi Government know that we are serious in our commitment to suspension. We hope that they will adopt a more co-operative approach than they have done thus far. I urge all those with good contacts or friends in the Iraqi regime to give Baghdad the same message--that it should allow the full implementation of resolution 1284.

Mr. Tony Benn: Is it not a fact that the inspectors were identifying targets that we could later bomb? From an Iraqi point of view, inspection is simply an intelligence operation to enable the Americans to target sites, as and when they decide to resume bombing. That is the problem with the reintroduction of inspectors.

Mr. Hain: The resolution provides for a new inspection regime. The new arrangements are designed specifically to determine whether the Iraqis are developing weapons of mass destruction--as we know they are doing. Throughout his political life, my right hon. Friend has consistently opposed the production of such weapons, which include biological, chemical and nuclear weapons. The Iraqis should have nothing to fear from a fresh arms inspection system. Their criticisms of the old system, to which my right hon. Friend refers, do not apply to the new one.

The recent documentary produced by John Pilger tried to show that sanctions are responsible for the suffering of the Iraqi people. That argument has been repeated in the debate. It is a lie propagated by Saddam Hussein and his apologists. Of course the Iraqi people are suffering; that is one of the reasons why the Government invested such energy in a new Security Council resolution. It is a scandal that doctors cannot get the drugs they need to end harrowing pictures from cancer wards. However, the fault lies with the Iraqi Government for failing to order the required medicines and failing to distribute those that they do order.

The latest report by the Secretary-General notes that one quarter of all medical goods delivered to Iraq since the humanitarian programme started have not been distributed: they sit in Government-controlled warehouses. There is a similar story in respect of food. In 1998, the Secretary-General recommended a daily food ration of 2,463 kilocalories, but the Iraqi Government sets its average at just 1,993 kilocalories--less than is provided for--and the latest report notes that Iraq is not ordering enough pulses or dairy products to make up the ration, and that it is not including protein.

The conclusion that we have to reach is that Saddam Hussein is yet again playing politics with suffering. He believes that television pictures of malnourished Iraqi children serve his interests, so he makes sure that there are malnourished children in their thousands to film. Why did John Pilger not film in northern Iraq, where the situation is far better? No one starves and health indicators have actually been improving, yet exactly the same sanctions regime applies there. The difference is that Saddam's writ does not run there. Why do sanctions critics prefer to ignore that inconvenient but crucial fact?

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Critics of sanctions are blind to who is to blame. They ignore Saddam Hussein's past record of wars against his neighbours and brutality towards his own people, especially the Kurds and the Shia. Their alternative strategy does not inspire confidence: we are to abandon sanctions and hope for the best; we are to trust Saddam to improve the condition of his people; we are to cross our fingers as he smuggles what he needs to replenish his stock of chemical and biological weapons under cover of normal trade; we are to close our eyes as he redevelops his nuclear capability; and we are to wish his neighbours and the Iraqi people--especially the Kurds and the Shia--the best of luck. That might be a policy that some are prepared to advocate, but it is not one that the Government are prepared to adopt.

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