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The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Mr. Elliot Morley): I understand from the Environment Agency that its study leading to a flood management strategy for the fluvial Trent is proceeding well. The agency currently anticipates that it will be completed in March 2004.
Mr. Todd : I thank the Minister for his answer. The communities of Willington, Barrow upon Trent and Shardlow in my constituency are waiting with anxiety for the outcome of the report, which they hope will give guidance about both the true nature of flood risk in their villages and the appropriate defence measures that can
Mr. Morley: Yes, I can. I know that my hon. Friend takes a close interest in flood defence and I understand that the test options for flood management should be complete in July 2003. There should be an interim progress report in April 2003, which his constituents will be able to see. The Trent is a very complex river system in which I have to declare an interest, as it forms the western boundary of my constituency. Such a study offers a wide range of benefits for helping us to understand the whole management of water and the best options for protecting communities.
Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York): Presumably, the fluvial strategy that the Government are following for the River Trent will not be dissimilar to strategies for the rest of the country. Will the Minister confirm that the fluvial strategy encompasses dredging and that such rivers are dredged as frequently today as they were five or 10 years ago?
Mr. Morley: I can confirm that if the strategy identifies that dredging should be an aspect of river management, it will be done. I caution that dredging often has limited benefits for a variety of reasons. Nevertheless, it could have a role to play and if such a role is identified, dredging will form part of the strategy that we will implement.
Joan Ruddock : I thank my right hon. Friend for his answer, but what is his response to the claims of the Radioactive Waste Management Advisory Committee that the United Kingdom's radioactive waste inventory does not take account of low-activity waste, facility decommissioning or clean-up costs, including those for contaminated land, and that any perception that low-activity waste can be dealt with at Drigg is misplaced?
Mr. Meacher: We are aware of the issue. Drigg has sufficient capacity until 2050 with regard to current arisings, but my hon. Friend asks about low-activity waste. We are reviewing the best way to deal with waste that is only likely to be contaminated: soil or building rubble from the decommissioning and clean-up of nuclear sites. That will be a significant issue for the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority. I am sure that it will give its view, as will the new Committee on Radioactive Waste Management, which will examine the delivery of our plans for the disposal of low-level waste.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Mr. Elliot Morley): Officials have held high-level discussions on these proposals with the European Commission and my noble Friend Lord Whitty contributed to a brief discussion on the proposals during the Agriculture Council on 27 and 28 January.
John Thurso : I am grateful to the Minister for that reply. Does he agree with the National Farmers Union Scotland that the European Union proposals would effectively close the Scottish sheep industry? Will he do everything possible to bring the highly regarded Scottish flock identification system, which is supported by farmers, vets and the Government, to the attention of the Commission?
Mr. Morley: We have raised our concerns with the Commission about its proposals several times and said that they are inappropriate given the size of our sheep flock and the fact that we have recording procedures, as the hon. Gentleman says. We must seriously address the traceability of sheep. We believe that electronic identification is ultimately the right way forward. Harmonisation rules on that are not yet in place, but the
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Mr. Elliot Morley): The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has approved the Environment Agency's proposed Silkstream flood defence scheme, subject to satisfactory resolution of negotiations with landowners. I understand that the agency is undertaking those negotiations and has commenced detailed design, with a view to starting construction in late summer 2004.
Mr. Dismore: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that answer, but can he do anything to speed up the scheme? It is already a year behind schedule, and summer 2004 is six months later than the date that was given in the previous answer at the beginning of the year. Will he ascertain whether anything can be done to make some progress on the scheme, which is long overdue and badly needed by my constituents?
Mr. Morley: My hon. Friend has raised the issue for some time and I sympathise with his frustration about the progress that has been made. I understand that negotiations with landowners constitute one of the problems because land needs to be acquired. However, I believe that they are concluding and I hope that progress will be made quickly.
We are now two weeks into the campaign. The coalition continues to make remarkable progress, following the main outlines of our military plan. Since my last statement on 26 March, coalition forces have established a presence in northern Iraq and are moving ever closer to Baghdad. Another important phase has been reached as the first troops engage Saddam Hussein's republican guard divisions on the approaches to the city.
At the same time, British forces are consolidating their position in the area in and around Basra. I do want to repeat the warning that I gave in my first statement to the House some two weeks ago: do not underestimate the task that still faces our forces or the length of time that it may take to complete. We are still very much in the second phase of steady progress that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has set out.
On behalf of the Government, I want to extend our condolences to the families and friends of those servicemen who have lost their lives in recent days. I would also like to mention those who have been injured, some seriously, since the start of military operations, either in combat or in the usual course of their duties: 39 United Kingdom battle casualties are currently being treated in theatre and 35 have been evacuated. I know that the House will join me in sending our very best wishes for their speedy recovery.
In the conflict, we have been accused by commentators of underestimating the resistance of the Iraqi regime. We always knew that the regime would fight, but, as democratic states that observe the rule of law, we have been shocked by the extent of the Iraqi regime's capacity for brutality and killing its own people.
Every aspect of what we do is rightly and understandably held up for public scrutiny. In contrast, Saddam Hussein's murderous thugs go about their brutal work out of sight of the media. Some have been surprised by the caution with which the Iraqi people have greeted coalition forces, but that should not be surprising. The regime has deployed every horror in maintaining its stranglehold on powertorture, rape and execution.
In recent days, our forces on the ground around Basra have been appalled by the actions of the regime's thugs as they struggle to maintain their grip on the city. On 25 March, there were disturbances in Basra that irregular regime forces suppressed with mortar fire against their own people. On 28 March, when between 1,000 and 2,000 people were preparing to leave Basra, regime militia opened fire with heavy machine gun and mortar fire. Since then, irregulars have routinely been firing on civilians in the south-east of Basra. That is the sort of brutal suppression that has been going on in Iraq for very many years.
The steady advance of the coalition continues. Our strategic grip on Iraq is tightening. In the south, British forces continue to operate in the al-Faw peninsula, the southern oilfields and the Basra area. The 7th Armoured Brigade is preventing Iraqi forces in Basra from hindering the main advance, while establishing corridors for the safe movement of civilians and humanitarian aid.
We have been striking key regime targets in the area. Those operations have included successful attacks from the air on the Ba'ath party headquarters in Basra, and by 7th Armoured Brigade on the intelligence and militia headquarters in Basra and the local state security organisation headquarters in Az Zubayr in the south of Basra.
In the area of Abu Al Khasib, in the south-east outskirts of Basra, 3 Commando Brigade have engaged substantial Iraqi forces, capturing significant numbers of enemy forces, including senior Iraqi officers. This daring raid resulted in the death of one Royal Marine. There were, in addition, a number of casualties. On the night of 31 March, 16 Air Assault Brigade, with artillery and air support, engaged Iraqi forces, destroying an estimated 17 tanks and five artillery pieces, as well as other Iraqi vehicles and infantry positions. We are now focused on building the confidence of the local people. We will continue to patrol aggressively, striking hard at the regime and its militias. Key suburbs of Basra have now been taken. We will go further into the city at a time of our own choosing.
Further north, elements of the United States army's Fifth Corps have now passed through Karbala and are moving towards Baghdad. US forces have been engaging with the Medina and Baghdad republican guard divisions, and have secured crossings over the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. The lead elements of the US 3rd Infantry Division are now on the outskirts of Baghdad. More than 9,000 Iraqi prisoners of war have been taken by coalition forces. Royal Air Force aircraft have contributed to the close air support of these forces. They have also attacked Iraqi forces in the field, and have continued to degrade the regime's command and control facilities, and the combat capability of the security forces that support it.
Coalition forces have taken the utmost care over the targeting of the air campaign. Every effort has been made to minimise the risk of any civilian casualties or damage to the civilian infrastructure. The House will be aware of the explosions in market districts of Baghdad on 26 and 28 March, and of reports of significant numbers of fatalities and injuries. Neither of the marketplaces was targeted by the coalition, and we continue to investigate how these tragic events might have occurred. We have long been familiar with the false claims of civilian casualties made by Saddam's regime, and it would be foolish to accept these claims at face value without proper investigation. What we do know, however, is that the air defence commander in Baghdad
Offensive operations are, however, only part of the picture. The expertise and flexibility of our forces are essential to the battle to win the confidence of the Iraqi people. The Iraqi people have been terrified. More than half the population of Iraq have only known life under Saddam Hussein and his apparatus of fear. The older generation have an appreciation of his cruelty that is often borne out by bitter personal experience. That is why it is so important that, in a number of areas in which UK forces are operating, there is a growing sense of return to normal life. Some people are going back to work.
The United Nations has now declared Umm Qasr a permissive environment, allowing UN agencies to begin their work there. Essential services such as water and electricity are being restored and even improved, in part owing to the skill of the Royal Engineers with the help of the International Committee of the Red Cross. The Umm Qasr water treatment plant, which can treat up to 3 million litres a day, is now operational. In addition, the water pipeline constructed by UK forces from Kuwait to Umm Qasr is complete, delivering up to 2 million litres of drinking water dailyenough for 160,000 people a dayand providing vital temporary relief.
Schools and markets are being reopened, and the 7th Armoured Brigade has removed Ba'ath party thugs from the Az Zubayr medical centrewhere treatment was previously available only to those close to the regimeto enable access for ordinary Iraqis. Humanitarian aid is being distributed. The security situation in a growing number of areas is such that troops are patrolling on foot rather than in armoured cars, and have in some cases been able to exchange their combat helmets for berets.
The United Kingdom's armed forces are putting the full range of their expertise and experience to use, with striking effect. The Royal Marines have disabled the last remnants of the Iraqi navy, and the port of Umm Qasr is under coalition control and open to shipping. Royal Navy mine countermeasures vessels continue operations to expand the navigable width of the Khawr Abd Allah channel. They have discovered 105 mines so far11 laid in the water, and a total of 94 intercepted on Iraqi tugs and patrol boats.
These operations are crucial to the humanitarian operation, bringing vital supplies to the Iraqi people. On 28 March, the Royal Fleet Auxiliary vessel Sir Galahad unloaded its humanitarian cargo of around 300 tonnes of water, medical supplies, food and equipment for providing shelter. Water and perishable goods have already been distributed in the Umm Qasr area; other supplies are being stored until such time as they are required. Two Australian ships, each loaded with some 50,000 tonnes of grain, are expected in Umm Qasr shortly.
The United Nations oil-for-food programme was re-established by Security Council resolution 1472 on 28 March. That is an important milestone for the people of Iraq, but it will take time to take effect. Therefore, 1 (UK) Division has authority to spend up to £30 million
After two weeks of military operations against the Iraqi regime, the coalition continues to make progress. Every day, we are further weakening Saddam Hussein's control over Iraq and moving another day closer to the end of his appalling regime and the liberation of the Iraqi people.
We are engaged in an important and determined effort to convince the Iraqi people of our commitment to them, their political security and their economic welfare. Above all, we are committed to seeing through what we have begunremoving the regime that has terrified the Iraqi people and impoverished the nation for two decades. That will take time, but we have made an excellent start. There is still more to achieve, and our servicemen and servicewomen will continue to brave difficulties and dangers in the process. I know that the House will join me in wishing them well.