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International Situation (Contingency Planning)

– in the Scottish Parliament at 2:30 pm on 19th March 2003.

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Photo of Lloyd Quinan Lloyd Quinan Scottish National Party 2:30 pm, 19th March 2003

On a point of order, Presiding Officer, I seek your guidance. Several constituents have reported to me that they are being prevented from entering the Parliament's public gallery this afternoon. What reasons are there for preventing ordinary members of the public who are constituents of ours from attending a public meeting of the Parliament? Who decided to prevent them from entering?

Photo of Lord David Steel Lord David Steel Presiding Officer, Scottish Parliament

No one has been prevented from entering the gallery. The police are responsible for controlling, on public safety grounds, any crowd in Mylne's Court. However, entry to the Parliament building is a matter for our security people and members of the public are being allowed into the public gallery without tickets, if necessary.

Photo of Lloyd Quinan Lloyd Quinan Scottish National Party

Further to that point, Presiding Officer, within the past 10 minutes four people have attempted to get tickets for the gallery—which, as you can see, has a considerable number of empty seats—but were told in the Parliament visitor centre that no seats were available for them because they looked like anti-war activists. Do you have a comment on that?

Photo of Lord David Steel Lord David Steel Presiding Officer, Scottish Parliament

As you will remember, Mr Quinan, following previous demonstrations in the public gallery, I promised a review of security. I can tell you that if anyone has been identified as having been removed from the chamber previously—as has happened on two occasions—they are temporarily not being allowed back in. I cannot comment on individual cases. There is open access to the gallery. I will ensure that your point is examined while we get on with business.

Photo of Lloyd Quinan Lloyd Quinan Scottish National Party

I suggest that we do not proceed with the business until the matter has been settled, so that the meeting is a genuine public meeting of the Parliament of Scotland.

Photo of Lord David Steel Lord David Steel Presiding Officer, Scottish Parliament

It is. [ Interruption. ] Order. I remind those in the public gallery that they signed a piece of paper agreeing not to interrupt proceedings. Interruption includes applauding. There is to be no interruption from the gallery. I suggest that the security people pay attention to the people at the back of the gallery.

Photo of Tommy Sheridan Tommy Sheridan SSP

I am sorry, Presiding Officer, but I ask you to review your last comment. People sitting at the back of the gallery happen to have on tee-shirts that say "Don't attack Iraq", but that does not mean that they should be the subject of special attention from anyone.

Photo of Tommy Sheridan Tommy Sheridan SSP

I think that you should review your comments.

Photo of Lord David Steel Lord David Steel Presiding Officer, Scottish Parliament

I will not review them. If they stand up and expose the tee-shirts for publicity purposes, that is not allowed.

Photo of Tommy Sheridan Tommy Sheridan SSP

As far as I know, you banned publicity.

Photo of Lord David Steel Lord David Steel Presiding Officer, Scottish Parliament

No. The ban is lifted. Let us stop the argument and get on with the First Minister's statement on contingency planning for the current international situation.

Photo of Lloyd Quinan Lloyd Quinan Scottish National Party

On a point of order, Presiding Officer. If people who want to hear the First Minister's important statement are still queueing to get into the public gallery, would it not be appropriate to allow time for them to enter, given that, although they were told that they would not be allowed in, you suggest that they will be allowed in? We should let them in and then let the First Minister speak.

Photo of Lord David Steel Lord David Steel Presiding Officer, Scottish Parliament

Mr Quinan, it is always the case that people come into the gallery during our proceedings. There is nothing new in that today.

Photo of Lloyd Quinan Lloyd Quinan Scottish National Party

Not when they have been told that they are not allowed in but then that that decision is reversed.

Photo of Lord David Steel Lord David Steel Presiding Officer, Scottish Parliament

I have assured you that everybody is being allowed in. I investigated that just before I came into the chair. I call the First Minister to give his statement. There will be questions at the end, so there should be no interventions.

Photo of Rt Hon Jack McConnell Rt Hon Jack McConnell Labour 2:33 pm, 19th March 2003

Now that the armed forces of the United Kingdom stand ready to take military action to disarm Saddam Hussein in Iraq, it is right that we in this Parliament should consider the implications for our devolved responsibilities.

We held a mature debate here last Thursday and I hope that we can behave in the same way this afternoon. Events have now moved on. Military action by British and United States troops is now very close. It is still just possible that, if Saddam Hussein allows it, war can be avoided, but we have to face the probability that he will not do so.

I think that all members are agreed that it would have been preferable if military action could have been avoided. However, the fact that that has not been possible is ultimately down to the regime of Saddam Hussein. For 12 years, he has chosen to defy the international community. I think that we all also agree that it would have been better if military action had been preceded by a further United Nations resolution. Unfortunately, that was not possible. In the view of the legal advisers to the UK Government, military action has a basis in international law.

The UK Government, with the UK Parliament's backing and together with the Governments of the United States of America and other countries, has decided that the time to act is now. Such decisions are properly for the UK Government and Parliament and they have taken those decisions.

These are difficult and trying times. I recognise that others can sincerely and in good faith hold different views and I respect the diversity of views. We all have worries and concerns, but the time for agonising is past. The decision has been taken and our military forces face a dangerous and difficult task.

In our devolved Scottish Government, the partnership parties have taken a different route on the issue in the wider sense, but it is a reflection of the maturity of the partnership in Scotland that we can work together and take our responsibilities seriously to serve the people of Scotland in this difficult time. The Scottish ministers will do what is right.

Two consequences follow. Our country faces war and young men and women from throughout the UK face a dangerous and life-threatening challenge. Two Scottish Army regiments—the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards and the Black Watch—are key members of the British Army contingent. Royal Air Force personnel from bases in Scotland are on active duty in the gulf. Naval personnel from Rosyth, marine commandos from Arbroath and regular and reserve members of the forces from throughout Scotland are ready and waiting to do their duty. In all parts of Scotland, wives, husbands, partners, parents and children are proud, certainly, but worried about a husband or wife, son or daughter, or father or mother who is engaged in a dangerous conflict in a far-off land. We in the Parliament owe them and British troops our care and clear support, which they will have.

Now that the decision has been made, we must look to our responsibilities in devolved Scotland. The constitutional position was touched on during last week's debate and members will be well aware of the responsibilities—for defence, foreign affairs and national security—that are reserved. However, the Scottish ministers are responsible for policing—including public order and public safety—emergency planning, community relations and any other devolved matters on which military action might have an effect.

The military action comes against a background of heightened concern about international terrorism and about tension in our communities. The risk of terrorism following the events of 11 September resulted in a high state of alert, which remains the case. As I have said for some months, it is important that we should stay alert and vigilant. We should not panic or give terrorists a victory by letting them disrupt our daily lives. There remains no specific threat to Scotland. However, it is important to prepare for the possibility of terrorist attack by continued work on contingency planning.

In Scotland, such work is based on eight emergency planning groups, which cover our eight police force areas. That work is co-ordinated by the Executive-led Scottish emergencies co-ordinating committee. As a result of action in the past year, we are better prepared to deal with chemical or biological attacks, because of training, the provision of decontamination equipment and the stockpiling of vaccines by the national health service. We have made significant progress, but our work to protect the public continues.

Military action to disarm Saddam Hussein could be used as a pretext for violence by extremists. A number of measures are being taken to guard against that. Our chief constables have established a Scottish police information co-ordination centre, which is structured to deal with the current situation. Jim Wallace and I visited the centre this morning. It will perform intelligence co-ordination and other work, which will include monitoring community tension. That will assist in identifying the need for preventive measures and action that is needed to deal with any incident. I was greatly reassured by my briefing this morning. It is clear that what is a difficult situation is being tackled with considerable professionalism and sensitivity. I congratulate the Scottish police forces on establishing the arrangements quickly and effectively.

The Scottish Executive emergency room was opened this afternoon and will operate to ensure that ministers are fully informed of any developments and that any ministerial actions that are required can be taken quickly. The Scottish ministers will also continue to take part in civil contingency committee meetings, which are being held regularly in order to monitor the position at the UK level.

Our contingency preparations also include the NHS in Scotland, which, as is the case with the health service elsewhere in the UK, is preparing to deal with the casualties of any action. We have robust and flexible plans in place with local authorities and other partners to deal with any increased demand. We have also made plans to cope with the call-up of NHS staff.

At this morning's meeting of the Scottish Cabinet, we agreed to set up the Scottish Cabinet contingencies group to deal with contingency planning throughout any period of conflict, including during April if necessary. I will chair the group, whose members will include the Deputy First Minister, Malcolm Chisholm and Patricia Ferguson. We will meet our responsibilities and fulfil our obligations. We will provide leadership where it is required, making contingency plans in the way that I have described. We must also keep under review the economic impact. It is likely that any conflict will affect trade and tourism. We will have to monitor those impacts and take appropriate action to manage them.

These are testing times, but they are not times for us to let go of our basic values of humanity, tolerance and democracy. The military action is against the evil regime of Saddam Hussein. It is emphatically not an attack or an excuse for an attack on Islam or on Muslim communities in Scotland. It must not result in violence against other minority groups or those who are seeking asylum in this country.

When I went to the Central mosque in Glasgow earlier this month, I heard first hand about some of the intolerance, intimidation and abuse that our ethnic minority communities are already facing and have faced before now. The Parliament sends a clear signal today: we will not accept such behaviour in Scotland, whether it takes the form of bullying in schools or racially motivated attacks on people, their property or their places of worship.

The Solicitor General, Elish Angiolini, met the Commission for Racial Equality and Scotland's racial equality councils on 6 March and assured them of our determination to deal with racist crime. The Deputy First Minister has recently visited members of our minority communities to reassure them. The Scottish ministers continue to seek opportunities to get that message across at a local level and I am confident that members of other parties will support us in that task.

These are deeply worrying times. No one can view the start of a war, especially one with fearsome weaponry, with anything other than horror. However, the decision is made and it was made in our democratic Parliament. Our country is committed. We must all hope for a swift and successful conflict, after which we will make every effort to help and support the ordinary people of Iraq to rebuild their society. It is now our responsibility to make it clear that our armed forces have the Parliament's whole-hearted support, that the Scottish ministers stand ready to cope with the domestic impact of the action and that nothing can excuse intolerance of minority communities in Scotland. We must all hope and pray that the war will be short, with minimum casualties and an outcome that helps to secure a better world.

Photo of John Swinney John Swinney Scottish National Party

I thank the First Minister for his statement and for giving me advance sight of its contents. I also thank the justice department officials for their briefing on emergency planning some weeks ago.

The First Minister recognises the reality that this country will shortly be at war. The Scottish National Party opposes this country going to war. In the circumstances that we now face, we can only pray for the safe return of our armed forces—some of my constituents are in the Black Watch and other regiments—and express our support for them and their families. We also pray for the avoidance of civilian casualties in the conflict—we should not forget the wise counsel of my colleague George Reid that nine out of 10 casualties of war are now civilians.

The First Minister has outlined the preparations for war, how we are to respond to the conflict and how we have reached this point in the conflict. I have three specific questions about his statement.

First, bearing in mind the statutory responsibility that is exercised by local government for emergency planning and given that Parliament will be dissolved on 31 March, can the First Minister explain how he has found space in his special Cabinet committee for the Minister for Parliamentary Business but not for the Minister for Finance and Public Services, who has ministerial responsibility for local government and emergency planning?

Secondly, in his discussions with the British Government, what assurances has the First Minister sought about the preservation of civil amenities in Iraq, such as the water treatment system and power plants, which are vital to the humanitarian effort? What contribution does he believe that Scotland can make to the international humanitarian effort?

Finally, the First Minister said in our debate last Thursday on the Iraq crisis that his amendment

"makes the point that action should be authorised by the United Nations."—[Official Report, 13 March 2003;

c 19434.]

Can he explain why he is now willing to back military action when it is quite clearly not authorised by the United Nations?

Photo of Rt Hon Jack McConnell Rt Hon Jack McConnell Labour

On Mr Swinney's final point, I made it clear last week in response to a number of questions from him that there was a variety of views on the legal effect of previous UN resolutions, as was backed up by the advice that was given by the official legal advisers to the British Government this week. I do not want ever to be in a situation where the British Government—

Photo of Lord David Steel Lord David Steel Presiding Officer, Scottish Parliament

First Minister, I am sorry to interrupt you. Mr Quinan, would you put down that notice, please?

Photo of Rt Hon Jack McConnell Rt Hon Jack McConnell Labour

The point that I was making was that I certainly do not want to be in a situation where the British Government questions the legal advice that I receive as First Minister from my law officers, so I am not about to start questioning the advice that the British Government receives.

On the first question, the responsibility for emergency planning in our Executive lies with the Deputy First Minister, which is why he, and not the minister with responsibility for local government, is a member of the group.

On the second question, which was reasonable and sensible, there will be people across Scotland who are uncomfortable about the fact that this country is going to war, who are against that decision or who have chosen to support it based on the available evidence. However, all those people will want to do whatever they can to help to rebuild society in Iraq after the conflict. I am absolutely certain that any advice that we could give and any practical support that we could offer, either on water or in any other way, would be enthusiastically welcomed by the British Government as part of the efforts that it announced yesterday.

Photo of David McLetchie David McLetchie Conservative

On behalf of the Scottish Conservative and Unionist Party I concur with the First Minister's sentiments and say that our thoughts and prayers are with our servicemen and servicewomen, for a swift resolution to the conflict and a safe return to their families back home. I do not think that anybody wants war, but there are times when armed conflict is necessary to deal with dangerous and tyrannical regimes, such as Saddam Hussein's—this is such a time.

I was pleased to note the substantial backing for the Government's motion in the House of Commons, as was reflected in the votes cast by Scottish MPs at Westminster. However, irrespective of who voted for what in either of Scotland's Parliaments, does the First Minister agree that the time for wrangling and voting in divisions is behind us and that our armed forces deserve the unanimous support of us all?

Having expressed that sentiment, I will ask the First Minister a couple of specific questions. First, will he join me in welcoming the fact that Thursday's strike by the Fire Brigades Union has been called off? Does he recognise that, despite that, 19,000 troops throughout Britain are still on standby, tied up to cover any future industrial action, which has not as yet been ruled out? Does he agree that it would be most helpful if the Fire Brigades Union were to give an undertaking that there will be no more strikes as long as there is a substantial British military involvement in Iraq, thereby enabling the troops who are on standby to be released from their firefighting duties?

Photo of Rt Hon Jack McConnell Rt Hon Jack McConnell Labour

On Mr McLetchie's second point, I sincerely hope that, at some point in the near future, the Fire Brigades Union will accept the generous offer that has been made to its members and the commitment that has been given to modernising the fire service in partnership with those who work in the service. I hope that those factors will lead to a successful and speedy resolution to the dispute, which would free up the troops who have been on standby for a long time.

On the first point, clearly, I hope that the country, the Scottish Parliament and the Westminster Parliament resolve that, having debated, voted and made our decisions, we should all, in a situation in which military conflict is taking place in Iraq, support our troops in the job that they have to do, which is to disarm Saddam Hussein of weapons of mass destruction and to free and liberate the people of Iraq, ensuring that they have a better society in the years to come.

Photo of Donald Gorrie Donald Gorrie Liberal Democrat

The First Minister's remarks about support for Muslims, Jews and other ethnic minorities was encouraging. Will he indicate any of the practical steps that it is possible to take at local or national levels to give support and comfort to those minority groups that might be the subject of attack by the small brainless minority in the country?

Photo of Rt Hon Jack McConnell Rt Hon Jack McConnell Labour

After the horrific events of 11 September and the genuine concern that was expressed by minority communities in Scotland at the time, we allocated resources—about £1 million—to provide for additional security at places of worship. We stand ready to make further resources available, should they be required.

The Deputy First Minister and I were heartened by what we heard this morning about the way in which the operation of Scottish police forces has been integrated with the work of those who have some responsibility in our local authorities, racial equality organisations and elsewhere for liaison with the ethnic minority communities. The hard work that has been done in that regard in recent weeks will bear fruit over the coming weeks; it will ensure that the police are alerted at an early stage to any difficulties and that our ethnic communities have confidence that they can contact the police and know that action will be taken. I assure members that the Solicitor General and the Lord Advocate take the matter seriously and will secure prosecutions where those are appropriate and desired.

Photo of Lord David Steel Lord David Steel Presiding Officer, Scottish Parliament

A large number of members want to ask questions and I think that, on such an issue, it is important to try to include everyone. Therefore, I appeal for brevity.

Photo of Gordon Jackson Gordon Jackson Labour

There is a large Muslim population in my constituency, with many Muslim-owned businesses and a number of mosques. As the First Minister will know from his visit to the Central mosque in Glasgow, there is anxiety that that mosque will become a target for inappropriate, illegal and violent action. Will the First Minister emphasise again that there will be continued dialogue with the community? Although the community will welcome what he has said about safeguarding security and taking matters seriously, it is important that people do not feel marginalised in the discussions that must take place. I would like him to make it clear, further to what he has already said in this regard, that dialogue will continue and that the Muslim community will be kept in the loop.

Photo of Rt Hon Jack McConnell Rt Hon Jack McConnell Labour

There will be local and national dialogue to secure that confidence throughout any conflict. Following a meeting that I had with Mr Jackson in his constituency recently, I can say that there will also be an absolute guarantee of a level of police visibility in those communities and those areas that will, I hope, ensure that people who might be motivated to carry out attacks or intimidation will be put off from doing so.

Photo of Roseanna Cunningham Roseanna Cunningham Scottish National Party

Scottish troops, including the Black Watch and the 51 st Highland Brigade of the Territorial Army, both of which have strong connections with my constituency, are in the gulf. What assessment has there been of the risk of reprisals against Army barracks and RAF and naval bases in Scotland? What steps have been taken to protect against terrorist attacks on military and non-military installations in Scotland that are provoked as a result of the war? What assurances have been sought or given that any and all relevant intelligence will be shared with Scottish police forces?

Photo of Rt Hon Jack McConnell Rt Hon Jack McConnell Labour

I can give an absolute assurance that the Scottish police forces not only have access to all the necessary intelligence, but have already carried out significant analyses of Army barracks and the economic and political targets that might be obvious to us all as the focus of a terrorist attack. Detailed preparations and analyses are under way and it would be wrong of me to detail them today. However, if military action comes about over the next 24 hours, we will see an increased visibility and presence of Scottish forces at some of those locations over the next few days. The co-ordination arrangements that are in place are designed partly to secure that aim and partly to enable the police across Scotland to work together to ensure that those forces that might come under pressure because of the number of such locations in their area are given full support.

Photo of John Home Robertson John Home Robertson Labour

The conflict started because Iraq holds stocks of biological agents and—

Photo of John Home Robertson John Home Robertson Labour

In the past, those agents were used on Iraqi citizens in Halabjah and they may be used against Scottish service personnel who are fighting to give Iraq back to the Iraqis. I happen to have been involved in the House of Commons Select Committee on Defence report on gulf war syndrome and—

Photo of John Home Robertson John Home Robertson Labour

With the benefit of that hindsight, will the First Minister ensure that the NHS in Scotland will stand ready to give all necessary support to Scottish service personnel or Iraqi civilians who may be exposed to such agents in the coming weeks?

Photo of Rt Hon Jack McConnell Rt Hon Jack McConnell Labour

Without going into too many details, I can give the member that assurance. The Scottish health service has been involved in all the discussions about contingencies and it will remain involved. I am sure that its staff will stand ready to do their duty in the weeks ahead.

Photo of Robin Harper Robin Harper Green

I express regret that this appalling decision has been taken. However, I am glad to have heard some of the positive things that the First Minister has said, particularly in respect of our minority communities. Will he be meet representatives of Action of Churches Together in Scotland, the Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations and the Scottish branches of international organisations with a view to co-ordinating a specific Scottish response to helping Iraq to recover from the war, which—hopefully and mercifully—will be over as quickly as possible?

Photo of Rt Hon Jack McConnell Rt Hon Jack McConnell Labour

The suggestion is extremely helpful and constructive. Not only would I be prepared to do that, but I would be enthusiastically willing to participate in such a meeting.

Photo of Brian Fitzpatrick Brian Fitzpatrick Labour

On the subject of NHS planning, will the First Minister ensure that information will be made available to people in my constituency and locally about the level of contingency planning and the implications for people locally of the demands that might be made on the health service?

Photo of Rt Hon Jack McConnell Rt Hon Jack McConnell Labour

Clearly, it is possible to discuss much of the information that is available publicly, although it is not necessarily advisable to discuss some of it publicly. With that caveat, we will do all that we can to keep members of the public in Scotland informed of the contingency arrangements.

Photo of Nicola Sturgeon Nicola Sturgeon Scottish National Party

Is the First Minister aware of the effect that staff shortages could have on the NHS? Does he agree that the call-up of staff to service the armed forces, coupled with the increase in demand due to potential casualties, can only make matters more difficult? He said:

"We have robust and flexible plans in place ... to deal with any increased demand. We have also made plans to cope with the call-up of NHS staff."

Will he tell the chamber what those plans are?

Photo of Rt Hon Jack McConnell Rt Hon Jack McConnell Labour

Although I do not want to go into too much intricate detail about the arrangements that might be in place, I can reassure the chamber that, although the number of NHS staff in Scotland who are involved is not insignificant, it is not at the other end of the spectrum. I think that, at present, 10 doctors and 27 nurses may have been called up to undertake service in some capacity. Clearly, arrangements are required to ensure that their work load is shared among others or re-routed; that has been the subject of discussions that have taken place over recent weeks.

None of us should deny that there will be an impact on Scotland. In addition to the potential impact on our national health service, there could be an impact on our communities as a result of rising tensions. Moreover, any international tension could have an impact on our tourist trade. We must prepare for and move to accommodate eventualities in all those areas and ensure that Scotland's public services and economy are as strong as possible afterwards. That is exactly what the contingency planning is all about.

Photo of Margaret Smith Margaret Smith Liberal Democrat

I associate myself and members of the Liberal Democrat party in this Parliament with the First Minister's comments about our armed forces. Despite any concerns that we might have about how we got here or where we go from here, we all owe clear and whole-hearted support to those forces.

The First Minister knows that Edinburgh airport falls within my constituency. What part will our airports play in the contingency planning and what extra security measures will be put in place? Furthermore, will he assure us that neighbouring police forces have all the resources that they need to maintain order in surrounding communities and to redeploy officers at airports in the coming weeks?

Photo of Rt Hon Jack McConnell Rt Hon Jack McConnell Labour

Additional security arrangements have been made at Edinburgh airport in particular over recent months, which is only right and proper. Over recent weeks, those arrangements have been scrutinised in the light of the eventuality that we might be about to face. Security arrangements will be adjusted accordingly—particularly over the next 48 hours—should military action begin.

In addition, chief police officers across Scotland have a very specific arrangement that will allow them to act in a concerted fashion if any incident should occur in any part of Scotland. As a result, individual local forces will not be left to deal with such incidents on their own but will be supported by forces across Scotland. Again, that is only right and proper. However, it is probably not appropriate to go into the details of such arrangements in public this afternoon.

Photo of John McAllion John McAllion Labour

Does the First Minister accept that in a democracy such as ours the real betrayal of our armed forces would have been not to challenge and go on challenging the political decisions that are forcing them to lay their lives on the line? If so, will he assure me that our democracy will not now be confined to the boundaries of either Westminster or Holyrood but will continue to include the people's right to protest, march, demonstrate and take part in peaceful and non-violent civil disobedience against a war that they believe to be wrong and which they now bitterly regret will kill many innocent people?

Photo of Rt Hon Jack McConnell Rt Hon Jack McConnell Labour

As I said before, I sincerely hope that, if there is to be conflict, it is concluded speedily and with the minimum number of casualties, and I hope that members in the chamber feel the same way. I am also proud to live in a country where we—unlike the people of Iraq—are able to demonstrate on whatever point of view we have on the subject.

That said, some recent comments about the potential conflict and about disagreements of opinion on the issue have shown a lack of respect for the fact that, in this country, we can demonstrate, speak our minds, have votes in democratic Parliaments, make decisions and then implement them—I hope—in a united fashion.

Photo of Phil Gallie Phil Gallie Conservative

Does the First Minister agree that there will be immense pressures on the police at this time? What special arrangements will be made for the families of reservists and members of our territorial armed services who have almost been snatched from their homes to go to the middle east? Those families will need special support. What protection will they be offered and what support will be provided to them?

Photo of Rt Hon Jack McConnell Rt Hon Jack McConnell Labour

The Ministry of Defence has arrangements in place to help to ensure that support is given to families either in barracks or in their domestic circumstances. We liaise carefully and closely with the MOD to ensure that public services in Scotland are able to back up its efforts and that families are properly provided for at this difficult time. Those arrangements will not only continue, but will be stepped up in the weeks ahead.

Photo of Richard Simpson Richard Simpson Labour

The First Minister mentioned the Scottish police information co-ordination centre. Does he agree that, in monitoring tension in communities, the police should do all in their power to protect Sikh communities in Scotland who, because of their beards and turbans, are sometimes wrongly identified as terrorists by a misguided few?

Further to that, will the First Minister discuss with law officers the need to ensure that, if any attacks occur on groups or individuals in the minority population, those attacks will be the subject of swift and strong justice? Finally, will he ask police constables to call together their ethnic advisory committees—which are now present in six out of eight forces—to be consulted at an early point in the monitoring of tensions in the community?

Photo of Rt Hon Jack McConnell Rt Hon Jack McConnell Labour

I am happy to give those assurances. In particular, I am happy to say that we will do all that we can to ensure the safety, security and integration of the Sikh community in Scotland at the present time. I make one other point: the Islamic religion is a peace-loving religion. Members of the Muslim community in Scotland are peace-loving citizens of Scotland. Just as we do not associate those who carry out extreme and violent acts in Northern Ireland with mainstream Christianity in Scotland, we must not associate those who carry out extreme, violent and murderous acts in the name of Islam around the world with those members of the Islamic religion in Scotland who are peace-loving, well-integrated members of our society.

Photo of Michael Russell Michael Russell Scottish National Party

I am sure that the First Minister accepts that many of us believe that it should never have come to this.

I have two questions about children. First, what active steps is the Scottish Executive taking to assist children's charities in Scotland who will want to and, indeed, need to be involved in looking after the children of Iraq, during and after the conflict?

My second question is about the children of Scotland. Whether one agrees with them, the children of Scotland have shown their extreme horror at what is taking place. What action will the First Minister take to try to persuade the young people of Scotland, against all the evidence that they have, that politicians listen to people, because most people and children in Scotland do not want this conflict to happen?

Photo of Rt Hon Jack McConnell Rt Hon Jack McConnell Labour

I hope that Mr Russell is aware of my consistent efforts as I go round the country to various engagements to ensure that I take time to talk to the younger citizens of Scotland. I do that on a regular basis, and I hope that, when they have a chance to put questions or views to me, they find that I not only listen, but I act on what I say. I would also be happy to ensure that the children's charities in Scotland are involved in any meeting that arises from Mr Robin Harper's suggestion.

Photo of Margo MacDonald Margo MacDonald Independent

Does the First Minister agree that one of the most effective means of laying to rest the insecurities and uncertainties felt at present by Muslim communities in Scotland and throughout the world would be for the United Nations to state clearly that the state of Israel is in contravention of the spirit of the United Nations' founding fathers and that it should desist and resist the harassment and containment of the Palestinian people now?

Photo of Rt Hon Jack McConnell Rt Hon Jack McConnell Labour

In response to that question, I take the opportunity to say something that I did not get a chance to say last Thursday in the chamber, because of the timing of President Bush's announcement. I hope that the vast majority of members in the chamber, regardless of their views on the conflict that looks likely to take place in Iraq, welcome the clear statement of support from the American Government for a separate Palestinian state that has been made in the past week. That firm resolution on the part of the American Government will contribute to achieving a lasting solution in the whole of the middle east, not just an immediate solution in Iraq.

Photo of Kenneth Macintosh Kenneth Macintosh Labour

I thank the First Minister for his comments on the contingency preparations, particularly in the health service. As part of those preparations, I believe that the smallpox vaccine is being made available to key emergency service workers, including health staff. I would welcome the First Minister's assurance that the vaccine will be made available on a voluntary basis only.

Secondly, can the First Minister or the Minister for Health and Community Care give further guidance on the risk assessment that will have been carried out if health workers are assured that they may continue to work with vulnerable patients while the vaccine is live?

Photo of Rt Hon Jack McConnell Rt Hon Jack McConnell Labour

First of all, I give Mr Macintosh the assurance that the option of using the vaccination is voluntary.

Clearly, the individual circumstances of each member of staff following use of the vaccination are for them to discuss with their managers. I strongly urge and expect to see sensitive handling of fears and concerns throughout the health service, although the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation gives an absolute guarantee that the vaccination is safe.

Photo of Mike Rumbles Mike Rumbles Liberal Democrat

One of the most important issues faced by any soldier who is called into action is the assurance that an effective casualty evacuation process is in place. I am sure that that is the case with our field hospitals and the theatre of operations.

We all pray that the war will be short, but it may not be. Will the First Minister outline in a little more detail exactly how the NHS in Scotland is preparing to deal with casualties of war?

Photo of Rt Hon Jack McConnell Rt Hon Jack McConnell Labour

Arrangements are being made to deal with casualties on a UK basis, not just here in Scotland. The health service in Scotland is working closely with counterparts south of the border and elsewhere to make the appropriate arrangements. It is also working closely with the MOD, and is part of the contingency planning arrangements that I have outlined. I hope that the chamber will respect the fact that I do not think that it would be appropriate to name this afternoon specific locations or hospitals that may be used for civic purposes. However, I assure the chamber that preparatory work has been going on for some time, and that I have every confidence that the arrangements will work as smoothly as possible.

Photo of George Reid George Reid Scottish National Party

Further to his answer to Robin Harper on a specifically Scottish appeal, I ask the First Minister to consider three areas of expertise in which this Parliament and this country may add value to British foreign policy: our experience in water engineering, which is the major immediate need; our experience in programmes for women and children run by women; and our experience in building new, peaceful relationships between the different peoples of this country, which may be of value to a country divided among Shias, Sunnis and Kurds.

Photo of Rt Hon Jack McConnell Rt Hon Jack McConnell Labour

Those are helpful and constructive suggestions. I will take them on board.

Photo of Elaine Smith Elaine Smith Labour

Does the First Minister accept that people who oppose what they believe to be an unnecessary and immoral war today can hardly be expected to support it tomorrow?

On Monday, Robin Cook said:

"it is false to argue that only those who support war support our troops. It is entirely legitimate to support our troops while seeking an alternative to the conflict".—[Official Report, House of Commons, 17 March 2003; Vol 401, c 727.]

Does the First Minister agree with his words? Does he agree that the best way in which to support our armed forces is to ensure their safety by bringing them home as soon as possible?

Photo of Rt Hon Jack McConnell Rt Hon Jack McConnell Labour

I sincerely hope that British troops—and Iraqi civilians—are in their own homes as soon as possible and as safely as possible. I hope that Elaine Smith recognises that, throughout all the debates that have taken place in the chamber and on the number of occasions in recent months on which I have been questioned on the subject, I have made it consistently clear that there is a diversity of opinion on the matter in Scotland, in this chamber and even inside my own party, and that I respect that diversity of opinion and expect others to do the same and to listen and to move forward together, if we can do that. I hope that, in the weeks to come, which will be difficult for those on all sides of the previous argument and for those who want to represent their constituents' or their own point of view in the debates that I am sure will continue, we will remember that our troops are in a dangerous and difficult situation and that the people of Iraq need the support that we and those troops can give them to bring the situation to a speedy conclusion.

Photo of Dennis Canavan Dennis Canavan Independent

The First Minister has said several times that the decision to go to war has now been made. Does he agree that it is not disloyal to state that that decision is not irrevocable and that, even at this 11 th hour, every effort must be made to stop this senseless war, which threatens the lives of hundreds of thousands of innocent Iraqi people, as well as members of our armed forces?

Photo of Rt Hon Jack McConnell Rt Hon Jack McConnell Labour

I could not agree more, and I hope that Mr Canavan will join me in making a direct appeal from the Scottish Parliament chamber to Saddam Hussein and his regime to take the actions that they must take to avoid this unnecessary conflict.

Photo of Alex Neil Alex Neil Scottish National Party

Has the First Minister received representations, as I have, from the parents and friends of servicemen and women who are already out in the gulf? Some of those servicemen and women have been in the gulf for many months and feel that they are ill fed, ill clothed and ill equipped—indeed, food parcels are being sent to some of them. If men and women are to be sent to an unjust war, will the First Minister, through his talks with the Prime Minister, at least ensure that they are well fed, well clothed and well equipped?

Photo of Rt Hon Jack McConnell Rt Hon Jack McConnell Labour

I have received no such representations. If I did, I would certainly pass them on to the First Minister—[MEMBERS: "The Prime Minister."] I meant the Prime Minister. I strongly believe that troops from Scotland who are already in the gulf and others who will go there will be ready for the difficult circumstances that they will face. I am speaking not only about what they will eat and wear when they are in the gulf. The troops will have to face difficult circumstances, which is why they deserve our full support.

Photo of Cathie Craigie Cathie Craigie Labour

I am sure that, like all of us here today, the First Minister will regret that he must give a statement on emergency planning to members, but we all echo what he has said.

In preparation for any possible terrorist attack, the Home Office direct communications unit has issued advice on people being alert and vigilant. Specifically, that advice asks people to listen for broadcasts about any possible terrorist attack. That is probably good advice, but what should we say to the 1 million Scots who are deaf or have varying degrees of hearing difficulty? Will the First Minister make representations to the Home Office to ensure that there will be communications on television with subtitling in English and the use of British Sign Language, if that is appropriate?

Photo of Rt Hon Jack McConnell Rt Hon Jack McConnell Labour

I would be happy to do so. If such a situation arose, it would be vital that no Scots were disadvantaged or discriminated against in the provision of information.

Photo of Keith Raffan Keith Raffan Liberal Democrat

Will the First Minister give an assurance that the emergency services are sufficiently well equipped, particularly in respect of protective clothing, to deal with chemical and biological attacks? I ask in view of the somewhat disturbing "Panorama" programme last Sunday, which indicated that emergency services south of the border are not yet sufficiently well equipped.

Photo of Rt Hon Jack McConnell Rt Hon Jack McConnell Labour

I understand that emergency services in Scotland are significantly better equipped than they were a year ago and that steps are being taken to ensure that further progress is made with immediate effect. Progress will continue in the coming weeks.

Photo of Tommy Sheridan Tommy Sheridan SSP

Does the First Minister believe that the bombing of Iraq is an important issue for Scotland and the Parliament? He is nodding in approval, so he thinks that the issue is important. Why, then, has the Executive not brought forward a debate on such an important issue? Why has the First Minister relied on the Opposition parties to bring forward debates on it?

Will the First Minister join me in congratulating the young people of Edinburgh who have taken part in demonstrations today against what they believe to be an acutely unjust and immoral war and the massacre of innocent men, women and—predominantly—children in Iraq? Will he congratulate those young people on having the courage of their convictions and on marching with banners that declare loud and clear that they do not support a war for oil? Does he agree that the best way in which members can support the armed services personnel and regiments of Scotland that will be flung into the front line of any invasion of Iraq is to demand that they are immediately sent home to their families, so that they will not take part in an immoral and unjust war?

Photo of Lord David Steel Lord David Steel Presiding Officer, Scottish Parliament

Order. The member has had his fair share. Another four members want to—

Photo of Tommy Sheridan Tommy Sheridan SSP

I want to make a final important point. We are part of the United Kingdom and signatories to the International Court of Justice. Will the First Minister determine whether the Parliament has the autonomy to raise an action against the UK Government for engaging in a war that is not only unjust and immoral, but illegal?

Photo of Lord David Steel Lord David Steel Presiding Officer, Scottish Parliament

Order. That is enough, Mr Sheridan. This is not a debate. [ Interruption. ] You have no more rights than any other member in the Parliament and you have no right to go on like that without a microphone. You should apologise to the chamber and allow other members to have the chance to speak.

Photo of Lord David Steel Lord David Steel Presiding Officer, Scottish Parliament

No. I am asking you to apologise to the chamber.

Photo of Tommy Sheridan Tommy Sheridan SSP

I will apologise to the chamber if the First Minister apologises for not bringing a debate to the chamber because the Executive has been running scared from the issue.

Photo of Tommy Sheridan Tommy Sheridan SSP

I will apologise when the Executive apologises.

Photo of Lord David Steel Lord David Steel Presiding Officer, Scottish Parliament

Mr Sheridan, you have no more rights than any other member. If you continue like that you will make me put you out of the chamber. I do not want to do that.

Does the First Minister want to respond to part of that?

Photo of Rt Hon Jack McConnell Rt Hon Jack McConnell Labour

I suspect, Presiding Officer, that removing Mr Sheridan from the chamber is exactly what he would like you to do.

Photo of Rt Hon Jack McConnell Rt Hon Jack McConnell Labour

I would strongly advise you not to do so. I am happy to be patient, if everybody else is. Mr Sheridan has freedom in this country that people in Iraq do not have. He needs to remember that.

Mr Sheridan has taken a principled position against any action or even the threat of action in Iraq over recent months. His position has been consistent. I ask him, as someone who occasionally makes speeches in this chamber that give the clear perception that he cares about children, poverty, discrimination, and pain and suffering, to reflect on the fact that, without the threat of military action at any time in the past 12 years, Saddam Hussein would never have complied with any international obligation and would never have had the decency to refrain from actions such as those he took 15 years ago last Sunday, when he murdered thousands of his own civilians. Mr Sheridan should remember that.

Photo of Margaret Ewing Margaret Ewing Scottish National Party

On a quieter note, I will return to a point that the First Minister made in his opening statement, when he said that the agonising was over. I am sure that he will accept that I speak as the elected MSP for Moray, where we have more personnel deployed than any other constituency—they are in the gulf. This is a worrying time for all of us in the area, because those people are our friends and neighbours.

What has been done to ensure that there is communication between the personnel and their families at home? Does he accept that it is very distressing for people to receive phone calls from wives, husbands, brothers and sisters from whom they have not heard for some three to four weeks? Is anything being done to ensure that personal communication is available to all our service personnel and to their families at home, who still agonise over what is happening?

Photo of Rt Hon Jack McConnell Rt Hon Jack McConnell Labour

Not only on my recent visit to Elgin but on other occasions, I have been well aware of the importance of the military community to the community of Elgin and to Moray as a whole. I will certainly take up that matter and pass the point on to the Ministry of Defence.

Photo of Rhona Brankin Rhona Brankin Labour

I was reassured to hear the First Minister say that any racially motivated crime will be dealt with swiftly and that the Solicitor General for Scotland will monitor the matter. Will he assure me that the Minister for Education and Young People will monitor schools in Scotland for racially motivated bullying?

Photo of Rt Hon Jack McConnell Rt Hon Jack McConnell Labour

I give that assurance. Guidance on the subject is available to schools, teachers and education authorities.

Photo of Lloyd Quinan Lloyd Quinan Scottish National Party

The First Minister said that contingency plans have been made to prevent extremists from taking advantage of the situation. Will he give us a list, saying who those extremists are and where he expects them to come from?

Photo of Rt Hon Jack McConnell Rt Hon Jack McConnell Labour

If anybody out there were planning a terrorist attack on Scotland, and if we knew who they were, we would not give Mr Quinan a list of them; we would catch them and lock them up.

Photo of Dorothy-Grace Elder Dorothy-Grace Elder Independent

I will ask a question that was asked by the children who marched today, of whom some members are extremely proud. Given that the First Minister has repeatedly mentioned evil regimes that appear to need sorting out, does he support the invasion of other countries that are controlled by evil regimes, such as Zimbabwe, or is the murderous Mr Mugabe safe because he does not have oil?

Photo of Rt Hon Jack McConnell Rt Hon Jack McConnell Labour

Occasionally the Presiding Officer tries to stop me from encroaching too far on reserved responsibilities, but to be fair, I must point out that the difference between Mr Mugabe and Mr Hussein is that, to my knowledge, Mr Mugabe does not yet have facilities for chemical and biological weapons. The United Nations has addressed that specific issue over the years and Mr Hussein has been asked to address it, but he has not done so, which is why he stands out in the international community as being different from others. I hope that Dorothy-Grace Elder heard me say last week that I believe passionately that United Nations resolutions and United Nations resolve should be implemented consistently throughout the world—not just in one country, but in every country. I hope that that will be the case in the years to come.