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International Situation (Contingency Planning)

Part of the debate – in the Scottish Parliament at 2:33 pm on 19th March 2003.

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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.