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House of Commons

Tuesday 15 June 2004

The House met at half-past Eleven o'clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions


The Secretary of State was asked—


2. Mr. James Clappison (Hertsmere) (Con): What representations he has received about anti-Semitism in Europe. [178626]

The Minister for Europe (Mr. Denis MacShane): The Government are aware of a disturbing increase in anti-Semitic remarks and attacks across many European nations, including the UK. We vigorously condemn them and remain in close contact with representatives of the Jewish community, here and elsewhere in Europe, to discuss ways of combating anti-Semitism. We were active participants in the recent OSCE—Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe—conference on anti-Semitism in Berlin.

Mr. Clappison: The Minister is absolutely right to say that there has been a worrying increase in anti-Semitic incidents in Europe. Is he aware that a great deal of that is connected with the situation in the middle east? Does he agree that, whatever views might be legitimately held about the situation in the middle east, it is wholly unacceptable for attacks to be carried out on innocent people and communities in connection with that conflict? Will he ensure that the United Kingdom plays its full part in the coming OSCE conference, due to start tomorrow in Paris, and in particular does as much as possible to stop the international peddling of hate on this subject through the internet?

Mr. MacShane: I cannot but completely agree with the hon. Gentleman's remarks. The Government, Ministers and MPs are active in the campaign. The most recent anti-Semitic attack took place recently in France, but a large number of gravestones of French Muslims have also been desecrated at Strasbourg, according to yesterday's Le Monde, with remarks such as "Sieg Heil" and "White Power". Anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, hatred of immigrants and xenophobia are all parts of a connected continuum that we must combat very firmly and clearly indeed.
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Mrs. Louise Ellman (Liverpool, Riverside) (Lab/Co-op): Does the Minister recognise the gravity of anti-Semitism coming from some Islamic sources that links up with the anti-Semitism of the far right in advocating Jewish conspiracy theories, blood libels and holocaust denial? What steps are the Government taking to counter that?

Mr. MacShane: I pay tribute to the way in which the hon. Lady has consistently raised this sickening aspect of modern political discourse. Again, she flags up a concern shared by everyone in the House. That is why I am pleased that the OSCE is focusing on anti-Semitism. I know that the French Government are taking strong steps in that regard, as are the German Government, and we, too, must keep a watchful eye on the situation because hate language in British politics—whether on immigrants, on questions to do with Israel and the right of the Jewish people to their state, or on the problems faced by many of my Muslim constituents—is, I am afraid, on the rise, rather than going down.

Mr. Richard Bacon (South Norfolk) (Con): It would be disturbing, would it not, if it turned out that taxpayers were helping to fund anti-Semitism and attacks on Jewish people? Yet when I recently visited OLAF, the anti-fraud agency in Brussels, Mr. Alberto Perduca, the official in charge of looking at funding for the Palestinians, admitted that it could not be ruled out that cash used by the EU to give funding to the Palestinian Authority might in some cases have made its way to groups to which it should not have made its way. What is the Foreign Office doing to keep that matter under review?

Mr. MacShane: It is rather tenuous to get in a jibe at the EU over the serious problem of attacks on Jewish graves, desecrations of other Jewish memorials and anti-Semitic remarks. The Commissioner responsible, the right hon. Chris Patten, is keeping the matter tightly under control. I accept fully the concerns of the hon. Member for South Norfolk (Mr. Bacon), but if he has one piece of direct evidence of any money circuiting back into anti-Semitic organisations in Europe, I would love to see it because I promise him and the House that I would take that up with every bit of vigour that I possess.

Middle East

3. Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle) (Lab): What further steps he will take to encourage the establishment of democracy in the middle east. [178627]

The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Mr. Jack Straw): I set out the United Kingdom's approach to encouraging modernisation in the Arab world in a speech that I made at the Foreign Policy Centre on 1 March. In that speech, which has been generally well received in the region, I made it clear that we will work in partnership with countries in the region in support of locally led political, economic and social reform.
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In the coming period, we will be responding to the forward-looking statement from the Tunis summit, and concentrating on implementation of the G8 and EU strategies, as well as continuing effective use of our bilateral programmes.

Mr. Prentice: The Prime Minister told me yesterday that democracy in the middle east has got to come from within, but if that is the case, surely we will be waiting for ever. What are the Government doing to force the pace of change in dysfunctional societies such as Saudi Arabia, where women cannot even legally drive a car? In a recent case, a female television presenter was beaten up by her husband for daring to answer the telephone. Saudi Arabia is supposedly an ally of ours. What are we doing to force the pace of change?

Mr. Straw: I resist the idea that we should force the pace of change in the way that my hon. Friend sets out. We in Europe need to have a certain amount of humility in respect of this issue. Only 30 years ago, which is within the lifetime of many in this House, not only was half of Europe under the Soviets' control, but three countries in southern Europe—Portugal, Spain and Greece—all had fascist dictatorships. We would have resisted the idea that our pace of change within Europe should be forced from outside. We have to encourage change and support the many people in all countries in the region who are actively pursuing change.

Saudi Arabia is beginning a process of reform, even though it might not be as fast as my hon. Friend would wish. Local council elections will be held shortly, and in many countries in the region there are now the beginnings—in some cases, more than the beginnings—of active democratic institutions.

Sir Menzies Campbell (North-East Fife) (LD): Can the Foreign Secretary tell the House what his view is of conditions for democratic life in Gaza, where the infrastructure has been systematically damaged, houses have been indiscriminately destroyed and demolished, and the quality of life has been comprehensively diminished? At the moment, the international community is raising substantial sums for the restoration of Iraq. If the Sharon proposals for unilateral withdrawal from Gaza are implemented, who will pay for Gaza?

Mr. Straw: It is self-evidently the case, as the right hon. and learned Gentleman points out, that operating democracy within the Gaza area is and has been very difficult since the incursions by the Israeli defence force, some of which—such as the terrible incursions in Rafah—have been roundly condemned by a United Nations Security Council resolution that the United Kingdom supported. That said, the Palestinian Authority themselves have to take further steps—they could take such steps, even now—to improve the operation of their democratic institutions. For example, they could place the security forces under the full and proper control of the Prime Minister and the Interior Minister, and ensure that they are paid through bank accounts rather than in cash.
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In terms of the withdrawal from Gaza, there may be a need for further international aid. I am afraid that the value of some of the aid has been destroyed by Israeli incursions, but we simply have to accept that and try to move on.

Rob Marris (Wolverhampton, South-West) (Lab): I thank my right hon. Friend for his comments on democracy in the Arab world. Of course, the middle east also encompasses Iran, where there is nominal democracy but there are significant human rights abuses. I doubt whether any of us in the House would recognise Iran as a true democracy. What steps are the United Kingdom Government taking to encourage true democracy in Iran?

Mr. Straw: I should tell my hon. Friend as an aside that it is an unwise idea to suggest that Iranians are Arabs, because they are not. On his wider point, among many other aspects of an intensive dialogue with the Iranian Government, we have a human rights dialogue, and so does the European Union.

Mr. John Taylor (Solihull) (Con): Would the Foreign Secretary tell the House whether there are any democratic states in the middle east other than Israel?

Mr. Straw: There are states in different stages of democratic development. [Laughter.] I do not believe that we should mock the progress that has been made. Oman and Qatar have recently introduced direct elections, and of the states within the Arab world, only Libya, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar and Saudi Arabia have no public plebiscite for national assembly and/or head of state elections. Of course, their political institutions are not in a state that we would describe as full democracy. The important thing is that that is now recognised within the region itself, and there is a clear programme of reform that has been agreed by the Arab League, not least at its summit in Tunis.

Richard Burden (Birmingham, Northfield) (Lab): My right hon. Friend will know that, when the Palestinian parliamentary delegation came to this place a few weeks ago, it stressed its wish to hold elections in the occupied territories, which are now several years overdue. It made the point that it is difficult to hold elections where candidates cannot get from one place to another and voters do not know whether they can reach a polling station because they are under curfew. All that is directly related to the occupation. What does my right hon. Friend feel that the international community can do to ensure that elections take place in the occupied territories as soon as possible?

Mr. Straw: The key thing for the international community, as well as for the Palestinians, the Israelis and those in the region, is to support the active implementation of the road map. If we could get an Israeli withdrawal from Gaza under proper conditions, that could at least set the stage for the normalisation of life within Gaza.

Mr. Douglas Hogg (Sleaford and North Hykeham) (Con): The right hon. Gentleman has just referred to the withdrawal by the state of Israel from Gaza. Would he
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accept that that must be just the first step and that further steps must include withdrawal from all the west bank settlements, together with sensible proposals for sharing the sovereignty of Jerusalem?

Mr. Straw: Yes is the answer, and the stages are clearly set out in the road map. As the G8 summit acknowledged, the basic template for our position and that of the G8 in respect of Israel-Palestine remains Security Council resolutions 242 and 338.

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