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7 Jun 2006 : Column 134WH—continued

Since 1965, many countries and bodies have recognised genocide: Uruguay, Cyprus, Argentina, Russia, Greece, the United States House of Representatives, Belgium, Sweden, Lebanon, the European Parliament, the Italian Parliament, the French Assembly, the Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly, the Swiss Parliament, the Canadian House of Commons, the Slovakian Parliament, the Dutch Parliament, the Polish Parliament, the German Bundestag, the Venezuelan Parliament, the Lithuanian
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Parliament and recently even bodies such as Edinburgh city council and the legislative body of British Columbia. The Holy See recognised genocide on 10 November 2000. They have all recognised that genocide occurred, and I cannot see how we can fail to follow where they lead.

Mr. Dismore: There is another reason why we should remember that first genocide of the last century: to be able to look to the future. I remind my hon. Friend of what Adolf Hitler said some 30 years after that genocide: “Who remembers the Armenians now?” That was one of his justifications for what he was doing to the Jewish community during the second world war.

Stephen Pound: My hon. Friend’s words are so prescient and important that I almost felt like pausing when I heard them. I remember standing on the steps of Downing street with the noble Lord Avebury, who repeated those words in the original German. As we know, when people said to Hitler, “You will never be forgiven for the genocide of the Jews”, he said, “Who remembers the Armenians now?”

Genocide was the new horror of the 20th century. Technology had progressed in such a way that whole populations could be slaughtered. The 1915 Armenian and Assyrian genocide in the Ottoman empire was the first; sadly it was not to be the last, either in the last century or this one. Now no one seeks to deny that genocide took place.

I hope that we can be realistic, because only when we accept that ethnic cleansing and genocide take place can we confront their horrors. We owe that not only to our Armenian, Assyrian and Greek friends, or only to our Christian friends from the former Ottoman empire, but to ourselves. How can we seek to combat the evil of genocide when the very existence of such a major example is denied?

My hon. Friend the Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore) quoted Adolf Hitler. I would like to close by quoting a contemporary of Hitler’s, but a man who walked in the light rather than the darkness. In 1929, Winston Churchill stated:

Churchill was right then, and he is right now. I look to my right hon. Friend the Minister and to this Government and this country to play their part in assuaging the agony of those whose relatives died so horribly by recognising in this country the fact that genocide took place. I hope that by such recognition in this House of Commons, in this Parliament, ultimately we may influence the Turkish Government, because as long as we refuse to recognise that genocide took place, they have the perfect excuse for denial.

Frank Cook (in the Chair): Mr. Hoon, you have nine minutes in which to reply.

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4.21 pm

The Minister for Europe (Mr. Geoffrey Hoon): Thank you, Mr. Cook. It is obvious from the passionate presentation of my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, North (Stephen Pound) that he has a thorough and detailed interest in this difficult and painful subject, and we are all grateful to him for setting out his arguments with such clarity and, indeed, for securing this debate.

This matter has been debated in this House on many occasions, not least, as I am sure my hon. Friend is aware, in the immediate aftermath of the 1915-16 massacres that left so many dead and forced survivors into exile. What happened to ethnic Armenians and other smaller Christian minorities living in the Ottoman empire, including the Assyrians, was roundly and rightly condemned at the time. I extend the Government’s deepest sympathies to the relatives and descendants of the victims.

That the events took place, and that the then rulers of what is now Turkey should bear some degree of responsibility for encouraging, allowing or failing to prevent them, is not a matter of dispute in this House, but the main concern of this Government is not what we call such horrific events but ensuring that the lessons are learned, and that relationships are rebuilt to ensure a peaceful and secure future for everyone living in the region. To that end, we shall continue to encourage the Governments of Armenia and Turkey to improve co-operation and understanding between their countries.

I want to deal with my hon. Friend’s call for the United Kingdom legally to recognise the events of 1915-16 as genocide. The fact is that the legal offence of genocide had not been named or defined at the time when the atrocities were committed. The United Nations convention on genocide came into force in 1948, so it was not possible at the time of the events that we are considering legally to label the massacres as genocide within the terms of the convention.

I recognise that it is perfectly possible intellectually to try to apply the definitions of genocide from the convention to appalling tragedies that occurred, in this case, some 30 years before. The common practice in law is not to apply such judgments retrospectively. It is not possible for us properly to provide a substitute today for the submission of evidence, cross-examination or arguments that necessarily would have arisen in mitigation in a court of law, whether a local or international one, had there been one with the necessary jurisdiction and had the crime already been recognised and defined. Not least would be the issue of who should be charged with the offence in the circumstances. That is why I hope that my hon. Friend will accept that the legal process that he is asking for would not necessarily be appropriate at this stage.

In any event, as I hope he will accept, historians question each other’s accounts of what took place. The debate has primarily been about the causes of the events, those responsible for them and the extent to which the wartime security context may have been a factor, perhaps obscuring the motives of those who were involved. As a result, neither this Government nor previous British Governments have judged that the evidence is sufficiently unequivocal to persuade us that the events could be categorised as genocide, as defined by the 1948 UN convention on the subject.

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However, I emphasise that that in no way diminishes the scale of the terrible individual and mass tragedies that occurred between 1915-16 and both before and after, as my hon. Friends the Members for Ealing, North and for Hendon (Mr. Dismore) have made clear. The key now is to ensure that the full truth about those events is brought to light and that both Armenia and Turkey look to the future.

In that context, my right hon. Friend the Member for Rotherham (Mr. MacShane), my distinguished predecessor as Minister for Europe, raised the need for an independent inquiry on the events of 1915-16 at a European Union ministerial meeting with Turkey in March 2005, in an attempt to promote a truth and reconciliation process. I share the view that the work of establishing truth, if it is indeed to help towards reconciliation, must be conducted as a joint exercise by the parties directly involved. Outsiders can commend the idea to them, but they should not try to do the work for them, as the doing of the work by the parties themselves is an important part of the confidence-building and reconciliation process.

Last year, shortly after that idea was proposed, Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan and the leader of the main Turkish opposition party joined forces to call for an impartial investigation by Armenian and Turkish historians of the allegations. I understand that the Armenians felt unable to accept the proposal at that time, but we believe the Turkish proposal to be a welcome signal that Turkey wishes to engage with its neighbour and re-examine the issue. My conclusion is that the idea, or some variant of it, is not at an end, but that further developments in the international situation will be needed before the idea can be explored again and constructively developed.

Obviously, I cannot give the House an absolute assurance that Armenia and Turkey will undertake to move relations forward this year or even the next, although I certainly hope that they will, but I commend to the House the idea that the resolution of the questions raised by my hon. Friend should be pursued through some kind of truth and reconciliation process undertaken by the people of Armenia and Turkey. This Government will continue to encourage the parties to embark on such a process. In the meantime, we should resist the temptation to pre-empt its conclusions.

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MOD Search and Rescue Services

4.27 pm

Andrew George (St. Ives) (LD): I am delighted to have secured this important debate, given the joint announcement on 9 May by the Department for Transport and the Ministry of Defence of the proposal to move forward with the part-privatisation, as I interpret it, of the search and rescue helicopter service provided variously by the Maritime and Coastguard Agency through private providers, by the Ministry of Defence through a branch of the RAF and by the Royal Navy. In my constituency, in which the Royal Navy air station Culdrose is based, there is, as I am sure the Minister will understand, a significant sensitivity about the impact that the proposal will have not only on the base, but on those who have enjoyed the safety and security of knowing that such an excellent search and rescue service is available. Indeed, it is a vital service. The capability of the Ministry of Defence both on land and at sea provides significant reassurance to mariners and to those who have enjoyed the benefits of the search and rescue service and whose life has been saved by it.

In a written answer to questions that I asked the Minister about the future of the 771 Squadron at Culdrose, he stated:

The importance of the service is known to many, and certainly from my consultations prior to this debate with the Royal National Lifeboat Institution, the National Coastwatch Institution, the Maritime and Coastguard Agency, the National Federation of Fishermen’s Organisations and many other voluntary organisations, I know that there is widespread recognition of its significance and importance. I am sure that, when considering any change to any service, the Minister will be quite used to the expression—I think it is American—“If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” That phrase will surely be ringing in his ears when he considers what changes are appropriate to such an important service and the potentially detrimental impact if any decision is wrong. Those are the issues on which I seek reassurances from him today.

The 771 Squadron at Culdrose provides two Sea King Mk 5 aircraft, which are primarily located on site, although sometimes the aircraft on duty can be taken up to five hours’ flying time away from the base. A back-up aircraft is therefore needed. In providing the important search and rescue service—going as far out as 200 miles off the west coast of Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly, as mentioned in the written answer that I quoted—the squadron needs a greater capacity than one aircraft with a back-up.

As the Minister is also aware, the service fulfils an important maritime anti-terrorism function, to which he referred in his letter to me on 26 May this year:

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Both he and the Minister of State, Department for Transport, have written to me about the new opportunity to bring the service together, but I am concerned, as I am sure many others are, about the possible break-up of the service and the potential for it to be salami-sliced, instead of brought together as a more harmonised service. If the maritime counter-terrorism role is taken away from the search and rescue capability, that is another service that the Ministry of Defence will need to consider how best to provide.

In my area, as I believe in many others, the search and rescue service also doubles up as the night-time air ambulance. The air ambulance in my constituency, which is very much appreciated and is supported largely through voluntary contributions from the local community, can fly only during daylight hours. The service can be provided out of hours because 771 Squadron backs it up, providing an excellent service itself.

The search and rescue service also provides a medevac service. For example, my constituents on the Isles of Scilly are 30 miles out to the sea and cannot get to the main acute hospital at Treliske, in Truro, very quickly. They are sometimes evacuated from the isles when there is an emergency and that service is very much appreciated. The search and rescue service also provides other medevac services in other situations and a casevac service—in other words, a service for casualties, for instance in road traffic accidents. Where the air ambulance cannot get in, the 771 Squadron search and rescue service will come in and provide an important service.

The search and rescue service also provides important support in major incidents, with its standby helicopter and its back-up helicopter. However, if there were a major incident, more helicopters would be required than those two. For instance, on 16 August 2004 there was catastrophically heavy rainfall in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Rogerson), particularly in the Boscastle area. Many people know the name of Boscastle because it has been etched on their memories from that day, when 50 or more cars were washed away from the village and out to sea. Many buildings were also washed away, because of the torrential rain and flooding that hit the village. Some 91 people were saved by the helicopter services, with three helicopters from RAF Culdrose and three from RAF Chivenor. If we simply have a search and rescue service but we do not have the capability, training and back-up of the military service, we will not have the capacity to provide that level of flexibility and respond to such catastrophic major incidents, for which we clearly need to ensure that the service is available.

There are other important dimensions to the service. The significance of the training for military pilots, crew and divers is often overlooked. Surely it is better for them to have real-life experience, rather than simulation exercises. If pilots, crew and divers are to be engaged in combat situations or combat search and rescue, it is surely far better for them to have had the opportunity of experiencing those real-life situations rather than—I should like the Minister to clarify how firm the Government’s plans are on this—finding themselves taken away from the many civilian situations to which they are currently scrambled.

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There is also the question of the tests necessary for the capability of future aircraft. In a letter of 15 June 2005, written in answer to questions from me, the Minister said:

The problem, however, as I indicated in a letter to which the Minister replied on 1 June, is that all the evidence seems to suggest the Merlins that have been brought into base to replace the Sea Kings have neither the capability nor the flexibility to perform the search and rescue function, despite costing £104 million an airframe. The question remains: what aircraft will be used to perform those important functions, despite all the expense and investment going into the Merlin project?

The Sea Kings have been excellent workhorses, for the Royal Navy in particular, and they have been much appreciated at Culdrose since they were first brought into commission in the 1960s. They are being phased out in coming years, but the Ministry must surely consider what aircraft will replace them before it engages in such an exercise and considers the part privatisation of the service. How will those aircraft be provided and can we be sure that they will be sufficiently tested and proven capable of providing such a service?

I have mentioned combat search and rescue. I am sure that the Minister will also have reflected on the experience that civilian search and rescue can provide for personnel who are then engaged in combat search and rescue. My noble Friend Lord Garden tabled a written question about what plans the Government had for

Lord Drayson answered:

4.40 pm

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.

4.53 pm

On resuming—

Andrew George: During the break I found a quote from the Minister of State, Department for Transport, which I failed to lay my hands on earlier. The quote is from a letter dated 5 June 2006, in which he responds to a letter of mine. He says:

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He goes on to say something that has been repeated in a number of responses and statements from both the Department for Transport and the Ministry of Defence: that the new service will

Certain questions arise from this type of situation. In his letter to me of 15 June 2005, the Minister now present said that in incidents such as that at Boscastle, which I mentioned earlier,

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