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17 July 2006 : Column 34

The hon. Gentleman is right to draw parallels with sectarian militias in Baghdad and other places; any democratic Government face a terrible dilemma over how far they can go to try to rope militias in, and for the Lebanese Government that will be a huge task. I hope that they will be helped by an international peacekeeping force with the teeth to do something about Hezbollah.

Mr. Iain Wright (Hartlepool) (Lab): Following on directly from those comments, I draw the Minister’s attention to a parliamentary answer that he gave in March, in which he mentioned the British Government’s support for Lebanese political, economic and security reform, which I welcome. Is not the influence of Hezbollah in Lebanon a major destabilising force? As the right hon. and learned Member for Kensington and Chelsea (Sir Malcolm Rifkind) said, it is the principal reason for the escalation in violence during the last 10 days or so. Further to the Minister’s statement, what work will he do to ensure that the Lebanese Government and others undermine, weaken and ostracise Hezbollah within Lebanon?

Dr. Howells: My hon. Friend is quite right: Hezbollah is the major destabilising influence. He will know that there were many hopes that Hezbollah would recognise that it would have a good deal of democratic support if it converted itself into a strictly democratic, legal party. It has had MPs elected and has at least one Minister in the Government, and one would have hoped that would be enough for it. It was not enough, and Hezbollah simply could not ditch the habits of a lifetime of forming militias, killing people and targeting innocent civilians. That means, of course, that it has a hand in destabilising Lebanon as well as relationships between Lebanon and Israel. We all have to work to counteract that influence, because it is pernicious.

Mr. James Arbuthnot (North-East Hampshire) (Con): The Minister’s statement has been extremely balanced, as have his answers, for which I am very grateful. Does he agree that the calls on Israel to show restraint are recognised by Israel, which has shown enormous restraint over many months of having rockets fired into its territory? Three Israeli soldiers are still being held hostage: what is Israel meant to do about those soldiers? Is it meant to negotiate? If it does, will not that simply encourage more hostage-taking?

Dr. Howells: That is a real dilemma, and we know about that dilemma from our experience in Iraq. What do a Government do? Do they start to play the game of hostage-taking and prisoner swaps and so on? There may be a mutually agreed solution down that path, but I cannot see it myself right now, and I think that the right hon. Gentleman is quite right to say that we have to urge restraint on all sides. It is difficult to urge restraint, however, on an organisation which, at its heart, has the aim of the destruction of a country. It is not easy to do.

Mr. David S. Borrow (South Ribble) (Lab): There have been reports over the weekend that longer-range missiles used by Hezbollah have been supplied either by
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Syria or Iran. Is that the case? If it is, does my hon. Friend recognise that from an Israeli point of view it is one thing to be attacked by a terrorist organisation but to be attacked by two sovereign states in the region could provoke a completely different reaction, which poses grave danger to the whole middle east?

Dr. Howells: We certainly recognise from our experiences in Basra that countries outside Iraq, Lebanon, Israel and Palestine are prepared to lend and give their technology to the destruction of those whom they perceive to be their enemies. I do not want to inflame the situation further, but somebody is giving some very sophisticated missiles to some very unscrupulous people. In the end, that will do no good to Iran and Syria, any more that it will do Lebanon or the Palestinian people any good. We have to do what we can to stop that flow of weapons and try to persuade people that in the end they will kill innocent people and any hopes of peace in the future.

Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East) (Con): Given that Hezbollah would probably not have been able to proceed in the kidnapping and killing of Israeli soldiers without the green light from Iran, have Ministers considered the possibility that Iran may have given that permission with a view to diverting the world’s attention from the crisis over its own nuclear programme? What guarantees can the Government give the House that they will not allow themselves to be diverted in that way?

Dr. Howells: We will certainly not be diverted from our examination of the Iranian nuclear programme. We are good members of the International Atomic Energy Agency and support entirely the UN’s approach. We are absolutely determined to do what we can to stop the proliferation of nuclear weapons, whether in the middle east or anywhere else.

Mr. Russell Brown (Dumfries and Galloway) (Lab): Yesterday evening, I spoke with the mother and grandfather of a young man who is trapped in north Beirut. Their anxiety for his well-being is compounded by the fact that he apparently cannot make contact with our embassy and that they believe that other foreign nationals can be evacuated from Lebanon. Can my hon. Friend spell out the exact status of our embassy? Is it actually open, and are other countries having the same difficulties in evacuating their countrymen?

Dr. Howells: I can assure my hon. Friend that our embassy is not only open but has been working flat out throughout the crisis. If he wants to approach me afterwards, I will certainly go through the situation in detail. Like many Members, I have experienced a number
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of crises across the world and I have rarely seen a set of our representatives—our diplomats abroad—work harder than those in the embassy in Beirut. I hope that my hon. Friend realises the scale of the problem; it is absolutely enormous and is taking place when missiles and aircraft are flying around and bombs are going off. Our diplomats are carrying out a very brave act and doing it very well, and I do not think that anybody is further advanced than us in getting our people out, but it will take a lot of organising. The last thing we want to do is to put our people in danger by persuading them to leave places where they are relatively safe. We cannot do that, which is why we have to negotiate carefully to make sure that our ships and buses are safe and that they will not be targeted and blown up—whether by Hezbollah or the Israelis. Our primary task is to make sure that our people are safe and that is what we are focusing on at the moment.

Mr. Douglas Hogg (Sleaford and North Hykeham) (Con): Will the hon. Gentleman impress on his Israeli interlocutors the fact that many of us who are friends of Israel believe that the action being undertaken by the Israeli Government is disproportionate and not compatible with the standards that we expect of a civilised Government? Furthermore, it is not likely to enhance their long-term security and will damage their reputation in the eyes of the world.

Dr. Howells: The right hon. and learned Gentleman is right to raise this issue. I have tried to make it clear to the House that we expect proportionate action, not disproportionate action. I agree entirely with him: disproportionate action, where it takes place, will do nothing other than cause greater resentment and probably greater opposition to the cause of Israel.

Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North) (Lab): Everyone who has spoken in the House today has quite rightly condemned all the violence in the region and all the killing that is going on. The Minister himself has acknowledged that Israel’s actions in Lebanon are disproportionate and illegal, and are killing a large number of civilians. In view of Israel’s illegal activity, is he prepared to propose any kind of sanction against Israel, such as suspension of the EU trade agreement, which has within it a requirement in relation to human rights law and international law being adhered to? Will he also say the same to the United States? It has it within its power to put real pressure on Israel to cease this illegal activity.

Dr. Howells: No, this is not the time to start dusting off theories that I have heard over the past 30 years about how we can sort this problem out. We have to try to bring a cessation to the immediate violence and try to make people safe. Let us start negotiations from there.

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Points of Order

4.31 pm

Mr. David Gauke (South-West Hertfordshire) (Con): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. You will remember that, nearly two weeks ago, I raised a point of order with you about an unanswered question from the Home Office. That unanswered question related to the number of unanswered questions from the Home Office. It was a named day question, the date in question being 5 June. I received a response that the Home Office would answer as soon as possible —[ Interruption. ]

Mr. Speaker: Order. May I say to the hon. Member for Milton Keynes, South-West (Dr. Starkey) that I am trying to listen to a point of order? It is a distraction when she speaks so loudly.

Mr. Gauke: Thank you, Mr. Speaker. As I was saying, the holding answer said that an answer would come as soon as possible. That was on 5 June. I raised a point of order with you exactly a month later about whether an answer would be forthcoming. I would be grateful to know whether there has been any progress on this matter, given that the recess is looming.

Mr. Speaker: I thank the hon. Gentleman for raising the point of order. I was getting a bit worried myself, in case I got a holding reply—but I can inform him that the good news is that since I came into the Chamber, an answer has arrived. As soon as I leave here, I will read the answer and I will share it with him. I hope that that is helpful to him.

Simon Hughes (North Southwark and Bermondsey) (LD): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. You have been very clear in the past about the duty of Government not to release information publicly before it has appropriately come to the House. I have not given you prior notice of what I am going to say, so I apologise, because you may want to reflect on this. You could reflect on whether you could issue the same sort of warning to agencies of Government. The particular case that I have in mind occurred today. The Crown Prosecution Service’s Director
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of Public Prosecutions was due to make an important announcement at 12 o’clock about the prosecution or otherwise of police officers in relation to the shooting at Stockwell, but it was clear that there had been a leak of his intended announcement beforehand. I wonder whether you could take the time to reflect on that. If you were able to help the House by making sure that that sort of announcement was also protected—so that it could be made by the appropriate officer rather than announced in the press beforehand—that would be much appreciated.

Mr. Speaker: I sympathise with the hon. Gentleman, but my feeling is that the Crown Prosecution Service is an independent organisation, and operates in a different situation from that of a Minister of the Crown.

Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East) (Con): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Further to the point of order raised by my hon. Friend the Member for South-West Hertfordshire (Mr. Gauke) about ministerial non-answers, you will remember the advice that you gave me a few days ago in relation to a question that I had asked the Secretary of State for Defence. I asked whether he was informed by the Chancellor of the Exchequer about the Chancellor’s proposed announcement on the future of Trident before the Chancellor made his Mansion house speech. The answer was:

You advised that I should table another question. In pursuance of your advice, I did so, asking whether in the course of those regular discussions the Chancellor of the Exchequer had informed the Secretary of State for Defence of the content relating to the future of Trident in the Chancellor’s Mansion house speech before that speech was made. The reply was:

I wanted you to know the seriousness with which Ministers take your strictures on these matters.

Mr. Speaker: I knew that I was giving the hon. Gentleman good advice, but he must try and try again.

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Orders of the Day

Compensation Bill [ Lords]

As amended in the Standing Committee, considered.

New Clause 13

Mesothelioma: damages

‘(1) This section applies where—

(a) a person (“the responsible person”) has negligently or in breach of statutory duty caused or permitted another person (“the victim”) to be exposed to asbestos,

(b) the victim has contracted mesothelioma as a result of exposure to asbestos,

(c) because of the nature of mesothelioma and the state of medical science, it is not possible to determine with certainty whether it was the exposure mentioned in paragraph (a) or another exposure which caused the victim to become ill, and

(d) the responsible person is liable in tort, by virtue of the exposure mentioned in paragraph (a), in connection with damage caused to the victim by the disease (whether by reason of having materially increased a risk or for any other reason).

(2) The responsible person shall be liable—

(a) in respect of the whole of the damage caused to the victim by the disease (irrespective of whether the victim was also exposed to asbestos—

(i) other than by the responsible person, whether or not in circumstances in which another person has liability in tort, or

(ii) by the responsible person in circumstances in which he has no liability in tort), and

(b) jointly and severally with any other responsible person.

(3) Subsection (2) does not prevent—

(a) one responsible person from claiming a contribution from another, or

(b) a finding of contributory negligence.

(4) In determining the extent of contributions of different responsible persons in accordance with subsection (3)(a), a court shall have regard to the relative lengths of the periods of exposure for which each was responsible; but this subsection shall not apply—

(a) if or to the extent that responsible persons agree to apportion responsibility amongst themselves on some other basis, or

(b) if or to the extent that the court thinks that another basis for determining contributions is more appropriate in the circumstances of a particular case.

(5) In subsection (1) the reference to causing or permitting a person to be exposed to asbestos includes a reference to failing to protect a person from exposure to asbestos.

(6) In the application of this section to Scotland—

(a) a reference to tort shall be taken as a reference to delict, and

(b) a reference to a court shall be taken to include a reference to a jury.

(7) The Treasury may make regulations about the provision of compensation to a responsible person where—

(a) he claims, or would claim, a contribution from another responsible person in accordance with subsection (3)(a), but

(b) he is unable or likely to be unable to obtain the contribution, because an insurer of the other responsible person is unable or likely to be unable to satisfy the claim for a contribution.

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(8) The regulations may, in particular—

(a) replicate or apply (with or without modification) a provision of the Financial Services Compensation Scheme;

(b) replicate or apply (with or without modification) a transitional compensation provision;

(c) provide for a specified person to assess and pay compensation;

(d) provide for expenses incurred (including the payment of compensation) to be met out of levies collected in accordance with section 213(3)(b) of the Financial Services and Markets Act 2000 (c. 8) (the Financial Services Compensation Scheme);

(e) modify the effect of a transitional compensation provision;

(f) enable the Financial Services Authority to amend the Financial Services Compensation Scheme;

(g) modify the Financial Services and Markets Act 2000 in its application to an amendment pursuant to paragraph (f);

(h) make, or require the making of, provision for the making of a claim by a responsible person for compensation whether or not he has already satisfied claims in tort against him;

(i) make, or require the making of, provision which has effect in relation to claims for contributions made on or after the date on which this Act is passed.

(9) Provision made by virtue of subsection (8)(a) shall cease to have effect when the Financial Services Compensation Scheme is amended by the Financial Services Authority by virtue of subsection (8)(f).

(10) In subsections (7) and (8)—

(a) a reference to a responsible person includes a reference to an insurer of a responsible person, and

(b) “transitional compensation provision” means a provision of an enactment which is made under the Financial Services and Markets Act 2000 and—

(i) preserves the effect of the Policyholders Protection Act 1975 (c. 75), or

(ii) applies the Financial Services Compensation Scheme in relation to matters arising before its establishment.

(11) Regulations under subsection (7)—

(a) may include consequential or incidental provision,

(b) may make provision which has effect generally or only in relation to specified cases or circumstances,

(c) may make different provision for different cases or circumstances,

(d) shall be made by statutory instrument, and

(e) may not be made unless a draft has been laid before and approved by resolution of each House of Parliament.’.— [Bridget Prentice.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

4.34 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs (Bridget Prentice): I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

Mr. Speaker: With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:

New clause 6— Mesothelioma Compensation Board—

‘(1) The Secretary of State may by regulations establish a body known as the Mesothelioma Compensation Board.

(2) Regulations made under this section shall make provision as to the functions and powers of the Board.’.

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