Previous Section Index Home Page

Margaret Beckett: I appreciate the hon. Gentleman paying tribute to my hon. Friend the Minister for the Middle East, because he did extremely well on Monday. Of course, the views and concerns he expressed remain the view of the Government. I will go further and say to the hon. Gentleman what I have said in several forums, including to representatives of the Government of Israel, that it seems that, apart from in very few quarters, there is a really widespread recognition and acceptance that these particular events—and their scale, with regard to Lebanon especially—were precipitated by a wanton act of destruction by Hezbollah. It is a very unusual position for Israel to be in for almost everybody to say that there was no excuse for Hezbollah’s action and it made an
20 July 2006 : Column 515
already bad situation worse. That offers the Government and the people of Israel a window of opportunity to make their case about the nature and scale of the attack and the undermining that they are facing. In the many conversations that I have had with representatives of that Government, I have made the point that Israel could close that window of opportunity, which would be a pity.

Several hon. Members rose—

Margaret Beckett: If colleagues will forgive me, I had better progress a little further.

We should also take forward the G8 proposal for the United Nations Secretary-General to develop a plan to implement in full Security Council resolution 1559. The core of any such plan would be to enable the Lebanese Government and their armed forces to establish their authority throughout the country, in particular in the south. Such a plan is likely to require a different sort of international military presence from the present UN force, UNIFIL, to give direct support to the Lebanese army and to help with the disarming of militias, including Hezbollah.

So our goals are twofold: the earliest possible end to hostilities, including the release of the kidnapped soldiers in Gaza and Lebanon, and a process that will enable the Lebanese Government and their armed forces to take full control of the country, with international monitors. Long-term stability will be possible only if Syria and Iran end their interference in Lebanese internal affairs in accordance with UN Security Council resolutions 1559 and 1680.

Mr. John Redwood (Wokingham) (Con): I am grateful to the Secretary of State; she is giving a measured response in her speech. What offer of hope can she give today to the thousands of British people and their families—and those for whom we are responsible—who are caught up in the war zone and would like to leave immediately? They need a message of hope and reassurance that they will be looked after, even though that is a very big task.

Margaret Beckett: I never suspected the right hon. Gentleman of having psychic powers, but that is exactly the point to which I was about to turn. However, before I do, I shall give way to a few more Members.

John Hemming (Birmingham, Yardley) (LD): I thank the Secretary of State for her comments in respect of what the Government wish to see. Why would they not wish to see a ceasefire without the return of the soldiers?

Margaret Beckett: Everyone wants to see a cessation of violence as soon as possible. Many of the other routes that one could urge—the international community is urging them, and exploring and trying to develop them, and looking at the detail—will take time. It will be complicated and difficult to work them out and to pursue them. Releasing kidnapped soldiers is not difficult at all, and takes no time at all.

Mr. Jim Cunningham (Coventry, South) (Lab): I am sure that my right hon. Friend is aware that there is
20 July 2006 : Column 516
public concern. Many people do not understand that we have a weak Lebanese Government that everyone is trying to support, but at the same time it seems that Israel has gone over the top and is destroying that Government. Therefore, what is happening could be counterproductive, no matter how many resolutions we have.

Margaret Beckett: My hon. Friend is entirely right that one of the concerns that is felt throughout the international community—in Israel, too, I believe—is that no one wishes the Lebanese Government to be undermined, and everyone recognises the importance of the continuation of a democratic Government in Lebanon, not least in the interests of Israel itself. The Government share the concern that my hon. Friend expresses; it is one of the anxieties in our mind.

Mr. Neil Gerrard (Walthamstow) (Lab): If we are asking the Lebanese Government to implement UN Security Council resolution 1559 and we expect them to do things that the UN Security Council has asked, should we not make equivalent demands on the Government of Israel, who have ignored Security Council resolutions for years? If we are trying to have a balanced approach to this problem, it is false to equate the actions of an organisation such as Hezbollah with those of a state; one expects completely different standards of behaviour from a state that is a member of the United Nations.

Margaret Beckett: I can only say to my hon. Friend that when I looked at the part of my speech that refers to United Nations resolutions, I knew that someone would get up and mention 20 others that various sides are in breach of. Of course I understand the concern that my hon. Friend has expressed; it is a point of view that I have heard expressed often in this House. However, I say to him, with the greatest respect, that one of the reasons I stated at the outset of my speech that I proposed to try to curtail my remarks to the immediate context of the events we are discussing is that I am aware—I do not say this as any kind of criticism—of how deep-seated is the history of all such events. I know that many angers and anxieties have been expressed, and that various resolutions have and have not been observed. We could go on for weeks considering these issues, but at the moment, there is one of the worst and most dangerous crises in the middle east that we have seen for a very long time. That is why I am trying to concentrate on what might be done to ease that specific facet of what I totally accept is a complex and difficult problem.

Several hon. Members rose—

Margaret Beckett: I am sorry but I must move on.

The right hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood) asked about British families and of course, many thousands of British nationals and their families have been directly affected by the violence in Lebanon. Embassy and consular staff have been working flat out to organise the evacuation of those British nationals who want to leave Lebanon—that, of course, is not all of them—as quickly and as safely as possible. A Foreign Office rapid deployment team flew out to Beirut last Saturday, and another is in Cyprus
20 July 2006 : Column 517
helping to support British nationals arriving there. There are 73 additional staff on the ground in Cyprus and in Beirut, and that number will rise to 109 by Thursday. The majority of the staff are from the Foreign Office, but they also include immigration officers, members of the Red Cross and medical personnel.

Andrew Miller (Ellesmere Port and Neston) (Lab): To give some hope to the thousands of families who are worried, I point out that the Foreign Office has been fantastic in providing information to a constituent of mine—I am pleased to say that he boarded a ship this morning—and his family. The accuracy of that information, which was provided in the most difficult circumstances, was of the highest level. This House should put on the record our thanks to the staff on the ground and to the Ministry of Defence for the work that they have done, which has given real hope to families such as those whom the right hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood) mentioned, who are understandably very concerned about their loved ones.

Margaret Beckett: As my hon. Friend and the whole House will know, we normally hear only from those who feel that public servants have failed them—that is perfectly understandable; I do not point this out as a criticism—so I am genuinely extremely grateful to him for that intervention. I know that what he says is true, and that his comments will be much appreciated by those who have volunteered to engage in this work.

Patrick Mercer (Newark) (Con): Will the Foreign Secretary give way?

Margaret Beckett: If I may, I shall make a little progress first.

Sixty-three of the most vulnerable British nationals were evacuated on Monday 17 July and a further 175 people were evacuated by HMS Gloucester on Tuesday. Yesterday, a further 863 people left on HMS York and HMS Gloucester, but today we hope to evacuate even larger numbers. HMS Bulwark, which was expected to dock in Beirut this morning, can take up to 2,000 people, and we have other ships standing by. Our teams in Cyprus have arranged for those who wish to continue back to the United Kingdom to fly home, and where necessary we have chartered special aircraft to do that. We are co-ordinating closely across government to support those who arrive back in the United Kingdom.

We are also aware that approximately 100 British nationals and British dual nationals are still in south Lebanon. We are in touch with some of them and are trying to contact others, but at the moment it is too dangerous to travel south to try to get them out. A United Nations ferry has been allowed into Tyre and has picked up many foreign nationals; we are urgently seeking to confirm how many of them are British nationals. Ten British nationals left Sidon yesterday in a bus convoy and should be evacuated to Cyprus today. We are working with our EU partners to get all EU nationals who want to leave out of south Lebanon as quickly and safely as possible.

20 July 2006 : Column 518

Several hon. Members rose—

Margaret Beckett: I give way first to the hon. Member for Newark (Patrick Mercer).

Patrick Mercer: I am most grateful to the Foreign Secretary for giving way. She will have seen in the recent Intelligence and Security Committee report that one of its priorities is Iranian-backed terrorism. She will have also seen yesterday’s comment by Hezbollah that it is preparing to unleash its forces in America and Europe. What is the Foreign Secretary’s view of Iranian-backed terrorism inside this country?

Margaret Beckett: As the hon. Gentleman says, there are indeed concerns about the scale and nature of terrorism in this country, and about whether some of that is inspired or funded in any way by forces in and around Iran. He will know that that issue has also been a concern for our operations in, for example, Iraq. All I can say to the hon. Gentleman is that our security services and police are doing everything possible to monitor such flows of information and to ensure that we keep British people as safe as we reasonably can.

Ann Clwyd (Cynon Valley) (Lab): I remind my right hon. Friend that other people want to go in the other direction. Earlier today, we met a senior Lebanese Member of Parliament who is very active with the Lebanese-British Friendship Society but who cannot return home because the conflict means that there is no airport for him to fly into. His perception is that Israel has been given a free hand to destroy Lebanon. I consider that to be a very serious accusation indeed, and he also described the very bad humanitarian situation that has developed already. Why cannot this House—today and with no preconditions—call for a ceasefire on all sides?

Margaret Beckett: I am very sorry to learn about the concerns that my right hon. Friend has expressed, and entirely take her point that some people are trapped in this country rather than in Lebanon. I take very seriously what she says about the concern expressed by the gentleman to whom she referred, and I completely understand why he should make the observations that she has reported, given his perspective on the situation and what he is seeing and hearing in this country. I can only repeat what I said earlier—that the Government have no wish or desire for the events in Lebanon to continue for a second longer than is necessary, but that the people with the simplest levers in their hands are those who hold the kidnapped soldiers.

Tony Lloyd (Manchester, Central) (Lab): Has there been any discussion with the Israeli authorities about what they can do to give proper guarantees that British nationals, and members of the international community more generally, will not come under Israeli fire during this very difficult withdrawal period?

Margaret Beckett: My hon. Friend is right to draw attention to how we are trying to ensure people’s safety, but there are all sorts of different problems. One is how safety is affected when the bombs and bullets are flying, but there are other, more mundane difficulties. For example, the vessels that we are sending are the
20 July 2006 : Column 519
right ones for the job—and it has been a source of great reassurance for many to be told that the Royal Navy was on its way to collect them—but by their very nature they are high-sided vessels. That is just one of the considerations that we must take into account, but I assure him that the concerns that he raises have for many days been part of the dialogue.

Several hon. Members rose—

Margaret Beckett: I apologise, but I shall not give way. I have been on my feet for half an hour already and am very mindful that many colleagues wish to speak in the debate.

The evacuation is a massive operation. To remove thousands of civilians by sea from a country that is under naval blockade and subject to aerial bombardment is a difficult and complex task. As my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Central (Tony Lloyd) just indicated, the safety of British nationals has been our paramount concern throughout.

It has never been simply a question of asking people to turn up at the docks and wait for a ship. Indeed, it would obviously be irresponsible to move large numbers of people around Beirut if, by so doing so, we put them in greater danger. That is why we have conducted this evacuation in phases, each carefully planned and co-ordinated with countries in the region and with our international partners. The whole House will join me in paying tribute again to staff from my Department, to the armed forces and to all the others who are working so hard to make the operation run smoothly.

I know that the House is likely to concentrate in the debate on the immediate crisis, but I ought to take this opportunity to report on a further difficult issue that engages the Government—Iran’s pursuit of nuclear technology.

On 8 May in New York, the E3 plus 3 decided to prepare a full and comprehensive set of proposals that would support Iran’s declared desire for modern civil nuclear power, while also addressing international concerns. We all believed that, in its own interests and those of the wider international community, Iran should heed the repeated calls from the International Atomic Energy Agency’s board of governors for a suspension of activities related to uranium enrichment and reprocessing, and come to the negotiating table to find a diplomatic solution.

That extended package of proposals was finalised in Vienna on 1 June and presented by the EU high representative, Javier Solana, in Tehran a few days later. He conveyed the agreed view of the E3 plus 3 that we would endeavour speedily to address any queries or concerns and hoped for an early response.

That was over six weeks ago. Iranian Government members have repeatedly told the news media that there are ambiguities in the proposals or that they raise questions that will need to be answered. A large number of attempts were made to arrange meetings at which any questions and ambiguities could be addressed, but those proposed meetings were rejected, including the cancelling of a proposed meeting on 5 July at the last minute and, apparently, for no good reason.

20 July 2006 : Column 520

Finally, a meeting was arranged for 11 July. The Iranian negotiator, Ali Larijani, met Javier Solana and E3 and Russian officials. However, he raised no issues of substance and said that he was unable either to give a response to our proposals or even to indicate when Iran may be able to do so.

The E3 plus 3 concluded that we had no option but to return to the Security Council to resume the work on a Security Council resolution, which was suspended two and a half months ago. Our proposals remain on the table and we continue to encourage the Iranians to take the positive path on offer. Should Iran decide to do so and to take the steps required by the IAEA board, we would be prepared to suspend activity in the Security Council.

Mr. Ben Wallace (Lancaster and Wyre) (Con): One of the reasons that Hezbollah is much more potent and that Iran represents a significant threat is that the Chinese Government have been consistently assisting the guidance of their missiles, including the one that hit the Israeli cruiser last week. Iran has appointed an ambassador to the UK in the past two weeks. Has the Foreign Secretary called him, since his arrival, or indeed the Chinese ambassador, to her office to press on them the fact that third-party support for the nuclear programme and Hezbollah is not acceptable?

Margaret Beckett: First, I am not sure whether the Iranian ambassador has arrived yet— [Interruption.] If he has, I have not been aware of that. We have continued discussions with the Chinese Government. I know that there are things that we do that China will be concerned about and vice versa, but, at the present time, there is a great deal of united concern in the Security Council about the position with regard to Iranian work on nuclear activity. There is a great wish to work together to resolve some of these difficulties, as we did last week in reaching a united conclusion about events in North Korea. That has to be, at this moment in time, the focus of our activity and relationship.

Richard Burden (Birmingham, Northfield) (Lab): Will my right hon. Friend give way?

Margaret Beckett: I am sorry, but I must finish.

The current crisis in the middle east and the ongoing negotiations with Iran provide the international community with huge and pressing security challenges, but, of course, we face other such challenges in that region and across the globe. The Government remain committed to working with our partners across the broad agenda of international concerns.

In Afghanistan, we are helping the Afghan Government to extend the rule of law across their country. In Iraq, we are giving our full support to the people and to their elected Government as they struggle to build a better future in the face of terrible violence. In Darfur, we are leading calls for the deployment of a UN force and we are supporting the African Union force. On Tuesday, we confirmed that we would provide the African Union with a further £20 million. As I mentioned earlier, the Security Council has taken firm and unanimous action on North Korea in response to its testing of long-range missiles.

Next Section Index Home Page