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11 Oct 2006 : Column 89WH—continued


11 Oct 2006 : Column 90WH

As we have said in previous debates, the problem for Israel was that, sadly, the Israeli military got it wrong. As always, what airpower can deliver was overestimated: everyone a coconut; no collateral damage. Many Israelis, both civilians and those in the military, would recognise that one of Israel’s problems in dealing with Hezbollah—its rocket attacks and hiding among civilians—was that the very nature of its strategy meant that there would be collateral damage, to use that awful expression, and that large numbers of civilians would be killed. That was equally unacceptable, including to many Israelis.

A number of hon. Members talked about Hamas and Fatah. We are restrained on this issue. Whatever the problems with Israel and its negotiating strategy with its Arab neighbours, the Arabs have been utterly incompetent in coming up with any strategy, tactic or negotiating position that would, given that they are in the majority surrounding Israel, persuade the Israelis to come to any form of negotiation.

Dr. Starkey: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Simpson: No; I hope that the hon. Lady will forgive me, but I have only a couple of minutes left.

Fatah and Hamas have been at each other’s throats and have killed each other’s people. Time and time again, Fatah, certainly, has failed to take the opportunities it was given by the international community.

Syria and Iran have played an inflammatory role, to say the least, in the situation in the middle east in the past few years. Iran is now in a position almost like—I hate to use historical analogies, but I shall use one here—revolutionary France in the 1790s. We should bear in mind what happened there with the ancien régime countries that surrounded Iran and the kind of revolutionary export that took place.

I turn to Iran. I should be grateful if the Minister would give his thoughts on the fact that many people are beginning to think that there is an almost inevitability to Iran acquiring nuclear weapons. The Iranians are playing for time, and the United Nations Security Council seems unable to produce any form of sanctions that are likely to persuade them not to acquire them. Russia and China are, to say the least, equivocal. We face a similar problem in trying to restrain and constrain North Korea on the other side of the globe.

It is impossible to disentangle the situation between Israel, the Palestinians and Lebanon from those in Iraq and Iran. I would like to think that, having sat through the summer, the Government now have a strategic path to deal with these interconnecting problems, because, as many hon. Members have said, they lead directly back here. It is in no way acceptable that British citizens should believe that the activities of the British Government and their foreign policy, even if one fundamentally disagrees with them, give one the right to commit atrocities in this country or abroad. There are other ways of doing things. Many of us have deep disagreements, and other minority groups in the UK have held such views.

Finally, the Minister may not agree, but it is unfortunate—I am again being careful with my words
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here—that in a time in which the situation in the middle east appears to be deteriorating, the Prime Minister has for some time given the impression that he intends to stand down. There is a hiatus, and if one goes to the middle east and talks to people there, one will find that they are aware of it. There is an uncertainty about who is to succeed as Prime Minister. The ongoing hustings—I put it no stronger than that—within the party in government, such as the revelations in diaries and elsewhere, do not help to resolve a deteriorating situation in which there appears to be no overarching strategy from the British Government.

10.48 am

The Minister for the Middle East (Dr. Kim Howells): I, too, thank the hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Turner) for initiating this debate. I say to my friend, the hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk (Mr. Simpson), that if I could stymie the literary ambitions of my colleagues, I would be doing a great service to everyone. [Laughter.]

Mr. Keith Simpson: Do you keep a diary?

Dr. Howells: I do not have time to keep a diary, but I should have done.

I have enjoyed this morning’s debate. This issue has certainly generated passion, as the hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk said, as it has in every such debate that I have been to. I know that hon. Friends of mine who contribute regularly to such debates, such as my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes, South-West (Dr. Starkey), would have liked to speak in this debate.

We quite properly have many debates on the middle east, although perhaps not enough, in some people’s opinion. The issue is certainly a key concern for the Government, and much of our energy is devoted to gaining visible evidence of some progress in achieving a stable, secure and prosperous region. We have heard this morning that that is in the interests of everyone, not just those who live in the region, because of the centrality to the issue of world peace of the middle east conflict.

We have heard some interesting contributions this morning. The debate must centre itself on certain assumptions. The one that I hold is that, in different ways, we must arrive at a situation where there are two viable states alongside each other—the Palestinian state and the Israeli state—both of which can live in peace and prosperity. I am unsure whether all hon. Members present agree with me; I know that some believe that that can never be achieved, and that there must be another arrangement in that area that would allow some other political entity to be created. I do not agree with that. During the past 60 years we have examined many ideas about what could evolve in that area, but I cannot see a better target than the one that we have at present, to which the road map is designed to try to allow us to get somewhere close. We must keep that in mind.

We are working to support the emergence of a dynamic region at peace with itself and its neighbours. Our policy focuses on creating the conditions necessary for stability and security. It tackles the obstacles
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preventing progress, and promotes the opportunities and freedoms that are universally agreed and which we enjoy in the UK. We want the youth of the region to grow up with optimism in environments that reflect international standards of governance and the rule of law, where they can express freely their opinions, be free from repression and terror, obtain a good education, have the prospect of meaningful employment, and benefit from globalisation. The significant amount of humanitarian and development assistance that we provide to the people of the region is helping to achieve those objectives, but it is not doing so quickly enough.

I have said before that I fear the consequences of another generation of children in Gaza not receiving an adequate education. I have seen for myself in many countries the effect of an entire generation of young people receiving virtually no education. I am thinking of some of the appalling madrassahs that I have visited in many countries in the eastern part of what is rather frivolously called the “middle east”. We began by mentioning Afghanistan, and as a child at Mountain Ash grammar school I would have been surprised if I had heard Afghanistan described as part of the middle east; it might have been described as being in south or central Asia. I think that we still have a rather imperialist attitude in the way in which we use these terms. I have seen the effects there of a lack of education and a complete lack of health care, and we must address ourselves to such things.

Barbara Keeley (Worsley) (Lab): The Minister mentions children. Will he discuss with the Minister for Women and Equality the discussions that she had in Helsinki last week on women’s rights, the protection of women and children in the region of the conflict, and, in particular, support for the international women’s commission?

Dr. Howells: That is an enormously important issue. I was in Nepal last week, where I saw the effects that a small literacy and health care project that the embassy is running had on women’s lives in a little village. The situation was extraordinary: people were speaking up with confidence about how they could alter their lives. I want to say something about that because it is so important. These are the goals that terrorists and extremists fear; they do not want people liberated in that way or for people to feel that they can speak with openness, freedom and impunity about matters that affect them so much. That is why terrorists want to provoke instability and why our objective of creating the conditions for lasting stability is such a threat to them.

Dr. Starkey: Will the Minister address how our current policies and those of the international community towards Gaza—the cutting off of aid, the colluding with the Israeli siege of Gaza, which has led to a total breakdown of law and order and a humanitarian crisis to which the UN is drawing our attention—are contributing to stability?

Dr. Howells: That is a good rhetorical question and I am sure that my hon. Friend knows what answer I shall give: we very much believe that the Palestinian people must be aided in all kinds of ways. Per head of population they have probably received more aid than any other
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country that we assist in the entire world, and we are the second largest contributors to the Palestinian people. I must also draw her attention to points that have been made by the hon. Members for Hertsmere (Mr. Clappison) and for Ilford, North (Mr. Scott), and others. I could not commit a Government to giving money to a regime that has, and will in the future, give that money to suicide bombers to attack and murder innocent people in another country—that is no way for a democratic Government to behave. We need to find a settlement in the middle east.

I remember recently, being in Ramallah and meeting Abu Mazen and his Cabinet in the middle of the night. They want a Government of national unity and I believe that they can achieve one, but they will not do so, and they will not achieve a dialogue with Israel, if the Israelis believe that all that will result from a relaxation of the situation is more suicide bombers.

Jeremy Corbyn: In that context, does the Minister not think that one should at least respect the electoral wishes of the people of Palestine and condemn Israel’s arrest of elected Members of the Palestinian Parliament and Ministers in that Government?

Dr. Howells: I agree entirely with my hon. Friend. I do not think that Members of Parliament should be arrested and held. We are not entirely free of a history of parliamentarians being involved in nefarious activities, so I would not like to see them being above the law, but I do not think it sends out good messages when elected Members of Parliament are arrested.

In the few moments that I have left I should say that I was taken with some of the comments made by the hon. Member for Reigate (Mr. Blunt). I was glad to hear that he had been to Syria and had discussions with its Deputy Prime Minister—


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Mr. Blunt: Mr. al-Dardari.

Dr. Howells: I hope that Syria realises that its future does not lie with the present regime in Iran, which is not a popular regime inside Iran. It is involved in some pretty despicable activities, of which the arming of Hezbollah is just one. I am glad to hear the hon. Gentleman say that Syria is examining its position carefully, as it should be doing so. It is a difficult position and has always been so. Part of the reason for all of these disputes is probably a weekend in Cairo in 1921 when Winston Churchill, along with his so-called “experts”, drew up the borders in the first place, but we have to live with that.

I have many friends back home in Wales, here in London and in all parts of the country who disagree profoundly and fundamentally with the Government’s foreign policy. Throughout my life, I have many times disagreed with the foreign policy that has been followed by our Government, but I do not strap explosives to my chest, go to the underground and murder 52 people. There can be no rationalisation for doing such a thing and to suggest one is nonsense. We cannot live with the idea that where someone feels passionately about something, they can have some kind of religious compunction to go out to murder people, whether on the streets of Kabul, Haifa, Karachi, Mumbai, Buenos Aires or Istanbul. We are a democratic society. It has taken many long, hard years of struggle to create the democratic institutions that we have in this country. The idea that we should back down and say, “They are very passionate about this, therefore they should be allowed to murder other people” is completely beyond me and we should resist it—

Mr. Mike Weir (in the Chair): Order. I must bring this debate to an end.


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A419 and A417

11 am

Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cotswold) (Con): I thank you, Mr. Weir, and Mr. Speaker for allocating time for this debate. I also thank the Minister for being here this morning to respond to this debate.

The A419/417—which I shall rechristen the last missing link—and its road surfacing problems have been among the longest running and most contentious issues that I have encountered during my 14 years as Member of Parliament for Cotswold. I was present when John Watts, the then Transport Minister, opened the Brockworth bypass in 1994. At the time, I am sure that, as the Department had spent £150 million on dualling the rest of the road, there was every intention of completing that last missing link from Swindon to Gloucester. I secured this debate this morning to urge the Minister to rectify the situation and to finish the project that was started so many years ago.

I should add that part of the road is in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Tewkesbury (Mr. Robertson), and I am delighted to see him and my hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean (Mr. Harper) here today.

Let me explain why this road link is vital not only to my constituents but to Gloucestershire and the nation as a whole. It is vital on safety grounds because of environmental concerns in an area of outstanding natural beauty and because it is the main link from the M4 to the M5. It is also vital because businesses in Wiltshire and Gloucestershire rely on this connection to ensure our economic success, and Gloucestershire is the gateway to and from the south-west and the rest of the country.

Mr. Laurence Robertson (Tewkesbury) (Con): I congratulate my hon. Friend on raising this matter. Does he feel that it is all the more important to establish the road link because the train services to and from Gloucester and London are very poor?

Mr. Clifton-Brown: My hon. Friend’s intervention—I had no idea what he would raise, although I knew that he would intervene—is prescient because, as I shall explain, a largely sea-locked region of the south-west depends vitally on its transport links, which include rail and road. That is why the A417/419 link is so important. With the completion of the dual carriageway at Stratton St. Margaret, this is now the last stretch of single carriageway along the route. One can drive from Palermo in southern Italy to Perth in the middle of Scotland along unbroken dual carriageway with the exception of this three-mile stretch.

My parliamentary colleagues, Gloucestershire county council, and local communities, businesses and individuals have been vociferous in the search for a solution, and I believe that the A417/419 should be a national and not a regional priority. The issue highlights a deficiency of regional government and how a project such as this, based in a county on the periphery of three adjoining regions, can suffer disproportionately.


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Mr. Mark Harper (Forest of Dean) (Con): It is particularly important to my constituents because we are not only in Gloucestershire, which is on the edge of our region, but on the edge of Gloucestershire on the other side of the river. Completing this road link is extremely important for the economic prospects of my constituency. I wish my hon. Friend good luck and look forward to the Minister’s reply.

Mr. Clifton-Brown: A section of my speech will enhance what my hon. Friend said about this being the bottleneck to the south-west region, and he will hear how I make that case.

This section of the A4l7 has a poor safety record and suffers from severe congestion. Traffic volumes are approximately 28,000 to 31,000 vehicles a day, of which approximately 12 to 14 per cent. are heavy goods vehicles. It is not true to say that nothing has been done about the road. Three small local improvement schemes have been completed recently to improve safety at the Golden Hart public house, the Air Balloon roundabout and Birdlip junction. A number of additional small improvements are planned in the next few years. However, it must be recognised that a longer-term solution is required.

I know from both personal experience and my constituency mailbag that queues occur regularly at peak periods. Traffic on the steep hills at Nettleton and Crickley, which are partly in the Forest of Dean constituency, is slow moving, and heavy goods vehicles compound the queuing problems, particularly in inclement weather when HGVs break down on the hill, causing severe congestion. In some places the road standard is generally quite poor, with tight bends and narrow lanes. Vehicle shunts occur regularly at the Air Balloon roundabout and there are accident clusters at Nettleton Bottom, Birdlip, the Air Balloon roundabout and on Crickley hill. One HGV ploughed into the end wall of a rather nice pub, the Golden Hart at Nettleton Bottom. It demolished the wall and killed the driver. That is the sort of thing that occurs.

I contend that this is a nationally important scheme. Other road projects throughout the south-west—I am coming to the points made by my hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean—have gained priority over the A417 and A419, but the great majority of those under construction are deeply embedded in the south-west region: for example, the A30 at Merrymeet in Devon, the A30 Bodmin to Indian Queens dual carriageway in Cornwall, the Chiverton roundabout in Cornwall, major road resurfacing works on the A38 at Peartree in Devon or Cartuther to Liskeard in Cornwall.

The list continues. Those are deeply embedded schemes in the south-west and while I am sure they all have tremendous merit, the crucial point is that Gloucestershire and the A417 act as the gateway to the south-west. However, the Minister, the Department, the south-west regional bodies and the Highways Agency must consider how crucial are major projects at the very bottleneck of the region. If the bottleneck is not clear, however much infrastructure regeneration there is further down the line, there will always be constraint at the top of the bottle.


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