Previous Section Index Home Page

22 Nov 2006 : Column 547

Point of Order

12.32 pm

Chris Ruane (Vale of Clwyd) (Lab): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker—

Mr. Speaker: Order. I think that I know what the point of order is. If the hon. Member for Clwyd, West (Mr. Jones) was misinformed, it was up to the Prime Minister to put him right, not the hon. Member for Vale of Clwyd (Chris Ruane).


Offender Management

Mr. Secretary Reid, supported by the Prime Minister, Mr. Secretary Prescott, Mr. Chancellor of the Exchequer, Secretary Margaret Beckett, Mr. Secretary Darling, Ms Secretary Hewitt and Mr. Gerry Sutcliffe, presented a Bill to make provision about the provision of probation services, prisons and other matters relating to the management of offenders; and for connected purposes: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time tomorrow, and to be printed. Explanatory notes to be printed [Bill 9].

22 Nov 2006 : Column 548

Orders of the Day

Debate on the Address

[Fourth Day]

Order read for resuming adjourned debate on Question [15 November],

Question again proposed.

Foreign Affairs and Defence

12.33 pm

The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Margaret Beckett): It seems generally accepted that the international environment in which our country finds itself is one of the most difficult and complex that it has seen for many a year. It is difficult because international challenges—global terrorism, nuclear proliferation, climate change, conflicts within and between states, illegal migration, rapid globalisation in some parts of the world and chronic underdevelopment in others—are increasing both in scale and severity. Their direct impact on Britain is increasing, too. Foreign policy is one of the most crucial means by which we can deliver on our domestic priorities. That international environment is complex, because its many different aspects are closely linked and are mutually reinforcing; they cannot each be dealt with in isolation, but must be tackled together.

Let me begin by setting out some of the most immediate and urgent challenges that we face. The Prime Minister has stated often that there is no more pressing diplomatic task for the country or the international community than to seek a peaceful resolution to the ongoing conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. If we can do so, it will benefit the entire region and remove a key source of global tension and division. That is why we are working closely with the European Union, the United States and regional partners, both to develop practical initiatives, such as strengthening Palestinian institutions and improving Palestinian security, and to restart the political process itself.

At the same time, we remain one of the world’s biggest donors to the Palestinian people; this year alone, despite our concerns about a Hamas Government in office, we have committed £30 million to the people of Palestine, and played a key role in developing the main international mechanism through which all donors can channel assistance while bypassing the Hamas-run Finance Ministry. We intend to contribute £12 million through that temporary mechanism.

Mr. James Arbuthnot (North-East Hampshire) (Con): What discussions has the Foreign Secretary been able to have, and with whom, to urge the return to Israel of the kidnapped soldiers?

22 Nov 2006 : Column 549

Margaret Beckett: There have been many discussions, with a variety of players; indeed, hardly a stone has been left unturned between states, organisations and anyone who may have influence and can exert it favourably. To be honest with the House, there have been many occasions when it has appeared that the soldiers’ release might be possible—even imminent—but every time that prospect has gone away. We continue to exert similar efforts.

Malcolm Bruce (Gordon) (LD): Does the Foreign Secretary acknowledge that although it is entirely understandable that Israel withheld the $55 million a month of revenues collected on behalf of the Palestinian Authority, and despite the increased aid through the temporary international mechanism, the reality is that public services in the Palestinian Authority are being starved of funds? Hospitals are closed, schools cannot function and day-to-day life is under severe threat. Is she confident that the viability of the Palestinian state can be maintained?

Margaret Beckett: First, I accept that the loss of revenues flowing to Palestine has left a huge gap in its budget and I accept, too, the right hon. Gentleman’s point about the importance of the health and education services. As I think he knows, that is why we made a priority of funding those issues through the temporary international mechanism. I accept entirely, however, that that cannot make up for the loss of revenues, which is why we have put so much emphasis on, and are so anxious for, the emergence of a new Government—a Government of national unity. That could be the key—with the release of Corporal Shalit and others, for example—to unlocking the flow of those revenues again. I can assure the right hon. Gentleman that we are discussing that issue with the Government of Israel and putting pressure on them to unlock that flow of revenues as soon as can be achieved.

Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North) (Lab): In the pressure that the Foreign Secretary is putting on Israel, what is she saying about the continued construction of the illegal wall in Palestinian land and the continuing settlement policy on the west bank?

Margaret Beckett: We have always maintained pressure and sought to convince our Israeli colleagues about the best way forward both for Israel and Palestine when discussing all the issues that my hon. Friend raises.

Daniel Kawczynski (Shrewsbury and Atcham) (Con) rose—

Dr. Phyllis Starkey (Milton Keynes, South-West) (Lab) rose—

Margaret Beckett: I shall give way once more and then I must make a little progress.

Dr. Starkey: Has my right hon. Friend also raised with the Israelis how the constant road blocks, the expropriation of land and allowing illegal Israeli settlers to continue to attack Palestinian farmers who are trying to harvest their crops is making the
22 Nov 2006 : Column 550
Palestinian economy even worse, and the fact that the British taxpayer will not be willing to subsidise for a long period the costs that the Israelis are imposing through their measures to deepen the occupation?

Margaret Beckett: Yes, we have made such points to the Government of Israel on many occasions and if the need arises we shall continue to do so.

I have spoken recently on the phone to President Abbas about the developing situation, and about our hopes and our offer of support to him in putting together a Government of national unity. Yesterday, in London, I met the Israeli Foreign Minister, Minister Livni. We had a constructive meeting and talked about the moves of the President to build a Government of national unity and about the prisoners held by both sides in the conflict. However, just as I stood up to leave that encouraging meeting, we received the tragic and shocking news of the assassination of Pierre Gemayel. I am sure that the whole House joins me in expressing our horror and dismay at that act, and our deepest sympathy to the family of Mr. Gemayel and to the people and Government of Lebanon. We welcome the UN Security Council’s unequivocal condemnation of his murder last night.

Sir Gerald Kaufman (Manchester, Gorton) (Lab): I join my right hon. Friend in condemning the assassination of Mr. Gemayel. However, can she explain the moral difference between that assassination and the continual Israeli targeted assassinations of Palestinian leaders, one of which recently led to the death of 18 members of one family, including children and a baby?

Margaret Beckett: I think that everyone in the House, including my right hon. Friend, is aware of the extremely difficult situation and the terrible problems that are caused by all such steps, not least, as he rightly identified, when there is what is generally known these days as collateral damage into the bargain.

No one yet knows for sure who carried out this particular attack. It is imperative that an independent and thorough investigation begins at once, and we will offer whatever support is asked of us, just as we continue to support the work of the United Nations on the death of Rafik Hariri. We expect that report in the not-too-distant future.

Many people have already pointed the finger at Syria, but it is too early to reach definitive conclusions. Of course, the reason why so many are looking in Syria’s direction is because of its long record of destructive meddling in Lebanon. It is increasingly the will of the international community that there should be an end to outside interference in Lebanese affairs, as was mandated by Security Council resolution 1559. Indeed, as we have identified before, Syria faces a strategic choice. If the Syrian authorities are ready to play a constructive role in the region, we have made it clear that we will be prepared to work with them. However, if they support terrorism, promote instability and interfere in other countries, we will unite with our regional and international partners to seek to prevent that.

Daniel Kawczynski: Recent press reports have stated that the Syrian Government will help the situation in
22 Nov 2006 : Column 551
Iraq only if we help them to regain the Golan heights. Will the Secretary of State give a categorical assurance to the House that we will not side with the Syrians in that dispute with Israel?

Margaret Beckett: All I can say to the hon. Gentleman is that we are a long way from being confident that we have seen an end to difficulties between Syria and Iraq. The Syrian Government are well aware that, like the Iraqi Government, we would like to see the policing and sealing of the border between Syria and Iraq. Let us see what that delivers. Any other discussions, including territorial discussions, are a very long way down the road.

The same strategic choice faces Iran. We, with France, Germany and our other European partners, are leading efforts to encourage Iran to address international concerns about its nuclear ambitions, its support for terrorism and its dismal internal human rights record. Thanks in part to those efforts, the international community is now more united than it has been for a long time, and the Iranian regime has been presented with a clear choice. On the one hand, we have offered Iran the chance of an improved relationship with not only Europe, but the wider international community. That would give Iran help in developing a civil nuclear power programme, an energy partnership and a trade co-operation partnership with the European Union. It would give Iran help with joining the World Trade Organisation and with the first lifting of US sanctions since the 1979 resolution in some areas of real need. However, if, on the other hand, Iran continues to defy the International Atomic Energy Agency and the Security Council, it should be in no doubt that that relationship will deteriorate and that the international community will wish to respond

Linda Gilroy (Plymouth, Sutton) (Lab/Co-op): In respect of Iran’s nuclear ambitions, will the Foreign Secretary take the opportunity to confirm the Government’s commitment, which was made in the Labour party manifesto, to retain our nuclear deterrent?

Margaret Beckett: Naturally.

Both Iran and Syria can choose to be part of the solution in Iraq, not part of the problem. We welcome, as a step in the right direction, Syria’s decision to resume diplomatic relations with Iraq.

Mr. Denis MacShane (Rotherham) (Lab): Will my right hon. Friend give way?

Margaret Beckett: If my right hon. Friend will forgive me, I must make a little more progress.

British soldiers and civilians alike are working in tough conditions and with considerable courage to try to help to build a better future for the Iraqi people, and the horrific murder of some of our servicemen and women in Basra on Remembrance day underlines both their courage and their sacrifice. Indeed, the appalling reports of killings and kidnappings which we continually hear are a clear sign that the fate of that country is hanging in the balance. As I have said to the House before, we owe it to our own forces and to the Iraqi people to hold our nerve in this critical period.
22 Nov 2006 : Column 552
There is no question of us cutting and running from Iraq. To do so would be an act of gross irresponsibility, abandoning the Iraqi people to bloodshed perhaps even worse than we see today.

Mr. John Baron (Billericay) (Con): I agree that we should not cut and run. Given that the Prime Minister appears very willing to discuss Iraq with the Iraq study group, and given the deteriorating situation in Iraq, can the Foreign Secretary explain to the House why the Prime Minister seems so unwilling to come to the Chamber and discuss the current situation in Iraq and future policy options, when the rest of the country is discussing this very issue?

Margaret Beckett: I completely reject the hon. Gentleman’s basic contention. We have done a little research because I had a slight feeling that the issue might be raised. Since March 2003 there have been 60 debates in the Chamber and in Westminster Hall on the subject of Iraq, so the Government have been perfectly prepared to discuss these matters.

Mr. Andrew Mackay (Bracknell) (Con) rose—

Chris Bryant (Rhondda) (Lab) rose—

Margaret Beckett: I shall give way, then I must press on.

Mr. Mackay: The Foreign Secretary will have noted that the Speaker has imposed a 10-minute limit on Back-Benches speeches today. That is because there is huge interest in the issues of Iraq and Afghanistan. Our troops are risking their lives there hourly and daily. May I have an assurance from the Foreign Secretary that there will be further specific debates on the Floor of the House, not in Westminster Hall, and that we will be kept fully informed, as we have not been to date?

Margaret Beckett: Absolute nonsense. I do not think that the right hon. Gentleman necessarily always attends those debates, but I repeat that there have been many opportunities. It may well be that there will be more in the future, but he knows that that is a matter for the Leader of the House.

Chris Bryant: I am deeply grateful to the Foreign Secretary. May I return her to the subject of Iran? It seems that so often in the Chamber we speak about Iran’s nuclear ambitions, and we rarely speak about Iran’s grisly human rights record, which she mentioned. Has she had any conversations with Iranian representatives about the plight of Ahwazi Arabs, who have been oppressed for many years by the regime in Tehran? There are at least 10 whose trials have been very dubious, according to Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, yet who are up for the death sentence. Will she speak to the country’s representatives about its grisly human rights record?

Margaret Beckett: I am grateful to my hon. Friend. He is right—there are a great number of examples of difficult human rights issues in Iran. I readily confess that I am not completely familiar with the specific issue that he raises, but my hon. Friend the Minister for the
22 Nov 2006 : Column 553
Middle East has undertaken to look into the matter if he contacts him, and we will make some inquiries on his behalf.

Although there can be no question of us abandoning Iraq in the present circumstances, that does not mean that things are standing still. Our approach has evolved significantly in recent months in response to a dynamic situation. All along, we have had a clear view of what should be the future of Iraq. We want to see a fully sovereign Government taking complete responsibility for providing security and governing in the interests of all the people of Iraq.

Despite the difficulties, Iraq has made a great deal of progress down that path. For the past six months—and it is only six months—Iraq has had a Government of national unity, democratically elected under a new permanent constitution. As I made clear to the House at the end of October, the process of transferring security responsibilities to Iraqi security forces is well under way. Prime Minister Maliki is determined to press ahead with that, and we are equally determined to help him to do so successfully and sustainably. We expect Najaf to be the next province to be transferred to Iraqi control in December. In our own area of responsibility, we expect Maysan to follow in January, and the progress of our current operation in Basra gives us confidence that we may be able to achieve transition in that province too at some point next spring. So there is a clear perspective looking forward, notwithstanding the very obvious difficulties that Iraq faces, but it continues to demand our wholehearted attention and our unwavering support.

The middle east is inevitably likely to dominate many of our discussions today, but British soldiers and civilians are engaged elsewhere around the world, building peace, supporting democratic institutions and safeguarding human rights and the rule of law.

Mrs. Claire Curtis-Thomas (Crosby) (Lab) rose—

Margaret Beckett: I will give way to my hon. Friend. I have been speaking for 16 minutes without making very much progress, so it will be the last time that I accept interventions for a while.

Mrs. Curtis-Thomas: I am enormously comforted by my right hon. Friend’s words about the security situation in Iraq, but we both know that emerging democracies need continued support. Will she reassure me that when we leave Iraq because it no longer needs military support we will continue to support that emerging democracy through what will be difficult times?

Margaret Beckett: I can certainly give my hon. Friend that assurance. As she knows, there is no one better fitted than our skilled and courageous Foreign Office staff and public servants in a wide range of institutions to help to provide such advice and support.

Next Section Index Home Page