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That is an interesting observation. My right hon. Friend is right: there is no question but that putting life back into those agreements between Syria and Israel would have a galvanising effect on the peace process in the middle east. She is also right to highlight the enormous difficulties that have arisen as a consequence of Syrian foreign policy in recent years. There is, however, potential for change. I very much hope that the friendlier noises that we have heard recently as a consequence of such initiatives will increase, and that Syria can become part of a constructive move to peace in the middle east.

Mr. Nicholas Soames (Mid-Sussex) (Con): In welcoming the visit of Sir Nigel Sheinwald to Damascus, may I ask the Minister what has flowed
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from it? Given the importance that the right hon. Member for Liverpool, Wavertree (Jane Kennedy) rightly attaches to Syria and its dealings, does the Minister agree that we should do more to engage the Russians’ interest in encouraging the Syrians to play a more responsible role?

Dr. Howells: I agree entirely with the hon. Gentleman’s observations and approach to the issue. We are pressing the Russian Government to play a more constructive role in relation to Syria. We are encouraging them to urge the Syrians to look to their eastern border with Iraq, to reconsider their relationship with Hezbollah and, probably most importantly in view of what he said, to reconsider their support of the rejectionists in Damascus, in order to improve the situation in Palestine.

Mr. Don Touhig (Islwyn) (Lab/Co-op): On Christmas day, the 72-year-old uncle of my constituents, Talib and Dianne Elam, was shot and died when American troops attacked his house in Baghdad. The family are Kurdish, suffered terribly under Saddam, and strongly support our intervention in Iraq and the new Iraqi Government. They are now desperate to find out the circumstances surrounding their uncle’s death. Will my hon. Friend raise the issue with our American allies and ask them to provide the family with as much information as possible?

Mr. Speaker: Order. I am very troubled by the story that the right hon. Gentleman tells. Unless the death took place in Syria, however, it is not relevant to this question.

Sir Malcolm Rifkind (Kensington and Chelsea) (Con): As Iraqi Ministers have said publicly that they are satisfied that the vast majority of foreign jihadi terrorists enter Iraq through Syria, and as it is inconceivable that that can happen without the knowledge and acquiescence of the Syrian Government, will the Government not just respond to friendlier noises from Damascus but emphasise that no meaningful relationship can be achieved with that country unless it ceases such support?

Dr. Howells: We have made those points forcefully to President Assad on several occasions and will continue to do so; the right hon. and learned Gentleman is right. He might also have said that there have been indications that some of the jihadists who are moving into Iraq do not much like the regime in Syria either, and might just decide to stay there. The Syrian secret service is more than a little worried about that.

Tony Lloyd (Manchester, Central) (Lab): In a similar vein, do the British Government remind the Syrians that the instability in Iraq is likely to lead to the break-up of Iraq? Given the large Kurdish minority in Syria, it too could experience pressure for secession. On a more positive note, my hon. Friend made the important point that Syria can have a galvanising effect in the region if it comes on board on the right side. We might want it to have a galvanising effect on Hezbollah: to bring it out of violence and into the political process.

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Dr. Howells: My hon. Friend is right. We are very worried about Syria’s continuing support for Hezbollah. We know from intelligence that we have received from various sources that weapons are still moving across the Syrian-Lebanese border and down to Hezbollah. That is deplorable, and of course runs counter to the United Nations Security Council resolutions that forbid it.

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome) (LD): The United Nations’ estimate of 35,000 civilians killed last year will, I think, dispel any lingering doubt that Iraq is in a state of civil war, and the resolution of that will desperately need Syria’s involvement. How can we reconcile the United Kingdom Government’s efforts in support of the recommendations of the Iraq Study Group, which favour engagement with Syria, with the White House’s rejection of that policy and engagement with a strategy involving, apparently, “seek and destroy” and hot pursuit across Syria’s borders?

Dr. Howells: I was encouraged to hear Condoleezza Rice say that she was prepared to go anywhere to pursue peace in the middle east, although I am not sure that she was specific about Syria. The hon. Gentleman must remember, however, that the House and the Government are responsible for British foreign policy, not American foreign policy. We will continue to do what we think is in the best interests of the British people.

Mr. John Grogan (Selby) (Lab): Given that last weekend the President of Iraq went to Damascus to discuss with the President of Syria the sealing of the borders and exchange of security and intelligence information, is there not a strong case—in line with the Baker recommendations, and in the interests of our soldiers serving in Iraq—for discussions at ministerial level between the British Government and the Government of Syria?

Dr. Howells: We have regularly made clear—through the Prime Minister’s foreign affairs adviser and others, including our ambassador—that we deplore the fact that on occasion jihadists have been allowed to move through Syria and into Iraq to threaten our soldiers. We heard earlier from my right hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Wavertree (Jane Kennedy) what happens when certain elements disrupt society in Iraq and allow an anarchic situation in which people are killed at very high rates and very regularly. We have made very clear to the Syrians that we expect them to guard their frontier properly, and to ensure that jihadists do not move through Syria into Iraq to threaten our troops.

Mr. Keith Simpson (Mid-Norfolk) (Con): The Minister said a few moments ago that it was the role of the House and, indeed, Ministers to speak on behalf of British foreign policy. May I return him to what many people think is a distinct lack of coherence between the approaches of our Government and the American Government to involving Syria in the situation in Iraq? The Prime Minister spoke forcefully in support of the Iraq Study Group’s proposal that Syria should be engaged, and the Foreign Secretary herself said that she too supported it. Obviously Sir Nigel Sheinwald
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had been there. Yet, to all intents and purposes, President Bush has rejected the idea. What influence have the Government on the United States Government when it comes to engaging Syria fully in the process?

Dr. Howells: I would argue that we have as much influence as any country—outside the United States—on the face of the earth, and we will continue to argue the case in which we believe. That includes trying to engage with the Syrians and anyone else who is likely to make the situation better, not just in Iraq but in the middle east in general.

I remind the hon. Gentleman that there have been some very welcome moves recently. The Syrians are setting up an embassy in Baghdad, and the Iraqis have a reciprocal arrangement in Damascus. It is very good news that the two countries are establishing stronger diplomatic links: that must be seen as a positive development.

The hon. Gentleman is right to say that we must keep stating what we believe in, and we will continue to talk to whoever we think will make the position better than it is at present.

Joan Ruddock (Lewisham, Deptford) (Lab): What assessment has my hon. Friend made of the recent statements of Khaled Meshal, who is thought to direct Hamas policy in Palestine from his base in Damascus? He recently said that Israel is a “reality” and that

Does my hon. Friend think that that statement is sufficient to begin at least some third-party connections with Hamas, which is, after all, the elected Government of Palestine? Does he understand that many of us believe that we cannot talk only to Fatah in Palestine, but that there must somehow be a means of communicating with Hamas as well?

Dr. Howells: A debate is going on within Hamas about its attitude towards Israel. At the conclusion of that debate we should know whether it has moved in a direction that enables us to have a constructive conversation with it, but we cannot have a conversation with a political party—or a Government at present—that pays suicide bombers to kill innocent Israelis, any more than we could have one with any other despotic regime anywhere in the world. I recognise the validity of the proper democratic process by which Hamas was elected, but the British Government should not give money to a Government anywhere in the world that has such aims and carries out such terrorism. If Hamas shows signs of moving towards recognition of Israel, we will have to look seriously at that development, but until that happens we must dine with Hamas with a very long spoon.

Middle East Peace Process

8. Mr. James Clappison (Hertsmere) (Con): What assessment she has made of recent developments in the middle east peace process. [115408]

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The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Margaret Beckett): We were pleased that there was a meeting between Prime Minister Olmert and President Abbas on 23 December, which signalled their mutual determination to find a way forward and produced concrete agreements to release $100 million in Palestinian tax revenues and to ease restrictions on movement and access, but it is clear that major challenges remain. We are working with the United States and the European Union on how we can build on that opportunity.

Mr. Clappison: I join the Foreign Secretary in welcoming the moves to peace made by both Prime Minister Olmert and President Abbas, but is not one of the major challenges that remain—to use her words—the fact that Islamic Jihad has chosen to ignore the ceasefire of 26 November, since when it has fired approximately 60 missiles on civilian targets inside Israel? Israel has shown commendable restraint. Will our Government do what they can to bring to an end such rejectionist activities, and in particular put whatever pressure they can on the states that support Islamic Jihad, including Iran?

Margaret Beckett: The hon. Gentleman is entirely right. We regret and deplore the attacks that continue, and continue to congratulate the Israeli Government and to encourage them to maintain their policy of restraint. It is of course a difficult and delicate time when such attacks are going on. It is yet another example of how many people do not wish a peace process to succeed in Israel and Palestine. I assure the hon. Gentleman that our Government will do everything that we can to support and encourage such moves to peace, including putting pressure on those who, as he rightly says, support such armed activities.

Mrs. Louise Ellman (Liverpool, Riverside) (Lab/Co-op): Is my right hon. Friend aware of reports that Hezbollah in Lebanon is rearming despite the presence of United Nations troops? What representations have been made on that?

Margaret Beckett: Yes I am aware of those rumours. We continue to keep pressure on all involved to restrict such moves and to point out, as my hon. Friend the Minister for the Middle East did a few moments ago, that that is completely contrary to the United Nations resolution and that it will do nothing to help establish peace in the region.

Mr. Michael Ancram (Devizes) (Con): The Minister for the Middle East has already acknowledged that one of the main keys to a settlement in the middle east is Syria. Is the Foreign Secretary aware of the fact that, as I learned on a recent visit to Damascus, a large number of senior Ministers in that Administration actively and genuinely support the Baker-Hamilton plan, and will she not emulate her German counterpart by going to Damascus to engage with those people to find a constructive way to reopen negotiations and dialogue with Israel?

Margaret Beckett: As my hon. Friend the Minister for the Middle East said a moment ago, we keep such issues under review. It was a deliberate decision on our part to send Sir Nigel Sheinwald, and it was also a
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deliberate decision not to go at ministerial level at that time. We keep the matter under review and will continue to do so.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North) (Lab): Hearts and minds are as relevant in the middle east as elsewhere. Does my right hon. Friend accept that the gruesome and botched executions that occurred in Iraq yesterday will be strongly condemned in the region, as I hope they will be in this House and in the country at large? Do the Iraqi authorities not understand by now the effect of such action on people generally in the middle east?

Margaret Beckett: My hon. Friend will know that the British Government strongly oppose the death penalty and continue to make representations where we see that it is being carried out. The events to which he referred only highlight one of the many reasons that I think lay behind the wise decision of this House to abolish capital punishment in this country.

Mr. William Hague (Richmond, Yorks) (Con): Will the Foreign Secretary report briefly on the Prime Minister’s visit to the middle east before Christmas, and in particular on whether his visit to the United Arab Emirates was the beginning of the strategy that the Opposition have called for to elevate our cultural, political and economic ties with the countries of the Gulf? Is there not a very strong case for such a strategy,
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and is it not vital if we are to build stronger British influence in the middle east than we appear to have today?

Margaret Beckett: We do continue to have strong influence in the middle east, but the right hon. Gentleman is right to say that it is important to maintain, improve and step up our contact with the Gulf states, as my hon. Friend the Minister for the Middle East has assiduously been doing in recent months. Yes, it was a deliberate decision by the Prime Minister to undertake such steps. On the general issue of the principal outcome of the Prime Minister’s visit to Israel and Palestine, apart from confirming our support for and engagement in moves toward a peace process, the main thing that I would identify is the clear need, which was itself identified, to support and build capacity among President Abbas and his office and those who surround him and to seek to work with him. Steps to do so are under way.

Sir Peter Tapsell (Louth and Horncastle) (Con): What is the point of our Prime Minister continuing to pose as a peace envoy in the middle east? It is like asking King Herod to take charge of the Child Support Agency.

Margaret Beckett: Fortunately, the Governments of the middle east do not share the hon. Gentleman’s warped view of the matter.

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Age-related Macular Degeneration

Mrs. Linda Riordan, supported by John McDonnell, Jeremy Corbyn, Ms Katy Clark, Mrs. Ann Cryer and Dr. Gavin Strang, presented a Bill to make provision for the treatment of age-related macular degeneration; and for connected purposes: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time on Friday 9 March, and to be printed [Bill 45].

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Bilingual Juries (Wales)

3.33 pm

Hywel Williams (Caernarfon) (PC): I beg to move,

The Bill’s purpose is clear: to ensure that in respect of some Welsh cases, the jury is bilingual and able to understand the evidence directly, in Welsh or in English, rather than through a translator. To reassure some Members, I emphasise at the start that this provision would apply only to some cases, and not to all cases heard in Wales.

I do not intend to argue today in favour of the principle of hearing evidence in the original language. That principle, I would contend, is already explicit in section 10 of the Juries Act 1974, which includes a requirement that jurors understand English and makes provision for their discharge if they do not. The question therefore is not whether we have a language condition for juries, but whether it is to remain an English-only condition or to be an English and Welsh condition in Wales. The answer is that it is important that both the content and quality of evidence be apprehended as clearly and fully as possible by juries. In cases where Welsh is used, juries should be able to understand Welsh, as well as English.

Much has changed since the 1974 Act. With respect to the demography of the language, there are now more Welsh speakers, and there are more younger speakers than older speakers. The language is getting younger. Many Welsh speakers live outside the traditional heartland areas of the north and the west. Indeed, according to the 2001 census, 40 per cent. of Welsh speakers live in the south and the east, in Cardiff, Newport and the valleys, and in Wrecsam. That has profound significance both for the demand for the use of Welsh in the courts and for the ease with which random selection of bilingual juries outside the heartland areas might be achieved.

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