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House of Commons

Tuesday 3 July 2007

The House met at half-past Two o’clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Private Business

Whitehaven Harbour Bill [Lords]

Read the Third time, and passed, with amendments.

Oral Answers to Questions


The Secretary of State was asked—

Gaza and West Bank

1. Chris McCafferty (Calder Valley) (Lab): If he will make a statement on the political situation in Gaza and the occupied Palestinian territories. [146812]

9. Mr. Neil Gerrard (Walthamstow) (Lab): What assessment he has made of the political situation in Gaza and the west bank; and if he will make a statement. [146821]

The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (David Miliband): I hope that you, Mr. Speaker, will allow me to be the first of—no doubt—many right hon. and hon. Members who want to take the opportunity to wish you a very happy birthday. Your arrival, which I think I am right in saying was just four days before the 1945 Labour Government came to office, was almost as momentous as that election result.

We are extremely concerned by the situation in Gaza, especially, and in the west bank. The events of recent weeks have seen very high levels of political violence, resulting in the death of more than 100 Palestinians and two United Nations workers. Together with the European Union and the Quartet, we are now working with the emergency Government to support their efforts to restore law and order and to prevent further humanitarian deterioration.

Chris McCafferty: May I take this opportunity to congratulate my right hon. Friend on his promotion and welcome him to the Dispatch Box? I am sure that he is aware of the death on Sunday of Taghreed Abeaed, the 31-year-old Palestinian woman and mother of five who died in the searing heat and appalling conditions at Rafah crossing. He will know
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that 6,000 Palestinians—men, women, children, sick, elderly and dying—are blocked in at Rafah crossing on the Egyptian side, and many more will die if something urgent is not done to relieve their suffering. Will he have talks with his Israeli and EU counterparts to ensure that Rafah crossing is reopened as soon as possible and that EU monitors are reinstated?

David Miliband: I thank my hon. Friend for her kind remarks. She raises a very important point; it is one of several very serious humanitarian issues on the Gaza strip. I was hoping to be able to raise the matter with the Egyptian Foreign Minister, whom I was due to meet tomorrow. However, I will not be able to do so because he will be back in Egypt, but I will certainly take it up with him when I speak to him on the telephone, as I hope to do in the near future.

Mr. Gerrard: I accept what my right hon. Friend said about the importance of supporting the emergency Government, but will he also accept that it is important that we are not seen to be one-sided? If at all possible, we need to maintain some dialogue with Hamas, who were after all elected. If we are going to get a solution, it is necessary to try to redevelop a national consensus among Palestinians. Does he agree that we should do what we can to encourage that, rather than maintaining the divisions that currently exist?

David Miliband: The bedrock of the Government’s approach over the next months and years will be threefold: first, to be unstinting in our support for a two-state solution in the middle east, which I think is the position that commands support on both sides of the House; secondly, to support those who are committed to peaceful progress in the region; and thirdly, to support the economic and social development across the occupied Palestinian territories, including the humanitarian work that my hon. Friend referred to.

It is also important to say that we are determined to play our full role in the Quartet’s work. The Quartet’s principles are the foundation of progress, and my hon. Friend will know that we worked closely with the national unity Government over the past few months. We did so with those members who were committed to peaceful progress and, as I say, that is an important bedrock for the sort of change that we need to see.

I do, however, want to pick up on one thing that my hon. Friend said. It is very important that President Abbas, whom I spoke to last Friday, and Prime Minister Fayyad ensure that Palestinian institutions that are capable of representing the aspirations of all Palestinians come forward to take up their important role in the critical months ahead.

Mr. Nick Hurd (Ruislip-Northwood) (Con): May I add my voice to the congratulations to the new Foreign Secretary, but press him a little further on the previous question? Does he not share the analysis that one of the main messages from the Northern Ireland peace process is that we must now engage with Hamas?

David Miliband: I hope that, in due course, we can discuss that. I say “discuss” and not “debate”, because I appreciate that the issue is very complex and that there is much expertise in the House. I hope that we can
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discuss the issues at genuine length, but one has to be careful about drawing parallels. Where the Northern Ireland experience can be used, we should of course draw on it, but I would not want to be drawn into a simple export from one part of the world to another, both of which have deep and complex histories associated with them. Having discussed other issues with the hon. Gentleman, I think that he would agree that it is important that we remain part of an international process. The work that we are doing in the EU and with the Quartet is an important component of our work in the region.

Mr. Michael Ancram (Devizes) (Con): I too congratulate the right hon. Gentleman on his appointment. Does he not agree that in the months before the recent terrible events in Gaza and the west bank, one of the brighter initiatives was the Mecca agreement between Fatah and Hamas? Would it not be a good idea for the Government to support every measure possible to get those two parties back round the table in Saudi Arabia to re-implement the Mecca agreement? This time there should be one difference: an international body should supervise the implementation of that agreement to make sure that the provisions are acted upon.

David Miliband: The right hon. and learned Gentleman makes an important point. First, it is important that there should be unity and a negotiating partner on the Palestinian side. The partner needs to be committed to the existence not just of the two-state solution, but of the other state that needs to be party to that: Israel. Secondly—I hope that he will take this in the right way—it is incumbent on me and the Government to be extremely careful about how we lecture others on the way in which they form coalitions and partnerships. The violence in Gaza, directed against President Abbas, has cost more than 100 lives. I choose my words carefully when I say that I very much hope that President Abbas and Prime Minister Fayyad will develop institutions capable of representing the aspirations of all Palestinian people. We need to support them in that.

Stephen Pound (Ealing, North) (Lab): May I add my congratulations to you on your birthday, Mr. Speaker? I am sure that you do not need reminding that today is also the birthday of one of the most distinguished ornaments of the Palace of Westminster. I refer to Police Constable John Harrigan—although it is actually my birthday as well.

Further to my right hon. Friend’s answer, may I implore him—not that he needs reminding, because I know that he is acutely aware of this point—not to forget the position of the persecuted and fast-disappearing Christian minorities of the region in the conversations that he has with regional leaders?

David Miliband: My hon. Friend, whose birthday I am happy to celebrate as well—I am sorry that I missed him out earlier, but the research department at the Foreign Office did not quite get to that part of the birthdays list—raises an important point and I will look into it.

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Mr. Andrew Pelling (Croydon, Central) (Con): One of the most important prospects for dialogue is the dialogue that could be undertaken by Tony Blair. However, some commentators feel that he has a huge handicap in terms of his previous role as Prime Minister, and the problems in Lebanon and Iraq. What can Her Majesty’s Government do to get him over that hurdle and handicap?

David Miliband: From my experience of the former Prime Minister, I would say that he is more than capable of looking after himself. The reaction of leaders from across the region has been significant and positive. The mandate of the former Prime Minister is important and he will be able to develop it under his own steam. In the telephone calls that I have had over the last four days with regional leaders, they have welcomed his appointment and are looking forward to his active engagement in the arena as someone who has real knowledge of the issues that confront anyone who seeks peace for that part of the world.

Sir Gerald Kaufman (Manchester, Gorton) (Lab): In welcoming my right hon. Friend to his appointment and congratulating him, may I ask him to remind the Israeli Government that if they refuse to have dealings with Palestinian moderates, the Palestinians will elect extremists, that if they refuse to have dealings with the elected Palestinian extremists, militants will take over, and that the only hope of peace and security for the Israelis is for them to be realistic about whom they have dealings with, with the objective being to come to a settlement regardless of what their enemies and opponents may say?

David Miliband: My right hon. Friend speaks with a long history of engagement and expertise in this area. This November will mark 40 years since the passage of resolution 242, which marked the start of the UN engagement, which led, in 2002, to the commitment in Security Council resolution 1397, I think it was, to a two-state solution. As I said, the bedrock of our approach will be first to pursue that two-state solution, secondly, actively to support peacemakers in the region and those committed to peaceful political progress, and thirdly, to ensure that we have what the new Prime Minister has called an economic road map, as well as a political road map, for the future—and that it includes the humanitarian issues that I referred to earlier.

Mr. Keith Simpson (Mid-Norfolk) (Con): Mr. Speaker, may I also abase myself and congratulate you on your birthday? We cannot all be 21 again. May I also congratulate the Foreign Secretary on taking up his position? He leaves behind the Rural Payments Agency and flooding and comes to the more tranquil areas of foreign policy. May I ask him, in particular in relation to Gaza, what line the Government are taking to persuade Hamas in Gaza to reach some form of accommodation with President Abbas? Or will the international community just try to isolate Hamas in Gaza and starve it out?

David Miliband: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his kind words, and one day we can talk about the Rural Payments Agency, too. He talked about starving people out; I hope that what I said earlier on the humanitarian issues, and what was reflected in my
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subsequent answers, shows that we are absolutely determined to ensure that we play a full part in tackling the diverse humanitarian issues. It is important to put it on record that in the last month there have been about 180 or 190 rockets launched into Israel from the Gaza strip. I am sure that he will understand when I say that the suffering of Palestinians on the one hand, and the fear and insecurity felt by many Israeli citizens on the other, need to be addressed together, and they can only be addressed through mutual recognition, which will be vital to long-term stability in the area.

Ms Diane Abbott (Hackney, North and Stoke Newington) (Lab): Does the Foreign Secretary accept that there is not a lot of point in lecturing the people of the middle east about representative democracy if, when they elect a party that we do not happen to like—in this case Hamas—we try to say that the election was null and void? Surely all that can do is drive the Palestinians into the arms of militants.

David Miliband: As I said earlier, we did engage with the new Government—the national unity Government that was created in the occupied Palestinian territories—over the last year. I think that it is also important to point out that we were part of the EU, which sent about €680 million to that Government over the last year. I think that it is right to say that one issue that unites people across the House is the determination to pursue a two-state solution, and that can only be pursued with people who are willing to recognise that the other state has a right to exist. I know that my hon. Friend is committed to a two-state solution, and I hope that she and the rest of the House can follow through on that commitment, given the difficult waters that we have to navigate.

Mr. Michael Moore (Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk) (LD): May I be the latest in what will be a very long line of people wishing you a happy birthday today, Mr. Speaker? I, too, welcome the Foreign Secretary to his appointment. There is probably never an easy time to take on that important role, but we on the Liberal Democrat Benches wish him every success.

Returning to the appointment of the former Prime Minister as the Quartet’s special envoy, he has been described by the White House as an “aggressive facilitator”. Notwithstanding the reaction of some of the regional leaders, does the Foreign Secretary accept that one of Mr. Blair’s most pressing challenges will be to overcome the open hostility to his appointment in Gaza and the west bank? Does he also accept that if the former Prime Minister is to win the support of both Palestinians and Israelis, he will have to persuade the international community, with some urgency, to overhaul the discredited temporary international mechanism?

David Miliband: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his kind words, and I look forward to working with him and with the Opposition, where we can find common ground. He mentioned the west bank, but actually President Abbas was keen to impress on me his welcome for the former Prime Minister’s appointment to his role, which I think is important. In respect of the temporary international mechanism, I will look at that issue in more detail. Having spoken to regional leaders
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over the past four years, I have to say that they have not put pressure on anyone to say that the mechanism is discredited—I think that is the term that the hon. Gentleman used. I am sure that there are ways in which the mechanism can be improved, but they have stressed to me that the investment mechanism is an important part of building the sort of economic future that we need.

Richard Burden (Birmingham, Northfield) (Lab): May I add my congratulations to my right hon. Friend? Returning to the issue of humanitarian access, is he aware of the report from Gush Shalom, the Israeli peace organisation, which reports that Western Union and DHL have stopped the transfer of money into Gaza, so the people trapped there cannot even receive support and money from their relatives abroad? Is there not a role for the Quartet to ensure that that kind of humanitarian aid is facilitated, so that people can make ends meet?

David Miliband: I have not read the report to which my hon. Friend refers, but I will look at it. As my hon. Friend the Minister for the Middle East pointed out to me, we are working closely with the International Committee of the Red Cross and funding it, and that is one issue that it is pursuing. I will look into the matter that my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Richard Burden) raises and, if I may, write back to him.

European Union Reform

2. Mr. Greg Hands (Hammersmith and Fulham) (Con): If he will make a statement on institutional reform of the European Union. [146813]

The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (David Miliband): I refer the hon. Gentleman to the then Prime Minister’s post-European Council statement to the House on 25 June. The June European Council agreed a detailed mandate for EU institutional reform. An intergovernmental conference will now be convened under the Portuguese presidency to draft a new treaty. We want to see the IGC concluded promptly. The EU needs to complete institutional reform in order to focus on such issues as climate change, which matter immensely to people right across the European Union.

Mr. Hands: May I take the Foreign Secretary back to a commitment given by his predecessor but one after the French and Dutch votes two years ago? The hon. Member for Vauxhall (Kate Hoey) asked him:

The then Foreign Secretary replied:

The new treaty does indeed include both a Foreign Minister and a President. According to the Government, that would make it a constitution, so why is there no referendum?

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David Miliband: The first thing to say is that it is enormously in this country’s interest to have a president of the European Council—not a President of Europe, but a president of the European Council—who can replace the six-monthly rotating presidency, which is not just tiresome, but inefficient. Secondly, it is in our interest to ensure that we have a lead representative on foreign policy issues answering on a unanimous basis to the 27 member-state Governments of the European Union. The two issues that the hon. Gentleman raises are good for Britain. That is the first point. Secondly, we do not propose to have a referendum on the reform treaty precisely because it is not a constitution.

Mike Gapes (Ilford, South) (Lab/Co-op): Thank you, Mr. Speaker, and happy birthday. I, too, welcome the new Foreign Secretary to his post. I am sure the Foreign Affairs Committee looks forward to questioning him on these matters over the coming months. Given that the Portuguese presidency of the European Union intends to hold an intergovernmental conference relatively soon and is talking about a process from this month until 18 October, can my right hon. Friend tell us how the House will be able to subject the process to proper scrutiny before the intergovernmental conference?

David Miliband: My hon. Friend raises an important point. Ultimately it will be a matter for the Leader of the House. I am keen that we have extensive investigation and scrutiny of the mandate and then of the reform treaty when it finally comes forward as a treaty, including in front of my hon. Friend’s Select Committee. The Government are determined to play their full part in that. I cannot give him the details today, but I understand the point that he makes.

Mr. David Heathcoat-Amory (Wells) (Con): As the EU accounts have been rejected by the auditors for the past 12 years, and as our net contribution to the EU budget this year will be nearly £5 billion, why did the European summit not tackle at all, judging by the published conclusions, the urgent issue of financial reform?

David Miliband: Financial reform is an important issue for the European Union. I know that the previous occupants of Her Majesty’s Treasury pursued serious work in that area. No doubt that will continue, but it was not the focus of the European Council, because the European Council was focused on the institutional issues that we are discussing in this question.

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