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27 Feb 2008 : Column 266WH—continued

The rhetoric is easy, and we all know the elements that need to be in place: the two-state solution, the ceasefire on both sides, the building up of security and a
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growing economy and the public sector. Those things are easy to say, and there is no point in trading the number of casualties on either side, which does not get us much further toward finding a solution. We need the Arab League to be more involved, and we need to ensure that the security barrier is not constructed any further and that the number of Israeli settlements is reduced.

In what order those things should happen is a matter for debate—the question is how we implement the policy proposals that the rhetoric is about. No matter in what order we put them, somebody will always say, “They have to do this first before we do this.” There must be common agreement about how to proceed. It is easy to say those things from this Chamber, but much more difficult to implement them in practice.

10.41 am

Mr. David Lidington (Aylesbury) (Con): I welcome you to the Chair, Mr. Bercow, and I congratulate the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Carmichael) on securing the debate. I refer the House to my entry in the Register of Members’ Interests regarding my visit to Israel and the west bank last December.

The House has been divided on many issues today, but underlying the speeches made has been agreement from practically everybody that as part of an overall peace settlement between Israel and the Palestinians, the settlements, roadblocks and road closures need to go. I agree with that for three reasons. First, as a matter of principle, the settlements are unlawful under international law. The relevant United Nations resolutions and the various attempted peace agreements, most notably the road map, have always envisaged that, subject to any agreement between the two parties to vary the complete dismantling of settlements, they should be removed as part of an overall peace agreement.

Secondly, there is a running political sore. The hon. Member for Battersea (Martin Linton) was slightly unfair and underplayed the genuine fears in Israel about security and continuing terrorism. However, he was accurate in his description of how ordinary Palestinians experience roadblocks, the barrier, settlements, closed roads and so on. When I have been to the west bank, I have talked to people whom we would regard as respectable, educated, professional Palestinians, who have described their resentment and humiliation at being bossed around by some 19-year-old conscript who does not want to be on duty at a roadblock, but who makes his or her day a little less tedious by making life miserable for the people coming through it. If that is the reaction of educated professional Palestinians, it must be far worse among resentful, unemployed young men, of whom there are a great many in the occupied territories. Even moderate Palestinians see the expansion of some settlements since Annapolis as evidence of bad faith on Israel’s part.

Thirdly, the existence of the settlements, barriers, roadblocks and so on constricts hopes of economic development. People cannot move goods freely if, every time a lorry gets to a roadblock, it has to be unloaded and its cargo put on to pallets and checked carefully. If people are prevented from travelling and commuting to work, as they are by the barrier and roadblocks, hopes
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of economic growth in the Palestinian territories are hindered. All the hopes of Tony Blair and those who came from the donors’ conference in Paris will be set at nought if we cannot find a way urgently to tackle the problem.

At the same time, we must address the reality of Israeli fears about security. It is not just a bunch of political leaders who are resisting the dismantling of settlements and roadblocks for their own reasons. Israel’s electorate yearn for peace—every test of opinion shows that—but still have real fears. They observe that although Israel unilaterally withdrew from Gaza and dismantled settlements there, it was rewarded, in their eyes, with Qassam rockets on Sderot and further attempts at suicide bombing. As my hon. Friend the Member for Harwich (Mr. Carswell) and the hon. Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Mrs. Ellman) said, the ending of the settlement has always been seen as part of the final peace agreement, rather than as something to be offered up in advance.

I would challenge the Government of Israel on this point: in every conversation that I have had with officials and politicians, they have been sincere in saying that they want to work with President Abbas and Prime Minister Fayyad to bring about a move towards a comprehensive peace agreement following the Annapolis conference. The trouble is that Mr. Abbas and Mr. Fayyad need to be able to demonstrate quickly to their population that there will be real material and political gains for the Palestinian people as a consequence of engagement and negotiation with Israel. I fear that some of what has happened since Annapolis, particularly the announcements on Har Homa, is sending a different message to the Palestinians and undermining those whom Israelis rightly want to be their partners in the search for a lasting and just peace.

What, then, can a British Government do? I have two suggestions for the Minister. I shall not pretend that he, or whichever Minister or Foreign Secretary is in office, will be able to wave a magic wand and sort out the problem quickly, but our influence could be exercised in a couple of ways. First, one of the keys to progress is sorting out security along with economic development. Can the United Kingdom, together with its Quartet and EU partners, work on a plan to open up particular highways and help train Palestinian police officers and security officials, so that checks can be provided to a standard that will satisfy the Israelis and persuade them to relax the controls, without feeling that it will endanger their own population, thereby allowing economic development? Helping to build the capacity of the Palestinian Authority in that way is something positive that we could do.

Secondly, one of Israel’s great fears is that the Arab world in general is not committed to peace. The hon. Member for Liverpool, Riverside mentioned the Khartoum conference, held many years ago, but since then we have had the Arab peace plan and the attendance of virtually every significant Arab country at Annapolis. Just the other day, a speech by Prince Turki al-Faisal of Saudi Arabia held out a vision of a middle east region co-operating harmoniously and building mutual prosperity—Arab and Israeli together—if a settlement on Palestine can be attained. Anything that the British Government can do to encourage our traditional friends in the Arab world to speak out more, along lines similar to Prince Turki’s, would help to provide the reassurance that the Israelis
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need, so that we can start to take forward the hopes that were built at Annapolis and not let them crumble to dust, as has happened too often in the past.

10.49 am

The Minister for the Middle East (Dr. Kim Howells): It is a great pleasure to take part in this debate under your chairmanship, Mr. Bercow. You are one of the most learned and erudite voices in Parliament, and I know that you will have listened to the debate with great pleasure.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Carmichael) on securing this important debate. We had a debate on the middle east peace process in this very Chamber just yesterday, in which many of these issues were discussed; many of the Members present have debated them many times. As the hon. Gentleman pointed out, one could describe the contributions that we have heard today as testimonies to the past and continuing tragedies that the conflict has generated. He also said that the point is to find a solution.

There has been heat and passion in the Chamber this morning. I always appreciate the insight and experience of my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn), who has visited the area many times and who feels passionately about the issue. I know, too, that some Members sense that progress toward a solution is held up by those who under no circumstances want to see the existence of Israel. They want it wiped off the face of the map, as President Ahmadinejad put it. The apparently irreconcilable positions have been described this morning. I was particularly taken by what the hon. Member for Braintree (Mr. Newmark) said about article 13 of the Hamas charter, which, in a sense, defines the rejectionist view. That is one end of the spectrum—one extreme of the conflict.

The other extreme is what I have seen with my own eyes and what we have heard described this morning: metal containers with gun portals cut into them being taken off the back of trucks, plonked down on a piece of Palestinian land and surrounded with bits of barbed wire. Some Uzi-carrying extremist then says, “This is now Israeli territory.” That is an occupation by any definition, and is illegal. The Government believe that it is illegal and so do the voices we have heard this morning. We cannot state that enough. Those two extremes are what we have to work with. That is the reality of the situation.

There have been other, similar conflicts—some people call them frozen conflicts—in which solutions have been found. We were involved in a conflict in this country for 30 years that often seemed to me to be completely without solution. There seemed to be irreconcilable differences, but we solved it through continuous, professional negotiation and by using our experiences from the Malaya campaign and others. I am absolutely convinced that the situation we are debating is not without solution. I said at the outset that we have to find a way through it, and I think we can do that.

The Government consider Israeli settlement-building anywhere in the occupied Palestinian territories to be illegal under international law. That includes settlements in both East Jerusalem and the west bank. The road map makes it clear that Israel should freeze all settlement
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activity, including the natural growth of existing settlements, and dismantle all outposts erected since March 2001. That view has been expressed many times both inside and outside the House. I have said it many times, and so have my right hon. Friends the Foreign Secretary and the Prime Minister. We must make the position very clear.

I turn to the arguments that we have heard this morning, which I totally understand, about Israel having to defend itself against the horror of suicide bombings. There is no way of rationalising that: it is the most foolish thing that any defender of the Palestinian cause can do. A few years ago, I heard an hon. Member say, “If I were Palestinian, I’d be a suicide bomber.” That is not what a responsible representative in a democracy should say; such a statement contains elements of the insanity that drives people to do that.

Yes, Israel must defend itself, and if it wants to build a barrier, let it build a barrier, but it must be along the route of the 1967 ceasefire line. It must not arbitrarily incorporate tracts of Palestinian land. It might be that when the final negotiations are conducted, there will be land for peace trading. That was the fundamental theme of discussions, and there is no reason why it should not happen. Perhaps there will be agreement with the representatives of the Palestinian people along the lines of, “That can stay there, but we’ll need a little bit of this.” Similar arguments continue on many borders across the world. When I was in Ottawa recently, I heard that parts of the border between the United States and Canada are still disputed. Those arguments can continue; the issue is finding a way to avoid violence.

We have not had much opportunity today to talk about Gaza. We have heard about the rockets being fired mainly, but not exclusively, from Gaza. As we heard in a recent debate, rockets have also been coming in from south Lebanon, which is very worrying. I was there recently and saw that the situation is fragile. I raise that issue because we have not mentioned today the outside powers that are meddling in the situation, fighting wars of their own by proxy. The influence of Damascus and Tehran is not positive. Nor is the way in which money is given to terrorist organisations when it is known that they will use it to kill innocent Israeli civilians. That cannot help the situation.

Members have expressed their thoughts vividly and in their own ways. They have tried to paint a picture of what life in the area is like and what might happen if a solution can be reached. We must remind Israel of its responsibilities and that it must fulfil criteria under its road map obligations. The Israelis must dismantle their outposts—I will come to the built settlements in a moment. I believe absolutely that if they started to take down those symbols of occupation and oppression—those appalling containers with gun portals and barbed wire—as my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Mrs. Ellman) told us they did in Gaza, that gesture would provide a chance for the Palestinian people to see that the peace process can bring real benefits. I know, from having spoken to President Abbas, Prime Minister Fayyad and others that they are looking for that kind of gesture.

The only way in which the Annapolis process will move forward is if it is seen to bring benefits to ordinary people on the ground. That, in turn, will influence opinion inside Israel. I do not believe that the Israeli
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people want to live in constant conflict and in fear of suicide bombings and rocket attacks for the rest of that nation’s history. There must be sovereign states living alongside each other. It can be done, and we know that there is a way forward: it is called the road map. There must be concessions on both sides, particularly on the issue of settlement, which must be taken seriously.

John Bercow (in the Chair): I warmly thank colleagues for their co-operation in that debate.

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Tanzania (British Investors)

11 am

Mr. Roger Gale (North Thanet) (Con): Good morning, Mr. Bercow. It is a genuine pleasure to be permitted the opportunity to speak under your chairmanship.

In sharp contrast with that sentiment, I take no pleasure at all in having to discuss this morning a matter of considerable concern that arises from my failure to protect the interests of two of my constituents, Mrs. Sarah Hermitage and her husband, Mr. Stewart Middleton, who made the mistake of investing in Tanzania. I know and respect the Minister well enough to say that if she has prepared a speech extolling the virtues of Tanzania as an example of a developing African country that is making progress, and the importance of British investment in and overseas aid to that country, I would be grateful if she would do me the courtesy of tearing it up.

I have heard the arguments from Lord Triesman and Lord Malloch-Brown. I shall read their comments into the record and, in the limited time available, I shall explain why I believe that they and the Government of the United Kingdom are misguided in their naive faith. If the Minister does not have enough time or the briefing to respond in full to my observations, I shall completely understand, because I have a great deal to say. I do not seriously expect her to be able to reply to some of the things that I am afraid I need to say this morning, but I would welcome a written response in due course.

I record my appreciation of the assistance of two people: the Tanzanian high commissioner to the United Kingdom, Mrs. Mwanaidi Maajar, and the British high commissioner in Tanzania, Mr. Philip Parham. Mrs. Maajar received me with great courtesy at a time that, following bereavement, was difficult for her family. I believe that she has exhausted her powers as a diplomat, which, of course, are not the same as ministerial powers, in trying to bring about a fair resolution to the problem.

Mr. Philip Parham has proved an exemplary UK representative. He has gone far beyond anything that might reasonably have been expected in seeking to protect the interests of my constituents and of British overseas investors.

Sadly, all that help and my own meagre efforts have been to no avail. My constituents have lost their investment, lives have been placed in danger and, most important of all, innocent people have been imprisoned. I have a file on the matter that is about a foot thick. The case is complex and interwoven with legal contortions. It is inevitable, therefore, that in 20 minutes I shall skate over some facts in a way that will lay me open to charges of being selective and superficial, but I will do my best to state the case simply.

Between 2000 and 2004, the Silverdale farm in Moshi, Tanzania, was owned by Benjamin Mengi, whose brother—this is relevant—is the Tanzanian media magnate Reginald Mengi. Benjamin Mengi received from Vector US $150,000 and a Toyota Land Cruiser in exchange for the use of 10 acres of land leased for genetically modified organism trials for the production of zero-nicotine tobacco.

On 20 May 2004, the lease to the Silverdale and Mbono farms was assigned by Mengi’s company—Fiona (Tanzania) Ltd.—to Silverdale Tanzania for a consideration
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of $112,000. The money was paid in agreed instalments and formally receipted. Mengi retained a 30 per cent. shareholding and my constituent Stewart Middleton acquired 70 per cent.

Mr. Middleton is a farmer with years of experience in Africa. He embarked on the production of vegetables for export and employed local labour. The African co-operatives that owned the freehold of the land passed a resolution accepting the transfer on 10 May 2004, and they also accepted the rental paid to them at the time.

In January 2005, Benjamin Mengi, having sold the lease once, sought to sell it for a second time to a neighbouring farmer, Konrad Legg. In April 2005, Mengi applied to the courts to have the investors, Stewart Middleton and Sarah Hermitage, evicted. Simultaneously, it would appear that a contract was to be taken out on Middleton’s life. He was to be shot in the head, his body placed in the Kikafu river and his car abandoned at the airport.

In June 2005, Stewart Middleton opened police charges against Mengi for forgery and conspiracy to murder. The Deputy Minister of Home Affairs was informed but the allegations were never investigated. In August 2005, Stewart Middleton and his Tanzanian manager were arrested on the streets of Moshi by armed police and taken before magistrates on complaints made by Mengi. The charges, which do not exist under the penal code of Tanzania, were dropped, and Mr. Middleton was released. No apology was ever offered by the Tanzanian Government.

In November 2005, Mengi declared publicly in front of the Moshi regional crime officer that he would drive the investors out of Tanzania “by any means necessary”. To cut a long story short, he succeeded.

Representations were made to President Jakaya Kikwete in January 2007 by the then Foreign Secretary, the right hon. Member for Derby, South (Margaret Beckett), and an intervention was made by Mrs. Cherie Booth, QC, the wife of the former Prime Minister. She raised the issue with Justice Minister Mary Nagu in February 2007. Those approaches were recorded in Africa Confidential on 25 May 2007 in an article that added:

How right.

It clearly helps to have a brother who owns newspapers and television stations that are relied upon by the President and the Government for support.

In spite of the Herculean efforts of the British high commissioner, Philip Parham, a three-year campaign of threats and harassment has been waged by a small-time crook. Backed by local police officials, Mengi has been allowed to drive lawful investors from Tanzania in fear for their lives and for the lives of the honest, decent and hard-working Tanzanians whose livelihoods they have fought to protect.

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In November 2005, the then British high commissioner, Mr. Andrew Pocock, who is distinguished in his own right, wrote to the director of criminal investigation in Dar es Salaam:

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