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1 May 2008 : Column 457

Points of Order

12.15 pm

John Robertson (Glasgow, North-West) (Lab): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Can you enlighten me about the rules guiding naming people in devolved Parliaments? It would appear that Scottish MPs are being named on the Floor of the Scottish Parliament. Does that mean that we are now permitted to mention Members of the Scottish Parliament in this House and describe what we think they are doing wrong, as they appear to be able to do to us?

Mr. Speaker: In fact, that happens quite often in Scottish questions. Mention may be made of MSPs or Members of any other devolved Parliament, but that mention must be in order and made at a time when we are debating such matters. The name of an individual MSP can be mentioned on the Floor of the House without any difficulty.

Mr. Crispin Blunt (Reigate) (Con): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Yesterday, in response to my point of order about my treatment as a constituency MP by the Home Office, you stated that that Department is not always seeking to give offence to hon. Members. I am pleased to report that I have today had a letter from the Minister concerned, whom I had notified of the point of order, assuring me that no offence was intended. In a letter that included the words “apologise” and “error” twice, as well as “sorry” and “regrettable”, and which he has placed in the Library, he makes one point that I wish to clarify:

The Minister goes on to make it clear that he had had outstanding communications from me that had not been answered. He has not quite put it in absolute terms that MPs will always be answered when there are outstanding communications concerning a constituent, but it is my understanding that that is what the letter really means. I would be grateful if you would confirm that that is your understanding also.

Mr. Speaker: It sounds as though the hon. Gentleman is about 99 per cent. there, with a little help from me. It is up to Ministers how they deal with such matters and it is open to the hon. Gentleman to go and see the Minister concerned and obtain the clarification that he seeks.

Now that the Minister for the Middle East is here, we can move on to the next business.

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Topical Debate

Middle East

12.18 pm

The Minister for the Middle East (Dr. Kim Howells): I beg to move,

This debate is especially timely. Tomorrow, the United Kingdom and Norway will host a series of major international meetings on the middle east peace process and related issues, the first major international gathering on this topic since Annapolis and the Paris donor conference at the end of last year. Today, I shall speak briefly about five areas—Israel and Palestine, Iraq, the Gulf, Iran, and Lebanon and Syria. Events across the region are intimately linked, of course, and are touched on in all four of the UK’s foreign policy priorities.

I want to start by looking at the middle east peace process. The UK wants a just, lasting and comprehensive peace in the middle east. A solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is an important precondition for long-term peace in the region. The Annapolis conference in November 2007 showed renewed consensus for action and we continue to see Annapolis as the best hope for peace since 2000. However, as the tragic scenes from Gaza and Sderot show only too clearly, much more progress is needed. We continue to push both sides to make real progress in negotiations and to take the necessary steps to improve the everyday lives of ordinary Palestinians and Israelis.

UK policy is based on support for a two-state solution, for those committed to a peaceful process and for economic and social development across the occupied Palestinian territories. Recent violence, especially in Gaza, is a cause of great concern. Israel has real security concerns, but Israeli action must be in line with international humanitarian law. Closures of border crossings in Gaza are having a grave impact on daily life. We call on both sides to refrain from violence and to work urgently to reopen the crossings. Our priority in practical terms is to support the emergence of a stable, viable Palestinian state. Tomorrow’s ad hoc liaison committee meeting will focus on assuring funding for the Palestinian Authority and support for development and reform.

In Iraq, we have seen significant progress since 2003. New democratic political structures are beginning to bear fruit. Local communities have turned against al-Qaeda and are entering the political process. The Iraqi Government have taken tough action against armed groups and militias, regardless of their sect, and Iraqi security forces are delivering on their responsibilities.

In Basra province, since handing over security responsibility to the Iraqis in December last year, we have seen strong evidence of the increasing capabilities of the Iraqi armed forces—as reflected in the recent operations in Basra. We are enhancing our training and mentoring effort with local security forces as they build on their capacity to deliver their own security with only limited coalition support. We remain committed to supporting the work of the Government of Iraq and Basra provincial authorities in returning Basra to its former prosperity through a range of joint UK-Iraqi initiatives to support investment and economic growth.

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Sustainable progress in Iraq will be achieved only by continued support from the international community. Important challenges lie ahead, including the need for progress on key nation-building legislation, the provincial elections scheduled for later this year, the humanitarian situation and the need to support the maturing Iraqi democratic structures and Iraq’s security forces. We remain committed to Iraq through our UN and coalition obligations. Above all, we will stand by the commitment we have made to the people of Iraq and will continue to encourage Iraq’s neighbours to do much more to support those positive developments.

The six Gulf Co-operation Council countries are increasingly important to our strategic interests, particularly the need to counter terrorism, radicalisation and the spread of weapons of mass destruction. We need close engagement with Gulf partners to support our efforts to promote a low-carbon, high-growth economy and we welcome their increasingly active role in all the regional issues I shall touch on today. The participation of the Gulf states in the ad hoc liaison committee meeting this week is a welcome example of such activity.

I have visited the Gulf twice recently and have seen the huge opportunities available to UK companies. Dubai alone is now home to 120,000 British citizens and British expertise extends to the significant numbers of workers and businesses found in Qatar, Kuwait, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia.

Daniel Kawczynski (Shrewsbury and Atcham) (Con): I agree totally with the Minister about the importance of Saudi Arabia and other countries as market opportunities for our business people. Lord Jones of Birmingham will leave his post as trade emissary at some stage in the future, so would the Minister consider lobbying the Prime Minister for a dedicated envoy to focus on promoting business interests in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states?

Dr. Howells: I certainly would not want to undermine the position of my noble Friend and colleague by speculating about who might step into his post. He is doing a very good job and he knows the Gulf region very well, but I take the hon. Gentleman’s point. It is very important that, whatever else we do, we do not simply use the Gulf as a point of transit to other parts of the world. It is an extremely important node of the world economy and we must continue to pay great attention to the area. Let me reassure the hon. Gentleman—I am sure that he knows this already—that the Gulf is now one of the parts of the world that is most visited by Ministers, as it ought to be. My noble friend Lord Jones is doing a very good job in co-ordinating those activities.

Let me turn to Iran, where we have particular human rights concerns. The use of the death penalty is rising year on year and the pressures on human rights defenders are mounting. Today, on May day, I want to recall the trade unionists and other activists beaten or imprisoned in Iran for their involvement in last year’s May day demonstrations and urge the Iranian Government to release Mansour Osanloo and Ebrahim Madadi, two leaders of the transport workers union in Tehran.

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Iran’s nuclear programme presents the greatest immediate challenge to non-proliferation. Tehran has hidden the most sensitive aspects of its programme for nearly two decades and still refuses International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors the access that they seek. Iran’s role in the region also undermines efforts to resolve conflict and to work towards reconciliation and reconstruction. Support from Iran for extremists in Iraq and the supply of weapons from Iran to the Taliban is wholly unacceptable.

Iran has a long history and great potential and we would like to see it become a trusted partner in the international community and a responsible player in the middle east. Iran’s leaders have a choice between the path of increasing isolation and confrontation with the international community or a transformed relationship with the world, with all the political, economic and technological benefits that would bring. I urge them to make the right choice.

We are deeply concerned by the current political crisis in Lebanon, where there has been no president for five months. The UK continues to support all international efforts to find a solution and the Foreign Secretary took part in an international meeting in Kuwait last week to discuss possible ways forward. We are offering our support to the Government’s attempts to maintain peace and security in Lebanon. The UK has contributed $1 million to support the special tribunal for Lebanon, more than $1.5 million to improve the security of the border with Syria and $1 million of training and equipment to help the Lebanese army maintain public order at times of civil unrest.

Ann McKechin (Glasgow, North) (Lab): Will my hon. Friend give us some indication of the contact that there has been between his office and UN refugee agencies? When the Select Committee on International Development recently met representatives we got the feeling that the approach taken by the refugee office in Jordan and that taken by the office in Damascus were somewhat disjointed. The situation at the moment does not appear to be terribly satisfactory, and I would be grateful if my hon. Friend confirmed what discussions he has recently had with those agencies.

Dr. Howells: We are very concerned about the dislocation in the organisation of refugees in Syria, Jordan and other countries in the middle east. We want to see much more co-ordination by UN agencies and more money put in by Iraq’s neighbours. We think that that is a very important issue.

Tom Levitt (High Peak) (Lab): My hon. Friend will recall that we debated Lebanon after I visited the country about 18 months ago. One of the things that we were particularly concerned about was the thousands of cluster bomb munitions that remained in place. I know that the British Government have been giving money to programmes to rid southern Lebanon of Israeli cluster bombs, but will he update the House and tell us whether we are anywhere near getting rid of all of them?

Dr. Howells: The work has been proceeding very well and I congratulate the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon, under the leadership of General Graziano. It has done a superb job in conjunction with the expertise
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that we and other countries have provided. Although I sense a degree of satisfaction with the progress that has been made, there is a long way to go and we cannot take our eye off the ball. We must continue to ensure that the personnel and expertise are there to clear the cluster bombs.

The next few years could bring positive changes in the region. We will do what we can to support a new, more stable and prosperous middle east, but only the region’s leaders can determine its direction.

12.30 pm

Mr. David Lidington (Aylesbury) (Con): I thank the Minister for his speech and, in particular, welcome the emphasis that he placed on the strategic relationship of the United Kingdom with the countries of the Gulf Co-operation Council. Those relationships—both economic and political—are of profound importance to our national interests.

I also offer the Minister the Opposition’s strong support for his call for a political settlement in Lebanon. The recent impact that the failure to find such a settlement had on the Arab League summit in Damascus makes it clear that the continuing delay and stalemate are starting to damage relationships in the region. That is bound to have a knock-on effect on other political questions such as the Israel-Palestine dispute.

I want to say a few words about the Israel-Palestine issue, especially given the importance of tomorrow’s meeting of the ad hoc group. Conservative Members strongly endorse the objective of seeking a two-state solution. One only has to start to contemplate the alternatives and how disastrous they would be to see that, however difficult it will be to make political progress, it is right to move as fast as we can towards an outcome in which Israel, secure behind internationally recognised frontiers, can live at peace with an independent, viable and contiguous Palestinian state.

It seems to me that there are three difficult issues that need to be confronted to make progress on that front, the first of which is Gaza. I just cannot see how any long-term settlement will be possible between Israel and the Palestinians if Gaza remains in its current state or anything like it. Yesterday, I met representatives from the major non-governmental organisations active in providing relief within Gaza and they told me about the humanitarian catastrophe that they are witnessing. They said that the water and sewerage systems are now on the verge of collapse and that 80 per cent. of the people of Gaza are dependent on food aid and that such food aid that exists supplies only 80 per cent. of the required daily calorie intake for the people who receive it.

Given the history of Gaza and Israel in the past few years, it will be incredibly difficult to make progress, but I would be interested to know more of the Government’s assessment of the chances of persuading the Hamas regime in Gaza to stop firing rockets at Sderot and Ashkelon and, in parallel, of persuading Israel to start to relax the blockade to allow some semblance of normal economic life to return to Gaza.

Sandra Osborne (Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock) (Lab): I am sure the whole House agrees with the hon. Gentleman’s comments, but is he aware that the World
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Bank recently reported that Gaza’s economy recorded zero growth in 2007 and that this could continue only as long as Israel keeps up the economic blockade? Does he agree that it should lift that blockade?

Mr. Lidington: I was aware of the World Bank report. I believe that the blockade needs to be lifted, but that the rocket attacks on Israeli cities need to cease. The two things have to go together. I will be interested to hear from the Government what information they have had from the Egyptian authorities about the talks that the Egyptians have been having with the Hamas rulers of Gaza to see whether progress can be made.

Secondly, we also clearly need to see progress on the west bank itself. If moderate leaders, such as President Abbas and Prime Minister Fayyad, are to succeed, they will have to be able to demonstrate to their citizens that negotiations are bringing political and economic fruits. I will say happily from the Opposition Benches that we very much support the work that Tony Blair is putting in as the Quartet’s representative in trying to secure economic progress for the Palestinians. We hope that tomorrow’s meeting achieves some significant steps forward in pursuit of that objective.

When we talk to anybody in Israeli politics or any citizen of Israel, it becomes clear that the questions of economic progress on the west bank and the security of Israel are intimately connected. There is no doubt that there has been an enormous impact on Israeli domestic opinion from their experience of having left Gaza, dismantling the settlements there and then finding that, instead of being able to leave in peace, they were the recipient of rocket attacks on civilians in their southern cities.

I have seen reports that one possible way of making progress on the west bank that would allow the checkpoints and road blocks to be removed would be to have some kind of international presence on the ground to supervise and enforce a more limited number of rigorous checks on people and goods to a standard sufficient to satisfy the Israeli authorities about the security of their people. Is that, indeed, something that will be considered at tomorrow’s meeting of the ad hoc group? Does the Minister believe that there is a readiness among European countries and in Israel itself for such an international presence to be deployed? Who would provide the personnel for such a presence and what type of people are we talking about? Are we talking about soldiers being deployed and police officers being sent to carry out duties or are we talking about civilian officials? It would be interesting to know more about what is planned.

Thirdly, we need to make further progress in making it clear to the people of Israel, who are very concerned about their security, that a settlement with the Palestinians will indeed lead to a regional settlement in which Israel’s right to exist as a neighbour is fully recognised by the wider Arab world.

Tom Levitt: I agree with everything that the hon. Gentleman says. However, on the question of Israel’s relations with its neighbour and particularly with the west bank, does he agree that the wall, which is not sited on the internationally accepted green line and which takes 10 per cent. of the west bank, including some of its most fertile land and water sources, cannot remain in place if the settlement is to continue?

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