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5.45 pm

Bill Rammell: With the leave of the House, Mr. Deputy Speaker. We have had a good debate, but the division of opinion that it has revealed across all parties underlines the difficulty of securing a resolution of the problems in the middle east. Powerful contributions, demonstrating real concerns, were made by my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Sparkbrook and Small Heath (Mr. Godsiff), the right hon. Member for North-East Hampshire (Mr. Arbuthnot), the hon. Member for East Devon (Mr. Swire), my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick), the hon. Member for North-East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt), my hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland, South (Mr. Mullin), the hon. Member for Teignbridge (Richard Younger-Ross), the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy (Mr. Llwyd) and my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Central (Mr. Sarwar). I shall try to respond to all the specific questions that I was asked; I hope that I shall have enough time to do so.

The hon. Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Lidington) began by asking me about the attack made on the United Nations Relief and Works Agency today, and the effect that it would have on the distribution of aid. The honest answer is that it is too early to make an assessment of the impact of the bombing. Nevertheless, it will undoubtedly have some impact, and it reinforces the calls that we have made urging all parties to respect their obligations and ensure the safe and unimpeded passage of humanitarian aid.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton (Sir Gerald Kaufman) made a very powerful contribution. He rightly referred to the equal importance of Jewish and Palestinian lives. He also referred to the Hamas boycott. We need to be clear about the fact that the Arab League has mandated Egypt to talk directly to Hamas. We are in regular contact with both parties, and I think that that is the right thing to do.

The hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Mr. Davey) made a balanced contribution. I think that when he said that the Israeli action was a disaster for Israel, he was at the very least advancing a powerful argument that needs to be listened to. There is, I think, a real risk that as a result of actions that are being taken, extremists will be strengthened and the moderates will be undermined. The hon. Gentleman referred to the European Union upgrade suspension. Let me make the position clear. Neither the European Commission nor the European Union more widely has made any decision on the future of the EU-Israel relationship. The context of the EU-Israel upgrade, as set out in the conclusions of the General Affairs and External Relations Council in December, was that a backdrop of continued progress on the middle east peace process was important in parallel. The European Union will in due course rightly revisit the question of the upgrade, given that the context has clearly changed, but I strongly believe that for the present we should focus all our energies on securing and sustaining the ceasefire.

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The hon. Gentleman also asked for reassurance on arms sales. Let me repeat what the Foreign Secretary said in the Chamber on Monday. Several Members referred to the arms embargos of 1982 and 1994, but they were established before the consolidated criteria introduced by the Government post-1997. We have some of the toughest arms export controls in the world. We do refuse export licences when we believe that they would be used for the purpose of internal repression or external aggression. I know that to be the case: as a Minister, I have refused such applications. We assess applications against the risk of licences being used in operations such as Operation Cast Lead. I think that that provides the reassurance that Members have sought.

My hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Mrs. Ellman) presented some powerful arguments in support of Israeli citizens who have been and are under constant rocket onslaught. I say to her, as a friend, that I do not think she helps the legitimate cause that she advocates by sidestepping the genuine horror that members of all parties feel about the loss of 300 innocent children, and the absolute necessity for Israel to do everything possible to avoid such deaths.

I recognise the passionate commitment of the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Ladywood (Clare Short) on these issues. I am not arguing on the basis of equivalence in terms of loss of life—we have made clear our view that the Israeli response has been disproportionate—but I think that the right hon. Lady does her argument a major disservice if she downplays and underrepresents the impact of the rocket attacks on the state of Israel, involving 6,000 rockets affecting 10 per cent. of the Israeli population. A number of Members have been there and have experienced that. Anyone who sees it on a daily basis will know that it undoubtedly has an impact. We must address that problem as part of the solution that we seek.

My hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester (Mr. Dhanda) spoke of the importance of community cohesion. I pay tribute to the work that he did on this issue when he was a Minister. He highlighted his concern that what is happening will lead to greater levels of anti-Semitism and radicalisation. I acknowledge that that is a real concern. The Foreign Secretary and I, and Ministers at the Department for Communities and Local Government, have been talking to community groups in the last two weeks. I urge all Members to help us make clear what we are doing to try to assist in this situation; we are making the strongest possible calls for a ceasefire—we are leading the way at the UN and using every ounce of political and diplomatic capital at our disposal to try to achieve that ceasefire. I wholly agree with my hon. Friend that there is no durable military solution to the situation in Gaza.

I welcomed the statement of my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Richard Burden). He demonstrated his enormous concern for the plight of the Palestinians in Gaza, but he also recognised that the launch of rockets into southern Israel is unacceptable—and I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland, South (Mr. Mullin) that the word “unacceptable” does not do justice to the genuine concerns that people have.

My hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Northfield also asked about the national unity Government. The British Government will do everything we can to bring
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that about, and we welcome the prospect of Hamas—signed up to a non-violent path, and recognising the state of Israel—being part of that national unity Government. Palestinian reconciliation was at the forefront of resolution 1860.

The hon. Member for Bethnal Green and Bow (Mr. Galloway) raised the issue of the United States abstention. Let me be clear—the Foreign Secretary said this in the Chamber on Monday—that we put forward that resolution and we would have preferred the United States to have voted for it. Nevertheless, a reading of the explanation of the vote from Condoleezza Rice makes it clear that the United States did support the intentions of that resolution. To be blunt, in similar situations in previous circumstances, we might well have faced a veto, and the fact that we did not is, I think, in part due to our efforts and the leadership we gave on this issue.

I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore) is a strong supporter of Israel, and in that respect I very much welcome his call for the implementation of resolution 1860 by both Hamas and Israel. One of the things that need to happen in the current situation is that the Government of Israel must listen to their friends throughout the international community.

My hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes, South-West (Dr. Starkey) made a powerful address in which she asked me questions about the ceasefire, and stated the need for it to be sustainable and to address all the key issues. I can certainly give her the confirmation that that is what we are looking for. She also asked about allegations of human rights abuses, and I repeat what I have said earlier: serious allegations have been addressed to both sides, and it is vital that they are properly examined and that we get to the bottom of them.

The right hon. and learned Member for Devizes (Mr. Ancram) rightly underlined the fact that what is happening in Gaza is a tragedy for all concerned—Gazans, the Israelis, President Abbas, and all of us in the international community. I also wholly agree with the right hon. and learned Gentleman that the confidence that is a necessary precondition for a peace process has potentially been shattered by what is happening at present, and that is why the situation is so serious.

My hon. Friend the Member for Ilford, South (Mike Gapes) demonstrated his understanding of these issues, referring to the tunnels going from one family home to another. That is why the smuggling issue is so serious and so difficult for us to resolve. He also made the comment, which is worth repeating, that President-elect Barack Obama is not a miracle worker. My spirits were lifted beyond the roof when he was elected—I will remember that night for the rest of my life—but I say in all sincerity that no democratically elected politician could fulfil the aspirations that exist both in the United States of America and in the whole of the international community, and we need to ensure that we are not, of our own volition, sadly disillusioned, because the problems we are dealing with are incredibly difficult.

We have had a good debate, which has demonstrated that there is concern in all parts of the House. The Government will continue to do everything in their
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power through advocacy and diplomacy and at the UN to try to get us to that ceasefire that is so desperately needed.

6 pm

Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 9(3)) .

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Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn .—(Mr. Blizzard.)

6 pm

Mr. Andrew Dismore (Hendon) (Lab): We move from one long-standing international problem to another: Cyprus. First, I should declare my interest: I visited Cyprus at the end of November and in early December, when some of my expenses were met by the Cyprus House of Representatives. I understand that my right hon. Friend the Minister for Europe is about to visit Cyprus next month, so I hope that today’s discussion will help to inform her visit.

Almost a year ago, the Republic of Cyprus elected a new President, President Christofias of AKEL. That was probably a surprise to many, but it was also a pleasant one to many. Two thirds of Greek Cypriots voted for one of the two pro-solution candidates in those elections, and that sends a powerful message that Greek Cypriots, as well as Turkish Cypriots, want a solution. Before I go into the detail of my remarks, I should pay tribute to the late President, Tassos Papadopoulos, who died on 15 December. Although we in the UK may have had fundamental disagreements with him, I think we would all recognise that he always had the best interests of his country at heart. He was a key figure in Cyprus’s struggle against colonialism in the 1950s, the youngest Minister in the Makarios Government in the 1960s and a President who was elected for one term, but who achieved a great deal in bringing Cyprus’s membership of the European Union forward and, indeed, its membership of the euro.

President Christofias’s election means that for the first time the leaderships on both sides of the green line are committed to finding a solution—Mr. Talat is the Turkish Cypriot leader. Both they and their respective parties—AKEL and the CTP—have a long association. On 21 March 2008, Mr. Christofias mounted a new initiative, launching a preparatory phase of a new dialogue with the Turkish Cypriots. On 25 July, the decision was made to translate that into fully-fledged negotiations, and on 3 September the two leaders began face-to-face talks, meeting on an almost weekly basis. This year, they have met on 5 and 12 January, and are due to meet again tomorrow. Despite ups and downs, the atmosphere is a constructive one. The issues have been divided into six chapters: governance and power sharing; property; the EU; the economy; territory; and security. Each of those is then subdivided, with United Nations assistance, into one of three categories: agreed issues; those close to agreement to be decided by the negotiators—Ozdil Nami for the Turkish Cypriots and George Iacovou for the Greek Cypriots; and those that cannot be agreed as yet. I regret to say that far too many are in the latter two baskets, rather than in the first.

On 5 January, agreement was reached on harmonisation and co-operation between the proposed federal Government of constituent states, and Friday’s will be the last discussions on that first chapter. The next discussions will address property issues—one of the most difficult and intractable questions on the island. Progress remains slow overall. On 14 January, Mr. Christofias said that

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Nevertheless, he has expressed confidence that a result can be achieved, there are no artificial deadlines to the process and neither side wishes to walk out of the negotiations. However, there still seems to be no real meeting of minds on the endgame.

The process is much more political than before and less legalistic, and that has to be welcomed, but people do get hung up on words such as “federation” and “confederation”, without analysing what they mean in terms of where on the scale of the division of powers between the central state and the constituent parties the balance should be placed.

The UN is playing a constructive role, with a special representative, Taye-Brook Zerihoun, who tells me that he is “paid to be optimistic”. The UN Secretary-General’s special adviser, the former Australian Foreign Secretary, Alexander Downer, has also played a constructive role. The UN approach is to work towards a framework agreement—not a detailed one, such as Annan 5, which failed—to try to build trust and confidence as the process continues. On 10 January, Mr. Downer said that there was momentum and that he was cautiously optimistic. He said that the process needed to be owned not by the UN or the international community, but by the people of Cyprus, and that the solution would have to be put to the people, and it should not be one drawn up by foreigners. He is a politician who understands the need to have an outcome acceptable to both communities in a referendum.

As always, the key to progress in Cyprus is to be found in Ankara. Turkey is now a member of the United Nations Security Council and in June it takes over its presidency. It will be scrutinised more closely as a Security Council member and soon-to-be president, and it will need to be part of the Security Council’s consensus. Bearing in mind also that Cyprus is a recognised member of the UN, Turkey will have to discuss these issues with Cyprus’s permanent representative to the UN.

Turkey and the EU will seek to review the accession process this year. Turkey has failed completely to implement the Ankara protocol dealing with relations with Cyprus. Ali Erel, the chairman of the Cyprus-EU Association and a respected Turkish Cypriot, says that Turkey is spoilt by the EU. At the end of last year, the Turkish navy harassed the Republic of Cyprus’s survey ships which were operating in accordance with the international law of the sea in the exclusive economic zone, looking for oil and other resources that would ultimately be for the benefit of all Cypriots. That cannot be allowed and we have to condemn it. It will inevitably lead to reciprocal action by Cyprus, disrupting the energy chapter in Turkey’s accession process, if that is to proceed.

Turkey remains in military occupation of northern Cyprus, with an estimated 20,000 to 30,000 troops. UNFICYP puts the figure towards the bottom end of that bracket, but Turkey could reduce troop numbers with no risk to security in the north, and should do so as a confidence-building measure. We understand that there is a new general in charge of the north, General Zorlu, who has a long history of participating in peacekeeping operations, and that has to be a positive sign for Cyprus.

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The Turkish Cypriot economy is very weak. It is founded on casinos and nightclubs, with a property boom based on Greek Cypriot land that has now come to a juddering halt. The Turkish Cypriot economy has seen minus 5 per cent. growth and it would be bankrupt without the subsidy from Turkey of 14 per cent. of its budget. Some 39 per cent. of that budget is spent on public sector pay. Turkey is now getting tough with a wage freeze, but this position cannot be sustained. We need real progress for the benefit of Turkish Cypriots.

The EU has given €259 million in aid to northern Cyprus to bring it closer to Europe and to facilitate settlement, but that money has been disbursed extremely slowly. By October last year, less than half—€119 million—had been tendered, and only €60 million, or half of that, had been contracted. Less than half of that— €25.5 million or only 10 per cent. of the total—had actually been spent. That is not TRNC money: it is EU money that should be spent for the benefit of Turkish Cypriots.

I was pleased to meet the new EU Head of Representation, Androulla Kaminara, when I was in Cyprus. She was very impressive. Unlike her predecessor, she is prepared to travel to the north, and she is working hard to involve Turkish Cypriots in a greater understanding of the EU and what it can achieve for northern Cyprus. However, the area needs much greater understanding of how the EU operates. For example, one of the logjams in the negotiations was the issue of the central bank. The northern Cypriots wanted to have their own central bank, which would not be possible through EU membership—showing a lack of understanding of how the EU operates.

We need more confidence-building measures, which maintain confidence when slow progress is made in the talks and little information is coming out. A good example of that was the opening of the Ledra street crossing on 3 April. That created a groundswell of good feeling towards the process. On behalf of the Turkish Cypriots, Mr. Talat says that the concentration should be on a comprehensive solution and he is not too impressed by confidence-building measures. Of course, there will be difficulties in implementing some of them unilaterally because of the thorny issue of possible recognition of the north. One possibility would be to work through NGOs. For example, the trade issue was solved through the intervention of the Turkish Cypriot chamber of commerce as facilitator.

That is a quotation from only a few weeks ago from Stephanos Stephanou, the presidential spokesman for the republic.

Confidence-building measures could include some of the 16 recommendations agreed by the technical committee. They include measures on crime-fighting, the economy, cultural heritage, crisis management, humanitarian health issues and the environment, which could form the basis of confidence-building measures that would improve the daily lives of all Cypriots. I would like my hon. Friend to describe what we are doing to promote those ideas.

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