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24 Mar 2009 : Column 44WH—continued

12.9 pm

Mr. Keith Simpson (Mid-Norfolk) (Con): I congratulate the hon. Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh) on securing this debate, and on how she put forward her views. Only a few weeks ago, on 5 February, we debated Sri Lanka in one of the aptly named topical debates.

The immediate issue that has been brought forward by all hon. Members is how to ensure the safety of the tens of thousands of people caught up in what is effectively a fighting zone—the so-called no-fire zone/safe zone. Both sides have been guilty of the indiscriminate and discriminate use of violence. I say “indiscriminate” because if the Sri Lankan army is using area weapons such as assault from the air and artillery fire, it will kill large numbers of people in a very densely populated zone. I mean discriminate violence in the sense that so-called prisoners are shot by the Sri Lankan armed forces and, equally, the LTTE has ended up shooting people that it has tried to force into fighting units. This is a human tragedy on a vast scale and our immediate problem is how to bring pressure to bear not just on the Sri Lankan Government but on the LTTE to make certain that the civilians are evacuated and protected.

As the hon. Member for Mitcham and Morden and the right hon. Member for Enfield, North (Joan Ryan) mentioned, the LTTE has come to the table suggesting that it wants a ceasefire, with no conditions attached to it. The sadness is that both sides have played that game over the years. Both sides have tended to propose a ceasefire when they have perhaps been at a point of weakness and want to bring the other side to the table. However, there are powerful arguments now for the Sri Lankan Government to recognise that they have the LTTE on the ropes and that, in terms of not only domestic public opinion but international public opinion, they should show a degree of magnanimity and produce a ceasefire that puts the LTTE on the back foot.

It seems to me that, as other hon. Members said, the Sri Lankan Government are determined militarily to destroy the LTTE. There is no doubt that the reason for their refusal to allow in a UN force and most international media and for the constraints that have been placed on the non-governmental organisations is that they believe that if there is one final push, the LTTE will be militarily destroyed. However, as many hon. Members pointed out, that military victory will not produce the lasting settlement that they want. History is littered with examples of that. The hon. Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore) pointed that out. My experience from teaching this to British armed forces over many years is that the tube of toothpaste is squeezed in a different direction. There will be a new generation of Tamil Tigers, who will end up fighting by unconventional warfare against the Sri Lankan Government and, more importantly, their people, not only in Sri Lanka but worldwide, and on a scale that we have not seen so far. They will escalate that on a scale that will be quite frightening.

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I urge the Sri Lankan Government to think very seriously about that. The irony is that in the next two or three weeks they will undoubtedly achieve that military victory, in that they will capture the final strongholds of the LTTE, but they will actually snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. We should be thinking of how we persuade the Sri Lankan Government that they are about to achieve a tactical victory that is in fact a strategic defeat.

Let me explain where I disagree with hon. Members. At one level, I am impressed by the fact that the Sri Lankan Government have put out vast amounts of PR and publicity, just as the Tamil Tigers have, but I have not found it very sophisticated. If I were advising the Sri Lankan high commissioner, I would say, “The one way you do not go about influencing the debate in the House of Commons is by defaming hon. Members. You try to produce arguments that will convince them that at the very least you have some arguments on your side.”

The Sri Lankan Government have damaged their case by refusing entry to the area of combat for journalists and they have an ambivalent attitude towards aid workers. At least the British can speak from experience on this matter. I suspect that if we had decided in the long conflict in Northern Ireland to do just that, we would have lost what in effect was a conflict 20 or 30 years’ ago. We would have certainly lost any form of support from within Ireland, southern Ireland, or indeed in the United States of America. In their own interests, I urge the Sri Lankan Government to reconsider. However, we should bear it in mind that it is not exactly easy for a journalist or an aid worker to have operated in the zones controlled by the LTTE, either. Putting aside those moral issues, I have sympathy for any Government who are fighting unconventional warfare when they have to reach a moral bar that is often far higher than that of the unconventional side.

I want to give the Minister as much time as possible to respond to the debate, so I shall briefly pull some thoughts together about what is to be done.

Mr. Dismore: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Simpson: If the hon. Gentleman will allow me, I will not, because I have very little time left.

The first question is how to persuade the Sri Lankan Government to allow the media and aid workers into the area now, that it is in their own interests to do so and that by not doing so, they are, ironically, aiding the LTEE. That should be our first priority, and I hope that the United Kingdom Government are doing that. Secondly, we should pressure them to evacuate civilians. Again, it is in their own public relations interest to evacuate civilians outside that area. Thirdly, we need to persuade them to let in a UN observer mission. If the Sri Lankan Government are convinced that they have right on their side and that the other side does not have right on its side, they should have nothing to fear from bringing in a UN observer mission. We should say to them that if they are unable to do all that, ultimately there may be a resolution at the United Nations Security Council and if they are unable to convince some of their own friends not to veto that, they will be facing serious problems.

The fourth point concerns the role of the UK Government. I support what other hon. Members have said: the UK Government, unlike some Governments,
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have, on the whole, taken an honourable lead in attempting to put pressure on the Sri Lankan Government, but also to mediate between the Government and the LTTE. There is a long history—

Mr. Dismore: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Simpson: Please, I have just two more points to make.

The proposal to send in a UK special envoy, the right hon. Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Des Browne), was vetoed. Where are we on that now? Is the right hon. Gentleman’s name still on the table? Have the Sri Lankan Government given any indication of the terms on which they might allow him in?

The final point concerns the role of the Commonwealth. It does seem strange that in the Commonwealth ministerial action group, the Government were represented only by a junior Minister. There may have been very good logistical reasons why the Foreign Secretary or the Minister of State could not be at that meeting, but given its importance in terms of policy towards Fiji, let alone towards Sri Lanka, I find that strange. Perhaps the Minister will answer that question.

The message that the Sri Lankan Government should take from this debate, as they should have from the previous debate, is the unity of purpose within Parliament on this issue. They should also take from it the message that they are, ironically, damaging their case by the actions and policies that they are carrying out and that although they will succeed in the short term—there is no doubt about that—they will create such a hurricane of violence that their long-term hopes for a peaceful democratic Sri Lanka will not be realised.

12.18 pm

The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Bill Rammell): May I start by genuinely congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh) on securing and leading the debate? She has been consistent in her advocacy on behalf of her Tamil constituents. I saw that at first hand when I addressed a meeting of a group of her constituents whom she brought to Westminster. I know that she will continue to make that case.

I also congratulate the hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk (Mr. Simpson), who leads for the Opposition, on striking absolutely the right tone in a constructive and thoughtful contribution, probing the Government in a difficult set of circumstances. One of the blunt realities is that we cannot just mandate actions on behalf of a Government in a different country.

Let me place emphatically on the record the Government’s clear view that Members of this House have an absolute, unequivocal right to speak up on behalf of their constituents. Spurious personal attacks on the character of individual Members by any high commission or embassy in this country are not only wrong and unacceptable, but completely counter-productive in advancing the cause of those involved, and I can assure hon. Members that we will send that message loudly and clearly to the Sri Lankan high commission.

The ethnic conflict between the Government of Sri Lanka and the LTTE has reached a critical phase, and the UK Government are extraordinarily concerned about
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the grave humanitarian situation and particularly about the fate of the large numbers of civilians caught up in the fighting.

As many hon. Members in the Chamber who are extremely knowledgeable about the situation know, the conflict in Sri Lanka has been raging for more than 25 years and has claimed the lives of more than 70,000 Sri Lankans. The dramatic advances by the Government forces since January have claimed the lives not only of Sri Lankan soldiers and LTTE cadres, but, most shockingly, of innocent civilians, including women and children.

The lack of independent reporting from the conflict area makes it impossible to obtain definitive figures. However, the UN estimates that more than 2,600 civilians have been killed and more than 7,200 have been injured since 20 January alone. Those figures are truly appalling. I very much agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Mitcham and Morden that nothing justifies what happened in Gaza, but the figures in this case are more significant. Given the conflict that is taking place, there has not been enough attention in the international media.

The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, recently said that

There are more civilian casualties every day, including those who were killed or wounded when a hospital, which had been declared a no-fire zone, was repeatedly hit by shells over a number of days in February. As I made clear in the House when Sri Lanka was last debated on 5 February, we expect and urge the Government of Sri Lanka fully to investigate any allegations of abuses by their forces. We would support a full and independent investigation into all concerns about war crimes, including the shelling of the hospital and other civilian deaths.

Hon. Members have understandably voiced concerns about accusations that Government forces have used cluster bombs and resorted to indiscriminate bombing, and we have raised those allegations with the Sri Lankan Government. Although they have stated that they do not use cluster munitions, we have made very clear to them our strong opposition to the use of such munitions and to indiscriminate bombings. We condemn the killings of civilians unequivocally and in the strongest possible terms, however they happen, and we have urged all parties to the conflict to avoid action against civilians.

We are now at a critical phase. The last remaining territory held by the LTTE measures less than 30 sq km, and large numbers of civilians—internally displaced persons—are trapped in that area. Since January, more than 40,000 IDPs have left the conflict area and moved into Government-controlled territory. Estimates of the numbers who remain vary from 70,000 according to the Sri Lankan Government to 200,000 according to the UN. These people have been repeatedly displaced over the past 18 months each time the front line has moved.

We have rightly been critical of the actions of the Sri Lankan Government, and I have just made that clear again. However, it has become increasingly clear that the principal reason why more IDPs have not left the conflict area is that the LTTE is forcibly preventing
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them from doing so. A number of NGOs working in northern Sri Lanka have publicly stated that that is happening. The UN has also condemned the LTTE for forcibly recruiting civilians, including women and children. We must attack that on all fronts and we must express our concerns to the Sri Lankan Government. I urge anyone with influence and with access to the LTTE to put those concerns forward.

Civilians have been under direct threat not only from the fighting, and there is enormous concern about the ability to get aid into the area. Much more needs to be done about that. It was because of our concerns about the humanitarian situation in the conflict area that the Prime Minister first called for a ceasefire on 14 January and wrote to President Rajapakse. My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary followed that up by telephoning the President and urging him to declare a humanitarian ceasefire. We have been consistent in advancing that cause in all forums.

We have also rightly been releasing resources. Given the urgency of the situation, we have allocated a further £2.5 million—on top of the £2.5 million that we committed in October 2008—to support the efforts of humanitarian agencies in Sri Lanka. We have also sent a Department for International Development humanitarian expert to bolster the capacity of our high commission in Colombo to deal with the unfolding humanitarian situation. The hon. Member for Wimbledon (Stephen Hammond) asked about the post-conflict situation. The international community will inevitably need to assist with reconstruction efforts in communities affected by the conflict, and we will certainly play our part in such efforts.

We have not been working on this issue alone. One very helpful development in recent weeks was the joint statement by the Foreign Secretary and the Secretary of State in the United States Government, which called for a “temporary no-fire period”. The co-chairs group—the US, the EU, Japan and Norway—has also called for the delivery of humanitarian aid and for the LTTE to discuss ways of ending the current hostilities.

Mr. Andrew Love (Edmonton) (Lab/Co-op): I thank my hon. Friend for the forthright way in which he is presenting the Government’s case. I also apologise to you, Mr. Williams, for arriving very late for the debate. We have reached a critical point in Sri Lanka. Reference was made earlier to the importance of India and the influence that it can bring to bear on the Government of Sri Lanka. Will my hon. Friend take up with the Indian Government the possibility of a joint initiative to bear down on the Sri Lankan Government so that they recognise the coming humanitarian disaster?

Bill Rammell: My hon. Friend has anticipated my very next sentence, because I was going to highlight the fact that the Indian Foreign Minister has visited Sri Lanka to discuss the humanitarian situation with the President. We continue to talk and work with the Indian Government on the issue.

We have also been working with a wide range of multilateral forums. EU Ministers have called for a ceasefire. The key issue raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Mitcham and Morden was the Commonwealth, and although Sri Lanka was not on the formal agenda of the Commonwealth ministerial action group meeting this month, it was nevertheless rightly discussed.

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The issue of our level of representation at that meeting has been raised. It was absolutely right that the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs was present. She is the Minister responsible for our relations with the Commonwealth, and I can assure hon. Members that she emphatically articulated the concerns that have been raised. She took the opportunity to brief CMAG and expressed our concerns about the humanitarian situation and the safety of civilians caught up in the fighting. She stressed the need for a humanitarian ceasefire to allow civilians to move to safety and for full access by the international humanitarian agencies. She also called attention to the letter that we had received from 11 hon. Members expressing their concerns about the Government of Sri Lanka and calling for Sri Lanka’s suspension from the Commonwealth. CMAG did not call for a suspension, because there has not been an unconstitutional overthrow of democracy—rightly or wrongly, that has been the basis for previous suspensions. Nevertheless, we have rightly raised our concerns in CMAG and directly with the Commonwealth secretariat.

The second key bone of contention that has been raised in the debate is the role of the UN. At the Security Council, we have sought discussion and regular briefings about the situation in Sri Lanka. We welcomed the visit to Sri Lanka in February by John Holmes, the Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs. However, if we took a resolution to the Security Council, the reality is that we would not get the nine votes that were necessary or that it would be vetoed.

That brings me directly to the criticism from the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Mr. Davey), who leads for the Liberal Democrats. He talked about diplomatic weasel words, and if international diplomacy is just about feeling good about ourselves and what we say, that is the point that needs to be made. However, if we actually want to make an impact, we have to take a different course of action. My real concern is that if we went forward with a Security Council resolution and it was vetoed, we would no longer have the status quo, but an even worse situation, because the Sri Lankan Government would simply turn around and say, “The United Nations has agreed with us that no action should be taken.”

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West Coast Main Line (Commuter Services)

12.30 pm

Mr. Mark Lancaster (North-East Milton Keynes) (Con): It is a pleasure to be here under your chairmanship, Mr. Williams, and to have this opportunity to raise the concerns of my constituents in Milton Keynes.

I before E—infrastructure before expansion. That is the key to the future of Milton Keynes. [Interruption.]

Hywel Williams (in the Chair): Order. Will members of the public please leave quietly?

Mr. Lancaster: Thank you, Mr. Williams.

I am here to highlight for the Minister my constituents’ concerns about the standard of train services from Milton Keynes to Euston. I am sure that the Minister will, in replying, be keen to talk about the investment that has gone into the west coast main line. Undoubtedly, there has been considerable investment. However, the concern is that the entire focus of the investment seems to be on long-distance travel. In the past two or three years, while my constituents have suffered over-running engineering works, industrial action, delays and poor rolling stock—problem after problem—it has seemed that their concerns have come as very much a second thought to the Government, who have been focusing on long-distance travel. For example, shortly before the last general election, there was an announcement about the new Milton Keynes upgraded station, with extended platforms and an extra platform. Yet now that the upgrade is in place it is clear that the real reason for it was to help with through-travel through Milton Keynes, rather than particularly to help Milton Keynes commuters. Indeed, we seem to be going backwards in Milton Keynes now that we face the prospect of the closure of the travel office. Is that a sign of future service cuts?

I shall not speak for too long, because I want to give the Minister ample opportunity to reply, but in the brief time I shall take I want to cover three different areas. First I want to say a few words about Virgin Trains; then I want to comment on London Midland.

Andrew Selous (South-West Bedfordshire) (Con): On the matter of London Midland, has it been my hon. Friend’s experience, as it has been mine, that things seem to have got a lot worse since Silverlink lost the franchise? I had a letter this morning from a constituent, who says that things have got much worse since Silverlink went, and describes travelling on London Midland trains as a

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