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2 Jun 2010 : Column 436

Q13. [000438] Ian Mearns (Gateshead) (Lab): I welcome the Prime Minister's recognition of the progress made in the north-east economy. In the economic context, it is said that when the United States sneezes, the United Kingdom catches cold and the north-east of England gets pneumonia. I was therefore sad to learn at the weekend that the regional development agency One NorthEast is preparing budgets within year for 40% cuts in operational output. Does the Prime Minister think that is good medicine for that sort of pneumonia?

The Prime Minister: First, may I welcome the hon. Gentleman on his election to this place? I well remember taking the Conservative party's bi-annual conference to Gateshead. It was received all right, given what might have been expected.

Ian Mearns: Come back!

The Prime Minister: How can I refuse an offer like that?

On regional development agencies, what we have said is that in areas of the country where they work well and where local authorities want to keep them as they are, they can. We believe, however, that in many parts of the country, including the part I represent, there is a huge amount of waste in the system and it would be better to have local enterprise partnerships, with councils coming together to support business. Wherever regional assemblies-or rather, regional development agencies- are, we think there is a large amount of waste within them. We think some of the planning and transport functions should be given back to local authorities where they belong. That is what people will see from this Government: yes, we want to generate enterprise and help businesses to get going, but we also want proper local government that controls the things that local government should do.

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Gaza Flotilla

3.32 pm

The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Mr William Hague): With permission, I will report to the House on the events surrounding the interception of boats in the "Free Gaza" flotilla, on the immediate action that the Government have taken, and on our planned next steps.

In the early hours of 31 May, the Israeli defence forces intercepted six of the eight boats sailing in the "Free Gaza" flotilla. The incident led to injury and deaths of a number of passengers, mainly on one of the vessels. We await details of all the casualties and fatalities, but it is clear that many will be Turkish citizens. The Prime Minister and I have spoken to the Turkish Prime Minister and Foreign Minister respectively to offer our condolences. The six intercepted vessels were brought to shore in the Israeli port of Ashdod. Two of the boats have been delayed by mechanical difficulties and remain at sea. We believe that they are en route to Gaza.

I can inform the House that it now appears that a total of 37 British nationals were involved in Sunday's events. That is different from the number given by the Prime Minister a short time ago, which was based on what the Israeli ambassador had said previously. I spoke to our ambassador in Tel Aviv in the past 45 minutes or so before coming to the Chamber, and I repeat that the latest figures are of 37 British nationals, including 11 dual nationals. We have so far received access to 28 of those individuals, one of whom was deported yesterday. We understand that four more British nationals agreed to be deported this morning and that the remaining British nationals are likely to be transferred to the airport soon. We have expressed our disappointment to the Israeli Government about the levels of preparedness on their part, and the fact that we have not yet been given full information about British nationals detained and access to all of them. We are urgently pressing the Israeli Government to resolve the situation within hours.

There is real, understandable and justified anger at the events that have unfolded. The Government's position is as follows. Our clear advice to British nationals is not to travel to Gaza. However, we have made clear in public and to the Israeli Government that we deeply deplore the loss of life, and look to Israel to do everything possible to avoid a repeat of this unacceptable situation. The United Nations Security Council and the European Union have rightly condemned the violence that resulted in the loss of these lives. We continue to demand urgent information and access to all United Kingdom nationals involved. Their welfare is our top priority at this time, along with support for the families, who are understandably very worried. We are seriously concerned about the seizure of British nationals in international waters, and that aspect of the Israeli operation must form a key part of the investigation into the events.

The Prime Minister has spoken to the Israeli Prime Minister, I have spoken to the Israeli Foreign Minister, and the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for North East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt), has been in close contact with the Israeli ambassador in London. The embassy in Tel Aviv has been in constant contact with the Israeli authorities. I am grateful to right hon.
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and hon. Members who have already been in contact with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office about their constituents and their families, and who have provided information. We recognise the intense concern for those involved, and the need to keep Members updated.

Israel has told us that it wants to move as quickly as possible to deport people from the flotilla who are currently held in Israel. If they agree, they will be deported very quickly. Those who remain unwilling to leave will be allowed to stay for 72 hours in detention, which is the time limit allowed for them to appeal against deportation. Our understanding is that they will be deported after that. We also understand that the Israelis have begun to transfer to Jordan detainees from countries that are not represented in Israel. We understand that the individuals who were allegedly involved in violence against Israeli servicemen during the boarding will have their cases examined in line with Israeli legal advice. We do not currently believe that there are any British nationals in that last category, although I hope the House will appreciate that this is a fluid situation.

Our partners in the international community are working, as we are, to facilitate the swift release of those detained. Turkey is sending six planes to fly out their nationals, and the Turkish authorities have indicated that detainees of other countries may join those flights. We believe that some of the British nationals to whom I referred earlier are on those flights now.

The United Kingdom has played its full part in the European Union and the United Nations in agreeing on the need for a full, credible, impartial and independent investigation into these events. Our goal is a process that ensures full accountability for the events that occurred and commands the confidence of the international community, including international participation. Further discussions are taking place in other international forums, including NATO and the United Nations Human Rights Council. We will take the same principled stand in all our diplomatic efforts, and will stress to the Israeli Government the need for them to act with restraint and in line with their international obligations, given that their actions appear to have gone beyond what was warranted or proportionate. We need to know whether more could have been done to minimise the risks, or to reduce the number of deaths and injuries.

The events aboard the flotilla were very serious and have captured the world's attention, but they should not be viewed in isolation. They arise from the unacceptable and unsustainable situation in Gaza, which is a cause of public concern here in the United Kingdom and around the world. It has long been the view of the British Government-including the previous Government-that restrictions on Gaza should be lifted, a view confirmed in United Nations Security Council resolution 1860, which called for

and called on states to

The fact that that has not happened is a tragedy. It is essential that there be unfettered access not only to meet the humanitarian needs of the people of Gaza, but to enable the reconstruction of homes and livelihoods and permit trade to take place. The Palestinian economy, whether in Gaza or on the west bank, is an essential part of a viable Palestinian state which I hope will one day live alongside Israel in peace and security.

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As the once productive private sector has been decimated and ordinary Gazans have lost their jobs and their incomes, it is tunnel entrepreneurs and their Hamas backers who benefit. Hamas now has near total control of the economy. Other groups, even more radical and violent, are finding a place amid the misery and frustration felt by a generation of young people. In this context, current Israeli restrictions are counter-productive to Israel's long-term security. We will therefore continue to press the Israeli Government to lift the closure of Gaza, and plan early discussions with Israel as well as with our other international partners about what more can be done to ensure an unfettered flow of aid while also ensuring that aid reaches those who need it and is not abused. I discussed that with Secretary Clinton last night, and we will be taking forward our discussions on the subject urgently.

The House should not forget the role played by Hamas in this conflict. It continues to pursue an ideology of violence and directly to undermine prospects for peace in the region. Violence has continued in recent days, with rocket fire from militants in Gaza and Israeli military incursions and air strikes in response. We call on Hamas to take immediate and concrete steps towards the Quartet principles, unconditionally to release Gilad Shalit, who has been held in captivity for four years, and to end its interference with the operations of non-governmental organisations and UN agencies in Gaza.

It is more clear than ever that the only long-term and sustainable solution to the conflict that produced these tragic events is a two-state solution that achieves a viable and sovereign Palestinian state alongside a secure Israel, with its right to live in peace and security recognised by all its neighbours. The proximity talks that are under way are more important than ever. These events should not undermine those talks, but instead should underline just how important they are, and the Government will make it an urgent priority to give British diplomatic support to buttress that process. The Government will continue to keep the House informed of developments.

David Miliband (South Shields) (Lab): I am grateful to the Foreign Secretary for his statement, and for advance sight of it.

I said in the Queen's Speech debate last week that a policy of ignoring Gaza in the search for peace will not work. In the early hours of Monday morning, we saw why the blockade of Gaza is a barrier not only to vital aid and reconstruction materials, but to any hope of peace at all. The attack by the Israeli defence forces is the latest in a series of self-defeating and deadly moves by successive Israeli Governments in Gaza. We on the Opposition Benches join the international condemnation of an operation that was not self-defence but defence of a failed policy. Israel does have rights to security against terrorism, but we are talking here about a policy that has done nothing to defeat terrorism. Until the people of Gaza can be confident of an education for their children in schools not crumbling around them, of being able to feed and clothe their families adequately, and of being able to live without a prescribed list of what they can and cannot use in their kitchens, there is no way that the call of negotiation and peace will be heard.

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As Foreign Secretary, I negotiated UK-sponsored UN Security Council resolution 1860 in January 2009, which eventually brought the Gaza war to an end. It demanded the full flow of humanitarian and reconstruction materials into Gaza, and an end to the trafficking of weapons into Gaza, and its implementation by all sides must be the central demand of the international community. That needs UN, EU and Quartet pressure, not just engagement.

The continuation of the blockade, not just by Israel but until yesterday by Egypt too, brings misery to Palestinians and does nothing to weaken the hold of Hamas on the territory-the alleged aim of the policy. In fact, revenue from smuggling taxes funds Hamas. The latest episode cost innocent lives, undermines Palestinians and Arabs who believe in co-existence and the peaceful path to statehood, and further isolates Israel in the international community. The only people smiling are the rejectionists. The answer to them is a political process with drive and momentum. I was glad to hear the Foreign Secretary talk about proximity talks, but proximity talks are worth having only as a short prelude to substantive negotiations, and, frankly, they have gone on for too long already without getting to the big issues.

I have five sets of questions for the Foreign Secretary, the first of which is about the welfare of British citizens. The lack of clarity about the position of British nationals is completely unacceptable. We are talking about 37 people, not 37,000 people. They have a right to consular support; it says so in their passports. They should be given that support immediately. If it is being denied, we should be denouncing that, not saying that we are disappointed by it.

Secondly, on the legality of the action, I spoke to the Turkish Foreign Minister in New York last night, and it is clear that the Turkish Government intend to pursue that question. Can the Foreign Secretary tell the House whether he believes that the action, which took place in international waters, was illegal, whether he has discussed the issue with the Turkish Government, and if not, why not?

Thirdly, the Foreign Secretary says that he wants to know whether more could have been done to minimise the risks or to reduce the number of deaths during the raid on the flotilla, but surely the question to ask is why on earth armed and lethal force was used at all. A fundamental principle is involved; the language of condemnation is used very sparingly in international relations, but it is the view of those on the Opposition Benches that the loss of innocent civilian life should always be condemned. We have done so since Monday, and the language was repeated in the United Nations presidential statement on Monday night, which said that the Security Council

We welcome that, but the Foreign Secretary and the Prime Minister have not used that language themselves. We call on them to say loudly and clearly that the British Government do condemn the loss of innocent civilian life. If they will not do that, they are setting a very dangerous precedent and sending a very bad message indeed.

Fourthly, on the Government's intentions, we note the UN's calls for an independent investigation, and of course we welcome them, but there are outstanding
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requests for investigations into incidents that took place during the Gaza war 18 months ago. Will the Foreign Secretary therefore explain to the House whether Her Majesty's Government argued in the UN on Monday night for a UN investigation now? If not, why not? In that context, can he tell us how long he will give the Israeli Government to agree to an independent inquiry before he supports a UN inquiry?

Finally, the argument that opening borders only benefits Hamas has been exposed, because the present situation only costs innocent lives and actually damages Israel. What action does the Foreign Secretary propose to take through the UN and the European Union to drive forward improvements in the daily lives of people living in Gaza? Is it not the case that the EU has standing capacity waiting to be deployed to man checkpoints into and out of Gaza? Do we not need urgent engagement to get an agreement, as per resolution 1860, for those forces to be deployed?

This is a political crisis, not just a humanitarian one. Rocket attacks will be defeated only by a substantive political process towards a Palestinian state. That is where the greatest responsibility lies for all the parties. We will support all efforts on the part of the Government to make Gaza part of a wider international drive for peace in the middle east, backed by the UN and the EU, in support of US leadership, because without such an effort there will be no peace in the middle east.

Mr Hague: I am grateful to the shadow Foreign Secretary for his broad support for what is clearly a bipartisan policy shared across the Floor of the House. His concern for the people of Gaza is felt very deeply in all parts of the House. As he reminded the House, he played an instrumental part in the negotiation of UN resolution 1860 and he has always argued, as we have argued, that ignoring Gaza will not work; this problem must be addressed. I am grateful for the implicit support that he has given to the Government's position and for the argument that he makes that the Israeli policy towards Gaza does not loosen but tightens the grip of Hamas on the people of Gaza.

I shall now respond to the right hon. Gentleman's specific questions. He can tell that I am disappointed and very dissatisfied with the Israeli response, as it has gone on over recent hours, on consular access. The reason why I do not condemn the Israelis unequivocally is because there is a complicating factor: many people on board the ships did not have their passports or had destroyed all their papers, so it is not necessarily immediately obvious to which nationality they belong. In addition, there has been a clear lack of preparedness by Israel for handling this number of people and dealing with this number of consular inquiries. That is why, in some cases, our consular staff, who have been working extremely hard, have had to go to the prison at Beersheba to hammer on doors and ask people whether they are British. It has been chaotic, it is completely unsatisfactory and I am glad that some of the people are now able to leave the country. None the less, it is the most immediately urgent part of our work to ensure that that is put right and that all the British nationals have been identified and seen.

The right hon. Gentleman asked whether I had spoken to the Turkish Foreign Minister. I did speak to him. Of course, one reason for an investigation will be to learn
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more about the legality of what may have happened. However, to connect this to one of the right hon. Gentleman's other questions, the Turkish Foreign Minister particularly thanked me for the role played by our ambassador at the UN Security Council, because the presidential statement delivered to the council was, of course, made on behalf of the members of the council, including Britain, so it is very much our language as well. We certainly condemn acts that lead to the deaths of civilians-I have done that before, but if the right hon. Gentleman has not heard me do so, I do so again-so there need be no difference between us on that point.

Critically, an investigation must be prompt, independent, credible and transparent. It is my view and, from the discussions that I had last night, the view of the United States that the investigation should as a minimum have an international presence. It is possible for Israel to establish such an investigation and inquiry. The right hon. Gentleman will recall that commissions or inquiries have on occasion been established in Israel that have delivered stinging criticism of the Israeli Government and armed forces, although on other occasions such inquiries have not done so when we might have thought it was merited. However, we look to them to heed the international calls for such an inquiry and investigation, and if they simply refuse to do so-to answer his question-it would not be long before we added our voice for one conducted under international auspices.

The right hon. Gentleman is right that urgent work needs to be taken forward on providing the mechanism for access to aid into Gaza, and for trade in and out of Gaza, while giving the Israelis sufficient assurance that it will not be used for the smuggling of arms, which none of us wants taken into Gaza. We are now taking forward that urgent work with our partners in the EU and the United States, and it is something on which we will need to return to the House.

Sir Menzies Campbell (North East Fife) (LD): It is easy to be condemnatory of Israel and to argue for the raising of the blockade, but we must ask ourselves whether these things, taken by themselves, will bring about the solution that we all seek. Drawing on our colonial experience and recent experience in Northern Ireland, is it not clear that sooner or later, however controversial it may be, Hamas will have to be brought into the circle of discussions?

Mr Hague: I always listen to my right hon. and learned Friend-I think I can now call him that, given that we are sitting on the same side of the House-with great care on these matters. He will be aware of the Quartet principles, which have been very clear for some years: Hamas must forswear violence, accept previous agreements and recognise the state of Israel. That has been the long-standing position of British Governments, the United Nations and the whole of the Quartet, including the United States, the European Union and Russia. I referred earlier to the need for Hamas to make concrete movement towards those principles in order for the rest of the international community to engage with it, and I continue to believe that that is the right position. It is a long-standing position and one that we have in common with our allies and the rest of the international community acting on the affairs of the middle east. That position must be sustained.

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