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Our policy needs to be resilient. We need to remain on a crisis footing. Members did not linger on consular issues today, but they will be aware that some of the changes in the region have raised significant consular issues for the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, both here and overseas. In the main, that office has responded remarkably. There are tales all over the world of people who have been brought back to this country thanks to its extraordinary work and effort. I appreciated what the right hon. Member for Rotherham (Mr MacShane) said about that. However, we must remain alert to future emergencies.

We need to keep an eye on strategic issues, including immediate issues that may pop up. We have discussed the middle east peace process and Iran, and I will return to those subjects later. We need to continue to make a case for those building blocks for the future, based not on western values but, as the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby said, on universal values. We need to take account of the clearly expressed views of the Arab League. We must recognise that the case for Arab exceptionalism may now be weaker than it has ever been before, and that the tides of history affect all. We must also recognise that all countries are different, and will handle the pathway to reform in different ways.

Finally, we must build on relationships in the region. When we came to office, we recognised that both north Africa and the Gulf would repay closer attention. With the Gulf initiative and our activities in relation to north Africa, we sought to build and boost relationships. I do not think we expected then that quite so much attention would be focused on the Gulf and north Africa, but I think that both this Government and this Parliament are ready to meet the challenges.

I want to divide some of the issues that have been raised today into themes, and then answer some of the questions that have been asked. The broad sweep of the events in the region was mentioned by a number of Members, notably my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Sussex. My hon. Friend the Member for South Thanet (Laura Sandys) spoke with great passion about the opportunities for relationships between peoples that had been generated, and my hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border (Rory Stewart) brought his experience to bear in discussing that broad sweep of events. More colleagues raised a number of these issues, but I have not mentioned them now as I want to try to refer to Members only once.

Several Members addressed future opportunities for the exercise of soft power. I am pleased that the Westminster Foundation for Democracy was mentioned by, among others, the hon. Member for Ilford South (Mike Gapes), the right hon. Member for Rotherham—again—and my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Neil Carmichael). When any of us visit any of the countries mentioned, we are struck by the extraordinary respect that there is for our language, the British Council and the Chevening scholarships, all of which help to create a relationship between peoples, and we can only see greater opportunities for them in the future. The House can rest assured that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office is alert to the opportunities that are available in this regard.

A number of colleagues mentioned specific countries. My hon. Friend the Member for North Thanet (Mr Gale) spoke of Tunisia. I recently met the ambassador, who is a first-rate ambassador for his country. We have spoken

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to him about the opportunities for economic progress. My hon. Friend was right to say that the economics of what has happened is as important as the politics. A number of these countries—especially Tunisia and Egypt—have been greatly affected by the changes in tourism and other industries. It is essential that the work on the economic package that we are currently doing with our European partners bears fruit, and that support is made available. I can assure my hon. Friend that that is indeed the case. We have drawn up priority areas for our own bilateral support, and we are also working with the EU on new, more substantial financial packages, which are likely to be available in the new financial year. My hon. Friend’s comments were well drawn.

On Morocco, we welcomed the recent statement by His Majesty the King, and the hon. Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn) rightly drew attention to issues there, as he often does. Egypt was mentioned by my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Stephen Phillips), and I want to turn briefly to that country as the shadow Foreign Secretary, the right hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire South (Mr Alexander), made a number of remarks on it, and I am keen to respond.

The sense that I got from being in Egypt last week was one of optimism. I do not think there is any sense there that the military are looking to hang on to office. Indeed, the reverse is the case; I think they wish to push power back to the people as quickly as possible. There is widespread debate about the sequence of the elections. There is no firm timetable yet; indeed, there is no agreement as to whether the presidential should come before the parliamentary, and there is much talk about that.

There is a general sense of optimism in respect of the engagement between the politicians, and their relationship with those activists who were outside the Government, as well as the relationship between all of them and the military. Many things can go wrong, and there is concern about those who might have ties to the old regime seeking to create trouble between different communities such as the Muslims and the Copts, but the people seem to be alert to that. There is a lot of time still to go, but the signals from those with responsibilities were good, and I suspect any colleague visiting would pick that up.

The right hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire South asked about asset freezes. The United Kingdom has been at the forefront of the arguments within the EU to take action on Egyptian requests to freeze the assets of several members of the former regime. A decision on that has not been taken, but we expect that a decision will be taken soon at EU level. As my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary suggested, the difficulty has been the lack of information that has been supplied by the Egyptian authorities. We need to see evidence of corruption as well as further information about the individuals in question, but that process is under way.

I have mentioned the election timetable. The right hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire South asked about representations made in respect of political prisoners. We have continued to urge the authorities to respect fully human rights and democratic freedoms, including freedom of expression and communication and the right of peaceful assembly. On numerous occasions throughout the revolution we raised our concerns with the authorities about the mistreatment of journalists

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and human rights defenders, and during the Prime Minister’s recent visit to Egypt he called on the Government to release all political prisoners and end the state of emergency. I think the right hon. Gentleman and I find ourselves in tune on that.

A number of colleagues mentioned the middle east peace process and issues affecting Israel and Palestine. My hon. Friend the Member for Mid Sussex raised the Arab peace initiative, and we support that. There is a huge sense of urgency in this House about the need to get an element of certainty introduced to an uncertain area. That is why we are working so hard to help both the Israelis and the Palestinians appreciate that seeking a settlement now, or at least getting the parameters set out, would be of such benefit to all. We have been working tirelessly on this over the past few months and we are not letting this ball drop just because people’s minds have been distracted by other things.

Many colleagues, including my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon (Mr Offord), the right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Sir Gerald Kaufman), the hon. Members for Liverpool, Riverside (Mrs Ellman) and for Bolton South East (Yasmin Qureshi), my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman) and the hon. Member for Walsall North (Mr Winnick), spoke of some of the misery on both sides. This House knows of this catalogue of misery only too well, and what it does, whether we are talking about the Fogels or another group, is increase the urgency of finding an answer. This Government will press on that, with all parties, as much as we can.

Iran was mentioned by a number of colleagues, principally my hon. Friends the Members for Harlow (Robert Halfon) and for Harrow East, and we are all watching to see what exploitation there might be of the current situation. Despite everything else that is going on, we remain concerned about Iran’s nuclear activities. Following the disappointing talks in Istanbul, which were sabotaged by the attitude of the Iranians, we are continuing not only to keep a door open, but to make clear suggestions that the tightening of sanctions will continue. They are having an impact and we all want that process to lead to an abandonment of the Iranians’ desire for nuclear capability. Civil nuclear power is something that we all support and that can be controlled, but Iran must be open about its nuclear ambitions. It must open its doors and its books to the International Atomic Energy Agency in a way that it has not done before. It must come back to the open negotiating table of colleagues in order to reassure the world community.

Understandably, the no-fly zone and Libya dominated a great deal of what my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary and other colleagues said, and the concerns expressed echoed the warnings that the Prime Minister gave here just the other day. If Gaddafi were able to secure victory at the point of a gun and again dominate and terrorise his people, that would send out a sad signal. So far, the work that has been done to isolate and shrink that state, and warn it of the consequences, has had an effect: it has reduced the money that could have gone towards arms and it will have affected behaviour on the ground. However, as the troops advance, the urgency gets ever more acute. That is why the Foreign Secretary and the Prime Minister are working so hard, and why so much work is going on in New York today on the resolution. We are hoping that the urgency of the

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situation will convince those who have been reluctant. Nobody should underestimate either the difficulty or the commitment that this Government have to see that through. We have heard the pleas of the people of Libya for what it is they wish to see and we, too, call on the international community to respond to the resolution that we have put forward with others and, crucially, with the support of the Arab League, to make some of this a reality. It is much needed and time is short.

We watch the situation in Bahrain with great concern. We know that the Government of Bahrain have been involved in a political dialogue, but that it has been stalled for a period of time. We are monitoring the situation closely. We call on all parties to exercise maximum restraint and avoid violence, so that a political dialogue can begin.

Arms is the only substantive topic that I have not really touched on, and I have only a minute in which to do so. The issue has been raised before, and the Prime Minister said the other day that although we have the most rigorous arms control legislation, which does require looking back and revoking licences when necessary, there probably are some questions to be asked. It must remain rigorous and colleagues are right to examine the issue in terms of the future. The regime will remain as rigorous as possible, not only to satisfy the legitimate desires of nations to defend themselves—this is an industry that we are able to supply well—but to ensure that neither internal repression nor regional conflict is supported.

The House of Commons has been thoughtful and informed this afternoon. It has expressed itself optimistic that the changes sweeping the region could be beneficial. We have said that we would desire such an outcome and that both bilaterally and with friends we will do all we can to will the means—economic, political and social—to make such an end possible. But we have rightly also been wary. Long experience of such matters in this place means that we would not be doing our job if we were not cautious and careful of what we wish for and of dangers that lurk around the corner. We have reasserted the values that uphold us, although we are not blind to our past or to the reality of the future. We seek to support those in other places who have the same wishes as us. The great thing about what has happened is that it is led by those in those countries who wish to see the freedoms and freedoms of expression that we have. We hope that we will stand by them. What the Prime Minister has called a “precious moment of opportunity” will be watched carefully at Westminster—

6 pm

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

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Medway City Status

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Miss Chloe Smith.)

6 pm

Rehman Chishti (Gillingham and Rainham) (Con): Thank you, Mr Speaker, for choosing my topic for this debate. I declare my interest as a councillor on Medway council. Since I became the Member for Gillingham and Rainham, I have, as I am sure hon. Members know, keenly spoken about my wonderful constituency and the wider area of Medway—a place that is less than 30 miles from the House. After all, it is the place where I went to school, grew up and, of course, still live. It is therefore no wonder that I am a passionate advocate for the Medway area and strongly support its bid to become a city during the Queen’s diamond jubilee year in 2012.

Anyone who visited Medway would fully understand why. It is not only a place with a fantastically rich history and heritage, but an innovative and growing area that is going places with a great future ahead of it. Medway consists of the towns of Chatham, Gillingham, Rainham, Rochester and Strood, as well as the internationally renowned Hoo peninsula. All those places are interwoven by one thing: the River Medway, a place that, over the centuries, has been the setting for an awe-inspiring history.

Medway has Rochester castle, which was built in the 13th century for the Archbishop of Canterbury and is one of the finest examples of a Norman keep anywhere in the country. It has Rochester cathedral, which is England’s second oldest cathedral, built in the 7th century. If we move along the river, there is Upnor castle—an Elizabethan fort built to defend naval ships from attack by the Dutch. Mind you, as they sailed past it to burn the English fleet at anchor 70 years later, it could be said that it was not exactly the finest example of public money being spent on a successful infrastructure project.

There is also, of course, the naval dockyard, a place that has provided men and arms during the ages of sail and steam and in more recent times. For example, Admiral Nelson’s flagship HMS Victory was built there and the old sea dog himself lived there. The Chatham naval dockyard used to be one of three royal naval dockyards in England, with the others at Portsmouth and Plymouth—two places that already have city status. In the 1980s, Chatham dockyard closed and tens of thousands of people lost their livelihoods. As I am sure the House will understand, that was a devastating and bleak time for the whole area. Many people thought Chatham and the wider Medway towns would never recover, but the people of Medway are a resourceful and resilient lot, who, after a period of shock, picked themselves back up.

Even though no one at the time would have imagined that Medway could have recovered from that awful milestone in its history, it has shown it can do more than that and has exceeded all expectations. Since the closure, Medway has been transformed. St Mary’s island and the Chatham docks have been successfully regenerated and more is to come along the Rochester riverside and in Chatham town centre, where regeneration work continues despite the recession.

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We have seen major growth companies starting up in Medway over the last few decades and four universities have also come together in a unique partnership at a shared campus that caters for more than 10,000 students. The figure is set to grow. With the new high-speed rail links, its close proximity to the capital and Kent’s major ports, it also has fantastic transport connections.

We are proud of our close historic ties with the armed forces, including, of course, the fact that Chatham was at the forefront of British naval history for centuries, as well as our association with the Royal Engineers, based at Brompton barracks. That rich association led to the area being the first to host the national armed forces day in 2009.

Medway also offers a diverse range of sporting and cultural events, thanks to its new centre for sporting excellence, Medway Park, an Olympic training ground based in my constituency, and our excellent calendar of activities, which include cutting-edge art festivals and celebrations of Charles Dickens, who moved to Medway at the age of five and based part of his novel “Great Expectations” and his unfinished work “The Mystery of Edwin Drood”, there. We are also home to Kent’s only league football club, the mighty Gills, which I know will get promoted this year. Who knows—one year they might be in the premiership. I am told that Medway has more days of free festivals than any other area in the south-east outside London and I think it is fair to say that Medway is a city in all but name—a place with a rich heritage that is going places and that undoubtedly has a great future.

Over the past few decades, much of our regeneration work has benefited from Government funding, but with the huge national deficit the country now has, much of that funding is no longer possible. Medway council realises that and is acting in a thoroughly pragmatic way. Not only has it just approved, through careful and concise planning, a balanced budget for the next financial year, but it has found savings while protecting all its front-line services. Recently, the council’s leader, Rodney Chambers, has spoken of the need to bring more inward investment to Medway. He said that city status would present Medway with a “golden opportunity” to up its profile and bring that about.

Businesses across Kent agree. Medway’s bid is backed by Arriva, BAE Systems, MHS Homes, Asda, Sainsbury’s, Christian Salvesen, Swain Haulage, Hochiki Europe, Peel Ports, Nordic and Ward Homes to name just a few. My hon. Friend the Minister will know that some of the hardest people to win over in any debate are our friends in the media. That is why I am particularly delighted that Medway’s bid is also backed by the Kent Messenger group, which publishes the south-east’s biggest-selling weekly regional newspaper.

Medway also plays host every July to some of the biggest names in UK music in our castle concerts. Last summer, Medway’s city status bid was backed wholeheartedly by stars from Status Quo to Will Young, The Saturdays and Diversity, but support from celebrities, businesses and the media is not enough. It is also important that people living in Medway back the bid for city status. That is why I am pleased to tell the House that I know, from the many conversations I have had with people living in Medway, that the idea of the area becoming a city in recognition of Her Majesty’s diamond jubilee is definitely a popular one. A Medway

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council opinion poll has shown that more than two thirds of people in Medway are in favour of the bid. They recognise that being honoured with city status next year by Her Majesty would give it the greater national and international profile it deserves, putting it back on the map.

People elsewhere in the country might know about the five towns that make up Medway, but they might not realise that those towns make up the largest conurbation in the south-east outside London, or that it has great links to London and continental Europe. City status would give Medway new opportunities to present itself as a great place to do business. I know the area could attract more inward investment to increase job prospects for young people by providing them with more good, quality local jobs. I am aware that Medway has a number of competitors for city status in 2012, many of which have some of the things that make a great city but none of which has the full range of qualities of Medway. I have said it before and I will say it again: Medway is a place with a rich heritage and a great future, and I believe in recognition of that it should be honoured next year with city status.

6.9 pm

The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office (Mr Mark Harper): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Gillingham and Rainham (Rehman Chishti) on securing the debate. He follows the recent example of our hon. Friend the Member for Southend West (Mr Amess) in securing an opportunity to debate his area’s hopes of winning the diamond jubilee city status competition. As I said in that debate, other hon. Members will note this mechanism for promoting the bid of their constituency or area for city status. I am sure, Mr Speaker, that you and your team of Deputy Speakers will have the opportunity to hear about many more interesting bids over the coming year as we travel around our United Kingdom.

I understand that my hon. Friends the Members for Chatham and Aylesford (Tracey Crouch) and for Rochester and Strood (Mark Reckless)—the other two Members whose seats contain parts of Medway—share the views of my hon. Friend the Member for Gillingham and Rainham, but unfortunately they could not attend the debate because of pressing constituency engagements that they had previously arranged. I spoke to my hon. Friend the Member for Chatham and Aylesford this morning, so I know that she agrees with many of the views that my hon. Friend the Member for Gillingham and Rainham expressed.

I welcome today’s manifestation of Medway’s intention to apply for city status, which gives us an indication of the interest and enthusiasm that the diamond jubilee competition has aroused throughout the United Kingdom. Some people have tried to cast doubt on the legitimacy of a bid from a local authority area such as Medway, which contains within its borders a number of towns and rural areas. It is therefore worth saying that I can confirm that the local authority is welcome to apply, as are others like it. Medway’s entry will be fairly and impartially considered alongside all those received. The only absolute requirement, which applies everywhere but Scotland, is that an applicant local authority must want the whole of its area to be made a city. The position is different in Scotland for historical reasons and because of the way local government works there.

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I shall give my hon. Friend the Member for Gillingham and Rainham an example of a similar area, although I hope he will forgive me for mentioning it because this area and Medway were in competition before. Brighton and Hove became a city in a previous competition, so it was not Brighton alone that became a city but the entire local authority area. Brighton and Hove is a good example for Medway to follow, given that its bid was successful. We understand that Medway council intends to bid on behalf of the entire local authority area and we welcome that intention.

Medway has something unique about it, because as well as the towns of Chatham, Gillingham, Rainham and Strood, the surrounding rural areas and the Hoo peninsula, Medway includes within its borders a former city. It is well known that Rochester had the misfortune to lose its ancient city status in 1998 following local government reorganisation. Given that Rochester does not have its own council, it would not be allowed to apply by itself for this competition, but a bid from Medway council for the entire area of Medway will be very welcome.

Rehman Chishti: The Minister acknowledges the unique nature of Medway and Rochester’s former city status. Does that mean that he will look on Medway’s bid more favourably?

Mr Harper: I am afraid that I will have to disappoint my hon. Friend. The Government will look fairly and

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impartially at all bids that meet the rules, and eventually we will make a recommendation to Her Majesty the Queen on the grant of city status in her diamond jubilee year.

My hon. Friend set out well the area’s claims and some of its history. He talked about its business and culture, and concluded by setting out the public support for the bid. He and other hon. Members will understand, however, that I cannot endorse or support Medway’s aspirations, exactly as I could not support those of Southend. Indeed, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister had to refuse to support the claims of Ballymena, even though the hon. Member for North Antrim (Ian Paisley) tempted him to do so. Ministers will remain impartial, as we must, to ensure that city status continues to be a real honour that is fairly bestowed, and that the diamond jubilee competition remains a real competition all the way to the end.

We know that local authorities in all parts of the United Kingdom are compiling their entries, or looking at the guidelines on the Department for Culture, Media and Sport’s diamond jubilee website so that they can decide whether to apply. All valid entries that reach the Cabinet Office by the closing date of 27 May will be fairly and impartially considered, and I look forward to Medway’s being among them.

Question put and agreed to.

6.14 pm

House adjourned .