1 May 2001 : Column 731

House of Commons

Tuesday 1 May 2001

The House met at half-past Two o'clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions


The Secretary of State was asked--

Anti-Semitism (Middle East)

1. Mrs. Louise Ellman (Liverpool, Riverside): What recent representations he has made to Governments in the middle east about anti-Semitism. [158607]

The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Mr. Brian Wilson): We deplore anti-Semitism, as we deplore racism and xenophobia wherever they arise, and we condemn any incitement to hatred and violence. We have consistently called on all parties in the middle east to do everything possible to desist from such incitement and to curb extremism.

Mrs. Ellman: Will my hon. Friend condemn categorically the well-documented anti-Semitism that is emanating from the middle east? Specifically, will he condemn the article that appeared in the Egyptian state newspaper Al Ahram in November 2000? The article repeated the blood libel and stated that Arab children had been abducted by Jews who wanted to use their blood for baking Passover matzo. Will he also condemn Syria for the statements that appeared in Tishreen, the state-owned press, in January this year? The report condemned Zionists for trying

Does my hon. Friend agree that anti-Semitism in the Arab world, as elsewhere, is a barrier to achieving true justice for Palestinians and Israelis? Will he also condemn its ugly manifestations in this country, which include the attack on the Chief Rabbi and his wife as they made their way to celebrations of Israel's independence day last week?

Mr. Wilson: My hon. Friend makes some very good points. The point about racism that should always be borne in mind is that, in any form, it disfigures those who are responsible for it more than those against whom it is directed. In respect of the attacks that she mentioned, which we all deplore, it should also be borne in mind that anybody who uses the language of racism must assume that an audience is listening to what he or she is saying or writing and that that audience is subject to incitement.

1 May 2001 : Column 732

Such people therefore bear a heavy responsibility. I repeat my initial statement: we condemn anti-Semitism, racism and xenophobia in all their forms.

Sir Peter Tapsell (Louth and Horncastle): As both the Arabs and the Jews are Semitic races, will the Minister try to persuade the Secretary of State that it would be more than usually fatuous of him to send a racist message to either of them, or even to pontificate to them about their national diet?

Mr. Wilson: I fear that we have just heard yet another bad example of the views of a senior member of the Tory party. The hon. Gentleman makes an unhelpful contribution. I would have thought that every hon. Member would agree that this a serious subject. I am not interested in dealing with semantics; I am being asked to speak about anti-Semitism. Let me make it clear again, without equivocation or any play upon words, that we condemn anti-Semitism, racism and xenophobia, from whatever source they come--full stop, no fancy words and no messing about. One should condemn them and then live as one speaks.

Mr. Richard Burden (Birmingham, Northfield): I welcome my hon. Friend's comments about condemning racism, xenophobia and anti-Semitism wherever they arise, as anti-Semitism affects both Arabs and Jews. Will he confirm the Government's view that discrimination should be tackled wherever it exists in the middle east? Does he agree that we must register concern about water supplies in the west bank, 90 per cent. of which are reserved for Israeli settlements? That is a matter of discrimination on which it is right for us to register our concern.

Mr. Wilson: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We try to practise what we preach by telling both parties to the conflict in the middle east that the only way to advance is through dialogue and an end to violence. Part of that process must be an end to the abuses that are coming from all directions, against all parties. They must try to draw the line and get back to dialogue. In that way, we can go forward. The specific abuse to which he referred is, of course, wrong. The closures are wrong. We make these points, but I return to the original point: we condemn racism, prejudice and bigotry, from whatever source they come.

Sir Peter Lloyd (Fareham): Will the Minister also condemn those who try to brand as anti-Semitic people who criticise Israeli Government policy, especially people who deplore the cruel and excessive reaction of the Israeli authorities to the unrest that their illegal settlements inevitably provoke? Peace process or no peace process, those settlements are ever expanding, and young Palestinians see their homeland rapidly shrinking. Will the Minister acknowledge that such name calling is used by some to try to silence those who wish the Jewish people well, but realise that their policies on Palestine are futile for everybody in the middle east, not least the Israelis?

Mr. Wilson: I generally agree with the early part of the right hon. Gentleman's remarks. However, I am wary of giving a blanket endorsement to what he described as

1 May 2001 : Column 733

inevitable provocation. Deeds should be judged on their merits; provocation should not be assumed to be inevitable.

The right hon. Gentleman is right that one can criticise Israel without being anti-Semitic. It is important to maintain a distinction. No one should attribute false motives to critics in order to protect themselves against legitimate political criticism. The more such debates are debased by the sort of language that we discussed earlier, the more difficult it becomes to maintain the distinction. However, its maintenance is important in the interests of dialogue, debate and decency. One can criticise Israel without being anti-Semitic and the Arabs without being racist. One can criticise hon. Members and other politicians not on the basis of race or religion, but genuine political belief.

Visa Applications (Dhaka)

2. Ms Oona King (Bethnal Green and Bow): If he will make a statement on the waiting time for visa applications submitted to the British high commission in Dhaka. [158608]

The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Mr. Brian Wilson): I am pleased to report considerable improvement in recent months. All straightforward visit visa applications are resolved within 24 hours. Applicants for visit visas that require an in-depth interview currently wait eight days.

Current queues for settlement visa applications are: 18 weeks for right of abode and dependent relatives over 65; 26 weeks for spouses and dependent children; 18 weeks for fiances and other settlement categories; and 38 weeks for reapplicants.

Ms King: I thank my hon. Friend for that reply. I also wish to put on record my thanks to Adrian Loxton, the second secretary at the British high commission in Dhaka. He and his team have worked incredibly hard to reduce waiting times for settlement applications. Will the Minister reassure me that our post in Dhaka will receive the necessary resources so that applicants do not have to wait longer than people in any other part of the world? Will he also give us some idea of when the new visa section in Sylhet will open? If he does not have the information to hand, perhaps he will write to me about it because it is important to my constituents.

Mr. Wilson: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for her comments about the staff in Dhaka. I will ensure that her message, which will be much appreciated, is conveyed to them. Like me, they know of her long-standing interest in the matter.

The number of applications in Dhaka continues to increase. It is a busy post, and the first three months of the year show an increase of 36 per cent. in new applications. To some extent, that reflects the better service that is being provided. However, we are working on providing additional staff for Dhaka to improve matters further.

I assure my hon. Friend that plans for Sylhet are going ahead and that there is a close working relationship with Dhaka. Premises have been identified for the new office. The high commissioner has the seen the proposed

1 May 2001 : Column 734

premises and we hope to establish the section later this year. We will certainly do so according to the tightest timetable. I shall write to my hon. Friend with further information.

Sir Sydney Chapman (Chipping Barnet): Will the Minister confirm that a new visa section will open in Sylhet? When will that happen? In the meantime, will the immigration advisory service be funded fairly for its invaluable work and advice in that part of Bangladesh?

Mr. Wilson: The function of the office in Sylhet is to provide advice and information to visa applicants in the region. The staff will be able to accept, check and forward applications to Dhaka for decision. However, the additional cost of posting UK-based entry clearance staff to Sylhet permanently would have been unacceptable.

Fiona Mactaggart (Slough): The Minister reported figures that revealed that spouses and their children trying to join people here in Britain still have to wait six months in Bangladesh for an interview for entry clearance. We have made great progress in speeding up some of the queues, so will we soon be able to tell our constituents that they will not have to wait that long for their families to be reunited?

Mr. Wilson: My hon. Friend makes a fair point. The figures that I quoted show that two of the four categories are still falling short of their targets. In the case of spouses and dependent children, the target is 13 weeks and the actual figure is 26 weeks. I assure her that every effort will be made to reach the target figure and that the necessary investment and resources will be put into ensuring that that can happen. I hope that that is a positive message. Equally, I hope that it sends a positive message that so much has been done in recent months to improve the previous position.

Next Section

IndexHome Page