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Dr. Howells: We have consular responsibility for dual nationals who wish to leave and whose lives are in danger. We will of course attempt to evacuate everyone who wants to be evacuated in those circumstances. The situation is difficult, because there are a number of agreements between us and other Commonwealth states
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under which we must look after many of their citizens too. The figures may become very high, but the hon. Gentleman can be absolutely assured that the Royal Navy has the professional expertise and skills to evacuate large numbers of people. We hope that it does not happen—we hope that people will get through the crisis and, most important of all, that we will be able to bring some peace to southern Lebanon that will obviate the need for a mass evacuation—but if it has to happen, we will be prepared.

Tony Lloyd (Manchester, Central) (Lab): While we would all condemn the kidnapping of both Israeli soldiers and Palestinian Ministers, the response of the Israeli Government has not been disproportionate; it has been an outrage. Can my hon. Friend assure us that when our Prime Minister talks to the Americans, his interlocutors understand that—as was said by my right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton (Sir Gerald Kaufman)—the world faces a crisis of enormous import? The whole world could be dragged into something so tragic that we would regret every moment at which we had not taken action. Are the American Government bringing pressure to bear on the Israeli Government to end the violence?

Dr. Howells: I have tried to make clear that we recognise the gravity of the situation, and that we have tried to impress on all sides the need for proportionality and a cessation of violence. My hon. Friend knows the history better than most Members. He is aware of the feeling of Israelis, as well as Palestinians, about their own safety, the integrity of their borders and—I say this in no uncertain terms—the vital need for a two-state solution. If we take our eye off that ball, I am afraid we will enter into decades of conflict.

Mr. James Clappison (Hertsmere) (Con): Given that these events were deliberately initiated by Hezbollah through the not entirely trivial actions of attacking and killing Israeli soldiers, kidnapping Israeli soldiers and raining missiles down on Israeli towns and cities, and given that Hezbollah is supported by Syria and Iran, will the Minister bring every possible form of pressure—and consequences, if necessary—to bear on Iran and Syria to end their support for terrorism and their support for the rejection of any possible just peace in the middle east?

Dr. Howells: Yes indeed. That is very good advice to the Government, and we certainly accept it.

Richard Burden (Birmingham, Northfield) (Lab): My hon. Friend has been very clear in his condemnation of Hezbollah’s actions, and I doubt that he would find any Member on either side of the House who did not also condemn those actions without qualification. However, there is a good deal of concern about the fact that some of the language used is far from equitable. To attack power stations, to kill more than 100 civilians and to talk about taking Lebanon back 20 years is not merely disproportionate: it is immoral, it is illegal and it is unacceptable.

Will my hon. Friend unequivocally support the call from the Prime Minister of Lebanon for an immediate ceasefire on both sides? If he wants Lebanon to adhere to United Nations Security Council resolution 1559, will he also seek Israel’s adherence to resolution 242?

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Dr. Howells: I agree with my hon. Friend that the language must be equitable and constructive, and I do not see any value in destroying power stations, bridges and so on. In the interim there is the possibility for the Lebanese Government to be helped to extend their remit to the Israeli border. That has to be an immediate priority. On the question of the implementation of some of the security resolutions, we have to be realistic and aim immediately to try to end this conflict and to bring about a peace in which negotiations properly can take place and people can feel safe again. On that I agree with him entirely.

Mr. Lee Scott (Ilford, North) (Con): Does the Minister agree that firing more than 1,000 missiles into Israel over the past four weeks is tantamount to a declaration of war with Israel and that any Prime Minister of any country would defend his people in those circumstances?

Dr. Howells: I doubt if anyone could argue with that. Shortly before I came into this Chamber, I heard that a missile fired by Hezbollah apparently has hit an apartment block and that it has collapsed. We do not know what the casualties are, but it is a serious escalation of the situation.

Ms Gisela Stuart (Birmingham, Edgbaston) (Lab): Can the Minister tell me how negotiations with our European colleagues will be taken forward? Some newspapers have reported today that Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice wished the European states to be represented by Javier Solana. That will be difficult as there is no agreement between the Germans, the French and the British on how to proceed, is there?

Dr. Howells: We are co-ordinating our activities closely with our EU partners on all matters at the moment, from trying to make some diplomatic breakthrough to making sure that all our citizens are evacuated safely if they wish to be taken from Lebanon. We have received a lot of co-operation on that front and we in turn will offer what co-operation we can to other EU states.

Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire) (Con): Is there any evidence at all that the Governments of Syria, Iran and Israel are listening to the calm and moderate language used this afternoon by the Minister? Have their ambassadors been summoned to the Foreign Office, so that he can explain these things to them?

Dr. Howells: We have not summoned them formally or informally to the Foreign Office since the crisis began. I fear we have been too busy to do that, but it is a very good point and I will take it back to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State.

Barbara Keeley (Worsley) (Lab): Palestinian and Israeli women members of the International Women’s Commission for a Just and Sustainable Palestinian-Israeli Peace met last Thursday and issued a statement rejecting the use of force and urgently requesting that the Quartet intervene to stop the fighting. They also pointed out that civilians are the ones paying the price daily for the cycle of retaliation and counter-retaliation. Given that women in the middle east have for many years kept
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discussions going across political divides, does my hon. Friend agree that, as IWC members state, this appears to be the last chance for sanity and a return to the political process?

Dr. Howells: I am very glad to hear that the movement is taking a strong and positive role. Every voice, as my hon. Friend puts it, for sanity and peace should make itself heard right now.

Mr. John Redwood (Wokingham) (Con): Given how important it is to get people round the table before many more thousands are killed and murdered, is there not a danger that with an EU initiative, a Quartet initiative and a UN initiative, those initiatives individually will lack clarity and authority? Is not there a case, given all the interests of different powers in the middle east, for the UN to have all our support and to be the main force for trying to get people round the table, backed by whatever force the world can muster?

Dr. Howells: Yes, the right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. It should be conducted through the UN. The three-person UN delegation that we helped to get into Beirut has a pretty good idea now of what the situation is like on the ground there. I know that Kofi Annan is involved in trying to negotiate some way through this, if only to bring a temporary cessation of violence. We will give him all the support we can, but the right hon. Gentleman is right to stress that any initiative must be properly co-ordinated, and that we must have some coherence to our approach.

Mr. Neil Gerrard (Walthamstow) (Lab): No one in this House in any way supports kidnapping or the firing of rockets into Israel, but does my hon. Friend accept that collective punishment is clearly against international law and has been regularly and routinely used by Israel over the years? It is being used again now in Lebanon, with the bombing of infrastructure and targeted assassinations from the air that inevitably cause civilian casualties, as the Israelis know when they do it. Those are not the actions of a responsible Government. In comparing the actions of Hezbollah and Israel, let us remember that Israel is a Government and a state, not an organisation like Hezbollah. One expects any state that claims to be a democracy and is a member of the UN to abide by international law.

Dr. Howells: We certainly expect Israel to abide by international law and we are totally opposed to collective punishment. My hon. Friend is right in recalling the history of relationships between Israel and its neighbours since the second world war. There is a great difference now. Hezbollah recognises no international law and targets civilians directly. Hamas’s terrorist elements murder civilians directly. That is the way in which terrorists operate. It is difficult, as we have found in this country to our great pain, to understand how such an enemy operates, and it is still more difficult to erect defences against such attacks. That is not to excuse collective punishment, as my hon. Friend puts it, but we must also try to understand that there are some very unscrupulous organisations around that operate across frontiers, owe allegiance to no one and are prepared to use any murderous techniques they care to invent to achieve their ends. That is a very difficult enemy with which to negotiate.

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Dr. Vincent Cable (Twickenham) (LD): With the crisis pushing oil prices to $80 a barrel—and potentially to more than $100, if Iran is more directly involved—and causing great stress to the world economy and to the poorest countries in particular, can the Minister tell me whether the British Government are taking any action to secure the release of strategic stocks to stabilise the situation?

Dr. Howells: No, I cannot tell the hon. Gentleman that at the moment. I know that he is a great expert on the oil industry and I will try to find out for him. I will probably have to whisper the answer to him privately, because if such information reached the market we would see a rapid shift in the price of oil.

Dr. Phyllis Starkey (Milton Keynes, South-West) (Lab): My hon. Friend has mentioned several times the need to return to the road map once this current crisis is over. In that context, may I draw his attention to the fact that among everything else the Israeli Government are continuing to construct the illegal wall on Palestinian territory and are annexing yet more land in the west bank around Hebron? Will he also make representations to the Israeli Government that they must stop creating facts on the ground, because that will mean that the two-state solution will be dead in the water, to the detriment of Israel and the Palestinians?

Dr. Howells: My hon. Friend is right. There can be no justification for constructing the barrier that has been built on Palestinian land. Nor can the Israeli Government annex Palestinian land and claim some sort of spurious legality for it. We have raised that point with the Israelis time and again, and we will continue to raise it with them. I have been there and seen it for myself and it is causing enormous hardship for many people, Palestinians and other dwellers in, for example, Jerusalem. If Israel is to come out of this situation with any credibility, it is vital that it is seen to be fair and to abide by international law in the construction of the barrier, and to stop the annexation of Palestinian land.

Mr. Julian Brazier (Canterbury) (Con): It was incredibly touching on a visit to Beirut in April to see how much progress has been made in rebuilding the state after the ejection of the Syrians. Does the Minister accept that the Beirut Government face exactly the same problems in trying to disarm Hezbollah that the Government whom we support in Baghdad have with militias there? For Israel to trash the state of Lebanon will do nothing at all for Israel’s long-term security. The target needs to be Hezbollah, not civilians or Lebanese infrastructure.

Dr. Howells: I agree broadly with the hon. Gentleman. We were all hopeful that moves towards real democracy and the move out from Lebanon of the Syrians—at least, the Syrian Army—boded very well. There was a good opportunity there for a lasting peace and for a strong Lebanese Government, which is precisely what was needed. The destruction of infrastructure and deaths of civilians will do nothing to strengthen that opportunity for the future, and we should say so very clearly.

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The hon. Gentleman is right to draw parallels with sectarian militias in Baghdad and other places; any democratic Government face a terrible dilemma over how far they can go to try to rope militias in, and for the Lebanese Government that will be a huge task. I hope that they will be helped by an international peacekeeping force with the teeth to do something about Hezbollah.

Mr. Iain Wright (Hartlepool) (Lab): Following on directly from those comments, I draw the Minister’s attention to a parliamentary answer that he gave in March, in which he mentioned the British Government’s support for Lebanese political, economic and security reform, which I welcome. Is not the influence of Hezbollah in Lebanon a major destabilising force? As the right hon. and learned Member for Kensington and Chelsea (Sir Malcolm Rifkind) said, it is the principal reason for the escalation in violence during the last 10 days or so. Further to the Minister’s statement, what work will he do to ensure that the Lebanese Government and others undermine, weaken and ostracise Hezbollah within Lebanon?

Dr. Howells: My hon. Friend is quite right: Hezbollah is the major destabilising influence. He will know that there were many hopes that Hezbollah would recognise that it would have a good deal of democratic support if it converted itself into a strictly democratic, legal party. It has had MPs elected and has at least one Minister in the Government, and one would have hoped that would be enough for it. It was not enough, and Hezbollah simply could not ditch the habits of a lifetime of forming militias, killing people and targeting innocent civilians. That means, of course, that it has a hand in destabilising Lebanon as well as relationships between Lebanon and Israel. We all have to work to counteract that influence, because it is pernicious.

Mr. James Arbuthnot (North-East Hampshire) (Con): The Minister’s statement has been extremely balanced, as have his answers, for which I am very grateful. Does he agree that the calls on Israel to show restraint are recognised by Israel, which has shown enormous restraint over many months of having rockets fired into its territory? Three Israeli soldiers are still being held hostage: what is Israel meant to do about those soldiers? Is it meant to negotiate? If it does, will not that simply encourage more hostage-taking?

Dr. Howells: That is a real dilemma, and we know about that dilemma from our experience in Iraq. What do a Government do? Do they start to play the game of hostage-taking and prisoner swaps and so on? There may be a mutually agreed solution down that path, but I cannot see it myself right now, and I think that the right hon. Gentleman is quite right to say that we have to urge restraint on all sides. It is difficult to urge restraint, however, on an organisation which, at its heart, has the aim of the destruction of a country. It is not easy to do.

Mr. David S. Borrow (South Ribble) (Lab): There have been reports over the weekend that longer-range missiles used by Hezbollah have been supplied either by
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Syria or Iran. Is that the case? If it is, does my hon. Friend recognise that from an Israeli point of view it is one thing to be attacked by a terrorist organisation but to be attacked by two sovereign states in the region could provoke a completely different reaction, which poses grave danger to the whole middle east?

Dr. Howells: We certainly recognise from our experiences in Basra that countries outside Iraq, Lebanon, Israel and Palestine are prepared to lend and give their technology to the destruction of those whom they perceive to be their enemies. I do not want to inflame the situation further, but somebody is giving some very sophisticated missiles to some very unscrupulous people. In the end, that will do no good to Iran and Syria, any more that it will do Lebanon or the Palestinian people any good. We have to do what we can to stop that flow of weapons and try to persuade people that in the end they will kill innocent people and any hopes of peace in the future.

Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East) (Con): Given that Hezbollah would probably not have been able to proceed in the kidnapping and killing of Israeli soldiers without the green light from Iran, have Ministers considered the possibility that Iran may have given that permission with a view to diverting the world’s attention from the crisis over its own nuclear programme? What guarantees can the Government give the House that they will not allow themselves to be diverted in that way?

Dr. Howells: We will certainly not be diverted from our examination of the Iranian nuclear programme. We are good members of the International Atomic Energy Agency and support entirely the UN’s approach. We are absolutely determined to do what we can to stop the proliferation of nuclear weapons, whether in the middle east or anywhere else.

Mr. Russell Brown (Dumfries and Galloway) (Lab): Yesterday evening, I spoke with the mother and grandfather of a young man who is trapped in north Beirut. Their anxiety for his well-being is compounded by the fact that he apparently cannot make contact with our embassy and that they believe that other foreign nationals can be evacuated from Lebanon. Can my hon. Friend spell out the exact status of our embassy? Is it actually open, and are other countries having the same difficulties in evacuating their countrymen?

Dr. Howells: I can assure my hon. Friend that our embassy is not only open but has been working flat out throughout the crisis. If he wants to approach me afterwards, I will certainly go through the situation in detail. Like many Members, I have experienced a number
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of crises across the world and I have rarely seen a set of our representatives—our diplomats abroad—work harder than those in the embassy in Beirut. I hope that my hon. Friend realises the scale of the problem; it is absolutely enormous and is taking place when missiles and aircraft are flying around and bombs are going off. Our diplomats are carrying out a very brave act and doing it very well, and I do not think that anybody is further advanced than us in getting our people out, but it will take a lot of organising. The last thing we want to do is to put our people in danger by persuading them to leave places where they are relatively safe. We cannot do that, which is why we have to negotiate carefully to make sure that our ships and buses are safe and that they will not be targeted and blown up—whether by Hezbollah or the Israelis. Our primary task is to make sure that our people are safe and that is what we are focusing on at the moment.

Mr. Douglas Hogg (Sleaford and North Hykeham) (Con): Will the hon. Gentleman impress on his Israeli interlocutors the fact that many of us who are friends of Israel believe that the action being undertaken by the Israeli Government is disproportionate and not compatible with the standards that we expect of a civilised Government? Furthermore, it is not likely to enhance their long-term security and will damage their reputation in the eyes of the world.

Dr. Howells: The right hon. and learned Gentleman is right to raise this issue. I have tried to make it clear to the House that we expect proportionate action, not disproportionate action. I agree entirely with him: disproportionate action, where it takes place, will do nothing other than cause greater resentment and probably greater opposition to the cause of Israel.

Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North) (Lab): Everyone who has spoken in the House today has quite rightly condemned all the violence in the region and all the killing that is going on. The Minister himself has acknowledged that Israel’s actions in Lebanon are disproportionate and illegal, and are killing a large number of civilians. In view of Israel’s illegal activity, is he prepared to propose any kind of sanction against Israel, such as suspension of the EU trade agreement, which has within it a requirement in relation to human rights law and international law being adhered to? Will he also say the same to the United States? It has it within its power to put real pressure on Israel to cease this illegal activity.

Dr. Howells: No, this is not the time to start dusting off theories that I have heard over the past 30 years about how we can sort this problem out. We have to try to bring a cessation to the immediate violence and try to make people safe. Let us start negotiations from there.

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Points of Order

4.31 pm

Mr. David Gauke (South-West Hertfordshire) (Con): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. You will remember that, nearly two weeks ago, I raised a point of order with you about an unanswered question from the Home Office. That unanswered question related to the number of unanswered questions from the Home Office. It was a named day question, the date in question being 5 June. I received a response that the Home Office would answer as soon as possible —[ Interruption. ]

Mr. Speaker: Order. May I say to the hon. Member for Milton Keynes, South-West (Dr. Starkey) that I am trying to listen to a point of order? It is a distraction when she speaks so loudly.

Mr. Gauke: Thank you, Mr. Speaker. As I was saying, the holding answer said that an answer would come as soon as possible. That was on 5 June. I raised a point of order with you exactly a month later about whether an answer would be forthcoming. I would be grateful to know whether there has been any progress on this matter, given that the recess is looming.

Mr. Speaker: I thank the hon. Gentleman for raising the point of order. I was getting a bit worried myself, in case I got a holding reply—but I can inform him that the good news is that since I came into the Chamber, an answer has arrived. As soon as I leave here, I will read the answer and I will share it with him. I hope that that is helpful to him.

Simon Hughes (North Southwark and Bermondsey) (LD): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. You have been very clear in the past about the duty of Government not to release information publicly before it has appropriately come to the House. I have not given you prior notice of what I am going to say, so I apologise, because you may want to reflect on this. You could reflect on whether you could issue the same sort of warning to agencies of Government. The particular case that I have in mind occurred today. The Crown Prosecution Service’s Director
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of Public Prosecutions was due to make an important announcement at 12 o’clock about the prosecution or otherwise of police officers in relation to the shooting at Stockwell, but it was clear that there had been a leak of his intended announcement beforehand. I wonder whether you could take the time to reflect on that. If you were able to help the House by making sure that that sort of announcement was also protected—so that it could be made by the appropriate officer rather than announced in the press beforehand—that would be much appreciated.

Mr. Speaker: I sympathise with the hon. Gentleman, but my feeling is that the Crown Prosecution Service is an independent organisation, and operates in a different situation from that of a Minister of the Crown.

Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East) (Con): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Further to the point of order raised by my hon. Friend the Member for South-West Hertfordshire (Mr. Gauke) about ministerial non-answers, you will remember the advice that you gave me a few days ago in relation to a question that I had asked the Secretary of State for Defence. I asked whether he was informed by the Chancellor of the Exchequer about the Chancellor’s proposed announcement on the future of Trident before the Chancellor made his Mansion house speech. The answer was:

You advised that I should table another question. In pursuance of your advice, I did so, asking whether in the course of those regular discussions the Chancellor of the Exchequer had informed the Secretary of State for Defence of the content relating to the future of Trident in the Chancellor’s Mansion house speech before that speech was made. The reply was:

I wanted you to know the seriousness with which Ministers take your strictures on these matters.

Mr. Speaker: I knew that I was giving the hon. Gentleman good advice, but he must try and try again.

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