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Margaret Beckett: As the right hon. Gentleman will appreciate, all those issues are under discussion. We are anxious to proceed in a way that will encourage Iran to
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realise that, as we have urged from the beginning, the best way to resolve the matter is speedily and peacefully. The presidency of the EU has made a statement. A meeting of European Union Foreign Ministers, which I shall attend, takes place this weekend. We will discuss those matters then. We are considering, through our mission in New York, whether there are ways in which we wish to raise the matter through the UN system.

Sarah McCarthy-Fry (Portsmouth, North) (Lab/Co-op): I thank my right hon. Friend for coming to the House. We all wish for a speedy and successful resolution to the matter. Many serving and former serving naval personnel live in my constituency, and they understand only too well what the families of the detained personnel are going through. Does my right hon. Friend agree that we should emphasise the importance of the reason for the Royal Navy’s presence in the first place? It was not only protecting oil platforms that provide the income for the reconstruction of Iraq, but preventing any possibility of sabotage, which would have horrendous environmental consequences for the whole Gulf.

Margaret Beckett: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for her remarks. I know that she speaks for her constituents. She is right about the environmental problems that could be caused by action in that part of the Gulf. However, as I am sure that she and other hon. Members know, approximately 85 per cent. of Iraq’s gross national product passes through that gateway. That is why those involved are acting not only in the interests of the Government and people of Iraq, but on behalf of the United Nations.

Mr. John Maples (Stratford-on-Avon) (Con): As our forces in the Gulf are operating under a United Nations Security Council resolution, Iran’s action is a breach not only of international maritime law but of that resolution. I do not understand why the Government’s first action was not to go straight back to the Security Council and secure a resolution ordering Iran to return our personnel whom it captured.

Margaret Beckett: We chose first to deal with the issue bilaterally, and in a way that we hoped would be most speedily effective. Obviously we will consider the matters that the hon. Gentleman raises.

Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North) (Lab): I thank the Foreign Secretary for her statement. In her discussions with the Iranian authorities, have they sought at any stage to raise the wider issue of sanctions imposed against Iran because of the dispute over its alleged nuclear developments?

Margaret Beckett: No, the Iranians have not raised those issues. I say to my hon. Friend, with great respect, that the “allegation” comes from the International Atomic Energy Agency.

Mr. Gregory Campbell (East Londonderry) (DUP): May my colleagues and I associate ourselves with the position of establishing international relations to try to bring the matter to a speedy and satisfactory conclusion? We give our wholehearted support to the Government’s
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endeavours to do that. Our thoughts and prayers are with the personnel and their families. The Foreign Secretary referred to getting the balance right between private and robust diplomacy. Will she assure hon. Members that there will be no attempt to go—or attraction towards going—down the route of accommodating any demands that Iran may make in trying to resolve the issue?

Margaret Beckett: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues for their support. Of course, we remain determined to try to ensure that the British Government’s policy is the policy that we should pursue. I repeat that up to now, the Iranians have not made demands. They have simply made an allegation, which we believe is now disproved, that their borders have been crossed.

Clive Efford (Eltham) (Lab): May I add my words of appreciation to those of other hon. Members about the Government’s approach of attempting to avoid escalating confrontation? Our concerns must primarily be about the personnel who have been taken. All that the House can do at this time is offer its full support to the Government, and unite to provide maximum support for the Government’s endeavours. In addition, will my right hon. Friend say whether procedures have been reviewed to ensure that, as far as is practical, no ship can be isolated in such a way in future by any Iranian ship in the area?

Margaret Beckett: I thank my hon. Friend for his remarks and his support. Of course we are considering all the implications of the matter. As for what he says about our handling of the matter in the initial stages, I even went so far as to point out to the Iranian Foreign Minister that the one thing that would certainly cause the British media lose all interest in the case would be the emergence of good news.

Sir Malcolm Rifkind (Kensington and Chelsea) (Con): I commend the Foreign Secretary and the Foreign Office for the professional way in which they are trying to secure the release of the personnel. Does she accept that on past form Iran is unlikely to respond purely to diplomatic representations? Will she therefore discuss with other European Foreign Ministers, when she meets them this weekend, whether their countries, particularly France, Germany and Italy, would be willing perhaps privately to make it clear to the Iranian Government that, if they do not release the British personnel in the very near future, there will be a joint European response involving economic pressure and perhaps the temporary suspension of export credit guarantees to Iran?

Margaret Beckett: I am grateful to the right hon. and learned Gentleman for his remarks, particularly in respect of my officials. I understand the point that he is making. It is not necessarily the case that Iran has not always responded primarily to diplomatic efforts. We will certainly keep those up at every level, but obviously I will discuss with my colleagues this weekend whether there are proposals that the EU can consider.

Mr. Crispin Blunt (Reigate) (Con): The only crumb of comfort in the Foreign Secretary's statement is that Iran officially is saying that there is no link with other
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issues. In her assessment, what link is actually being made in Iran with the arrest of the five Iranian diplomats at Christmas by the Americans, and with the 300 Iranians who are being held by the Americans? There appears to be a dispute between the State Department and the Pentagon about the merits of releasing some of those prisoners. Remarks have been attributed to General Petraeus, who has said that he is refusing to release them and that he intends to hold the prisoners

What is her assessment of the actual reasons for the seizure of our personnel? What is the popular mood in Iran?

Margaret Beckett: Actually, there are two crumbs of comfort. One is that the Iranians also say that our personnel are fit and well and are being well looked after. Obviously, we very much hope that that is indeed the case. The hon. Gentleman asks me about other links. All I can say to him and to the House is that it was the Iranians who volunteered that they were not making any link between that and any other issues. Indeed, it was referred to more than once to me as a technical breach, but a very important technical breach. They are not making links; we would be unwise to do so.

Pete Wishart (Perth and North Perthshire) (SNP): I assure the Foreign Secretary that she has the full-hearted support of both Plaid Cymru and the Scottish National party in her efforts to bring about the early release of the sailors. Although we accept fully the Ministry of Defence’s account of the location of the ship, can she clarify that there is no ongoing dispute between the Iranian and Iraqi Governments about the exact location of the border?

Margaret Beckett: No, there is none. I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his remarks. There is no dispute between the Iranian and Iraqi Governments about the position of the border. Although I did not highlight this in my statement, the House will be aware that our account and our assertion that the ship and the personnel were in Iraqi waters is borne out by the captain of the merchant vessel that our personnel had finished inspecting and by an Iraqi fisherman in the area who first reported the incident.

Sir Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield) (Con): I commend the Foreign Secretary and the Prime Minister on what they have told the House today. It is good that the House is united across all parties on the action that the Government are taking, but is not what has happened a very serious precedent? Is it not an act of piracy by a nation state? Not only is it an act of piracy, but the Iranians are denying the human rights of the naval personnel who are involved, in that they have denied them the right of access to consular and other authorities who may represent them. Are we in touch with the Russian President about the matter?

Margaret Beckett: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his remarks. Indeed, this is a very serious matter. As I indicated a few moments ago, it was most noticeable that, when we were discussing and explaining to colleagues
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from a variety of countries across the Gulf and beyond what had happened, everyone regarded this as a very dangerous and worrying precedent. I am not sure that anyone has yet spoken to the Russian President, but we are in touch with all allies and colleagues who we believe may be able to help.

Patrick Mercer (Newark) (Con): There is no doubt that, while this incident has been going on, there have been at least two other incidents of explosive attacks against our troops in southern Iraq. Those devices seem to have come from across the Iranian border. Can the Foreign Secretary assure the House that we will continue to put pressure on Iran to stop that sort of behaviour to guard our soldiers' lives?

Margaret Beckett: I can certainly give the hon. Gentleman and the House that assurance. We will not cease from maintaining what we believe to be the proper stance and approach to the issues that are raised by a variety of policies pursued by the Government of Iran.

Mr. Julian Brazier (Canterbury) (Con): The whole House supports the Government's strategy for recovering our personnel. The Foreign Secretary said that HMS Cornwall was part of a taskforce. Was it operating alone when the incident took place? Was close air support available?

Margaret Beckett: I believe that HMS Cornwall was indeed alone. It has helicopters, so in that sense air support was available.

Mr. Colin Breed (South-East Cornwall) (LD): A year ago, when I visited HMS Bulwark, which was roughly in the same position as HMS Cornwall, I was told that we had completed our training of the Iraqi navy, which was to undertake the task of boarding parties. Why is it not performing the task of those boarding parties? Why are we continuing to do it with royal naval personnel?

Margaret Beckett: I am not entirely sure whether the information that the hon. Gentleman has been given is entirely correct, but of course all the circumstances surrounding the matter will be reviewed as time goes on. However, he will understand that the first priority is the personnel themselves.

Ann Winterton (Congleton) (Con): Will the Foreign Secretary have a word with the Secretary of State for Defence to ensure that in future no British forces operate in Iraqi waters—which are known to be extremely dangerous; past incidents proved that—unsupported and without appropriate protection and back-up? Could there not be other incidents in future—we very much hope not—and might this not be a dangerous precedent given that, possibly bearing in mind the current rules of engagement, there is no meaningful deterrent against the Iranians?

Margaret Beckett: As I have said to a number of colleagues, all the circumstances of the case will of course be considered. There will be a careful review of the courses of action that the Government should pursue in future, but I repeat that the focus at present is on action on the diplomatic front to recover our personnel.

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Mr. Brooks Newmark (Braintree) (Con): I thank the Minister for her extremely thorough statement, in which she said that she was assured that there was no link at all with other issues, bilateral, regional or international. However, my concern is that the President and his party have performed extremely poorly in domestic elections recently. What assessment has she made of the connection with that particular matter?

Margaret Beckett: None, to be perfectly honest. Obviously, it is possible to speculate, but no real hints are being dropped and no demands are being made. It is said to be a one-off incident and we are treating it as such.

Mr. Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con): Although press and media freedom is important, has not it been completely irresponsible of elements of the British press and media to publish highly personal details about some of the individuals who have been captured by the Iranians, which inevitably will be used in their interrogation, when they will be without access to any of our consular facilities?

Margaret Beckett: I can only share the concern expressed by the hon. Gentleman, which I think is felt across the House.

Mr. Gary Streeter (South-West Devon) (Con): The Foreign Secretary will be aware that HMS Cornwall is based at Devonport naval base, which is part of Plymouth. Many of the 15 people will therefore be my constituents and those of the hon. Member for Plymouth, Devonport (Alison Seabeck). Can she reassure us, particularly with the Secretary of State for Defence sitting beside her, that every possible support will be given to the families of those 15 personnel, who will be going through daily hell as the situation unfolds? Will she confirm that she either has or will make it clear that if any of those 15 are paraded in some public relations stunt on Iranian television, whether blindfolded or not, it will be seen as an act of the utmost provocation?

Margaret Beckett: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman and I know that he and my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Devonport (Alison Seabeck) share concern for their constituents. We have tried to do what we can to support the families through a very difficult time. The Ministry of Defence has appointed a visits officer for each family and assigned a media shielder to try to help them to deal with the inevitable pressure, and particularly to deal with what may inevitably sometimes be inaccurate reporting. Further than that I would say only that, of course, all these issues are a matter of concern.

The hon. Gentleman raises the question of whether the personnel may be shown on Iranian television. There has been some hint that that might occur, and we have expressed grave concern. From the beginning, our meetings with the Iranian ambassador have included an expression of exactly the kind of concern that he identifies about treatment, humiliation and so on.

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Points of Order

1.11 pm

Mr. Peter Bone (Wellingborough) (Con): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Today at Prime Minister’s questions, the Prime Minister claimed that virtually no one was waiting more than six months for an NHS operation—

Mr. Speaker: Order. That is not a point of order. The hon. Gentleman can seek clarification on such matters through, for example, parliamentary questions or an Adjournment debate. He cannot dissect through a point of order what the Prime Minister has done or has failed to do.

Mr. Graham Stuart (Beverley and Holderness) (Con): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I am always grateful for your guidance. The Chancellor commissioned a comprehensive review of local taxation—the Lyons report, a more than 600-page tome—at great public expense to the British taxpayer. Having buried it on the day of the Budget, the Government have failed to give any idea of their response to that important report. I hope that you, Mr. Speaker, agree that that is unacceptable, and I wonder what you might be able to do to ensure that the Government give a proper response to the House on this very important report.

Mr. Speaker: I will not be drawn into whether I agree with what a Minister says or otherwise. I am not allowed to support or criticise a Minister on anything with regard to his statement. I am not telling the hon. Gentleman what to do, but if he is unhappy about something, he and his parliamentary colleagues can make complaint by way of an early-day motion, he can take the matter up in Treasury questions, or he can table written questions for answer by Treasury Ministers.


Telecommunications Masts (Planning Control)

Andrew Stunell, supported by Tom Brake, Mr. Dan Rogerson, Lorely Burt, Annette Brooke, Mr. Mark Oaten and Mark Hunter, presented a Bill to amend the law relating to planning in connection with telecommunications masts and associated apparatus; to amend the electronic communications code in connection with telecommunications masts and associated apparatus and make further provision about that code; and for connected purposes: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time on Friday 29 June, and to be printed [Bill 87].

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Employment Assistance (Wales)

1.13 pm

Mr. Wayne David (Caerphilly) (Lab): I beg to move,

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