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14 Jun 2010 : Column 638

Point of Order

5.32 pm

Mr Wayne David (Caerphilly) (Lab): On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. Yesterday various ministerial statements were made to the media about the early departure of the Chief of the Defence Staff. Many of us believe that it would have been far better for a statement to be made to the House first. May I ask you to use your good offices to make representations to the Government to see whether that would have been more appropriate?

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Lindsay Hoyle): The hon. Gentleman has raised the point, and rightly so. The Speaker was not notified of such a request. I dare say it will now have been taken on board.

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UK Policy on the Middle East

5.33 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Alistair Burt): I beg to move,

May I say, Mr Deputy Speaker, as a north-west chum of years past, that it is a pleasure to see you in the Chair.

As the Minister responsible for the middle east, it is an enormous privilege for me to open this general debate. It is a pleasure also to welcome the shadow spokesman, the hon. Member for Bury South (Mr Lewis). We, too, go back a long way to our time together in Bury, and we have always enjoyed the warmest of relationships, as I am sure we will again. I have already had the benefit of his advice, as he recently held my post, and I look forward to his contribution.

Let me say a little about housekeeping for the debate. Those of us who have been in the House for some time know that in short debates the risk is that Front Benchers occupy a great deal of the time. I will do my best to confine scripted remarks to about 15 minutes. I will take a handful of interventions, but try to conclude within 20 minutes or so in order to give maximum time for Back-Bench contributions. That will mean a relatively short winding-up speech, with some written replies to colleagues. It is a short debate and, in deference to the Speaker's request, we want to try to ensure that Front Benchers are not too heavily involved. I hope the House will appreciate that. If I am not able to go into everything in as much as detail as Members would like, and if they want to pursue the subject of Gaza, for example, I commend to them the debate on that issue tomorrow in Westminster Hall. I also intend to meet regularly, on formal and informal bases, colleagues who have an interest in the middle east, as I know many do. With that bit of housekeeping out the way, I shall move on.

The middle east is a topic of great concern to many hon. Members and of great importance to the security, economic and political interests of the United Kingdom. However, the middle east is more; it is an area rich in culture, heritage, history, faith and religion, in which Members have a wonderful opportunity to engage. The world sometimes spends rather too much time on the region's conflicts and concerns, instead of on the great joys, history and cultural gifts that it has given. The Government intend to ensure that we are conscious of the opportunities and great heritage that the middle east brings to the world, as well as spending time dealing with the inevitable human problems that have been centred on the area for so long.

The Foreign Secretary recently said:

That is particularly true of the middle east, and quite rightly, given its international importance. That is why this Government will pursue active partnerships with the people and countries of the middle east to achieve security, prosperity and peace for Britain and for the peoples of the region.

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Let me spell out in simple terms, but in no particular order, the Government's aims and objectives for the middle east. We will work to resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict. The only long-term solution to the conflict is a secure Israel living alongside a sovereign and viable Palestinian state, with Jerusalem the future capital of both states, and with a fair settlement for refugees. We will continue to press for progress, working with the United States and through the European Union. We will also continue working with our international partners to secure changes that help lift Gaza's closure. Let the House be in no doubt: we wish to engage with as much energy as we can in the middle east peace process, because we recognise its huge importance to so many other issues that focus on the region and affect the world.

Several hon. Members rose -

Alistair Burt: The first voice that I heard was that of my hon. Friend the Member for Basildon and Billericay (Mr Baron).

Mr John Baron (Basildon and Billericay) (Con): In congratulating my hon. Friend on his appointment, I refer him to the proverb, "To every man with a hammer, the problem always seems a nail." Will he do what he can, and get his Department on board, to try to impress on the Israelis the fact that Hamas is more than just a terrorist organisation? It is an idea-a frustration-borne out of many disillusioned and disfranchised Palestinians, and the best way of defeating an idea is not by using force but by coming up with a better idea, such as an equitable, two-state solution.

Alistair Burt: My hon. Friend makes a point that almost immediately illustrates the complexity of the area. Whatever Hamas might be as an expression of a movement, it also represents a repressive, authoritarian force which has had a grip on Gaza for too long and held Gilad Shalit unfairly as a hostage for too long. In illustrating that point, I note the clear sense that there must be some movement in the middle east peace process, involving all parties and, inevitably, the slow steps towards progress which invite compromise. Of that, we wish to see more in the future. The Government's position on dealing with Hamas remains the same as the previous Government's, requiring as it does an adherence to Quartet principles before it can move. I do not see any change in that position.

Emily Thornberry (Islington South and Finsbury) (Lab) rose-

Jo Swinson (East Dunbartonshire) (LD) rose-

Alistair Burt: I shall give way, first, to the hon. Member for Islington South and Finsbury (Emily Thornberry).

Emily Thornberry: Does the hon. Gentleman believe that the proposed Israeli inquiry into the terrible events of 31 May will be "credible, rigorous and impartial"? What discussions have the Government had with the Americans on that issue?

Alistair Burt: I thank the hon. Lady for her inquiry. We have had a lot of conversations, both with the Americans and the Israeli Government. We are keen proponents of the United Nations Security Council
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resolution, which was adopted quickly and called for exactly what the hon. Lady asked about-an independent and impartial inquiry. The international element is necessary to ensure credibility. At present, we believe that there is no reason why the inquiry announced by Israel today, with the external component that includes Lord Trimble, should not meet the requirements of the world to provide the answers necessary to the inquiry. That is an important standard, to which we will hold.

Richard Burden (Birmingham, Northfield) (Lab) rose-

Sir Gerald Kaufman (Manchester, Gorton) (Lab) rose-

Jo Swinson rose-

Alistair Burt: I shall take only one more intervention at this stage, then I shall make progress; otherwise, the remarks that I made at the beginning will be completely otiose. I give way to my hon. Friend the Member for East Dunbartonshire (Jo Swinson).

Jo Swinson: I thank the Minister for giving way and welcome what he has said about support for a two-state solution and involving our international partners. No matter what we do as the UK, it is vital that the US should also be involved in trying to unlock the peace process, which seems to have ground to a halt. Can the Minister tell us whether that was one of the issues discussed by the Prime Minister and President Obama on the telephone and whether there will be a renewal in US interest in trying to kick-start the peace process?

Alistair Burt: We very much welcome the kick-start that the proximity talks pointed to a few months ago. President Obama made it clear that a revitalisation of the peace process was one of his key objectives. The recent tragic incident in Gaza has highlighted once again the importance of getting things moving-not only in that area, but in respect of the peace process as a whole. My hon. Friend can be assured that the Prime Minister and the President think as one on that issue.

I shall make some progress. We will work with all our friends and partners across the region to ensure that they are free from terrorism and instability which is a direct threat to their security. We will take a broader approach to our relations with north Africa and the Gulf, supporting civil society and business links and aiming to be the partner of choice for commercial and investment links. We currently export £15 billion-worth of goods and services to the region annually, offering the best of British expertise, innovation and creativity to support the massive programmes of development under way.

We will remain engaged in Iraq. Iraq is a pivotal state in the middle east. A stable, prosperous, well governed and politically moderate Iraq is important for Iraqis, the wider region and the UK's strategic interests. All in this House are proud of the role that the United Kingdom armed forces have played to help bring about the progress seen so far in Iraq, and we are committed to ensuring that their efforts are built on.

Mr Tobias Ellwood (Bournemouth East) (Con): Will the Minister give way?

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Alistair Burt: I ask my hon. Friend to give me a moment.

In the long term, all those partnerships will flourish if we can overcome the social and economic hurdles that the region faces. In the face of the complex challenges, our shared aim for middle eastern and UK interests alike must be good governance by stable states with growing social, economic and political participation. The Government will champion that approach while upholding our belief in human rights.

There are also important opportunities to work more closely with partners in the region on shared interests. We are well placed to work in partnership with the countries of the middle east in a way that benefits their people and ours. For example, the countries of the middle east will continue to be essential suppliers of the world's energy needs. There is similarly mutual benefit in the flows of other trade and investments between Britain and the region. This Government will work closely to support and extend those links, facilitating trade missions and signing investment and promotion protection agreements. However, we will also work with the countries of north Africa to reduce the damage done to individuals and economies by illegal immigration, both here and there. By working with our partners against the threat from radical extremism, we are all stronger and more effective.

Now I want to cover a small series of significant issues, including Iraq.

Mr Ellwood rose-

Alistair Burt: I ask my hon. Friend to wait a moment.

By working with the key countries in the middle east and the international bodies based there we can together make more of an impact on conflicts and other challenges both within that region and beyond. Work to resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict is a foreign policy priority for this Government. As I said earlier, the only long-term solution to the conflict is a secure Israel living alongside a sovereign and viable Palestinian state. We will continue to press for progress, working with the US and through the EU, while supporting Prime Minister Fayyad's work to build the institutions of a future Palestinian state.

The tragic events off the coast of Gaza last month were very serious and captured the world's attention-the House has already discussed the issue during a statement and will discuss it tomorrow in Westminster Hall-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 UK and around the world. It has long been the view of the British Government, including the previous Government, that the restrictions on Gaza should be lifted. It is a tragedy that that has not happened, and we hope soon to see progress to change the situation.

We call on the Government of Israel to freeze all settlement activity. As the Foreign Secretary has said, the settlements are illegal and an obstacle to peace. It is also essential that there is unfettered access to meet the humanitarian needs of the people of Gaza in order to enable the reconstruction of homes and livelihoods and to permit trade to take place. At the same time, the rocket attacks from Gaza must cease, and Hamas must release Gilad Shalit, who is now entering his fourth year in captivity.

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Mr Denis MacShane (Rotherham) (Lab): I welcome the Minister to his job. There is nothing in his speech so far that I would disagree with. In 2009, 96 humanitarian aid workers were gunned down in different conflict zones. Moreover, the death of the nine Turkish gentlemen is unacceptable. However, why does the United Nations not demand inquiries in every other country where humanitarian aid workers are slaughtered?

Alistair Burt: The right hon. Gentleman might reasonably submit that that is a question for the UN. In this particular case, though, I think that we responded entirely properly, in terms of the international concerns, by putting the primary responsibility on Israel to conduct its inquiry, as we are aware that it has in the past on issues such as Lebanon, and ensuring the international dimension for the security and the confidence of all. The important point is not to linger too much on the type of the inquiry but to consider more what it is about and how to move the process on so as to ease the situation in Gaza.

Richard Burden: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Alistair Burt: No, I will not. I am conscious that there is one more intervention to come. If I am to stick to what I said earlier and give Back Benchers time, I am afraid that that means a restriction on interventions.

The proximity talks that are under way are now more important than ever. The Government will make it an urgent priority to give British diplomatic support to those efforts, as well as supporting the efforts of the Quartet and inspiring the European Union. The UK is a committed friend of Israel, and a friend to the region. We believe that, in this particular context, the approach that I have outlined is the best that a real friend can provide, for Israelis and Palestinians alike.

Let me turn to Iran. There is grave concern among the international community about Iran's failure to address concerns about its nuclear programme and the role that it plays in creating instability in the middle east.

Jeremy Corbyn (Islington North) (Lab) rose-

Alistair Burt: I will proceed, if I may.

We remain resolved to address these concerns through a twin-track process of preventing a nuclear-weapons-capable Iran while reaching out with an offer for constructive engagement. We cannot allow Iran to act with impunity. I welcome the action that the UN Security Council took last week. The new resolution is an important statement of international resolve to prevent Iranian nuclear proliferation. It intensifies peaceful and legitimate international pressure on Iran to change course and restore the trust in its intentions that is so badly lacking. However, it is a twin-track approach. The resolution also makes it clear that the E3 plus 3 remain ready to meet Iran at any time for substantive negotiations on the nuclear issue.

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