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House of Lords

Tuesday, 15th June 1999.

The House met at half-past two of the clock: The LORD CHANCELLOR on the Woolsack.

Prayers--Read by the Lord Bishop of Ripon.

Middle East Peace Process

Lord Janner of Braunstone asked Her Majesty's Government:

    What consultations they are proposing to carry out concerning the Middle East peace process.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean): My Lords, we believe that there should be a recommitment to negotiations from all parties in the process. Once a new Israeli government have been formed, we would expect the Wye River Memorandum to be implemented and for there to be a resumption of negotiations on all tracks. We are actively discussing how we and the EU can contribute to this resumption with partners in Europe, the US and in the region.

Lord Janner of Braunstone: My Lords, while welcoming my noble friend's response as well as the happy election of Ehud Barak of Israel, may I ask: will she extend the consultations regarding peace and goodwill in the Middle East to Iran? Will the Government protest most vigorously at the recent arrest of 13 Jewish people in Iran, including the Chief Rabbi of Shiraz? Do the Government recognise that these people are in grave danger of execution and that urgent representations by our newly appointed ambassador and the Foreign Secretary would be most appropriate?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean: My Lords, initially news of these arrests was a little hazy and it was difficult to establish the truth. There are a number of different and conflicting rumours. We have been in regular contact with the Agvdas Israel Organisation both in the United Kingdom and the United States through our mission in New York. More reliable accounts indicate that 13 people have been detained. Last week it became apparent from media reports in Iran that those people were being accused of espionage. Before the news broke the German EU presidency was, on 20th May, on a visit to Iran and expressed the concern of EU member states about these detentions. This is due to be followed up with an EU demarche in Tehran. We have told the Iranians of our concern through their ambassador in London and have pressed for the detainees to be treated fairly, as have our European partners. We shall continue to monitor the situation, as the noble Lord suggests, and take further action as necessary.

Lord Hylton: My Lords, can the Minister confirm that the continued construction of settlements and roads in the West Bank is bound to undermine the final status of

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the negotiations that are due to start very shortly? Will Her Majesty's Government make their views absolutely clear to the present Israeli caretaker Government and any future government that may be formed?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean: My Lords, we continue to regard the settlements as illegal under international law and an obstacle to peace. The Berlin declaration in March of this year urges all parties to refrain from unilateral acts, including settlement activity. The Prime Minister included a recommendation for a freeze on settlement activity in his message of congratulations to Mr Barak on his election.

Lord Avebury: My Lords, does the Minister believe that it will still be possible to adhere to the 12-month period for completion of the negotiations set in the Berlin European Council declaration in March of this year? Since it is not possible to resume these negotiations until Mr Barak has formed his government, in the meanwhile can progress be made on the other issues in the Wye River Memorandum, such as the Gaza industrial estate and airport?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean: My Lords, I believe that we must wait for Mr Barak to form his government which he must declare to the Knesset by 9th July. I believe it is sensible, given the enormous delicacy of a number of these issues--we have just spoken about the settlements--and the other pressures on the Palestinian side, as I am sure all noble Lords are aware, to ensure that the government are firmly in place, that Mr Barak announce his Ministers to the Knesset and then take forward the process from there.

Baroness Blatch: My Lords, I return to the plight of the 13 Jews detained in Iran. Does the noble Baroness agree that the situation is such that representation at the highest possible level, certainly at Foreign Secretary level, is now most urgent? Is there any likelihood that that will be forthcoming?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean: My Lords, we have made representations through the Iranian ambassador in London. If the situation is not satisfactorily resolved the whole House can rest assured that representations will be made at an appropriate level. I hope that what I have said indicates that we have acted both bilaterally through the ambassador here in London and through our European partners with the demarche. This matter is being taken very seriously. In response to my noble friend Lord Janner I said that the Government were monitoring the situation and would take further action as necessary.

Lord Mishcon: My Lords, does the Minister agree that the more private the consultations and contents, the more likely they are to succeed?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean: My Lords, I have a good deal of sympathy with what the noble Lord says. It is often easy to forget that negotiations through a

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loudhailer are not the most effective form of negotiation. Often what is said forcefully in private has a great deal more effect.

Lord Moynihan: My Lords, what steps have the Government taken since Mr Barak's election to make it clear that they oppose any unilateral action or any attempts to impose conditionality by either party which would pre-judge or pre-determine the outcome of the agreed negotiating process and which would undermine the ability to negotiate permanent status issues?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean: My Lords, the noble Lord raises an important point. It is vital that there is not a pre-empting of the process. Part of what we have done I addressed in my answer to the noble Lord, Lord Hylton: that when the Prime Minister wrote to Mr Barak following the election he urged upon him a freeze on all settlement activity. On the other side of the coin, if I may put it that way, we have made no secret of our view that a unilateral declaration of statehood from the Palestinians would be unhelpful. We welcome the Palestinian Central Council communique about this as a sign of Palestine's continuing commitment to negotiations. We have sought to engage on both sides; and we have been closely concerned to ensure that we engage with all the interested countries.

Lord Kennet: My Lords, I take the point about the importance of confidentiality on the content of negotiations. However, can the Minister tell us anything about the status of the mission undertaken recently by her colleague, my noble friend Lord Levy, to Israel as an emissary apparently of the Prime Minister? Is it intended in the near future to send any of our Moslem colleagues to visit the Palestinians?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean: My Lords, my noble friend will know that my noble friend Lord Levy visited Syria from 9th to 10th April and Jordan and Syria from 5th to 10th June. He went as a personal representative of the Prime Minister. The visits were aimed at strengthening our bilateral relations with those two countries. As I am sure my noble friend knows, my noble friend Lord Levy has good contacts in the region. Those contacts can be beneficial to the United Kingdom in the context of our relations in the region. His first visit to Syria took place when the late Derek Fatchett was Minister. My honourable friend Mr Hoon is in the process of exploring possible dates for his first visit to the region as a Minister.

Welsh Assembly and UK Government: Concordats

2.45 p.m.

Lord Roberts of Conwy asked Her Majesty's Government:

    What concordats have been agreed between the Welsh Assembly and government departments.

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The Minister of State, Home Office (Lord Williams of Mostyn): My Lords, none as yet. While concordats are at an advanced stage of drafting, it will be for the Assembly to agree them with the appropriate government department. I expect this process to occur in the relatively near future.

Lord Roberts of Conwy: My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for that reply. However, does he have confidence that sufficient progress will be made with these concordats, which cover a considerable number of fields, to ensure that there will be smooth continuation of effective government in Wales with the transfer of powers to the Assembly on 1st July?

Lord Williams of Mostyn: My Lords, I am confident that arrangements will be effectively in hand for the smooth continuation of government. I agree with what the noble Lord said. That is extremely important. We have to bear in mind that the Assembly had its first sitting only on 12th May. The noble Lord and I both know that Her Majesty opened the Assembly on 26th May. It is early days.

There is the additional complication, welcome to both the noble Lord and myself I hope, that before the Assembly can approve them the concordats have to be translated so that they are available in bilingual form.

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