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Points of Order
Helen Jones (Warrington North) (Lab): On a point of order, Mr Speaker. In a recent debate in Westminster Hall, the Minister of State, Department of Health, the right hon. Member for Chelmsford (Mr Burns), suggested that one way of solving the problems of Whiston hospital would be a merger with another trust. Given that the obvious trust for a merger is North Cheshire Hospitals NHS Trust, that suggestion has caused widespread concern in my constituency about a possible loss of jobs and services from Warrington hospital. Is there any way in which you, Mr Speaker, can urge a Minister to come to the House and make a statement about their plans for health services in the area? So far, they have failed to address the concerns that my hon. Friend the Member for St Helens North (Mr Watts) raised about Whiston and are now causing real concern about the future of Warrington hospital.
Mr Speaker: I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her point of order, but I fear that she invests me with mystical powers that I do not possess. She is a very experienced and indefatigable Member, who will be well aware of the avenues open to her to pursue such matters—and of which I feel sure she will shortly take advantage.
Chris Bryant (Rhondda) (Lab): On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Earlier, the Secretary of State for Defence said in his statement, “I can tell the House this afternoon that the Government will bring forward amendments”. He is completely and utterly delusional, because he was not announcing anything to the House; it was announced in the national newspapers for all and sundry to see on Saturday and on Sunday. Indeed, I understand that the Prime Minister was expressly going to make the announcement on Sunday, only to be beaten to it by the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, the right hon. Member for South Leicestershire (Mr Robathan), who on the record gave quotations to The Daily Telegraph. I understand that he was given the hairdryer treatment, but is it not time that you, Mr Speaker, gave the hairdryer treatment to Ministers who keep on doing this, week in, week out?
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Mr Speaker: I am grateful that the House has had the opportunity to question Ministers on the statement made today. I note what the hon. Gentleman has said, and I saw the newspapers myself over the weekend. I think that the Secretary of State has left the Chamber, but if a Minister from the Ministry of Defence, possibly the right hon. Gentleman to whom reference has just been made, wishes specifically to respond, he can do so.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence (Mr Andrew Robathan): Thank you, Mr Speaker, for allowing me to respond. If the hon. Gentleman cares to read what was in the newspapers, he will discover that what he has said is not in fact in any way correct.
Jim Dowd (Lewisham West and Penge) (Lab): On a point of order, Mr Speaker. I, for one, certainly do believe you have mystical powers. May I seek your guidance in relation to the next item of business? I think the whole House is aware of the rules relating to sub judice when matters are put before the courts and are under consideration by them. The next item of business could easily become a matter for criminal investigation; indeed I, for one, believe that it should become one. Could you offer any guidance as to whether that imposes a similar constraint on what might be said in the debate on the next item?
Mr Speaker: The issue that the hon. Gentleman raises is, at this stage, a hypothetical matter, and it would be very unwise for the Speaker to speculate on a hypothetical situation. I know that the hon. Gentleman would not expect me to do so, and I will not. What I would say to him and to the House is that whether or not there are to be police inquiries into any particular matter is not a matter for the Chair. Unless a criminal charge has been brought, the matter is not sub judice. Today is the opportunity for the House to debate any matters covered by the report of the Standards and Privileges Committee. I am genuinely grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his point of order, and I hope that he found the response helpful.
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Standards and Privileges
That this House—
(1) approves the Fifteenth Report of the Committee on Standards and Privileges (House of Commons Paper No. 1023);
(2) endorses the recommendation in paragraph 39; and
(3) accordingly suspends Mr David Laws from the service of the House for a period of seven sitting days, beginning on Tuesday 7 June.
It is always regrettable when the House finds it necessary to suspend an hon. Member, as it does today. The facts of the case are set out in detail in the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards’ report to the Standards and Privileges Committee. The Chair of that Committee may catch your eye in a moment, Mr Speaker, so I will not rehearse them.
This has been a lengthy inquiry, not least because the right hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr Laws) invited the commissioner to examine every aspect of his claims for additional costs allowance over an eight-year period. The commissioner has completed his inquiry as quickly as is consistent with the need for absolute rigour, and a complete chronology is set out at paragraphs 29 to 34 of his report. On behalf of the House, I would like to express our thanks to the Committee and to the commissioner and his team for their fair, diligent and impartial work in this case, and indeed in other cases. It is clear that the Committee has considered the commissioner’s findings carefully and has taken into account all the circumstances of the case in arriving at its recommendation of a seven-day suspension.
The House will recall press speculation in the days before the report was published. The question of whether this was a result of premature disclosure of the Committee’s report and, if so, by whom, is a matter for the Committee itself to consider, and I understand that the Chair of the Committee has announced an inquiry into this.
Helen Jones (Warrington North) (Lab): May I begin by echoing the thanks of the Leader of the House to the Commissioner for Standards and to the Committee on Standards and Privileges? The nature of the matters that they had to investigate required a detailed investigation by the commissioner and careful scrutiny by the Committee, and the whole House is grateful to them for their diligence.
The matters under consideration that have led to the motion on today’s Order Paper are extremely serious ones that concern breaches of the rules over the very long term. No one should underestimate their seriousness. The commissioner found that from 2001 the right hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr Laws) submitted lodging agreements that gave a false impression of his relationship with his landlord and of their shared use of successive London properties. The commissioner found that he claimed higher rent for the use of two London properties
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than was justified either under the terms of the lodging agreement or as a reflection of the arrangement that he had for living with his partner in those properties.
The commissioner also found that the right hon. Gentleman wrongly claimed for building work on the second property that should have been covered by the rent. In addition, he dealt with the separate matter of wrong claims for phone bills, which, as Members who have been here for some time will know, were not claimable under the additional costs allowance.
I think it fair to remind the House that the commissioner reached his conclusions based on the standards expected at the time, and not under a retrospective reinterpretation of the rules. [ Interruption. ] A Member on the Government Front Bench is saying that that is not right, so perhaps I can clarify the matter for him. Claims for phone bills in Somerset and for a mobile phone were judged by the commissioner not to be claimable under the additional costs allowance, because the ACA related to a London property. Those were the rules at the time.
In considering the report, the Committee made it clear that it agreed with the commissioner that from 2005 onwards the right hon. Gentleman’s main home was, as a matter of fact, in London, not in Somerset. The rules at the time made it clear that any hon. Member who was in doubt about which property they should declare as their main home should have sought advice. The right hon. Gentleman failed to do so.
The Committee endorses many of the commissioner’s conclusions. It makes clear the seriousness of the breaches in agreeing with the commissioner’s conclusion that while the arrangement for the first property may have represented a good deal for the landlord, it did not represent a good or even a reasonable deal for the House. The Committee also makes it clear that the breaches in relation to the second property were even more serious, because the right hon. Gentleman had made a significant financial contribution to the purchase and upgrading of the property.
The right hon. Gentleman has said that he was concerned to preserve his privacy. However, it has always been the rule of the House that when personal interests and the public interest conflict, matters should be resolved in favour of the public interest. Sadly, we therefore have to conclude that, because the breaches were serious and took place over a long period, the penalty that the Committee proposes of a suspension from the House is the right one. The Opposition therefore support the motion.
Mr Frank Field (Birkenhead) (Lab): May I ask the Leader of the House two questions that arise from the report? First, how does the Committee on Standards and Privileges go about its business to ensure that one judgment is consistent with another? The second question relates to how long it takes for inquiries to be completed in the way that the Leader of the House has described.
On the first question about equity between Members, we are not in a position to know how many Members from the previous Parliament will end up in court. I therefore do not wish to cite examples of Members from the previous Parliament whose record of claiming moneys from the public purse was, on the face of it, pretty appalling. However, so far, some of those Members
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have not even had their knuckles rapped with a ruler, let alone been the subject of a report of this nature, which is handed into the House for it to comment and vote on. Will the Leader of the House tell us something about how the Committee goes about its work to ensure that in judging one Member it bears in mind the behaviour of and the judgment it has come to on another Member?
My second question relates to the length of time the inquiry has taken. Many Parliaments ago, I was asked to chair the Social Security Committee. One of our tasks was to look at the Maxwell theft of pension funds. We confronted layer upon layer of deceit. We completed our task, made our recommendations, suggested the shape of a new pensions Act, and were invited by the then Secretary of State to shape that pensions Act within a year—less time than it has taken to undertake this inquiry and report back to the House. I would be grateful if the Leader of the House addressed whether the speed, thoroughness and consistency of the commissioner’s work is appropriate.
Mr Kevin Barron (Rother Valley) (Lab): I will pick up a couple of points that my right hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead (Mr Field) has just made, but I first wish to say something about the leaks that have occurred. There have been two types of leak in connection with the report. First, from Sunday 8 May onward, there has been a steady trickle of comment on the memorandum of the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards to the Standards and Privileges Committee, which was, as is customary, sent to the right hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr Laws) for his comments as well as to Committee members and to the Attorney-General, whom Standing Orders make our adviser. My first impression was that that comment could well have been based on informed speculation, but I no longer hold that view, because on Wednesday morning the Committee’s recommendation was leaked to the media. We immediately instigated a leak inquiry, and it is not appropriate to say more at this stage, as that inquiry is now ongoing.
I will pick up two issues raised by my right hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead. One is the length of time taken. He will see from reading the report that it goes far wider than the allegations that were made against the right hon. Member for Yeovil in the media last May, and I suspect that that was one reason for the time taken. However, I say to my right hon. Friend that the timing is wholly in the hands of the commissioner, who reports to the Committee and publishes a memorandum when he is ready to do so. The evidence that he takes is entirely a matter for him.
The other issue that my right hon. Friend has mentioned concerns the comparison of one case with another. I will mention in my speech the circumstances of this particular case and why we have come to the recommendations before the House. I have not commented on the matter before, because I believe it is for the House to judge, not the media or commentators. The extent of reporting of what the commissioner and the Committee would say, and what it would mean for the right hon. Member for Yeovil, has been unfortunate. It meant that the press have perhaps not looked as carefully as they might have done at what we actually said.
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The Committee has been attacked from one side for being too severe and from the other for being too soft. It would be complacent to say that we got it about right, but I wish to set out what the report says and why we said it. First, I urge those who say that the Committee has been too severe—many of them are in this House or in another place—to examine what the Committee actually found and the way in which that compares with other breaches.
From 2006 onwards, the arrangements of the right hon. Member for Yeovil were simply and explicitly against the rules, because he rented from a partner. He has said that he did not regard his landlord as his partner for the purposes of the Green Book. In 2007, he gave his landlord £99,000, which was a free gift but which was put towards the purchase of a London property that the two shared. He also contributed to building work. As the report states:
“Mr Laws had made significant financial contributions to the purchase and upgrading of the property. Such commitments are unusual between landlord and tenant, or even between friends. In consequence he should have had no doubt that he and his landlord were ‘partners’ for the purposes of the Green Book.”
Mr Kevan Jones (North Durham) (Lab): My right hon. Friend will have seen the volume of appendices to the report, which includes evidence from Mr Laws such as a rental agreement, which states at item 5:
“The Lodger will be responsible for any damages or breakages caused by him/her”.
How could the claim of £2,000 for renovation work be covered by that? There is no other reference in any of the agreements to any contribution that the lodger should make to any major renovations of the property.
The right hon. Member for Yeovil was in breach before the financial contributions that I have described, by wrongly claiming that his main home was in Somerset rather than in London. It is clear that he was not the only Member who designated the wrong property. When the pattern of nights spent at two properties were changing, it would be easy to assume that the main property was the one on which a mortgage was held. If that were the main issue in the period up to 2006, it might easily have been put right, but the problem was that the right hon. Gentleman’s conduct was designed to hide his real circumstances, which formed a pattern with his later breach of the rules.
There has been a great deal of press comment on this case, much of it before the Committee reported. It has been suggested that the right hon. Gentleman saved the public money, and that that makes his conduct all right. It is certainly possible that other, proper arrangements might have been more expensive. Clearly, there could have been substantial claims against the Somerset property, but they were not made, so we cannot know precisely what would have been approved. We must judge the arrangements that were actually in place, not arrangements that might have been made. As the report says:
“Mr Laws contends that the payments were lower than they would have been had he claimed on his Somerset home, or made other permissible arrangements. In our view, it is inappropriate to
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judge whether the claims on property A are appropriate by reference to potential payments on another property, which is not in fact claimed for.”
Mr Andy Slaughter (Hammersmith) (Lab): The Committee has dealt with the false representation allegations—the appropriateness of the penalty, which hon. Members are here to judge, does not matter—but my submission is that it has not dealt adequately with the quantum of claim, other than by saying that the rent was above the market rent and that there were
“contributions towards building repairs and maintenance”.
The Committee and the commissioner did not go into the fact that the rent was up to 50% more than the market rent, or that sums of up to £100 a month were being charged for each of council tax, utilities, parking the car in the driveway, maintenance repairs and the purchase of capital equipment. Why has the Committee not dealt with those sums on aggregate? That is a huge amount of money for a lodger to pay to his landlord.
What is clear is that the rents charged to the public purse were excessive, and that charges were made for repairs that would not have been included in any normal rental arrangement. It is impossible to tell exactly how much more was charged than should have been, but that is because of the right hon. Gentleman’s desire for secrecy.
The commissioner’s report suggests that the public purse was overcharged by between £80 and £270 per month, even in comparison with assured shorthold tenancies. Property advisers considered that the rent in the right hon. Gentleman’s lodging agreement was between £209 and £370 a month higher than the market price.
The right hon. Gentleman and his supporters say that he acted to preserve his privacy. Extensive press briefings suggested that the breach would be somehow less blameworthy if that were the case, but the commissioner expressed his sympathy for the right hon. Gentleman, and the Committee recognised his motivation. However, there were other ways to preserve privacy. He could have refrained from claiming. Alternatively, he could have designated his main home properly, which would have meant that there would be no need to conceal receipts that might have identified his landlord.
“After the receipts threshold changed I reduced my claims below the threshold.”
“Members shall base their conduct on a consideration of the public interest, avoid conflict between personal interest and the public interest and resolve any conflict between the two, at once…in favour of the public interest.”
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“We consider the rental agreements submitted between 2003 and 2008 were misleading and designed to conceal the nature of the relationship. They prevented any examination of the arrangements that in fact pertained over the entire period.”
That is why this case is worse than many others in which the commissioner has found there has been a breach of the rules of the additional costs allowance. In many of those cases, the Members concerned had consulted the department of finance and administration, and in some cases both the department and independent valuers, so there was no intention to deceive. In one case, the Member’s circumstances changed, so that arrangements that were expected to be temporary lasted longer than expected.
In contrast, the case before us involved a deliberate attempt to conceal the Member’s real living arrangements that continued for many years. It is clear that he recognised the potential conflict between the public interest and his private interest. By omitting to seek advice, however, he made himself the sole judge of whether that conflict was properly resolved. It was inappropriate for him to be judge and jury in his own case. As the commissioner commented, it can never be acceptable to submit misleading documents to those charged with overseeing public finances. As this case shows, the right hon. Member’s desire for secrecy led him to act in a way that was not compatible with the standards expected of an MP. Whatever the motive, I do not think that is acceptable.
Now I will address the concerns of those who think that we have been too lenient. Since the Committee reported, my hon. Friend the Member for Dunfermline and West Fife (Thomas Docherty) has asked the police to investigate. There is a protocol between the police, the commissioner and the Committee providing for liaison between the commissioner and the police, if either of them has concerns. The police will not comment on individual investigations, and the commissioner is also understandably reluctant to comment on such matters, even to the Committee. However, the fact that the commissioner has reported to us suggests the Member’s behaviour is unlikely to have been criminal.
“Not only has Mr Laws already resigned from the Cabinet, his behaviour since May 2010 has been exemplary. He quickly referred himself to the Commissioner, has already repaid allowances from July 2006 in full, and has cooperated fully with the Commissioner’s investigation. This behaviour has influenced our recommendation.”
Jim Dowd (Lewisham West and Penge) (Lab): The Committee said that the right hon. Member’s behaviour had been exemplary since the matter became public knowledge, and the commissioner himself, in paragraph 324 of his report, stated that it was to his
“considerable and personal credit that, when his living arrangements came to public attention”
The repayment was one of the mitigating circumstances. The voluntary payments went further than the circumstances at the time required. The outstanding amount related to rent that might or might not have
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been over-claimed and not to expenses claims that were wholly wrongly based, as in other cases that sadly have come before the House. As in other cases where Members have over-claimed, we have clawed back the overpayment. Given the uncertainty over what a true comparator should be, we calculated the maximum overpayment, and it was only because it was within the amount that had been paid back, over and above housing claims, that we made no further recommendation.
It has been suggested that recommending that the suspension should begin after the recess is part of a plot to reduce the right hon. Member’s fine. It was not put in, as one of the Sunday papers suggested, by political partisans on the Committee. The Committee considered carefully and decided that a suspension of seven days was appropriate. It would have been arbitrary and unfair to have extended the suspension simply because a recess fell during the period. In 2007, the Committee recommended that George Galloway’s suspension should start after the summer recess for precisely the same reasons. In that case, he got himself named in the House and suspended in the last week of sitting, so he lost his salary for the entire summer recess plus the 18 days that the Committee recommended. In this case, we felt that it would have been wrong to have started the suspension today—if that is what the House agrees—because we knew that we are entering a short recess. It would have been unfair and resulted in a longer suspension than the one recommended in our report. If the motion is agreed to, approximately £1,500 of salary will be withheld as a result of the right hon. Member’s suspension. I recommend the report to the House.
Jim Dowd (Lewisham West and Penge) (Lab): I will not detain the House too long. I realise that we have immensely important business to discuss later, and we should get on to it as soon as possible. However, this matter is not unimportant. Judging from the number of Members seeking to take part in the debate on the report, I fear that it would otherwise have slipped quietly into parliamentary history. We have realised over the past few years just how tainted this House’s reputation has become vis-à-vis not just the conduct of some Members, but how the way in which we deal with them is perceived.
I do not want to go into extreme detail about what the right hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr Laws) has done—or not. The commissioner has conducted a characteristically scrupulous and systematic investigation of the events, and the Committee and all its members have followed in the same vein. I will not seek to divide the House on the recommendation, which I am sure will be agreed. However, I fear that the way in which the case has been dealt with and the conclusion that the Committee has presented create the danger of emphasising the idea that, superficially at least, there is one rule for some Members of this House and other rules for others. Some are taken before the courts—and, indeed, imprisoned—for their conduct; some get barely a slap across the wrist; and others escape scot-free.
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accept, too, that neither this House nor any Member is responsible for such comment—is about how much time he should serve not before he is brought before the courts or sent to prison, but before he is brought back into the Cabinet. That changes the aspect and the proportion of this case entirely. The report makes it plain that there has been a systematic, calculated and flagrant pattern of behaviour by the right hon. Gentleman, which, describe it as we might—deceit, deception, fraud—amounts to dishonesty. If this House is to rebuild its reputation we need not only procedures that are, to quote an oft-repeated phrase in the report, “above reproach”, but systems that are seen to treat each and every Member of this House in the same fashion. I do not think that we have that at the moment—I do not criticise the report; I am sure that we will pass it and move on—but it is for the authorities and the Committees in this House to ensure that one simple procedure applies to everybody.
As the Chair of the Committee, my right hon. Friend the Member for Rother Valley (Mr Barron), has said, this matter is now under investigation by the police because somebody has referred it. [ Interruption. ] I am told that he did not say that, in which case, we need to refer it. However, it is equally true that in other cases, the police have not waited for a referral for matters to be investigated, but have taken it upon themselves to investigate whether there was any criminal or corrupt element in Members’ behaviour. Indeed, matters that for a while fell within the purview of the commissioner were passed on, because the police had commissioned investigations into whether criminality and wrongdoing had taken place. There are those who have said that Members found guilty of serious wrongdoing should resign and leave this House, triggering a by-election—so much so, indeed, that the current Deputy Prime Minister said in his first address to the Liberal party conference that he wanted to add a “Derek Conway” clause.
Mr Speaker: Order. The right hon. Gentleman, the Chair of the Standards and Privileges Committee, made a passing reference—it was not, if I remember correctly, an evaluative one—to the police. Of course the hon. Gentleman is perfectly at liberty to make clear to the House his view about the merits or demerits of the report and its recommendations. However, I urge the House to focus on the specifics of this report alone and not to engage in what might be called a Second Reading debate about the differential treatment of particular cases, and we certainly cannot get into a general discussion about whether or when the police are involved.
Jim Dowd: I accept that, Mr Speaker, and I will abide by your ruling. I asked for your guidance before the debate, because I fear that the niceties and technicalities of parliamentary procedure might reduce common sense to zero in this case, and that the public at large will not understand the import of events.
I accept the report, but I still think that we need a procedure that is open and that has clear stages, regardless of whether the matter in question is in the hands of the House authorities, of Members’ Committees or of officials, or of whether it has entered the domain of a public investigation. We have not got the balance right in the report not because of any failing by the Committee, but because our procedures are still ineffective. We have
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tried to overhaul the expenses system, which was the genesis of this case, but I do not believe that we have got our administrative arrangements right in this House. The Committee continues to do a good job, as does the commissioner, but we must concentrate on creating a system that not only treats everyone fairly and equally but that is seen to do so.
Clive Efford (Eltham) (Lab): Like my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham West and Penge (Jim Dowd), I have concerns about the question that the report raises of consistency in dealing with individual cases. It would be wrong if we did not raise these matters on the Floor of the House, because the concerns—certainly those of Labour Members—about how these reports are dealt with must be addressed if we are to deal with similar issues in the future. I make no criticism of the Committee, the commissioner or anyone else.
The conclusion was reached that the right hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr Laws) had behaved in an exemplary fashion since being placed under investigation, but I hope that any Member of this House would behave in that way and co-operate fully in such circumstances. Having spoken to some hon. Members who have been under investigation, I received the impression that they did exactly that.
I have one or two questions about consistency, which is all that I am bothered about. I understand that at least one case went to the Committee with the recommendation that it be referred to the Metropolitan police. What criteria were used to reach that judgment? I do not understand that, and I want to understand, because I am concerned about how these reports are written and how different Members are dealt with. What criteria does the commissioner use when he decides whether a case should go to the Metropolitan police?
Also, how many Members have claimed expenses without submitting receipts up to the £250 limit? I understand that some Members who have been investigated by the Metropolitan police and taken to court have been prosecuted for breaching that rule. How many of them, when found to be in breach of that rule by the commissioner, have been allowed to pay the money back?
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Mr Kevan Jones: The report states that Mr Laws stopped claiming when the rules relating to the maximum amount changed. Did my hon. Friend find it strange that the reason he gave for not putting in receipts was to disguise this relationship with his landlord, even though the landlord’s name was on the tenancy agreement?
Clive Efford: I hear what my hon. Friend is saying, but if he will forgive me, I do not want to get drawn into the detail of the case against the right hon. Member for Yeovil. The concerns that the report has raised for me are general ones about how we should deal with everyone who comes under investigation, because, let us face it, any of us could come under investigation if someone made a complaint against us, and we would all want to be dealt with under the same rules.
Who has been allowed to pay back money and on what criteria? On what criteria have they been referred to the Metropolitan police, and on what criteria have they been dealt with by the Committee and had a penalty imposed on them, as recommended to us today? Does the fact that Members offer to pay the money back make a difference? This report refers to the fact that the right hon. Member for Yeovil paid money back, which seems to have been taken in his favour. Have other Members made such offers and, if so, has that affected how they have been dealt with?
I have read the report, and I have highlighted several passages that appear to be inconsistent. I find it difficult to understand, for example, how someone can be a lodger in a house to which they have contributed £100,000 for its purchase and can then state to the Committee that they have no financial interest in that house and that the financial interests of the landlord and the lodger are completely separate. I find that sort of thing very confusing and very inconsistent, and I want to know what criteria are being applied to MPs when these matters come before the commissioner and the Committee. There are serious inconsistencies in what is happening here, and I believe that they are worthy of further investigation.
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Middle East, North Africa, Afghanistan and Pakistan
That this House has considered the matter of the Middle East, North Africa, Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Our security and prosperity in Britain are indivisible from those of other countries. We cannot seal ourselves off from dangers in other countries or prosper fully alone, and it is against our values—as, indeed, it is against our interests—to stand by while conflict and instability develop. That has been shown to be true time and again in the regions that we are debating today.
Britain could not turn a blind eye when Colonel Gaddafi turned his forces against innocent civilians in Libya, shelling crowds of peaceful protesters and even hospitals crammed with victims, and launching a ferocious campaign of arbitrary detentions, torture and summary executions. This is a country on Europe’s southern edge, and a regime that threatened to “exterminate like rats” the people who had risen against it. The Arab League clearly called for help and intervention, which is one of the reasons why we have taken a strong lead in calling for, securing and implementing UN Security Council resolutions 1970 and 1973. Other reasons include the effect on Libya’s neighbours and the consequences for migration, terrorism and our own national interest if a pariah state had emerged in north Africa. Our action in Libya has a compelling legal and moral basis, strong regional and international support and a clear objective, and it continues to make progress.
Angus Robertson (Moray) (SNP): The Secretary of State is aware that a great many people view it as very important that this has been a UN-mandated mission from the start. Will he update us on developments within the United Nations to ensure the maximum protection for civilians in Libya and to bring hostilities to the earliest possible end?
Mr Hague: Yes, the hon. Gentleman is quite right. The fact that we are acting on a United Nations resolution made an enormous difference to the scale of the vote in this House in favour of the action we have taken and, of course, to the maintenance of international support. The UN Secretary-General attended the London conference that I hosted at the end of March and a meeting of the contact group. The UN continues to be represented at those contract groups. The UN special envoy, Mr al-Khatib, visited Tripoli yesterday, and we are waiting to hear what he found on that visit. The UN remains fully engaged and has offered to lead the stabilisation effort that will follow the conflict in Libya; support across the UN for the implementation of the resolutions remains very strong.
Mr John Baron (Basildon and Billericay) (Con):
There is evidence that NATO’s insistence that Gaddafi be removed is prolonging the civil war, and that civilian casualties are mounting as a result. Would the Foreign Secretary consider asking a third party—someone independent, such as Kofi Annan—to mediate, without
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preconditions, for the purpose of a desperately needed ceasefire, if this is after all an intervention based on humanitarian need?
Mr Hague: The United Nations envoy to whom I referred is such a third party, and he has just been to Tripoli. Other third parties have made efforts as well, some of them on the basis suggested by my hon. Friend. A high-level African Union delegation visited Tripoli, without the insistence that the Libyan opposition and we have on the departure of Gaddafi, but that did not lead to a successful mediation. Indeed, however one looks at it, it is impossible to see a peaceful or viable future for Libya without the departure of Gaddafi.
Caroline Lucas (Brighton, Pavilion) (Green): Does the Secretary of State agree with the comments made at the weekend by the Chief of the Defence Staff about increasing the number of targets that we can hit, with specific reference to infrastructure? What discussions has he had with NATO colleagues about the apparent change of focus to regime change rather than the protection of civilians?
Mr Hague: I do agree with the comments of the Chief of the Defence Staff, but they did not relate to regime change; they related to implementation of the UN Security Council resolutions. It will be evident to the House that over the last few weeks the regime forces have tried to adapt to what we have done to implement the resolutions. They have made themselves look like the forces of the other side, and have fought in a more asymmetric way. In such circumstances it is legitimate for NATO to increase the proportion of targets that are the command and control systems of the regime forces who are harassing and threatening the civilian population. That is what the Chief of the Defence Staff was referring to.
Simon Hughes (Bermondsey and Old Southwark) (LD): The Foreign Secretary will, of course, appreciate that there is a desire for conflict resolution that will lead to a democratic opportunity for Libya. Will he accept from one who represents many people from north Africa, and many from the Arab and Muslim world, that the intervention that we made is extremely respected and appreciated by those communities here? They want us to continue to uphold the transformation in the Arab world to more democratic countries, because one of their reasons for being here is their inability to exercise their freedoms fully in the countries from which they have come.
Mr Hague: That is absolutely true. We responded to the call from the Arab League, and I discussed the situation in Cairo two weeks ago with its secretary-general, who remains supportive of what we are doing. As my right hon. Friend rightly says, that is representative of opinion not just across the region but among many people in this country.
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Mike Gapes (Ilford South) (Lab/Co-op): On previous occasions the Foreign Secretary has told us that the Attorney-General is giving advice to the Cabinet. Can he assure us that if there is an increase in the scope and range of the targets that we will hit, that advice will be made available to the House?
Mr Hague: I cannot give an assurance that we will provide a running commentary on legal advice, but I can give the assurance that the Attorney-General is always included in such discussions. He is always included in the decisions about targeting, and indeed in our general discussions about policies. The National Security Council on Libya met earlier today to discuss the increased tempo of the military campaign, and the Attorney-General took part in that discussion. Retaining what we have had from the beginning—a clear legal authority to do what we are doing—is very important. However, although the Government can give it consideration, I cannot undertake to give a running commentary on legal advice.
Richard Ottaway (Croydon South) (Con): The Foreign Secretary said that General Richards had been referring to the command and control structure, not the infrastructure. It seems to be agreed that command and control is an acceptable target. However, General Richards said in The Sunday Telegraph that he
“wanted the rules of engagement changed so that direct attacks can be launched against the infrastructure propping up Gaddafi's regime.”
Mr Hague: That would, of course, have to be discussed with our colleagues, partners and other members of NATO, as all targeting is discussed in NATO. But certainly it is our opinion that it comes within the scope of United Nations Security Council resolution 1973 that if particular items of infrastructure are particularly supporting the military effort and the regime’s effort to make war against civilians, those would also be legitimate targets.
The Gaddafi regime is now isolated and on the defensive. It has lost control of large swathes of Libya already. The regime’s military capability has been significantly degraded and £12 billion of its assets have been frozen in this country alone. NATO has conducted more than 6,600 sorties and more than 2,600 strike sorties since 31 March, destroying ammunition stores, armoured and other vehicles and surface-to-air missile launchers, while at sea 20 ships are now patrolling the central Mediterranean under NATO command to enforce the arms embargo.
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Scores of senior figures have abandoned their positions in the regime, including Ministers, generals, ambassadors, bankers and senior officials. Many of these defectors are actively supporting the opposition national transitional council. We welcome the announcement today by the prosecutor of the International Criminal Court that he has requested judges to issue arrest warrants for Colonel Gaddafi and two other members of the regime wanted for the deliberate killing of unarmed civilians. This should leave the regime in no doubt that crimes will not go unpunished and that the reach of international justice will be long.
Mr Denis MacShane (Rotherham) (Lab): May I say that in recent weeks the Foreign Secretary has conducted his part of the campaign with exemplary skill and force? As the International Criminal Court seeks the arraignment of Colonel Gaddafi for all the things he has done, what difference is there between those and the terrible cruelty, killings and torture by President Bashar al-Assad in Syria? Does the Foreign Secretary agree with the Minister for the Armed Forces, who said in Defence questions an hour ago that he believed that Syria’s President should also be put before the International Criminal Court?
Mr Hague: I thank the right hon. Gentleman for, unusually, paying me a compliment. There are important differences, of course, in the level of international support and concern about Syria. I spoke a moment ago about the importance of our legal and international authority. So far, the Arab League position on Libya has been different from its position on Syria. Our ability to pass a resolution at the United Nations Security Council is very different on Syria from what it is on Libya, so if we believe that it is important to operate with legal and international authority, we must recognise that we are in a different situation in respect of Syria than we are in respect of Libya. I will return to Syria in the course of my remarks.
Mr Edward Leigh (Gainsborough) (Con): Is my right hon. Friend aware that many of us are worried about what the Chief of the Defence Staff said at the weekend, because he seemed to be implying that in order to resolve a stalemate that we ourselves have created, we should constantly widen the envelope of what we attack? We want a firm assurance that we will attack only military targets that directly target civilians, and that our mission is humanitarian and designed to achieve a ceasefire and peace.
Mr Hague: My hon. Friend can certainly be assured that we will stay within the scope of the UN resolution, with legal advice, but he must bear it in mind that as the situation changes, what is targeted and the methods necessary to achieve our objectives will sometimes have to change. It would not be effective to say that we are only ever going to target the same things. Many different parts of the apparatus of the regime in Libya that are engaged in prosecuting a war against its own civilians have not actually been targeted yet.
Dr Julian Lewis (New Forest East) (Con):
Will my right hon. Friend reassure us that there will be no change in the mission—no mission creep? A no-fly zone can be successful in preventing civilians from being
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massacred—that is why I voted for it—but what would the Government do if it became clear that the air raids have succeeded in preventing that and that Gaddafi is desisting from threatening to massacre whole swathes of his own people, but that he is staying in place? Would we then call off the campaign because the threat of massacre had been reduced to the point that it did not need to concern us any more, or would we say, “As long as Gaddafi is in place, the campaign goes on”? That is where we might find ourselves in legal difficulties?
Mr Hague: Of course it is open to Colonel Gaddafi to comply with resolution 1973, to end violence against civilians and to have a genuine ceasefire. President Obama and my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister made it clear at the beginning what he would need to do in order to do that; he would need to disengage from battles in places such as Misrata, to cease using his forces against civilians who try to protest in Tripoli, and so on. So it is open to him to do this. It would certainly not bring to an end the enforcement of a no-fly zone, the arms embargo and so many parts of the UN resolution, but in that situation the position—the need to protect civilians from attack—would be different. However, Colonel Gaddafi does not do this, presumably because if he did he would no longer be able to maintain himself in power, as he relies entirely on force to keep himself in power. That is why the question of his being there and remaining in power is, in practical terms, intimately bound up with resolving the conflict.
Jeremy Corbyn (Islington North) (Lab): Any innocent person listening to the Foreign Secretary’s speech would assume that the whole policy that has been conducted by NATO, with the support of the UK, is one of regime change, and that they are just hiding under this fig leaf of its not being regime change. When does this become regime change in fact? Would he do the same in Bahrain, Syria or any other country? Clearly, that is the direction of travel at the moment.
Mr Hague: Those countries are all in different situations. I wish to discuss those different countries later, but Libya’s is the one case where we are dealing with a clear call from the Arab League and a United Nations Security Council resolution, and that makes it very different from all the other situations that we are dealing with. The hon. Gentleman should support the fact that Britain is acting on that basis, with that international authority. The purposes of our military action are exactly as set out in the resolution but, for the reasons that I have just been explaining, it is hard to see us achieving those objectives, or any peaceful solution being arrived at among the people of Libya, while Colonel Gaddafi remains in power. We have to recognise that, and it is why most of the world, including people across north Africa and in the Arab world, want him to go.
This House and our country should be confident that time is not on the side of Gaddafi; it is on our side, provided that we continue to intensify the diplomatic, economic and military pressure on his regime. The tempo of military operations, which some of my hon. Friends have been asking about, has increased significantly in recent weeks, and we are now targeting not just deployed military assets, but the fixed military command
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and control facilities which the regime uses to threaten the civilian population. That action is within the constraints of the Security Council resolutions, and we are increasing the regime’s diplomatic and economic isolation at the same time.
At the contact group meeting in Rome on 5 May, which I attended, all members agreed to reject diplomatic emissaries from Tripoli unless the regime shows serious willingness to implement a real ceasefire. We also agreed to explore action to prevent the regime from exporting crude oil and importing refined products for non-humanitarian use, and to clamp down on states and entities supplying arms and mercenaries to the regime. We are also working with our partners to stop satellite or state support for the broadcasting of Libyan state television, and the whole House will welcome the Arab League’s decision yesterday to request a ban on Libyan state-owned TV from broadcasting on the Arabsat satellites. We also welcome the mediation role of the UN special envoy, as I have said.
In parallel with that pressure, we are increasing our support for the Libyan national transitional council, which we regard at this moment as the legitimate representative of the people of Libya. In Rome, the contact group agreed terms of reference for a temporary financial mechanism that will aid the provision of basic services in eastern Libya, as well as efforts to stabilise its economy. The first meeting of the steering board for the mechanism is due to take place today in Doha, and up to $180 million has already been pledged by the Gulf states.
The British Government were also one of the first to provide humanitarian support to Libya, including medical supplies for 30,000 people and basic necessities for more than 100,000. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Development will want to expand on this subject when he winds up the debate.
Sandra Osborne (Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock) (Lab): On the subject of the national transitional council, on a recent visit to the US the Select Committee on Defence was told at a high level that we do not know who the rebels are. Is the Secretary of State confident that it is appropriate to give them official recognition when we do not really know the details of where they are coming from?
Mr Hague: We have not given them official recognition; we recognise states, not Governments. We recognise the state of Libya. We say for now—at this moment—that they are the legitimate representatives, as Gaddafi has lost legitimacy, and we have invited them to open an office but not an embassy here in London. We know a lot about who they are—after all, we have met a lot them. I have met their principal leaders and we have a diplomatic mission in Benghazi that is working with them daily. They have published their vision of a democratic Libya and, as I shall explain, have gone on to set out their own transition plan for Libya, which tells us quite a lot about what they intend.
The hon. Lady brings me naturally to what I was going to say next. Last Thursday, during a visit to London by its chairman Abdul-Jalil, the Prime Minister invited the council to open a mission in London. That will enable closer consultation. We welcome the road map for a democratic transition published by the council.
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It pledges the establishment of an interim Government after the departure of Gaddafi and a ceasefire—an interim Government including council figures as well as technocratic figures from the regime—the convening of a national congress with balanced representation from across the country, the drafting of a new constitution and internationally supervised parliamentary and presidential elections within six months. Those are laudable objectives that show the right way forward, as proposed by the national council.
The Prime Minister also announced new support for the protection of Libyan civilians, including communications equipment, bullet proof vests and uniforms for the civilian police authorities of the NTC as well as support to improve the public broadcasting capacity. That assistance is designed to help ensure that the NTC administers territory under its control to international standards. In the coming weeks we will also increase our diplomatic presence in Benghazi. We have appointed a permanent special representative to the national transitional council based there, and we are sending development specialists who will form the core of an international team to advise the council on longer-term planning.
Mr Bob Ainsworth (Coventry North East) (Lab): Is the Foreign Secretary not glossing over the significance of what the Chief of the Defence Staff said? I think that the Chief of Defence Staff is worried about stalemate. We are doing enough to keep the operation going but not enough to finish it off, and we are turning our backs on the opportunities for negotiation, to the extent that they exist, yet we are not going far enough to finish this. He is worried about war and misery without end as well as ongoing cost and stretch. He is saying something different from the Government, is he not?
Mr Hague: No. I have called at successive meetings of the contact group and in this House for a steady intensification of the military, diplomatic and economic pressure on the regime. We have always been clear that it would require intensification and the Chief of the Defence Staff is certainly talking about the next stage of that intensification. That is not at variance with what the Government have said. It might contain more detail than what we have said before, but it does not vary from the approach the Government have taken. We have always been clear that such intensification is necessary to avoid a stalemate, but we need diplomatic and economic, as well as military, intensification.
We are doing all we can to implement the UN Security Council resolutions on Libya. We should be fortified by the knowledge that our action has already saved countless people from the risk of death, injury or certain repression. I hope the House will join me in paying tribute to the brave men and women of the armed forces and to British diplomats and aid workers on the ground in Libya. The contact group will meet again in Abu Dhabi in early June, a meeting that I will attend, and I will keep the House closely informed of developments. The Gaddafi regime’s efforts to cling to power are in stark contrast with the largely peaceful transition that has taken place in Libya’s neighbours, Egypt and Tunisia. Tunisia continues to lead the way in the transition to Arab democracy. Despite many complex challenges, a great deal of progress has been made since the revolution
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in January. A new broad-based interim Government including independent figures and opposition parties has been formed, media censorship has been removed, formerly banned parties have been legalised and an election date has been set. The challenge now is to ensure that reforms are fully implemented and that all arrangements are in place for free and fair elections. I spoke to Tunisia’s Foreign Minister last week to discuss those things. Through our Arab partnership initiative, we are helping to produce the first media code of conduct for Tunisia’s elections, to build domestic observation capacity for Assembly elections in July and to strengthen legislation protecting freedom of expression. Further British support for political and economic reform is being agreed and we are also working at the EU and with other international bodies to look at assistance for Tunisia as part of a broader approach to democratic reform in north Africa.
I visited Cairo at the beginning of the month. Egypt has many challenges to overcome before democratic reform is assured, including the need to stabilise the economy and create confidence for investors. I met senior members of the transitional authorities and representatives from across the spectrum of groups of Egyptian activists who participated in the revolution. Such engagement is vital if we are to understand and influence decisions by such groups in the future. In my meetings with Field Marshal Tantawi and Prime Minister Sharaf, as well as welcoming the progress that has been made so far, I raised Britain’s concerns about the Egyptian authorities’ current use of military courts, rather than civil legal mechanisms, and about the rise of sectarian tensions in Egypt, which is gravely concerning.
Violent clashes between Salafi Muslims and Coptic Christians left up to 15 dead and more than 250 injured in Cairo earlier this month. Peaceful demonstrations about those events were attacked by gunmen on Sunday and 78 people were injured. We condemn that violence and call on both sides to find a peaceful resolution to their differences in the spirit of the unity shown in Tahrir square. The rights of Christian minorities in Egypt and across the middle east must be protected and we welcome the fact that many in Egypt are clearly appalled by those actions. Many in the House will be deeply concerned if we begin to see in Egypt signs of the dreadful attacks against Christians or any other minorities that have taken place in Iraq and elsewhere in the region.
None of us should be under any illusion about the scale of the transition still required in Egypt. The success of the Arab spring will largely be judged on what happens in the Arab world’s largest nation. The UK is offering technical assistance ahead of crucial elections in September. Last week, we hosted the Egyptian team who are responsible for the elections and gave them an overview of the electoral process in Britain. We are also discussing what assistance Britain can offer through our Arab partnership initiative to strengthen political participation and the rule of law, including anti-corruption efforts, but the international community must rapidly accelerate its assistance to Egypt.
We are arguing in the European Union, the United Nations, the G8 and international financial institutions for a transformative new relationship with the countries of the middle east and north Africa. We have put forward our proposals in Europe for a reformed
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neighbourhood policy that offers market access and trade in return for reform, leading eventually to a customs union and free trade area. We hope that the G8 summit in Deauville next week will mark the start of a new approach to the region and to co-ordinated and expanded financial assistance. Offering a new hand of friendship and a new partnership is the right response to the aspirations of the people in the region, but it is also manifestly in our own long-term interests. The response of Europe in particular must be as bold, ambitious and historic in its scale and nature as these events themselves.
Keith Vaz (Leicester East) (Lab): I hope that the situation in Yemen will also be raised during those discussions because, as the right hon. Gentleman knows, a mass demonstration is planned for tomorrow at which thousands and thousands of people will be marching on the presidential palace. Ways in which we can help are through mediation, by trying to persuade the sides to come together, and by giving the financial assistance that is absolutely vital because Yemen is facing a humanitarian problem.
The experiences of Egypt and Tunisia reveal an important lesson from the Arab spring—that an immense economic challenge goes hand in hand with the political opening up of those societies. Two other lessons should act as a warning in the region to those who might be tempted to think that legitimate aspirations can be ignored.
The first is that demands for political and economic freedom will spread more widely and by themselves, not because western nations advocate these things, but because they are the natural aspirations of all people everywhere. The second is that Governments who set their face against reform altogether are doomed to failure. Simply refusing to address legitimate grievances or attempting to stamp them out will fail. Reform is not a threat to stability; it is the guarantor of it over the long term. It is not credible or acceptable for any country in the region to repress now and suggest that reform will only follow later, nor is it sustainable to promise economic reform without steady political development.
This is our message to Syria, alongside our utter condemnation of the violence. Only meaningful reform that meets the aspirations of the Syrian people can provide peace and stability for Syria in the long term. The alternative—ever more violent repression—simply stokes up anger and frustration that will spill over in the future. On the point raised by the right hon. Member for Rotherham (Mr MacShane), the European Union has already imposed a travel ban and assets freeze on 13 individuals in the Syrian regime, and on Friday we informed the Syrian ambassador to London that if the violence does not stop immediately, the EU will take further measures, including sanctions targeted at the highest levels of the Syrian Government.
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Security Council must send an unequivocal message of condemnation of the situation and call for urgent political reform.
Malcolm Bruce (Gordon) (LD): The Foreign Secretary is making a perfectly correct and robust case, but does he agree that the emergence of protest right across the middle east changes the dynamics of the middle east peace process and the mood of the Palestinians, and that we need to ensure that the international community secures a response and that they do not feel that they are stuck in a time warp when things are changing all around them?
Mr Hague: My right hon. Friend is right. That is changing the dynamics and it is important for all to understand that this increases the urgency of the middle east peace process, rather than meaning that it can be put off. The remaining opportunity to breathe new life into it must now be taken. I shall say more about that in a moment.
Hywel Williams (Arfon) (PC): What steps is the Foreign Secretary taking to encourage Turkey to take a democratic lead in the region, which would also include ending the persecution of legitimately and democratically elected Kurdish politicians? That would give great succour to Kurdish people in Syria, who are the subject of murderous repression by their own Government.
Mr Hague: Turkey is taking a lead in the region, in particular in trying to persuade the Syrian authorities to go down the route of reform, rather than the route of repression. We very much welcome the highly active role—not yet a successful role, but a highly active role —played by the Turkish Government in that regard. Of course, we look to Turkey, particularly as an aspirant nation for membership of the European Union, always to set a strong example itself.
While condemning so many things that have happened in some countries, we should welcome the fact that in some other countries of the Arab world Governments are setting out plans for reform. In March, the King of Morocco announced a package of reforms, including putting the national human rights body on an independent footing and constitutional changes that will be put to a referendum. Jordan has announced committees on national dialogue and constitutional and economic reform, and we look forward to those reforms being agreed and implemented.
In Yemen, the economic, security and humanitarian situation continues to deteriorate. More protesters were killed only last week by Government forces, in violence that the whole House will deplore. The United Kingdom supports the Gulf Co-operation Council’s initiative to resolve the deadlock, which requires the President to step aside and a new Government to be formed who include members of the Opposition. We are in close contact with the GCC about the progress of negotiations, we have supported those negotiations, and we are in close contact with the United States and our partners in Europe about our wider approach to the country.
Instability in Yemen has serious implications for the terrorist threat from that country, and al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula has demonstrated the intent and capability to attack western targets inside and outside
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Yemen. Britain and our allies are working around the clock to counter this threat and we will continue to do so. The arguments about the need for reform and dialogue apply to all countries in the region. Although each country is different, we will make the case to all that steps to reverse freedoms and curtail human rights are wrong and counter-productive.
We welcome the announcement in Bahrain that the state of national emergency will be lifted on 1 June and look forward to this commitment being met. We remain very concerned by the restrictions on freedom of speech and the reports of human rights abuses, including the widespread arrest of political activists and the severe charges brought against a number of doctors and nurses by a Bahraini tribunal. The Government of Bahrain must meet their human rights obligations and uphold political freedom, dialogue, equal access to justice and the rule of law. We also call on opposition groups in Bahrain to be prepared to enter into genuine dialogue.
Caroline Lucas: That is very kind; I look forward to making many more interventions on that basis. Does the Secretary of State share the concern that Bahraini opposition activists will not receive fair trials and, if he does, does he think there is a role for the UK mission to send observers to witness those trials?
Mr Hague: We certainly expect and will demand fair trials, and I have discussed that situation with Bahrain’s Foreign Minister in recent weeks, so it is very clear where the UK stands. We will send observers as necessary. Our embassy in Bahrain has been highly active for years in raising human rights concerns there, before the recent trouble, and in maintaining contact with opposition groups and good relations with the Government. We will keep that going.
Serious challenges also remain in Iraq. The formation of a national unity Government between Iraq’s major political blocs remains incomplete, the security situation is fragile and political tensions have risen. In recent months there have been a number of high-profile attacks and targeted assassinations by al-Qaeda and insurgent groups, but we judge the Iraqi security forces to have the necessary capabilities to prevent a wholesale return to violence. With its young democracy, oil reserves and economic potential, Iraq can become an important stabilising influence in the region and a key contributor to global energy security. Compromises must be made to end the stalemate and tackle the many grave problems the country faces.
The Arab spring remains in its early stages, in my view, and has caused uncertainty as well as optimism, but the middle east peace process must not be allowed to become a victim of that uncertainty. Delay leaves a vacuum of leadership which can be exploited by extremists or lead to increased violence. We are deeply concerned by emerging reports that up to 17 people were killed and many more injured over the weekend in violence in Israel and the occupied territories. We call on all parties to exercise restraint and protect civilian life.
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The House will join me in paying tribute to the efforts of the UN special envoy, Senator Mitchell, who will step down from that position this week after two years of tireless efforts to restart talks. We believe that the parties must return to direct negotiations as soon as possible, on the basis of clear parameters for a two-state solution. We hope that the announcement of reconciliation between Fatah and Hamas will lead to a Government who reject violence and pursue a negotiated peace. President Abbas has reaffirmed his commitment to a negotiated two-state solution based on 1967 borders. A new Government have yet to be formed, but when that happens we will judge them by their actions and their readiness to work for peace.
Mr David Burrowes (Enfield, Southgate) (Con): Today, when hon. Members from both sides of the House have joined in celebrating the 63rd anniversary of the independence of Israel, will the Foreign Secretary offer an assurance that the Government will not provide any support for organisations such as Hamas, which threatens not only Israel’s independence, but its very existence?
John Woodcock (Barrow and Furness) (Lab/Co-op): Further to that point, will the Foreign Secretary make clear the central importance that the Government place on the Quartet principles and state that no organisation, particularly Hamas in this instance, may genuinely be part of the peace process while it remains committed to Israel’s destruction?
Mr Hague: Securing peace in the middle east must of course be done on the basis of the Quartet principles, which is why we will judge any Palestinian Administration by the conditions I have set out. As I have often said, we look to Hamas to make concrete movement towards the Quartet principles, which remain of central importance.
Mr David Winnick (Walsall North) (Lab): I have lost count of the number of Foreign Secretaries who have told us that every effort would be made to bring about a solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Time and again that promise has been made, and I am sure with every genuine wish that it should be brought about, but it has not been. The situation of the Palestinians remains precisely what it has been since the occupied territories were taken in 1967. Is there any possibility that the United States—to a large extent it is the United States alone that will decide this—will move more than it has done so far, which in fact has not been much?
Mr Hague: It is no discredit to my predecessors that they have worked hard on this, and it would be wrong to desist from doing so just because we have not been successful so far. I believe that President Obama will make a major speech this week on these matters, including the middle east peace process. The United States of course plays a central role in pushing this forward.
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a reconciliation between Fatah and Hamas, which is exceptionally important, if Hamas is to be excluded in some way from peace making? Does he not remember Abba Eban, the former Israeli Foreign Minister, saying that one makes peace by talking to one’s enemies?
Mr Hague: In this situation the interlocutor for Israel remains President Abbas. He insists, I understand, that he is available to negotiate with Israel on the same basis as before, that the Government he has formed will be ready to do that and that Hamas will not have changed the Government’s policy. I hope that a return to negotiations will be possible, notwithstanding all the difficulties the House can see.
Mr Stewart Jackson (Peterborough) (Con): I thank my right hon. Friend for being generous in giving way. On the point made by the hon. Member for Barrow and Furness (John Woodcock), does my right hon. Friend recognise the concern shared by many Members that until Hamas repudiates its stated position, which is that the state of Israel should not exist, it cannot come to the table? Furthermore, does he agree that unilateral declarations of statehood, rather than round-table discussions without conditions, are not the best way forward and that the latter are?
Mr Hague: Negotiations on statehood are certainly the best way forward, but it is when those negotiations get nowhere that discussions about unilateral recognition get going in the world. That has to be recognised by all concerned. Yes, it is of course important for any peace in the future that all concerned recognise Israel’s right to exist, forswear violence and recognise previous agreements.
I am conscious that at this rate of progress mine might be the only speech in this debate and that I am yet to touch on Pakistan and Afghanistan, so I am going to be a little less generous in giving way and I will shorten what I was going to say about Iran.
The same urgency must apply to our efforts to address Iran’s nuclear programme, which remains a vital international issue. Tackling Iranian nuclear proliferation will remain at the centre of our approach to the region. We are seeking to intensify, including through the EU, the impact of existing sanctions in order to slow down Iran’s acquisition of material and finance for its nuclear programme and press the Iranian Government to reconsider their position. The people of the middle east aspire to a better future. Iran’s nuclear ambitions are a threat to that future, as are the continued efforts of terrorist groups operating in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
No country has suffered more from the scourge of terrorism than Pakistan. In the 10 years since 9/11, more than 30,000 of its civilians have been killed and many more maimed or injured, including the 80 people killed in a suicide attack last week. Osama bin Laden’s death is therefore a blow against the forces undermining the Pakistani state and an opportunity for Pakistan, working with Britain and its allies, to redouble the fight against violent extremism. Pakistan should certainly address the many serious questions surrounding bin Laden’s likely support network in Pakistan. We welcome Prime Minister Gilani’s announcement of an investigation,
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which must be credible and thorough, but it is right that we support the Government of Pakistan in their efforts to defeat terrorism. More than 1 million people of Pakistani origin live in the UK and what happens in Pakistan directly affects us. As we help Pakistan today, we are also investing in our future security. The enhanced strategic dialogue that our Prime Minister launched with Pakistan last month strengthens our co-operation on many shared interests and supports that long-term goal.
We want the people of Pakistan to know that the UK seeks a long-term partnership with Pakistan for generations ahead. British development support is helping to tackle inequalities in Pakistani society, to get more children into school and to build communities that are more resistant to radicalisation. Whatever its concerns about sovereignty, Pakistan should use the opportunity of bin Laden’s death to side unconditionally with all those aiming to defeat al-Qaeda, including Muslim countries. We hope that Pakistan will decide not to turn its back in any way on the west, but to take up the offer of partnership from us and the Americans and to use this moment in order to build long-term strategic partnerships.
Paul Flynn (Newport West) (Lab): Will the right hon. Gentleman confirm the very welcome report last week that the Prime Minister intends to make an announcement this month on the repatriation of 450 British troops—a report that gave great hope to the loved ones of those soldiers?
We have received news in the past 24 hours—the hon. Gentleman’s remarks relate to this topic—of the death of a Royal Marine from 42 Commando Royal Marines, and the whole House will join me in paying tribute to that officer and in expressing our sincere condolences to his family.
Osama bin Laden’s death will not mean the end of the security threat posed by the insurgency, or of the need to build up the capacity of Afghans to take charge of their own affairs. We remain committed to building a stable and secure Afghanistan that is able to prevent international terrorist groups from operating from its territory. Bin Laden’s death presents a clear opportunity for the Taliban to break decisively from al-Qaeda and to participate in a peaceful political process.
I wish to spend the remaining few minutes of my speech—so that others can speak—updating the House on recent developments and on the Government’s overall strategy, treating these remarks as our quarterly report to Parliament on progress in Afghanistan. At the close of this debate, the Secretary of State for International Development will inform the House of development progress.
The next four years in Afghanistan will be decisive. The Prime Minister has made it clear that by 2015 our troops will no longer have a combat role or be there in the numbers they are in now. President Karzai and the international security assistance force coalition have
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confirmed that, by then, Afghanistan will be in charge of its own security. That process of security transfer is already under way, and President Karzai announced in March the first group of provinces and districts where the transition will begin. Lashkar Gah district in Helmand is in that first group, confirming the progress that we have made in improving security in central Helmand. The National Security Council has approved our strategy that will support this transition over the next four years.
The momentum of the insurgency has been halted and, in many areas, reversed. Afghan and ISAF forces are now working to consolidate gains, which are not yet irreversible, and levels of violence have been relatively low in recent months, although a little higher than in the same period last year. In April there were a number of insurgent attacks, including the barbaric assault on a UN compound in Mazar-e-Sharif and an attack on the Defence Ministry in Kabul, and there was the escape of a large number of insurgent detainees from prison in Kandahar. Those incidents underline the need to continue pursuing our counter-insurgency strategy and our efforts to build Afghan security capacity, but they should also be seen as of limited wider impact when placed in the context of the campaign. In early May, Taliban leaders announced the start of their spring offensive, and we must therefore be prepared for such attacks to continue.
The UK’s overall military contribution is well over 10,000 troops. In task force Helmand’s area of operation, our focus is on maintaining momentum and retaining the tactical initiative in preparation for the end of the poppy harvest, when Helmand’s fighting-age males, many of whom have in previous years turned to the insurgency for employment, must be encouraged not to do so again. We keep our force levels under constant review, and some reductions this year may be possible, to answer the question from the hon. Member for Newport West (Paul Flynn), dependent upon conditions on the ground and the implementation of the security transition.
If the transition of security responsibilities to the Afghans is to succeed and endure, we have to build up Afghan capacity, and we are making progress on that. Afghan security forces responded capably to the Taliban’s co-ordinated assault on Kandahar city on 7 May. The numbers in the Afghan security forces continue to grow ahead of schedule, but just as important are the improvements being made in their capability and professionalism.
Some 95% of ISAF operations are conducted side by side with Afghan forces, and about 74% of Afghan national army kandaks and 75% of Afghan national police are now rated as effective with advisers or effective with assistance. Eleven out of 12 planned ANA branch schools are now open, teaching the soldiers the skills they will need to move from an infantry-centric force to a more self-supporting organisation.
Literacy rates in the army continue to improve, with 80,000 members of the security forces having now completed a period of literacy training and a further 60,000 in training at any one time. The NATO training mission estimates that in nine months more than half the Afghan security force will have completed basic literacy training, compared with just 15% today.
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settlement. We want a durable and inclusive settlement that respects the interests and rights of all Afghans. I agree with Secretary Clinton, who said on 18 February that we must intensify our efforts on a political process. We need to take advantage of military and civilian gains to make 2011 a year of reconciliation and transformation in Afghanistan. We will work with anyone who genuinely shares the goal of a secure, stable and prosperous Afghanistan that is not threatening to its neighbours and who are not threatened by it, and we look to the Bonn conference later this year as an important opportunity for progress.
In all the countries and regions that I have discussed today, we have a strong national interest in both democracy and stability, and our country is playing a major role bilaterally through the European Union, the United Nations and NATO, including in Afghanistan, where we are the second largest contributor of international forces.
This year already stands out as a momentous year in foreign affairs—one that not only gives rise to great optimism about the potential for greater economic and political freedom in a part of the world that has known little of either, but that generates risks to the United Kingdom which we will work to anticipate and address, working with our allies to protect our nation’s interests while standing up for the highest values of our society.
Mr John Spellar (Warley) (Lab): This debate certainly covers a vast number of countries of interest, but it does not include China, which my right hon. Friend the Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire South (Mr Alexander), the shadow Foreign Secretary, is visiting today, as he mentioned in last week’s exchanges. It is also unfortunate that so much other business has been put on today’s agenda, given what is clearly a timely, popular and well-supported debate.
I accept that we are in somewhat uncharted territory, and we recognise the difficulty for the Government of making decisions in response to rapidly changing circumstances, but it is nevertheless necessary that those decisions are taken speedily and coherently and that they are implemented effectively. For Parliament to scrutinise the Government’s performance properly, it is important that the Government share their thinking and the evolution of their doctrine in assessing options and that they ensure a firm grip on delivery.
I know that a considerable number of Members wish to speak, that they have an interest and considerable expertise in the subjects covered by the debate and that there is a time limit, so without more ado I will cover some, although not all, of the countries involved. Inevitably, given the dramatic death of Osama bin Laden, we must start with Afghanistan.
At the outset, let me make it clear that we believe that the allied forces were right to go into Afghanistan in response to 9/11, and that the UN was right to set up ISAF with the following mandate, which we should remind ourselves of today:
“Stressing that all Afghan forces must adhere strictly to their obligations under human rights law, including respect for the rights of women, and under international humanitarian law,
Reaffirming its strong commitment to the sovereignty, independence, territorial integrity and national unity of Afghanistan,
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Determining that the situation in Afghanistan still constitutes a threat to international peace and security,
Determined to ensure the full implementation of the mandate of the International Security Assistance Force, in consultation with the Afghan Interim Authority established by the Bonn Agreement”.
The UK took the lead in the initial phase of ISAF, and our forces have played a prominent and—I am sure that hon. Members in all parts of the House recognise this—distinguished role since then. They show great skill, courage and determination in their operations, and some have made the ultimate sacrifice, including the Royal Marines sergeant mentioned by the Foreign Secretary. Others have suffered serious injuries that will affect their whole lives, as was highlighted in the statement made earlier. Because my constituency is very close to Birmingham, I recently talked to a nurse there who works at Queen Elizabeth hospital in Birmingham, who described how heartbreaking it is to see these once-fit young men who have desperate injuries but who remain enormously positive and resolute. We owe them a huge debt. The nation must honour the military covenant, and today’s statement is an important step in that process. I also join the Foreign Secretary in his tribute to aid workers in Afghanistan, a number of whom have died in trying to bring help to the people of Afghanistan. They have shown enormous dedication and courage.
We must look to the manner and timing of the handover of the governance of Afghanistan to the Afghan authorities, army and police. One of our key objectives was to prevent al-Qaeda from using Taliban-run Afghanistan as a base from which to launch terrorist attacks around the world. While Osama bin Laden’s death has not finished al-Qaeda, it has certainly dealt it a serious blow. It also confirms previous intelligence suggesting that nearly all of al-Qaeda has left Afghanistan. That probably means that Washington will start phased troop withdrawals in the next couple of months. We must be clear that the process is determined by the situation on the ground, not by the calendar, but also that it will start to happen shortly.
It is clear that intense internal discussions are going on in Washington, and some elements of those discussions are starting to emerge. Senator John Kerry, the chairman of the Senate foreign relations committee, last week described as “fundamentally unsustainable” the US’s current expenditure of $10 billion a month on what he called a massive military operation with no end in sight. He made it clear that he was not advocating a “unilateral precipitous withdrawal”, but that the US ought to be working towards achieving what he described as the “smallest footprint possible”. The ranking Republican Senator, Richard Lugar, who also has huge experience on that committee, reinforced the message, saying:
“The question before us is whether Afghanistan is important enough to justify the lives and massive resources that are being spent there, especially given our nation’s debt crisis.”
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considerations that will shape the progress of the draw-down. Will he also, without being definitive, indicate the intended completion date, although we recognise that that will, of its essence, be tentative and might be varied in either direction? We all know that the British public are realistic and resolute, but it is also clear that they now want to see our boys, and increasingly our girls, starting to come home.
Will the Minister indicate what role he sees for the neighbouring powers—obviously Pakistan, but also Iran, Russia, China, India and possibly Turkey, as well as the various “stans”—in this process of a resolution for Afghanistan? They all have significant interests, which are not entirely geopolitical, and many also have kinship with ethnic groups within Afghanistan. However, their interests are not necessarily coincidental and will have to be carefully handled. It is in no one’s interests, neither in the wider world nor in the neighbouring powers, for Afghanistan once again to be a centre of instability and a haven for international terrorism. We need to decide what outcome is desirable and practicable and, together with the United States and the international community, move resolutely towards it.
In that context, what should be the basis of a settlement? First, there should be a new and more inclusive internal political arrangement in which enough Afghan citizens have a stake and the central Government have enough power and legitimacy to protect the country from threats within and without. Secondly, on which the first depends, there should be a new external settlement that commits Afghanistan’s neighbours to respecting its sovereign integrity, as outlined in the UN resolution that I have mentioned, and carries enough force and support to ensure that they abide by that commitment.
“a process by which the ex combatants acquire civilian status and gain sustainable employment and income”.
It will then require reconciliation, including ensuring that tribal, ethnic and other groups are represented and recognised. Parliament and parliamentarians should also be recognised and encouraged. Several Members of Parliament participated in the sessions with the group of Afghan parliamentarians who were over here last month and who are developing a vibrant approach to their democracy. That event was extremely welcome, and we congratulate the organisers, but a lot more needs to be done by us and by the international community to sustain the process. As has been self-evident in many exchanges about this in the Chamber, there must also be a sustained drive to cut corruption.
In many ways, we have been looking from the wrong end of the telescope at events in what I will describe, in historical terms, as the north-west frontier region. We are considering events in Pakistan in the light of their impact on Afghanistan, whereas the crucial issue is how Afghanistan will affect Pakistan, which is a country of 160 million people—it is the second largest Muslim country—with a significant military, including nuclear, capability. It is also, as the Foreign Secretary has rightly acknowledged on behalf of Britain, a country that has suffered considerable losses from fundamentalist terrorism, and it continues to do so even in recent days. We need to think very seriously about Pakistan’s concerns and prospects. This is not helped by some of the knee-jerk responses to the death of bin Laden that we have seen in the media, with too many people making facile assertions regarding
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subjects about which they do not have, and may well never have, the full picture. Idle speculation on this matter is not helpful in forming an effective, considered judgment, and it is certainly not helpful in the internal politics of the region.
I therefore welcome the fact that the United States appears determined to continue to support Pakistan rather than to repeat the mistake that it made following the end of the Soviet invasion by cutting aid substantially and drastically. I note the welcome news in today’s Financial Times that Senator Kerry is about to visit Pakistan. However, there is also a clear obligation on Pakistan, in terms of good governance, to improve its administration, especially in relation to tax collection; to improve educational opportunities, particularly in taking education away from fundamentalist madrassahs and thereby ensuring proper education for its young people; to enable and sustain a more pluralist society; and to engage in dialogue significantly to reduce tension with India, which occupies so much attention and resources in both countries.
Malcolm Bruce: Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that commentators in the British press who attack aid support for Pakistan and Afghanistan are missing the point in that if we do not deliver education, hope and livelihoods to those countries, the chances of reducing terrorism and disintegration are lower, not higher?
Mr Spellar: I certainly do. This is an argument that needs to be had right across the world. Recently in Australia, there was a big attack on the aid programme to Indonesia—again, it is substantial—which is designed to ensure proper secular, state-run education, so that youngsters do not only get their education in fundamentalist organisations. It is enormously important that we sustain that programme for the future of that country, the largest Muslim country, as it is for the future of Pakistan, the second largest Muslim country. That is essential not only for the long-term security of the region but for international security. I was encouraged by the comments of the Foreign Secretary on that subject, and I hope that the Secretary of State for International Development will enlarge on them in his response.
Turning to the middle east and north Africa, it has been rightly said that the death of bin Laden was a serious setback for al-Qaeda, but the most telling blow has been the Arab spring, with its demands for democracy and more open societies, and certainly not for al-Qaeda’s dream of a return to mediaeval brutality. We should be realistic about the various elements that are involved in that movement and the possible course of developments.
I congratulate the Foreign Secretary on his Mansion House speech. I notice that he recycled quite a bit of it in his speech this evening. That is obviously part of the Government’s commitment to be greener. However, the speech bears repetition. As he rightly said:
“Demands for open government, action against corruption and greater political participation will spread by themselves over time, not because Western nations are advocating them but because they are the natural aspirations of all people everywhere.”
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south America have emerged from military dictatorship, are overcoming their ruthless, destructive guerrilla groups and are building a better future. Interestingly, in his famous Chicago speech in 1999, Tony Blair referred to the need for
“more effective ways of resolving crises, like that in Brazil.”
Brazil is now a roaring economic power, and it has just celebrated the election of a new successive social democratic President. The countries of eastern Europe have returned to their European home, having thrown off the shackles of their corrupt, vicious, incompetent communist leaderships and the Warsaw pact. They have willingly joined NATO and the EU. Indonesia, which I mentioned in response to the right hon. Member for Gordon (Malcolm Bruce), is the world’s fourth most populous state and the largest Muslim state. In 10 years, it has gone from being a military-backed dictatorship to being a vibrant democracy with a rapidly expanding economy. It is now a G20 member and an effective partner against terrorism. There has been a seismic, historic shift in the international landscape, and we should recognise and welcome that.
That is why we fully supported and support the Government’s decision to join international partners to enforce United Nations resolutions 1970 and 1973 in Libya. Those who query resolution 1973 and this country’s rapid decision to act must consider how we would have felt, and how the world would have reacted, if Gaddafi’s tanks and death squads had poured into Benghazi over that weekend and killed people, to use his words, “like rats”. In this day and age, that would all have been carried out on 24-hour TV in real time.
While giving support, it is our responsibility, as a Parliament and as an Opposition, to scrutinise carefully the Government’s conduct and effectiveness in fulfilling the task. We need from the Government a clearer and better articulated strategy. Frankly, we need them to explain how their self-imposed cuts to our expeditionary capability will enable them to implement the policy. The article that the Prime Minister wrote with the French and US Presidents in April said:
“So long as Gaddafi is in power, Nato and its coalition partners must maintain their operations so that civilians remain protected and the pressure on the regime builds”.
It is incumbent on the Government to be clearer to this House and to the British people about how they propose to bring about such a resolution of this situation, especially in the light of the comments over the weekend.
It was asked earlier, but I think it needs to be asked again, what is meant by “infrastructure targets”. If it means command and control posts within a military structure, I understand that. I think it is arguable—I hope that the Attorney-General would back me—that that is perfectly within the bounds of the UN resolution. If, as some commentators have suggested, it means industrial infrastructure, and particularly electricity infrastructure, we have considerable doubts. Even in Kosovo, which was a major operation, the object was to immobilise the transmission systems not to destroy them, because after military operations are over, there is a need to reconstruct the country. It is difficult to do that without adequate electricity supplies. It is therefore important that we have clarity on what is meant by infrastructure. One meaning is perfectly within the current programme, but otherwise we have considerable questions and doubts.
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It has to be clear that there is continuing international and regional support for our strategy. I can see no UN mandate for ground troops to move into Libya, and I think it is fair to say that there is no chance of getting such a mandate at the Security Council and no prospect of regional support. We must recognise that there is little appetite among the British public for such a course of action, and I suspect that the situation is similar in the United States and France.
I hope that the Secretary of State for International Development will update the House on the considerable efforts of his Department, with others in the international community, to assist the 750,000 people who are estimated to have crossed from Libya into neighbouring countries, and to get supplies to people in parts of Libya that are under siege from Libyan Government forces. I do not underestimate the task, but we need to know how we are tackling it, because it is substantial and urgent.
What are our realistic options across the middle east and north Africa? Although it is true that we are one of the few countries with the strategic capability to provide meaningful intervention, we must recognise the constraints imposed by our existing commitments elsewhere, the clear problems of overstretch, and the cuts made in the strategic defence and security review, which are increasingly seen as ill advised and outdated. Whatever action we take will be in conjunction with others, and not only our key strategic ally, the United States, but increasingly the EU, or at least key European allies. It has become clear, particularly in the last week or so, that a stretched United States has self-imposed limitations. Our European deliberations will have to consider that, and our response will have to be shaped accordingly. It is true that we could take a position of splendid isolation and say that those issues are nothing to do with us, but developments would continue in north Africa and the middle east. Although we should not overestimate our ability to shape events, we should not underestimate it either.
A key area is to develop capacity for the emerging democratic forces and parties in the countries concerned. It would be tragic if the principal beneficiaries of the new democracies were the remnants of the old dictatorial parties or underground fundamentalist Islamist groups. We should draw on the experience of eastern Europe, where post-communist parties were able to exert disproportionate influence because of their well-developed corrupt networks. I am sure all parties hope that the Westminster Foundation for Democracy will play a major role in building capacity for democratic parties.
Dr Andrew Murrison (South West Wiltshire) (Con): I am listening with great interest to the right hon. Gentleman. I am slightly concerned that he may not have learned the lessons of the past, in particular with respect to Iraq, where a thoroughgoing programme of de- Ba’athification stripped out the whole of the middle class and political class, making reconstruction far more difficult than it might have been. Does he not think that we should be cautious about completely stripping out individuals who may have been associated in some small way with an unsavoury old regime?
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contributed substantially to many of Iraq’s problems. I am turning that point around and saying that I do not want the established networks of the old corrupt parties or the well-organised networks of the Islamist groups, in particular the Muslim Brotherhood, to have a free field.
What I am talking about is not taking such people out of the structure but ensuring that emerging democratic forces, which by definition have been underground but are not organised in a Leninist fashion, can develop the capacity to compete on an equal playing field. They will then be able to play a proper role and not be outgunned—literally, sometimes, but certainly in finance and capacity —by other parties, which would have a detrimental effect. I am talking about building alternative capacity rather than moving along the route that the hon. Gentleman describes. That is the best prospect for the future of democracy in the countries in question.
Jeremy Corbyn: Is my right hon. Friend aware that in Tunisia, there is serious concern about the resurrection of many of the security forces that existed under the Ben Ali regime, which are treating protests and demonstrations with great brutality and great force? They are breaking them up and seem to be trying to suppress the very voices of dissent that brought about the huge changes in February in the first place.
Mr Spellar: We certainly ought to be concerned about that; my hon. Friend highlights another significant concern. Because of the vast array of countries across a wide and diverse region, our debates focus on certain countries. Inevitably, today’s debate will be focused primarily on Afghanistan and Libya, along with maybe one or two other countries. I am concerned that some of the countries that have been making some progress might start to slip off the radar, and it is important that we do not allow that to happen.
We must not allow our level of interest in the countries that are making progress to fall. Development there must be sustained, because there will not just be a steady path towards a democratic society. There will be pitfalls along the way. To make a comparison with eastern Europe again, the involvement of the secret police networks can be a considerable factor in the development of those countries, as I described earlier. We ought to be alert to that problem, but we should also take the positive way and build the capacity of democratic parties so that they can take the best advantage of democratic elections when they come.
I hope that Members of all parties will consider the role that the Westminster Foundation for Democracy and other such bodies can play in building capacity for democratic parties. The Foreign Secretary has announced substantial cuts in the Foreign Office programme—the sum will go down from something like £139 million to £100 million. We did not get details, but we need to know whether the cuts will have an impact on those organisations and their programmes.
In the Foreign Secretary’s statement last week, he talked about increasing our presence in a number of missions across the world. Interestingly enough, only one of those, Pakistan, is in the area that we are discussing today. There was, understandably, mention of a reduction in Afghanistan and Iraq, but in none of the other countries concerned did it seem there would
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be an increase in our local involvement despite the considerable interest that we need to be taking in them. On the face of it, that seems a slightly strange decision, and it would be helpful to have some explanation.
We have to recognise that not all of the liberation of eastern Europe went smoothly. Ethnic tensions rose to the surface, and in one case, Czechoslovakia, were resolved by a—fortunately peaceful—division of the state. Catastrophically, however, in Yugoslavia they led to vicious civil wars, appalling violence and the necessity for NATO intervention. Some states in north Africa and the middle east are fairly homogenous, but others are riven by ethnic differences and, in some cases, considerable and long-standing ethnic feuds. The international community must use all its endeavours to ensure that the outcome of the Arab spring is more like Poland than Yugoslavia. In that context, I welcome the Foreign Secretary’s comments about Tunisia and hope, as I said to my hon. Friend the Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn), that we will not focus only on countries where there is conflict. We must also provide assistance to those that are making a more orderly transition.
I shall move on briefly to the middle east and the Israel-Palestine issue. I am sure that everyone in the House and internationally is frustrated by the failure to get engagement in substantive talks leading to the creation of a new Palestinian state, living peacefully side by side with Israel. We echo the Foreign Secretary’s statement yesterday, which he repeated today, when he expressed Britain’s concern about the violence on the border and the loss of life, and called on all parties to exercise restraint. We should be persuaders for peace, to ensure that Palestinian aspirations can be realised alongside Israel’s equally legitimate desire for a peaceful existence within secure and recognised borders.
Mr Winnick: I certainly do not question Israel’s right to exist—I have made my views about that clear over the years. It was brought into existence by the international community and has as much right to exist as any other state, but not in the occupied territories. How can Israel genuinely say that it wishes to bring about a two-state solution at some stage—not that it has put much emphasis on that—when so much of the occupied territories has had settlements built on it? On what site is the second state, the proposed Palestinian state, going to exist?
Mr Spellar: I say to my hon. Friend and near neighbour that in all the discussions on the middle east, and particularly on Palestine-Israel, there is a danger of what David Ervine of the Progressive Unionist party in Northern Ireland, who went from terrorist activities to a very significant role in the peace process, described as “whataboutery”. I could equally respond to my hon. Friend’s valid points by asking, what about this, that and the other? What about the failure to implement the Camp David accord? What about the terrorist activities?
At the end of the day, the international community and the parties concerned have to get back to the basic fundamental principle of ensuring the establishment of a two-state solution on borders agreed internationally and between the parties, with the states living together in harmony. I cannot put it better than UN Security Council resolution 1850, which said that
“lasting peace can only be based on an enduring commitment to mutual recognition, freedom from violence, incitement, and terror, and the two-State solution”.
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I very much hope, as I am sure we all do, that the visit of Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu to Washington this month will intensify that process and involve a relaunch of the peace initiative by the Obama Administration. I am sure we all look forward to the President’s address on that subject.
Dr Julian Lewis: The right hon. Gentleman is speaking very sensibly on this subject. I have always supported a two-state solution. Does he agree that Israeli withdrawal from the Gaza strip, where there were many settlements, shows that if an agreement for withdrawal could be reached, settlements need not stand in the way?
Mr Spellar: Yes, and I presume that the hon. Gentleman would also have mentioned the fact that the Israeli army enforced those movements under the direction of Sharon. Pointing such things out is important, but it is equally important to get back to the fundamental need for talks and negotiation on the acceptance of a two-state solution. From many of the discussions that there have been, I do not believe that the sides are too far apart on the detail. We therefore look forward to the initiative that we hope the US Administration will take later this month, which we hope all parties will then pursue.
On Syria, we welcome the Foreign Secretary’s comments about making approaches to the EU and the UN to step up pressure on the regime. At the moment, however, the regime seems well past his “fork in the road”, and I hope that the message is getting through to it clearly.
I am mindful of the time, Mr Deputy Speaker, and of the numbers who wish to speak in the debate, so I wish to raise only two other issues—and to do so briefly. First, on protecting our security and national interest, and ensuring stability in the region, the Foreign Secretary will be unsurprised if I once again raise the issue of piracy off the coast of Somalia. The problem now stretches right round the gulf of Aden and out into the Indian ocean, which has a considerable effect on countries in the region. Nearly 800 seafarers are being held hostage, often in appalling conditions. Some have been brutally murdered. More than 30 ships are being held—some are used as mother ships to extend the pirates’ reach far into the Indian ocean. Ransoms totalling well over $100 million were paid last year, and there are credible reports that the pirates have entered a deal with the al-Shabab organisation in Somalia, which is linked to al-Qaeda, for a percentage of the ransom.
Therefore, in effect, the shipping industry is directly funding terrorism. There has been some response, but I feel that it has been inadequate. I had a helpful response from an Under-Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, but I was concerned when a Defence Minister told me that there had been no recent change in the rules of engagement. I recognise that there is no easy instant solution, but there is a danger that the crisis will continue to outrun and overwhelm the response. Piracy threatens not only lives but a vital world trade route. Incidentally, the unwillingness of crews and ships to go through the Suez canal and pay dues could have a damaging effect on the income of the emerging Egyptian democracy. Frankly, the Government need to get a grip on that. They must engage with other maritime nations and get commitments for sufficient ships and personnel, but there must also be a step change in the rules of engagement and operational tempo.
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To pull those arguments together and put them in a broader context, we do not accept that if we intervene anywhere in the world, we must take action everywhere. Nor do we accept the converse—that if we cannot or will not take action in one country, we should be immobilised elsewhere. That is why the previous Labour Government, when I was a Defence Minister, intervened militarily in Sierra Leone, but were unable to take action against the brutally repressive Mugabe regime in Zimbabwe.
I also accept—the Opposition have supported the Government in this respect—that a range of factors must be taken into consideration, and that countries must be considered on a case-by-case basis. However, we would like evidence not only of more coherent planning, but of more rigorous analysis. Around the time of Kosovo both Tony Blair, in his Chicago address, and Kofi Annan, in his Ditchley lecture, extensively developed the doctrine of humanitarian intervention. They might have been controversial, but they helped to create a framework within which policy could be decided, and indeed scrutinised and criticised.
I have not detected the development of such a doctrine in the speeches of the Foreign Secretary, including his speech today. The Opposition support much in his policy, but we require the Government as a whole to get their act together on policy and to be more effective on delivery. In short, we believe that it is time for them to get a grip.
Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Nigel Evans): Order. A time limit of eight minutes will be imposed, plus two minutes for injury time. However, I caution Members to frame a six-minute speech in their heads, because that is what they are likely to be allotted by the time they are called.
Sir Malcolm Rifkind (Kensington) (Con): In the short time available, I shall concentrate my comments on two matters: first, the conclusions we should draw from bin Laden’s demise, and secondly, the remaining challenges faced by the international community with regard to Libya.
Bin Laden’s demise was of course an historic event. We should not underestimate the significance of the US special forces operation, or of the extraordinary intelligence operation that their achievement represented. The timing of the operation is significant in that it happened right in the middle of the Arab spring. What could better demonstrate the ultimate irrelevance of what al-Qaeda has to offer? There is reason to believe—a massive amount of evidence has emerged from throughout the Arab world—that the lure and attraction of, and the significance of and interest in, al-Qaeda are beginning to wane. Al-Qaeda not only does not feature in the demands of the hundreds of thousands of people who demonstrate throughout the Arab world for reform and change, but it has been positively rejected by many as they advance claims for universal values.
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regard to Pakistan. We are in a very different time zone there when it comes to the possibilities of change. Bin Laden may have been of Saudi or Yemeni origin, but we should remember that ultimately the al-Qaeda movement originated in south Asia, not in the Arab world. We also know that that happened in the context of experiences in Pakistan and Afghanistan. It is perhaps significant and not irrelevant—I do not want to anticipate events—that the only revenge act so far in response to the assassination of bin Laden has come not from al-Qaeda or the Afghan Taliban, but from the Pakistani Taliban, who feel, and who have expressed sympathy for al-Qaeda and endorsed it.
That is significant for how we see developments in Afghanistan. There is a powerful argument for saying that if our original purpose for going into Afghanistan was the threat of al-Qaeda operating from within the country, that reason is now much less valid than it has been at any time in the past few years. However, the question of the timing and method of our withdrawal from Afghanistan must take into account not just the implications within that country, but to an even greater extent, the possible consequences for the destabilisation of Pakistan. Up to now, we have primarily worried about the consequences of al-Qaeda or the Afghan Taliban using the border as a refuge zone, but in some ways, things are now the other way around. As the right hon. Member for Warley (Mr Spellar) said, the problem in Pakistan is of far greater significance to the wider stability of the world, and it must be given priority. I hope that that is taken into account.
On Libya, I pay tribute to what has already been achieved. There is no doubt that Benghazi would have experienced an incredible massacre, and that Misrata would have been overthrown by Gaddafi, but for the efforts that have been made. However, those who have warned of the dangers of stalemate pose a real question. Without wanting to criticise the Government—I am aware of the international constraints on what they can do—there is a fundamental inconsistency in arguing that the mission is purely humanitarian at the same time as making it clear that it cannot be completed until we have, in effect, regime change.
The question, therefore, is this: how does one square that circle, and can it be squared in a way that does not breach the UN resolution? Whether we like it or not, that is the framework within which we must operate. As I see it, there are only three ways in which that stalemate can be broken over a reasonable period of time. First, implosion in Tripoli is quite possible. In the past few months, a significant number of leading Gaddafi adherents have defected. It is not impossible or inconceivable—it could happen next week or next month—that many of the senior adherents who remain, including generals and Cabinet Ministers, will simply fade away and disappear. I suspect that even Gaddafi’s immediate family will eventually not wish to share his bunker. Saif al-Islam and some of his colleagues might prefer to be in the south of France rather than the quagmire that Gaddafi’s regime could become.
That is one option, but we cannot count on it, and certainly not in any short time scale. The second option is a very slow process of gradual disintegration of the regime. That might be happening already because of the combined impact of economic sanctions and the fact that the oilfields are primarily in the east of the country, with very little utilisable refining capacity in
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the west, plus all the other forms of political, diplomatic and other pressure that is being put on the regime. However, by itself, that will not deliver the outcome that we need to bring this matter to a conclusion for many months, and possibly for several years. It is a serious option, but do we want to contemplate that the international action will take that long?
That leads me to the third option. What do we do, and what can we do within the UN resolution, to help the insurgents who are struggling for freedom and the overthrow of the Gaddafi regime? We have had a crucial watershed in the past couple of weeks in how the British and other Governments treat those insurgents. This is perhaps the first debate in which they have not been described as rebels. For many months, that was the description used not just in this country, but elsewhere, but that is no longer the case. The insurgents have been invited to open an office in London, they are being treated as serious politicians, and they are rightly considered to have greater legitimacy than the Gaddafi regime, which I welcome. However, we also know that they do not have the military capability to achieve the result that we all want.
The question is whether that can be achieved within the terms of the UN resolution. If it requires us—I do not complain about this—simply to protect civilians, what happens if there is hand-to-hand fighting in Misrata or Tripoli? It could not be stopped by air power or an international coalition; it could be stopped only by the people on the ground. Only they could protect civilians in such a situation. Therefore, I argue—and I believe that some of the legal advice agrees—that if we could be satisfied that the provision of military assistance to the insurgents would help to protect civilian lives and deal with the threat to civilians in Libya, it would be consistent with the resolution. In those circumstances, that kind of help should be considered. In reality, of course, that sort of help is already being given. The French, the Qataris and several other countries are already providing it, whether or not they acknowledge it publicly.
Were that help to be provided—I am talking about training as well as weapons—two things would happen. First, those around Gaddafi would know that the game was up, and gradually, as the insurgents became more of a disciplined, trained military force, it would become obvious—in their view, as well as in ours—that the regime was finished. Secondly, Misrata and the east of the country would gradually be united under insurgent control, and Gaddafi’s remaining power would be so restricted as to be insignificant. That is the real challenge, not just for the British Government, but for the international community, and I believe that we can respond to this situation positively within the terms of the UN resolution.
Ann Clwyd (Cynon Valley) (Lab):
I am glad that the Foreign Secretary mentioned Iraq, because it is seldom mentioned now, and needs to be mentioned far more often. I have three recent Amnesty reports on Iraq that are well worth reading, because they point out some of the deficiencies in the Iraq that we have left behind. Tens of thousands of Iraqis, emboldened by the successful uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, have taken to the streets since early February to protest against the chronic lack of basic services, rising prices, mass unemployment and endemic corruption, and to demand greater civil and political rights. Unfortunately, the security forces have
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frequently responded with excessive force, using live ammunition, sound bombs and other weapons forcibly to disperse peaceful protesters, particularly during what the Iraqis called the “day of rage” on 25 February, when demonstrations were held across Iraq. At least 20 people were killed, many of those arrested say that they were tortured or ill-treated, and journalists trying to cover the protests, as well as political activists, have been targeted for attack or threats.
I obviously have a particular interest in this subject because, for seven years, I was special envoy on human rights to Iraq for the previous two Prime Ministers. I therefore have an ongoing interest in the development of human rights there. During this “day of rage”, protesters used violence, mainly by throwing stones at members of the security forces or public buildings, and on rare occasions by setting fire to public buildings, and as a result members of the security forces have also been injured. On 30 March, in a belated but welcome development, the Iraqi authorities announced that their security forces were under orders not to use firearms against demonstrators except where necessary for self-defence.
“They should be cracking down on the use of excessive force and torture by their own largely unaccountable security forces, not on the right of people to peacefully protest. The Iraqi authorities should be upholding the rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly, including the right to protest, not trying to suppress them. It is high time to do so…Torture and other ill-treatment were widespread in Iraq before the US-led invasion in 2003”,
“and continued in prisons and detention facilities controlled by coalition forces and the new Iraqi governments. Since 2004, suspects held in Iraqi custody have been systematically tortured and dozens of detainees have died as a result.”
In my seven years as special envoy, I continually visited prisons and detention centres and spoke on many occasions to the Iraqi human rights Minister, to whom I pay tribute, because she has a difficult job but has not had enough support.
“US forces handed over tens of thousands of prisoners to Iraqi custody between early 2009 and July 2010 without any guarantees that they will be protected.”
I argued constantly in this Chamber that they should not have been handed over to the Iraqis, because they did not have the capacity to deal with the thousands of detainees they were expected to hold. Amnesty also wrote that
“there is every likelihood that torture and ill-treatment will remain widespread. Such abuses have a devastating impact on the victims not just when they are being tortured or ill-treated, but often for years afterwards…Urgent action is needed to end the pattern of abuse and to help the victims and their families.”
I received an e-mail from an American working in Iraq. His name is Tom Cruise—not the actor Tom Cruise—and he is the former senior adviser to the Iraqi Ministry of Defence directorate of human rights. He came to see me several times in the Baghdad embassy because of his great concern about an Iraqi prisoner killed while in detention. He wrote to me in February saying that he was still trying
“to bring attention to the disturbing torture and murder of detainee Adnan in…the former Iraqi 2/3/6 brigade which was run by BG Nasser who is now the Commander of the Iraqi 2nd DIV in Mosul.”
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He was tortured and murdered, and the person responsible was known to everybody. His name is Lieutenant Nabil Rahman Ali Mosa al-Yasseri. After eight months of intensive investigation by the FBI, he was located and arrested in al-Hillah. He was held for a mere 10 weeks, and then suddenly he departed. He was helped to escape. Tom Cruise wrote:
“I hope this communication can serve to bring the necessary attention to resurrect this matter and initiate further judicial action so the world can see that Iraq respects human rights and it is important for all and especially for Adnan Awad Mohammed Thaib Al-Jumaila and his family.”
Our embassy has raised this matter with the Iraqi President, Deputy President, Prime Minister and many others in Iraq, but with no results. Obviously, I think that the UK Government can play an important role in putting pressure on the Iraqi authorities to ensure that detainees are either released or brought promptly to trial on recognisable criminal charges, with full and fair trial rights and without recourse to the death penalty. We have invested too much—in money and blood—in the country to allow this abuse of human rights to continue in Iraq.
In my judgment, we made the right decision in March to establish a no-fly zone. At the time, there were concerns about a stalemate and about setting a precedent, but we had a UN resolution and a request from the Arab League to support us and to quell our doubts. The question was whether to intervene or not to intervene, and we chose the lesser of two evils to save Benghazi. As a result, there has been no slaughter in Benghazi, and to that extent it has been a success. We do have a stalemate, however. The question now is how to break the stalemate.
The UN resolution has been widely interpreted. We had the rather unexpected remarks over the weekend of General Sir David Richards, the Chief of the Defence Staff, who has called for a change in the rules of engagement to enable NATO to attack infrastructure to oust Gaddafi. There is a clear difference in our policy between our military and our political objectives. Our military objectives are humanitarian—in that, we are backed up by a United Nations resolution—whereas our political objective, which is not backed by the UN, is to remove Gaddafi. I think that General Richards has come pretty darn close to the latter course of action, touching on the political objectives. As the right hon. Member for Warley (Mr Spellar) said, regime change was set out by Tony Blair in his Chicago speech. I do not support that speech—I do not believe in regime change, and I reject the notions that he set out—but there is a difference between wanting regime change and using military force to achieve it, and General Richards is close to that concept.
The question that I would put to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Development is whether General Richards was authorised to make that speech. Is there a legal opinion that says that targeting infrastructure is legal? Can he say what General Richards meant by infrastructure? Was he talking about
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refineries and power stations? If so, then in my opinion that would not be legal. Going down that road would need an amendment to Security Council resolution 1973 and, of course, a further resolution of this House, which adopted it. Such a policy would also be divisive within NATO. Furthermore, it is not in Libya’s interest to wipe out its economy by attacking the refineries and power stations. When we come to help rebuild that country, we will need that infrastructure—that was one of the mistakes that we made in Iraq. We may be critical in the House of Commons about what is happening in Libya, but it is our reputation and the perception of the Arab world that counts.
So what is the exit strategy? Having achieved the military objective, how will the Government achieve their political objective? There is a big gap between the two concepts. There is nothing wrong with the no-fly zone, the economic sanctions and the hope that a lucky hit on a command and control centre will destroy Gaddafi, but we need to send clear messages to the regime around him. I invite my right hon. Friend to consider the possibility of an amnesty. Why not suggest an amnesty for those around Gaddafi who abandon him and co-operate in bringing him down? It is not beyond the realms of credibility to start talks between the regime and the rebels. We do it where the IRA is concerned and we are proposing to do it in Afghanistan, so why not in Libya?
Let me touch briefly on the Government’s decision to cut the World Service and the Arabic service that it broadcasts. We need soft power to help us in this situation. Cutting the World Service at this point is a mistake.
What is happening in Syria is wholly unacceptable, but the army is solidly behind President Assad. He had a choice, between reform and oppression, and he chose repression, so why do we not have a no-fly zone there? The difference is that we have neither a request from the Arab League nor a UN resolution. I regret the Arab League’s inconsistency and silence on Syria. I have no doubt that it is silent because no one wants the next domino to fall—that is the Arab League’s reservation—but it is still regrettable that it remains silent.
The death of Osama bin Laden represents an opportunity in Afghanistan and Pakistan. The Foreign Affairs Committee calls for talks in Afghanistan, and I believe that there is a momentum there that can be built on. However, we have to rebuild the relationship between Pakistan and the United States. Pakistan is a key player. It is a nuclear power and will be involved in any settlement negotiations in Afghanistan. Pakistan is clearly shaken by the death of Osama bin Laden. When the Foreign Affairs Committee went there last October, I was quite shaken by the level of hostility expressed by people in the Pakistan Administration towards the United States. Patching up the relationship will not be smooth, but Britain has a unique role to play. It is the one country in the world that is trusted by both the United States and Pakistan, and it is not beyond the realms of credibility to try to broker talks. Indeed, may I venture to suggest that we could broker talks between the two here in London?