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British Hostages (Kuwait)

Volume 178: debated on Wednesday 24 October 1990

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1.34 am

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.— [Mr. Chapman.]

This Adjournment debate is about the British hostages still held by Iraq. I stress that, because after the Foreign Secretary's statement today and the successful completion of the mission undertaken by the right hon. Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (Mr. Heath) there is a feeling that the hostage issue is over, but it is not. Tonight, 40 families have been reunited with elderly and sick relatives who were held hostage. Hundreds more, however, watched the television pictures of that reunion with happiness but also with profound sadness because they are still waiting for their relatives. I address the House on behalf of those families, and particularly the Ross family in Stoke Newington, my constituents, who were on the unfortunate British Airways flight BA 149. Alastair Ross has now been held hostage for three months.

I want to draw attention to the hostages on flight BA 149 because it cannot be said of them, as it has been said of other hostages, fairly or unfairly, that they went out to the middle east to earn big money and knew the risk that they ran. The people on that flight were in transit and unwittingly found themselves in a war zone. The horror that followed was entirely unlooked for.

In the emergency debate on the Gulf crisis. the Foreign Secretary said:
"The House represents those people and their families. In the debate it was striking that not one hon. Member argued that because of the plight, anxiety, unhappiness and suffering of the hostages and their families we should weaken or temper this country's resistance to aggression. That is a striking and welcome fact, and I believe that they accept that. It is a hard thing to say, but a necessary thing to say."—[Official Report, 7 September 1990; Vol. 177, c. 895–6.]
Let us reflect on what the Foreign Secretary meant by that. I believe that he meant that hostages are expendable, and the fear that that is what Her Majesty's Government believe led me to seek this debate.

This morning, I woke up to hear on the radio the Under-Secretary of State saying in an embarrassed way that he was not embarrassed to welcome the hostages home. Those of us who followed the coverage that the mission undertaken by the right hon. Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup had in the Tory press and noted the sneering way in which it referred to him wonder whether in some quarters of his party a humanitarian mission aimed at saving lives earns less glory than war-mongering and military adventures.

The people on flight 149 were entirely unwittingly caught up in a war zone. I shall speak of the experiences of the Ross family and the hundreds of other people on that plane on that terrible night. They left London on 1 August on their way to Madras, touched down on 2 August at Kuwait airport just to refuel and found themselves in the middle of a war zone. The Ross family then had to spend 12 days as part of a human shield at a military installation. For four of those days, Alastair, Maggie and two small children, with many others, were under military guard in a building with no natural light. Imagine the horror of not just adults but tiny children under armed guard in those conditions.

On 2 September, Maggie Ross and her two children were able to fly to London, but she left her husband behind. The fact is that 146 hostages from flight BA 149 have been left behind. They are held not in luxury hotels but at military installations.

The Foreign Secretary, speaking today about the hostages, said this:
"We should not forget that the plight.….of our hostages has been caused by Saddam Hussein who is playing cat and mouse with them, and the British Government and this Parliament would not wish to be blackmailed."
That is stern and resolute stuff, but both I and the families of the hostages would say that the British Government cannot be allowed to evade their responsibilities in that way.

Many of the hostages' families, including my constituent Maggie Ross, believe that the Government could do more. They want the Government to press again for consular access. My information is that consular access was last made available on 16 August. If the Minister has more up-to-date information, I shall be glad to have it. They want the Government to continue to press for Red Cross and Red Crescent access. I am aware that the Iraqis have turned down that request, but the hostages' families want the Government to continue to press for that access.

As for the vexed question of mail, Maggie Ross has received a number of letters from her husband which are very precious to her. She has replied, but apparently no mail is going in. The Foreign Office says that the hold-up is in Amman, Jordan. However, I have information that mail sent many weeks before did not leave England until 26 September. There is a great deal of unhappiness among the hostages' families about what has happened to the mail and about what is preventing it from going in when mail is coming out.

Finally—I am loth to criticise civil servants because I was one myself—many questions have been asked about the attitude of the Foreign Office. The majority of officials and very many individuals have done a wonderful job, but there have been too many reports—during conversations that I have had, both with hostages families and with people who work for British Airways, and in newspaper articles—about wrong and late information and about the occasional and unfortunate offhand attitude. There have been too many reports from too many sources about that. The Minister had to reply to those criticisms in a letter to The Independent a few days ago. They cannot be dismissed.

Still on the subject of Government Departments, what are we to make of the intelligence services on which we spend so much money and regarding which we have recently passed so much legislation to protect? They could not even predict the invasion.

In the special debate in September, speaking about the hostages, the Foreign Secretary said that the Government's undertaking was
"that we shall not forget them or in any way relax our efforts to get them out safe and sound."—[Official Report, 7 September 1990; Vol. 177, c. 896.]
The hostages' families feel forgotten. They believe that getting the hostages out safe and sound is the Government's last priority.

There is no doubt that the annexation of Kuwait was wrong, that Saddam Hussein is one of the most cruel and brutal dictators among many world-wide and that there is a lot at stake in the Gulf. However, some of us believe that the saving of human life and the avoidance of bloodshed come before many if not all the other things at stake in the Gulf. I believe that the saving of human life comes before the interests of American oil companies, above the provision of cheap oil in perpetuity for the United States, above military adventurism and above loss of face for the British Government and the American military. I also believe—as do many people, both in this country but above all in the middle east—that a peaceful settlement is still possible.

I am aware that negotiation and diplomacy do not go hand in hand with the resolute approach, but I have listened to the debate in the House and followed the issue in the newspapers, and the Government's attitude and that of most hon. Members seems to be that the plight of the hostages is all very well but that we cannot allow a handful of people to stand in the way of military action which is in our best interests. I would argue that, on the contrary, far from the hostages standing in the way of a military adventure that is in our best interests, their plight should focus attention on that action which is in everyone's interests—a peaceful, negotiated settlement.

I was driven to seek this Adjournment debate by the obvious misery and concern of my constituents, but this debate, short though it is, is not about one family, about the families of all the hostages from British Airways flight 149 or even about all the other hostages; it is about peace and a stable long-term settlement for the middle east. I ask the Minister to move away from the attitude which has caused so much concern to the hostages' families and which seems to suggest that some sort of military adventure is inevitable. I hope that he will answer some of the detailed questions that I have asked so as to reassure the hostages' families, some of whom are in the Gallery, that the Government are continuing to keep up the pressure for them and have their interests at heart, and that the prospects for a peaceful negotiated settlement are not being ignored or marginalised.

1.45 am

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs
(Mr. Mark Lennox-Boyd)

I should like to thank the hon. Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington (Ms. Abbott) for giving the House the opportunity to debate a subject of great concern. She has spoken of the distress caused to her constituents by the enforced separation from members of their families trapped in Kuwait and Iraq. I knew about the case of Mr. Alastair Ross from the questions that she tabled and from other contacts and I have familiarised myself with his situation.

The hon. Lady said at the beginning of her remarks that she sensed from the Foreign Secretary's comments this afternoon that there was a feeling that the hostage issue was over. I refute that completely. We take this matter immensely seriously. Almost every hon. Member will have heard at first hand of the emotional and practical problems being experienced by families in the United Kingdom as a result of Saddam Hussein's refusal to allow foreign men to return to their homes. We are in constant touch with the Gulf Support Group, a voluntary organisation founded by, among others, my hon. Friend the Member for Kingswood (Mr. Hayward). That group is doing a magnificent job in comforting and counselling families. My right hon. Friends the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary have visited the organisation and I plan to visit it very soon.

The hon. Lady made some criticisms of officials in the Foreign Office. I hope that she is in touch with the Gulf Support Group because the Foreign Office is closely in touch with it. If she asked the support group to make a judgment on its relationship with officials in the Foreign Office, she would find that their comments were not unfavourable.

Last weekend—on 20 October—a senior Foreign and Commonwealth Office official attended a meeting organised by the Gulf Support Group. It was a valuable opportunity for contact with the 150 or so relatives who were present. They expressed their deep concern and frustration, as has been described by the hon. Lady, at the plight of loved ones stuck in Iraq and Kuwait. The Government have the greatest sympathy for all those involved in this desperately difficult situation. At that meeting suggestions were also made—some of which the hon. Lady incorporated in her remarks—of ways in which we might help to improve matters. I am glad to be able to make a few announcements to the House now.

On mail, we are setting up a Post Office box arrangement in London to speed up deliveries of mail to those stuck in Iraq. I hope to be able to give further details in the next day or two.

Following an approach to British Telecom, the cost of telephone calls to Iraq is being reduced by half. That will enable families to make better contact with their relatives.

The BBC World Service Gulflink programme, which was introduced at the request of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and is a great support to people stranded in Iraq and Kuwait, is being extended, at our instigation, from 15 to 30 minutes on Saturdays and Sundays with effect from next Saturday, 27 October. Now, there will be a half-hour programme every day. That programme—I am sure that the hon. Lady will agree—is making an invaluable contribution to the morale of those in Iraq and Kuwait.

As members of the Gulf Support Group know, comfort parcels are being prepared by the embassy in Baghdad, with assistance from the British community and Foreign and Commonwealth Office finance, for those held at strategic installations in Iraq. They include things such as chocolates, beer, cigarettes, books, toiletries and vitamins. We are working on other matters that were raised at last Saturday's meeting.

The hon. Lady described me as answering a question this morning in an embarrassed fashion. I most certainly was not embarrassed. I was present at Gatwick to welcome my right hon. Friend the Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (Mr. Heath) and the 40 people whose return he had secured. It was a very moving occasion. Earlier in the summer, I had been to Gatwick to meet some of the wives and children who returned. It was obviously a tremendous relief to the individuals concerned and their families back home.

The return of those people and of more than 900 women and children whose evacuations we arranged earlier is simply not enough; it is only a beginning. About 1,400 British nationals are still trapped in the area. In Kuwait, there are about 600 people, at least 520 of whom are at liberty, but mostly they are in hiding. Some 80 people are known to be detained at sites chosen by the Iraqis. In Iraq, there are some 800 people, about 480 of whom are at liberty but unable to leave, and 306 are detained by the Iraqis at strategic sites. There is no official information on those detained at strategic sites, whom Saddam Hussein is using as a human shield, and our embassy has no access to them. The Iraqis move them from site to site, probably in a deliberate attempt to add to the uncertainty. Nevertheless, we have managed to locate some of them.

The Iraqi authorities' refusal to allow foreign men to leave the country—and, even worse, to hold them against their will at strategic sites, denying them consular access—is a flagrant and inhumane breach of international law. It constitutes an act of international terrorism on an unprecedented scale, and I have no doubt that it is designed with the purpose of intimidating and disorienting communities in the west.

On the diplomatic and political front, we have been immensely active in many areas since the earliest days of the crisis. The United Kingdom was instrumental in drafting many of the Security Council resolutions, which unequivocally condemned Iraq's holding of hostages. We are in touch, of course, with other Governments whose nationals are stuck in Iraq and Kuwait. We have made, and will continue to make at every opportunity, the most vigorous possible representations on behalf of those held to the Iraqi authorities in Baghdad and to the Iraqi ambassador in London.

The Minister said that the Government are in touch with other Governments. What advice has he had from the Government of France?

The hon. Gentleman will be aware of a statement made by the French Government, in response to an indication from the Iraqi Government that their nationals are to be released, that they are not in a position to negotiate on the release of their nationals. That is the French position, which has been publicly stated.

I am aware that some of those who are most directly involved in this tragedy would like the Government to send an emissary to negotiate with Saddam Hussein for the release of those whom he is holding. There is no possible basis for negotiation, and I have stated the French position. Anything less than complete withdrawal from Kuwait would leave Iraq with a reward for its invasion and for the taking of hostages. That would be in clear contravention of unanimously endorsed United Nations Security Council resolutions.

Nevertheless, we shall do everything in our power to bring about the early and safe release of those who are trapped in Iraq and Kuwait. We shall not rest until that is achieved. I have seen allegations—born no doubt of frustrations with which I deeply sympathise—that the Government are doing nothing. That is most certainly not the case.

Meanwhile, we continue to do everything we can to support those who are trapped and their families. In London we have established at the Foreign Office a centre to provide information and advice to relatives. Its staff continually update lists of the whereabouts of those held. Representatives of the Department of Social Security help to ensure that families quickly get the benefits to which they are entitled. I have already described to the hon. Lady and the House the new measures that we are taking.

In Kuwait, our ambassador and his staff organised the evacuation of several hundred British subjects to Baghdad. He and his consul—the only two remaining staff—are managing to keep in touch with most members of the British community, both directly and through the wardens system. I am sure that the House and the hon. Lady will join me in congratulating Mr. Michael Weston and Mr. Larry Banks, and in expressing the warmest appreciation and support for the magnificent efforts that both they and the wardens are making to keep those links going.

I join the Minister in congratulating the staff overseas. Earlier, he said that it was most unfair to say that the Government were not prepared to do anything. But he also said the Government were not prepared to negotiate. The fact that they are not prepared to negotiate means, in effect, that they are not prepared to do anything practical to get these people out.

It is simply not true to say that we are not prepared to do anything practical. There is an unprecedented barrage of international pressure on Saddam Hussein to withdraw from Kuwait and to release all those who are being kept in that country against their will, and I have already explained the French position to the hon. Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell). All western countries are in agreement about that.

The Minister refers to the French position. What about the Saudi position? From reports of what Saudi officials are saying, it seems to some of us that they can see a midway point—an arrangement whereby Saddam Hussein would be allowed to exit but to hold on to his access to the sea. At Question Time on Tuesday, that notion was squashed by the Prime Minister. There seems to be a negotiating position, but the Government do not want to address it.

The Saudi position is not clarified by the statement made two days ago, which was further corrected subsequently, and it does not, therefore, lead to any development on which I can comment.

I want to pay tribute to Mr. Harold Walker, our ambassador in Baghdad, and to his staff. The embassy continues to operate, but with difficulty. Staff are not permitted to travel outside Baghdad. They overcame Iraqi opposition to visit British detainees in the Mansour Melia hotel and are in contact with the rest of the British community in Baghdad. They are providing financial support to Britons who need it. With the involvement of the British community in Baghdad, they are, as I said earlier, organising comfort parcels for detainees.

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington for giving the House the opportunity to debate this subject. We have had a useful exchange of views. The welfare of those detained in Iraq and Kuwait is at the forefront of our minds. I hope that my remarks will have shown that we are not merely deeply concerned and sympathetic but that we are doing everything that we possibly can to secure their release, and to provide support for their families in this country.

1.59 am

I am not at all happy with the Minister's answer. As my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington (Ms. Abbott) said, it is all very well to take the Government's view, but some of us—it is a minority, as I said to the Foreign Secretary at Question Time—think that there must come a time when we have to start talking, because there is no alternative to talking.

The position is not quite as simple as the Government make out. There is a history to it. At this point I must be personal: my father was one of the aides to Sir Percy Cox, the man who set up Kuwait, and he worked for Sir William Willcocks. He gave me Philip Graves's life of Sir Percy, from which it is clear that Kuwait was part of the Ottoman empire. That does not justify the actions of Saddam Hussein; I am merely saying that it is a grey area.

At the Labour party conference, there was a reception for the Labour Friends of Israel, at which Moshe Shahal—himself one of the 120,000 Iraqi Jews—said that, when he was being brought up in the building in Baghdad that is now the French embassy, he learned that all his contemporaries thought that Kuwait was part of Iraq. It is all not so simple as is being suggested.

Like my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington, I am deeply concerned about the hostages. I do not think that it can be said that policy takes over everything. What is the alternative to not using the diplomacy of talking? It is war, frankly. The prospect is appalling: every oilfield from Basra north to Kirkuc would be involved.

I am also concerned about the British forces. I am one of the few remaining Desert Rats in the House, having served in the Scots Greys, now the Scots Dragoon Guards. I was tank crew, and I feel for those people: I know their vulnerability. God knows, just putting on those suits in the desert heat msut be bad enough; but, once blood is shed, heaven knows what will happen in Jordan.

It is all very well for the Foreign Secretary to say that he has talked to President Mubarak and I have not. That is true—but what will happen to the Egyptian masses? As a very young Member of Parliament, I was summoned late at night to the house of the late President Nasser, and I shall always remember the force with which he impressed on me the dynamics behind Arab nationalism. If we do not talk, and once any shots are fired, what will happen there? It will explode—and I would not fancy King Husssein's chances much. Indeed, it may be very difficult for the Saudis.

When the right hon. Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (Mr. Heath) comes back from Iraq saying that we ought to use diplomatic means, it is clear that he means the diplomatic means of talking. I know that this is an unpopular view, and I do not claim that it is held by more than a minority in the party, but some people—serious people—think that the time has come to begin talking as other countries have talked, even if it means breaking the consensus. I see my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington nodding. The French are taking a very different view, and I bet that French, Italian and German nationals will get out earlier than the British—assuming, that is, that peace is somehow maintained.

A fireman from Bo'ness, in the West Lothian area, is believed to have been taken off the British Airways plane and sent to Basra. Knowing people who are personally involved—as I am sure that the Minister does—brings home the fact that human situations are sometimes as important as wider policy, especially when one doubts whether that wider policy has much chance of long-term success.

It is all very well to put pressure on people; but people who are pressurised react as Londoners did in the blitz. What happened in Hamburg in 1943? The fact is that the bombing made people rally behind Hitler, although they were not supporters of the Nazis. It is a human reaction. Once we start thinking that there is any kind of military option, and start threatening people with it, we shall be in considerable difficulty—not least the hostages whom my hon. Friend has represented so ably tonight.

We must look again at the matter, in a completely different way. I know that I shall be told by some people, including members of my own party, that I am simply creating difficulties and showing weakness; but those who have had some experience of the Arab world——

The motion having been made after Ten o'clock and the debate having continued for half an hour, MR. DEPUTY SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at four minutes past Two o'clock.