Skip to main content


Volume 521: debated on Monday 17 January 2011

(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs if he will make a statement on Tunisia and the Government’s assistance to British nationals.

I welcome this opportunity to update the House on recent events in Tunisia and on what is being done to assist British nationals there.

The House will be aware that, following a month of protests over Government corruption and the lack of political and economic reform, a state of emergency was declared and President Ben Ali left Tunisia for Saudi Arabia. I hope that the House will join me in expressing our sympathy to all those whose friends and relatives have been killed or injured in the disturbances.

The Speaker of the Tunisian House of Deputies, Fouad Mebazaa, has been appointed interim President in line with the constitution, and he has asked Prime Minister Mohammed Ghannouchi to form a Government of national unity. Talks continue with opposition parties and with civil society to try to agree a way forward, and we hope that there will be an announcement on the new Government later today.

When the situation deteriorated, an estimated 5,000 British nationals were in Tunisia, most of them tourists on package holidays. We changed our travel advice to “all but essential travel” on 14 January, since when more than 3,000 British citizens have left Tunisia; many of them were able to leave on additional flights laid on thanks to the swift response of tour operators, and we believe that approximately 1,000 British nationals now remain in Tunisia. That number is largely made up of long-term residents, as well as dual nationals and some independent travellers. Many of those still in Tunisia do not wish to leave and have told our consular staff that.

Despite exceptionally challenging conditions, the embassy is working to help to resolve the crisis and to provide support to British nationals in Tunisia. We have sent a six-person rapid deployment team from London and two members of staff from elsewhere in the region to reinforce embassy staff in Tunis and to provide constant consular assistance. We have established a 24-hour hotline in Tunisia and in London that people can ring for help and advice, and we have staff at Tunis airport who are liaising with airlines and seeking to help British travellers with medical, passport and other consular issues.

Our embassy staff remain in regular contact with our network of wardens across Tunisia, better to understand the evolving picture around the country and keep those British citizens that we are aware of informed of updates as the situation evolves. We are keeping those British nationals who have registered on LOCATE updated on developments through regular e-mails.

I spoke to our ambassador in Tunis earlier this afternoon. He informed me that his staff are now receiving very few consular calls, and those who are calling are mostly asking for updates on the security situation. We continue to advise against all non-essential travel to Tunisia. We advise anyone in the country who does not have a pressing need to be there to leave by commercial means. The airports are operating, and airlines are flying into and out of Tunisia. Those who are still in the country should respect advice or instructions given by the local security authorities and tour operators and avoid rallies and demonstrations. There is no indication that British nationals are being targeted by looters or rioters, but given the unpredictability of the situation there is always the chance of their being caught up in incidental violence, and our advice is that if any British citizen is in doubt about the safety of his or her location they should stay in their accommodation.

At the political level, my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary has been working with partners, including especially those in the European Union, to promote a peaceful outcome and longer-term political reform. As soon as possible, we will be seeking to engage the Tunisian authorities to help with this. We encourage all involved to do what they can to restore law and order, and we call for the full inclusion of all legal political parties in the formation of an interim Government.

The change in Tunisia in the past few days has been profound, but it is not yet the political reform that many Tunisians hope for. The authorities should not ignore the voice of the Tunisian people. The British Government will work with partners to try to ensure an orderly move towards free and fair elections and an expansion of political freedom in Tunisia. There were extended EU discussions on Friday. We have been calling for a speedy and substantial offer of EU support to underpin the move to free and fair elections, which will be critical in re-establishing calm and security in the country.

Today, the High Representative, Baroness Ashton, has issued a statement, saying:

“The EU stands ready to provide immediate assistance to prepare and organise the electoral process and lasting support to a genuine democratic transition.”

We shall continue to provide the help and advice that British nationals need and expect, and to engage with and support Tunisia, as it works for peace and security.

I thank the Minister for his statement and join him in expressing condolences to those who have lost family or friends in these difficult circumstances. Even after President Ben Ali’s departure, which brings to an end a repressive regime, the situation in Tunisia remains tense and uncertain, with prospects for only a fragile interim Government; outbreaks of looting are taking place, alongside continued legitimate protests.

May I ask the Minister about consular support and future Government policy on Tunisia? The Opposition welcome the considerable work done by many of the tour operators to evacuate thousands of people over the weekend. However, I am concerned that the Government were slow off the mark in responding to this situation. On Friday, the Minister responsible for consular policy told the BBC that

“We are not at that moment advising that people make an effort to leave Tunisia.”

Yet a state of emergency was announced that afternoon, following seven days of violence, and tour operators were already bringing British nationals back to the UK. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office did not publicly change its travel advice until Saturday, and the rapid deployment team did not leave the UK until Sunday. British holidaymakers in Tunisia were put in a very confusing and alarming position. They were told by Ministers that they did not need to leave, just as their holiday reps were telling them that there would be emergency evacuations. Does he agree that the Government were too slow to act?

How many British nationals does the Minister believe will still be in Tunisia following today’s flights? Is he confident that sufficient help is in place for independent travellers who wish to return and still need assistance? He will be aware that British Airways has advised its customers that the next return flight to the UK is not until Wednesday, so will he join me in urging BA to provide additional capacity for its passengers tonight or tomorrow? Many tour operators are not yet offering refunds or alternative holidays for people who were due to travel to Tunisia after Wednesday this week. If it is too dangerous to travel there, it is surely unfair to expect holidaymakers to cancel and incur the full financial cost, so I urge tour operators to extend the scope of their refund offers. May I ask the Minister to meet major tour operators to deal with this crucial issue?

Finally, on the Government’s approach to the broader situation, will the Minister tell us whether the Foreign Secretary has spoken to the interim Prime Minister? The ending of the authoritarian regime must be a turning point for a country that, for too long, was under a repressive Administration that denied the Tunisian people their basic democratic freedoms and economic opportunities. I agree with many of the Minister’s points about the importance of Tunisia having free, fair and democratic elections to establish a sustainable and legitimate Government, and I welcome the work being done in the EU. Will he continue to press the EU to support elections, including with possible election observers and practical assistance? The Government have been slow off the mark this week, but we look forward to their being swifter in their response in future.

The fact that the great majority of British citizens in Tunisia have been able to leave swiftly, with consular support and advice, indicates that the Government’s response has not been lax in the way the right hon. Lady describes. Clearly, as with any such event that makes sudden demands on our consular services, we will examine any lessons that need to be learned from this episode, but I am sure that she will want to join me in recognising the work and commitment of consular staff, both those UK-based and those locally recruited and working in our embassy in Tunis.

The right hon. Lady asks how many British citizens are still in Tunisia, and our best estimate is about 1,000. One thing that our network of wardens will be doing is trying to find out, by making contact with expatriates and dual nationals in particular, exactly what the remaining numbers are and how many wish to leave. I have been advised by the embassy in the past couple of hours that some holidaymakers are telling us that they would prefer to stay in Tunis to see whether there is a chance of resuming their holiday, in the hope that things calm down there.

I would welcome British Airways or other airlines making additional provision to bring back independent travellers, but that is a commercial matter for them. So, too, are the relationships between customers and tour operators regarding possible refunds for holidays that have had to be cut short or cancelled. As the right hon. Lady and I both know, most decent travel insurance policies will have a clause that provides for reimbursement in the case of such an event. I am sure that those companies will be in touch with their customers as soon as possible to try to reach amicable outcomes. My colleagues in the Department for Transport are in frequent touch with the travel industry, but such matters are best addressed, if possible, between companies and their individual customers.

I should add that we are actively working with the Ministry of Defence on contingency plans should an evacuation of British nationals be needed. At the moment, our judgment is that that is not necessary, but I want to reassure the right hon. Lady and the House that we are not simply sitting back and assuming that things will improve. We have contingency plans in place should matters get considerably worse.

Finally, my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary hopes to speak to the interim leadership of Tunisia as soon as possible. I am sure that the right hon. Lady will understand that the leadership’s first priority is to try to set up the much-needed Government of national unity. I hope that it is successful in that endeavour.

I was in Tunisia just a few days before this latest outbreak of violence. A constant theme when I talked to people there was the dreadful state of their economy and, above all, the massive unemployment among graduates, particularly among female graduates. Does the Minister agree that if we achieve political stabilisation one of the greatest contributions the United Kingdom and other EU member states can make is to grow trade with Tunisia and improve prosperity for the people, who are in dire need?

My hon. Friend identifies an important problem that faces not only Tunisia but many other countries in north Africa and the middle east: the dismayingly high and enduring unemployment among young people. The problem is made even starker when we consider that young people under 26 or under 30 make up, in most cases, about 60% of the population of those countries. Trade and investment are an important way of giving people in those countries hope of a better future, but investment and trade will be more likely if business has confidence that the rule of law and political stability apply. I think that reforms to governance, greater political freedom and an independent system of courts and judiciary go hand in hand with the economic reforms and improvements that my hon. Friend seeks.

Does the Minister agree that although the toxic combination of high unemployment and corruption brought about the huge demonstrations and the downfall of the President, at the same time the World Bank and International Monetary Fund supported and approved of the economic strategy adopted by Tunisia? Is it not time to recognise that these tired old models create awful problems for young people, leaving them unemployed and leading hopeless lives? Does the Minister not recognise that there must be some change in economic thinking?

There must be sensible economic and political reforms, so that those millions of young people feel that they can have a say in how the society in which they live develops and is shaped. That is why the European Union’s assistance for Tunisia is, for the most part, assistance with reform, particularly the reform of governance. It is also why the British Government have established a human development fund, which will seek to assist those sovereign countries—we cannot just go and tell them how to organise their affairs—the stability of which we want to continue, to engage in the reforms that will make them more stable societies in the longer term.

I strongly welcome the work being done by Foreign Office officials to support British nationals in Tunisia, but it is not the only middle eastern country that faces rising food prices, high unemployment, corruption and questionable levels of political freedom and human rights. What preparations and contingency plans are our embassies in other middle eastern countries putting in place to make sure that they can provide swift support to UK nationals should the protest and unrest spread to other countries?

We have contingency plans in London for the rapid deployment of additional staff in the event of exceptional and urgent need for consular services anywhere in the world, not just in the middle east. I would not like to speculate on where the next demand on our consular services might come; it might be from some other part of the world entirely.

The Minister rightly talks about immediate need, particularly with English nationals being over there, and in the longer run Britain and the European Union certainly have no interest in an unstable Tunisia. In that context, will he make it quite clear that the EU will support the process of establishing a free and fair election and will make sure that monitors are available from within the European Union to guarantee that not only the world but the people of Tunisia know that the elections are free and fair?

The hon. Gentleman, who speaks with considerable experience of election-monitoring work, is right. My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary has discussed this very issue with the French Foreign Minister in the past couple of days, and our Government and other European Governments have been making that point to Baroness Ashton and her team. When the hon. Gentleman reads her statement, he will see that one thing she is offering is robust EU support for election-monitoring work.

It is very clear that al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and similar organisations are attempting to capitalise on the current situation. What assessment has the Minister made of that and of any potential threat to the United Kingdom, given the porous nature of our borders with Europe and the clear and present danger posed particularly to France, Spain and Italy?

The advice that I have received to date is that there is no evidence that extreme groups that are linked to or similar to al-Qaeda have played a significant part in the uprising inside Tunisia. Nevertheless, my hon. Friend is right to say that we need to be on our guard against the spread of extremism and terrorism throughout the entire Maghreb. That is yet another reason why we should support reforms, ensuring enduring political stability in those countries in the future and that people in those countries do not believe they should turn to terrorism because they have no other way of seeking to change the society in which they live.

The Minister will know that for the past 10 years leaders at EU Council meetings have banged on and on about the Maghreb but done absolutely nothing to make sure that there is economic stability and democratic advance in any of those countries. Will he go back to the next Foreign Affairs Council of the EU and say that it is time that we met our commitments from 10 years ago in relation to some of those countries? Otherwise, the future will be no better than the past few weeks.

The hon. Gentleman is right to imply that the relationships with the Mediterranean governed by the Lisbon process and the Union for the Mediterranean have not delivered the positive results we all hoped for. My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary and I will certainly want to highlight, at the next Foreign Affairs Council, the need to learn lessons from this experience with Tunisia and the need for Europe to get its act together more effectively in terms of its relationships with our southern neighbours.

Is there not still a danger that Tunisia will move out of the frying pan of dictatorship and into the fire of Islamism? What specific steps are the Government taking to ensure that al-Qaeda and Islamists do not step in to fill the vacuum?

As I said earlier, the advice that I have received up to now is that the risk of violent extremism to which my hon. Friend refers is not as great as has been made out in some parts of the media. It is much more an uprising by people who have been frustrated by many years of political repression and whose feelings have been aggravated by economic hardship. Nevertheless, I assure him that the British Government will be alert to any risk that extremist groups could try to seize an advantage from what has happened in Tunisia, and we will take whatever steps we can to ensure that they are unable to do so.

I thank the Minister for the reassurance that he has given about constituents who are in Tunisia and welcome the fact that he has emphasised the EU. Tunisia, of course, is part of the EUROMED process, and a number of projects have been sanctioned by the EU concerning migration, development and policing. As the hon. Member for Bournemouth West (Conor Burns) said, we might be unable to resolve the current issues there, but can we be ready with plan B, so that we can continue with those initiatives, which are important to the whole of the north Africa rim?

The right hon. Gentleman is correct to say that those are important issues not only for Tunisia, but for every country along the north African coast. Certainly, when I have talked with ambassadors from those countries in London, they have expressed concern about the risk that not only extremist groups, but those involved in people trafficking, drug trafficking and other forms of organised crime might use their territories as through-routes to try to penetrate Europe. We want to work with those countries, which are independent sovereign states, to ensure that they are able to improve their governance in the way the right hon. Gentleman describes. It is in the interests of Europe and of those north African countries that they are able to do so and move forward on the basis of greater respect for human rights and enduring political reforms.

Does the Minister agree that when such situations arise, organisations such as the BBC speculating about which country will be next to fall is not only unhelpful to the status of the Government and of Parliament, but concerning to people in those countries and their families here at home?

I have taken great care to try not to engage in such speculation today, but we live in a country in which the broadcast media and the press are free to express their opinions and to speculate. That is part of being in a free society.

I congratulate the Minister on his considered response to the emerging crisis in Tunisia. Clearly, a large number of British nationals are still there, and a large number of British nationals in this country will have relatives, property, assets or businesses there, so what advice and help is the Foreign and Commonwealth Office giving them on the protection of their businesses and relatives?

I would advise anyone with such concerns to contact the Foreign Office helpline, in either Tunisia or London as most appropriate, and we will then seek to provide what support we can from either our embassy in Tunis or through our network of wardens around the country.

Many in the House would like to express their sympathy to those in Tunisia who took to the streets and, as they reached for freedom, paid the ultimate price. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the right way to stop the violence, to push back against al-Qaeda and to create the basis for stability and elections is to support the interim Government behind Prime Minister Ghannouchi? Will my right hon. Friend use his office to persuade those in Arab states to lend their support to this change as well?

The last point that my hon. Friend made was a particularly good one—that it is important that other Arab countries row in and support the new Tunisian Government when one is formed. The most important thing, though, is that a Government of national unity can be put together who genuinely command widespread support among the Tunisian people and among civil society in that country. That offers the hope of a breathing space and a measure of peace which can provide the basis on which to move forward towards free and fair elections and longer-lasting political reforms.

I congratulate the Minister on presiding over such a swift response to the crisis. May I embellish the question about other Arab states? Will my right hon. Friend and his colleagues encourage other European countries to help in a project to encourage good governance in those states?

The European Union has relationships with a number of Arab states, both in north Africa and in the Levant, which feature discussions about human rights, the rule of law and democratic reform. I agree that we need to intensify those discussions. All those countries are sovereign states. They will want reforms that are true to their own traditions, histories and ways of life, but it is in the interests of all that they are able to bring forward reforms that satisfy the aspirations of their own people. That is what our bilateral human development fund is intended to do, and it is important, too, that European Union effort is carefully designed to meet the objective that my hon. Friend describes.