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Libya and the Middle East

Volume 524: debated on Monday 7 March 2011

With permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to update the House on developments in Libya and the middle east since the Prime Minister’s statement on Monday 28 February.

Members on all sides of the House will be concerned by the violence in Libya. The Gaddafi regime is launching military counter-attacks against opposition forces. There has been intense fighting in the east and centre of the country along the coastal strip between the opposition-held Ras Lanuf and the Gaddafi stronghold of Sirte. There are credible reports of the use of helicopter gunships against civilians by Government forces and unconfirmed reports of a helicopter and jet shot down over Ras Lanuf. There have also been serious attacks against the cities of Zawiyah and Misrata in the west by soldiers backed up by anti-aircraft guns and by tanks. Many of those taken to the city’s hospital, including a young boy of 10, have wounds to the head, neck and chest; and supplies of food, fuel and medicines have been all but cut off.

In Tripoli, there have been disturbing reports of hostage taking and large military deployments around the city designed to consolidate Gaddafi’s position and intimidate his opponents. His forces remain in control of Tripoli, Sabha and Sirte, but his authority is contested in large swathes of the country where local tribes have withdrawn their support. There is a clear risk of protracted conflict and an extremely dangerous and volatile situation in large parts of the country.

Our position is that Colonel Gaddafi must put an immediate stop to the use of armed force against civilians and hand over power without delay to a Government who recognise the aspirations of the Libyan people and are more representative and accountable.

On 5 March, opposition groups in the east formed an interim national council based in Benghazi. Ministers and FCO officials are in contact with members of this council, who welcomed the idea of a British diplomatic mission to Libya. This engagement is vital in gaining a better understanding of the political, military and humanitarian situation on the ground.

Last week, I authorised the dispatch of a small British diplomatic team to eastern Libya in uncertain circumstances, which we judged required protection, to build on these initial contacts and to assess the scope for closer diplomatic dialogue. I pay tribute to that team. It was withdrawn yesterday after a serious misunderstanding about its role, leading to its temporary detention. This situation was resolved and it was able to meet council president, Mr Abdul-Jalil. However, it was clearly better for this team to be withdrawn. We intend to send further diplomats to eastern Libya in due course.

The safety of British nationals in Libya remains an important priority. Since the Prime Minister’s statement, the UK military have undertaken a further two evacuation operations from the port of Benghazi, with HMS Cumberland and HMS York both evacuating British nationals and foreign citizens. In total, we have evacuated more than 600 British nationals from Libya, as well as nationals from many other countries. I hope that the House will join me in paying tribute to all those involved. We are aware of about 180 British nationals still in Libya, some of whom—including some journalists—have told us that they currently intend to stay. We continue to provide assistance and information for those who wish to leave. We are also working with other countries to isolate the regime, and to ensure that anyone responsible for abuses or contemplating further crimes knows that there will be a day of reckoning.

On Thursday, the chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court announced his investigation of alleged crimes in Libya, following referral by the UN Security Council. We welcome that swift action, and will do all that we can to assist. We also welcome the important decision by the UN General Assembly, following referral by the UN Human Rights Council, to suspend Libya’s membership of the council. European Union sanctions on Libya came into full force last Thursday. That was the quickest-ever delivery of an EU sanctions package, and it goes beyond the sanctions imposed by the UN. It includes an arms embargo on Libya, and an assets freeze and visa ban on Gaddafi and 25 of his associates—strong foundations on which we can build.

As my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister said, we are making contingency plans for all eventualities in Libya. NATO has been tasked to work on a range of options, including the possible establishment of a no-fly zone, the evacuation of civilians, international humanitarian assistance, and support for the international arms embargo. There will be further NATO meetings this week. At the UN Security Council, we are working closely with partners, on a contingency basis, on elements of a resolution on a no-fly zone, making clear the need for regional support, a clear trigger for such a resolution, and an appropriate legal basis.

My right hon. Friend the International Development Secretary visited Tunisia on Friday to assess the humanitarian situation. The UK has flown in blankets for 38,000 people and tents for over 10,000 people, and has sent aeroplanes to repatriate more than 6,000 stranded Egyptians and 500 Bangladeshis. This remains primarily a logistical emergency, but it is essential that international agencies are provided with unfettered access to help to prevent the development of a humanitarian crisis. With our support, the UN’s emergency co-ordinator, Baroness Amos, convened a special meeting in Geneva today to call for unfettered humanitarian access inside Libya. HMS York has also delivered 1.3 tonnes of Swedish medical supplies to Benghazi.

The Prime Minister will attend an emergency meeting of the European Council on 11 March, this Friday. We will use the Council to press for further action in response to the situation in Libya, and—as the Deputy Prime Minister made clear in Brussels last week—we will also urge the European Union to change radically its thinking about its neighbourhood. As I agreed with the French Foreign Minister in Paris on Thursday, it is time for European nations to be bold and ambitious, and to show that while Europe will not seek to dictate how these countries should run their affairs, we will always be the lasting friend of those who put in place the building blocks of strong civil societies, economic openness and political freedom. We must give every incentive to countries in the region to make decisions that bring freedom and prosperity. At the Council meeting, the Prime Minister will call for Europe to set out a programme to bring down trade barriers, to establish clearer conditions for the help that it provides, and to marshal its resources to act as a magnet for positive change in the region.

The G8 Foreign Ministers’ meeting will take place in Paris next week. It will provide a further opportunity to widen the international coalition addressing the crisis in Libya; to underline with the United States, Russia and others the urgency of progress on the middle east peace process and on Iran’s nuclear programme; and to reaffirm our collective support for political transition in Egypt and Tunisia and democratic reform in the wider region.

There has been welcome progress towards democratic transition in Egypt and Tunisia. There has also been further progress, including the announcement of a national referendum on constitutional reform in Egypt and of a date for elections in Tunisia. However, the resignations of the Prime Ministers of both Governments show that significant challenges remain. There continues to be instability in other countries, including Yemen. We have changed our travel advice: we now advise against all travel to the whole country, and recommend that British nationals without a pressing need to remain in Yemen leave using commercial means. We look to Governments across the region to respect human rights, including the right to peaceful protest, to avoid the use of force and to respond to legitimate aspirations for greater political openness and economic reform.

It remains more vital than ever that we press for a just and lasting resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. We want to see an urgent return to negotiations, based on clear parameters, including the 1967 borders. We will work with all the parties to press for a decisive breakthrough this year. President Abbas is visiting the UK this week. I will discuss these issues with him tomorrow, when I will also confirm that, given the extent of our aid to the Palestinian Authority and our work with them, we will join many other countries in upgrading the status of the Palestinian delegation to London to the level of a mission.

If change and development can be achieved peacefully in the middle east, that will be the greatest advance in world affairs since central and eastern Europe changed so dramatically 20 years ago and many of those countries entered the European Union. If not, this could mark the start of even greater instability emanating from the region. It is vital for the people of these countries and the rest of the world that the international community play a coherent and ambitious role in supporting their aspirations. The British Government are deeply committed to that endeavour, and I commend this statement to the House.

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for giving me advance sight of his statement today. I am grateful to him for his update on the situation in Libya and across the region.

First, let me begin by paying tribute to the bravery of the units of our armed forces that have operated in Libya during this crisis. Specifically, I praise their extraction of British nationals from the oilfields of Libya two weeks ago. This was done with an effectiveness and professionalism that is rightly seen as typical of Britain’s armed forces. Secondly, let me say to the Foreign Secretary that I appreciate just how tough this situation is. There is no manual for handling a wave of revolt in a tumultuous region. The tempo of change in the middle east and north Africa has hardly slowed in more than an month, and none of the policy challenges or ministerial judgments thrown up be these events is straightforward or easy.

On behalf of the Opposition, I should like to add my support and welcome for the Foreign Secretary’s announcement that the status of the Palestinian delegation in London is to be upgraded. He can rely on our support as he continues to make the case for renewed urgency in efforts to bring about real and meaningful negotiations between the Israelis and the Palestinians.

Let me turn to the events of yesterday. I believe that I speak for many when I say that the news on Sunday that British diplomatic and military personnel were being held was seen as just the latest setback for the United Kingdom, and that it raises further serious questions about Ministers’ grip on and response to the unfolding events in Libya. First, we had the still unexplained decision by the Foreign Secretary, alone among European Foreign Ministers, to publicise reports that Gaddafi was already on his way to Venezuela. Then, the Foreign Office was late in securing charter flights and even in convening the Government’s emergency Committee, Cobra, when hundreds of UK nationals were stranded and clearly in danger. Then, last week, the option of a no-fly zone was first talked up and then talked down, with the US Defence Secretary warning against loose talk on the issue. Twice in as many weeks—after the events of this weekend, and following the flights fiasco—ministerial decisions have generated an embarrassment that could all too easily have become a tragedy.

Will the Foreign Secretary confirm that the Benghazi courthouse that is serving as the headquarters of the interim national council is but 2 miles from where HMS Cumberland was berthed yesterday afternoon? Secondly, will he confirm that the Royal Marines have, on several occasions in recent days, assisted EU nationals from Benghazi on to royal naval warships in the area?

The Foreign Secretary has confirmed today that he personally authorised this mission. Given the outcome of the effort, will he now tell us whether he discussed the merits or demerits of the proposed course of action with senior officials? Did he discuss alternative means of achieving the mission’s aim with his senior officials ahead of his decision being taken? In particular, did he discuss the mission with the Prime Minister in advance of his decision to authorise it?

Will the Foreign Secretary share with the House his assessment of the impact of this weekend’s events on the credibility of British foreign policy with the Gaddafi regime in Tripoli and the opposition forces in Benghazi? Perhaps the Foreign Secretary has read the question asked by a spokesman for the opposition forces in today’s edition of The Times. Let me quote his words directly:

“If this is an official delegation why did they come with a helicopter? Why didn’t they [inform the revolutionary council] that ‘we are coming, we’d like to land at Benina airport’, or come through Egypt like all the journalists have done”.

Given those remarks, does the Foreign Secretary accept that if some new neighbours moved into his street, the British public would be entitled to wonder whether he would introduce himself by ringing the doorbell, or instead choose to climb over the fence in the middle of the night?

The Opposition support the Government’s aim of establishing a dialogue with Gaddafi’s opponents. We welcome today’s statement that further efforts will be made to engage with the opposition forces now running parts of Libya, but our welcome to that initiative is conditional, for it should be done in a considered, co-ordinated way with our European and NATO allies. The strategic objectives for the west—sustaining pressure on the regime; helping and where we can protecting the Libyan population; and over time working to assist in ensuring that popular revolt becomes more democratic government—do not divide this House.

This week’s meetings of the European Union and NATO remain opportunities to co-ordinate the international response and increase pressure on Gaddafi. May I therefore ask the Foreign Secretary whether he would consider requesting that the Arab League attend Friday’s EU summit, to signal clearly the breadth of international pressure, in the region and beyond, on the Gaddafi regime? That meeting will also be vital in shaping the humanitarian response. We of course welcome the work undertaken by the Department for International Development and the visit that the Secretary of State for International Development recently paid, but I hope that the Foreign Secretary will update the House on the work being done across Government to support a multilateral response though the World Food Programme, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and indeed the Commonwealth.

The EU summit can do more in sharpening the choice for Gaddafi’s supporters, explicitly stating that assistance will be available to a post-Gaddafi Libya in tackling trade barriers and supporting democratic progress. The summit can be equally explicit to those fighting for Gaddafi: those who leave his forces should be confident about the treatment that they will receive, while officers and mercenaries who stick with him should know that they will face serious consequences in future. At the NATO meeting this week the Secretary of State for Defence will have our support for considering the available contingencies. All options should remain on the table, given the need to sustain pressure on the regime.

Given that it remains uncertain whether this wave of revolt is over—we continue to hear talk of protests in countries beyond Tunisia, Libya and Egypt—can we be confident that lessons are being learned by Ministers about the serial bungling that we have seen in recent weeks? That is what the British people want, and that is what they deserve.

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for much of what he said. He pays tribute to the bravery of the troops involved in extracting people from the oilfields two weekends ago, and he is absolutely right to do so. I welcome his welcome for the upgrading of the status of the Palestinian delegation. It is good that that is supported across the House.

There is clearly a good deal of agreement too on the overall outlines of western policy in this matter. The right hon. Gentleman stated, as we have, that all options should remain on the table. He underlined the importance of working closely with the Arab League, which should be continued in many different forms. I do not know whether that will be possible at the European Council this week, but we are in close touch with many of those Arab nations about all the options that may be necessary over the coming weeks and months. Close consultation and co-ordination with those nations will need to continue.

The right hon. Gentleman asked about the multilateral aspects of humanitarian aid. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Development is in continuous close touch with Baroness Amos and all the organisations and people the right hon. Gentleman mentioned, including the UN High Commissioner for Refugees and others. We will keep up that work, including on co-ordinating our humanitarian and logistical assistance with France—we have co-ordinated it to a degree—which has also worked well.

The right hon. Gentleman also asked about matters that were raised in the House last Monday, so I will not go over all of them again, except to say this on his question about whether there has been a variation in policy on the no-fly zone and whether our policy is out of step with that of other nations: the policy is exactly as stated by the Prime Minister here at the Dispatch Box last Monday, which is that contingency planning should be done for a no-fly zone. It is exactly the same position as that expressed by Secretary Clinton last week, and exactly the same as that expressed by the French Government, as the French Foreign Minister and I made clear at our press conference last week. I think from what the right hon. Gentleman says that it also enjoys the support of the Opposition in this House, so I think we are aligned on this policy.

On the deployment in Benghazi, the factual points the right hon. Gentleman stated in his question are correct. On consultation with officials and who decided what and so on, we should be clear that when our staff go into a potentially dangerous situation, a level of protection is provided for them, based on professional and military advice. We do that in many places around the world, and it was, of course, important to do so in this situation. As I explained, I authorised such a mission to be made to put a diplomatic team into eastern Libya with protection. Of course, the timing and details of that are operational matters decided by the professionals, but Ministers must have confidence in their judgments, as I do, and must take full ministerial responsibility for all their actions and judgments, as, of course, I do. The Prime Minister and other Ministers were of course aware that we would attempt to put a diplomatic team into eastern Libya.

On the overall impact of British foreign policy on the Gaddafi regime and others, they are aware, as is much of the world, that we have led the way at the United Nations Security Council and drafted the resolution that was passed last weekend, that we led the way at the UN Human Rights Council, gathering the signatures that led to the suspension of Libya, and that we are at the forefront both of implementing the assets freeze and other measures that are putting pressure on the regime and of getting the message through in Libya that reference has been made to the International Criminal Court. The impact of British foreign policy on this situation and on the Gaddafi regime is extremely powerful, and that is how it will remain.

Having as Defence Secretary helped to enforce the no-fly zone on Iraq to protect the Shia and the Kurds, I am well aware of the important benefits this can produce in the right circumstances, but does the Foreign Secretary agree that to take forward proposals for a no-fly zone in Libya two fundamental conditions must be satisfied: first, the United Nations Security Council must give explicit endorsement for such an operation; and, secondly, there must be unambiguous evidence that the Libyan revolutionary council representing the insurgents actually wants the very substantial degree of western military involvement that a no-fly zone would represent, because there is clear indication that many of them believe that Libyans should liberate their own country? Will my right hon. Friend confirm that this proposal is unlikely to go anywhere until and unless these two conditions are satisfied?

My right hon. and learned Friend is correct that all the contacts we have had with opposition forces in Libya suggest that they believe Libyans should be responsible for liberating their country. However, it is also only fair to point out that in those conversations they have already explicitly asked for a no-fly zone, and they do not see a contradiction between those two points.

My right hon. and learned Friend is right that many conditions should be attached to trying to implement a no-fly zone. The way I would state them at this moment is: there should be a demonstrable need that the whole world can see; there must be a clear legal basis for such a no-fly zone; and there must be clear support from the region—from the middle east and north African region—as well as from the people of Libya themselves, as my right hon. and learned Friend says. Those are the necessary conditions for such a no-fly zone to be created.

In my experience of operations such as the one at the weekend, there was always an impressive level of operational detail in the submissions that came to me as Secretary of State and to the then Defence Secretary, because it is not the concept that could go wrong but the operational detail. Does the Secretary of State have any reason to believe that less detail is provided to this Administration than was provided to the previous one?

No, absolutely not. The right hon. Gentleman is right about the level of detail normally provided. These operations vary enormously in their nature and the level of detail provided, but I have no reason to think that there would, in general, be a difference.

There is much in the Foreign Secretary’s statement to be welcomed, but I regret what I am about to say. Is it not clear that this mission was ill conceived, poorly planned and embarrassingly executed? What is he going to do to restore the United Kingdom’s reputation in relation to foreign policy in the middle east, what will be the role of any further mission and what permissions will it seek before it goes?

As I said, the United Kingdom, having led the way in so many of the ways I have described at the Security Council and the Human Rights Council, is in the forefront of western policy on this issue. Clearly, further contacts with the opposition in eastern Libya are necessary and desirable, for all the reasons that I set out in my statement. The opposition there has made it clear that it would welcome such contact, so it is important for that to go ahead. Clearly, it must go ahead on a very different basis from that on which it went ahead last week, and that is what we will set about.

Will the Foreign Secretary do nothing more to give the impression to the British public that what is under consideration is about being seen to be doing something, rather than about doing something? Will he do absolutely nothing—he has recognised this in answer to the right hon. and learned Member for Kensington (Sir Malcolm Rifkind)—to undermine not only the impression but the priority for the Libyan opposition to be at the forefront of this? This should not be about some desire of the United Kingdom Government.

Yes, the right hon. Gentleman makes a very important point. In all the countries witnessing great change it is important that the solutions are owned by the people. That is why we have said that it is important that all the assistance that we provide and that we are calling on the European Union to provide is given in a way that is not patronising towards such countries, but does help to provide some of the necessary incentives to get them to move in the direction that we would consider—greater economic openness and political reform. That is true in Libya, too, and I am sure that Libyans are determined, as we should be, that they also own the solution to this. At the same time, the whole world has humanitarian responsibilities—the United Nations has, of course, a responsibility to protect—so we have to balance those against the consideration that he rightly points to.

Order. More than 50 right hon. and hon. Members are still seeking to catch my eye. If I am to have any realistic chance of accommodating them, as I usually strive to do, brevity is of the essence.

Further to the point made by my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Kensington (Sir Malcolm Rifkind) on no-fly zones, on the two recent occasions when it has been tried—in Bosnia and in Iraq—such zones did not turn out to be effective and the intervention of ground troops was needed before the situation on the ground was resolved. Does the Foreign Secretary agree that it makes sense to bear that in mind before making such an operational decision?

Yes, my hon. Friend is right. That is one of the reasons why I said in answer to my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Kensington (Sir Malcolm Rifkind) that one of the criteria should be demonstrable need. If one was to consider implementing a no-fly zone, one would have to ensure that it would actually make a difference to the situation. The demonstrable need must be there if we are to consider doing it.

Since this crisis started, I have been reading The New York Times and European papers, and watching al-Jazeera, and the notion that Britain is seen as the leader in this crisis exists only in the Foreign Secretary’s head. Last week, to restore the good name of the London School of Economics, Sir Howard Davies did the honourable British thing and accepted his responsibilities. Has the Foreign Secretary considered his position at all?

As I have said, I take full ministerial responsibility, as Ministers do. I believe very strongly in the doctrine of ministerial responsibility for everything that happens in a Minister’s Department, so I am very clear about that. We have been busy drafting the resolutions of the UN Security Council and the UN Human Rights Council while the right hon. Gentleman has been struggling to read the newspapers from around Europe.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that if the British Government and our partners are to be able to take the kind of difficult decisions that will be needed in the next few weeks, intelligence and information on the ground are of the first importance? Will he therefore reassure the House that whatever action is taken to secure that intelligence and information will not impede the deployment of British assets?

If the object of the mission was to make contact with the leaders of free Libya, why did those involved not go straight into Benghazi, as scores of international journalists have done? Does that not illustrate a lack of grip and competence right at the heart of government?

As I explained earlier, in answer to the right hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire South (Mr Alexander), whenever we deploy diplomats in a dangerous situation, we provide a level of protection based on professional and military advice. We do that in several other countries, so it is not an unusual thing to have to do, and we did it on this occasion too.

Before considering any military intervention, will the Foreign Secretary assure the House that he is aware that when intervening in a civil war, it is all too easy to kill the people one is trying to help?

Direct intervention in these situations is, of course, a momentous thing that must be considered carefully from every possible angle, and my right hon. Friend points to another angle that we have to consider. It is important to stress that the contingency planning that we have asked for in NATO does not constitute such direct intervention in a civil war, or near civil war, but involves the consideration of measures to protect the civilian population and the provision of humanitarian assistance if necessary. That is different from directly intervening in a conflict.

The latest report of the UN Refugee Agency says that 170,000 people have fled to neighbouring countries, mostly to Egypt and Tunisia. Will the Foreign Secretary confirm that the Black Watch is currently on stand-by to assist in supporting humanitarian efforts? Given its potential deployment, does he agree that now is not the time to consider closing its home barracks at Fort George outside Inverness?

It is probably beyond the scope of this statement to go into the last point that the hon. Gentleman raises, but he is right to point to the huge numbers of people involved. The latest figures that I have seen show that more than 200,000 people have passed those borders. My right hon. Friend the International Development Secretary stresses that, at the moment, this is a logistical crisis of getting people to where they need to be, rather than what we would term a humanitarian crisis. Clearly, if the conflict in Libya becomes even more protracted and violent, such a humanitarian crisis may develop on top of that. That is why we are seeking to help and why we are already engaged in helping. Yes, the Black Watch would be available to assist with such humanitarian activity, but that is why it is on that degree of stand-by.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that strong civil societies with democratic freedoms will come about in the middle east and north Africa only if there is greater equality for women in those countries? Will his Department work with the Department for International Development to support all the efforts that will bring that end about?

Yes, I think that is absolutely right. We have to work with people in those societies without us in the western world telling them what to do. We have to work with the grain of their cultures and traditions, but the building up of civil society, improvements in human rights and the development of more open political activity should—certainly in my view and clearly in my hon. Friend’s view too—include a much increased role for women in those societies. That is something that, in the right way, we should certainly promote.

The Foreign Secretary does not need me to tell him that when we engage in the kind of operations that took place over recent days, there is risk a to serving British service people, as well as to those with whom they come into contact. That must be proportionate. In this case, is the right hon. Gentleman confident that what appears to have ended in farce could not have ended in tragedy?

The hon. Gentleman points to an important fact. There are risks involved in many of the things that we have to do in such situations. There were risks involved in what happened the previous weekend in the rescue of oil workers from the desert. One of those flights was engaged with small arms fire when it landed in the desert, so yes, there are risks involved, and it is precisely because there are risks involved in the deployment of our staff in such situations that we act on professional and military advice to give them protection.

I speak as someone who has operated underneath a rather ineffective no-fly zone. Will my right hon. Friend assure me that if we get involved in a no-fly zone, we will be prepared to bring down aircraft and helicopters, and even strike anti-aircraft assets in the sovereign territory of Libya?

For a no-fly zone to be implemented, it would clearly have to be effective, as well as to have the demonstrable need that I spoke about earlier. My hon. Friend is getting me into matters that are properly for the contingency planning that is now being done in NATO. Those are matters to be scoped out in any planning for a no-fly zone, and in consultation with other countries beyond NATO as well.

It is useful to follow the previous question, because my question is about hitherto unsuccessful no-fly zones, where the confusion between military and humanitarian aid caused undue problems. In his contingency planning, is the Foreign Secretary planning to distinguish strictly between those areas still controlled by Colonel Gaddafi, which would therefore not receive humanitarian aid, and those controlled by the rebellion, which would receive it, or is he not prepared to make such a distinction?

There is a range of options to be considered, and the hon. Lady draws attention to how many different ways one can look at the issue. Those different options need to be examined. NATO Defence Ministers will be able to discuss the matter later in the week, so I cannot give a specific answer now to her question. All those considerations will be taken into account.

May I urge my right hon. Friend to take credit for the operations that go right, as well as responsibility for the operations that go wrong? May I remind him of the aftermath of the first Gulf war, when the fatal error was to allow Saddam Hussein to fly his helicopters to oppress his own people again? The Government are right to lead the debate about a no-fly zone, which is gaining support among voices in the United States, as well as from France.

Yes, I take the point that my hon. Friend makes and I am grateful for his support for the position that we have taken on contingency planning. On the question of taking credit for what goes right as well as blame for what goes wrong, having in the past led the Conservative party for four years, I have never heard of that notion before.

Up to about a fortnight ago, we were busy selling arms to Gaddafi’s bloodstained regime. Does the Foreign Secretary understand that there is a great divide between giving humanitarian aid to the victims of Gaddafi’s regime, and military intervention? On the latter, there seems to be in the House and certainly in the country at large—and I believe it is the right attitude to take—no appetite for military intervention in Libya.

We will not take too many lectures from the Opposition on the issue of selling things to the Gaddafi regime or wider issues of policy towards Libya, but of course there is a difference between humanitarian assistance and direct military intervention. As I explained earlier, the options that we are asking NATO to look at are essentially options to protect the civilian population or to deliver the necessary humanitarian assistance. That is different from direct military intervention.

Following the scandal of the financial links between Libya and the London School of Economics and other British universities, will the Foreign Secretary examine what the previous Labour Government did to help facilitate those links? Does he not agree that the fish rots from the head down, and will he hold an independent inquiry to examine the previous Government’s insidious links with Libya?

I am sure that there will be lessons to be learned from that. We are a little preoccupied with what is going on at the moment, but there will be a time to learn all the lessons from past relationships with some of the systems and regimes now being overthrown by their own people.

In the light of the tragic deaths of three Bangladeshi nationals during a repatriation mission from Libya, what steps are being taken to ensure the safety of all those being repatriated? What further assistance will the UK Government provide to support and repatriate those stranded in neighbouring countries?

We will continue to provide support as necessary. All accidents in these situations, and certainly deaths, are very regrettable, as we would agree immediately across the House. We have assisted in the evacuation of more than 500 Bangladeshis and more than 6,000 Egyptians. In doing so, their safety is the paramount concern—it is for their safety that we are undertaking the operation in the first place. The hon. Lady can rest assured that the utmost care is being taken. We cannot guarantee that no accidents will happen, but great care is taken and will continue to be taken in the operations.

Realistically, given our resources, or lack thereof, surely there is no way we can or should take the lead in a no-fly zone. Indeed, will my right hon. Friend accept that after two interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq, the British public have not the slightest appetite for getting involved militarily in a third Muslim country?

As I have said, what are not being actively introduced at the moment, but for which we want to do the contingency planning, are measures to protect the civilian population or deliver humanitarian assistance where it is needed. There might be an appetite for that if there is a demonstrable need. I set out several criteria earlier, and any action along those lines should be judged against them. Several hon. Members have drawn attention to previous no-fly zones and conflicts. Should we learn lessons from what has happened? Yes, we certainly should.

Two weeks ago, we witnessed the debacle of the Foreign Office trying to arrange a Tripoli airport rescue mission, and last week the Prime Minister refused to rule out arming rebel groups in Libya, and those are the same groups that held our diplomats and soldiers over the weekend. Can the Foreign Secretary give an assurance that this week will not be the third week of disasters by the Government?

If it is a protracted conflict that goes on for some time, it will throw up many challenges in addition to those we have already faced. Some of those are diplomatic, and as I have said the UK has led the way on that. Some are humanitarian, and the UK is playing a leading role in that, as we have discussed. There are other areas where we have certainly had difficulties, such as those of a couple of weeks ago to which the hon. Gentleman refers. On the other hand, after those difficulties we have pulled out and evacuated British nationals, ahead of many other nations, and helped people of about 30 other nationalities to leave Libya during our operations. Perhaps he should take a lesson from my hon. Friend the Member for Harwich and North Essex (Mr Jenkin) and acknowledge that although not everything goes right, the UK has done many things properly and well over the past few weeks.

There are many non-violent options that have not yet been explored. May I please encourage my right hon. Friend to look in particular at the formation, under chapter 7, of an escrow account for Libyan oil revenues in trust for the Libyan people and apart from the Gaddafi regime?

Yes, we continue to look at other options on top of the asset freeze and the measures we have already taken. My hon. Friend will be familiar with the measures we took to stop the delivery of what has added up to about £1 billion in bank notes to the Gaddafi regime. We continue to look at other ways to reduce the financial flows to the Gaddafi regime that might be used to support the violence and attempts to suppress the civilian population’s protests, of which we have all heard and some of which I have described. We will certainly be looking at that kind of measure.

Who, if anyone, did the diplomatic mission believe it had arranged to see, what did it think was the agreed agenda, and why were the missionaries issued with multiple identities and passports?

As I have explained, the missionaries were to make contact with opposition groups in Libya in order to assess the humanitarian situation there, and it will be necessary to have further diplomatic presence and diplomatic contact in order to do that. I am not going into further operational details about that for entirely obvious reasons: other missions sometimes take place in other parts of the world. The mission under consideration met the president of the national council that the opposition have formed, and that is the basis for further contact between the United Kingdom and those opposition groups.

I wonder whether the Foreign Secretary could elaborate on that point. I am keen to know what direct contact either our embassy or his other officials have established with the chair of the national Libyan council, Mustapha Abdul-Jalil.

The diplomatic team that was there at the weekend did have a meeting with him, and we have had a range of contacts with other figures in the opposition. The hon. Gentleman will be aware that several figures have defected from the Gaddafi regime to the opposition, and I have spoken to some of them myself, including General Younis, one of the Ministers who took some of the special forces over to the other side in Libya, so our contact has been with Mr Jalil, that particular general and other figures among the opposition forces in eastern Libya.

The Foreign Secretary obviously has a huge area of responsibility, but I am very surprised that in his statement he said very little about the crying need for human rights and justice in Saudi Arabia, and nothing about the ongoing crisis in Bahrain. The contagion throughout north Africa of the thirst for democracy, liberty and human rights is universal, and the Government should recognise it as such. It is actually more important than selling arms.

It is true, of course, that it would be possible to make a much longer statement about the situation in the middle east, but it might be necessary for Ministers to make statements over many months, going into the details of many countries, so of course I recognise that it is possible to say more about those situations. I referred to them in my statement—where we called for people to be able to protest peacefully. It is also important that, where protests occur, policing techniques are used that allow for peaceful protest and, wherever possible, do not encourage or lead to violence. That is a message we convey to all nations, as well as the message that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister expressed in his speech in the Kuwaiti Parliament, calling on all nations in the region to respect legitimate aspirations for economic development and more open and flexible political systems.

Do events in Libya and the middle east carry any lessons at all for the Government, given the talk about possible British participation in no-fly zones and the decision to stand down the carriers and the Harriers that would be essential to carry out any such operation?

It is not true that such facilities are necessary to implement a no-fly zone, because, in the case of Libya, ground bases are available and no nation has used an aircraft carrier for the recent evacuation of their citizens. The United Kingdom still has and will continue to have formidable military assets, including in air power. We are a part of the contingency planning for what might happen, but it would not be necessary to have an aircraft carrier to execute such a plan.

In acknowledging the difficulty of deciding how best to protect the Libyan people, I wonder what discussions the Foreign Secretary had with our partners in view of the danger and the potentially counter-productive nature of the mission.

We have discussions with our partners in NATO and in the European Union, and indeed more broadly in the Arab world, about this entire crisis, about the future of Libya and about the future of the entire region. Obviously, the mission into eastern Libya that we are describing was a United Kingdom-only mission, and not subject to discussion with other nations.

If the European External Action Service has a point, it is surely to engage in a timely fashion in its very near abroad. Is my right hon. Friend aware of any action being taken by Baroness Ashton in advance of this Friday’s meeting beyond cancelling a few visas and imposing a few trade sanctions?

Baroness Ashton has recently visited a number of states in the region, including Egypt and Tunisia. It will be important for the European Union, including Baroness Ashton and her organisation, to play a role in what we are calling on the European Union to do in changing its policy to one of greater openness towards the countries of north Africa and to providing incentives for them to move towards economic openness and political reform. I hope that all the nations of the European Union, and its organs, will take part in that.

The Secretary of State spoke earlier about the plight of refugees. Up until the middle of last week, 10,000 to 15,000 people were crossing the border into Tunisia on a daily basis. Since then, that number has dropped dramatically, and on Thursday only 2,000 refugees crossed the border. UNHCR has expressed concerns that people are being prevented from leaving Libya. What assessment has the Secretary of State made of this drop in numbers, and to whom has he spoken to help to inform that assessment?

That is a very good point. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Development has expressed the very same concern. A variety of things may be happening in this regard. Most of the people who have left have been migrant workers from other countries, and so it is possible that the numbers who remain are diminishing. It is also possible that the extent of the fighting that is taking place is making it harder for people to leave, or that they are being discouraged from leaving. My right hon. Friend is assessing that with his international partners and multilateral organisations. It is difficult for us to know exactly what is happening on the ground, but we will continue to assess it.

May I congratulate the Government and the armed forces on the successful evacuation of thousands of people by sea and air under very difficult circumstances? May I also, though, caution my right hon. Friend that humanitarian aid supported by military means is very unlikely to be seen in that way by the protagonists in a civil war?

Yes, I entirely take my hon. Friend’s word of caution; he is quite right to point that out. If we came to the point of thinking that that might be necessary, it would be a difficult decision to take. As the Prime Minister made clear last Monday, it is also right to do the contingency planning about many of the options that might have to be taken in a whole variety of circumstances. However, I stress to my hon. Friend that this is contingency planning rather than a decision to undertake the kind of operation that he is concerned about.

It is good that the Foreign Secretary is admitting that the mission failed, and of course it must be right to protect our diplomats in the way that he outlined. However, was not the mission always going to fail given that people arrived, unannounced, in a helicopter full of military equipment in such a volatile situation? What does he think of the role of our ambassador in the conversation that was reported by Colonel Gaddafi and the relationship between the two ambassadors, when the ambassador himself did not know what was going on?

Of course, there are many telephone conversations going on. I myself speak to people on both sides of the divide in Libya, including to the Libyan Foreign Minister, Musa Kusa, who is still part of the Gaddafi regime. As there are British nationals still in Libya, it is important for us to be able to have a channel of communication directly with the Libyan regime, as well as with leading figures in the opposition. It is therefore no surprise that such telephone conversations are going on, particularly in the situation that we had over the weekend. The background to the mission is exactly as I described it earlier. I point out to the hon. Gentleman that, as I made clear in my statement, the mission ended up meeting the president of the national council of the opposition forces, and that is now the basis for further diplomatic contact with them.

Apart from the irony of sending a British warship named after a pork sausage to rescue Brits from a Muslim country, is not the real lesson from this situation that we should stop meddling in other people’s affairs and be very careful before we lecture countries on democracy when we have armed their autocratic rulers with crowd-control weapons?

I differ a little from my hon. Friend on that point. When we had to evacuate British nationals from Benghazi, it was important to send the nearest royal naval ship available, irrespective of its name. That is not the only vessel that has been involved. HMS York has also been there, and my hon. Friend will understand that I am particularly proud of that as a Yorkshireman. I hope he has no difficulty with that. Those ships have been there not to meddle in anybody else’s affairs, but primarily to take humanitarian aid and to evacuate our nationals and the nationals of many other countries out of harm’s way.

The Foreign Secretary has announced a change in travel advice for Yemen. Last week, the Secretary of State for International Development generously, and correctly in my view, increased aid to Yemen to record levels. Is it still the Government’s position to support the Government of Yemen while calling for reforms?

We do not take sides in Yemeni politics. We of course want a close and friendly relationship with the state of Yemen. We support the Government of Yemen in carrying out necessary reforms. As the right hon. Gentleman knows, when I visited Yemen a few weeks ago, I called on its President to deliver a detailed development and poverty reduction plan, and to combat international terrorism within Yemen effectively. Those are the necessary priorities for Yemen. I also called on him to be generous to opposition parties in charting the way forward constitutionally for Yemen, and asked opposition parties to be generous to him in finding an agreed way forward. We are still engaged in that process, including through delivering the aid to Yemen that the right hon. Gentleman highlighted in his question. It is the Foreign Office’s responsibility to give up-to-date travel advice to reflect the difficult situation in that country. The situation has deteriorated in recent days, which is why we have changed the travel advice.

If we have no aircraft carriers, which are needed to implement a no-fly zone, from which base would rescue helicopters for downed pilots fly?

That will be the subject of the contingency planning that we are talking about. Clearly, there are many military bases along the south of NATO. I have referred to the need for clear support from the region if we are to implement a no-fly zone. That has to be borne in mind in answering my hon. Friend’s question.

My constituent Jennifer Currie, her eight-month-old baby Nadia and her six-year-old daughter Alisha, happily, are on their way home from Libya. My caseworker spent the weekend arranging for them to travel home from Gharian, where they were hiding from the fighting. It took the Foreign Office 36 hours to agree to pay for a taxi to the airport, and my caseworker had to persuade the Foreign Office to arrange flights home. Jennifer had to agree to pay £1,400 for the tickets when she got home. Will the Foreign Secretary investigate why the arrangements were left to an MP’s caseworker, and why the penniless mother of an eight-month-old baby was asked to pay for her children’s escape from a war zone?

The Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for North East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt), who has responsibility for this region, has worked on this case and does not accept the hon. Gentleman’s description of it. We are delighted that his constituent and her children have been able to get out of Libya and to safety. FCO staff in London bought flights for her and her children, and ensured that she had assistance at Tripoli airport. They met her in Tunis and ensured that she made her flight, via Frankfurt, to the United Kingdom. We are not expecting her to repay the cost of the air fares.

As we have heard, there have been calls in some quarters for the west to arm the rebels. Students of history know that we have in the past armed communist guerrillas in Malaya against the Japanese and the mujaheddin in Afghanistan against the Russians, both with unforeseen long-term consequences. Will the Foreign Secretary reassure the House that he will exercise great caution in the face of such calls?

Yes, absolutely. I also point out that the whole of Libya is subject to a United Nations international arms embargo.

Does the Foreign Secretary accept that there are still questions about his judgment at the weekend? Did he not realise the difficulties that sending in a helicopter would create? Did he not realise that, in the sensitive situation in Libya, arming people to the teeth would be a red rag? Will he please answer the question about how he made those decisions? Does he not think that they have left us looking risible in the world community?

I set that out earlier, so I am not sure that it is necessary to go over it again. Clearly, some of the judgments are difficult. The previous weekend, we sent armed people into Libya to perform different missions, so such judgments unfortunately have to be made quite regularly. This mission turned out differently from those on the previous weekend.

May I warmly welcome the Foreign Secretary’s reiteration today that there will be no major intervention without the UN’s backing, unlike what happened under the Labour Government? Will he outline the role of UK diplomats in the consular service in evacuating citizens from Libya?

As I said earlier, the measures for which we are making contingency plans require demonstrable need, a clear legal basis and clear support from the region for them to be implemented. UK diplomats have done an amazing job. For example, the people in our rapid deployment team who went to Tripoli airport the week before last worked day and night for four to five days, assisting British nationals to be evacuated. They did an outstanding job, which has not always been widely recognised in the commentary on those matters. I pay tribute to them today.

Whatever political capital or trust there was to justify international military intervention in the middle east was spent several times over—and squandered—by the Labour Government. May I therefore suggest that any future intervention in which we participate is strictly rooted in humanitarian support so that we can start to regain the trust that Labour Members squandered and lost?

I agree with my hon. Friend that there is much mistrust among the public about what might happen in such situations. I also reassure him that the measures for which we are doing the contingency planning—a no-fly zone, protection of humanitarian assistance—are directed at protecting the civilian population if that becomes necessary and there is a demonstrable need to do so.

Further to the questions from the hon. Members for South Dorset (Richard Drax) and for New Forest East (Dr Lewis), the Foreign Secretary indicated that he has identified some countries from which a no-fly zone could be operated. What are those countries and what discussions has the FCO had with them?

Although those are entirely legitimate questions, they can be answered only after the contingency planning has been done either in NATO or with partners outside NATO. It is not possible currently to specify which countries would play such an active role.

In 2003, when Tony Blair led Colonel Gaddafi out of the cold, he did so on the basis that Libya gave up its weapons of mass destruction. We now read and have heard briefings in the past week that Gaddafi is perhaps in possession of mustard gas. Will the Foreign Secretary confirm whether that is true? If it is true, when did the Government know and why was it covered up?

It is true, as far as we know, that Libya continues to have stocks of mustard gas. We continue to call on the Libyan regime to ensure that any stocks it has are absolutely secured, because the level of violence in Libya gives rise to concern about what might happen to them.

I am not sure whether the previous Government had knowledge of the stocks or why they did not comment on them, but this Government have been very open about our knowledge that those stocks exist, and they must be secured.

Does the Foreign Secretary recall the day when Minister Michael Heseltine, clad in a camouflage jacket and accompanied by 1,500 soldiers and police, arrived at Molesworth peace camp by helicopter in order to evict 17 peace campaigners and a goat? Is it not true of the Government that our brave British soldiers—our brave British lions—are still led by Tory Ministers who have overdosed on James Bond?

I do not fully recall the incident that the hon. Gentleman describes—I was at university at the time and was probably doing something else—but I take his point. However, I would have thought that he would have taken this opportunity to pay tribute to the work that our troops did in rescuing so many people from the Libyan desert the weekend before last.

On that note, will my right hon. Friend join me in congratulating and thanking the crews of HMS Cumberland and HMS York, which are based in my constituency, who did such a professional job in that evacuation? Will he thank the Maltese Government for hosting our nationals who were involved, and will he explain our relationship with Malta and under what conditions we are operating?

My hon. Friend is quite right to draw attention to those things. The Defence Secretary spoke to the captain of HMS Cumberland only this morning and the Prime Minister has spoken to him in recent days. Cumberland and York have been doing a great job, exactly in the way that my hon. Friend describes. I welcome the opportunity to place on record our thanks to Malta for the assistance it has given to enable us to evacuate our nationals and to take humanitarian supplies into Libya. Malta is a neutral country, which we must always respect, and it is a member of the European Union and of the Commonwealth. We are enthusiastic that it is one of our partners in both those organisations. Recent events have reminded us of something that our predecessors in the 1940s and the 1800s learned—the immense strategic importance of Malta. We will do everything we can to strengthen our friendship with that country in the coming weeks and months.

I am sure the Foreign Secretary is aware that a number of groups over the years, particularly Christian and voluntary groups, have visited the Palestinian territories, as Caritas did recently. What are we doing to get the peace process up and running, and in particular, what pressure are we putting on Israel?

We are doing everything we can diplomatically. As I said, that is what we will discuss with President Abbas tomorrow. We have called on the US to join us in saying that the parameters of a settlement should include stating that it will be based on 1967 borders. We also need a just settlement for refugees, and for Jerusalem to be the future capital of both states in a two-state solution. We voted that way at the UN Security Council three Fridays ago—we voted among the group of 14 of 15 nations on the Security Council for the resolution concerning settlements in the occupied territories. Those settlements are illegal, and we have called on Israel to extend and then to renew its freeze on that building. This country is a friend to Israelis and to Palestinians. We believe that it is in the vital interests of both that the middle east peace process receives greater urgency from the international community, and not less urgency in the light of recent events.

To say that the situation in Libya is volatile, uncertain and dangerous would clearly be an understatement, which is why I and my constituents are immensely proud of the brave work of our special forces on behalf of their Queen and country. Will the Foreign Secretary take this opportunity to congratulate our special forces on the courage they show?

Does the Foreign Secretary agree that one of the lessons of the past few days is that we must be careful about the number of western military missions seeking to operate in Libya, lest they play into Gaddafi’s hands in respect of foreign interference and undermine the very opposition we are trying to reinforce?

Yes, of course, but I think that the hon. Gentleman would also join me in accepting that there have been necessary military missions, including for the evacuation of some of our workers. We have just been praising the work of HMS Cumberland and HMS York. Those were also military missions. We do not go ahead with any military mission unless we believe it to be genuinely necessary.

In Egypt, we have now seen a referendum on eight amendments to the constitution put forward by the interim military Government. Does the Foreign Secretary agree that all the amendments must be agreed by a new Parliament elected through free and fair elections in order to have a genuine democratic mandate?

There is no doubt that we want to see free and fair elections in Egypt for the presidency and the Parliament. The people who have brought about the revolution in Egypt are also absolutely determined about that, however, so they do not need the United Kingdom to show our determination on that front—although we certainly agree. It is the people of Egypt who own what has happened, and of course we now want to see the development of a stable, open democracy in that country.

The Foreign Secretary is right to say that things have gone well and other things have not gone so well. However, with the decision not to convene Cobra for several days, the no-fly zone announcement, which was on and then off, the flights fiasco and the announcement about Venezuela, the mishaps have been coming thick and fast. Would he not be in a good position to try and rebuild his credibility if he apologised to the House and to those who might feel that their lives have potentially been put in danger by the mishaps that have befallen them over the past two weeks?

The policy on the no-fly zone, which the hon. Gentleman asks about, has been the same throughout. As I have explained, the evacuation of British nationals was completed ahead of that of many other countries. Indeed, we assisted people from about 30 other countries in doing so. When one looks at those things, they will see that the United Kingdom has a good deal to be proud of.