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Volume 567: debated on Monday 2 September 2013

10. What recent assessment he has made of the security situation in Syria; and if he will make a statement. (900049)

The conflict in Syria is of grave concern to the international community and the use of chemical weapons by the Syrian regime is, I think, regarded as abhorrent by everyone. The UK will continue to press for a political solution to end the bloodshed and we are urging the Syrian regime to enter the Geneva process towards a negotiated transition.

I thank my right hon. Friend for his reply. Clearly the security situation will have the greatest impact on Syria’s near neighbours, so what discussions have he and other members of the Cabinet had with those near neighbours and the Arab League, as well as NATO and the EU?

My hon. Friend might have seen that the Secretary-General of NATO made a statement only this morning about this matter. I assure her that we have the closest possible contact and dialogue with the regional players—the Arab League, the Gulf Co-operation Council, Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey. We are acutely conscious of the risks and threats that the situation in Syria present to them. I should also mention that we are the second largest donor of humanitarian assistance to try to alleviate the shocking refugee crisis in Syria.

Is it not the case that, although the civil war in Syria started in early 2011, a UK firm was granted a licence to sell chemicals to the regime in 2012, and that was stopped only because of tougher EU sanctions? Is there any murderous regime anywhere with which we are not willing to do business? This illustrates what I have said about Syria. If that process had not been stopped owing to EU sanctions, chemicals would have been sent that could have made the gas that was used against civilians there.

The hon. Gentleman makes a case with a great deal of passion, but without much detailed understanding of what he is talking about. Export licences were granted for some industrial chemicals that could have been used in a process that might be involved in the production of poisonous gases. Those export licences were revoked—no such chemicals were exported. However, I should explain that the problem that we all face is that a significant number of industrial chemicals have perfectly legitimate industrial uses—in this case, I believe, in metal-finishing activities—and we have to maintain the right balance between ensuring that we are not providing materials that could be misused and allowing normal trade to be conducted.

Much has been made in the media about the potential impact of last week’s vote on the relationship between the United Kingdom and the United States. Does my right hon. Friend not agree that whatever disagreements there might be on the particular issue of Syria, the strength of the relationship between the United Kingdom and the United States is absolutely essential, and it rests, much more importantly, on intelligence and a shared belief in a nuclear deterrent?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Our relationship with the United States is central to our defence and security, and I am confident that, whatever happened last week, the depth, strength and history of that relationship mean that it is a resilient one. The Prime Minister has spoken to the President since last Thursday, and I am confident that as a result of that conversation the relationship between the United States and the United Kingdom will continue, and will remain strong and resilient.

Given that the security situation in Syria is likely to deteriorate or certainly change, will the Secretary of State tell the House why last Thursday’s vote, whereby in essence the House did not agree to two motions, should not be revisited in future?

As the Prime Minister, the Chancellor of the Exchequer and the Foreign Secretary have already made clear, this is a democracy. Parliament has spoken, and we take it that Parliament has spoken very clearly. We cannot keep coming back to Parliament with the same question. I think that the circumstances would have to change very significantly before Parliament wanted to look again at this issue.

I warmly welcome the Government’s policy of not intervening militarily in Syria, but may I seek assurances from the Secretary of State that every action will be taken by the Government and by friendly Governments around the world to make sure that perpetrators of atrocities in Syria are outlawed, and that should they seek to leave their country they will stand trial and any wealth and money they have forfeited?

Our position remains that there needs to be a robust response to the illegal use of chemical weapons. The House of Commons has ruled out military participation in any such response, but we will pursue every diplomatic, political and other channel to continue to deliver the robust message that my right hon. Friend calls for.

I want to return to the issue raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Ms Stuart). On Thursday, after the vote, the Prime Minister ruled out UK involvement in military action in Syria. The Government of course will remain engaged diplomatically and on aid policy, but will the Secretary of State spell out for the House in what, if any, circumstances, following changes in Syria or internationally, the Government would bring back to Parliament the issue of UK military involvement in Syria?

If I may say so, it is a bit rich for the right hon. Gentleman, who last week trooped into the Lobby behind the leader of his party, giving rise to the very situation in which we now find ourselves, to demand that I tell him precisely in which circumstances we might revisit this issue. I have already said to the hon. Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Ms Stuart) that we believe that Parliament has spoken clearly on this issue, and is unlikely to want to revisit it unless the circumstances change very significantly.