With permission, I shall update the House on the current situation in Libya and on what the Government are doing to support the new Libyan Government of national accord.
Yesterday, I visited Tripoli; it was the first time that a British Foreign Secretary had done so since 2011. The fact that the visit was able to take place is a positive sign of the progress made in recent weeks, including in the security situation in and around the capital. During my visit, I met Prime Minister Sarraj and members of the Presidency Council in the naval base that has been the headquarters of the Government of national accord since they relocated to Tripoli on 30 March. I welcomed their commitment to representing all the Libyan people and the progress they have made in establishing the GNA as a Government of the whole of Libya.
I underlined to Prime Minister Sarraj the UK’s support for the GNA as the only legitimate Government of Libya. They have the endorsement of the Libyan political dialogue and the majority of members of the House of Representatives. I believe the Libyan people want them to succeed. We look forward to the House of Representatives completing its formal vote of endorsement in line with its obligations under the Libyan political agreement.
I was encouraged to hear from Prime Minister Sarraj and his Ministers about the steps they are taking to assume control of Government Ministries in Tripoli. After five years of conflict following the overthrow of Gaddafi, the Libyan people are weary of fighting and eager for peace. They want a Government who will start to address the many challenges Libya faces. It is important that the international community works in partnership with the GNA as they continue to consolidate their position and take forward their work to meet the needs of Libyan citizens across the country.
In my meetings, I emphasised the need to keep up momentum on the political process and to deliver practical progress on the ground. I was encouraged to hear that a clear plan was being developed to address some of the immediate challenges: delivering security, tackling Daesh, restoring basic public services, countering people-trafficking, restarting oil production, and getting the economy back on track.
We agreed that delivering security was fundamental to improving the day-to-day lives of the Libyan people and creating an environment for economic reactivation. The security agenda must, of course, be owned and led by the GNA, but the UK, along with other European nations, stands ready to respond to requests from the Libyan Government for assistance in training the Libyan armed forces in order to improve their effectiveness in providing security and in the fight against Daesh. Prime Minister Sarraj and I agreed that we should continue to work closely to establish what those training and technical support requirements were, and what role, if any, the international community could play in helping to meet them.
A number of Members have speculated in recent days that the Government might be on the cusp of committing British troops to Libya in a combat, or combat support, role. I am pleased to have the opportunity to clarify the situation. I am clear about the fact that there is no appetite in Libya for foreign combat troops on the ground. We do not anticipate any requests from the GNA for ground combat forces to take on Daesh or any other armed groups, and we have no plans to deploy troops in such a role. I will, of course, keep the House informed of any plans that we develop in the future in response to requests from the Libyan Government, but the type of mission that we currently envisage would be focused on providing training and technical support, away from any front-line operations.
The Libyan economy is suffering from the effects of years of conflict and the impact of low oil prices. It is clear that the Presidency Council is focused on the immediate need to alleviate the pressures on ordinary Libyans, including those arising from the current squeeze on liquidity in the banking system, the shortfall in power generation and the shortage of basic commodities, as well as the slightly longer-term challenge of ensuring the effective functioning of the key state financial institutions—the Central Bank of Libya, the National Oil Corporation and the Libyan Investment Authority—and the challenge of rebuilding oil production and export capacity. As I said to Prime Minister Sarraj, the UK stands ready to provide whatever technical assistance it can with those issues, in all of which British companies have relevant experience and expertise to share.
As for the migration threat, there is clearly an urgent need to tackle the challenges arising from irregular migration and the organised criminal and terrorist networks that facilitate so much of it. In my discussions, I highlighted our desire to work in close partnership with the GNA to make progress on that issue, including progress in tackling the people-smugglers and traffickers. As part of that initiative, we should look at creating a package of support that could include extending the EU’s naval Operation Sophia and building the capacity of the Libyan coastguard to support, and eventually take over, the operation, but clearly such a package would be implemented only at the invitation of the Libyan Government.
Yesterday I announced that Britain would allocate £10 million for technical support to the GNA in this financial year, to be delivered through the conflict, security and stability fund. The package will support the strengthening of political participation, economic development, and the delivery of capacity in security, justice and defence. We will work closely with the GNA to ensure that that support is channelled into the areas where it can have the greatest effect.
After years of conflict in Libya, the formation of the Government of national accord and their arrival in Tripoli have the potential to mark a real turning point in Libya’s fortunes. The challenges facing the GNA should not be underestimated, and delivering the security and economic development that will allow the Libyan people to realise their country’s huge potential will not be an easy task to fulfil, but the UK, together with many of our international partners, stands ready to assist. It is in all our interests that Prime Minister Sarraj and his Government are able to re-establish security, reactivate the economy, and defeat Daesh in Libya as quickly as possible. I commend this statement to the House.
I thank the Foreign Secretary for giving me advance sight of his statement. The situation in Libya over the past five years has been bloody and dangerous, and it is important to recall that it was Colonel Gaddafi’s brutal and violent response to the protests that erupted early in 2011 that triggered a civil war and United Nations Security Council resolution 1973, which authorised a no-fly zone and action to protect civilians. This House voted to support that action, but since Gaddafi’s fall, Libya has become a land of rival governments awash with rival militias. There is also the growing presence of Daesh and insecurity. Questions have been raised about the focus of this Government, and indeed of the international community, on what followed.
I join the Foreign Secretary in praising the enormous efforts of Libyan politicians, of the United Nations and of Special Representative Martin Kobler to reconcile the competing institutions and encourage them to form a single Government of national unity. I also join him in supporting UN resolution 2259, which has recognised the progress that has been made and called on member states to provide support to the new Government as requested .
We on this side of the House welcome the establishment of the Libyan Government of national accord led by Prime Minister Fayez Sarraj. As the Foreign Secretary said, they face a formidable task in ensuring security, restoring public services, building up the economy and tackling the threat from Daesh, but does he agree that their ability to do so will be determined by the extent to which they can gain support and consent right across Libya as they face the task of re-establishing governance in all parts of the country? Will he set out what assessment he has made of their capacity to do that, particularly in respect of the rival militias? Can he say anything more about the conversations he is having with our allies, including other EU Foreign Ministers, about what further steps could be taken to support stability and peace in Libya? Does he expect there to be a further UN Security Council resolution?
The United Kingdom Government indicated previously that they were not contemplating a British combat mission in Libya. Given the circumstances there, I think that that is the right approach to take, and I am grateful to the Foreign Secretary for confirming again today that the Government have no plans to deploy British troops in such a role. Can he therefore give us a categorical assurance that, were that view to change, any proposal to deploy forces in a combat role would come before this House for a vote?
The Foreign Secretary has, however, spoken about the possibility of providing training for the Libyan military. Did Prime Minister Sarraj ask for specific types of technical or training support during their recent discussions? Does the Foreign Secretary envisage that any such deployment, should it happen, would take place in Libya, or might it involve providing training in a neighbouring country? Will he give an undertaking that he will come to the House before any such deployment takes place and seek its approval as appropriate?
On economic development, we support all efforts by the international community to assist the new Government in improving the lives of their citizens and getting the economy moving again, including through oil production. On migration, is further support being requested by the new Prime Minister, or is that being considered through the EU naval operation in the Mediterranean, Operation Sophia, to enhance Libya’s ability to disrupt criminal human smuggling and people trafficking? The people of Libya have suffered a great deal in recent years, and this moment is enormously important for their future. It is the responsibility of the world community to do all that it can to help the new Government to succeed.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his response. Let me join in his praise of UN Special Representative Martin Kobler—it was remiss of me not to give that praise myself—who is an absolute dynamo. Since he was appointed, he has literally been shuttling between the parties, groups and power brokers in Libya. It is very much due to his energy and effort that we have got where we are today.
There is a Government of national unity, but we should be clear about Libya’s historical context: it is a country that has traditionally had a high degree of devolution in its governance structure, which is often held together by a strong man at the centre. We now need to find a new model, under which the Government of national accord will be a national umbrella organisation, but Prime Minister Sarraj has made it clear that that will work only if municipalities are empowered and prepared to take on a significant degree of devolution. A devolved model is the only model that will work.
I also need to make it clear that the Libyan Government are in a very early stage of operation. At the moment, the Prime Minister and his Ministers are sitting in a naval base, physically separated from the civil servants who could support them. Yesterday, they retook operational control of three Ministries, which is a good step forward, but it will only be as they are able to re-enter the Ministries and regain working contact with civil servants that they can start to do some of the detailed work. That situation underpins and shapes my answers to some of the right hon. Gentleman’s questions, because he is absolutely right that the GNA can succeed only with the support and consent of the various factions in Libya.
Let me say one other thing by way of scene-setting. When I went to Tripoli yesterday, I was expecting to find the Government incarcerated in a heavily fortified military base, defending against all comers, but that is not the situation. The base is relatively lightly defended, and it was clear that the Prime Minister’s ability to operate there is based on the consent and acquiescence of the militias operating in that part of the capital. He is acutely conscious of the need to build a bottom-up consensus around his activities.
The right hon. Gentleman asked me about the European Union. I returned from Tripoli to Luxembourg last night, where there was a discussion at 28, including Defence Minister colleagues, about future support to Libya, looking at the possibility of extending Operation Sophia in a counter-migration role. No decisions were taken, but the matter is clearly high on the European Union’s agenda. The key will be to develop a package that also addresses Libyan top priorities. The Libyans are focused on migration, but it is in all honesty not their top priority. We have to create an environment in which delivering on Europe’s top priorities also addresses those of the Libyan people.
The right hon. Gentleman asked about a UN Security Council resolution. I have not heard anyone suggest that there is an immediate need for a further resolution. The next moves at the UN will be the granting of some exemptions to the arms embargo, and possibly the unfreezing of some assets to allow the Government to function properly.
The House would of course be consulted were the UK Government to decide at any point that they wanted to insert ground forces, or any forces, in Libya in a combat role. We do not envisage that happening in the current circumstances.
The right hon. Gentleman referred to the situation in which a training deployment is contemplated, and asked me whether we would seek the House’s approval for a training deployment. I should be clear that it is a question not of approval, but of consulting the House and allowing it to express an opinion through a vote, and the history of the past three years shows that the Government will take great notice of that. However, that would not be the case in the event of a training deployment. We have training deployments around the world. In fact, my Ministry of Defence colleagues informed me just before I came to the House that we currently have 16 permanent training deployments. It is not appropriate for the House to be consulted on such a deployment as if it were a combat deployment.
Did the Libyan Prime Minister ask for training support? Not explicitly, but he did indicate that the Libyan Government may well ask the international community for some form of support as they develop their plans. I gained the personal impression that his instinct is very much at the lighter end of the scale. He clearly does not want to be seen to be dependent on foreign support and wants to do as much as possible internally, using Libyan capabilities. Of course, if there is any question of training, we would want to look at the options for training outside Libya, as well as the permissibility of training inside Libya.
I welcome the Foreign Secretary’s statement and last night’s European Council conclusions on Libya. The sanctioning of the Speaker of the House of Representatives is welcome, as he has been a particular obstacle to the formation of the GNA. Also welcome is the commitment that the EU—and, I therefore assume, the British—contribution will be coherent and co-ordinated with other international support under the overall co-ordination of the United Nations Support Mission in Libya. A coherent British contribution will be easier with the consent and understanding of this House. It might need to include, for example, airstrikes on Daesh targets in addition to the training mission to which he alludes.
I counsel the Foreign Secretary that he is dancing on pretty thin ice when it comes to differentiating between a training mission in a combat zone and other missions, and when he talks about not seeking to carry this House’s approval. I notice the language he has used in talking about being away from the frontline of operations. I wonder whether he can say anything more about that. I urge him to continue to try to carry this House with him.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who is right that any kind of international support will be more effective if it is properly co-ordinated. The work of the European Union, the Libya international assistance mission—LIAM—and the UNSMIL planning cell, which is already in operation, should be and will be co-ordinated.
Let me be clear that any proposal to carry out airstrikes in support of a counter-Daesh operation absolutely would trigger the convention that the Government consult the House and allow a vote, through which the House could express its view on the proposed intervention.
I understand my hon. Friend’s concern, which he has expressed several times both in the House and in various newspapers, that the lines between what is a combat mission and what is a training mission could be blurred in situations such as Libya’s, but we are clear that we can make that distinction. I draw his attention to Afghanistan, which is a kinetic theatre if ever there was one, yet our training mission has been successfully conducted there for the past 15 months with great effect. In Iraq, we carry out training activities in an active war zone. There is a big difference between training and advising troops and engaging in combat activities. The Government are extremely mindful of that distinction and of the obligations that they have entered into in respect of consulting the House.
I also praise the work of Martin Kobler and of the British ambassador to Libya, whom I met in Tunis and who has been making the best of a very difficult job. Libya has been an unmitigated disaster for this Government. We even had a sitting US President criticise a sitting UK Prime Minister. A UN official described the UK’s humanitarian efforts as
“paltry bone-throwing from a European country whose bombers reaped so much destruction”.
We do not have a good record on Libya.
Following the questions of the right hon. Member for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn) and the Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee, who raised a good point as usual, will the Foreign Secretary tell us how much of the mission he envisages taking place on Libyan soil? As for what he calls a training mission, will any deployment of UK troops on Libyan soil be brought to this House for consideration? Given that he can only have meetings in the naval base, how does he envisage a training mission in Libya taking place at the moment? Finally, does he commend the US President’s candour in saying that Libya was his worst mistake, and what does he think has been the Prime Minister’s worst foreign policy mistake?
It is very easy to sit on the Opposition Benches hurling stones, but I am afraid that the world is not a neat and tidy place, and we have to deal with the situations that present themselves. The hon. Gentleman talks about the humanitarian work, but I remind him that, when we intervened in Libya in 2011, it was to prevent an imminent genocide in Benghazi and that that successful intervention saved countless thousands of lives. Libya is a rich country, and we should not forget that—$70-odd billion-worth of Libyan assets outside the country are currently frozen by a UN Security Council resolution. This is about getting the Government in place and then releasing those assets so that the Government can function. Libya is not a country that needs humanitarian assistance in the conventional sense. It needs technical support with good governance, and help to get into a position where we can release its assets to it to enable it to function.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned the British ambassador. I join him in paying tribute to the work of our ambassador, who is currently based in Tunis. He came with me yesterday to Tripoli and it is his fervent desire, as it is mine and Prime Minister Sarraj’s, to reopen the British embassy in Tripoli as soon as we are able to do so. Unfortunately, the location of our current buildings in Tripoli is in a rather less secure part of town, so I cannot promise that that will be imminent, but we will keep the matter under constant review and do it as soon as we can.
The hon. Gentleman asked whether any training mission to Libya would take place on Libyan soil, and I have to say to him, yet again, that there is no training mission, there is no putative training mission and there has been no request for a training mission. I speak as a former Defence Secretary when I say that, if there is a request for such a mission, the military will clearly want to ensure that it is undertaken with the minimum risk possible to UK personnel. Therefore, their first preference would be to do it here, their next preference would be to do it somewhere in the region and their third preference would be to do it in Libya, if it is safe to do so. I assure him that we will spare no effort in trying to ensure that any support we do give to the Libyans will be delivered in a way that represents the least possible risk to the British forces delivering it.
There can be no doubt that our intervention in Libya in 2011 has, as some in this House have suggested, been an unmitigated disaster resulting in many thousands of casualties, the establishment of Daesh and a vicious civil war. Looking forward, given that this country is at a tipping point of its involvement with Libya, given developments on the ground, what lessons can we learn?
My hon. Friend, as so often, asserts as fact that there “can be no doubt” on something that is deeply contentious, and I very much take issue with him. The situation in Libya is very difficult and the situation post-2011 was very messy, but countries in many parts of the world do not function as Britain or Switzerland do, and we have to deal with the real situation on the ground. We should look to the future. We should be positive about this potentially affluent country regaining stability and being able, once again, to function as an effective state, allowing the Libyan people to get on with their business. There is a weariness after five years and a growing sense that, if a properly devolved form of government can be established that co-opts the various militias and regional groupings, this can work.
What assessment has the Foreign Secretary made of the size of Daesh in Libya and its capability, and does he have any idea what its plan is? Is it going to sit tight or move outwards to try to expand into the rest of Libya?
Speaking from memory, I think that our current assessment—the last assessment I have seen—is that there are probably up to about 3,000 Daesh fighters in Libya, of whom a significant number would be foreign fighters. There is a generally accepted view that what Daesh is doing in Libya at the moment is very much a holding operation, seeking to hold an area of ground, possibly as a bolthole if it finds that its freedom of manoeuvre and freedom to operate is coming under intolerable pressure in Syria. There are many pointers to the fact that now is the time to move against Daesh in Libya, while its presence is still relatively thin on the ground and while its operation is very much in a holding phase.
One measure of success of the new Libyan Government will be the creation of a functioning economy and, as a step towards that, a functioning central bank. Can Britain play any role in helping them achieve that?
Yes, and yesterday I offered Prime Minister Sarraj technical support in relation to the central bank, the national oil company and the Libyan Investment Authority. It is a tribute to Libyan resilience and ingenuity that international partners recognise the figures who have continued to run those institutions throughout this period of chaos over the past few years as technically competent and well motivated—they have been doing a good job. Prime Minister Sarraj has now brought the competing appointees—the eastern and the western chairmen of each of those institutions—together to work together and to seek to forge consensus on how the institutions can go forward as truly national institutions on a collaborative basis.
I was interested in what the Foreign Secretary had to say about the current state of Daesh, and how it needs to be contained now and not allowed to spread further. Are we talking to other allies, such as Jordan, about working on training deployments and training up troops? If we do not contain Daesh now in north Africa, it will simply be an expanding problem.
Yes, we are talking to other partners, such as Jordan, about how we can provide support to the Libyan Government. Of course other actors are acting independently; Egypt has a recognised vital interest, because of its long land border with Libya, and some of the problems Egypt has been facing in the Western desert are directly attributable to penetration from Libya. The House will recall the continuing issue of General Haftar, the commander of the Libyan national army. He is an important figure who commands significant military forces in the east but is unacceptable as a command figure to many who are supporting the new Government. That is one of the big challenges Prime Minister Sarraj is facing.
I very much welcome the Foreign Secretary’s statement and, in particular, the reassurances it contains about the use of British troops exclusively in training and mentoring, if that becomes necessary. Does he recall the disaster that was the training of Libyans in the UK? Will he assure the House that those mistakes have been noted and lessons have been learnt, and that, if he does intend to train Libyans in the UK, as his statement suggested, we will not make those mistakes again?
Yes, and we are not the only ones who had a poor experience with seeking to train Libyans outside Libya—the Italians and Bulgarians had similar experiences. Prime Minister Sarraj referred to that yesterday and is acutely conscious of what was not a very glorious episode in Libyan history. The situation on the ground has changed, but clearly we would look for the most effective location for any training. It is probably the case that that would not be in the UK, for climatic reasons as much as for anything else; we need to train people in an environment as close as possible to the one in which they will be operating. As I have said, there has been no request and there is as yet no plan, so I am afraid I cannot impart to the House any more information.
May I welcome the progress that has been made but say that I am disappointed that more has not been offered to deal with the migration crisis? There has been an 80% increase in the number of crossings between Libya and Italy. This time last year, half a million people were waiting in Libya to get to Italy. As we know, the European Union is offering Turkey €3 billion to deal with the migration crisis and offering Libya nothing. What we need is permission to enter Libyan coastal waters in order to stop the people traffickers. Did the Foreign Secretary ask for that permission? When can we have that permission, so that we can deal robustly with people trafficking?
May I say to the right hon. Gentleman, whose question, I am sure, is well motivated, that he is approaching this in exactly the wrong way? We are not likely to get the buy-in we need if we, as a bunch of Europeans, go to Libya and say, “Here’s our priority agenda. What are you going to do about delivering it?” What we must do, and what I suggested to my European colleagues last night that we should do, is package the objectives that we want to achieve with the objectives that are priorities for the Libyans. That is the only way that Prime Minister Sarraj will be able to sell to the Libyan people a package that in any way questions Libya’s territorial sovereignty and that allows foreigners to operate in Libya’s waters. We must be acutely sensitive to the concerns in Libya about foreigners. I am in a rather strange position in that, on the one hand, I have one bunch of people in this House who are primarily concerned to ensure that we do not have any foreigners going into Libya, and, on the other, the right hon. Gentleman who is desperately keen to get some foreign naval forces into its territorial waters. The truth is that we must balance this very carefully and get a package that works for the Libyans as well as for the European agenda.
The Foreign Secretary and the shadow Foreign Secretary speak in grandiloquent terms of Prime Minister Sarraj, a Government of national accord and even a House of Representatives. Any member of the British public watching “News at Ten” last night would have seen our Foreign Secretary and the Prime Minister of national accord holed up in a naval base, unable to leave because they control none of the country. Apparently, they now control three ministerial buildings in a country the size of western Europe. Can we have a reality check, please? Can the Government at last realise that their bid to undermine authoritarian leaders such as Saddam Hussein, Gaddafi, who had a deal with the Italian Government to return migrants, and now Assad has just involved the region in death and destruction? Can we just learn the lessons, try and find a strongman, and do what the Chairman of the Home Affairs Committee wants—and what we all want—and find a way of creating some kind of safe haven for migrants to be returned to?
The Chinese have a saying that a journey of 1,000 miles starts with a single step. I urge my hon. Friend to view this process in that context. Self-evidently, I did manage to get out of the naval base in Tripoli yesterday and return to these shores.
My hon. Friend is being a little harsh on Prime Minister Sarraj and what he has achieved. There is a process going on whereby militias—who, only a couple of weeks ago, were threatening to shoot down any aircraft seeking to enter the airport in Tripoli bringing his Government back into the city—are now patrolling the streets outside that naval base and were present on the ground when I landed in Tripoli yesterday. They have recognised and given tentative consent to this Government process to go forward. Its success will depend on Prime Minister Sarraj making the right judgments and being patient enough to bring all the relevant parties with him as he develops a plan for his Government.
I thank the Foreign Secretary for an advance copy of his statement and congratulate him on his recent visit. Given the failure of the past two Labour Administrations to secure adequate compensation for victims of Libya-supplied Semtex in Scotland, England and Northern Ireland—at the same time America was able to get that compensation—will he now indicate that he will redeem this situation and place on the agenda of the Government of national accord and the Prime Minister that compensation will be a key issue that this Government will pursue with the new Administration?
I can confirm that it is already on the agenda. Prime Minister Sarraj is aware of our focus on this issue, but it is a question of timing. At the moment, the Government have not got access to the great majority of their ministries and civil servants. They do not have access to their assets, so it would be premature to make that the No.1 issue. However, this Government are focused on the need to raise and to resolve these issues at the right point in this progression, and Prime Minister Sarraj has already been notified that we will do so.
We have seen a very thoughtful exchange between the Foreign Secretary and his shadow. Although there are flickers of optimism, the atmosphere remains very sombre, not least because, as other Members have pointed out, we have responsibility to a large extent for what has happened in Libya over the past five years. I say to my right hon. Friend, who has dealt with this whole issue of technical and other expertise very skilfully, that the British public would be very reluctant if there were any sense that our expertise was going into helping one side rather than another in what could still be a very bloody civil war. Although I appreciate that these are difficult things and that there are often no good guys on either side, there must be an appreciation that that would be something that would cause angst to the public if we are to have a functioning Libya in the years ahead.
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for that. If only it were so simple as there being two sides; there are about 120 sides as far as I can make out. He is absolutely right. Of course we must ensure that our support is targeted at the Government of national accord. We have to look for bright spots. One of the positive things that I take from the situation in Libya is that, by and large, the different factions are not motivated by ideology, particularly by extreme religious ideology, as they are in some of the other conflict zones. A lot of this is to do with traditional money and power interests. It is about people wanting to protect their local fiefdoms and making sure that they and their communities get their share of the wealth of the state. Prime Minister Sarraj is going about this in exactly the right way. He is going with the grain of Libyan society, recognising that reality and trying to build a consensus mechanism around it.
What guarantees can the Secretary of State offer that our key partners, particularly in Europe, have a coherent strategy on good governance and nation building as well as on the vital issues of migration and counter-terrorism? What reassurances did he get this week from the Government of national accord that they have a plan to broaden out what is essentially a UN-backed political deal, so it is not beholden, and therefore vulnerable, to the many rival regional factions?
The most effective step to broaden out the legitimacy of the Government will be the vote in the House of Representatives on the endorsement of the Government. The HOR is committed by the Libyan political agreement to do that, and we hope that it will happen very soon. On the question of our European partners, it is inevitably true that, for 26 of the other 27 EU states, excluding Ireland, migration is at the top of the agenda. It falls to me to urge them, as I urged the Chairman of the Home Affairs Committee, to accept that, if we want to make progress on the matter, we must try to set this in a context that makes sense not just to us, but to the Libyans.
I welcome the progress the Foreign Secretary has outlined and appreciate his point about the practical realities on the ground. With that in mind, the long-term prospects for Libya are clearly linked to its economic prospects, which are in turn largely linked to the prospects of its oil industry. What steps, at this early stage, are UK Trade & Investment and the British Government taking to ensure that UK industry can play its full part in bringing the Libyan oil industry back on to the global market?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Libya has Africa’s largest oil and gas reserves and a population of only 6 million, so, clearly, it is, in per capita terms, a potentially wealthy country. I am glad to report that British companies have traditionally played an important role in Libya’s oil and gas industry, and Prime Minister Sarraj specifically made the point yesterday that BP would be very welcome back in the country. I shall pass that on to BP’s management.
The Foreign Secretary has said that there is no appetite in Libya for foreign combat troops on the ground. Is there any appetite in the Libyan political system for foreign air forces or foreign naval forces operating in Libyan territorial waters?
On the latter point, we have already seen a clear wariness of any suggestion of foreign naval forces operating in Libyan territorial waters, even if the focus is counter-migration rather than counter-Daesh. I cannot rule out—it would be wrong to do so—any future requests for air or naval support for a counter-Daesh operation. I can envisage Prime Minister Sarraj, if his Government are successful, being able to muster enough ground forces to mount an attack on the Daesh stronghold around Sirte which, of course, is a coastal port. It is certainly the case that the Libyans will not be able to develop naval or air assets in any reasonable period of time to support such an operation, and it is quite possible that, from a military point of view, they would seek assistance from outside. Prime Minister Sarraj would have to balance that military imperative with the political issues that would arise if he were to request foreign assistance. There has been no such request and no discussion of such a request, but if it comes, we will consider it. If we think that the UK should participate in such action, we will come to the House and allow it to express an opinion through a vote.
Several hon. Members rose—
Order. A further 21 hon. and right hon. Members are seeking to catch my eye, and I am naturally keen to accommodate all of them. Brevity will assist me in doing so.
I thank my right hon. Friend for his statement. I know that I might be a lone voice, but I urge him to guard against parliamentary approval for every military intervention we undertake, which is out of keeping with an enemy that moves fast and that we need to go up against. May I ask the Foreign Secretary about a distinct strategy specifically to target Daesh, separate from but complementary to the wider diplomatic peace strategy? One can reinforce the other, but if we wait for the perfect political settlement before we start, we will be waiting forever.
I will treat my hon. Friend’s warning on the use of war powers with the importance it deserves. As he will know, my right hon. Friend the Defence Secretary published a written statement yesterday setting out the Government’s position. We must maintain the operational flexibility we need while ensuring that the House of Commons has proper involvement in any proposed combat deployment.
I am sorry; what else did my hon. Friend ask me?
About targeting Daesh.
Before the formation of the Government of national accord, there was discussion among the international community about how we would deal with Daesh if there was no solution on the ground in Libya. We concluded that it would be pretty much impossible for us to do so. I am very pleased that we now have a Government formed in Libya that we can support to do that job.
The UK’s past intervention in Libya has been an unmitigated disaster. The mess we have left behind has caused enormous reputational damage to the United Kingdom and that cannot happen again. Given that we are offering training and technical support to armed forces away from the front line, will the Secretary of State tell me what armed forces we will be training and supporting, given that Libya has myriad competing militias and groups?
Another assertion. I can tell the hon. Gentleman that it was not the view of the people I met yesterday that the intervention in 2011 was an unmitigated disaster. It has rid the country of Gaddafi and averted a genocide. He talks in the present tense about training support, and I say yet again that we are delivering no training support in Libya at present. If any request from the Libyan Government for training support were made, it would be for militia groups that had signed up to the Government of national accord’s security plan and were being incorporated into the Libyan security forces that will be formed from them.
Like the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Ms Stuart), I was struck by the Foreign Secretary’s correct comments that we need to continue to move against Daesh in Libya. What discussions have been held with Gulf state nations about helping that effort?
We do, of course, have continuing discussions with all Gulf states. It is a well-known fact that both Qatar and the UAE have in the past been active in Libya, but it is also fair to say that all Gulf states have been somewhat distracted by the war in Yemen and have not, perhaps, played as active a role recently as they did earlier in the conflict.
Given the turmoil in Libya in the five years and one month since the House of Commons authorised action, does the Secretary of State regret having the UK acquiesce to transferring a mission that was designed under the responsibility to protect to avoid a genocide to one focused on regime change?
This was a complicated situation on the ground and, having embarked on the mission to protect the population of Benghazi against genocide and having had to follow where that took us to protect the population from the retribution that the regime was seeking to vent on it, we did what we had to do. I think we should be proud of having rid Libya of the tyrant Gaddafi, who had effectively dismantled the structure of government in Libya. That is why Libya has had its problems of the past few years—there was no government structure in Libya.
Deploying British troops to Libya, even in a strictly non-combat role, would add significantly to the demands already placed on them. Can the Secretary of State provide any clarity about how many troops would be necessary and when we can expect to learn from the GNA whether British assistance is required?
I am afraid that I cannot, really. I can give a personal view: I would expect that we would be talking about a training mission of the sort of scale of those that we are carrying out in other countries around the world. I therefore would expect there to be between tens and hundreds of trainers, not thousands of trainers.
The Foreign Secretary says that we must tackle Daesh, but Prime Minister Sarraj only operates with the permission of the militia. Does not the Foreign Secretary think that in certain circumstances some of the militia are aligned with malevolent forces, particularly in other parts of the country, and is he not concerned that the militia are at the heart of the Government and of the future process of government? Where will that leave Libya in the future?
I think that there is a misunderstanding about what the militia are. After 2011, Libya fragmented. Every city, every town and every region had its armed forces—armed men who were protecting their communities. That does not make them bad people. They are not extreme Islamists in most cases; they are simply people who have formed home defence units, and they are the only force on the ground. It is not possible to talk about raising new Libyan armed forces that will then take on all the militias—that would be a completely unrealistic project. The only way forward is to co-opt militias into a nascent Libyan armed forces, backed by a political system that is highly devolved and that assures them of autonomy and fair shares of Libya’s wealth for the communities they seek to back.
Further to the point raised by the hon. Member for North Antrim (Ian Paisley) about Libyan-sponsored IRA murder, not only in Northern Ireland but in England, including in this city, while I understand the Foreign Secretary’s comments about timing, given that there is an emerging Government in Libya and that we will at some point be releasing between £7 billion and £8 billion of frozen assets from this country alone, will he and his ministerial team continue to do all they can to get compensation for people and their relatives who have suffered for far too long?
Yes, the assurance that I gave to the hon. Member for North Antrim (Ian Paisley) extends, of course, to the WPC Yvonne Fletcher case.
Last week, on the Floor of the House, with a note of urgent caution, the hon. Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart) reminded us of how missions change and about the impact on our armed services, who might have to make decisions on the hoof. I urge the Secretary of State to reflect on that debate and the participation in it.
We are consistently told in this Parliament that NATO is our primary model of defence, yet all we heard about in the statement was the European Union and Europe’s role. I am grateful for the European Union naval deployment and other initiatives by our European partners, who are doing a great job, but if the Libyan Government of national accord makes a request, what role will NATO play in that, given the myriad other organisations and nations involved, from Jordan to Hungary?
May I gently suggest that the hon. Gentleman submits his academic treatise to his PhD adviser?
I thought that the hon. Gentleman was all in favour of the EU doing more. We are very clear. NATO is our principal war-fighting alliance, but we are not talking about war fighting here. We are talking about stabilisation, training and rebuilding, and the European Union and bilateral arrangements delivered by other European countries are absolutely the right way to go about achieving that. It is not a role of NATO.
My right hon. Friend and the whole House will recognise that a peaceful, stable and prosperous Libya is in the interests of the region and of Europe. Can my right hon. Friend flesh out for the House the timetable envisioned for EU discussions to continue and conclude, working closely with the Libyan Government to ensure a positive and proactive response?
That is a good question, but the timetable will have to be determined by what is happening on the Libyan side. At the discussion last night, we were clear that we needed to work up a European Union package. There was mention of Turkey earlier, and the way in which the EU has dealt with Turkey on migration has not escaped the Libyans’ notice, so there will need to be a comprehensive proposal. As soon as it is appropriate to make the Libyan Government aware of what such a package might look like, the ball will then be in their court to decide whether they wish to request support.
When does the Foreign Secretary expect to receive the invitation to provide the support that he mentions? Will he elaborate on the specific mutual objectives and especially the timescales involved? Clearly our troops cannot be involved in open-ended support.
There is a spectrum here. In respect of the hard training of troops at infantry level, I think that we are quite a long way from any request to do that, if such a request comes at all. With regard to structuring military command structures in a civilian-led Ministry of Defence, I think it is quite likely that we will be asked quite soon if we can give some advice about that, but we will probably give such advice from Whitehall.
As part of my role in the NATO Parliamentary Assembly, I was in Algeria last week. The Algerian parliamentarians I met have much experience of bringing a country together after the dark decade, and they made it clear that they would like to help the Libyan Government through diplomacy in bringing together, as my right hon. Friend said, perhaps 120 different factions. I think the Algerians have a lot to offer and I know that my right hon. Friend has met the President. Will he ensure that offers of help through non-military intervention are taken as far as possible with the new Libyan Government?
I would be very pleased to hear that the Algerians wanted to provide assistance, based on their own experience of rebuilding a country after a bitter civil war, and I am sure the Libyans would be pleased to receive such an offer.
I trust that the Algerian parliamentarians felt suitably privileged to meet the hon. Member for Elmet and Rothwell (Alec Shelbrooke).
I welcome the £10 million for technical support that the Foreign Secretary referred to, in particular for security, justice and defence. Will he consider that those who have served in the Royal Ulster Constabulary and the Police Service of Northern Ireland, who have demonstrated substantial knowledge, experience and ability in Afghanistan, Iraq, Serbia and Bosnia, should be part of the security training that will be offered?
The hon. Gentleman raises a good point. There has been an assumption across the House that any training that we give would have to be provided by UK military personnel. Some of what will be needed will be police training, and perhaps the PSNI in particular could make a contribution to that. It is also quite possible that some of the training—perhaps all training—will be delivered by contractors, and often ex-military personnel working for contractors, rather than by serving military personnel.
The main concern of my constituents in Kettering about Libya is that the country is the main and growing conduit for illegal immigration from safe and unsafe countries in Africa. If the Government of national accord in Libya are unwilling or unable to make this a national priority, and if my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary is unable or unwilling to press the case for how important that is for us, what is the EU plan to prevent this year from being one of a disastrous set of circumstances in which we are about to experience a mass wave of illegal immigration very dangerously across the Mediterranean towards Italy?
To reassure my hon. Friend, the Libyan Government do understand the importance of that issue. They understand the importance for Libya because having organised criminal traffic across its borders undermines Libya’s sovereignty. They also understand the importance of addressing the issue for Libya’s relations with the international community. The point that I was making is that we must put this agenda in the context of the many other immediate challenges facing the Libyan people.
In answer to my hon. Friend’s second question about what the EU is doing in the meantime, EUNAVFOR MED Operation Sophia—the European naval operation in the Mediterranean—is designed to intercept people seeking to migrate on an irregular basis into the European Union from Libya.
The Global Initiative Against Transnational Organised Crime estimated that the illegal migrant trade is worth $255 million to $323 million a year, so the £10 million is a hugely welcome contribution towards stopping that awful trade. Will the right hon. Gentleman confirm that it will also help to plug that gap in Libya’s economy so that its purpose will be positive?
As I have said before, Libya is potentially a rich country. It has significant oil and gas wealth and significant assets, so if the Government can get their assets unfrozen, they will not lack cash. The £10 million is a UK technical assistance fund. It will fund experts, the commissioning of studies and advice to the Libyan Government in the areas that I outlined.
My right hon. Friend will know that the entire region of the Fezzan to the south of Wadi al Shatti is something of a black hole. We do not have a good idea of what is going on there, but we do know that instability and the ready availability of arms have created a threat to the whole of sub-Saharan and west Africa, not only from Daesh, but from Boko Haram, who have armed themselves from the Gaddafi arsenals. Can my right hon. Friend update the House about what the Government are doing to tackle that threat to sub-Saharan and west Africa from Libya?
The Libyan Government are acutely aware of the threat to their sovereignty from the porosity of Libya’s borders to the south and south-west. I am speculating, but that could be one of the areas where the international community is asked for technical support in the future. This is a very, very long border in an unpopulated area that is ideally suited to policing by technical means, rather than by border guards on the ground. My hon. and learned Friend will be reassured to know that Prime Minister Sarraj stated to me very clearly yesterday that although his Government are in Tripoli and the world is focused on Tripoli, he is acutely conscious of the fact that this must be a Government for the east and south of the country, as well as a Government for the west.
May I press the Foreign Secretary further on the question of where Libyan personnel might be trained in future? He will recall the unhappy saga in 2014 when some 2,000 Libyan personnel were trained at the Bassingbourn barracks in Cambridgeshire. That ended very badly, with a series of violent sexual assaults in my city of Cambridge when they were left out unsupervised. Can the right hon. Gentleman reassure residents in Cambridge that there will be no further training of Libyan personnel in Cambridgeshire? Will he also update the House on attempts to get back the £15 million that is left owing from the Libyan authorities after that sad experience?
I was Defence Secretary at the time, so I well remember the plans for training at Bassingbourn. As the hon. Gentleman says, it did not end well, and the Libyans are acutely conscious of that. This would be a very different operation in very different circumstances. There are no plans yet, and there has been no request, so I am afraid that I cannot give the House any further information about what such a training programme might look like or where it would be conducted, but I can give him an assurance that the lessons of what happened at Bassingbourn have been taken on board by the Ministry of Defence and will be properly factored into any future plan.
If spending 13 times as much on bombing Libya as on reconstructing it is not one of the Prime Minister’s worst foreign policy decisions, I wonder whether the Foreign Secretary could tell us what is. Of the £10 million announced today for the conflict security fund, how much will be counted as official development assistance, how much will be counted towards the NATO 2% target, and how much will be counted towards both?
I do not think that Libya qualifies for ODA because of its GDP per capita, but if I am wrong about that I will write to the hon. Gentleman and place a copy of the letter in the Library.
The Foreign Secretary has spoken about the situation in Benghazi in the past, but the situation there remains extremely volatile and serious. Reuters was reporting over the weekend of extensive fighting and suicide attacks carried out by Daesh affiliates. I wonder what discussions he has had about the situation in and around Benghazi and whether he expects any requests for support to deal with operations in that region of Libya.
We did discuss that issue, and we did so in the context of General Haftar and the Libyan national army, which is active in that area. This is one of the challenges that Prime Minister Sarraj faces: one of the most effective military units available is under the command of General Haftar, who is a bête noire for many of the people who support the Government. But at the moment the Government do not have an alternative, and the effectiveness of the petroleum guard force and of the LNA in stemming Daesh attacks is an important part of the Government’s arsenal of defences. In the medium term, however, they will have to get all those units under some form of effective central control.
I am grateful to the Foreign Secretary for advance sight of his statement. We in Plaid Cymru agreed with the 2011 intervention to prevent an imminent large-scale murderous attack on civilians in Benghazi. Later on, in Benghazi itself, the Prime Minister said that we would
“stand with you as you build your democracy and build your country for the future.”
Will the Foreign Secretary guarantee that this time we will fulfil our promises?
That is exactly what we are doing. It has taken a regrettably long time to get from the end of the campaign in 2011 and the overthrow of Colonel Gaddafi to the point where the Libyan people are now seriously starting to seek to rebuild their democracy and their economy, but they are now looking to do so and we will be there to support them.
The idea of Daesh being present in Libya is worrying enough in its own right, but the prospect of them moving their operational headquarters from Iraq and Syria to Libya should be deeply worrying for us all, especially the Secretary of State. What discussions has he had with his Libyan counterparts and with those countries neighbouring Libya on stemming the flow of Islamic militants into the country?
I have had discussions with the Libyans and with the Egyptians and Tunisians, who are very concerned about this. The problem is that the principal route of access into Libya for Daesh militants appears to be by sea, and the Libyans are struggling to control that route with their current resources.
We know from experience elsewhere that in fledgling democracies and troubled states that are rife with armed groups, corruption and conflict often become drivers for each other. We also know that refuge routes are being sought through Libya. In that context, is the Foreign Secretary right to minimise the relevance of a humanitarian and civil contribution, at least in the medium term?
I simply say to the hon. Gentleman that Libya is not a poor country. There are tens of billions of dollars of Libyan assets owned by the Libyan people and available to the Libyan Government once the UN decides to unfreeze them, so I do not believe that Libya needs humanitarian support in the conventional sense. What it absolutely needs is technical support to build the governance structures that will allow the UN to release its own money to it.
Can the Foreign Secretary say something about the use of embedded troops in any future military operation? I appreciate that there is no immediate prospect of that—he has been very clear about that—but would the House be consulted on any British military personnel being embedded within the armed forces of other nations?
The statement that my right hon. Friend the Defence Secretary made yesterday clarified that point. Where troops or personnel are embedded in the military forces of other nations, they are treated as being part of those forces for operational purposes; they are not covered by the commitment we have made to come back to the House. It would be absurd if a British pilot embedded in the US navy, for example, maintaining our carrier base skills ahead of the commissioning of our own carriers in 2018, had to be the subject of a debate in the House of Commons because of some decision taken by the US Government.
In answer to a question last week, the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, the hon. Member for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood), said that the Government would facilitate a visit of UK victims of terrorism that involved Semtex to Libya in the near future. Now that the Foreign Secretary has gone there, is there any timescale for when we can expect such a visit?
I do not think that the conditions would be right for such a visit right now, and I cannot see exactly what the point would be at this stage. Once the Government of national accord are established in their Ministries, with access to their records and their competent civil servants, and once our ambassador is back in Tripoli, I will certainly be prepared to see what we can do to facilitate such a visit.