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Volume 724: debated on Monday 17 January 2011


My Lords, with permission, I shall now repeat as a Statement the Urgent Question that was answered by the Minister for Europe in the other place this afternoon:

“Mr Speaker, I welcome this opportunity to update the House on recent events in Tunisia and what is being done to assist British nationals. The House will be aware that, following a month of protests over government corruption and the lack of political and economic reform, a state of emergency was declared and President Ben Ali left Tunisia for Saudi Arabia. I hope the House will join me in expressing our sympathy to those whose friends and relatives have been killed or injured in these disturbances.

The Speaker of the House of Deputies, Fouad Mebazaa, has been appointed interim President in line with the constitution. President Mebazaa has asked Prime Minister Mohammed Ghannouchi to form a Government of national unity. Talks continue with opposition parties and civil society to agree a way forward. An announcement on the new Government is expected today.

An estimated 5,000 British nationals were in Tunisia when the situation deteriorated, the majority being tourists on package holidays. We changed our travel advice to “all but essential travel” on 14 January, and since then more than 3,000 British nationals have left Tunisia. Many of these were able to leave on additional flights laid on by their tour operators, thanks to the swift response of these companies. We believe there are approximately 1,000 British nationals remaining in Tunisia. This number is largely made up of long-term residents, as well as dual nationals and some independent travellers. Many of those still in Tunisia do not wish to leave.

Despite exceptionally challenging conditions, the embassy is working to help resolve the crisis and provide support to British nationals in Tunisia. We have sent a six-person rapid deployment team and two members of staff from the region to reinforce embassy staff and provide constant consular assistance. We have a 24-hour hotline which people can ring for help and advice. British nationals in Tunisia can call 00 216 71 108 713. Those in the UK should ring the Foreign and Commonwealth Office on 020 7008 1500. We have staff at Tunis Airport to liaise with airlines and help British travellers with medical, passport and other consular issues.

Our embassy staff remain in regular contact with our network of wardens across Tunisia to better understand the evolving picture around the country and keep those British nationals that we are aware of informed of updates as the situation evolves. We are keeping those British nationals registered on LOCATE updated on developments through regular e-mails. We have been working very closely with tour operators and ABTA, which have been doing a great job. We encourage concerned British nationals to follow developments closely, and monitor our travel advice and the news for updates. Any British nationals currently in Tunisia can register with the embassy’s online registration system, LOCATE. We are receiving very few consular calls; those who are calling are mostly asking for updates on the security situation.

We continue to advise against all non-essential travel to Tunisia. We advise anyone in the country who does not have a pressing need to be there to leave by commercial means. The airports are operating, and airlines are flying into and out of Tunisia. Those still in the country should respect advice or instructions given by the local security authorities and tour operators, and avoid rallies and demonstrations. There is no indication that British nationals are being targeted by looters or rioters. However, given the unpredictability of the situation, there is always the chance of being caught up in incidental violence. If British nationals are in any doubt about the safety of their location they should stay in their accommodation.

Politically, we are working with partners, including in the European Union, to promote political reform. As soon as possible we will be seeking to engage the Tunisian authorities to help this. This week we have spoken with the Tunisian ambassador to London, and our ambassador met the Foreign Minister on Thursday. Mr Alistair Burt was interviewed on Saturday morning by the “Today” programme and my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary has issued two statements on the issue. We encourage all involved to do all they can to restore law and order. We call for full inclusion of all legal parties in the formation of an interim Government.

The change in the past few days in Tunisia has been profound but it is not yet the political reform that many hope for. The authorities must not ignore the voice of the Tunisian people. We will be working with partners to try to ensure an orderly move towards free and fair elections, and an immediate expansion of political freedoms in Tunisia.

There were extended EU discussions on Friday. We have been calling for a speedy and substantial offer of EU support to underpin the move to free and fair elections, which will be critical in re-establishing calm and security in the country. The EU high representative, the noble Baroness, Lady Ashton, has today issued a statement which states that the EU stands ready to provide immediate assistance to prepare and organise the electoral process and lasting support to a genuine democratic transition. We will continue to provide the help and advice that British nationals need, and we will continue to engage with and support Tunisia as it works for peace and security”.

That completes the Statement.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for repeating the Statement made today in the other place. I ask at the outset how it was that the FCO rapid deployment team was sent only yesterday. It seems that a certain amount of time elapsed during which people probably needed its support. After decades of authoritarian rule in Tunisia I had hoped for a stronger Statement from the Government on what has occurred there. We have seen demonstrations that have focused on high food prices and very high unemployment levels. These have escalated into nationwide protests against terrible corruption and government repression in Tunisia, which have been dealt with with inordinate violence and unjustifiable lethal force against civilians.

Has the Foreign Secretary spoken with the interim Prime Minister and is he in regular contact with the European Union high representative as the EU prepares to support efforts in Tunisia to bring democracy and good governance to that country? Has the Foreign Secretary also been following the Euro-Med discussions about the situation in Tunisia, if, indeed, these discussions are taking place? Does the Minister agree that the UK, as a member state of the European Union, must seize this moment to stand by the courageous human rights defenders in Tunisia and ask for accountable politicians in Tunisia and across the region to take a stand against what has been occurring in that country? There must be no tolerance by the EU of any efforts to undermine a nascent democracy in Tunisia. I speak about the possibility of that happening among states within the region.

There has to be accountability for those who are corrupt and who committed crimes under Ben Ali. There have been warning signals which point to the dangers of failing to act decisively when we see freedoms being abused in this way. There has to be an impartial and credible investigation into the killings and abuses to ensure that the perpetrators are held to account in courts of law. The departure of President Ben Ali does not exonerate agents of the security forces who committed such heinous crimes against demonstrators. I had hoped that some of these points would be made more strongly in the Statement. It is important that we stand firmly for respect for freedom of expression and information that belong to us all. The people of Tunisia longed for opportunity, political participation and stability. Incidentally, this view has been endorsed by the African Union Peace and Security Council. Now is the time at last to establish a basis for democracy in Tunisia.

I am grateful to the noble Baroness for that response. First, I shall deal with the rapid deployment team, which has, by all accounts, done an excellent job. The initiative of setting up the rapid deployment team was taken by the noble Baroness’s own Government, perhaps by her and her immediate predecessor, and has worked extremely well. It is a very valuable initiative and I congratulate the previous Government on putting in place a team organisation of this kind which has helped in such dramatic situations as the tsunami a couple of years back, the Haiti horror and the effects of the volcanic ash.

The noble Baroness asked why the rapid deployment team did not move faster. In fact, it moved extremely fast but there was one snag which was outside its and indeed our power and control, which was that of air transport, getting it organised and getting the team into the country fast. However, it is now there and is doing an extremely valuable job. It is a credit to this country as a whole, quite aside from who happens to be in government, that we are able to mount this sort of operation.

The noble Baroness said that she had hoped for a stronger Statement. I understand that; we all feel very strongly indeed about our core principles as a nation and we should proclaim them at all times. However, the difficulty, particularly in these very early days, is understanding which way the trend of events is going so that we can be most assured that the number one step is achieved: namely, the restoration of order and calmness and the end of violence, killing and bloodshed so that a sensible pattern of government can evolve. Although parliamentary convention required my honourable friend to say that there was a prospect of a new Government, in between him making the Statement and me repeating it, such a Government have been set up, with opposition Members. If one dare say so, that is somewhat encouraging. As the noble Baroness rightly implied, this is the point when we urge that this new Government, who embrace opposition Members, put to the forefront the concern for human rights, realise that they have a duty to accountability and that there is much to be learnt from past events which have led to this very ugly and dangerous situation which may—who knows?—we hope calm down, but which may have all kinds of domino repercussions in a wider area, some of which could be very injurious to general global and regional stability and to the interests of this nation.

That is my broad answer to the noble Baroness’s questions. She asked about regular contact with European Union high officials. My right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary is in close contact through his office at all times. We are particularly in touch at official level with the French Foreign Minister and with the office of the noble Baroness, Lady Ashton. They are key actors in the situation and strengthen our overall European Union approach as well as anything we can contribute bilaterally. I hope that those are regarded as satisfactory answers to the noble Baroness’s points, but I am very happy to elaborate on them in more detail in what is still a very fast moving situation.

My Lords, I was about to question my noble friend on exactly that last point and ask whether he would welcome the announcement this afternoon of the formation of the interim Government. Under the Speaker, a new Prime Minister and members of the so-called opposition parties, plus civil society, there is at least a chance that order is being restored rather more quickly than we had expected. I am not surprised that he said in the Statement that a lot of members of the British community said they did not wish to return, because Hammamet, the main tourist area, has been largely peaceful. I was there recently, and should declare an interest as a member of the board of a company with interests there. Understandably, people want to complete their holidays. This may be tempting him too far, but does my noble friend agree that out of this tragedy there is a lesson to be learnt throughout the rest of the continent of Africa, and indeed the Middle East, that Governments who engage in corruption and lining their own pockets have a limited life shelf, and that others should be aware of what has happened in Tunisia and perhaps learn the lesson from it?

My noble friend offers some very wise and comprehensive comments on the overall situation. This is a lesson. We live in a much more transparent and e-enabled age, with television programmes in their multiple dozens, such as Al-Jazeera and others, fantastic media influence, fantastic rapid communication through the internet, e-mails or the varieties of web operation that we are beginning to know so well, and of course the mobile telephone. All these influence the transmission of both truth and rumour into situations such as the one in Tunis, which can become very volatile very quickly. The lessons should not be lost on others who seek to rule by failing to be transparent and failing to transmit all the knowledge and accountability that they should to their citizens. My noble friend has absolutely hit the nail on the head on that matter. He was kind enough to recognise the problem that the new Government have been formed since my honourable friend spoke in the other place. Now that they have been formed, we are very anxious to see that they go forward in a really constructive and balanced way, and we will do everything, through our embassy, our contacts and our colleagues in the European Union, to encourage that process.

My Lords, what if there is a repetition of a party such as Islamic Salvation Front winning the national elections, as happened in Algeria 1992? Will the Government promote an EU line to allow any obvious winner to let be? Is there any suggestion that Tunisia’s neighbours, such as Libya, Algeria and Egypt, will intervene to keep a form of status quo?

The noble Lord will understand that those are highly hypothetical questions. The Algerian situation of 19 years ago is one from which we should draw lessons, and so should the countries of the area. The neighbouring countries are, as we are, watching closely to see how this pattern will develop. However, these are very early days. One wants this newly formed Government to command confidence, get violence off the streets and ensure that non-democratic forces, and those that are inclined to violence, stay in and are kept under control. Then we will see what the broader implications are. I personally hope that the broader implications to the wider world are simply of the kind mentioned by my noble friend a moment ago, whereby democracy, transparency and responsibility to citizens are always wise if you want to stay in power.

My Lords, in welcoming the Minister’s Statement, and particularly his warm words, which are well deserved for the consular section of the Foreign Office, I must ask whether recent events in Tunisia do not underscore the importance of Her Majesty’s Government having an Africa strategy in which we are better able to co-ordinate the efforts of the FCO, DfID, the MoD and the whole machinery of government behind progressive change in Africa. That is because two things emerge very clearly from the Tunisian experience and are mirrored elsewhere on the continent. One is that food security and food prices are becoming increasingly an issue and a threat to stability and security. Secondly, unemployed young people with qualifications, unless given the prospect of jobs through growth, are likely to be led into actions that also threaten security and stability. Democracy has at last found a place in Africa as part and parcel of the ordinary people’s own agenda, to which they need to see a response. Does that not mean that this is a matter not just for the European Union and France, but for us to ensure that we have in place a whole-Africa strategy that strengthens and sharpens our response to this sort of situation?

The noble Lord knows more than most about Africa strategies and speaks wise words. Perhaps he would also recognise that Africa is a concept, as it were, and a geographical continent, but that it contains a vast range of different societies, cultures and trends in political and social evolution, all of which must be calibrated to ensure that one gets right one’s relations with different countries and shows the necessary respect to different countries, rather than lumping them all together into one general formula by which they should be treated. I think the noble Lord accepts that point, and I hope he will feel that I am adding to, rather than subtracting from, his wisdom on this matter.

Food prices and unemployment are the uneasy shadows of the age. There are tremendous volatilities in the availability of food. Some experts tell us that it is not the basic lack of supply of foodstuffs but problems of distribution, processing, handling and getting the right kind of food into the right kind of supply chains that create so many of the problems. Unemployment is similar. What does a world, and particularly a region, do, given that we are talking about the Maghreb and the Middle East, where almost the majority of people are young and are waiting for an opportunity to fulfil themselves and find useful employment? What do they do if no employment is available and the opportunity to contribute to their community is not there? What do they do if they have no country that they feel they should love and no confidence about getting a fair share of a country's prosperity? That is one of the angry themes that has come through in Tunis: the feeling that some people were doing extremely well—the fat cats—while the majority struggled and did not benefit from the relative prosperity. I say “relative” because the country is not as poor as some. It receives a great deal of aid from France. Did that help the men and women, the families and children, in their homes? Clearly not, and now we are seeing the results.

My Lords, will the Minister tell us a little more about the assessment of the reaction among the countries in the region to the situation in Tunisia? My noble friend will be aware of reports that Colonel Gaddafi's people have been providing arms for the guerrillas on the streets of Tunisia who supported the outgoing President, and also that the security council of the Egyptian Government met hurriedly a day or so ago in response to the situation. There are great concerns about stability and turbulence in neighbouring countries that have similarly suspect forms of government. Perhaps my noble friend would take us a little further on the Government's assessment of that.

It is hard to add to the expertise of my noble friend. All the neighbouring countries are assessing the situation, as we are tonight in London. The implications are being examined very carefully. Broad themes lead to suggestions of domino theories. Articles by expert commentators have appeared in the newspapers saying that this could be the beginning of a very big transformation in the region. One hopes that it will be orderly and stable rather than violent and disruptive. That would be an important aspect of our foreign policy and national interest, and we would need to follow it closely. On the other hand, it may be possible to contain what is happening entirely in a Tunisian context, so that broader lessons could be learnt more slowly and in an orderly way.

My noble friend is right that the Egyptians are looking closely at the matter. Algeria has its problems, along with the Maghreb and Morocco, which is prosperous and well ordered but still concerned. The dark al-Qaeda jihadist extremist element is not apparently present in the Tunis situation. It is reckoned that al-Qaeda is operating in the Maghreb to the south of the area in Tunis that we are looking at. One can never be sure, but that is the broad assessment at the moment.

I congratulate my noble friend on the balance he struck in his comments on the Statement. I will make one point. We all hope that the new Government who are being formed, or their successor, will restore order quickly. However, that may not be so; this may drag on for some time. I remember in other cases how quickly the news disappeared from our newspapers, but how the strains on our own people handling the daily problems that my noble friend mentioned remained. Exhaustion sets in quickly. Is the Foreign Office looking further than the next few days to the weeks and even months ahead, which may include periods of considerable distress and disorder—although we hope that they will not—to make sure that we continue to be able to manage the problems of our own citizens in the way that we have up to now?

I am grateful to my noble friend for his advice, which is invaluable in this kind of situation. I can answer firmly that that is what we want to do. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office needs to think about the implications of this further piece in the jigsaw of the new international order, which is fluid and changing very fast. Further to the east of where we are looking at—the Maghreb—is the Middle East imbroglio. To the east of that there is the Gulf, and to the east of that is a conglomeration of GCC states that are now reorienting themselves in the direction of the rising Asian powers. This is an entirely new world. We have to watch very closely and prepare for big changes in our existing assumptions.

My Lords, I am sure that we are glad of the Statement that we heard from the Minister tonight. However, I will stress one matter. Why did this come as a terrible surprise to the people in this area? Were the Government not aware that the matter was underneath the surface? We welcome the European part of the question. That must be worked on, because we need strong resistance to what has taken place, and strong assistance to those who will help to put it right.

I am grateful to the noble Lord for that. Why does it appear suddenly to have caught certain people by surprise? The point when these things break through, into regrettable violence and protest in this case, is always a bit of a judgment. That there were forces at work that could lead to the situation is not such a surprise. I do not want to drag the rather overrated WikiLeaks into the situation, but leaks were flying around, which certain senior diplomats were observing some years ago, that the fundamental pattern of government in Tunis looked a bit unhealthy, and that the disease and infection of corruption and vast disparities between rich and poor were around and could lead to trouble. Senior diplomats saw that something was wrong some time ago, but it is always difficult to assess exactly when these things will explode.

My Lords, I declare an interest as a former chairman of the All-Party Group on Tunisia. I was pleased to hear what my noble friend told the House tonight about the involvement of the EU and the opportunity to oversee democratic elections. Will he assure us that, as things settle down, the British Government will use their influence both unilaterally and within the EU to ensure that as soon as possible, when it is suitable to do so, there will be a concerted effort to take trade delegations to Tunisia? With a more highly educated population, Tunisia cannot exist on tourism and dates. There are opportunities in Tunisia for much more trade, but the initiative must come from this side. I hope my noble friend will take that on board and understand that one of the many frustrations among that population relate to appropriate levels of work and the appropriate amount of trade that the country needs, with which we could help a great deal.

This is a positive set of observations. Having visited Tunisia on more than one occasion, I wondered how the basis of its economy could be sustained by its very successful tourism and by what I am told are its 20 million date trees. How one can count them? I do not know. How can it be done? The answer is that it has been done, but clearly diversification and development are badly needed. I suspect that deep down inside the causes of this present disturbance is the fact that they have not been developed fast enough. We and the EU, bilaterally, certainly have a role to play, as do our French friends and neighbours.

Our key national interest appears to be the security of our own nationals, and to that extent the Foreign Office appears to have responded speedily and in an exemplary manner. I congratulate the Minister on what he said. Successive human development reports of the UNDP illustrate the lack of poor governance in the various Arab countries, and I wonder to what extent we were already alerted to the problem and the way in which it was building up, although the spirit in Tunisia appears to be far freer than in some of its neighbours in the Maghreb. Can the Minister say to what extent he believes lessons will be learnt and the extent to which we will urge neighbouring Governments—perhaps not us, but, better, the European Union as a whole—to listen to the people and their legitimate grievances about food security and employment, even if we do not particularly like the Governments who emerge and who might have a rather different view from us on world issues.

I hope, as we must all hope, that the lessons will be learnt. They are fascinating lessons, and some very profound observations have been made. The emergence of the food shortage issue and its impact on political stability in certain societies is in itself a vast issue that relates to other aspects of crops for biological use, biofuel, and so on. That has all kinds of impacts on world food prices, which at the moment are rising very fast.

I am very grateful to the noble Lord, with his considerable experience of foreign affairs in the other place and here, for his kind words of congratulation. The Foreign Office to which I, as noble Lords will know, am relatively new, has demonstrated that in a situation of this kind, precise timing is always difficult to anticipate. However, the Foreign Office has acted with extreme speed, along with great help from ABTA and the commercial operators, who have done remarkably well in evacuating 3,000 tourists from the country at such enormous speed.

Does my noble friend agree that although the formation of a more inclusive Government is to be welcomed, it is very limited in its inclusion? The Islamist parties, for better or for worse, have been left out of it, as have the liberals. Does he agree that in order to have a pluralistic framework, which is what the people want now, all parties should be invited to come on board? Can he assure the House that the EU will monitor those elections?

It is early days to give a definite current on the last point, but that seems utterly sensible. As to the precise balance and formation of a new Government, the delicate, fragile gain for the moment is that a new Government are being formed and announced. Exactly what balance they should have and which parties should be included is a very difficult matter for those outside Tunisia to intervene on at the moment. All that we can do is offer our support and give them our good wishes and blessing as fast as we can, so that government rather than chaos emerges out of the present street violence and disorder.

Sitting suspended.