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Middle East and North Africa

Volume 725: debated on Monday 14 February 2011


My Lords, with permission, I will repeat a Statement made by my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary in another place. The Statement is as follows:

“With permission, I will make a Statement on recent developments in the Middle East and north Africa. Over the last few weeks we have witnessed events of a truly historic nature in the region, including changes of government in Tunisia and Egypt and widespread calls for greater economic development and political participation. I visited Tunisia, Jordan, Yemen, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates last week to discuss the situation with our partners in the region.

I held talks in Tunis with interim Prime Minister Ghannouchi, who is overseeing ambitious plans to open up Tunisia’s political system, reform its constitution, revive its economy and prepare for free elections. I strongly welcomed these intentions and the steps that have been taken to sign up to international conventions on human rights. I met some inspiring young students whose motivations were a desire for the freedom, employment and human dignity that we enjoy in Europe. I believe that there is now a clear opportunity for a closer relationship between the UK and Tunisia. I discussed how the UK might support projects in Tunisia through our new Arab partnership fund, with new funding announced to this House on 1 February, which will support economic and political development across the region.

In Egypt, as in Tunisia, there is now a precious moment of opportunity for the people of Egypt to achieve a stable and democratic future. Yesterday, I spoke to the Egyptian Foreign Minister, Ahmed Aboul Gheit, and to the Prime Minister, Ahmed Shafik. I welcomed the statements of the higher military council promising a peaceful transition to civilian and democratic government, new elections and a reform of the Egyptian constitution.

Tahrir Square is calm today after yesterday’s announcements of the dissolution of Parliament and the suspension of the constitution. I encouraged the Egyptian Government to make further moves to accommodate the views of opposition figures and was pleased to hear from Prime Minister Shafik that members of the Opposition should be included in a reshuffled Cabinet during the week. We would also like to see a clear timetable for free and fair parliamentary and presidential elections and a genuinely inclusive dialogue about the country’s future. We welcome the military council’s commitment to all regional and international obligations and treaties.

Egypt is a sovereign country and we must not seek to dictate who runs its affairs. But we have been clear throughout this crisis that it is in our national interest as well as that of Egypt for it to seek to make a successful transition to a broad-based Government and an open and democratic society, and to an Egypt which carries its full and due weight as a leading nation in the Middle East and in the world. I believe we have been right to speak particularly strongly against repression or violence against protesters, journalists and human rights activists. We call now for the release of those detained during the demonstrations and steps to end the state of emergency, which curtails basic rights. The UK will always uphold the right to peaceful protest and freedom of speech.

Looking to the future, it is vital and urgent to work with the European Union and other nations to support economic development and more open and flexible political systems in the region. We have begun discussions with the United States about co-ordinating our assistance. The Prime Minister discussed this with President Obama at the weekend, as I did with Secretary Clinton. We can help with the building blocks of open societies, knowing as we do that a stable democracy requires much more than just holding elections. We are also working closely with the noble Baroness, Lady Ashton, and her officials. A task force has been set up in Brussels to put together a plan for immediate assistance and long-term support for Tunisia, and a plan of long-term economic and institutional assistance for Egypt.

The UK Government are in close communication with the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank to ensure that the international financial institutions are doing all they can to provide appropriate and timely support to Egypt. We have also received a request from the Egyptian Government to freeze the assets of several former Egyptian officials. We will of course co-operate with this request, working with EU and international partners, as we have done in the case of Tunisia. If there is any evidence of illegality or misuse of state assets, we will take firm and prompt action. My right honourable friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer will discuss economic support and possible freezing measures relating to assets with European Union Finance Ministers tonight and tomorrow in Brussels, and has requested a discussion at ECOFIN tomorrow.

I hope the House will also join me in paying tribute to the staff of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in London and those who, over the last three weeks, have calmly and professionally run our embassy within yards of Tahrir Square while assisting the departure of thousands of British nationals from Egypt, and to the Ministry of Defence and the UK Border Agency. We will keep our travel advice under constant review.

The changes taking place in the region provide opportunities that should be seized, not feared. Egypt is a nation of more than 80 million people who should soon have the opportunity to choose their president and their representatives democratically. In Tunisia, more than 10 million people may now finally have the opportunity to unleash the economic potential that their geographic location and talented population put within their grasp, and to enjoy democratic freedoms.

However, this moment is not without risk. Nowhere is that more apparent than in Yemen, where I spent a day in meetings with President Saleh and members of the Opposition. I had three clear messages for the Government there. First, we want them to make progress on national dialogue with the opposition parties, including agreement on changes to the constitution and action to address the grievances of people in Yemen. Secondly, we have asked for and are now examining a prioritised and budgeted development plan for poverty reduction from the Yemeni Government so that we can establish a multi-donor trust fund for Yemen and be confident that funds are properly used. These issues will be the main focus of the next Friends of Yemen meeting in the coming months. We also look for intensified Yemeni efforts against the al-Qaeda threat on its territory. I know the House will salute the courage of our embassy staff in Yemen, who face the highest threat of any of our posts overseas and have twice been attacked by terrorists in the last year.

There is also a serious risk that Governments will draw the wrong conclusion from instability in the Middle East and pull back from efforts to restart the peace process between Israelis and Palestinians. We should draw the opposite conclusion, which is that we need to see an urgent return to talks so that people’s legitimate aspirations for two states can be fulfilled through negotiations. Together with the recent steps that the Jordanian Government have taken to promote domestic reform, this was the main subject of my discussions with King Abdullah of Jordan. In a region of uncertainty, the certainty provided by an agreement between Israelis and Palestinians could be of immense significance.

Our Government are a friend to both Israelis and Palestinians. We are calling for both sides to show the visionary boldness to return to talks and make genuine compromises. Talks need to take place on the basis of clear parameters. In our view, the entire international community, including the United States, should now support 1967 borders as being the basis for resumed negotiations. The result should be two states, with Jerusalem as the future capital of both, and a fair settlement for refugees.

Finally, we must not allow our attention to be diverted from the grave danger of Iran’s nuclear programme. Iran claimed that it supported protesters in Egypt, but denied its own people the right of free expression today and placed opposition leaders under house arrest. Meanwhile, the threat from its nuclear programme has not diminished. Given Iran’s refusal to engage in genuine negotiations over its nuclear programme at the recent talks in Istanbul, we are now in talks with international partners about steps to increase legitimate peaceful pressure on Iran to comply with UN Security Council resolutions and the requirements of the IAEA.

All the issues that I have described underline how important the region is to our national interests. That is why our Government began from our first day in office a major, long-term effort to intensify Britain’s links with the countries of the Middle East, north Africa and the Gulf—in diplomacy, in trade, in defence and in education, health and civil society—as part of a distinctive British foreign policy towards the region.

I reaffirmed last week to leaders in Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates that we are committed to intensifying our engagement on foreign policy issues and will step up over the coming months our discussions with the Gulf states on Iran’s nuclear programme. We will also pursue firm engagement with countries where we do not see eye to eye but have a considerable interest in edging them towards a more constructive role, a process that I began when I visited Damascus two weeks ago for talks with President Assad.

At this time of opportunity and uncertainty, the UK will be an active and distinctive voice in the Middle East. We will send a constant message about how important it is to move in the direction of more open and flexible political systems and sound economic development, while respecting the different cultures, histories and traditions of each nation. Although we cannot set the pace of this change and must respect each country’s right to find its own way, we will be a reliable friend and partner to all those looking to do so and a staunch defender of the UK’s interests in the region”.

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for repeating this comprehensive Statement, which I am sure the whole House welcomes as an update on where we were even as short a time ago as last Friday, when the House had the opportunity to discuss the current situation in the Middle East and north Africa in a full debate.

The Statement rightly concentrated on the Foreign Secretary’s discussions in the region. Not only have Tunisia and Egypt seen changes in government; Jordan has, too. Although the head of state there remains the same, which I readily accept is the difference between that country and Tunisia and Egypt, it is important that the king of Jordan has decided to instigate a full-scale change in that country, too.

It is also important that Tunisia has even in the short time since the revolution—if that is the correct term for it; I believe that that is how Tunisians are describing it—decided to sign up to the international protocol on the abolition of capital punishment and all forms of torture. I believe that it has also signed up to the international protocol on embracing the procedures of the International Criminal Court. I hope that the Minister will be able to confirm those points, which were raised in debate on Friday.

Only a few days ago, when we made our various contributions to the debate last Friday, we were all wondering what the weekend would bring; it took only a few short hours to show us what would happen next. I have heard a number of commentators lament the fact that the military high council has in effect taken over in Egypt and say that this amounts to martial law. However, I hope the Minister will agree that the army has been a formidable force for stability in that country. Although people have understandable concerns about what will happen next and about the timetable for free and fair elections, nevertheless the army has brought relative peace to the streets of Cairo much more effectively than the police did earlier in the stand-off last week. Can the Minister tell the House any more about the timetable that we might hope to expect in the move towards bringing people from elsewhere in the political establishment into the Government—which would be a highly desirable development—and for free and fair elections? I agree with everything the Foreign Secretary said in his Statement about the freedom of journalists and the freedom of the press.

I make no excuse for returning to the issue of Jordan. Those of us who have been there recently—I am sure that many in the House have done so—recognise that Jordan is quite fragile at the moment and needs a great deal of international support, particularly in respect of the job market for young people. It has the terrible combination of rising house prices on the one hand, and the feelings of many young people about their lack of a future and being able to develop their jobs and careers on the other.

There is a quite distinctive view in Jordan among some in the business hierarchy that there has been insufficient economic reform to allow them to grow organically the way in which their economy works. The noble Lord might not be able to answer these questions now, but will he in particular address Jordan’s relationship with the EU, the way in which the association agreement with the EU works and the way in which the EU is at the moment considering an advanced form of relationship and an advanced treaty? Will he also address some of the issues around helping the Jordanians to exploit more fully their relationship with the EU in investment and trade? These matters have arisen over and over again in recent discussions, as I am sure has been the case for many other noble Lords. As I say, the Minister might not be able to address these issues now, but I hope he will in the fullness of time.

The Statement is helpful as far as it goes. We all know that Yemen is an extremely fragile country, as it was before the recent developments. It has been one of the least stable places in the Middle East, and it is very important that the national dialogue with the opposition parties becomes a reality. I am very pleased to hear about the meetings with Friends of Yemen and I hope that we will have regular updates about what is happening in Yemen.

From the first moment I set foot in the Foreign Office, Yemen was a constant source of difficulty, but because it is such a poor country it sometimes gets pushed to the back of the hierarchy of countries in the Middle East. However, if things go wrong there, it will open the door, as the Statement makes clear, to a good deal of unhelpful activity, not least among the AQ operatives, who we know are engaged there.

The Statement does not say a lot about what is happening elsewhere in the Middle East, outside the countries that were visited. I understand that announcements have been made in Algeria about the possibility of lifting the state of emergency there. If that were true, it would be a very welcome development. Can the Minister say more about that?

Furthermore, it was good that the Foreign Secretary first visited Tunisia on his progress around the Middle East. While fully acknowledging that this was a fault of the previous Government, I believe that, on the whole, the Maghreb countries have not received the level of attention that they might have done in the Foreign Office. I hope that that will be addressed. They have a birth rate lower than that of other countries in the Middle East, and perhaps their problems seem less acute. None the less, they deserve our attention. Morocco has been a good, long-standing friend and has its own well-developed institutions, but we need to ensure that we keep engaged with those countries.

I am sure that we all agree with the Foreign Secretary on asset freezing. I re-emphasise the point about European co-operation. We all need to concentrate on trade. It is not exclusively for the Foreign Office, and I hope that the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills is fully engaged on these issues. Perhaps I may suggest to the Minister that it would be a good time for that department to engage with those who have an interest in what is happening in the Middle East in business terms. I stress my own interest as chairman of the Arab-British Chambers of Commerce and suggest that perhaps it would be the right time to convene a meeting of the chambers of commerce, the Middle East associations and British expertise. There are a tremendous number of business councils, and perhaps their chairmen could be brought together in UKTI for a full briefing on what could and should be done to help these trade initiatives. It is not something that we want to see happening only in the EU, important though that is—bilaterally, there are many supporters of the Middle East who would be happy and willing to have such discussions and to do what they can.

I thank the Foreign Secretary for what he said about our excellent staff in Cairo. We touched on that last week. Dominic Asquith and his team there, and our team in Yemen, who have endured so much, have done an enormous amount to keep a steady hand on the tiller for this country.

On the Middle East peace process, we are friends of both Israel and Palestine. The Statement talks about visionary boldness, and of course something visionary is greatly needed at this juncture. The fact is that the Middle East peace process was running into the sands. Last week, we discussed whether a two-state solution remains possible, and some of your Lordships believed that it was. Some were enthusiastic to resume talks on the two-state solution while others had more doubts. In that regard, this country and our Foreign Secretary ought to be speaking out. I was pleased to hear what he said last week, and I hope that he will continue to push on this issue. We have a particular role in it, and I do not believe that this country is as despised and disliked in the Middle East as some Members on some Benches intimated last week. I believe that this country is very highly respected in the Middle East, and I find nothing but friendship and enthusiasm for us. Yes, there are issues about Balfour and the history of the situation, but most of the interlocutors in the Middle East recognise that this country has a particular role and that it is distinct from that of the United States. We can bring pressure to bear not only on our friends across the Atlantic but within the European Union. I very much hope that the Minister will be able to tell us that we will continue to do that.

On the Gulf states, there is still a problem in Bahrain, which relates to the difference between Sunni and Shia and the fact that the ruling royal family is of one persuasion while the large majority is of the other persuasion. Further attention also has to be given to Syria, which is an important country in the region. I hope that the noble Lord will say one or two things about it. Finally, Saudi Arabia, difficult as it might be as a country—some people regard it as impenetrable—must be addressed by the Foreign Office. It is not just a matter of trade in Saudi Arabia; it is a matter of the Foreign Secretary and others at Secretary of State level addressing what is going on in Saudi Arabia. It is high time that that important country received ministerial attention in country. I hope that the Minister will be able to assure us that that will happen shortly.

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for her very comprehensive response and comments on the region, which she knows well. She referred to a whole range of issues, not all of which I shall be able to answer in detail in a few minutes; I hope that she will understand that, as I am sure your Lordships will. Of course, I will supply any further information that I can at a convenient moment in the future. I shall—I hope not confusingly—answer her end questions first and then work back to the original questions on Tunisia.

The observations that the noble Baroness made at the end are completely correct. Obviously, our relations with Saudi Arabia are extremely important. The country is an ally whose significance in the world order as well as in the Middle East is unquestioned. It is certainly our intention at all times to strengthen and maintain good relations with Saudi Arabia.

My right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary has just been to Syria and described in the Statement how he has talked with President Bashar Assad. We obviously do not see eye to eye with Syria now, but it is important to maintain and strengthen our relations with that country.

The noble Baroness also mentioned Bahrain. There have been undoubted difficulties, which are of quite long standing, over Iran’s sometimes malign influence on Bahrain’s stability. She is right that there are problems that have to be faced. We will give supportive attention to them, as Bahrain remains a close friend.

Let me go back to the Middle East peace plan, which is at the centre of all our thoughts. My right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary has stated clearly that he regards this as a moment of real urgency, when the windows that may now be open could close. In recent days, he has spoken out strongly on the need for movement on all sides. I do not think that there is any doubt or disagreement on that. Of course we must move forward. Whether that view is taken in Jerusalem by the Israeli Government is still an open question. No doubt they are seeking to establish their view in light of what happens next in Egypt. It is certainly encouraging that the new Egyptian authorities have made it clear in their first hours that they want to respect and maintain international treaties, presumably including the Israeli-Egyptian treaty. These are still uncertain times and it would be a bold man who forecast exactly how these matters are going to develop.

The noble Baroness rightly emphasised the need to give more attention to the Maghreb countries. These countries are full of resources and talent and are in a position to play a more decisive role in the new world landscape in which we are all operating. I assure her that my colleagues at BIS are fully focused, as is our Trade Minister, on the situation and on the need for a strategy of generosity and support in relation to the economic aspects. It is slightly sobering to ponder the state of the Egyptian economy at the moment. The shops and the economy have been closed down for two or three weeks. There is an estimate that the whole exercise has cost the Egyptian economy more than the equivalent of £1 billion, which for that economy is a serious blow. The investor confidence aspect has taken a hit, and all this will need to be repaired. We stand ready to do everything that we can to maximise that process of repair.

I was interested in, and will note, the noble Baroness’s idea that the chambers of commerce, with regard to trade with Tunisia, Egypt and other countries in the region, should get together and work out how we proceed from here. All that I can say at this stage is that our basic attitude is supportive, and we need to take practical steps. These will certainly be needed as some of the realism in the interviews with wiser people in Egypt has demonstrated. Most realists in Cairo reckon that it will take some months, if not longer, for economic recovery to begin to proceed. Some heavy penalties will have to be paid as the price of freedom.

The noble Baroness mentioned Algeria. She is right that we should keep a close watch on the situation there. My advice is that about 500 demonstrators gathered in central Algiers yesterday, the demonstration was banned by the Interior Ministry, a heavy security presence was deployed and a number of arrests were made. We understand that all demonstrators have been released. That is the latest comment that I can give. Clearly the whole underlying force of intercommunication and information, electronically driven by the mobile telephone, the internet and so on, is at work in all these areas and is giving a new impetus to public concern and desire for improvement and a widening of freedoms. That is endemic and is the pattern throughout the whole region. We should not be surprised that it is occurring everywhere.

I go to the beginning of the noble Baroness’s list, and Tunisia, which has made certain commitments, although I am not sure that they cover every detail that she mentioned. Certainly, there has been a very positive response, as the Foreign Secretary made clear in the Statement.

As for the military in Egypt, I have to reiterate what is said in the Statement. We welcome commitments to a peaceful transition of power and an elected civilian Government, to changing the constitution and putting the amendments to referendum, as well as the commitment to honour existing international agreements, which I have already mentioned. We believe that it is important to set a specific timetable for these actions as soon as possible and remain concerned about the relative absence of public statements regarding a role for the opposition in the process. We urge the Egyptian Government to continue the broad-based dialogue with opposition groups and activists that has been started. That will help to reassure people that this process will lead to genuine change and not get stuck. That is our position. I emphasise that we urge a specific timetable.

The noble Baroness mentioned Jordan and Yemen. We share fully her sentiments on the need for support and encouragement for our friends, the Jordanians. It is a country with which the British have a long-standing and excellent relationship, and we want to support it. I was asked in the debate last Friday about aid to Jordan. As I explained, it is now regarded as a middle-income country and therefore does not necessarily qualify for all the DfID support programmes that it once had in the past. However, there is a substantial EU programme, to which we contribute a really good slice. We will continue, particularly in the present situation, following the excellent talks between my right honourable friend and King Abdullah of Jordan, to work out every way in which we can support Jordan through its period of government change, which we hope will lead to greater stability and not to more disruption. I am fairly confident that that will be so.

On the Yemen, I do not think that I have anything to add to the points made by my right honourable friend in his speech. He has talked to President Saleh and there are obvious dangers. There have been signs that the al-Qaeda movement or franchise, having perhaps—this may be a sound of hope—found themselves squeezed in Afghanistan and maybe even a little in Pakistan, is moving to other areas and spreading its activities through there and through the Horn of Africa. These are great dangers for this country. We have a direct and acute interest in helping these governments and societies to create the conditions of stability, openness and democracy in which the non-democratic and violence-based doctrines of al-Qaeda can finally be rejected.

I hope that that answers most of the noble Baroness’s questions. As I have indicated, we are working together with the EU to develop packages to support both our bilateral efforts and other countries’ efforts on the trade and economic side because it is livelihoods and prosperity that will bring the conditions in which these turbulent events can lead to better times for all.

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that we were foreshadowed a Statement on Afghanistan earlier today which I understand is, unfortunately, not taking place because there has not been agreement in the usual channels that it is a priority? Might I say to my noble friend that, from the Liberal Democrat Benches, we are sorry that an important issue such as Afghanistan is not being addressed when it should be, given the number of casualties that we are still encountering there?

On the Statement on the Middle East, I will try to be extremely brief because I know that several other noble Lords will want to get in. However, the Statement says that the transitional Government “should” include all parties in the new governance arrangements in Egypt. I wonder whether the Foreign Secretary had any reassurance that a broad swathe of existing parties—including the smaller liberal, secular ones—would indeed be brought into that transitional Government.

On assets, the Foreign Secretary stated that he would work with the EU and with other partners. While that is extremely welcome to us, the Statement calls for the freezing of the assets of Egyptian officials. That sounds to me rather narrow, as often we know—certainly from the Ben Ali family as well as the Mubarak family—that there are allegations that the extended family members hold significant assets abroad. The Statement seems to talk about just officials, so I would like some reassurance from my noble friend on whether existing money-laundering laws will apply to the assets of wider family members, if they are found to be under suspicion in that regard.

On Bahrain, I suppose that my noble friend will not have seen the report of Amnesty International that came out just about an hour ago. However, human rights abuses continue unabated in Bahrain—as he knows, because I have discussed it with him in the past. I hope that we will look at that report extremely carefully to see how we might indeed be a candid friend to Bahrain, particularly as I understand that we are involved in training the security services there.

I am grateful to my noble friend. On her last point, she is right that the Amnesty International report has just come out and we will obviously be studying it carefully. I am not aware of the question of the priorities of Statements on Afghanistan but there is absolutely no relationship between the particular day-to-day timings of Statements and the importance of issues. Everyone recognises fully that the Afghanistan situation is deeply serious and central for the foreign policy of this country and of many others; everyone recognises, with great sadness, and salutes the courage of our soldiers in Afghanistan; everyone offers deepest condolences to the families of those very brave young men and women who have given their lives, including the most recent ones. I do not think there is any connection between my noble friend’s concern about Statements and our deep feelings about the seriousness and centrality of the Afghan issues.

The noble Baroness asked about our view about all parties being included in a transitional Government. That appears to be the broad intention, but I emphasise what my right honourable friend said in his Statement: it is not for us to dictate or place a template on how the Egyptians organise their processes of government and how they move forward. It is for them. The more that the western powers try to assert their pattern, the more counterproductive that will be. This is a very important lesson, and I am not sure that everyone has fully grasped it yet. It is for Egypt as a nation to restore its own respect and redeem its own feelings about its possibilities in the world and recognise that it is potentially a great nation, not a suppressed and oppressed people. That appears to be going forward, but it is for the Egyptians to decide.

As for the freezing of assets, the Statement indicates that we are now looking at this matter. My right honourable friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer is looking at it very carefully. These are very early days, and it is not possible to give details about the nature of the assets held. However, if anything is held illegally, the processes of law enforcement will apply to it. I can assure my noble friend of that.

My Lords, does the Minister accept that many of us will be greatly reassured by his firmness in saying that it is not for the outside world to run the show but for the people of Egypt to take forward the opening that they have generated? In this context, does he also accept that many of us will be greatly encouraged by his tone in saying that while we thank and, indeed, congratulate the army on its restraint and the role it has played, it is a holding role, and history and the world will judge the army on how it enables the people to make a success of the opening they have generated. We need to see firm indications of how that is to be done as soon as possible.

On Yemen, there is a very difficult situation, and I would be interested to hear the Minister’s comments because while acute poverty is not the whole explanation, the grave problem of Yemen is, of course, related to the instability associated with that country. We must therefore be very careful about not appearing to say that enabling the people to enjoy greater prosperity and material well-being is somehow conditional upon the Government playing a fuller part in the battle against al-Qaeda. That battle is vital, but the needs of the people for economic and social progress are paramount.

Those are very wise words from the noble Lord. He rightly says that as far as the politics and democratic future of Egypt are concerned, we can support and assist and offer our skills and experience, but we cannot lecture, dictate or harangue. The more we and other outside powers do so, the more counterproductive it will be.

I agree with what the noble Lord says about the military. They will be judged by how they proceed. We are entitled to watch, to hope, to note some encouraging aspects as well as—one must be realistic—those that are bound to take time, if I may put it like that, and possibly to show a degree of patience as well as a desire to see things go the right way. I also agree with what he says about the pattern in Yemen. The terrorism, the divisions, the civil war, the problems in the north, the other difficulties, the poverty and the many other internal challenges that Yemen has faced in recent years add up to a very difficult situation. There is no one button that can be pressed to bring it all to a happier state of affairs. We have to proceed with great care and understanding in that country.

My Lords, I noted what the Statement said about assets. The Minister will be in the picture about certain small, discreet but very helpful initiatives that the Government of Switzerland have taken as regards the Middle East. Will HMG at least consider following Switzerland’s lead in freezing temporarily the assets of the Mubarak family in this country until such time as it can be determined which assets are personal, family assets and which belong to the state of Egypt? In this context, I hope the noble Lord will agree that accounts and valuables in the Isle of Man and the Channel Islands should be included in any process.

At this stage I can tell the noble Lord that we will note and are studying the actions taken by other countries, including Switzerland, and the moves that they have made. Any illegality will be met properly by the appropriate application of the law, as we have said. We will seek to clarify the situation regarding any asset holdings in this country. I know the noble Lord will accept that over the years these matters have been evolved—if that is the polite verb—in very complex ways and ways designed to make it extremely difficult to unravel where the ownership of these assets lies. All these matters will have to be unravelled and unravelled I hope they will be. We will certainly take the steps that my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary described in his Statement, and we will take them firmly.

I think it is the turn of the Conservatives. We will then return to the Labour Benches. Perhaps I might encourage the several Labour Peers who wish to intervene to consider in the mean time which of them they would like to yield to first.

My Lords, is the noble Lord aware of how welcome will be the Foreign Secretary’s statement that we will be following a distinctive policy in the Middle East? Will he also take it from me that his initial remarks about the moment of opportunity in relation to the Israel-Palestine talks are a very welcome start? I very much hope that he will be able to press that case in the days and weeks ahead.

I thank my noble friend. My right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary has indeed made clear his view that it is not up to us alone, but that we can play a distinctive and effective role. We intend to do so.

My Lords, in the final paragraph of the Statement, it is said that,

“the UK will be an active and distinctive voice in the Middle East”.

That begs the question of how that voice will be transmitted to the various countries of the Middle East. In Friday’s debate the noble Lord said, very flexibly and in a very welcome way, that he would revisit the cuts to the BBC World Service. He also mentioned the Westminster Foundation for Democracy. Surely we need to look at this in the round and look at what DfID is doing in the Maghreb and elsewhere. We should also look at strengthening our embassies. For example, when the Foreign Affairs Committee visited the Maghreb five years or so ago, we were very concerned about the low emphasis that we placed on that key area. Surely we should now revisit this and reconfigure all those various instruments that are available to us to convey the voice that is spoken of in the last paragraph.

I would make it clear to the noble Lord that the words I said on Friday were carefully chosen. I did not say that I would revisit the cuts; I said that my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary was looking at the proposals that had been put to him by the BBC World Service and examining the reasons and explanations for the decisions that it wants to take. At the heart of these is the view of the BBC World Service authorities, under whom these decisions have to be made, that the short-wave services are not the best way and the priority way of maintaining communication and our voice and influence in the Arab world. They point to the fact that—we debated this at length on Friday—although radio is still extremely important, up and coming are online services, a mass of television services, iPad services, mobile internet services and a thousand other things which are creating the opportunities to convey good messages and, I am afraid, some bad ones as well. Those are the conditions of the modern world that have empowered the street, as it were, more than ever. What I said on Friday reflects exactly the position at the moment. My right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary is certainly looking at it and discussing it with the BBC but it is up to the latter to decide how it wants to react within the inevitable parameters of the budget, which are unavoidable for all sorts of reasons I do not want to go into now.

As to the noble Lord’s wider point, he is absolutely right—the situation has changed. As to whether that should have been predicted exactly, some of us indicated more than a decade ago that this sort of world was emerging. The situation has changed in the Middle East. There could be entirely new relationships between peoples and Governments and parties and politics and military forces. In these circumstances we must be agile and review the disposition of our influences and our programmes. The noble Lord is right about that and I agree with him.

My Lords, I suggest that we hear from the noble Marquess, then from the Liberal Democrats. Then there will be time to get back to the Labour Benches.

My Lords, at this time of emerging democratic awareness in the Middle East, will the Minister and his right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs use their considerable influence to encourage the Palestinian Authority to adopt a true, full and honest electoral process in the months ahead so that those who speak for the Palestinian people in the future do so with a genuine mandate for the Palestinian people as a whole?

I thank my noble friend for that observation. Of course, this is the right way to go. My right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary has spoken on these lines and we will continue to use the influence that we undoubtedly have. We must always use that influence in the most careful and selective way. I believe that the Palestinian Authority is aware of the need to move forward using precisely these methods. It faces grave difficulties but we will certainly do anything that we can do to encourage it.

If we are very quick we might get three speakers in. The noble Lord, Lord Clinton-Davis, has been trying to intervene since the beginning.

How do the Government intend to press the Israelis and the Palestinian Authority to resume the peace process? Is not that a matter of extreme urgency? Hamas and Hezbollah have repeatedly expressed the view that Israel ought to die. Against that background, is there any prospect of resuming meaningful discussions between the Israelis and Hamas and Hezbollah?

The noble Lord speaks with great experience, feeling and wisdom on this issue but I know he is the first to understand that, although we can do our bit, many parties and pressures are involved. Some feel that it is all up to our American allies and that they should increase the pressure and recognise the urgency. Indeed, my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary has indicated some of that feeling in statements he has made over the past few days. Some feel that renewed pressure should come from within Israel and the Palestinian Authority provided they can work together in a better way than they have done so far with the two elements of the Hamas people in Gaza and the authorities in the West Bank. All these tasks must be addressed. Therefore, the broad answer to the noble Lord’s question is: yes, the urgency is recognised; yes, we will do what we can but we are not, alas, the only party involved, nor can our influence alone be decisive—I wish that it could, but it is not so.

Does my noble friend agree that the single most important thing that can be done is to reassure Israel and Egypt of the continuation of the longstanding treaty between them? If a democratic Government in Egypt are to accept the peace settlement, it is necessary for Israel herself to look again at the settlements and the blockade of Gaza in order to persuade the Egyptian people to support, as they should, the continuation of peace with Israel?

My personal hope and, indeed, the hope of the Government is that that is the way things will unfold. However, we have to see the steps ahead. First, there is a military Government and the change of constitution, and then we have and must continue to press for their commitment to create the conditions for a democratic new Government in Egypt, with different attitudes from the Government of the past but with the same attitude to the treaty with Israel. Then that new democratic Government have to be incentivised, just as my noble friend was saying, to feel that they are going to get a constructive response from Israel. All these are sequences ahead for which we must work. My noble friend describes exactly what we want to happen. Now we have to see what forces can enable it to happen. Indeed, we have to be realistic and see what forces may prevent it happening.

My Lords, does the Minister not recognise that these welcome indications of support for Egypt and Tunisia and their economies, which will be in poor shape, risk an excess of individual countries and organisations all flinging themselves at the same object, with much confusion? Will he consider what went on after the collapse of Soviet Union domination of eastern Europe, when a co-ordinating clearing-house arrangement was reached, under which the United States, Japan, the European Union and all its member states worked in a coherent and concerted way to do what needed to be done to the economies of eastern Europe? There could well be an important lesson there for the weeks and months ahead.

I have certainly heard such suggestions, including one, not from within government, that there should be an approach similar to the Marshall Plan, which goes back further than the eastern-Europe approach that involved successful co-ordination and worked rather well, if we look back at the history of that dramatic period at the time of the fall of the Berlin Wall. The answer to the noble Lord’s question is, yes, these matters are considered. Some have pointed out that there are considerable differences between the eastern European process involving the unwinding of the Soviet satellites and what is now going on, which is in its very early days, regarding the rise of people power, street views and new pressures on Governments in the Middle East. However, the proper answer to the noble Lord’s question is, of course, that these issues and the lessons of history—the differences and the similarities—will be very closely considered by those in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Government who wish to formulate the most successful plans for the next moves.