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Volume 728: debated on Thursday 9 June 2011


Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what steps they are taking to secure the departure of United Kingdom citizens from Yemen.

My Lords, we remain extremely concerned at the situation in Yemen. Recent events have shown how quickly the security situation can deteriorate. Since 12 March this year, we have been urging all British nationals to leave Yemen without delay by commercial carriers. My right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary issued a statement on 3 June repeating the message in our travel advice to all British nationals to leave by commercial means, adding that people should not plan for or expect the British Government to be in a position to assist them to reach safety. In the other place, on 7 June, he repeated the message that an assisted evacuation will be extremely unlikely. The embassy in San’a retains a core complement of staff. With consular staff in London and at our passport processing centre in Paris, we are working with the embassy to ensure that all those eligible for British travel documents receive them as soon as possible.

I thank the noble Lord for that Answer, but will he be more specific about the situation in relation to members of the embassy staff, who face a particular threat from the authorities in Yemen? Does he agree that, with a president who nominally heads a discredited regime—I witnessed it myself several years ago—and is ignored by Governments of all persuasions, the position there is extremely dangerous and uncertain?

The noble Lord is absolutely right: the extreme danger is unquestionable. We have drawn down the staff at our embassy to a small, core team and a further withdrawal of staff may be necessary if conditions dictate—we are watching the situation very carefully indeed. For obvious reasons, which I know the noble Lord will understand, it would be wrong for me to comment in detail on any contingency plan, but that is the position.

My Lords, are the Government minded to support opposition demands for a presidential council to be established in Yemen to ease the transition from power and to send a clear message to President Saleh that he is no longer fit to rule? Will my noble friend also tell the House whether he believes that the Friends of Yemen group has any further usefulness, given that it is so closely aligned to the old regime?

Our general position is strong support for the Gulf Cooperation Council’s plans, which have been brought forward with considerable detail and support from the neighbouring countries and the whole region. We believe that, for the moment, that is the best plan on the table. I certainly concede to my noble friend that it is not working well at the moment, but that seems to be the best possible avenue through which one could begin to see some kind of settlement emerge. That is all that I can say at the moment, beyond the fact that, of course, the United Nations remains very interested and is watching the situation closely as well.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that it is essential for the British Government to be even-handed in their attitude to all the countries involved in the Arab spring revolution and to wish the local population well in that process? Should that not also include Israel? Have the Government taken steps to ask the Israeli military to exercise restraint and not to shoot at unarmed civilians?

This Question is about Yemen. We certainly aim for even-handedness in pursuing our own principles and values but, unfortunately, as every country has different situations that require delicate and different handling beyond the general principles, we have to appreciate, respect and understand the inner workings of these countries to be effective.

My Lords, the situation in Yemen has been very grave—it has been a fragile state—for a long time. We all owe a debt of gratitude to those members of the Foreign Office who are still prepared to stay in the embassy, given that it has come under attack on a number of occasions. I know that this is very difficult, but, given that we know that Yemen will be the target of groups such as al-Qaeda, will the Minister assure us that in the possible eventual absence of British personnel on the ground, none the less we will be able to monitor properly what is going on in Yemen and not leave it solely to Yemen’s neighbours to pass information to us? I hope that the noble Lord can give us that assurance, without going into detail.

That clearly would be the ideal. I cannot go into precise contingency arrangements for the channels and passage of our information. Obviously, we need to get high-quality information of the best kind. On the question of al-Qaeda involvement, there is constant concern that al-Qaeda training groups are operating in the area. Some people have an interest in pursuing and purveying the story in one way and others in presenting it in another, so getting accurate information is bound to be difficult. Of course, the noble Baroness, with her considerable experience, is right to urge that our channels of information should remain as good and direct as we can possibly engineer.