House of Lords
Friday, 16 March 2012.
Prayers—read by the Lord Bishop of Newcastle.
Airports (Amendment) Bill [HL]
My Lords, successive Governments have, for many years, implemented regional policies. These policies have been designed to prevent, or at least reduce, economic decline in those areas of the country that have seen their economic strength eroded as traditional industries contracted. These regional policies have been augmented by the European Union through the regional development fund. It is no surprise, therefore, that those of us who represent regions will, from time to time, look at government policy through the prism of regionalism to see whether our interests are being protected.
Early last year, I put down a Question for Short Debate which was eventually debated in Grand Committee on 15 November 2011. That debate covered the question of transport links between the regions and London. A number of noble Lords drew attention to the problems faced in different areas of the United Kingdom because of poor road or rail infrastructure. Aviation matters were also mentioned, as is pointed out in the briefing note prepared by the Library for this Bill today.
One of the principal requirements of a regional policy is to improve the competitiveness of a region. In order to do so, access is critical. This requires investment in infrastructure, which means having good communications by road, rail, air, sea and, in today’s world, broadband. The recently proposed acquisition of BMI airlines by BA has undoubtedly provoked interest in the matters we are about to debate. This has raised the wider question of the absence of any government powers to intervene in the trading of landing slots at Heathrow. This is a critical issue as far as I am concerned, as, unlike other European countries, the United Kingdom has only one hub airport. While I am not anticipating any immediate threat to important regional-to-Heathrow services, the fact remains that nobody can predict events. If a difficulty were to arise, the Government are powerless to act. I am entirely agnostic about the commercial take-over of BMI by the International Airlines Group, but I am concerned that the Government have no power to intervene.
As is the case in many policy areas, there is a significant European Union dimension to our deliberations. Aviation is a matter where we have ceded a competence to Brussels that is highly relevant to this Bill. Currently, EU Council Regulation EEC 95/93, as amended by Regulation EC 793/2004, provides a policy umbrella for the conduct of air connections between major hub airports and regions within member states. The preamble to the regulation states:
“Whereas it is necessary to make special provisions, under limited circumstances, for the maintenance of adequate domestic air services to regions of the Member State concerned”.
In practice, this means that if a national government believe that one of their regions is becoming isolated from another, they may apply to provide a public service obligation so that a subsidy can be paid to an airline to provide a connection between regions. This provision, however, does not allow for a PSO to be applied to a connection between two specific cities or between a region and a specific airport.
In the past few months, Brussels has been addressing a number of aviation issues. On 1 December 2011, the Commission produced an “airport package”, COM (2011) 827 final, which deals with a number of policy areas, landing and take-off slots being among them. On 19 December 2011, the European Parliament’s Committee on Transport and Tourism produced an own opinion draft report on the future of regional airports and air services in the EU, written by rapporteur Philip Bradbourn MEP. Paragraph 8 of that report states:
“considers it essential for regional airports to have access to hubs”.
That quotation from Mr Bradbourn’s draft report is the core rationale for this Bill.
On 29 February, I travelled to Brussels to have a series of meetings with members of the Transport and Tourism Committee of the European Parliament. I had a meeting with Philip Bradbourn, with other members of the committee, with our permanent representation in UKRep and, lastly, with the chairman of the committee, Brian Simpson MEP. During all my meetings there was great understanding of the UK’s specific issue and also considerable support for the proposals contained in this Bill.
What is our unique problem? Our specific problem in the UK is that we have only one major hub airport, Heathrow. Heathrow is operating at 98 to 99 per cent capacity. In other EU member states, where there is a connectivity problem with a hub airport, most of our continental partners have the opportunity to use spare capacity to add take-off and landing slots to accommodate connectivity between regions and hub airports but because of the lack of capacity at Heathrow that option is not open to the United Kingdom.
Furthermore, the slots at Heathrow are owned by individual airlines and if airlines should decide to sell their slots or use them for more profitable international routes, that, at present, is entirely a matter for them. The implications for UK regions of this could be profound. Our regions depend heavily on connectivity as a selling point and an incentive for inward investment and tourism, and adequate access to the national hub airport is essential. What a particular airline may say about its intentions is utterly irrelevant to this legislation, but even if an airline said it will keep a particular route open, it has the opportunity to reduce cycles and still maintain that it has kept its word.
As the landing and take-off slots in the UK are in private hands, any attempt to interfere in their free sale or transfer will lead to an interest being taken by the competition authorities in Brussels. To work effectively and to protect the regions’ access to Heathrow, the Bill gives the Secretary of State power to direct airport operators as well as requiring the Civil Aviation Authority to take these connectivity issues into account when exercising its functions. This may be deemed a power to ring-fence slots at Heathrow and that would have a knock on effect on their value. However, given the fact that Heathrow is operating at full capacity, there is simply no other way in the UK of guaranteeing adequate access from the regions to the hub.
I believe that our European partners will see the logic of this argument. It is, after all, consistent with the thrust of EU policy for many years to protect and promote the regions. As a former member of the EU Committee of the Regions, I know this to be a fact. Currently, the EU Committee on Transport and Tourism member Mr Giommaria Uggias of Italy is drafting a legislative report specifically on the slots issue and it is likely to be brought forward later this year.
This Bill is not region specific; it is a Bill that applies to the whole of the United Kingdom. Although I may come from Northern Ireland where the effects of inadequate air links to Heathrow would be felt most acutely, I am very aware that other regions could be badly affected as well. I have corresponded and spoken with a number of interested groups in Northern Ireland. I know that the Minister in the Northern Ireland Executive with responsibility for airports, Mr Danny Kennedy MLA, is supportive of ensuring adequate access. I believe that the relevant Assembly committee in Belfast takes a similar view. The Consumer Council for Northern Ireland approached me to offer support, and I have received letters from the local tourist board, the IoD, the CBI, Belfast City Airport and others.
Certainly a number of Scottish destinations, including Edinburgh, Glasgow, Aberdeen and Inverness, come to mind as well as cities in the north of England, such as Newcastle, Leeds and Manchester. Birmingham will eventually have the advantage of fast rail, and I know that plans are afoot to improve rail services to Cardiff. However, this still leaves the south-west somewhat isolated. In last week's edition of the Western Morning News, it said:
“Communications are the key to growth in the West Country”.
Some air links have been established with London City Airport, and Exeter is now a key gateway for the area connecting the West Country with Manchester. But the point remains that communications are the key to growth in the regions, and leaving the Government as a spectator, unable to intervene in the future if things go wrong with landing slots at Heathrow, is, I submit, unacceptable.
In conclusion, this Bill aims to amend the Airports Act 1986 to confer upon the Secretary of State the power to direct airport operators in the interests of ensuring sufficient national air infrastructure between hub and regional airports, and further, will ensure that the Civil Aviation Authority would also have to take into account the need to ensure adequate services between hub and regional airports when exercising its functions. I believe that these proposals are entirely consistent with current and previous government policies and are consistent with the intentions of the European Union’s policy, albeit that such policy would have to be modified to avoid a legal conflict with Brussels. The timing of this Bill sits neatly with the likely introduction of a UK aviation Bill later this year and, as previously stated, the European Commission already has proposals on the table for consultation.
The Minister, who I must thank for his assistance and that of his officials over recent weeks, knows that I fully realise that we have to act in concert with our European partners. He also acknowledges that currently HMG have no powers to address the specific problem of adequate access to Heathrow from the regions. Given these facts, and the proximity of our own domestic legislation coming through shortly, there is, I believe, a unique opportunity to deal with this issue in the immediate future. I trust that the Minister will give these proposals a fair hearing and a fair wind. I beg to move.
My Lords, I am very glad to lend my support, in the most emphatic fashion, to this important Bill, which my noble friend Lord Empey has brought before us. In this, as in other aspects of his wide-ranging work in your Lordships’ House, he draws on his great experience as a former Minister in the Northern Ireland Executive and places that experience at the service of our country as a whole.
We must have reliable and efficient transport services between all parts of our country, especially the more distant parts and London, particularly Heathrow with its multitude of links with the wider world. Without first-rate services between London and the regions, the many important initiatives that the Government are taking to make the United Kingdom a truly excellent place in which to do business will not lead to the increase in sustained investment that we need so badly.
It may be that we face a future in which for many domestic purposes air travel is replaced by railway travel, but this will not be universally true. In one part of our country above all—Northern Ireland—air links with London cannot readily be replaced by other forms of transport. The provisions of my noble friend’s Bill are particularly important to the people of Northern Ireland and are critical for their economic success, as my postbag has recently reminded me. Parliament must always seek to protect and safeguard the interests of Northern Ireland, a part of our country that, despite having its own devolved institutions, must never be forgotten here, in better times as in times of internal crisis.
London, Edinburgh and Cardiff are all relatively easy to reach by train—though there is plenty of room for improvement in these railway services—but Belfast would be cut off from the kingdom’s other capitals without regular air services. This must not happen, particularly under a Government who attach the greatest importance to rebalancing the Northern Ireland economy through greater private sector growth. I will not labour the point. Nothing could be more obvious than that Northern Ireland will remain more dependent on airport links to London than any of the other constituent parts of our country.
There is deep concern, as the House has been told on several occasions recently, and again by my noble friend Lord Empey this morning, that Lufthansa’s sale of British Midland International to the IAG Group, of which British Airways is the principal member, increases the chances that the pairs of daily landing slots now allocated to BMI flights, of which there are up to 56, will be handed over to external flights whose origin or terminus is outside the United Kingdom.
The reason is obvious: each landing slot that can be taken up by a long-haul intercontinental flight yields far greater profits than a short-haul flight from Belfast would bring. Businesses can hardly be blamed for acting in ways which best serve their interests, particularly in such a low-profit-margin business as aviation, but we must keep constantly in mind the British Government’s overriding duty to ensure adequate transport arrangements for all parts of our country.
Where the replacement of one method of transport by another is not feasible for economic or geographical reasons, we should seriously consider whether it would be appropriate to give the Transport Secretary modest additional powers, as the Bill seeks to do. The aim would be to ensure that where corporate and national needs conflict, national needs are not subordinated to such an extent that great damage is done to the interests of some of our fellow country men and women. This is precisely what my noble friend’s Bill seeks to do while acknowledging that circumstances will differ and that each application will need to be judged on its merit.
I emphasise again that air travel between London and Belfast will remain essential, not least to ensure that Northern Ireland’s private sector growth is not impeded. That is why organisations such as the Northern Ireland division of the Institute of Directors, CBI Northern Ireland and the Northern Ireland Tourist Board support this short Bill. It also deserves the full support of this House.
My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Empey, on his timely and interesting Bill. I have great sympathy for the people of Northern Ireland, who are acutely concerned—and have been for many years—about losing the link between Belfast and London Heathrow. The link is vital for investment. All Governments put an enormous effort into ensuring that Northern Ireland is at the top of the agenda for international investment, but they will not be able to maintain that unless Belfast airports are able to link in effectively to Britain’s only hub airport.
I would be less sympathetic towards the Bill if I had any confidence that the proposed government White Paper on aviation, which we will see in the near future, was going to address the issue of our hub airport and state what is going to happen either to Heathrow or the proposals for an alternative hub elsewhere. I fear the White Paper will have a big hole in the middle—that is, a lack of policy around the crucial importance of our premier hub airport. As the noble Lord, Lord Empey, rightly pointed out, it is at the moment full and, unlike other hub airports around the world, and particularly our main competitors in Europe— Amsterdam, Frankfurt, Paris and Madrid—it is not in a position to grow. Those other airports, of course, are busy soaking up the investment that would otherwise come to Britain.
The noble Lord, Lord Empey, does not fear that the route will be lost in the short term and I think he is right about that. I do not think the new International Airline Group will, if it takes over BMI, immediately sell off the link. Indeed, IAG has made many statements over recent months, both in the British and Irish press, both north and south, stating that it will not do so, and I put some store in that.
However, as the noble Lord, Lord Empey, rightly said, this is about the long term and not only the short term, and that is a crucial fact. If you had asked people some 20-odd years ago, “Would you not be able to fly to some of the great regional cities of Britain from Heathrow in 20 or so years’ time?”, they would have said, “No, of course we would”. In fact you cannot. You can now fly from Heathrow to only seven regional cities in the United Kingdom, whereas Amsterdam will fly you to 21 British regional cities. You do not have to be too clever to work out where international investors who are looking to have their investment meetings at a hub airport and then fly on to visit their factories or for other purposes will go to: they will go to other hub airports which are better serviced.
The temptation for a hub airport which is squeezed in the way that Heathrow is squeezed is eventually to sell off the short-haul slots because, as the noble Lord, Lord Empey, rightly pointed out, they are less profitable. The Bill at least gives some feeling of safeguard because Clause 1 amends the Airports Act 1986 and imposes a duty on the Civil Aviation Authority to protect those regional links.
I do not want to spend too much time on this—I am aware of the time factor for the House—but in this country we fail to grasp at times that the aviation infrastructure of Europe and the world is similar to the infrastructure that Britain developed first with the railway network of the 19th century. It was the first time that an industrialised national economy was linked by a rail network. There were hub railway stations, if you like, in places such as Manchester Piccadilly, Glasgow Central, London King’s Cross and so on, and the hub airports perform the same function. You did not get a train from Stirling to London; you got a train to Glasgow or Edinburgh and then got your train to London. That is what hub airports do and they are crucial for the exchange.
Demand for the all-important investment meetings has grown and perhaps I may use a simple example to point out the real danger that the noble Lord, Lord Empey, seeks to address. Liverpool used to have a direct link with Heathrow. Now a Japanese businessman with a factory in Liverpool can no longer fly there unless he flies to Heathrow, gets off there with his bags and baggage, goes by train or bus to Luton—which has just agreed to expand, as my noble friend Lord McKenzie will be very pleased to know—and flies from there. Of course, the alternative—which they are all using—is to go to Amsterdam and fly direct to Liverpool, which has many links.
This is happening across the country but we are not being serious about it. That is why I say to the Minister again—he is probably bored stiff with me saying it over the years—that unless we maintain a premier hub airport that can deliver the same quality of services we will continue to lose these network routes, which will go to European airports instead or, in some cases, airports in emerging countries.
At least this Bill would give the people of Northern Ireland confidence that, like former Governments, this Government appreciate the importance of investment in Northern Ireland. That has been a driving force for us for many years given that the Northern Ireland economy had fallen behind that of the rest of the United Kingdom and, indeed, southern Ireland. Air links are critical for Northern Ireland. Some people believe that trains are the answer to all this but I do not. Trains are very important and I am in favour of high-speed rail but we should not kid ourselves that they will replace planes. Moreover, trains are not an option for Northern Ireland in this context.
The safeguard that the noble Lord, Lord Empey, has included in the Bill sends a serious signal to the Government which they ought to take seriously. If the Minister says in replying to this Second Reading that the Government have decided either to expand Heathrow or to create a new hub airport somewhere else, then I would say that this Bill is less necessary. However, until the Government bite the bullet and recognise that their policy on hub aviation in Britain is seriously flawed and is having a profoundly damaging effect on our economy, and address that situation, frankly, there will be increasing demands for short-haul routes to be protected, particularly from places such as Belfast which cannot link with countries overseas by rail. That is very important not just for Belfast but for many other British regional cities, particularly in the north of Scotland and the far west of England.
My Lords, when I first looked at this Bill, I thought that it contained an interesting power and I was surprised that we did not already have it. Having listened to the speeches made today, I think that I am still in the same place in that regard. The main point that has been raised is that we have one hub airport. Before the previous election, I spent a great deal of time delivering leaflets in Richmond to promote certain candidates, unfortunately, unsuccessfully as it turned out. Anybody who lives in that area is not keen on expansion of Heathrow, with the exception of a Member of this House who is shaking his head. I suspect that the noble Lord, Lord Soley, does not get much support when he raises this issue in his local pub, but I leave that on one side.
If we are entering anecdotal territory, I should say that as a former London Scottish player, I remember occasions when large planes flew over the pitch down in Richmond and the referee was reduced to using sign language. Therefore, I suggest that people have grounds for disagreeing with the noble Lord.
To return to the Bill, the idea that we should guarantee that our infrastructure works for the whole nation is not the most radical one we have ever heard in this House. The noble Lord, Lord Empey, referred to the infrastructure of different places. Northern Ireland has particular problems in that regard. It is incredibly difficult to build railways over the sea, to put it bluntly. Inverness may struggle in providing the necessary infrastructure and Aberdeen will have problems in this regard but Northern Ireland, particularly Belfast, has the worst problems to overcome. I hope that my noble friend the Minister will take this opportunity to reassure us in relation to where government thinking is on this matter. Everything has a cost but are we prepared to pay the cost of this provision? Everybody has a right to hear what that cost will be, and what we cannot expect to be provided. Who has been consulted on this matter? I am not sure whether the Air Transport Users Committee is still functioning.
I am told that it is. Was that committee properly consulted when the Bill was drawn up? Who else was consulted who could have had an input? I stress the importance of that to the noble Lord, Lord Empey, and the Minister. The Bill seeks to address the problem that we are discussing. It offers an answer to that problem. Some people may not think that it is the best answer but it is an answer. I look forward to hearing what other noble Lords have to say on the matter.
My Lords, I would like to express support for the Bill which is before us today for Second Reading. In doing so I acknowledge the exceptional work of my good friend, the noble Lord, Lord Empey, in having the wisdom and drive to introduce this proposed legislation.
I do not intend to detain your Lordships’ House very long this morning. The Bill is brief but makes a most important point for those of us who live in outlying areas of the United Kingdom, as we have heard. In particular, I am concerned about the position of my native Northern Ireland where air travel is so vital to our links with the rest of the kingdom. With your Lordships’ permission, I would like to concentrate on tourism. Northern Ireland has emerged from a very dark and difficult period. Concentrating on economic regeneration and the building of modern infrastructure is the task of the local administration. One of the areas for massive development could be, and is, tourism. I give an example. As every noble Lord will agree, Northern Ireland is a beautiful area with, on the whole, friendly, helpful and amusing people.
That is very kind. However, we have one further major asset when it comes to tourism, that being that it is the homeland of the Ulster Scots people, whose relations settled in America in the 18th century and mostly shaped the southern states. Today there are 22 million Ulster Scots—or as they call them, Scots Irish descendants—living in the US, in contrast with the Irish population in that massive country, which is only 18 million. The historic interest to the Ulster Scots of the area of Ulster should be exploited without mercy to bring those seeking their roots to our shores. It is to be remembered that from our small part of the island of Ireland have come some 17 presidents of the United States, as have men called Houston, Austin and Dallas, after whom the major cities in Texas were named. Writers such as Mark Twain, Edgar Allan Poe and John Steinbeck also had Ulster blood in their veins. The list goes on and on, and so could I, but, to the relief of the House, I will not.
Tourists from the US, many of whom have never left the States before, require the passage to Northern Ireland to be as easy as any air travel in their home country. Unless this Bill is given effect—or this provision is made by some other method—the all important connections at Heathrow to the three airports in Northern Ireland could be diminished. The domestic air slots must be guarded to ensure ease of connection from the USA and, indeed, other places in the world.
In 2010, 37,800 visitors from North America came to Northern Ireland by air. In 2011, the figure was 33,000. I consider these figures to be woefully low. Unfortunately, they reflect the lack of promotion of the unique tourist product of the Ulster Scots. However, that is a discussion for another place. Tourism has the potential to be a major industry for Northern Ireland but it will be hindered unless the issue of flights to the appropriate air hubs to connect with the outside world, and vice versa, is addressed in this Bill. I support the Second Reading of the Airports (Amendment) Bill.
My Lords, I start by declaring two interests. First, I think that I live in a more remote part of the United Kingdom than anybody in Northern Ireland. It probably takes me longer to get home than is the case with any of the Northern Ireland Peers. Secondly, I declare an interest as a former Minister of aviation. The slot problem at Heathrow used to appear regularly on my desk.
I have huge respect for the noble Lord, Lord Empey, who introduced this Bill but I part company with him on the reasons for it. I take a totally different view. I think that what he is arguing for represents pure self-interest rather than national interest and is against the commercial interests of the United Kingdom.
Let us look at other areas. What about the Channel Islands? They do not have flights to Heathrow; they have flights to London City, Stansted, Gatwick and Luton. What about the Isle of Man? That does not have a flight to Heathrow. You can fly to Gatwick, London City or Luton from the Isle of Man and you can fly to Heathrow—but you use Edinburgh. According to the noble Lord, Lord Empey, Edinburgh would become a hub airport because, in Clause 1(5) a hub airport,
“means an airport used as a transfer point for passengers from one flight to another in order to complete a route”.
Edinburgh completes that; if you fly from Ronaldsway to Edinburgh, you can fly to London. So that would be good.
If the Bill is introduced, could the noble Lord really envisage that Flybe would have to reinstate the Inverness flight to London Heathrow? I remember when that was cancelled. It would serve a number of us who live in the far north a lot better in some instances, although I have to admit that, while I was against the abolition of that flight, I find flying into Gatwick more convenient to attend your Lordships’ House than flying into Heathrow, as it is closer. Why cannot we have a flight direct from Wick? That would suit my noble friend Lord Maclennan of Rogart, John Thurso MP and me very well. There is a very good airport there; it has a long runway and is certainly a regional airport.
Belfast is rather spoilt for choice, as two different airlines fly into Heathrow—BMI and Aer Lingus. At Inverness, BMI at one stage flew into Heathrow, but it does not do so any more. From Belfast you can fly to Heathrow, Stansted, Gatwick or Luton, so it has access to all the London airports.
There is also, with regard to the Bill, the question of judicial review. If the Secretary of State,
“may give to any airport operator”,
what about the case for Exeter, if it felt that it had been prejudiced by a decision of the Secretary of State? I would hate to be Aviation Minister and have that clause to deal with.
When the noble Lord, Lord Empey, was Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Investment in the Northern Ireland Executive, he would have raised his voice considerably against any restriction on the companies that he was trying to promote in Northern Ireland. The Bill tries to restrict the commercial decisions of those who operate the slots at Heathrow and, quite rightly, the Government are not involved in that. It was the saving grace for me as Minister that the Government did not interfere with slot allocation at Heathrow. Woe betide any Government who have to take on that responsibility.
The noble Lord, Lord Empey, raised the question of what was happening in Europe, but under EU regulation 1008/2008 you can fly to a region but not to a specific airport. The current system is right and to take it any further would give every excuse for the French, who are far more in favour of protecting their interests than we are, to restrict Charles de Gaulle. I remember as Aviation Minister having huge battles with the French to try to open up Charles de Gaulle to our flights. So let us beware that trying to protect one area of the United Kingdom could have unforeseen repercussions. I hope that my noble friend on the Front Bench will say that, however well intentioned the legislation might be, it is wrong and impractical.
My Lords, I congratulate my noble friend Lord Empey on bringing this matter to the Floor of the House. I support this short Bill in so far as it is designed to protect and safeguard air access and connectivity for the constituent parts of this United Kingdom. Here I respond to the noble Earl, Lord Caithness, who somehow seems to think that because speeches so far had used Northern Ireland as an example we are somehow constraining ourselves to that one region of the United Kingdom. That is not so. What I am about to say applies to every region of the United Kingdom, whether Belfast, Glasgow, Cardiff or Newcastle—and so on. All are, to an extent, peripheral and detached from Europe, which is why daily air access to the main airport hub in the capital city is so essential to our economy and people.
The Northern Ireland link to Heathrow is served from two airports—by Aer Lingus operating from Belfast International Airport, and British Midland International from the Belfast City Airport. Aer Lingus is the main business carrier—and I emphasise business carrier—with 62 per cent of the market share, but BMI actually carries more passengers. Between them, they provide nine daily rotations. Both carry significant numbers, about 720,000 passengers last year, on a 60-40 split between BMI and Aer Lingus. Both airlines say that the routes are profitable and, accordingly, both are necessary. In short, they are the business and social lifeline for Northern Ireland. John Doran, the managing director of Belfast International Airport, put it succinctly when he said:
“For worldwide markets, read access via Heathrow, both currently and for the foreseeable future”.
All of us here recognise the value of Heathrow slots. The worry is that the IAG—or British Airways, as it was—may seek to reallocate some of the recently acquired BMI Belfast slots and use them on more profitable long-haul routes. Set against that, we have assurances from IAG’s Willie Walsh on maintaining a Belfast service. Aer Lingus, too, has said that its Belfast International service is guaranteed, and there are indications that the airline might even be keen to expand its Northern Ireland operations. At this time, such development would be welcome. Such reassurance that Heathrow will not be severed from Belfast, and vice versa, lifts some anxiety.
According to the Northern Ireland Assembly, 2012 is Northern Ireland’s time and place, and I hope that it is right and can deliver. The region is being marketed internationally as never before. The current prowess of our home-grown golfers and plans to add a prestigious new golf course to those we already have provides new opportunities. We know that golfers love to come and play on our links courses. Properly managed, tourism alone can account for thousands of badly needed new jobs in the province. While our heavy engineering industry has declined since my youth, its legacy now rests in our light engineering and needs the sort of linkage that tourism needs throughout the globe. Hence our overriding ambition has been the safeguarding of enough daily seats to meet market demand.
Maintaining core global links via London Heathrow into Belfast is of paramount importance. While the words of Mr Walsh of IAG, and of Aer Lingus, are comforting, what if we did not have those words and statements tomorrow, the next day or next year? That is why I support the Bill, as it gives the legislative framework needed to protect our Northern Ireland-Heathrow connectivity, not just for the capital and not just to the capital but throughout the world. I commend it to all the other regions as a safeguard that ties us politically and economically within the union—that is, within the United Kingdom to which we all belong and to which all of its regions contribute, and where, I hope, the Government recognise their responsibility to ensure equity and equality of opportunity.
I speak as a former Transport Commissioner in the EU. There are three Transport Ministers here; if I have left any out, I am very sorry about that. I am rather surprised that the noble Earl, Lord Caithness, criticised the noble Lord, Lord Empey, for being involved with self-interest. I thought that politics was largely about self-interest and I do not complain about that at all, although I am rather critical in some respects of this Bill. I speak also as a former president of BALPA; I am now its life president. The noble Lord, Lord Empey, who introduced this Bill, has strong links with BALPA through his son, who is a pilot with BA. I am glad to say that another Member of this House has now become the president of BALPA, namely my noble friend Lord Monks, a former general-secretary president of the TUC.
I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Empey, on bringing this Bill before the House although, as I said, I am somewhat critical of its scope. This is an amending Bill to promote air traffic between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK and there is no doubt that we should be discussing it. My own view is that the noble Lord has every right to focus on these problems. He has, however, skated over some of the issues which are highly relevant as far as we are concerned.
Aviation has to be viewed widely, and I am bound to say that the Bill is a little deficient in that respect. Its intention is of course to draw attention to the shortcomings of aviation to and from Northern Ireland, but in that respect the noble Lord is really being a little too narrow in his perspective. If he argues that regional airports should concentrate more on providing air services to Northern Ireland, it is incumbent on him to be more specific about where and by which companies that can be prescribed. They will, in the final analysis, have to agree with what is proposed. Providing that evidence is forthcoming, which is a moot point, I am certainly prepared to lend him my support, for what it is worth.
At present, I am more than a little confused about what Britain’s aviation policy is all about. Will all be revealed in a few weeks’ time? Will the forthcoming Civil Aviation Bill provide all the answers? I doubt it. Unhappily, all three major political parties are dodging the primary question. All have declared their opposition to the enlargement of Heathrow. In my submission, they are all horrendously wrong. If we were to start from scratch there would be a case for examining alternatives, but we are not starting from scratch. The proposal by the Mayor of London to locate an airport close to the east coast is barmy, and is of course based entirely upon political expediency. I doubt whether any of the other so-called solutions will be viable, but we shall see.
The fact is that Heathrow exists. Like all other airports it has its downside but, like other airports which are in being, Heathrow is fertile for expansion. Heathrow is world renowned but at present operates at near capacity, as we have heard. The essential issue, in my opinion, should not be how we can rule Heathrow out, but how we can expand it while making life more tolerable for those on the ground. Of course road and rail access has to be improved, and I am convinced that that will happen. Several other ameliorative solutions have to be undertaken as well, but the airport’s future capacity must be enlarged extensively. That is not an easy solution, but surely it is infinitely preferable to the other options under consideration.
The next generation of aircraft must, and I think will, be much quieter. Some progress in this direction is already occurring and will, I am sure, proceed apace in the future. Those on the ground—the thousands of people whose lives depend on the viability of the aviation industry and Heathrow, including the pilots and those working in airports and on aircraft—will accept no less. All this is perceived clearly by industry, airlines and the many whose future is intrinsically connected to Heathrow, including BALPA, many politicians and others. We should not be distracted by other concerns. As far as I am concerned, this Bill is somewhat deficient in this respect too. Paris, Amsterdam and Frankfurt suffer no such problems and are busily extending their services. As my noble friend Lord Soley pointed out, it is incumbent on us to ensure that, at Heathrow, we do no less.
My Lords, I absolutely emphasise to your Lordships’ House that this Bill is not particularly about connections to Northern Ireland, although I fully concede that it has the most effect in Northern Ireland, as we are the most affected. Someone once quipped that if providence had really intended man to fly, it would also have made it easier for him to get to the airport. Who among us has not fought through traffic and timetables to reach a gate in time, or felt the burning frustration of security, misplaced tickets or passports? Yet these are the misfortunes of the few—the trials and tribulations of modern life.
We are debating the plight not of the individual but of millions throughout the United Kingdom regions who are in danger of being debarred from the UK’s only hub airport at Heathrow by the vagaries of geography and aviation horse-trading. I admit that this threat is felt particularly keenly in Northern Ireland, the United Kingdom’s most peripheral region and the one with the least access to Heathrow: no direct motorway link, no direct rail link and definitely no talk of a brand new high-speed rail link. No, the only practical way to get to Heathrow from Northern Ireland is a direct flight connection, something which the Bill seeks to protect in the interests of safeguarding national—national—air infrastructure.
Now, some, usually those trapped within the confines of the M25, have a tendency to suggest that we good folk banished to the fringes of the UK may like to access Heathrow via one of the south-east’s other airports: Gatwick, Stansted or even Luton. While I have nothing against any of the said airports, they are designed and geared to bring people to London, not to Heathrow. Providence may also have made it difficult for man to get to the airport, but to get from airport to airport is truly a task of Herculean proportions.
Getting to Heathrow matters, and here I speak from personal experience of my life outside this House. For the past few decades, I have had the pleasure of travelling the world on business, often to the Far East and further afield. Direct flights from Belfast to Heathrow make that possible. Without that connection, impediments to business start to mount, both in time and cost. Just how do you make a connection in Heathrow if you have first to locate and collect baggage from some other airport such as Gatwick, and then journey by cab or coach to Heathrow? That is not a pleasant prospect, but is one that I suppose I could endure—although I must admit it would probably hasten my retirement and deter me from taking every business opportunity that came my way that involved overseas travel.
More importantly, however, I am a creature trapped to some extent by habit. My ties to Northern Ireland are not purely rational. Emotion clouds my business judgment. Such influences do not weigh upon international business people looking for investment locations. Will they make the effort to visit locations in Northern Ireland when they are required to break their journey with, say, an overnight stay, and then onward travel to another regional airport before hopping on to another flight to Belfast? Some may well persevere, but some—indeed, many—will not.
Simply put, unplugging Northern Ireland’s connectivity with Heathrow disconnects the entire region from the global business community. Business people in Northern Ireland are all too aware of the pitfalls of losing access to our only hub airport on the mainland. The Northern Ireland Chamber of Commerce has recently examined the benefits of that link in developing our regional economy’s benefits in three key areas from an international hub: trade, foreign direct investment and, increasingly, tourism. With reference to investment and trade, it is clearly no coincidence that employment hotspots in foreign-owned companies tend to be beside airports. In Northern Ireland, which is a small open economy that is dependent on external sales, one in 10 jobs rely upon foreign investment, and half of those companies can reach their home market only through a hub airport.
Increasingly, our economy is looking towards emerging markets for growth opportunities. However, the evidence is that UK business trades 20 times as much with countries that have daily flights than those with less frequent or no direct service. If we cannot access Heathrow, we will have difficulty accessing these markets. The corollary is that business leaders in the world’s fastest growing economies are being put off from investing in the UK because of a lack of direct flights. Two-thirds of business leaders in emerging economies believe that better air connections from their home countries to European hubs mean that they are more likely to do business there rather than in the UK. If we are having difficulty attracting investors to Heathrow’s natural hinterland, what chance the regions?
My noble friends Lord Laird and Lord Maginnis have alluded to the fact that tourism also remains a key growth area for the province, much helped by the recent and continued successes of Northern Ireland’s three golfing champions, and golfers worldwide now and in the future wanting to play more than ever on our world-renowned links courses that produce such winners. However, our tourist industry is still recovering from the shock and the sights of the Troubles, and has significant ground to cover if we are to match Scotland or the Republic of Ireland in tourism numbers. Over 11 million additional visitors to the United Kingdom are expected by 2021, and many of these will travel from emerging markets. If there is no direct link from our only UK hub airport, how many of these visitors will make the jump across the Irish Sea?
Central government rightly tells the regions that the days of handouts are over and the day of the hand-up has arrived. I am all in favour of that, but it is a two-way process. The Government need to do what they can to create a level playing field between the centre and the periphery. They need to interject to redress market failure. A national hub does not serve the entire nation. By that definition, it is no longer a national hub. That, to me, is a market failing, and I commend the Bill to the House as a means of redress.
My Lords, I apologise for rising to speak in the gap, although I have given notice. I readily accept the importance of air transport in connectivity. We should congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Empey, on bringing forward this important discussion. I will speak briefly about the role of—even—London Luton airport, and why its position should be enshrined as part of the air infrastructure, and to make sure that that is fully acknowledged and encouraged.
The Bill seeks to amend the Airports Act 1986. I remember that Act being introduced. It was a means of forcing local authorities to put their airport into separate corporate entities. We railed against it at the time—in retrospect, wrongly. It is bizarre to think that, before those days, we operated Luton Airport as a committee of the council. Things have moved on. London Luton Airport has had the benefit of a public/private partnership. It was the UK’s fastest growing airport last year. It plans to deal with some 10 million passengers in the current year, and is consulting on a planning application that could increase capacity to something like 16 million passengers a year, or maybe even higher. Not in any way to deny Heathrow or the arguments advanced for it, I would argue that the airport should be seen as an integral part of the London air transport network. It already serves a significant part of the collective catchment area of London airports.
Issues about connections are important. If the issue is how quickly you can get from Belfast to the capital, going via Luton could be just as fast as going via Heathrow, if you have to get off the flight and get on the train or underground, get a taxi or whatever. That is not to argue against improvements to those rail networks. The point about connecting flights is a fair one. Clearly that is more difficult to do. Even within Heathrow itself, it depends where your connecting flights are going from. With five terminals in Heathrow itself, it is not like stepping from one platform to another.
My point is that, in all this debate, the contribution of airports such as London Luton Airport should not be overlooked. It is not a perfect solution to all the issues of connectivity that have been raised by the Bill, but while there are constraints on Heathrow, whatever the future of its expansion entails, airports such as London Luton Airport have a real contribution to make. They have the benefit of having the strong support of their local communities, principally because a big franchise fee comes into the local council and helps to keep spending up, or council tax down, or both. London Luton Airport should feature, and I urge that it does feature, in the Government’s consideration of airport policy to deal with these issues as well as others.
My Lords, I had not planned to speak in this debate but I gave notice that I intended to speak in the gap and want to ask the Minister one short question. My credentials for doing so are that I was the Minister who took through Parliament the 1996 Act that this Private Member’s Bill attempts to amend. The context to my question is what this debate has been all about: the absolute shortage of capacity at Heathrow Airport. We have run out of space—we are full up at Heathrow. My question to the Minister is: what will the Government’s response be to the 70 businessmen who wrote in the Sunday Telegraph two weeks ago that they wanted a third runway at Heathrow Airport? The other part of the article said that No. 10 was beginning to change its mind about this matter—or the paper thought that it was, although we should not believe everything that we read in the papers. I should be very grateful for an answer to that question.
My Lords, if one purpose of this debate is to call out the Government on aviation policy, the kind of question that the noble Lord, Lord Spicer, has just asked certainly does that, as indeed do the speech and the Bill of the noble Lord, Lord Empey. In his excellent speech, he made a powerful case for the obvious significance of adequate transport links for regional policy. Crucially, for Northern Ireland that is bound to mean air travel. He was supported in the debate by colleagues from Northern Ireland, who indicated how crucial these air links are and the potential danger. Despite the assurances given by Willie Walsh and IAG that slots will be preserved to serve Belfast if the merger goes through, there is obvious anxiety that these assurances might not stand the test of time.
The debate is not just about Northern Ireland. As the noble Earl, Lord Caithness, indicated, Scotland has more than a passing interest in this issue, too. In many respects, Edinburgh stands to lose at least as much as Belfast. This is in circumstances in which we are all concerned about the unity of the United Kingdom—as the Prime Minister assures us that he is—and any potential threat to transport links with Scotland ought to be regarded as a very unfortunate development. Therefore, in this debate the Minister has to reply to the question about the significance of aviation policy for the regions. I might add that only brief passing reference was made to the south-west, but many who travel from there feel that they are almost as remote and limited by their links as other areas of the United Kingdom are.
We must all recognise that regional policy and development ought to be of surpassing concern to the Government. They know that our regions are ill favoured compared to the south-east. They know, when they look at the indices of growing unemployment at present and the inevitable development of poverty as a result of government measures, that a great deal of it is concentrated in certain regions. It is important that we address ourselves to the infrastructure that gives the regions a chance.
Underlying it all is the bigger aviation issue: London Heathrow is full to capacity. The noble Lord, Lord Addington, did not make a very significant point when he talked about consultation. This is not about increasing the number of flights; it is about protecting the services that we already have. That is the anxiety that underpins this measure and what the Bill seeks to address.
The worry is that, as the noble Earl, Lord Caithness, indicated in his contribution, aviation ought to be and is subject to commercial considerations. We all recognise that, but the problem is that the slots that IAG commands will be redirected on commercial grounds. I indicate to the House that IAG could merge with the airline with the second greatest number of slots after its own at the hub airport of Heathrow. International travel is more remunerative for the airlines than regional travel. Therefore, the danger is that IAG will use the slots for long-distance travel, particularly since Heathrow is struggling at the moment because the restrictions on international competition are quite great, as my noble friends Lord Soley and Lord Clinton-Davis indicated. We are already seeing airports such as Schiphol and Charles de Gaulle open up routes to Chinese cities, which Heathrow just cannot match because of its limited capacity.
That is why, when the Minister replies to this debate, he should not just respond to the Bill, although I recognise that he will address himself to its detail. The Bill raises the issue of aviation policy and the particular question of what capacity there is in south-east England, other than Heathrow, to meet the obvious demand that is presented by the regions of the United Kingdom, as exemplified by the Bill. However, it also raises wider considerations.
My party has looked carefully at the Bill. We recognise the strength of the case made by the noble Lord, Lord Empey, and are aware of its significance for the regions of the UK. However, we are not persuaded that the Bill can solve the problem that it addresses. The noble Lord has certainly cast light on an important dimension of aviation policy. However, we fear that an attempt to give the Secretary of State powers to direct airline slots will run foul of competition policy. That is why we state our position much more strongly on the response of the European authorities to this problem.
My honourable friends in the other place, the shadow Secretaries of State for Transport, Northern Ireland and Scotland, have written to the European Commission indicating that this is an issue of cardinal significance to Britain and that we are in the unique position of having a single hub airport, which is clearly what Heathrow functions as, and the regions, particularly Northern Ireland, are greatly dependent on this hub. We therefore seek a response from Europe that indicates that the bid by IAG, framed in its present terms, would create a predominance of slots at Heathrow that would be a threat to the health of the British economy in its regional development.
I have the greatest respect for the case put by the noble Lord, Lord Empey. He presented to the House, with the greatest clarity, a problem that certainly needs to be addressed. It is not being addressed at present by the Government, who continue to indicate that we all need to wait on the evolution of policy. But time marches on. The bid is before the European authorities now, yet the Government remain bereft of any policy except one—the supremely negative policy of saying that there will be no third runway or additional capacity at Heathrow. That will not do, and I hope that the Minister in his response will also open up government responses to the more fundamental issues of aviation policy in this country.
My Lords, first, I offer my sincere congratulations to the noble Lord, Lord Empey, on securing a Second Reading for his Bill. We have had a fascinating and informative debate, and the noble Lord, Lord Clinton-Davis, is right to say that we should be discussing this matter today. I also commend the noble Lord, Lord Empey, for his detailed and thorough engagement with Members of the European Parliament and officials from the UK’s permanent representation in Brussels in pursuance of the Bill. He is a model of how to deal with problems of this nature.
The Bill’s aims are laudable in seeking to introduce powers that would allow the Secretary of State for Transport to ring-fence take-off and landing slots at congested London airports to ensure the future protection of regional air services, in particular to Northern Ireland and Scotland. The noble Lord, Lord Rogan, talked about the need for a level playing field between the centre and the periphery and the noble Lord, Lord Davies of Oldham, made some valid points about the regions.
We recognise that regional airports, including Luton, make a vital contribution to local economies and that regional connectivity is very important. For some remoter areas of the UK, regional air services are not a luxury but a vital means of connectivity, as many noble Lords have observed. I acknowledge too the concerns of the noble Lord, Lord Empey, that the provision of commercial air services is subject to market forces. Ultimately, airlines operate in a competitive commercial environment and it is for them to determine the routes that they operate.
It is possible, therefore, to imagine that at some future point airlines currently operating services from Northern Ireland and Scotland to Heathrow could decide to reduce or withdraw them and use the relevant Heathrow slots for alternative services. It has been suggested that we cannot leave this issue to the commercial market. However, the picture is not necessarily as bleak as the noble Lord fears, as at present there are many flights from Northern Ireland and Scotland into Heathrow and it is likely that many deliver a commercially attractive return in comparison to other potential routes; for example, as feeder flights for long-haul services.
The noble Lord, Lord Maginnis, talked about the need to meet all demand for air passenger services. Currently, more than 18,000 flights per year operate between the two Belfast airports and the five main London airports, of which nearly 7,000 are between Belfast and Heathrow. These routes are well used, with more than 2 million passenger journeys in 2010 between Belfast and London, of which more than 750,000 were between Belfast and Heathrow. My noble friend Lord Caithness mentioned some of the difficulties with the Bill and described the current situation with services. Scotland is also well connected, with more than 60,000 flights per year between Aberdeen, Edinburgh and Glasgow and London airports, carrying 5.8 million passengers in 2010. Of these, more than 27,000 were between Scotland and Heathrow, carrying 2.9 million passengers in 2010.
As the noble Lord, Lord Empey, correctly states, world slot guidelines determined by the International Air Transport Association are reflected in the European Union regulations that govern the allocation, transfer and exchange of slots at Heathrow and other slot co-ordinated airports in the UK. I note the warning from my noble friend Lord Caithness about government interference in these arrangements.
EU law provides some scope to protect regional air services by allowing member states to impose public service obligations—PSOs—to protect air services to airports serving a peripheral or development region, or on thin routes considered vital for a region’s economic and social development. It would be open to devolved Administrations in Northern Ireland and Scotland to apply to the Secretary of State to impose a PSO on an air route, should they feel that a case can be made that satisfies the EU regulation. If approved, this would permit ring-fencing of slots at a relevant London airport.
An important principle of PSOs is that they can be imposed only when it is necessary to ensure adequate services between two cities or regions, rather than to link individual airports, which is precisely the problem that we are dealing with. Importantly, this means that when judging whether a region has adequate services to London, it is necessary to take into account the level and nature of services to all five main London airports. I have to tell the House that there is currently no other mechanism for the Government to intervene in the allocation of slots at Heathrow or other London airports.
Under European law, the potential for ring-fencing slots at Heathrow to protect regional services is to be dealt with by reference to the PSO rules alone. Therefore, to create a parallel more wide-ranging set of rules would be incompatible with EU law. The Bill is therefore contrary to EU regulations because it would, in effect, override the strict criteria and processes by which European Governments can intervene on route operations. However, as already indicated in the Explanatory Memorandum submitted to Parliament on the European Commission’s Better Airports package, the proposal to amend the slot regulations provides an opportunity for the UK to highlight this issue with the Commission and explore measures to help secure, if necessary ongoing, provision of air services between UK regions and congested London airports.
That said, the prospect of securing such amendments will be challenging, and chances of success may be limited, because introducing a mechanism to protect routes that are at present well served by economically viable air services would necessitate a fundamental change to the existing applicable EU law.
My noble friend Lord Caithness also warned us about the impact on competition if the Bill were to be passed. We are currently considering what options are available that would achieve the connectivity objectives within the Bill, without having a serious detrimental effect on competition in the wider aviation market, which could affect UK aviation interests.
I am conscious that the proposed sale of BMI to the parent company of British Airways, IAG, has focused particular attention on regional air connectivity, prompting concerns about reduced flight frequency on routes on which BA and BMI currently compete, leaving BA as the sole operator on some routes from Heathrow—for example, to Aberdeen, Edinburgh and Manchester—with too much market dominance that could impact on air fares.
Any competition issues arising from the proposed sale are subject to investigation by the European Commission competition authority, which holds jurisdiction to consider whether airline acquisitions and mergers may lead to a substantial impediment to effective competition in a substantial part of the EU. IAG’s proposed acquisition of BMI was formally notified to the competition authority on 10 February. The Commission’s published provisional deadline for reaching a decision on its phase 1 investigation is Friday 30 March. The UK Office of Fair Trading is in contact with the Commission competition authority in relation to the proposed sale. Noble Lords will appreciate that the sale of BMI is a commercial matter for the companies involved. As the proposed sale is subject to competition inquiries, it would not be appropriate for me to comment further at this stage.
More generally, I assure noble Lords that a key part of the Government's approach to aviation is to seek to create the right conditions for regional airports, including those in Scotland and Northern Ireland, to flourish. We have committed to producing a sustainable framework for UK aviation which supports economic growth and addresses aviation’s environmental impacts. We intend to consult shortly on a new aviation policy framework, which will set out our overall aviation strategy. Alongside this, we plan to issue a call for evidence on maintaining the UK’s international connectivity.
The noble Lord, Lord Soley, in his interesting speech, suggested that our forthcoming aviation policy framework paper may leave a big hole in the middle of it. In the extremely unlikely case that that is proved to be correct, I am sure that the noble Lord, Lord Davies, will drop me in it at least once if not several times.
The noble Lord, Lord Laird, talked about tourism from the United States. He will be aware that there is a direct air service between Belfast International and Newark, New York with United Continental airlines. The noble Lord, Lord Clinton-Davis, touched on the Civil Aviation Bill. As drafted, it does not cover the third runway of Heathrow or slot allocation. The noble Lord made important observations about the technical improvement of aircraft, particularly in respect of noise. He also touched on the Thames estuary airport. As the Chancellor said in his Autumn Statement, the Government are committed to maintaining the UK’s hub aviation status. As part of that commitment, we will commission a call for evidence on the options for ensuring that the UK maintains its international air connectivity. We intend to publish a call for evidence alongside our consultation on the new aviation policy framework shortly.
The noble Lord, Lord McKenzie, talked about the attractions of Luton Airport. I have already visited Gatwick and Heathrow and am due to visit Manchester shortly. I visited Luton some time ago, but I will try to do so again.
My noble friend Lord Spicer asked me about the letter from 70 businessmen. I fear that he will have to wait for the consultation paper.
The noble Lord, Lord Rogan, talked about the lack of business connectivity through Heathrow. It is open to passengers using regional airports to utilise other hub airports to access worldwide airlines.
In conclusion, on the basis that the Bill would be incompatible with EU law, the Government will not be able to support the Bill’s passage into legislation, nor could we entertain a corresponding amendment to the Civil Aviation Bill. I am grateful for the very sensible position of the noble Lord, Lord Davies of Oldham, speaking from the opposition Front Bench, and his comments on the desirability of the Bill. However, as I have indicated, we are committed to highlighting the issue of regional connectivity in the context of the forthcoming reform of the EU slot regulations and intend to explore measures to help to secure the ongoing provision of air services between UK regions and congested London airports.
My Lords, I can see the noble Lord, Lord Howell, in his place, hoping that I am going to go through a very detailed response to every speaker who has contributed this morning. I thank all who have contributed, because the debate has raised the fact that aviation issues in general are of great concern to many Members of the House. I hope that Members will forgive me for not dealing specifically with every contribution, but I want to raise a few points.
The noble Earl, Lord Caithness, as a former Aviation Minister, made a number of points about the commercial issues. Of course regional policy, which all Governments have followed since the 1950s, is by definition to some extent interfering with the market. If we did not interfere with the market to some extent, areas of this country would be laid waste. That is the practical reality. Why do we have the European regional development fund? Why do we have regional growth funds? All these things deliberately address a market failure. Aviation is no different. Although it would be nice to say, “Let us leave things and the market will fix it”, I assure noble Lords that the market will not fix it. At present, if you look at Heathrow, you see small regional aircraft parked that have a capacity of, may be, 34 passengers. They occupy one slot, whereas you have an A380 that may take 500 or 600 passengers for the same slot. Common sense dictates that it will not be long before someone in an airline somewhere works out that it is cheaper per head to land 600 people than 34 people.
The big issue economically, for me, is not specifically a Northern Ireland issue. I have tried to go out of my way not to make it a Northern Ireland issue. The issue is that at present, our Government, as they have conceded, have no power to intervene should the market decide to push the slots somewhere else; I got a very strong clue when the noble Lord, Lord McKenzie of Luton, got to his feet. Of course we welcome and enjoy the links with Luton, Stansted and so on, but we are talking about the narrower issue; my colleague, my noble friend Lord Rogan, made it very clear as a businessman himself that, if you do not have the international connections, businesspeople are not going to travel for hours between airports at great inconvenience to themselves to get to a region. It is a disincentive which goes against the grain of all the millions of pounds we pour into regional policy in this country year after year.
Given the time, I will perhaps not address the wider issues that the noble Lord, Lord Soley, and a number of other noble Lords addressed, although I have to say that we must have an answer to those questions. I come to the point about the European dimension to this. We have a unique opportunity because, by sheer coincidence, the European Union is addressing these matters in parallel with us. I fully understand what the Minister said. I have been out there. I believe we have the opportunity to make a strong case to the European Union. I believe we will have support out there—I know we have, certainly in the Parliament of the European Union. Although the Parliament is not the final decider in this case, I assure noble Lords that the growing influence of the Parliament over the Commission and in codecision-making in a number of areas will give us an opportunity in the coming months, as the year progresses, to negotiate with the European Union so that, ultimately, something like the Bill will be compatible with our European obligations. I understand the Minister’s position at present, and I do not seek to put us in conflict with our European partners. To coin a phrase that is a bit colloquial, I do not intend to go away on this issue, you know. The fact is that we have local interests to protect at home, but this is a UK issue.
I have to tell your Lordships about the destinations that are available. You can fly from Amsterdam to Belfast and, as the noble Lord, Lord Soley, made clear, to far more cities than you can from Heathrow. The commercial value of those slots is, I think, between £20 million and £30 million each. Common sense dictates that, unless Heathrow has extra capacity, ultimately the only way to protect access to it from the regions will be through some form of intervention. We do not have the power to do that at the moment and we would be in conflict with Europe if we did, but I think that there may be an opportunity to do so, particularly this year, as reports are being drafted in Brussels right now. I believe that we have the ear of the Parliament and many of the people associated with it, because they are working through the same process themselves.
I strongly believe that we are doing the right thing at the right time. It may not be perfect—I fully understand that it needs a lot more work—but, if we pull together and work with our European partners, I believe very strongly that we will be able to bring forward a series of proposals that will provide a guarantee for the future. Let us not get too hung up about the commercial deals before us today. It is the long term that we are trying to protect, and this will give us an opportunity to protect regional connectivity for the long term. All regional policy will fail if we do not have adequate connections.
Bill read a second time and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.
Motion to Take Note
My Lords, the purpose of this debate is to reflect on the momentous events of the past 15 months in the Middle East and North Africa and their implications for our own security and prosperity.
Of course, the past 15 months represent only the very beginning of the process of change. In Syria, appalling violence and instability continue. New Governments in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya need to stabilise their economies, draft new constitutions and meet the expectations of their people. In Bahrain, steps are being taken to implement the recommendations of the committee of inquiry into the violence that went on last year, but this needs to be seen through fully. The important consideration is that change will be a long process—possibly very long. The path was never going to be, and will never be, straightforward. There are enormous challenges ahead, both economic and political, but, as my right honourable friend the Foreign and Commonwealth Secretary has said, the whole Arab spring phenomenon does at least raise the prospect of the greatest enlargement of human freedom since the end of the Cold War and of course of a wider Middle East that could be made up of open, prosperous and stable societies. That is of the greatest importance to us in the United Kingdom and to our interests in that region, and it is a goal worth expending prolonged efforts to move towards and showing great patience to achieve.
Perhaps I may be allowed to share with your Lordships some detailed views on the unfolding scene. I shall comment, first, on Tunisia, where in a sense it all began 15 months ago with the dramatic and tragic death of the fruit-seller, Mohamed Bouazizi. I applaud the remarkable process that the people of Tunisia have made in their so-called jasmine revolution. Following successful elections in October, a new broad-based Government have now been established, and the Constituent Assembly is leading the drafting of a constitution for Tunisia based on democratic values and human rights. We maintain full support for the Tunisian transition and the elected coalition Government. Tunisia is also beginning to take a more active role in foreign affairs, and it hosted the important 24 February Friends of Syria meeting. President Marzouki has recently completed a regional tour of all the Maghreb states, arguing strongly that now is the time to chart a new relationship between these countries. That is encouraging.
I shall say a word on Egypt. There, too, truly historic parliamentary elections represented an important step along the country’s path to change. We welcome continued progress on the political transition, including the announcement of presidential elections during May and June, and the transfer of power to an elected President by 1 July. Of course, the economic challenge in Egypt is extremely significant. Its faltering economy fails to meet the public’s high expectations for growth, jobs and better standards of living, and that could undermine the process of political reform. Violence over the past year has shown the scale of the problem that the Egyptian authorities must tackle, including the need to build full respect for human rights. We continue to urge the authorities to enshrine human rights in the constitution, including guarantees for minority rights, and to develop the other building blocks of democracy, such as a free media and a vibrant civil society. That is what the Egyptian people want and this is where we can help.
Turning to Libya, the Libyan authorities are making steady progress in their transition to a peaceful and stable country. In June, the Libyan people will have their first democratic elections in 40 years. I think that they can be immensely proud of the inspiration they have given to others around the world, as indeed we are of the UK’s role in supporting them. There is a lot of hard work ahead, including disarming militias, restarting the economy and building government institutions, but in our view Libya’s future is potentially brighter than it was a year ago. It will take time. The issue of how much federalism there is to be in the new constitution will have to be sorted out. However, we will continue to support Libya, especially in dealing with the legacy of the grim Gaddafi era, entrenching the rule of law and preparing for the June elections in close co-operation with the United Nations and other partner countries. It is to be expected that some will be frustrated by the pace of reform, but just over one year on from the beginning of the revolution the future of Libya is firmly in the hands of the Libyan people, where it should be.
As events in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, which I have mentioned, and more widely have shown, change has been led by the people of the region. It is not for the United Kingdom or any western power to dictate the pace or nature of the change from outside. We must also respect the choices that Arab citizens make democratically through the ballot box. This includes being prepared to work with new elected groups that draw their inspiration from Islam, while holding them to the same high standards of non-violence, respect for human rights and a willingness to respect the outcome of future elections that are expected of others. These things can, have in the past and will in the future, go together.
There is no one model of democracy; it is for the people of each country in the region to determine their own path in accordance with their different cultures, traditions and political systems. That is why we applaud in particular steps taken in states such as Morocco and Jordan, where leaders have initiated gradual reform processes. My right honourable friend the Deputy Prime Minister spoke to Morocco’s newly elected Head of Government, Abdelilah Benkirane, on 20 January to offer his congratulations and the UK’s full support for Morocco’s constitutional reforms. This country also stands fully ready to partner with Jordan as it undertakes to implement the reforms of His Majesty Kind Abdullah. We also look forward to upcoming parliamentary elections in May in Algeria, which I recently visited and where we have high hopes of closer relations. We also welcome the conference organised by the Maghreb countries on border security, which called together all those countries, including Algeria and Morocco, to reach decisions on co-operation.
I will say a word about Bahrain. We are urging the Government there to continue to implement the full recommendations of the Bahrain independent commission of inquiry. However, they must go further and implement political reforms. The Government and opposition parties say that they are ready to re-engage in dialogue, and we call on both sides to begin talks quickly. Agreement between the Government and the trade unions on the reinstatement of workers is a welcome move forward.
A much more difficult scene is found in Yemen. After 33 years as head of state, Ali Abdullah Saleh stepped down and formally handed over power to a new president. This followed the agreed Gulf Cooperation Council-brokered plan to bring about peaceful political change. The UK welcomed the inauguration of President Abbed Rabbo Mansour Hadi. The second phase of transition will not be at all easy. The economy is in disarray after years of intense unrest. Security must be re-established and Iranian meddling, which is clearly evident, must be resisted. The humanitarian crisis is growing and many disaffected parties who have been outside the political process will need to be brought to the table in an attempt to resolve their grievances. However, the opportunity is there and it deserves our optimistic support.
I will come to some more difficult areas in a moment. I will say a word about the role of Turkey, which is of increasing relevance and importance. The events of the past year have reinforced the importance of Turkey. It played a very important role in supporting the NATO mission in Libya. With its stable democracy and thriving economy, it continues to act as an inspiration for countries affected by the Arab spring process. We will continue to work together in the context of the G8’s partnership, agreed at the Deauville meeting, to support political and economic transitions in countries such as Egypt and Tunisia. We welcome Turkey's efforts to share its experience of the political process by inviting those involved in the revolution in Egypt to meet its political parties.
In Syria, which I will come to in more detail in a moment, Turkey is a vital partner. We are working closely together as part of the Friends of Syria group, and at the United Nations, to increase international pressure on the Assad regime to end its violence and improve access for humanitarian organisations. Turkey can also play an important role in encouraging Iran to negotiate seriously on its nuclear problem, and we look forward to the prospect of further talks there.
I come to the very difficult and grim situation in Syria. President Assad and his regime have refused to recognise a central truth. The UN estimates that since protests began in Syria in March 2011, more than 7,500 people—I believe 8,000 is the latest figure—have been killed, including 380 children. The Syrian regime is engaged in a brutal campaign of repression through widespread and systematic human rights violations, including torture and the rape of men, women and children. The registered Syrian refugee population in neighbouring countries now exceeds 30,000, although the actual figure could be much higher, and it is believed that more than 200,000 people have been displaced. We continue to play a prominent role in international efforts to convince the Syrian regime that it must end its brutality. There is no room in the Middle East of the future for butchery of this kind.
We seek a robust Human Rights Council resolution on Syria in Geneva, and are working hard in New York to get the UN Security Council to put its weight behind efforts to bring peace and improve humanitarian access. We continue to call for an immediate end to the brutal repression of human rights, and demand an end to all violence and immediate and unhindered humanitarian access. We support the work of Kofi Annan, the special envoy of the UN and Arab League, to bring about an end to the violence and facilitate a political transition. We also support the efforts of the noble Baroness, Lady Amos, the current Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs, who is known to us all. We call on the Syrian Government to implement their commitments to the Arab League by stopping military action, withdrawing their forces from towns and cities, releasing political prisoners and allowing the media access. We strongly endorse what the Arab League and Kofi Annan are doing. The Foreign Secretary recently addressed the House of Commons on the issue and announced the suspension of the service of the British embassy in Damascus and the withdrawal of all diplomatic staff. They have now left Syria. We continue to follow developments on the ground very closely.
I have few minutes remaining, but there is much more to say on the area. We must do all we can to support the people of the region as they build more open and inclusive democratic societies. To this end, we launched the highly praised Arab Partnership Programme to provide both political and economic support to the region. We have committed to provide £110 million over four years. In Egypt and Tunisia, we supported the electoral processes and helped to encourage political debate. I would have liked to share with noble Lords much more what we are doing in facing these issues.
The old dangers also remain, and with your Lordships’ permission I shall return to them at the end of the debate. Obviously, the Middle East peace process remains central; the conflict there is poisoning the whole scene in the Middle East. Our priority remains to bring the parties to negotiation. The ongoing Iranian nuclear crisis remains a cause of a very grave concern, and we are 100 per cent committed to a peaceful resolution of the issue if we can achieve it. There will be further talks with the Iranians, although a time has yet to be fixed.
In the Middle East mosaic there are of course many blemishes and stains. We make no secret of our wish to see gradual reform in great states such as Saudi Arabia. However, we should also note the way in which the states of the Gulf work closely with this country. Everywhere in the region there is genuine and deep affection for Britain. That is why some of the GCC states show a strong interest in links with the Commonwealth, while their trade and business interests turn increasingly to the east and the rising powers of Asia.
I have no more time to expand on what we are doing and intend to do. We can be proud of our role, our diplomacy and our expertise deployed throughout the region—especially, if I may say so, that of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office under the inspired leadership of my right honourable friend the Foreign and Commonwealth Secretary, William Hague. I look forward greatly in the coming debate to hearing your Lordships’ insights into these tumultuous, dangerous and challenging events. I beg to move.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for introducing the debate and for the comprehensive and very helpful way in which he did so. I declare an interest as a chairman of the Arab-British Chamber of Commerce, and other interests listed in the Register.
As the noble Lord said, the Arab spring impacted directly on some countries in the region through changes of government, while in others the impact was less obvious. However, no one should underestimate the indirect political and social effect that is obvious throughout the whole region. From Tunisia and Morocco in the Maghreb, through the Levant—most obviously in Libya, Egypt and Syria—and certainly in Jordan, Lebanon and Palestine, we see that impact. We see it perhaps in less obvious ways in the Gulf states, with the great difficulties in Bahrain, and it is certainly also felt in Kuwait, the UAE, Qatar, Oman and, perhaps most importantly, Saudi Arabia.
Generalities are always dangerous. We all know that these countries, tied as they are by links of language and culture, are none the less very different—often in religion, with the Sunni and Shia branches of Islam, but also in customs, social mores and, most clearly, in wealth.
One very obvious political development stands out. It is the increased authority of the collective organisations: the Arab League and the Gulf Co-operation Council. The decisive action of the Arab League over Libya was very welcome, and the effect of its decision at the United Nations to call for the protection of the people of Benghazi effectively opened the way for Libya to begin its path to political development and democracy. The Arab League similarly led the call for the protection of Syrian civilians against a ruthless regime, but Syria’s regime is better organised and resourced than Gaddafi’s regime ever was, so the Arab League’s efforts have been frustrated at the Security Council by China and by the client relationship that Syria enjoys with Russia. None the less, the Arab League has been united, decisive and clear in the leadership that it has offered, and that is to be welcomed. Similarly, the Gulf Co-operation Council has come into its own in relation to Yemen with the plan to remove President Saleh and to try to bring Yemen out of its chaotic and still, sadly, rather lawless state towards a more stable future.
As chairman of the Arab-British Chamber of Commerce, I see the effect of these political developments on trade and economic activity. Trade in Egypt has been very seriously affected, the Egyptian economy is in real trouble, and the people who hoped for so much are becoming restless at the lack of political and economic progress, as the recent demonstrations in Cairo and elsewhere have shown. One of the most worrying and saddest developments has been the sporadic outbreaks of violence towards the minority Coptic Christian community. The overwhelming majority of Muslims deplore this development, but the Coptic community is anxious and watchful about its future.
Tunisia’s trade, particularly in tourism, has been affected, but the political situation is now settling down, as the Minister said, and the elections will lead to a new constitution and further elections next year, but it needs our continuing support, and I hope the Minister can tell us more about what our Government are doing to support the country that led the way with the jasmine revolution.
By contrast, Libya, frankly, had little or no civil society and very few public institutions. As the Minister said, the elections in June will lead to a constitutional settlement followed by further elections next year. Libya has one huge advantage: oil, and therefore wealth. There have been over 10 trade delegations between the UK and Libya in the past six months, mostly concentrating on health but some on financial institutions and on organising the oil industry for the benefit of the people.
That brings out one of the great contrasts of the region: wealth and poverty. There is Saudi Arabia, with over 25 per cent of the world’s oil and a population of 28 million, embarking on a huge development programme. There is Qatar, a tiny country with only 300,000 nationals but with the highest per capita income in the world, which is investing in everything from football to art. There are the emirates, with Abu Dhabi arguably developing even greater confidence than Dubai. These countries sit alongside Egypt, which has 80 million people, many of whom are illiterate, with extremes of huge personal wealth and abject personal poverty, and Jordan, with a well educated population but with no oil and a real and pressing need for sources of energy and water.
It is arguably Egypt and Jordan that have kept the Arab and Palestinian understandings with Israel stable and constant in the past decades. It is Egypt and Jordan that have been the mainstays of the peace process in the region, difficult as it has been, uncertain and violent at times, but with no outright, full-scale hostilities. However, Egypt may not be able to go on delivering this role if a Government are elected with a democratic mandate to change their stance on Israel, and if Jordan cannot stabilise its economy and deliver for its people, its courageous leadership will come under increasing pressure with unknown consequences.
However, it is the growing concern about Iran that many Arabs focus upon, particularly in the Gulf. This stems not only from uncertainty about Iran’s nuclear ambitions but from its bilateral relationships in the region, particularly its support of the Alawite leadership in Syria. It is, of course, also a matter of concern that it continues to support Hezbollah’s activities in many countries: destabilising Yemen, going through Syria and into volatile Lebanon.
The Minister rightly concentrated on Syria. We support the huge efforts of the international community to stop the appalling regime and its brutalising, torturing and killing of its citizens, some as young as 11 years old. However the question of what happens next in Syria should concern us all. Iran would fight to maintain its influence and Hezbollah is well entrenched and will not give up easily, so can the Minister tell us what our Government are doing to liaise with Arab countries on what the future holds for Syria internally and on its place in the international community?
In virtually all countries of the region, there is an enormous and growing problem: a huge population of young people. For example, 60 per cent of Saudis are aged under 25. These young people are equipped with the instant communications of the modern day through social networking, and that implies everything about being able to get their voices heard. These young people need jobs, and the UN has calculated that the region needs around 100 million more jobs by 2020 to keep it anything like stable. That should concern us all because young people of the region want worthwhile and fulfilling futures as much as young people in this country, and they deserve worthwhile and fulfilling futures as much as our young people.
My Lords, I am delighted to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Symons, and her formidable tour d’horizon based on her tremendous knowledge and experience of the Middle East. I will start by making a few general reflections before coming to one or two specific points.
I agree with the Minister that the Arab world has started down a road that will be long and hard. It is exciting, but it is also very dangerous, and the early euphoria of so many people, with which we all sympathised, has now led to greater realism some 13 or 14 months later. Each country is very different. Arab civilisation was perhaps at its greatest in its first 500 years. Arabs today, particularly young ones, are yearning for more freedom, more knowledge and more education, and the women yearn to have a greater say in the affairs of their country.
The dramatic changes of the past few months have brought about economic disruption, which is inevitable, and this raises the question that the Minister referred to: the challenge for each of these countries to manage growing expectations. We think of the experience of South Africa, the expectations raised when Mandela became the first black president and the very great problems that it is going to have to grapple with in coming years. Then there are the richer Arab countries with oil that are throwing money at supporting Arabs on benefits and investing in infrastructure, the public sector and so on. That is fine up to a point, but it is unlikely in the long term to answer the aspirations of younger people.
All this is against the background of increasing fundamentalism, strains between Sunni and Shia—just as we had strains between Roman Catholics and Protestants—the historic strains between the Arabs and the Persians and the growing intolerance that arises from that. We have already had a debate in this House about the treatment of the Christians, who are an integral part of the Middle East. It is interesting to observe that the three Abrahamic faiths have managed historically from time to time to live peacefully together. Is it not about time that they renewed their common bonds rather than divided?
Then there is the reference by all of us to democracy. It has taken us centuries to evolve the system we have today, and each of those countries, with different degrees of sophistication, will need to develop the rule of law and a free press to create the right conditions. Some argue that there should be no elections until that happens. I think that is wrong. I think elections can help to point countries in the right direction. Certainly, we have seen that in Egypt and Tunisia and more recently in Kuwait.
From all this has emerged the political parties—the Minister referred to this—particularly the Islamic parties coming into parliaments in Egypt, Tunisia and Kuwait, which brings out the question of the relationship between religion and politics, with which we have grappled in Europe over time. We still have an established church here. We have had Christian democratic parties in Europe. They will have to grapple with these problems too, hopefully taking Turkey as much as possible as a model to follow.
All these countries are grappling with systems of accountability and the rule of law, and each one is different. Egypt has to decide on the relationship between political parties and the military. Tunisia has stronger middle classes, women play a prominent role, and it has a civic society. Libya has had 42 years of dictatorship and now has been given a chance. Syria, of course, is a disaster, but one positive point emerging from this is that Hamas appears to be turning away from Syria and Iran towards the Muslim Brotherhood.
I should like to say a word about the Gulf monarchies, many of which could evolve into constitutional monarchies if they handle things in the right way. Speaking as someone who has been to Bahrain since the 1950s, the spring of last year was a great disappointment to me. The events were extremely bad and damaging, but at the same time, when something positive happens, it is very important that in this country, in the media and in Parliament, we acknowledge and encourage it. To my mind, it was remarkable that the king decided to appoint an international commission and allow it to make recommendations, all of which he has committed to fulfil. I wonder how many other countries would do that. Would we be prepared to have an international commission and implement all its recommendations? It is important that we give encouragement where encouragement is due; otherwise our influence in those areas will erode.
It is a polarised society with a Shia majority and a Sunni Government. It is vital for the Bahraini Government to demonstrate that they are treating the Shia and the Sunnis as equal under the law. Here, the position of Saudi Arabia is critical, as is our relationship with Saudi Arabia. Although King Abdullah is trying to introduce some reforms in this country, we acknowledge that there is a Shia community on the Bahrain borders. If Saudi Arabia tries to restrain the Bahraini Government from reforming, all I can say is that it could be totally and utterly counterproductive for Saudi Arabia, let alone the other Gulf countries. I hope that the British Government and other friends of Saudi Arabia are having an intense dialogue with it about that.
I end on the Indian Ocean and the Horn of Africa, interlinked with the Middle East. Some 25 per cent of world trade passes through the Indian Ocean and the Gulf of Aden, where it is threatened by piracy and terrorism. The Malacca Strait’s experience of piracy shows that it is essential to stabilise the littoral states. I congratulate the British Government on taking the lead and convening an international conference to try to build stability in that area, particularly in the Horn, and to work with the international community in getting the regions of the Horn and the clans to co-operate together by building up the peacekeeping forces and working to defeat piracy through criminalising the proceeds of ransom money.
A key to this is Somaliland, which is becoming increasingly stable and successful. The British Government are rightly giving support to enhancing security, and strengthening health and education services, the private sector and so on. But the Somalis are a very proud people. I have worked with them. They are an independent-minded people who are ruthlessly suppressed by Siad Barre, the President until 1991. It is crucial that we build on the success of Somaliland and give it every encouragement. I hope that it will be encouraged to negotiate with the newly formed and emerging Government in Mogadishu so that it can decide what kind of relationship it will have with them in the future.
I have run out of time and I hope that others will deal with the very difficult problems of Palestine and Iran.
My Lords, I, too, thank the Minister for his expansive coverage of the countries of the Middle East in today’s debate. I will focus on only three countries. Noble Lords will note the expansive talent on these Benches and several colleagues will comment on other parts of the region. My focus will be on Iran, Israel and Syria. All three are interlinked in a more complex manner than just being geographically proximate.
Let me go directly to the most intractable foreign policy issue in recent times—namely, the concern that Iran is moving towards a nuclear weapons capability. The latest IAEA report of November 2011 concluded that this remained a possibility; hence the belated move towards strong sanctions by the international community. We know that Israel considers the idea of a nuclear armed Iran as an existential threat. I respect that concern and would say to it that its concerns are well understood beyond its own borders. We are all aware of the dangers of nuclear proliferation across the Middle East, as may well happen if the NPT is wantonly disregarded by Iran. We are also aware, however, that Israel stands on shaky moral ground when, as a nuclear weapon state itself, it seeks, potentially through the use of force, to prevent another state’s programme, especially where the stated purpose of that programme is civilian nuclear development.
Even if we were to accept that Iran is moving towards a nuclear threshold state—the jury is still out on that—we know from experience elsewhere that reaching a nuclear threshold is not to say that it is anything other than a deterrent position. If we look at North Korea versus South Korea, India versus Pakistan, or, indeed, the United States versus the Soviet Union during the Cold War, it is not to say that this situation is sui generis. We have unhappily lived alongside states which have had nuclear weapon capability and which face hostile neighbours. Thankfully, we have reached a modus operandi within those constraints.
I appreciate too that opinion in Israel is divided on the use of military strikes against Iran. In fact, my Israeli interlocutors have gone beyond the terminology of using phrases such as “military strikes” and have spoken candidly about “war”. It is clear that the experts in intelligence and the military itself in Israel are more conscious of the unpredictability of war against Iran, arguing publically as the retired head of Mossad, Mier Dagan, has done that this could result in a new catastrophic Middle East war. Therefore, it is with some relief that one reads in the Israeli press that a powerful new coalition is forming around his view to counter the politicians in their drumbeat to war.
Let me also address the other argument often deployed in Israel; namely, that sanctions are not working or that they are not working fast enough. Smart sanctions have worked in the past and are increasingly effective against Iran. Iran has started stockpiling grain reserves to pre-empt future food shortages. We now have the implementation of controls on financial transactions through SWIFT, which serves as a crucial conduit for Iran to repatriate billions of dollars worth of earnings from oil sales and other exports, which is already having an impact here and now. Major foreign exchange houses in the United Arab Emirates have stopped handling the Iranian rial over the past few weeks. This has resulted in a depreciation of more than 50 per cent in its value. Countries which are dependent on Iranian oil have quietly moved to other suppliers and inflation in domestic prices is biting.
Domestically, the Iranian political dust is settling since the 2 March elections to the Majlis. If, as looks likely, Ayatollah Khamenei’s supporters prevail, this may well not be a bad thing from the international community’s perspective. The Ayatollah’s fatwa ruling that the use of nuclear weapons is completely contrary to the teachings of Islam has been reiterated as recently as in the last few weeks. This, too, should provide reassurance to Israel. It is perhaps no coincidence that Iran has finally agreed to a return to the P5-plus-one talks. It is now imperative that it allows further IAEA inspections to go ahead, particularly to allow access to the Parchin nuclear facility, as it has announced it will do.
Let me turn now to the situation in Syria. As a Liberal who is committed to the emerging norm of Responsibility to Protect, it is with some regret that I conclude that any form of western military engagement is out of the question. Syria is not Libya. The humanitarian tragedy unfolding in Syria has deep geopolitical roots. This is a civil war by proxy. We know of Russia’s strategic interest in Syria, not least as it has a naval base at Tartus, and 10 per cent of its total global arms sales are to Syria, where Russian shipments continue unabated. We know, too, about the long-standing Russian-Saudi Arabian rivalry, not least during the years of communism and then more recently in Afghanistan. The alignment of Russian and Iranian Shia interests against those of Sunni Islam is all too evident. The re-election of Mr Putin in Russia does not help either, and all indications are that we are in this for the long haul.
Hence it is so regrettable that Qataris and Saudi Arabia have resolved to take up arms shipments to the Free Syrian Army. The proposal of the Tunisian president at the recent Friends of Syria meeting was to resolve the situation through the negotiation of a safe exit for Bashar al-Assad and the formation of a transitional government. It should have been discussed further. It was a proposal worth exploring, and it is regrettable that the Saudi Arabian Foreign Minister walked out of the meeting at that point. The proposal to add arms to the conflict cannot be one designed to put out the fire.
The fact that these external factors are resulting in the sacrifice of the lives of innocent civilians does not for a minute exonerate the Syrian leadership of its responsibility for these crimes, and while we cannot do more than move for sanctions through the UN Security Council, we must do more to make the sanctions bite. Like Iran, it might actually prepare the ground for the beginning of negotiations to a ceasefire. All we can do at the moment is to hope that the efforts of the former UN Secretary General will bear fruit. If they do not, we have in the EU to think again collectively, and in the UK individually, as to our own responsibility in this humanitarian tragedy.
My Lords, in following my noble friend, I agree with her that if you look at any subject in Israel, you will find a wide range of opinion. That is in the nature of the Israeli political process. There are 12 different political groups in the Knesset and only one overall majority in 18 different parliaments. My question is narrow and concentrates on Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories, particularly the West Bank. The question I want to put it this: why does Israel pursue the policies that it does in the West Bank?
The United Nations calculates that there are 150 settler villages and agricultural outposts in the West Bank, along with 100 smaller outposts. These constitute 300,000 people, which must be compared with the Israeli population of 7.5 million and the West Bank Palestinian population of 2.4 million. Every one of those settlements demands an Israeli Defence Forces commitment to its security and, of course, a certain level of violence is to be found all the time. Many of the incidents are quite minor, but nevertheless there is always violence somewhere. It has been calculated by the United Nations that if the wall is completed, 87 per cent of it will not be on the Green Line settled in 1949.
I want to give three brief examples of things that are happening in the West Bank. The first is the Jordan valley. The only Palestinian possession in the Jordan valley is in the city of Jericho. It is quite a big area with a large population, but the remainder of the Jordan valley is an “Area C” area under the terms of the occupation, which means that it is a security zone and that only Israelis can live there. It is extensively settled. It is highly irrigated with water taken from the north by the water carrier system which is a brilliant piece of engineering. Indeed, one has to recognise straightaway that if there is a country that knows about irrigated agriculture, it is Israel. Its technology is state of the art. However, the fact remains that agricultural products account for somewhere between 2.5 per cent and 5 per cent of Israeli GDP and the future of Israel does not depend on agriculture. It is, after all, a sophisticated industrial and digital economy. The question must be asked: since the Palestinians are very short of water—including water shortages for domestic purposes—is irrigated agriculture the best use of the scarce water supply coming to the Jordan valley?
I shall cite another example of an Israeli settlement on one side of a narrow valley and a Palestinian village on the other. It has a traditional, reliable water source which has been cut off from the Palestinian village under the security arrangements put in place by the IDF. Every Friday, the Palestinian villagers attempt to march to the water source. They are deterred by the water cannon and tear gas of the IDF. One wonders what the cost of this endeavour to separate the settlers and the Palestinians is. What is it doing to the future potential of relationships between people who share the same land?
I turn now to Hebron, which is a sacred city closely associated with Abraham, and it is sacred to both Jews and Muslims. In 1969, after the 1967 war, Israeli Jews started to settle in Hebron and they have been there ever since. There are now several hundred of them. On and off there has been almost continuous violence, even if it is conducted at the low level of stone throwing to break windows. However, under the intifada there has been much more serious violence in the town. The IDF, with its responsibility to maintain the security of the settlers, outnumbers them by a large majority. The centre of Hebron could now be characterised as a ghost town. The Palestinian population has basically left. All the markets in the centre are shut and it is a desolate place.
Out of this there come no winners. The settlers have a very uncomfortable life. The Palestinians either leave or also have a very uncomfortable life. The IDF has its responsibilities and, as has been said by an organisation called Breaking the Silence, the effect on the young people who do their national service in the IDF is very deleterious. It is difficult to see why any of this is in the interests of Israel, either in the short or the long term. It must be economically a disbenefit and it cannot be any use to relationships. Is it just that the fundamental tail is wagging the dog? Do we not have to think much more seriously about how we can influence Israeli domestic politics?
My Lords, I welcome this long-awaited debate and congratulate the Minister as usual on his tour d’horizon. My only concern is the short time for the debate, which meant that even the Minister could mention only Israel/Palestine and the Iranian crisis at the very end of his speech.
In the Middle East, all things are connected; all things are distinct. As democrats, we must and should support the Arab awakening which affects the whole of the Arab world, but it is perhaps only the monarchies that appear to survive well at the moment. I heard what the Minister said about the key countries involved. In regard to some, there was, with respect, a touch of Pangloss in what he said. I agree that Tunisia is the pioneer and model of transition, but Egypt is far more problematic. The Minister might perhaps say whether it is his judgment that the Muslim Brotherhood will continue to steer a moderate path. Will the Salafists gain influence? Can the expectations of the great mass of young people be satisfied in Egypt? Most difficult of all is Libya, where there now is chaos. The militias seem to control much of the country and there is a real danger of Cyrenaica separating from Tripolitania.
It is in Syria, of course, that there is the most serious of problems. The real problem is this: can one envisage a more reasonable, moderate, safe and bloodless transition from this time on? Surely not, because the Assad regime, having watched what has happened in Libya, realised that its own future is at stake. It is fighting for survival, knowing what will happen to it if it loses. Ultimately, will the Assad regime, which observers now conclude is doomed, continue to inflict yet further bloodshed on its people? As it appears that there is obviously and rightly no prospect of western military intervention, what are the prospects of some form of regional intervention? What are the limits of what the West can do to help? Where do we draw the lines in terms of medical and non-lethal equipment? I wholly concur with the Minister that the caution of the West is surely justified.
Turning quickly to Israel/Palestine: it is surely a very bleak picture. If I were to ask the Minister to spell out where the signs of hope are, he could probably tell me only to look at certain of the economic and security developments on the West Bank. The rest is gloom. Premier Netanyahu knows that, whatever isolation there is for Israel and whatever defeats there are at the UN, he can rely on the US Congress for unqualified support. Certainly, there is no possibility of movement before the presidential election and there can only be movement at the point where the US decides to engage. The hopes raised by the Cairo speech of President Obama and by Premier Netanyahu’s Bar-Ilan University speech have become a part of history. Does the Minister see any signs of hope at all?
I shall end by dealing with Iran, which is clearly the most difficult problem on the Israeli agenda and the great headache for US policy makers. I very much understand the Israeli concern about a second Holocaust from the Holocaust denier Ahmadinejad. However, there remains, in relation to the nuclear threat, the question of capability— even if it stops at the threshold—and the question of intention. I hope that President Obama has made it clear to Premier Netanyahu that the red lines of the US and its allies do not necessarily coincide with those of Israel. It is clearly a formidably difficult problem to destroy the installations. It rests on the agreement of the US; it relies on overflying and refuelling; there must be very accurate intelligence and there must be precision bombing. Iran has the recipe and perhaps such a strike could lead only to a delay of two years or so.
What are the malign effects of Iran gaining such a capability? Clearly, there would be a major shift in the power balance in the region, a major blow to US and western influence and a great effect on nuclear proliferation in the region. Iran might be emboldened to commit further acts of subversion and there would be an increased threat to Israel. It may well be that its proxy, Hezbollah, already can reach most, if not all, of Israel with its weaponry.
What would be the effect of such an attack on nuclear installations? It would further convince Iran that it needs a nuclear capability; it would destroy the Sunni front; there would be a vast increase in the oil price—there is already an Iran premium on the price of Brent crude—it would rally the Iranian population and it possibly would stifle out the green movement for some time.
For Israel, it would perhaps be rather like Samson pulling down the pillars of the Temple upon itself. All evidence suggests that Iran is moving inexorably to a military nuclear capability, even if it were to stop at the threshold. The question, therefore, is surely this: what if? I hope that western planners are now posing this what-if question as Iran, as is likely, obtains such a capability? We should not neglect the carrots but be ready to make clear the sticks that would be involved. Containment is difficult and possibly ineffective. A nuclear-armed Iran is an awful prospect, but there is a strong case that a military strike on the nuclear installations in Iran would be even worse with even more unpredictable consequences, both in the region and globally.
My Lords, in the time available I propose to concentrate on Syria and the Middle East peace process. On Syria, I declare an interest in having acquired, during my two years as British ambassador in Damascus from 1979 to 1981, a considerable affection for Syria and the Syrian people. I do not condone the terrible things that are being reported in the media, but I am encouraged not to defend but to try to put some of the reports into perspective and to question the motives both of the Syrian Government and of those who are calling for regime change and for military intervention.
The Syrian Government are controlled by a small Alawite minority but are, I believe, as the noble Lord, Lord Anderson, said, fighting for survival against a diverse threat from those whom they describe as “terrorists”, however unforgivable has been their reaction to those threats. Remember that al-Qaeda has claimed responsibility for bombings in Aleppo, which resulted in 28 fatalities and 235 wounded and which had been confidently attributed to the Syrian security forces. That in itself should make us wary of accepting all the reports that we see on our television screens. I regret that HMG have found it necessary to close the one reliable source of what is actually happening in Syria, namely our embassy in Damascus.
I hope that the Minister can give us some assessment of how many foreign fighters have been infiltrated into Syria in the past few months and from where. A Russian diplomat has recently claimed, on the record, that at least 15,000 foreign fighters are supporting the uprising.
In a question that I put to the Minister in November last year, I argued that we should watch with caution the motives of those calling for the removal of President Bashar al-Assad. We have, even this week, seen Senator John McCain’s astonishing call for the United States to “take out” Syria, whatever that means. President Assad himself must be all too aware of the motivation of some members of the Arab League who are openly calling for military intervention and for regime change. Is it far-fetched to see these attacks against a minority Shia Government, allied with Iran and supporting Hezbollah, as part of the Sunni-Shia divide, which has already led to disturbances in Afghanistan, in Bahrain and in the eastern province of Saudi Arabia? The recent attack against a Shia mosque in Belgium should warn us of the risk that this Sunni-Shia divide might spread to our own European Muslim communities.
Have those who are calling for regime change in Syria considered what is likely to replace the present regime? Recent developments in north Africa are a powerful warning of the possible consequences of replacing a secular Baathist regime in Syria. It was the coalition’s failure to listen to the warnings in this House against the invasion of Iraq nine years ago that led to the disastrous outcome of that intervention. Meanwhile, I particularly welcome the Minister’s continuing support for the efforts of Mr Kofi Annan.
One of the tragic consequences of the Syrian crisis is that it has diverted attention from the lack of progress in the Middle East peace process, which, as the Minister rightly said, is central to all the problems of the Middle East. Jordanian efforts to reconcile Fatah and Hamas, and the overwhelming support in the United Nations General Assembly for Palestine to achieve statehood, should have made it easier, not more difficult, for Israel and the Palestinians to reopen talks, with the added benefit that this might well have included Hamas. On that point, I hope that the Minister can accept that the three conditions imposed by the quartet on negotiations with Hamas need no longer be a block on further contacts. As it is, we should welcome the apparent success of attempts by the new Egyptian regime to broker talks between Hamas in Gaza and the Israeli authorities. If the Israelis can talk to Hamas, why cannot we?
The real question underlying peace in the Middle East and, ultimately, peace between Israel and Iran is whether Israel and the Palestinians are yet ready to revert to talks aimed at creating two states, with a shared capital in Jerusalem. Unfortunately, the continuing expansion of illegal settlements in the West Bank, the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians from West Jerusalem and the renewal of violence in Gaza make the resumption of talks unlikely. On that last point, I find it grotesque that the State Department spokesman should have condemned the recent launching of rockets against southern Israel with not one word about the targeted assassinations that provoked it.
Nevertheless, I hope that the Minister can give us some assurance that the Prime Minister’s talks with President Obama in Washington have confirmed that we and the Americans, and indeed all our European partners, still regard a two-state solution as the only possible recipe for long-term peace in the Middle East. If the Americans and the quartet are unable, as they appear to be, to persuade Mr Netanyahu that a two-state solution is the only hope for the future of Israel, is it not time for the European Union to be more active?
My Lords, I welcome the opportunity to say a few words about the dire situation in Bahrain, which has been overshadowed by the crises in Syria and Palestine but which demands a proportionate share of the attention of Parliament and the Foreign Office.
Last February, disturbances erupted in Bahrain as the people tried to assert their democratic and human rights against the al-Khalifa hereditary dictatorship. The rulers brutally attacked demonstrators, arrested 1,300 people and tortured their leaders and others held incommunicado for weeks on end, killing five of them in custody, and all in a pattern of total impunity. They clamped down on freedom of expression, closing a major newspaper, blocking websites and blogs and dismissing hundreds of suspect dissidents from their jobs.
Faced with mounting international criticism, the dictator appointed the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry, BICI, headed by the distinguished jurist Cherif Bassiouni, to report on the events of the uprising and its aftermath. BICI produced a 500-page report substantially confirming the allegations made by national and international human rights organisations. It made numerous recommendations, all of which, at the launch of the report, the King said that he accepted. He appointed a further commission to monitor implementation, due to report next Tuesday. The noble Lord, Lord Luce, gave the regime much credit for this process, which I see as merely an attempt to deflect and postpone the effects of the uprising.
Some of the most critical recommendations are being ignored. The convictions of political prisoners, who did not advocate violence, have not been reviewed, nor have their sentences been commuted. Victims of incommunicado detention and torture have not received compensation. Hassan Mushaima, secretary-general of the Haq Movement, is still serving a life sentence after weeks of incommunicado detention, torture and trial before a kangaroo court, and the same is true for Abduljalil al-Singace and Abdulhadi al-Khawaja, foremost human rights activists. All three have spoken several times at seminars on Bahrain that I have chaired in the Palace of Westminster and I have never heard them advocate violence. They are dedicated to the principle of peaceful change, difficult though it may be in a society where the dictatorship holds all the cards.
The official line peddled by the Foreign Minister, Khalid al-Khalifa, another scion of the ruling family, is that there are not any political prisoners. Will my noble friend ask Sir Nigel Rodley, one of the BICI commissioners, to confirm that the,
“fundamental principles of a fair trial, including prompt and full access to legal counsel and inadmissibility of coerced testimony, were not respected”,
in the trials of opinion leaders? Will my noble friend join with IFEX in the call to immediately and unconditionally release Abdulhadi al-Khawaja and all the other political prisoners, and will they further ask the regime to negotiate with them on compensation for their ordeals?
Sad to say, the lessons of the past year have not been learnt. The security forces still use excessive force against demonstrations, resulting in loss of life. Twenty-two year-old Fadhel al-Obaidi died last Saturday after he was hit on the head by a teargas canister and beaten, kicked and punched by security men as he fell to the ground; last week an infant, Yahya Yousif Ahmed, died because his mother had suffered no fewer than eight teargas attacks on the family home during her pregnancy; and a woman in her 70s, Sakeena Marhoon, died in hospital after repeated inhalation of toxic gases thrown by security forces into her home several times in recent weeks. Will the Foreign Office protest about the continued use of excessive force and, particularly, the use of lethal gases?
Trials are continuing, too, of students and staff from the University of Bahrain and of some of the 42 doctors originally convicted by the security court. The crackdown on freedom of expression continues. Reporters Without Borders says that Bahrain goes in for a remarkable array of repressive measures: technical, judicial and physical censorship methods; keeping the international media away; harassing human rights activists; arresting bloggers and netizens, one of whom died in detention; smearing and prosecuting free-speech activists; and disrupting communications, especially during major demonstrations. To avoid scrutiny, the regime has postponed a visit that had been agreed by the UN special rapporteur on torture. It has forced the cancellation of visits by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch by imposing unacceptable conditions on them and it has made it impossible for international journalists to carry out their normal newsgathering activities in the country.
Above all, there is no sign of the ruling family loosening their grip on power. Yes, there is a two-Chamber Assembly, but the Government are entirely nominated by the al-Khalifas, with all important Ministers drawn from within the family, including the Prime Minister—the King’s uncle—who has held the post for more than 40 years.
When my honourable friend Mr Alistair Burt visited Bahrain in December, he made it clear to all groups that they should,
“seize this moment for reconciliation and broader reform”.—[Official Report, 9/2/12; col. WA 98.]
How can that be when leaders of opinion are in prison and their followers are gassed and beaten by the al-Khalifas’ mercenaries from Pakistan and Syria? Will my noble friend condemn the policy of giving those mercenaries citizenship in a bid to alter the demography of the state? Will he urge the regime to allow that freedom of expression without which reform is a remote and unattainable aspiration? The cosy relationship that we cultivate with these dictators helps them to stay in power. It is time to reform our policy to give meaning to our professions of encouragement for democracy, human rights and the rule of law.
My Lords, undoubtedly the Middle East is a highly complex, incendiary and volatile area, where peaceful solutions are elusive. There are too many extremists amid the two populations—Arab and Jew—for whom “sensible compromise” represent dirty words. Implacable hostility can result only in dire consequences for both sides.
As the noble Lord, Lord Wright, has said, a two-state solution has to be encouraged. It is the only way out of the present debacle. However, the intractable problem is how we can convince all the parties that this is so. In the past negotiations have almost reached this goal and then broken down. It requires strong moral leadership from within the power bases of both Israel and Palestine to urge their respective followers to face up to reality and to accept what will ultimately deliver a peaceful future. Sadat and Begin pursued that objective.
Iran’s quest for aggressive, long-range nuclear weaponry, capable of doing real damage to the Israeli population, as well as potential harm to its close neighbours, cannot be lightly dismissed. This is no figment of the imagination in the light of Iran’s stated aim to annihilate Israel. The fact that numerous Arab states share this fear of nuclear empowerment indicates that Iran’s threats and words strike huge fear across the region. Iran has few friends, the beleaguered Syrian regime being among them. It is also divided within itself. Free speech is suppressed in a violent way. Notwithstanding these bleak facts, it would be foolhardy for Israel to be engulfed in what appears to be an unwinnable war. However, the ceasefire declared in the past few days between Hamas and Israel offers a glimpse of hope—I put it no higher than that—that negotiations are not beyond the bounds of possibility. However, ongoing hatred and suspicion mar this desirable objective.
It is essential for all advocates for peace on both sides of the divide to speak out now so that a two-state solution can arise and avert a conflagration. It has to be in the interests of Palestinians and Israelis—at least for their children—one day to realise a dream of a future based on peace, trust and prosperity for the region that both peoples inhabit.
The Israel-Palestine conflict is not, as many people attest, the sole issue in the Middle East. In a number of countries there is poverty, disease and inequality, all adding to the dangers which bedevil this part of the world, and these must also be tackled. The Governments of the United States, Europe and others, confronted by fierce armed conflicts, instability brought about by religious, social and political turmoil and the cruelty and intransigence of dictatorships, are not to be envied. What is needed now are cool heads, profound thinking—outside the box when necessary—considered reflection and a determination to stay the hands of those who would lead us inexorably into a war beyond anyone’s control. I thank the noble Lord for leading this debate in the most constructive way.
My Lords, I declare an interest as a member of the advisory council for the charity that supports the work of Canon Andrew White, the vicar of Baghdad. I have visited Israel with both Conservative Friends of Israel and the Conservative Middle East Council to try, as a good lawyer, to see things from both perspectives, and I was in Egypt last September. I could not help but think in Egypt of the error in the lines of the hymn “Jerusalem”, when it asks:
“And did those feet in ancient time
Walk upon England’s mountains green”?
Frankly, they did not—but they did touch base in Egypt.
I wish to speak to three common mistakes when looking at the region, and three risks facing Egypt in particular, namely religious cleansing, the constitution and emigration. As outlined by the noble Baroness, Lady Symons, the first common mistake is to attempt to treat this region as one block when all countries differ economically, politically and socially. The problems can be very different. As Canon White has said, what is going on in Israel has nothing to do with Iraq.
Another common mistake is to look at the region through a lens of only western interests and anxieties—namely trade, investment and security. This led the UK Government among others to become uneasy bedfellows with regimes with worrying track records on human rights and respect for the rule of law. Such mistakes may be coming home to roost as police are currently poring over the documents about the alleged M16 involvement with the Gaddafi regime. In light of past experience, I wonder what Her Majesty’s Government’s baseline is for involvement with still potentially dubious but now democratic regimes. It is easy to remove rulers, but not so easy to remove the corrupt system behind them, and elections may not yet serve to be a thorough cleanser.
The third common mistake is to fail to see a vital part of DNA of the region—religion. This is a different and perhaps difficult perspective for western Europeans to fully understand, as over recent decades we have seen the trend of secularism while the rest of the globe has got seriously more religious. China is now the second largest producer of Bibles in the world and Brazil is now second only to America for the number of Christian missionaries that it exports. Some 96 per cent of Egyptians say that religion is an important part of their lives; not to understand that is like trying to understand America without knowing about the free-market economics. I dare say that our recent news stories on militant secularism—and whether my freedom to stand in this Chamber wearing a cross around my neck should also be enjoyed by employees of our national airline—must seem like an anathema to many in the Middle East. On a serious note, if any of the worrying scenarios that I go on to outline materialise for minority religious communities, will not UK diplomats and politicians be weakened if cheap retorts can be given by foreign politicians to get our own house in order first?
The establishment of the FCO’s religious freedom panel is a most encouraging step by the Government, but still too often when religion is talked of in regard to the region it is with only partial understanding. One such example arose just before the Deputy Prime Minister’s trip to Egypt last year, when he wrote an article in the Independent about the rise of “sectarian violence” in Egypt. Really, Deputy Prime Minister, was it sectarian violence, in which religious communities attack each other? Have the minority Baha’i, Sufi Muslim and Coptic communities really taken leave of their senses and decided to start launching attacks on the majority Sunni population in Egypt? There is, I believe, a need to show British Copts and Baha’is a more sophisticated understanding of the situation than this.
The suffering communities in the region—whether the minority Baha’i in Iran, the majority Shia in Bahrain, the Christians in Egypt or the Jews in the region as a whole—predominantly identify as religious communities. A great fear in parts of the region is religious cleansing, which is what lies behind the most depressing reports on the BBC this week—that the minority Christian community in Syria is supporting the Assad regime, as it fears this religious cleansing over the plight of their fellow Syrians. Worryingly, there are reports that religious cleansing is beginning to happen in Alexandria to the Copts. Walking the streets there last year as a woman without a covered head, one could have cut the tension in that city with a knife.
Will my noble friend please outline how Her Majesty’s Government are making it clear that not only will religious cleansing not be tolerated but that international justice will apply to the perpetrators? Moreover, what is the Government’s view on whether UK taxpayers’ money through IMF loans, EU funding and UK aid will continue if the soon-to-be-written Egyptian constitution fails to protect minority and women’s rights and breaches Article 18 of the UN Declaration on Human Rights? This article, which is often not given its correct status as a fundamental human right, states:
“Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change”,
your “religion or belief”.
However, if the constitution of Egypt does not also promote equal participation in every level of Egyptian society, there could be another damaging consequence for Egypt. I asked a young Copt who gave me a lift what his ambition in life was. He said that it was, “to leave. There is no future for me here, I am a Copt”. Egypt could lose much of its human capital and needs to retain its educated young people, particularly the 1 million to 2 million Copts who under the Mubarak regime could find no place in government, civil service or the military, and so thrived as entrepreneurs and doctors. A huge proportion of Egypt's wealth is held by the Coptic community.
Too many lives have been lost to gain the freedoms that we take for granted, but when a country is not politically stable, as in Iraq and Egypt, religion can be used as a justification to remove the other, whether by creating the conditions for mass emigration or worse. Western European Governments need to understand thoroughly the religious as well as the economic and political dynamic of the region, and to learn the truth of the words of Archbishop William Temple, I think, who said:
“When religion goes wrong, it goes very wrong”.
My Lords, noble Lords have referred to a number of factors that could be argued to have defined the Arab spring, which started in Tunisia and spread into Egypt and Libya—and now of course Syria—in a very complex and diverse manner. As with similar movements developing across the region, they involve and engage a large range of issues. By the time we have got to this stage of the debate, of course, many of those have already been referred to, so I will try to keep my points succinct.
Perhaps I could comment on the remarks of the noble Baroness, Lady Berridge, because I, too, see the very severe challenges between the different faiths and sects—between Shia and Sunni Muslim, or Coptic Christian—and between different forms of government, be they through sheiks or sovereign rule, or hereditary dictatorship and quasi-Parliaments. All those are part of the equation, but the fundamental issue that, to me, remains almost unchallenged is the denial of human rights, particularly for women, right across the region and, in many cases, a huge democratic deficit.
I will restrict my contribution to this debate to just three countries by way of example: Egypt, Libya and Syria. In the case of Egypt, a key factor is that the revolution was led by the people. It was neither spontaneous nor leaderless. It was a culmination of a series of waves of protests that began at the start of this century, each focused on a different issue and mainly ongoing. Some protests focus on a regional event, such as the Arab-Israeli conflict. Some protests focus on the Iraq war; others focus on democratic reforms and human rights abuses; and still others are concerned with labour conditions and economic hardship.
The failings of the Egyptian state and society, and the brutality of the police and the military towards the people, played a major part in fuelling unrest and provoking protest. The rise in support for the Muslim Brotherhood in the country and its growing strength in the Egyptian Parliament is one of the outcomes of the revolutionary cycle of protests over the past decade. As the Mubarak regime’s legitimacy began to erode, so protests gathered pace and the police became more indiscriminate. There is a long history of police violence in Egypt. As protests and strikes were illegal, so police brutality, in reaction, spread. Rather than being seen as the provider of security for the people, the police became the regime’s principal enforcer against the people.
The situation in Egypt is still far from stable. The economic position, as referred to by my noble friend the Minister, is still desperately deteriorating. The economy needs to grow at a rate of 7 per cent per annum to provide employment for the 700,000 young people entering employment each year, or trying to. Currently, the economic growth rate is just 5.1 per cent. The IMF offer of $3 billion in support to Egypt has so far been left on the table, presumably because of concerns over conditionality. Egypt does not want aid and has made its preference known for support from the Gulf states. But the sums needed are eye-watering, running at more than four times the IMF offer, at $13 billion. Looking at the daunting challenge facing Egypt, it might appear that toppling Mubarak was the easy part.
In Libya, the major challenge was and remains security. Security on the street remains in the hands of a variety of armed factions, operating with various degrees of loyalty to their region or their tribe, or the type of Islamism or religion that they follow or profess, rather than to a national structure. One in six of the population are apparently ready to resort to violence for political ends against a background of rising crime. There is an overall lack of capacity and political will to act, which drags the economy down, impeding development of and improvement in public services, particularly healthcare and education.
There is a strong reluctance to commit funding to capital projects, partly out of concern for a lack of political legitimacy, partly out of fear of accusations of corruption and partly because sifting through the backlog of 13,000 suspended contracts is frankly overloading the system. Nearly 100 embryonic political parties have been created. Election laws have been passed and an election commission appointed, but the timetable to the anticipated election date in late June is tight. A further complication is that, for several months, a federalist agenda has been promoted in the east of the country. After over 40 years of being ignored by Gaddafi’s regime, citizens in the east are unsurprisingly pressing for their concerns to be addressed, for the oil wealth to be distributed and for the governance of the country to be devolved in part to Benghazi and the regions. I would be grateful if the Minister in his reply could expand on what we are going to do to help to build civil society in Libya. What is our engagement with federalism as opposed to separatism in Libya and, in this context, what assistance are we planning to provide for the Libyan security sector urgently, in advance of elections, as opposed to just advice?
Finally, in Syria, President Assad’s regime’s record of brutality towards his citizens is without parallel. For over a year now, he has used the destructive power of his modern forces and weapons mercilessly against his own civilian population, including women and children, and not for the first time. Now the international community must make sure that it is the last time. This week, Human Rights Watch confirmed that Syrian armed forces had sown landmines along the border in the path of fleeing civilian refugees. The Turkish authorities have confirmed that on Wednesday more than 1,000 refugees made the perilous crossing into Turkey, bringing the total of refugees who have flowed there to around 15,000. As the Minister pointed out, the importance of Turkey should not be overlooked. I hope to visit Ankara and the refugee camps near the Turkish border during the Easter Recess.
A coalition of some 200 aid and human rights organisations has called on Russia and China to support the UN’s attempts to bring an end to the violence, which has cost more than 8,000 lives over the past year. I understand that Kofi Annan delivered a proposed peace plan to Mr Assad last week and will brief the UN Security Council today. Assad now faces rare criticism from Russia. Russia’s Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov, told the Duma this week that Syria has failed to take Russia’s advice and failed to reform with sufficient speed. As a matter of utmost priority, will our Government use every means as part of the UN peace proposals to gain access for international observers to monitor and report any use of violence, torture and arbitrary detention against civilians?
My Lords, anyone who believed that the events of the Arab spring, which I would rather see described as the Arab awakening, would lead to a quick, uncomplicated and largely peaceful transformation of the Middle East, resulting in the emergence of functioning democracies and greater prosperity for the burgeoning populations, can surely not believe that now. What faces us is a period of considerable turmoil that could well last for decades, not just years, in a region that is on Europe’s doorstep and can fundamentally influence our own security and prosperity. Should we be surprised or repelled by that? Neither, I would suggest. Revolutions are always messy and, like earthquakes, are invariably followed by aftershocks. If we were unwise enough to try to distance ourselves from these developments, we would surely surrender all influence and would soon find ourselves being painfully bitten on the ankle.
I believe that we were right to intervene militarily, as we did in Libya, with a UN mandate, which I do not believe we exceeded. The responsibility to protect, to which every member of the UN signed up in 2005, was clearly engaged and the action taken conformed to just-war principles. Now that the people of Libya have been liberated, we should do everything in our power to help them to establish a working democracy, while trying not to be too prescriptive and recognising that the journey on which they have embarked is necessarily a long and difficult one, starting as they did from zero.
Should we follow the same course in Syria, even if a Security Council mandate was not being blocked by the callous and opportunistic policies of Russia and China? I rather doubt it. The situation there is much more complex and less clear-cut. Those who are rebelling against the Assad regime are divided. It is possible that external military intervention there would make things worse, not better, leading to even more carnage than we have already seen. However, we should sharply step up our humanitarian support for those who are suffering and remove the regime’s impunity for the crimes that it is evidently committing by pressing for the extension of the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court to Syria. I would be grateful if the Minister would comment on those two points. Nor do I think that we should necessarily rule out supporting external military intervention in all circumstances, particularly if the Arab League were to give a clear lead.
Elsewhere in the Middle East—in Egypt, Tunisia and Yemen, where regime change has come about, as it should, though the actions of their own people—we need to focus firmly on building up their economies and encouraging trade and investment. If ever there was a case for applying the new emphasis in DfID’s mandate on helping fragile states, it is here before our eyes. I hope that we can hear a little more about what we are doing from the Minister. I suggest that what is needed, above all, is a well co-ordinated European Union effort, not just a solo British one. It would be good to hear what is being done in that respect.
It sometimes seems that the orphan child in all this upheaval is Palestine. Israel is in a state of denial over the need for a negotiated two-state solution, hoping that the problem will somehow go away, which it will not. The US Administration are in balk during the election campaign. If this stagnation is maintained beyond the end of this year, we should have no illusions. There will be more violence in a region where the new democratic states will be subject to the promptings of popular opinion much more than in the past. Meanwhile, I hope that the Minister can confirm that if the Palestinians pursue their quest at the UN for an enhanced status, albeit one that is short of full UN membership, Britain will support that, and that if Fatah and Hamas establish a Government of technocrats, we will give that Government our full support and co-operation.
At this moment, no debate on the Middle East can afford to ignore the tensions arising as a result of Iran’s nuclear programme. The Iranians have no one to blame but themselves for the fact that the temperature is rising so sharply. Indeed, at times, they seem to be seeking to provoke such a rise. However, everyone will be the loser if a diplomatic negotiated solution cannot be found. It is surely deeply worrying that we appear to be in one of those situations where one mis-step or misjudgment could tip the balance decisively away from such a peaceful outcome.
Much will therefore be riding on the next round of negotiations between Iran and the five plus one. What are needed are both some short-term confidence-building measures and a clear route towards a long-term solution, in full conformity with Iran’s obligations under the non-proliferation treaty and its membership of the International Atomic Energy Agency. Many ideas have been canvassed for ensuring that Iran can develop as much civil nuclear energy as it wishes, while removing any conceivable threat of a weapons programme. It is time that a little more imagination and flexibility were demonstrated on all sides in discussing such possibilities. At the same time as addressing these urgent nuclear issues, it is surely vital also to address Iran’s general security concerns and to demonstrate in practical terms that we recognise the need for Iran to be an important regional player, preferably as part of some grouping of states in the Gulf region.
Finally, later this year there is to be a first-ever international conference on the creation of a weapons of mass destruction-free zone in the Middle East. That may sound a trifle optimistic—indeed aspirational— but establishing the beginnings of a continuous dialogue on that issue could mark the difference between a region moving, however slowly, in the right direction and one sliding back towards conflict. I should be most grateful if the Minister could say a few words in his summing up about the attitude that we are taking to the organisation of that conference.
My Lords, Iran threatens world stability and the very existence of Israel. My noble friend Lady Falkner has given a very professional and detailed analysis of the situation. However, if one can believe Iran’s rhetoric, Israel should be destroyed. However, a large part of the political world appears to say, “Don’t worry, it’s only words”, and the fact that Iran has, or almost has, a nuclear bomb capability is acceptable, and the fact that it is burying its nuclear attack capability underneath an impregnable mountain is purely an innocent desire not to blot the landscape with launching pads—rather like a proliferation of wind-power farms. That is not the case.
Nuclear weapons and the means to deliver a bomb are increasingly spreading around the world. However, the bomb is nowadays seen as a deterrent—again, as my noble friend Lady Falkner said. Only Iran says very clearly that it will destroy the Zionist entity of Israel. So when, in these conditions, Israel, whose very existence is threatened, considers a preventive strike, the world loses its memory of the bad guy being Iran, not Israel. Please do not take this as an argument for bombing Iran, which could have disastrous consequences.
We have spoken about deterrence. We have so far seen many countries acquire nuclear weapons, and there is a “my bomb is bigger than your bomb” attitude. Does Iran have that same attitude? That is the problem. The world needs to be aware of the nature of those who rule Iran. This week, 22 people were arrested in Azerbaijan who were working with Iran to bomb American and Israeli targets there. That follows the Iranian terrorist plots in India, Georgia, Thailand and Singapore.
Returning to Israel and the Palestinians, there are problems nearer to their home. Speaking as someone who wants a secure Palestinian state living alongside a secure state of Israel, I plead with other noble Lords to do everything in their power to further the peace process. The Israelis tell me, despite what some other noble Lords have said, that they say yes to the quartet’s suggestions and are willing and ready to engage with the Palestinians in negotiations without preconditions, but the Palestinians will apparently not go that far. Of course, there are so many obstacles on both sides, two of which are the Palestinian objections to settlement expansion and the Israelis refusing to sit with Hamas because of its belligerent policies.
Despite all that, the solution must be that, prior to formal negotiations, the Israelis say that when they sit down they will announce as a first step the freezing of settlement expansion including, albeit reluctantly, in east Jerusalem. I say that although there was no precondition in the past for there to be no settlements. The Palestinians will, prior to formal negotiations, need to confirm that Hamas and the Palestinian Authority will, when they sit down, accept, albeit reluctantly, the state of Israel and cease rocket attacks on Israeli towns. Both sides must get to the table knowing that those will be the opening announcements. Then peace negotiations will concentrate on fixing the borders between Israel and the new Palestinian state. That will need to involve acceptance of the three large Israeli settlements just on the West Bank side of the 1967 line, with the Palestinian state receiving other Israeli land of equal size to compensate.
All that has been on the table for a long time. At a stroke, the settlements that other noble Lords have deplored, spread throughout the West Bank with connecting roads, will disappear. They will be taken over by the Palestinian state. If we get to that stage, we can forget about history, because it is about the future of a Palestinian state without that spread of settlements, just as Israel moved all its settlers out of Gaza—to get what? More rockets raining on it. Towns such as Sderot and Ashkelon in southern Israel will stop having rockets raining down upon them. The residents of southern Israel can cease to worry about how near the nearest air raid shelter is. In Sderot, every bus stop is an air raid shelter. That is how they and their children live.
I started my contribution to the debate by talking about the threat from Iran. This very week has seen rockets from Gaza into Israel. Many of those rockets originated in Iran. Forget how it all started and why that has happened; rockets have been raining down on those southern Israeli towns for a long time.
My noble friend Lord Eccles, who is not in the Chamber at the moment, talked about water resources. Water is such an important resource in the Middle East. He should read in Hansard the wonderful debate on water that we had in this Chamber, when I and other noble Lords spoke about the progress that has been made in the region. Within two years, Israel will get virtually all its drinking water from desalination plants; and Gaza, with access to the sea, could have exactly that if peace can rein.
For progress to be achieved on all sides, we must answer the question: do we want our people to live under continual threat or are we prepared to compromise for peace? When my noble friend replies, I hope that he will be able to assure us what Her Majesty’s Government will do to influence Iran’s intentions and that, even if it looks a bleak prospect, the future for the Palestinian-Israel dispute is for both sides to sit down at the negotiating table.
My Lords, anyone who has seen the reports on television and elsewhere about Syria must be appalled at the carnage that has been shown and must feel anguish, concern and great anger towards the Assad regime. There is no doubt that we all want to see a peaceful end to that process, and we want to see it quickly. None of us has a silver bullet that is going to bring it about overnight, and we are therefore perhaps left in the position of seemingly imploring the world to act to stop the carnage.
I was brought up during the Second World War and I remember the saying, “Careless talk costs lives”. There are those who are now advocating that the opposition—now called “rebels”—be armed, and there is the beguiling prospect of giving those who are defenceless the possibility of defending themselves. However, as noble Lords must be aware, this policy would make matters worse. This really is careless talk that would cost lives. Those who advocate it are seized of the inevitability of a full-scale civil war or indeed believe that such a civil war would be desirable. I am deeply disappointed that at one stage the Foreign Secretary, Mr Hague, appeared to give some sort of support to the idea of arming the rebels. I hope that he has changed his mind or that the reports have not been entirely accurate. Also, talk of arming the rebels seems to give some credence to Assad’s claim that it is an outside-fomented revolution, and it will do nothing whatever to encourage the Chinese and the Russians to come on board with the Security Council.
I turn to the situation in Libya and raise, in particular, the plight of the migrant African workers who are caught in the backlash of the ending of the Gaddafi regime. There are many reports of violence against them. They are living in appalling conditions, which are deteriorating day by day. There have been reports from Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, all of which are calling for an end to the violence against these African labourers, although of course the violence is not confined to them. The High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, reported in January:
“A related area that I am extremely concerned about is the conditions of detention and treatment of detainees held by various revolutionary brigades. The ICRC visited over 8,500 detainees in approximately 60 places of detention between March and December 2011. The majority of detainees are accused of being Gaddafi loyalists and include a large number of sub-Saharan African nationals. The lack of oversight by the central authorities creates an environment conducive to torture and ill-treatment. My staff have received alarming reports that this is happening in places of detention that they have visited”.
I have seen unverified footage of migrant workers being forced to perform in zoos, cavorting, playing and being taunted by onlookers, and even being made to eat the former Libyan flag. That should not, and must not, happen. I have no means of knowing whether that was an isolated incident or whether it was true, but there is no point in our making grandiose statements on the sanctity of human rights if we cannot even protect the most vulnerable and the poorest in that society. We must do something to help these destitute people to return to their homes.
I think that Libya is in some danger of fragmentation. On 6 March, the authorities in Benghazi declared the semi-authority of the Cyrenaica eastern region, raising fears for the future. The leaders in Benghazi have made it clear that separation is not on the agenda, but things move all the time. We should remember that Libya was a confederation from 1950 to 1961 of Cyrenaica, Tripolitania and Fezzan. That only ceased when Gaddafi came to power.
It is clear that we have a very difficult situation, and we must address it. It is worth bearing in mind that the African Union, before Gaddafi’s downfall, drew attention to the serious possibility that the integrity of Libya would be fragmented. We must not let that happen. The Arab spring raised great hope and optimism for the future, not just in Libya but in the whole of the Middle East. I fear that the storm clouds are now gathering over the Middle East. Instead of an Arab spring, we now face an Arab autumn—and an Arab winter is not far behind.
My Lords, one recent development in the Middle East was the peaceful transfer of power in the Republic of Yemen. Yemen and her neighbour, Somalia, are key to the stability of the region, and indeed to a far wider region beyond, including our own society, where we have many Britons whose original families came from Yemen.
Yemen is not a member of the GCC, but it has been greatly assisted by the immense and careful work that the GCC has put in over the past year or so. This culminated in a unique memorandum of understanding in November 2011. The implementation of that has brought a welcome period of calm after the excitement and deaths of Tahrir Square, through which the Arab spring manifested itself in Yemen.
The transition of power from President Saleh to President Hadi has now been marked by the beginning of the national dialogue. This will take a transitional period of two years. There will be a review of the constitution, which has already started, and a referendum involving the entire electorate in 18 months on that review. According to the MoU, this will be followed by a full and contested presidential election in 2013. The recent early presidential election had a single candidate. This body of work involved the entire political spectrum of Yemen for the first time. Thirty-eight of the 40 opposition parties, known as the Joint Meeting Parties, participated in both the election and in forming the national Government of unity, who incorporate the original governing party. Former President Saleh, in a unique tribute to the calmness of the situation in Yemen, has remained the president of his party. The Joint Meeting Parties and the governing party have formed the national Government of unity.
All this was made democratically possible by the early presidential election of 21 February this year. I had the good fortune to be an official observer, at the Government’s request. It was suggested that I went to Aden, and I did. There I watched the real and tangible milestone that the early presidential election marked for the people. I was able to compare the system clearly because I had been the head of the European Union election observation mission for the presidential election of 2006, when I spent the best part of six months in Yemen, travelling across the country and witnessing what went on.
The election of last month, just a few weeks ago, did great credit to all concerned. The Supreme Commission for Elections and Referendum, which was formed as a result of the recommendation that I made in 2006, fulfilled its role superbly. It trained people, transmitted knowledge and, with the support of the UNDP, all the appropriate literature was put out. There was a great amount of advertising, even in the scant two-month period between November and February. It was a great credit to all concerned that the election went so well. I was particularly pleased to see the enormous interest of women in the election, and I believe that a lot can be done in offering further training to bring women into the public sector. The procedures and processes went well and the new President, Mansour Hadi, has a firm body of support from the electorate behind him.
It has been an immense struggle for everyone to get so far. I pay tribute particularly to those in Aden who got to the polling stations, because the massive southern movement, which is extremely violent, did everything it could to stop people voting. I managed to visit 50 polling stations, but by noon half had closed and by 3.30 pm the remainder had to be closed because of the violence. Yet people came out to vote. They minded so much. They had their thumbs marked by the Indian ink that the United Nations says is such an essential feature of elections these days. I am not so sure that that is such a clever thing to do. It makes it very difficult for people to go home afterwards. The key was that people came out to vote in spite of all the opposition against them. Unlike the United Nations, I am delighted by the presidential immunity that was passed before the election. To do otherwise would have handed incoming President Hadi a poisoned chalice. I think Yemen has a right to be proud of herself. She can get ahead now and does not have to sit in the same position as Egypt with a search for the past poisoning everything.
The search for stability in Yemen is something that I know we are all going to support as powerfully as we possibly can. I was very impressed by the combined efforts of all concerned, including the diplomatic corps. We had particularly strong inputs from the European Union ambassador, Ambassador D’Urso; the ambassador from the UK, Nicholas Hopton; and Mr Feierstein from the USA. They all worked together with the GCC in supporting the Government.
In Yemen and the surrounding countries, the key must lie in capacity building and institution building and in making absolutely certain that our interventions, whether they are aid or trade, political or otherwise, strengthen what is available and build capacity. There is so much excellence locally, and I am absolutely sure that if we work hard to support the Yemeni people and all the Yemeni political parties and their Government of unity, the time ahead will be very much better than it has been in the past. I commend this success story—the peaceful transfer of power in the Republic of Yemen—to your Lordships’ House.
My Lords, it was with considerable optimism that we greeted the start of the so-called Arab spring a year ago, seeing in it a mirror of the events that freed eastern Europe from 1989 and confirmation for those who believed that democracy and liberty were indeed dormant in Arab countries, waiting only for the opportunity to express themselves. Your Lordships meet in a rather more sombre mood today. Rather than ushering in a new era of democracy and human rights, there may be the emergence Governments who are intrinsically hostile to the West and repressive of their own fellow citizens. We do not hear much now from the young liberated people who started the revolutions, but now we see regimes as repressive as those they replaced. Indeed, there is worse on the way for events in Syria are of a nature not witnessed since the disintegration of Yugoslavia. The danger is that, after one election, future genuine elections may never materialise, as was the case in Iran after the fall of the Shah.
The coming of the Arab summer is uncertain because of the lack of democratic party-political infrastructure in most of the Middle East countries that face change. We hope for stability, liberty, dignity, proper governance and better living conditions for them, but they are unachievable without the pillars of civil society being in position. Democracy is more than free elections. It requires free speech, a free press, a constitution, freedom for and of religion, equal justice under the law, individual rights, an independent judiciary and freedom of communication. That is where the UK can help. Our Government should provide support for that infrastructure and international organisations should support women’s participation and political leadership, for no country can prosper when half its population is effectively muzzled. The UK Government can help the Arab world meet the challenges of modernisation, which are so far unmet—science, technology, women’s rights, and communications—and prevent counterrevolution against modernisation.
In the distribution of foreign aid by this country—for example, millions are given by this Government to India, a nuclear country with a space programme, which has said that it does not need it—there is room to fund scholarships for Arabs of modest means to come here to study government administration and to send experts from here to the Middle East to help establish the pillars of civil society. It is urgent, for many are suffering in the mean time—namely, the Egyptian economy, Christian minorities in Iraq, Egypt and Syria, women and African migrant workers. Being in a minority in the Arab Muslim world was always dangerous and precarious, and minorities suffer even more when national unity is at the forefront.
Other generic problems in the Middle East are hampering a move to a good future—namely, the treatment of women; the inability to settle refugees, whether they are Palestinians, Iraqi refugees in Syria, Somalis in Yemen or Iranians in Iraq; and the unwillingness to host the minorities in their midst. That is in contrast to the multiculturalism and hospitality rightly expected by Middle Eastern migrants to this country and the West.
Of course, the question of Palestine is still important, but the uprisings enable us to see this question in context and to cease to believe that it is the cause of all Arab grievances. Israel is one of many countries in the Middle East whose boundaries were drawn by colonial powers without sufficient reference to peoplehood on the ground. Nevertheless, anti-Israel or anti-Jewish hostility is manifest alongside the uprisings. The turmoil has made Israeli peace more difficult because stable arrangements are currently impossible with neighbouring states and Egyptian control over the Sinai has weakened, although fortunately Egypt has maintained the treaty and recently helped broker a ceasefire with Gaza. Western powers should make clear their support for the treaty with Egypt. The dislike of Israel expressed by some Middle Eastern states owes something to centuries-old negative stereotypes and is however more than matched by their treatment of their own civilians.
The Syrian question is a blot on the history of the United Nations and has further weakened the standing of the UN itself. Its Human Rights Council has just adopted a report praising the human rights record of Gaddafi’s Libya. The greatest threat of all, where the spring was choked off, is nuclear Iran, supporter of Assad. Its nuclear success might be emulated by Saudi Arabia, perhaps Turkey and even Egypt. As a nuclear power, it will dominate the region and the energy supply. It threatens genocide. Its human rights record is particularly appalling, with executions, political prisoners, the persecution of women, gays and minorities, and its blocking of communications—allegedly the BBC Persian service and internet sites. If we do not act to contain Iran to protest against its lack of human rights and against the massacres in Syria, we will be accused of double standards.
The Queen is alleged to have said in relation to the financial crisis:
“Why did no one see it coming?”.
The Arab spring took everyone by surprise because they were looking the other way. Many misjudgments have been made about the Middle East in the past. For example, it was assumed that because President Assad and his wife studied in London they were nice people who could not behave badly. It is easy to believe that Iran’s intentions are peaceful when they are not. Certainly, the clarity of your Lordships’ deliberations would be much assisted if we were to receive the report of the Chilcot inquiry, which I believe was due some two years ago, for we need clarity and understanding.
I wish to address my brief comments to trends in the region and how we can be a positive influence on them. In doing so, I declare an interest as a director of the Good Governance Foundation. The dangers in the region are clear and we all know them. There is the unresolved and tragic Israeli/Palestinian question. There is the danger of an unpredictable regime in Iran. There is the growing conflict between and within Sunni and Shia groups, and as the noble Baroness, Lady Berridge, indicated, the extremes of religion can be very dangerous. Indeed, I would argue that political ideologies have been replaced by religious ideologies, and not just in the Middle East. Those extremes are just as dangerous, if not more so. Then of course there is the question of the unpredictable outcomes of revolutions to which the noble Lord, Lord Hannay, drew our attention. It is easy to slip into the mode of saying that what has been happening in the Middle East will have a positive outcome. In fact, it is far more unpredictable than that, but I hope that the trends are going in the right direction.
What we can forget when addressing all the dangers that I have just listed and which have already been alluded to by other speakers in the debate is that there is also a positive side in the Middle East. For the first time in many years, I have been hearing a much greater emphasis being put on the questions of democracy, the rule of law, freedom and on progress generally. That debate is taking place. It is a struggle between the old and the new, of course, and there is no guarantee that the new will win, but it is important. If someone had told me five years ago that I would manage to get established at the King Saud university in Abu Dhabi a postgraduate school of law looking at human rights and international law, with Palestinian students from Palestine attending, I would have said, “It will not happen”, but it has. When talking to other academic bodies and governments about this, I recognise that there is a thirst for such developments. Some of that is driven by the fear of what will happen if they do not move forward, but whether it is driven by fear or desire matters less than the fact that it is happening at all.
We have to be quite clever in how we structure our aid packages. Just before Christmas, when talking to two very senior Egyptian generals holding influential positions, I emphasised the difficulty that I saw, and wondered if they too saw, in separating the armed forces from the state. That is because at the moment the armed forces in Egypt are like a parallel state. How you manage to help a country separate the two is hard to know, but I think our packages of aid need to address it.
I put great emphasis on the rule of law primarily because I believe it is easier for a number of these countries to focus on getting that right in order to step towards democracy. Some will say, “We do not want to go down that road”, but most countries are saying that they want the rule of law. The problem is how do they get it and how can we help them. As I have indicated, at times that requires packages of aid. I am also impressed by the increased level of discussion about, if not always a strong commitment to, human rights and women’s rights. The discussion has not moved as fast as I or indeed most people would like, but it is moving. All these are fairly positive signs, and we should not underestimate the importance of some of the other developments. I felt some years ago that Al Jazeera television was the best news in the Middle East for many years. It indicates the development of a free media.
I have a remarkable respect for Tunisia and I am full of admiration for the way the country is handling itself. During a discussion about free media not long ago, the ambassador said to me that what they wanted was help in establishing a BBC in Tunisia, and he did not mean our BBC, but Tunisia’s own form of BBC. The fact that such things are being talked about and people are seeking assistance is immensely hopeful and we should give these issues our strongest support. That is because another aspect that is changing in the Middle East is not just the uptake of new technology, but the recognition that no longer can you just gag your people. People do have a voice and they will use it.
Obviously, our policy, as the Government know only too well, is to focus on individual countries and sadly, at the moment, it will be Syria—led by an ex-constituent of mine. When I was an MP, he lived in my area, but I plead not-guilty to any responsibility for his activities. It is deeply sad, of course, but I repeat that the Ba’ath Party in Syria, and in Iraq in the past under Saddam Hussein, ran particularly efficient dictatorships—not least because they had their roots in the ideology given to them in the 1930s by the Nazi Party from Germany, which helped to set them up. We sometimes forget that there is a difference between incompetent and inefficient dictatorships and efficient and competent ones, but the latter are the most dangerous. The first ones are dangerous but can be dealt with, while the second ones cannot be.
I want to finish on a wider point, which people might think is not directly relevant to the Middle East, but it is. Here I declare an interest again as the chairman of the Arab-Jewish Forum, a body I set up when some Arabs came to see me in my former constituency and asked for some structure which could enable Arabs and Jews to talk to each other. I set it up; I hoped I could walk away from it, but because I am neither an Arab nor a Jew they asked me to continue chairing it. The idea was to have an annual conference in Britain where we could bring together the two diasporas—the Arab diaspora and the Jewish diaspora. We underestimate at times the enormous importance of the Jewish and Arab diasporas, particularly in Western countries and, more particularly, in the United Kingdom. In London they are immensely powerful. My aim has always been to have a two-day annual conference, similar to what happened in relation to Northern Ireland. I have spoken on and was involved in Northern Ireland, though I never organised those things, but I hope we can do that. At the moment, the Arab and Jewish diasporas tend to get behind their own country in the Middle East and shout for them, rather than actually recognising that they could have a wider point. At some stage, perhaps I ought to talk to the Government about some assistance for that, because it is difficult to fund such an organisation without some external help.
My Lords, I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Soley, about the importance of soft power in the Middle East. I trust that this debate will help new thoughts and insights and moral imagination to emerge concerning the Middle East. I will concentrate on two aspects: Syria and the future for the Palestinian and other refugees.
The terrible situation in Syria has been sufficiently described today that I do not need to repeat its details. In that context, however, it is good that 60 countries have declared themselves as friends of Syria. But an assembly of such large numbers is far too large to make practical plans to bring about a ceasefire or to facilitate political negotiations. What is surely needed is a much smaller regional group of those most immediately involved. Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq are the close neighbours, where many Syrians have taken refuge. Israel and Iran also have very direct interests, as do Russia and the United States. It may not be possible for such a small regional group to meet, but perhaps Mr Kofi Annan could receive the views of these neighbours on behalf of the United Nations and act as a link with the Syrian authorities. I would be grateful for the Government’s thoughts on such an approach, which has not so far been tried. I hope that no one will react with horror at the mention of Iran. Its inclusion might just possibly generate some more reasonable attitudes to other issues.
I come now to the Palestinians. They are just as much entitled to self-determination as any other people. I say this whether they are now living in east Jerusalem, the West Bank, Gaza or in exile nearby. There are in fact some 6 million Palestinian refugees, mainly in Jordan, Syria and Lebanon. For reasons of balance and justice, we should also think about those Jews who were expelled from Middle Eastern countries, or who left voluntarily but without compensation for their properties. Most of them, although not all, are now safely settled in Israel.
These thoughts have a direct bearing on the much-debated question of the right of return. Because of the limited capacity of both Israel and the West Bank, let alone Gaza, to absorb further people, the right of return may have to be strictly limited to spouses, parents and children. Family reunion may have to be kept for the closest relationships. Those Palestinians not eligible for family reunion should be offered a choice: either to remain in their present host country, with, if possible, citizenship; or to accept resettlement in a state that welcomes immigrants. The process of resettlement should be made easier by compensation for lost or abandoned properties.
On this compensation and resettlement, I suggest that there should be symmetry and that each side should be responsible for its own people. Jewish organisations and funds would thus compensate the surviving Jews who left Middle Eastern countries without compensation for their properties. Arab states and funds would compensate Palestinians who left their homes, again without compensation. Even after compensation, many Palestinians would be left who did not wish to remain in the host country and who could not return to mandated Palestine. These will, of course, include many descendants of the original refugees. They would have to become the responsibility of the richer and more developed parts of the world, and need help to move to states open to settlement. Such moves would be to the long-term benefit of the receiving states. They would also remove from the Middle East a large number of unassimilated people whose very existence has caused tension and strife.
I accept that solutions of these kinds would be difficult, but I hope not an impossible task. The key might be to help people of working age to move, in family groups, with their old and young dependants. Refugees, including those from Iraq, for whom the West has a heavy responsibility, are the elephant in the room—everyone prefers to look the other way. Now we cannot afford to ignore it any more. So let us have the vision to turn a festering problem into a situation where everybody wins.
My Lords, I should like first to thank the noble Lord, Lord Howell, for his masterly introduction to the theme of our debate. I should also declare an interest as chairman of the Anglo-Israel Association. However, I do not want to return to the narrow ground of the Israel-Palestine dispute in the course of my remarks today. In my brief period as a Member of your Lordships' House we have had seven general debates on this topic, while in the same period we have had only one on Latin America and one on China. I sometimes feel that the slightly exaggerated focus on this region—in view of its objective importance, important though it is—distorts our grasp of geopolitical realities elsewhere in the Middle East. I want to focus today on the latter. I should also like to respond particularly to the striking remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Howell, on Turkey. I am aware that, unfortunately, there have been very sharp exchanges between Turkey and Israel in recent days, but that is not my reason for focusing on Turkey now.
The noble Lord, Lord Howell, spoke warmly about the positive role that he sees Turkey playing in the region. I understand exactly the reasons why he has done so, and I fully respect all the points that he made in that context. I also noted in the fine speech of my noble friend Lord Luce his reference to the fact that Turkey could be a model for the region. I have no challenge to make to that argument. However, I want to add a little balance to the discussion.
As all noble Lords will be aware, since 2002 Turkey has had a significant change in its political culture and government. The Ataturk legacy, which was previously so dominant in the internal political culture of Turkey, has now, to put it mildly, been challenged very strongly. That legacy was a secular concept of Turkish nationality, underlining the basis for the Turkish state. In the period since 2002 outside commentators of widely differing views and perspectives have insisted that a greater degree of repression is falling in Turkey on the Kurds, on religious minorities, journalists, workers and students. It would not be right to forget these things in our discussion of where Turkey is going.
More particularly, and more precisely, the noble Lord, Lord Howell, did not mention a very important issue: Turkey’s attitude to EU membership. It is a crucial matter. I strongly support its membership as it would be entirely desirable. However, does the Minister share the view of many commentators of different perspectives from outside Turkey who believe that it is now on the back burner for the Turkish Government? Does he share the view that Turkey is no longer as concerned as it once was with this question, although it has not formally withdrawn its application, and that it is concerned above all with projecting its power and reputation in the Arab world? I am curious to know the Minister’s view on this matter.
In an earlier life, from 1972 to 1974, the noble Lord, Lord Howell, was a very distinguished Minister of State in Northern Ireland. Those were very difficult times, a period in which almost 25 per cent of those killed in the Troubles actually died. He will be familiar with the problem of determining who is and who is not a moderate. You can have moderation and you can have bogus moderation and it is very difficult to find a dividing line. I fully accept that we have to engage where possible with political forces which we do not find enormously sympathetic at first sight, but it is none the less a difficult question.
The Minister will remember without having to stretch his memory too far that there was a common view in Ireland that maintained, “I personally forswear terrorism and the IRA. But, of course, you do understand that all the problems of Ireland are a product of the British Government or its local allies the Protestants”. This widespread view was a part of the rhetoric. There is now a not dissimilar form of rhetoric in the Middle East which maintains, “Of course I forswear al-Qaeda and its works and terrorism. But you do understand that the problems of the region are a function of the West and its local ally Israel”. I wonder what the noble Lord, Lord Howell, thinks about the impact of the Arab spring and whether it has strengthened or weakened that tendency of thought in the region.
My Lords, I rarely trouble your Lordships with foreign affairs but I want to add my voice to those urging extreme caution over the threat to bomb Iran’s nuclear facilities.
I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Palmer, that Iran’s nuclear ambitions are a serious threat to Israel—indeed, they are a serious threat to us all—but that is all the more reason for extreme caution. One of our in-house military experts, my noble friend Lord West, has spoken elsewhere about how dangerous the idea is; how even a limited attack could escalate into something that we no longer have the military power to deal with; how faulty intelligence and rhetoric could box us into a position where we have no choice but to participate in some form of strike against Iran. As my noble friend Lord Anderson reminded us, once you start a battle you never know how it will finish—especially in the Middle East, where religion, sectarianism or family loyalties can have a strong and enduring influence, as the noble Baroness, Lady Berridge, reminded us.
There will be pressures. I was in the United States during the recent visit of the Israeli Prime Minister. As noble Lords know, I am a long-standing and very staunch friend and supporter of Israel, but even I cringed at the blatant politicking that went on and the partisan show of support in the Republican primaries—support apparently intended to raise the tension over Iran’s nuclear threat. But in the US things are different now. As Martin Kettle pointed out in yesterday’s Guardian, the influence of the neo-cons has gone from the Administration.
Indeed, some of my American friends were very concerned that during the Israeli Prime Minister’s visit the impression was given that this neo-con view was the view of the American Jewish community. But surely what is important to us, as my noble friend Lord Soley implied, is the attitude of the British Jewish community towards Iran. It is concerned but conciliatory. How do we know that? We know it because last year the Institute for Jewish Policy Research, a community think tank—I declare an interest as its honorary president—conducted an attitude survey which, among other things, measured the Jewish community’s attitude towards a threat to Israel from a nuclear-armed Iran.
The survey showed very high levels of concern in the British Jewish community. Most strongly believe that Iran does pose an existential threat to Israel and so are supportive of measures that will protect Israel’s security. However, at the same time most British Jews share a profound wish for this and other Middle East conflicts to be resolved peacefully around the negotiating table rather than on the battlefield. Like the noble Lord, Lord West, they think that the risks involved in that are simply too grave. I will not burden your Lordships with the numbers but they are available on the internet. The Minister’s office should have a copy of this report because he may be interested in the British Jewish community’s attitude towards the settlements, negotiations with Hamas and other matters relating to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It is all there.
As other noble Lords have observed, the Middle East picture is being redrawn as we speak. I agree with other noble Lords that the Israeli-Palestinian dispute is part of this. The noble Lord, Lord Hannay, spoke of the Arab awakening. We have to recognise that the awakening phase of the Arab spring is over. We are waiting to see whether the dead hand of the past will continue to strangle the future, as it is doing in Syria. We are anxious to see whether the extremists will drive out the moderates or, as we all hope, there will be some sort of democratic outcome.
As I say, the picture is changing. We would all like a democratic outcome from the Arab uprisings but let us be sure that intelligence rather than politics guides our actions. As we talk, so we gain more intelligence—for example, as regards the existence of chemical and biological weapons, where they are and who controls them. We also gain intelligence on where power lies to make decisions regarding human rights and on the outcome of Kofi Annan’s mission. I welcome the Government’s support for that mission. It has the support of Russia and China, and members of the mission are also seeing regional leaders. Threats of bombing will only harden attitudes, so let us give diplomacy every opportunity to succeed. Let us keep up and increase the pressure through the United Nations both on Syria and Iran and keep trying to persuade China and Russia to modify their policies. Let us continue to work for peace, not war.
My Lords, I strongly welcome this debate, initiated by the Minister, the noble Lord, Lord Howell. I should declare an interest, as I was until last October a UN under-secretary-general in the Middle East and based in Beirut, from where I was able to witness the extraordinary political tumult we now call the Arab awakening, sweeping the region from the Maghreb to the Gulf. It is a wave of democratic fervour akin to that which swept eastern Europe in 1989. Lest we forget, that struggle for democracy also faced many difficulties—in Romania but, above all, in the former Yugoslavia.
In the Arab world, repressive regimes that failed to heed the voice of their peoples have fallen in Tunisia, Libya, Egypt and Yemen, whose rulers had governed between them for more than 120 years. The path ahead may be difficult, but the demonstrators in Tahrir Square have, I believe, captured the mood of the Arab peoples. That spirit is now strongest in Syria, the eye of the storm. The outcome of the struggle for freedom there may well determine the future of the Middle East.
I welcome the appointment, albeit late in the day, by the Secretary-General of his predecessor Kofi Annan as the joint envoy of the Arab League and the United Nations. Having accompanied Mr Annan and Ban Ki-Moon in many meetings in the past with President Assad, I know how difficult that task will be. President Assad is not likely to go gently into the night. Mr Annan’s endeavours are focused on securing a ceasefire, which is unlikely to be straightforward. We must be conscious, too, that like Bosnia, where I also served, this is not a level playing-field; the stronger side may ruthlessly exploit its position. In that respect, Assad is not far behind Milosevic.
In the absence of political progress, ceasefires are all too likely to break down. But I believe that even before a ceasefire, which I fear is some way off, it is of paramount importance that the Red Cross, the ICRC and the United Nations should have unfettered humanitarian access, and that this needs to be the demand of the civilised world. I believe, too, that the impasse in the Security Council needs to be broken, if necessary through an international conference, perhaps in Geneva, bringing together the P5, Germany, Turkey and the countries of the Arab League to chart a map of the road ahead. The Dayton conference in 1995 followed many years of conflict in Bosnia, and we cannot allow that to happen in Syria. I urge the Government to think of these possibilities and not to rule out an appeal to the General Assembly under the Uniting for Peace resolution, which has been used in the past on issues where the Security Council was deadlocked. I join others in bearing in mind that awful crimes are almost certainly being committed in Syria; the relevance of the International Criminal Court should not be lost sight of in that regard.
The demise of the Assad regime could be a strategic game-changer in the Middle East. At one stroke, Iran would be deprived of its Arab ally and simultaneously the link between the revolutionary guards in Tehran and the Lebanese Hezbollah would be, if not severed, seriously eroded.
In Israel, the focus has been on the Iranian nuclear challenge and too often now, as in the past, political opportunities have been lost. Israel has long prided itself, rightly, on its vibrant democracy, but it has looked at the democratic surge in the Arab region with fear and a lack of empathy. Did it really expect the 84 year-old Hosni Mubarak to be succeeded by his son Gamal in the same way that Bashar al-Assad followed in the footsteps of his father Hafez? If so, it was a seriously flawed reading of the Egyptian political mood.
Some months ago I was in Madrid to participate in a seminar commemorating the famous conference of 1991, which did so much in its time to spur a peace settlement. In its wake came the Oslo accords of 1994. Later came the efforts of President Clinton, culminating in the 2000 Taba agreement. In 2007, President George W Bush convened the Annapolis conference. In the subsequent five years, I regret to say that there has been no serious momentum to settling the Israeli-Palestinian dispute. It worries me that Israel may not in the future have such moderate interlocutors as President Abbas and Prime Minister Salam Fayyad. My former UN colleague the Dutch diplomat Robert Serry told the UN Security Council on 21 November last:
“Without a credible path forward … the viability of the Palestinian Authority … and … of the two-State solution … cannot be taken for granted”.
We are perilously close to that possibility, and it is the duty of the friends of Israel to sound the alarm.
This is a time of great hopes in the Middle East, but also of considerable fears. Unless the Syrian problem can be addressed, and addressed soon, it will migrate and one of its first victims could be Lebanon. Many references have been made in this Chamber to the complexity of Syria; that is of nothing compared with the complexity of Lebanon, whose constitution of 1943 recognises, if I remember correctly, at least 18 faiths. In Lebanon now, there is an awful fear of the future. Many believe that it may only be a matter of time before the conflict in Syria moves across the Lebanese borders.
My Lords, before I speak about recent developments in Palestine, I want to put on record two personal statements. The first is that I am not anti-Semitic but I am anti-injustice, and the treatment of the Palestinians over the last six decades, by Israel and the international community, has been a gross injustice which has eaten away at peace in the Middle East and served to fuel extreme Islamism and terrorism. The second statement is that I believe that Israel has a right to exist within the 1967 borders; of course I do. Hamas leaders, who I have met in Damascus and Gaza, also accept the existence of Israel within the 1967 borders laid down by the United Nations. Sadly, of course, this has not happened and the actions of the state of Israel are becoming more and more dangerous for Israel itself, the Middle East and the wider world.
The Arab citizens of Israel are marginalised and discriminated against in every way. New laws are being passed all the time to make life more and more difficult for them—on marriage and property rights, for example. Money spent on Arab-Israeli schools, water supplies and infrastructure is a fraction of that spent on Jewish citizens and, as we know, the state of Israel has now been declared the Jewish state of Israel, which has wider implications even for us in how we relate to that country.
It is difficult to see how what is left of the West Bank, for example, will ever form the basis of a secure and prosperous state of Palestine. The security barrier and the settlements, linked by settler-only roads, have gobbled up huge amounts of Palestinian land and the land left to the Palestinians is being made unusable. The whole settler enterprise was referred to as “vandalism” by my party leader, but it is not mindless. It is the deliberate humiliation of the Palestinians since the Oslo agreement—a carefully thought-out strategy, designed to make life for Palestinians impossible.
In Gaza, as many noble Lords who have visited have pointed out in this House, conditions are much worse and no one has dared to say that the real purpose of the blockade is to deliberately ruin the fishing, agricultural and manufacturing industries of Gaza in order to reduce those very talented, hard-working and extremely cheerful people to unemployment and grinding poverty. Our Government deal with these violations of international law by “urging restraint” and “expressing concern”. Those are worthy sentiments, but they do not stop the relentless ethnic cleansing, land grab and what many people would describe as terrorism by the Israeli Air Force, with its targeted assassinations. Because of the pro-Israel lobby’s bullying tactics against anyone who speaks the truth, Israel is allowed to act with impunity.
The Arab spring will not favour Israel. Israel is losing its friends rapidly. Egypt and Turkey are already alienated and others will follow. Even the US Defense Secretary, Mr Panetta, has recently warned Israel to,
“get to the damned table”,
“reach out and mend fences”.
In America, the tide is beginning to turn against Israel. In the nearly 700 letters I have received since my comments at Middlesex University two weeks ago, only 5 per cent were critical. Among the huge support I received for my comments and for the Palestinians, there were many letters from citizens of the United States of America. That has never happened to me before. Therefore, Israel may not be able to rely on the USA for ever. Then what will happen? Israel may indeed have to change in form, a concept discussed by Gideon Levi in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz on 4 March.
The warning was clear in Proverbs in the Hebrew Bible, and repeated by St Paul in our own New Testament. It has been the philosophy for many of us throughout our lives that,
“whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap”.
This must be one of the reasons why Israel is trying now to divert attention towards Iran, with talk of nuclear weapons, which is a scenario eerily reminiscent of the run-up to the attacks on Iraq in 2003. An attack on Iran, if it is allowed to happen, will set the Middle East on fire. That is a fire that could spread to the rest of the world. I beg the Minister, in his reply, to recognise the danger of Israel’s behaviour and give us some reassurance that the Government understand and will start taking action to control that country and give justice to the Palestinians before it is too late.
My Lords, I, too, congratulate the Minister on the masterly introductory tour d’horizon to what has been an excellent and wide-ranging debate. Lord Acton once said that hindsight is the privilege of the historian. I begin my single-issue contribution with two pieces of hindsight.
Thirty-eight years ago, I was realising the dream of every regular commanding officer, being in command of my regiment and was faced with two operational requirements. One was to prepare it for an operational tour in Belfast later that year. The other was to prepare our shooting team for the Central Treaty Organisation shooting competition in which we were representing the United Kingdom against the other member nations: the United States, Iran, Pakistan and Turkey. I knew Ali Nashat, the captain of the Iranian team, because he had been at the staff college with me. He had also been part of the Iranian contingent that took part with us in Oman’s war against the Yemeni insurgents in the Dhofar. I was to speak to Ali once more when I was sent to Tehran in November 1978 on one of the least successful military missions in history. He was commanding the Shah’s guard, and I had been sent to advise the Iranian military authority on minimum force methods a few weeks before the Shah was overthrown. I was able to speak to him on the telephone, but was not allowed to meet him. Sadly, he was among the first people murdered in the revolution. As we know, CENTO, too, did not survive that event, but I often wonder what would have happened had it still been the NATO of the Middle East.
Secondly, six months before the second Iraq war, to which I have always been strongly opposed, a number of us wrote to the Prime Minister. I was in Oman when a senior Omani army officer reminded me that it was our oldest ally in that part of the world, and had built a 74-gun ship for Nelson’s navy. He said that he hoped that we would not ask for Oman’s help in our deployment against Iraq. True, Saddam and his family had to be removed but that was a matter for the Iraqis, not for us. In our letter to the Prime Minister, we referred to two definitions of affordability: can you afford something; or can you afford to give up what you would have to give up in order to afford it? We did not think that the United Kingdom could afford to put at risk, in the present or the future, the relationships that it had painstakingly built up over many years in the Middle East.
I emphasise this last point because of its relevance to one of the key ingredients in the all-important peace process—namely, the proposed weapons-of-mass-destruction-free zone, about which my noble friend Lord Hannay has already spoken. I agree with everything that he said, particularly about the need for a more flexible approach to Iran. Indeed, we would do well to respond swiftly and positively to Ayatollah Khamenei’s positive response to President Obama’s call for diplomacy, not war, to direct efforts in that part of the world.
Reverting to the weapons-of-mass-destruction-free zone, I briefly remind the House of its history. The objective was first put forward by Egypt in 1990, building on a 1974 UN General Assembly resolution from Egypt and Iran that called for a nuclear-free zone in the area. In 1995, after the NPT states had resolved on its adoption, Egypt encouraged all non-signatory Arab states to become parties. Frustrated by the lack of progress, it then worked with the League of Arab States and civil society on a proposed action plan, which was negotiated at the 2010 NPT review conference. It was agreed there that a facilitator would be appointed and a conference held in 2012 under the auspices of the UN Secretary-General and the three NPT depository states, Russia, the United States and the United Kingdom. The aim would be to involve all states in the Middle East in the establishment of a Middle East zone free of nuclear weapons and all other weapons of mass destruction. Ambassador Jaakko Laajava was appointed facilitator in October last year and his country, Finland, will host the conference. However, time is running out, and the latest information I have about the conference is that, owing to the American presidential election, January 2013 has been awarded honorary 2012 status so that the timeframe can be extended.
However, as with so many other problems in the area, the position and view of Iran and Israel are critical to further progress. As we know, Israel remains the only nuclear weapons state in the region—a situation that questions the applicability of the traditional doctrine of deterrence. The possession of nuclear weapons is made more acceptable because of their pre-eminent role in the prevention of aggression by others. Throughout the Cold War, the key word was “uncertainty” because neither side was certain whether the other would resort to the use of nuclear weapons. Therefore, in logic, should Iran not be allowed to develop such weapons so that the doctrine of deterrence can apply to its relations with Israel? However, as we all know, such possession is vehemently rejected by many, not least other actual and potential nuclear players in that part of the world, such as Pakistan—the former member of CENTO—Saudi Arabia and, of course, Israel.
What could or should the United Kingdom be doing about this? Oh for a CENTO and that we could be certain of our Middle East relationships. However, I do not believe that all is doom and gloom. Last year, the United States tried to negotiate a new protocol for the 2008 Convention on Cluster Munitions, which the United Kingdom had played a major role in securing. The protocol was designed to allow certain munitions to be used. However, as a result of the strong line that the Government took at a diplomatic meeting last November, this was successfully resisted, which suggests that our voice in such areas still carries weight. Therefore, my question to the Minister is whether, based on the standing that we enjoy in the region and our status as one of the three NPT depository states, the Government are prepared to take a similarly strong line over the 2012 conference on a weapons-of-mass-destruction-free zone, so that at least and at last some progress can be made to improve the long-term security prospects in the Middle East.
My Lords, this has been an interesting and informative debate about a complex, diverse and less than entirely stable part of the world. I should like to take this opportunity to pay tribute to the work of our diplomats and aid workers in the Middle East and north Africa, and also to the work of media personnel who put their lives at risk and, tragically, sometimes lose them as a result of their courageous efforts to ensure that the outside world is kept informed of the dramatic developments taking place and, in Syria, the sheer brutality of what is happening.
No one can fail to be moved by the horrific scenes of violence that we have seen in Syria, not least in Homs. It is clear that my noble friend Lady Amos was appalled by what she saw, and we wish her and Kofi Annan well in their endeavours. The latest United Nations estimate is that more than 7,500 civilians have lost their lives during the conflict. This brutal repression is inexcusable, and responsibility for the death of these innocent people lies at the door of President Assad and his regime—a President and a regime who must be called to account for their actions, no matter how long it takes. There is a need to sharpen the choice facing those military officers being directed to kill their own civilians by the Assad regime by providing them with safe havens if they choose to leave the armed forces. A twin-track approach of increasing accountability for actions taken, alongside support for those in the regime who make the right choice, such as the deputy Oil Minister, is essential.
However, condemnation by the international community is not enough. Continuing diplomatic efforts are required. The Assad regime has no future and the President must go, which is why the failure to reach agreement in the Security Council was such a stain on the conscience of the world. We must continue to press the Russians to exercise the influence they claim to have over Assad to at least end the violence. We must play whatever part we can to ensure that the important and crucial pressure from the Arab League and regional powers remains coherent and consistent, and that economic and diplomatic sanctions on Syria through the European Union are effective.
The Syrian conflict has the potential to spill over into neighbouring countries, with tensions flaring in Lebanon and refugees fleeing across the borders at an ever increasing rate. As the Turkish Government have pointed out—and I fully support the Minister’s comments on the importance of Turkey’s role—the longer that this crisis continues, the greater are the prospects of ethnic, religious and sectarian fault lines re-emerging in Syria in ways that could make it harder still to reach a successful resolution to the conflict. Following the speech of my noble friend Lady Symons of Vernham Dean, I ask the Minister whether the Government are liaising with Arab Governments about the future of Syria after the Assad regime, bearing in mind the possible internal and external influence and pressures that might come into play.
At the Syrian regime’s side stands Iran—an Iran more isolated today than it has been for some considerable time, as it moves towards a military nuclear capability. In recent years, Iran has sought to build its influence across the Middle East, supporting groups such as Hamas and Hezbollah and repressive regimes that could help to enhance its influence in the region, most notably that of Assad in Syria. The recent events in Syria leave Iran even more isolated. Previously reluctant players, such as the Saudis, have now publicly condemned Iran and given their support to the EU oil boycott. Sanctions today, unlike those in the past are showing signs of having an impact and the Iranian regime seems to be struggling to contain their effect. Like other regimes finding themselves in a similar situation, the Iranian regime’s response to declining domestic legitimacy and increasing international isolation has been to seek to channel discontent towards external enemies beyond its borders and to continue to support terrorist groups.
In particular, members of the Iranian regime have directed their hatred towards Israel. The international community is united in condemnation of the regime’s violent and abhorrent rhetoric and the worldview that it reveals, but Israel needs to recognise that its friends in the international community see Iran acquiring nuclear weapons as affecting not just Israel’s security but that of the broader region and, indeed, the world. If Iran were to acquire a nuclear weapon, its capability to destabilise the Middle East would be enhanced. The potential response from Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Egypt, among others, could put further at risk the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, as they might well feel less inclined to rely on an American security guarantee. The risk of the proliferation of nuclear weapons would be heightened further by the track record of Iran in supporting and arming non-state actors and their violent methods.
We need to use all the diplomatic tools available to force the Iranian Government to change course. On occasion in the past, Iranian leaders have adjusted their behaviour in the face of international pressure. Sanctions are now beginning to put considerable pressure on the Iranian regime. The combined effect of international sanctions on the Iranian financial sector, including steps taken by the Government last year, has triggered an enormous currency devaluation which the regime is struggling to contain. Unemployment is high, growth is low and anger is mounting. It now appears that the Iranians may be willing to resume talks, although even if that is so, there is still the very real prospect that they may seek to draw out talks while continuing with their nuclear programme unabated.
We welcome the diplomatic steps that the international community has taken to increase further the pressure on Iran. What is needed now is an even more concerted and co-ordinated international response to try finally to convince the Iranian regime that the cost of international isolation is simply too great a price to pay. That is where the focus must be.
Although the cost of Iran acquiring nuclear weapons is too high, we must make it clear to our friends in Israel that now is not the time for any pre-emptive strike. However, we also believe that in the current situation, all options must remain on the table, because the prospects for negotiating a diplomatic solution and the international community achieving a peaceful resolution will be weakened, not enhanced, if that is not the case.
A peaceful resolution to the Israeli/Palestinian conflict does not seem any nearer, despite the recent tide of change elsewhere in the region. Israeli citizens still live in fear of rocket attacks from Gaza, while settlement building on Palestinian land continues in clear violation of international law. Both parties must be encouraged to resume negotiations, despite the latest setback. The international community, as well as a majority of Israelis and Palestinians, shares a common view of the principles on which a final agreement will be based: land swaps around the 1967 borders, Jerusalem as a shared capital and a fair settlement of refugees. There is no alternative to a negotiated peace. Perhaps the Minister will offer the Government’s view on how the present logjam might be broken.
Real change, however, has taken and is taking place in a number of countries in the region, including Tunisia, Libya and Egypt—albeit that we cannot be sure precisely where that change will lead. Egypt is the largest and strategically most significant country to have seen its Government overthrown recently, and Egypt’s stance is of considerable significance in making progress towards a solution of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. Civilian control of the military is one of the cornerstones of democracy, but there is continuing concern as to the extent to which this has been or will be achieved in Egypt.
With the Egyptian economy having shrunk and unemployment well into double figures, the economic risks confronting Egypt are real and dangerous, and democratic political reform becomes a much more difficult task when it occurs against a backdrop of economic decline. Perhaps the Minister could indicate what is being done within the international community, including financial organisations, to try to assist the Egyptian economy and the economies of other countries in the region that are seeking democratic reform against a background of economic problems. Can he also tell us what the Government’s approach is on this point?
In Libya, the political leaders have begun the process of drawing up a constitution, and it is vital that that process is recognised to be fair and transparent. The swearing in of the transitional Government represented a vital step in the process towards elections. The United Nations envoy has recently expressed confidence that Libya will overcome its current difficulties, which include the activities of local militias and attempts to divide the country and pursue democracy.
Democratic transformation will not unfold uniformly across countries as diverse and different as, for example, Egypt, Tunisia, Libya and Syria, but the consistency of the demands made by those desperate for change is testament to the enduring values for which they have been struggling. The Government, of course, must act in the period ahead in ways consistent with the very different scale of the risks in different parts of the Middle East and North Africa, while also providing whatever support and encouragement we can give, either directly or through the international community, to all those who desire and demand freedom, stability, security, a change for the better in their lives, and the democratic right to elect and determine who should govern them and their own country as a whole.
My Lords, as I and, I think, others will have anticipated, this has been a debate of many points of view and many insights, drawn on your Lordships’ colossal experience of dealing with the enormous range of countries that we have covered. I hope that I shall be forgiven straight away if I do not cover satisfactorily all these nations with their situations of change and tumult, but time is the limiting factor.
It was the noble Lord, Lord Williams—who obviously spoke with unique experience in the light of his past employments—who called Syria the eye of the storm. He brought home the ghastly complexity of the issue there and made a grim but, I hope, a realistic comparison with the endless tangles in Bosnia, which took years to unravel. I hope that in a sense his pessimism is wrong when he speaks about the years that it will take for us to see settlement in Syria, but we have to be realistic and he may of course be right.
Many other noble Lords spoke on that issue and I shall try to divide the 20 minutes that I have into commenting mainly on Syria, Iran and the Middle East peace process, and I shall also answer a range of detailed questions from my noble friend Lord Avebury and others. I shall see whether I can get that all in.
The noble Baroness, Lady Symons, in a very well informed speech, asked whether we were liaising with the Arab League. The answer is yes. On Syria, the Friends of Syria mechanism, which has met already and meets next, I think, in Istanbul, is an opportunity for constant dialogue—not merely liaising—with the Arab League about its position. Of course, there are some differences of emphasis within the league, as we know, between those in Saudi Arabia and Qatar, who are more forward in suggesting direct help for the opposition groups, and others who are not so certain. We want the Arab League to formulate its views clearly, and we are working with it at every point to address the issue.
It would be incredible if I said that any of us could see exactly how the Syrian scene will work out. Atrocities have been committed that have appalled everybody; the refugee problem is crowding in at the Turkish border, with talk of mines being laid by the Syrian armed forces; it is clear that Iran is helping to import weapons to support the official Syrian army; and it is absolutely clear from the vivid reports of the noble Baroness, Lady Amos, and others that Baba Amr and other places have been utterly flattened and destroyed in a pattern that is unforgivable.
The noble Lord, Lord Hannay, rightly asked about the position of those who have committed atrocities, and about possible charges in the ICC. I must be careful in the precise words I use to answer him because there are legal constraints. However, as I told your Lordships the other day, we certainly would not rule out referral to the ICC, as suggested by Mrs Pillay. The COI report does not specifically recommend such a referral; nor does the Human Rights Council have the power to refer cases. It would be for the UN Security Council to refer the situation in Syria to the ICC prosecutor. I am told—this is in addition to the point that I made the other day—that it could take anything up to a year before this is clarified.
I have not much to add about the grimness of the situation in Syria. Many excellent and wise points were made by noble Lords. The noble Baroness, Lady Falkner, and the noble Lords, Lord Wright and Lord Chidgey, all spoke about it, and I will not add anything at this stage.
I turn now to Iran. The noble Baroness, Lady Deech, said that it was the great shadow over the area, and of course it is. The universal opinion that clearly comes from almost all sides of this debate is that if we reach the stage of bombing and violence it will be a failure of policy. All options remain on the table; we must be realistic. We have a twin-track policy of putting considerable pressure on Iran through financial measures, including the withdrawal of SWIFT facilities that was reported in the press today and was referred to by one noble Lord. We also have in place the oil embargo, which has its problems but is clearly closing in on Iran. That is the pressure side of the track.
The other part of the track is that there must be engagement and talks. Iran has said that it will come back to talks. The noble Baroness, Lady Ashton, who has taken a very forward and skilled lead in dealing with the matter on behalf of the EU3+3 and the western powers, is negotiating on the timing of a meeting. We can all see the danger; this could be a trap. There could be a lot of talk and meanwhile Iran would plunge ahead with its weaponisation, which would lead to a cascade of proliferation in the whole region and potential disasters of almost unimaginable proportions. That must be prevented. That is our twin track. Firing missiles at Iran would be regrettable at any stage; but as the noble Lord, Lord Haskel, said, doing so now would definitely be the wrong course. The debate about whether Israel could act independently is one that we watch with great unease. We would regard it as a disaster to see any kind of unilateral action of that sort at this stage.
The noble Lord, Lord Anderson, asked what if, despite everything, weaponisation—not merely the capability to build nuclear weapons, but the production of them—goes ahead in Iran. This is hypothetical. It would, of course, be a statement that we had failed, but that is just the put-down answer. This is a danger. Could we go in a completely different direction as the noble Lords, Lord Ramsbotham and Lord Hannay, mentioned? Statesmen must turn their minds towards the ideal of moving to a WMD-free or a nuclear-free zone. All international leaders have made statements saying that that is what they would like to see, but we have to be totally realistic about the difficulties and challenges that would present. I am afraid I have to say from this Dispatch Box that at the moment that lies very far away, almost in the dream category of where one could go if the present twin-track strategy, which we are determined to pursue, did not succeed.
The noble Lord, Lord Hylton, spoke about a different kind of win-win strategy. These are ideas that must be looked at seriously and kept on the table, but the main strategy that we are sticking to at the moment is intense pressure on Iran to bring it to the table, which is now on its way to being step one. The step beyond that is to get it to come clean on its nuclear activities at present and its nuclear military aspirations and to deter it from them.
The third major category of discussion in the debate was to do with the Middle East peace process for Palestine and Israel. We all quote to each other the adage that everything in the Middle East is connected to everything else. Clearly, the peace process and some kind of progress on it, if we can discern any, if there is any hope at all, is connected with the Iran situation, the Lebanon situation and the entire balance of activity and dangers throughout the Middle East.
Let me turn to the MEPP and try to answer some of the questions that were raised by a range of noble Lords. I will not name them all. We are aware that Fatah and Hamas have signed an agreement that President Abbas will become Prime Minister. It is too early to make a detailed assessment of these developments. We will continue to follow the situation on Palestinian reconciliation very closely. Any technocratic Government should be composed of figures who are committed to the principles set by Mahmoud Abbas in Cairo in May last year, who uphold the principle of non-violence, are committed to a negotiated two-state solution and accept the previous agreements of the PLA. We have made it consistently clear that we will engage any Palestinian Government who show through their words and actions that they are committed to the above principles.
We welcome the effort to hold Palestinian elections this year. It will be very important that all sides work to ensure that conditions are in place for the holding of free and fair elections. I know there have been reports that Hamas has shifted its emphasis. Our policy is clear: it must renounce violence, recognise Israel and accept previously signed agreements. Hamas must make credible movement towards these conditions, which remain the benchmark by which its intentions will be judged. That is what we want to make clear on that situation.
We are thankful that the Egyptians have brokered a ceasefire in the recent period of very high tensions. One should not forget that a vast range of missiles, some of very high technical capability, have been rained on Israel by the Palestinian Islamic Jihad and other organisations. Luckily, the Iron Dome technology of anti-missile defence by Israel seems to have prevented 90 per cent of them reaching their targets. Nevertheless, it is obviously intolerable from Israel’s point of view that that should be the challenge. Of course, it will also be said that Israel has applied its force the other way. There is always a balance and there are always two sides to these arguments. It is impossible to say anything that does not slide one way or another.
I thank the Minister for giving way but I must point out—I hope that he agrees—that the raining of missiles on southern Israel from Gaza always follows a targeted assassination by the Israeli Air Force. He may not have heard—but I certainly did and I can send him a transcript—the BBC World Service interviewing a teacher in southern Israel who confirmed that fact and said that they always knew when missiles were going to come over because it was always after a targeted assassination.
I will not go further into the argument of where it stands. There is of course an earlier riposte to that. Perhaps for once I could just stand on the observation, with which I hope my noble friend would agree, that—I think that the words of Mr Netanyahu were to this effect—if there is quietness on one side, there will be quietness on the other side. There were targeted assassinations; there are constant threats of the elimination of Israel; there are these ripostes by rockets; and there is the position of Hamas, which has stood aside from some of these rocket attacks. All these are pieces of the jigsaw. I will not go further in the judgment because, wherever one stands, it offends one side or the other.
I should say a word about Palestine’s membership of the United Nations. The UK considers that Palestine largely fulfils the criteria for UN membership. We will not vote against the application because of the progress that the Palestinian leadership has made towards meeting the criteria but nor can we vote for it while our primary objective remains the return to negotiations. Currently, there is no proposal for a UN General Assembly resolution. If President Abbas returns to the General Assembly, the UK will use its vote in a way that makes a return to negotiations more rather than less likely. That is where we stand in answer to the points raised by the noble Lord, Lord Hannay. Those are the three major issues, although they are not by any means the only issues that have been discussed throughout this very lively debate.
The noble Lord, Lord Avebury, is certainly owed a comment on Bahrain. He asked about the unconditional release of Abdulhadi al-Khawaja and other leading activists. We are working with the Danish Government and the EU on this case. We and our EU partners are urging the Bahraini authorities to deal with the cases of all those currently in prison quickly and transparently. As to whether we will ask the Bahrainis to start negotiations with victims on compensation et cetera, we understand that the Bahraini authorities are discussing compensation for those affected by the unrest during the year. My colleague, Alistair Burt, has urged reconciliation and has been immensely active in this field. We have also urged the Bahraini authorities to deal with all the remaining cases of those in prison quickly and transparently. We remain convinced that meaningful dialogue between the Government and the Opposition is the best way forward for Bahrain to return it to the stability that it deserves. Will we urge the regime to allow freedom of expression, without which reform is not possible? My answer is that the United Kingdom supports freedom of speech and expression in all countries and we have made this clear to the Bahraini authorities.
I do not expect these answers fully to satisfy those who are concerned about what has been happening in Bahrain, but we believe that progress is being made. There is evidence of a serious commitment to dialogue and we will continue to work on that. We are far from satisfied or in agreement with everything that has been done or is being done, but we believe that the trend is positive and we will keep pressing.
In a fascinating contribution, the noble Baroness, Lady Deech, asked among many other things about the Chilcot inquiry. The inquiry has advised the Government that it will need at least until the summer of 2012 to complete its report and be ready for publication. The noble Lord, Lord Bew, asked two questions of great profundity and said that I had not mentioned Turkey and the European Union. I had not because there are so many other things to mention and I did not think that we could get into that aspect. It remains our view that Turkey’s application to membership of the European Union makes sense for the future, but obviously it is up to Turkey. If it decides in its repositioning in the new Middle East that membership is no longer a priority, that is for the Turkish Government.
The noble Lord also asked me the great and fundamental question: is the whole of the process that we are discussing going to weaken or strengthen moves towards democracy in the future? The honest answer is that we hope that it will. We are optimistic and we believe in the long term. Many countries may have to go through Islamic phases, but this will take us in the right direction. Even so, there will be many problems along the way.
The noble Baroness, Lady Nicholson, told us about the Yemen and her rather frightening experiences there, which we read about in the papers. We are extremely grateful to her for the role that she has played and for her words about the British and other ambassadors. Indeed, I made some comments in my opening speech on that point. The noble Lord, Lord Rosser, asked me a string of questions, which I have not had time to answer in full. He asked about the role of DfID and the work that we are doing. The department is putting enormous effort into the Arab partnership, including an economic facility to support inclusive, sustainable economic growth, focusing primarily on Egypt, Tunisia, Morocco, Jordan and Libya.
We cannot possibly predict what the political landscape in the region will look like even one year from now. One certainty is that we need the major nations to work in concert, which means that somehow we have to see more co-operation from Russia and China to achieve real progress. Of course my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary has been working day and night with his colleagues on trying to move towards the UN resolution that Russia may approve. We hope that China may then follow. Positive Russian assistance on Syria is essential and we must have a better contribution from that great country.
I believe that the people of the region have made absolutely clear their desire for respect for their own nations and for themselves, and for a stronger voice in their future. Many of them have been extraordinarily bold and brave in their actions, almost unbelievably so. Now we must show the same boldness by remaining positive, constructive and ready to assist, without interference, to help the onward march of change towards what we hope will be better times for the region and its remarkable people.
House adjourned at 3.03 pm.