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UK-Israel Life Sciences Council

Volume 741: debated on Thursday 6 December 2012


Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the UK-Israel Life Sciences Council.

My Lords, the UK-Israel Life Sciences Council is an excellent example of the opportunities for successful collaboration between our two countries. Since its launch in 2011, funding has been raised for five major research projects in regenerative medicine as part of the British-Israel research and academic exchange programme.

I welcome the Minister’s reply. She is aware, I imagine, that this work could produce great advances in stem cell and regenerative medicine, which may make a major difference in the treatment of diabetes, Parkinson’s and multiple sclerosis. Does she therefore agree that this sort of work, and the search for cures, should rise above politics? Will she condemn the politicisation of academic exchange—for example, boycotts of scientific work—which could have so much potential for cures in this country?

My Lords, regenerative medicine, such as stem cell treatments, has the potential to play an increasingly vital role in delivering the next generation of healthcare, offering treatments or possible cures for areas of unmet medical need. Where there are areas of expertise, both in this country and in Israel—or in any other country around the world—it is important for that collaborative work to continue. When we are collaborating with countries that we consider to be friends and there are disagreements, we still have those discussions, for it is important that this work continues.

My Lords, does not the pre-eminence of Israel in this and so many other fields, and also the academic freedom enjoyed by universities in Israel, make nonsense of any attempts by our academics to boycott their counterparts in Israel? Will the Minister, as the noble Baroness suggested, roundly condemn any such attempts at a boycott?

My Lords, the UK Government have made their position on boycotts clear. We do not hesitate to express disagreement with Israel whenever we feel it is necessary, but we also enjoy a close and productive relationship with Israel. It is this very relationship that allows us to have the frank discussions that are often necessary between friends. We believe that imposing boycotts would lessen that influence, not increase it.

My Lords, does my noble friend the Minister agree that joint business initiatives between Palestinians and Israelis could play a valuable role in encouraging diplomatic engagement between both peoples? What role does the Minister consider that the Government can play in supporting such efforts, very much within what the noble Baroness, Lady Deech, has said about the UK-Israel Life Sciences Council’s work?

As the noble Lord will be aware, the UK-Israel Life Sciences Council is a group of top scientists from both countries and includes Members of your Lordships’ House as well as, I think, four Nobel Prize winners. I think that all noble Lords would agree that we are at a very delicate stage in the Middle East peace process. As I have said from this Dispatch Box on many occasions in the past few weeks, 2013 will be a critical year. It is therefore important that we use whatever avenues we have to strengthen those diplomatic relations to achieve a peaceful resolution to a two-state solution in the Middle East.

My Lords, does the Minister accept that I would have no difficulty in answering my noble friend’s Question? I oppose fundamentally any boycotting of co-operation between academics and researchers in this country and those in Israel. However, does she not also agree that when the Government of Israel pay absolutely no respect to the views of the British Government on crucial issues of international policy, such as the legality of settlements, that is bound to have an effect on government-to-government relations, even if it should not have an effect on co-operation between scientists and academics?

I am a firm believer that when matters are most difficult to discuss, that is the time to strengthen relationships further. We have never managed to resolve any matter by walking away from relationships. It is because we have strong relationships with Israel on a variety of issues that we can be so robust in our engagement. I hope noble Lords will agree that we have been robust in that engagement in the past week. Noble Lords will be aware that on Monday the Israeli ambassador was called in by the Minister for the Middle East to express our grave concerns about illegal settlements and the comments made by the Israeli Government.

My Lords, the medical field is a rich source of interaction not only between the UK and Israel but also, and perhaps more importantly, between Israel and the Palestinians. When I go round hospitals in Israel I see many Palestinian patients from both Gaza and the West Bank. Is the Minister aware of this?

It is not something that I am directly aware of, but I am grateful for the noble Lord’s information.

If academic effort ought to be collaborative across international frontiers, and that is surely right, why do Education Ministers so frequently speak of British universities being in competition with universities elsewhere in the world?

I am sure that noble Lords will agree that British universities are some of the best in the world. We therefore have to praise our competitiveness and competitive edge. Whenever I and my ministerial colleagues are in places around the world we say that we are in direct competition with other academic institutions, because we are trying to encourage citizens of those countries to choose Britain as a destination for study.

My Lords, the Minister said that the Israeli ambassador was called in to the Foreign Office about the seizure of Palestinian land by Israel. What was his response?

My Lords, that is probably slightly beyond the Question on the Order Paper. However, I can inform the noble Lord that the Minister made very clear to the Israeli ambassador Britain’s real concerns about the comments made about further settlements. I think that the ambassador was left with no doubt about the British Government’s strength of feeling on this matter.

Further to the question from the noble Lord, Lord Hannay, does my noble friend the Minister agree that one of the main reasons why the Israeli Government—much to the disappointment of many Israeli citizens—repeatedly ignore the representations made by the UK and other western Governments on their action in the Occupied Territories is that the United States has exercised more than 30 vetoes since 1967 to stop Israel following international law? What do the UK Government think of American veto-itis in this matter?

The Government have made it clear that real progress has to be made next year, and that progress cannot be made without the US taking a lead. It has to get behind the initiative for next year. As I have said before from this Dispatch Box, this is a president in his second term, where it is right that he should prioritise these matters.