I would like to update the House on the evacuation of British nationals from Libya, the actions we are pursuing against Colonel Gaddafi and his Administration, and developments in the wider region.
On evacuation, we have been working intensively to get our people out. As of now, we have successfully removed about 600 British nationals from Libya. The evacuation has centred on three locations: Tripoli airport, the port at Benghazi and the desert oilfields. At Tripoli airport, a series of six aircraft organised by the Foreign Office and an RAF C-130 Hercules flight have brought out more than 380 British nationals and a similar number of foreign citizens. At Benghazi, HMS Cumberland has carried out two evacuations from the port, bringing out 119 British nationals and 303 foreign citizens from more than 30 countries. The first of those evacuations took place in difficult sea conditions, and the second arrived in Malta earlier today. The evacuations were assisted on the ground by five rapid deployment teams. In total, nearly 30 extra staff from the Foreign Office helped to marshal British citizens in the midst of chaotic scenes in and around the airports and ports.
Clearly, the most challenging part of the evacuation has involved those British nationals scattered across more than 20 locations in the oilfields deep in the desert. On Friday evening, I authorised a military operation to bring as many of them as possible out of the desert. On Saturday, two RAF C-130 aircraft flew into the eastern desert and picked up 74 British nationals and 102 foreign nationals at three different locations. A second mission took place yesterday, bringing out a further 21 British nationals and 168 foreign nationals. One of the aircraft involved in the second mission suffered minor damage from small arms fire. That underlines the challenging environment in which the aircraft were operating.
Britain has now taken a leading role in co-ordinating the international evacuation effort. Our airborne warning and control system aircraft are directing international aircraft that are involved. Brigadier Bashall, who is commanding the UK operation, has established a temporary joint headquarters in Malta to help to co-ordinate the efforts of many countries. I have thanked the Maltese Prime Minister personally on behalf of the country. Not for the first time in our history, we should pay tribute to Malta and her people for the role that they are playing.
The number of British citizens remaining in Libya is of course difficult to ascertain precisely, given the situation on the ground. Many of them will be dual nationals, and not all of them will want to leave. I asked for urgent work to be done on accurate numbers in both categories—those who wish to leave and those who currently do not. Our current indications are that, as of today, there are fewer than 150 British citizens remaining in Libya, of whom only a very small proportion wish to leave. Clearly, that can change at any time, and we will keep the House regularly updated.
We will continue to do all we can to ensure that those who wish to leave can do so. HMS Cumberland will remain in the area, together with HMS York, which also stands ready off Tripoli to assist. We also have military aircraft, including C-130s and a BAe 146, in Malta ready to fly in at very short notice.
The Government will continue to focus on ensuring that our citizens are safe. Cobra has met regularly to co-ordinate the effort, and I personally chaired three meetings over the weekend. The National Security Council is looking at the overall strategic picture, and it met last Friday and again today, not least to look at other risks to British citizens in countries in the wider region. As I said last week, there will be lessons that we will wish to learn from this evacuation, including in respect of the hiring of charter aircraft, the use of defence assets and the need for greater redundancy.
Clearly, an important decision was when to extract our embassy. That decision was taken at the Cobra meeting on Friday and carried out on Saturday, after the remaining civilians had been extracted from Tripoli airport and in parallel with the start of the desert operations, which were of course planned from Malta. Our judgment throughout has been that the risk to British citizens, including our embassy, has been growing, and the Americans, French and Germans have similarly suspended the operations of their embassies. Britain retains a consul in Tripoli and a consular warden in Benghazi, and we have arranged that Turkey, which still has several thousand of its own citizens in Libya, will look after British interests while our embassy’s operations remain suspended.
I am sure the whole House will want to put on record its thanks to all those who have made the rescue effort possible—to the RAF pilots, the Royal Navy crews and all those involved from all three armed services for their skill; to our diplomatic service; and to all those who put themselves in harm’s way to help our people leave safely.
I turn to the pressure that we are now putting on Gaddafi’s regime. We should be clear that for the future of Libya and its people, Colonel Gaddafi’s regime must end and he must leave. To that end, we are taking every possible step to isolate the Gaddafi regime, to deprive it of money, to shrink its power and to ensure that anyone responsible for abuses in Libya will be held to account. With respect to all those actions, Britain is taking a lead.
Over the weekend, we secured agreement for a UN Security Council resolution that we had drafted, which is unusually strong, unanimous and includes all our proposals. It condemns Gaddafi’s actions and imposes a travel ban and asset freeze on those at the top of his murderous regime. It demands an immediate end to the violence and the killing of protesters, access for international human rights monitors, the lifting of restrictions on the internet and media and an end to the intimidation and detention of journalists. It also refers Libya’s current leaders to the International Criminal Court to face the justice they deserve. We were also the driving force behind a special session of the UN Human Rights Council on Friday, which started work to eject Libya from the council, and the Foreign Secretary is in Geneva today, along with US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, to see that work through.
With our European partners, we have today secured agreement on freezing the assets of a wider group of individuals and banning them from entering the European Union, and on imposing a wider arms embargo on the Libyan regime. Britain is also leading in implementing those direct measures against the regime. A special
Privy Council session was held yesterday, as a result of which we have frozen the assets of Gaddafi, five of his family members, people acting for them or on their behalf, and entities that are owned or controlled by them. The Treasury has stepped in to block a shipment of some £900 million of banknotes destined for Libya. The Government have revoked Colonel Gaddafi’s immunity as Head of State, so neither he nor his family may enter the UK. We have also revoked the visas of a number of Libyans linked to the regime, who are now on immigration watch lists.
We will look at each and every way of stepping up pressure on this regime, such as further isolation by expelling it from international organisations and further use of asset freezes and travel bans, to give the clearest possible message to those on the fringes of the regime that now is the time to desert it.
In addition, we do not in any way rule out the use of military assets. We must not tolerate this regime using military force against its own people. In that context, I have asked the Ministry of Defence and the Chief of the Defence Staff to work with our allies on plans for a military no-fly zone. It is clear that this is an illegitimate regime that has lost the consent of its people, and our message to Colonel Gaddafi is simple: go now.
Everyone hopes that the situation will be resolved quickly, but there is a real danger now of a humanitarian crisis inside Libya. We have dispatched technical Department for International Development teams to be in place at both the Tunisian and Egyptian borders. Currently, the most pressing need is to assist the large numbers of migrant workers into Egypt and Tunisia to get them home. The International Development Secretary will visit the region later this week to assess the situation on the ground for himself, but in the meantime Britain will fly in tents and blankets from our stocks in Dubai for use at the Tunisian border.
North Africa and the wider middle east are now at the epicentre of momentous events. History is sweeping through this region. Yes, we must deal with the immediate consequences, especially for British citizens caught up in these developments, but we must also be clear about what these developments mean and how Britain and the west in general should respond.
In many parts of the Arab world, hopes and aspirations that have been smothered for decades are stirring. People—especially young people—are seeking their rights, and in the vast majority of cases they are doing so peacefully and bravely. The parallels with what happened in Europe in 1989 are not, of course, precise, and there have been many disappointments in the past, but those of us who believe in democracy and open society should be clear that this is a precious moment of opportunity.
While it is not for us to dictate how each country should meet the aspirations of its people, we must not remain silent in our belief that freedom and the rule of law are what best guarantee human progress and economic success. Freedom of expression, a free press, freedom of assembly and the right to demonstrate peacefully are basic rights—they are as much the rights of people in Tahrir square as they are of people in Trafalgar square. They are not British or western values, but the values of human beings everywhere.
We therefore need to take this opportunity to look again at our entire relationship with this region—at the billions of euros of EU funds, at our trade relationships, and at our cultural ties. We need to be much clearer and tougher in linking our development assistance to real progress in promoting more open and plural societies, and we need to dispense once and for all with the outdated notion that democracy has no place in the Arab world. Too often in the past, we have made a false choice between so-called stability on the one hand and reform and openness on the other. As recent events have confirmed, denying people their basic rights does not preserve stability, rather the reverse.
We should be clear too that now is not the time to park the middle east peace process—quite the opposite. In short, reform, not repression, is the way to lasting stability. No one pretends that democracy and open societies can be built overnight. Democracy is the work of patient craftsmanship, and it takes time, as we know from our own history, to put its building blocks in place. However, what is happening in the wider middle east is one of those once-in-a-generation opportunities—a moment when history turns a page. The next page may not be written, and it falls to us to seize this chance to fashion a better future for the region, to build a better relationship between our peoples, and to make a new start.
As the inspiring opposition leaders whom I met in Tahrir square said to me last week, we now have the opportunity of achieving freedoms that people in Britain take for granted. I am determined that we should not let them down, and I commend this statement to the House.
May I thank the Prime Minister for his statement? I should like to ask him about the four areas he covered—the immediate safety of British nationals, the future of the Libyan regime and the wider middle east, and the lessons learned from this crisis—but may I first join him in expressing deep and abiding gratitude to members of the British armed forces, who have succeeded with such extraordinary courage and professionalism in evacuating so many of our citizens and those of many other countries from Libya over the last week? Those brave men and women are a credit to our nation. May I also add my thanks to the Foreign Office staff on the ground in Libya for their efforts?
As the Prime Minister said, our first concern must always be the safety of our own people. For obvious operational and security reasons, I would not expect the Prime Minister to discuss future operations, but will he reassure the House that all contingencies continue to be looked at in relation to any remaining UK citizens stranded in Libya? Given the closure of the British embassy on Saturday—I understand the reasons for that—will he assure us that everything continues to be done to keep in close contact with those citizens who remain, and tell us what means of communication are available to them?
On the question of Libya’s political future, I think that the whole House will endorse the Prime Minister’s view that the only acceptable future is one without Colonel Gaddafi and his regime. We welcome what the Prime Minister said about a possible no-fly zone. We also welcome the international isolation of Libya expressed in UN Security Council resolution 1970, including sanctions and an arms embargo, and the decision to refer the killing of protesters to the International Criminal Court.
The resolution imposes travel bans on 17 Gaddafi loyalists and asset freezes on a number of other individuals. Will the Prime Minister tell the House whether he thinks that those asset freezes go wide enough and cover all those beyond Colonel Gaddafi’s immediate family who have decided to stand with him? Will the Prime Minister reassure the House that the Government will make full use of the provision in paragraph 23 of the resolution to nominate additional regime members who should be targeted by travel bans and asset freezes? On the human rights situation, there is clearly a growing humanitarian crisis on the Tunisian border and I welcome the steps that will be taken, which the Prime Minister talked about.
Let me turn to events beyond Libya, in the wider region. The events unfolding across the middle east—the Prime Minister reflected this in his statement—are as significant as the revolutions that liberated eastern Europe in 1989. As he says, our response to them needs to be equally ambitious. There is a popular will in many of those countries for democratic reform, and that movement is in line with the values that we share.
Does the Prime Minister agree that the way to approach this situation is to build a strategic response, including closer economic ties, support for civil society and institution-building in those countries? Will he concede that, although there is much that we can and should do bilaterally, real progress will require sustained will and effort at a multilateral level, including at the level of the European Union? May I also share the sentiment that he expressed that it will be a tragedy if, in this moment of change, the opportunity were not grasped to make progress on the Israel-Palestine issue? May I therefore support his calls for the rapid resumption of talks between Israel and the Palestinians and his decision to support the recent UN Security Council resolution on settlements? What steps will the UK take to get negotiations moving again?
Will the Prime Minister confirm that the Government will work with EU partners to strengthen both the guidelines and the operation of the rules on arms sales?
May I ask about the lessons to be learned from the immediate crisis response last week? Many hon. Members on both sides of the House have in recent days been dealing with constituents who are deeply anxious about family members stranded in Libya. Does the Prime Minister accept that the Foreign Office should have done more, as other countries did, to ensure that planes were on the ground in Libya on Tuesday, rather than late on Wednesday night, to evacuate our citizens? Will he explain why that was not the case? Given the scale of the emergency and the transparent need for co-ordination across Government, does the Prime Minister now agree that the emergency committee, Cobra, should have been convened earlier than Thursday? Again, will he explain why that did not happen?
Will the Prime Minister share with the House the wider lessons that he personally learned about the running of his Government? I think that the whole country has now, thankfully, seen the scale of response that can be mobilised to help our citizens, but will he promise that British nationals abroad will not be let down in future, as they were by the chaos and incompetence that we saw last week? I am surprised that he has not taken the opportunity of his statement to apologise to the House for the handling of the crisis last week. I hope that, in his reply, he will take the opportunity to do so.
When the inquiry is completed, will the Prime Minister promise that there will be an oral statement to report its findings to the House, along with the conclusions on the lessons that need to be learned?
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his praise of our armed forces. They have done a magnificent job, as they always do. As he says, we should also thank the Foreign Office staff and those in the Foreign Office crisis centre, which I visited, which is manning the phones round the clock and doing an extremely difficult job.
On future operations, it is difficult to say much more in the House, but obviously I have given the new figures on the number of British citizens we believe are still in Libya and the number who want to leave. It is a very small number at the moment who still want to leave. Obviously, that can change and, as I explained, we have the assets in place to help where appropriate.
In terms of what replaces our embassy, as I explained, we are going to have a consul in Tripoli, but we will be working with the Turkish Government, who still have thousands of nationals in-country, and I have spoken to the Turkish Prime Minister as well as to many other people.
The right hon. Gentleman asked whether the travel bans and the asset freezes go wide enough, which is a very important point. Right now, what we want to do is isolate and target the key members of the Libyan regime, with a clear warning that those close to the regime have a choice—they can desert it or leave it, but if they stay with it there is a chance that they will be hit by travel bans and asset freezes, too. That is all part of turning up the pressure.
As for the wider region, I agree with the right hon. Gentleman about institution-building and, indeed, making sure that the European Union sharpens its act on its neighbourhood policy. I think that there is room, yes, for multilateral action, but I hope that in this country we can do more in terms of political relations and on building party-to-party relations to try to help to build up the building blocks of democracy in those countries.
I agree with the right hon. Gentleman about Israel-Palestine. I am proud of the fact that we backed the Security Council resolution. That was the right decision, although it meant a disagreement with our oldest and strongest ally, the United States. On arms sales, I agree that the guidelines need to be clear and need to be adhered to.
Finally, the right hon. Gentleman asked some questions about lessons to be learned. As I said, I think that there are lessons to learn. What worked in Egypt—a combination of scheduled and charter flights—did not work as well in Libya. Lessons need to be learned, including about the use of military assets, but I would make the point that it is not as easy as some people say. The more you rely on charters earlier, the more the scheduled airlines collapse, and you can leave yourself with a bigger problem.
The right hon. Gentleman asked about learning lessons in the wider running of government. Of course, there are always lessons to learn, and perhaps, if apologies are in order, he should think about one for the appalling dodgy dealing with Libya under the last Government.
I agree with the Prime Minister that, in view of the complete chaos that has engulfed Libya, there is a real opportunity, together with our European partners, to expedite the downfall of the present regime and create a post-Gaddafi structure in the vacuum. However, does he agree that, given Libya’s appalling record on human rights, it was a complete misjudgment to enter into a defence co-operation agreement with it?
I do think that there are lessons to learn from the deal in the desert. The previous Government were correct to encourage the giving up of weapons of mass destruction, but more parameters should have been put on the relationship, particularly— I have made the point before—regarding the release of al-Megrahi. It should not have been the British Government’s position to try to facilitate that. Lessons need to be learned more broadly about that, and I am sure that there will be an opportunity to do so.
I echo the commendations of our forces and diplomatic and other staff who have worked hard to provide an adequate service for British citizens and others stranded in Libya. I commend the other actions that the Government are now taking, but may I ask the Prime Minister to expand on the point he made in his statement about what he described as greater redundancy for responding to future crises, by which I assume he meant greater resilience and greater resources. Does he accept that cutting Foreign Office staff by 450 to save £30 million at a time when its budgets are flat cannot do other than significantly undermine its ability to respond adequately and promptly when the next crisis occurs?
I obviously listen to the right hon. Gentleman, given his experience. The cuts to the Foreign Office are much less severe than cuts to other Departments, so I do not think that that has had a material impact. As for the issue of redundancy, clearly in the case of Egypt, the combination of scheduled flights and adding in charter flights meant that we led the pack in getting people out. In Libya, the situation was different and more difficult, and we need to learn the lessons about what extra capacity we need to put in place. As I have said, it is not as simple as some people think, because if capacity is added too quickly, scheduled flights collapse—bmi and BA both fly to Libya—and you land yourself with a bigger problem. The lessons should be learned. The only point that I would make now is that, as we stand today, Britain is doing a huge amount to help other countries out of Libya, and is helping more than 32 nationalities.
It is strange, is it not, that when we have a defence review, we are told that we are no longer a world power and do not need the Royal Navy, yet as we saw last week we need one more than ever? How ironic it was that the only ship that we could find to send was one on the way to the scrapyard. Will my right hon. Friend assure the House that as long as he is on the bridge of state, there will be no further cuts in the Royal Navy?
We are exceptionally well served by our Royal Navy, and it is good that not only HMS Cumberland but HMS York have been on hand to help in Libya. We are making a reduction in the number of frigates, but we do have the Type 45s coming onstream. In all cases, however, a mixture of military and civilian assets needs to be brought to bear to ensure that we can get people out of countries such as Libya.
The Prime Minister has my strong support for the vote that his Government cast at the UN Security Council on
I agree with the right hon. Gentleman, and it is good to see him in his place. I am trying to ensure that there is a real combination effort between Britain, France, Germany and the United States to try to provide that backing. The only problem is—he will be aware of this—that it is difficult for us to want a solution more than the parties want one. However, we should apply all the available pressure we can, and we should be making the argument right now that the awakening of democracy in the middle east is not a threat to the peace process, but could be an opportunity.
President Mahmoud Abbas has called for elections to the Palestinian Authority. Does my right hon. Friend share my concern that Hamas, whose electoral mandate has expired, is refusing to allow such elections to take place in Gaza?
My right hon. Friend makes a good point. The key thing in our engagement should be to ask those on the Palestinian side to accept the key principles of recognising the state of Israel and former agreements. Then it will be possible to go forward and hold proper negotiations. However, we need that to happen in order to get both parties around the table properly and to hammer out the solution that I think everybody knows is there.
I have had very frank conversations with President Obama about this. I believe in the special relationship—it is an incredibly close and important relationship—but I also believe that when we disagree, we should be frank in saying so, and on this issue Britain and America do not agree. We think that the resolution, although not ideally drafted, was basically right, which is why we voted for it, and we are very disappointed that it was vetoed. Obviously, we have to persuade the Americans that further investment in the peace process is absolutely worth it, not just for its own sake, but for the wider peace of the region and to remove a great cause of instability and extremism in our world.
The Government have been absolutely right to support the forces of democratic change, but, further to his statement, does my right hon. Friend think that this support will have any effect on future relationships with our other autocratic friends in the region?
As I hope my hon. Friend will have noticed, I have just completed a trip to the Gulf region, and I was quite struck by the fact that a number of our very strong and old allies, such as Kuwait, Qatar and Oman, are in favour of taking further steps towards democracy and more open societies. Far from being dismayed by our very clear reaction that democracy, freedom and that sort of progress are good things, they were fully in support of them.
When he was in Kuwait, as well as promoting arms sales and exports, did the Prime Minister have an opportunity to discuss with John Major, the former Prime Minister, the fact that 20 years ago, a no-fly zone was imposed without a Security Council resolution? Is it not time that the European Union NATO members worked more urgently to ensure that Gaddafi’s regime cannot use helicopters and aircraft to crush resistance to him?
I agree with the hon. Gentleman. It was a pleasure being in Kuwait with Sir John Major, because it was an opportunity to commemorate the action that he led, as Prime Minister, in liberating that country from Saddam Hussein. To those who question whether it is right to take defence companies on a visit to Kuwait, I would say that 20 years ago we risked the lives of our service personnel to free that country. It seems to me an odd argument, therefore, to say that Kuwait should not have the means of its own defence. On a no-fly zone, of course we must comply with international law, but my argument is that we need to do the preparation and planning now, because no one can be sure what Colonel Gaddafi will do to his own people. If he starts taking that sort of action, we might need to have a no-fly zone in place very quickly.
The Prime Minister is right to praise the bravery of UK forces and staff in evacuating UK citizens. However, many international companies have lucrative business operations in Libya, working in high-risk environments such as desert oilfields in a country with an oppressive regime. Is he satisfied that those companies have adequate emergency evacuation plans in place, or does business also need to learn some lessons about the safeguarding of employees?
The hon. Lady makes an extremely good point. We should be having this conversation with oil companies. Yes, of course, they have security and transport arrangements, and it is important to work with them when we are trying to get our people out, to ensure that they are playing their part in delivering that. I am sure that there are lessons to learn, and there is probably more that they could have done, rather than being quite so reliant on us.
May I tell the Prime Minister what a great pleasure it is to see him in his place today, because I have spent the past week trying to speak to a Foreign Office Minister with no success? On the substantive issue of Libya, the fact that the International Criminal Court has been invoked has been a welcome development, but will the right hon. Gentleman make it quite clear from the Dispatch Box that this will apply not only to Colonel Gaddafi and his immediate family but to anyone in Libya who chooses to side with his regime in any future atrocities?
The hon. Gentleman makes an extremely good point. The reach of the International Criminal Court and of international law applies not only to people in the Gaddafi regime and those in the armed forces who commit atrocities but to any mercenary who goes to Libya and takes part in those activities. As I have said, the reach of international law is very long, and its memory is also very long, and quite right too.
The Prime Minister has described a very fluid series of events. If we step back from them, we can see that this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to encourage democracy to spread across the middle east. He gave a robust message to Colonel Gaddafi. Does he have an equally robust message for the other dictators in Africa who have chosen not to support democracy but to send mercenaries to support Colonel Gaddafi’s dictatorship?
My hon. Friend makes a good point. This is a test for everyone. It is a test for NATO, for the European Union, for the Arab League and, yes, for the African Union as well. The Arab League has, commendably, suspended Libya’s membership, and we should be looking to the African Union to take robust action as well. My hon. Friend’s point about mercenaries is certainly well made, and we should be making that very clear to African armies and leaders who are contemplating that sort of measure.
Should we be pleased, given Gaddafi’s history, that Britain took part in an arms fair in Libya last November at which all kinds of crowd control equipment and sniper rifles were sold to the regime there? Frankly, Prime Minister, is it not time that this country—whichever Government are in office—stopped selling arms to murdering bastards who terrorise their own people?
I would make the point—I think it is a cross-party point—that this country now has some of the toughest arms control legislation in the world. This Government immediately revoked about 30 licences, covering a whole range of products, to that regime and others in the region, and I think that that was right, but are there further lessons to be learned? I am quite clear that we should be looking at this and seeing what more can be done.
My hon. Friend makes the important point that we now need to plan for every eventuality. That is why I mentioned in my statement the importance of planning for a potential humanitarian crisis. We also need to plan for what might happen should the regime fall, or—something we do not want to happen—should it embed itself for a long time, resulting effectively in civil war in Libya. We have to prepare for every eventuality and work with the international community to ensure that we are ready for them.
Further to the point made by Mr Winnick, may I point out to the Prime Minister that the end user certificate scheme is broken? It does not work. Since the first half of last year, £31 million worth of armaments have been sold to Libya, including water cannon, stun guns, smoke grenades and tear gas—in other words, a panoply of equipment that can be used against civilians, rather than to defend the state against aggression by another.
The right hon. Gentleman makes a good point. If we look at the whole terms of the deal done in the desert, we need to ask ourselves some serious questions about how widely it went and what sort of equipment was involved. Frankly, I am pleased that we have put in place the revocation of these licences, but there are lessons to learn about what was intended by what was agreed several years ago.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that the unanimous decision by the Security Council to refer Gaddafi to the International Criminal Court is of great importance because it demonstrates incontrovertibly for the first time that if Heads of State and Heads of Government commit human rights offences, they will be liable to prosecution?
My hon. Friend makes an extremely good point. When Britain—and it was Britain—drafted the text of this resolution, the advice I was given suggested that it would take days or possibly weeks to get through the UN Security Council. It is remarkable that the Security Council has adopted this resolution unanimously with no votes against and that all countries—without naming them—backed it. It is a very positive sign, which I hope means that when we come forward with fresh Security Council resolutions to tighten further the screw on this dreadful regime, we will gain similar support.
The hon. Lady makes an important point. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence has discussed with NATO today a range of issues, including the one she mentions and military planning for no-fly zones. Although there have been bilateral efforts by countries such as Britain to get into areas such as the desert to rescue our own people, there has also been a huge amount of co-ordination in Malta—I pay tribute to Brigadier Bashall for leading this process—to make sure that, whether the planes are German, British or Canadian, we take each other’s nationals out. I have had a range of conversations with different Prime Ministers and Presidents to make sure that we all help each other in this regard. That is what is being co-ordinated from Malta.
Is my right hon. Friend concerned about the prospect of Gaddafi unleashing his significant war machine against the people of Libya? Will he reflect on properly arming those who are resisting Gaddafi, if necessary, in order to ensure that they are not wiped out, as happened in Srebrenica and Sarajevo?
My hon. Friend makes an important point. We are trying to establish better contact with the opposition in Libya and to learn more about them and their intentions. What we want—I would argue it is in our interest and in that of the whole world, including the Libyan people—is the swift removal of Colonel Gaddafi from his position. If helping the opposition in Libya would help to bring that about, it is certainly something we should consider.
Will the Prime Minister confirm that there is nothing new or peculiarly Labour about dodgy relations between the British Government and the murderous Libyan regime? Will he confirm that when Metropolitan Police Constable Yvonne Fletcher was shot dead from the Libyan embassy in April 1984, the Thatcher Government humiliated the Commissioner of the Metropolitan police by requiring him to provide policemen to escort the murderer to the airport so that he could get back safely to Libya?
That is a somewhat tortured way of making a political point, and I would make one in return. [Interruption.] We have to comply with international rules, but let me make one simple point. During the last Parliament there was a choice about whether to support the release of al-Megrahi: one party decided that it was the right thing to do, and I am proud to say that my party did not.
My grandfather was one of thousands of Jews who had to leave Libya because of Gaddafi’s appropriation of Jewish businesses and homes, and he came to this country because of its democracy. He would have been shocked to have seen not only the close relations between the last Government and Gaddafi, but the acceptance by our distinguished universities, particularly the London School of Economics, of more than £1 million from Gaddafi. Will my right hon. Friend take steps to ensure that such a scandal never happens again?
My hon. Friend speaks with great power. What I have said about relations with Libya is that, while of course it was right to try to bring that country in from the cold, the question is whether parameters should have been put on the relationship. I think that it is for everyone to ask what agreements they reached. I heard the head of the London School of Economics on the radio this morning trying to justify one such agreement. Let us hope that at least the money that the LSE has can be put to a good use.
Given the circumstances that the Prime Minister has described, is it not increasingly difficult to explain the behaviour of the UK Trade & Investment special trade ambassador, who is not only a very close friend of Saif Gaddafi but a close friend of the convicted Libyan gun smuggler Tarek Kaituni? Is it not time that we dispensed with the services of the Duke of York?
I am not aware of the particular connections that the hon. Gentleman chooses to make, although I am happy to look into them. However, if we are to disqualify friends of Saif Gaddafi from public life, I think that he will be saying goodbye to one or two of his old friends.
Order. I am extremely grateful to the Prime Minister for his reply, but may I just say, for future reference, that references to members of the royal family should be very rare, very sparing and very respectful? [Interruption.] Order. We have to be very careful in our handling of these matters, and I hope that we will be.
I thank and congratulate the brave young airmen and women of RAF Lyneham, which is still in my constituency and whose C-130J Hercules played such a crucial role in the evacuation. Does the Prime Minister agree that in future a much greater role could be played by contractors who at present have fairly scant plans for evacuations? If they expanded their own plans, we would lessen the risk to young service lives.
My hon. Friend has made a good point. Obviously there needs to be a deeper conversation and greater planning between companies and the Government. Of course, companies have played an important role, but I feel that we need to ensure that we get this right for the future. Trying to bring people out of the desert across 20 or more platforms is extremely complicated, and I am sure that we can learn some lessons about how to do it better in future.
I think that we all wish to record our tremendous admiration for the courage and tenacity of the Libyan people—men, women and children—who are fighting the dictator with their bare hands. As for learning lessons, we should bear in mind what happened when a no-fly zone was provided for the Kurds of Iraq. That was John Major’s move, and it meant that thousands of Kurds were protected. Obviously there is not a great deal that we can do immediately, but we should consider that as a matter of great importance. I believe that it might save thousands of lives, if Gaddafi were to bomb his own people from the air.
The right hon. Lady always speaks about these issues with great passion. I think that she is right to draw attention to what people are doing in Libya, where they are showing extraordinary bravery. As we have seen across north Africa and the middle east, this is not an Islamist revolution but a people’s revolution. People want the sort of freedoms that we take for granted in this country.
I have to tell the right hon. Lady that introducing a no-fly zone is not without its difficulties and problems. Libya is an enormous country. We would be trying to cover a vast area, and a serious amount of military assets would be required to achieve that. Furthermore, it would not necessarily stop all oppression of the Libyan people, because there are ways of carrying that out other than through helicopter gunships and planes. However, I think that it is one thing that we need to look at urgently and plan for, in case we find—as we may well do—that Colonel Gaddafi is taking further appalling steps to oppress his people. That is why the conversations are taking place today.
I have never supported Colonel Gaddafi or his regime, and I think that his regime is illegitimate. Clearly that prompts the question of how long we are going to go on recognising it in any way, which is why I have requested another urgently needed piece of work. We must ensure that we do everything that we can to isolate it. We must cut off money, cut off supply and cut off oxygen from the regime, so that it falls as fast as it possibly can.
You will recall, Mr Speaker, that 10 days ago, in an urgent question, I begged the Foreign Secretary to suspend arms sales to the region and to gear up the Foreign Office response. I am very glad that the Prime Minister has got a grip on that.
I welcomed the last part of the Prime Minister’s statement about building on what is being done to create a new approach to democracy. Would he consider creating a British foundation for democracy development? It would include businesses, non-governmental organisations, the media, judges and trade unions. Its work would be similar to the work of the know-how fund, and the work that was done to support people in eastern Europe after 1989 and in the Iberian peninsula in the 1970s. Could some development money be spent on that? If so, we would be able to create something that could help everyone in the future rather than recriminating about the past.
I am not always in complete agreement with the right hon. Gentleman, but this is one such occasion. I very much support the whole idea of greater party-to-party contacts and political contacts, and building up what I call the building blocks of democracy in terms of civil society and political parties. This is an area in which Britain has expertise and excellence. We have the Westminster Foundation for Democracy, of course, so we need to ask whether there is more we can do with that, or whether we need to build a new mechanism. I am, however, glad to see cross-party support for something that Britain could play a unique part in helping to build.
Given the capability gap that we have had to accept under the strategic defence and security review until we have the carrier strike force and the Type 26 combat ship, and given that on Thursday US journalists were pressing State Department officials to explain why the US was not able to match British evacuation efforts, is the Prime Minister confident that in future years we can rely on the United States to deliver for us and for others we wish to help?
My hon. Friend asks a good question about the capability gap. I argue, however, that recent events demonstrate the importance of flexibility and the necessity of having a good range of military assets and transport aircraft—as we will have with the future A400M—and large numbers of highly trained special forces, of which we will have more under the defence review. It has also demonstrated that it is necessary to have—as we do in Malta, Sicily and elsewhere—basing rights and the right to overfly. People will put the question about carriers, of course, but although the US has about 12 aircraft carriers, not one of them is currently in the Mediterranean, so it seems to me that flexibility of forces and the ability to get people in and out quickly is more important than obsessing about particular platforms.
I thank the Prime Minister for his statement and the reconvening of the UN Human Rights Council, which I hope will take centre stage in future developments. However, is he not concerned that in every country in the region—Tunisia, Bahrain, Egypt and Yemen—the security forces that have used weapons against civilians, and that have killed young people demonstrating for their rights and jobs, are using equipment made in Britain, Europe or the United States? We must look to such relationships and our sales of arms that have been used to carry out the carnage against wholly innocent civilians trying to demand what we want for ourselves.
I shall make two points to the hon. Gentleman. First, we have revoked a large number of licences, including to some of the countries that he has mentioned. I also argue the broader point that those countries that have met those aspirations with reform have a chance of success and progress, whereas those that have met them with repression are finding that that is not the answer. I think that we are going to see that that is the case right across the region.
Order. Many hon. Members are still seeking to contribute, but there is pressure on time as we also have a heavily subscribed debate under the auspices of the Backbench Business Committee. Therefore, if I am to accommodate most colleagues, extreme brevity is now required.
Returning to the question asked by Chris Bryant on close relations with Colonel Gaddafi’s son Saif, was the Prime Minister as surprised as I was to learn that Saif Gaddafi also had many meetings with the previous Business Secretary, Lord Mandelson, and described the former Prime Minister, Tony Blair, as a “close personal friend”?
My hon. Friend makes a good point that highlights the issues that I raised earlier. It was right to restore relations with Libya, but parameters and judgment needed to be brought to bear as well.
In congratulating the right hon. Gentleman on the vote cast by the United Kingdom at the Security Council on Israeli settlements, may I ask whether he, like Chancellor Merkel, received a reproachful telephone call from Netanyahu, and if so did he, like Chancellor Merkel, reply that he—Netanyahu—is the principal obstacle to negotiations and that he must get on and negotiate?
As it happens, I did not, on this occasion, get a reproachful phone call from Prime Minister Netanyahu. But if I had done, I am, for once, in full agreement with the right hon. Gentleman, and I am sure that I would have responded robustly in the way that he has suggested.
I take issue with my hon. Friend, in a way. I think we should stop arguing about some of these points in the past and try to build a stronger argument about what our engagement with this region should be like. Where I agree with him is that what I call the rather naive, neo-con view that it is possible to impose democracy at the end of the barrel of a gun is not right, but it is also wrong to take a hardcore, realist approach of just saying, “We have to deal with what is there.” We should learn from our own history and recognise that it is about putting in place the building blocks of democracy and having elections, yes, but also the rule of law, an independent judiciary, a proper place for the military in society, free association and free speech, many of which are rights that we had years before the vote. That is what we should be focusing on in our relations with these countries, so that we can help to point them to a better future.
The hon. Gentleman is being slightly unfair. These are not easy things to get right, and we did well in the case of Egypt. Clearly, there are lessons to learn here, and I do not think it a complicated process. There are a number of steps, as I have said, regarding defence assets, redundancy and the use of scheduled flights, and I think we can learn those lessons relatively quickly. I think it a relatively straightforward and easy thing to do.
Given that Colonel Gaddafi’s recent behaviour is no surprise to anyone, does the Prime Minister understand that the vast majority of people in Britain share his anger that the previous Government, in collusion with the Scottish Government, did all they could to secure the release of al-Megrahi, the Lockerbie bomber?
I have put this on the record many times: I think it was wrong to try and facilitate that release. The British Government should have taken a clear view that that was the largest mass murder in British history and that that person should die behind bars. It would have been a clear view; it would have been the right view; and it would have taken the country with them.
Notwithstanding the brave efforts of our military and consular staff at the weekend, if lessons are to be learned for the future, may I share the experience of my constituent, Mr James Coyle, who was released just last night, and his family? His family and I spent most of last week trying to contact the Foreign Office. Despite numerous phone calls, we were unsuccessful, and when we did get through we were asked the same questions over and over again, despite giving the details over the telephone and by e-mail. The family were repeatedly asked whether James could make his way to Tripoli, despite it being pointed out that he could not because the camp had been looted. If lessons are to be learned and there is going to be an inquiry, will the Prime Minister ensure that the victims in Libya will be included in that inquiry?
The Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, my hon. Friend Alistair Burt, is listening to this, and I am sure that he will be able to take up this individual case. I have visited the crisis centre at the Foreign Office and seen the very hard work going on there. Obviously, the Foreign Office was coping not only with the crisis in Libya but with the earthquake in New Zealand, and it was taking calls on both of those. I have to say I have been impressed by its work. I am sure that if the hon. Gentleman has a constituency case, the Foreign Office will take it up for him and see what lessons can be learned.
What I can say to my hon. Friend is that we are on the case with this issue. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Development will be talking to a number of African leaders about what we believe the African Union could do to step up to the plate and make a point about the unacceptable behaviour of Colonel Gaddafi.
The Prime Minister put it graphically when he said that hopes and aspirations that have been smothered for decades are stirring. If we are to build a new relationship with the middle east based on mutual respect, do we not need to get rid of our reputation for double standards? That means not only standing up to dictators, but saying very plainly that the occupation of one country by another is wrong and has to end.
I agree with the hon. Gentleman. In the case of Israel and Palestine, we should make it very clear that the settlements are wrong—the vote we cast in the UN Security Council was absolutely clear about that. We should also be clear that we want to see the advance of civil society, open societies, pluralism, democracy and freedom in countries across north Africa and the middle east. What I have found from talking to leaders in Kuwait, Qatar, Oman and elsewhere is that that is not a message that friends in the Gulf reject; it is one that they accept and see the sense of. As an old friend, this country should be pushing to explain how important this is. That should be done with respect, and we should recognise that different countries have different rates of development and different traditions, but our belief in democracy and open societies should not be negotiable.
In light of Colonel Gaddafi’s 40 years of violence abroad and tyranny at home, does the Prime Minister agree that it was morally and ethically wrong for the previous Government to sign those defence contracts? Will he ensure that those contracts are now fully put into the public domain, so that they can be fully scrutinised?
My hon. Friend makes a good point. When you look at the so-called deal in the desert, you find a degree of credulity on the part of the previous Government, who signed it. I am very happy to look at whether the actual documents that were signed can be put into the public domain, so that people can see the mistakes that were made.
Is not the dilemma in Libya that left to its own resources the least likely option is that the Gaddafi regime will be brought to a quick end? Gaddafi is already enforcing his position in Tripoli, the capital, and, as we have heard from hon. Members on both sides, there are real worries that there will be not only a humanitarian disaster, but a human rights disaster. The Prime Minister has indicated some areas that he is examining, but will he redouble efforts not only nationally, but internationally to ensure that we do not stand by and see that happen?
I agree that we should not just stand by—if Colonel Gaddafi uses military force against his own people, the world cannot stand by. That is why we should be looking at a no-fly zone; that is why urgent discussions need to take place in NATO; and that is why we need America to be fully engaged in looking at what needs to be done. What we cannot know from here is exactly what will happen next. If someone had predicted a few years ago that half of Libya would be under the control of rebel groups, people would have said, “That is impossible with the security apparatus that Colonel Gaddafi has at his disposal.” What is exciting is that everybody thought that this murderous dictator was fully in control of his country, but part of his country has been knocked over so quickly.
I thank the Prime Minister for the personal interest that the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, Alistair Burt, has taken in the case of an oil worker from Thirsk, who is now being brought home. We are very grateful for that. I also thank those on board HMS Cumberland. A number of years ago, the ship hosted three lady MPs while it was patrolling the Gulf to prevent Iran from breaking oil sanctions. The Prime Minister is aware of the real threat of an oil price hike in this country resulting from the constant ongoing instability in the middle east. Will he put our minds at rest by telling us that the Government will turn their attention to the implications for this country of the instability?
My hon. Friend is trying to get me to prejudge what my right hon. Friend the Chancellor might say in the Budget. Obviously I cannot do that, but she makes a number of good points about how we have helped to rescue people from the desert. May I just say, again, how brave the pilots and crews of those aircraft were, because this extremely difficult mission involved a number of stops in desert areas and they were very uncertain as to what exactly they would find? All credit to them for the incredible work that they have done.
Will the Prime Minister tell the House what reports he has received about the killing of people in Tripoli who were celebrating after listening to inaccurate reports from authoritative sources that Gaddafi had fled to Venezuela?
I have not seen those specific reports, but clearly a number of people have been murdered in Tripoli, in Benghazi and in the rest of the country by that murderous regime. The responsibility for that lies squarely with Colonel Gaddafi and the people who run that regime, not with anybody else.
On the broader point about the changes that we are seeing in the middle east, does the Prime Minister agree that it is in Britain’s national interest to pursue a soft power policy, along the lines that he has described, to promote democracy and support opposition movements where people are moving towards a desire for greater democracy in these countries?
I very much agree with that. In terms of the soft power to which my hon. Friend refers, this country has incredible assets, be it the British Council, the BBC or political relations. All those things should be brought to bear and we should recognise, as I said in my statement, that building democracy is painstaking and patient work. Alongside hard power, those soft power assets can sometimes achieve the greatest success.
Will the Prime Minister explain the procedure used to trigger a meeting of the Cobra emergency response committee? There has obviously been some criticism of the inexplicable delay in that meeting. Was it because the Deputy Prime Minister would have had a role in it, if he had not been out of the country? Will the Prime Minister review this matter and publish that review?
Typically, as the hon. Gentleman will know, Cobra is triggered by the Prime Minister. Let me make it clear that on Monday the Foreign Office crisis centre was established with Ministry of Defence people embedded in it, so the idea that two Departments of State were not co-operating is wrong. Cobra is normally exercised by the Prime Minister, and it meets regularly at official level as well, as the hon. Gentleman will know, in relation to a range of different activities that we have to deal with. It has been in activity all over the weekend.
I am not aware of that, but I think that the full terms of the deal in the desert need to be made clear. Then, those Opposition Members who are calling for the word “sorry” might like to issue it themselves.
Further to the question asked by my hon. Friend Luciana Berger, does the Prime Minister accept that members of his Government need to be very careful before making statements about dictators fleeing their countries, as we have seen murder on the streets of Tripoli as a result of the Foreign Secretary’s foolish remarks?
I welcome the Prime Minister’s statement, the successful rescue missions and the leadership that UK forces are showing in co-ordinating activities on the ground in Libya. Given the experiences in Libya and Egypt, will he tell the House what steps are being taken to develop contingency plans to protect British nationals in Oman and Yemen, if the situation in those countries escalates?
My hon. Friend makes a very good point. We are doing extensive work looking at the number of British nationals right across the region and preparing for all eventualities. Obviously, we do not want to do anything to encourage those sorts of issues, but contingency plans and thinking are going on to ensure that those issues are covered.
I disagree—I would like to make people happy, but I do not agree. It was a long-arranged trip, and it was worth while going to Cairo and being one of the first people to make it to Tahrir square and to meet some of those protesters. Also, going to Kuwait on the 20th anniversary of its liberation and being able to make a speech in the Kuwait Parliament about the importance of spreading democracy and freedom was extremely important. On who accompanied me on the trip, I had a little check and in November 2008 the former Prime Minister took many of the same companies, including British Aerospace, which plays quite a big role in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency. Companies such as Rolls-Royce and British Aerospace are large employers in this country, and it is important that we help those businesses and make sure that they go on employing people, not least in his constituency.
I congratulate the Prime Minister and the Chancellor on their quick action to prevent moneys being exported and on the action at the United Nations. Will the Prime Minister confirm that the Government will take action, and will press the UN to take action, against any country that breaks the UN resolution?
I thank my hon. Friend for his question. The most important thing is to encourage countries to take action in respect of the UN resolution and to put in place its terms as quickly as possible. We held a Privy Council meeting yesterday to allow us to pass legislation putting in place the asset freeze. We should encourage others to take that step before considering the next step of widening the net and putting even more pressure on the regime.
Before the Prime Minister takes too many cosy trips down memory lane with Sir John Major, perhaps he will recall that the arms that were exported to Iraq under the last Tory Administration were never paid for. As part of his review, will he look into the role that the Export Credits Guarantee Department played in providing cover for arms sales to unstable countries?
The trip down memory lane that I was taking was to Kuwait with John Major to celebrate the fact that 20 years ago this country played a part in an international coalition to bring about its liberation. Kuwait is not a democracy like us, but it has a Parliament and is taking steps to greater openness. Should we have a close relationship with such countries? I say yes, we should.
I, like most Government Members, thought it immensely impressive that the Prime Minister was in the middle east so early. Will the Prime Minister again pay credit to our extremely brave RAF personnel who carried out the two desert rescues, and will he point out in particular that 95 British nationals were rescued, as well as 270 foreign nationals? Does that not show that we were leading in the evacuation of non-Libyan nationals?
I know that my hon. Friend has an interest in this, because his son is a Chinook pilot and has served bravely in Afghanistan and elsewhere. What the British military has done is outstanding—the Royal Navy in Benghazi and the Air Force in the desert mission. My hon. Friend is right. More than 32 nationalities have been rescued and brought back by the British. There is also co-ordination by the British going on in Malta and our AWACS aircraft are providing much of the air traffic control. Once again, the whole country, with our armed forces, can be very proud.
That question was the definition of flaky. I went to Egypt, an important country whose democratic transition we should be encouraging. I also made a speech in the Kuwaiti Parliament about democracy. Yes, links with middle eastern countries are important. One of the reasons for going was that country after country had said to us that they were ignored, downplayed and downgraded by the previous Government. Making sure that we are building those relationships is important, and the hon. Gentleman’s judgment on this one is wrong.
Libya is a wake-up call that Afghanistan is not the only country that matters in the world. It shows that we have not had a balanced, moderate foreign policy. Does the Prime Minister agree that this is a reason to accelerate the draw-down of resources from Afghanistan, so that we can meet the many crises in the world, of which Libya is one, that will confront us over the next decade?
I do not think this is an either/or. I know that my hon. Friend has considerable experience in Afghanistan, but I think that the draw-down should take place. We have set an end date, but between now and then it should be done with our NATO and international security assistance force partners to make sure that we are doing on the ground what we need to do, so that that country can have some chance of controlling its own affairs and its own destiny and providing its own security. But our aim in Afghanistan is no more than that the Afghans themselves should be able to secure that country, so that it does not require the presence of foreign troops. It is as simple as that.
The past few weeks have shown that not everything in the middle east is necessarily contingent upon the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. As we move forward, does my right hon. Friend agree that whatever democracies emerge in north Africa and the middle east, it is important to ensure that they recognise the legitimacy of Israel, function as democracies and act as a counterbalance to Iran?
My hon. Friend makes a good point, although we should not be pessimistic about the effect of greater democratisation in the middle east and the Arab world on the prospects for Arab-Israeli peace. Some of the more autocratic regimes use the Arab-Israel conflict as a way of keeping their own populations happy without having democracy. So, yes, the road between here and there may be quite bumpy and difficult, but in the end, deals between democracies will be stronger.
My constituent, Richard Foscolo, was stranded in the desert in Ghani in an oilfield. He returned home last Friday. Initial contact with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office was naturally difficult, partly because of the circumstances on the ground, but the family feel particularly let down by his employers, OPS International, which did not make all the information available to the embassy or to the FCO, so that co-ordination could be brought about effectively. What action will the Prime Minister take to ensure that information is shared as efficiently as possible?
My hon. Friend makes a good point, and there are lessons to learn about how information is shared. It is a difficult and ever-changing picture. Let us just look at the numbers of people who we think are in Libya and who want to come out. Even in the age of the internet, the mobile phone, computer databases and the rest of it, getting a real grip of those numbers, as I believe we now have—we will go on publishing more granular information about that—is difficult, but companies working with the Government is clearly an essential part of that process.
Does the Prime Minister agree that much of what we have heard from the Opposition over the past week, at the height of the Libyan crisis, has been nothing short of naked political opportunism, and that the deputy leader of the Labour party should apologise for comments that she posted on Twitter, when she said:
“Rapid deployment force not rapid”—
Order. We will leave it there.
It is obviously right to send assistance to tackle the growing refugee problem on Libya’s borders, but are efforts being co-ordinated with EU partners and others to prevent the turmoil throughout north Africa becoming an immigration problem for Italy and southern Europe?
My hon. Friend makes a very good point, and there are urgent conversations under way about that. At the moment, the pressure is on the borders between Libya and Tunisia and Libya and Egypt, and a lot of it involves migrant workers from Tunisia and Egypt returning to their countries, but, as I said in my statement, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Development will visit the region soon. We are sending out technical experts to advise us on what is necessary, but I think that there is a real job for the European Union to work together and make sure that the situation does not turn, as my hon. Friend suggests, into a refugee crisis.