European Council and North Africa — Statement

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 7:49 pm on 7 February 2011.

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Photo of Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean Shadow Spokesperson (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs) 7:49, 7 February 2011

My Lords, I thank the Minister for repeating the Statement given in another place earlier today by the Prime Minister.

I start with the conclusions of the European Council on Egypt. The Egyptian people continue to show enormous courage and great steadfastness in their desire for fundamental and lasting change in their country. We support the call for a clear and transparent path towards transition as soon as possible. I also join the Government and leaders of the European Union in condemning any attacks on peaceful demonstrators and urge the authorities to allow the people of Egypt to continue to exercise their right to free and peaceful protest in their own country.

We also welcome the European Council's condemnation of attempts to restrict the free flow of information through the blocking of e-mail and the internet, as well as the intimidation of those who are endeavouring to defend human rights and of journalists. I am sure that many of us regret the blocking of the broadcasting by Al-Jazeera and the blocking of its ability to broadcast what was going on. Many of us often disagree with Al-Jazeera; it has, none the less played a significant role in opening up freedom of the press in the Middle East.

The process of transition is undoubtedly under way in Egypt. It must be guided first and foremost by the people of Egypt. We in Britain must also be prepared to stand up and speak out against any techniques that are deployed in that country which amount to the repression that has been used in recent months.

Can the Minister update the House on the Government's views about the talks involving the vice-president Omar Suleiman and the opposition parties, and whether the Government believe that these may lay the ground for a transition? We knew at the weekend -I am sure that the Minister, as did I and many others, received reports coming directly out of Egypt-that many in the opposition parties were willing to talk, but that the Muslim Brotherhood expressed a great reticence to do so, at least initially; they have been engaged latterly. Omar Suleiman has a good reputation, not just in Egypt but throughout the region, and with many of his interlocutors in this country and, indeed, in the United States. I hope that the Minister will be able to give us some reassurance that he will be able to lead these discussions in a way that leads towards a fruitful conclusion.

Can the Minister also offer us the latest thinking of the European Union and its allies on the difficult issue that may now pertain around the role of President Mubarak during this transition? I recognise that this is a very sensitive point, but we all know that opinion is enormously divided in Egypt over what should now happen to President Mubarak. This is not a straightforward point that the western powers can dictate. There is an enormously difficult point about reaching a settlement which will run in a way that will have some real resonance and lasting ability to command the central ground in Egypt.

On the nature of the transition, do the Government agree that any transition has to include not just the provision of free and fair elections, but also the building up of democratic structures? I am thinking in particular of an independent judiciary, diverse political parties, and a free press. Democracy is not just about elections-although of course elections are an essential prerequisite -but it is important that the structures of the rule of law and respect for human rights are also part of the mix of what we consider to be a democratic state.

Can the Minister also update the House on the steps the Government have taken to ensure the safety of British nationals in Egypt during the current turbulence? Is the Minister satisfied that all British nationals wishing to leave Egypt have been contacted and have been facilitated in this respect? Can I also, on behalf of the Labour Benches, thank all our staff in the Embassy in Cairo-our enormously able, outstanding ambassador, Dominic Asquith, and the diplomatic team that he leads?

Perhaps I may turn to the other matters discussed in the European Council last Friday. On energy policy, we welcome the Council's conclusions on the internal marketing of gas, electricity and the North Sea grid. We also welcome the Council's plans for the improvement of Europe's energy infrastructure, and the routes for energy across the globe, which in many ways were so disrupted during the dispute between Russia and Ukraine in 2008. This is a very important matter. We have touched upon it in recent debates in your Lordships' House and I am sure that the Minister will wish to expand on his remarks on that.

May I also ask the Minister two questions about how our policy at home relates to the discussions in Europe? First, we note the Council's conclusions on the importance of renewable energy. Will the Minister update the House on the implementation of the renewable heat incentive, which is a crucial part of Britain's energy strategy? The incentive was due to come into force in April this year, but it has now been delayed. Is the Minister now in a position to tell us when it will be introduced, and, if he is not, perhaps he will be kind enough to write to me about that afterwards?

Secondly, on the financing of energy investment, which the Council rightly flags up as an important challenge; can I ask the Minister to update the House on the Green Investment Bank? The Government committed themselves to build on our plans when we were in government. Can the Minister tell us whether the Government now plan it to be a fully fledged bank, as many have argued?

On the wider economy, I welcome the Council's conclusions, but I note that the conclusions on the summit are that,

"the overall economic outlook is improving".

I fear that for many families and young people in the United Kingdom, it really does not feel quite like that at the moment. Will the Minister tell the House whether the Prime Minister shared with the members of the Council the recent experience of the United Kingdom and whether he went so far as to warn his colleagues that cutting budget deficits too far and too fast can have damaging effects on growth and on employment? It is a serious point-it is the point of real difference between us in this House.

I turn to end with the case of Mr Megrahi. The Lockerbie bombing, as we all acknowledge, was a terrible atrocity. It destroyed hundreds of innocent lives and it scarred the lives of many families. When I was first a Minister, I remember so vividly meeting with the Lockerbie families and discussing with them what could be done to try to bring those responsible to justice. It was a humbling experience. Those families were not seeking revenge. They were seeking justice. Many of them had a breadth of vision over what they wanted to happen, which did them enormous credit and which I have always remembered.

The Cabinet Secretary, Sir Gus O'Donnell, has researched and written a serious and thorough report into the papers relating to Mr Megrahi's release. There are three significant conclusions to Sir Gus's report which pertain to Mr Megrahi's case. First, the United Kingdom Government were worried about the impact on British interests of Mr Megrahi dying in jail, precisely as the former Foreign Secretary said in his Statement to the other place on 12 October 2009. Secondly, the report makes it clear that there is no evidence that,

"UK interests played a part in Mr Megrahi's release by the Scottish Government on compassionate grounds".

That is an enormously important point and one which I make no apology for stressing in making my reply to the Statement. Indeed, Sir Gus concludes that the former Government went to great efforts not to communicate to the Scottish Government their view. I think that that point might have been stressed a little more in the Prime Minister's Statement. Thirdly, Mr Megrahi's release on compassionate grounds was a decision that Scottish Ministers alone could and did make.

Those are the fundamental points, not perhaps the extraneous matters of which the Prime Minister spoke so eloquently in another place. That is because the message of today's report is that Mr Megrahi's release was not influenced by the then UK Government. It is a crucial point for us in this country, and I hope that when the Minister replies to the points I am making, he will acknowledge that as a central fact.

On the question of what Parliament was told, can the Minister confirm that the Cabinet Secretary concludes that,

"none of the materials that I have reviewed contradicts anything in the then Foreign Secretary's Statement ... or statements made by the former Prime Minister on this matter".?

The Statement talks about the broader issues, but I am bound to say that on this it misses the central point, the one that matters above everything else, and that is that the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 must live in the memory of this country and the United States as a dreadful atrocity. It was the duty of the Labour Government and now it is the duty of the coalition Government to take every step they can to ensure that this never happens again. That is the central point we should concentrate upon.