Libya and the Middle East — Statement

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 5:47 pm on 28th February 2011.

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Photo of Baroness Royall of Blaisdon Baroness Royall of Blaisdon Shadow Leader of the House of Lords, Shadow Spokesperson (Cabinet Office), Shadow Spokesperson (Northern Ireland) 5:47 pm, 28th February 2011

My Lords, I thank the Leader of the House for repeating the Statement on Libya and the Middle East made by the Prime Minister. I should like to ask him about four areas-the immediate safety of British nationals, the future of the Libyan regime, the wider Middle East, and the lessons learnt from this crisis. First, however, I should like to join the Leader in expressing the deep and abiding gratitude of this side of the House to the members of the British Armed Forces, who have succeeded, with such extraordinary courage and professionalism, in evacuating so many of our own citizens, and those of many other countries, from Libya over the past week. These brave men and women are a credit to our nation. I also add my thanks to the Foreign Office staff on the ground in Libya for their efforts.

Our first concern must always be the safety of our own people. For obvious operational and security reasons, I would not expect the Leader to discuss any future operations; but can he assure the House that all contingencies continue to be looked at in relation to any remaining UK citizens stranded against their will? Given the closure of the British embassy on Saturday, can he reassure us that everything is still being 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 view, publicly expressed by the Prime Minister today, that the only acceptable future is one without Colonel Gaddafi and his regime. We welcome what the Leader of the House says about a possible no-fly zone. We also welcome the international isolation of Colonel Gaddafi expressed in UN Security Council Resolution 1970, including sanctions, an arms embargo and a decision to refer the killing of protestors to the International Criminal Court. The resolution imposes travel bans for 17 Gaddafi loyalists and asset freezes on six of those individuals. Do the Government think that the asset freezes go wide enough in covering all those beyond Colonel Gaddafi's immediate family who have made the decision to stand with him? Will the Government 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 and Egyptian borders. On these Benches, we welcome the Statement's points on British action to help the humanitarian assistance to displaced migrant workers, and we look forward to the report later this week on the visit of the International Development Secretary. I understand that one of the most pressing needs identified by the Tunisian Government is transport for displaced workers from Libya who wish to return to their own country. May I ask the Leader of the House to draw this to the attention of the Secretary of State for International Development for his consideration during his visit to the region this week?

I turn to events beyond Libya, in the wider region. The events now unfolding across the Middle East are as significant as the revolutions that liberated eastern Europe in 1989, as the Statement says. Our response to them needs to be equally ambitious. There is a popular will in many of these countries for democratic reform. This movement is in line with the values that we share, and the stability promised by the undemocratic regimes in many cases has turned out to be hollow. Does the Leader of the House therefore agree that there must be no question but that our hopes-indeed, our interests-lie unequivocally with those demanding economic and political reform?

Does the Leader agree that we need to build a strategic response, including closer economic ties, support for civil society and institution building? However, does he agree that, in order to do so, we have to embrace closer contact with civil society, including academic institutions and non-governmental organisations committed to building a democratic future for their citizens? In respect of that aim, does he agree that full support should be given to the work of bodies such as the British Council and the Westminster Foundation for Democracy, both of which have carried out important work in this area over the past few years?

Does the Leader concede that while there is much that we can and should do bilaterally, real progress will require sustained will and effort at a multilateral level, including via the European Union? Can he tell the House whether the negotiations for an EU-Libya association agreement on both free trade and human rights have been suspended? Libya is a member of both the Arab League and the African Union. Can the Leader say what efforts the Government have made with the countries of both organisations to bring pressure to bear on the current Libyan Government against the violence that we have seen? Does he also agree with these Benches that it would be a tragedy if in this moment of change the opportunity was not grasped to make progress on the issue of Israel/Palestine? I therefore give the support of these Benches to the Government's calls for the rapid resumption of talks between Israel and the Palestinians, and to the Government's decision to support the recent UN Security Council resolution on these settlements. Can he say what steps the UK will now be taking to get negotiations moving again? On the question of arms sales, can the Leader confirm that the Government will work with EU partners to strengthen the guidelines and their operation?

Finally, I should like to ask about the lessons to be learnt from the immediate crisis response during the past week. Many Members of your Lordships' House, on all Benches, have in recent days either been aware of or had close experience of people who have been deeply anxious about family members, friends, colleagues or others stranded in Libya. I add our thanks to those expressed by the Prime Minister to the Maltese Prime Minister for the evacuation of British nationals and everything else that he is doing to assist. However, does the Leader 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? Can he explain why this happened? Given the scale of the emergency and the transparent need for co-ordination across government, do the Government now agree that the emergency committee, COBRA, should have been convened earlier than Thursday? Can he explain why this did not happen? Can he also share with the House the wider lessons that have been learnt on the Benches opposite about the running of the Government?

I think that the whole country has now, thankfully, seen the scale of response that can be mobilised to help our citizens, and we are grateful. However, can the Government promise that British nationals abroad in future will not be let down as they were by the chaos and incompetence of early last week?

The Statement mentions the crucial role played by HMS "Cumberland" in the evacuation of British and foreign nationals. I was in Plymouth myself on Saturday and the citizens in Plymouth were immensely proud of what that ship was doing. Can the Leader give the House a clear assurance that the defence cuts currently planned will not in future preclude such vital rescue tasks for our citizens caught up in violence overseas?

Is the Leader satisfied with the way in which the warden system has worked? There have been reports that some of those working in the oilfields have found it very difficult-for some, impossible-to make contact with our consuls or with the embassy. I would welcome the opportunity to raise one or two of these issues later with the Leader of the House on Privy Council terms, if he thought it were appropriate.

These are questions which need to be the subject of thorough investigation and consideration. Given the volatile nature of the position, not just in Libya, but throughout the region, this needs to be carried out rapidly. We all hope that the levels of violence that we have seen in Libya will not be repeated there or elsewhere in the region, but there are signs of unrest in other countries in the area. British nationals working and living in the region need to be confident that their Government and their country have both the capacity and the will to assist them, including bringing them home safely should the need to do so arise.

Finally, will the Leader give a commitment to this House that when these inquiries and considerations are completed, he will come back to your Lordships' House to report on both the findings and the lessons learnt for the future?