[Miss Anne Begg in the Chair] — Lebanon and Syria

– in Westminster Hall at 12:00 am on 27th February 2007.

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Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—[Huw Irranca-Davies.]

Photo of Clare Short Clare Short Independent Labour, Birmingham, Ladywood 9:30 am, 27th February 2007

I am pleased to have this opportunity to debate UK relations with Lebanon and Syria. I applied for the debate because in early January I was a member of the Anglo Arab Organisation's all-party delegation to Lebanon and Syria. The delegation was led by Lord David Steel and Jacques Santer, the former president of the European Commission, and organised by Mr. Nadhmi Auchi, the president of the Anglo Arab Organisation. The delegation included representatives of the Conservative and Labour parties, a Member of Parliament from Luxembourg and an Irish Senator.

The purpose of the visit was to meet representatives of the Lebanese and Syrian Governments, and to witness some of the destruction wreaked on Lebanon by the recent Israeli bombardment. Our aim was to become better informed about how the current situation looks from the perspective of people living in Lebanon and Syria. I welcome this debate because it provides an opportunity to report to Parliament on what we learned during the visit, and to press the UK Government to adopt a more balanced and constructive policy towards the middle east.

In Lebanon, we met the President, the Speaker of the Parliament and the Prime Minister. We also met many influential thinkers, journalists and representatives of the business community. We travelled to south Beirut and saw the terrible destruction wreaked by the Israeli bombardment on the area of Beirut occupied by Shi'a people.

In all our talks, leading figures were anxious that there should be a compromise in accordance with the constitution of Lebanon over the composition of the Government. Lebanon, which used to be a place of great prosperity, and which attracted visitors from all over the middle east and the world, has suffered badly from Israeli occupation and civil war. It was rebuilding and going forward but now, of course, the Israeli attacks have set it back again. People throughout the country were keen to be able to come together, to start to rebuild and to create better economic opportunities for the many who live in poverty.

A delegation of parliamentarians from Lebanon is attending this debate. They are extremely welcome, and I am sure that they have a variety of views about the situation in their country. My experience of that visit was that there is widespread criticism and resentment of US and French interference in the internal balance of Lebanese politics, and a deep anxiety that, following the withdrawal of the six-year representatives from the Government, a new Government should be formed that would prevent division and conflict from growing in Lebanon. The Prime Minister gave us a firm assurance that a compromise was likely to be reached soon, and I am sorry to note that that undertaking has not been fulfilled.

I ask the Minister to spell out UK policy on that question. Will the UK continue to echo US policy in Lebanon, as it did in its failure to call for an Israeli ceasefire? The US position appeared to be to allow the Israeli bombardment to continue in the hope of weakening Hezbollah. I recognise that the Minister made some careful remarks—when giving evidence to the Foreign Affairs Committee, I believe—in which he expressed regret about the matter.

My view is that the Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon was overdue and welcome. It created a great opportunity for Lebanon to move forward. Obviously, inquiries must continue into the recent assassinations and those who were responsible, but it is wrong and counter-productive for the US and its allies to back Prime Minister Siniora in such a factional and unbalanced way and thus foster further division in Lebanon. I hope that the Minister will say that the UK policy is to support all people in Lebanon in coming together, forming a new Government and rebuilding their country.

From Beirut, we travelled south and saw the systematic and deliberate destruction of bridges throughout the country, and, as we got nearer to the southern border, whole villages that had been systematically targeted. On our journey south, we met with the senior representative of Hezbollah, who pointed out that in the last few days of the conflict, and even after the ceasefire had been negotiated, Israel dropped many cluster bombs which were still causing death and destruction.

In answer to a question from a member of our delegation about his attitude to the existence of Israel, the Hezbollah representative said that all Arab states made it clear in the Beirut declaration of 2002 that they would recognise Israel if it in turn would accept the establishment of a Palestinian state based on the 1967 borders and with east Jerusalem as its capital, and if it would accept some settlement of the right of return question. He said that it was Israel and not the Arab Governments or the Palestinians who were unwilling to make peace. Of course, the Mecca agreement reinforces that possibility. He also made it clear that Hezbollah would not disarm, as its arms were required to prevent further Israeli incursions into Lebanon, but he also spelled out clearly that those arms would never be used in conflict of any kind with Lebanese people.

As we reached the southern border, we saw village after village that had been destroyed, but we noted that some Christian villages had been left completely intact because of careful Israeli targeting. It was clear that there was not widespread blanket bombing but carefully targeted destruction on a large scale. The villages that we visited, where we were greeted with warm and generous hospitality, had been occupied by Israel for many years. The people generally supported and praised those who had resisted Israel's occupation and forced its withdrawal. Many pointed across the wire between Israel and Lebanon to the Golan heights, which is a Syrian territory that has been occupied by Israel since 1967, and to the land known as the Beka'a farms, which is Lebanese territory that is still occupied by Israel and a cause of grievance between the two countries.

As I observed the wanton destruction, I again felt deeply ashamed of the refusal of the UK Government to call on Israel to cease its bombardment of Lebanon. I also reflected on the fact that Iraq is, I believe, still paying compensation for the damage that it caused during its invasion of Kuwait a long time ago. Israel has caused massive damage and destruction in Lebanon, but I have heard no one call on it to pay compensation for the destruction of properties and villages, and the infrastructure of the country. That is another example of the double standards in US and UK policy towards the middle east, and a further failure to require Israel to abide by and respect international law.

From south Lebanon, we went to Syria to meet the President, Foreign Minister, other Ministers and parliamentarians, the British ambassador and many others. The President lived for a long time in the UK. He is a charming and open man who, for a long time, was not going to be President and therefore took on the style of an ordinary western citizen. He is very popular in his country because he does not have a grandiose or fine-living style. He is keen to deliver significant reform in Syria, to open up the country and to improve the economic opportunities of the people, but he made it clear that the situation in the region made that difficult. Shortly after he took over, there was what has been called a "Damascus spring"—a sort of opening up. It is difficult to continue such reforms when there is such bitter division all around and organised extreme Islamist groups in the region.

The President stressed that the Syrian regime is secular and takes a tough line against Islamist insurgents, but that it was keen to work with others to help to stabilise the situation in Iraq. He deeply regretted the fact that the UK did not have, as he put it, an independent foreign policy. He said that, before Sir Nigel Sheinwald visited Syria for talks on behalf of our Prime Minister, he had been to Washington and that his view was that the UK could play a much more useful role if it had an independent policy, but sadly it did not and it continued to be a complete echo of US foreign policy.

We met, too, the UK ambassador, who pointed out that Syria had accepted large numbers of refugees from Iraq—nearly 1 million—including large numbers of Christians, members of an ancient Christian community that is now largely being displaced, and that refugees in Syria tended to be poorer than those who were admitted to Jordan. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees made a plea for support for displaced people in Iraq and for those who have fled to Syria and Jordan. What has been the response to that appeal and what contribution has the UK made in general and, in particular, to support Syria in hosting large numbers of refugees from Iraq?

The Syrian Foreign Minister is a veteran of long years of middle east peace negotiations and talks with great authority and clarity about that history. He was consulted by the authors of the Iraq Study Group report and was supportive of its recommendations for progress in Iraq and the wider middle east. Will the Minister spell out firmly the UK Government's attitude to the recommendations of the Iraq Study Group? It set out, in my view, a clear way forward for Iraq that would lead to responsible withdrawal, but which involves giving up the aspiration for permanent long-term bases and for the domination of the country. It set out, too, a way forward for the wider middle east, calling for a settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in accordance with international law. It recommended asking Syria and Iran to help to stabilise Iraq and pointed out that if Syria is to be asked to co-operate in such a way a settlement is needed on the return of the Golan heights to Syria by Israel.

It was notable that, as reports were filtering out that the Iraq Study Group was likely to recommend that the US took part in much closer talks with Syria and Iran in order to try to help stabilise Iraq, we were told that the Prime Minister was strongly of the view that that was the right policy and that that was the policy that he advocated when he was consulted by the study group. When President Bush put the whole report to one side and failed, it seems, to accept it or to implement its recommendations, the UK voice went quiet. I would be keen to hear from the Minister the view of Her Majesty's Government on the recommendations of the Iraq Study Group. I press him to explain why the UK Government continue to humiliate our country by acting as an echo of US foreign policy rather than adopting an independent and more constructive role.

Photo of Crispin Blunt Crispin Blunt Opposition Whip (Commons)

First, I want to apologise to the right hon. Lady for being unable to stay for the whole of her debate, as I have to attend a Public Bill Committee on the UK Borders Bill. I would be interested in her comments on the nature of the relationship between Iran and Syria, and in what she was able to glean in Syria about the nature of the relationship between the Syrians, with a secular Government who are quite hostile to Islamists and Islamism, in headline terms, and Iran. Will she reflect on what we ought to do to try perhaps to weaken those links?

Photo of Clare Short Clare Short Independent Labour, Birmingham, Ladywood

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. That is an issue that I should have covered. The President of Syria spelled out clearly that Syria had secular government, while Iran clearly did not, and that they are different kinds of Governments. He said in his analysis of the system in the middle east, "We live in this region. We have to have strong relationships with our neighbours. We nurture a relationship with Iran because it is a neighbour of ours and we would very much like to see a settlement in the whole region."

Discussion by commentators on the middle east always tries to highlight Syria and Iran as interfering in Iraq and as a destructive influence. The President pointed out that the US, the UK and others came from a long way away, but that the Syrians live in the region and have to have relationships with all the Governments of their region. My view is that the game of divide and rule, and of blaming Iran and Syria for problems in Iraq, is merely about creating scapegoats. It gets us nowhere and prolongs the tension and conflict in the region.

I applaud the findings of the Iraq Study Group, which are not written in headline-grabbing terms. The focus was on how the US could extricate itself from Iraq, but the report contains a plan for a peaceful settlement for the whole region, including Israel and Palestine. Iran will almost inevitably seek to acquire nuclear weapons. I am well aware that the Government of Iran say that that is not their intention, and that they simply want civil nuclear power, which they are permitted to have under the non-proliferation agreement. However, Iran is in a dangerous region with Israel, with nuclear weapons undoubtedly targeted at Iran. We need only look at what happened with Israel, which pretended that it was getting civil nuclear power when it was going for weaponry and was permitted to do so by the west; the same happened with India and Pakistan. We will not stop that proliferation unless we get a peace settlement in the middle east that includes an agreement that all weapons of mass destruction should be removed from the region. I think that that is the formal policy of the US and the UK, although we hear little about it.

The vilification of Iran and separating Iran from Syria should not be the objective of our policy. Our policy should be to support a Government in Lebanon who help the country to come together, to rebuild and to stand against Israeli attempts to manipulate and to divide people in that country. Our policy should be to get Iran and Syria to help to stabilise Iraq and to drive on with a settlement in Israel and Palestine and with an agreement to remove all weapons of mass destruction from the region. I do not think that there is any prospect of that in the short term. However, I do not think that there will be peace until such an agreement is made. I feel pessimistic in the short term about the situation in the middle east, but after this President of the United States ends his period in office, perhaps the next President, whoever that may be, will see the trouble that the United States is in in the region, will look back at the recommendations of the Iraq Study Group and will start to implement them.

I would love our Government, instead of waiting for a change in US foreign policy, to strike out in that direction and to seek to have better relationships with Governments throughout the region, particularly those of Lebanon and Syria. I would love them to build on the Mecca agreement, which has brought to an end the conflict between Hamas and Fatah in Palestine, bring back funding support for the Government of the Palestinians, and work for a proper peace.

We have been told repeatedly that our Prime Minister wants to promote peace between Palestine and Israel before leaving office in a few months' time. We have been told, too, that he wants to negotiate a new treaty to replace Kyoto and to complete the Doha round of trade talks that are meant to improve the trading opportunities of developing countries. It is extraordinary that he should think that he could achieve such a thing in a few months; indeed, it is delusional. However, it seems to me that the Prime Minister and the Government—and whoever takes over from our Prime Minister, and successive Governments—will not be able to contribute to the finding of peace in the middle east if they are not willing to adopt a more independent view; and a good place to start is to review our relations with Lebanon and Syria.

Photo of Andrew Love Andrew Love Labour, Edmonton

I am listening carefully to the right hon. Lady's comments. I know that she was part of a delegation that recently visited Lebanon and Syria. Before she concludes her remarks, will she say whether aid is getting through to the south of Lebanon? I visited the country with a delegation some months ago. It was not getting through then, and a great deal of concern was expressed in the south about who was responsible for that failure. What was her experience more recently?

Photo of Clare Short Clare Short Independent Labour, Birmingham, Ladywood

I cannot answer my hon. Friend authoritatively, in that I did not do an extensive survey, but comments were made to us. We met some of the United Nations peacekeepers who were deployed down on the border, and people were saying that the only help that they were getting was from Gulf states; they were not aware of help coming from other parts of the world. As I said earlier—I do not know whether he was here at the time—it seems to me that Israel should be compensating the people of Lebanon for the destruction that has been done there. Israel has breached international law, and it should be held to account. It is shameful that no such serious proposition has been put before the international community.

Whether funding is available that is not getting through, or whether it is not properly available, I am not sure, but I noticed that, in the Paris pledging conference for the rebuilding of Lebanon, conditions were imposed about the funding only going through the Prime Minister's office. It seems to me that that will inflame the divisions, and it will not help anyone in Lebanon. One of my strongest arguments is that all responsible Governments, including ours, should work with everyone in Lebanon to try to bring people together to help to rebuild the country and to end the sort of divisions that have caused so much destruction, rather than supporting one faction within a divided Government who are unable to rebuild the country as their people would wish.

As I was saying, I hope that our Government will make it clear that we do not support the divisive and unbalanced policy of the US and France in backing the Lebanese Prime Minister's office against other parties—parties that need to come together to form a Government to conserve the interests of Lebanon. In the case of Syria, I believe that we should strengthen our relations and challenge the US vilification of Syria and the Syrian regime.

As I made clear, I hope that we will wholeheartedly and actively support the recommendations of the Iraq Study Group to bring about a properly organised end to the occupation of Iraq and a peace settlement throughout the middle east, particularly over Israel and Palestine.

My fear is that the Israeli Government have no intention of honouring international law or agreeing a settlement on the 1967 boundaries, with east Jerusalem as the capital of the new Palestinian state, and some sensible negotiation on the right of return. It is clear that Israel is expanding its boundaries, establishing more and more settlements and seeking to confine the Palestinian people to a series of Bantustans that do not constitute a state.

Sadly, I fear that conflict will continue in the region for a long time to come. It will cause enormous suffering and endanger international law, and it will harm the capacity of the international community to reach agreement about crucial issues such as climate change that threaten the future of the whole of human civilisation. There is no simple short-term answer, because US policy is so skewed. I appeal to the Minister, please, to bring forward a more independent UK foreign policy, so that we can be a more constructive and just player in looking for a just and long-term peace in the middle east.

Photo of John Grogan John Grogan Labour, Selby 9:55 am, 27th February 2007

I congratulate Clare Short on securing this important debate. My brief remarks will fall into two sections. I shall concentrate on the terms of an all-party early-day motion on Syria that I intend to table later today, but I shall also say a few words about Lebanon.

One of the highlights of my parliamentary career will take place on Thursday, when a delegation from Lebanon, which is here under the auspices of the Inter-Parliamentary Union, will visit my constituency of Selby. I thought that only big metropolitan areas hosted such delegations, so I am really pleased that the delegation will be coming to the heart of middle England to speak to students in Selby, to visit various industrial sites and to meet local representatives.

In my visit to Lebanon, I saw something of the country's potential. If a lasting peace could be achieved, the economic potential of Lebanon would be almost unbounded. It could once again become a prosperous area of the middle east. However, I shall concentrate first on the early-day motion on Syria that I intend to table later today. The early-day motion will call for talks at a ministerial level between the Syrian Government, the British Government and the Governments of European Union member states. I can think of no better person than my hon. Friend the Minister for the Middle East, with his robust style, to undertake such talks, because they will be challenging.

The Syrian Government will have to confront various issues. In parliamentary answers to me and others, my hon. Friend has raised the issues of the so-called facilitation networks and of full Syrian co-operation with the investigation into various political assassinations in Lebanon, including the tragic death of its Prime Minister. There is much to challenge Syria, but there are also many opportunities. If we can hold talks and ultimately reach agreement with Libya, with which our relations were, perhaps, even more difficult, I fail to see why we cannot make an effort to normalise relations with Syria, especially because the prize is so great.

I have been following the contributions to debates in the House by politicians who are far more eminent than me, and it is interesting to note that there has been a movement in recent weeks. My North Yorkshire neighbour, Mr. Hague, the shadow Foreign Secretary, has returned to the issue time and time again, pointing out the recommendation of the Iraq study group that an Iraq international support group should be formed, which would actively enter diplomatic dialogue with Syria.

The Prime Minister sent his envoy to Syria last autumn, and I have noticed a change in my right hon. Friend's tone in recent weeks. He said in the House last week that there are signs that Syria is prepared to help. That is true; there are signs that Syria would be prepared to open serious talks with Israel, and that Israeli society and Israeli academics would welcome such an approach. However, the feeling is that American pressure is constraining such serious talks.

Equally, there are signs of tremendous potential in relations between Iraq and Syria, and I note that the visit by Iraqi President Talabani to Syria was a long one. In the final declaration following that visit, the two parties stressed their determination to work jointly and to do everything to fight and uproot terror. Having spoken to our diplomatic representatives and others in Syria, the general assessment is that there had been a change in attitude in the Syrian regime and that considerable efforts were being made to secure the border and to achieve security co-operation with the Iraqi regime. Like many hon. Members, I have constituents serving in Iraq, and, as we draw down forces over the next few months, we have a responsibility to do everything possible to ensure their continuing safety. Serious talks with the Syrian regime would undoubtedly help that process.

As the right hon. Lady has pointed out, Syria is a secular regime with a proud tradition of religious toleration, which is to be welcomed. There is a strong Christian community in Syria. The Damascus spring has been referred to, and there are big human rights issues in Syria that need to be confronted. There are also economic pressures on Syria—for example, the oil industry is in decline. Syria needs to open out once again to the world, but it needs to be encouraged to do so. That is why, later today, I will table a modest motion calling for discussions at a ministerial level to begin between the UK and Syria, perhaps under the umbrella of the European Union. There would be much support for that among American politicians from across the political divide. Such discussions will inevitably happen as the months go by, and we could lead such a process.

Many parts of Syrian culture are rich. It has often been called the cradle of civilisation, and it has a great history. There is much economic and tourism potential in Syria. Whatever level hon. Members are at, we can only do what we can in Parliament. One of my proudest achievements is chairing the all-party beer group—one of the many things that we have in common with Syrian people is a love of beer. I will be organising an event under the auspices of the all-party beer group to highlight the rich tradition of Syrian beer. We will obviously invite the Minister to that event, which will be a small contribution to improving links between our nation and Syria. In the same way that tremendous strides have been made with Libya, I look forward, over the coming years, to similar strides being made in our relations with Syria, so that it can once again play a full part in the international community.

Photo of Andrew Love Andrew Love Labour, Edmonton 10:02 am, 27th February 2007

I join my colleagues in congratulating Clare Short on securing this debate. One of my great sadnesses is that she now sits on the Independent Benches rather than with the Government. This is a timely debate, because now and over the next few days, we have a high-level delegation from the Lebanon present in this country. I am saddened that no more hon. Members are present this morning as it is certainly an extremely important debate to have at this time.

I had lunch with the delegation yesterday and we talked about the current situation in the Lebanon. The country has many great attributes, which I will not go into, but one of its great misfortunes is that it is afflicted with reflecting the wider conflicts in the middle east. When the delegation was asked what Britain and the international community could do to help resolve the conflict in Lebanon, the inevitable answer was to resolve the wider conflicts in the middle east, which play out incessantly in Lebanon itself. Undoubtedly, proxy-conflicts that have happened in Lebanon have involved one side lining up with the west and the other side lining up with Syria and Iran. It has been impossible to find a sensible and peaceful way forward to reunite the different communities in Lebanon and to ensure that it can have—as it has not had for the last 40 years—a peaceful future leading to improvements in the country.

Whenever I go to Lebanon, the people speak positively about the confessional system that they employ, but that system has a number of weaknesses in the current circumstances. On the Taif agreements, the disposition of the Lebanese Parliament was evenly split broadly between the pro-western and the pro-Arab communities. It is difficult to see a way in which that could be used to find reconciliation within the country. When I visited the country some months ago, we talked to the different players and blocs in the Parliament. During those discussions, it was clear that everyone understood the necessity to continue a national dialogue, but it has proven almost impossible for that to reap any real results and bring the two sides together. Indeed, one of the consequences of the failure of the national dialogue is conflict on the streets of Lebanon. Although, to the relief of everyone, both sides drew back from an intensification of that conflict, genuine concern was felt among the friends of Lebanon in this country and internationally. It was an extremely difficult situation that called for cool heads and rational discussion to prevent those involved finding themselves on a declining slope towards some of the difficulties that Lebanon has faced in previous years.

A stand-off such as the current one in Lebanon ratchets up tension, and although representatives from both sides have stated that they want everyone to act coolly and sensibly, it has not been possible to chart a way forward. The stand-off involves the Prime Minister on one side and the President on the other, who refuse to engage in dialogue. In addition, the leader of the Parliament refuses to bring the Parliament together to discuss some of the issues that face Lebanon. I agree with the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Ladywood that by vocally and publicly supporting one side or the other, the international community does not help resolve the inherent conflicts. There have recently been incidents on the blue line between Israel and Lebanon. A number of atrocities have also recently taken place—particularly the bomb on a bus that killed a significant number of people. Such incidents raise concerns among the friends of Lebanon. We need to find and chart a way forward that will begin to find, if not a solution, at least a modus operandi between all sides in the political system to reduce current tensions in the country.

I will briefly comment on a number of related issues and ask the Minister to respond to some questions, some of which may have already been asked. The implementation of Security Council resolution 1701 is a critical issue that is currently being considered in Lebanon. The resolution provides a framework for a permanent ceasefire and would lead us towards reconciliation not just in Lebanon, but in the wider context. Bringing forces together to try and reduce tension in the wider context would help move things forward in Lebanon. Resolution 1701 is critical to that.

Israeli planes are still overflying Lebanese airspace. That is a flagrant breach not only of resolution 1701, but of all international law. Of course, that inflames public opinion in Lebanon, and for no useful purpose, because it is well known that the information that the Israelis claim that they obtain from those overflights can be more accurately determined by other means. Therefore, the question that I ask my hon. Friend the Minister, as I did in the previous debate, is: what action are the Government taking through international channels such as the UN to try to get the Israelis to desist from that practice, which helps no one and continues to inflame the situation between Israel and Lebanon?

As I have mentioned, there was an incident on, I think, 8 February between Lebanese and Israeli forces at the blue line. Fortunately, UNIFIL—the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon—managed to resolve some of the issues and has put into practice changes that we hope will preclude such an incident happening again, but we need to begin to resolve the existing border dispute, which leads to such incidents. The Shebaa farms is a small area that is of no consequence militarily or economically. The UN has done some work on delineating the area and whom it potentially belongs to, but we need to move that situation forward much more quickly to resolve the border issue and reduce the tensions on both sides. What efforts are the Government making to try to push forward the agenda in relation to the border and particularly Shebaa farms?

The French President suggested recently that some UN forces may be moved to the Lebanese-Syrian border, rather than deployed in the south of country in relation to the Lebanese-Israeli border. The Syrians look on that as a provocation, and it is not, I suspect, a useful way forward at present. I ask the Minister what discussions are being held as to whether it is appropriate in the circumstances for UN troops to be deployed in that way, as it appears that that will do nothing to improve relations between the Lebanese Government and the Syrian authorities.

Photo of Kim Howells Kim Howells Minister of State (Middle East), Foreign & Commonwealth Office

I do not quite understand the question, because my last information was that troops of the Lebanese Government, not UN troops, were deployed along the border. Is my hon. Friend talking about the Syrian border, the Israeli border or both?

Photo of Andrew Love Andrew Love Labour, Edmonton

I am talking in this instance about the Syrian border. The BBC reported some days ago that President Chirac had suggested that it was possible that UN forces would be deployed at the Syrian border. I am well aware that Lebanese troops are deployed there, which seems sensible. In the current circumstances, with everyone in this Chamber recognising the need for a dialogue with Syria, to locate UN troops at the border with Syria would be a provocation and would not assist in developing such a dialogue. Therefore, I ask the Minister, if it is possible in international discussions, that we dissuade the French, if they do want to pursue that matter, from pursuing it at present.

When I was in Lebanon not so long ago, the problem of cluster bombs was still very significant in the south of the country. Well over 1 million bombs were being painstakingly drawn up and exploded so that normal economic activity could start and people could return to their homes. That is a very slow process. The Government have been giving more money recently, so will the Minister to update us on the support that the United Kingdom has given to eliminating the cluster bomb problem in the south of Lebanon?

The next issue that I want to consider is UNIFIL, because there have been a number of incidents in recent weeks. Spanish troops were threatened in the south, and when French troops were deployed, the local community—a predominantly Shi'a community—were not best pleased and asked them to leave. The only reason why I raise those two very minor incidents is that the position of UNIFIL and the trust that the Lebanese community has in the role that UNIFIL plays are, in my view, critical to finding a way forward, yet we know that the activities of UNIFIL before the Israeli incursion last summer left it in a difficult position, because it was felt widely in Lebanon that it had not fulfilled its remit. This UNIFIL force has—I will put it as kindly as I can—an ambiguous role in Lebanon. It is critical that UNIFIL begins to fulfil its role, to ensure that the border is protected and that steps can be taken so that there can be some trust and confidence among the people in Lebanon that what happened last summer will not be repeated.

Photo of Clare Short Clare Short Independent Labour, Birmingham, Ladywood

As I understand it, the UN mission is meant to disarm Hezbollah. It seems to me that that will never be achieved and that Hezbollah will never agree to be disarmed, which brings UN Security Council resolutions into disrepute. I am a passionate supporter of the UN, but if I were Hezbollah I would not agree to disarm, given the history of incursion from Israel. Does that requirement not need to be adjusted? Does the hon. Gentleman not agree that it is a dangerous requirement that puts the UN mission in a very difficult position?

Photo of Andrew Love Andrew Love Labour, Edmonton

Yes. I was not thinking particularly of that, although it is part of the mission. I was thinking more of the chapter of the UN charter under which the troops were operating and how much they could intervene in the situation in Lebanon. I do not want to get into which of those is more appropriate, because I am not a military expert. We need clarity on that issue, but to come to the issue of Hezbollah, the project is a long-term one. It would be folly for any attempt to be made currently to disarm Hezbollah. It is clear that Hezbollah has the confidence of the people of Lebanon, particularly those living in the south, who are most directly threatened by any possible Israeli action. I was trying to suggest that if UNIFIL could attract the confidence and trust of the people in the south, what has been set out may be possible at some future time. We are aware that Hezbollah is anxious to become a political rather than a military force. The confusion between those two aspects currently impedes its progress, so it has at least a political imperative to move towards being more directly seen in a political role, but we need to build confidence in order for that to be achieved, which I do not think is a particularly short-term project.

The question that I was trying to ask was: what are the UK Government doing to try to ensure that trust and confidence is built in UNIFIL? It now has roughly 10,500 troops. I do not think that it has reached its maximum complement; I think that there are still difficulties in getting other troops to assist in the UNIFIL process. Most importantly, is there an understanding that we need to build trust and confidence, and what steps are we taking to try to achieve that?

I congratulate the Government on the aid and development effort. I am not sure that it is the Minister with us today who is responsible; it may well be the Department for International Development. Whoever is responsible, they need to be congratulated. I know that we gave $45 million at Stockholm, and that we delivered another $115 million at Paris. I understand that we also recently agreed to the figure of $48 million for UN relief, mainly to deal with Palestinian refugees. All that is to be strongly welcomed. I congratulate the Government on being one of the earliest participants in work in the country. We have created a more positive attitude toward the UK as a result of all that effort.

I return to an earlier question, and again ask the Minister whether development aid is getting through and making a difference on the ground to the people in the south who have not been able to return to their homes and who are still threatened by cluster bombs. They are dislocated and their economy has been completely disrupted. Are we doing something to reassure them that the international community, particularly in the west, cares about their situation and wants to improve it at this time?

Linked to all that is the Paris III conference. It is conservatively estimated that Lebanon's economy shrank by between 5 and 6 per cent. of its gross domestic product as a consequence of last summer's events. We know about the disruptions to the tourism industry, which is of major benefit to the Lebanese people, and to all sorts of economic activity that were a result of Israeli actions, not least the bombing of all the main roads and airports in the country.

At Paris III, the Lebanese authorities were looking for assistance with their serious debt of $40 billion, which is 158 per cent. of Lebanon's GDP. Some of that debt was built up as a result of previous conflicts between Lebanon and Israel. The primary need was to get the country through a difficult period and to get its economy on the road again. I understand that there was more than $7 billion at that very successful round—it was much more successful than Paris I or II, perhaps because of the situation in which Lebanon now finds itself. Major commitments were made by the Saudi Arabian authorities, the French and various others. However, the terms of the loans that were delivered—I take the right hon. Lady's point about their being delivered through the office of the Prime Minister—were not much better. To call them soft loans would be saying the most that could be said for them.

Considering all the meetings held and travelling to Lebanon done by Foreign Secretaries and Prime Ministers, and all the political commitments and help that we have given to that country to help it through a difficult period, why was not it possible for us to provide some assistance with its economy? If the shrinking of its economy results in an adjustment process, and if there is a sharp rise in unemployment and people in the south become completely dislocated economically, will that not have political ramifications? Is not it critical that we try to ensure that that does not happen?

My final point is about earlier comments regarding the dialogue with Syria. At the time of our previous debate on the Lebanon, the Government seemed keen to open that dialogue. Indeed, the Prime Minister had said several times that Syria and its position were critical to moving forward with the difficulties and problems of the middle east. I do not see why that has changed, but the tone of our dialogue about Syria has undoubtedly changed, as others have commented. There seems to have been a hardening of attitudes in the UK. That surprises me because the Iraq study group came out clearly and unequivocally in support of the need for a dialogue with the Syrians.

It is not as though the Syrians have not given a very positive response. They suggested that they would be prepared to open a dialogue, and they are talking to the Iraqi authorities. I am one of those who believes that it is currently beyond political capability for the west to speak directly to Iran, both because of the situation there and for other reasons. The Syrians, however, could carry on that dialogue on our behalf, but we need to engage with them to achieve that.

I ask the Minister to recognise that the problems in the Lebanon can be solved only if we begin to solve the problems in the wider middle east, and to recognise the centrality of Syria in all sorts of ways that we do not have time to go into. The Prime Minister has said several times, and I agree with him 100 per cent., how important an end to the conflict in the middle east is, not just to the middle east but to the whole world, for reasons of which we are only too well aware. Why are we attempting to freeze out the Syrians? Why are we not entering a dialogue with some energy?

I conclude by reminding the House that we sent a representative to talk informally to the Syrians some time ago. That does not seem to have been followed up in any way, and I urge the Minister to do that at the first opportunity if it has not already been done. I also urge him, on behalf of Lebanon, Syria and the wider middle east, to recognise that this is the way that we can make the difference in the middle east that the Prime Minister keeps talking about.

Photo of Anne Begg Anne Begg Labour, Aberdeen South

Order. I will call John Mann if he keeps his comments to less than three minutes.

Photo of John Mann John Mann PPS (Rt Hon Richard Caborn, Minister of State), Department for Culture, Media & Sport 10:27 am, 27th February 2007

As I have less than three minutes, I shall simply ask the Minister two questions, without commenting on them, and comment on one issue. First, will the Minister comment on what Walid Jumblatt, the Druze leader, is reported to have said over the weekend?

Secondly, I believe that the concept of the mutual recognition of rights has always been and remains the key to solutions in the middle east. Does the Minister agree that the one thing that would make a significant difference regarding Syria and Lebanon would be the release of the two Israeli soldiers in the near future to allow the kind of engagement with Syria and Lebanon that we have been discussing? I agree with my hon. Friend Mr. Love and others that that remains an essential step forward for there to be peace in the region and the rest of the world.

The one subject on which I shall comment is the British Council, which is rightly shutting down all its European operations and building operations in the middle east and more widely. Will the Minister provide some clarity on that? Will there be more of the same from the British Council—spreading the English language and artistic work, neither of which I knock—or will Britain's most recognised export, sport, be a key factor?

These days, a common image in photographs and footage from any war zone, anywhere in the world, is that of the kids who are caught up in the conflict wearing Beckham and Ronaldo shirts, among others. Many of those shirts may not have been exported directly from the UK or England, but they bear the logos, names and colours of English football teams. That offers an opportunity to engage with people at a low, but ongoing, level. Groups such as the "Kick racism out of Israeli football" campaign—I was privileged to attend its launch in this country—directly challenge anti-Arab racism on Israeli football terraces and in the stands. Those are the sort of initiatives that the British Council could help with in various countries.

Like me, the Minister is a keen mountaineer, and in Wadi Rum in Jordan the British Mountaineering Council is training Jordanians in mountaineering skills so that they can be local mountaineering leaders. What could be more real—rather than simply symbolic—than getting kids from across a divide and linking them by a rope on a mountain where the life of one is reliant on the rope skills of the other? That is not a tongue-in-cheek suggestion; it should be part of what the British Council attempts to do in such countries.

Photo of Anne Begg Anne Begg Labour, Aberdeen South

Order. I request Front-Bench spokesmen to restrict their comments to 10 minutes to allow the Minister to reply.

Photo of Mark Hunter Mark Hunter Shadow Minister (Home Affairs) 10:31 am, 27th February 2007

Thank you, Miss Begg. I am grateful to Clare Short for introducing this important debate, and I look forward to the Minister engaging constructively with us when he responds to the various concerns that have been raised.

We join the international community in calling for Hezbollah to release the soldiers whom they are still holding captive. We condemn Hezbollah on its record of launching rocket attacks on Israeli citizens from under-cover positions in areas occupied by Lebanese civilians. That action was wholly wrong, and it should be recognised as such by all the groups involved.

The reaction of Israel in bombing Lebanon was disproportionate and devastating for the people of Lebanon. Last summer's air strikes damaged, if not destroyed, much of Lebanon's infrastructure, including roads, water and sewage treatment plants, dams, electrical plants, airports, port facilities, bridges and petrol stations. Civilian casualties were high: 1,200 Lebanese were killed and more than 4,000 were injured, with almost 1 million people—almost a quarter of Lebanon's population—displaced. Worryingly, the UNHCR reported that 60,000 homes were damaged with 15,000 destroyed and that 900 markets, farms and other commercial buildings were also damaged or destroyed. The damage to civilian infrastructure will take time and money to fix, and it is estimated that that will cost $3.6 billion dollars.

According to the UN mine action co-ordination centre, 90 per cent. of the cluster bombs used by Israel in this conflict were used between the adoption of Security Council resolution 1701 on 11 August and the cessation of hostilities on 14 August, which places another obstacle in the way of reconstruction in Lebanon. As Kofi Annan has said, it will take well over a year to clear the cluster bombs, and until they are disposed of displaced families cannot return to the daily business of agriculture and trade that is so vital to the rejuvenation of Lebanon. I condemn the use of such weapons because, as with land mines, their effect is often devastating to innocent civilians who are caught up in the conflict. Will the Minister respond specifically to those concerns?

On the Israeli front, the damage caused by the conflict has also been severe. The unacceptable loss of life is a tragic waste. The cost of repairing buildings, including 6,000 damaged homes, has been estimated at $1.1 billion. I am certainly not underestimating the consequences of the conflict for Israel, but as this is a debate on Lebanon and Syria, I will confine my remarks to those areas.

The UK, the US and other major powers should put pressure on Syria to extricate itself from Lebanese affairs. Its involvement is a serious breach of Security Council resolution 1701, which calls for countries to respect the territorial integrity and political independence of Lebanon. We should encourage all Lebanon's neighbours to recognise the spirit of the resolution as well as its literal application. Lebanon cannot become a strong nation if its sovereignty is compromised.

The UK's role in relation to both Lebanon and Syria, as well as other countries in the middle east, should be one of brokering negotiation. Events over the past month have shown Lebanon to be a country in crisis. The demonstrations calling for a national unity Government and the accusations that the Lebanese Prime Minister, Mr. Siniora, by seeking Hezbollah's disarmament is backing a pro-Israeli and pro-US agenda have caused fears of possibly violent clashes between Government and Opposition supporters.

To help to solve those internal disputes, and in light of yesterday's news that Hezbollah is rearming in security pockets in southern Lebanon, we urgently need to bring all parties to the table for renewed negotiations for a comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace settlement on all fronts, including Syria and Lebanon, and a two-state solution for Israel and Palestine. That action was called for in the Iraq study group report, and there must be a sustained commitment by both the UK and US for it to take place. Until there are renewed negotiations to establish a peace settlement, conflicts will continue.

The report also called for Syria to cease its aid to Hezbollah in Lebanon as well as to Hamas and other radical Palestinian groups. While Syria funds those groups, peace can never be established in the middle east. We must face down extremists on both sides, and the most effective way of achieving that is to ensure that they lose support from countries with a vested interest in the middle east. The UK Government should take a strong stand, and Syria's compliance should be a priority in any peace settlement discussions. I am sure that the Minister will want to respond to that.

The UK's relationship with Syria needs to be one of negotiation and involvement. The report from the Iraq study group called for the US to create an Iraq international support group with Iraq and all the states bordering Iraq, including Iran and Syria, as well as other key players. At the moment, Syria could be said to be playing a counter-productive role, because its Government do nothing to stop arms and foreign fighters flowing across the border into Iraq and former Ba'athist leaders finding a safe haven in Syria.

Photo of Clare Short Clare Short Independent Labour, Birmingham, Ladywood

The British ambassador briefed us that Syria has made considerable efforts to police that border and to prevent incursions. That should be recorded.

Photo of Mark Hunter Mark Hunter Shadow Minister (Home Affairs)

I am happy to accept that. The right hon. Lady speaks with great authority on these matters, so I stand corrected.

Our Prime Minister supported the US in its comment on 7 December 2006 that before Syria could sit down to negotiate with the US it would have to take certain actions. That approach seems to be unhelpful, because placing demands on Syria that must be met before it reaches the negotiating table ensures that discussions will never take place and that the demands will never be fulfilled.

Negotiations with Syria are the key to stabilising Iraq. The Government must persuade Syria of the merits of closing its borders with Iraq and controlling the flow of weaponry, insurgents and others passing over that border. As the Iraq study group report argued, as well as disincentives, we must provide incentives, such as enhanced diplomatic relations with the US, to encourage it to do so. That proposal is controversial, but without engaging in diplomatic dialogue with those countries with no preconditions, a peaceful conclusion to the Iraq war cannot be reached, and a broader peace initiative in the entire middle east will fail.

Photo of Keith Simpson Keith Simpson Shadow Minister (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs) 10:39 am, 27th February 2007

I, too, congratulate Clare Short on securing the debate. As she has said, the purpose of her debate on UK relations with Lebanon is to report back on her visit there and to seek a more balanced approach to the middle east, as well as urging that UK foreign policy moves away from being an echo of American foreign policy.

First, my right hon. Friend Mr. Hague has made it clear—indeed, this was echoed in last week's debate on Iraq in the other place—that there needs to be a more holistic and perhaps slightly more sophisticated UK foreign and security policy towards the middle east.

Secondly, we recognise that regional engagement will have to be reactivated. I never saw the US Iraq study group report as a policy statement; it was more like an à la carte menu, from which one could pick and mix. Although I fully support picking and choosing from it, it will not be easy to get some regional powers to engage positively; indeed, the middle east peace process is littered with attempts by all sides to get them to do so.

Thirdly, as several hon. Members have said, the emphasis has been very much on the sufferings of the people of Lebanon, and rightly so. As I have said before in such debates, Lebanon looks more and more like the Weimar republic of the 1920s, whose democratic Government large numbers of armed militias, including the Nazis and the Communists, intended to overthrow. However, it would be a grave error not to recognise that direct attacks were made on Israel. No sovereign Government can allow members of their armed forces to be kidnapped without trying to get them back or face sophisticated rocket attacks without thinking of retaliating in some way. We should bear that in mind.

Let me now turn briefly to UK relations with Syria. As the right hon. Lady has said, the Government are, in many ways, sending mixed messages about the results of their attempts to engage with Syria last year. What actually was the purpose of the visit to Damascus by the Prime Minister's envoy? What came out of it? Where are we today? Do the Government plan to continue those efforts, or have they been dropped in the face of reported US opposition or Syrian unwillingness? To take up a point made by another hon. Member, do the Government intend to raise such links to ministerial level?

The Foreign Secretary has said that Syria has

"expressed a willingness to become more constructively engaged with the Government of Iraq."—[Hansard, 20 February 2006; Vol. 457, c. 135.]

She pointed to the resumption of bilateral contacts between Iraq and Syria as positive progress in that direction, but has Syria expressed any comparable interest in being more constructively engaged with our Government or, indeed, the Government of the United States of America? Although one can criticise the United States for many things, Syrian engagement with the USA is perhaps even more important than Syrian engagement with us.

Finally on this issue, what is the Minister's response to recent calls, including by the former United States Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger, for an international conference on Iraq? Would such a conference include regional countries, such as Syria?

Let me now turn briefly to relations with Lebanon. As other hon. Members have said, it is clear that the confrontation between the Lebanese Government and Hezbollah has reached a critical point, because Hezbollah has withdrawn its Ministers from the Cabinet and is trying to paralyse the Government. Media reports suggest that it is consolidating its grip on southern Lebanon and that it is rearming. In the words of one observer, Lebanon has become

"a nervous country with a dying economy and with no solution in sight".

What are the United Kingdom Government doing actively to support the Siniora Government? Does the Minister agree that the implosion of that Government would be highly destabilising for Lebanon and that it would probably initiate intervention by Israel or Syria? He himself has said:

"Disarmament of Hizballah is likely only as part of a political process."—[Hansard, 7 December 2006; Vol. 454, c. 663W.]

Is that tantamount to passive acceptance of the fact that UN Security Council resolution 1701 will not be implemented?

The disarmament of Hezbollah will require a strong Lebanese state. What effect is the Lebanese Government's current paralysis having on efforts to implement Lebanese responsibilities under UN Security Council resolution 1701? What impact have UK efforts to rebuild the Lebanese security forces had on their capability to keep order in the country?

Finally on this issue, the Minister said in answer to a question that I raised in Foreign Office questions last week that Hezbollah's fingerprints were all over some of the munitions used against British troops in southern Iraq. Was that statement in fact based on intelligence, or was it perhaps a slip of the Minister's tongue?

Other hon. Members have referred to Syria's long- term presence in Lebanon, and I have two questions on that issue for the Minister. On 7 December 2006, the Foreign Secretary said that the Syrian President had given assurances to the United Nations Secretary-General that

"Syria will undertake all necessary measures to implement this requirement; and that Syria is willing to assist Lebanon in setting up an effective interdiction regime, and where possible to establish joint border patrols with the Lebanese authorities."—[Hansard, 7 December 2006; Vol. 450, c.1765-66W.]

On 18 December, however, the Government said that the UK continued to be concerned about

"arms smuggling across the Lebanese/Syrian border"—[Hansard, 18 December 2006; Vol. 454, c. 1511W.]

Has Syria lived up to its promises to assume a positive role, or do the UK Government believe that it continues to arm Hezbollah?

The right hon. Member for Birmingham, Ladywood has done Parliament a great service by raising this issue. None of us believes that there are simple answers, and more than one side is to blame. However, there is a growing consensus in Parliament that we need a more sophisticated foreign and security policy across the board towards the middle east. We want the Government to be involved in persuading regional powers to come forward, although my party certainly recognises that that will not necessarily be easy. However, we should also remember that while we debate this issue, many of our constituents are in harm's way in Iraq.

Photo of Kim Howells Kim Howells Minister of State (Middle East), Foreign & Commonwealth Office 10:47 am, 27th February 2007

I, too, thank Clare Short for giving us this opportunity to discuss the United Kingdom's relationship with Syria and Lebanon. As she told us, she recently visited both countries, so she is well placed to initiate the debate. As she said, the events taking place in both countries have consequences for the whole region.

The Prime Minister's visit to Lebanon last September—the first by any British Prime Minister—is a signal of how seriously the Government take events there. The Foreign Secretary's visit to the country last December was her first visit. I myself hope to visit Lebanon again soon; indeed, I would have been there today had the right hon. Member not initiated this debate. I was last there at the height of the terrible conflict in July.

The United Kingdom continues to be concerned by the ongoing political instability in Lebanon and by Syria's role in it. Since last year's tragic conflict between Hezbollah and Israel, our approach has been based on UN Security Council resolution 1701, which the Security Council unanimously agreed. Since then, we have supported the democratically elected Government of Lebanon in implementing that resolution and rebuilding the country.

To that end, we have provided support to the Government of Lebanon in the form of humanitarian, political, economic and security assistance. My hon. Friend Mr. Love, among others, asked about the nature of that support and how we try to ensure that it gets through to the people who need it most.

We have also sent a senior envoy to Damascus in an attempt to reach out to Syria, and to encourage it to play a more constructive role in Lebanon and to face up to its wider responsibilities in the region. I was glad that Mr. Simpson reminded us that this is a two-way relationship, and we must have evidence of reciprocal moves and of good will on both sides.

We certainly want a healthy, prosperous and peaceful democracy in Lebanon, and we want normalised relations with Syria. That ultimately requires Hezbollah to disarm and to participate in Lebanese politics as a fully democratic political party. We know how difficult that is. We have had long experience of trying to live alongside organisations that are armed to the teeth and that kill people, assuming that they have a God-given right to do that in the middle of a democracy. We had 30 years of Irish republican terrorism and I have some notion of what it must be like to be a politician in Lebanon. We have politicians from Lebanon with us in this country today, who have told me in no uncertain terms of the difficulties of operating in a democracy where a self-appointed alternative Government are prepared to use terrorism to enforce what they believe is their right to dominate politics in parts of the country.

My hon. Friend the Member for Edmonton asked in particular about UN Security Council resolution 1701 of 11 August 2006, which established both the cessation of hostilities between Israel and Hezbollah and the long-term framework that we sought for resolving the conflict. Since then, with a few exceptions, the cessation of hostilities has held. We were terribly sorry to hear about the bombed bus, and our condolences go out to the families of those who have suffered, but it has held remarkably over a very difficult period, notwithstanding the points made by the hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk to the effect that in some respects the situation in Lebanon is deteriorating. The cessation of hostilities has held and we must work to ensure that it holds further.

Some hon. Members have asked about overflights. I have pressed the Israeli Government many times about them. They are a challenge to the sovereignty of Lebanon and its right to control its airspace. The Israelis in turn ask what anyone else is doing about the smuggling of arms and rockets back across the Syrian border to rearm Hezbollah. We must address such issues. There is a need for confidence-building measures rooted in the reality of the contemporary situation if we are to persuade the Israelis to stop overflights and to persuade the Syrians that they should not be allowing the rearming of Hezbollah in southern Lebanon. We could have an entire debate about why the Syrian Government feel that they must be able to pull the lever of Hezbollah whenever they feel like it. Syria has withdrawn its troops. There was huge controversy about the fact that it had lots of intelligence agents left in Lebanon who were pulling strings, paying bribes and helping to murder people. The situation there is very complex, and is certainly not one that can be solved by echoing good-will messages. The negotiations will be difficult and complex.

Photo of Clare Short Clare Short Independent Labour, Birmingham, Ladywood

On the matter of the detained Israeli soldiers and Lebanon's request for the return of some of its prisoners, I think that the UN was supposed to be leading negotiations to try to obtain a package of agreement. Has there been any progress with that? It would obviously help to reduce tension.

Photo of Kim Howells Kim Howells Minister of State (Middle East), Foreign & Commonwealth Office

It certainly would. The return of prisoners on both sides would be a big step forward. The right hon. Lady will understand that negotiations are undoubtedly going on and back channels will have been opened. It is the kind of situation in which I should like my right hon. Friend Mr. Murphy, the former Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, to be involved. There are ways: he has recently been involved in opening back channels in the terrible conflict in Sri Lanka. There are things that can be done. I am certain—I am sure that the right hon. Lady will agree with me—that it is a full-time job. People cannot be taken away to Geneva and New York every six months in the hope that something can be resolved. The negotiations must be very purposeful, using people with great skills, who know how to go about such things. I hope that the efforts that have been made will be built on, because, as Mark Hunter pointed out, the issue is a key one. It is certainly one of the most important of the confidence-building matters that we should be dealing with.

In retrospect, for the 15 members of the UN Security Council to agree on a resolution on the middle east and to establish troop commitments to police it within 31 days was a real achievement. The fact that it happened so quickly should give everyone who is interested in promoting peace and reconciliation in the area cause for some optimism. The UK continues to believe that Security Council resolution 1701 is the best way to resolve Lebanon's problems. The Government of Lebanon have some important tasks under that resolution. We continue to work with the elected Government and international partners in implementing it.

Right hon. and hon. Members have asked what progress has been made since last summer's conflict. The deployment of 11,000 UN troops is itself an achievement. I remember, as I am sure do colleagues, the view expressed in debates in August and September that nothing would ever happen, because the situation was too difficult for troops to move into. It has been a successful deployment. Those troops have been deployed alongside 8,500 troops from the Lebanese armed forces. We should remember that this is the first time for many years that the Lebanese army has been deployed down to the Israeli border. That is an important fact. Supported by UN peacekeepers, the forces are now delivering security in the south.

The right hon. Lady did not have time to tell us more, although I should have liked to hear more from her, about the question raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Edmonton: the extent of movement of relief supplies and goods to people in southern Lebanon. Are they getting through? Are they being distributed properly? Are they being affected by the curse of corruption in those areas?

Photo of Andrew Love Andrew Love Labour, Edmonton

The critical factor is whether people continue to have trust, and to believe that the words and figures used by the international community will be realised on the ground. When I was there, which was some months ago, there was concern. I wanted to find out whether people had completely lost such trust, because if that happens it sets us all back.

Photo of Kim Howells Kim Howells Minister of State (Middle East), Foreign & Commonwealth Office

I hope to be able to report directly on that to my hon. Friend and to the House after my visit to the Lebanon, but he is right that it is a key issue. I do not think that there is really a shortage of funding. The Paris III conference pledged $7.6 billion in grants, which is an enormous amount. I am sure that the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Ladywood remembers from her days at the Department for International Development that often the great problem is whether there is the capacity to spend the money wisely and to ensure that it reaches those who most need it. That is something on which we need to do a lot of work.

In the few moments left to me, I want to mention that we are providing a significant package of economic assistance to Lebanon, which we set out at the Paris III conference. Some of the numbers have already been mentioned: we shall contribute £58 million to Lebanon in the coming years, in addition to the £23 million that the UK gave last year in humanitarian assistance. That included food, water and shelter, and £2.8 million of the money was committed to clearing unexploded ordnance—

Photo of Anne Begg Anne Begg Labour, Aberdeen South

Order. We must now move on to the next debate.