HC Deb 08 February 1984 vol 53 cc881-93 3.30 pm
The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Sir Geoffrey Howe)

As my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister told the House yesterday, we have been considering closely and urgently the situation in Lebanon where conditions and the prospects for achieving reconciliation have deteriorated sharply in the past few days. The Lebanese Government have resigned and factional fighting has broken out again on a large scale.

The British contingent to the multinational force has been performing two important tasks; carrying out street patrols in Beirut and, at the request of all the parties, providing an impartial guard for the ceasefire talks. With the recent deterioration in the situation, it has become impossible for it to fulfil this role, and the danger to the contingent has been greatly heightened.

In these difficult circumstances, we have been in close touch with our MNF partners, and the Government have decided that our troops should be moved to the Royal Fleet Auxiliary Reliant which is stationed off the Lebanese coast and remain there until the situation becomes clearer. The House will be glad to know that the major part of this redeployment has already been successfully completed.

The British contingent has earned a high reputation among all Lebanese as an impartial force. I am sure I speak for the whole House when I say that it has carried out its tasks in Beirut with exemplary courage and efficiency. It has played an important part in contributing to stability in the Beirut area and in providing an opportunity for political reconciliation. It is a tragedy that this opportunity has not been seized.

We continue to have very prominently in our minds the safety of British residents in the Beirut area. I am glad to be able to report that I have received no reports of any casualties. For those British residents who may wish to leave, appropriate arrangements are being put in hand. British embassy staff are safe and well and their position is being kept under close review. I should like to pay tribute to the British ambassador in Beirut, Mr. David Miers, and his staff, who have been performing their duties under very difficult conditions.

The need for the restoration of stability, sovereignty and independence to Lebanon remains of the highest importance. We shall stay in close touch with our MNF partners, with the Lebanese Government and with all those who can help in this process. If needless bloodshed is to be avoided, a supreme effort must now be made by all the parties to settle their differences by compromise.

Mr. Denis Healey (Leeds, East)

I shall say first how much the Opposition welcome the withdrawal of British troops from Beirut. As the right hon. and learned Gentleman knows, we think it is long overdue. I should like to join the Foreign Secretary in paying tribute to the courage and efficiency of our troops and, indeed, to the British embassy in Beirut.

I must tell the right hon. and learned Gentleman, however, that many of us are still disturbed at the Government's failure to organise the evacuation of British civilians, particularly women and children, who wish to leave, especially as it is five days since the Government began to plan the evacuation of military personnel there. I hope that the Government accept that it is the duty of the British Government in all circumstances to protect the safety of British civilians in such dangerous situations to the utmost of their ability.

On the wider aspect of the problem to which the right hon. and learned Gentleman referred, let me ask him one or two questions. First, did Her Majesty's Government receive a request from President Gemayel for the withdrawal of British troops, as President Reagan says he did? Secondly, do the Government recognise that the withdrawal of the multinational force from Beirut represents the collapse of American policy in the Lebanon without there being any sign so far that the lessons have been learned? President Reagan yesterday threatened even wider and more indiscriminate intervention from his naval and air forces offshore.

Would the right hon. Gentleman agree that, if any profit is to be derived from the Lebanese tragedy, all concerned must recognise two lessons? The first is that there can be no internal settlement which does not reflect the fact that the Lebanon now has a majority of Moslems? The second is that there can be no external security for the Lebanon which does not abrogate the agreement with Israel which was imposed on the Lebanon by American pressure last year and which does not recognise the Syrian desire and interest in security through a friendly Lebanon on its frontier.

Does the right hon. and learned Gentleman accept that an even greater danger threatens from a massive escalation of the war in the Gulf in the coming weeks, if not days, and will he seek western talks with the Soviet Government to ensure that the super-powers are not dragged into direct military confrontation with each other, against the will of both, by the action of third parties that they cannot control? Would he not agree that talks between the Soviet Government and Western governments might provide a basis on which any future peacekeeping operations in the middle east would be carried out by the United Nations?

Sir Geoffrey Howe

The right hon. Gentleman's last point is a different question, but he can rest assured that we are well aware of the dangers that do or may arise in connection with developments in the Gulf.

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for the welcome that he has given to what I have had to say and for the tribute that he has paid to the British ambassador and the multinational force. As I said in my statement, we have the civilian population prominently in mind. Those British residents without urgent reason to stay in Lebanon were advised to leave as long ago as September last year. In the last few days they have, of course, been advised to stay under cover and arrangements are in hand for those now wishing to leave. The Royal Fleet Auxiliary Reliant is close offshore to help if necessary. There has been no request for the British contingent to leave, although we have kept in touch with President Gemayel and he has been kept informed.

As for the United States, we have always made it plain that the right of MNF participants to take action in the Lebanon is limited to that of self-defence.

It is certainly right to say that the prospect of internal settlement depends upon participation by all the communities in a fashion that can be acceptable, so as to make that settlement a reality. However, I entirely endorse what the right hon. Gentleman said about the importance of recognising the role and interests of Syria in the region and the importance also of ensuring that the 17 May agreement, while it made provision for withdrawal of Israeli forces and while it is necessary to make secure Israel's northern frontier, should not be allowed to become an obstacle to the necessary settlement.

Mr. David Steel (Tweeddale, Ettrick and Lauderdale)

How many British citizens are there in Beirut at the present time? Is it the right hon. and learned Gentleman's view that the agreement between Lebanon and Israel should now be ended?

Sir Geoffrey Howe

The view that we have made clear, and that I made clear during my recent visit to Damascus, is that the 17 May agreement, while it had had a legitimate objective at the outset, should not be allowed to become an obstacle to the settlement. As the right hon. Gentleman knows, some people say that it should be abrogated. Others adopt a slightly different approach. The important thing is that, while not preventing it from fulfilling its original objective, we do not allow it to stand in the way of some new, enlarged or extended agreement that would fulfil the objectives properly.

Our present best estimate of the size of the British community in Lebanon, based on consular records, is 1,800 United Kingdom nationals exempt from immigration control, 800 United Kingdom nationals subject to immigration control, and 180 citizens of Commonwealth countries for whom we are responsible. It is impossible to say how many of those may have left Lebanon already without notifying the embassy, because they were advised to leave some months ago. It is difficult to say how many of those remaining might wish to be evacuated.

Mr. Julian Amery (Brighton, Pavilion)

Although I agree that President Reagan's decision to withdraw the marines left us with no option but to withdraw our forces— [HON. MEMBERS: "Oh."]—does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that the withdrawal of the multinational force is a serious setback to Western influence throughout the middle east? Will he take the initiative in urgently consulting our partners in Europe and the United States of America to ensure that this collapse of our influence does not extend to south Asia and the Gulf, where the threat is increasing every day?

Sir Geoffrey Howe

My announcement was about the redeployment of our troops in the way that I described; it parallels the announcement made by President Reagan about his troops. The failure to achieve the process of reconciliation, which was the object of our being there, is much to be regretted. It is important that we should not allow those events to lead to a further erosion of Western positions.

Mr. Speaker

Dr. David Owen.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

He has changed his mind.

Mr. Speaker

Mr. Enoch Powell.

Mr. J. Enoch Powell (Down, South)

Why did it once again prove impossible for the Foreign Office to anticipate events which were so widely foreseen by others? For how long will the United Kingdom continue to be dragged at the cart-tail of the disastrous misconceptions of United States policy?

Sir Geoffrey Howe

I cannot share the right hon. Gentleman's approach to the United States' policies. That country is and remains our closest and most important ally. That is why, during the past few days, as always, we have kept in the closest touch with America and with our other MNF partners. We were told of their decision in advance, and we told our partners of our decision. However, each country has considered the position of its contingent, as we have, in the light of its national interests.

Mr. Edward du Cann (Taunton)

Although I agree with my right hon. and learned Friend that stability, sovereignty and independence—in his words—are the right aims for this most tragic and unhappy country, how now is this to be achieved in the context of what he described as the lack of prospect for the establishment of a government of reconciliation in the Lebanon? What policies will we now adopt? What initiatives will we take, either in conjunction with our allies or through the United Nations? If we are to achieve those desirable results, a form of international peace force must go into the Lebanon.

Sir Geoffrey Howe

We have been pressing for the placing of a United Nations force in the Lebanon for several months. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and I discussed the matter during that period more than once with the United Nations secretariat, and I have instructed our ambassador to the United Nations to get in touch there again today. However, the fact remains that the deployment of a United Nations force in the Lebanon would require the assent of a wide range of countries. It would also require, first, a request from the Government of the Lebanon.

I agree with my right hon. Friend about the need for continued action to try to secure a resolution of this most unhappy situation. However, the resolution of disputes in the Lebanon can be achieved only by the determined efforts of its people to bring about a process of reconciliation. Alongside that, it is important to press for the matters for which we have already been pressing—the withdrawal of all foreign forces as a result of agreement with all the countries that have an interest in the area, including Israel and Syria.

Mr. Tom Clarke (Monklands, West)

Does the Secretary of State accept that the Government of the Lebanon whom the House had earlier accepted, no longer exist and that the entire situation has changed? Will he accept also that if there is to be a second peacekeeping force, it should be encouraged to show the same neutrality which was shown by British troops but not reflected by other members of the multinational force?

Sir Geoffrey Howe

As my hon. Friend the Minister of State emphasised on Monday and as the Government have emphasised throughout, it is important for any force undertaking that sort of role to take the utmost care not to take sides. As the hon. Gentleman has said, that is the position that we have adopted throughout. President Gemayel remains the legitimate President of the Lebanon. The Government have resigned, although they remain as a caretaker Administration. We can deal with the institutions of the Lebanon only as they are, and it is for them, within the framework of their own constitution, to take the next steps.

Sir Frederic Bennett (Torbay)

While unreservedly acclaiming the role that the British forces have played in the Lebanon, to which tribute has been paid everywhere, and while equally welcoming the decision of Her Majesty's Government to withdraw the British force at this phase, may I ask my right hon. and learned Friend to note that any future peacekeeping force which at some stage will have to be formed, will be unlikely to be formed through the United Nations because of the Soviet Union's veto, will have in future to be composed of contingents from countries that cannot be said to have direct or indirect affinities with either of the contestants? Will he note also that Britain and western Europe have a special role to play in the preparation of any new such force?

Sir Geoffrey Howe

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for what he has said. It is right to ensure that any further force that might become involved in any exercise of that sort in the Lebanon should be as manifestly neutral as possible. That is one of the reasons why we have pressed as hard as we have for the involvement of a United Nations force, if possible. I have already identified the obstacles to that.

Mr. Ken Weetch (Ipswich)

Does the Secretary of State agree that Britain's involvement in the Lebanon on the coat-tails of the Americans has proved to be a pretty sorry affair? Will he emphasise and underline to his American counterpart that the blind and indiscriminate American shelling of the Druze and Syrian positions can only further embitter and alienate those with whom ultimately we shall have to make a settlement?

Sir Geoffrey Howe

As I have already said, anything done in the Lebanon has to be judged by the extent to which it contributes to the process of reconciliation. That is the test that should be applied by everyone concerned and that is the Government's view. The United States Government are well aware of our views. I invite the hon. Gentleman to think again about his observation of the sorry role played by British forces in this incident. The fact remains—this has been acknowledged on all sides in the Lebanon and elsewhere—that the British contingent has throughout played a role of complete impartiality. For that reason, it has been able to contribute during the time that it has been there to the chances of stability in the Beirut area. Everyone has been willing to pay tribute to it for the part that it has played.

Mr. Dennis Walters (Westbury)

Will my right hon. and learned Friend confirm that our commitment to the re-establishment of Lebanon's sovereignty presupposes the demand for the withdrawal of all foreign troops, including the armed forces of Israel, whose unprovoked aggression of the Lebanon is largely responsible for the carnage that is taking place? Is this not the opportunity for a major diplomatic offensive aimed at attempting to bring about a comprehensive settlement?

Sir Geoffrey Howe

As my hon. Friend says, it is right that an ultimate settlement within the Lebanon on the basis of an independent sovereign state depends on the withdrawal of all foreign forces, including those of Israel and Syria. I do not think that it would be helpful at this stage to cast blame for the present state of affairs further than that. It is clear that if all these desirable things are to come about, every effort must be made to secure concerted progress towards them. That was one of the objectives which played a prominent part in the talks that I had in the middle east earlier this year. Now that these events are taking place, I agree with my hon. Friend that the case for further urgent diplomatic action is strong, and we will be doing everything we can to that end.

Mr. Ernie Ross (Dundee, West)

Given the fact that all sides agree that it was significant that the British presence in the multinational force was involved neither militarily nor politically and achieved limited success, will the Secretary of State use the influence that we now have in the bargaining with America on the replacement of the multinational force to alter dramatically the disastrous policies on Lebanon that the Reagan Government are pursuing?

Sir Geoffrey Howe

That is the same point. I do not accept the hon. Gentleman's view of the policies of the American Government. I accept that we have a part to play in seeking to persuade all those involved to take the necessary steps to secure an effective settlement and reconciliation. In that process, it is necessary for all the countries involved, including the United States, to approach the matter with reasonably open minds and not allow previous activities, such as the 17 May agreement, to become an obstacle rather than a help to the process of settlement.

Mr. Francis Pym (Cambridgeshire, South-East)

I am sure that my right hon. and learned Friend's statement has been welcomed throughout the House and that his tributes to our forces are endorsed by everyone. Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that the present position in the Lebanon is extremely grave, that in recent weeks it has deteriorated and that, in view of the failure to secure the withdrawal of all foreign forces and the deterioration of conditions in Lebanon, it is vital that a major diplomatic effort is put in train to prevent any more serious events taking place? Can he give a statement about the action he is taking, the meetings he is attending or the diplomatic action that will take place to prevent the position from becoming worse than it is already?

Sir Geoffrey Howe

My right hon. Friend rightly endorses what I have said about the extreme gravity and serious deterioration of conditions in the Lebanon. For that reason, at the end of my statement, I emphasised the need for urgent action to secure a settlement in that country. That action depends, of course, not only on what is said and done by those on the ground but on what is done by the MNF contributor countries and the others involved. The urgency of the need for action is one of the reasons why I was canvassing possible ways forward during my recent visit to Syria. I agree that there is now an urgent need for close co-operation and consultation between the MNF contributors with a view to launching the type of initiative my right hon. Friend has in mind.

Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow)

Do the Foreign Secretary and the Prime Minister recollect that, shortly after the visit of the Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, to Beirut, they were party to removing a distinguished paratroop officer, Colonel David Roberts, from command of the unit for presenting them with unpalatable facts that warned of today's events? Can we be sure that Colonel Roberts' career is safeguarded?

Sir Geoffrey Howe

The hon. Gentleman has a false conception of the reality of this matter. There is no question of Colonel Roberts having been removed in that way or for that reason.

Sir Ian Gilmour (Chesham and Amersham)

Although I congratulate my right hon. and learned Friend on the successful evacuation so far of our troops and applaud the courage, efficiency and impartiality of our forces in the Lebanon, does he agree that, if there is to be any future peace force, it would do more harm than good if it were not clearly divorced from any regional alliance in the area and if it clearly supported one particular faction in the Lebanon?

Sir Geoffrey Howe

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for his opening remarks. I fully accept the force of his main observation. That is why we have throughout emphasised the importance of our force in the Lebanon playing an independent role without leaning towards one side or another.

Mr. Dick Douglas (Dunfermline, West)

Does the Secretary of State accept that the present conditions in the Lebanon, notwithstanding the bravery and deportment of our troops, confirmed emphatically the views expressed by many of us that we should not have been there in the first place? Does he accept that a best friend, in terms of the allies of Britain and the United States, is one that tells the United States frankly that the posture it is adopting in the middle east is wrong?

Sir Geoffrey Howe

The first part of the hon. Gentleman's question does not reflect the way that I see the matter. The presence of our contingent during that period has helped to provide an opportunity for political reconciliation. Sadly, that opportunity has not been taken. I entirely agree that it is important to be ready and willing, as we are, to form our own independent view of what is needed in the middle east and to express it without fear to the United States. We never hesitate to do that.

Sir Anthony Kershaw (Stroud)

Could I add my tribute to the troops, and ask my right hon. and learned Friend whether they are getting off properly with all then-kit, vehicles, ammunition and so on? What are they now supposed to do on the auxiliary naval vessel? Are they going to steam up and down opposite Lebanon? Is that a proper role for a cavalry regiment? Is he aware that the 16th/5th Queen's Lancers, of which regiment I had the honour to be a member, has been asked to play many roles during the past centuries but not up to now that of the horse marines? Is he further aware that although the conduct of our policies in the Lebanon may have differed from that of the United States Government, nevertheless we do not doubt their good faith and good will in this matter, and that the consultations that we have had with them have plainly borne good fruit?

Sir Geoffrey Howe

I should not begin to exchange views with my hon. Friend about the proper role of a seaborne, horse-borne regiment. I said in my statement that the troops will remain on the Royal Fleet Auxiliary Reliant until the position becomes clearer. He will recall that there may be some part for them to play in connection with the protection of British subjects if it becomes necessary for them to be evacuated.

The object of the exercise is to ensure that the troops and their equipment are fully withdrawn. As I have said already, the major part of the redeployment of the troops and their equipment has been successfully completed. I entirely endorse what my hon. Friend says about the way in which we should judge our relationship with our American allies.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North)

Have not the latest developments in that tragically divided country, with a President who was discredited almost from the beginning of his term of office, shown the folly of British troops being involved?

Sir Geoffrey Howe

I cannot accept the hon. Gentleman's view. The fact is that in that tragically troubled country, about which there seems to be agreement on both sides of the House, the presence of the British contingent has helped to prolong a period of reasonable stability and provide an opportunity for reconciliation. The tragedy is that reconciliation has not yet been possible.

Mr. John Stokes (Halesowen and Stourbridge)

Is my right hon. and learned Friend aware that those of us who were worried in the first place about British troops being sent to Lebanon, are most relieved and gratified that they have all been brought out safely and, apparently, so efficiently? Without in any way sharing the horrible anti-American sentiments of certain Opposition right hon. and hon. Members, will my right hon. and learned Friend urge the American Government to be less hostile to Syria and less accommodating to the Israelis so that perhaps those two countries can reach some agreement now that they are alone?

Sir Geoffrey Howe

I am grateful for what my hon. Friend said about the original decision. I know that he understands that all of us who have been anxious about the presence of our troops there have regarded their safety as one of the most important considerations. Of course it is necessary for any approach to the future settlement of Lebanon to be even-handed in its appraisal of the roles played by and interests involved of Syria and Israel.

Mr. Stuart Bell (Middlesbrough)

The Foreign Secretary will know that we are most pleased to hear the news today that our troops have been withdrawn. Can he assure us that they will not be sent back except to safeguard the lives of the British citizens in Lebanon? If there is to be a further peacekeeping force in the area can he assure us that it consists of United Nations forces and those who up to now have had no role in the Middle East?

Sir Geoffrey Howe

Whether circumstances are likely to arise where the redeployment onshore of our troops is right or possible cannot be seen at present. I see no immediate prospect of that, and I endorse the hon. Member's suggestion that, if at all possible, a United Nations force would be more appropriate in that area. However, he must recognise the difficulties in achieving that.

Mr. David Crouch (Canterbury)

While we are properly applauding this afternoon the work done in the Lebanon by the contingent of nearly 100 men as soldiers, we should not neglect the fact that they have also been representatives of British policy of impartiality and, in a way, our diplomats in that area, and highly respected as such? Does my right hon. and learned Friend appreciate that we do not have a casual interest in the middle east and the Lebanon, notwithstanding the chaos that has descended on that tragic country, and will he continue to ensure that our presence in the middle east is maintained as well as our troops themselves have demonstrated it?

Sir Geoffrey Howe

I entirely endorse what my hon. Friend said about the legitimate interest that Britain has in the stability of the middle east, including, of course, the Lebanon. It is important that we should continue to play an independent role and make our voice heard in that region. I also endorse what my hon. Friend said about the part played by our troops. I cannot emphasise too strongly that they have not merely served well and effectively as soldiers but that they have earned a very high reputation for themselves and for this country.

Mr. Robert N. Wareing (Liverpool, West Derby)

Now that we have seen a further example of the 24-hour volte-face by the Foreign Secretary, what assurances can he give about the safety of the British civilians who are still in Beirut? Can he assure us that there will be no further attacks on British people in that part of the world? Will he ensure that we are no longer in tow to President Reagan, as a result of which we have these 24-hour statements, time in, time out?

Sir Geoffrey Howe

There is no question of a 24-hour volte-face. The whole House knows, as does the hon. Gentleman, that the position of our contingent there has been the subject of continuous consideration from month to month, week to week and day to day, in light of the factors properly urged upon the Government by all sides of the House. We have taken the decision that we have in the light of the events that have taken place in the past few days. I have no doubt that that is right, and that it has been rightly welcomed. I am afraid that it is not possible, of course, to guarantee the safety of British residents in Beirut from the risk of attack. It is for that reason that we advised them, as long ago as last September, about the wisdom of their leaving the city if they had no reason to remain. That is why we have been making arrangements to provide for those who now wish to leave. Finally, I cannot reject too strongly the hon. Gentleman's attempt, once again, to indulge in cheap anti-Americanism.

Viscount Cranborne (Dorset, South)

Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that the events of the last few days constitute a grave blow to the prestige and influence of the West in the middle east, particularly in the Gulf? Does he have any plans to try to retrieve the position?

Sir Geoffrey Howe

Plainly, no one can greet the outcome of the participation of our force in the multinational force in Lebanon without some regret, for reasons that are obvious to the House. However, one should not allow that to diminish our own assessment of the role that we can and should play, not just there but more widely in the middle east.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

Is the Foreign Secretary aware that one of the most incredible parts of this question and answer session has been the fact that the leader of the SDP, who so often graced the television studios and appeared—

Mr. Speaker


Mr. Skinner

I am coming to it.

Mr. Speaker

The hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) must ask a question of the Foreign Secretary, and not refer to other people.

Mr. Skinner

Yes. — who was on all the programmes about the Lebanon situation—

Mr. Speaker

Order. The hon. Gentleman is doing just what I told him not to do. Will he please ask a question?

Mr. Skinner

Somehow or other he did not manage to get into this debate. [Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker

Order. The hon. Member for Bolsover is repeating what I told him I could not allow him to say. Will he ask a question of the Foreign Secretary that is directly concerned with this matter?

Mr. Skinner


Mr. Speaker

Will he ask a question?

Mr. Skinner

Perhaps the Foreign Secretary can tell us how come that a master of detail, as the right hon. and learned Gentleman was called by the Prime Minister, could not find this great big banana skin looming before him, when almost everyone on the Opposition Benches, except the Liberals and the SDP, have been telling him for months to get out of the Lebanon?

Sir Geoffrey Howe

The hon. Gentleman has once again demonstrated his gift for reducing a serious issue, in which the rest of us are interested, to the level of complete triviality.

Mr. Patrick Nichoils (Teignbridge)

Will my right hon. and learned Friend accept that, even though Conservative Members welcome the fact that the troops are now to be withdrawn, we very much appreciate the judgment he showed in not responding to earlier calls—probably prompted by panic and mischief—to withdraw the troops earlier? Does he agree that the fact that we pulled out the troops at the very last moment will ensure that whatever influence we can bring to bear in the future has the right effect?

Sir Geoffrey Howe

In fact, we applied our judgment from the beginning to the end before we reached this decision, and we shall continue to bring our influence to bear in the way my hon. Friend suggests.

Mr. Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North)

Does the Foreign Secretary accept that the presence of American troops in ships off the Lebanon could be the basis for a future American invasion of that country? Would it not be far better if the British troops were withdrawn altogether from that region, and that he put whatever pressure he can on the United States to withdraw its troops in exactly the same way, and thus prevent another foreign invasion of the Lebanon? Does not he think that the people of the Lebanon should be allowed to develop their own future in their own way, without foreign interference?

Sir Geoffrey Howe

The Americans and ourselves have throughout shared the same objectives in Lebanon, and continue to do so. If Lebanon is to enjoy the prospect of peace and stability that we all wish for her, all foreign troops, including those of Israel and Syria, will have to be withdrawn.

Mr. Nicholas Fairbairn (Perth and Kinross)

Does my right hon. and learned Friend appreciate that most hon. Members are concerned about what will happen to the people of the Lebanon in a situation that is deteriorating into civil war and internecine strife, with all the benefits to the malefactors? Will he spearhead what would seem to be a particularly appropriate initiative by the European countries and their Foreign Ministers for a common policy to do their best to prevent this tragedy from getting worse?

Sir Geoffrey Howe

We all totally share my hon. and learned Friend's concern about the future of the people of Lebanon. It is our concern for their prospects of peace and reconciliation that led us to play our part there. I urge my hon. and learned Friend to bear in mind the fact that, in the last resort, only the people in that country can find their own salvation. Certainly, the United Kingdom for many months now has sought to sustain diplomatic initiatives to secure movement by all the parties concerned to advance the prospects of peace. We shall continue to do so with our European partners as far as necessary.

Mr. Dave Nellist (Coventry, South-East)

Now that President Reagan's role as a world policeman or world sheriff has been seen to fail again, and the risk of Lebanon being further torn limb from limb is increasing, will the Foreign Secretary tell us, on behalf of the Government, at what point the Government will withdraw support from an unrepresentative, reactionary regime, headed by President Gemayel? Will he also tell us how it is, despite the small breathing space of support for that regime given by the multinational force, there has been not one iota of difference in the social and economic problems that afflict the people of that country?

Sir Geoffrey Howe

We have never given support without qualification to any regime or system in the Lebanon. In fact, we have proceeded on the basis, which still remains the case, that President Gemayel remains the legitimate president of that country. We shall continue to do what we can to promote the process of reconciliation there.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. I shall call those hon. Members who have been rising if they will put their questions briefly. It is an important matter. I shall then call the Opposition Front Bench.

Mr. Eldon Griffiths (Bury St. Edmunds)

While we are all glad that our troops are safe, does my right hon. Friend not find it rather strange that the House should have been ringing with words of welcome and congratulation over a major setback for the West, and over the prospect of a bloodbath in Beirut? Will my right hon. Friend give an assurance that he has much in mind the wider implications — the loss of credibility of western assurances now in other areas of the middle east, and notably in Oman? Will he also take into account the fact that the expressions of anti-Americanism that have been heard in the House could make our closest ally recoil from commitments in the world which we badly require?

Sir Geoffrey Howe

It is for the reasons given by my hon. Friend that I have already deplored the anti-American sentiments that have crept so often into these exchanges. It is because of our anxiety to avoid the prospect of bloodshed and slaughter, which of course has come much closer, that we have indeed been playing our full part until now in the multinational force.

Mr. Robert Adley (Christchurch)

Some minutes ago my right hon. and learned Friend, in response to my hon. Friend the Member for Westbury (Mr. Walters), said that we should not cast blame. We all agree that there is no point in doing that. Is it not important to learn the lesson from this affair—that, for the major powers, partisan support for one side or another in the middle east will inevitably result in disaster? Must we not face the fact that, so long as the Americans regard the middle east as their bailiwick, it is absolutely ridiculous to expect the Soviet Union to stand by demurely and pay no regard to that?

Sir Geoffrey Howe

I do not accept my hon. Friend's description of the Americans' view of their role in the middle east, but of course it is right that no party should be adopting an attitude in the middle east that is partisan to one side or the other. If one is to try to advance the chances of peace, it is most important to do so, as I have said already, in an even-handed fashion, as we have always sought to do.

Mr. Peter Bottomley (Eltham)

Is not the fundamental point during the months that our troops were in the Lebanon the fact that they were accepted by the people on both sides? Should we not draw the lesson that it is right for us to be willing to risk our people to help avoid further bloodshed when it is possible to reduce the level of fighting?

Sir Geoffrey Howe

It was after judging those factors that we made our original commitment to participate in the multinational force, and certainly the respect accorded to our troops there underlines the reason why it is right for us to maintain an important interest in the future of the area.

Mr. Tony Marlow (Northampton, North)

Is it not the case that the withdrawal might not now be taking place if, instead of one party in the multinational force trying to provide in the Lebanon. a government which was suitable to the interests of Israel, it had in fact tried to provide in the Lebanon a government suitable for the interests of Lebanon? Has this lesson been learnt? Until it is, no progress can be made.

Sir Geoffrey Howe

While I do not necessarily accept my hon. Friend's analysis of the history, it certainly is important that the Government of the Lebanon, if it is to survive effectively in the future, must be a government that is representative of all the people, and all the factions in that country.

Mr. Healey

First, I welcome what the Foreign Secretary said in endorsing what I said about the preconditions for internal stability and external security of the Lebanon. Will he inform the United States Administration, if possible together with our European allies, that he will not in future support American policies on the Lebanon which do not accept those preconditions?

Secondly, since the Foreign Secretary shares the widespread concern that the Gulf war may shortly enter a far more dangerous phase, and since the Prime Minister herself on her recent journey to Budapest — or was it Damascus?—accepted the need for Soviet co-operation in a search for peace, will the right hon. and learned Gentleman initiate immediate discussions with the Soviet Government on some of the contingencies which might arise as a result of the escalation of the Gulf war?

Sir Geoffrey Howe

Our views on the future arrangements that are necessary for stability in the Lebanon, and more widely, are well known to the United States, and will continue to be so.

As to the point made by the right hon. Gentleman on the Soviet Union, I am not prepared now to embark on discussion of its role in relation to the Gulf, although I recognise the right hon. Gentleman's legitimate concern about that region. But I also endorse the point that he makes, that it is entirely right for us to be prepared to discuss regional questions with the Soviet Union, and it is for that reason that I did indeed raise this very region in my meeting with Mr. Gromyko.