HL Deb 23 March 2004 vol 659 cc592-6

2.57 p.m.

Lord Blaker asked Her Majesty's Government:

What are the implications for United Kingdom foreign policy of the recent bomb explosions in Spain.

The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean)

My Lords, the dreadful events in Madrid on the morning of 11 March underline the importance of maintaining the international fight against terrorism as a top priority in the United Kingdom's foreign policy. The threat from indiscriminate, mass casualty terrorism has been with us for several years. This Government have been clear and consistent in their commitment to tackling this threat. The Prime Minister will discuss this with the leaders of our EU partners at the European Council this week.

Lord Blaker

My Lords, I accept the general drift of the Answer given by the noble Baroness. I raise two points. The first is that the change of government in Madrid is likely to lead to a European constitution that is less acceptable to this country than had previously been hoped for. That makes it even more important that there should be a referendum in due course, which is what most people want according to the opinion polls. The second point relates to the dreadful assassination of Sheikh Yassin yesterday in the Gaza Strip. Surely that will be followed by extra terrorism, not necessarily confined to Israel, but possibly anywhere. Surely, that makes it essential that the powers that make up the quartet should now return to the charge to get some momentum into the peace process between Israel and the Palestinians, and not leave it until after the American elections in November.

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, we must see how the new government in Spain decide to deal with their various responsibilities, both with regard to the European questions that the noble Lord raised and to questions that are perhaps more closely related to Iraq and to terrorism. There will be many questions to be settled and discussed with the new government.

With regard to the assassination of Sheikh Yassin, which took place yesterday, your Lordships will know that my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary has made the British Government's position clear. I remind the noble Lord, Lord Blaker, that the last time that he asked a similar question, I was able to reassure him about the level of the Government's engagement in issues relating to the Middle East and the Israel/ Palestine conflict. I assure him that the level of engagement remains very high. We will do everything that we can to pursue through every possible means a peaceful settlement, as we have done in the past few weeks. I do not think that the events of yesterday will have helped.

Lord Clinton-Davis

My Lords, neither of the questions raised by the noble Lord have anything to do with the Question on the Order Paper. Will my noble friend ensure that everything is done to promote good relations with the new government of Spain, particularly at prime ministerial level?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, the noble Lord framed his Question very widely—rather cleverly, perhaps. He asked what the implications were for foreign policy, and then he asked a question about European foreign policy and a question about foreign policy in the Middle East. So, perhaps, he was not that wide of the mark. Even if they were not quite what I expected, they were, I think, legitimate questions none the less.

Your Lordships will know that many of my colleagues in government have very good relationships with those coming into government in Spain. Of course, some things have been said on various issues by the incoming Government that have caused some eyebrows to rise. We already have a good relationship with incoming Prime Minister Zapatero, and your Lordships will have heard several of my colleagues in another place express the desire to further that relationship.

Baroness Williams of Crosby

My Lords, does the Minister agree that we should congratulate the Spanish police on what appears to have been an effective operation to apprehend a range of people who may have been connected with the outrage in Spain? Returning to the main theme of the Question, may I ask whether one of the lessons that we should draw from the dreadful Spanish explosions is that it is unwise to make assumptions about the source of a terrorist outrage until all the facts are known? The Minister will recognise that the then Prime Minister—rather unwisely, perhaps appeared to attribute the terrorism to ETA. It later emerged that that was very unlikely, although we do not know for certain.

Does the Minister agree that there is a parallel with the remarks made by Richard Clarke, the senior counter-terrorism expert advising the United States Administration? In a statement to CBS on -60 Minutes", he said that he was specifically asked to try to find reasons to connect Iraq with Al'Qaeda. Would it not be better to conclude that we should concentrate on the fight, as the Minister implied, against Al'Qaeda and not be distracted by a political aspiration to make other people the centre of our charges?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, throughout the discussions in your Lordships' House on foreign policy issues, I have tried hard to deal with facts, not speculation. I am often asked to speculate, and I do my best to resist the temptation, no matter how attractive it may seem.

Of course I congratulate the police in Spain on the arrests that have been made, but I caution the noble Baroness—she was careful about what she said—that we should not assume guilt before people have gone through a legal process. It is none the less reassuring to know that the police have been active.

Was there too quick a condemnation of ETA? We must wait for the Spanish authorities to reach some conclusions about who was responsible. The Spanish authorities said that they had good reason, given recent intelligence warnings that they had received. I have no means of knowing the depth of those warnings.

The noble Baroness

referred to Richard Clarke. I say to her that we should also hear the other side of the question. We should hear what is said by Mr Rurnsfeld and by Mr Powell, when they too give evidence. The noble Baroness urges us to wait to see all sides of the question; I urge her to wait to see that side of the question too.

The Lord Bishop of Portsmouth

My Lords, I shall return to the question asked by the noble Lord, Lord Clinton-Davis. Does the Minister agree that the new Spanish Government's policy on the Iraq war is a more accurate mirror of traditional Spanish foreign policy than that of the previous government?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, I do not know that I am in a position to make such a judgment about Spanish foreign policy over the years. I would be reluctant to do so without considerably more information.

The incoming Prime Minister of Spain has made it clear that no formal decisions will be taken about the way in which Spain deals with the Iraq issue until he has come into office and had the opportunity to consult more widely. To all those who said that it was a fait accompli that Spanish troops would be withdrawn, I say that we should wait a moment and see what the new government decide to do when they are in office and have had the opportunity to take proper briefings. I also understand that the incoming government will be interested to see what the attitude is likely to be with regard to the United Nations.

Lord Howell of Guildford

My Lords, the Prime Minister goes to Spain tonight to meet Mr Zapatero—the new Spanish leader, although he is yet to form a government. If I may say so, he is a leader who is a little loose with his rhetoric. Will the noble Baroness encourage the Prime Minister to say to Mr Zapatero that he should recognise that if, as he says, Spain wants to continue fighting the war against terrorism, it will have to take not merely a local or even a European view of the battle but a global view? That means staying fully committed, with the global community, to dealing with crisis areas such as the Middle East. Will the Minister make sure that the message is taken to Spain that it should not stick to its traditional isolationism but should act as the responsible Spain that we admire and which is a major player in the world of security and peace that we now need?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, I venture to suggest that I need not give the Prime Minister of this country any such advice. I am sure that he is well equipped to give that advice to Mr Zapatero.

The noble Lord accused Mr Zapatero of being a little loose with his rhetoric—I think that those were his words in opposition. Sometimes, opposition parties are a little loose in their rhetoric. In government, there are real responsibilities, and Mr Zapatero has made it clear that he will consider those responsibilities carefully before he takes a decision.

Lord Lea of Crondall

My Lords, does the Minister agree that if, as the noble Lord, Lord Blaker, suggests, the change of government in Madrid leads to a move forward on the European constitution—Spain and Poland had some difficulty with the voting weights—many of us would welcome it?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, that might well be. As we have already had numerous exchanges about the foolishness of premature speculation, it would, perhaps, be as well for us to wait and see what Spain decides.