Read the transcript:
Mr Speaker, before turning to discussions at last week’s European Council. I am sure the whole House will want to join me in sending our deepest condolences to the Japanese people following the earthquake and tsunami that stuck their country over the past few days.
We are all deeply shocked and saddened by the devastation that we have seen and by the loss of life - the full scale of which will take many days to comprehend. As yet there are no confirmed British fatalities, but we have severe concerns about a number of British nationals.
I spoke with our Ambassador in Japan, who was one of the first to get to the affected region and his team are working around the clock to help British nationals. Over the weekend we have had three rapid deployment teams of staff operating in the worst affected areas, and they will be augmented by a further team arriving in Tokyo this afternoon and advancing to the North East of the country tomorrow.
They are working together to help British nationals caught up in the tragedy and to help find out information for the families who are so worried about them. We have set up a helpline for these families. It has taken several thousand calls and we are following up each lead.
We have, of course, offered humanitarian assistance to the Japanese government and we stand ready to assist in any way that we can. At their request, a 63-strong UK Search and Rescue team - which includes medical personnel - has already been deployed and arrived in Japan yesterday morning.
The whole House will have been concerned at the worrying situation at the nuclear power station at Fukushima. The Japanese government has said that the emergency cooling system at three reactors at the plant have failed because of the Tsunami. And there have been explosions due to the release of Hydrogen gas at both the Fukushima 1 and Fukushima 3 reactors.
This is clearly a fast moving and rapidly changing picture, and the Japanese Government are doing everything they can to manage the situation they are facing. We are in close touch with the Japanese authorities and have offered our nuclear expertise to help manage this very serious incident.
Mr Speaker, the Energy Secretary has asked Chief Nuclear Inspector, Dr. Mike Weightman, for a thorough report on the implications of the situation in Japan. The UK does not have reactors of the design of those in Fukushima and nor does it plan any. Nor are we in a seismically sensitive zone. But if there are lessons to learn, then we will learn them.
Mr Speaker, COBR has met several times over the weekend, and again this morning, and we will keep our response to this tragedy and our support for Japan and the wider Pacific region under close and continuous review.
The devastation we are witnessing in Japan is of truly colossal proportions. Those lucky enough to survive will simply not recognise the place where their homes once stood. It will seem as if they have had much of their lives washed away.
Mr Speaker, we will do all we can to aid and assist those affected and our thoughts are with the Japanese people.
Middle East and Libya
Mr Speaker, let me turn to the substance of Friday’s special European Council. The reason for having this Council was two-fold:
First, to make sure Europe seizes this moment of opportunity to support the Arab people in North Africa and across the Middle East in realising their aspirations for a more open and democratic form of government. And second to address the difficult situation in Libya.
The Council addressed both these issues and I will be frank with the House about where progress has been made and what more needs to be done.
First, supporting the building blocks of democracy in the Arab world. Mr Speaker, the aim should be a big bold comprehensive offer to those countries in our southern neighbourhood that want to move towards becoming open societies. There was some real success. The Council Declaration talks of a “new partnership” founded on “broader market access and political co-operation” and with an approach that gears support to those countries where progress is being made in meeting their citizens aspirations.
This could be so much better than the failed approach of the past. But now Europe needs to follow through on its declaration with a real and credible offer to these countries based on three of the key freedoms - movement of goods, services and investment.
Turning to Libya, Mr Speaker it was right for the EU to meet and discuss how we can work together to deal with this crisis. There has been considerable international co-operation on evacuation. We’ve now got over 600 British nationals out and assisted over 30 other nationalities. Around 220 British nationals remain in Libya, the overwhelming majority of whom are long-term residents and many are, of course, dual nationals or spouses of Libyan nationals. Many of this group have told us they wish to remain in Libya. But a number of other British nationals are now contacting us for the first time. We will stay in contact with these people and continue to assist those who wish to leave.
On further isolating the Qadhafi regime, the Council made good progress. Mr Speaker, two weeks ago we put in place a tough UN Security Council resolution and agreed in record time asset freezes, travel bans and an arms embargo, as well as referral to the International Criminal Court. At this Council, all European leaders were united, categorical and crystal clear that Qadhafi must “relinquish power immediately.”
We widened the restrictive measures against individuals close to Qadhafi. And strengthened the financial sanctions on the regime, adding the Libyan Central Bank and the Libyan Investment Authority to the EU asset-freezing list. In doing so the UK has increased the total of frozen Libyan assets in this country from £2 billion to £12 billion.
We now need to make clear the next measures in terms of putting further pressure on the regime and planning for what other steps may be necessary.
Two weeks ago I told this House I believed contingency planning should be done, including plans for a military no fly zone. NATO is carrying out that work. And in recent days first, the Gulf Co-operation Council, and now the Arab League, have called for a no fly zone. In terms of the European Council, of course, the EU is not a military alliance. And there is always a hesitation discussing military options.
But the Council expressed its “deep concern about attacks against civilians, including from the air”, and agreed that Member States will “examine all necessary options” for protecting the civilian population, provided there is a demonstrable need, a clear legal basis and support from the region.
That was some progress, especially compared with where Europe was in advance of Friday’s Council. But we need to continue to win the argument for a strong response in the international community - Europe included.
Along with others in the United Nations Security Council, the UK is following up urgently the lead given by the Arab League by drafting a Resolution which sets out the next measures that need to be taken, including the option of a no-fly zone. Included in the Resolution in our view should be much tougher measures against mercenaries and the states from which they come, as well as others who are attempting to breach the sanctions and assist Qadhafi.
Every day Qadhafi is brutalising his own people. Time is of the essence. There should be no let-up in the pressure we put on this regime.
Mr Speaker, I am clear where British national interest lies. It is in our interests to see the growth of open societies and the building blocks of democracy in North Africa and the Middle East. And when it comes to Libya we should be clear about what is happening.
We have seen the uprising of a people against a brutal dictator, and it will send a dreadful signal if their legitimate aspirations are crushed, not least to others striving for democracy across the region. To those who say it is nothing to do with us, I would simply respond: Do we want a situation where a failed pariah state festers on Europe’s southern border, potentially threatening our security, pushing people across the Mediterranean and creating a more dangerous and uncertain world for Britain and for all our allies as well as for the people of Libya?
My answer is clear: this is not in Britain’s interests. And that is why Britain will remain at the forefront of Europe in leading the response to this crisis.
And I commend this Statement to the House.