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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 448: debated on Tuesday 27 June 2006

Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs

The Secretary of State was asked—

Afghanistan

1. How much was spent by the British Embassy in Kabul on assisting the Afghan Government in 2005-06; and what it was spent on. (80210)

With permission, on behalf of Her Majesty’s Government I wish first to extend our condolences to the families and friends of the two members of Britain’s armed forces who, it was confirmed this morning, were killed in action in an incident in north Helmand province in Afghanistan. Our thoughts and sympathies are with those close to them at this very difficult time.

Combined Foreign and Commonwealth Office, Department for International Development, Ministry of Defence and Afghanistan drugs inter-departmental unit spending on Afghanistan for the financial year 2005-06 was more than £379 million. Those funds were used to support the British effort to assist the Government of Afghanistan across a number of areas including security, reconstruction, election support, counter-narcotics and institutional capacity building.

I join the tribute paid to our soldiers who were recently killed.

I want to focus on what is happening under the umbrella of security that our soldiers are working so hard to create. I have just returned from Afghanistan, and I was shocked to see how bad co-ordination is on the international development and reconstruction front. There is a conflict of interests between United Nations and European Union agencies, as well as the myriad of non-governmental organisations that answer to no one. A fundamental lack of leadership is leading to the pursuing of separate agendas and to the wasting of money as projects overlap. Does the Minister agree that the long-term success of Afghanistan hinges not only on the military capability that we are working so hard to achieve, but on what is happening under that security umbrella? We could be doing so much more with the money to which the Minister referred.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on going to Afghanistan. It is not an easy journey, as I have found on many occasions. I am sorry that he found such a lack of co-ordination there.

As for Britain’s effort, in conjunction with our close allies, the establishment of the provincial reconstruction teams and their recent extension to the south were part of a deliberate policy—beginning in the north, then extending to the west and now to the south—linking military forces in a determined effort to establish security and combining them with officials from a number of Departments, including the Department for International Development and the Foreign Office, to achieve that security and also progress towards democracy and effective administration. That has been successful in the north and west, and it will be successful in the south.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that the crop substitution programme that we are helping to fund in Helmand province is not going very well? Several hundred Afghan farmers who were persuaded to destroy their crops in 2004 are clutching cheques that have not been honoured. Understandably, they are rather angry about it, and we are bearing some of the brunt of their anger. Does my right hon. Friend agree that there is a danger that, if we are not careful, we will turn from liberators into oppressors? Has the time not come for a bit of blue skies thinking when it comes to dealing with the drug problem?

My hon. Friend is right to raise some of the difficulties with the anti-narcotics programme in south Afghanistan in particular. I am sure that he will be the first to acknowledge that there was a 21 per cent. reduction in opium cultivation last year, although there have been some difficulties in the south.

I accept that there is a disturbing relationship between those who are using some pretty appalling means of attacking British soldiers and British forces and those who are responsible for the distribution of drugs out of Afghanistan. It is that connection that we are determined to disrupt. It involves risks as, sadly, we have seen, but at the same time it is part of our effort to secure the long-term reconstruction of the country.

Are Foreign Office Ministers being kept informed of the increasingly unsatisfactory performance of President Karzai’s Government? Is that not cause for concern, especially given that successive Defence Ministers have told me, and the House, that a prime justification for our military intervention in southern Afghanistan was support for President Karzai and his Government?

I suspect that I was one of those Ministers, and that remains the position of the British Government.

Actually, there has been remarkable progress in Afghanistan since 2001. There have been presidential elections, parliamentary elections and the establishment of a Government who are now increasingly able to extend their authority throughout the country. That is a success to celebrate. It does not mean that difficulties do not occur from time to time, but it is something on which I think we should all congratulate President Karzai and his Government. They are increasingly in control of their own country, as should be the case.

At a time when the Taliban has launched its most serious offensive in the south in the past four years, will the British Government resist strenuously Donald Rumsfeld’s stated intention to reduce the number of American troops in Afghanistan, and to justify that on the ground of NATO’s presence in the south? Will the Government accept that the timing could not be worse for any reduction in American troops at this moment?

I am sure that the right hon. and learned Gentleman, with his comprehensive knowledge of international affairs, did not intend to suggest that the present attacks are somehow part of a comprehensive offensive by the Taliban. Certainly the Taliban is attacking the coalition forces and does so from time to time in conjunction with the range of criminals, gangs and terrorists that operate in that part of the world. But those organisations are not capable of defeating Britain’s forces in a conventional attack: they are simply part of an effort to destabilise the authority in that part of Afghanistan, mostly for criminal purposes. We must resist that by deploying the appropriate number of forces, which will be adjusted from time to time in both number and nationality. That is an inevitable part of that kind of multinational operation.

May I join the Minister in expressing great sorrow at the news of the deaths of two British soldiers? Is he satisfied with the current pace and co-ordination of reconstruction efforts in Afghanistan? They are obviously crucial if the insurgency is to be defeated and the narcotics trade reduced, yet my hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth, East (Mr. Ellwood) and others bring back reports of poor co-ordination and corruption, as well as deteriorating security. How would the Government react to the idea that some people have suggested of a UN-mandated special representative to oversee construction efforts and to work with the Afghan authorities to ensure that the work is not derailed by waste, corruption or duplication?

I have conceded that the reports are disturbing and we will look at them carefully. We can be proud of the record of success of the PRTs in the north and west, which has assisted the Government in Kabul to extend their authority. We always knew that the extension of PRTs into the south, and an inherently more unstable situation, was likely to be difficult, not least because—as I have indicated—of the conjunction of the Taliban and some of the various criminal gangs that are heavily engaged in the smuggling of opium. It is that connection that we need to disrupt. The right hon. Gentleman has made a sensible suggestion about the need for more effective co-ordination and we will consider that carefully.

Iran

I discuss Iran frequently with Dr. Rice. When we met in Vienna on 1 June, we agreed an imaginative set of proposals with our French, German, Russian and Chinese counterparts and Javier Solana. These offer Iran a way forward to resolve international concerns over its nuclear activities while enabling it, if it chooses, to develop a modern civil nuclear power programme. In making those proposals, we have again shown flexibility and commitment to a diplomatic solution.

Iran faces a clear choice. I hope that it will take the positive path being extended, and I look forward to an early response.

I notice that the Foreign Secretary did not touch on the question of external resistance to the Iranian regime. Some time ago, the Americans gave protected persons status to the Mujaheddin of Iran in Camp Ashraf. Later, the German courts reconfirmed the rights of political asylum for Iranian refugees, whose status had previously been suspended. Only 11 days ago, the French lifted all restrictions on the National Council of Resistance of Iran. Is it not now time to urge the Home Office to take positive steps to improve relations with the Iranian resistance movement, both for their sake and in our national interest?

I am confident that the Home Office keeps those issues under review. I will, of course, draw the hon. Gentleman’s observations to its attention. Our chief concern at present is with the present Government of Iran and the considerable desire of the international community to introduce successful negotiations with them to restore confidence in their intentions.

What assessment has the Foreign Secretary made of the level of support in Iran for nuclear power or nuclear weapons? What sympathy is given to public opinion in Iran, the articulation of which seems to provide the President with his mandate?

It is a little hard to analyse that from outside Iran. There appears to be a good measure of popular support for the Iranian Government’s assertions about their rights, which are understood. Obviously, there is a desire in Iran for access to civil nuclear power, and those of us dealing with the issue internationally believe very strongly that that is a clear possibility if the country abides by the proposals that we have set out. We hope that that will convince the Iranian Government that entering negotiations is in their interest as well the wider international community’s.

The rather uncomfortable implication of the Foreign Secretary’s words is that Iran faces a fundamental choice between peace and conflict. Will the right hon. Lady make it clear that the situation is not as stark as that, and that a policy of diplomatic engagement will continue to be followed by the UK and the powers referred to in her answer to the original question?

It would be understandable if the hon. Gentleman had not had an opportunity to study the exact words that we used in Vienna. The statement then was made on a united basis, by all participants. Our clear offer to Iran was that we were prepared to resume negotiations if it resumed the suspension of enrichment. However, if Iran does not feel able to do that, the action being considered in the Security Council is something that we would have to consider resuming.

I was part of the recent Inter-Parliamentary Union delegation to Iran. Everybody whom we met made it very clear that the MEK, to which the hon. Member for Northampton, South (Mr. Binley) referred, is widely regarded as a terrorist group that was funded by Iraq during the Iran-Iraq war. They said that, if we wanted a productive dialogue with Iran about its nuclear policy, the last thing that we, the Americans or any other EU member state should do is suggest that the terrorists in the MEK should be rehabilitated.

My hon. Friend makes a very interesting point, based on her recent experience in Iran. As I told the hon. Member for Northampton, South (Mr. Binley), the international community’s overriding priority is with the present Government of Iran. We believe that our proposals are very fair and very much to the advantage of Iran’s Government and people. We hope that the proposals will be considered speedily and fully.

Does the Foreign Secretary agree that the UN announcement of 6 June was remarkable for its unanimity, especially given that it included China and Russia? Has she had any indication, either from her colleagues in the US Administration or from Tehran, that the proposals are receiving positive approval? They are comprehensive and complex, so should we not give Iran time to respond? If it makes a concrete response, would not that be a positive sign that we could move away from confrontation? That would benefit the whole world, but especially the people of Iran.

The hon. Gentleman is right that the proposals are both comprehensive and complex, but that is why we are suggesting negotiation. Concern would arise if it appeared that we were entering into a period of negotiation about negotiations. I am sure that he will know that the indications made to us, publicly as well as privately, by the Iranian Government are that they see ambiguities in the proposals. We are keen to ensure that any ambiguities are resolved. We continue to press the Iranian Government for a further meeting between Javier Solana and colleagues, and Larijani. I hope that such a meeting will take place in the near future.

Darfur

The Darfur peace agreement was signed on 5 May. Implementation has been slow. Although there has been less fighting between the two parties to the agreement, the Sudanese Government and the main rebel faction, overall levels of violence in Darfur remain high. We are providing practical support on implementation to the African Union and the parties. We are encouraging those who have not yet signed the agreement to support it.

I thank the Minister for his answer. Given the scale of killings, rape, lootings and starvation in Darfur, does he anticipate that there will be prosecutions for war crimes, whether of members of the Khartoum Government, their allies or indeed the rebels? What assistance is being given to the chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court to gather evidence to bring such prosecutions?

Grave abuses of human rights in Darfur are still occurring. There must be no impunity for those who have committed such crimes and those responsible must be brought to justice. We strongly support the International Criminal Court, which is conducting a formal investigation into the situation in Darfur and we will keep the House abreast of developments in that regard.

The Minister will acknowledge that the position in Darfur remains deeply disturbing. The violence continues; the implementation of the welcome peace agreement has faltered and there are appalling reports of brutality and ethnic cleansing spilling over the Sudan-Chad border. Is it not deeply regrettable that the Sudanese Government have so far set their face against a United Nations force in Darfur, and what steps will the Government take to establish a clear and strong mandate for a United Nations peacekeeping mission to help the parties implement the peace agreement and provide security for so many internally displaced people in Darfur?

The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. The African Union force in Darfur needs to be replaced by a United Nations peacekeeping force, but the Sudanese Government have not yet agreed to that. Kofi Annan has said that he hopes to see a UN force in Darfur. The Security Council has taken a strong line on that and the African Union wants such a force, as do many leading African countries. We will continue to press the Government of Sudan to accept one and will call on others to do the same. This week, my noble Friend Lord Triesman is attending the African Union summit where we shall raise the issue again.

Extra-judicial Killings

We have regular discussions with the United States Government about security and human rights issues. We deplore all violence and call for a halt to killings, whether by abuse of state power, or by criminals and terrorists who use such violence for their own ends.

Following the terrible events of 11 September 2001, there were reports in the Washington Post and The Guardian, subsequently confirmed by the White House, that President Bush had overturned a 25-year ban on the CIA carrying out clandestine missions abroad expressly aimed at killing specified individuals. Can the Secretary of State tell the House how many such operations her Department is aware of, whether the UK has been complicit in any such operations and what UK policy is on so-called targeted killings?

We remain opposed to such killings. I cannot tell the hon. Gentleman of any such operations of which we are aware; nor, indeed, could I accept the suggestion that British Government personnel would have been involved in any such operations.

With regard to the recent reports of killings of innocent Iraqi civilians by American personnel, my understanding is that those cases may come before the fledgling Iraqi courts. That being so, will Her Majesty’s Government ensure that should the Iraqis need judicial assistance and/or investigative assistance, it will be available from the UK?

I am not entirely sure whether the hon. Gentleman’s supposition is correct, but I can certainly tell him that we are providing the kind of help and support that he suggests, in terms of police and investigative training, support to the judicial authorities and so on, and we shall continue to do so, because we recognise the importance of having good and sound justice in Iraq.

In the right hon. Lady’s discussions with her counterparts it would be helpful if she could impress on the American Government the importance of acting at all times within the rule of law. That applies in particular to cases of extraordinary rendition. What is wrong about extraordinary rendition is that people are being conveyed from one place to another and interrogated outside the ordinary protection afforded by the courts of the United States and other countries.

I can only say that, of course, these issues have been given much publicity, but the right hon. and learned Gentleman will know of the statements made by the United States Secretary of State insisting that America remains within international and US law.

China

5. What recent representations she has made to the authorities in China about the use of the death penalty and the use of the bodies of executed prisoners. (80215)

The Government regularly raise human rights issues with the Chinese Government. The death penalty and the use of organs from executed prisoners were discussed at the last round of the European Union-China human rights dialogue in May. The then Minister for Trade, my hon. Friend the Member for Dudley, South (Ian Pearson), also raised the issue of the use of organs from executed prisoners with the Chinese Government on 7 April this year.

There are no figures for the number of prisoners executed annually in China, but Amnesty International puts the figures at at least 3,400—that is more than the rest of the world combined. There is evidence that organs, skin and tissue from executed prisoners are being harvested for transplants and collagen. Will the Minister make it clear that using executed prisoners as an industry is both immoral and unacceptable, and will he insist that the highest standards are applied to China in that regard?

I will be going to China soon and I will be discussing some of these issues. I will do so in my usual forceful way—[Interruption.] I am a diplomat now, so it will be my diplomatic forceful way. The point has been well made on both sides of the House on this and other issues. The thing is to have regular dialogue and to offer support in terms of changing the whole nature of what my hon. Friend describes and encouraging China to make changes in its legal system in relation to the issues that he and others have raised. I give him and the House the assurance that I will regularly raise those issues, among others, while I am doing this job.

Is the Minister aware that there has been some suggestion that bodies and body parts of executed Chinese prisoners form at least part of some of the exhibitions that we see in London? Will he take up the suggestion that has been made in the press with his colleagues at the Department for Culture, Media and Sport and assure the House that there is no way that the personal effects or bodies of executed prisoners will be used for exhibitions in London or anywhere else in the United Kingdom?

I will be honest with the hon. Gentleman: that is the first I have heard of such a suggestion. It fills us all with horror. I will raise the issue and get back to him.

Given that the British Transplantation Society insists that the harvesting of organs of executed prisoners is taking place, but that, in written answers on 12 May, the House was told that the Government were not yet persuaded of the fact, will the right hon. Gentleman undertake to communicate with the British Transplantation Society, which contends that the weight of accumulated evidence is now such that the position is incontrovertible? The harvesting of organs is taking place. Denials by the Chinese Government are untrue and they must be held to account without delay.

As late as 10 April this year, the Chinese authorities again strenuously denied what the hon. Gentleman is saying. Again, I can only reassure the House that I am having wide-ranging discussions on the issue with the Chinese. Points have been meticulously made by Members, parliamentary groups and Select Committees, and by non-governmental organisations and organisations with an interest in China that operate outside the House. Before I go to China, I will meet the non-governmental organisations to talk through the issues that they would like me to raise as a priority. When I come back, I will report back to the NGOs. I gave a commitment in the Foreign Affairs Committee debate to report back to the Committee as well. I am happy, not about the issues, but to raise those issues systematically with our colleagues. It is important for the good relationship that we have with them to make progress on some of the issues that have been raised in the House.

Iraq

The Iraqi Government of national unity are now firmly in place and the business of government has begun in earnest. Prime Minister Maliki and his team are committed to working to a national unity agenda. They have announced a national reconciliation plan and set clear priorities—primarily security, electricity supply, economic reform and building democratic structures. The hon. Gentleman may know that the Prime Minister announced on 19 June the imminent transfer of security responsibility in Muthanna province, to be followed by other provinces. Iraq will continue to need our support and that of the international community as it works on those priorities.

I was fortunate to visit Iraq recently with the Defence Committee. The Secretary of State is right that it appears that two or perhaps even three of the provinces that are under British supervision may well soon be handed back to Iraqi control, but the fourth—Basra—will not. Although the Prime Minister’s reconciliation plan is welcome, does the Secretary of State agree that the biggest problem in Basra appears to be a governor whose only interest is self-interest?

We are anxious to ensure that the security plan that has been devised by the Prime Minister—he has already done a good deal to promote it—is followed through effectively and that there is a clear structure of control and command in the hands of the commander of the armed forces in the area. The Prime Minister is well aware of concerns about security in that area and is determined to address them.

Is not one of the best indications of the improving political situation in Iraq the fact that eight newly-elected Iraqi MPs are visiting the House of Commons today? They have met my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and you, Mr. Speaker. Clearly, we hope that the MPs will enjoy themselves during their week. They will be following individual Members to find out how we do things and see whether they can translate any of their experiences into their important work in Iraq.

My right hon. Friend is entirely right. I was grateful to her for giving me the opportunity earlier today to meet those new MPs, who, incidentally, are a very impressive bunch. I am also grateful for the work that she is doing to show them various parts of the country and aspects of our parliamentary experience. I hope that you will be pleased to know, Mr. Speaker, that I strongly urged them to learn from the many good things about our Parliament, but not necessarily to follow some of our examples of behaviour.

The Iraqi Prime Minister’s announcement on Sunday was indeed welcome. Yesterday, the White House confirmed that it was considering a steep reduction in the number of US troops in Iraq. To what extent have British Ministers been involved in those discussions? Does the fact that Italian and Japanese withdrawals are going ahead mean that we can finally expect a statement on a comprehensive strategy to prepare the way for the withdrawal of British forces?

I am always a little nervous when people leap from one important and worthwhile step forward to a whole group of assumptions that are set some time ahead. An unfortunate feature of the discussions is the fact that the media tend to harden up anything said—however tentatively—into some kind of detailed commitment. It is of course the case that the Prime Minister has announced the beginning of a process that is based on the circumstances on the ground and the reality in different areas. We all hope that progress can be made, but the hon. Gentleman will know that there is sometimes a better option of redeployment. In any event, the Iraqi Government will wish—we will want to work with them—to support the handover in al-Muthanna and any other province that is considered for some time. The important process offers considerable hope for the future, but no one should second-guess it at this stage.

When does the Foreign Secretary expect British and American troops to terminate their tour of duty in Iraq and actually leave?

When they and we believe that the job that they have gone there to do is done, or when and if the Iraqi Government ask them to leave.

It is well known that the reconciliation plan to which the Foreign Secretary referred arose from informal dialogue that took place over a long time with representatives of the Sunni insurgents. Representatives of the American Government, apparently including the ambassador, were involved in that dialogue. Were representatives of the British Government also involved in the dialogue?

With respect to the right hon. and learned Gentleman, he has moved on a little from discussions about changes in the provinces. I simply say that of course we are closely involved in all discussions that take place about how circumstances in Iraq can be improved.

The Foreign Secretary has touched on the proposed national reconciliation plan, as have other Members. She will be aware that one of the proposals is for a form of amnesty—it is an ambiguous proposal—for some of those who have been involved in the insurgency. Does she think that, at this stage, it is acceptable for a British Government to sign up to such an amnesty if it is with people whom the Government know have been responsible for the deaths of British military personnel in Iraq?

With respect to the hon. Gentleman, I was not talking about the national reconciliation plan; the hon. Member for North-East Milton Keynes (Mr. Lancaster) was. However, I will simply say that the Iraqi Prime Minister’s statement was, of course, very carefully worded. He spoke about wanting to draw people into the political process, but he also spoke about people who had not committed crimes. I think that, yet again, people are leaping forward—I do not recall that the word amnesty was used. Although there is clearly a wish to draw people who have been involved in the insurgency into the political process if that is possible and practical, the Iraqi Government are approaching this matter in a very careful way. They have chosen with care the words that they have used, so it would be a mistake for us to be any less cautious in our phraseology.

South Africa

7. When the Government became aware of the existence of the former South African regime’s Project Coast. (80217)

The then Conservative Government were aware of the existence of legitimate South African chemical and biological defence programmes from the 1980s. Initial reports indicating offensive chemical and biological weapons activities, later known as Project Coast, were not received until 1993, but they were inconclusive. There were also unsubstantiated claims of chemical weapon use by South African forces in Angola, Mozambique and Zimbabwe in the 1980s and 1990s. More detailed evidence of previous offensive activities was received in the years leading up to the truth and reconciliation commission hearings in 1998, when further details of the offensive activities emerged. In 1994, we understood that the South African Government had terminated offensive chemical and biological weapons activities.

Has the Minister ever had the feeling that officials have been less than candid with him? Can I draw to his attention that, following the submission of a series of parliamentary questions from me on this matter, there was convened in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office on 13 January a strategy handling meeting to deal with “Mackinlay’s questions”, which was attended by 13 officials from the FCO, the Ministry of Defence and the security and intelligence services? Why was that necessary to deal with my questions, if they are not hiding more information on this subject? Is it not a fact that unauthorised—[Interruption.]—The Minister may laugh, but this is a serious matter. There was greater involvement between Porton Down and the South Africans’ chemical and biological weapons regime than they now wish to disclose.

In eight years in Government, I think that I can say with some certainty that no one has pulled the wool over my eyes yet—but one never knows. That meeting was not to handle my hon. Friend, but to handle his questions. He raised 22 questions with specific concerns and allegations, and I am happy to try to answer them, in conjunction with other relevant Departments—although we have already answered 20 of the 22.

The meeting was held to discuss the draft answers to my hon. Friend’s parliamentary questions. Representatives of various Departments and agencies attended, including the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the MOD and the Health Protection Agency.

The issue raised is not current. The United Kingdom investigation took place in the late 1990s and the early 2000s. Officials from the relevant Departments have changed, and Departments want to ensure that we are working with the same information. The allegations made by my hon. Friend have also been made in various books and elsewhere, including on the internet. There is absolutely no evidence of the conspiracy that my hon. Friend suggests.

European Constitution

There is no consensus among member states on how to proceed with the constitutional treaty. The European Council agreed a twin-track approach based on delivering concrete results under the current treaties and on further consultations between member states. Decisions on how to continue the reform process will be taken by the end of 2008, but with no presumption about the outcome or end date of the process.

I am grateful to the Secretary of State for that response. Do the Government still support a European Union constitution?

The hon. Gentleman will be well aware that we were part of the negotiations that agreed those proposals, but he is equally well aware that the circumstances surrounding the constitutional treaty changed when the French and the Dutch had their referendums and the answer was no. The Government were part of the negotiations and we accepted the treaty, but at the moment there seems little likelihood of it going forward in its present form.

Sir Digby Jones, the retiring director general of the CBI, in his valedictory interviews to the media this week, has said both that he supports our membership of the European Union and that he is very strongly in favour of radical reform of its institutions and procedures because such reform is in Britain’s economic self-interest. Does my right hon. Friend agree that urgent reform is needed, and that those who oppose our membership of the EU and such reform are not acting in the best interests of this country?

I am afraid that I have not had the opportunity to study what Digby Jones said and the precise reforms that he was suggesting, so I am a little wary of appearing to endorse them. However, I wholeheartedly share my hon. Friend’s view that it is very much in our interests to make a success of our continuing membership of the European Union, with our EU partners, and that there may come a time when some changes will need to be made to help to ensure that continued success.

As the Foreign Secretary’s colleagues indicated earlier today that the Government are not in favour of exhuming corpses, would not the best thing to do with this one be to leave it under the concrete to which she referred?

Oh—right. That subject was a little bit of a mystery to me at the time when the answer was given, but it did sound particularly gruesome. The constitutional treaty remains in existence, but it is not being pursued at this time.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford (Mr. Kidney) pointed out earlier, it is in the UK’s interest to make sure that the European Union works efficiently and effectively, so may I urge my right hon. Friend to consider introducing, with the other member states, those elements of the treaty that would lead to more efficient and transparent work by the EU? Only those who are against our membership of the EU would be against such proposals.

As my hon. Friend may know, there is an agreement that we should continue with a greater degree of transparency in the European Union’s work, but the precise proposals put forward at the last European Council will of course be reviewed to see their practical effect. However, he is absolutely right to say that we need constructive and good ways of working with our EU partners. I am not quite sure what process my hon. Friend was urging on me, but discussions are indeed beginning on, and some consideration is being given to, whether ideas that were in the constitutional treaty that do not require a new treaty base—such as direct transmission of information to national Parliaments—are steps that could be considered. But equally, and as he knows, no such decisions have yet been taken.

Given that the Government had conceded that there should be a referendum if the constitution were implemented in this country, and given that elements of it are being brought forward—such as the proposal to remove the veto over police and home affairs—can the Foreign Secretary give a clear statement to the House on the circumstances in which she believes that a referendum would still be necessary if parts of the constitution were brought forward?

I repeat what I just said: there is no suggestion that we should try to bring forward something that would require a new treaty base. The hon. Gentleman will, I am sure, recall that a variety of measures were rolled into the constitutional treaty—if I may put it like that—some of which would not require a new treaty base, such as direct transmission of information to national Parliaments. However, although the ideas that he referred to concerning the police and justice system have been raised by various individuals and commentators, there are no proposals to that effect. [Interruption.] There are no proposals to that effect before us at the present time, and I do not intend to commit us to a referendum on proposals that have not even been put forward.

Nepal

The new Government of Nepal face major challenges in securing a fully functioning democracy and a permanent ceasefire, in which the Maoists abandon violence and rejoin the democratic mainstream. I met Nepal's Foreign Minister and Deputy Prime Minister in Geneva last week. I am encouraged by the bold steps that have already been taken towards peace and reconciliation, and said so in my speech to the opening high-level session of the first week of the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva on 20 June. The United Kingdom stands ready to assist in any appropriate way to bring about democratic and peaceful reform in Nepal.

I thank my right hon. Friend for that reply. After the riots and mass demonstrations, there is now a multi-party Government in Nepal, but there is no democracy and they will need help and support from our Government. What support are we giving to the political parties and other organisations so that Nepal can have a democratically elected Government, inclusive of ethnic minorities, Dalits and women?

I discussed three key matters with the Nepalese Government last week. The first was securing a continuation of the United Nations Human Rights Council interest in Nepal, and the Nepalese have agreed to that. The second was ensuring that we could get discussions going on United Nations involvement in decommissioning arms from the Maoists and keeping the peace process going—they have agreed to that, too. Thirdly, we discussed what my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Development is considering with other donors, namely, how best to respond to the new situation. We have been giving financial and technical support to the peace process through the global conflict prevention pool. It is too soon to make any formal commitments. In 2006-07, we gave only about £30 million through bilateral assistance, but we will have further talks with our colleagues in Nepal.

The Nepalese Minister was pleased with our discussions and I am pleased about their positive nature. What needs to happen now is the second stage of talks with the Maoists, for which the Nepalese are preparing, on how to progress out of conflict and on to the long road back to democracy.

In the light of China’s intervention in Tibet, what assurance does the Minister have that China is not looking with anxious eyes at events in Nepal, and what representations have we made to China that any intervention by the Chinese in Nepal would be totally unacceptable?

All the Governments in the region—the Governments of India, China and other countries—want progress in Nepal. It is in nobody’s interest that Nepal remains in an unstable state. During the general discussions in Geneva last week, the representatives of every country to whom I spoke all expressed a general acceptance of the need to move forward and to give support where possible. That is precisely what will happen. That is why the involvement of the United Nations is so important.

One of the factors driving the demand for political change in Nepal is the widespread existence in the country of casteism—discrimination based on work or descent. What recent representations has my right hon. Friend made to the Government of Nepal on the abolition of that pernicious and unacceptable form of discrimination?

I have not been involved in any detailed discussion of that subject, but it is an issue of human rights and their abuse that has to be dealt with, not only in Nepal but in other countries. It will probably form part of the work programme that we will agree over the next two meetings of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva. It is one of the matters about which serious reservations have been expressed not only here and in Nepal, but in other countries. I assure my hon. Friend that the matter is one that the Foreign Office raises from time to time and that we will be involved with the international community in efforts to deal with it.

Ever since the peace talks began, hundreds of women have been demonstrating outside Parliament because not a single woman is included in the draft constitution committee. Will my right hon. Friend use his best offices, in line with Security Council resolution 1325, to ensure that there is proper representation of women in the talks? Will he ask his officials in Kathmandu to meet with Lily Thapa, who leads a 14,000-strong organisation of widows, to see what assistance can be given to those women, who are traditionally shunned in Nepal and who are, after all, probably the most potent symbols of the conflict?

I will write to my hon. Friend and will take up the issue that she raised. Over the past 10 years, more than 14,000 lives have been lost in the conflict. It is to be hoped that the long-term success of the peace agreement will reduce lives lost to nil. We have made it clear to the Nepalese Government, in a proactive and positive way, that their engagement in the new UN Human Rights Council, in which they want to participate, should be effective. I received a clear indication from them that there is nothing that they will not discuss with us. I offer my hon. Friend a meeting at the Foreign Office before I next have discussions with the Nepalese Government so that we can go through these matters to ensure that we get proper representation.

European Constitution

I refer the hon. Gentleman to the answer that my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary gave a few moments ago.

The UK presidency helped to set Europe’s future direction at the Hampton Court summit. We have made it clear that an effective EU means focusing on the issues that matter to Europe’s citizens, such as creating jobs, tackling terrorism and protecting our environment. I therefore welcome the conclusions of the recent European Council, which state that Europe should now focus on the delivery of practical results and the implementation of specific projects.

I listened to the answers given by the Foreign Secretary and by the Minister. Do the Government not realise how unwanted and how detested the European constitution is, not only among British people but throughout Europe? When will the Government do the right thing and concentrate on delivering an open, competitive and transparent Europe that is fully accountable to the nation states?

That, of course, is precisely part of the Government’s objective. To do that, it is also necessary to have effective contacts, discussions and relations with other Governments in other countries, not least those on the centre right. Of course, the hon. Gentleman’s party boycotts such contacts and refuses to participate in important meetings that take place, for example, with the leadership of centre right Governments in both France and Germany.

My right hon. Friend [Interruption.] Mr. Deputy Speaker—[Interruption.] I am sorry, Mr. Speaker; I am out of practice. Is the best way to secure a good outcome for Britain out of the discussions on the constitution to engage positively with our partners in Europe? Will my right hon. Friend say what role political parties in the House could play to ensure that Britain’s voice is heard?

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend. She has made a serious point, and one that has been made to me repeatedly by Conservative Members of the European Parliament, namely, that Britain’s interests are diminished and that their party’s interests are diminished if the misguided view of the leader of the Conservative party that they should withdraw from the European People’s party is pursued.

Will the Minister for Europe within the Foreign and Commonwealth Office agree that it is important that any Government should be honest, open and honourable? Will the Minister therefore indicate why the current constitution is not dead, bearing in mind that if one country rejects it in a referendum, the particular treaty relating to the constitution is dead and buried? Will he admit that the constitution, as it stands, is dead and buried and that there should be no reflection, just an answer yes or no?

My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary has already dealt with that question, but I am happy to repeat the point that she made. The reality is that this constitution cannot come into force without the unanimous ratification of all member states. With two founding members of the EU—France and the Netherlands—having rejected the situation by way of referendums, it is clearly important that we take account of the views that they have set out.

My right hon. Friend will know that the fact remains that next year, when Romania and Bulgaria join the European Union, it will be a Union of 27 members governed by rules for the Six. Is it not right that we should pursue the reform agenda to make some serious structural reforms to the way in which the EU operates, and that we should also pursue the economic reform agenda? At the same time, if there are issues on which we can move forward with our EU partners that are outside the scope of the constitution, should we not pursue them given that that would be in the best interests of Britain and Europe?

Of course, there are still some issues that must be resolved before Romania and Bulgaria can join the European Union but, like my right hon. Friend, I anticipate that they will be determined, allowing those two countries to join an enlarged European Union. It is often overlooked by Opposition Members, but there has been a series of changes to the way in which the European Union makes decisions—most of them enthusiastically supported by Conservative Governments and Members of Parliament. The reality is that there has been an evolution in decision making to reflect the welcome enlargement of the European Union, and I am confident that that process will continue.

Afghanistan

We all live in hope.

Afghanistan has made significant political progress since 2001. Parliamentary and provincial elections were successfully held in September 2005, and Parliament went into session in December. Most Cabinet Ministers have been approved and the budget endorsed. Afghan Government influence is increasing throughout the country with assistance from the international security assistance force and the United Nations. As part of our efforts in southern Afghanistan, we are working to support Afghan-led reconstruction.

I thank the Minister for his answer. Given that the two soldiers who were tragically killed today were, according to the Secretary of State for Defence, taking part in Operation Enduring Freedom, is the Minister confident that our efforts to achieve reconstruction, opium eradication and the elimination of the Taliban are adequately co-ordinated? Is not the proposal made by my right hon. Friend the shadow Foreign Secretary worthy not just of consideration, but of urgent consideration?

The right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague) made a slightly different point about the need to co-ordinate the reconstruction and rebuilding effort, but I made it clear that it was worthy of consideration. The hon. Gentleman, however, is making a different argument about military co-ordination, and I am absolutely confident that there is effective co-ordination of the different kinds of military activity that take place in Afghanistan.

Does my right hon. Friend accept that there cannot be a stable political resolution in Afghanistan without our dealing effectively with the production of opium? What can he do to eliminate that vile trade?

I have made it clear that a determined effort is being made both to disrupt the activities of the criminal organisations that engage in the production and the smuggling of opium and to eliminate their sources of support. That work combines with an effort, primarily by officials from the Department for International Development, to offer alternative livelihoods and encourage the development of substitute crops. As my hon. Friend said, we accept that that should be central to our policy in Afghanistan, and we continue to pursue it vigorously.

Nuclear Proliferation

The proliferation of nuclear weapons is a serious threat to international peace and security wherever it may occur in the world. Last year, the United Kingdom, alongside our European Union partners, recognised the non-proliferation treaty as a unique and irreplaceable instrument for retaining and reinforcing international security. We agreed to work towards universal accession to the treaty, and we called on all states not party to it to make a commitment to non-proliferation and disarmament.

I thank the Minister for his answer. I am sure that he shares my concern about the prospective launch by North Korea of the Taepo-Dong II missile, which could carry a nuclear warhead as far as Alaska or Japan. Exactly a week ago, the US Secretary of State said that she would consult with allies about the situation. What suggestions has he made to her to resolve that potential crisis?

The international community, including the UK, has been proactive in speaking to North Korea and others to make sure that everyone is aware of the serious consequences if the North Koreans went ahead with that missile test launch. In our discussion upstairs the other day, in which the hon. Gentleman played a prominent part, we made it clear that the six-party talks represent the best mechanism for progress towards the denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula. That remains the case, and we still believe that the North Koreans should rejoin the six-party talks. The message to the North Koreans is, “Rejoin the six-party talks, because you gave a commitment to those talks. Fulfil your commitment.” Through those talks, we can start to denuclearise the region and, hopefully, put off any attempt whatsoever by the Koreans to launch a test missile.

Does my right hon. Friend share my concern that the negotiations last year on the non-proliferation treaty, to which he has just referred, did not have a very successful outcome? Is not a big question mark now placed over the future of the non-proliferation regime, due not just to North Korea, but to the fact that there is significant disagreement internationally about the way forward? Can he give us an undertaking that the British Government will do all that they can to reinforce, maintain and strengthen the non-proliferation treaty?

I give my hon. Friend that absolute assurance. Signing the treaty was the easy part—the second part is to get others to come forward to sign it and to deal with the nitty-gritty around the politics. I can give an absolute assurance that we will do exactly what my hon. Friend asks. No doubt from time to time his Committee will have me and other responsible Ministers before it to review progress.