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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 459: debated on Tuesday 1 May 2007

Foreign and Commonwealth Office

The Secretary of State was asked—

European Constitution

1. What recent discussions she has had with the German EU presidency on reviving the European Constitution. (134731)

I have had regular discussions with my German colleagues during their presidency about many issues, including EU institutional reform—so, too, has my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, who met Chancellor Merkel most recently on 24 April. At present, there remains no consensus among EU partners on this issue, but we will discuss it at the European Council in June.

Will the Foreign Secretary confirm that she has received a letter from the German presidency and Mrs. Merkel, suggesting how to revive the European constitution by using

“different terminology without changing the…substance”

and preserving part 1 of the constitution

“with the necessary presentational changes”?

Is not this a deceitful way to proceed? Why are these negotiations taking place in secret? Will the Foreign Secretary make an urgent statement to the House about the Government’s intentions?

There is nothing to make an urgent statement about at the moment. I do not recall the letter that the right hon. Gentleman referred to, unless he is referring to some kind of questionnaire that came round a little time ago—[Hon. Members: “Questionnaire?”] Yes. I presume that Conservative Members know what a questionnaire is: people ask us questions and we fill in the answers, so that they can get a picture of the general range of views—[Interruption.]

Thank you, Mr. Speaker.

As I was saying, that might be what the right hon. Gentleman was referring to. It is clear that the German Government would prefer to keep as much as possible of the constitutional treaty. As the presidency, however, the German Government will have to determine where the consensus lies among colleagues in the European Union, and do their best to give effect to that. As I have said, there is at present no such consensus.

The Foreign Secretary refers to the process of finding where consensus lies. In this House, we have found it extremely difficult to find out what the British Government’s position is, never mind determining where consensus lies. Will she at least acknowledge that one of the biggest difficulties for the British Government is that there is a huge division between the needs of the countries in the eurozone, which will require greater political integration from such a document, and the needs of those that are outside it?

I believe that we have been quite clear about this. The Minister for Europe has set out on a number of occasions the principles on which we base our approach to the issue. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and the Dutch Prime Minister recently made it clear that we would certainly be looking not for a constitutional treaty but for an amending treaty that did not contain the characteristics of a constitution, but which might tidy up the rules of the European Union to make it operate more effectively. With regard to whether there is a difference of approach for those countries that are members of the eurozone, I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Ms Stuart) takes a great interest in these matters, but, for my own part, I would be reluctant to say anything that encouraged the idea that there should be some kind of two-speed Europe.

Are not the mooted proposals for treaty change either so obviously in the interests of democracy and transparency, such as an increased role for national Parliaments, or so obviously in the national interest, such as reducing the numbers in the Commission while we keep a permanent seat, or reducing the current bias against us in the qualified majority voting system, that it is difficult to see how anyone could rationally want to oppose them? Furthermore, how could we possibly conceive of having a referendum on what are essentially procedural and administrative matters, or even on matters relating to personnel management and job description? If we are going to have a referendum on that kind of thing, surely we should simply put all the amendments in the Finance Bill this afternoon—[Interruption.]

Without agreeing with every syllable that the hon. Gentleman has uttered, I have to say that I find myself much in sympathy with his point of view. I would be unwise, however, to enter into what is clearly a degree of internecine warfare.

Following on from the interesting, predictable and common-sense view expressed by the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford (Mr. Davies), does my right hon. Friend agree that it is important in the public debate to draw the distinction between the management of the European Union—especially in the Commission—and the powers of its respective bodies? Would not we make a lot more progress towards reaching consensus in this House and in the Council of Ministers if that distinction were to become more clear-cut?

My hon. Friend makes an entirely sensible point. As the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford (Mr. Davies) has identified, it is hard to see how a sensible person could disagree to a number of the propositions, especially the notion of an enhanced role for national parliaments. Members on both sides of the House have long called for a proper degree of greater subsidiarity. At the moment, however, it appears that not everyone wishes to draw the kind of sensible distinction that my hon. Friend is making. I suspect that we may get closer to that as people get closer to having to try to draw conclusions.

I am sure that the Foreign Secretary will be aware that my hon. Friend the Member for Grantham and Stamford (Mr. Davies) is out of step with the overwhelming majority of the people of the United Kingdom. Does she accept that the people of the United Kingdom do not trust the European Union and will not accept any further handover of powers to it without a referendum? I expect the Government to honour their commitment to the people of this country.

I am slightly shocked to hear the hon. Gentleman say that the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford is out of step with opinion, even in his own party, let alone the country, since, as he pointed out, much of what he said was simple common sense. I certainly accept that many people would be concerned if they felt that massive transfers of powers to the European Union were taking place—

I have some sympathy with the hon. Gentleman’s concern, as I know the point of view that he has long expressed. I wonder, however, how he managed to contain himself during the passage of the Single European Act and the many steps taken by the Conservative party in government that did indeed hand over powers to the European Union.

Does the Foreign Secretary agree that what we need now is not the waving of letters by Angela Merkel, as the right hon. Member for Wells (Mr. Heathcoat-Amory) has done, but a sensible and practical discussion with our European colleagues? Given that the constitution has been defeated in the referendums so far, such a discussion will allow us to proceed with the reform agenda so that a Europe of 27 can be governed in an efficient and effective way.

My right hon. Friend is entirely right. He will recall, as will many Members of the House, that we are committed by existing treaties to, for example, reconsider the numbers in the European Commission now that Romania and Bulgaria have joined the European Union. People are bound to consider whether sensible improvements can be made to the way in which Europe works, of a kind that have been made on several occasions in the past without a referendum having been held.

It is obvious that two years in the deep freeze has done nothing to alter the flavour of this debate, in this place and elsewhere. Does the Foreign Secretary at least accept that we must have a proper public debate about the issues? Any significant changes, other than overdue institutional alterations, cannot be introduced by stealth. Will she publish the answers to the questionnaire that she has received? Will she set out clearly what parts of the existing constitutional treaty would have to be removed for the Government to believe that we had gone below the threshold at which a referendum would be required?

As the hon. Gentleman and the House will appreciate, I am not intending to do so, as I have pointed out already that the opinion of member states has moved little hitherto. I am certainly not going to conduct, in public, negotiations that have yet to commence seriously. We have made it clear that there should not be anything that has the characteristics of a constitution. There would be merit, however, in having an amending treaty, which could tidy up some of the ways in which the European Union works—[Interruption.] Well, for example, we must consider the issue of the number of members of the Commission. There is also merit in considering whether the practical working and efficiency of the European Union can be improved in the interests of this country. We certainly have not the slightest intention of consenting to decisions that would not be in the interests of this country.

If my memory is correct, it is 33 years since an incoming Labour Prime Minister received an electoral boost from announcing that there would be a referendum on the United Kingdom’s future in Europe. Does the Foreign Secretary believe that there is an historical parallel that might be beneficial to us? Would she urge such a course on the Chancellor, on my hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell), or on my right hon. Friend the Member for Oldham, West and Royton (Mr. Meacher)—whichever of them will lead our party in years to come?

My hon. Friend is entirely right in saying that that was the only time when we had such a referendum. A Labour Government did indeed invite the British people to make that basic decision—which was not done by the previous Government, in breach of every undertaking that had been given. Nor did the Conservative party in office ever hold a referendum on any of the changes made to the European Union. That includes the introduction of qualified majority voting in the Single European Act and its extension to 12 areas, and its extension to—I speak from memory—some 30 areas in the Maastricht treaty. The Conservative party did not believe in referendums then, and to be perfectly frank I do not believe that it really believes in them now.

I think that the Foreign Secretary acknowledged receipt of a questionnaire from the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, which set out 12 propositions on how to proceed with the EU constitution by making presentational changes such as replacing the full text of the charter of fundamental rights with a short cross-reference having the same legal value. Will the right hon. Lady now publish the Government’s response, following cross-party support for that step? Does she understand that people will view these cosmetic changes as spin and deception while the EU constitution is introduced through the back door? Will she now match our unequivocal pledge that we would give the British people a referendum on any treaty that transferred powers from Britain to the EU, whether it was called a constitution or not?

All I can say is that the British people would be very ill-advised to take the hon. Gentleman’s assurance any more seriously than they took the assurances that were given and broken in 1972.

No, I will not publish any response that we may make to the document that has been circulated, which I presume to be the document to which the hon. Gentleman referred. It was intended to give the German presidency an overall picture of the views of member states. The hon. Gentleman is leaping to a conclusion on what will be the outcome of the discussions in a way that is wholly unjustified by the facts.

Iraq

2. What her estimate is of the number of (a) people who have left Iraq since the invasion and (b) Iraqis who are internally displaced; and if she will make a statement. (134732)

I am sure that the House will join me in expressing condolences to the family of Rifleman Paul Donnachie of 2nd Battalion The Rifles, who was tragically killed in Iraq last Sunday. Rifleman Donnachie was killed by small arms fire during a routine patrol in Basra city while he and other members of his patrol were escorting a police training team.

United Nations agencies estimate that there are some 1.9 million Iraqis displaced internally, and up to 2 million refugees in neighbouring states. Many of those now in neighbouring states left Iraq before 2003, and there are no accurate figures on how many have joined them since then. However, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees estimates that currently 10,000 people are leaving their homes every week, many of them crossing into neighbouring countries.

Does the Minister agree that the almost 2 million refugees who have fled Iraq since the war are, to a large extent, members of the professional and business classes in Iraq—the very people who are required if Iraq is ever to enjoy proper civil reconstruction? Given that nearly 2 million have fled as refugees, that a further 2 million are internally displaced and that hundreds of thousands have been either killed or injured—including, sadly, further British soldiers—does the Minister still argue that the British Government’s policy has contributed to progress and stability in the region? Has not Iraq in fact been transformed from a rogue state under Saddam Hussein to a failed state, with appalling consequences for its own people and for the region as a whole?

The right hon. and learned Gentleman makes some very good points, but I remind him that, before the invasion, Iraq was run by a fascist dictator who tortured people readily and murdered hundreds of thousands of people, not just Kurds but fellow Arabs, and that many people had already left the country. This is not a comment on the right hon. and learned Gentleman or his question, but it seems to me that the silence that existed before the invasion of Iraq about the behaviour of Saddam Hussein is in stark contrast to the sudden interest and the protests about Iraq now.

It is two years since the Iraqi Government seized the assets of the Iraqi trade unions, three months since three raids were carried out on the offices of the trade unions by US troops and a month since the leader of the mechanics union in Iraq was assassinated after being tortured. Will the Minister agree to meet me and representatives of the trade unions in Iraq to try to find a way forward, because at the moment our policy towards the trade unions in Iraq is not working?

I disagree with my hon. Friend. Our policy towards trade unions has been very supportive because they are a key part of civil society and are building the new society in Iraq. We must ensure that the sectarians who are killing trade unionists and those who for their own reasons are opposing democratic trade unionism in Iraq, are opposed. They are opposed regularly by the British Government and by our diplomats in Iraq.

Does the Minister agree that there has been excellent progress socially, economically and politically in the other Iraq—Iraqi Kurdistan? Does he also agree that, in order to maintain that progress and to guarantee the stability of populations and the return of internally displaced persons, the Kirkuk referendum must go forward later this year, without any interference, either internal or external, or delay?

The British Government certainly have no intention of interfering in any way in the referendum on the future of Kirkuk. I know that the hon. Gentleman is very interested in the Kurdish-administered part of Iraq and that he wants the referendum to go ahead. So do the British Government, but we want to ensure that that referendum is carried out properly and in a clear fashion, and that it is as inclusive as possible. As he knows, many allegations have been made about gerrymandering and the rest of it, so the referendum has to be seen to be as clean as possible. This is potentially a volatile area and we have already seen some jihadists and insurrectionists moving out of Baghdad to Kirkuk and murdering people with their suicide bombers. It is an important issue. We will do all that we can to ensure that the referendum is properly conducted and benefits the people of the Kurdish north and the people of Iraq in general.

Does my hon. Friend agree that the information that has been sought by the right hon. and learned Member for Kensington and Chelsea (Sir Malcolm Rifkind) is exactly the propaganda information that the insurgents in Iraq are seeking? Will my hon. Friend confirm that those killed or displaced in Iraq are not being killed or displaced by allied forces?

That is an important point. Sometimes it seems as if we are killing those tens of thousands of people. They are being killed by sectarians: there are Sunni on Shi’a murders, and Shi’a on Sunni murders. Sometimes the murders are committed in Basra by criminal gangs, who are making millions out of smuggling petroleum products. My hon. Friend is right to highlight that. The British armed forces in Iraq are trying their best to make that country a much more stable and prosperous place than it is now. I believe that they will succeed when the Iraqis themselves have the will to take on that fight to provide the security that their people need. That is why we are helping, in very difficult circumstances, to train Iraqi policemen and soldiers.

Following on from what has been said about the tens of thousands of people who are now leaving Iraq and the internal conflict there, what prospect does the Minister think there is of the Iraqi Government hanging together in the near future given the enormous strains that are now on both Sunni and Shi’a members of that Government? What pressure can the British Government bring to bear on the Iraqi Government to take this matter forward? If it is not taken forward, there will be a complete collapse of political credibility in Iraq.

The hon. Gentleman is right: this is about political credibility and national reconciliation, and about how that Government can become more inclusive—how they can represent not only Shi’as but Sunnis, and also Assyrian Christians, Kurds and everyone else who makes up that huge nation. I believe that that can be done. In the constitutional review that is under way in Iraq there will have to be imaginative thinking about, perhaps, forms of devolution and about trying to understand how it might be possible to reconcile the different pressures that there are in Iraq at present. That can be done, and in recent weeks Prime Minister Maliki has expressed a desire to do just that—to make the Iraqi Government a more inclusive Government who reach out to encompass all parts of society.

Gulf War

3. What discussions she has had with the UN on the request for part of the money paid to people detained in Iraq during the first Gulf War to be repaid. (134733)

My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary has not had any discussions with the United Nations about the request to recover overpayments to claimants identified in the 2006 audit of the United Nations Compensation Commission. Her Majesty’s Government, along with other permanent members of the governing council of the UNCC, agreed to the adoption of a “best efforts” approach to recover overpayments. We are taking such an approach in contacting concerned claimants. We are aware, however, that in some cases it will be difficult for claimants to repay the money, and we will handle them with due concern for the claimants’ welfare.

But does my hon. Friend understand that these were payments, modest ones, made 17 years ago to those detained against their will in the first Gulf war? My constituent, Chris Shaw, received a payment of £9,000 and is now being asked to repay £1,300 within 30 days. Is that not shameful, and ought it not to be written off?

I certainly think that, in the case of my hon. Friend’s constituent, that is an unreasonable demand. However, I am sure that he knows that there have been UNCC-approved compensation awards totalling $52 billion to 1.5 million claimants worldwide, and so far $21.8 billion has been paid out. That amounts to 5 per cent. of Iraqi oil revenues. The figures for Britain are that 5,000 United Kingdom claimants have received awards totalling $428 million. Those are large sums, but I take on board my hon. Friend’s point and, as I said, where there are difficulties we must look carefully at the demands and where possible ask that the most difficult payments be written off.

UK-Islamic Relations

The United Kingdom has strong relations with Muslim-majority countries and communities, through our governmental, people-to-people, cultural, educational, trade and other links. Based on shared values and interests, we are working together for a safer, more just and more prosperous world for all, addressing the common challenges that face us all, such as development, terrorism and climate change.

Turkey is crucial to our relations with the Islamic world. What specific steps is the Foreign Secretary taking to follow up on the statement of the Prime Minister earlier today on the political crisis in Turkey, and would intervention by the Turkish army in the selection of a new President of that country result in the UK dropping its support for Turkish European Union membership?

Irrespective of our approach to Turkish EU membership, everyone must recognise that it is highly undesirable for armed forces to interfere in a democratic process. We would certainly discourage that, and we have done so very firmly with the Turkish military.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that another very important Islamic country is Bangladesh? In the light of recent developments such as the warrant for the arrest of one of the major political leaders and the house arrest of another, the putting off of elections and the increasing dominance of the military, will she look again at Britain’s support for the interim Government?

We do of course keep a careful eye on the position in Bangladesh and recognise the concerns that my hon. Friend identifies, and I hope that she will recognise that there was great anxiety about the position in Bangladesh before the caretaker Government were appointed. Throughout the state of emergency and in our engagement with that Government, we have emphasised the need to balance concerns about stability and security with respect for individuals’ rights and democratic processes. We have urged them to put in place the circumstances and conditions that will lead to well run, free and fair elections, to recognise that concern exists about the timeline identified for those elections, and to recognise that there is a great deal of work to do before they can be carried out in a way that could meet suitable standards.

May I return to the question of Turkey, which is our most important ally in the Islamic world, and ask the Foreign Secretary, given that the nominee for the presidency of Turkey is her opposite number—the Turkish Foreign Minister, Mr. Gul—whether she has congratulated him on his nomination or counselled him otherwise?

I would never venture to counsel even as good a friend as Abdullah Gul as to how he should judge his political career. This is of course a matter for the people and the democracy of Turkey, and our chief hope and concern is that it should be democratically and peacefully resolved.

Is it not interesting that on Sunday hundreds of thousands of people demonstrated in Turkey in defence of the republic and of freedom, and against the nightmare of a religious-run state? Should we not congratulate all those who demonstrated and all their supporters on the fact that Turkish freedom and democracy will not be undermined?

My hon. Friend makes a very powerful point. As I said to the hon. Member for North Dorset (Mr. Walter), it is of course right and proper that people make their views known, and in peaceful ways that contribute to the democratic outcome that we all hope to see.

Events since the last Foreign Office questions have underlined that our most difficult relationship in the Islamic world is with Iran. Should we not do everything we can to make it clear that Iran can have a normal relationship with the western world if it suspends nuclear enrichment and some other activities, but that if it does not the United Kingdom will ask other EU countries to join the United States in taking progressively more serious economic and financial action against Iran—on access to the banking system, export credits and investment in oil and gas fields—so that the maximum peaceful pressure can be applied against nuclear proliferation, before it is too late?

I agree with every word that the right hon. Gentleman has just uttered. He is right to say that it is very important not only that we maintain pressure on Iran to realise that there is a price to be paid for continuing on her present route, but that we do so in concert with our partners. He may be aware that at the last meeting of the General Affairs Council it was agreed that the European Union will indeed fully implement, and go slightly further than is demanded by, the previous UN sanctions resolution. We shall continue to urge our colleagues to maintain that firmness.

Given that approach by the European Union, is the Foreign Secretary happy with the recent agreement by the Austrian energy firm OMV to develop Iran’s Pars gas field? Is not the view of the US State Department, which said,

“perhaps this is not the most appropriate time to be making or committing to making large investments in the Iranian oil and gas sector”,

one that should be shared throughout the European Union?

I understand the concern that the right hon. Gentleman raises. Although this is of course a matter for the Government of Austria, we do have some concerns about whether we are all trying to make the right kind of decisions, in the context of the overall background to which he refers. As I say, it is a matter for the Austrian Government, but there will no doubt be others who share the concern that he—and, indeed, the United States Government—have expressed.

There are only three or four fully functioning democracies in the 44 states of the Islamic world. Why should that be the case?

That is a very interesting question—to which, I fear, I do not feel inclined to try to give a full answer in the middle of Question Time.

High Commission (New Delhi)

5. If she will make a statement on the future accommodation and offices of the UK high commission in New Delhi. (134735)

The FCO’s estate in New Delhi provides efficient office and residential accommodation for our staff and those of other Government Departments. We do, of course, keep our estate strategy in New Delhi, as elsewhere, under constant review.

Given the ties of history that bind our two nations and the economic and political significance of India to this country and the wider world in the 21st century, does the Minister agree that it is desirable that the British high commissioner to New Delhi should continue to reside at 2 Rajaji Marg as he does at present? If it is impossible to negotiate a commercial deal with the Indian Government to enable him to do so, will the Minister give me a categoric assurance that the new residence will be of sufficient prestige to demonstrate to the Indians and the wider world how seriously we take that relationship?

I very much hope that our high commissioner stays there, if only for the architectural value of that beautiful building, which also has a beautiful garden. In 2006, 7,500 guests were entertained at the residence, including the hon. Gentleman. I do not know what wine he enjoyed, but I know that the wine is as good as the architecture.

Notwithstanding property wrangles, the Minister will be anxious to reassure the House that the services rendered by our post there continue apace, not least the consular services, especially in the light of the continuation in custody of my constituent, Panjab Singh, who has been held since Christmas eve by the authorities in the Punjab, without proper trial. It is strongly suspected that he has been mistreated. I know that the consular services are working hard, but will the Minister assure me that every effort will be made to assist my constituent, as happens in every other case of such difficulties in the sub-continent?

I can certainly give my hon. Friend that assurance. India is an extremely important country for the UK and we will do everything we can to continue with the excellent consular services that are provided. It is a complex country and, as my hon. Friend knows, there is considerable devolution to the states that make up India, which has, on occasion, resulted in great difficulties in some consular cases, including the one he raises.

Climate Security

6. What assessment she has made of the outcomes of the recent UN Security Council debate on energy, security and climate; and if she will make a statement. (134736)

The UN Security Council debate was a landmark event. The participation of 55 countries was an all-time record for a thematic debate. The vast majority of those who participated recognised climate security as an issue of immediate international concern. That should add momentum to the UN negotiations to galvanise collective action.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that much of the debate about climate change so far has been understandably couched in terms of the humanitarian consequences of failure to address it? However, the security implications of failure to deal with the humanitarian issue are profound and important. Can she make an assessment of how far the international community has appreciated that and taken it into account in developing policies to combat climate change?

My hon. Friend is right. It would be fair to say that we have been in on the early stages of recognition by the international community of the security implications of that challenge. As he may know—and, by coincidence, on the very day of the debate in the Security Council—a group of retired American generals and admirals published their own assessment of the security issue, describing climate change as

“a threat multiplier for instability in some of the most volatile regions of the world.”

They also identified it as a security risk to the United States, as it is to the whole world.

Is it not the case that the countries that will be most affected by the first changes in climate will be the poorest, such as Bangladesh, where large parts of the country will disappear? What assessment has my right hon. Friend made of the possibility of some 100 million refugees pouring out of some of the poorest countries and the security implications not only for the surrounding countries, but the regions in which they sit?

My hon. Friend is entirely right, and the country that he uses as an example—Bangladesh—is an area where substantial movement of people is causing security difficulties. However, I advise him and the whole House that a range of different threats have much the same effect. For example, there is great concern about the implications that difficulties with the flow of the River Nile would have, both in Egypt and all along its course, and about the pressures caused by the possible migration of millions of people. My hon. Friend is therefore right to identify such challenges. It is very important that the countries of the world work together to adapt to the changes that are already inevitable and to head off those that are not, as they might be even more damaging.

Middle East

7. What recent discussions she has had with her counterparts in those countries with an interest in the middle east peace process. (134737)

I am in regular contact with my EU, US, Israeli, Palestinian and Arab counterparts, as well as with other international partners, to discuss ways to move the peace process forward. I most recently discussed that with my EU counterparts at the General Affairs and External Relations Council on 23 April.

On this 10-year milestone of the Government’s election, what does the Foreign Secretary believe has been the most successful contribution that Britain has made to achieving lasting peace in the middle east, and what has been the least successful?

I am not sure that it is very fruitful to assess Britain’s contribution in that way. Over the past 10 years, all my predecessors in this post, and my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, have made a most determined effort to do everything possible to move the middle east peace process forward and to identify the potential of the road map. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister displayed the same determination in respect of the Northern Ireland peace process. At present, there is an opportunity to move the road map process forward, with regular meetings taking place between President Abbas and Prime Minister Olmert. That opportunity could slip away, but many people from all parts of the world are determined to try to work together to get a good result.

Now that an independent judicial inquiry has exposed the reckless culpability of Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert—his popularity rating is now 2 per cent.—in bringing about an invasion of Lebanon that killed 1,200 Lebanese and 160 Israelis without achieving any of its objectives, what action is being taken by my right hon. Friend and her road map and other partners to require the Israeli Government to comply with the UN Security Council resolutions that that Government have violated consistently?

My right hon. Friend is referring to the interim report of the Winograd committee, which is, of course, a matter for the Israeli Government. Of course I recognise that a series of international resolutions have made various calls on different participants in the middle east. The Government are determined to do everything we can to support the peace process and move it forward, as in the end that could provide the answers to many of the questions that my right hon. Friend has raised.

Will the Foreign Secretary utterly condemn those who have been holding the BBC correspondent Alan Johnston for the past 50 days? Will she join me in sending a message of sympathy to his family, colleagues and friends at this very difficult time? She will know that the whole House will support her in any effort that she makes to secure his release, but can she give us any additional information this afternoon—for example, about who might be holding Mr. Johnston? What discussions has our high commissioner in Jerusalem had with President Abbas about this matter?

First, I am sure that the whole House will want to express its sympathy and concern for Alan Johnston and his family. He has been most cruelly treated, despite his long-standing friendship with, and support for, the people of Palestine. We are certainly doing all we can to work with his employers, the BBC, and with his family and other interested parties to try to be effective in obtaining his release.

There is little I can say to the hon. Gentleman about the situation. There are people who, it is thought, are likely to be holding Mr. Johnston, although they deny it. Every effort is being made at every level. My hon. Friend the Minister for the Middle East raised the matter when he chaired the Security Council recently, and the hon. Gentleman may know that the Prime Minister of the Government of national unity, Prime Minister Haniya, said only yesterday that he and his colleagues are also working quietly, but actively, to try to release Alan Johnston. Everyone is doing everything they can and we will continue to do so. I know that the hon. Gentleman understands that sometimes such things are better conducted more in private than in public.

One of the continuing obstacles to the middle east peace process is the presence of illegal settlements in the occupied territories. Notwithstanding the limited withdrawals from Gaza not long ago, the evidence is that the rate of increase of settlements on the west bank is growing; in fact, some settlers removed from Gaza are taking on new settlements in the west bank. What are the Government doing to increase pressure on Israel to stop the growth of illegal settlements in the occupied territories, which is now clearly undermining the peace process?

I am not aware of evidence that suggests that the pace of settlement expansion has increased, but we absolutely share my hon. Friend’s view in opposing any extension of settlements. We believe that they should be halted and that any construction barrier beyond the green line should also be halted. Both are contrary to international law and run the risk, whatever anyone’s intention, of creating so-called “facts on the ground”, which could impede the peace process. That, too, is something we deplore, as we have made very plain and will continue to do so.

Iraq

8. What her Department’s involvement was in the production of the dossier on Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction in September 2002; and if she will make a statement. (134738)

Matters relating to the dossier on Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction have been examined in great detail by the inquiry led by Lord Hutton, Lord Butler’s “Review of Intelligence on Weapons of Mass Destruction” and the Intelligence and Security Committee’s report “Iraqi WMD—Intelligence and Assessments”. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office co-operated fully with those inquiries and FCO officials gave evidence to them.

In answer to my written questions, the Foreign Secretary has again refused either to publish the draft dossier, written by John Williams, a press officer in her Department, on 9 September 2002, or to explain why those papers were not made available to the Hutton inquiry. The reason cited for the refusal is national security, but how can the Minister justify that cloak of secrecy when the paper was a draft document intended for publication, and when previous and subsequent drafts have been made available? Or is the real reason because the Williams draft was the first to mention the 45-minute claim and was the basis for John Scarlett’s draft the following day?

Lord Hutton had access to all documents he wished to see. [Interruption.] Both John Scarlett and John Williams—[Interruption.]

Order. Mr. Wishart, you are out of order. In no circumstances should you keep shouting at a Minister.

That is right—Ministers like me get sensitive about it.

Both John Scarlett and John Williams referred to the draft dossier in their evidence sessions. There is, therefore, no question of its existence being hidden from the inquiry.

When Colin Powell gave evidence to the United Nations Security Council was he fully aware of all the hesitations and qualifications in the intelligence community behind the dossier, which only subsequently became apparent?

I do not want to tread on the Minister’s sensitivities but he should recall that of the four inquiries two were by Committees that were cheerleaders for the Iraq war and the other two dealt only with certain parts of the evidence. We have not had a full inquiry. That dossier was a disgrace. It was presented as evidence to the House on which a decision was taken to take this country to join in Bush’s war in Iraq. If the evidence in the document was true, I do not believe—

Thank you for that, Mr. Speaker, as I did not hear a question either and I would certainly not recognise the two Committees as being “cheerleaders” for any war. They were filled with very distinguished Members of this House and the other place, so I think that my hon. Friend does them a great disservice.

European Constitution

10. By what criteria she will reach a view on whether a referendum should be held on any new EU constitutional treaty. (134741)

There is at present no consensus among EU partners on the way forward regarding the constitutional treaty or, indeed, any new treaty. Those issues will be discussed at the European Council in June. The Government’s approach to the discussions was set out in my written ministerial statement of 5 December 2006. As my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister said on 16 April this year, we should return to the idea of a conventional amending treaty that makes a European Union of 27 work more efficiently and focuses on its citizens’ priorities. However, as we have made consistently clear, if the constitutional treaty comes back in its present form, the Government would want to hold a referendum.

Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that it is not up to this Parliament, still less Ministers, to transfer any further powers from Britain to the European Union without the express agreement of the British people given in a referendum.

I will surprise the hon. Gentleman because I looked for some help and advice on this issue from the Opposition Front Bench. I received some useful advice from the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague), who voted against holding a referendum on the Maastricht treaty on 21 April 1993—as, incidentally, did the right hon. Member for Wells (Mr. Heathcoat-Amory), who asked a question earlier. That is significant because the Maastricht treaty established the European Union, as we now call it. It made significant amendments to the European treaties and, in that light, clearly affected the relationship between Westminster and Brussels, which is what the shadow Minister for Europe has been talking about. It introduced a common foreign and security policy, a European security and defence policy, a new competence for the EU in respect of co-operation in the field of justice and home affairs, qualified—[Interruption.]

On 20 March in response to my question, the Minister said that the Government’s policy had not changed and that if the constitutional treaty returned,

there would be a referendum”—[Official Report, 20 March 2007; Vol. 458, c. 679.]

Yet on 20 April, the Prime Minister, when asked by Le Monde whether the modified treaty would be put to a referendum, said: “No. That is clear.” The Government’s position has changed, so who is correct—the Minister or the Prime Minister?

The Government have been quite consistent on this issue. We made it clear that, because of the constitutional nature of the constitutional treaty, it would require a referendum. Again, however, the hon. Gentleman should check with his own Front Benchers precisely what the Government’s policy should be. We have been asking them to set out their position, but unfortunately, the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks—[Interruption.]

The right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks has changed his view quite dramatically. I suspect that he changed it 10 years ago—indeed, on 1 May 1997, when he went from being a Cabinet Minister into opposition.

Will my right hon. Friend ensure that there will be no EU constitution without a referendum in this country? The public out there are absolutely fed up with the creeping transfer of powers to Europe. We need a referendum: will my right hon. Friend give us that guarantee today?

I have already given the House an assurance that if the constitutional treaty returns in its present form, the Government would seek to hold a referendum.

Will my right hon. Friend resist the siren calls from both sides of the House for this constitutional referendum? May I say how pleased I am that there will not be one? If we are to join together in Europe to tackle the challenges of migration, terrorism, immigration, threats to public health and climate change, we need to work together incrementally to do so. I ask my right hon. Friend not to take any lessons from Conservative Members, whose sole promise to pull out their people from the European People’s party has been delayed while they find someone to sit with.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. She has pointed out the total inconsistency of the position adopted by the Opposition. That position varies according to whether they win or do not win elections. There is no principle involved, as far as the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks is concerned; it is simply tactical opportunism.

The Minister may be aware that a large group of Labour and Conservative MPs, together with professors and academics, have formed the national campaign for a referendum, of which I am chairman. What words of encouragement will he give to that important body?

I must apologise to the hon. Gentleman: I must have missed the press release announcing the significant elevation that he has achieved. I take this opportunity of congratulating him on his appointment and I look forward to the long discussions that he will have with the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks on referendums.

The Minister has said that if the constitution comes back, there will be a referendum. The leaked letter that Chancellor Merkel sent to the Prime Minister and other heads of European countries makes it quite clear that the only differences that are going to be proposed are purely presentational ones. Therefore, will we have a referendum if the Merkel proposals go forward?

The hon. Gentleman refers to it as a letter, as I think did the right hon. Member for Wells earlier. I have seen a series of questions that the German presidency has raised. Those questions are not necessarily answered in the document. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman logically recognises that, being no more than questions, they are not necessarily indicative of anyone position’s at present.

European Constitution

12. What progress has been made in discussions on a new EU constitutional treaty; and if she will make a statement. (134743)

I have had regular discussions with my German colleagues during their presidency—so too has my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary and my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, who met Chancellor Merkel most recently on 24 April. Our discussions cover many issues, including the way forward on institutional reform. As my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary has made clear, there is no consensus at present among EU partners on this issue. This will obviously be discussed further at the European Council in June.

Can the Minister confirm that, if there is a European Union constitutional treaty, its provisions can be implemented in the United Kingdom only through an Act of Parliament and, irrespective of the outcome of any referendum, that Act of Parliament remains paramount?

The constitutional position is slightly different from that, but I will not argue the detail. Where any international treaty requires changes in domestic law, in order to be implemented such a treaty has to be ratified by parliamentary process.

UK-Iran Relations

As I am sure that the hon. Gentleman knows, there are a number of sanctions already in place—mainly those that cover the Iranian banking system and the movement of capital through this country. Those are the most important ones in my opinion.

My hon. Friend the Minister is no doubt fully aware of the part that Iran can play in our struggle in Afghanistan. It is rather ironic that we need the good offices of that country at the present time.

Iran is playing a role in Iraq. There is no question about it. I would not say that it was an entirely benign one. We know that there are guns and ammunition that have already been taken into Afghanistan, in a curious relationship between the Iranian Government—or at least some part of the Iranian Government—and perhaps al-Qaeda groupings in Afghanistan. I agree with my hon. Friend that it is important that we keep a close eye on that situation to ensure that it does not develop any further.

Somalia

14. What assessment she has made of the prospects for a resumption of peace talks in Somalia; and if she will make a statement. (134746)

I bought a new suit for the occasion, but nearly missed out on making a contribution.

We welcome the lull in fighting in Mogadishu in the last few days and hope that a lasting ceasefire can now prevail. We want a political process pursued that can deliver lasting peace and stability and allow for much-needed humanitarian relief. The Government’s annual development and humanitarian programmes provide £21 million for Somalia, and the UK has provided a further £3.5 million of humanitarian assistance following the fighting in recent months. We expect Somalia’s transitional federal Government to show leadership and commitment in reaching out to all parts of Somali society and to intensify their dialogue with the clans in Mogadishu.

I thank the Minister for that response. Does he agree that considerable concern is growing about the role of the Ethiopian troops, and particularly about some of their activities in and around Mogadishu, and does he agree that we ought to do all that we can to support a political, rather than a military, solution?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. That is why we have engaged in the way that we have done. In particular, we need a settlement that ensures that the Ethiopians leave the country, but in such a way that there is common agreement by all concerned not to return to the situation of the past few months, and the damage that it has done to the individual citizens of that country.