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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 461: debated on Tuesday 5 June 2007

Foreign and Commonwealth Office

The Secretary of State was asked—

EU Constitution

EU institutional reform will be discussed at the European Council later this month. We expect the presidency to issue a report on the way forward before, but quite possibly only just before, the Council meets. We have made clear to partners our belief that the EU should return to the model of an amending treaty that makes the EU more effective and better able to deliver benefits to EU citizens.

The Foreign Secretary will know that a group of countries within the EU—most notably the Czech Republic, the Netherlands and, to a certain extent, Poland—still have deep reservations about any revived form of the EU constitution.

Of course. Those countries look to Great Britain for strong leadership. I very much hope that the Foreign Secretary can give them some assurance from the Chamber today.

I can certainly assure the hon. Gentleman and any of our allies who are looking for a lead that it remains very strongly our view that the only way forward that makes sense for the EU is indeed the pursuit of an amending treaty that does not have the characteristics of a constitution. It is not quite clear to me that all of the member states that he lists have exactly the same concerns as we do, but it is certainly true that they have concerns and that we, of course, have ours.

Will the Foreign Secretary help the House by letting us know whether it is the Government’s view that criminal justice should continue to be administered on an intergovernmental basis with national vetoes, and whether the Government will seek a referendum of the British people if there should be any change to that position?

We are some considerable distance from knowing what will be on the table with regard to the treaty and, therefore, whether acceptance of anything proposed would be likely to trigger a referendum in the UK. But I can certainly assure the hon. Gentleman and the House that there is strong understanding on the part of the Government of the concerns that there would be about the area that he highlights in particular. That is certainly something at which we will look carefully to see where Britain’s national interest lies.

Do not the bellicose language coming out of Russia on the one hand and the failed foreign policies of the USA on the other underline the need for politicians across Europe to stop vacillating on the question of European reforms and to make sure we get the amending treaty agreed as soon as possible, so that we can act in a more unified way to meet the world challenges that we face?

My hon. Friend makes an interesting point. It would be helpful if we got the right kind of amending treaty, but the EU is not paralysed. It is continuing to work; useful decisions on, for example, climate change continue to be made. But it would be good to get a good agreement.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that we need to persevere with certain parts of the original treaty, such as capping the numbers in the European Parliament and ending the rotating six-month presidency? This would contribute to a reduction in the bureaucracy of the EU, and by enhancing the decision-making powers of the Council, we could get on with discussing the real issues that Europe faces, such as climate change and security.

My hon. Friend is right that there are proposals that could improve the effective and efficient working of the EU. It is to such proposals that we are primarily directing our attention.

Will the Secretary of State indicate the extent to which there have been discussions between herself, the present Chancellor of the Exchequer—soon to be Prime Minister—and the Prime Minister himself on the basis upon which any treaty might be signed? I asked the Prime Minister about this issue the other day and got no answer. Perhaps the Foreign Secretary will enlighten us.

Does the Foreign Secretary agree that modest change is required to European treaties? We now have an EU of 27 states and we need changes to make it function effectively.

My hon. Friend is right; there are practical proposals of the kind to which he and my hon. Friend the Member for Wakefield (Mary Creagh) referred that could make the working of an EU of 27 more effective and efficient. Those are the kinds of changes that we hope our colleagues will wish to seek.

No doubt the constitution and EU matters were discussed this morning at the joint ministerial committee between UK Government Ministers, the new SNP Scottish Minister for Europe, Linda Fabiani, and other devolved Ministers. Could the Secretary of State update the House on the matters that were discussed and inform us of which issues proposed by the devolved Administrations she will take forward?

No, I cannot do that as it is not the practice to discuss the issues aired and the debates that take place at such meetings. However, the mechanism that exists for ensuring that everyone is aware of the different concerns of different players, including the devolved Administrations, has worked well in the past, and I trust that it will continue to do so in the future.

Is it not right that we should be at the forefront of the European Union reform agenda? I wish the Foreign Secretary well in the discussions that are to take place. Will she reject the scaremongering of Opposition Members who only seek to damage our position in Europe, and does she agree that it is right that in a Europe of 27 we should reform the institutions to make sure that they are better placed, in order that we can protect British interests?

I agree with my right hon. Friend. The European Union is an important fact of today’s political life, and the United Kingdom is a major and important player within it. The more effectively the EU works together, the more that is in our national interest as well as our international interests.

I hope that the right hon. Lady accepts that there are no Conservative Members who are not greatly in favour of the EU reform agenda. Does she not think that it would have been helpful to her and the Prime Minister if we had had a proper set-aside debate to discuss fully the future of the EU and the position that they should take in Brussels?

I am not familiar with the term “set-aside debate”, but I take on board the hon. Gentleman’s point that there is a need for discussion. However, there has been quite a lot of discussion, and there will be more in future. There are a number of Select Committee hearings and there will be a debate in this House before the Council meets. There is an issue that has not been fully appreciated in the House; that is not a criticism, as I understand why it is so. Colleagues have, perhaps, not fully appreciated that the debate on this matter has not moved on in recent weeks. We talk about frozen conflicts, but this has almost been a frozen debate; there has been very little change.

I very much hope that there will be an amending treaty. I urge the Foreign Secretary to look at an element of the way in which the EU currently works which is utter folly: the caravanserai every six weeks from Brussels to Strasbourg. That is a complete waste of time and money. Does she agree that it is the consequence of a political fix of many years ago which is now long outdated?

I have a good deal of sympathy with that point. However, as I am sure my hon. Friend knows, this issue has been examined and reconsidered repeatedly under different Governments without a different decision having been reached.

I remind the Secretary of State that the previous draft treaty met considerable resistance in fishing communities because of its insistence that the conservation of marine biological resources should be a sole competence of the EU. Does she accept that that was an inappropriate extension of EU powers, and will she give us some undertaking to resist its inclusion if we are to have another EU draft?

To that I simply say, with some caution, that I am well aware that there are many issues about which various people have reservations and which they would like the opportunity to re-examine, and I hope that the hon. Gentleman will forgive me for stating that I hope that something of that level of detail will not be in the amending treaty.

Is it not part of the EU modus operandi that major changes in political power and democratic accountability are slid through piece by piece, with each piece portrayed as being of relative insignificance? Is there not a risk that the growing gap between what political leaders do and what electorates want will lead to a shrivelling of support for the whole political process and the European project?

To a certain extent, I take on board my hon. Friend’s point. However, I view with some irony the cheers of encouragement he receives from those on the Opposition Benches, since no Government in our history did more to slide through incrementally—bit by bit—changes in our relationship with the European Union than that represented by the Opposition party.

Does the Foreign Secretary recognise that there is huge dissatisfaction across this House at the Government’s persistent refusal to give their views and to express their goals for the forthcoming EU summit? The Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee wrote to her saying that

“the Committee regards the refusal of the FCO to provide a Minister to give oral evidence during this crucial phase of the discussions on the future of Europe as a failure of accountability to Parliament.”

The Chairman of the Home Affairs Committee, on the vital question of the veto on criminal law, said

“It has not been easy for us to discover what the Government’s position is…We don’t know what it is.”

Is that because Ministers do not want Parliament to know what their position is, or because they are in a state of paralysis and do not themselves know what their position is?

I of course understand the concern and dissatisfaction of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee. It is unfortunate that it was not possible for us to reach the kind of agreement that it wished to see according to the timing that it had in mind. However, the Minister for Europe, my right hon. Friend the Member for Ashfield (Mr. Hoon), has just confirmed to me that he was able to go, and would have been prepared to go, before the Committee this week, last week or the week before. In May, when the Select Committee had hoped to take evidence from both of us, it was again not possible to find a mutually agreed date, so there is no unwillingness. As it happens, my right hon. Friend will be giving evidence, and I will be giving evidence to the Scrutiny Committee and to the Foreign Affairs Committee, and there will be a debate in this House, so we are very willing to make our views known. However, I repeat to the right hon. Gentleman what I said a moment or two ago: there are perfectly understandable anxieties that the Government’s position has in some way changed without the House being informed, but the fact is that it has not changed.

If the Government’s position has not changed, the Foreign Secretary will recall that they were elected on a manifesto that promised a referendum on the EU constitution. Does she also recall that the Prime Minister said, when he finally agreed to hold a referendum,

“what you can’t do is have a situation where you get a rejection of the treaty and then you just bring it back with a few amendments and say we will have another go”?

So should the Foreign Secretary not honour the Government’s pledge by guaranteeing now that if the new treaty transfers competencies from Britain to the EU by incorporating parts of the rejected EU constitution, the British people will have their say in the referendum that they were promised?

First, there is no suggestion of bringing back the constitutional treaty in its previous form. Secondly, the right hon. Gentleman talks about transferring competencies, but I am sure that he will recall that there is much in the constitutional treaty, which was drawn together from a whole range of sources, that is already in the existing treaties. The notion that there will be some huge transfer of competencies is not well founded. We will assess the position once the negotiations have taken place, but is certainly not the intention of this Government that a treaty that has the characteristics of a constitution is one that we would wish to see agreed.

Iran

We remain very concerned about Iran’s nuclear programme. The International Atomic Energy Agency director general, Dr. Mohamed el-Baradei, reported on 23 May that Iran had not complied with Security Council resolution 1747. The Security Council is, as envisaged in that resolution, considering further measures to persuade Iran to suspend its proliferation-sensitive activities and to return to negotiations.

The Secretary of State will of course be aware that the extent of Iran’s nuclear programme became apparent largely as a result of a series of disclosures made by an associate of the People’s Mujaheddin of Iran. Given the obvious value and importance of that information not only to Britain but to the rest of the world, could the Secretary of State please explain why that organisation continues to be branded a terrorist organisation and to be proscribed not only by the EU, but by the British Government under the provisions of the Terrorism Act 2006?

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman is aware that it is not the habit of any Government to discuss details of concern about terrorist issues and organisations. However, it is the view of this Government and of the European Union that this is a proscribed organisation and should remain one; that has been explored on many occasions and has been reaffirmed on an equal number of occasions.

A couple of weeks ago, a delegation of members of the Iranian Parliament, together with Iranian trade unionists, visited this House and met with Opposition and Government Members to discuss issues of mutual interest between Iran and Britain. There were clear disagreements, but there was also a strong feeling that the dialogue was valuable and useful to both sides. I urge the Foreign Secretary, while maintaining the primacy of the need for Iran to comply with international treaties, nevertheless to pursue every avenue to maintain a dialogue at all levels between our two countries.

As my hon. Friend may know, I met the Iranian Foreign Minister at the meeting in Sharm el Sheikh a couple of weeks ago. We do maintain a dialogue with the Government of Iran, not least because we think that it is important to encourage them to recognise the benefits to Iran, as well as to the rest of the international community, of a greater understanding and appreciation on the part of that Government of the importance of pursuing peaceful negotiations on their perceived nuclear programme and on several other issues. We do maintain that dialogue, but it occurs within some very firm parameters.

Given that the EU is Iran’s largest single trade partner, can the Foreign Secretary tell us whether she has urged her EU colleagues to agree to restrict EU export credit guarantees to Iran?

The issue has been touched on, but not yet discussed in depth. It is, of course, very much one of the issues that may well be pursued when we come again—as we are likely to do in the near future—to consider whether there is scope for further sanctions against Iran, given that it appears not to be willing to comply with the existing resolutions.

Does the Foreign Secretary agree that it is essential that we ensure that Iran remains a member of the non-proliferation treaty system, that dialogue be continued with it, and that we do our best to persuade all neighbouring countries in the region, including Israel, also to sign the non-proliferation treaty so as to try to bring about the dream of a nuclear-free region?

I can say something that I do not say very often, which is that I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. I hope that that is not a source of dismay to him. We do believe that Iran should remain in the non-proliferation treaty. Indeed, we would like to see Iran observing its provisions, which is even more important than staying within it. We have consistently urged on the Government of Israel that they should sign the non-proliferation treaty and it is very much our policy that we would like to see a nuclear weapons-free zone in the middle east.

Iran’s continued flouting of its nuclear obligations is worrying and unacceptable, and the international community must be clear and united in delivering that message. Does the Foreign Secretary agree that the diplomatic initiatives by Condoleezza Rice have been consistent with those of Europe and others in efforts to make Iran comply with United Nations resolutions? If so, does the Foreign Secretary agree that Vice-President Cheney’s recent speech, in which he threatened the use of naval power against Iran, delivered as it was while he stood on the deck of one of the two American aircraft carriers just off the coast of Iran, undermined that diplomatic approach and was counter-productive?

It is not for me to answer questions about the policy of the Government of the United States. I will say only therefore that it is indeed the case that the United States has been a major partner in the discussions and negotiations with Iran about its use of nuclear power and that that has been a useful and constructive role.

Given the growing concern about Iran’s nuclear capacity, how does my right hon. Friend regard the statement made last Sunday by President Ahmedinejad that the Lebanese war had pressed the button for Israel’s destruction?

I am afraid that I view those remarks in much the same spirit as I view many of President Ahmedinejad’s comments, which is that they are not helpful to the wider international community or to the reputation of Iran.

The Foreign Secretary will know that Iran’s ballistic missile programme is intertwined with its nuclear programme. What estimates have the Government made of when Iran will be capable of deploying missiles outside the region?

Assessments of that kind continue to be made. We are concerned about Iran’s intentions. While pursuit of civil nuclear power is perfectly acceptable, we are anxious to ensure that nuclear weapons are not something that Iran pursues. That is a major concern on its own. The question of a delivery mechanism is, if I may say so, at present somewhat secondary, and long may it remain so.

While I encourage my right hon. Friend’s and the British Government’s commitment to dialogue, what is her response to the comments by Mohamed el-Baradei, the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, that Iran should be permitted limited uranium enrichment under strict supervision? Are not those comments in the current circumstances hardly helpful and possibly reckless in the extreme?

My right hon. Friend highlights some of the observations made recently by Dr. el-Baradei, who has also indicated his view that perhaps Iran has already succeeded in mastering the technology that is required for the enrichment of uranium. That is not a view that we share; nor indeed am I aware of any evidence that sustains that view. We remain strongly of the view that it is in the interests of everyone who wishes to see sustained peace in the middle east for Iran not to continue to pursue a programme that calls the security of that peace into question. I certainly urge anyone, no matter what their role or responsibilities, to avoid saying things that might give a different impression.

The Foreign Secretary has rightly expressed her frustration at failing to persuade the Iranians to comply with the international community and the feeling across the House that they are playing for time. Will she come back to the question raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Bury St. Edmunds (Mr. Ruffley)? Does she agree that the EU should use its leverage as Iran’s largest trading partner to increase the pressure on Iran by saying that it is prepared to limit the access of Iranian banks to the European financial system, progressively to restrict new export credit guarantees to Iran, and to begin targeted action to restrict European investment in Iranian oil and gas fields? There is a feeling on both sides of the House that some of our European partners are dragging their feet on this.

I am not sure that that is entirely justified, although I understand the anxiety. Of course we are keeping all the options and possibilities under review. The hon. Gentleman will recall that when we reached agreement in Vienna almost a year ago, part of the decision was that if we were driven to sanctions, which no one wished to have to implement, they would be incrementally increased if the necessity arose, with the possibility of reversal because the offer of negotiations remained on the table. That remains the position. So any and all of the measures that the hon. Gentleman raises are not outside the bounds of consideration. We are merely taking things step by step to see what is most effective at that moment in time.

UK/Brazil Economic and Trade Committee

4. If she will make a statement on the progress of the joint economic and trade committee with Brazil. (140312)

There has been a good deal of progress under the UK-Brazil joint economic and trade committee. It is an excellent initiative for developing our strategic economic relationship with Brazil. Good relationships have been established at both Government and private sector level. The Confederation of British Industry is delivering a comprehensive programme aimed at improving the business environment with Brazil. A full programme of activities is under way for the UK-Brazil year of science.

I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer. I welcome the establishment of the Jetco because Brazil is one of the world’s four really big emerging economies and probably the one on which we have focused less than the other three. I am advised that there are real opportunities for British companies in Brazil’s high-quality expanding aerospace industry and in its programme of developing energy infrastructure and tourism infrastructure. What encouragement and support is my right hon. Friend giving to British companies so that they do not leave those opportunities to the French, Germans and Italians?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend both for his question and for his interest. UK Trade and Investment has transferred more than £5 million of its resources from existing mature markets to focus on emerging markets, including Brazil. As a result, six additional offices have been added to UKTI’s network in Brazil. So undoubtedly there is a determination at government level to assist British companies in increasing their exports to Brazil. I am delighted to be able to say that exports from the United Kingdom to Brazil increased by some 9.5 per cent. in 2006 over 2005.

Brazil is developing a market in biofuels, although some people refer to it as deforestation diesel. May we have an assurance that, although we are keen to develop such markets with Brazil, it will not be at the expense of environmental concerns?

Sustainability is an important principle in the way in which major British companies operate in countries such as Brazil, and it is certainly something they will take into account.

Brazil is an enormously important strategic partner for the UK in the battle against climate change, as my hon. Friend the Member for Scarborough and Whitby (Mr. Goodwill) pointed out. May I press the Minister to be more specific about how we should measure the success of the Jetco initiative and when we should expect it to bear fruit?

I have indicated one measure—the level of economic activity by British companies in Brazil, which has increased over the past 12 months. We want to put in place arrangements that will allow continuing exports while equally ensuring that there is a two-way exchange of ideas, information, science, knowledge and understanding, which is something the Jetco initiative will foster.

Iraq

The Iraqi Government should recognise the importance of free and democratic trade unions. Currently, the finances and membership of Iraq’s trade unions continue to be restricted by decree 8750 passed by Iraq’s Interim Government in 2005, and law 150 passed by Saddam Hussein’s Government in 1987. We have encouraged the Iraqi Government to ensure that free and comprehensive elections can take place among members of the General Federation of Iraqi Workers, so that legislation can be introduced to allow properly constituted trade unions to operate freely in the country.

I thank the Minister for that reply. Does he agree that the Iraqi trade union movement seeks to unite working people of whatever religion, and even no religion? That requires the support of democrats everywhere to build a democratic, civil society, whatever their view about the invasion might have been.

Yes, I agree entirely. Through the Department for International Development, we are providing funding for the International Centre for Trade Union Rights and have co-funded union training with Unison. The aim is to provide core training on the role of trade unions in the workplace and society, negotiating collective agreements, union organisation and, importantly, women’s involvement in trade unions.

Are the Government helping the Iraqi Government to meet one of the main concerns of Iraqi trade unions? Oil revenue that should be channelled into raising living standards is actually being siphoned off in large volumes to rich Gulf states as reparation for the first—not the second—Gulf war, including payments to companies that claim missed business opportunities at that time.

The hon. Gentleman will know that measures were taken and decisions reached at the United Nations on the payment of reparations and on other forms of payment to account for the loss of property and profits and damage during the first Gulf war period and the invasion of Kuwait. I am sure he agrees that we should see an end to those payments, which have been going on for a long time and are draining revenue that should be used to build Iraq. The Government are doing everything they can to persuade Iraq’s neighbours in the Gulf to forgo those reparations so that reconstruction can take place.

Given that I have spent a considerable amount of time talking to Iraqi trade unions on my several visits to Iraq, I agree that it is important that laws that militate against them be repealed as quickly as possible. I would like to press our diplomats in Baghdad to make more efforts to pressurise the Iraqi Government to repeal those laws. Secondly, does my hon. Friend agree that as the Iraqi trade unions are mainly non-sectarian they have an important role to play in the future reconciliation programme in Iraq, and that we should not underestimate the power of their membership to achieve what others, seemingly, are failing to achieve?

Yes, I agree with my right hon. Friend’s assessment of the role of trade unions in Iraq and their character. I pay tribute to the work that she has done over very many years in defence of free Iraqi trade unions. She will know, as well as I do, that trade unions were sometimes used under Saddam Hussein as intelligence-gathering operations for his secret police and for the repression that they exercised. I certainly agree that we—our diplomats and everyone else—must do everything possible to try to convince the Iraqi Government that it is a priority that they should take seriously.

Uganda

We are encouraged that the Juba peace talks between the Government of Uganda and the Lord’s Resistance Army resumed on 1 June and that the cessation of hostilities agreement has been extended. We believe that the Juba talks offer the best chance for many years to achieve peace. We call on all parties to remain focused on finding a peaceful resolution to this long-running conflict and to implement their commitments.

I thank my right hon. Friend for her response. However, she will be aware that there have been criticisms by the International Crisis Group, among others, about the level of representation at those talks and the structure of those talks. Does she agree that it is important for all members of the international community, including the United Kingdom, to support the talks process fully and to commit themselves, along with the Governments of Sudan and Uganda, to a much fuller redevelopment and reconciliation programme in northern Uganda, so that we can secure the lasting peace that everyone wants?

I take the point that my hon. Friend makes, and I can certainly assure her that we keep those matters under consideration. We have, of course, already provided £250,000 to a UN fund that was set up to support the talks process. We are supporting the work of local civil society groups, as well as the deployment of police to the northern districts. We are active, and officials from our high commission and other representatives from the international community remain active in trying to work with and to help to support the talks. We will, of course, continue to keep under review the scale and nature of the representation and will make changes if they seem to be required.

Does the Secretary of State not accept that a major stumbling block to peace is the fact that the leaders of the Lord’s Resistance Army are still indicted by the International Criminal Court? Does she not agree that it would be far better if they were dealt with by Acholi justice, rather than by pursuing them through the ICC?

No, I am afraid that I do not accept that for two reasons. First, of course I understand the concern that the hon. Gentleman raises and that it could be a factor, but I simply say that, if it were not for the existence of those ICC warrants, I doubt whether members of the Lord’s Resistance Army would consider coming to those talks anyway. I accept that it is a matter of concern, but there are pros and cons, so I do not take the view that those warrants are inevitably damaging. Secondly, whether or not they remain in place is, of course, not a matter for us, but for the ICC itself.

China

7. What recent discussions she has had with her Chinese counterpart on China’s human rights record; and if she will make a statement. (140315)

We raise human rights regularly with the Chinese Government, including at the highest levels. My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary raised a number of human rights concerns during her visit to China in May, when she again met Chinese Premier Wen and the newly appointed Foreign Minister Yang. The Minister for Trade also raised human rights concerns during his introductory meeting with the new Chinese ambassador at the end of May.

I thank the Minister for his reply and, indeed, for the Government’s willingness to raise human rights issues during their visit to China, but do they now plan to send any specific signals on the unacceptability of continuing infringements on the grounds of personal belief—whether for Christian house churches or the Falun Gong movement—and continuing violations of the rights of Tibetans, such as the shootings at Nangpa La in September last year, or the arrest and imprisonment for 12 years of Sonam Gyalpo for possession of a video of the Dalai Lama? Could the frequency of the talks that the Minister mentioned be increased? For instance, the UK-China human rights dialogue could be increased to three or four times a year, instead of the present two sessions.

I can certainly give the hon. Gentleman the assurance that we push very hard on human rights, and my right hon. Friend the Minister for Trade, who has responsibility for human rights, has certainly never been backward in pressing the Chinese on this crucial issue. At the moment, we are fighting very hard to hold the number of meetings with China on human rights to which they agreed, and it will be very difficult to get them to agree to a larger number of meetings, very important though that aim might be.

Does the Minister agree that China’s record on the death penalty is quite atrocious? What is worse still is its policy of using without permission the vital body organs of condemned prisoners. When was that specific point raised by Ministers with their Chinese counterparts?

Those points were certainly raised by my right hon. Friend the human rights Minister during his meeting in May. The hon. Gentleman is quite right to highlight those two important issues. Any civilised Government will be shocked that somewhere between 6,000 and 10,000 people a year are executed in China. We have been working hard to persuade the Chinese to review that situation. I am sure that he will agree that it is good news and a real step forward that the high court in China has once again gained the right to review all death sentences passed in China.

Iran

9. What discussions she has had with the Government of the Islamic Republic of Iran on the security situation in Iraq; and if she will make a statement. (140317)

I discussed Iraq with Foreign Minister Mottaki on 3 May at the margins of the Sharm el Sheikh meetings on Iraq. All Iraq’s neighbours have a stake in a secure and stable Iraq. We have consistently made it clear to the Government of Iran that the training, equipping and funding of illegal armed groups by agencies of the Iranian state is unacceptable.

I thank the Foreign Secretary for her very helpful answer. Given that there was an eight-year war between Iran and Iraq, she will be aware that it is almost certain that Iran has good intelligence bases in Iraq and that, just as it did during the Iran-Iraq war, it would have used insurgents against the Saddam Hussein regime. What is her assessment of the present situation regarding Iran’s intelligence operations in Iraq?

I find myself in difficulty because of course it is our policy not to discuss intelligence operations. I simply say to the hon. Gentleman that I am sure that there are many ways in which Iran has perfectly legitimate links with, and relationships in, Iraq, as will have been the case over many years for a variety of reasons, as he says. We continue to urge Iran to use whatever links and contacts it has positively in support of a stable and secure future for Iraq, which, in the end, is in the interests of not only the country itself, but all its neighbours.

Is it not ironic that one of the many evil consequences of our invasion of Iraq is that we have merely served to increase massively the power and influence of a fundamentalist Islamic regime in the region? Is it not even more ironic that to provide a fig leaf of respectability to get us out of this mess, we have to cut a deal with people who are fundamentally opposed to our national interests?

Sadly, in many parts of the world, cutting deals with people who are not necessarily in favour of our national interests is part of the business of conducting foreign policy.

Four years ago, we went into southern Iraq to liberate the local Shi’ites from the vicious oppression of Saddam Hussein. Four years later, apparently with the backing of Iran, those same Shi’ites are fighting and killing our forces and celebrating our every setback on the streets. Why are we still there?

The right hon. and learned Gentleman is perfectly well aware of why we are still there. We are still there because there is a contribution that we can make to trying to establish better armed forces and police forces in Iraq in a way that will enable them securely and peacefully to maintain their own state. It is not the case that all of those whom he describes are opposed to the presence of the multinational forces in quite the way in which he says. Although it is easy to find people in Iraq who say that they look forward to the day when the multinational forces will leave, if the next question that they are asked is whether they would like the forces to leave now, almost invariably the answer is, “No, certainly not.”

Human Rights

10. What recent representations she has received on human rights; and if she will make a statement. (140318)

We receive letters regularly from members of the public, Members of Parliament and Tibetan support groups on the human rights situation in Tibet. My right hon. Friend the Minister for Trade met the Foreign Affairs Committee in May to discuss its concerns about Tibet in more detail. We continue to raise Tibet-related issues with the Chinese Government, and we did so most recently in the UK-China human rights dialogue in February.

Recently, a world Tibet support conference took place in Brussels, and his holiness the Dalai Lama had planned to attend. I understand that the Chinese Government put pressure on the Belgian Government, and so the Dalai Lama was effectively blocked from attending that conference. Given the pivotal role that he plays in protecting human rights and seeking a negotiated settlement for Tibet, will the Government show his holiness a better welcome when he visits the UK in May next year?

The Government have been informed that the Dalai Lama wishes to visit the United Kingdom in May 2008. When specific requests are received for meetings with Government Ministers, we will consider them carefully and sympathetically. I will respond to the Dalai Lama’s international office in the usual way and he will be received as a distinguished religious leader.

What representations has the Minister received recently on the human rights situation in Syria? Last week, its President, like the Chancellor of the Exchequer, was elected unopposed, with the support of a ruthless political machine. Will the Minister review his policy on engagement with Syria?

As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said a few moments ago, we have to deal with all manner of difficult regimes, and sometimes with regimes that do not have a trace of democracy about them. We take seriously Syria’s role as a major player in the middle east, especially as regards Iraq and Lebanon.

On the 40th anniversary of the six-day war and the consequent occupation of Palestinian territory, may I ask my hon. Friend whether he has had any recent discussions with the Israeli Government about them holding so many Palestinian prisoners without charge, including those who were elected, and children?

Yes, we have, and we will continue to do so. We have, on a number of occasions, both through our ambassador and through ministerial contact, pressed the Israelis either to charge those individuals or to release them.

One of the most important human rights is the right to a fair trial. I have been in correspondence with the Minister for Europe about my constituent, Nick Morley, who faces trial in Macedonia in relation to a possible driving offence. The judge has made it clear that evidence put forward by expert witnesses on behalf of the defence will not be admitted; evidence will be accepted only from the prosecution. May I urge Ministers to make representations to the Macedonian Government to make sure that a fair trial is secured?

I understand that my right hon. Friend the Minister for Europe has encouraged the hon. Gentleman to write at the end of the trial, because we cannot interfere during the course of it, but we will certainly be prepared to review the situation when he contacts my right hon. Friend.

On the issue of human rights, will the Minister join me in condemning the decision taken by the University and College Union last week to call for a boycott of academic institutions in Israel?

We are aware of the proposed boycott, and I have to say to my hon. Friend that I do not think that it would be at all helpful. What we need is more discussion, more reconciliation and fewer threats, wherever they happen to come from.

Given that the brutal military dictatorship in Burma commits some of the most egregious human rights abuses to be found anywhere in the world, and that only last month the tyrannical Government of that country, in defiance of international opinion, renewed the house arrest of Aung San Suu Kyi, does the Minister share my horror, and more particularly that of Human Rights Watch, at the fact that the Government of Burma were invited to the Asia-Europe meeting in Hamburg on 28 and 29 May? Ought not the international community be prepared to exert pressure on India, China and Russia to force the Government of Burma to stop killing their people, and to start respecting and liberating them?

Yes, I agree with every word that the hon. Gentleman said. It is a great shame that commercial considerations are often put far above humanitarian ones when it comes to dealing with the Burmese Government.

With regard to human rights, is my hon. Friend aware that when I visited Israel as the emissary of the then Prime Minister a few days after the end of the six-day war 40 years ago, I begged the then Israeli Prime Minister, Levi Eshkol, to have regard for the human rights of the Palestinians who, even at that early stage, were being oppressed. After 40 years, is it not time that that terrible cancer, which has afflicted Israelis, Lebanese, Palestinians and everyone else in the region, should be brought to an end? The only way to do so is to secure a settlement that brings human rights to the Palestinians and ends those terrible encroachments on Palestinian territories.

My right hon. Friend will know that the Government’s policy is to construct a two-state solution. That means that on Israel’s border there must be a viable Palestinian state with an economy that works and is capable of sustaining employment and wealth in that country. It ought to happen, as that is a very, very small part of the world. Geographically, it is something that the international community ought to be able to handle. I quite agree with my right hon. Friend: we draw back from making difficult decisions at our peril, because this will remain the most difficult and intractable problem for a very long time to come. Wherever I go, it is the problem that is always quoted as the chief symbol of injustice. We need an Israel and a Palestine living alongside each other in peace and harmony, and that is what we must aim for.

May I congratulate the Minister on his foresight in being able to answer the question from the hon. Member for Worsley (Barbara Keeley) before she had even put it to the House? Does he agree that the work of the new Human Rights Council is critical to improving human rights in the world, so it is important that individual council members examine critically their own human rights record? For example, countries such as Cuba should do so. Does he therefore agree that the universal peer review mechanism should be implemented as soon as possible, and that it is important that the British Government make representations to Mexico, which chairs the committee of the council and, indeed, any other committee members that have influence, to ensure that that review mechanism is put in place?

Yes, as I am sure the hon. Gentleman knows, we worked hard to ensure that those who were elected to the council have a good human rights record in their home territory. That was not always the case, and it was a great disappointment to us that some countries with repressive regimes were elected. It is therefore extremely important that the review take place and that the Mexican Government are proactive on this. I am afraid that for far too many years the way in which human rights were handled in the United Nations meant that very little was done and that there was great reluctance to become involved, even in the worst human rights situations in individual states. This is an opportunity for the world to move on and for the United Nations to play a much more proactive and useful role than it has previously done.

We saw an egregious assault on human rights on television the other weekend, with the beating-up of Mr. Peter Tatchell in Moscow in a Gay Pride demonstration. Added to the denial of human rights to Mr. Litvenenko’s widow by the contemptuous refusal to co-operate with judicial and legal authorities in the UK on the extradition of a suspect, and the contempt shown by Russians for the murder of Anna Politkovskya, the investigative journalist whose death has still not been explained, as well as Mr. Putin’s threat two days ago to aim his missiles at our cities, is it not time to say to Russia, “If you want to be friends with Britain and Europe, get your human rights in order and drop this aggressive, hate-filled language against the values of Europe and of western democracies”?

We try on every occasion to stress to the Russians the importance of improving and maintaining human rights. It is a key value, and if the Russians are to extend their undoubted economic influence, they must understand that. The world is looking for improvements in human rights in Russia, and the Government certainly are.

EU Constitution

Following an extended period of reflection, EU institutional reform will be discussed at the forthcoming European Council. As part of the continuing negotiations in the run-up to that meeting, we have made it clear to our partners that the EU should agree an amending treaty that makes the European Union more effective and better able to deliver practical benefits for EU citizens. Such an approach would be consistent with the way in which treaty change has been agreed in the past.

Will the Minister undertake not to bring back any items from the constitutional treaty without a referendum, including any tinkering with the criminal justice system? Does he understand that that is a matter of trust for the British people, and that the public perception of the Government’s trustworthiness is as crucial as it is fragile?

I have made clear and I have repeated on a number of occasions from the Dispatch Box the fact that if the constitutional treaty returns in its present form, there would be a referendum. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has made that clear. However, if the hon. Gentleman is suggesting a referendum if any dot or comma reappears in any subsequent treaty, that is a matter for discussion and negotiation, and ultimately a matter for decision by the House.

May I try to help the Minister to clear up the confusion over a referendum? On 20 March, he told the House that there would be a referendum if there was a new treaty. The Foreign Secretary, replying to a question earlier this afternoon, said that it depended what was on the table. Can the right hon. Gentleman give me some indication of what on the table might lead to a referendum, or are we to be kept completely in the dark for ever more?

I have made clear on a number of occasions the position of the Government. If the constitutional treaty returns in its present form, there would be a referendum. On any other question, it depends on what is agreed at the European Council. I am delighted that the right hon. Gentleman has raised the issue, because it allows me to remind the House that in the course of his distinguished service as a Whip on the Government Benches between 1992 and 1997, he whipped Conservative Members of Parliament against a referendum on the Maastricht treaty.

But my right hon. Friend will be aware that not everyone is as violently in love with the constant imposition of unworkable systems from the EU as some Opposition Members. It might be helpful if we were clear that at present, even in matters such as transport, there are constant impositions that are costing the United Kingdom not only vast amounts of money, but vast amounts of efficiency in very difficult areas. Will my right hon. Friend give an undertaking that nothing will be brought in, even by the back door, that will lumber this country with even more rubbishy and unworkable legislation?

I made it clear in my answer a few moments ago that it is important that we recognise the practical benefits that the European Union can deliver in transport and in a range of other matters, where international co-operation through the mechanisms of the European Union provides real benefits for EU citizens and for citizens in the United Kingdom. That is a perfectly proper test of the way in which we should approach the negotiations.

It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody). Having heard that question, I wish her the best of luck in the forthcoming reshuffle. If the Minister will not answer questions from the respected Labour Chairman of the Home Affairs Committee, will he perhaps do me the courtesy of answering one from me instead? Is it the policy of the Government that criminal justice matters within the EU should remain subject to national veto, or are the Government countenancing downgrading that critical issue to qualified majority voting?

I begin by welcoming the hon. Gentleman to his new responsibilities. I note that his predecessor, the hon. Member for Altrincham and Sale, West (Mr. Brady), is sitting a few rows behind him. In giving him advice about the conduct of his new responsibilities, I am sure that his hon. Friend will encourage him to keep in step not only with the grass roots of the Conservative party but with the hokey cokey of the leadership too. I hope that he is able to do that while maintaining his vigorously anti-European sentiments.

On the question about the Home Affairs Committee, may I make clear to the House that I was not invited by that Committee to give evidence? Had it invited me, I would have been delighted to respond positively, as I did to the Foreign Affairs Committee when it invited me to give evidence. For the sake of historical accuracy, may I remind the House again that it was a Conservative Government who introduced the European competence in respect of home affairs and justice? Indeed, the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague) voted against a referendum on that issue. Obviously, the matter will have to be negotiated at the European Council.

BILL PRESENTED

Child Maintenance and Other Payments

Mr. Secretary Hutton, supported by the Prime Minister, Mr. Secretary Prescott, Mr. Chancellor of the Exchequer, Secretary John Reid, Mr. Secretary Hain, Secretary Alan Johnson and Mr. Secretary Alexander, presented a Bill to establish the Child Maintenance and Enforcement Commission; to amend the law relating to child support; to make provision about lump sum payments to or in respect of persons with diffuse mesothelioma; and for connected purposes: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time tomorrow, and to be printed. Explanatory notes to be printed. [Bill 118].