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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 462: debated on Tuesday 3 July 2007


The Secretary of State was asked—

Gaza and West Bank

1. If he will make a statement on the political situation in Gaza and the occupied Palestinian territories. (146812)

9. What assessment he has made of the political situation in Gaza and the west bank; and if he will make a statement. (146821)

I hope that you, Mr. Speaker, will allow me to be the first of—no doubt—many right hon. and hon. Members who want to take the opportunity to wish you a very happy birthday. Your arrival, which I think I am right in saying was just four days before the 1945 Labour Government came to office, was almost as momentous as that election result.

We are extremely concerned by the situation in Gaza, especially, and in the west bank. The events of recent weeks have seen very high levels of political violence, resulting in the death of more than 100 Palestinians and two United Nations workers. Together with the European Union and the Quartet, we are now working with the emergency Government to support their efforts to restore law and order and to prevent further humanitarian deterioration.

May I take this opportunity to congratulate my right hon. Friend on his promotion and welcome him to the Dispatch Box? I am sure that he is aware of the death on Sunday of Taghreed Abeaed, the 31-year-old Palestinian woman and mother of five who died in the searing heat and appalling conditions at Rafah crossing. He will know that 6,000 Palestinians—men, women, children, sick, elderly and dying—are blocked in at Rafah crossing on the Egyptian side, and many more will die if something urgent is not done to relieve their suffering. Will he have talks with his Israeli and EU counterparts to ensure that Rafah crossing is reopened as soon as possible and that EU monitors are reinstated?

I thank my hon. Friend for her kind remarks. She raises a very important point; it is one of several very serious humanitarian issues on the Gaza strip. I was hoping to be able to raise the matter with the Egyptian Foreign Minister, whom I was due to meet tomorrow. However, I will not be able to do so because he will be back in Egypt, but I will certainly take it up with him when I speak to him on the telephone, as I hope to do in the near future.

I accept what my right hon. Friend said about the importance of supporting the emergency Government, but will he also accept that it is important that we are not seen to be one-sided? If at all possible, we need to maintain some dialogue with Hamas, who were after all elected. If we are going to get a solution, it is necessary to try to redevelop a national consensus among Palestinians. Does he agree that we should do what we can to encourage that, rather than maintaining the divisions that currently exist?

The bedrock of the Government’s approach over the next months and years will be threefold: first, to be unstinting in our support for a two-state solution in the middle east, which I think is the position that commands support on both sides of the House; secondly, to support those who are committed to peaceful progress in the region; and thirdly, to support the economic and social development across the occupied Palestinian territories, including the humanitarian work that my hon. Friend referred to.

It is also important to say that we are determined to play our full role in the Quartet’s work. The Quartet’s principles are the foundation of progress, and my hon. Friend will know that we worked closely with the national unity Government over the past few months. We did so with those members who were committed to peaceful progress and, as I say, that is an important bedrock for the sort of change that we need to see.

I do, however, want to pick up on one thing that my hon. Friend said. It is very important that President Abbas, whom I spoke to last Friday, and Prime Minister Fayyad ensure that Palestinian institutions that are capable of representing the aspirations of all Palestinians come forward to take up their important role in the critical months ahead.

May I add my voice to the congratulations to the new Foreign Secretary, but press him a little further on the previous question? Does he not share the analysis that one of the main messages from the Northern Ireland peace process is that we must now engage with Hamas?

I hope that, in due course, we can discuss that. I say “discuss” and not “debate”, because I appreciate that the issue is very complex and that there is much expertise in the House. I hope that we can discuss the issues at genuine length, but one has to be careful about drawing parallels. Where the Northern Ireland experience can be used, we should of course draw on it, but I would not want to be drawn into a simple export from one part of the world to another, both of which have deep and complex histories associated with them. Having discussed other issues with the hon. Gentleman, I think that he would agree that it is important that we remain part of an international process. The work that we are doing in the EU and with the Quartet is an important component of our work in the region.

I too congratulate the right hon. Gentleman on his appointment. Does he not agree that in the months before the recent terrible events in Gaza and the west bank, one of the brighter initiatives was the Mecca agreement between Fatah and Hamas? Would it not be a good idea for the Government to support every measure possible to get those two parties back round the table in Saudi Arabia to re-implement the Mecca agreement? This time there should be one difference: an international body should supervise the implementation of that agreement to make sure that the provisions are acted upon.

The right hon. and learned Gentleman makes an important point. First, it is important that there should be unity and a negotiating partner on the Palestinian side. The partner needs to be committed to the existence not just of the two-state solution, but of the other state that needs to be party to that: Israel. Secondly—I hope that he will take this in the right way—it is incumbent on me and the Government to be extremely careful about how we lecture others on the way in which they form coalitions and partnerships. The violence in Gaza, directed against President Abbas, has cost more than 100 lives. I choose my words carefully when I say that I very much hope that President Abbas and Prime Minister Fayyad will develop institutions capable of representing the aspirations of all Palestinian people. We need to support them in that.

May I add my congratulations to you on your birthday, Mr. Speaker? I am sure that you do not need reminding that today is also the birthday of one of the most distinguished ornaments of the Palace of Westminster. I refer to Police Constable John Harrigan—although it is actually my birthday as well.

Further to my right hon. Friend’s answer, may I implore him—not that he needs reminding, because I know that he is acutely aware of this point—not to forget the position of the persecuted and fast-disappearing Christian minorities of the region in the conversations that he has with regional leaders?

My hon. Friend, whose birthday I am happy to celebrate as well—I am sorry that I missed him out earlier, but the research department at the Foreign Office did not quite get to that part of the birthdays list—raises an important point and I will look into it.

One of the most important prospects for dialogue is the dialogue that could be undertaken by Tony Blair. However, some commentators feel that he has a huge handicap in terms of his previous role as Prime Minister, and the problems in Lebanon and Iraq. What can Her Majesty’s Government do to get him over that hurdle and handicap?

From my experience of the former Prime Minister, I would say that he is more than capable of looking after himself. The reaction of leaders from across the region has been significant and positive. The mandate of the former Prime Minister is important and he will be able to develop it under his own steam. In the telephone calls that I have had over the last four days with regional leaders, they have welcomed his appointment and are looking forward to his active engagement in the arena as someone who has real knowledge of the issues that confront anyone who seeks peace for that part of the world.

In welcoming my right hon. Friend to his appointment and congratulating him, may I ask him to remind the Israeli Government that if they refuse to have dealings with Palestinian moderates, the Palestinians will elect extremists, that if they refuse to have dealings with the elected Palestinian extremists, militants will take over, and that the only hope of peace and security for the Israelis is for them to be realistic about whom they have dealings with, with the objective being to come to a settlement regardless of what their enemies and opponents may say?

My right hon. Friend speaks with a long history of engagement and expertise in this area. This November will mark 40 years since the passage of resolution 242, which marked the start of the UN engagement, which led, in 2002, to the commitment in Security Council resolution 1397, I think it was, to a two-state solution. As I said, the bedrock of our approach will be first to pursue that two-state solution, secondly, actively to support peacemakers in the region and those committed to peaceful political progress, and thirdly, to ensure that we have what the new Prime Minister has called an economic road map, as well as a political road map, for the future—and that it includes the humanitarian issues that I referred to earlier.

Mr. Speaker, may I also abase myself and congratulate you on your birthday? We cannot all be 21 again. May I also congratulate the Foreign Secretary on taking up his position? He leaves behind the Rural Payments Agency and flooding and comes to the more tranquil areas of foreign policy. May I ask him, in particular in relation to Gaza, what line the Government are taking to persuade Hamas in Gaza to reach some form of accommodation with President Abbas? Or will the international community just try to isolate Hamas in Gaza and starve it out?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his kind words, and one day we can talk about the Rural Payments Agency, too. He talked about starving people out; I hope that what I said earlier on the humanitarian issues, and what was reflected in my subsequent answers, shows that we are absolutely determined to ensure that we play a full part in tackling the diverse humanitarian issues. It is important to put it on record that in the last month there have been about 180 or 190 rockets launched into Israel from the Gaza strip. I am sure that he will understand when I say that the suffering of Palestinians on the one hand, and the fear and insecurity felt by many Israeli citizens on the other, need to be addressed together, and they can only be addressed through mutual recognition, which will be vital to long-term stability in the area.

Does the Foreign Secretary accept that there is not a lot of point in lecturing the people of the middle east about representative democracy if, when they elect a party that we do not happen to like—in this case Hamas—we try to say that the election was null and void? Surely all that can do is drive the Palestinians into the arms of militants.

As I said earlier, we did engage with the new Government—the national unity Government that was created in the occupied Palestinian territories—over the last year. I think that it is also important to point out that we were part of the EU, which sent about €680 million to that Government over the last year. I think that it is right to say that one issue that unites people across the House is the determination to pursue a two-state solution, and that can only be pursued with people who are willing to recognise that the other state has a right to exist. I know that my hon. Friend is committed to a two-state solution, and I hope that she and the rest of the House can follow through on that commitment, given the difficult waters that we have to navigate.

May I be the latest in what will be a very long line of people wishing you a happy birthday today, Mr. Speaker? I, too, welcome the Foreign Secretary to his appointment. There is probably never an easy time to take on that important role, but we on the Liberal Democrat Benches wish him every success.

Returning to the appointment of the former Prime Minister as the Quartet’s special envoy, he has been described by the White House as an “aggressive facilitator”. Notwithstanding the reaction of some of the regional leaders, does the Foreign Secretary accept that one of Mr. Blair’s most pressing challenges will be to overcome the open hostility to his appointment in Gaza and the west bank? Does he also accept that if the former Prime Minister is to win the support of both Palestinians and Israelis, he will have to persuade the international community, with some urgency, to overhaul the discredited temporary international mechanism?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his kind words, and I look forward to working with him and with the Opposition, where we can find common ground. He mentioned the west bank, but actually President Abbas was keen to impress on me his welcome for the former Prime Minister’s appointment to his role, which I think is important. In respect of the temporary international mechanism, I will look at that issue in more detail. Having spoken to regional leaders over the past four years, I have to say that they have not put pressure on anyone to say that the mechanism is discredited—I think that is the term that the hon. Gentleman used. I am sure that there are ways in which the mechanism can be improved, but they have stressed to me that the investment mechanism is an important part of building the sort of economic future that we need.

May I add my congratulations to my right hon. Friend? Returning to the issue of humanitarian access, is he aware of the report from Gush Shalom, the Israeli peace organisation, which reports that Western Union and DHL have stopped the transfer of money into Gaza, so the people trapped there cannot even receive support and money from their relatives abroad? Is there not a role for the Quartet to ensure that that kind of humanitarian aid is facilitated, so that people can make ends meet?

I have not read the report to which my hon. Friend refers, but I will look at it. As my hon. Friend the Minister for the Middle East pointed out to me, we are working closely with the International Committee of the Red Cross and funding it, and that is one issue that it is pursuing. I will look into the matter that my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Richard Burden) raises and, if I may, write back to him.

European Union Reform

I refer the hon. Gentleman to the then Prime Minister’s post-European Council statement to the House on 25 June. The June European Council agreed a detailed mandate for EU institutional reform. An intergovernmental conference will now be convened under the Portuguese presidency to draft a new treaty. We want to see the IGC concluded promptly. The EU needs to complete institutional reform in order to focus on such issues as climate change, which matter immensely to people right across the European Union.

May I take the Foreign Secretary back to a commitment given by his predecessor but one after the French and Dutch votes two years ago? The hon. Member for Vauxhall (Kate Hoey) asked him:

“Will he assure me that one matter that he would certainly submit to a referendum is the creation of a Foreign Minister and a European President?”

The then Foreign Secretary replied:

“Those points are central to the European constitutional treaty, and of course I see no prospect of their being brought into force, save through the vehicle of a constitutional treaty.”—[Official Report, 6 June 2005; Vol. 434, c. 1001.]

The new treaty does indeed include both a Foreign Minister and a President. According to the Government, that would make it a constitution, so why is there no referendum?

The first thing to say is that it is enormously in this country’s interest to have a president of the European Council—not a President of Europe, but a president of the European Council—who can replace the six-monthly rotating presidency, which is not just tiresome, but inefficient. Secondly, it is in our interest to ensure that we have a lead representative on foreign policy issues answering on a unanimous basis to the 27 member-state Governments of the European Union. The two issues that the hon. Gentleman raises are good for Britain. That is the first point. Secondly, we do not propose to have a referendum on the reform treaty precisely because it is not a constitution.

Thank you, Mr. Speaker, and happy birthday. I, too, welcome the new Foreign Secretary to his post. I am sure the Foreign Affairs Committee looks forward to questioning him on these matters over the coming months. Given that the Portuguese presidency of the European Union intends to hold an intergovernmental conference relatively soon and is talking about a process from this month until 18 October, can my right hon. Friend tell us how the House will be able to subject the process to proper scrutiny before the intergovernmental conference?

My hon. Friend raises an important point. Ultimately it will be a matter for the Leader of the House. I am keen that we have extensive investigation and scrutiny of the mandate and then of the reform treaty when it finally comes forward as a treaty, including in front of my hon. Friend’s Select Committee. The Government are determined to play their full part in that. I cannot give him the details today, but I understand the point that he makes.

As the EU accounts have been rejected by the auditors for the past 12 years, and as our net contribution to the EU budget this year will be nearly £5 billion, why did the European summit not tackle at all, judging by the published conclusions, the urgent issue of financial reform?

Financial reform is an important issue for the European Union. I know that the previous occupants of Her Majesty’s Treasury pursued serious work in that area. No doubt that will continue, but it was not the focus of the European Council, because the European Council was focused on the institutional issues that we are discussing in this question.

I welcome my right hon. Friend to his new post and I am sure that he will be looking forward to the intricacies and labyrinths of European institutional debate. As he manoeuvres himself along those labyrinths, will he draw a clear distinction for the British public between the fundamental rights charter of the European Union and the human rights articles of the Council of Europe, enabling him to make it clear that no transfer of power to European institutions arises from the draft treaty in June, and that the Council of Europe provisions are as strong today in defending human rights in Britain as they have ever been?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. Manoeuvring along labyrinths is an enticing prospect—thickets come to mind. He makes an important point about the legal wording that we now have in respect of the charter of fundamental rights, and he is also right to draw the distinction between that and the Council of Europe.

In welcoming the entire ministerial team to their responsibilities, I draw attention to the IGC mandate and its call for an enhanced role for national Parliaments, which I hope that everyone very much welcomes. The right hon. Gentleman will also be aware that shared sovereignty in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland on many issues is with the EU. What enhanced role does he see for the Parliaments in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland in relation to the EU?

We intend to ensure that the devolved arrangements that have been established are made to work in the way that was prescribed in the legislation of the late 1990s.

I, too, welcome my right hon. Friend to his new post, and I wish you, Mr. Speaker, a happy birthday, and many more of them.

As my right hon. Friend said, many of the reforms that were hammered out at the recent conference were aimed at making the EU easier to manage now that there are 27 member states. What is his assessment of the effectiveness of the reforms in addressing that particular point, which was rightly the focus of the discussions?

My hon. Friend makes an important point. This is a good treaty for Britain. It is good that we end the rotating presidency, it is good that the Commission’s numbers are reformed, and it is good that we have a new voting system, which is a 45 per cent. increase—

I look forward to a question from the hon. Gentleman, when I will be happy to volley back at full blast.

It is good that national security is definitively and for the first time set out as a national competence, and it is good that the symbols, flags and anthems, which distracted attention from the discussion of the European constitutional treaty as previously put forward, are done away with, so that we can focus on what, in the end, will make the EU useful to this country—jobs, climate and energy, the issues that matter to ordinary people.

I join in warmly congratulating the Foreign Secretary on his elevation. There are many bipartisan issues in foreign policy on which we look forward to working with him, and more than that, there are many very difficult issues, not least in the middle east, on which we wish him every success.

On Europe, however, the right hon. Gentleman may have noticed that Mr. Giscard d’Estaing has said:

“This text is, in fact, a rerun of a great part of the substance of the constitutional treaty”;


“the public is being led to adopt, without knowing it, the proposals that we dare not present to them directly.”

Why does the Foreign Secretary think he said that?

I warmly reciprocate the right hon. Gentleman’s kind words. He will certainly find me very keen to co-operate in areas where a bipartisan approach is good for the country. I would not seek to read Giscard d’Estaing’s mind, but one does not need to do so to see the difference between the constitutional treaty and the reformed treaty. I have here the published conclusions of the European Council. Clause 1 of the IGC mandate clearly states:

“The constitutional concept, which consisted in repealing all existing treaties and replacing them by a single text called “Constitution”, is abandoned”—

not reformed, not amended, but abandoned. The constitutional treaty has been abandoned. That is not just my view, nor is it just the view of our Prime Minister—it is the view of the 27 Heads of Government who signed the document.

Could the reason why the former French President said that be that it is true? Is it not clear that

“the new EU treaty preserves the substance of the constitutional treaty”?

Those are not my words, but those of the German Foreign Minister. Did the Prime Minister not say that Ministers had to honour their manifesto and that this was an issue of trust between him and the public? Would it not be a splendid start to the Foreign Secretary’s time in office if he were to tell the Prime Minister that if there is no referendum on the revived EU constitution, he will never be able to use the words “honour” and “trust” with any credibility again?

The right hon. Gentleman’s memory has deserted him. When he first entered this House, he worked with 11 other members of the current shadow Cabinet and 22 current Conservative Front Benchers to vote against a referendum on the Maastricht treaty, which involved a smaller transfer of power. The hon. Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Lidington) is a new member of the Opposition Front-Bench team, and it is incumbent on me to mention his distinguished record, working with Douglas Hurd to ensure that the Maastricht treaty was piloted through this House before 1992. He entered this House in 1992, and he voted against a referendum on a motion that I can read out, if hon. Members are interested. His membership of the Conservative Front-Bench team should mean that the Conservative party, instead of being a dying sect, returns to being a mainstream, sensible political party.

I join other hon. Members in welcoming the Foreign Secretary to his post. There is no need for a referendum on an amending treaty. Will he assure the House that the IGC will not be an end to this Government’s commitment to the reform agenda in Europe? We should push the process forward to ensure the more efficient use of the European institutions and the greater enlargement of the EU.

My right hon. Friend speaks with the authority of a former Minister for Europe who has been through the European labyrinth that my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, North (Mr. Henderson) has described. He is right, because in the end the European Union must prove its worth by delivering for the people who elect us to this House and to other Parliaments around Europe. It adds value when it focuses on the things that need to be done at a European level. Those things should be done efficiently, which is what this Government are determined to advocate.

EU Treaty Opt-outs

I refer the hon. Gentleman to my right hon. Friend the then Prime Minister’s post-European Council statement to the House on 25 June this year. The Government received legal advice from the Government lawyers on all aspects of the IGC mandate.

I congratulate the Minister on his appointment, although I think it regrettable, given the important negotiations that lie ahead, that the new Prime Minister has downgraded his post by not allowing him to attend Cabinet, which his two predecessors did. May I draw his attention to the comments of the legal adviser to the European Scrutiny Committee, Mr. Michael Carpenter, who said that the declaration on foreign affairs might turn out to be completely meaningless, and who went on to cast doubt on all the other opt-outs on the so-called red lines? Given that the whole case made by the then Prime Minister as to why we were not going to have a referendum was based on those opt-outs on his so-called red lines, has that not been shown to be completely and utterly worthless?

Not at all. However, I begin by thanking the hon. Gentleman for his kind words of welcome to this important job. I also thank him for championing my cause; my mother will be pleased. The hon. Gentleman’s specific points are, of course, unfounded, as were the points made by the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague). The treaty explicitly confirms for the first time that national security is the sole responsibility of member states. Where we agree, and where we agree unanimously, we will work together, but where we disagree, we will, of course, continue to act independently.

The charter of fundamental rights, which is closely associated with the treaty, declares that every worker has the right to the limitation of maximum working hours. Does the Minister believe that that will leave Britain’s existing opt-out open to challenge at the European Court of Justice, and if it does, how vigorously will he defend it?

I thank my hon. Friend for his warm welcoming of me to my new role. In terms of his specific point, I do not agree with him. This does not affect our opt-out in any way. The former Prime Minister made it very clear that one of our red lines is that our existing labour and social legislation would not be affected by this part of the reform treaty, and that is very clear in the outcome of the deliberations.

It is quite clear that declarations, protocols, emergency brakes and opt-ins have been tried in the past and have failed; they cannot be relied on. The only thing that works is a veto. Why does the Minister not say that this is going to be a new Government and use the IGC to put the vetoes back—the only sure way of defending the red lines?

The right hon. Gentleman has a long record of being wrong on European issues. He voted against the previous referendum proposals. When we look at the difference between the reform treaty and the constitutional treaty, we see that out has come automatic qualified majority voting for policing and judicial co-operation in criminal matters, out has come any suggestion of a binding charter of fundamental rights, out has come the weak emergency brake on social security measures, and out has come possible communal decision making for foreign and defence policy. Much has changed, but the right hon. Gentleman’s decades-long, strident opposition to the UK’s membership of the European Union still remains.

May I reassure the hon. Gentleman’s mother and welcome him to his new and important role? In that role, does he agree with his ministerial colleague, Sir Digby Jones, who recently told the Economic Research Council:

“This is a con to call this a treaty—it’s not. It’s exactly the same—it’s a constitution”?

Was not the new Trade and Investment Minister exactly right?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his warm welcome. We have always had a very good and friendly relationship, particularly in European Standing Committees A, B and C, but I do not agree with his comments. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has already made it clear that, as it says loud and clear in the reform treaty, the “constitutional concept…is abandoned”.

UN Resolution 1701

5. What steps the Government are taking to support the enforcement of UN Security Council resolution 1701, with particular reference to its call for the release of abducted Israeli soldiers. (146816)

May I, Mr. Speaker, add my best wishes to you on your birthday?

Full implementation of UN Security Council resolution 1701 remains a high priority for the Government. We continue to call for the unconditional and immediate release of Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev, the Israeli soldiers captured by Hezbollah on 12 July 2006, almost a year ago. The UN facilitator appointed by the Secretary-General leads on negotiations to secure their release. The UN has the United Kingdom’s full support as it takes this important work forward.

As the Minister told the House, it is nearly a year since those two Israeli soldiers were captured. He will be aware that last week the UN-Lebanon independent border assessment team revealed that the borders between Lebanon and Syria have been opened to the smuggling of weapons and goods, which is in violation of resolution 1701. Will he tell the House what discussions the Government have had with other Security Council members and with Syria to stop the illegal flow of these weapons to Hezbollah and to Palestinian terrorist organisations in Lebanon?

The hon. Gentleman is right; this is a very serious situation and one which the United Nations has been trying to address. I went to the Israeli border on the Lebanese side, south of the Litani river, to speak with General Graziano, who is running UNIFIL—the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon—down there. He told me that he was pretty confident that there is not a large amount of smuggling coming over the Syrian border in that part of Lebanon, but he could not give those guarantees for the northern part of Lebanon. That is a very long and very porous border, as the hon. Gentleman says. We have been urging the Syrians, and everyone else, to turn the rhetoric about wanting stability in Lebanon and in the middle east into reality by doing their best to promote peace in that area and not to support rejectionist groups and Hezbollah, paid for by Iran, that are intent on causing destruction and mayhem.

Happy birthday, Mr. Speaker. It is nice to see one old face among such an excellent new team.

One of the features of resolution 1701 was a commitment for Israel to publish maps of any landmines in the Lebanon. There are still landmines there. What action could the UK, with its expertise in de-mining, take to assist with the removal of landmines, which are causing such havoc in Lebanon?

I will not comment on the “old” adjective.

We are worried about the levels of unexploded ordnance throughout southern Lebanon and we have committed a total of £2.8 million to clearing unexploded ordinance in the area. We have also asked the Government of Israel to hand over all relevant maps, which could help us locate unexploded ordnance—whether mines or the configuration of shells that were fired by artillery from Israel. I am afraid that, so far, we have not had that co-operation, although we have had promises of it.

The Syrians have said that they want to play a constructive role in bringing about peace in the region. What pressure is being brought to bear on the Syrian Government, given their relationship with Hezbollah, to ensure the release of the two Israeli soldiers?

We certainly have pressed—and will continue to press—the Syrian Government to play their part in trying to bring peace to the Lebanon and to secure the release of the Israeli soldiers. I must admit to the hon. Gentleman that we have not made a great deal of progress, but at least talks have begun. My right hon. Friend the Member for Derby, South (Margaret Beckett), the former Foreign Secretary, met Foreign Minister Mouallem of Syria in the margins of a recent conference and pressed him in order to try to discover Syria’s attitude to its continuing support of Palestinian rejectionist groups and its apparent lack of co-operation in trying to find and return the Israeli soldiers. We would very much like an answer from Syria about that.

We want good relationships with Syria. We understand the important part that it could play in bringing peace to the middle east. So far, its reaction has not been helpful but we will urge the Syrian Government to change their mind about that and play their part in co-operating to bring peace to the region and ensure the return of the soldiers.


6. What assessment he has made of the effect of the Hamas movement for regional stability in the middle east. (146817)

The violence of recent weeks has undermined the political foundations of robust and durable progress towards a two-state solution. The Quartet principles remain an essential basis for an inclusive political process. We will support the work of Tony Blair as the new Quartet representative in helping to build the capacity and institutions of a viable Palestinian state.

Thank you for calling me, Mr. Speaker. Happy birthday.

In welcoming my right hon. Friend to his new role, may I say that I was surprised to see that article 22 of the Hamas constitution of 1988 argues that Zionist secret societies, such as the freemasons, the Rotarians and the Lions, were established to sabotage society and promote Zionist interests? With such views, is a peaceful solution possible between a Hamas Government in Gaza, a Fatah Government in the west bank and Israel? Are we moving towards a three-state rather than a two-state solution?

I said earlier that the bedrock of our approach would be to support first, a two-state solution; secondly, all those committed to peaceful negotiation in search of a solution; and, thirdly, the economic, social and humanitarian work that is essential. Consistency with the Quartet principles is the foundation. Obviously, we deplore the sort of sentiments that my hon. Friend read from the Hamas charter, because they are incompatible with the settled two-state solution that is the foundation for a peaceful middle east.

Will the right hon. Gentleman use his best endeavours to urge our American friends to cease poisoning the well of relations between Fatah and Hamas? Does he agree that Palestinian unity is extremely important if security is to return to the territories, and that—most important of all—peace talks can recommence with Israel?

Palestinian unity is important, but the violence, the killing, the feuding between Hamas and Fatah representatives and supporters has deep roots. I cannot agree with the hon. Gentleman when he says that it is all the fault of the Americans—[Interruption]—or words to that effect. “Poisoning the well” was the expression that he used, but one has to be very careful in making that sort of allegation. The unity to which he referred and a set of Palestinian institutions that can provide the political basis for proper negotiations are obviously essential. I will certainly discuss those and other issues with Condoleezza Rice, my opposite number, when I visit the United States in due course.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that it might help the peace process if the 44 properly elected Palestinian Members of Parliament who have been in Israeli jails for a considerable time were charged and brought to trial, and that the Inter-Parliamentary Union, which has been trying to visit them in jail for almost two years, should be given that access?

Yes, they should either be charged or released, which I think was the idea behind my right hon. Friend’s question.

May I reinforce the call of the right hon. Member for Cynon Valley (Ann Clwyd)? If the Palestinian Legislative Council were the same size as this Chamber, 220 of us would now be in detention. As it is primarily supporters of Hamas who have been detained, what effect does the Foreign Secretary believe that that has on popular support for Hamas among Palestinians?

Perhaps unfortunately for the hon. Gentleman, I gave a very clear answer to my right hon. Friend. The Quartet principles make it clear that recent events made it doubly imperative that there should be progress and re-engagement in the area. This issue and its resolution provide classic ground for the sort of progress that is needed.

As we speak, the Israelis are continuing to expand their illegal settlements in the west bank. The population of Israelis in the occupied territories has risen at five times the rate of the population of Israelis within Israel. Will the Foreign Secretary urge the Israelis to stop taking further west bank land, as that merely strengthens the extremists on the Palestinian side and weakens the moderates, making a two-state solution impossible?

Yes; I know that my hon. Friend takes a close interest in these issues. Settlement building is contrary to international law. We will continue to raise the matter with the Israeli Government, because the road map is clear that Israel should freeze settlement activity.


Last month, the former Foreign Secretary discussed Kosovo with our EU colleagues at the General Affairs and External Relations Council and in the run-up to the European Council. This issue is also frequently raised in bilateral meetings with EU member states.

Will the Minister confirm that the Government continue to consider the integrity of UN resolution 1244 and the territory of sovereign states? Will he also confirm that Her Majesty’s Government will never unilaterally recognise an independent Kosovo?

Her Majesty’s Government support the UN special envoy Ahtisaari’s proposals, which took 14 months of intense negotiations and involved Serbs and Kosovo Albanians. He carried out his negotiations professionally and with integrity and we believe that that formed the basis of the subsequent UN resolution.

May I add my congratulations to you on your birthday, Mr. Speaker? May I also congratulate the Minister on his new appointment? No doubt the Opposition will work closely with him.

Will the Minister confirm that the Ahtisaari plan for the future of an independent Kosovo is the only fair and sustainable option on the table at the moment? Will he also confirm that his Government have been having discussions with the Russians, to persuade them that neither they nor their Serb rivals have anything to fear from an independent Kosovo? If he is unable to persuade the Russians that they should not use their veto, what contingency plans has he to deal with the situation in that event?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his warm welcome. He is right to say that we have discussions and negotiations with our Russian colleagues on this important issue, as we do with others throughout Europe. This is also an issue that has been discussed between the Presidents of the United States and Russia over the past 48 hours. One of the areas of concern to Russia and the Serbs is the protection of Kosovo Serbs. The Ahtisaari plan is very detailed and contains a comprehensive set of protections, which should provide important comfort as we move towards establishing the new UN resolution.

Angela Barratt

We have provided extensive consular assistance to Angela Barratt as well as to her family in the UK. We have also been making representations to the Turkish authorities where appropriate. She was found guilty and sentenced on 26 June 2007 and is currently on bail pending appeal, so her case remains sub judice.

May I too wish you a happy birthday, Mr. Speaker?

Angela’s relatives are constituents of mine, and they have asked me to thank my hon. Friend’s Department for the support that they have received. Can they have an assurance that that support will continue?

Yes, I can give an assurance that that support will continue. Our consular staff will continue to provide that support, as appropriate, when requested.


10. What discussions he has had with the caretaker Government of Bangladesh on the forthcoming elections in Bangladesh. (146822)

My right hon. Friend the Member for Derby, South (Margaret Beckett), the then Foreign Secretary, met the foreign affairs adviser of the caretaker Government of Bangladesh on 19 April. She welcomed the Government’s commitment to restore democracy before the end of next year, looked forward to free and fair elections, applauded the Government’s drive against corruption, and stressed the need to respect human rights and due process.

I am grateful for that answer. I am sure that my hon. Friend will be aware of the high level of concern in the Bangladeshi community here in the UK about the situation in Bangladesh and the need for a proper democratic Government there. What will my hon. Friend’s Department do to impress on the caretaker Government the need to work with the political parties in Bangladesh to get them re-established and working again properly, so that they can play a proper part in free and fair elections?

I entirely agree with the sentiments expressed by my hon. Friend. We believe that the lifting of the ban on party political activities will be an important step towards creating the right conditions, and we stand ready to offer practical assistance. We await the findings of the United Nations Development Programme’s assessment of the extent of the assistance required to pave the way for free and fair elections.

I understand that the Bangladeshi Government recently met representatives of the European Union and gave a commitment that the Bangladeshi electoral commission would bring forward a road map for elections by mid-July. During the Minister’s negotiations with her opposite number in Bangladesh, will she ensure that any assistance needed for the production of that road map will be provided?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question. We are assisting with that and will continue to press the Bangladeshi Government to keep to that timetable.


11. What assessment he has made of the prospects for a viable Palestinian state following the Hamas action in Gaza. (146823)

The middle east peace process is one of our highest priorities. Our objective remains a negotiated two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The two-state solution is the only realistic basis for a just and lasting peace, despite Hamas actions in Gaza. That means a viable state of Palestine living in peace and security alongside the state of Israel. Both parties need to fulfil their obligations in order for that to become a reality. The international community has a key role to play in helping to secure that outcome, and the Government are fully committed to doing whatever they can to help.

I thank my hon. Friend for that answer, but does he not agree that it is a secure economic future for the Palestinians that will make a future Palestinian state viable? Will he tell the House what the Government are doing to help the economic development of the Palestinian people?

I doubt whether there is a politician across the world who has paid more attention than my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister to trying to find economic solutions to the problems in Gaza and the west bank as part of a peaceful solution to that long-running conflict. We will continue to do so, because we recognise that the lack of jobs and the fact that there is no sense of an economic future are a curse on the region. I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister will continue to put the resources required into ensuring that we play our part in the rebuilding of the infrastructure of both Gaza and the west bank.

Does the Minister accept that the Israeli Government themselves, however inadvertently, played a not insignificant role in the rise of Hamas, not least by encouraging continued settlement building and continually snubbing President Abbas in the early days? Does he accept that there is no way forward on the two-state solution, which we all desire, unless all the parties with real power in the area, including Hamas itself, are part of the process?

We have never denied that Hamas should play a part, but it must be a constructive part. I would very much like it to play that role, which I believe the Palestinian people elected it to play. However, we cannot treat Hamas in the same way as other players in the region if it supports suicide bombers and if it plays a game of violence, and does not take a peaceful approach to the problem. There is no question but that Hamas was the democratic expression of the majority of the Palestinian people in the elections—that is not disputed—but the hon. Gentleman will agree that we cannot deal with a Government with elected representatives who advocate terrorism as a way of achieving some kind of political settlement in such a sensitive area.


I have not had any discussions on the situation in Burma with my EU counterparts. However, my right hon. Friend the Member for Derby, South (Margaret Beckett), the then Foreign Secretary, and her EU colleagues issued a statement at the General Affairs Council meeting in Luxembourg on 23 April expressing concern about the situation in Burma. EU Ministers and their Asian counterparts issued a further statement at the Asia-Europe Foreign Ministers meeting in Hamburg on 29 May.

Congratulations, Mr. Speaker, on your birthday.

I thank the Minister for her response, and I welcome her to her new post. Does she think that there is any more that the EU can do to help end the suffering and the abuse of human rights endured by many thousands of people in Burma? Those abuses, particularly the practice of portering—using detainees as porters in armed conflicts—were even condemned last Friday by the International Committee of the Red Cross, which usually remains neutral. That is the strongest example of its speaking out since Rwanda.

I thank my hon. Friend for her warm comments, and I pay tribute to the work that she has done on Burma over many years. The EU common position is the best achievable policy. The EU acting as 27 carries more weight than individual members acting alone. However, we are deeply concerned that the ICRC has been forced to close two field offices in Burma, and we share the concerns that it has expressed. We will continue to keep the matter under review, and I entirely share the sentiments expressed by my hon. Friend.

I welcome the Minister to her new position. As secretary of the all-party group for democracy in Burma, may I tell her that we enjoyed a very good relationship with her predecessor, the right hon. Member for Makerfield (Mr. McCartney), and I hope that we will enjoy a similar relationship with her? Her predecessor wrote to me last month explaining that the Government were pursuing the question of non-British companies investing in Burma through the British Virgin Islands. Requests were made for that claim to be investigated by the local authorities there, so can she tell me what progress has been made?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his comments and congratulate him on his work on the all-party group on Burma; that group is widely appreciated throughout the House. Unfortunately, during my few days in post I have been unable to attain the level of detail to be able to answer his question. I hope that he will bear with me by allowing me to write to him on it. I will certainly pursue the matter on his behalf.