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Foreign and Commonwealth Office

Volume 470: debated on Tuesday 8 January 2008

The Secretary of State was asked—

Diplomatic Service (Closures)

No UK embassies closed in 2007. Two diplomatic missions were closed: the high commission office in Kingstown, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, and the British consulate in Nagoya, Japan.

We continue to manage the Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s overseas network to reflect changing demands and challenges. We will ensure that our resources are aligned with our priorities and that the UK has a cost-effective and flexible network of overseas representation around the world.

Since 1997, when the Government came to power, more than 35 embassies, high commissions and sovereign posts have been closed. Given the Chinese scramble for Africa, is it right that out of 53 African countries, 23 do not have any British diplomatic representation at all?

It may help the House if I give it the actual facts, rather than the partial presentation given by the hon. Gentleman. In 1997, the UK Government had 242 overseas posts. In 2007, there were 261. In the past 10 years, the number of overseas posts has increased by 19 by any calculation.

In respect of the situation in Africa, I think that the hon. Gentleman will agree that a measure of a country’s commitment to Africa or its engagement is not the number of posts but the effectiveness of its activities, including its funding. By no stretch of the imagination is it possible to argue that the UK’s influence in Africa is lower today than it was 10 years ago. In fact, it is massively enhanced. There has been cross-party agreement about the activities of the Government on this issue over the past 10 years.

How does my right hon. Friend determine the relationship between the Government’s Foreign Office priorities and the resources at their disposal in deciding which diplomatic missions to keep open?

The most important criterion is that the Foreign Office’s network is aligned to the shape of the modern world rather than the world as it was after 1945. There has already been a 20 or 25 per cent. reduction in the number of personnel deployed in Europe, which in part reflects the amount of extra business done in UKRep—the UK Permanent Representation to the European Union—in Brussels and the multilateral engagement that we have. I see that continuing, with the shifting of more of our diplomats—UK staff and locally engaged staff—towards the middle east and south Asia, where, by any stretch of the imagination, we need more representations to meet all the national interests that we have at the moment. That seems to me to be the alignment of people and priorities that we should be seeking.

What consideration has the Secretary of State given to accrediting Department for International Development staff in countries where there is no Foreign Office support, particularly in Africa, in countries such as Lesotho and Swaziland, where there are excellent DFID staff?

Of course, in most of Africa DFID and FCO staff work side by side. Many of the problems that DFID focuses on are complementary to the work on conflict prevention or good governance that is at the heart of the FCO’s work. On the accreditation of staff—I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman means that technically—DFID staff, like Foreign Office staff, are there to represent the whole UK. They do that extremely effectively.

As my right hon. Friend knows, my particular concern is East Timor, and the closure of the embassy there in 2006 and the removal of our remaining staff in 2007. East Timor is a country that is emerging out of considerable conflict and it needs a lot of help. I know that there is an ambassador in Jakarta and that the intention is that the ambassador and his staff should visit East Timor. However, given the continuing concern in East Timor, can my right hon. Friend tell me how often the ambassador has been there since the closure of the embassy?

My right hon. Friend has anticipated some of my answer. I do not have to hand the number of times that the ambassador in Jakarta and his staff have visited East Timor, but I shall be very happy to provide her with that information.

The Foreign Secretary has been somewhat creative with his figures in respect of embassies, high commissions and consulates. He says that their numbers reflect how the world is changing, so I presume that the closure of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office language school and the withdrawal of the FCO’s contribution to the cost of maintaining defence attachés are also connected with that. Do not the figures given by my hon. Friend the Member for The Wrekin (Mark Pritchard) have more to do with financial cuts imposed by the Treasury than with any changes in the nature of the world? After all, the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs has said that the Foreign Office budget will see a reduction of 5.1 per cent. per annum across the board and that that will jeopardise its work. Can the right hon. Gentleman tell us how many more embassies, high commissions and consulates have been identified for closure over the next two years to pay for those cuts?

It is very odd to define increased spending as cuts. The increased spending over the next period will be used in the areas of greatest need. Moreover, it is right that we do not use defence attachés for non-defence work, as they are specialists and should work on defence matters. The hon. Gentleman accuses me of creative accounting, or at least creative number work, but he may be interested to know that Germany has 226 posts, the US 262 and France 275. The UK holds a diplomatic network of outstandingly qualified individuals who work closely with DFID and British Council staffs. They provide a network that, in times of crisis, has shown itself to be more than adequate for the country’s needs. I am sure that he will seek to criticise the Government about many things, but I believe that we should all be proud of the nature of our global network and its deployment around the world.

Environmental Protection (Lisbon Treaty)

2. What discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs on the effect of the provisions to the treaty of Lisbon on the ability of EU member states to agree effective policies on environmental protection. (175892)

Tackling climate change is recognised as a specific objective of EU policy for the first time in the Lisbon treaty. The treaty also includes welcome proposals to liberalise energy markets and promote energy efficiency.

I thank my hon. Friend for that response. I very much welcome the fact that tackling climate change is now a specific EU policy objective and that we have the necessary legal framework for it, but does he agree that we also need greater international co-operation to meet EU-wide targets on climate change? What progress is being made on that front?

My hon. Friend is right. She takes a keen interest in these matters, and will know that article 2 of the Lisbon treaty states that the EU will

“contribute to…the sustainable development of the earth”.

That is a remarkable change in the EU’s posture. We are making real progress on reducing carbon emissions: we have set a target for reductions totalling 20 per cent. by 2020, and have also established a number of demonstration plants for carbon capture and storage. Progress must also be made through other organisations, such as the G8, the World Bank and the UN, but the EU is a crucial component in any international climate change strategy.

If the EU is making such progress, why is it that several EU countries will not meet their Kyoto targets, and why are carbon emissions going up in Britain?

The UK is the first and so far the only country to have set binding targets for reducing carbon emissions. We are leading the way in Europe and throughout the world, but carbon emissions can be reduced only through international co-operation. We cannot set up a patriotic front against climate change, as such change does not recognise the national boundaries and borders that the right hon. Gentleman seems to believe in. In fact, I understand that he opposes the binding targets on carbon emissions.

How effective has the UK been, either alone or with our European colleagues, in talking to the Japanese about their disgraceful behaviour in taking whales?

We were talking about national borders, and now we have moved on to whales; I assume that we are now talking about the animals and not the Principality. We continue to raise the question of Japan’s whaling practices, and its capture and killing of whales. I shall bring my hon. Friend’s question to the attention of our colleagues in the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. That Department leads on the specific question of whaling, as Japan is not likely to be part of Europe in the foreseeable future.

How was it that the EU emissions trading system ended up issuing permissions to pollute at 6 per cent. higher than the current level of pollution? What is going to be done about a situation in which Britain set tough targets and ended up having to buy 22 million tonnes of carbon and other similar countries such as Germany and France issued so many permits that they were selling them? What will Lisbon do about that?

I hope that the hon. Gentleman does not mind my saying so, but the basic premise of his assertion is absolutely correct. The problem in the past was that there was not enough international co-operation and countries set their own targets in a way that did not fit international priorities or the scale of the problem. Over the next 30 years, if we continue at the current pace, international and world energy demand will increase by a remarkable 50 per cent. That is clearly unsustainable, which is why there is a real need for internationally agreed binding targets of the type that the United Kingdom was first in the world to agree to.

British Council (Russia)

On 12 December the Russian authorities announced that they planned to shut down the British Council offices in St. Petersburg and Yekaterinburg on 1 January 2008. I made it clear in my written ministerial statement of 13 December that the Russian Government’s threat against the British Council was illegal. It is therefore the intention of the British Council to remain open and operational in St. Petersburg and Yekaterinburg.

While I applaud the Government’s decision and recognise of course that it is in times of political difficulty that the British Council’s independent and continuing role in bilateral education and cultural links becomes particularly important, is not the key question how we avoid the council’s work becoming a pawn in the foreign affairs game and ensure that people on all sides recognise the importance of its continuity?

My hon. Friend makes an important point. The independence of the British Council is asserted on both sides of the House. Certainly it is not a political football from our point of view, and our message to the Russian Government is that they should not use the British Council as a political football. I hope that that can be a united message, because 1.25 million Russians benefited from the activities of the British Council last year, and that must be in both our countries’ interests.

Given that it is the British Government’s view that the British Council’s operations are legal in the Russian context and comply with tax laws, international conventions and the agreement reached with the Russians, and given that the actions of the Russian Government appear to be illegal, what practical help can the British Government give the staff at the offices of the British Council still based in Russia so that they can continue their operation?

My hon. Friend raises an important point. The first thing to say is that, while a threat was issued on 12 December, it has not yet been carried out. Our first priority is to send a clear message to the Russians that this is illegal and there is nothing to be gained by them—in fact, there is everything to be lost, in terms of services for Russian people and of the reputation of Russia around the world—in carrying out this threat. Certainly, my conversations with European and other G8 colleagues suggest that there is unanimous incomprehension at the proposal of the Russian Government to crack down on the British Council. Our duty of care to our staff is obviously something that we take seriously and the offices are in the first instance a matter for British Council management. I assure my hon. Friend that both at official level in Russia and at ministerial level, we take the duty of care to both sets of staff extremely seriously.

The Foreign Secretary may be aware that the news agency TASS, the newspaper Izvestia and The Moscow News, the English newspaper, have said that the British Council performs activities not in accordance with what it ought to be doing. They have suggested, for example, that it is an agent of the Secret Intelligence Service and that it interferes in the politics of Russia. The Foreign Secretary will know that that is nonsense. How can he reassure the House and, more important, President Putin, that it is not the case?

The best way, of course, is to agree with the hon. Gentleman. I am sure that my agreement with him will have a profound resonance. We can at least both say that there is absolutely no foundation to those allegations. The legality of the British Council activity seems to me to be clear. It may be worth reading into the record that the British Council’s activities are fully compliant with not just international law, but Russian law. Its presence and its activities are specifically endorsed by a 1994 cultural centres agreement signed by Russia. I give him my absolute assurance on the independence and legality of the British Council’s work.

We share the Government’s view that Russia’s action is wholly unacceptable, so can the Foreign Secretary explain why, although the Prime Minister said at the last EU summit that its conclusions would “reflect” the “anger” that EU leaders felt about the matter, it was not even mentioned by the time that the summit concluded? Do we not now have the worst of all worlds: a Prime Minister who blatantly gave in to European leaders last month, but who managed to offend them into the bargain so that we do not get their help when we request it in turn?

It is frankly pathetic for the hon. Gentleman to try to turn the issue into an anti-European diatribe, when the European Union presidency has issued a statement denouncing any Russian action. I am sorry that he or his researchers have not been able to find—[Interruption.] No, I am sorry; he says that I am wrong, but I will do the research for him; I will send him the European presidency statement, which shows a united European view on the issue. I thought that he confined his Europhobia to issues to do with the European Union, but it seems not.

Is not the really worrying thing about the Russian ban on the British Council outside Moscow the fact that it is far from the first time that the Russians have tried to undermine the work of the British Council in Russia, and that it is not the only non-governmental organisation in Russia that has been systematically undermined by its Government in the past few years? Is it not important that we continue to be robust, not least now that Mr. Lugovoi has been elected a member of the Duma? The issue is part of a smokescreen to try to hide the fact that one of his colleagues in the Duma said the other day:

“The deserved punishment reached the traitor. I am sure his terrible death will be a warning…that in Russia…treason is not to be forgiven. I would recommend to citizen Berezovsky to avoid any food at the commemoration”—

I am sorry that hon. Members interrupted my hon. Friend—[Hon. Members: “It was Mr. Speaker.”] Mr. Speaker is always correct in his interruptions, but Opposition Members are not. My hon. Friend has spent a lot of time on the issue. He is, of course, absolutely right. The shocking quotation that he read out should indeed be denounced. I will just pick up two of the points that he made. First, let us not yet talk about Russian actions. There have been threats, but there have not yet been actions against the British Council outside Moscow, and we should continue to urge the Russian Government not to take any actions. Secondly, we need to continue to give the Russian Government the clear message that we will continue to take the Lugovoi issue seriously; the request for his extradition remains in force, and it remains a commitment of ours to see justice done in this country. At the same time, we are determined to work with Russia on a range of international and bilateral issues. We must continue to make that twin-track message clear.

Human Rights (China)

4. What steps he is taking to encourage the Chinese government to adhere to pledges it has made in respect of human rights and press freedom, with particular reference to occupied Tibet. (175894)

We encourage the Chinese Government to fulfil their human rights obligations across China, including in Tibet. My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary raised the issue of human rights with the Chinese Foreign Minister in December. My right hon. Friend the Minister for the Olympics and for London raised the issue of media freedom in November. We will raise our concerns on Tibet at the next round of the UK-China human rights dialogue in Beijing later this month.

The Chinese have promised media freedom for foreign journalists in China, but have restricted it even more in occupied Tibet. They promised to give the Red Cross access to prisons in China, but exempted Tibet. They promised religious freedom, but effectively have martial law in monasteries. Is not the reality that the Chinese sign lots of bits of paper about Tibet, but do absolutely nothing about it?

We take seriously the range of human rights issues that the hon. Gentleman raised. I know that he has a long record in relation to Tibet and has rightly highlighted the matter on many occasions. We pursue human rights in three ways—through high-level lobbying, through UK-China and EU-China dialogues, and through project work on the ground, including on issues such as the judiciary, torture, the death penalty and minority rights.

It is heartening that China has made pledges to uphold human rights. However, it is difficult to equate such pledges with China’s continuing offer of no-strings aid, which has emboldened some unsavoury Governments and allowed them to ignore calls for reform. Can the Minister assure the House that the Government will continue to do all in their power to encourage China to conditionalise the aid that it gives to some of the most despotic regimes in the world, such as the regime in Sudan?

My hon. Friend raises an important point. Our engagement with China always focuses on human rights issues. The Prime Minister is to visit shortly and will continue our dialogue and continue to press on these matters.

What is the difference between the Chinese Government’s respect for human rights in Tibet and the Serbian Government’s respect for human rights in Kosovo that justifies a very different policy by Her Majesty’s Government?

We take seriously the issues in Tibet and we raise these matters continually at the regular dialogues. This will be the 16th round of dialogues between the UK and China on Tibet, and on this occasion the delegations will make a visit to Tibet to study the situation on the ground.

Women's Rights (Basra)

6. What assessment he has made of the safety of women in Basra province who do not adhere to Islamic dress and behaviour codes. (175896)

The Government condemn all violence against women and are committed to supporting women’s rights in Iraq. We have heard accounts of extremist militias murdering women who allegedly have not conformed to the dress codes that their killers consider appropriate for females. We are supporting groups and individuals working to improve the situation of women in Basra. These include many committed and courageous female professionals and politicians. We support the Basra chief of police’s personal pledge to improve security for women in the city.

I thank the Minister for that thoughtful response. Can he assure us that the Government in Basra province are as committed as the House believes they should be to equal rights for all citizens and to protecting some of the most vulnerable from action by militias or by the police or state authorities? Does he share my concern that we may have left in Iraq a situation where dressing un-Islamically, or comitting apostasy or blasphemy, are punishable physically, and that in that respect the situation is worse than when we went to war there?

I raised the matter this morning with General Mohan, who is the head of the operations centre in Basra. He reminded me that Basra had once been the most cosmopolitan of cities in the Gulf, and he was confident that it could be returned to that position. He made it clear to me that he was worried about some of the activities of what he called Iranian agents in stirring up feeling there in favour of a much more rigorous application of the more austere aspects of some Islamist sects. The hon. Gentleman is right. We must keep a close eye on the situation and keep reminding the Government in Baghdad that they must do everything possible to protect women in that city and in every other city in Iraq.

Will my hon. Friend comment on the historic background to the sort of treatment that we are hearing about in Basra province? Does it go back to the period of Saddam Hussein or beyond that? Does he agree that the Koranic advice on Islamic dress is simply that men and women should dress modestly—that is, they should be careful and not expose too much of their body? However, it says nothing about the burqa or the niqab.

It is important that we remember that in the last years of Saddam Hussein’s rule, he had six women murdered in Basra. Their bodies lay in the main street for six days and no one was allowed to touch them because he wanted to teach Basrawis a lesson about the way that they behaved in public. It was a brutal regime and it has been a brutal history. My hon. Friend, who knows a great deal about the subject, is right about dress codes. One has only to visit the middle east to witness how differently dress codes are interpreted across the region. It is a mystery to those of us who go there and ask, “If the dress code is interpreted in that way in one country, why should it be so strictly interpreted in another?” I hope that our dialogue with countries in the middle east will help them understand the concern that we feel at the fact that human beings are treated in that way as a consequence of their mode of dress.

The Minister will have seen today’s comments by Sir Hilary Synnott, the former head of the British administration in southern Iraq. Sir Hilary said that the problems there are due, at least in large part, to the fact that the efforts of our troops were let down by a failure to co-ordinate and deliver effective civilian work on reconstruction. Can the Minister assure us now that the Government have learned and are acting on that lesson from Basra, before we repeat the experience that has occurred in Afghanistan?

I was surprised to read Sir Hilary’s statement, because in fact there have been some very substantial achievements in and around Basra; one has only to think, for example, of some of the projects run by the Army down there. There are huge new date plantations, employing 4,000 people. When our rebuilding of parts of the electricity and water infrastructure finishes very soon, there will be additional electricity and drinking water for the first time for 1 million people.

There have been achievements. However, the hon. Gentleman is right to raise the issue of the lack of preparedness after the invasion in respect of understanding what was required in rebuilding the country and offering people services that made their lives different from how they had been during the days of Saddam Hussein.

My hon. Friend will recall that immediately after the fall of Saddam Hussein, the British Government took steps to ensure that Iraqi women from all the different communities in Iraq were able to come together and have a strong voice in the shaping of the new constitution and the election of the new Parliament. Can he assure me that the Government will continue to support a strong voice for Iraqi women—both directly, through the efforts of his Department, and indirectly, through the work of the Muslim Women’s Network, organised by the Women’s National Commission?

Yes, indeed; my right hon. Friend is right to remind us of that. It is difficult to see how Iraq can move forward if the rights of women are not enhanced and protected. However, I am confident that they will be. Besides anything else, there are now some powerful and vocal female members of the Iraqi Parliament—they will make a difference, if no one else will.

Western Balkans

7. What recent steps have been taken by the Drugs and International Crime Department in co-operation with the border authorities of states of the western Balkans to reduce illegal immigration and trafficking of people. (175897)

Through its Drugs and International Crime Department, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office contributed about £1.5 million in 2005 to 2007 for capacity building of law enforcement in the Balkans, including awareness-raising projects aimed at potential victims in Romania and Bulgaria. We have helped fund three projects in Serbia, three in Albania, two in Macedonia and one in Bosnia. I have met the Interior Ministers of Romania, Bulgaria and Albania to discuss how best to tackle crimes such as illegal immigration, drugs and human trafficking through those countries.

As one of the principal objectives of the Drugs and International Crime Department is the dismantling of trafficking groups, and as British taxpayers paid tens of millions of pounds for that department, will the Minister say how many trafficking groups have been dismantled in the western Balkans in each of the past five years? How much money has been taken from the traffickers and put into the British taxpayers’ purse and how much money has been given to the victims of trafficking in the western Balkans as a result of the dismantling of such groups? Has any of the money—

I will certainly try to supply the hon. Gentleman with the figures that he asks for. I commend the work that he has done and recognise that in forming an all-party group in this House he has drawn attention to an extremely serious crime. He understands, and I hope that he will keep telling people, that trying to break up those routes and those gangs is very difficult and becoming more difficult, because they are often financed by additional smuggling of drugs, whether Afghan-based heroin or the cocaine that is increasingly coming through that route into western Europe. It is a big job. There are people doing some very brave things in the western Balkans in trying to break up those gangs. I will try to get the figures that the hon. Gentleman asked for, because I do not know them offhand.

The Council of Europe convention on human trafficking comes into force next month, yet we are still to ratify it. The Government say that some legislative changes are required. Will they tell us what those changes are, and publish a timetable for them so that we can get on and help the victims of trafficking?

The hon. Gentleman is right to attract our attention to this. Implementing the convention is a key part of the comprehensive United Kingdom action plan on tackling human trafficking. Some of the other signatories to the convention have legal systems that allow or require ratification before implementation; ours does not. We intend to implement the measures, in effect, before formal ratification. As the hon. Gentleman hinted, the complexity of some of the issues to be resolved, including the likelihood of secondary and primary legislation and the need fully to consult stakeholders, means that ratification will take time. We want to ratify as soon as possible, but we believe that getting the arrangements right so that they work on the ground is much more important than political posturing.

South Africa

Recent events in South Africa show that the country continues to develop and strengthen its democracy. South Africa is, and will remain, an important partner for the United Kingdom on a range of key bilateral, regional and wider international issues.

What assessment has my hon. Friend or her Department made of the impact of the change of leadership of the African National Congress on the Government in South Africa? Is she concerned that our strategic allies face political uncertainties, or pressures, not only in southern Africa but more spectacularly in east Africa?

My hon. Friend raises an issue concerning internal matters in the African National Congress. As far as the United Kingdom Government are concerned, South Africa is a key partner. President Mbeki is due to remain in office until the next South African elections, and we will continue to work closely with him and his team throughout this period.

Given the continuing catastrophe in Zimbabwe, what pressure are Her Majesty’s Government bringing to bear, through the South African Government, to bring to an end the totally unacceptable activity that continues in Zimbabwe?

The UK Government consider the role of South Africa to be very important in seeking to address issues in Zimbabwe, and we believe that regional action is likely to be the most effective. We continue to back President Mbeki’s mediation role through the South African Development Community initiative. Deadlines have been missed, which is unfortunate, but we are told that negotiations are entering their final stages, and we will continue to talk to South Africa about this.

Following up the question from my hon. Friend the Member for East Londonderry (Mr. Campbell), what recent political developments give the Minister confidence that Thabo Mbeki and the South African Government will put increased pressure on Mugabe to return Zimbabwe to democracy, and perhaps also suggest that the elections for the presidency a little later this year should be monitored and supervised internationally?

As I said, we have been told that the final stages of negotiations under the SADC initiative are under way, but I am afraid that there are no new signs of optimism in relation to the process. The hon. Gentleman is right to raise the issue of elections; we would want those elections to be moderated and supervised internationally.


The Colombian Government have stated many times their commitment to improving human rights, and progress is being made. However, as I discovered on my visit a few weeks ago, too many Colombians live in fear of violence, murder and kidnapping. Illegal armed groups are mainly responsible, but reports of soldiers and policemen committing abuses are a continuing concern. That is why we are helping the Government of Colombia, and civil society, to protect and promote the rights of all Colombians, which is a priority for this Government.

I thank my hon. Friend for his answer. According to Amnesty International, Colombia is one of the most dangerous places in the world for trade unionists to live and work. More than 2,200 were killed between 1991 and 2006, and security forces and Government-backed paramilitaries were thought to be behind many of those deaths. Will my hon. Friend consider withdrawing support for the Colombian security services until they give absolute guarantees that the rights of trade unionists will be protected and observed?

No, we will not withdraw our support, because we are trying to convince people in Colombia that human rights are an important consideration. We are working with the authorities and non-governmental organisations there, and we are certainly working with the Colombian TUC. In fact, I met the president of the Colombian TUC on my visit just before Christmas, and he was convinced that the work we are doing is very valuable. We will continue to take part in efforts to ensure that Colombian trade unionists are given the protection that they deserve. They have been kidnapped and killed by all manner of groups, including FARC, which sometimes considers them to be getting in the way of good drug business in the south of the country. FARC kills trade unionists, just as right-wing militias would.

In addition to suffering quite the most savage and egregious violence of the sort to which the hon. Member for Luton, North (Kelvin Hopkins) referred, the Minister of State will also be aware that substantial numbers of Colombian trade unionists have been imprisoned—in some cases for very lengthy periods—without being charged with any offence, and therefore without the opportunity to defend themselves in a proper trial. I feel sure that the Minister of State has remonstrated in the strongest terms; perhaps he can give the House details of how he has done so.

Yes indeed. During my last visit, I raised that matter with Vice-President Santos and the Defence Minister. It is not a great advert for any democracy—and I believe that Colombia is a fast-developing democracy, and a good example to Latin America. Everyone must be given a fair trial there, especially trade unionists, who have been very brave in standing up for the rights of ordinary people in some of the most dangerous areas in the world.

Is my hon. Friend aware that some of us who visited Colombia a couple of years ago would very much endorse what he and other hon. Members have said about the role of the trade union movement? Those involved were some of the bravest people we met. Will he therefore continue the dialogue with the international trade union movement? Will he remember, too, that some of the Churches were hugely influential in carrying out marvellous work, and that they too should be encouraged?

Yes indeed; that is an important point. Such things will help Colombia to be part of a wider international dialogue. There is some very good work going on there, and my right hon. Friend mentioned some of the agencies involved. There are many others too, involved with small activities that people are undertaking. Let us also remember that five or six years ago the country was on the verge of being a failed state, run by gangsters. The biggest cartel of gangsters today is made up of those posing as revolutionaries—FARC. It is the biggest drug cartel in South America, and certainly in the western world. It will use any form of repression, such as torture or kidnapping, and it will hold people for a very long time in order to further its own commercial ends.

Council of Ministers

11. If he will make a statement on the agenda of the Slovenian presidency of the Council of Ministers. (175901)

Slovenia took on the European Union presidency on 1 January, and we congratulate it on being the first of the 2004 new member states to do so. We welcome its strong focus on the Lisbon jobs and growth agenda, economic reform, climate change and further EU enlargement.

I, too, welcome the presidency of Slovenia, one of the EU’s smallest nations. What measures will we, as a sovereign Government, take to ensure that Slovenia does not fall under the undue influence of our friends across the channel, such as France? What will the Government do to protect our national interests during this important period?

It is difficult to answer such an unusual question, which is bizarre and absurd in equal measure. Slovenia is a proud and newly independent member state, which has an ambitious agenda for the rotating presidency. Let me stumble towards an answer to the hon. Gentleman’s question: we are providing logistical support and secondees to the Slovenian Government, and I visited Ljubljana recently. It is vital for the Slovenian presidency to be a success. Together, we have celebrated the independence of the nations that were freed from the tyranny of communism and are now proud members of an alliance of democracies.

When you called me, Mr. Speaker, I almost said, “Merci”.

May I confirm that the first thing that the Slovenian Parliament will do is ratify the Lisbon treaty, in accordance with the Slovenian presidency? Will not the hon. Member for Broxbourne (Mr. Walker) be happy when our Parliament, too, ratifies the Lisbon treaty?

My hon. Friend is right. We will take a similar approach to the treaty to that which previous Governments took to other European treaties, including Amsterdam, Nice, Maastricht and the Single European Act. We have an established constitutional principle in the United Kingdom: the Palace of Westminster—the House of Commons and the House of Lords—gives its agreement to such European treaties.

Topical Questions

I briefed the House yesterday on the situation in Pakistan and Kenya and the steps that the Government are taking to help those countries on the path to democracy and development. I can confirm that President Kufuor of Ghana is on his way to Nairobi, and we will do all that we can to assist him.

In 2008, the Foreign Office will focus its policy work on four matters: countering terrorism and weapons proliferation; promoting a low carbon, high growth global economy; preventing and resolving conflict; and developing effective international institutions—most critically, the United Nations and the European Union.

With your permission, Mr. Speaker, I should also like to mention two events in Lebanon earlier today. I am sure that the House will want to condemn strongly the rocket attacks overnight from southern Lebanon on Israel. Secondly, I can confirm reports of an explosion in Rmeileh, 30 km south of Beirut, in which two UN peacekeepers have been injured but, fortunately, not killed. We are seeking more details, but I am sure that the House will join me in deploring any attacks on UN peacekeepers.

In my right hon. Friend’s statement on Pakistan yesterday, he said that it was crucial that the delayed elections be seen to be free and fair. He also said that, if invited, the Commonwealth could play a positive role in monitoring such elections. Has such an invitation been extended at this stage? What actions are the Government taking to ensure that the Commonwealth is prepared if such an invitation comes along?

My right hon. Friend raises an important point. I have spoken to the Commonwealth secretary-general, who confirmed that approaches have been made to the Pakistan Government to make it clear that the Commonwealth would like to have monitors there. I spoke to Pakistan’s acting Foreign Minister last Friday to re-emphasise our belief that Commonwealth monitors could play a constructive role in not only Pakistan’s election but its eventual re-entry to the Commonwealth.

Across the House, we are united in deploring the rocket attacks against Israel and any attacks on UN peacekeepers, as the Foreign Secretary said, and also in intensifying the pressure on Iran to suspend its nuclear enrichment programme and return to negotiations. The Foreign Secretary gave a welcome assurance in November that he had agreed with the other members of the Security Council that a new UN resolution, imposing sanctions on Iran, would quickly be introduced unless Javier Solana reported a positive outcome to his discussions. Mr. Solana reported no such positive outcome, yet no UN resolution has been agreed so far as we know. Will the Foreign Secretary assure the House that it is postponed rather than abandoned?

Yes, although I would not want to use the word “postponed”, or associate myself with it at all. The six members of the E3 plus 3 made it clear that if there were no positive outcome from the work of Javier Solana and the work of the International Atomic Energy Agency, which is pursuing important issues relating to previous Iranian activities in respect of uranium enrichment, there would be a new Security Council resolution. I can confirm to the right hon. Gentleman that intensive work is going on among all six Governments, designed to take forward a resolution on a unanimous basis. I can also say that yesterday I met the secretary-general of the IAEA, Dr. el-Baradei, and emphasised the importance of his work and the urgency of taking it forward in respect of critical issues to do with contamination that remain to be answered by the Government of Iran.

The Foreign Secretary also assured us in November that the Government would press for further EU sanctions against Iran, to be agreed before the end of the year—that is, before the end of 2007. The Minister for the Middle East told the House in October that the Government were “very confident” that EU sanctions against Iran would be tightened. We welcomed that, but again, no such additional action has yet been taken. Is it not vital that it is taken, if Iran is not to conclude that the world does not have the will to uphold the non-proliferation treaty?

It is vital that that action is taken forward. The right hon. Gentleman will know that, in an unprecedented statement, European leaders at the European Council in December agreed the text of a very strong statement in respect of this issue, which made clear the readiness of the EU to move forward. Obviously the EU track and the UN track are complementary, but I assure him that there are intensive discussions taking place on an EU basis, as well as on the UN track.

T5. Will the Foreign Secretary report to the House on what has happened in Basra since our forces handed over provincial control in December? (175844)

My hon. Friend raises an important and timely point, given the visit to London today of General Mohan, the commander of Iraqi security forces in Basra. I met General Mohan this morning, as did my hon. Friend the Minister for the Middle East, and the Secretary of State for Defence is meeting him this afternoon. General Mohan told me that although the security situation of course remains difficult—some of that was discussed earlier this afternoon—he is confident that Iraqi security forces have the capacity to take their work forward. I very much hope that the unity that he called for—on security issues, economic reconstruction and political reconciliation—can bring unity across the House on how we move forward on the issue of Iraq, even though I understand that there will never be unity on the original decision five years ago.

T3. As last July the Prime Minister rightly described the Darfur crisis as one of the great humanitarian disasters of our generation, and as the joint African Union and United Nations force was supposed to be 19,000 strong on 31 December—that is, last week—but is only 9,000 strong on the ground, and comprises mainly African Union troops, what are the Government doing to put the matter right? (175842)

The right hon. Gentleman has long made important contributions on this issue, and he is right to highlight the discrepancy between the agreed intended size of the AU-UN force and its current size. I spoke to the UN Secretary-General over the Christmas and new year break, because of the difficulties in Pakistan, and was able to register the importance of the issue. The mission in New York is also taking it forward. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will also agree that, in parallel to the work to ensure that the force, with the right equipment, is on the ground in Darfur, we must pursue the work to bolster the comprehensive peace agreement, which has brought three years of peace between north and south, but needs to be taken forward further. I hope that the political track, as well as the military track, can be taken forward in 2008.

T7. Assuming that the Minister can give us no further information about the worrying rocket attacks from southern Lebanon into Israel overnight, can he say what he thinks might be the impact of President Bush’s visit tomorrow—his first in all these years as US President? (175846)

I hope that my hon. Friend will accept that these rocket attacks are very worrying. Two rockets came from Lebanon into Israel. We do not know who fired them: we suspect that elements of Fatah al-Islam, the group that caused the devastation in the refugee camp in the north of Tripoli, may be involved, but we have had no confirmation of that. My hon. Friend asks what difference the visit will make. I very much hope that it will continue to focus the attention of the world on the need for far more work to be put in on the middle east peace process, which has been a desultory process for far too long. The intensity that we witnessed in the run-up to Annapolis and since is to be welcomed. With luck, and particularly with the energy of the Americans, we hope to start to see some real achievements.

Further to his answer to the right hon. Member for Bracknell (Mr. Mackay), is the Foreign Secretary aware that the UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon warned yesterday that UNAMID still does not have enough helicopters to carry out its peace-keeping mission in Darfur? While I recognise that our own armed forces are in need of more helicopters, particularly in Afghanistan, what is the British Government doing to ensure that UNAMID has the 24 helicopters that it was promised? The people of Darfur have waited long enough. When will the Government, with our EU and NATO allies, provide those life-saving helicopters?

I again welcome the hon. Gentleman to his post, and to his first Foreign Affairs questions. He rightly raises a detailed point about helicopters. Of course, the pressure on helicopter numbers is reflected not just in Afghanistan but in Chad, where an important French drive is taking place. The hon. Gentleman asked how we were taking discussions about this forward, and I can assure him that in NATO, in the EU and at the UN, strong diplomatic representations are being made at the political and official level. He referred to the calls already being made on British forces, and he will know that although it is easy to talk about deploying one or two helicopters, to do that requires significant numbers of staff in support. It is a complex matter, but I strongly share the hon. Gentleman’s sense of urgency about the situation, and I acknowledge the need to ensure that countries with forces at their disposal send them to the areas where they are most needed.

T8. What further assessment has my right hon. Friend made of the Bali agreement, particularly of aspects that would benefit the people of the UK? (175847)

My hon. Friend raises an important point. This is the first time that the House has had a chance to discuss the matter since the very important Bali conference, where my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and the Minister for the Environment played a critical role in the last hours of the negotiations in securing an agreement. It is not a final global deal on climate change, but it includes for the first time commitments for all countries to be engaged in emissions reduction. Secondly, it specifies 25 per cent. to 40 per cent. cuts in emissions by the developed nations that were signatories to Kyoto by 2020. I think that that provides a basis for serious negotiations over the next two years. Perhaps the greatest thing achieved in Bali was the setting of a deadline for those negotiations, of December 2009—the last date by which we need an agreement if there is not to be a gap when the current Kyoto commitments lapse in 2012.

T4. Ministers will know that since 1 January this year, Sri Lanka has seen the death of one member of parliament, the death of a military commander of the Tamil Tigers and of other Tamils, and, in the last 24 hours, the death of the Minister responsible for nation building. Given that the Sri Lanka Government have announced that they will terminate the ceasefire agreement next Wednesday, what are Her Majesty’s Government doing to try to bring both sides together again to facilitate a long-term and secure settlement for Sri Lanka so that all its peoples can live in peace? (175843)

I share the hon. Gentleman’s concern about the deteriorating situation in Sri Lanka. We have been trying for a long time to help the Norwegians, who have been attempting to broker peace and have done sterling work there. Indeed, my right hon. Friend the Member for Torfaen (Mr. Murphy), a former Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, has been out to Sri Lanka to try to build bridges between the communities on the basis of his experience of what happened in Northern Ireland—but it is a very difficult process. I think that the most distressing feature is how the Government have won some military battles, but then become less enthusiastic about reconciliation and involving everyone who lives on that troubled island in a more inclusive way. We will continue to work with the Government, however, to emphasise that reconciliation must take place. There must be talks; otherwise the killing will continue. A Minister died yesterday, and we have seen—

T6. Does the Foreign Secretary believe that it would benefit the international community if the Republic of Ireland became a member of the Commonwealth, and are Her Majesty’s Government involved in any co-ordinated efforts within the Commonwealth to extend an invitation to the Republic so to do? (175845)

There is a series of important reforms of the operation of the Commonwealth, which Her Majesty's Government strongly support—but it is largely for other countries to seek membership. It is not for the United Kingdom to extend invitations to other countries at our behest or suggestion. It would be for Ireland to initiate such an application, and it has not done so, nor does it appear to wish to submit such an application, now or at any point in the near future.

T9. Will my right hon. Friend seek meetings with Senator Barack Obama to discuss how he might lead America to a more peaceful world, in contrast to the present incumbent of the Oval Office? (175848)

We will seek meetings with all presidential candidates from the United States, to help lead America to move forward in a productive fashion.

T10. I am sure the Foreign Secretary agrees that trust plays a vital part in any discussions that he has with other Foreign Ministers, but in 2005 he, and indeed all Labour Members, stood for election on a manifesto commitment relating to the constitutional treaty which stated:

“We will put it to the British people in a referendum”.

Given that all other Foreign Ministers in the European Union consider the new EU treaty to be a constitution in all but name, how can they ever have any faith in anything that the Foreign Secretary says—or were he and the Prime Minister deliberately misleading the British people? (175849)

Twenty-six of the 27 leaders of the European Union clearly do not believe that the treaty is the same as a constitution, because they do not propose to hold a referendum.

Despite what the hon. Gentleman says, only Ireland, which is required constitutionally to hold a referendum, is going to do so—and what the 27 have actually said is that the constitutional treaty has been abandoned. That is the truth of what they have said.

Last month the Secretary of State for International Development said that the humanitarian crisis in Gaza was

“getting worse by the day”.

Essential medicines have run out, fuel supplies have been cut, and supplies of clean water have been severely restricted. When will the United Kingdom Government remind the Israeli Government that that form of collective punishment is a clear breach of the Geneva convention, and insist that they live up to their duties with regard to humanitarian care?

My hon. Friend has raised an important point. I assure her that we cover the issue of Gaza in all conversations with the Israeli Government. Since the declaration of Gaza as a hostile territory on 30 October we have continued to raise the humanitarian situation there, most recently at the NATO Foreign Ministers’ joint meeting with middle eastern countries. As my hon. Friend will know, on 4 January there was a further tightening of the situation. It remains critical and deserves the attention of the Government, and I assure my hon. Friend that it is receiving it.