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Foreign and Commonwealth Office

Volume 488: debated on Tuesday 24 February 2009

The Secretary of State was asked—


1. What assessment he has made of the implications of the outcome of the general election in Israel for UK policy in the region; and if he will make a statement. (257913)

The composition of the next Israeli Government is not yet clear. However, at the earliest opportunity, the UK will engage with Israel’s new Government on the important task of reinvigorating a serious political dialogue aimed at establishing a lasting and just regional peace between Israel and its neighbours. Working with and supporting all parties in their efforts to reach that goal will remain a central tenet of the UK’s policy in the region.

With right-wing religious nationalists now vying for control of the Knesset, there appears to be little prospect of peace for the families and friends of the 1,300 Gazans killed and 5,500 injured by Israeli military operations before and during the recent general election campaign. Does my right hon. Friend agree that Hamas’s rocket attacks on Israel can no longer be accepted by our Government or the international community as justification for the Israeli Government’s criminal actions in the slaughter and maiming of innocent Palestinian citizens?

I think that the prospects for peace probably seem very remote for a large number of people in the middle east, which is a reason for us to redouble our efforts to secure that peace. On the second part of my hon. Friend’s question, it is very important that we condemn all loss of innocent civilian life on any side. We should not get into the business of justifying one set of civilian losses because of another. A vital part of our work and, critically, the work of the new US Administration, is to try to build a durable peace that is in the interests of Israelis and Palestinians alike.

Is the Foreign Secretary aware that Israel is one of the most advanced countries in the world in tackling human trafficking? The number of convictions of traffickers is up and the amount of compensation paid to victims and the amount of legislation on the statute book are increasing. Will he take a lead from the Israeli Government and see that all embassies with which we have visa arrangements have leaflets explaining to people applying for visas that they should be aware of the dangers of human trafficking?

I was not aware of Israel’s record in that regard, and I shall certainly find out our own practice in that area. The work against human trafficking brings together all civilised people, and if there is anything that we have to learn from the Israeli approach, we will certainly do so.

I have just come back from Gaza, where I saw whole business districts, villages, hospitals and schools that had been systematically razed to the ground by a Government of the centre left, as we are now told to call them. The prospects for progress on peace and other matters being made by a Government of the far right seem unlikely without pressure from this Government and their international partners. What does my right hon. Friend believe those pressures should be?

The picture that my hon. Friend paints of the situation in Gaza was confirmed to me by Senator Kerry, whom I met on Sunday and who had also recently been in Gaza. He painted a picture of extreme devastation right across Gaza. As I said, there is not yet a Government in Israel, but the most significant thing is that in the latter part of last year, we were talking in the House about the importance of the new US Administration engaging on middle east issues from day one, which has indeed happened.

I will be in Sharm el Sheikh on Monday with Secretary Clinton at the donors conference, talking about not just the narrow issues of humanitarian aid and reconstruction but the wider political issues that are raised. I will be in Cairo later today, where I will certainly take up those wider political issues. Those are the key points that need to be on the table for any Government who emerge in Israel.

Will the Secretary of State and Mrs. Clinton, when they are together next week, make it quietly but firmly plain to those who aspire to power in Israel, first, that indiscriminate slaughter is not an acceptable instrument of policy and, secondly, that a two-state solution is the only viable solution to middle eastern problems?

The hon. Gentleman is right to emphasise the importance of restating a commitment to a two-state solution. It is fair to say that it is an indicator of how dangerous the situation is that the mere repetition of that commitment is in itself important. At this time, it is very important to keep on the table the commitment to a two-state solution, especially by the United States, given that the division between Gaza and the west bank currently threatens the very heart of the idea of a contiguous and viable Palestinian state.

My hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, Acton and Shepherd's Bush (Mr. Slaughter) made the point that a Government of the centre left could not find a road to peace, and it seems likely that we will have a Government of the right in Israel shortly. The Foreign Secretary has made it plain that he, along with the international community, wishes to redouble his efforts to try to get a settlement and agreement in the region. How optimistic is he, given the clear political obstacles that the composition of the new Government presents?

The situation on the ground means that anyone who claims to be optimistic at the moment is not engaging with the facts. It is not an optimistic, but a dangerous moment. The dangers mean that not only European countries and the United States, but—critically—countries throughout the Arab world, as well as Israel, have to peer into the abyss of the idea of a two-state solution disappearing. That is dangerous for Israel and for the whole Arab world. It is one reason for my putting such stress in the past six months on the Arab peace initiative, which offers not only a two-state solution, but the prospect of 23 states—Israel and 22 states of the Arab League—normalising relations with each other on the back of the creation of a Palestinian state. That regional approach is essential at this time.

Does the Foreign Secretary agree that Israel is entitled to insist that the Palestinians and the wider Arab world accept her right to exist? Does he also accept that, when Israeli political leaders talk about refusing to countenance a Palestinian state or make promises about expanding illegal settlements, that undercuts the position of every Arab leader who is genuinely committed to peace?

Yes, it is important—I hope that it is noted—that, in all parties in the House, there is an absolute commitment to the centrality of Israel at the foundation of a stable middle east and to the fact that Israel, never mind the Palestinians, will have safety and justice with the creation of a Palestinian state. It is significant that, across the United Kingdom political spectrum, every party is committed to the goal of a safe Israel alongside a viable Palestinian state in a region that benefits from that co-existence. I think that the cross-party commitment to using all Britain’s assets to further that goal is widely welcomed, and it is something that I carry with me as I travel in the region.

Democratic Republic of Congo

2. What representations he has made to the Governments of Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo on the effects on civilians of the military conflict in eastern DRC. (257914)

The Foreign Secretary and the Minister for Africa urged the Presidents of Rwanda and of the DRC to work to resolve the instability in eastern DRC when they visited the region last year. We have continually raised the protection of civilians with both Governments, directly and through the European Union and the United Nations. Those efforts, as part of international pressure, have led to real political progress.

I thank the Minister for that answer. The current joint operation in eastern Congo is unlikely to eradicate the presence of the Forces Démocratiques de Libération du Rwanda—FDLR—before the Rwandans reach the end of the time that they had allocated for that. Will my hon. Friend press the United Nations mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo—MONUC—and the Congolese Government to ensure that there is a strategy in place to deal robustly with what remains of the movement? Does she agree that it is essential quickly to get the reinforcements for MONUC, which were agreed in December at the UN, to deal with the FDLR and with the Lord’s Resistance Army in northern Congo, where 900 people have recently been killed?

First, I commend my hon. Friend’s work in the region and her assessment of the position. I can give the reassurance that we have continued to press the DRC Government to plan for post-military action, including humanitarian work and stabilisation, in the way that she describes. As she says, MONUC is key to that, as is the DRC Government’s working with MONUC and the reinforcement of MONUC troops. I understand that most of the 3,000 reinforcements have been identified, and that MONUC will soon send extra troops to northern Congo.

May I press the Under-Secretary a little further on the future of the United Nations peacekeeping force in the Congo? It has become clear that the MONUC force is incapable of effectively keeping the peace in eastern Congo. I understand from this morning’s Financial Times that discussions have taken place between the British and the French Governments about the future of UN peacekeeping forces, including the one in the Congo. Will the Under-Secretary give us a little more information about that?

Indeed, there are discussions at the UN about all peacekeeping operations. It is important to emphasise that a successful political process will bring peace and a decent future to the region—the problems cannot be solved by military means alone. However, the role of MONUC troops is essential and that is why we seek and support their reinforcement.

May I draw my hon. Friend’s attention to early-day motion 810, which refers to the sad death of Dr. Alison Des Forges? Dr. Des Forges met a number of hon. Members the day before she was killed a couple of weeks ago. She was unquestionably one of the world’s leading authorities on the great lakes region. Will my hon. Friend join me and the House in sending her condolences to Dr. Des Forges’s family?

I certainly will. I would add that perhaps the greatest tribute that we can give to somebody of such stature is to seek peace and a decent future for the DRC and, indeed, the whole region. I thank my hon. Friend for his contribution, both through the all-party parliamentary group and by drawing the issue to the attention of the House through his early-day motion.

Iran’s Nuclear Programme

The Foreign Secretary and other Ministers regularly discuss Iran and its nuclear programme with our European Union counterparts. The EU has consistently been at the forefront of the international response to the Iran nuclear issue. The E3 plus 3 reaffirmed its unity and commitment on 4 February to achieving a diplomatic resolution to the Iran nuclear issue.

I am grateful for that reply, but will the Minister ensure that those European discussions link closely with the potential of the new President of the United States, who seems to hold the possibility of a more flexible and open approach towards Iran?

We very much welcome the US Administration’s willingness to engage directly with Iran, which I think is what my hon. Friend was referring to. However, no one should be in any doubt that President Obama has made it clear that a nuclear-armed Iran is unacceptable. Iran has to make a choice between, on the one hand, the very generous E3 plus 3 offer and a transformed relationship with the international community and, on the other hand, continuing on the path of confrontation, increasing isolation, and tougher and expanded sanctions.

When the Secretary of State meets the US Secretary of State next week, what will he be able to tell her about what further steps the EU is going to take, given that the International Atomic Energy Agency has confirmed that Iran has now enriched enough uranium to make a nuclear weapon?

The US is reviewing its position with regard to Iran, and we are discussing the issue. However, as I have made clear, President Obama has made it clear that a nuclear-armed Iran is unacceptable. We all need to work together to force Iran to confront that fundamental choice: on the one hand, engagement and all the benefits that it can bring or, on the other, increased isolation.

Does the Minister not agree that this might be a good opportunity to launch the idea of a nuclear-free middle east, which would involve the non-development of nuclear weapons by any existing states in the middle east and, of course, nuclear disarmament by the only nuclear-armed state in the region, namely Israel? Does he not also agree that this year’s forthcoming non-proliferation treaty preparatory committee, or prepcom, would be a good time to launch such an initiative?

I am sure that my hon. Friend would welcome the fact that this country and this Government are the most forward-leaning of the nuclear weapon states in terms of disarmament. We need constantly to reiterate that. We are also very committed to a nuclear-free middle east and have consistently urged the Government of Israel to sign up to the NPT as a non-nuclear weapon state.

The possible formation of a Government under Mr. Netanyahu is a matter of some concern in the context of the Iranian nuclear programme. Will the Minister and EU Ministers impress upon any Government headed by Mr. Netanyahu the vital importance of restraint and of working in concert with the EU countries and the United States, and that his Government should not contemplate any unilateral action?

Let me make it clear to the right hon. and learned Gentleman that we have consistently been 100 per cent. committed to a diplomatic solution. Nevertheless, we face a serious challenge in respect of Iran. The whole international community needs to focus Iran on the choice that it faces.

Carrying on doing what we are doing and expecting it to have a different outcome would seem to be folly. What we are doing now seems in no way to be slowing down the Iranian nuclear programme. If we are to avoid the accusation in two years’ time that we allowed the world to drift into a nightmare, how do we and our EU partners take things to the next level in applying pressure on Iran? In particular, those in the Arab world have just as much to lose from a nuclear-armed Iran, so how do we get them to join us?

My hon. Friend makes an exceedingly pertinent point. In all the discussions that I have in the middle east, there is significant concern, among the Gulf states and other middle east states, about the position of Iran. We need to maximise the consensus and force Iran to face the choice that is before it. The United States Administration have rightly said that they are willing in principle to open a direct dialogue with Iran. We need to reinforce that. We also need to maximise the unity and get Iran to the point where it makes the choice that is necessary.

The latest report from the IAEA states that Iran has now stockpiled more than 1,000 kg of low-enriched uranium. If Iran continues at this pace, it will be a matter not of if, but when, it actually has a nuclear weapons capability. Can the Minister therefore assure the House that the EU will now finally muster the will to impose the key sanctions that the Prime Minister first announced back in 2007 on investment in Iranian oil and gas?

The European Union, as I argued earlier, has been at the forefront of those internationally arguing for and urging sanctions. The latest IAEA report is one of real and serious concern. It underlines the reasons why we have a lack of confidence in that Iran has not responded to the IAEA report and is not allowing legitimate access. We need to keep up the argument that that is what we rightly expect Iran to do.

UK-China Relations

I launched the UK-China framework last month because the Government believe that positive engagement with China is essential to achieving our wider international objectives and to addressing the major global challenges, including the current economic crisis. We welcome the positive response from the Chinese Government to this strategy, we will monitor progress against its detailed objectives, and we will welcome the views of Members and others.

Given my right hon. Friend’s rather special relationship with the US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, can he comment on the US’s new approach to China and inform the House whether that new approach will impact in any way on the policies of the United Kingdom?

My hon. Friend will be pleased to hear that I spoke to my new friend in advance of her trip to China. I think that the messages she gave to the Chinese about the determination of the whole of the American Government to engage with China in a new way is wholly welcome. There was, I think, in Secretary Clinton’s remarks in Beijing an important recognition of the changed balance of power in the world and of China’s centrality to addressing many of the big global problems we face—not least economic and environmental problems and nuclear proliferation.

If we are ever to secure peace in Afghanistan, we are going to have to engage all the countries in the wider region, including China, especially if we are going to seek a final solution in that area. What discussions have the Government had with China about engaging with Iran to provide that solution?

I agree with the hon. Gentleman. We obviously talked about Afghanistan during the visit of Premier Wen and Foreign Minister Yang at the beginning of this month. I was in Afghanistan last week. I believe that the important regional approach taken by the new envoy, Ambassador Holbrooke, is wholly welcome.

As literally millions and millions of Chinese people lose their jobs with the Chinese economy going into even freer fall than the European and American economies, there are political consequences. In my right hon. Friend’s talks with the Chinese, will he gently suggest that the next economic paradigm has to be based on workers being able to earn enough to buy what they produce and to have social and other networks of support? Will he further bring into play the International Labour Organisation to urge the Chinese to develop a much fairer social and wage system in their country?

I think that my right hon. Friend will recognise the irony of China riding to the rescue of international capitalism at this time, but his points about the balance of economic and social stability in China are very well made. Our human rights dialogue certainly provides one opportunity to raise a whole range of social issues with the Chinese Government.

Is the Secretary of State aware that when North Koreans try to leave that dictatorship, they often cross into China, where they are rounded up and sent back to North Korea in defiance of all China’s obligations as a signatory to the UN refugee convention? The fate of these returnees to North Korea is extremely gruesome, so will the Secretary of State ensure that his new love-in with China—whether via Mrs. Clinton or anyone else—does not prevent him and the Government from raising this issue with the Chinese Government as a matter of urgency, or does he think that China is too important and large to merit such criticism?

The right hon. Gentleman raises an important point, which is one that we have raised with the Chinese. I think I should write to him with a report on how those discussions have gone and what the latest stage is. The importance of our engagement with China is precisely that, because we engage with the Chinese, we are able to raise all issues, including human rights issues, openly and frankly. That spirit of candour has been developed over the past few years in our relationship with China. Respect for China does not mean the relegation of our concerns to a subsidiary role. In fact, I would argue that the respect that is afforded to China is the basis for proper engagement on issues that concern us.

Sri Lanka

5. What recent assessment he has made of the political situation in Sri Lanka; and if he will make a statement. (257917)

The recent military advances by the Sri Lankan Government and the subsequent humanitarian crisis are of continuing serious concern. We have repeatedly called for an immediate humanitarian ceasefire. We have made it clear to the Government of Sri Lanka that a political solution that addresses the legitimate concerns of all communities in Sri Lanka is the only way to bring a sustainable end to the conflict.

Our commitment to that goal and our desire to work with the Sri Lankan Government are clear in the appointment of an experienced former Secretary of State, my right hon. Friend the Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Des Browne), as the Prime Minister’s special envoy. I remain in active discussion with the Sri Lankan Government to encourage them to work with him.

I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer and also welcome the appointment of my right hon. Friend the Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun as special envoy to Sri Lanka, as well as the statements made in the House by members of the Government regarding ceasefire, but warm words and good intentions will not protect the civilians of the Vanni.

My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary will be aware that, in the last 24 hours, a ceasefire offer has been made but was rejected out of hand by the Government of Sri Lanka. The situation is grave, with 2,000 civilian deaths since January. Is not now the time for the Government to take the issue up at the highest levels—namely, at a session of the United Nations Human Rights Council or in the Security Council itself, or by seeking the suspension from the Commonwealth of the Government of Sri Lanka?

The situation is indeed extremely serious. For some time, the Sri Lankan authorities were offering a ceasefire and it was rejected by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. Now there is news of an LTTE offer, which has been rejected by the Government. My right hon. Friend will have seen the strong conclusions reached by the European General Affairs and External Relations Council yesterday on the Sri Lankan issue, which are wholly appropriate and welcome, and she can be assured that we continue to press at the highest levels for humanitarian assistance and for a ceasefire.

Further to the point made by the right hon. Member for Enfield, North (Joan Ryan), will the Foreign Secretary explain to the House why the Government have not sought a resolution of the UN Security Council for a ceasefire in Sri Lanka? Indeed, why, when Mexico recently asked for the council to be briefed on Sri Lanka, did the British representative to the UN fail to support that call? Does the Foreign Secretary realise that people get pretty angry when UK Ministers here in London talk about and call for a ceasefire, but British officials in New York do not follow through?

I am sorry to hear the hon. Gentleman talk in that way, because he knows that a failed resolution—one that faces a veto—is worse than no resolution at all, and it would strengthen precisely the forces that he and I oppose. I can assure him that our diplomats, whether in New York or in the region, are all working off the same script, which is one that has been set by the Prime Minister and me.

Can the Foreign Secretary confirm that the problem in the Security Council is not the UK Government, but the Russian Government, who refuse to support the Security Council resolution? Therefore, unlike in Gaza, we are unable to get the Security Council resolution that is so needed.

There certainly is a blockage at the UN. That is why the UN has not been able to opine on this issue.

The Secretary of State will know that there are credible reports of atrocities on both sides. Will he assure the House that the Government will channel their energies into getting this ceasefire before more and more civilians are killed and brought into the conflict?

Yes. The tragedy in Sri Lanka has claimed 70,000 lives in the course of the conflict. That conflict is against the interests of all Sri Lanka’s communities, which could find a way to live together if they had representation that was able to eschew violence and look for a political solution. I assure the hon. Gentleman that we are using all our best efforts to achieve that. It is deeply to be regretted that the appointment of an envoy has not yet been met with a welcome in Colombo, but that is what we are working for.

But will that envoy be able to help us ensure that Ban Ki-Moon’s commitment to supporting a ceasefire that enables civilians to leave the hot areas in Sri Lanka can be realised? Families in Britain are anxious about relatives of whom they have heard nothing for months. We need to help them, and their relatives, to be safe.

My hon. Friend speaks about this issue with knowledge and passion. She is absolutely right about the need for us to do all that we can to protect those civilians, including working with the United Nations. There are very distressing reports of both sides interfering with civilians’ ability to find safety. It is at the heart of our concerns not just to try to provide money, but to try to provide space to which civilians can escape and in which they can be given proper safety. The situation is deeply distressing, not just to people in the region but to many, many people in the United Kingdom.

Some of the signals coming from the Sri Lankan Government imply that they are quite prepared to go ahead with acts of genocide. Time is of the essence. I understand that the right hon. Gentleman is doing what he can, but many of us are deeply worried about what is going on in Sri Lanka and, as time goes by, it is getting worse. The next fortnight may be crucial. May I urge the right hon. Gentleman to think again about every possible avenue that might enable a horrible humanitarian catastrophe to be averted?

The hon. Gentleman has raised an important point. Sri Lanka has a democratic Government, and—as I have said in another context—high standards are rightly expected of democratic Governments, and should be adhered to by every single Government.

What the hon. Gentleman said about the Sri Lankan Government was absolutely right. No one denies that there is a terrorist problem in Sri Lanka. That terrorist problem poses a mortal threat to Sri Lankans in all communities, but the resolution of that terrorist problem cannot be achieved at the expense of the rights of minority communities in Sri Lanka, and that is what we are trying to work on.

As chairman of the all-party parliamentary group on Sri Lanka, I welcome the appointment of my right hon. Friend the Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Des Browne), and wish him well in his discussions with the Government there.

Human Rights Watch reported recently that 2,000 people had died and 5,000 had been injured—innocent civilians caught in the conflict. There are now reports that the so-called safe areas are no longer safe because conflict is proceeding there. I have noted the comments of my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary. Will he redouble his efforts to secure a humanitarian corridor that will allow innocent civilians to escape entirely from the area of conflict in the Vanni?

I recognise the work that my hon. Friend has done as chairman of the all-party group. We will certainly explore all options for the provision of civilian safety, including a ceasefire, a humanitarian corridor and humanitarian safe zones. The situation does indeed get worse day by day. The stories that emerge are of extreme cruelty—cruelty, I have to say, on both sides—and it is very important for the international community to work on the issue. The unanimity of the European Union’s response yesterday is an important indication that the issue is rightly becoming higher on the international agenda.

Obviously we all wish the right hon. Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Des Browne) great success. However, is it not the case that after the Prime Minister had announced the right hon. Gentleman’s appointment, the Sri Lankan Government made it clear that they had not been consulted and that they found the whole thing extremely objectionable, and is it not the case that, on Wednesday 18 February, the Sri Lankan Cabinet met and refused to withdraw its opposition to the right hon. Gentleman’s appointment? If that is so, it must mean either that the right hon. Gentleman personally is unacceptable—which I would find strange—or that a special envoy from the United Kingdom is unacceptable and will therefore be in permanent limbo.

I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman has taken the position that he has, because following a letter from our Prime Minister to the President of Sri Lanka, I spoke to the President of Sri Lanka on 30 January—a long time before the date the hon. Gentleman mentioned—and President Rajapakse said he would engage with a UK envoy. Two meetings between our high commissioner and the President confirmed that position, so it is important that we do not leave on the record the suggestion that there was not consultation. There was, indeed, consultation on this issue, and that is why we are working hard to explain to the Sri Lankan Government not only the virtues of my right hon. Friend the Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun, but the potential benefit of a UK envoy, joining envoys from Japan, Norway and other countries, playing a positive role in the conflict.

Among the civilian deaths in the north of Sri Lanka as a result of the Sri Lankan Government’s military action are 11 relatives of a member of the Milton Keynes Tamil Forum. What she wants to know is what justice there will be for her relatives killed in that action. Can the Foreign Secretary offer any hope of justice?

The constituent my hon. Friend mentions has lost 11 relatives, and it is impossible from this Dispatch Box to say anything that will give someone in such a situation, at a time of such huge distress, any sense of real comfort. She is among a large number of people in this country who have lost large numbers of relatives in this terrible conflict. I can assure her and every person who has Sri Lankan heritage or relatives in Sri Lanka that their Government in the UK are working very hard, internationally and bilaterally, on the issue. There are responsibilities on the LTTE, but there are also responsibilities on the Sri Lankan Government, and both need to fulfil them.

Democratic Republic of Congo

The DRC and its neighbours are co-operating constructively on regional security. The Government have begun work on areas such as security sector reform and development, and the national Parliament is increasingly effective in holding the Government to account. However, much work remains to be done to achieve the lasting progress that we all want to see.

In addition to looking at increasing UN troop numbers, which the Minister mentioned earlier, will she also look at the effectiveness of those troops, particularly given UN commander Bipin Rawat’s comments that he can only get munitions delivered 9 to 5, Monday to Friday, not at the weekends, and that there is no capacity whatever for night flights?

Of course, this is a matter for the UN, and we will discuss it there. The MONUC team is available to the DRC and Rwandan armies to help them with their military planning, and I would encourage them to make full use of that, because what we want to see is the MONUC troops carrying out the highest priority, which is civilian protection.

Developing the justice sector is key to creating political stability in the DRC. We were all delighted to see the arrest of Laurent Nkunda, the warlord who ran CNDP criminals in north Kivu, over Christmas, but what conversations has my hon. Friend had with the Governments of Rwanda and the DRC to ensure that Laurent Nkunda returns to the DRC to face justice for the unspeakable acts committed by him and his troops?

My hon. Friend is right that justice not only has to be done, but has to be seen to be done, and matters such as those are raised regularly both directly with the Governments and through the UN and EU.

That is the estimate that has been made, and, indeed, the UK has supported the United Nations security resolution that brought about that extra reinforcement. What matters is that those reinforcements arrive as soon as possible, that they get on with the job that they are there to do, and that they assist the Rwandan and DRC Governments to protect civilians and to bring about a lasting peace. However, as I said earlier, that cannot be done only by military means. It has to be done through a political process. There has been progress, and we will continue to support that.


7. What recent discussions he has had with his international counterparts on peacekeeping initiatives for the Gaza strip. (257920)

The Foreign Secretary and I this morning met special envoy Mitchell to discuss Gaza and the middle east. We reiterated the UK’s determination to support the ceasefire, both by helping to stop arms smuggling into Gaza and by pressing the Israeli Government to open the crossings. The Foreign Secretary will be leading the UK delegation to the Gaza reconstruction conference in Egypt on Monday.

When I recently visited Palestine with the Halifax Friends of Palestine group I saw for myself the atrocities being committed against the people there; day after day, they are terrorised, homes are demolished, concrete walls are built, which prevent children from going to school, and innocent lives are lost. Will the Minister reassure me that he is doing everything he can, working with his international counterparts, to protect the Palestinians and their land, and to find a swift and peaceful solution?

I say to my hon. Friend, who takes a real interest in these issues, that there has clearly been an unacceptable loss of innocent civilian life. The reality is that we have been at the forefront of efforts to press for a ceasefire, including by leading the way at the United Nations Security Council. We are strongly supporting efforts to stop arms smuggling into Gaza and we are strongly pressing the Israeli Government to open the crossings. However, peace will ultimately be secured by the actions of Hamas, on the one hand, and the Government of Israel, on the other.

Is it not the case that Hamas continues to store arms in schools, mosques and civilian areas? The arms are clearly still getting through. Does not the international community have a role to play in stopping things being smuggled from Egypt and in assisting the Egyptian authorities in ensuring that the tunnels are maintained? [Interruption.]

I get the point. The hon. Gentleman is right to say that unless we tackle both sides of this, we will not get the security and the peaceful solution that people seek. That is why we, in concert with other international partners, are doing everything possible to support the Egyptian efforts to tackle smuggling across the borders. We have also, in our own right, made an offer of naval assistance, and that, too, might be able to make a contribution.

My hon. Friend has indicated that the Government will pursue, with vigour, the interception of arms going into Gaza—such arms could threaten Israeli civilians. Could he say precisely what action is being taken to ensure the protection of Palestinian civilians from Israeli attack?

We led the way at the UN Security Council to obtain the ceasefire that has been achieved, fragile though it is, and we have consistently made it abundantly clear that there has been an unacceptable loss of innocent civilian life and that that has to stop. We need to provide security, not only for the Palestinians, but for the Israelis in southern Israel.

I have just returned from an all-party group visit to Gaza, where we witnessed the aftermath of the total destruction of the village of Izbit Abed Rabbo, east of Jabalia, and the consequences of white phosphorus attacks on a children’s centre and music school. In his statement to the House on 12 January, the Foreign Secretary said that he wanted to see an investigation into such abuses. What are the Government doing to ensure that such an investigation takes place?

We have made our view clear and we have also supported the UN Secretary-General’s calls for such investigations into abuses of international humanitarian law. We are certainly concerned about reports on the way in which white phosphorus ammunition has been used in Gaza, and we have made our concerns abundantly clear to the Government of Israel.

In light of a report published by Amnesty International on 10 February detailing extra-judicial executions carried out by Hamas, does my hon. Friend agree that there is an urgent need for the Palestinian Authority to have a presence in Gaza in order to restore the rule of law?

I agree with my hon. Friend. President Abbas is the elected leader of all Palestinians, and I very much hope that next week’s reconstruction conference in Egypt will be able to discuss, among other things, in what way the Palestinian Authority can be involved in the reconstruction of Gaza.

UK-Pakistan Relations

8. What recent discussions he has had with representatives of the Government of Pakistan on UK-Pakistan relations. (257921)

The Foreign Secretary is in regular contact with members of the Pakistani Government and spoke most recently with President Zardari on 9 February and with Foreign Minister Qureshi on 7 February. He discussed a wide range of common issues, including the Mumbai attacks, Afghanistan and counter-terrorism.

We are, of course, aware that the Foreign Secretary recently raised Kashmir with the Government of India, and presume that he also did so with the Government of Pakistan. Is it the Government’s view that a solution in Kashmir is integral to a wider solution in the region as a whole, and does the Minister agree that—in some way and at some time—the people of Kashmir must be involved in any discussions about what is, after all, their future?

The Foreign Secretary has made it clear that our position on Kashmir has not changed. The key priority at the moment is for the Government of Pakistan to act on Lashkar-e-Taiba. That is what we are arguing for both publicly and privately.

Does the Minister agree that some of the sources of instability in Afghanistan lie in Pakistan, including activities on the north-west frontier and the recruiting and training of young Taliban in Pakistani madrassahs? Have those matters been broached with the Pakistan Government?

Yes, there are clearly issues that are of mutual interest between Afghanistan and Pakistan. The increasingly close relationship between the Governments of those two countries is a source of optimism, and we raise those issues with them regularly.

Does the Minister agree that the stability of Pakistan is vital for any progress to be made in that region of the world? If I may pick up on the question put by the hon. Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott), what happens in Pakistan will impact directly on Afghanistan. What hope can the Minister give the House that his discussions with his opposite numbers are progressive, and will contribute to the peace and stability of the region?

It is absolutely our intention to ensure that we do everything that we can to make progress on these issues. It is not within our gift to make that happen, but we are certainly working to that end. Counter-terrorism is a key aspect of our relationship with Pakistan, which is one of our key allies. We will keep working on these issues with Pakistan, in both our interests and those of the whole international community.

Falkland Islands (Transport Links)

10. If he will take steps to improve transport links to the Falkland Islands; and if he will make a statement. (257923)

Negotiations between the FCO and the Ministry of Defence on new terms and conditions for improved civilian use of the south Atlantic air bridge are expected to be concluded shortly. The MOD has already provided a premium economy service, increased the frequency of the flights to twice a week, and given the Falkland Islands Government the number of aircraft seats they requested.

Will my hon. Friend look again at the matter, together with colleagues from the MOD, to ensure that the child concession, which was removed from the air bridge policy, is reinstated so that people from the Falkland Islands can maintain their close links with this country?

I understand the point that my hon. Friend makes. It is probably worth saying that the MOD is charging on a full cost recovery basis, which is consistent with Treasury rules, as he will know. The Falkland Islands Government have the flexibility to take their own decisions about fares and discounts that they offer to their passengers. No doubt they will consider that matter further.

Topical Questions

Today I met with Senator Mitchell to discuss prospects for renewed talks on the future of the middle east. Straight after questions I will travel to Cairo for talks with President Mubarak and Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul-Gheit. In the aftermath of the Gaza war, peace and security for Israelis and Palestinians depends, as ever, on their ability to live side by side. It is now a top priority for the US Administration, and we will do everything in our power to support their efforts.

Will my right hon. Friend tell me what contribution the proposed eastern partnership might make to improving the security of our energy supply and, in the long run, to bringing down the cost of fuel for families and businesses in Britain?

I thank my hon. Friend for raising that important issue. The proposed eastern partnership will engage countries, including Ukraine, which has been in the press most recently, in a strategic discussion about energy security and will help us to secure those dependable supplies. Although Britain does not get any of its energy supplies directly from the eastern partnership countries, insecurity impacts on market prices in the UK, which then has an impact on the prices for families and businesses. That is why it is so important that we engage and are seen to be positive in that engagement, unlike the Conservative party, which chooses not to engage constructively on the European Union.

The Foreign Secretary has made a written statement today on the Binyam Mohamed case. I think that he will agree that the importance of the case is that this country must make it clear that we do not condone or connive in the torture of suspects. Does that not suggest that we should be as transparent as possible in all circumstances? Since the Government’s adviser on terrorism laws, Lord Carlile, has said:

“There is a basis for the UK government to urge the American government that these matters which are of true public interest…should be made public in a way that does not damage…national security”,

will the Foreign Secretary now reconsider his refusal even to ask the US Government for permission to publish the material that the High Court had to withhold?

Across the House and across the Government, we unreservedly condemn the use of torture. Significantly, any allegations are immediately investigated, as has happened in this case—

By the Attorney-General, who is the independent Minister for justice and is the right person to assess whether there has been any criminal wrongdoing. The right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague) is right to say that transparency is important. That is one reason why we argued so strongly that the US Government should give the relevant documents to Binyam Mohamed’s legal team. It is because of those “strenuous efforts”, in the words of the Court, that he has now been released from Guantanamo Bay.

In respect of the decision by the US on the release of the documents, it is not a question of our having permission to release the documents but a question of the Americans deciding whether they should release their own documents. We have made it absolutely clear to the US Administration, most recently in a visit by the senior legal adviser of the Foreign Office to Washington about 10 days ago, that we have absolutely no objection to the release of the documents. The Attorney-General of the US has said that the Americans will review all cases of confidentiality against their national security criteria, and that is right, but our position is absolutely clear. As I said in the House two and a half weeks ago, there is nothing in the contents of the documents that causes us to say that they should be kept secret.

The Foreign Secretary has progressed from saying three weeks ago that he would not go on a lobbying campaign with the US Government about this matter to having no objection to the release of the documents by the US. I am simply asking him to go one step further and to suggest to the US that that is what should be done. The view of the Government’s adviser is that this material should be published and the view of the High Court was that nothing in the relevant paragraphs could be

“described as ‘highly sensitive classified…intelligence’”

and that they should be published. The view of a senior Congressman has been that the secrecy would leave a

“cloud that would haunt both countries”.

The US is in any case reviewing its assertion of state privilege in the courts in every case, as the Foreign Secretary has said, so would it not now be sensible to ask the US to change its approach to the case, to underline our joint commitment to dealing with allegations of torture and to avoid the charges of cover-up that are now flung about?

As I said earlier, far from suppressing documents, it was the action of the Government that got the documents to the defence counsel in this case. The new Administration in the US, in contrast to the previous Administration, have announced that they will review all cases where the confidentiality requirements have been used. A large number—about 240—of legal cases in the US are relevant. I think that it is right that we should make it clear that we have absolutely no objection to the release of those documents. There is nothing in the documents that we think should not be released. It has been discussed in Washington, rightly, and it is now for the US to go through each of the documents and decide whether to release them.

T2. Climate change is top of the agenda throughout the world. The next time that my right hon. Friend has discussions with China, could he ensure that clean coal technology is top of the agenda? There are more than 1 million miners in China. They are producing CO2 emissions continuously. Would it be possible for him and his wee brother to have a discussion with their opposite numbers to ensure that we get a clean coal technology solution, which will be good for the world? (257939)

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change—sometimes known by other names—will travel to China with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform in April, precisely to take forward this issue. My hon. Friend will know that China is building between four and seven—estimates vary—new coal-fired power plants a week. If those coal-fired plants are not equipped with carbon capture and storage technology, the consequences for climate change and the environment of the planet are very grave indeed.

T3. The Foreign Secretary may have seen the recent report from Amnesty International that details the use of white phosphorous artillery shells by the Israeli army against civilians in the recent offensive in Gaza. What action will he and the Government take as a result of those actions? (257940)

It is still unclear exactly what took place and what weapons and munitions were used. We are assessing the situation. The current and recent activities of the Israeli defence force will be taken account of in any future arms export applications, and the Amnesty International report is a helpful contribution to the report that we are compiling.

T4. The EU is perhaps the biggest trading bloc in the world; it has a population of approaching 500 million. Can the Minister assure the House that the EU is using that economic muscle to develop positive policies to help in the current economic climate? (257941)

My hon. Friend quite rightly draws attention to the EU’s importance as a market. When more than half the investment into the United Kingdom comes from other EU countries and contributes to 10 per cent. of our work force, we all realise how important the EU is. Today, the EU must act to shape the global agenda, and that is why, ahead of the London summit on 2 April, it will be working across the member states not only to consider what more can be done to stabilise financial markets and to stimulate our economies, but to look to the future and how to create jobs, particularly green jobs, to ensure that our children and their children have a prosperous future.

The Foreign Secretary’s statement today on Binyam Mohamed made it very plain that intelligence information about Mr. Mohamed given by the United States Government to the United Kingdom Government could not be passed on to a third party without the permission of the US Government. It now transpires that intelligence information about Mr. Mohamed was passed from the UK Government to the US Government and then passed on to the Moroccan Government. Was that done with or without the permission of the British Government?

The point that I made in my statement is not exactly as the right hon. Gentleman said. The point is not about the passing to a third party, although I will address that point; the point about the issue in the statement is that justice did not require the publication of those documents by an English court against the wishes of the American Government. That is a separate issue, and the issue at hand is whether the United States authorities should decide to publish in the open those documents for public consumption. As far as justice for Mr. Mohamed is concerned, they were got to his defence counsel. In respect of all questions in relation to the allegation that British questions were used against Mr. Mohamed or for Mr. Mohamed—even information used in formulating questions—those are precisely the matters that are being addressed by the Attorney-General at the moment. It is right that we wait for her inquiry into whether there has been criminal wrongdoing to be concluded, and then we can debate them at length.

Does my right hon. Friend accept that the House should know as quickly as possible whether the person who returned to the UK yesterday was tortured and, if so, whether it was with the knowledge and support of British officials? Indeed, if the latter were the case, it would be a disgrace and those responsible should be brought to justice. When will the Attorney-General report? I understand that this has been with her since last October.

I entirely share my hon. Friend’s view that this country rightly has very high standards. We unreservedly condemn torture. We never collude or co-operate with torture, and where there are any allegations, we take them extremely seriously and ensure that they are independently investigated. The precise point about an independent investigation by the Attorney-General is that I do not tell her when to come to conclusions. It must be right that the Attorney General, with the Director of Public Prosecutions, should be able to conclude her inquiries. Of course, my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick) is right: in general, everybody wants that to happen as soon as possible. However, it must be for the Attorney-General to set her own timetable.

T5. My Bill, the European Union (Audit of Benefits and Costs of UK Membership) Bill, is due for Second Reading this Friday. It is warmly supported by my party’s Front Benchers, and by the Liberal Democrats. Why do the Government not support that essential tool of democracy and accountability? (257942)

I look forward to debating the hon. Gentleman’s Bill, should we make progress on Friday. We are happy to debate the costs and benefits of European Union membership, but we do not see the need for the expense or bureaucracy of a commission that would do that. There is plenty of material—more than most people want in a lifetime—available on the costs and benefits of EU membership. Also, we should not see our EU membership only in terms of economic costs and benefits, important though they are; it is also about the security that the EU gives us, and the peace that it has provided for us over many years.

T8. Does the Secretary of State accept that a fair and just settlement in the middle east will require the involvement of all the surrounding Arab states, especially in relation to the benefits for Israel? What will he do, in his upcoming visit to Cairo, to advance the cause of the Arab peace initiative? (257945)

My hon. Friend makes a very important point; in the end, the Arab states are vital to giving security to Israel, and vital to supporting a future Palestinian state. As I said earlier, a regional solution must be pursued in the middle east—a so-called 23-state solution, not simply a two-state solution. Certainly, that is what the UK Government argue strongly, not just with Egyptian colleagues, whom I will meet soon, but across the region.

T6. The Government recently changed their long-held historical position on Tibet. They gave the Chinese authorities what they wanted in respect of Tibet, but appeared to secure no concessions in return. Will the Foreign Secretary and his team accept that it is important to make progress in that country? Chinese assurances are not sufficient; we need proper action, including proper access for the Red Cross and others to what is happening in a very difficult situation. (257943)

I say to the hon. Gentleman, who I know takes a real interest in the issue, that it is right that we press the Chinese authorities. The Prime Minister raised the issue of Tibet in a recent state visit. When I was in Beijing a couple of weeks ago, I had detailed discussions about Tibet with the lead negotiator on the Chinese side. I strongly argued that there needs to be a settlement that is negotiated with the representatives of the Dalai Lama. That is our position, and we will continue to argue it strongly.

T9. I have just returned from taking part in an excellent Commonwealth Parliamentary Association delegation to Zambia, in which Zambian parliamentarians made clear to me the importance of, and the value that they place on, their role as members of the Commonwealth. Will the Under-Secretary of State tell the House what attitude the British Government take towards the application of countries such as Angola and Rwanda to join the Commonwealth, and what progress is being made on that front? (257947)

My hon. Friend is right about the Commonwealth. In its 60th year it is right that we celebrate its many achievements and look forward to the next 60 years and beyond. We are supportive of Rwanda’s application. We are not aware of an application by Angola, but of course the Commonwealth is not a closed club, and we are keen to see applications where that will further support and strengthen the Commonwealth.

T7. Will the Secretary of State join me in paying tribute to the new Prime Minister of Zimbabwe, Morgan Tsvangirai, and will he waste no time in opening a dialogue with him? Does he not agree that it is an absolute disgrace that Mugabe continues to imprison Movement for Democratic Change activists, as well as imprisoning, and holding without trial, one of the MDC Cabinet appointees, Roy Bennett? (257944)

Yes, it is welcome that Morgan Tsvangirai is now the Prime Minister of Zimbabwe, but it is far from welcome that he does not yet have all the Executive powers that should go with that office. It is particularly galling that some aspects of the agreement that he signed have not been fulfilled, notably in respect of the distribution of portfolios between the parties to the agreement. The hon. Gentleman is also right to raise the case of Roy Bennett, the Deputy Agriculture Minister, and the charges that have been laid against him. We have been clear that we will not only continue our humanitarian aid to Zimbabwe, but stand ready to engage in a massive reconstruction effort, but that must be on the basis of clean politics, an end to violence and an economic approach that benefits the people of Zimbabwe, rather than the cronies of Robert Mugabe.