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Topical Questions

Volume 488: debated on Tuesday 24 February 2009

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.