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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 495: debated on Tuesday 30 June 2009

Foreign and Commonwealth Office

The Secretary of State was asked—


1. What discussions he has had with the Afghan authorities on the conduct of the forthcoming presidential election in that country. (282687)

I met the Afghan Foreign Minister, Dr. Spanta, in Trieste on Friday. Our embassy in Kabul is in regular dialogue with the Afghan authorities, particularly the Independent Election Commission of Afghanistan, which is running the first Afghan-led elections since the 1970s. We are also in close contact with the United Nations Development Programme, which is co-ordinating the international effort to support the election commission. In Helmand province we are working with the election commission, the governor and the Afghan national security forces to ensure credible elections on 20 August.

What reports has the Foreign Secretary received of fraudulent voter registration in the run-up to the elections, such as the mass registration of women in Nuristan?

My attention has not been drawn to the example that the hon. Gentleman has given, but the United Nations and other authorities have been as vigilant as possible in ensuring that the extra voters who have been registered—4 million or so have been registered, which is obviously a good thing—are indeed real voters. I understand that about 85 per cent. of people in Helmand province have been registered, and we are confident that the appropriate procedures have been followed there. However, if the hon. Gentleman has any particular evidence that he wishes to supply to me, I should be happy to have it.


2. What is his most recent assessment of the political situation in Iran; and if he will make a statement. (282688)

7. What recent reports he has received on the political situation in Iran; and if he will make a statement. (282693)

It is for the Iranian people to decide on their Government. The whole world has watched the post-election debate, demonstrations and violence against protesters with mounting concern. The grim effectiveness of the clampdown by the authorities has clearly not ended the debate inside Iran.

We are extremely concerned about the continued detention of some of our locally engaged staff in Tehran. That constitutes unacceptable harassment and intimidation, as European Foreign Ministers made clear in their joint statement on Sunday. I have discussed the issue with Iranian Foreign Minister Mottaki, and we agreed in our second telephone conversation yesterday that a swift resolution was in both our interests.

Has it been possible to make an accurate assessment of the number of Iranian protesters who have been arrested and imprisoned, and have any British nationals been harassed or detained?

It has not been possible for us to conduct an independent assessment of the total number of protesters who have been arrested, let alone the number who have been intimidated. As for the hon. Gentleman’s question about British nationals, he will know of the case of a dual-nationality Greek-British journalist who was detained for a time. The handling of his case is being led by the Greek authorities, and I talked to Foreign Minister Bakoyannis about it at the weekend. Obviously any detention or intimidation of journalists or diplomatic staff is to be deplored, which is why we are working so hard on the case that is currently at the top of our list of priorities: that of our own locally engaged staff.

The European Union has said that there will be a “strong and collective response” if the issue of embassy staff is not sorted out. Can the Secretary of State tell us what the nature of that “strong and collective response” might be?

No, because one of the features of a strong and collective response is that we do not advertise its various aspects in advance. At this stage, it is important for the Government of Iran to recognise that the unanimous view was first that the arrest of the nine staff constituted intimidation and harassment of an unacceptable kind, secondly that it was imperative for the individuals concerned to be released unharmed as soon as possible and able to go about their business, and thirdly that there would be a strong and collective response in respect of intimidation and harassment.

It is important to understand that what is happening in Tehran and the wider country is not a bilateral dispute between Iran and Britain. There is a debate within Iran about how the people want to be governed, but it is also the case that Iran seeks engagement with the wider international community. The wider international community is determined that that engagement should take place on the basis of mutual respect, including respect for all our staff.

The Foreign Secretary will be aware that the Foreign Affairs Committee visited Iran two years ago, and we were greatly assisted in our visit by several locally engaged staff. Will he send a message, through whatever channels he has, to our people in Iran that the FAC greatly appreciates the work they have done for us and that our thoughts are with them at this time?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his comments. It is important that so many Members now recognise that some 10,000 of the 16,000 Foreign Office staff are locally engaged, increasingly in positions connected with political reporting and economic analysis. The nine staff who were arrested on Saturday constitute the locally employed element of our political and economic section in the embassy in Tehran. I am sure that my hon. Friend’s thoughts and good wishes will be important to them, but there is a more general principle here: these staff operate for diplomatic purposes, and they should be given full respect for that role.

As the Foreign Secretary correctly says, it is a matter for the people of Iran to choose their own Government, but it is also a matter for the rest of the world that President Ahmadinejad exports anti-Semitism, exports fundamentalist terrorism, that he may, if he gets nuclear weapons, export some of those, and that he also exports regional instability. We must be much firmer and actually call this gentleman for what he is.

I take my right hon. Friend’s comment in the spirit in which it was intended. There has been disgust not just across this House but across the international community at the anti-Semitic remarks President Ahmadinejad has made in recent weeks and years. However, one thing that has become clear in the last few weeks in respect of other aspects of my right hon. Friend’s question is that all power does not reside in the presidential office in Tehran: the role of the supreme leader is absolutely critical, not least on the nuclear file. It is therefore very important that we not only make clear our own views, but also understand the different layers of governance that exist in the Islamic Republic of Iran.

May I place on record my support for the Government’s position on the British embassy staff arrested by the Iranian authorities, and reinforce the Foreign Secretary’s message that Britain has been restrained and measured in response to the unrest since the Iranian elections? Given such sensitivities and the uncertainties over the future of internal Iranian politics, will the Foreign Secretary reassure the House that beyond the reasonable reaction to the unacceptable Iranian actions that we have seen, Her Majesty’s Government will refuse to be provoked by the supreme leader, President Ahmadinejad and anyone else in the Iranian conservative leadership, and instead recognise that silence, patience and restraint at such a time can be the most powerful of diplomatic weapons?

First, I am very grateful to the hon. Gentleman for the preliminary part of his remarks. I am not sure that I can sign up to “silence”, as that may be going a bit far in the conduct of foreign policy, but I certainly think we should be firm but not macho in the way we go about it, and that is what I shall try to do.

It is of course utterly unacceptable intimidation that Iran continues to detain four locally engaged staff from our embassy, and in making that clear the Foreign Secretary has the united support of the House. This transparent ruse by Iran to portray what is a crisis of the credibility of its own Government, using violence against their own people, as a dispute with the United Kingdom is totally unjustified and will deceive, and should deceive, no one. We also support the proportionate steps the Government have taken in response to this, and strongly welcome the supportive stance of the other EU Foreign Ministers. When the Foreign Secretary spoke yesterday to Mr. Mottaki, the Iranian Foreign Minister, did Mr. Mottaki repeat the assertion by the Iranian Foreign Ministry that there was no wish to damage or downgrade relations with the United Kingdom, and if so, how did he square that with the continued detention of four of our staff?

Foreign Minister Mottaki was clear that he wanted to raise the level of engagement not only with this country but with other European countries. It is a matter of record that it is not the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Tehran which goes around arresting people, but I made it very clear, and Mr. Mottaki understood and responded, that we did expect the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to engage actively in securing the release of the remaining staff. We want to take that process forward, and that is what is going on at the moment.

Let us look ahead on this matter. Given the failure in the past to agree meaningful European sanctions with real bite on Iran on the issue of its nuclear programme—that has been illustrated by the fact that oil and gas sanctions announced by the Prime Minister 18 months ago were never implemented—is it not vital to start work across the European Union during the rest of this year on the serious economic penalties that ought to follow if Iran does not enter into negotiations on its nuclear programme by the end of the year? Will the Foreign Secretary take the opportunity to send a strong message to other European capitals that although we all want to see a positive Iranian response to President Obama, if no meaningful progress is made by the end of the year, it will be necessary for the EU to take a dramatically hardened stance and demonstrate the will that has eluded it in the past?

I genuinely say to the right hon. Gentleman that I am disappointed by the first half of his question. He said that no meaningful sanctions with bite were being imposed by the European Union, but for the record I should point out that the sanctions imposed by the EU as a result of Iran’s flouting of the United Nations Security Council go beyond, and well beyond in a number of respects, the requirements of the Security Council. To portray the situation as one where there is a lonely voice on the Opposition Benches calling for tough sanctions in respect of the Iranian nuclear programme—[Interruption.]and similar voices on the Government Benches against those of 26 recalcitrant European colleagues says more about his attitude towards his European colleagues than it does about the reality of the situation. This is not a matter where he needs to bring his Europhobia to bear, because there is a strong and united view among a number of countries in Europe on it and there is unanimous support for the actions that have been taken by the European Union. We will need to go further; private work needs to be done on the when and the how, but I should emphasise the word “private”.

As one who visited Iran during a period of great tension, when we had nobody at our embassy and the American embassy was similarly closed—this was prior to the release of Terry Waite, John McCarthy and Brian Keenan—may I gently urge my right hon. Friend, despite the fact that I welcome everything he had to say, to accept that there is a difference between rhetoric and diplomacy?

I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend’s long-standing interest in these issues and the humanitarian perspective that he brings to all our discussions. I agree that, of course, there is a difference between rhetoric and diplomacy. In this case, we have tried to be absolutely clear about things because, whether in respect of rhetoric or diplomacy, clarity helps. In this case, there is a clear and united demand from across the House and the country, from across Europe, and from the United States and others that these hard-working diplomatic staff, who are of Iranian origin and have Iranian citizenship, and who are doing an important job in a completely proper way, should be released and allowed to get on with their work as soon as possible.

Does the Foreign Secretary agree that the repression in Iran is already having consequences far beyond the borders of that country and has dealt a body blow to Iran’s aspirations to be seen as the champion of Islam in the middle east? Has not President Ahmadinejad been revealed, not as a popular President who is governing with the consent of the people of Iran, but as a local despot who is sustained in power merely by the work of the militia and the police?

Perhaps the right hon. and learned Gentleman’s question gives me a chance to point out the important independent role that has been played in Iran by the BBC Farsi service. Since its inception last year, it has established itself as an authoritative and independent reporter on that nation’s affairs, and it has a very wide following in Iran. It is important to say that although it receives public money, it receives no public instruction as to how it should behave or what it should report. Crucially, in response to his question, I should point out that it has given an unvarnished view of the sort of violence that has been meted out by state authorities in Iran since the election. That has contrasted most strikingly with the passion of the debate that took place before the election day, which was a credit to Iran.

EU Regional Aid Programmes

3. What recent discussions he has had in the General Affairs and External Relations Council on progress in the delivery of EU regional aid programmes. (282689)

Delivery of the EU structural and cohesion fund programmes was discussed at the General Affairs and External Relations Council on 15 June. We are awaiting detailed proposals from the European Commission on an amendment to the structural funds regulation to allow accelerated funding, as suggested in its communication of 3 June on employment.

Notwithstanding the Minister’s response, and given the uncertainty about and the cuts to the Learning and Skills Council, the Higher Education Funding Council and the regional development agencies budgets in the UK, what reassurance can the Minister give the EU Council and deprived UK regions, such as Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly, that those convergence programmes will not suffer from the lack of UK match funding?

I can make an absolute guarantee that not a single extra penny needed for match funding in the UK would be brought forward by this proposal, which has not yet been outlined in full detail by the European Commission. There would not be a single penny missing in relation to the European social fund, which, as the hon. Gentleman knows, has already delivered significant extra benefits in Cornwall through the EMBARK programme and Workforce Cornwall. I hope that he will not be touting round the myth that the proposal would bring in extra money—every penny of match funding has already been provided.


4. What recent discussions he has had with his Chinese counterpart to seek to achieve progress towards Tibetan autonomy within an overall China. (282690)

The Foreign Secretary last raised the status of Tibet with Chinese Foreign Minister Yang during his visit to the UK in February during the UK-China summit. He called for substantive dialogue between the Chinese authorities and the Dalai Lama’s representatives to address the underlying issues in Tibet.

Will the Minister urge his Chinese counterpart to end the outdated rhetoric of hostility towards the Dalai Lama and his Tibetan supporters? Will he tell him that that autonomy is a genuine and workable concept within an overall China, that it is not independence, as the hardliners pretend, and that it can help to provide an important degree of self-determination and can protect the unique Tibetan culture? Will the Minister take practical steps, such as offering to mediate, to help resolve this long-standing injustice?

First, may I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for his long-standing interest and commitment on this very important issue? It is possibly early days for me to start mediating in such an historic dispute, but it is absolutely clear that we believe that the only way forward is for the Chinese authorities to resume bilateral discussions with the Dalai Lama’s envoys. It is worth noting that it has always been the Dalai Lama’s position not to advocate independence but to advocate autonomy. We believe that that is now consistent with the British position and that this window of opportunity should be used for the benefit of Tibet.

The UK Government have rightly promoted the idea of dialogue, as the Minister has just set out. Is not the reality that over many years the Chinese have engaged in dialogue but have never given any ground, even of a limited nature? What action are the Government taking to co-ordinate a response with other European Union countries, the United States and other allies to put pressure on the Chinese authorities to be a little less intransigent and to recognise the basic human rights of Tibet?

Our position has recently become aligned, for the first time, with that of the European Union. There is a clear, strong and united position, and the European Union uses its dialogue with China constantly to raise the question of Tibet. For example, during the last round of our bilateral human rights dialogue we called for due process in Tibet and full transparency to allow unhindered access for diplomats and journalists. We also called for reform of the use of the death penalty to limit the scope of its application. Now that our position, for the first time, is aligned with that of the European Union, I believe that we have the best possible opportunity to influence the Chinese to do the right thing by Tibet.

Sri Lanka

5. What his most recent assessment is of the political situation in Sri Lanka; and if he will make a statement. (282691)

Following the recent end to military operations, Sri Lanka has an historic opportunity to resolve the underlying causes of the conflict and to ensure a lasting peace. We have made clear our view that that can be best achieved through an inclusive political solution based on respect, equality and the rule of law, which addresses the legitimate grievances of all Sri Lankan communities, including the Tamil population.

My hon. Friend will be aware that one of the continuing conflicts concerns the events that happened in the last weeks and days of the conflict in the north of the island and whether or not criminal actions took place. Will my hon. Friend redouble his efforts to persuade the Sri Lankan Government that they need to produce a report on those issues if they are to carry the peace process forward?

It is important to put it on record that our immediate concern is for the safety of the more than 280,000 people who fled the fighting and are now being held in camps for internally displaced persons. That has to be our immediate concern, and we have allocated £12.5 million of humanitarian assistance to help Sri Lanka address those issues. In addition, we have been at the forefront in calling through the EU for an independent investigation into any violations. We have also supported the UN Secretary-General in his agreement with the President of Sri Lanka to conduct an appropriate investigation into any violations that have taken place. It is really important that we send the message today that we expect the President of Sri Lanka to convert that rhetoric into action.

The Minister will be aware that this country, as well as having a significant Tamil population, also has many people from the Sinhalese area. What steps is he taking with the high commissioner in this country to ensure that there are harmonious relations between Sri Lankans living here in the UK?

The best solution is to have a political dialogue that leads to peace and stability in Sri Lanka. One difficulty for the Tamil population and all minority communities has been to ensure that the Sri Lankans honour their commitment to enter into serious political discourse. We are very exercised about that, as we must put historical enmities behind us and start to build more inclusive relationships with Sri Lanka.

Middle East

6. What recent assessment he has made of the political situation in the middle east; and if he will make a statement. (282692)

The UK continues to support a two-state solution in the middle east. We urge the parties involved and the Arab world to continue to build on the Arab peace initiative as the best basis for establishing long-term regional peace. We urge Israel to implement a complete freeze on settlement construction in line with its roadmap commitments, and we call on all Palestinians to be prepared to engage in peaceful negotiations with Israel. Facilitating peace in the middle east will remain a top priority for this Government, alongside developing the institutions of a Palestinian state.

Thank you, Mr. Speaker, and may I offer you my belated congratulations? Will my right hon. Friend maintain a commitment to persuading the Israeli Government to accept the idea of a Palestinian state? Does he accept, however, that if that state is too bound in by conditions and a commitment to retain settlements it will be absolutely unacceptable to the Palestinian authorities and the international community?

I maintain that commitment very strongly. The Government’s position is very clear: a two-state solution must be based more or less on the 1967 borders, Jerusalem should be the capital of both Israel and Palestine, and there needs to be a fair settlement of the refugee questions. That is at the heart of securing any stability, never mind security or justice, for Palestinians—and, I argue, for Israelis too. That is why it will remain at the heart of our policy.

In the past, whatever we thought of the regime running Iran, the EU3 plus 3 countries recognised that it ruled by some form of consent. In the light of the recent elections, does the Foreign Secretary believe that the new president—or President Ahmadinejad—rules by consent? If not, how can we begin negotiations to solve problems to do with the middle east or the nuclear issue?

As I said earlier, there is no way that we are able to count the ballots, and we are not in a position to say whether President Ahmadinejad got 63 per cent. of the vote. Debate remains intense in Iran, and we are watching the process extremely carefully. We will have to address questions about the Government of Iran, and I understand that the inauguration of a new president is scheduled for 26 July. Over the coming three weeks, we will work intensively with our partners to ensure that there is a united international position in respect of dealings with the Iranian Government.

As soon as this Question Time is over, will my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary contact his Israeli counterpart about the civilian ship, the Spirit of Humanity, aboard which is a constituent of mine? Its cargo of medical and humanitarian supplies was thoroughly inspected by the port authorities before it left Larnaca yesterday, but the vessel is now surrounded by Israeli warships in international waters. The Israeli forces have disabled the ship’s equipment, have threatened to fire on the ship and have now boarded it. Will he insist to the Israeli authorities that they desist immediately from these blatant violations of international law?

I shall certainly follow up my right hon. Friend’s question; he mentioned the issue to me on the way in to the Chamber. If the contact has not been made already, it will be made as soon as Question Time is over. It is obviously vital that all states respect international law, including the law of the sea. It is also important to say that we deplore the interference by the Israeli navy in the activities of Gazan fishermen, which has been brought to my attention on previous occasions. Resolution 1860 was clear about the basis of peaceful progress in respect of Gaza, and we are determined to uphold all of its aspects.

Can the Foreign Secretary indicate when he last discussed the middle east with President Barack Obama of the United States? He will agree that the United States probably stands a greater chance of exercising influence in the middle east than any other major power in the world. It is important that we create a stable government in both Palestine and Israel.

The hon. Gentleman is right that the United States has a pivotal role in promoting a peace process and a peace plan for the middle east. I think he will agree with me that the determination of the Obama Administration to engage on this issue from day one has been a welcome contrast to the rather belated interest in the middle east which has been shown by previous Administrations. Before 20 January, the European countries unanimously asked for that engagement, and since then the stance of the US Administration has been clear, principled and forceful. I welcome that wholeheartedly.

While I agree with my right hon. Friend that at last we have an American President who recognises the suffering and the plight of the Palestinian people, is it not unfortunate that this wretched Israeli Administration continue to build illegal settlements in defiance of international law? What action is going to be taken by the leading powers over what Israel is doing?

The position of the Government on settlements is clear—settlements are illegal under international law and a major blockage to peace in the middle east on the basis of a two-state solution. Reports are coming through that the Israeli Ministry Of Defence yesterday granted permission for 50 new housing units at the Adam settlement, which we completely deplore. This is the worst possible time for new settlements to be initiated or for construction to be started. We are at a vital moment as the new American Administration come to a decision about how they will prosecute their commitment to a two-state solution, and the call for a settlement freeze is clear and wholehearted.

Does the Foreign Secretary agree that it will be hard to build trust and peace in the middle east while hundreds of thousands of people in Gaza are still without sanitation, adequate medicine or the materials that they desperately need to begin reconstruction? What action are the British Government taking to find ways to allow supplies into Gaza in order to end what the International Committee of the Red Cross described a couple of days ago as an

“unending cycle of deprivation and despair”?

I am very glad that the hon. Gentleman continues to draw attention to the Gaza issue, because so do we. The danger is that Gaza gets left behind in discussions of a peace plan or peace process. On Friday at the G8 meeting, I made a point of saying that the UK believed that we could not pursue a Gaza-last policy, that practical help in Gaza was essential—our £46 million of aid is just a part of that—and that adherence to the call of the UN Security Council resolution for an immediate opening of the crossings is in the interests of all right-minded people in thinking through how we can build any kind of solution or trust, to repeat the word that the hon. Gentleman used, in the middle east.

My right hon. Friend has been very clear about the Government’s position on Israeli settlements. President Obama, in his Cairo address, made it clear that Israeli settlements on the west bank have to stop. On 26 June, the G8 too was entirely clear that Israeli settlements on the west bank have to stop, but they are still carrying on, so perhaps the key question is: what can the international community do to ensure that Israel implements in practice its obligations under international agreements?

That is indeed a key question—or the key question. Defence Minister Barak is in Washington or New York today for talks with former Senator Mitchell. That is a key part of the engagement between the United States and Israel in preparation for further development of the American peace plan. We should see how those talks go, but my hon. Friend is absolutely right to say that a settlement freeze is now universally recognised as absolutely key to progress.

Helmand Province

8. What his most recent assessment is of the effectiveness of the provincial reconstruction team in Helmand province. (282694)

The provincial reconstruction team’s mission in Helmand is to help the Afghan Government to deliver effective governance and security. The number of UK civilian staff working on a joint civilian-military operation has more than doubled since 2008 to more than 80, and all of them are delivering tangible results for the people of Helmand. The PRT has helped to built nearly 2,000 wells, benefiting more than 400,000 people. It has contributed to 160 district infrastructure projects, reaching more than 300,000 families, and provided paid work for nearly 19,000 people.

In the Opposition day debate on Iraq last week, the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Ladywood (Clare Short), a former Secretary of State for International Development, admitted that she deliberately instructed her Department to have nothing to do with the Ministry of Defence or the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in the drawing up of reconstruction plans once the war fighting had stopped in March 2003. With no plan, chaos ensued for many years. We are now in our seventh year in Afghanistan. As US assistance is required in Helmand province, it seems that there are still lessons to be learned from Iraq. Is it not time there was a major overhaul of how the MOD, the FCO and the Department for International Development conduct modern stabilisation operations, as outlined in recommendation 16 in a powerful Institute for Public Policy Research report issued today?

That is indeed a good IPPR report, which fully endorses the idea of a joint civilian-military operation in Afghanistan. That has been pioneered by the DFID-FCO-MOD liaison in Helmand province. Of course, as I have discussed with the hon. Gentleman on a number of occasions across the Dispatch Box, we should always seek to learn lessons and improve the operation, but I hope that he will agree that the shared leadership across the traditional civilian-military divide in our operation in Helmand is indeed the right way forward. I hope that he will also agree that the bravery of the civilian aid workers and diplomats, alongside that of the military, has made a difference. As for whether there is further to go, of course there is, and we will certainly look at the IPPR report and other ideas—including those of the hon. Gentleman, because he has experience in this respect—in order to take the matter forward.

Reconstruction cannot happen unless we have security. Security requires a national military and a national police force. Is the Secretary of State satisfied with the progress that we have made in supporting and building up the Afghan national police force in Helmand?

No—or rather, I am satisfied that we have made an awful lot of effort, but I am not satisfied with overall progress, for obvious reasons. My hon. Friend will know from the debates that we have had in this House and elsewhere that the development of a trusted Afghan police force is perhaps the major challenge, or certainly one of the major challenges, that we face. The appointment of some of the new district governors under Governor Mangal in Helmand is making a sincere and real difference in that province, but to claim that things are better than patchy would be an exaggeration. The issue is certainly a priority that we intend to pursue.

Many hon. Members think that the Foreign Secretary’s comments about progress in Helmand province are optimistic. Recently, a lot more effort has been made in that area, but NGOs, hon. Members, and military and civilian experts believe that it is ludicrous that less than 10 per cent. of British aid to Afghanistan goes to Helmand province. I draw the Foreign Secretary’s attention to an article by an Army officer published in the most recent issue of the British Army Review, entitled “A Comprehensive Failure: British Civil-Military Strategy in Helmand Province”. We are catching up very slowly indeed. I am afraid to say that although there has been a loss of British military personnel, and there are threats to the lives of brave British civilians, the British Government have so far failed to pull together a comprehensive strategy. I am afraid, Foreign Secretary, that it has been a failure.

I think that the denigration of the efforts of the people on the ground, who have, as the IPPR report says, led the way on improving civilian-military stabilisation efforts is beneath the hon. Gentleman. The truth is that we pay our development aid through the Afghan Government, according to the best practice of international development around the world. We are not seeking to establish a British county in Helmand. We are supporting indigenous efforts, led by Governor Mangal, to build reconstruction as well as security in that province. As for the founding facts that I mentioned, facts are neither optimistic nor pessimistic. I offered no optimism or pessimism. I recited facts about the number of people who have been helped by the efforts of the provincial reconstruction team. I also said to the hon. Member for Bournemouth, East (Mr. Ellwood), who has taken a long-standing interest in this matter, that there are a number of areas in which we all need to do better, led by the Afghan authorities, and that is what we are determined to do.

Sri Lanka

9. What his most recent assessment is of the human rights situation in Sri Lanka; and if he will make a statement. (282695)

We remain concerned at continuing reports of abductions, disappearances, violence and intimidation against the media, all of which appear to affect Tamil communities disproportionately. We raise these issues regularly in international forums and with the Government of Sri Lanka and call upon them to take decisive action to tackle human rights abuses.

Does the Minister agree that after 25 years of bloody conflict in Sri Lanka, any reasonable Government would reach out to the defeated community, not incarcerate about 300,000 Tamils, many of them children and the elderly, in squalid and inhumane detention camps? What are the Government doing to improve humanitarian conditions in those camps? More important in the longer term, what are the Government doing to persuade the Sri Lankan Government to close down the camps entirely and allow those innocent people to return to their homes and families?

Since last year we have made sure that a total of £12.5 million of humanitarian assistance has gone specifically to deal with the displaced civilians. We have made it clear that we want the UN and humanitarian agencies to have full access to those civilians. But as the hon. Gentleman said, the long-term solution is political. On the political direction that the president of Sri Lanka has indicated towards a new inclusive Sri Lanka, we have to see step-by-step evidence of action. There have been encouraging words since the conflict was brought to a close, but confidence-building measures on the ground are now needed to demonstrate that the Government of Sri Lanka are serious about a new inclusive country where Tamils and other minorities feel that they have an authentic voice and equal status.

I thank the Minister for what he just said. Does he agree that the continued incarceration of large numbers of Tamil people in refugee camps is a form of imprisonment, and that denying the right to return home is illegal under international law? Will he make it clear to the Sri Lankan Government that they must not try to resettle the Tamil people outside their traditional homelands, villages and towns, in order to bring about some degree of stability in the future?

My hon. Friend is right. The first test of the good intentions and political will of the Government of Sri Lanka is how they treat the displaced civilians. It is imperative that those people return home as soon as possible and that they are given the opportunity to begin to rebuild their lives. That will be the greatest evidence that things are changing for people on the ground in that country.

Lisbon Agenda

10. What recent discussions he has had in the General Affairs Council on progress on the Lisbon agenda; and if he will make a statement. (282697)

The Lisbon agenda was not discussed at the recent General Affairs Council. However, the incoming Swedish presidency and the forthcoming Spanish presidency have indicated their intention to progress work on the EU’s next strategy for sustainable jobs and growth as a successor to the current strategy, which expires in 2010.

As the Lisbon agenda is supposed to be about economic competitiveness, why are the Government consenting to proposals for a pan-European financial regulator which could threaten the competitiveness of the City of London?

I think that the hon. Lady wrote that question before the Council meeting, when it was made clear that there would be no fiscal implications for the UK and that we would be able to maintain our competitiveness. Most of the City has welcomed the fact that we need to make sure that across the whole European Union there is a proper system of risk management so that we can compete with the rest of the world.

Does my hon. Friend agree that the Lisbon agenda is about setting up the mechanism whereby Europe can effectively tackle the problems of the international economy, of trade and of the environment by bringing together mainstream groups from every country? That is the way forward, rather than opting out to the fringe—lunatic and otherwise—which is the Opposition’s policy.

My hon. Friend makes a fair point. The most important point, surely, is that we know that, as a country, we do not have a hermetically sealed economy. Our economy is reliant on trade with other countries throughout the European Union, and if we are not to undermine that trade, we have to ensure that there are strong economies throughout the whole continent. That is precisely what the European Council is doing.

Given today’s remarkable legal judgment in Germany to suspend ratification, it is a great shame that the original question was not about the Lisbon treaty. But as it is not, I shall observe that the Lisbon agenda was intended to make the EU the most competitive and dynamic knowledge-based economy in the world by 2010—and that with one year to go, there is clearly a lot still to do. Will the Minister assure us that there will be no weakening of the British position on our critical opt-out from the working time directive, which is now used by 15 EU countries and directly affects some 3 million people in this country alone?

As the hon. Gentleman did not ask about Germany’s Constitutional Court judgment today—because you, Mr. Speaker, would not have allowed him to do so under this question—I shall not answer today that, of course, that is a matter for Germany, and not for the United Kingdom to reply to. However, I can say to him that of course we need to ensure that our opt-outs stand firm, and that is precisely what we intend to do.

Topical Questions

I hope that the House will join me in welcoming the UN Secretary-General’s determination to visit Burma this week. The political and human rights situation in the country is dire and demands the world’s attention. Ban Ki-moon’s personal engagement underscores the concern of the international community. It presents an opportunity for the military Government to respond to those concerns by releasing Aung San Suu Kyi and all other political prisoners, and by beginning a credible and inclusive dialogue that leads to political reconciliation and a new start for Burma.

I certainly wish to associate myself with the Foreign Secretary’s remarks, but may I take his attention back to Iran, and in particular to the situation facing the seven Baha’i spiritual leaders who have been in detention for more than a year and are apparently to stand trial on 11 July, whose lawyers are reported to have suffered intimidation, and who do not yet know the nature or the number of charges against them? Will the Foreign Secretary bring pressure to bear from this country and others to ensure that their trial conforms to the principles of natural justice?

The hon. Gentleman raises an important point. We have long spoken up about the treatment of the Baha’i minority; they were featured in the Foreign Office’s human rights report, and he is right to draw attention to the importance of the events on 11 July and beyond.

T2. Given the information that only two people will be able to testify in defence of Aung San Suu Kyi, and given the mockery of the trial in Burma, what more can the Government do about that event? (282713)

It is a cruel irony that the regime should have tried to schedule the next date of the trial for this Thursday—the day that Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon goes to Burma. Our best hope is to support his mission and to be absolutely clear that there is unanimous support for it from the international community. We very much hope that either he will come back with progress or the Security Council will return to the issue.

T3. Will the Department pay particular attention to the dangers of nuclear proliferation, and does it think it strange that this country continues to give a lot of foreign aid to countries that are building nuclear weapons? In particular, is the Department aware that the biggest single recipient of British aid is a country with a nuclear weapons programme, a space programme, a development programme of its own and more billionaires than we have, who own substantial chunks of British industry? I am referring to India. (282714)

I thought that the right hon. Gentleman was going to cite our support for Pakistan; if he was in fear of radicalisation, I would have one answer. In respect of India, he will know that British aid now amounts to about £240 million over this spending review period, but it is on a declining trend, and by 2011 will have stopped, not because of the Indian nuclear programme but because India is becoming a richer country. It is clear from international development legislation since 1997 that development aid should be directed according to poverty, and that is the basis on which India is pulling itself away from aid, according to its own wealth-generating potential.

What discussions has my right hon. Friend had with his US counterparts on the BBC’s allegations of prisoner abuse at Bagram air base? Is it not a fact that two British prisoners have either been held there in the past or are being held there now? Will my right hon. Friend take some action on that important issue?

Obviously, this is a US issue, not a UK issue. All detainees taken under British control are governed by our memorandum of understanding with the Afghan authorities, which requires the passing of detainees to those authorities. I think that the US Administration themselves have made clear their determination to get to the bottom of the issue of detainee treatment at Bagram. A review by the US authorities is currently under way, and we look forward to its being concluded as soon as possible.

T4. Three armoured vehicles financed by the UK taxpayer destined for use by the UN in Gaza have been refused entry. Ludicrously, they have incurred more than £40,000 in storage charges at an Israeli customs depot. What discussions has the Foreign Secretary had with the Israeli Government about getting that situation resolved? (282715)

The hon. Gentleman raises an important point. I raised precisely this issue with Foreign Minister Lieberman when he came to London six or seven weeks ago. I understood that there had been some progress, but on the basis of the question that the hon. Gentleman has asked, I shall be happy to write to him as soon as possible to give him the latest position. He is absolutely right to say that the vehicles are needed for humanitarian delivery purposes. They are essential, they are from the British taxpayer, and there is no reason why they should not be taken out of their compound and delivered as soon as possible.

Neither the Palestinian people nor the middle east peace process are well served by divisions among the Palestinian voices. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the failure to respond to the humanitarian crisis and the desperate need for reconstruction in Gaza are doing exactly what is not in the interests of the Israeli Government either—fuelling militancy and creating disunity among the Palestinian voices? Will he therefore redouble his efforts to bring pressure to bear on Israel to allow humanitarian and reconstruction aid into that living prison?

I am happy to redouble my redoubled efforts. My hon. Friend is absolutely right to say that the closure of the crossing serves no one except those who want to say that there can be no peaceful resolution. I think that she would also agree, however, that the divisions among the Palestinians themselves are an important impediment that needs to be overcome. That is why we strongly support the Egyptian-led reconciliation process, in which I know that she has taken an interest.

T5. Is the Foreign Secretary aware that among the appalling abuses perpetrated by the Iranian regime is its record on executing children? According to a report to be published today by the Foreign Policy Centre, in the past five years 33 children have been executed, and a further 160 juveniles are on death row. Will he work through international bodies to put pressure on the Iranian regime to end that abhorrent practice? (282717)

I am glad that the hon. Gentleman has drawn attention to the excellent work of the Foreign Policy Centre, especially in this regard. The number of children executed in Iran was rightly highlighted in the Foreign Office’s human rights report. Not only does this run directly contrary to all sorts of humanitarian considerations, but Iran is a signatory to the international covenant on civil and political rights; that at least, if nothing else, should guarantee proper safety for the children.

Will the Foreign Secretary update the House on the situation with regard to the Turks and Caicos Islands? Notwithstanding the serious problems that have arisen there, does he agree that it would be far better for Her Majesty’s Government to work with the new democratic Government than to take the draconian step of returning the islands to colonial rule, which would be unpopular not only in TCI but right across the wider Caribbean?

It is important that we make sure that there is no corruption in the Turks and Caicos Islands. I pay tribute to the report by the Foreign Affairs Committee on this matter, which pointed us to the process that has led, first, to an interim report, and secondly to a final report, which we hope to publish soon. It would be wholly inappropriate for us to take no action whatsoever with regard to very serious issues that have been highlighted by the commissioner.

T6. Two years ago, I asked the then Prime Minister why Britain was providing training for members of the Sudanese military. I was told that it was part of a peace agreement that had been signed in January 2005. Given that the whole peace process in Sudan is now in total disarray, that President Bashir has been indicted by the International Criminal Court and that Darfuris and other minorities continue to be persecuted, does the Foreign Secretary believe that it is time to review our military obligations to that vile regime? (282720)

I certainly think that it is time that the Foreign Secretary reviewed the exchange that the hon. Gentleman had with the former Prime Minister two years ago and then updated him on our reflections on it. One has to be slightly careful about saying that the comprehensive peace agreement has completely failed, because that is what is holding the situation together, to the extent that it is held together at all.

The Minister of State from the Sudanese Government was in Trieste with me last Friday, and one thing that the UK Government have prioritised is the maintenance, development and implementation of the CPA, which is the only basis for legitimate government in Sudan. However, I take the hon. Gentleman’s point that in no way should the UK Government support vile regimes, and will we certainly look into that.

Order. We have just over five minutes to go and I want to accommodate as many hon. Members as possible, so I am now looking for short questions and economical answers.

When I was in Afghanistan with the European Security and Defence Assembly slightly more than three weeks ago, the commanders in the international security assistance force made it clear to me that in many ways there was a common view between the Iranian Government and ISAF on how to deal with the Taliban. Does my right hon. Friend agree that that is a very important issue, and an area of some common ground?

Iran certainly has a very strong interest in counter-narcotics work there. Until I have more details of what my hon. Friend thinks the Iranians said to ISAF, I think I should restrain my comments on that, but Iran certainly has the potential to contribute to stability in Afghanistan, and we should certainly work with it on that prospect.

Last week, the Foreign Secretary repeated the Prime Minister’s claim that the Iraq inquiry had not been set up to establish civil or criminal liability. Does that mean that the Government propose to grant legal immunity to any witness who gives evidence to the inquiry—and if so, by what means?

I remember no discussion of legal immunity in our debate last week. We have a clear mandate for Sir John Chilcot to pursue a wide-ranging inquiry. He will do so, and I hope that he will publish in the not-too-distant future his views on how he is going to conduct his inquiry, covering all the issues that were raised in the debate last week. That is the right next step.

In view of the Secretary of State’s view, now shared by the US and clearly restated a few moments ago, that settlements are the absolute key to progress, and in view of Israel’s repeated refusal to institute a freeze on settlement building, does the Minister agree that the stalemate can be broken only if a sanction of some kind is imposed on the Israeli Government for their defiance of international law?

We have made it clear that, as my hon. Friend says, settlements are illegal and a major impediment to peace. We are encouraged by the fact that President Obama’s speech in Cairo was seen as such a significant development, and we regard Prime Minister Netanyahu’s response as a step forward, although only a small one. At this stage in such a delicate process, the question of sanctions may be best put on hold. However, our feelings about settlements are clear: settlements are illegal, and they are getting in the way of the peace process.

Regarding the seven Baha’i leaders detained in Iran, may I ask the Foreign Secretary whether he will meet me, as the chair of the all-party Baha’i group, and a delegation of Baha’is, to understand the issues and see what representations might respectfully be made to secure their release?

The Foreign Secretary has registered his concern about the announcement yesterday of the Israeli Defence Ministry’s plans in respect of Adam. Is he further concerned that the overall master plan is for 1,450 units there and involves the immediate relocation of 50 hard-line settler families from Migron? Beyond the screensaver diplomacy and the backing vocals for George Mitchell in the House, what clear, strong message will go to the Israeli Government, and what reliable and credible message will go to the Palestinian Authority?

I think that Senator Mitchell’s efforts are far more than screensaver diplomacy, because they are backed by the President of the United States and have the wholehearted support of the European Union, never mind the Quartet, along with a battery of UN Security Council resolutions. That is why people are now talking about a middle east peace plan, not just a process—or another process—that fails to deliver. I share the hon. Gentleman’s sense of urgency and frustration about the issue, but I believe that there is now a more united international effort than has existed previously. It needs to be brought to fruition.

The excellent charity Kidz In Kampz, which is based in my constituency, reports increasing difficulty in delivering aid on the Burma-Thailand border because of political turmoil. As well as putting pressure on Burma, what discussions has the Foreign Secretary held with the Thai authorities in trying to read that difficult situation?

The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. He knows that in the wake of Cyclone Nargis, the UK was the second largest donor to humanitarian help in Burma. We think that that was the right thing to do. I was not aware of the particular case that he raises, but I spoke—not recently but some time ago—to the Thai Foreign Minister, and I shall be happy to get an update from our embassy in Thailand about the latest Thai effort. The hon. Gentleman is right to say that Thailand has an important role to play.

The deployment of British troops in Helmand province in 2006 was once described as being as futile as the charge of the Light Brigade. At that time seven soldiers had died; now the figure is 169—far more than died in the charge of the Light Brigade. What has happened in that impossible war to justify the loss of 169 brave British lives?

My hon. Friend is right to pay tribute to the bravery, intelligence and skill of our servicemen and women in Helmand. They have made a huge difference in that province, which was previously ungoverned space. As I said earlier, there is still a long way to go, but the help that people are getting, the security forces that have been established, and the role that Governor Mangal has played in political leadership for that province would not exist without the efforts of our troops and their supporters. The further intensive activity as a result of American efforts in neighbouring provinces means that the next few months will be important in Helmand, as well as in the rest of Afghanistan. Voter registration has happened for 85 per cent. of the population of Helmand, which would have been impossible before 2006.