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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 501: debated on Tuesday 1 December 2009

Foreign and Commonwealth Office

The Secretary of State was asked—

Cyprus

1. What steps he is taking to support the talks aimed at bringing a resolution to the situation in Cyprus; and if he will make a statement. (302594)

The Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary recently met President Christofias to reaffirm our support for the settlement process, and I met both leaders in Cyprus last week. The UK has also written to the United Nations offering to cede approximately half the sovereign base area land for incorporation into a reunited island, should there be a final agreement.

The House and others will be grateful both for the Government’s continuing interest and for the Minister’s specific commitment to this issue. Given that many people believe that the best chance in the near future of a peaceful settlement remains while President Christofias is President of Cyprus and Mr. Talat is the President in the self-declared northern republic, what do the Government plan to do at the European Council later this month to try to move things on, and what other pressure can be exerted to try to ensure that the next few months are not yet another wasted opportunity?

The hon. Gentleman is right to say that this is a unique opportunity given that the leaders in each community have staked their political careers on desiring and willing a settlement. I saw the buffer zone last week, and it must seem to any sane person a disgrace that we still have a divided capital city in Europe, 20 years after the fall of the Berlin wall. We are determined to do everything that we can. We think that it is important that Turkey adheres to and complies with what it has said that it would do under the Ankara protocol. It is also important that Turkey continues further along the route towards accession to the European Union. Perhaps the motto that might best serve the talks at the moment is the words of Sheridan, the first Under-Secretary in the Foreign Office, when he said:

“The surest way to fail is not to determine to succeed.”

We should determine to succeed.

I thank my hon. Friend for the support that the UK Government have given to the efforts to determine the whereabouts of people on both sides who have been missing since the Turkish invasion of 1974. Will he put additional pressure on the Turkish Government to reveal more information about the possible whereabouts of the remains of those missing people?

Last week, when I met the Committee on Missing Persons, it was one of the most distressing parts of my visit, as it must be for anyone who goes to Cyprus, to see so many cadavers laid out and to know that many more are missing. Their families have no sense of closure about what happened so many years ago. We will continue to put pressure on all those involved to ensure that any information that is out there can be made available to the organisation. However, it is probably going to have to speed up its work as the further we get away from those events, the more difficult it is to find answers to what happened.

Like the Minister, I too have visited Cyprus this year and we would all like to see progress towards a lasting settlement. He mentioned the buffer zone. Given the vital need to maintain public support for the process on both sides, does he believe that there is now scope for further confidence-building measures such as opening extra border crossings, to try to demonstrate to people across the island that real progress is being made and a settlement is yet possible?

I agree with the hon. Gentleman that the more confidence-building measures can be put in place, the greater the likelihood of maintaining political support for the talks and for any eventual solution. My own feeling of optimism rose dramatically when I spoke to the individual leaders who are actively involved in the talks, but sometimes when I spoke to the media my optimism plummeted. Sometimes the media in Cyprus are overly sceptical and cynical about the process. I think that there is significant progress being made and it is important that agreement has been reached to intensify the talks in the new year.

Afghanistan

2. What progress is being made towards holding a conference on future policy on Afghanistan in January 2010 as proposed by the Prime Minister in his Guildhall speech? (302595)

The London conference on Afghanistan will be held on 28 January 2010. The purpose is to mobilise international efforts in support of a combined military and political strategy in Afghanistan. In addition to the Government of Afghanistan, partners in the international security assistance force, Afghanistan’s immediate neighbours and international institutions are being invited.

What is the objective political end state that the allies are seeking to achieve in Afghanistan?

The shared objective across the international community is an Afghan Government and security forces that are able to defend themselves from being overrun by a Taliban misrule that would eventually become a safe space for al-Qaeda. To make that possible, we need to wage a genuine counter-insurgency struggle on both sides of the Durand line—in both Afghanistan and Pakistan—in partnership with the Afghan Government and the Pakistani Government.

Mr. Michael Clapham (Barnsley, West and Penistone) (Lab): Is the conference likely to discuss the prospect of a high commissioner for Afghanistan? What is his view on the current campaign against Kai Eide, the head of the UN mission in Afghanistan? Is that campaign likely to have a negative impact on politics in Afghanistan?

Kai Eide is the UN special representative in Afghanistan and has a very important role at the head of the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan. There will be mourning across the House for the loss of UN staff in Afghanistan, a number of whom were killed in a terrible incident last month. That civilian leadership from the UN is very important, and I think that Kai Eide has done his work in a professional and appropriate manner.

I spoke to Kai Eide when I was in Kabul last week and emphasised to him our continued commitment not just to the role of the UN, but to his leadership. Obviously, it is up to him how long he goes beyond his two-year mandate for which he was appointed. I also point out to right hon. and hon. Members that there is an important civilian role in the international security assistance force—NATO has nominated a civilian to play a role in ISAF to ensure that the latter’s operations are linked properly to the civilian side. In that sense, it is important that civilian leadership is provided both through the UN and in ISAF in Afghanistan.

If, by the time that the conference is held, it has become clear that President Karzai is unwilling, or unable, to fulfil his obligations, will the conference be able to accept and embrace a provincial, rather than a national strategy to prevent President Karzai from being an obstacle to progress?

Since the Prime Minister’s statement at the Dispatch Box in December 2007, the importance of the local governance agenda in Afghanistan—not just at the provincial level, through the 34 provinces, but at the district level, through the 394 districts—has been at the centre of the Government’s work.

I am sure that the right hon. and learned Gentleman knows that Afghanistan is a country of some 40,000 villages and has rarely been governed from Kabul; it has been governed by local tribal structures. That is why it has been at the heart of the endeavours of the Government and the international community to ensure that, as well as forging the appropriate partnership in Kabul, we strengthen, wherever possible, local governance—that means provincial and district governance—and that remains our commitment.

As my right hon. Friend knows, at the start of the conflict, considerable attention was given to the situation of women in Afghanistan. According to the report from the UN high commissioner for human rights, she is concerned that the Afghan Government do not seem to be giving enough attention to the protection of women. What can we do in this conference to bring the situation of women to the fore of the agenda again?

My right hon. Friend makes an important point. At every stage, we should be stressing our commitment to the constitution of Afghanistan, which gives equal rights to all its citizens and should provide the ring within which any former insurgents are willing to return to the political system. The constitution of Afghanistan should be the benchmark by which all Afghan Governments and international partners are held to account.

Yesterday, the Prime Minister announced a series of benchmarks for the Afghan Government, including that all 400 provinces and districts must appoint a governor free of corruption within nine months. We assume that when the conference takes place on 28 January, President Karzai will be held to those benchmarks, but will the Foreign Secretary tell the House how they will be monitored, how “free from corruption” will be determined, and by whom, and what penalties there will be if the various deadlines that the Prime Minister laid down have not been met?

I say to the Foreign Secretary that there were three questions there, but that one answer will suffice.

The answer is that, by definition, the conference is in two months, and even the timeline to which the hon. Gentleman referred is nine months. Of those benchmarks, the 34 provincial governor appointments are, of course, key, and it is well understood, within Afghanistan and internationally, what constitutes fair and effective governance. I stress that that also applies at district level, which he mentioned. At each stage, whether in respect of police or army training, or gubernatorial appointments, the international community will take a collective view, as will the people of Afghanistan.

Afghanistan-Pakistan

3. What recent assessment he has made of the political situation in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border area. (302596)

The Afghanistan-Pakistan border region is ungoverned, unstable and a haven for terrorist and militant groups, including al-Qaeda. Countering that threat needs the Afghan and Pakistani Governments to work within their own jurisdiction and, crucially, together on their shared problems of terrorist activity, narcotics and weapons trafficking and limited economic opportunities. We continue to encourage such collaboration and make our contribution to the international effort to support effective counter-insurgency in both countries and on both sides of the border.

Does the Secretary of State agree that one of the most deep-rooted problems is the unrecognised Durand line, which is as critical today as it was in 1893, when it split the tribal areas, which the Afghans called Yaghistan, the land of the unruly? How can we now expect Pakistan to sort out that border, which is the legacy of a colonial past?

The hon. Lady will know that there are many legacies of the colonial past, not least on the Pakistan side of the border, where the Frontier Crimes Regulation of 1903 remains the basis of the legal system and political parties continue to be banned 61 years after independence. Although I know what she means when she says that the Durand line is unrecognised, in fact it is recognised by everyone, but also disputed by everyone, so it is a disputed line rather than an unrecognised line. I hope that she will agree with me that the issue today is not redrawing the Durand line, which would not be a source of progress anywhere; rather, what both sides of the border need is the sort of stability that can come from effective institutions, and not just military institutions, but political and economic institutions ones. Sadly, they have been lacking for too long on both sides of the border.

The Foreign Secretary made reference just now to our contribution to counter-insurgency, as did the Prime Minister yesterday. Can he tell the House whether a D notice was in existence prior to yesterday’s announcement by the Prime Minister of the numbers of special forces deployed to the region and if so, why it was in existence before that statement and why it was no longer necessary after it?

To make sure that there are absolutely no mistakes in this often tangled territory, I will write to my hon. Friend with an answer to his question and ensure that there is a full understanding in all parts of the House.

Let us try one question for the Foreign Secretary. Is he confident that the Pakistan army and, in particular, the intelligence services are prepared fully to undertake their commitments in dealing with the Taliban and al-Qaeda?

I hope that the hon. Gentleman will understand that even when he says “the Taliban”, he sets out the complexity of the situation. He will know better than I that the Pakistani authorities, including the Government and Inter-Services Intelligence, are absolutely clear about their obligations to take on the Pakistan Taliban. The argument that is happening is about the Pakistani authorities’ responsibilities in respect of the so-called Afghan Taliban. The distinction has been strongly drawn in Pakistan between those groups that are dedicated to the overthrow of the Pakistani state, relative to those other groups that are a threat to our troops and to those on the Afghan side of the border. Our argument—or, most recently, my discussion with the Foreign Minister of Pakistan at the Commonwealth conference on Friday—was to say that the multiple insurgencies that threaten Pakistan need to be addressed together. He understood that point, but he also made the fair point that, for public opinion in Pakistan, the first priority is to get a grip on the various organisations—not just the Pakistan Taliban, but Lashkar-e-Taiba, which we discussed in the House during the debate on the Queen’s Speech. That remains the case, but from our point of view, it is essential that the Pakistani authorities address the multiple insurgencies that provide a home for al-Qaeda, as the Prime Minister said yesterday.

But is not the political situation worsened by the propaganda that argues that the west is fundamentally anti-Muslim? That was not helped by the Swiss referendum result on Sunday or the unfortunate intervention by the Leader of the Opposition last week, for which he graciously apologised. Can my right hon. Friend find an opportunity to make a speech insisting that Britain is not an anti-Muslim nation? We have to keep stressing that in order to make it clear.

I hope that my right hon. Friend will look back at the speech that I made in May at the Oxford Centre for Islamic Studies, in which I addressed that issue among many others. It is a complete calumny to suggest that anyone in this House sees the war in Afghanistan as part of an anti-Muslim effort of any kind whatever—certainly no one in the Government believes that, and I do not believe it to be the case in any part of the House.

I do think, though, that it is very important to continue to emphasise that the vast majority of Afghans, Muslims as they are, do not want to side with the Taliban and do not want to go back to Taliban misrule. The greatest resource we have in the counter-insurgency in Afghanistan is the fact that the Afghan people do not want to go back to the 1990s—and nor do we.

EU Budget Reform

9. What recent discussions he has had in the General Affairs Council on reform of the EU budget. (302602)

Order. I know the hon. Gentleman will accept that my interruption was both necessary and helpful.

And they are getting more necessary and more helpful, Mr. Speaker.

Reform of the EU budget has not been discussed recently at the General Affairs and External Relations Council. The Government remain committed to far-reaching reform of the EU budget, refocusing it on jobs and growth, driving the transition to a low-carbon economy, tackling climate change and ensuring security, stability and poverty reduction.

The hon. Gentleman will know that the Lisbon treaty was sold to us on the basis that it would make matters simpler and also more efficient. Why, then, has the European Scrutiny Committee just been told of a supplementary bid for next year’s budget of another £22 million to pay for additional European Council events, for the salary entitlements and travel costs of the new President of the Council, for another 50 posts and for more media coverage and medical expenses? Why have—

The right hon. former Minister for Europe knows perfectly well the process that operates—that the European Parliament makes its bid every year for its budget for next year; that is precisely the process that we are going through at the moment.

Given that the accounts of the EU have not been signed off by the auditors for 15 years running, why do the Government keep giving more and more money to the EU? Surely if the Government are serious about reform of the EU budget, they should say that the EU will not get a penny more from the British Government until it gets its accounts properly audited.

The hon. Gentleman knows perfectly well that if we were to follow his policy, which is to get out of the EU, it would significantly harm British interests. He knows perfectly well, too, that, as the director general of the British Chambers of Commerce, David Frost said only a few weeks ago: “Business”, by which he meant British business,

“wants a pragmatic approach to the EU, not an ideological one”

such as the hon. Gentleman’s.

The EU estimates its costs to the UK at £15 per person a year, while the Europhobic Daily Express assesses it as £250 per family a year and the TaxPayers Alliance—the Tory party agitators of the hon. Member for Shipley (Philip Davies)—put it at an astonishing £2,000 per person a year. Which of these figures remotely resembles the truth?

None of those figures remotely represents the truth. The truth of the matter is that if Britain were to leave the EU, the cost in terms of jobs, the cost in terms of business opportunities and the costs in terms of trade would be phenomenal to every single family in this country.

Does the Minister agree with the General Affairs Council committing resources to negotiating a new trade deal with Colombia, when the Government of Colombia are allowing the extra judicial slaughter of dozens of trade unionists?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right that there is a very serious human rights situation in Colombia. He knows, I think, that I have visited the country and I think he may be about to visit it himself. This is an issue that I raised directly with the President, Mr. Uribe. In moving forward to any trade deal with Peru and Colombia, I think it right not only to address the issue of Scotch whisky but also to ensure that there are robust and enforceable human rights clauses in place.

In December 2005, this Government cut Britain’s originally non-negotiable EU rebate by £7 billion in return for a vague promise of a review of the EU budget that has not yet been delivered. Some four years on, can the Minister say when the European Commission’s communication setting out proposals for budget reform will formally be published?

The hon. Gentleman is completely and utterly wrong. The main reason why we reached the negotiated settlement that we reached at the time was that not only did we believe that enlargement was right and proper for the European Union and good for British interests, but we were prepared to pay the price of that enlargement, as were several other countries. The hon. Gentleman often wants to will the ends, but never the means.

The former Prime Minister came back to the House and said that he would negotiate a deal on the basis of budget reform. We were here, and we remember it. In view of the lamentable negotiating performance by the present Government, and the French President’s ability to claim just last week that the British were big losers from the recent EU summit, does the Minister now understand why people in this country no longer believe that the Government are capable of securing our financial or economic interests in the European Union?

The hon. Gentleman talks of influence in the European Union. What influence can you have when you have absconded from the main European groupings in the European Parliament, when you are not able to secure a single European Commissioner for your grouping, and when you are not able to secure a single vice-president in the European Parliament?

As for the Committee on Economic and Monetary Affairs, when 12 portfolios on financial and economic issues that were important to Britain were handed out, not a single Conservative Member of Parliament was given one of those portfolios, but two were given to the Labour party. So the hon. Gentleman cannot talk about influence in Europe.

Falkland Islands

6. What recent representations he has received on international recognition of the Falkland Islands as a United Kingdom overseas territory. (302599)

The Government have no doubt about their sovereignty of the Falkland Islands. The principle of self-determination underlies that. Nevertheless, Argentina unfortunately continues to make regular representations on its supposed claim to sovereignty.

It is in the best interests of Britain and the Falkland Islands for there to be as much international support as possible for the present status of the islands. In that context, how many members of the United Nations—there are 192 of them—recognise the islanders’ right to self-determination, and their choice that the islands should be a United Kingdom overseas territory?

That is fundamentally recognised throughout the international community. We constantly make representations to those who want to question the issue, but I have absolutely no doubt about the position in the Falkland Islands. It is good that next-of-kin visits from Argentina have been possible, and we seek good relations with Argentina, but not on the basis of discussing sovereignty.

As my right hon. Friend will know, next of kin of those who died on both sides in the Falklands war have always been able to visit the graves, but there were difficulties over a larger visit following the 25th anniversary of the conflict. Is he able to update the House?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising the issue of next-of-kin visits. There was a substantial visit recently, and I pay tribute to all on the Falkland Islands who made it possible for that to happen with dignity and true respect for those who had died on both sides of the conflict. I know that several Members were able to play in a rugby match against members of the Argentine congress, and that the Argentine team was led by someone who had fought for the Argentines in the Falkland Islands. I believe that the respect between the two countries is intimate.

Afghanistan

7. What is his latest assessment of the political situation in Afghanistan; and if he will make a statement. (302600)

12. What recent assessment he has made of the political situation in Afghanistan; and if he will make a statement. (302605)

I refer my hon. Friend and the right hon. and learned Gentleman to the Prime Minister’s statement to the House yesterday. President Karzai was inaugurated on 19 November, and we await the formation of his Cabinet. The international community needs to work with the Afghan Government to make progress on the five issues that were identified as priorities in President Karzai’s inauguration speech.

Does not the suggestion of a United States high representative or chief executive to work alongside President Karzai somewhat undermine his already fragile legitimacy? If and when that proposal becomes a reality, will the British Government support it?

I am not sure whether my hon. Friend is referring to the international civilian leadership or the idea that there should be a reformed administrative structure inside President Karzai’s office. The discussion that I have heard in the past is of Afghans filling those roles, rather than Americans or others. I will certainly follow up the report my hon. Friend is concerned about, but the idea that Afghanistan should be run by the Afghans, and the sooner the better, has always been at the heart of our approach.

Notwithstanding the increasing attention being given by both President Obama and the Prime Minister to an exit strategy for NATO forces, will the Foreign Secretary confirm that, even when NATO ground forces are completely withdrawn, it will continue to be necessary to provide NATO air support to the Afghan Government, probably for the foreseeable future? Is it not the case that just as it was a combination of NATO air power and Afghan ground forces that drove the Taliban out in the first place, so it will be that same combination that will keep them out of power in the future?

The right hon. and learned Gentleman makes an important point. At present, in most parts of the country the Afghan forces are being trained by international forces, and international forces are having to undertake leadership in combat operations. We very much hope that, in line with President Karzai’s commitment, within five years all provinces in the country will follow Kabul in having Afghan security leadership. However, that will not mean the end of international support for the Afghan forces and of air support of the kind the right hon. and learned Gentleman describes, and the so-called overwatch role that was developed for the circumstances of Iraq will remain an issue beyond that date. It is important, however, to signal the current priority, which is to transfer the leadership of combat operations to the Afghan forces.

My right hon. Friend referred to international civilian leadership and the importance of strengthening that if we are to succeed in our overall goals, and the Prime Minister said yesterday that that would be a major topic at the London conference. Will the Government consider strengthening it through the important means of co-ordinating its efforts, and perhaps even, temporarily, through the integration of its efforts with those of General McChrystal on the military front?

My hon. Friend makes an important point. As he knows, civilian-military co-ordination is essential in provincial reconstruction teams around Afghanistan. In Helmand province, where most of the British forces are, there is a combined military and civilian team, being led, as it happens, by an official from the Department for International Development, previously an official from the Foreign Office. That sort of integration of, and co-operation between, the military and civilian sides of the effort is essential, and I hope we see it being replicated at national level. The two roles of the head of the United Nations and the NATO representative in ISAF will be critical to achieving that.

The Prime Minister talked yesterday about political reforms to produce governors appointed on merit and free from corruption. Is it envisaged that the process to achieve that will involve removing existing governors, and is it also envisaged that the new governors will ever acquire any political legitimacy of their own, other than being appointees of President Karzai?

In my experience of travelling to Afghanistan and talking to people there and of studying the situation in that country, the credibility of the governors at provincial and district level comes from the work they do and the way they do it. Those governors who have shown themselves to be dedicated to the interests of the people of their province have won widespread support, significantly through community councils, but also through other ways of engaging with the local population. In this case, therefore, the proof of the pudding is in the eating. The governors who perform well, gain confidence; those who turn out to be placemen, or to be in it for their own interests, quickly lose the confidence of both Afghans and the international community.

I hope some of the governors currently in post will be removed during that political reform process, but how does the Foreign Secretary see the much needed process of reconciliation and reintegration working at district and local level? Will it be organised by these new governors, and will the ISAF coalition fund such Afghan-led reconciliation work at the local level?

The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. We talk about reintegration at local level. Reintegration is for the middle and high-level commanders, and at the local level it will need to be Afghan-led and internationally supported. There will be different ways of arranging it in different parts of the country—sometimes at district level, at other times, where a larger reintegration needs to be achieved, at provincial level. One important point worth making to the House is that the reintegration effort only succeeds when the other side of the coin is a military and security effort, first because those in the insurgency need to know the risk that is carried by continuing the insurgency, but also because they need to know they will be properly protected if they come within the constitutional set-up.

We have been in Afghanistan long enough to know where every poppy field is, so can my right hon. Friend tell me when we will put an end to the vile trade in heroin, which does so much damage in Afghanistan and on the streets of Britain?

My hon. Friend makes an important point. He will be pleased, as I am, that the past two years’ poppy crop has been significantly down; I stand to be corrected, but I believe that there has been a 30 per cent. fall and then a 22 per cent. fall, and that the number of poppy-free districts has increased to 21. He will be as concerned as I am at the high level of poppy production that remains. Our experience is that there are two key factors to turning this round, the first of which is security—because poppy production is the product of insecurity—and the second of which is a decent economic price for licit production, notably of wheat.

Middle East (Nuclear Proliferation)

8. What recent assessment he has made of the levels of nuclear proliferation in the middle east; and if he will make a statement. (302601)

The prospect of a nuclear-armed Iran remains the most immediate proliferation threat to the middle east. Iran needs to co-operate fully with the International Atomic Energy Agency and comply with five United Nations Security Council resolutions calling for it to suspend its enrichment programme.

Iran’s announcement that it intends to build another 10 uranium enrichment plants may or may not be mere posturing, but in any event, it amounts to provocative defiance of the will of the international community, as expressed in the IAEA resolution. At what point does the Minister consider that economic sanctions against Iran will become inevitable?

First, we should not be distracted by the announcement made this week. The issue is that after six years of engagement and five UN Security Council resolutions Iran has still refused to comply with its responsibilities under international law. What has been agreed by the international community is that there will be a meeting of officials of the E3 plus 3 this month, an assessment will be made of the engagement strategy so far, and at that time an appropriate judgment will be made about the next stage. What is clear is that the international community will not tolerate Iran developing nuclear weapons. Not only is that a threat to the stability of the middle east, but it would also trigger an arms race in that region, which would have no limit.

But what representations has my hon. Friend made to the newly appointed European Union High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy to ensure that, as is crucial, a single voice comes out of the European Union against the Iranian uranium enrichment policy?

My hon. Friend is right to make the point that we need the EU speaking with one clear, loud voice and making it clear to Iran that we stand together on this issue. My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary will meet the new High Representative this week to that end.

The IAEA director general has said:

“We have effectively reached a dead end”

on Iran. Given that, does the Minister agree that we need to be talking about a new UN Security Council resolution, which should include a total ban on arms sales to Iran, a tough UN inspections regime and action against the Iranian Islamic revolutionary guard corps, which is deeply involved in Iran’s nuclear and ballistic missile programmes?

What is important is that it is absolutely clear that despite the international community’s reaching out a hand towards Iran, requesting diplomatic engagement and saying that we want a political solution, and despite the speech in which the new President of the United States made those points, Iran has still refused to engage: for more than a year, it has not engaged with the UN’s nuclear watchdog in any way. If, at this stage of reappraisal, the best way forward is found to be a United Nations resolution about further sanctions against Iran, we will take that view seriously.

It is clear that Iran has not listened to anything that anybody has said for the past six years and is proceeding irrespective of any representations made, so talk of further sanctions is really neither here nor there. However, may I press the Minister a little further? Having P3 and E3, and talking to the new High Representative, is still not a proper European position. Will he say exactly how the three E3 countries—Germany, France and the United Kingdom—intend to work with the rest of the European Union and the new High Representative to bring some clout to the table?

The General Affairs Council is due to meet next week. There will be an attempt to get complete EU unity on this issue, so that we can go forward to the December E3 plus 3 meeting with a common EU position. We will then consider the case for a UN Security Council resolution.

Middle East Peace Process

There is more consensus in the international community than there has been for many years about the basis for a resolution of the dispute between Israel and the Palestinians, but the parties are moving further apart. Those Palestinians and Israelis who are committed to the idea of a Palestinian state based on 1967 borders, with Jerusalem as the shared capital and a fair settlement for refugees, appear smaller in number and weaker in politics than ever before. However, the US Administration are engaged in a good-faith endeavour to bridge the gap. We will continue to support those efforts, because the alternatives for the people of Israel, Palestine and the rest of the region look so much worse.

I am sure that the Foreign Secretary will agree that education and hope for the future are important for peace in the middle east so, to that end, may I ask him to have a word with his Israeli counterpart about the 8,000 desks that the UN has imported into Gaza for schoolchildren? They cannot be assembled because the Israelis will not let the nails come in. Will he commit to have a word on that subject?

The hon. Gentleman raises a very important point, and I shall certainly raise it. We have raised many issues over the past year—or certainly since January and the end of Operation Cast Lead—about the grip that exists at the checkpoints, in terms of both the volume of trade and the items that are allowed in. I have never heard that item referred to before, but the hon. Gentleman raises a very important point and I shall certainly follow it up.

What lessons does my right hon. Friend draw from Iran’s recent attempt to send 500 tonnes of weapons to Hezbollah? The weapons were disguised as civilian cargo, and some of them as construction materials, but thankfully the attempt was intercepted and thwarted by the Israelis.

We must learn two lessons. The first is that we must never underestimate the extent to which some will go to get further weapons into Gaza, and the second is that we must follow up every aspect of resolution 1860—[Interruption.] I beg my hon. Friend’s pardon: she referred to Hezbollah and not to Gaza. We should never underestimate the extent to which some will go to arm terrorist groups all across the region. Secondly, we should not underestimate the extent to which the international community needs to come together to follow through on repeated resolutions, in the UN and elsewhere, to support all states in the region that are committed to coexistence. That is what we will certainly do.

Foreign Prisoner Release

11. If he will hold discussions with the Scottish Executive on co-ordination of policy on release and removal from the country of foreign prisoners held in UK prisons. (302604)

I understand from my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Home Affairs that no discussions are planned with the Scottish Executive on these issues. The release of any prisoner in the Scottish prison estate is a devolved matter for the Scottish Executive. Deportation of foreign national prisoners remains a reserved matter for the UK Border Agency.

What lessons have the Minister and the Government learned from the release of Mr. al-Megrahi to Tripoli? The Government’s total silence at the time brought great shame and embarrassment to our country. Will he interact properly with the Scottish Executive in future to ensure that such embarrassments do not happen again?

My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary made a statement to the House that set out very clearly the terms of the release of al-Megrahi. As the hon. Gentleman knows full well, the decision was entirely a matter for the Scottish Executive, and he was not even in the House when my right hon. Friend made his statement.

But does my hon. Friend agree that the normal process should be that foreign prisoners who have committed an offence should serve their sentences in their country of origin, unless it would not be safe for them to do so, or their crimes are so unacceptable that they should remain here?

That depends entirely on the nature of the agreements that we have with other countries. The agreements that the Home Office has with other countries vary according to our relationships with those countries, so such decisions have to be made on a case-by-case basis.

EU Informal Meeting

13. What the outcome was of the informal meeting of EU Heads of State or Government on 19 November 2009; and if he will make a statement. (302606)

The special European Council on 19 November came to unanimous agreement on the appointment of Herman Van Rompuy as the first permanent President of the European Council, and of Baroness Cathy Ashton as the new High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy.

Does the Minister not regret being outmanoeuvred by our partners on the spurious grounds of gender equality when we could have taken home the prize of one of the most important financial and economic EU Commissioner posts, which would have been of great benefit to the City of London?

No. The hon. Lady was a rather more pragmatic and sensible pro-European when she was a Member of the European Parliament. She knows perfectly well that these are good appointments. The appointment of Cathy Ashton as High Representative will be especially good because we need Europe to play a far more effective role on the global stage, and she is a woman who will bring that about. I welcome the appointment of Michel Barnier as the Internal Market Commissioner, and I merely note that the hon. Lady’s party wants to dismantle elements of the internal market, which would be wholly inappropriate.

Zimbabwe

14. What recent assessment he has made of the political situation in Zimbabwe; and if he will make a statement. (302607)

I say to my hon. Friend the Minister of State that you have to be quick in this game. The notes for the reply say that the Minister answering is “Ivan Lewis”, so I apologise—but hesitation and deviation are both punished in this House.

The inclusive Government continue to make progress on economic reform, but we are disappointed by the slow pace of political reform, the spasmodic violence and the continuation of human rights abuses. The Southern African Development Community agreed at its Maputo summit to push for further implementation of the global political agreement in Zimbabwe, but the proof will be in the delivery. We urge all parties, as the Commonwealth did on Sunday, to stick to the agreement and comply with it.

Is it not clear that there can be no real change while Mugabe remains? Will the Secretary of State confirm that it is absolute nonsense to speak of readmission to the Commonwealth while the current situation persists?

The hon. Gentleman will know that Prime Minister Tsvangirai has committed to the global political agreement, which is a transitional agreement to renewed elections over an 18-month period. The Commonwealth, the British Government and others have said that that all parties must stick to that agreement. If that happens, the future of Zimbabwe can be turned away from the terrible descent into violence and economic chaos into which Mugabe took the country.

Topical Questions

The Commonwealth Heads of Government met in Trinidad and Tobago between 27 and 29 November. The meeting underlined the Commonwealth’s strength through its diversity and ability to promote action, and the importance of its core values. We saw strong support for a deal in Copenhagen and agreed a UK proposal for a Copenhagen launch fund, as well on calling on Zimbabwe’s coalition partners to respect their commitments and restore democracy and the rule of law. The Commonwealth also agreed to set up an eminent persons group to consider the modernisation of the Commonwealth, including its systems and priorities, to prepare it for the future.

Following the overwhelming and welcome vote by the board of the International Atomic Energy Agency and the subsequent capture and detention of British civilian yacht competitors, will the Foreign Secretary update the House on the current state of relations between the UK and Iran?

First, I should say that I am sure that hon. Members on both sides of the House look forward to the prompt release of the yachtsmen, who were in their yacht between Bahrain and Dubai purely for sporting purposes. The consular case is being pursued in London and Tehran. In the light of my hon. Friend’s question, it is important to say that there is no link at all between the position of the yachtsmen and the Iranian nuclear file or other political issues between Iran and the rest of the international community. We very much look forward to the yachtsmen being released on a consular basis. We understand that they are being treated well in Iran, as we would expect. As I said outside the House earlier today, we are working closely with the Iranian Government to ensure that the release happens as quickly as possible.

T4. There are 50,000 Christians displaced in Orissa state, and the Indian Government’s compensation scheme appears to have stalled. Will the Secretary of State tell the House what representations he has made to the Indian Government to get the compensation scheme flowing again and the displaced persons resettled? (302622)

I can update the hon. Gentleman. The British high commissioner visited Orissa and spoke to the state authorities only a couple of weeks ago specifically about this issue. They advised the high commissioner that the state-run camps have been closed, that affected Christians have now been returned to their homes, that compensation has been provided, and that the perpetrators have been convicted. Of course, we will continue to monitor the situation.

T2. When the world comes together in Copenhagen this weekend for the United Nations climate change conference, will our Government press for an amended and extended Kyoto protocol, with a second commitment period of emission reduction targets for industrialised countries as an absolute priority for those crucial negotiations? (302620)

My hon. Friend raises a very important matter. Every industrialised country must come forward with a binding emissions target, both intermediate and long term. However, one difference between the Kyoto protocol and the Copenhagen agreement is—I hope—that at Copenhagen, every country in the world will make a commitment to ensure that it does not proceed with business as usual. After all, 90 per cent. of the increase in carbon emissions over the next 50 years will come from developing countries rather than industrialised countries. While we cannot expect absolute cuts from many developing countries, we can help them to ensure that they do not proceed on a high-carbon development path.

T5. As part of its strategy on child rights published in August 2007, the FCO said that it would work closely with, and continue to consult, the child rights panel “to discuss and continuously develop this strategy.” Will the Secretary of State tell the House when the child rights panel last met, and what plans there are for it to meet again in the near future? (302624)

The hon. Gentleman is right to say that child rights are an integral part of British foreign policy objectives. The panel meets on an ad hoc basis when and if necessary. It is true that it has not met for some time. The last time we called a meeting of child rights stakeholders was in July this year to assist our work revising the FCO’s children and armed conflict strategy. We want children’s rights to become a mainstream integral part of our work, and we will convene that panel when necessary.

T3. Rwanda has made tremendous progress in the past 15 years, leading to its accession to the Commonwealth at the weekend and today’s announcement that it is largely mine-free. What steps can the Government take to consolidate that progress through work with the Westminster Foundation for Democracy and by building good governance, not just in Rwanda but across the rest of east Africa, to assist those countries, particularly from the point of view of good governance and of development? (302621)

My hon. Friend is right. We, too, welcome the accession of Rwanda to the Commonwealth. We think that this is an important point at which Rwanda can seize hold of the values and principles to which the Commonwealth adheres, and make them prominent in its constitution and in its way of life. We work closely with the Government in Kigali to try to enforce key messages on media freedom and good governance and to support the national Human Rights Commission, and we will continue to do so.

T6. What has been done to improve further our relations with Japan, particularly with the new Democratic Party of Japan Government? We have many shared interests in international security—the new H-2A rocket has recently been launched by Japan—and we can learn a lot from its experiences in dealing with a low-growth economy. (302625)

The hon. Gentleman is right to draw attention to the importance of our relationship with Japan, particularly given the election of the new Japanese Government. Since that Government were formed, there have been UK ministerial visits to Japan by the Minister with responsibility for defence equipment and support, by the Minister for Science and Innovation, and by the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and skills. The Prime Minister has met the new Japanese Prime Minister on at least one occasion. We very much welcome Japan’s bold initiative on climate change, and its recent announcement of a £5 billion assistance package to Afghanistan. We want to continue to deepen and strengthen our relationship with Japan.

T7. Last Thursday evening was the first anniversary of the Mumbai bombings, in which 165 people died, many of them friends and relatives of my constituents. The involvement of the Inter-Services Intelligence in the planning of those bombings is widely known, yet there has not been co-operation by the Pakistani Government to bring the perpetrators to book. What can my right hon. Friend do to ensure that pressure is brought to bear on the Pakistani Government on this matter? (302626)

My hon. Friend, who has a long record as a deep, deep friend of India, is right to raise this terrible anniversary. The Prime Minister and I both conveyed to Prime Minister Singh the deepest sympathy and condolences of the British people on the first anniversary of the terrible Mumbai attacks. As for the prosecution of those involved, my hon. Friend will know that seven people have been charged in the Pakistani political system—or rather, in the Pakistani criminal justice system—for their role in the Mumbai attacks. We have been urging the Pakistani authorities to proceed with those trials at the earliest opportunity. This is an issue that we will take up again with Prime Minister Gillani when he comes to London on Thursday.

T8. Ascension Island faces bankruptcy next June because of the ongoing dispute between the FCO and the Ministry of Defence over just £600,000 of unpaid taxes. The island’s school is set to close, and many St. Helenians are set to lose their jobs. Will the Foreign Secretary finally get a grip of this ongoing dispute, bang heads together and sort the issue out? (302627)

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising this issue. He had an interesting visit to the island earlier this year. He has mentioned these issues to me several times, and I am happy to say to him that I have every intention of trying to resolve them as a matter of urgency. I am meeting my counterpart in the Ministry of Defence tomorrow or the day after, and I hope that we will be able to have the matter resolved in time for the Overseas Territories Consultative Council.

Russia has a crucial role to play in the future security of energy provision to this country and the EU. Can the Minister give us an update on the position and the relationship between the EU and Russia in negotiations on future energy supplies?

My hon. Friend raises a very important point. The development of a common energy policy across Europe is one example where greater European co-operation and co-ordination is needed. Engagement with Russia needs to be taken forward on a far more coherent basis. That is one of the priorities for the new Commission. It is certainly something that we will be urging upon it.

T9. Just a few days into the Chilcot inquiry, it must be painfully obvious to everybody both that the Hutton inquiry of 2003 was useless and that Tony Blair gravely misled the House and the country. Given that John Chilcot is chairing a non-statutory inquiry, what steps will the Government take to ensure that Mr. Blair and his immediate circle at the time are properly held to account for the enormity of what they did? (302628)

I think that after a week of the Chilcot inquiry, it is time for all sides to recognise the value of the inquiry. It is doing its work in an outstandingly professional and clear way. We should allow it to finish its work. No one else is drawing conclusions, even if the hon. Gentleman is. My suspicion is that he already had his conclusions before the inquiry even opened its doors.

The middle east peace process is badly hindered by the rift between Fatah and Hamas. Does my right hon. Friend agree that if Marwan Barghouti is able to heal that rift, we should persuade the Israelis to release him from prison?

Any decision on the release of prisoners is a matter for the Israeli Government and has to be a case for negotiation between the Israelis and the Palestinians. In the context of that debate, we strongly urge Hamas immediately to release Gilad Shalit, who was illegally detained against international law. We support the Egyptian efforts to seek unification in the Palestinian leadership between Hamas and Fatah. As I understand it, Fatah signed up to such an agreement, brokered by the Egyptians, but Hamas refused to do so. We continue to support the Egyptian efforts.

Extreme violence against both black and white in Zimbabwe continues, and Mr. Mugabe totally ignores the rulings of Southern African Development Community institutions. Is it not now the case that the only individual who can do anything about Mr. Mugabe and bring about his fall is Mr. Jacob Zuma, the President of South Africa, who could switch off the electricity and cut off the fuel supplies to Zimbabwe?

The hon. Gentleman, who has taken a long interest in that issue, is right to point to the importance of South Africa, and in particular of President Zuma. President Zuma gave to the closing session of the Commonwealth conference a report on SADC’s efforts, and he dedicated himself to support the global political agreement that, after all, has been signed by Prime Minister Tsvangirai as well as by President Mugabe. Switching off the electricity is not part of the global political agreement. It is right that we support those brave reformers in Zimbabwe who have committed themselves to the political process. I very much understand the hon. Gentleman’s scepticism about the ability of ZANU-PF to stick to the agreement, but it seems to me vital that the international community remains united in demanding that it do so.

It is extremely regrettable that the British Government’s representative did not take part in the vote at the UN Human Rights Council on the Goldstone commission report, which I understand has now been referred to the UN Security Council. Will the Foreign Secretary assure me that there will be no further blockage of a full investigation of Goldstone’s recommendations, and that if necessary, the cases will be referred for international judicial review?

I am sorry if there is any confusion about that issue in my hon. Friend’s mind, but the British Government have been absolutely clear that we support an independent, full and transparent inquiry into the credible allegations that the Goldstone report makes. We have made that position absolutely clear in public and in private, and that seems to me to be the right position to hold. That is different from giving a wholesale endorsement of the Goldstone report, which includes some items that we are clear are not accurate, and also fails to take account of some important factors. However, the report makes credible and serious allegations that should be investigated through a transparent and full inquiry. We continue to say that.

With reference to the previous answer by the Minister of State, the hon. Member for Bury, South (Mr. Lewis), to his hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, South-East (Dr. Iddon), does the Foreign Office understand the sense of injustice that is the principal motivating factor behind so much Islamist violence, and that a just settlement of the middle east peace process is an absolutely vital British national interest?

The Government are absolutely clear that there is an urgent need for progress in the peace process. We strongly advocate, as a matter of urgency, comprehensive negotiations towards a two-state solution—a viable contiguous Palestinian state alongside a secure Israel. Those negotiations have to deal with the questions of the 1967 borders, of Jerusalem, of justice for Palestinian refugees, and of normalised relationships between the Arab world and Israel. That is now a matter of urgency: we share the hon. Gentleman’s analysis in that respect.

We made it clear before the elections that we believed that President Zelaya should not have been removed from power, and that if the elections were to be valid, they had to be engaged in under President Zelaya. Without his return before the end of his term, which is at the end of January, it will be impossible to believe that those were proper elections. However, we recognise and welcome the fact that the elections that did take place did so in a peaceful situation.

May I commend Ministers for their continuing engagement with the situation in Burma? However, will they, perhaps with their colleagues in the Department for International Development, investigate reports coming out now that aid to the Chin people on the border with India is being given in the form of loans on which 200 per cent. interest is charged? Surely that is not consistent with other Government policy in the region.

The hon. Gentleman is right to say that the situation in Burma is crucial. Right now, it is poised at an incredibly important stage, and we believe that we must maintain sanctions against the Burmese regime while engaging in a political and diplomatic process and seeking to secure the release of political prisoners—especially Aung San Suu Kyi. On the hon. Gentleman’s specific point, I shall write to him with the information.

Nothing wrong with being tail-end Charlie, is there, Mr. Speaker?

My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary laid a wreath on behalf of the overseas territories, but has the time not come for the overseas territories to be allowed to lay it? We had a meeting with a previous Minister, who said that they accepted that the territories had grown up enough, so we should rid them of their colonial masters and allow them to lay a wreath themselves.

And my views have not changed. However, my hon. Friend the Member for Chorley (Mr. Hoyle) knows that the issue will be discussed in the Overseas Territories Consultative Council next week. Let us hope that we can come to a conclusion that is suitable to all.