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Topical Questions

Volume 501: debated on Tuesday 1 December 2009

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.