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Topical Questions

Volume 506: debated on Tuesday 2 March 2010

On Saturday, Chile was struck by an earthquake of magnitude 8.8 on the Richter scale. My thoughts and, I am sure, those of every Member are with the families of those killed and injured. Currently, there are no confirmed British casualties. We have located more than 270 British nationals and confirmed that they are safe. The Government have made an initial donation of £250,000 to facilitate the work of the Red Cross in Chile, and the European Union has provided an immediate €3 million for the relief effort. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister spoke to President Bachelet yesterday to offer further support and condolences on behalf of the whole country.

I thank my right hon. Friend for that update on the situation in Chile.

My right hon. Friend travels the world vigorously promoting the UK’s foreign policy interests. In any of those multilateral and bilateral discussions, which he has had over some years, has it ever been suggested to him that it is unpatriotic of a British Foreign Minister to work for the return of a Labour Government at home?

My right hon. Friend makes a very important point. I, like many people, was shocked by the Leader of the Opposition’s suggestion that it was somehow unpatriotic to work for the re-election of a Labour Government—or, for that matter, for any other party. I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman was showing his inexperience, and I think that he should apologise to all Labour voters in this country.

Ignoring the last remark, may I associate the Opposition fully with what the Foreign Secretary said about the situation in Chile and the action that the Government have taken and endorsed?

On the separate matter of the killing of Mr. al-Mabhouh in Dubai, the Foreign Secretary said to me in a letter last week that

“if the Israelis had been responsible for this, the UK would have the strongest expectations that this would not happen again.”

I think the whole House will back him up in that. However, may I repeat a question that I have now asked Ministers twice? Did he specifically ask his Israeli counterpart for an assurance that Israel will never sanction the misuse of British passports in any future intelligence operation? Will he seek such an assurance, and does he have any expectation of receiving such an assurance?

Of course I make it clear, not just to Israel but to any country, that we have every expectation that no country, especially a friendly one, would interfere with British passports or promote their fraudulent use. I made that clear to the Israeli Foreign Minister, and I do so to anyone else who is considering such a course. The Israeli Foreign Minister insisted to me that he had no information that corroborated allegations of Israeli involvement, but I none the less made clear to him our very strong view that Israel should co-operate with the investigation that has been launched by the Serious Organised Crime Agency, and that, as I said clearly in my letter, we had every expectation that if there had been an occurrence such as this, it would never happen again.

T3. My right hon. Friend will be well aware of the situation in Nigeria, where President Yar’Adua had been out of the country for health reasons and then came back without being seen, and the Vice-President had no access to him. Meanwhile, the post-amnesty problem in the Niger delta is getting worse. Will he have a word with the Nigerians to ensure that British citizens working in Nigeria will be protected? (319409)

My hon. Friend has a long-standing interest in Nigeria and always tries to be constructive on the issue. Of course, the situation is very difficult. The President has returned to the country and the acting President continues to govern. What is important is that the Government of that country behave in accordance with its constitution and rule of law. We welcome the fact that the acting President has committed to make progress on the Niger delta amnesty programme, electoral reform and addressing corruption. It is obviously important that, at this very delicate time, we try to contribute to securing maximum stability, which will in turn protect British citizens in Nigeria.

What pressure is being brought to bear on the Sri Lankan Government to release, as soon as possible, an estimated 100,000 Tamils who are still being held in internally displaced persons camps 10 months after the fighting ended?

In every conversation that I have with the Sri Lankan Prime Minister, I make the precise point that for the future of Sri Lanka, after the end of a bloody civil war that lasted 26 years and claimed the lives of some 70,000 people, the process of political reconciliation, including constitutional reform, needs to start immediately, but also that there is a short-term, immediate humanitarian issue in respect of the 100,000 or 80,000 IDPs. It is obviously a good step forward that instead of 280,000 or 300,000 IDPs there are 100,000 or 80,000, but the number needs to get down to zero as fast as possible. That is certainly the case that we make publicly and privately in all forums.

T4. Has the Secretary of State visited Cuba recently, and if he has not, does he have any plans to do so? [Interruption.] (319410)

I would be delighted to visit Cuba—and delighted, of course, to go with Mrs. Clinton. My hon. Friend raises an important point, and if I were to go to Cuba, I would insist on meeting the Opposition as well as the Government. That is a common EU position. I am very disappointed that the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague) went to Cuba without meeting the Opposition. If I went, I certainly would not go on a free flight on Ashcroft airways, and if I ever met Lord Ashcroft, I would want to know what his tax status was. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will explain that when he—

T2. In June last year, I asked the Foreign Secretary about the provision by Britain of military training to the vile Sudanese regime. At the time, he said that he would review the matter and come back to me. Some eight months later, he has not yet done so, so will he kindly give me an update now? (319408)

I am happy to give an update by letter, and I will send the hon. Gentleman a letter as soon as I can.

T8. The Foreign Secretary has told us what the Israeli Foreign Minister, Mr. Liberman, insisted to him. Does he believe Mr. Liberman, and does he expect the House to do so? (319414)

I certainly would not tell the rest of the House what to believe. However, I would say, very seriously, that an investigation is going on. It is right that while allegations fly around, we should wait until the conclusion of our investigation before coming to any conclusions.

T5. Those who visited the excellent exhibition on human trafficking in the Upper Committee corridor last week would have been impressed by the stories of domestics working for embassies, many of whom were treated as domestic slaves. Will the Foreign Office now support the Home Office decision to amend the diplomatic domestic visa, so that those maltreated domestic workers no longer face deportation if they run away from the embassy in which they have been maltreated? (319411)

The hon. Gentleman makes a very good point, and I know that he has devoted a considerable part of his political career to addressing that issue, for which I pay tribute to him. One terrible problem faced by people—normally young women, but sometimes young men—in that situation is that they are in a complex double bind: if they try to break free, they will be sent back to the country of origin. We are looking very closely at that situation with the Home Office, and I hope we can provide a satisfactory answer fairly soon.

T9. Will my hon. Friend tell me what steps his Department is taking to promote free and fair elections in Burma later this year? (319415)

Recent events in Burma do not encourage us to believe that the elections will be free and fair. For example, Aung San Suu Kyi faced trumped up charges, a bogus trial, and a sentence that was an offence to any notion of justice, and now her appeal has been thrown out. Of course, we continue to hope that the Burmese authorities will miraculously change their position in the weeks and months ahead, so that the elections will be free and fair, but that will require not only the release of Aung San Suu Kyi but the changing of the constitution and the release of more than 2,000 political prisoners. We continue to hope, but I must say that we are very sceptical about the prospect of those elections being free and fair.

T6. Despite the potentially significant costs to US-China relations, President Obama was none the less happy to meet the Dalai Lama. Why did the Prime Minister refuse to do so? (319412)

T10. Co-operation between NATO and the European Union continues to be undermined by the absence of agreement between Turkey and Greece on the long-term future of Cyprus. What are the Government doing to try to resolve that situation? (319416)

We are very keen to use the current opportunity—Governments in Ankara and Athens, and leaders in the north and south of Cyprus, who are committed to a successful, whole settlement in Cyprus—and determined to do everything we can to ensure that there is a further intensification of those talks. The current situation on the island is a tragedy of significant proportions, and it will never be resolved unless there is a comprehensive settlement.

T7. To return to the vexed situation in Iran, I am sure we agree that the best solution would be a more moderate and democratic Government in that country, yet the oppressive Ahmadinejad regime is now blocking all international broadcasts, including BBC Persian TV. Could the Government put pressure on satellite broadcasters that are used by Iran via the International Telecommunications Union, and consider including telecommunications in any proposed sanctions? That would at least allow the people of Iran to see a different view to that which their Government want to show them. (319413)

The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. Not just the BBC but Deutsche Welle and other international broadcasting organisations are being blocked from Iran. That is doubly significant given the popularity of those international stations. He makes the very good point that we should be working hard to get those airwaves free again. We are certainly doing so bilaterally, but I can assure him that we are also doing so on the multilateral scene.

Checkpoints in west bank cities have been reduced from 41 to 14. How far is this responsible for economic progress on the west bank?

Obviously, the reduction in checkpoints is welcome. I have the latest figures for 2008 and 2009 for economic development in the west bank and I have discussed them with Prime Minister Fayyad recently. It is fair to say that although the reduction in checkpoints is welcome, the economic growth was secured before that reduction. We hope that the reduction in checkpoints will contribute to further economic growth in the years ahead.

Can the Foreign Secretary tell us what practical measures of co-operation are being offered by the Israeli Government to those conducting the investigation into the abuse of British passports? How would he characterise that co-operation?

I would say that it is premature to characterise the co-operation on a scale of one to 10, or nought to 10, but it is important that we send a clear message that we expect that full co-operation. The Serious Organised Crime Agency investigation is getting going, and is now spending some time in the middle east. For obvious reasons, I shall not give a running commentary on that investigation, but I take the right hon. and learned Gentleman’s point seriously—I am sure that the House agrees—and we expect full co-operation with SOCA’s work.

The Government are correct to work for the toughest possible inspection regime of the Iranian ambition to promote enriched nuclear material, whether for domestic or other purposes. However, the Foreign Secretary has a duty to tell us in what circumstances he believes the Iranians might launch an attack on any other country in that region, especially Israel.

The Iranians do not have a nuclear weapon yet, thank God, and that is important. The whole thrust of our policy is reducing tension in the area. From my discussions with Gulf neighbours, I can tell my hon. Friend that they are extremely worried about Iranian destabilisation activities in the Gulf. The support that is given to Hezbollah and Hamas is also destabilising for the middle east. The offer that has been made clearly to Iran is that it will be treated as a normal country, on nuclear and other matters, when it starts behaving as a normal country. That is not victimisation; Iran is the author of its own misfortunes, massively against the interests of its people. That is why our strategy of reaching out to the Iranian people—not victimising them—while putting pressure on the regime must be the right one. After all, we may be dissatisfied with the Iranian regime, but it is only half the dissatisfaction felt by the Iranian people.

Will the Foreign Secretary take the opportunity this week to speak to the South African President and Foreign Minister and discuss the situation in Zimbabwe? Will he try to persuade them that we really would appreciate it enormously if they put a little more pressure on Mr. Mugabe, because he is the impediment to progress in that country?

I am happy to report to the hon. Gentleman and to the House that I met the South African Foreign Minister this morning in advance of the state visit. There is a high degree of interest in, and excitement about, the state visit in South Africa, as there is here, and we welcome President Zuma and his 12-strong ministerial team and 200-strong business team very warmly. We discussed the Zimbabwe situation this morning. I very much take the content of the hon. Gentleman’s question in the spirit in which it is intended, recognising South Africa’s central role, and I assure him that I conveyed both at the meeting today.

Will the Minister take a look at Amnesty International’s January report “Giving Life, Risking Death”, which reports 200,000 unnecessary deaths among pregnant women in Burkina Faso because of discrimination and other factors? Will he authorise a diplomatic effort to try to help that country to bring down that figure?

I am grateful for the point that my hon. Friend makes. He is right to say that there are significant issues that we need to address, and that is one that will be referred to in the Foreign Office’s own human rights report, which we will publish in the next couple of weeks.

To return to the horn of Africa and piracy, is the Secretary of State aware that some people in international shipping are turning off their automatic transponders, which is making it very difficult for ships, including those from the Royal Navy and other navies from across the world, to protect international shipping? It might also be a breach of chapter 5 of SOLAS—the international convention for the safety of life at sea—and disqualify any future insurance claims.

No, I was not aware of that important point, but I am happy to forward it to Operation Atalanta headquarters—the centre of the EU naval mission off Somalia—at Northwood here in the UK. He raises an important point. International shipping has a responsibility to work with international security forces, both on the lanes and the identification of their ships to promote safety on the high seas.

On 11 February, at least 17 children were arrested from the Al Jalazun refugee camp by Israeli forces in the middle of the night and allegedly suffered ill treatment, then and during interrogation. What representations has the Secretary of State made to the Israeli Government about the large number of Palestinian children held in custody and facing trial, if at all, by a military tribunal?

My hon. Friend, who I know follows these issues carefully, has raised related or similar issues with me before. As I said to him on those occasions, we raise very clearly with the Israelis and, I have to say, with the Palestinians, a range of human rights issues, including not only social and economic rights but security and the treatment of detainees. I do not know of the individual case that he raises, but I shall certainly look into it. It is important that the message goes out very clearly that we expect all sides to live up to their international, as well as domestic, obligations under international law.