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Foreign and Commonwealth Office

Volume 508: debated on Tuesday 6 April 2010

The Secretary of State was asked—

Afghanistan

1. What assessment he has made of developments in Afghanistan since the London conference of January 2010. (325349)

Since the London conference, the Government of Afghanistan have made progress on some of their commitments, including the Afghan Cabinet’s decision to approve the sub-national governance strategy and President Karzai’s recent decree boosting the high office of oversight’s powers to tackle and investigate corruption. In other areas, progress is slow—too slow. We continue to work with the Afghan authorities to encourage similar progress to be made in those other areas.

One area of our policy in Afghanistan—where, tragically, another British soldier lost his life at the weekend—on which I believe the Government have failed very badly is explaining to the public why we are there. Does the Foreign Secretary believe that that is the case and, if so, what is he going to do about it?

Every death of a British soldier in Afghanistan is a tragic event, and I think that the hon. Gentleman’s attempt to link this to a particular Government decision is unwise and not worthy of him. There is unity across the House that the border lands of Afghanistan and Pakistan are the gravest terrorist threat to this country and that stability in Afghanistan is absolutely essential not only to countering the threat that al-Qaeda might re-establish itself there, but to achieving stability in Pakistan. That is the fundamental reason why we are there, and it is why all three major political parties support our presence there. We all know, however, that there will not be a military solution in Afghanistan—the combined military and civilian effort will create the conditions for a political settlement, which is, after all, the only way to provide stability in that country.

What assessment has my right hon. Friend made of developments in Afghanistan regarding the well-being of women and their health, education and ability to work for their families?

I am sorry that this will be the last occasion on which my hon. Friend asks a question in this House; she has raised a very important point. On education, one can point to a qualitative shift. There are now, after all, about 6 million to 7 million children in school in Afghanistan, nearly half of them girls, which is a complete revolution in comparison with a decade ago. In other areas, however, as we heard from the civil society representatives at the London conference, progress has been much slower, including in areas such as political representation and health care, which my hon. Friend mentioned.

Amid all the debates that we will have in the coming election campaign, should we not all remember that throughout every hour of it we have 10,000 British servicemen and women in real battles in Afghanistan and that their role must be a paramount concern for whoever is elected on 6 May? Is it not true that the military advances made on the ground will be of long-term benefit only if the Afghan political processes also succeed and are seen to be legitimate? When the Prime Minister announced UK strategy for Afghanistan in November last year, he pledged that President Karzai would ensure that all 400 Afghan provinces and districts had a governor free from corruption and appointed on merit within nine months—by August this year. Is the Foreign Secretary confident that such benchmarks will still be met?

Perhaps you will allow me, Mr. Speaker, to say that I thought it completely appropriate for the Prime Minister when he spoke in Downing street this morning—and for the Leader of the Opposition when he made his response and for the leader of the Liberal Democrats, who I think took time out from the hurly-burly and political battles that the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague) mentioned—to say that this election campaign provides a chance not to forget what is going on in Afghanistan, but to discuss with and engage the British people on that issue. That is something that I—and, I hope, other right hon. and hon. Members—will be keen to do, because this is the time to engage the British people on the sacrifice being made and the purposes behind it.

As to President Karzai’s commitment, I believe that it was in his inaugural speech in the third week of November when he made the commitment to the transfer of security leadership and to extend governance issues in respect of corruption. The Prime Minister’s commitment remains. Early signs, over the three or four months since the announcement, have been positive and a number of provinces have had replacement governors who are, I think, an improvement on their predecessors.

In light of all that, should we not all accept how alarming it is to those who support the efforts of British forces in Afghanistan to read so many reports in recent days of apparent division between President Karzai and western nations? Given that steps to reduce corruption and to improve local government are vital for the counter-insurgency effort, is the Foreign Secretary absolutely confident that relations between this country and the US on the one hand and President Karzai on the other hand are as they should be, and that there is a clear enough mutual understanding of the approach needed to handle the situation in Kandahar, to conduct the elections well in September and to make progress on the integration and reconciliation process? Is he happy that all that is as it should be? Is not agreement on such things indispensable to our success in Afghanistan?

Agreement on such things is, indeed, indispensible, but verbal agreement is, of course, only one step in the process. I am absolutely confident that since the London conference there has been renewed unity not only between Britain and the United States but across the international coalition about the military and civilian strategy that is needed and the political settlement that can be generated. In respect of the Afghan Government, as I said in Kabul in November, words must be turned into deeds. That is the case both now and in the run-up to the Kabul conference, which is the moment when the international effort generated in London and the Afghan effort mobilised locally by a new Government—whose Cabinet has not yet been fully appointed, which points to some of the problems that exist—will need to be joined. That will be a very important moment to judge progress and how much confidence we should have. It would be unwise at this stage to say anything other than that we must continue to press very strongly on the agenda that President Karzai set out in November and that we have committed to—and we want to see it matched.

Finally, if you will allow me, Mr. Speaker—I apologise for talking at such length, but the Afghan issue is so important—the right hon. Gentleman has referred to comments made at the weekend. It is very important that we say very clearly that any suggestion that Britain, or any other country, has irregularly interfered in the election processes of Afghanistan is completely without foundation. Our troops were there guaranteeing the safety of people seeking to go and vote. I am sure that it is a unified position across this House to have absolutely no truck with such malign suggestions, especially about our troops, but actually about our whole country.

I associate myself and my hon. and right hon. Friends with the Secretary of State’s observations about Afghanistan and the debt that we owe to those who serve there, but, in his usual restrained way, he has not, I think, given the House a full and proper account of the Government’s response to these extraordinary and bizarre allegations of external interference in the presidential elections. What representations has Her Majesty’s Government made to President Karzai about these allegations, and if he is to be the centrepiece of political development, how can we have confidence when he makes such remarks?

I pleaded with Mr. Speaker to allow me to get in an extra sentence or two in order to address that, and I am sorry if that did not provide the comprehensive answer that the right hon. and learned Gentleman wanted. The Prime Minister spoke to President Karzai on Sunday, when he made absolutely clear our position in respect of these allegations. President Karzai did not repeat the allegations; in fact, he committed himself to working with the United Kingdom, but as I said in respect of an earlier question, it is important to turn those assurances into deeds. President Karzai is the elected leader of Afghanistan—he is the choice of the Afghan people. He certainly got more votes than any other candidate in the election, and it is by virtue of that election that he is our partner in securing our interests in that country.

European Security and Defence Assembly

Following the lead we in the UK gave last week, as laid out in my written ministerial statement, all 10 member states have agreed to close the Western European Union. We believe that future arrangements for inter-parliamentary dialogue should reflect the intergovernmental nature of European security and defence policy, should involve all EU and non-EU European allies and should be cost-effective for the British taxpayer.

I thank the Minister for that response, but is he not closing down one organisation without clearly setting out the arrangements that he wishes to put in place for the proper scrutiny of international defence issues?

That was not a unilateral decision, although the hon. Gentleman is absolutely right that Britain took the lead. Many countries said that they wanted further action and that the architecture for examining common security and defence policy in Europe was no longer sufficient, but they did not want to do anything about it. We took the courageous step of saying that we wanted to withdraw. We now have a year during which we can negotiate precisely what the future structure should look like. I pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman and others who have sat on the Assembly, but it was costing us some €2.3 million a year, and we believe that that money could be better spent elsewhere.

Whether it is the WEU or the Council of Europe, is the Minister satisfied that we increasingly only have structures that serve those countries which are member states of the EU and that therefore marginalise those countries which are not? I think that that will do us long-term damage.

The complexity of the WEU was that it had so many different categories of membership. There were the 10 core member countries, but all 27 members of the EU were allied, and then there were other countries, such as NATO allies, who took on observer status. That is why we believe that now is the right time to put together a more appropriate structure, so that the Parliaments around Europe, including our allies such as Turkey—one of the countries which my hon. Friend may have been alluding to—can closely scrutinise the common foreign, defence and security policy that has developed across the whole of Europe.

The Minister pointed out in his written statement of 30 March that the EU’s common security and defence policy remains intergovernmental and is thus a matter for national Parliaments. How does he see these arrangements operating in future, and how will he accommodate NATO allies such as Turkey and Norway, which are associate members of the current Assembly but which are not in the EU? How is this actually going to work?

One of the most important things is that we ensure that we have a cost-effective structure. The costs that have been incurred by the WEU Assembly alone for the United Kingdom over the past few years have been phenomenal. We believe, as does every other country among the 10 core members, that it is right to wind up that organisation. We do not believe it would be right—I can probably garner the hon. Gentleman’s support for this, at least—for the European Parliament to take on responsibility for considering this matter. We believe that it is clearly laid down in the Lisbon treaty that that should not be a responsibility for the European Parliament. I look forward to debating some of those issues with him over the next few weeks, since he has already turned down five debates with me on Europe since the beginning of the year.

Middle East Peace Process

3. What his most recent assessment is of progress in the middle east peace process; and if he will make a statement. (325351)

We welcome the Quartet’s determination to move swiftly to proximity talks addressing issues of substance. We continue to press both sides to show the courage, commitment and compromise needed to make real progress. The UK remains determined to do everything possible to achieve comprehensive peace in the middle east.

You will know, Mr. Speaker, that although all hon. Members in this place spend most of their time taking up issues at home, issues that arise abroad affect us all. Does my hon. Friend share my concern at the escalating violence in Gaza, and will the UK Government make it clear to the Israeli authorities that we will oppose any repeat of Operation Cast Lead and that no UK arms or equipment should be used in any such operation?

My hon. Friend is right to draw attention to our concerns about the escalation of violence over the weekend. We want to see an immediate end to all violence in Gaza. The rocket attacks from Gaza into Israel must stop, and we also urge restraint from the Israelis. More fundamentally, we want to see Israel remove all obstacles to humanitarian assistance getting into Gaza, and we want to see the release of Gilad Shalit. Both steps would be important confidence building measures in support of the peace process.

Will the Minister give his most recent assessment of progress in the middle east peace process in relation to the former Prime Minister, Mr. Tony Blair? Will he give us one concrete thing that Mr. Blair has achieved?

I was going to congratulate the hon. Gentleman on his contribution to this House over a number of years—I still do—but I can give more than one example. One of the most important sources of progress in the middle east in recent times has been the improvement in economic development and enhanced security in the west bank. The former Prime Minister has played a crucial role in making that progress possible alongside President Abbas and Prime Minister Fayyad.

Will the Minister tell us how many Foreign Office resources have gone into supporting Mr. Blair’s role? How many diplomats and how many security people have been involved? Should not that money have been diverted to the Foreign Office team on the ground? Is not that the best way for British foreign policy money to be spent?

The hon. Gentleman should be aware that the former Prime Minister was appointed by the Quartet. He is the Quartet’s representative in the region, and an appropriate level of resource is deployed by the United Kingdom to support his efforts in that role. I must say to the hon. Gentleman that it is disingenuous to ask questions to which he has already received the answers in writing.

What role is Iran, with its opposition to Israel’s very existence, playing in Gaza in escalating violence and supporting Hamas?

My hon. Friend is right to raise concerns about the interference of Iran in Gaza and elsewhere in the middle east. There is no doubt that Iran poses a threat not only because of the development of its nuclear weapons but because of its continued support for a variety of terrorist organisations in the middle east that destabilise sovereign states. We need to be clear. If there is to be stability and progress, it is important that we take the role and threat of Iran seriously.

First, I agree with both the hon. Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Richard Burden) and the Minister about the priority that needs to be given to trying find a peaceful way forward in Gaza at the moment. Does the Minister agree that it would help us in trying to persuade the Israeli authorities to reopen the border crossings if they could be given the assurance that effective measures are in place to stop the smuggling of arms and explosives into the Gaza strip? In that context, can he say why, more than 12 months after our Prime Minister said that he was looking for ways to use British naval resources to stop such smuggling, no action seems to have been taken?

UN resolution 1860 makes the importance of stopping smuggling very clear, which is the point that the hon. Gentleman has raised. Surely he is aware of the significant development in relation to Egypt creating a security strategy, which means that there is a serious reduction in the capacity of those who seek to smuggle those weapons, goods and services. As he is aware, that is vital not only for security, but because Hamas collects taxes and benefits from the smuggling of goods and services.

Has the Minister seen the article in the 29 March edition of The New Yorker by its editor, David Remnick, who is a staunch supporter of the state of Israel? Mr. Remnick writes:

“Without the creation of a viable contiguous Palestinian state…it is impossible to imagine a Jewish and democratic future for Israel.”

When are the Israeli Government going to be persuaded not only that the oppression of Palestinians is wrong in itself, but that it jeopardises the future of the Jewish state?

The article to which my right hon. Friend refers is entirely consistent with statements that have recently been made by President Peres of Israel. It is very clear to us that there is urgency in terms of progress in the peace process, which relates to the creation of a viable Palestinian state alongside an Israel that is free from the threat of terrorist attack, the final status issues being dealt with as quickly as possible, borders being consistent with 1967, the status of Jerusalem, refugees and the offer from the Arab League to normalise its relations with Israel. The only recent glimmer of hope has been the Arab League summit at which Arab League leaders expressed their support once again for proximity talks and reiterated their offer, in return for two states, to normalise relations with the state of Israel.

Turks and Caicos Islands

The finances and governance of the Turks and Caicos Islands were in a sorry state when we were forced to suspend constitutional Government. We are now working through the Governor on stabilising the public finances, on immigration issues and on issues relating to Crown land. The special investigation and prosecution team is in place and working.

The Foreign Affairs Committee has recently been made aware of serious concerns about the special investigation team’s current investigation in the Turks and Caicos Islands, namely about the lack of adequate resources to fund the investigation and about the timetable that will lead to the ending of direct rule from the UK as early as 2011, which might not allow for a complete investigation. Will he address those issues?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We need to make sure that a full investigation is conducted. That is why I am working very closely with colleagues in the Department for International Development to see whether there is a means of ensuring that the investigation team has the moneys to find out the truth, which is sorely needed in TCI. In that case, the moneys would be returned once assets were sequestered as a result of criminal investigations. We need to return as fast as possible to elections in TCI, because otherwise people will think that this is a return to colonial rule.

Afghanistan

5. What recent assessment he has made of the effectiveness of the coalition in achieving the UK’s foreign policy objectives in Afghanistan. (325353)

We regularly assess the progress that we are making in Afghanistan to secure our goal of an Afghanistan that can no longer be a haven for international terrorism. Key indicators include the development of the Afghan national security forces, the delivery of public services and the development of the economy. The London conference reiterated the unity and coherence in the international effort, aligning this behind a clear Afghan plan.

I thank my right hon. Friend for that response. Pakistan is very important to the effectiveness of the coalition in these matters. Will he tell the House what ongoing discussions there are with the Pakistan Government to encourage them in what they have been doing to bring security to the border with Afghanistan, so that there is no hiding place for terrorists and insurgents there?

My hon. Friend makes a very important point. For the first time, we have complementary pressure on both sides of the Durand line. It is also significant that, for the first time since 1947, there are more Pakistani troops on the Afghan border than on the Indian border. That is a very significant development: Pakistan has taken severe losses, but it has moved its deployments. The meetings held the week before last between the Pakistani Foreign Minister and the leaders of the armed services in Washington were absolutely critical, as they renewed and reformed the US-Pakistan relationship, which is critical to Pakistan’s role in helping to achieve stability in Afghanistan.

I associate the Scottish National party and Plaid Cymru with comments already made in support of service personnel on operations. The Pentagon’s top commander, Admiral Mike Mullen, has said that corruption in the Karzai Government could ruin the coalition strategy in Afghanistan, so does the Secretary of State understand why a growing number of people in the UK are asking why our young men and women are dying every day in support of a Government largely built on graft, cronyism and electoral fraud?

I am glad of the hon. Gentleman’s commitment to support the troops who are there, which I know is genuine and real. However, by saying what he has, he is recognising that they are there to ensure our own security. The Afghan Government are a partner in achieving that.

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right that corruption is a cancer at the heart of any society. A society trying to fight a counter-insurgency is doubly cancerous: that is why the London conference placed such emphasis on it, and why we must hold President Karzai to his commitment in his inaugural speech to clamp down on what he called the “culture of impunity” in respect of corruption.

Zimbabwe

6. What recent assessment he has made of progress towards political reform by the Government of Zimbabwe. (325354)

9. What recent assessment he has made of progress towards political reform by the Government of Zimbabwe. (325357)

Hardliners in Zimbabwe continue to obstruct political reform. Effective implementation of the media, electoral and human rights commissions agreed by the parties to the global political agreement in December is absolutely essential.

Has the Minister noticed the case of Owen Maseko, the artist who has been imprisoned and harassed because of his depiction of the terrible carnage that went on in the 1980s under President Mugabe? Is this a sign that the problems in Zimbabwe are continuing, and that a political settlement is still very far from certain?

I am sure that hon. Members in all parts of the House want to pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman for his many years of outstanding service to this House on a variety of very important issues. On the substantive issue that he has raised, the continued flagrant abuse of human rights in Zimbabwe of course remains a concern, as does the lack of political progress on reform. We very much welcome President Zuma’s renewed leadership on behalf of the Southern African Development Community, which we think is very important. We hope to have a report back from the recent visit to Zimbabwe within days, so that we can be clear about the implementation of reforms going forward.

The Minister has spoken about President Zuma’s package of measures to facilitate some sort of agreement. What chance does he give those measures?

I am not a betting man, other than on the outcome of the forthcoming election. The serious point is that hon. Members in all parts of the House have called for South Africa to play a responsible leadership role for a long time. We all know that it is in the best place to influence real change in Zimbabwe. We believe that President Zuma’s efforts are new and potentially radical, so this is a source of optimism and hope, to use a current phrase.

Will the Minister bring me up to speed on the extent to which the Financial Services Authority or his own Department have managed to determine the location of Mr. Mugabe’s laundered money?

The EU agreed in February to extend its targeted measures, which include an arms embargo, asset freezing and travel bans. Those measures are now affecting 31 companies and 198 people. On the specific point that my hon. Friend raises, I shall get back to him in due course.

At the founding of Zimbabwe, the UK put significant resource into helping the development of infrastructure—education systems and the training of people—through a wide range of organisations, including the TUC. A lot of the beneficiaries of those programmes have, of course, become the targets of Mugabe. Will the Minister work with his friends in South Africa to help to restore some of those links and get education programmes in which we can play a role back on the table?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to raise that co-operation and collaboration, which achieved so many positive results. The UK is currently the second-largest bilateral donor to Zimbabwe, providing £60 million in aid, which is spent primarily on health but also on education. We remain deeply concerned by the intimidation, arbitrary violence, repressive legislation and curbs on press freedom that violate the rights of the Zimbabwean people. That is why political reform is so important.

Iraq

8. What assessment he has made of the implications of the outcome of the recent elections in Iraq for UK policy in the region. (325356)

The 7 March election was evidence of Iraq’s progress towards full democracy, a particularly important development in the middle east. It is important that the result is respected by Iraq’s political leaders.

It is also the case that Iraq’s neighbours have a key role in supporting Iraq’s democratic future. A democratic Iraq can play an increasing part in maintaining a stable and secure middle east.

I thank my right hon. Friend for his answer and welcome the progress being made. In terms of further progress for Iraq, does he agree that contact with businesses is enormously important? Will he continue to do all that he can to improve the situation, particularly in relation to visas—the current arrangements mean that Iraqi business people are more likely to go to Europe than the UK?

My hon. Friend speaks with a good deal of expertise in these matters. She is absolutely right: as we have drawn down our military contribution in Iraq, there is growing importance for our economic, political, cultural and educational engagement with Iraq. That was the purpose of the Iraq investment conference in April 2009, and we are absolutely determined to make sure that British companies get the full benefit of a growing and more stable Iraq.

In the parliamentary elections five years ago, the then Prime Minister sent people out from the policy unit here to assist then Prime Minister Allawi with his election campaign, which actually looked like fairly discreditable interference in the affairs of Iraq. Can the Foreign Secretary confirm that Mr. Allawi succeeded this time without the assistance of anyone from the United Kingdom?

Certainly, I have no information to suggest that there was any support from the United Kingdom in that respect. Of course, as the hon. Gentleman knows, on that occasion the result did not work out in favour of the Government in the Iraqi election.

I hope we continue to assist Iraq by all means possible, particularly in rebuilding the rule of law. I want to place on record an e-mail that I received a few days ago from the very brave judge who sentenced Saddam Hussein to death:

“I am…former chief investigative judge in the Iraqi High Tribunal…I am writing today after a long time to say thank you very much for your help”—

which means this country’s help—

“to restore the Iraqi justice and rule of law. Without your support we could not have done what we did.”

Although my right hon. Friend is not retiring, I think the whole House owes her a huge debt of gratitude for the way in which she has conducted her work as the Prime Minister’s special representative on human rights in Iraq. She has stood up for the rights of people in Iraq in a remarkable way, and although there was deep division in the House on the Iraq war, I hope that there is unity around the commitments that she has reported and made in respect of human rights, an independent press and a free and independent judiciary.

Argentina

We have a very close and productive relationship with Argentina on a range of issues, including in the G20, on climate change, sustainable development and counter-proliferation. We have absolutely no doubts whatever about our sovereignty over the Falkland Islands, nor over the islanders’ right to develop a hydrocarbon industry within Falkland waters.

Is the Minister satisfied that there remains enough defence capability in the Royal Navy to deter Argentina from any mistaken reversal of position, going back to military adventurism, given that we now have almost as few destroyers in the Royal Navy as there are Liberal Democrat Members attending this session of Foreign Affairs questions?

I am not in charge of Liberal Democrat attendance, although it is sometimes better to have fewer rather than more.

We are confident that we have what we need to be able to maintain the security of the islands, but it is important to bear in mind that the Argentines have made it very clear, even in some of the noises off that they have been making, that they are not talking about blockading the Falklands, and they are not talking about returning to the 1980s. That should be a reassurance to us all, although of course we should never be complacent.

The Minister will be aware that the Argentine Government have introduced new permit rules for ships travelling to and from the Falkland Islands. What impact is that having on the islands, and what steps is he taking to have those permit rules lifted?

Obviously, it is for the Argentines to make whatever declarations they want to make, but they have not made it clear what will follow on from the laws that they passed a few weeks ago. So far, as I was telling the hon. Member for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis), there has been no blockade of the islands; there has been no impact on the islands, and I very much hope that that remains the same. Frankly, no matter how much argy-bargy there is, we will always return to the principle of self-determination for the Falkland Islanders.

It is all right for the Minister to say that it is not having an impact, but there is an impact: there are threats against companies that do business in the Falklands and that want to do business there in the future. Has not the time come for the Minister or the Secretary of State to visit the Falkland Islands to show their solidarity to the people who live there?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend; I think that he is now the second person who has offered to send me off to the Falkland Islands during the general election campaign, but I am not sure whether he is recommending that that should happen before I submit my nomination papers.

The serious point is that I had conversations with the Argentine Foreign Secretary during the inauguration of the new President of Chile in Santiago a couple of weeks ago, and it is very clear from those conversations that the Argentines have no intention of blockading the Falklands. They do not want to talk about war. They do not want—and it would be inappropriate for any of us—to raise the temperature of the conversation that we are having. In my conversations with people from the Falklands, I have made it clear that, if they want a Minister, they can have one as soon as they want them to visit.

Will the Minister be very clear in saying that he will vigorously defend the rights of the Falkland Islanders to remain within the United Kingdom family and that they will not be used as a trade-off for oil exploration?

I do not know whether I can make it any clearer than I already have: we are absolutely certain about our sovereignty. We rest our case firmly on the United Nations principles, which state that the self-determination of the people on the islands is vital. We believe that we have stronger cards now, because the European treaties also happen to make it clear that the Falklands remain an overseas territory, as part of the United Kingdom. We are not complacent about this, but we are very determined.

Burma

What discussions has my hon. Friend had with our international partners regarding the release of political prisoners in Burma? In particular, what role has China been playing?

My hon. Friend has a long track record of raising issues to do with Burma. It is important that the House continues to shine a light on events in Burma. As our Prime Minister said recently, the new election laws are totally unacceptable. The targeting of Aung San Suu Kyi and the National League for Democracy is particularly vindictive and callous. As a consequence of those new laws, the NLD has now said quite rightly that it is unable to participate in elections that will be illegitimate. Of course, we work with our international partners, especially those countries that have the biggest capacity to influence the situation in that country, and we continue to raise Burma with the Chinese.

The UN special rapporteur on human rights in Burma has made the unusually strong recommendation that the UN should consider establishing a commission of inquiry into war crimes and crimes against humanity committed by the Burmese regime. Last month, the UK ambassador to the UN said that Britain would support the establishment of a commission of inquiry. What steps are the Government taking to build an international coalition to take that forward, particularly by working with countries such as Australia that have already expressed strong support?

First, we are pursuing an arms embargo against the regime in Burma with our international partners. We want the UN to take action as soon as possible on that initiative of our Prime Minister.

We support a commission of inquiry in principle, but it is important that we do not propose a vote at the UN on such an issue when we do not have sufficient international support for it to be successful. If that were to happen, it would give false comfort to the regime, so a lot of work must be done to build sufficient consensus to ensure that there is maximum international support for establishing such an inquiry.

Does my hon. Friend realise just how much frustration is felt by those of us on both sides of the House who have campaigned on Burma for many years when we see so little progress? In his response to my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry, South (Mr. Cunningham), he did not say when we will ask China to face up to its responsibilities in the region and the country.

Mr. Speaker, this is an opportunity to pay tribute to your personal role in ensuring that the issue of Burma continues to be a high priority for parliamentarians inside and outside the House.

My hon. Friend the Member for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman) will be aware that my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary recently visited China, and this was one of the issues on his agenda. We make it clear in our bilateral and multilateral discussions, including with ASEAN and China, that everything possible must be done to put pressure on the regime so that it understands that until it is committed to democratic reform and free and fair elections, its isolation in the world will inevitably continue.

EU Budget (Reform)

13. What recent discussions he has had on prospects for reform of the EU budget; and if he will make a statement. (325361)

Reform of the EU budget was last discussed at the December European Council. Heads of Government agreed that the Commission should produce a report in order for the Council to provide orientations on priorities during 2010. Her Majesty’s Government remain committed to far-reaching reform of the EU budget.

I am grateful to the Minister for those comments. In 2005, however, the Government gave away £7 billion of money that was due to us from the European Union rebate in return for a complete review of the EU budget, which was supposed to have finished by the end of 2009 but clearly has not happened so far. By breaking their promise, and effectively giving away £7 billion of British taxpayers’ money for nothing, have we not seen how useless the Government are at standing up for Britain’s interests?

I really like the hon. Gentleman, but he sometimes speaks the biggest load of tosh when he absorbs everything that is poured out by his Front Benchers. The truth of the matter is that he, like many hon. Members, voted for enlargement of the European Union. We believed that it would be in the interests of this country to bring 10 new countries, and then a further two, into the European Union because we would be able to improve trade with them and they would be able to improve their human rights. However, we cannot wish something and not will the means, and if those new countries were to join the European Union, someone would have to pay that bill—we were prepared to step up to the mark. It is a shame that the hon. Gentleman’s party has become so Europhobic that it dare not even look at the facts.

Will the Minister reassure the House that, in any discussions on the reform of the budget, we will not lose sight of the goals that were set by the Lisbon agenda at the European Council in 2000?

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right that we need to ensure that Europe is competitive, and able to compete for new jobs and to be part of future economic models, rather than relying on its historical system of budgetary expenditure. That is why we have supported reform of the common agricultural policy for a long time, and I personally believe it is morally offensive that Europe should overpay so that other parts of the world are not able even to compete on a fair basis.

Overseas Operations (Financing)

15. What recent assessment he has made of the financing of his Department’s overseas operations; and if he will make a statement. (325364)

I refer the hon. Gentleman to my written statement of 10 February, in which I made it clear that I have agreed a package of measures with the Treasury to offset the foreign exchange pressures on the FCO budget in the year ahead and allow us to continue to deliver a world-class and comprehensive diplomatic service.

At this stage of my political career, may I drop any ritual references to the Government’s overall difficulties with economic management or their shedding of the overseas pricing mechanism, which has given rise to these difficulties? Let us concentrate on the main point. Does the Foreign Secretary accept that Members on both sides of the House want this country to have a first-class foreign service representation and will not tolerate any deviation from that?

Afghanistan

16. What assessment he has made of the likely outcome of the forthcoming shura to be held by President Karzai of Afghanistan; and if he will make a statement. (325365)

Indeed; I am grateful for the help from the Opposition Front Bench. The forthcoming peace jirga will be the Government of Afghanistan’s opportunity to secure the support of the Afghan people for their reintegration and reconciliation proposals. To deliver this support, we encourage the Government of Afghanistan to make this event as inclusive as possible.

Afghanistan needs a politics of national unity to defeat the Taliban and corruption, and to create conditions that will allow British troops to leave. What is my right hon. Friend doing to try and ensure that when the Loya Jirga is held later this month, it ends up creating a more inclusive politics for Afghanistan?

My hon. Friend makes a very important point. The greatest resource for international forces and for the Afghan Government is that less than 10 per cent. of the Afghan people want the Taliban back. There is widespread hatred for the brutality that they represent. However, a political settlement for Afghanistan is something that this Government have been advancing for some time, saying clearly that the purpose of military and civilian effort is to create the conditions for a political settlement. The peace jirga is the first chance to take that forward. It is not about negotiations, but about preparing the ground. We want it to be as wide as possible—1,200 to 1,500 participants have been mentioned. I welcome that. It is also important to say that all the tribes of Afghanistan must have a say in that future political settlement. It is not a matter of including former insurgents, only to find that northerners then leave the political settlement. It is important that all the ethnic tribes are balanced in a political settlement that can endure.

Topical Questions

On 1 April I announced that I had instructed the British Indian Ocean Territory Commissioner to declare a marine protected area in the territory, which will include a no-take marine reserve. By establishing this marine protected area, the UK has created one of the world’s largest marine protected areas and has doubled the global coverage of the world’s oceans benefiting from protection. I wish to emphasise that the creation of the MPA will not change the UK’s commitment to cede the territory to Mauritius when it is no longer needed for defence purposes. It is also without prejudice to the outcome of the current pending proceedings before the European Court of Human Rights. The BIOT administration has been tasked with taking the establishment of an MPA forward in order that this is achieved in a realistic, sustainable and affordable way.

Finally, on a separate topic—[Hon. Members: “This is a different question.”] No. On a separate matter, Mr. Speaker, I hope you will allow me to say, I am sure on behalf of the whole House, that we utterly condemn yesterday’s attack on the US consulate in Peshawar and the earlier suicide attack in Lower Dir. There can be no justification for these bloody acts.

May I return my right hon. Friend to the question that was raised a few moments ago—the problems that some of our overseas posts are experiencing as a result of exchange rate fluctuations? Surely it cannot be right that some of the staff at our overseas posts have to volunteer to work for a period for no salary to make up the posts’ funding. Can we reinstate the overseas pricing mechanism and reinforce the measures that my right hon. Friend mentioned a few moments ago?

That is certainly one of the issues that will be considered in the next comprehensive spending review. The £75 million that has, in effect, been added to the Foreign Office budget for this year will ensure that the comprehensive first-class global network that we have is maintained and developed.

May I associate the Opposition utterly with what the Foreign Secretary just said in condemnation of the attack on the US consulate in Peshawar?

Following up the question by the hon. Member for Barnsley, Central (Mr. Illsley), will the right hon. Gentleman look again at the recent report of the Foreign Affairs Committee, which warned of “very severe strains” on the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and

“an unacceptable risk to the FCO’s ability to perform its functions”

as a direct result of his decision to transfer the entire exchange rate risk of the Foreign Office’s expenditure to the Foreign Office for 2008-09? Given that no other major Foreign Ministry in the world conducts its affairs in that ridiculous way, will he now concede that it was a grave and short-sighted error and join me in saying that, whoever the Foreign Secretary is in one month’s time, they should pledge to reverse that bad decision?

I think the right hon. Gentleman will find that many other countries are having to make the sort of efficiency savings that the Foreign Office in this country has made. As he will have seen, the French Foreign Ministry and those of other countries are facing severe budgetary strain, and we make no apology for taking our efficiency measures seriously. However, I thought that he would want to welcome the fact that we have secured the £75 million to ensure that, when the Labour party returns to the Government Benches in one month’s time, we are able to ensure significant long-term progress through the comprehensive spending review.

T2. Does my right hon. Friend recollect that in 1997 this country was politically isolated in Europe and the social chapter had shamefully been left unsigned? Does he agree that great progress has been made in areas from justice to climate change through a more positive engagement in the intervening 13 years? Would that not be put at risk if we were to become the great ignored of the EU in the coming weeks? (325375)

My hon. Friend makes an important point. The pro-European part of the Conservative party is leaving this House, and we have already paid tribute to one such right hon. Gentleman. In 1997 this country was a source of despair to its friends and disdain to its enemies, and that has been reversed over the past 13 years—on Europe, on overseas aid spending and on a range of human rights and other democracy-promotion issues. We will fight this election proud not only of our foreign policy record, but of the fact that we are going to be proactively and positively engaged with the European Union.

T4. I cannot believe that the Foreign Secretary tried to suggest with a straight face that scrapping the overseas pricing mechanism was a good idea, or that he defended it. How can he seriously suggest that subjecting to the mercies of the foreign exchange market the budget of his Department and our ability to project our influence overseas is a good idea? Did he really sign up for it? (325377)

I certainly did not say anything other than that the efficiency savings that we are making are important. The hon. Gentleman is very welcome to check Hansard in the leisure time that he has over the next three or four weeks. However, the fact is that we run a comprehensive service, with 261 posts throughout the world. It is widely recognised for its influence both in bilateral and multilateral relations, and long may that continue.

T3. Almost one year ago the Sri Lankan civil war came to an end. Some 280,000 Tamils were then put in detention, and 70,000 people in Sri Lanka are still in detention camps. What are our Government doing to press on the Sri Lankan Government the need to ensure that the Tamil population are completely released and reintegrated into society, so that they feel that they have a stake in a future Sri Lanka? (325376)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to raise that issue. We have provided £13.5 million of assistance in the post-conflict period to help almost 300,000 people who have been displaced by fighting. Of course, there has been some progress in terms of the number of people in camps falling to about 80,000, but that is not good enough. The Government will continue to apply pressure to the Sri Lankan Government until all those people are allowed to return home safely and freely.

T6. Does the Secretary of State agree with the Foreign Affairs Committee that the current exchange rate pricing mechanism for the Foreign Office is simply unsustainable? The extra £75 million is welcome, but it is a one-off, and this is not an issue that can wait for a comprehensive spending review. Does not the Secretary of State think that he should negotiate a new bilateral deal with the Chancellor of the Exchequer? (325379)

On reflection the hon. Gentleman, who I know follows these matters carefully, will understand that that would not be a very sensible course. Any Government after the general election will have to set a framework for public spending for all Departments, and it is quite right that the Foreign Office has negotiated a special bilateral agreement for this year. That is very important, but it is also important that we then take a long-term look at the funding of the Foreign Office and other Departments. The ability to do so on a three-year or even longer-term basis is a good thing, and that is the right way to proceed.

T5. In the nearly three years during which my right hon. Friend has been Foreign Secretary, has he ever taken a Labour fundraiser with him when meeting the leader of a foreign country? (325378)

No, I certainly have never taken a Labour fundraiser to a meeting with a foreign Government, and I look forward to the day when the shadow Foreign Secretary can give me a straight answer to the question whether Lord Ashcroft has ever been taken to meetings with foreign Governments in places where Lord Ashcroft has business interests. I have written to the right hon. Gentleman three times about that; I know that the postal service has its problems, but we have never had a reply.

T8. Following the recent worrying events in South Africa, what discussions has the Foreign Secretary had with his overseas counterpart to ensure the safety and security of British football fans who will be travelling to South Africa later in the year to the World cup finals? (325381)

I hope that all UK citizens will be supporting the English team, and I am sorry if the hon. Member for Moray (Angus Robertson) wants to distinguish between English, Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish fans in respect of the World cup. Obviously, we talked about the issue when we met the South African President and South African Foreign Minister during the state visit last month. They are taking the issues of security and wider provision for fans extremely seriously. The bilateral engagement between our two countries is of a very high order on this important issue.

T7. Will the Secretary of State tell us what representations were or will be made by him to the Israeli Government in relation to the Palestinian and Arab Christians who were denied access to the holy places over Easter, the most important festival in the Christian calendar? Will he do all he can to ensure that access is given to these Palestinian Arabs, who are a minority, so that they can celebrate that important feast in future? (325380)

First of all, I am sure I speak on behalf of Members on both sides of the House in paying tribute to my hon. Friend’s unique contribution to the affairs of this House. I shared a corridor with him when I started my parliamentary career; I shall leave it at that. It was a tremendous privilege to get to know him.

My hon. Friend has raised an important issue. One of the constant conversations that we have with the Israeli Government is about ensuring that there is maximum support for interfaith harmony in Israel and that any restriction of movement is lifted, other than in the most extenuating of security circumstances.

T9. Can the Foreign Secretary confirm that it is his Government’s policy to increase the British contribution to the European Union by billions of pounds and to pay for that by cutting back on the funding of British overseas postings run by his Department? Because that is the net result. (325382)

The hon. Gentleman knows perfectly well, because he is quite an intelligent man; that that is not the policy of this Government nor, indeed, of his party.

I hope that my right hon. Friend recalls the Royal Society’s prognosis of July last year that tropical coral reefs might survive on this planet for only another 40 years because the rate of destruction was so great. Does he understand the very real hope that his announcement on Friday of last week, about the designation of the marine protected area in the Chagos archipelago, has given ocean scientists around the globe?

Last week’s announcement has been widely welcomed in the scientific and environmental community, and for good reason. A unique resource is being created for the future—for all future generations, for the planet, for scientific research and for the protection of the environment. It is a very good symbol of the sort of internationalism and the sort of responsibility that this country should stand for.

As one who believes that our country is extremely well served and represented by our diplomatic service, may I ask the Foreign Secretary to assure the House that there are no plans to close or amalgamate any of our embassies?

I have spoken to the hon. Gentleman on many occasions and have come to know his wisdom and his commitment to the House and to our political system. I hope that he will not be too embarrassed if I pay tribute to him from this side of the House and thank him for his very many years of outstanding service, not just to his constituents but to the House. I know that we have tried to remove him at successive general elections, but without much success.

In respect of the Foreign Office’s 261 posts around the world, we keep all our posts under very close review but there are no plans at the moment to close any embassies.

It is not just that Palestinians in Jerusalem and East Jerusalem are being prevented from praying; they are having their houses confiscated in ever-increasing numbers as well. Is my right hon. Friend aware that some of those Palestinians are having to seek asylum in this country, and should they be audacious enough to return to their own country and step off the plane at Tel Aviv, they are in danger of being tortured, put back on a plane and returned to Britain?

My hon. Friend makes a very important point. I wish him well in his retirement and thank him for all his service to his constituents, and of course to our party and the House.

Jerusalem is rightly at the centre of all the great religions; it is a tinderbox. It is very important that all sides are very careful in the actions that they take in that respect, and that the rights of all denominations and all faiths are respected in that special place. The committees and other structures that have been created to govern the holy sites are there for a purpose, and the rules and norms that they have established need to be adhered to very closely indeed.

The people of Estonia have held this country in particular regard ever since the intervention of the Royal Navy in their war of independence after the first world war. In fashioning the future foreign and defence policy of this country, will this Government and the next never forget the professionalism and sacrifice of Estonian forces fighting alongside British forces in Afghanistan and the professional and courageous military personnel who, on a tiny budget, show courage above all possible expectations?

I think that the hon. Gentleman is the last of the parliamentary swans making their swansong at questions this afternoon, but he is a very fine swan indeed. He has been a great Member of this House and I pay tribute to him and to the many other retiring sensible, pro-European Conservatives who still exist.

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right about Estonia and its contribution. Our troops, in Afghanistan now and in previous conflicts, have known perfectly well that the Estonians have been very strong and successful allies of ours.

Further to the question by my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mr. Chope), does the Minister agree that NATO should be the cornerstone of European defence?

Following on from the question by the hon. Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Meg Munn) about business in Iraq, is the Foreign Secretary aware that businesses that I speak to feel that the British Government are not supporting them adequately? Given that Iraq has the world’s second largest oil supply and that there is a desperate need to rebuild its infrastructure after the war, what more can he do to build ties with the incoming Iraqi Administration so that British business can do more business with Iraq?

This is the only European country that has held an Iraq investment conference and we are committed to UK Trade and Investment and other embassy functions that support commercial diplomacy. The hon. Gentleman’s question would be better if he could give me any details of companies that he says have been frustrated. We would be very happy to work with them, because I assure him that many other companies are delighted rather than frustrated.