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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 513: debated on Tuesday 6 July 2010

Foreign and Commonwealth Office

The Secretary of State was asked—

UK-Zimbabwe Relations

We want to do all that we can to support the aspirations of the Zimbabwean people for a peaceful, prosperous and democratic Zimbabwe. We will work with reformers in Zimbabwe and the region to maximise the prospects for achieving the reforms necessary for properly conducted elections.

What can the British Government do for British nationals who were born in Zimbabwe whose property has been expropriated by the Zimbabwe Government, some of whom live in South Thanet?

We condemn illegal farm and property seizures, which contravene the global political agreement and a Southern African Development Community decision, and which do nothing to advance Zimbabwe’s economy —we should make that very clear. Economic regeneration in Zimbabwe depends on respect for the rule of law, and we urge the Zimbabwean Government to respect the rule of law and to end such seizures.

In the light of the concerns raised by the UN’s Kimberley process into mining diamonds in Zimbabwe, what measures do the Government have in place to ensure that conflict diamonds do not make their way into the UK?

The European Union, including the United Kingdom, has called for efforts to reach agreement through the Kimberley process so that all mining in the Marange fields in Zimbabwe are subject to it. In that way, diamonds could actually help the economic development of Zimbabwe in future. We would like to sort that out within the Kimberley process, so that those diamonds can then be used productively.

What action is my right hon. Friend taking with other African nations to ensure that Zimbabwe adopts a new constitution and ends the endemic corruption within the country?

We work closely with our partners around Africa, foremost among which, of course, is South Africa. We support its efforts and those of President Zuma to engage closely with Zimbabwe and to push it towards reform. We—the UK and other donors—also support, through the UN development programme, the implementation of the Zimbabwean constitution. Given the concerns that my hon. Friend and others have raised, I should say that that happens not through direct funding of the Zimbabwean Government, but through that UN programme.

The Prime Minister will know that Morgan Tsvangirai was promised by the African Union and SADC that they would honour the global political agreement and ensure that it worked, but clearly they have not done so. Can we do anything more to put pressure on the AU and SADC, without which we will never get the free and fair elections that will make Zimbabwe once again a flourishing nation?

We can put diplomatic pressure on those organisations—that is the leverage we have. The hon. Lady may think that that is not substantial enough, but that is what such pressure amounts to—working with those countries, particularly South Africa, and of course with reformers in Zimbabwe, to try to ensure that the global political agreement is properly respected. The UK will remain a strong voice for that, but we cannot guarantee it on our own.

The noble Baroness Ashton, as the EU foreign affairs chief, recently met Zimbabwean Ministers to discuss what she termed human rights abuses and political development. I understand that a €20 million grant is currently being made available to the Zimbabwean authorities as Baroness Ashton seeks to make concrete progress on those political objectives. Does the Secretary of State have any idea what concrete progress means in reality?

I think we can fairly say that concrete progress would be a great deal more than anything that is happening at the moment. There have been no noticeable improvements in the human rights situation in Zimbabwe, and we are deeply concerned about harassment and politically inspired detentions, which continue in that country. Concrete progress means a lot more than anything we have seen so far.

Have our Government any new initiatives or plans for such initiatives to deal with Mugabe’s ruthless regime, under which many people are starving or subject to persecution?

It is not within the UK’s power alone to deal with Mugabe’s regime. It is possible to do many things to try to improve the situation, some of which I mentioned in answer to previous questions, such as working with South Africa and other partners in Africa, supporting the implementation of the constitution with development money—my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Development will continue to support that while reviewing the situation—and stressing the need for economic progress and the possibility of economic regeneration in Zimbabwe. It is a case of continuing all those things to try to help the situation in Zimbabwe rather than introducing one bold new initiative.

Human Rights and Democracy Programme Fund

2. What plans he has for the future of his Department’s strategic programme fund for human rights and democracy. (5776)

My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary announced a 10% reduction this year in the strategic programme fund for human rights and democracy, as a contribution to reducing public expenditure, while making clear our desire to sustain such programmes in future years. Programme funds are only one way in which the British Government uphold human rights, which are also a major focus of our overall bilateral and multilateral diplomatic activity.

I thank the Minister for that reply, but will he go a little further to allay the concerns of right hon. and hon. Members and say that there will be no further reductions in the funds available for this important project, which boosts human rights, democracy and the abolition of the death penalty in countries such as Iran, China and Russia?

I share all the hon. Gentleman’s objectives, and we wish to minimise the impact of this reduction. We certainly do not seek further reductions. It is worth making the additional point that programme funds are not the only means by which we deliver these policies. Our ambassadors and our network of staff around the world are delivering these foreign policy objectives for Britain every single day.

Earlier this year, the FCO facilitated a visit by Lord Judd and me to investigate the human rights situation in Chechnya. Sadly, we found evidence of abductions, executions, house burnings and a culture of impunity among the perpetrators. Will my hon. Friend meet me and Lord Judd to discuss our report and how the UK may be able to influence positively the dire human rights situation in Chechnya?

I am happy to welcome the hon. Gentleman to his post.

Nowhere is the battle against corruption and for good governance more important than in Afghanistan, where it is a key part of the combined civilian-military approach. In that context, does the Minister agree with the Secretary of State for Defence that our troops will be the last to leave Afghanistan?

Order. I say this with a degree of trepidation, but I am not quite sure how the right hon. Gentleman has managed to shoehorn his inquiry in question No. 2. Could he explain briefly?

As I said, the drive for good governance and against corruption in Afghanistan is a central part of our strategy, and it is combined with military effort. I am asking a simple question about whether the Minister agrees with the Defence Secretary that our troops will be the last to leave Afghanistan.

I will indeed, Mr Speaker. I assure you and all hon. Members that we attach the utmost importance to human rights and democracy in Afghanistan.

I am pleased to hear that. The Minister will know that an important part of the programme relates to the development of the peace jirga that was recently held in Afghanistan. The Foreign Secretary said of President Karzai’s peace jirga that it marked a

“comprehensive, inclusive and genuinely representative political process”.

He is certainly right that it is important. However, the two most internationally respected members of President Karzai’s Government—Interior Minister Atmar and spy chief Sahel—have resigned because of the failings at that jirga. Will the Minister explain whether the Foreign Secretary met opposition leader Abdullah when he was in Kabul and what he will do to ensure that these funds continue to be used for the vital task of building a political settlement in Afghanistan?

We continue to work closely with the Afghan Government. On the specific and narrow issue of programme funds, I can again reassure the House that our relations with the Afghan Government and our efforts in Afghanistan go way beyond anything that we are spending on programme funds. It is an absolute central top priority of the British Government.

Kyrgyz Republic

3. What recent reports he has received on the political situation in the Kyrgyz Republic; and if he will make a statement. (5777)

10. What recent discussions he has had with the government of the Kyrgyz Republic on the political situation in that country. (5784)

Our ambassador is in regular contact with the authorities in Kyrgyzstan. We are deeply concerned by recent events in that country where the situation remains fragile. Both we and our international partners believe that the political process now under way represents the best chance that we have to ensure peace, the rule of law and democracy for all the people of Kyrgyzstan.

Clearly, the situation in Kyrgyzstan remains difficult, but does the Minister agree that it is vital that we have maximum co-operation between the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe, the United Nations and the European Union?

I agree completely with the hon. Gentleman, and I hope that next week, when I attend the OSCE ministerial meeting in Kazakhstan, I will be able to talk to colleagues from all those parts of the world about the way forward.

I join the Minister in welcoming the outcome of the 27 June referendum, in which the Kyrgyz clearly outlined their desire for a parliamentary republic and a new constitution. However, will he join me in calling on President Otunbayeva to reduce tensions between the Kurds and Uzbeks by initiating an open and transparent inquiry into the killings in Osh and Jalalabad, and by releasing the Uzbek human rights activist Mr Askarov and the journalist Mr Abdusalomov?

It is precisely because the British Government accept the need for reconciliation between the different communities in Kyrgyzstan that we co-sponsored a resolution on 18 June, at the UN Human Rights Council, calling for a transparent investigation into the events of April and the recent inter-ethnic violence, and urging the Kyrgyz authorities to promote inter-ethnic reconciliation as a key priority.

Has high-level corruption in the political system not been one of the real problems facing Kyrgyzstan since independence? What more can the British Government do, whether through the EU, their own good offices or the Westminster Foundation for Democracy, to promote good governance in this important country in central Asia?

We in the United Kingdom have to accept that there are practical limits to our ability to put right all the problems that my hon. Friend has identified. Nevertheless, the British Government will continue to do all within their power, not just bilaterally but through the various multilateral organisations to which we are party, to bring about reconciliation and a free and stable democracy in that country.

I visited the city of Osh eight years ago, and I have to say it was a desperately poor place. The Minister will recall that five years ago, with the Andijan massacre in Uzbekistan, there were international calls for a full investigation that ultimately came to nothing. Will he reassure us that the calls now for an investigation into the present case will lead to fruition and something proper happening?

I share my hon. Friend’s hope for a positive reaction on the part of the Kyrgyz authorities to the resolution at the UN Human Rights Council. I shall be making that point in my conversations with Kyrgyz and other regional leaders next week.

National Election Commission (Rwanda)

5. What recent discussions he has had with the Rwandan National Election Commission on the forthcoming presidential elections in that country. (5779)

We are working with the National Election Commission, encouraging it to implement recommendations of previous EU election observer missions. The recent electoral code addresses most recommendations, but it is important that the presidential elections in August comply with international norms.

I am sure that the Minister will share my concerns about the increasing reports of incidents of harassment and intimidation of opposition leaders, including the arrest of one of the leaders of the opposition party just less than two weeks ago. Will he impress it on the National Election Commission and the Rwandan Government that such continued reports will stain Rwandan’s reputation, which has made much progress in the past decade, and that it is vital that they show real signs of ensuring that democracy is fully protected?

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for that constructive question. I share her concern about the arrest of Victoire Ingabire, who is a prominent opposition leader, and about the fact that her American lawyer, Professor Erlinder, was also arrested on what were basically trumped-up charges. We are also concerned that so far just one party outside the ruling coalition has been registered, and we are applying as much pressure as we can.

I call Andrew Stephenson—[Interruption.] He is not Andrew Stephenson, but he is very welcome. Let us hear from him.

Thank you, Mr Speaker. Given that top military officials have also been arrested, does my hon. Friend the Minister see any danger of interference in the elections by the Rwandan army?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that question. To say that Rwanda has come back from the abyss would be an understatement. We should pay tribute to the extraordinary progress that Rwanda has made. What we want to do the day after the election is call the new President of Rwanda, congratulate him on his election and say that he has enhanced credibility and trust with the world community by winning a completely free and fair election against proper opposition.

Does the Minister share my concern about the murder of Jean-Léonard Rugambage, a journalist on the Umuvugizi newspaper—I will pass that name up to Hansard afterwards—who was shot on Friday 25 June? Does he agree that having free, fair and open newspapers is an essential part of ensuring a civil space where democracy can work, and will he do everything he can to press the Rwandan Government to bring that man’s murderers to justice?

We have already made our views clear to the Rwandan Government, and we will continue with that dialogue, putting pressure on them. As I said a moment ago, it is essential that there should be not only a free election, but one with proper opposition and open and transparent media reporting it.

Settlement Expansion

6. What recent discussions he has had with his Israeli counterpart on settlement expansion in East Jerusalem and the west bank; and if he will make a statement. (5780)

We are in regular contact and dialogue with the Israeli Government, particularly on matters pertaining to the peace process. We remain of the view that the moratorium on settlements that is currently in place is the right policy, and we continue to urge all parties not to change any facts on the ground which might undermine the peace process.

I thank the Minister for his answer, although I am not quite sure exactly what he means. For those of us who have been over to the west bank and seen the problems there between the people who will not trust those on the other side of the fence, can he tell us exactly what the Government’s policy will be towards the settlements? Will he come out and actually say that they have to be closed down, and that we have to return to the 1967 boundaries?

I must say as clearly as possible to the hon. Gentleman and to the House that we regard the settlement policy as wrong and not in the interests of the peace process. That is a position that has been made clear to the Israeli Government over a period of time. It is essential, as he mentioned, that confidence measures are built on both sides. This is an immensely complex process, but there is no doubt that the settlement policy has been seen as a bar to progress in the peace talks. We therefore urge that the moratorium on settlements should remain past September, when it is due to come to an end.

Does the Minister agree that land swaps of Israeli territory for Palestinian territory, which has already been discussed in the past by Israelis and Palestinians, would form, at the very least, a significant part of a potential solution to the problem outside East Jerusalem? Does he also accept, however, that for the two-state solution to work, the proposed Palestinian state must have a high degree of both territorial integrity and economic viability?

My right hon. and learned Friend will know better than most—although most of the House knows as well—that one of the great ironies of the situation is that the draft agreement between the two sides is already well enough known. It has been spoken of many times, and land swaps play their part. We remain of the view that a two-state solution is the thing to be sought, with a universally recognised and secure Israel next to a viable and sovereign Palestine. The work being done on the peace process currently, through the proximity talks, is being much encouraged by this Government.

Improving the situation in Gaza is crucial to building confidence for direct negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians. Will the Minister give a progress report on the implementation of the Israeli Government’s commitment to minimise restrictions on goods and services needed for the reconstruction of Gaza? Will he confirm whether any progress has been made on the proposed deployment of EU troops to assist movement and access into Gaza? Will he also give an indication of what steps Britain and the EU are taking to secure the release of Gilad Shalit?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for those questions, all of which are pertinent. There has been movement on easing the blockade. Again, one of the ironies of this dreadful situation is that out of some tragedy, there might be some movement in the right direction. The pressure that has been exerted on Israel in recent times by the EU, this Government, the United States and the Quartet for a relaxation on the restrictions in Gaza has had an effect. The hon. Gentleman will know that two days ago—I think—the Israelis announced that they were moving from a list of allowed goods to a list of banned goods, and that reconstruction materials would be allowed through. It remains essential that no weapons get through into Gaza and thereby further destabilise the situation. As he also said, it is crucial that Hamas should release Gilad Shalit as soon as possible and unconditionally, because that will be a further confidence-building measure of the kind that is so desperately needed for the relief of the people of Gaza and the middle east.

Does the Minister accept that the moratorium is no substitute for the cessation of a policy that is unequivocally contrary to international law, and whose continuance represents an insurmountable obstacle to the achievement of peace and implies a determination to impose a solution not by agreement but by attrition?

Again, I would say that we must take this step by step. The current position, in which the moratorium has been observed, has been important in allowing space for the proximity talks to take place, and we hope that those talks will advance into further discussions. I repeat that we believe that the previous settlement policy was a barrier to that process, and that we want to see the current moratorium continue.

I recognise the great importance of a settlement freeze, but does the Minister welcome the decision by the International Trade Union Confederation to urge closer working between the Israeli trade unions—the Histadrut—and the Palestinian trade unions, instead of pursuing a policy of sanctions and divestment?

Yes, I do. The hon. Lady might like to know that the recent investment conference on the west bank was very successful, and that the Palestinian Authority are now seeing real progress in their own economy. They remain in difficulty, however, as do all the occupied territories, and of course none more so than Gaza. Anything that can be done to stimulate relationships, particularly those relating to trade, with the occupied territories and the west bank, must be good news.

Luke Walker

7. What recent discussions he has had with Her Majesty’s consul general in Greece on the case of Mr Luke Walker. (5781)

This is a tragic case, which I have discussed with officials. Our consular staff in Crete have visited Luke Walker in detention, and they are providing him and his family with ongoing assistance.

I thank my hon. Friend for his answer. Photographs and papers promised by the court in Crete to Luke Walker and his family, which are legitimately required by the UK coroner, are being subject to unacceptable delays. Does my hon. Friend agree that the reluctance of the Greek Interior Department to co-operate with UK coroners in general might be contributing to these delays? Can he assure my constituent, who has now been in prison for 66 days, that all possible steps are being taken to resolve these matters?

In the case of Luke Walker, consular officials in my Department are doing everything they can to expedite the process, within the limits placed on us by our inability to interfere in the judicial processes of other countries. On my hon. Friend’s more general point, the Foreign Office has established, together with the Ministry of Justice and the Greek Ministry of Justice, a working party that will look at the problem that she has identified—namely, how to ensure that important case documents are shared between the different jurisdictions.

Turks and Caicos Islands

9. What recent discussions he has had on governance of the Turks and Caicos Islands; and if he will make a statement. (5783)

I have held a number of discussions about the situation in the Turks and Caicos Islands, including with my right hon. Friend the Minister of State, Department for International Development. Yesterday, I met our Governor, and last week I met a delegation from the Turks and Caicos Islands. The Foreign Secretary, other Ministers and I all want to see the Government restored as soon as possible. The Governor—fully supported by the UK—is working hard to restore key elements of good governance and sound public financial management.

I thank the Minister for that reply. May I urge him and his Department to do whatever they properly can to influence the inquiry that is going on in the Turks and Caicos Islands, and to ensure that the people of those islands are able to take part in free and fair democratic elections as soon as possible?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his constructive question, and I agree with him entirely. We want to get the inquiry out of the way as soon as possible, and the special investigation and prosecution team is doing a very good job indeed. It is now at full strength, and we very much hope that it will come up with a number of charges in the near future so that we can get closure following these quite appalling corruption incidents.

The Minister will know that the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs published in its final report in the last Parliament a short update on the situation in the Turks and Caicos Islands, and made a number of recommendations. It expressed concern that the timetable for an election in 2011 might be too early, given that these possible prosecutions might not have been concluded by that time. Are the Government giving consideration to that timetable, and are they prepared to look again at their current approach?

We are certainly looking carefully at those particular points. I agree with the hon. Gentleman that we want to avoid the danger of re-electing politicians involved in corruption. That is why the matter is under review. We are looking carefully at the work of the Turks and Caicos Islands Government, and we will report back to the House on progress in due course.

Work Programme (European Commission)

11. When he next expects to discuss the European Commission’s work programme for 2011 in the General Affairs Council. (5785)

The European Commission will publish its work programme for 2011 towards the end of this year, and I will ask the presidency to table a discussion of it at the following General Affairs Council. I am also looking forward to a debate in Westminster Hall on the Commission’s 2010 work programme.

Is the Minister aware that the Commission is agreeing a Green Paper on pensions imminently, which will presumably form part of the work programme for next year? There is an issue about those who are self-employed and those who are employed working in different member states that needs to be addressed. The Green Paper does not address that, however, but other issues such as having a one-size-fits-all for pensions, which is not acceptable. Will the Minister press for the correct law to be in place, not one that we could do without?

I can assure my hon. Friend that not just I, but my hon. Friends in the Department for Work and Pensions will press to make sure that any proposals suit the interests of the United Kingdom. When the Green Paper is published, it will, of course, be subject to parliamentary scrutiny in its own right.

One element of the Commission’s work programme is the implementation of treaty change. Will he confirm that the Prime Minister agreed at the June European Council to a special intergovernmental conference, but has yet to notify this House of that matter? That meeting has already taken place. Will he also confirm whether the Prime Minister, or the British representatives at that intergovernmental conference suggested the repatriation of any powers from the European Union to the UK?

I am sorry if the hon. Gentleman has been dozing a bit. If he had looked at the Order Paper this morning, he would have seen a written statement about the transitionary protocol on the composition of the European Parliament. It is hardly a secret, given that this matter has more than once been referred to on this side of the House in debates about Europe and foreign policy since this Parliament first convened. The proposed small treaty amendment does not involve any transfer of powers from the United Kingdom to Brussels institutions.

The hon. Gentleman knows perfectly well that I have read the written ministerial statement because I tabled an urgent question about it earlier this morning and I am sure that he was consulted on the matter. However, let me raise another matter that arises from the Commission’s work programme—trade with Latin America. The Minister knows that Labour Members support a free trade agreement with Peru and Colombia, but we know that there are very significant human rights abuses in Latin America, which is why it is important that the text of the trade agreement deals not just with trade issues. Will he make sure that this is ratified not just by the Commission, the European Council or by Europe, but by each member state so that we in this House have a chance to vote on that trade agreement?

Order. Before the Minister answers, let me say for the record that no reference should be made on the Floor of the House to the fact of an urgent question having been tabled. I say that gently.

There will be an opportunity for the House to debate the free trade agreement to which the hon. Gentleman referred. The Government’s view, as he knows, is that it is important for the EU to continue to champion free trade agreements with Latin American countries and those in many other parts of the world. He will also know that it is normal procedure for any EU free trade agreement to include a significant clause on human rights.

Nuclear Programme (Iran)

12. What recent discussions he has had with his EU counterparts on the EU’s policy on Iran’s nuclear programme; and if he will make a statement. (5786)

I am in regular close contact with key EU partners to ensure that the EU makes clear, through a strong set of sanctions, including and additional to those agreed in UN Security Council resolution 1929, that Iran cannot ignore its international obligations. Tough EU sanctions will show that the EU is determined to play its part in resolving this issue.

I welcome the fact that the European Union has decided to go further than United Nations resolution 1929 in imposing sanctions on Iran, especially in the oil and gas sector where it is particularly vulnerable. Does my right hon. Friend agree, however, that sanctions alone will not solve the problems of Iran’s nuclear facility? Following his twin-track approach, what efforts is he making to broker a deal?

I welcome my hon. Friend’s welcome for the statements of the European Union and the European Council last month. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister was party to them, and we are now working in detail with EU partners on what that will mean in terms of specific sanctions. I hope that those will be agreed at the next meeting of the Foreign Affairs Council on 26 July.

As for the other part of the twin track to which my hon. Friend rightly referred, we remain open to negotiations. The EU High Representative, Lady Ashton, has made it clear—along with many of the Foreign Ministers involved—that we remain open to negotiations about Iran’s whole nuclear programme, and that we look to Iran to enter into such negotiations and co-operate fully with the International Atomic Energy Authority. It has not been prepared to do those things so far.

I welcome the Foreign Secretary’s robust stance on Iran, but it is a crime against the United Nations genocide convention to incite genocide as well as to commit it. President Ahmadinejad has called for the wiping of Israel off the map of the world. That generally means the extermination of its people. Will the Foreign Secretary consider taking to the United Nations and the International Criminal Court an indictment against President Ahmadinejad for his incitement to the genocide of the Jewish people in the middle east?

Order. I am sure that the Foreign Secretary is being asked to do that in the context of discussions with his EU counterparts, and in respect of EU policy. [Interruption.] Order. I do not think that I need to hear any more. [Interruption.] Order. I do not need to hear any more.

That is not something that we have discussed in the European Union, because our attention has been so focused on the Iranian nuclear issue. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will forgive me if I say that, while I entirely share his sentiments about some of the statements from the President of Iran, I think it right for us to concentrate on developing a strong set of sanctions on the nuclear programme and repeating to Iran that it is time to negotiate about that programme. Those things are so important that I do not think we should let anything else get in the way.

Middle East

Strengthening the United Kingdom’s relations with the countries of the middle east as part of a distinctive British foreign policy is one of the highest foreign policy priorities of this Government. We will work to promote a two-state solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict, and will press for firm diplomacy to resolve international concerns about Iran. We will remain engaged in Iraq, and will help to build stability in Yemen.

I thank my right hon. Friend for his encouraging answer.

Six years ago this week, the International Court of Justice ruled that the wall being built by Israel was illegal and ought to come down. Will my right hon. Friend make it absolutely clear, while consistent with supporting a continued safe state of Israel and a state for Palestine, that Israel must understand that international law is for all, not some, to obey?

It is for all to obey—that is absolutely right—and, of course, we support a two-state solution created by negotiation and confidence-building on both sides, rather than the creation of facts on the ground that are intended to change the shape of such a solution ultimately. We are very committed to that, as the Under-Secretary of State, my hon. Friend the Member for North East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt) has already explained. I am in constant touch with Senator George Mitchell, who is working hard in trying to turn proximity talks into direct talks.

What action is the Foreign Office taking to ensure that there is a full, independent, international inquiry into the appalling Israeli attack on the freedom flotilla? Does the Foreign Secretary agree that an internal Israeli investigation alone is simply not acceptable?

The hon. Lady may recall my statement to the House on 2 June, when I explained our policy that there should be a credible, independent, prompt and thorough inquiry. That remains the position of Her Majesty’s Government. The United Nations Secretary-General proposed an international inquiry, which would have been a good thing to do. The Israeli Government have decided to set up an inquiry, but with an international presence. We may not consider such an inquiry ideal, but we should hold Israel to conducting it in an independent and thorough manner, and should judge it according to the way in which it proceeds.

The previous Government apportioned more than £1 million to the Government of Yemen to help with counter-terrorism. Will my right hon. Friend be able to update us on how that money has been spent and on the progress that has been made in the country?

That is important. It is the sort of funding that is continuing under the current Government. Working with Yemen on countering terrorism and to stress that political reform is needed by the Government of Yemen is an important part of our work. The Under-Secretary of State, my hon. Friend the Member for North East Bedfordshire, has already been to Yemen to see the situation for himself so that we can make our own decisions about these things in the coming months, but that sort of support will continue.

What representations has the Foreign Secretary made to the Government of Israel about the thousands of Palestinians in East Jerusalem who have their citizenship withdrawn every year, about the hundreds who are expelled from the city and, in particular, about the four Palestinian MPs resident in Jerusalem who are due to be expelled this weekend?

That is the sort of issue that we want to resolve. Given that the hon. Gentleman has raised it, I will have a particular look at that and see whether there are additional representations that we need to make over the coming few days. When these things happen, they are unacceptable and they show that we must put as much momentum as possible behind our efforts to broker peace in the middle east. That is why it is such a priority for the Government. I will certainly look to see whether we can do any more about the point that he makes.

EU Enlargement

14. What recent assessment he has made of the prospects for enlargement of the European Union; and if he will make a statement. (5789)

We strongly support further enlargement of the European Union but also believe that countries that want to join must clearly meet the membership criteria. We welcome the progress made during the Spanish EU presidency, including the decision to open negotiations with Iceland, and the progress on accession negotiations with both Croatia and Turkey.

Rather than encouraging an enlargement of the EU, will the coalition Government consider helping to reduce its size by holding a referendum that would allow the British people the opportunity to decide whether we remain a member of the EU?

The Government believe that British membership of the EU is very much in the national interests of the UK, and—[Interruption.]

Order. Can I just say to the shadow Minister for Europe that I want to hear my constituency neighbour?

Thank you, Mr Speaker. We believe that EU enlargement, which has been championed by the Governments of Margaret Thatcher and John Major, as well as by the Labour Governments of Tony Blair and the right hon. Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath (Mr Brown), has entrenched democracy, human rights and the rule of law in central and eastern Europe in a way that was not achieved throughout the 20th century.

Three months ago, air traffic was brought to a standstill throughout the EU because of the Icelandic ash cloud. What appraisal has been made of the work of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and of the services given to travellers during that period?

The matter that the hon. Gentleman has raised relates very much to the work of our consular department rather than to the enlargement process, but I will take advice from consular officials and write to him about the detailed matter that he has raised.

Forced Labour (Brazil)

15. What recent representations he has made to the Government of Brazil in support of their efforts to end forced labour. (5790)

During Brazil’s most recent UN universal periodic review, the British Government recommended that Brazil invest more rigour in the application of a range of human rights initiatives, including on forced labour. Brazil accepted that recommendation and has made progress. Following the UN special rapporteur’s May 2010 report on forced labour in Brazil, we will continue to work with the Government of Brazil to raise awareness of these issues and to promote compliance with international commitments.

I thank the Minister for that answer. We like to think that slavery has been abolished, but we need to do more to encourage the Brazilian Government to sign up to the ethical trading initiative, so that fewer people are enslaved in that part of the world.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for the question. Many hon. Members may not be aware that Brazil became the last nation in the western hemisphere to abolish slavery formally, doing so in 1888. The International Labour Organisation estimates that about 25,000 to 40,000 workers in Brazil are in conditions analogous to slavery. President Lula has, since his election in 2002, made considerable progress and given priority to this issue. I hope and believe that Brazil will continue to do more in the years ahead.

High Representative (Bosnia and Herzegovina)

16. What recent discussions he has had on the future of the Office of the High Representative in Bosnia and Herzegovina; and if he will make a statement. (5791)

The Peace Implementation Council, which met in Sarajevo at the end of June, discussed progress towards the conditions necessary for the closure of the Office of the High Representative but, as those had not been met, no decision on closure was taken.

What discussions has my hon. Friend had with his EU counterparts on the future accession of Balkan states to the EU?

Both my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary and I have raised during, I believe, every bilateral conversation we have had with European counterparts and at formal sessions of the Foreign Affairs Council the importance that we accord political and constitutional progress in the western Balkans and the need for the EU to make as one of its highest priorities the strengthening of both the incentives and disincentives in respect of those countries pushing forward with further reform, so that their welcome into the family of European nations can be given as soon as possible.

Topical Questions

I wish to inform the House that the Turkish Foreign Minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, will visit London this week at my invitation for a full day of talks. His visit is a sign of the Government’s determination to elevate Britain’s links with key partners. Turkey is a crucial NATO ally, it is Europe’s largest emerging economy and it is a major player in the middle east and the western Balkans. We support Turkey’s aspirations to EU membership and we want to work with its Government on new approaches to the western Balkans, on peace and security in the wider middle east and on bridging the differences between east and west.

I thank the Foreign Secretary for his answer. He will be aware that the Spanish Foreign Minister is due to visit Cuba to increase the pressure for the release of its political prisoners. Can the Foreign Secretary update the House on what the Government are doing to put pressure on the Cuban authorities to release non-violent political prisoners, who have been held in jail for far too long?

That pressure comes from the whole European Union. We discussed the position in Cuba at the Foreign Affairs Council in Luxembourg on 14 June, so the message that we seek the release of political prisoners in Cuba if we are to start improving relations with Cuba in other ways goes out unequivocally from the whole European Union.

T2. Does the Foreign Secretary accept that it is not satisfactory for estimates of how long it will take us to secure our strategic interests in Afghanistan to vary from 40 years in 2009 to four years in 2010? Does he accept that if this circle is to be squared, we will need to have fresh thinking about an alternative strategy that could actually secure our important strategic interests in the area? (5801)

It is very important that we ensure that the current strategy succeeds. As my hon. Friend knows, this strategy involves 46 nations in Afghanistan and the United Kingdom is strongly committed to it. It goes alongside building up the capacity of the Afghan state, and I shall be going to the Kabul conference in a couple of weeks’ time to make our contribution to that. As he will know, the Prime Minister is very clear that there will not be British troops in a combat role or in significant numbers in Afghanistan in five years’ time, but we believe that that is part of an internationally agreed objective. The G8 meeting in Canada in June sent a collective signal that we want Afghan security forces to assume increasing responsibility for security within five years.

The Foreign Secretary knows that the previous Government won United Nations support for an arms trade treaty to establish minimum standards on all conventional arms sales. Thousands of people, including hundreds of UN peacekeepers, die every year because this trade is not properly regulated. The next round of negotiations starts on 12 July, as I am sure he knows. In opposition he said that he supported us on this, so can he explain why the coalition agreement dilutes this commitment to a partial restriction to sales “to dangerous regimes”, rather than a global standard? Is this a distinctive British foreign policy or the same old Tories?

We will be a united coalition on this, as on all other subjects. I stand by everything I have said about the arms trade treaty, and we will be taking an energetic and supportive part in those negotiations from 12 July. We very much support that treaty.

T5. Can my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary update the House on the measures that the Government are taking with regard to our economic development work with Pakistan? (5804)

Yes. The International Development Secretary, who will also speak about this, visited Pakistan before my visit earlier in June. He announced a four-year programme of £665 million of British aid for Pakistan. A huge amount of that is dedicated to education— £250 million. Pakistan has literacy rates of only about 50% and raising the quality of education is critical to its economic development.

T3. Like the ministerial team, I welcome the recent easing of the blockade in Gaza, but what specific reassurances has the Foreign Secretary received from the Israeli Government that those within Gaza who need to travel outside for medical treatment, including children and elderly and disabled people, will receive unrestricted access out of Gaza? (5802)

We have not yet received specific assurances on that, but the hon. Lady is right to raise the issue. It is one of the things that we want to see happen. It should be possible for goods and exports to leave Gaza, but it should also be possible for people such as she describes and others to move freely in and out of Gaza. So that is one of the things that we will continue to press on the Israeli Government.

T6. Does the Secretary of State agree with me that part of protecting Britain’s national interests is that Britain should develop relationships with emerging economies to promote new export markets, which will be of great benefit to the small and medium-sized manufacturing businesses in my constituency? (5805)

I agree with my hon. Friend. As he will have noticed, this is a key part of our approach to foreign policy. It requires the FCO to be still more commercial and economic in its orientation. It is a critical part of our job to promote investment in Britain and British trade overseas. It is also a critical part of our work to encourage the conclusion of more free trade agreements between the European Union and the rest of the world. So the coalition Government will apply themselves energetically to that task.

T4. Now that Hezbollah, the Taliban and Iran are all expanding their broadcast services, would it not be inconceivable to cut the meagre grant in aid to the BBC World Service, which could lead to the cancellation of a new Urdu service in Pakistan? Is not the World Service independent, authoritative, trusted, respected and a far better way of winning hearts and minds than bombs and bullets? (5803)

I agree with much of the last part of the hon. Gentleman’s question. I would not say that the grant is meagre—£229 million of taxpayers’ money. I do not know what he calls meagre, but it is a little more than meagre. It is important that the BBC World Service is able to maintain a presence around the world. I often think of its crucial role in our soft power, which is what the hon. Gentleman is talking about. That is not to say, however, that that grant can never be varied or that the service can never make efficiencies. There will, of course, be great pressure across the whole of the public sector for that to happen.

Order. Several more colleagues want to get in. I remind Members that short questions are needed. I would also say to those on the Treasury Bench that the one-word answer yes or no is not disorderly.

T7. Last week the Secretary of State stated his intention to establish a National Security Council. Will he explain to the House what its remit might be? (5806)

What if I said no, Mr. Speaker? The National Security Council was established by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister on the day we took office, and it started proceedings on that day to ensure that within the Government we look at all issues of international relations and national security in the round. It had its ninth meeting earlier today, so my hon. Friend can see how active it is. What I was explaining last week was the part that the council plays in elevating key bilateral relations around the world.

What discussions has the Foreign Secretary had with the Government of Pakistan about the murder on 28 May of some 98 Ahmadiyya Muslims in two mosques in Lahore; and will he make special reference to the position of Ahmadiyya Muslims in Pakistan today?

Yes, of course I discussed that with Ministers throughout the Pakistan Government when I visited that country two weeks ago. We absolutely the deplore the atrocities that took place in Lahore, about which I was able to hear quite a lot during my visit. Our views on the matter are well known. Our efforts to improve stability in Pakistan are linked with the development effort I talked about earlier, and those efforts will continue.

T8. What alternative arrangements are being made to ensure that an inter-parliamentary scrutiny role is carried out in future, which is currently carried out by the European Security and Defence Assembly? What is being done to make sure that that vacuum is not filled by the European Parliament? (5807)

My hon. Friend is right to identify that need. We are considering a number of options for scrutiny involving different national Parliaments. We will bring in our proposals for debate by the House as soon as we are able to do so.

I have a specific question about a former constituent of mine, Matthew Cryer, who, aged only 18, was unlawfully killed on the island of Zante in Greece. What are the consular services doing to ensure that bereaved families in the UK get the justice in Greece that they deserve?

I would be happy to discuss that case further with the hon. Lady, if she would find that helpful. What I hope the working group of the UK and Greek Ministries of Justice and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office will achieve is to make it much easier to transfer evidence from one jurisdiction to another, so that fair and swift trials become the norm.

T9. Will my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary please inform the House of the next option for Her Majesty’s Government when sanctions against Iran fail? (5808)

As I explained earlier, sanctions are part of a twin-track approach in which the peaceful and legitimate pressure on Iran of sanctions is intensified, but we remain open to negotiations about the whole of Iran’s nuclear programme. Although we have never as a Government ruled out military action or supporting any military action in future, we are most definitely not calling for that at this time, nor advocating it. It is precisely to avoid conflict that we want the situation to be resolved peacefully, through sanctions and negotiation.

What effect does the Secretary of State think the recent cuts to the Chevening scholarships will have on Britain’s reputation abroad, especially given what I have just heard about placements being cut for candidates who had given up other scholarships or, indeed, work? I have written to the right hon. Gentleman about this. Will he reconsider the decision for those who had already accepted placements?

I will look at the hon. Lady’s letter, although I do not think the decision should affect anyone currently going through the Chevening scholarship process. It is of course a great pity to have to make any such reduction, and I do not do it lightly, but we have to remember that we have inherited, across all Departments, a situation in which the Government of this country were borrowing £3 billion a week and all Departments have to play their role in trying to sort that out.

T10. What lessons for operations in Afghanistan may be learned from the case of Bill Shaw? I beg your indulgence, Mr Speaker, in paying the highest of tributes to the Minister responsible for the middle east and to Afghanistan and the FCO officials who worked so hard to ensure that justice was done in Afghanistan in that case. (5809)

I am very grateful to my hon. Friend for such generous comments. I think the lessons to be learned are about the importance, in building up the Afghan state, of our commitment to the values and the rule of law and to ensuring that there is an anti-corruption policy in place, which we can rely on the Afghan authorities to administer. Our consular service worked extremely hard in the circumstances to support Mr Shaw and his family, and I am pleased that that work appears at this stage to have been successful. Like the family, we hope to see Mr Shaw home very soon.

Today, Her Majesty the Queen addresses the United Nations General Assembly as the Head of State of 15 independent countries. Will the Foreign Secretary confirm that that arrangement involves co-operation between 15 realms, showing that it is an attractive, workable model for normal nations within the Commonwealth?

Yes, Her Majesty has been very proud to address the United Nations on the part of so many different realms, but that does not mean that the rest of us have started to agree that breaking up individual realms is a good idea, so we will continue to oppose the hon. Gentleman on that.

How will the Foreign Secretary assist Mr Netanyahu to resist demands from within his own Government for the building of illegal settlements to recommence by September?

We have to continue to try to convince the Israeli Government—my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and I have been active in that already—that it is fundamentally in the interests of Israel to do everything that it can to secure a two-state solution, that time for that might be running out, and that such a solution is in the interests of Israel’s long-term security. Winning that argument is very important, and we will continue to try to win it.

Given that a great deal of the credit for the steady if unheralded progress on economic and security issues on the west bank, in such matters as the dismantling of blockades, belongs to British military officers and former police officers, who have played a very important role there, will the Foreign Secretary reassure the House that the Government remain committed to supporting the work of our armed forces and former police officers on the west bank, as well as, of course, the excellent work of Tony Blair?

Yes, very much indeed. I never thought that I would say in this House that I support the excellent work of Tony Blair, but I do. I have had many phone conversations with him over the past few weeks, and a meeting with him last Friday, about Gaza and building up Palestinian institutions. He is doing a very good job on that—notwithstanding all our disagreements in the past.

We will of course continue to support the wider work to which the hon. Gentleman refers. A great deal of progress has been made on the west bank, and economic progress, which shows the signs that it is possible to have a functioning state, is a very important component of driving forward the middle east peace process.