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Topical Questions

Volume 513: debated on Tuesday 6 July 2010

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.