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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 515: debated on Tuesday 14 September 2010

Foreign and Commonwealth Office

The Secretary of State was asked—

Middle East

1. What recent assessment he has made of the political situation in the middle east; and if he will make a statement. (14846)

The launch of direct talks is an important and welcome step in the search for lasting peace and security for Israelis and Palestinians. The parties have been meeting again today in Sharm el Sheikh. We look to Prime Minister Netanyahu and President Abbas to show the perseverance, commitment and courage needed in the weeks and months ahead to achieve a two-state solution.

I thank the Foreign Secretary for his response. On the day on which the peace talks resume in Sharm el Sheikh, will he tell the House whether he shares my view that the settlements remain a major barrier to peace in the region?

The issue of settlements will come to the fore very rapidly again, because the immediate challenge is the expiry of the settlement moratorium at the end of this month, on 30 September. The road map makes it clear that Israel should freeze all settlement construction, including the natural growth of existing settlements, and dismantle all outposts built since 2001. Our view is that all settlement activity in the occupied Palestinian territories is illegal and an obstacle to peace.

But if the Israelis defy President Obama and the Quartet by resuming settlement building on 26 September, is there not a serious danger that that would scupper the current peace talks and make future talks more difficult? Would there not also be a danger, because of the population growth among the Palestinians, of eventually ending Israel as the Jewish state that it proclaims itself to be? Given that the Jewish day of atonement comes before 26 September, will the Foreign Secretary urge the Israeli Government to observe their own religion and repent at this stage?

The right hon. Gentleman’s question encapsulates why it is in Israel’s long-term interests to seek agreement on a two-state solution. He is quite right to say that there is a danger to the talks, and therefore to any subsequent talks, and it is vital that all the parties involved are able to get through the end of September with the talks alive. We therefore look to the Government of Israel to take all the steps necessary to renew the settlement moratorium; we have made that quite clear to them. If they were able to do that, it would no doubt contribute enormously to the talks being able to proceed further.

Does the Foreign Secretary agree with the recent statement by the ambassador of the United Arab Emirates to the United States that the possession of nuclear weapons by Iran would constitute such a threat to the security of all the states of the middle east that all options—including, if necessary, military options—must be considered if it became necessary to prevent such a situation from arising?

I have always argued that all options should be kept on the table, and that the option of military action should not be withdrawn from the table. I have also always stressed that we are not calling for that or advocating it. We do not want to relieve any of the pressure that is currently on Iran, but I must emphasise that I am not advocating military action.

I am sure that we will all be relieved by what the Foreign Secretary has just said at the end of that response. I think it would merit at least an oral statement if he were going to advocate military action.

Can the right hon. Gentleman tell us whether it is true that Mr Frattini, the Italian Foreign Minister, proposed to lead a delegation of European Foreign Ministers, including the Foreign Secretary, to Israel and the occupied territories in the first half of September, but that the Israeli Government would not co-operate with such a visit?

No, it is not true. Mr Frattini proposed a visit by EU Foreign Ministers at the very beginning of September, but it turned out that it clashed with the direct talks that were starting on the other side of the Atlantic. The proposed trip was therefore abandoned. There has been no proposal for a trip by the EU Foreign Ministers since then. Such a proposal has been reported in one or two newspapers, but I am afraid that it is not accurate.

I am glad to hear that from the Foreign Secretary because the Foreign Office was not able to explain it yesterday. Of course the Israeli Government have said that European Foreign Ministers are standing on the sidelines at the moment, so the question is why a delegation of European Foreign Ministers, including the Foreign Secretary, is not heading out to Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories as soon as possible. Prime Minister Netanhayu said on Sunday that Israel would not extend the moratorium on settlement building and Mr Abbas has threatened to quit the talks if construction resumes. Is it not true that there is a real danger of having an absent Foreign Secretary and not an active Foreign Secretary when the people of the middle east most need an active one?

No. I know we have little soundbites before the Labour leadership election—we are bound to have them—but in a way this is too serious an issue for things like that. Neither EU Foreign Ministers nor the UK Government are in any way on the sidelines. We have played an important role—a supporting role—to the United States, which has shown such leadership on this issue, in getting these direct talks going. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister was, I think, held to be instrumental in that through the telephone calls he undertook in the summer with both Prime Minister Netanyahu and President Abbas. I am in close touch with the talks through Secretary Hillary Clinton and Senator Mitchell; indeed, we are in constant touch with all involved. We play a strong supporting role, as do many other EU countries, in the continuation of these direct talks. As the right hon. Gentleman can see from the answers I have given, we are emphatic about what needs to be done next.

Does the Foreign Secretary agree that one of the biggest obstacles to peace in the middle east is the outrages committed by Hamas, which represents such a threat that we need to bolster the moderate ranks of the Palestinians to ensure that a proper two-state solution comes about? If he does agree, what action is the Foreign Office taking to ensure that the moderate elements of the Palestinian cause are promoted?

We give a great deal of support to those moderate Palestinians and my hon. Friend will be aware of the aid that goes in from here and from the rest of the European Union to help the Palestinian Authority. He is right about Hamas. The terrorist outrage of two weeks ago was specifically designed, in my view, to disrupt the start of these direct talks. Hamas does not want to see these talks succeed and that fact should redouble the determination of all involved to make sure that they do succeed.

Sri Lanka (Detainees)

3. What recent discussions he has had with his Sri Lankan counterpart on access to detainees in that country by the International Committee of the Red Cross. (14848)

I spoke to the Foreign Minister of Sri Lanka on 16 June and again this morning about a variety of issues, including human rights and access to former combatants. We hope to continue the dialogue with the Foreign Minister when he comes to London in October.

I thank the Minister for that answer. Will he outline the role he believes the international community should play with respect to this issue, as we repeatedly hear concerns about the treatment of detainees and human rights abuses in Sri Lanka? Does he support the call for an international inquiry, particularly into the abuses in the final week leading up to the end of the war in May 2009?

Let us separate the two issues. As to detainees, I am sure that the hon. Lady will be pleased to hear that the International Organisation for Migration does have access to the camps. The Sri Lanka Minister told me this morning that negotiations continue on giving the Red Cross access, which we would certainly support. As far as allegations about what happened during the end of the conflict are concerned, we have repeatedly called upon Sri Lanka to make sure that there is a full, independent and credible inquiry so that these past allegations can be raised transparently. That would be in the interest of reconciliation in the future.

Will my hon. Friend take up with the high commissioner the issue of why, in my role as the chairman of the all-party Tamils group, I am receiving reports that people who have returned to their homes are still being intimidated, singled out for abuse and are not being treated with the respect that they should be given? Can this issue please be raised with the high commissioner?

The number of internally displaced people who have been returned has grown significantly since the end of the conflict, but we remain concerned about reports of abuses of freedom, lack of freedom of expression and continued problems in the north. These issues are raised quite regularly with the Sri Lanka Government and the high commissioner, and the next time I see him, I will certainly make sure that my hon. Friend’s concerns are pressed.

Human Rights

Human rights are at the core of our foreign policy. FCO posts overseas monitor and raise human rights concerns wherever and whenever they arise without compromise. I will ensure they continue this excellent work, tackling these challenges in the most effective manner. There will be further improvements in how we monitor human rights, which I plan to announce in a written statement in the coming days.

I think we are all very glad to hear of the Government’s U-turn on the scrapping of the Foreign Secretary’s Department’s annual report on human rights and to learn that it is not being sacrificed on the altar of deficit reduction, but can the Foreign Secretary give us some assurances about the substance of the report? Can he tell us when it is likely to be published, and whether it will be as substantial as the report from the last Government?

Yes, it will be substantial. There has been no U-turn, only an inaccurate report about what the Government may do. The position is as I described it to the Foreign Affairs Committee in the House last week. The report will take the form of a Command Paper, and it will be detailed and authoritative. I intend it to be laid before Parliament in about March, in line with the practice of the last Government, but it will be accompanied throughout the year by up-to-date online reporting and evaluation of our human rights work and concerns. I hope that, overall, that will provide Parliament with a better service than has been provided in the past.

While I understand the importance of the monitoring of human rights, does the Foreign Secretary accept that their promotion is just as, if not more, important? What steps are Her Majesty’s Government taking with regard to the promotion of the human right of sanctity of life, particularly in connection with countries that appear to be hellbent on barbaric ways of taking people’s lives?

We intervene against the death penalty at every opportunity, in line with long-standing practice in this country. My right hon. and learned Friend will be aware of the strong protests that we have made recently about, for instance, sentences of stoning in Iran, an absolutely barbaric punishment that has no place whatsoever in the modern world. The strong stand that this country has taken on those issues will continue to be maintained.

We have seen U-turns on the scrapping of the annual human rights report and on the BBC World Service pulling out of Burma, not as a result of pressure from the Liberal Democrats but as a result of the Opposition’s highlighting the intentions of the coalition Government. That raises serious questions about whether the Government’s commitment to human rights is at the heart of British foreign policy.

May I ask the Foreign Secretary a very specific question? We have already seen £560,000 removed from the Foreign Office human rights and democracy budget this year, and not in terms of future spending review decisions. Can the Foreign Secretary assure the House that there will be no further reduction in funding for that part of the Foreign Office budget this year?

One would not think that the hon. Gentleman had been a member of a Government who reduced funding for human rights and democracy projects in Iran, Sudan, Zambia, Russia and central Asia, all in the course of the last year. There have been no U-turns on any of those subjects. I do not think that having to correct what appears in The Guardian now and again constitutes a U-turn brought about by the Opposition. As for future spending commitments, they will of course be set out in the future, once we have the results of the comprehensive spending review.

South-East Asia

South-east Asia includes some of the world’s most important emerging powers, and offers huge opportunities for the United Kingdom. The Government enjoy excellent relations with most countries in the region. Burma is the exception, but we continue to work for democratic change so that its people can realise their potential.

Does the Minister not agree that our relationship has been uniquely enhanced by the recent visit by a trade delegation to the Indian subcontinent, and also by the fact that the United Kingdom has been at the forefront of alleviating the floods and stress facing the Pakistani population?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising the subject of the Prime Minister’s recent visit to India. It was a huge success, and has greatly enhanced our bilateral relationship. In particular, I warmly welcome the broadly based trade and investment agreement between India and the European Union. As for the Pakistani floods, our heartfelt sympathy goes out to the victims, but I am pleased to say that the Department for International Development has responded very positively by providing £64 million of aid.

I do not regard deciding to attack Pakistan when in India as a great foreign policy triumph, particularly on the part of a Prime Minister of this country.

When we were in government, we took every opportunity to highlight and campaign against the horrendous human rights abuses perpetrated by the Burmese regime, to demand the release of Aung San Suu Kyi and more than 2,000 political prisoners, and to apply maximum pressure on the international community to challenge that regime. May I ask the Minister what his Government are doing to put pressure on the Burmese regime? Does he accept that the November elections were entirely illegitimate, and that there is a flawed constitution? Can he tell us what progress is being made on an arms embargo against the Burmese regime, and will he guarantee no dilution of the BBC’s World Service output in Burma?

That was three questions, but I know the Minister will be able to provide a single pithy reply.

The Prime Minister recently met the Foreign Secretaries of India and China to express our concern about Burma and to urge them to use their good offices to push for change. I certainly agree with the shadow Minister, because for elections to take place on 7 November and to be credible in any way Aung San Suu Kyi must be released, as well as 2,100 other political prisoners.

EU Treaties

I refer my hon. Friend to my written statement yesterday. The Government are clear that there should be no further transfers of competence or powers from the UK to the EU in this Parliament, and we will introduce legislation to ensure that any subsequent future treaty that proposes to transfer such competence or powers would be subject to a referendum of the British people before it could be ratified by this country.

I am grateful to the Minister for his reply. Can he elaborate on exactly how transparent the process for deciding on a referendum will be, and will the legislation be drafted in such a way that there will not be undue delay by possible judicial review?

The legislation will be drafted to make clear those aspects of the European Union treaties on which the Government would expect to require a referendum were there to be a proposal for change. It will, of course, be possible for people to use judicial review if they wish to challenge a Minister’s decision. I think that is likely only in cases where a Minister were for some extraordinary reason—no Minister in the current Government would do this—to wish to deny the people the right to have their say.

The Minister seemed to get his ratchets in a bit of a twist in his written ministerial statement yesterday. First he said that all ratchet clauses would be subject to primary legislation, then that major ratchet clauses would be subject to a referendum, and then, towards the end of his written ministerial statement, he confessed that there is no agreed definition of what a ratchet clause is at all, so his legislation is a pile of nonsense really. Does he not accept that the real danger here is that, effectively, what he is doing is asking the courts to decide when there will be a referendum or when there has to be primary legislation, because they will be deciding what is a ratchet clause? Some of us would like the Government to opt in rather more frequently, not least to the directive on human trafficking.

When the hon. Gentleman sees the Bill, I think he will find that we have very clearly defined those articles of the treaties where a referendum would be required and those where primary legislation would be required. I only wish that the Minister had it in him to welcome the fact—[Hon. Members: “Minister?”] Old habits die hard, I am afraid. I wish the hon. Gentleman would have the grace to recognise that whereas in the Government in which he served decisions to cede powers to the European Union took place on the sofa in No. 10 Downing street, we are ensuring that under this Government it is the British people who will have the final say before any further powers are transferred to Brussels. It will be up to the people, and I wish the hon. Gentleman had as much confidence in democracy and the will of the people as we on this side of the House have.

Has the Minister read last week’s interesting and very long speech—a state of the Union address—of the President of the European Commission, Mr Barroso? He calls for own resources to be raised by the European Union. What is the Government’s view and will this be subject to the referendum lock?

The President of the Commission made his comments in the context of the forthcoming negotiations about the new financial perspectives. The Chancellor of the Exchequer, who will be leading the Government in our approach to those negotiations, has made it clear that we will seek cuts in the European Union budget for the protection of the British rebate and no new European-level taxes.

Kashmir

It is not for the United Kingdom Government either to prescribe, or mediate in, a solution to the situation in Kashmir. It is the long-standing policy of the British Government that this is a matter for the Indian and Pakistan Governments, taking into account the wishes of the Kashmiri people.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that. Does he agree that many British Kashmiris, particularly those in Wycombe, hold this Government to account for the actions of our forebears in relation to Kashmir and its predicament?

I hear the sentiment from my hon. Friend. I must say that the British Government work on, and devote resources to, assisting with conflict resolution in Kashmir, tackling human rights concerns and helping to build confidence on both sides of the line of control. With that confidence, we then continue to ensure that there is a dialogue with the Indian and Pakistan Governments, because the resolution of this long-standing situation is for them, taking into account the wishes of the Kashmiri people.

I recall that the last time I raised the issue of Kashmir on the Floor of the House the Secretary of State was going to refresh his memory on the British Government’s position on Kashmir. I hope not only that he has had an opportunity to do that but, given the further increased violence in the region of late, he will consider that it is the position of the British Government to mediate where there are conflict areas, particularly given the historical impact that Britain has had on that region; indeed, it has possibly caused some of the problems there. Will he or his Minister commit to thinking carefully about whether the British Government’s position can be changed slightly to ensure that we can mediate in that area?

It has been a difficult summer. The television pictures of yesterday’s violence in Kashmir shine a spotlight on the situation, but they emphasise, yet again, how important it is for a long-standing resolution to be achieved. It should be, and the long-standing position of the British Government has been, that this resolution has got to be achieved through dialogue between the Governments of India and Pakistan, taking into account the wishes of the Kashmiri people. What the events of the summer and of yesterday have shown is that there is increasing concern, and that should increase the emphasis that the Governments should place on finding a resolution to the situation.

The Maldives

The Foreign and Commonwealth Office has been in regular contact with senior political figures in the Maldives during a difficult summer there and, in particular, during the recent political crisis; I last spoke to members of the Opposition and of the Government in the Maldives on 16 August. We continue to urge parties there to get over their difficulties and their conflicts with each other and not to lose the gains that have been made in democracy since the reforms of 2008.

I thank the Minister for that answer. Having spent a great deal of time in the Maldives helping to elect a democratically elected President—[Interruption.] Somebody has to do it—[Interruption.]

It was great to see President Mohamed Nasheed elected as the first democratic President, and I was proud to be part of that. What practical help can we give the Maldives at this time of constitutional crisis?

As well as the informal contacts between parliamentarians, which I am sure bolster a great deal of support in the Maldives, we give practical support through our bilateral programme. We give support to police reform, to civic and electoral voter advice, to media training and to counter-radicalisation work. The Commonwealth is also interested in providing support for judicial and constitutional reform. It may assist stability in the Maldives if a lengthy fact-finding visit were made by a British Minister and, reluctantly, I am prepared to put myself forward for that, should the occasion arise.

EU External Action Programmes

I recently stressed to the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Baroness Ashton, the importance of delivering greater efficiency savings from the merger of European institutions with a view to achieving the agreed goal of budget neutrality. Both my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary and I will continue to press this point strongly during our contacts in Brussels and with our European colleagues in other capitals.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. He refers to budget neutrality, but I understood from an earlier question that we were talking about budget cuts in the EU. Surely my hon. Friend will accept that nothing is going to be acceptable to people in this country except budget cuts in the EU while we have to make severe cuts to our own British diplomatic service.

We believe that the External Action Service should operate only in those areas of policy where collective action at European Union level can genuinely add value to the work already being done by national diplomatic services. We will certainly be looking for economy, but I am sure that my hon. Friend would want to see the secondment of national diplomats, including those from the United Kingdom, to the European External Action Service and not to rely entirely on people transferred in from existing European institutions. That will require a short-term spike in expenditure for the EEAS. The High Representative has committed herself to bringing that down as soon as possible and to seeking 10% cuts in her budget as a first priority.

Does the Minister not agree that it would be totally unacceptable if the UK’s contribution to the EU budget were to rise? Given the fact that we are facing massive cuts in all areas across the board domestically, it must be the case that in this area—and across the board—this country’s contribution to the EU must be cut.

I think it is important that we seek the greatest possible value for money and economy in expenditure in every aspect of European Union spending, whether that is in one of the relatively small items of expenditure, such as external action, or in one of the large items, such as agriculture.

Is the Minister aware of the enormous cost to the British taxpayer of the United Kingdom’s remaining outside the EU’s Schengen agreement? Is he aware, for example, that this year there will be four times more Chinese tourists going to Germany than to the UK because of the additional complications that this absence creates? Will he stand up for tourism businesses in the Lake District, the Yorkshire Dales and other tourist venues in the UK and look to engage with Schengen in a more appropriate manner?

My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary, who leads for us on these matters, is very clear that the priority for the people of the United Kingdom should be the maintenance of our own domestic controls over our borders and not giving control of immigration policy to European institutions.

I am amazed to find out that Schengen has anything to do with the External Action Service. I certainly welcome the Minister’s balanced approach to this matter. In fact, is it not true that in other parts of the EU the complaint is that there is far too much British influence in the diplomatic corps of the European External Action Service? Surely we must commend that, because it will bring a UK perspective to the actions in the EEAS that we should welcome.

The hon. Gentleman is right to say that that complaint is frequently heard in Brussels and in other European capitals. What I would say to those Members of the House, on both sides, who, like me—I freely admit it—voted against the establishment of the EEAS is that now that this body exists we should do all that is within our power to help shape it so that it can be used to give greater leverage to British influence throughout the world.

Ebrahim Hamidi

11. What reports he has received on the case of Ebrahim Hamidi, sentenced to death on charges of homosexuality in Iran. (14856)

I thank the Minister for his answer, but he must be aware that the great injustice that Ebrahim Hamidi has suffered brings into question Iran’s human rights record. I urge my hon. Friend—and through him, the British Government—to do everything he can for this young man and to press Iran to honour its international obligations?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. A number of hon. Members have raised this case with me by letter in the past few weeks. The European Union and the United Kingdom have raised the subject of human rights with Iran some 70 times in the last year. We continue to press Iran to live up to its obligations under the international covenant on civil and political rights. We have joined the international condemnation in the case of Sakineh Ashtiani and of the death sentence against her. We continue to make it clear to Iran that its human rights record is a barrier to its relationship with other nations and that the sooner it moves on this, the better for all of us.

Zimbabwe

12. What his most recent assessment is of the state of the UK’s bilateral relations with Zimbabwe; and if he will make a statement. (14857)

14. What his most recent assessment is of the state of the UK’s bilateral relations with Zimbabwe; and if he will make a statement. (14859)

We are doing all we can to support the aspirations of the Zimbabwean people to a peaceful, prosperous and democratic Zimbabwe. We will go on working with reformers in Zimbabwe and in the region to maximise the prospects of achieving the reforms needed for properly conducted elections.

I am grateful to the Minister for that answer. Does he agree that despite the progress that has been made through the inclusive Government, the situation in Zimbabwe remains critical and it is vital to continue all moves towards free and fair elections? What role can he play, working with the Department for International Development and others in the region, in bringing that day closer?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for mentioning DFID, because its aid budget to Zimbabwe, at £60 million, is the largest it has ever been. All DFID bilateral funds continue to go through the UN and non-governmental organisations, and regular monitoring and robust processes are in place to ensure that those funds go where they are meant to go. None of the funds go directly to Zimbabwean Government Departments.

What can the Government do to ensure that any referendum next year or any future elections are carried out in a free and fair manner? How can we ensure that they are monitored and overseen?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his question. Our Government are doing all they possibly can, working with the Southern African Development Community, front-line countries, the UN and the EU. I agree entirely with him: two important polls are coming up next year—the referendum on the constitution and the presidential and parliamentary elections—and it is vital that monitors and observers are in place early on. We must learn the lessons of the 2008 election. They need to be in place early and after polling day they need to monitor the count as well.

Given the critical situation in Zimbabwe, does it remain the Government’s policy that Zimbabwean citizens who have claimed asylum here will be removed to Zimbabwe?

The UK Border Agency is looking to start work on a process aimed at normalising our returns policy to Zimbabwe as and when the political situation develops. However, we are not starting enforced returns yet by any means.

The Minister will, I am sure, join me in welcoming the fact that the BBC World Service has recently been able to have a correspondent back in Zimbabwe. Given the important aspects of accountability and information that the BBC World Service brings to Zimbabwe and other parts of the world, what assurances can he give that it will continue to be supported by the Foreign Office?

There are currently no proposals to close any language service. Any such proposal requires ministerial approval and no such approval has been sought or given as yet. There was an article in The Guardian that was wholly inaccurate and pure speculation. Discussions are ongoing and there will be a robust discussion involving the Foreign Office about the World Service’s £272 million annual direct grant, but no decisions have been taken. I stress that any closure of a language service requires ministerial approval.

Is my hon. Friend aware that Israel has recently altered its approach to the blockade of Gaza and ensured that there will be an increase of genuine aid—

Order. I am sorry, but I am trying to be helpful to the hon. Gentleman. He was standing in relation to a question about Zimbabwe.

UK-Iranian Relations

13. What his most recent assessment is of the state of UK-Iranian relations; and if he will make a statement. (14858)

We would welcome improved relations with Iran. Improved relations will come with the Iranian Government engaging in good faith with the E3 plus 3 on their nuclear programme and on improving their increasingly poor human rights record.

Iran claims that criticism of attacks on Camp Ashraf refugees and the stoning to death of Sakineh Ashtiani are part of a soft war that the west is waging on Iran. Are we engaged in a soft war, and does more need to be done now to confront that regime’s intolerable human rights agenda?

We are not engaged in a war of any kind, but we want legitimate expressions of opinion to be heard and we want the human rights record of the Iranian Government to be seen for what it is throughout the world, because it is utterly unacceptable to anyone who cares about basic human rights anywhere on earth. I do not call that a war, but certainly, we want those things. The most important thing that we seek is for Iran to negotiate on its nuclear programme with the E3 plus 3—the three leading European nations and the other members of the UN Security Council—so that the danger of nuclear proliferation in the middle east can be addressed.

If, as expected, Iran looks as though it will acquire nuclear weapons capability and if all other avenues have been exhausted, will the Government support Israel if she takes military action to deal with that terrible threat?

I hope, Mr Speaker, that I dealt with that in answer to my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Kensington (Sir Malcolm Rifkind). I stress that we are taking a twin-track approach to the Iranian nuclear programme. One of those tracks is sanctions, and we agreed in the European Union at the end of July a strong and wide-ranging set of sanctions that puts additional pressure on Iran over its nuclear programme. The other track is to remain open to negotiations about that nuclear programme. It is on that twin track that we must concentrate now.

Detention Camps (Sri Lanka)

16. What recent discussions he has had with the UN High Representative for Human Rights on the situation of Tamils in detention camps in Sri Lanka. (14861)

There are still some 25,000 Tamils as internally displaced persons in camps. We maintain a regular dialogue with a variety of NGOs, including UNHCR, about their condition. As I indicated in answer to an earlier question, we also maintain a dialogue with the Government of Sri Lanka in relation to the issue.

My question was specific. It asked what recent discussions there had been, and it asked about the situation of Tamils in those detention camps. I do not believe I got an answer to either of those elements of the question, and I therefore ask the Minister to respond specifically—when, where, what, and what is going to be done?

The hon. Gentleman has been assiduous in his pursuance of Tamil constituents’ concerns and he has raised these issues before. I indicated that there is a regular and constant dialogue between the Government’s representatives in Colombo and UNHCR, and I meant exactly that—it is regular and ongoing. The United Kingdom Government have spent about £13.5 million to support internally displaced persons. We are concerned and our most recent discussions revealed the concerns about the clampdowns on NGO activity with those in the camps. So in answer to the hon. Gentleman’s probing about the conditions, we remain concerned. I raised the matter with the Foreign Minister this morning and he is aware of people’s concerns. We will continue to do so because if the Government of Sri Lanka are serious about their attempts at reconciliation, these matters must be cleared up and dealt with. The hon. Gentleman is right.

The Minister’s word “reconciliation” is right after 25 years of appalling civil strife. In addition to the Tamils who are kept in such dreadful conditions in the camps, is he aware that quite a number of Sri Lankans in Colombo and elsewhere who were thought to be vaguely sympathetic towards the Tamils are also in detention without trial? There is huge human rights abuse there as well. Is my hon. Friend addressing that with the new Government?

Yes, my hon. Friend is correct. Human rights issues, particularly freedom of expression and concerns about the media, have been raised. There is no doubt that conditions have changed in Sri Lanka and have improved to a degree after the conflict, but the issue, as he says, is just how far that goes. That is why we are pressing the Government of Sri Lanka. If they meant what they said about reconciliation at the end of the conflict, we all have to see that in practice on the ground, rather than just words.

Given the widespread allegations of war crimes during the civil war in Sri Lanka, does the hon. Gentleman agree that the Sri Lankan Government are being unreasonably provocative in appointing as their new high commissioner and deputy high commissioner two of their most senior military leaders, Admiral Wasantha Karannagoda and Major General Paranna Silva, who were responsible for some of the most brutal fighting during the conflict? If he agrees with me, what do the Government intend to do?

I am not aware that any representations have been made to the United Kingdom Government in relation to a position of high commissioner. I am aware of the position in relation to the defence attaché. It would be difficult to conceive of a defence attaché without a military background, and that appointment is understood. I have not heard anything about the other position, but the hon. Lady certainly raises an issue. If reconciliation is to be the watchword of the Sri Lankan Government, every appointment that they make will be looked at in those terms. Accordingly, appointments that are conciliatory and go some way towards remedying the tragedy of the conflict are surely rather better, for them and for the rest of the world, than anything else, but these appointments are a matter for the Sri Lankan Government in the first place.

Iran's Nuclear Programme

17. What recent assessment he has made of the implications for the UK of Iran’s nuclear programme; and if he will make a statement. (14862)

Iran’s nuclear programme threatens global security. Iran continues to develop its programme in defiance of UN Security Council resolutions and with a lack of transparency with the International Atomic Energy Agency, both of which are pillars of the international security framework.

At the risk of being repetitious, but for the benefit specifically of the Iranian Government, will the Foreign Secretary confirm that our Government are prepared to meet them at any place, any time in order to resolve peacefully the issue of nuclear proliferation?

The specific offer on the table is for Baroness Ashton, the EU High Representative, to meet representatives of the Iranian Government on behalf of the E3—Britain, France and Germany—and, indeed, on behalf of the other permanent members of the UN Security Council. Of course, all the countries involved are happy to assist in those negotiations, but that is what we would now like the Iranians to do.

Topical Questions

His Holiness Pope Benedict will visit the United Kingdom this week, the first such official papal visit to our country and an event of great significance to many people in Britain. It will be a time to celebrate the role of faith groups in our communities and to make common cause with the Holy See on tackling poverty and climate change.

What role is Britain playing in the peace process between the Palestinians and the Israelis? In particular, what is the Foreign Secretary doing to facilitate the delivery of aid to the Palestinians?

Britain plays an active role in ways that I described in previous questions. In particular, we played an energetic role in encouraging Israelis and Palestinians into those direct talks. We now remain in close touch with what is happening in them—ready to assist in any way—as do so many other European nations.

We are major contributors of aid to Palestinians, and one of our concerns is that there should be a greater flow of goods into Gaza. We welcome the statements that Israel has made, since the Gaza flotilla incident, about improving access to Gaza, but we now want to see that really happen in practice.

T3. Will the Foreign Secretary please outline his plans to reinvigorate the Commonwealth? In particular, bearing in mind the historical links between our many countries, will he support the idea of projects, such as one in my constituency of South Northamptonshire, to twin schools in this country and in Uganda? (14871)

Yes. Such decisions are for each locality, but I strongly welcome them. Part of this Government’s plan is certainly to reinvigorate, as my hon. Friend says, our approach to the Commonwealth, a subject and organisation that was rather neglected under the previous Government, and I am glad to say that the Commonwealth is now convening an eminent persons group—and even more glad to say that my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Kensington (Sir Malcolm Rifkind) is one member of that group. We look forward to its report early next year, ahead of the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in Australia.

We have not yet discussed Afghanistan, and, given that 10,000 of our fellow citizens are serving there, it is right that we do so.

The Foreign Secretary has said that he recognises the importance of political reconciliation to end the war in Afghanistan. Does he accept that, almost two months after the conference that he attended in Kabul, Afghan officials are still bickering over who should be in charge of the high peace council that the Foreign Secretary lauded when he came to the House in July? Will he confirm that only a few hundred Taliban fighters have come in from the cold over the last six months? What is the Foreign Secretary going to do to pour drive, energy and effort into an initiative that, as The New York Times rightly said on 12 September, “has badly faltered”?

The right hon. Gentleman is quite right to raise Afghanistan, which ought to be discussed at every Foreign and Commonwealth Office questions. He is right to refer to the extent of our deployment there and the very hard work that our troops continue to do. I think that he and I agree—I think we are agreed across the Floor of the House—that the political process is of huge importance, as well as the military progress that has been made.

A political reconciliation was what President Karzai received the support of the peace jirga to carry out. It is very important that that should be an Afghan-led process, so the United Kingdom and the United States are very active in supporting the Afghans in leading that process. Has it yet produced results? Well, it has not, but it would be surprising if it had produced results at this stage. The reintegration programme has just begun and the opportunity for political reconciliation now exists. It would be quite wrong to judge the possible outcome of that process from what has happened in just the last few weeks.

T4. I am sure that the Minister will be aware of—and, like me, very much value—this country’s strong links with the Caribbean. He will also be aware that during the economic downturn the Caribbean has struggled as a result of the effect on its tourist revenue and revenue from its financial services industry. That may well affect the Caribbean’s ability to police the international drugs trade. What steps will the Minister be taking to support the Caribbean in that policing activity, with specific regard to the overseas territories? (14872)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising that matter as I share his grave concerns about drug trafficking in the Caribbean. A staggering 30% of the cocaine on the UK streets passes through the Caribbean. I am pleased to tell him that the Serious Organised Crime Agency is working with Caribbean countries and our overseas territories on both training and mentoring. It is making very good progress.

T2. On 2 September, Karel De Gucht, the European Commissioner for Trade, told a Belgian radio station that there was little point in trying to engage in rational argument with Jews and that peace talks between Israelis and Palestinians were doomed to failure because of the power of the Jewish lobby. Is the Foreign Secretary surprised to hear those sentiments and has he heard them before? (14870)

I have not heard them before. I totally disagree with those sentiments. I think that the direct talks between Israelis and Palestinians now represent a genuine opportunity. There is a long way to go, and one should not artificially raise expectations about the results of those talks, but they have begun in a very good atmosphere. If the quote that the hon. Lady gives from the European Commissioner is correct, I flatly disagree with it.

T5. Does the Foreign Secretary think that there are hopeful signs in the relationship between Kosovo and Serbia? Will he give us an update on the current state of the proposed resolution? (14873)

There are hopeful signs, I am glad to say. I visited Belgrade two weeks ago to ask Serbia to join a common European Union resolution in the UN General Assembly, rather than sponsoring a resolution of its own. The resolution asked the EU High Representative to facilitate practical talks and a constructive dialogue between Serbia and Kosovo. I am glad to say that, because of pressure from across the European Union, Serbia agreed to do that, and the resolution was carried unanimously in the General Assembly last week. At last, there can now be the beginnings of a dialogue between Serbia and Kosovo—an important step to bringing peace and security to the Balkans.

T7. As the Foreign Secretary will be aware, Chernobyl Children’s Life Line, the UK charity, provides support for child victims of the Chernobyl disaster. One way in which it does that is to bring children to the UK for recuperative breaks, including regularly to my constituency of Kilmarnock and Loudoun. Unfortunately, there increasingly seem to be problems in allowing safe and easy passage for children coming from Ukraine. Will the Minister agree to meet Her Majesty’s ambassador to Ukraine to discuss how some of those issues can be dealt with and ensure that the situation is ameliorated in the near future? (14875)

I am very happy to follow up the concerns expressed by the hon. Lady and to take advice from Her Majesty’s ambassador in the way that she suggests.

T6. As we heard earlier, many millions of people depend on the BBC’s World Service, which achieves its very impressive and impartial global reach on a budget that is roughly equivalent to that for three and half fighter jets. Will Ministers at least acknowledge the importance of this vital service to the United Kingdom as the comprehensive spending review nears its completion? (14874)

Yes, I completely agree with my hon. Friend—it is an absolutely vital service for the United Kingdom and an absolutely vital service to many parts of the world. I have often spoken about its great value to this country. Of course, in the current situation all parts of the public sector have to be scrutinised for value for money, and the BBC World Service itself believes that it is possible to make economies without necessarily affecting the services it provides. We are looking at that in the comprehensive spending review. However, my hon. Friend will find that I am a very strong supporter of the work of the World Service, so he should not believe some of the wilder rumours that fly around.

T9. Which of the Prime Minister’s foreign policy achievements is the Foreign Secretary most proud of—belittling Britain’s heroism during the second world war, destabilising the tense relationship between India and Pakistan, or enraging the Israelis by calling Gaza a prison camp? (14878)

I am proud of the fact that wherever the Prime Minister goes he forges very strong relationships with the countries that he and I visit, and they often find his diplomatic good sense, his openness and his ability to talk to people a very refreshing change from his predecessor.

T8. With the continuing focus on Afghanistan, we must not be distracted from the other countries where al-Qaeda is reported to be active. To that end, could the Minister update the House on the progress that might have been made with the Friends of Yemen initiative, which Britain is leading? (14876)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that question. She is absolutely right: Yemen is increasingly important in concerns about counter-terrorism. The Friends of Yemen initiative has been rekindled since the current Government came to office, and there is an important meeting in New York on 24 September. This is a group of nations that has come together in order to support Yemen, recognising that it faces economic and security challenges. The United Kingdom is already doing effective work bilaterally, but we are also working increasingly with other nations to assist on economic reform and political reform and dialogue, and to give continuing support on counter-terrorist activity to ensure that al-Qaeda does not get a grip in that crucial region.

Is the Foreign Secretary aware that there are still very strong concerns about human rights abuses in Darfur and more widely in Sudan? Would he care to brief the House on the Government’s view of the current situation and what initiatives they might have taken?

The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. We have long-standing concerns about Darfur across the House. One of the things we are doing is to try to ensure that we retain a strong peacekeeping force in Darfur; the withdrawal of any of that threatens to make these problems even worse. We support, of course, the indictment that the International Court of Justice has put forward on the President of Sudan. We are doing a lot of work on the south of Sudan and the prospects for a referendum there, including all the arrangements for that and the controversy and political disputes that it may bring. Our ambassador in Khartoum is well engaged in all these matters, and we will continue to be very vigilant about them.

Given the Government’s support for Turkey’s membership of the EU, what assessment have they made of the extra budget contributions the UK will be asked to make, and the additional immigration that there will be into this country, if Turkey joins the EU—or are they in favour of Turkey’s membership of the EU at any price?

The issues that my hon. Friend mentions are obviously important ones that would have to be addressed in the course of Turkey’s accession negotiations. However, the fact that Turkey now has an economic growth rate of 5.5% per annum compared with just 1% per annum in the eurozone indicates that Turkey’s membership of the European Union would help to benefit the prosperity of the British people and help, in some measure at least, to assuage the understandable concern that he expresses about migration.

Palestinian and independent sources estimate that 50,000 settler homes are under construction in East Jerusalem, where the moratorium does not apply, and more than 2,500 in the west bank, where it supposedly does. If the Government believe that the freeze should be extended to East Jerusalem and beyond September, but the Secretary of State is not prepared to go to Israel to say that, what is he doing to ensure that those two things happen?

The Israeli Government are in no doubt about our views, which I stated at the beginning of Question Time. We regard all settlement in the occupied Palestinian territories as illegal, and we clearly want the moratorium on settlements to continue. No one can be in any doubt that that is the very emphatic view of the United Kingdom, which is regularly expressed to Israeli Ministers, and a view that I believe they will receive from most of the world. I hope that they take heed of it.

I welcome the Minister’s earlier remarks about political prisoners in Burma. Will he now use his good offices to seek to persuade our EU partners to back United States-United Kingdom calls for a UN commission of inquiry into war crimes and crimes against humanity in Burma?

The UK supports the UN special rapporteur’s call for the UN to consider a commission of inquiry, and we are working to build international support for that and putting a lot of emphasis on it. I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his question.

Will the Foreign Secretary take the opportunity to update the House on the kidnapping and unlawful detention of the Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit? What steps can the UK Government take to secure his release?

Obviously, we are not able directly to secure his release, but that matter is one of the deeply aggravating factors that mean that Gaza remains such an immense international problem. We have called repeatedly for the release of Gilad Shalit and will continue to do so, and the international community will continue to work towards that end. If Hamas and other forces in Gaza were remotely interested in a political settlement and in coming to terms with Israel and the rest of the international community, they would wish to do that.

Turning to Mexico, I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State on the British Government’s support for the Mexican Government’s fight against narco-terrorism, human trafficking and drug trafficking. May I encourage him to liaise with the Mexican Congress to ensure that it amends the constitution so that the Mexican police structures are streamlined to become more effective and efficient and provide self-help for Mexico?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his question, because we support the Mexican Government’s efforts to combat transnational organised crime. We have done so on a financial basis and also through a number of key law enforcement exchanges and projects.

Given Iran’s support for organisations such as Hezbollah, what actions are the Government taking to prevent nuclear proliferation across the wider middle east, particularly from Iran into Syria and from Syria into Lebanon?

As the hon. Gentleman will know, the whole EU has joined in very strong sanctions on Iran, backing up UN Security Council resolution 1929, which imposes obligations on all UN members to take various actions to prevent nuclear proliferation. The powers given under such UN resolutions include responsibilities and powers to interdict suspect shipping, and one or two instances of that have occurred. The UK takes part in that and will encourage other countries to do so. Nuclear proliferation is one of the biggest threats to the future peace of the world, and we take our responsibilities very seriously.