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Topical Questions

Volume 515: debated on Tuesday 14 September 2010

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.