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Topical Questions

Volume 518: debated on Tuesday 9 November 2010

I have just returned from Israel, the Palestinian Authority and Egypt, where I lent British support to efforts to restart the middle east peace process, and discussed vital security issues, including Iran’s nuclear programme. I look forward to discussing those matters further with Secretary Clinton in the US next week, when I will lead a special UN Security Council session to discuss the situation in Sudan. I will meet President Abdullah Gül of Turkey later today, and tonight I will give the Canning lecture in which I will emphasise the importance of building links and elevating our relations with Latin American countries.

Will my right hon. Friend assure the House that he will continue to put pressure on the Iranian Government to stop their appalling abuse of human rights?

Yes, I certainly will. I discussed the matter directly with the Iranian Foreign Minister, Mr Mottaki, when I met him at the UN General Assembly in New York at the end of September, and I made this country’s views on human rights in Iran absolutely clear. The Under-Secretary, my hon. Friend the Member for North East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt), and I have often made statements to the same effect, and we continue to lead and rally opinion in other nations to raise those issues.

May I welcome the Government’s delegation to China and its work to strengthen economic ties? We wish it well. The Foreign Secretary knows that the strategic dialogue that was agreed with China before the election also provided a framework to pursue human rights and climate change, as well as trade and the economy. Given the importance of human rights, as well as economic ties, will he assure the House that the Prime Minister will raise the case of Liu Xiaobo with Premier Wen during his visit?

I thank the right hon. Lady for what I think is support for the strong continuity of policy with China. The last Government pursued an expanded commercial and economic relationship but also raised human rights issues, and that is exactly this Government’s approach. When I conducted the strategic dialogue in Beijing in July, I raised Liu Xiaobo’s case, and I did so directly with Premier Wen. The Prime Minister will certainly be raising human rights issues on his visit, and we will give the details when he has had those meetings.

T2. Now that legal routes seem to have been exhausted following the disappointing High Court judgment on investment scams in Northern Cyprus, will the Secretary of State confirm that the Minister will take up the matter, and will he meet me, my constituent Sandra Kacinski and other victims to discuss it? (22550)

I am very happy to meet my hon. Friend and his constituent, as well as other colleagues, to discuss this issue, which we take seriously.

T7. Although I fully understand our treaty obligations on Cyprus, and I wish next week’s talks with Ban Ki-moon well, will the Foreign Secretary acknowledge the reality that there continues to be de facto partition, from which the Greek Cypriot side benefits and with which it is comfortable, but which leaves the Turkish Cypriots in isolated limbo? Does he agree that that situation cannot go on as it is? (22555)

The right hon. Gentleman is right to recognise our treaty obligations. He will know that we want the forthcoming talks hosted by the UN Secretary-General to be a success and that, as my hon. Friend the Minister for Europe said earlier, we have been supporting the work of Alexander Downer, the UN negotiator. I read the right hon. Gentleman’s article in the newspapers yesterday, so I am fully cognisant of his views on this matter, but I am sure he will appreciate that, as the incumbent Foreign Secretary, I do not want to say anything at this moment that might make those talks more difficult.

T3. I am delighted that the Prime Minister is visiting China today. Will the Foreign Secretary join me in congratulating Renishaw and other fine Gloucestershire companies on the growth of their exports to China? Does he agree that other companies should be encouraged to follow their path of hard work and success in that crucial market? (22551)

Yes, absolutely; I congratulate that firm and many others. The agreements signed during the Prime Minister’s visit to China could add up to about £1.7 billion of contracts. We have already seen the announcement of a huge contract for Rolls-Royce engines earlier today, and my hon. Friend has given us another excellent example of how British businesses can do much more in China.

T8. Does the Minister share my concern, following Richard Falk’s comments, that the Israeli occupation of Palestinian land is irreversible? Will he assure the House that the Government are doing everything they can to press for a Palestinian state and to support the Palestinian people? (22556)

We certainly are doing that. I visited Ramallah last week and met Prime Minister Fayyad of the Palestinian Authority. I also met non-violent Palestinian human rights activists and other leading figures in east Jerusalem. During my visit, I restated the position of this country, and indeed of the whole European Union, which is that we want to see a settlement based on the 1967 borders with a just settlement for refugees and with Jerusalem as the capital of both states. That is the clear British Government position.

T4. May I applaud my right hon. Friend’s decision to focus the FCO’s attention on promoting British exports? (22552)

Thank you. Can my right hon. Friend also reassure me that, as well as promoting exports, the FCO will play its part in attempting to reduce the interminable red tape that is preventing a company in my constituency, Enterprise Control Systems, from servicing the award-winning defence products that it is successfully selling overseas?

My hon. Friend is welcome to applaud that decision and anything else she might wish to applaud; we are grateful to her for that. Cutting barriers to trade is an important part of our approach to expanding British commerce. In many of our meetings with other Governments, we ask for improved market access. If she would like to give me the details of the difficulties that the company in her constituency is experiencing, we will look at that matter specifically.

Order. We have a lot of interest and little time, so I need short questions and short answers.

The Foreign Secretary will be aware of the multilateral surveillance procedures for EU budgets, which apply to all member states, whether they are in the euro or not. Is he aware of Com. (2010)526, which makes it plain that we have to provide more financial information to the European Union, whether we are in the eurozone or not?

When my right hon. Friend the Chancellor took part in the taskforce, he ensured that we would not need to supply anything to the European Commission that had not been given to Parliament first or that the Commission would be unable to find through the intelligent use of Google. I do not think that the hon. Gentleman has anything to be afraid of.

T5. I am pleased that the Prime Minister will raise human rights issues while he is in China. I hope this is a sign of a Government who take international human rights seriously and who want to have a truly ethical foreign policy. Will the Prime Minister also take the opportunity to talk to the Chinese about the sale of weapons to Sudan and ensure that they are not used there to cause human rights problems and further the conflict? (22553)

I thank my hon. Friend for his support for the approach we take to human rights. As he knows, we argue that that goes hand in hand with the expansion of trade and business across the world because it is the rule of law and respect for human rights that help to assure businesses that they are able to do business across the world.

I very much take note of and agree with the point about Sudan. As I mentioned earlier, I will be chairing a special session of the United Nations Security Council specifically to discuss the situation in Sudan. One of our objectives is to show that the whole world is working together and that China—it is, of course, a permanent member of the Security Council—participates fully in the vision for the future of Sudan that we will set forth.

If the inter-city express programme goes ahead, Hitachi will build the rolling stock in Newton Aycliffe, adjacent to the Foreign Secretary’s constituency. The Foreign Secretary said in Japan in August that Britain is open for business. I know that the British Prime Minister and the Japanese Prime Minister have spoken about this issue, but if it does not go ahead, what effect does the right hon. Gentleman think that will have on bilateral relationships with Japan?

Of course we have had strong representations—to the Prime Minister, to me and to other Ministers—from the Japanese Government about that, as one would expect. This is a very important project. At the same time, as the hon. Gentleman knows, we have to get Government expenditure under control, so the decision is primarily one for my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport. The hon. Gentleman’s representations will, as ever, be conveyed to the Secretary of State.

T6. Does my right hon. Friend agree that combating piracy off the coast of Somalia is vital to protecting the UK’s trading interests? Will we take a lead in finding a political solution inland, as opposed to dealing with what is happening offshore? (22554)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend and I agree with him. The Royal Navy is playing a leading role in the counter-piracy operations. Once pirates are captured, they need to be detained, tried and imprisoned. That is why we are working with countries like Kenya, the Seychelles and Tanzania to provide this capacity. I agree that we must try to find a political solution on the land, as that is the only way to eliminate this evil crime.

Three people were killed yesterday when Moroccan forces clashed with Sahawi people in a refugee camp outside Layoun in occupied Western Sahara. Will the Foreign Secretary intervene urgently with the Government of Morocco and the UN to bring about a resolution to this crisis? It has gone on for more than 30 years, and people are wasting their lives in refugee camps when they should be allowed to return home to their own land and decide their own future—not under occupation.

I appreciate the hon. Gentleman’s concerns; he came to see me last week to discuss Western Sahara. The circumstances of the most recent incident are still unclear, and we have asked for monitoring by our own people based in Morocco. The hon. Gentleman’s concerns are shared by many: Western Sahara is an issue that has gone on too long and the problem is very difficult to resolve.

T9. Can the Minister tell us how the Van Rompuy economic governance proposals will help to ensure that European economic crises are better managed in future so that we are not all taken unawares again? (22557)

The taskforce conclusions are intended to provide a framework for stability and decent economic governance in the eurozone so that never again are all European economies taken by surprise by the sort of financial collapse that we saw in certain southern European economies about 18 months ago. It is profoundly in the interests of the UK that the eurozone should be strong and stable, given the interdependence of their economic interests and ours.

Does the Foreign Secretary agree that one of the less well known but most insidious aspects of the blockade of Gaza is that Israel threatens to shoot any Palestinian considered to be near the Israeli border? Israel defines 17% of the entire territory of the Gaza strip as constituting nearness to that border, while 17 of the 22 Palestinians killed have been killed in the area. What can the Foreign Secretary do to get Israel to see sense on that issue?

There have certainly been shooting incidents in the area. That underlines the importance of what we discussed earlier: a different approach to Gaza. We need to ensure that reconstruction takes place to prevent, for instance, arguments and incidents involving people who try to collect building materials from near the border and are shot at. That is one of the controversial incidents that have taken place. An improvement in reconstruction and a general improvement in economic conditions would be at least a first step towards dealing with the situation that the hon. Gentleman has described.

T10. I applaud the Foreign Secretary for obtaining the agreement of 12 other member states to a cap on any increase in the European Union budget. Can he square that with the EU treaty provisions which state that the budget must be set through co-decision between the institutions? What progress can be made in that regard? (22558)

That is the position of 13 members of the European Council. They are therefore able to resist any proposal for a budget increase larger than 2.9%. As my hon. Friend has said, the procedure involves co-decision between the Parliament and the Council, and negotiations are now commencing. If there is no agreement, the 2010 budget will be rolled over into 2011. Everyone concerned had better bear that in mind.

Does the Foreign Secretary realise how fed up people are with the foot-dragging over the universal jurisdiction issue? Instead of all these vague promises, why can we not have a simple, straightforward piece of legislation to sort the problem out once and for all?

It is a bit of a cheek for someone who supported the last Government to ask that question. The last Government’s feet were not dragged; they were stuck solid in the cement of inertia that characterised their closing months in office. We have set out what we are going to do. We will introduce the relevant clauses in the next few weeks, and I hope that, given the support of Opposition Members, they will be passed in the current Session of Parliament. Where there was complete inaction opposite, there has been rapid action on this side of the House.

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend and the Under-Secretary, my hon. Friend the Member for North East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt), for the attention that they have given recently to the case of Shaker Aamer, who has been detained in Guantanamo Bay for eight years. He is a former resident of my constituency, and his wife and four children remain my constituents. Ministers are aware that this is a critical period. Will they undertake to press their United States counterparts hard, in person, for Mr Aamer’s early release back to the United Kingdom?

I met my hon. Friend and Shaker Aamer’s father-in-law only last week. This is a very difficult case, and it is not entirely up to the United Kingdom, but our position is that we are seeking the return of Shaker Aamer to the UK, and will continue to press the United States authorities to that effect.

I have just returned from Mexico, where I saw at first hand the human rights abuses of Los Mineros, the miners who have been on strike for four years. I understand that there is to be a ministerial visit shortly. Would it be possible for me to meet the appropriate Minister so that he can hear of the atrocities of which I heard?

The hon. Gentleman is right: I shall be visiting Mexico the week after next. It would be good for us to meet beforehand to discuss the concerns that he has just raised.

My constituency is home to many refugees from Zimbabwe, including 80-year-old Peter Seymour-Smith, who fled the country when his land and business were confiscated. He has said that he would go back if free and fair elections were held, which President Mugabe has intimated might be a possibility. What steps would the ministerial team take to ensure that if the elections were held, we would not see a repeat of 2008’s shameful practices and vote-rigging?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for her question and for her special interest in Zimbabwe, which is due to the fact that a constituent of hers is an expert on it. I entirely agree with her. It is essential for any forthcoming elections to be properly monitored and observed. It is also essential for monitors and observers to be in place at an early stage to monitor the electoral registration process, to have full access to all the remote areas, to monitor the poll on the day and to monitor the count. We are working with the Southern African Development Community and other organisations to ensure that there is no repeat of 2008.

Let me just say to the hon. Member for Devizes (Claire Perry) that what I said earlier was a compliment.

I am sorry that I have not been able to call every Member, but there is a great deal of interest and no time.