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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 520: debated on Tuesday 14 December 2010

Foreign and Commonwealth Office

The Secretary of State was asked—

Promoting Democracy (Internet)

2. If he will assess the compatibility of the provisions of the Vienna convention on consular relations with the effectiveness of the internet as a means of promoting democracy worldwide. (30259)

There is no incompatibility between the Vienna convention on consular relations, which is an international treaty ratified by 172 countries, and which defines a framework for consular relations between independent countries, and the development of the internet, which is indeed a vital tool in the development of democracy. However, we condemn the release of classified information through the internet. That can damage national security and may put lives at risk.

Will the Minister give an assessment of the impact of the WikiLeaks affair on the conduct of diplomacy, and will he say what steps he plans to take, on the one hand, to tighten access to diplomatic cables that need protecting and, on the other hand, to free up access to the other information that can and should be in the public domain? The latter would also enhance the Government’s transparency agenda.

We believe in freedom of information and open and transparent government, but there is a private realm and a legitimate area for confidentiality in diplomatic relations between nations. We need to get that balance right to ensure that we are secure when trying to safeguard confidential information. That is what we are working to do.

We have learned that the US Secretary of Defence, Mr Gates, believed that

“Russian democracy has disappeared and the government was an oligarchy run by the security services”.

Who could possibly disagree? Instead of the wet willies whimpering over WikiLeaks from the Front Bench and wanting to lock up Mr Assange, would it not be better to congratulate American diplomats on being such excellent reporters and ask why our media are so lazy at foreign reporting? The only time we get foreign news on the front pages is when WikiLeaks gives the media a story.

I do not wish to comment on the individual case that the right hon. Gentleman has brought to the House’s attention. We all understand that there are areas of the private realm—health and tax records, for instance —where it is perfectly possible to release information, but where we would not wish to see it released. We regard that as appropriate for diplomatic relations as well.

What contacts have the Minister or his officials had with their Swedish counterparts or authorities about the extradition of WikiLeaks founder, Julian Assange, from the UK to Sweden, and what assurance has the Minister sought or received from Sweden about the widespread public concern that there might be a political dimension to these proceedings?

Order. The Minister will accept that his answer must relate specifically to the effectiveness of the internet as a means of promoting democracy worldwide.

It is hard to answer the question within those confines. The matter to which the hon. Lady refers is for the courts rather than me as a Minister. However, it touches on a wider point. I agree with the observation that you inferred from the question, Mr Speaker, that the internet is a valuable tool for empowering people around the world, for opening up the world of politics and for giving people greater freedom of information. However, that should not be confused with safeguarding the legitimate private realm.

Gulf Countries

3. What recent assessment he has made of the state of relations between the UK and the countries of the Gulf; and if he will make a statement. (30260)

The Government are strongly committed to elevating our relations with all our partners across the Gulf. We are expanding co-operation with Gulf states across the board—in culture, education, defence and security, trade, investment, and foreign policy co-operation. Gulf states’ reactions to the increased engagement have been very positive, and we will maintain the commitment in the coming years.

Over the summer, I met the British ambassador to the United Arab Emirates, Dominic Jermey, who told me how impressed he was with the Prime Minister visiting the Emiratis in June. In view of those warm words, will the Foreign Secretary tell me what work his Department is undertaking to ensure that British businesses are supported in exporting to Gulf nations?

I am very glad to know that the ambassador was pleased with the Prime Minister’s visit—it made a huge impact on the United Arab Emirates. My hon. Friend is right that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister made his visit in his first few weeks in office, and since then Her Majesty the Queen has made a state visit to the UAE and many of us on the Government Front Bench have also visited, so there has been a serious elevation of relationships. It is also true that there are many commercial opportunities, to which my hon. Friend referred. We export about £15 billion-worth of goods and services to the Gulf, but we can do much more. British embassies in the region and UK Trade & Investment are now poised to put their efforts behind that.

It was the worst kept secret in foreign policy that the nation feared most by the Arab states of the Gulf is not Israel but Iran; we did not need WikiLeaks to tell us that. Given that that is now out in the open, is there an opportunity to forge a new consensus—one that would embrace the countries not just of the EU but of the Gulf region—to convince everyone of the absolute necessity of taking action against Iran before it develops a nuclear capacity, which would be a threat to us all?

The hon. Gentleman raises an important point. I am not going to comment on the WikiLeaks allegations, but of course there is enormous concern about the dangers of nuclear proliferation in the middle east being sparked by Iran’s policies on its nuclear programme. The Gulf states vary in their relationships with Iran; we have to be clear about that. The United Arab Emirates have recently joined in applying financial sanctions against Iran, whereas Oman has a different and long historical relationship with Iran and a strong relationship with this country, and wants to use its good offices to improve relationships between the west and Iran. Each of the Gulf states is able to help in its own way, and the elevation of our relationships with them encourages them to do that. We must join them in that, consulting them and being open to their advice about how to deal with Iran and other regional issues.

NATO Summit (Lisbon)

4. What assessment he has made of the outcomes of the NATO summit in Lisbon; and if he will make a statement. (30261)

As the Prime Minister made clear to the House on 22 November, the NATO summit was a significant success. By agreeing a new strategic concept, the alliance has shown its determination to face the security challenges of the 21st century together. The summit also took important steps to strengthen euro- Atlantic security, in Afghanistan and in relations with Russia. Our commitment to NATO is as strong as ever.

What discussions, if any, did the Secretary of State have at the NATO summit to encourage the use of the excellent training facilities at HMS Raleigh and Flag Officer Sea Training in Devonport, which contribute significantly to the local economy in the south-west?

Although we did not discuss that specifically at the NATO summit, it is clearly important that NATO nations work together on training. It is also part of our new defence treaty with France that the UK and France will work together to a much greater extent on sharing training facilities, so I will ensure that, between the Foreign Office and the Ministry of Defence, we look at further opportunities in the area that my hon. Friend has raised.

The Lisbon conference showed the same irrational optimism about Afghanistan. Can the Minister explain why, if things are going so well, after spending $52 billion in aid Afghans are still dying in the streets of Kabul of starvation?

I do not think that the NATO summit showed irrational optimism; I think that it showed realism about the situation in Afghanistan. Bringing together all 48 troop-contributing nations of the international security assistance force in one of the sessions at the NATO summit in Lisbon underlined the fact that there are now more countries engaged in what we are doing in Afghanistan than at any stage before. We in no way minimise the fact that there are enormous challenges ahead of us on Afghanistan. Today I have laid before the House a written ministerial statement that updates hon. Members on where we think we are in Afghanistan. Many of those challenges, including in development, remain.

The Lisbon statement said nothing on the future of tactical nuclear weapons in Europe. As the Foreign Secretary will be aware, the United Kingdom gave up its tactical nuclear weapons in the 1990s, as militarily useless and politically irrelevant. Will the British Government now support multilateral negotiations between NATO and Russia, so that tactical nuclear weapons can be removed from Europe as a whole?

As my right hon. and learned Friend will be aware, we said at Lisbon that NATO would remain a nuclear alliance to meet current and future threats, which does not directly address his point. The statement at Lisbon recognised the role that the alliance can play in supporting wider disarmament and non-proliferation efforts. We agreed at the summit to reviewing how NATO implements those principles. It will discuss all the strategic threats facing the alliance, and the capabilities that we need to meet them, including nuclear deterrence and missile defence. The argument that my right hon. and learned Friend presents will be part of that review.

North Atlantic Treaty

5. What recent discussions he has with his US counterpart on co-operation under the north Atlantic treaty; and if he will make a statement. (30262)

Secretary Clinton and I worked together closely prior to and during the NATO summit in Lisbon in November. During the summit, we worked together to agree with other allies the new strategic concept as well as the way forward on Afghanistan. The United States remains a firm ally of the United Kingdom and we will continue to work closely with it in NATO.

Could the Secretary of State elaborate on what discussions he has had with the US on the gap in our defence capability, and the implications of that for international relations? I am thinking in particular of the gap in our carrier strike force.

The United States has been very supportive of the conclusions of our strategic defence and security review—[Hon. Members: “What?”] It has been extremely supportive, and Secretary Clinton reflected that in her remarks. The US is pleased that we will continue to spend more than 2% of our national income on defence, and that we will continue to have the fourth largest military budget in the world. The fact that we are such a strong member of NATO, and that we have the strong alliance of which I have been speaking and work so closely with the United States and France, will help us to work through some of the difficulties in the coming years while we get to an orderly state in our defences, which we certainly did not inherit and we have now to bring about.

Sea lanes of communication are a critical component of the global economy, especially those in the north Atlantic that facilitate trade between the US and the UK. What discussions has the Foreign Secretary had with his counterparts on maritime security co-operation within NATO, especially since the axing of the Nimrod MRA4?

Maritime security is an important component in NATO. It is primarily the work of my colleagues in the Ministry of Defence to hold those discussions, but the hon. Lady can be assured that Defence Ministers have done so. In particular, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence has been working with international colleagues on maritime security around the high north and the north Atlantic. That work is going on, primarily in the Ministry of Defence, but it is of course supported in the Foreign Office.

The Prime Minister said last week that we might start drawing down troops from Afghanistan next year. Has the Foreign Secretary had any discussions with the United States about what conditions would have to be met before such a draw-down could be put into effect?

My hon. Friend will be aware that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister first talked about that during his visit to Washington in July, as well as reiterating the point during his trip to Afghanistan last week. He said in Washington, around his discussions with the President, that such a draw-down

“should be based on the conditions on the ground. The faster we can transition districts and provinces to Afghan control, clearly the faster that some forces can be brought home.”

That is the position of the United States as well as of the United Kingdom, and the Prime Minister and the President have certainly discussed it together.

West Bank

6. What recent discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for International Development on economic development in the west bank; and if he will make a statement. (30264)

The Foreign Office and the Department for International Development work very closely on this issue. I last had a conversation with the Minister of State, Department for International Development, my right hon. Friend the Member for Rutland and Melton (Mr Duncan) just before his visit to the west bank in late October. We are encouraged by World Bank reports that the economy of the west bank grew by 7.2% in 2009, and we hope that it is benefiting from the stability under Prime Minister Fayyad and the easing of restrictions on movement and access by the Israeli Government.

I thank the Minister for that reply. Does he agree that Israel’s decision to allow exports from Gaza is welcome and positive? Should not that serve to encourage all sides to look for further progress, and the people of Gaza to reject Hamas?

I welcome the hon. Gentleman’s comments. The development of the economy of the west bank in recent years has been in sharp contrast to the development of the economy of Gaza—for a whole series of reasons. We would welcome the further expansion of the economy in Gaza, which has to come from an easing of the economic blockade. On that, we welcome the decision announced by Israel last week further to ease the opportunity for exports from Gaza. The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right in saying that it is economic prosperity in both the west bank and Gaza that will make decisions on the future of the whole area that much easier.

Would the growing economic prosperity in the west bank not spread to Gaza and be even more impressive if there were full acceptance of the Quartet principles by Hamas and all parties in the middle east?

It is certainly true that the rejection by Hamas of the Quartet principles and its failure to denounce violence and to accept the state of Israel is holding back any possible negotiations. Also, the illegal holding of Gilad Shalit for a further length of time is contrary to all our interests, and he should be released as soon as possible. It all goes to show that further negotiation and talk is the best way to produce an overall settlement in the middle east, which is what we are all looking for.

Given what the Minister has said about economic development in the west bank, does he share my concern that it is not in the interests of the economic development of that region to see the tightening rather than easing of movement restrictions in the Jordan valley and Palestinians and Bedouins being dispossessed in the Jordan valley?

The hon. Gentleman’s long interest in the economic development of the west bank and all other areas is well noted; we spoke in the Westminster Hall debate the other day. The easing of all restrictions is in the interests of all. That is why we welcome it when we find it and are concerned if there is any greater restriction on access. The economic development of the whole of west bank area and of Gaza is a crucial part of the development of the Palestinian state. The establishment of that valid state, side by side with a secure and recognised Israel, is of interest to us all.

The threat to the economic developments on the west bank and in the rest of the region is, of course, dependent on the military position. Is the Minister aware of the rockets, bombs and anti-aircraft capability that Hamas has built up and does that not further threaten the security of the region?

The Government have already expressed concern about the build-up of arms in the area by Hezbollah and Hamas, none of which is conducive to what we all want: a negotiated peaceful settlement of the middle east process that is a secure and sovereign Israel side by side a viable Palestine.

When the Minister visits the middle east in the new year, will he press Israel further to reduce its restrictions on freedom of movement both for Palestinian people and for Palestinian goods? Free movement is crucial; so, too, is providing global opportunities for the Palestinians to trade with the rest of the world. In the Foreign Office business plan, UK Trade & Investment is developing its strategy; will the Minister ensure that UK trade with the west bank is absolutely part of that UKTI strategy?

Yes, indeed; I welcome the hon. Gentleman’s comments. There was a successful investment conference in the west bank just a few months ago, and it is in the interests of all that economic prosperity is encouraged on all sides. It is in the interests of Israel to make sure that there is as much access as possible—providing, of course, that its essential security interests are safeguarded. Wherever they have been threatened, as in Gaza, it remains necessary for the Israelis to control any materials that might detract from that. When it comes to economic development and movement, however, the hon. Gentleman is absolutely correct.

Sri Lanka (Red Cross Operations)

7. What recent reports he has received on the decision by the Sri Lankan authorities to end the operations of the International Committee of the Red Cross in the north of that country. (30265)

The Government are aware that the Sri Lankan Government have asked the International Committee of the Red Cross to close two centres in the north of the country. We are also aware that the ICRC has, after a review, already closed down its own operations in Mannar.

The removal of the Red Cross from the predominantly Tamil area shows contempt for a renowned international non-governmental organisation and will seriously inhibit much needed aid and assistance. In light of the comments made by the new cardinal of Colombo—that there is a dangerous trend of ethnic Sinhalese moving into Tamil areas—does the Minister agree with me that the real reason for removing the Red Cross was to allow for Government-supported demographic change to go unchecked by independent monitors?

I am not sure whether I can speak for the Government of Sri Lanka in explaining how they made their decision, but it is certainly true that the international community listens extremely carefully to the voice of the ICRC as an independent monitoring body, and its unavailability will therefore have to be compensated for elsewhere. The Government have consistently pressed Sri Lanka to live up to its offer of post-conflict reconciliation, but moves such as restricting access to detainees and any restriction of the work of significant non-governmental organisations will make that process rather harder.

One of the valuable tasks performed by the ICRC has been investigating the disappearance of young children throughout the Tamil community and trying to repatriate them with any relatives who are still alive. Will my hon. Friend look into the possibility of pressing for that valuable work to be allowed to continue?

I will ask our posts in Sri Lanka to consider it carefully. The fact that more people need to return to the areas from which they were removed is another measure of the steps that are necessary in the post-conflict resolution, and although we have seen a great deal of progress over the years, more needs to be done.

As the Minister will know, recent additional footage from Channel 4 has shown Sri Lankan forces executing civilians at the end of the conflict. He described the ICRC as an independent international monitor, but, as he will also know, there is serious concern about the continued lack of independent and transparent investigation of alleged war crimes in the country. Have Ministers urged the Sri Lankan Government to support a properly independent inquiry with international involvement, and did the Secretary of State for Defence also raise those points in his meeting with the Sri Lankan President earlier this month?

Our Government have made very clear to the Government of Sri Lanka that any process involving the examination of war crimes or other issues must be credible and must have an independent element. We suggested recently that those appointed to a United Nations panel should be the interlocutors with whom it would be wise for the Sri Lankans to be involved in an effort to influence the international community. They have the first responsibility in dealing with the inquiry, but if there is to be credibility in the international community it is essential for there to be an international element, and for the issues that have been raised recently to be looked into extremely carefully.

I welcome and agree with what the Minister has said, but I urge him to go further in pressing the Sri Lankan Government to accept international involvement in order to increase the credibility of the report.

The Minister did not answer my question about whether the Defence Secretary had also raised the issue, and I must press him for clarity. The Sri Lankan Ministry of External Affairs has said that the President and the Defence Secretary had

“discussed areas of assistance to Sri Lanka”,

and that

“There was agreement that the friendship between Sri Lanka and the UK should be strengthened”.

Will the Minister tell the House what status that agreement has, and whether all Ministers are taking every opportunity to press for a credible investigation of war crimes?

The interest taken by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State in Sri Lanka dates back to his time as a junior Foreign Office Minister in 1996, when he helped to broker a ceasefire in the conflict that was taking place then. He has retained that interest, and it is very helpful to the Government as a whole to have an interlocutor with such long-standing relationships.

The United Kingdom Government are united in respect of the issues that we raise with Sri Lanka. That process involves helping the Sri Lankan Government to understand what the international community requires, in monitoring what is currently happening, in access of NGOs to detainees, in further reconciliation following the conflict, and in providing opportunity for independent experts to be involved in the inquiry. The Defence Secretary fully understands and appreciates that united position.

Given the strong all-party interest in the House in human rights in Sri Lanka, will the Minister reassure us that conversations are continuing with the Commonwealth and its secretary-general to ensure that they do not step back from their active interest in human rights issues generally and Sri Lanka in particular?

I am sure that is the case, and may I say in passing that we welcome the recent visit of a Commonwealth Parliamentary Association group to Sri Lanka? I have already met representatives who were on that trip. The visit shows the Commonwealth’s strong interest in Sri Lanka’s continuing development post-conflict. I was greatly appreciative of the efforts made by Members of this House in going on that trip and reporting back, and I am sure that they will report back to the House more fully at a later stage.

Korean Peninsula

8. What recent assessment he has made of the prospects for a resolution of the dispute in the Korean peninsula. (30266)

Tensions are likely to remain high until North Korea abandons its provocative behaviour and violation of UN resolutions, and creates the conditions for the resumption of talks by making verifiable progress towards denuclearisation. Talks between relevant parties offer the best prospect for achieving a resolution of the dispute, but cannot succeed without trust.

I thank the Foreign Secretary for that reply. Does he agree with the statement issued from last week’s trilateral summit of Japanese and South Korean Foreign Ministers with Secretary of State Clinton that North Korea’s actions have jeopardised peace in northern Asia and that North Korea’s provocative and belligerent behaviour will be met by solidarity from all three countries? What representations will the UK continue to make to demonstrate the dissatisfaction of the British people with North Korea’s continual flouting of UN resolutions?

The hon. Gentleman is right to draw attention to the statement from the United Kingdom, the United States and the European Union, and also the associated statements from Japan. The Prime Minister spoke to the UN Secretary-General and President Lee of South Korea on 24 November, and expressed our strong support for South Korea. In addition, we have held meetings in the past week: senior FCO officials have met North Korean counterparts to relay our messages and our clear view on recent events that North Korea should resume co-operation with the International Atomic Energy Agency and ensure that all nuclear activity adheres to the requirements of that agency, and that it faces increasing isolation unless these matters are dealt with.

The people of Ealing North keep a very close eye on rising tension in the Yellow sea, partly because the embassy of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea is in Ealing—oddly enough, in the house that was formerly occupied by my hero, Sid James. Has the Foreign Secretary had any recent conversations with his colleague the Secretary of State for Defence about any British maritime presence in the area?

We are interested to know of the history of buildings in Ealing in this respect. I imagine the building in question saw much more amusing times when occupied by Sid James than when occupied by the North Koreans. Nevertheless, our relations with that country are important, because we have to be able to pass clearly to them the messages I have just described. Yes, of course I discuss this issue, and not only with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence, but across Government through the framework of our National Security Council. The maritime presence in the area is more a concern of South Korea, Japan and the United States than of the United Kingdom, but we always keep that under review.

In view of the fact that China shares a border with North Korea, it might reasonably be thought that the Government of the People’s Republic of China would have an interest in stability on the Korean peninsula. What efforts has the Foreign Secretary made to engage with his counterpart in the PRC Government to encourage that country to take an active role in reducing tension in the area?

I have had many such discussions. Indeed, some of my earliest discussions on becoming Foreign Secretary some months ago were with my Chinese counterpart on the subject of Korea and encouraging stability there. It was part of the strategic dialogue I conducted with the Chinese leaders in July in Beijing. My right hon. and learned Friend is right that China has that interest in stability there, although that also means that China is often very cautious about supporting the kind of language and the kind of condemnation that we think is appropriate for North Korea’s recent actions. That makes it much more difficult to pass strong Security Council resolutions about North Korean violations of the type that we have recently seen. China interprets the need for stability quite differently from the way we interpret it, but there is a strong and continuing dialogue about it between us and China.

Given that North Korea has so far evaded two UN Security Council resolutions and is, despite international condemnation, continuing attempts to enrich uranium, is there any hope at all that it will not become a nuclear power?

North Korea makes many claims about its nuclear capabilities including, recently, about enrichment facilities. We are deeply concerned by reports that it is building a new nuclear facility, in violation, as my hon. Friend says, of two Security Council resolutions. We urge it to resume co-operation with the International Atomic Energy Agency to ensure that all its nuclear activity adheres to IAEA safeguards agreements. Until North Korea makes verifiable progress on that, we urge the international community robustly to implement the existing United Nations sanctions.

The Opposition welcome the Foreign Secretary’s condemnation of North Korea’s recent unprovoked attacks on South Korea and I should like to associate myself with the comments he made a moment ago. I want to press him further on his response to China’s offer to host the emergency six-party talks. Does he regard that as the best way forward?

I am grateful for the Opposition’s support. It always makes a difference in these diplomatic matters if the House of Commons stands united. It will be noticed in the world that the House of Commons is absolutely united in condemning the recent actions of North Korea. I do not think that an immediate return to the six-party talks is the way forward as that would be, in a sense, a reward for North Korea’s behaviour. Other discussions and other ways forward will have to be found.

Central Asia

10. What recent assessment he has made of the state of UK relations with the countries of central Asia. (30270)

Central Asia is an important region for UK strategic interests. We value our constructive relationships with countries in this fast-developing region and want to strengthen these further. We have much to gain from closer engagement on a range of issues, including those relating to Afghanistan and democratic and other reform. We are also seeking to deepen our commercial links.

Instead of the Government’s supine silence on Liu Xiaobo and their continued kowtowing to the Communist party of China, is it not time they gave a much higher priority to building the newly emerged democracies across central Asia with practical support and assistance?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, who is secretary of the all-party group on central Asia. We are working carefully and closely on supporting the EU-central Asia strategy. Furthermore, the other day, the Deputy Prime Minister attended a very important meeting of the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe, at which he met its president. I think that progress is being made all round.

Will the Minister join me in paying tribute to the excellent work of Richard Holbrooke, the US envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, who did an excellent job in the Balkans with the Dayton accords?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for those comments and I join him in paying tribute to Mr Holbrooke, who was a remarkable statesman. He made extraordinary progress that can be built on in the future.


11. What his most recent assessment is of the political and security situation in Afghanistan; and if he will make a statement. (30271)

Earlier today I laid a written report on recent progress in Afghanistan before the House as part of the Government’s commitment to keep the House regularly updated on the situation there. The report covers the security and political situation including the results of the recent elections, outcomes of the NATO conference in Lisbon, governance and regional engagement.

I thank the Foreign Secretary for that answer, but does he share my concern about the very high rate of attrition in the Afghan police force? Some reports put the figure at 7,000 out of 35,000 over a very recent period. What action can be taken to ensure that there is a stable and established police force in Afghanistan so that people there can have confidence in their civil policing arrangements?

This is a vital matter and the hon. Gentleman is right to draw attention to it. The written report I set before the House today shows that by mid-November Afghan national police strength had reached 116,000 and is on track to meet the target of 134,000 by next November. One of the crucial matters is an increase in the rate of training the Afghan national police, as well as reducing attrition. For most categories of police officer, attrition rates have fallen in recent times, and the NTM-A—the NATO training mission for Afghanistan—reports an increase of around a third in the number of trained officers and a twofold increase in the number of trained non-commissioned officers. Clearly, the Afghan national police are being built up, despite the difficulties to which the hon. Gentleman refers.

Our strategy in Afghanistan oscillates between infantry-intensive counter-insurgency campaigning, at high cost, and advance notice that we are going to withdraw, which puts pressure on one side to compromise, but not on the other. Will my right hon. Friend at least keep his mind open to the possibility of alternative strategies, such as the strategic base and bridgehead area solution, which would allow us to secure our strategic interests at lower cost, and thus square the circle?

There will always be a strategic debate about Afghanistan. There is no oscillation about those infantry-intensive campaigns. Our troops continue to do an extraordinary job, and as the Prime Minister has said in the House and elsewhere, they are able to do it more effectively now that we have the right concentration—the right density—of forces in Helmand, where our troops are mainly deployed. The whole of NATO has the strategy of building up the Afghan national security forces to the point where they can lead and sustain their own operations throughout Afghanistan by 2014. It is consistent with that for us to say that we will not be engaged in combat operations by 2015. We are joined with 47 nations in pursuing our strategy, and therefore we should not try to change it on a daily or weekly basis.

May I bring the right hon. Gentleman back to the answer he gave to the Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee? We can all recall the Prime Minister saying in the summer that the combat mission would come to an end in 2015, but no one can recall the Prime Minister saying at that stage that British troops would start leaving Afghanistan next year. When was that first said and why?

The people who did not hear it were not listening to the BBC on 21 July, when

“Mr Cameron was asked whether people could expect British forces to follow the Americans in starting to pull out of Afghanistan from next year. The prime minister said: ‘Yes we can, but it should be based on the conditions on the ground. The faster we can transition districts and provinces to Afghan control, clearly the faster that some forces can be brought home’.”

That is still on the BBC website. What my right hon. Friend said last week—also in answer to a question—was simply repeating what he had said in Washington last July.

Further to the question put by the right hon. Member for Coventry North East (Mr Ainsworth), the Foreign Secretary will be aware of a Pentagon report that says that the time line given by President Obama for the withdrawal of American forces has given aid, succour and assistance to the Taliban. Have we been wise to follow that example?

There are many conflicting reports, as my hon. Friend will be more aware than most. It is argued by some that the references by the President to a draw-down beginning in July 2011 gave some in Afghanistan the impression that there would be a complete withdrawal of forces in 2011. Anybody who is expecting that is in for a shock, because the combination of the surge of NATO forces we have seen recently and the now fairly rapid build-up of the Afghan national security forces means that more forces are deployed against the Taliban than ever before. Clearly, that build-up will continue, with the huge increases projected for the Afghan forces up to 2014. What we say about 2015 is in no way in conflict with that.

May I associate the Opposition with the tributes to Richard Holbrooke, a tireless worker for peaceful solutions to conflicts around the world, most recently in Afghanistan? There, in a couple of weeks, our troops will be celebrating Christmas far from their families, and we send them our thanks and best wishes, and look forward to welcoming them home.

Can the Foreign Secretary fully reassure the House, in the light of previous questions, that any draw-down will be determined by conditions on the ground and not by the calendar? What conditions will be needed for combat troops to be pulled back from Afghanistan, especially when we approach 2014-15?

I want to pay tribute to Ambassador Holbrooke in a moment, at the beginning of topical questions. I join the right hon. Gentleman in his comments about our forces in Afghanistan. Throughout the Christmas period they will, I hope, be in the minds of all of us in the House. The conditions on the ground that are necessary for any draw-down or any change in the deployment of forces to begin over the next few years are successful transition of districts and provinces. We made it clear at the NATO summit that we want that to begin early in 2011, but that does not always mean that forces that then become available are withdrawn. Many of them can be redirected into training. In recent months we have moved 300 additional forces into training. Although Canada is withdrawing its combat forces, it announced at the NATO summit that almost 1,000 trainers would be made available for Afghanistan. It is in this form that transition takes place and, as a result, there will be adjustments from time to time in the deployment of the forces of the 48 nations involved.

Topical Questions

The whole House will join me, and several Members have already done so, in paying tribute to Ambassador Richard Holbrooke, President Obama’s special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, who died last night. He was not only a remarkable diplomat and public servant who served his country with great distinction, but someone who, through his efforts, brought an end to Europe’s worst bloodshed since the end of the second world war in Bosnia-Herzegovina in the 1990s. Today, as it happens, is the 15th anniversary of the signing of the Dayton peace accords, which Ambassador Holbrooke forged and which brought that appalling conflict to an end. In serving his country, he also saved countless lives and helped pull an entire country back from the brink. His death is a sore loss to international diplomacy.

The December European Council takes place later this week. The Prime Minister will attend. The agenda includes economic policy, including limited treaty change, the EU budget and the EU relationship with strategic partners. A stable eurozone is in our economic interest, but any treaty change must not transfer competence or power from the United Kingdom to the EU.

This morning in Strasbourg the European Parliament debated and passed, with support from British MEPs in every political party represented in this House, a resolution on the EU trafficking directive. Has the Foreign Secretary discussed international action and collaboration against human trafficking with any of his European counterparts in the past six months, and does he expect to have such discussions in future?

Yes, of course, the Government expect to have many such discussions. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary is in the lead on these matters. Discussions take place between Governments all the time. I have argued for many years that Governments can do more together to deal with the issue. Our predecessors did so 200 years ago, and we should be able to do so today. That does not mean that we opt in to every EU directive on the matter if we are already taking necessary actions anyway and can retain the freedom to take actions as we wish to determine them in the House, but the responsibility of all nations to take action against trafficking is very clear.

T2. Last week the Nobel peace prize was awarded to Liu Xiaobo as he languishes in a Chinese jail. This comes as some EU states want to lift the arms embargo on China. Does my right hon. Friend join me in deploring China’s record of state torture and crushing peaceful dissent? Will he stiffen spines in Brussels so that the EU sends a clear message to China that it cannot behave like a thug and expect normal commercial relations? (30284)

We have no plans to lift the arms embargo on China. I have made that clear in EU discussions, which I think is what my hon. Friend was asking for. We have also made it clear where we stand on Liu Xiaobo. A few minutes ago the hon. Member for Bassetlaw (John Mann) accused the Government of supine weakness, but he was guilty of rather spectacular ignorance because it was one of the main issues that we flagged up on international human rights day, and which I placed on the Foreign Office website and spoke about in my message on international human rights day, so we have been clear where we stand on the awarding of the Nobel prize, and of course our ambassador attended that ceremony.

May I join the Foreign Secretary in his tribute to Richard Holbrooke? The right hon. Gentleman will agree that this is a moment when we should not just pay tribute to Ambassador Holbrooke’s previous work, but recognise that his death is a great loss to the peace process in Afghanistan and to the work that is ongoing.

The Foreign Secretary referred to the EU Council, which will meet on Thursday to discuss a treaty change that has not been debated in this House, where for the third time since the election we have not had a pre-Council debate. Why are the Government agreeing to treaty changes without debating them first in the House, and will they propose any further treaty changes of their own?

The right hon. Lady is quite right about Ambassador Holbrooke. I spoke about his previous outstanding record, and it is quite true as well that we will feel his loss in current events and in the work that is ongoing in Afghanistan and Pakistan. We clearly stand united in the House in reflecting on that.

On the European Council and the subject of debates, there is some force in the points that hon. Members make about such matters being debated in the House. The days that were previously set aside for European Council debates are among those that have gone into the pot, as it were, to be allocated by the Backbench Business Committee. The right hon. Lady might say that the Government should allocate more time, but the Government gave away that time, and let us be fair, the Opposition also have time on the Floor of the House, with their Opposition days. That is the current position, however, and the Backbench Business Committee should very much take those points into account.

In accordance with the European Union (Amendment) Act 2008, no Government can agree to a treaty change without bringing it to the House for a vote and, indeed, to the other House, so, the Government’s formal agreement to a treaty change will in any case require a debate and vote in this House. We will treat any new treaty change in line with the requirements of the European Union Bill, which is now before the House, meaning that a change will also require an Act of Parliament. So, any such change that might be agreed this week will require exhaustive examination in this House.

Order. I just gently remind the House that topical questions are supposed to be characterised by short and snappy, as well of course as informative, answers.

T4. Will the Minister outline what actions his Department is taking to strengthen the democratic process in the run-up to and during next year’s elections in African countries, other than in the Sudanese referendum? (30287)

The ongoing problems in Côte d’Ivoire illustrate the importance of elections running smoothly. That is why in Nigeria we are supporting the electoral commission in the run-up to next year’s presidential elections. In Uganda, we are providing a range of assistance and advancement actions, including the Department for International Development’s “deepening democracy” programme. Finally, on Zimbabwe, there must be credible action that commands the support of the world community.

T3. Will the Foreign Secretary update the House on what recent discussions he has had with his US counterparts on the planned closure of Guantanamo Bay and the return of the remaining detainees to their home countries, including Shaker Aamer, who has been held for nine years without trial? (30286)

I raised this with Secretary Clinton on my last visit to Washington a few weeks ago, I think on 17 November—I mentioned specifically the case of Shaker Aamer. My right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister also raised that case with Secretary Clinton, when he met her in Astana in Kazakhstan a couple of weeks ago, so the US Administration are very clear about where we stand and, indeed, our overall position on the closure of Guantanamo Bay. That is going through a process of examination in the State Department and in other US Government Departments, but they are in no doubt of our request.

T5. What defined Ambassador Holbrooke was not simply his energy and his knowledge of language and culture, but his ability when he was a young diplomat in Vietnam to speak truth—uncomfortable truth—to power. What is the Foreign Secretary doing to ensure that young diplomats who follow in Ambassador Holbrooke’s footsteps—who understand language and culture and speak truths to power—are promoted within the Foreign Office system? (30288)

Working with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office board, I have recently launched a diplomatic excellence initiative. The initiative is designed to bring about exactly the kind of thing to which my hon. Friend is referring and to ensure that we achieve the highest standards of policy making and diplomatic action in the Foreign Office for the long-term future. It is vital for this country that the FCO is a strong institution for the long term, with great geographical expertise and real diplomatic excellence and policy skills. We are taking other action to bring in external expertise in the area of human rights—I have formed an external group of experts—and I am open to other suggestions and advice from around the House.

T8. Further to the question of my right hon. Friend the Member for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper), which the right hon. Gentleman did not answer, what kind of amendments are the Government proposing to bring to the meeting on Thursday? (30291)

The situation will, of course, be discussed by the 27 Heads of Government at the European Council. We are very clear that if there is a treaty change concerning the eurozone, there must be no obligation on the United Kingdom. If eurozone countries wish to form a mechanism, it cannot be one that places an obligation on the United Kingdom. As the hon. Gentleman will recall from the October Council, we are also working on the next financial perspective because, unlike the previous Government who gave away billions of pounds of British taxpayers’ money in negotiating a financial perspective, we want the next European financial perspective to reflect the budgetary disciplines of the member states involved.

T6. We learned last week that the United States considers the growth of China’s influence in Africa to be a very worrying development. Will my right hon. Friend indicate whether the Government are also concerned about the Chinese Government’s rush to secure the friendship of undemocratic yet often resource-rich African countries? (30289)

When I was in Angola last week, I had a chance to see the scale of Chinese investment. It is clear to us that China offers great opportunities for many African countries. Transparency and governance are key if we are to get the best out of such investments. That is why my right hon. Friend raised these issues in the recent UK-China dialogue on Africa and the subsequent UK-China summit.

The UK Government say that they want to improve bilateral and defence relations with Norway. The Secretary of State will understand that the Norwegians are particularly concerned about maritime reconnaissance and fast jet co-operation. How can UK claims have any credibility, given that the UK has just scrapped its maritime reconnaissance fleet and is still considering the closure of the fast jet base closest to Norway?

I discussed some of those matters with the Norwegian Foreign Minister when he was here a few weeks ago. My colleague, the Secretary of State for Defence, has also had discussions with Norwegian Defence Ministers. As I mentioned earlier, my right hon. Friend the Defence Secretary is intensifying co-operation with other states towards the north of NATO on what we can do together. Those countries, including Norway, continue to regard the United Kingdom as an indispensible partner in the years ahead. We are a great deal more indispensible than we would be if the country were broken up and Scotland became an independent nation.

T7. Can my hon. Friend the Minister give an assessment of the position of Christians in Iraq and of the respect for the human rights of minorities in that country? (30290)

I was in Iraq a couple of weeks ago and had meetings both with Government Ministers and Archbishop Matoka, the archbishop in the diocese where the church was so outrageously attacked a few weeks ago. Ministers are well aware of the need to protect minorities in Iraq. The way in which any state looks after minority communities, particularly the uniquely vulnerable Christian community in Iraq, is taken as an indication of how that country functions. Ministers are well apprised of world-wide concern and have a desire to look after that community.

In an earlier answer, the Foreign Secretary referred to the intention to hand provinces and districts in Afghanistan over to Afghan security forces. Will he confirm that the original plans put forward by General McChrystal have been scrapped and that the position being put forward by the international coalition is based on a hope, a wing, a prayer, and an assumption that the Afghans will come forward in an effective way, but that we have no basis on which we can know that?

It is not just based on a hope, a wing and a prayer; to say that would be unfair to everyone involved. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will look at the report that I have laid before the House today, which looks at the Afghan national army’s 28 brigade and corps units and says that seven are now capable of undertaking operations with minimal advice, and then goes through to grade the rest of them. It is also important to bear in mind that, as the report points out, 70% of the violence in Afghanistan is in four of its 34 provinces. That illustrates how dramatically different conditions are in different parts of Afghanistan, which means that transition will be able to take place in some areas years before it can take place in others.

Is the Minister aware of the situation facing my constituent, Mr Shrien Dewani, and can the Minister inform the House of what measures his Department is taking to ensure that my constituent receives appropriate British support?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. When I was in South Africa 10 days ago, I raised this case with the consul general and his team. He made it clear not only that everything possible had been done to support Mr Dewani but that if he returns to South Africa, he will receive full consular support. My hon. Friend has done all that she possibly can to help the family and has been absolutely exemplary in what she has done to assist them.

What improvements have happened to the lives of ordinary families in Helmand province to justify a change of policy in moving forward to 2011 the 2014 date for the beginning of withdrawal of troops?

As I have said before, I stress that there is no change in policy. The Prime Minister has also reiterated what he has said before. However, that very much depends on the conditions prevailing on the ground. There are improvements in Helmand; there is no doubt about that. There are security improvements. There are places in Helmand where vastly more people are going to school, where more roads are working, and where health centres are open, which was not the case one year or two years ago. What we do in Helmand, and any withdrawal of troops from Helmand, will continue to be dependent on those improvements in conditions.

T9. My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary has spoken out against the dreadful plight of Sakineh Ashtiani, who was convicted in Iran of having so-called illicit relationships and now faces the prospect of death by stoning. Will he update the House on what recent steps the Government have taken to press the Iranian authorities to stay this barbaric execution? (30292)

The Government do press the Iranian authorities. Indeed, our ambassador in Tehran has recently been sharply criticised by the Iranian Government for raising human rights issues so clearly in his own comments. What is even more striking is that far beyond Government, the people of this country—the civil society of this country, and those of so many other countries around the world—are appalled that the barbaric and mediaeval punishment of stoning can still be contemplated, and are additionally sickened by the idea that a pretence can be made of releasing this lady only to make a film that is then meant to assist the Iranian state in saying what it wants to about her case. We believe that the punishment should be set aside and that Iran would do itself a great deal of good in the world if it did so, and we call upon Iran again today to do so.

Does the Secretary of State agree that the success of joint projects between Israel and the Palestinians, such as the tourism initiative between Jenin and Galilee, exposes the absurdity of calls for boycotts of Israel?

Yes, the hon. Lady makes a fair point. It is not through boycotts that influence is exercised but through continuing co-operation. That is the best way forward to the negotiated settlement that we all want to see in the interests of all those in the middle east.

The UK rightly supports an international ban on cluster munitions, which is why it was very concerning to read the published claims on WikiLeaks that the last Labour Government had allowed the US to stockpile cluster munitions on UK territory. What reassurances can the Secretary of State give that no such violation has occurred, or will occur, under this Government?

Those things on WikiLeaks would be concerning if they turned out to be true, but I see no evidence that Parliament was misled. Of course, we do not have access to the papers of the previous Administration, but I have not seen anything that suggests that Parliament was misled. My hon. Friend will be glad to know that the withdrawal of cluster munitions from all United Kingdom territory has been completed ahead of schedule.

Will the Foreign Secretary raise with the Moroccan Government the situation facing Western Sahara and the future of UN negotiations that aim to bring about a referendum on self-determination and bring an end to that more than 30-year conflict?

I was in Algeria and Morocco recently and raised the issue of Western Sahara. We have pressed all parties to continue negotiations and to look to the UN to assist. Ambassador Ross is working to that end. We have pressed in particular the importance of an independent monitoring process in Western Sahara, to assist transparency when looking at events such as the recent tragedy in Laayoune. This issue has gone on for too long, and it will not solve itself.

On human rights abuses in Iran, does my hon. Friend share my concern over the fate of the Christian pastor, Youcef Nadarkhani, who has reportedly been sentenced to death by the Iranian authorities for apostasy? Will the Foreign Secretary set out what the Government intend to do to relieve pressure on Christians and other minority groups in Iran?

In 2009, there were some 388 executions in Iran, including those of juveniles and women. We join with other nations around the world to condemn the way in which it is used as a form of punishment. I understand that Pastor Nadarkhani’s sentence and case are under review by the Iranian authorities. It is essential that the world continues its pressure in relation to Iran. A state is judged by how it looks after its minorities. In Iran, that includes the vulnerable Christian community and other communities of faith, such as the Baha’i.