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Topical Questions

Volume 520: debated on Tuesday 14 December 2010

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.