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Foreign and Commonwealth Office

Volume 522: debated on Tuesday 1 February 2011

The Secretary of State was asked—

Afghanistan

1. What recent discussions he has had with his Afghan counterpart; and if he will make a statement. (37140)

My ministerial colleagues and I have regular contact with our Afghan opposite numbers to discuss a wide range of issues. We are working together to help bring stability to Afghanistan. I hope to be able to meet with Dr Rassoul again shortly.

The whole House will echo the Foreign Secretary’s sentiments about how important it is that we bring stability to Afghanistan. The Taliban are greatly strengthened by any ability to increase the drug trade over there. Can the Foreign Secretary tell us what measures he is taking to reduce poppy production in Afghanistan, and what success we are having in this important fight?

Of course we work with the Afghan authorities and many international partners on combating the drugs trade, which is one source of finance for the insurgency in Afghanistan. In the Foreign Office programme spending that I have announced in a written statement today, the hon. Gentleman will see that I have allocated £16 million of British taxpayers’ money in the coming year for important counter-narcotics work in Afghanistan. It has met with some success in recent times, with a reduction in the total yield of the poppy crop, but we have to keep up the momentum.

As Britain gradually withdraws its hard power over the next few years, does the Foreign Secretary see a role for this country in increasing and advancing its soft power, particularly in democracy-building support in the more secure areas, not least through our home-grown Westminster Foundation for Democracy?

I hope that I will always see such a role. Indeed, in the same allocation of FCO programme funds, on which I made a written statement earlier today, my hon. Friend will see that there is a small increase for the Westminster Foundation for Democracy, from £3 million to £3.5 million. The foundation does important work across the world, and all of us across the House would want it to succeed.

Can the Foreign Secretary update the House on what discussions he has held on appointing a successor to US envoy Richard Holbrooke, an individual who I know was widely respected in all parts of the House, and on the political progress that he expects to be made in Afghanistan by the time of the Bonn conference later this year?

The right hon. Gentleman will understand that it is not for us to appoint the US special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan. The United States Government will take care of that. We are in discussions with them about how we will work together with a new special representative. It is a crucial role, and Richard Holbrooke is very much missed in it, but I cannot update the right hon. Gentleman on the United States decisions about that appointment. He is right to highlight the importance of the political process in Afghanistan. It is vital that it should be Afghan-led, but the United Kingdom will support and facilitate it wherever we can, and also urge the support of other countries in the region, such as Pakistan, to contribute positively to that process.

Given the interrelationship of insurgency, poverty and narcotics, about which there have already been discussions and exchanges this afternoon, can the right hon. Gentleman explain the basis for his decision, as set out in the written ministerial statement to which he referred, to make

“a reduction of £2 million”

in

“counter-narcotics and rule of law programmes in Afghanistan”?

Yes, we have to adjust the spending totals from time to time—the change will be from £18 million to £16 million—because some programmes are coming to their natural end, and because I want to ensure that we can keep the current level of resources for counter-terrorist co-operation, which stand at £38 million and are focused predominantly on Afghanistan. We always have difficult choices to make on spending, but there is a natural evolution in our counter-narcotics work which means that some programmes are coming to their end.

Middle East Peace Process

2. What recent assessment he has made of progress in the middle east peace process; and if he will make a statement. (37141)

3. What recent representations he has received on the UK’s involvement in the middle east peace process; and if he will make a statement. (37142)

Negotiations are the only way to achieve the national aspirations of both the Palestinians and the Israelis. We are deeply concerned about the breakdown in talks, and we are working closely with the United States and the European Union to see a return to direct negotiations. I hope that the Quartet meeting on 5 February will be clear that negotiations must resume quickly. The entire international community, including the United States, should support 1967 borders as being the basis for resumed negotiations. The result should be two states, with Jerusalem as the future capital of both, and a fair settlement for refugees.

I thank the Foreign Secretary for that answer. I hope he shares the excitement of many people in this country at seeing people stand up to one-party rule in Tunisia and Egypt. Will he explain what steps the Government are taking to encourage the spread of democracy—not just in the middle east, but in north Africa?

Focusing on the middle east, one thing that would help democracy across that area is a successful outcome to the middle east peace process—a two-state solution with a viable, contiguous and democratic Palestinian state alongside a secure and democratic Israel. The middle east peace process is fundamental, but our constant message more broadly across the middle east is how important it is to move in the direction of more open and flexible political systems—with each country finding its own way to achieve that—as well as towards sound economic development. The spending I have announced in a written statement today includes £5 million for an Arab human development programme, which is intended to assist civil society and democratic development in the Arab world, so this will become part of the important issue my hon. Friend raises.

Since signing the peace accord with Israel in 1979, Egypt has been a key figure in trying to broker peace and stability in the middle east. Recent events in Egypt obviously raise concerns about the future direction of its foreign policy. Will the Secretary of State tell us what role the UK Government will play in ensuring that, in the likely event of regime change, Egypt will continue to play a constructive role in the middle east?

The hon. Lady raises a vital issue. Over a period of more than 30 years, as she says, Egypt has played a positive and moderating role in the middle east—a positive role towards achieving a wider peace in the middle east. We regard it as of paramount importance that Egypt continues to do that in the future. We are engaging with politicians of many different views in Egypt. I spoke to the Foreign Minister on Sunday night and I hope to speak to Vice President Suleiman shortly after this Question Time to encourage Egypt to have the broad-based Government and real and visible change that will allow an orderly transition, which will not only help to achieve the domestic aspirations of the Egyptian people, but allow the country to continue to play the role in foreign policy that it has played in recent decades.

The Foreign Secretary will recall that it was the vision of Menachem Begin, Anwar Sadat and King Hussein that led to the agreements on behalf of Israel, Egypt and Jordan respectively. It would be a tragedy if either of these agreements were to be casualties of the unrest in Egypt and the apparent unrest in Jordan. Will the Foreign Secretary undertake to bend every possible effort to ensure that these agreements, which are, after all, the only success in the middle east peace process, are maintained?

My right hon. and learned Friend is absolutely right. This is one reason why we do not want Egypt to fall into the hands of extremism or, indeed, into prolonged disorder. That is why we have called—European Foreign Ministers joined together in doing so yesterday at our meeting in Brussels—for an orderly transition to a broadly based Government, with free and fair elections in prospect in Egypt, because we think it will help the country to continue to play that role. I also visited Syria last week to encourage that country to reconsider and approach again the subject of a permanent peace between Israel and Syria.

Two years after the Israeli assault on Gaza, which slaughtered 1,400 Palestinians, including 300 children, is the right hon. Gentleman aware that the situation of destitution, dereliction and malnutrition in Gaza is still appalling because of the blockade? The UN representative, the admirable John Ging, is giving up his post and moving to New York. Will the Government take every possible action to require the Israelis to lift this dreadful blockade?

We remain very concerned about the situation in Gaza and disappointed overall by Israel’s easing of restrictions there. There has been some welcome progress—the move from a white list to a black list and the increased volume of imports are welcome—but a fundamental change is needed to achieve pre-2007 levels of exports as soon as possible and an improvement in co-operation with the UN and non-governmental organisations. We say again that the blockade of Gaza is unsustainable and unacceptable.

Is there not at least one piece of good news from the middle east, in the shape of the very encouraging economic growth that has taken place on the west bank? Does my right hon. Friend agree that that is an indication of what could be achieved through compromise on the outstanding issues and movement towards a genuine, mutually agreed two-state solution?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. When I visited Ramallah in November, I saw a dramatic contrast with what I had seen on a previous visit a few years earlier in terms of economic development. However, such development has not been as dramatic throughout the west bank, and much more could be achieved. What my hon. Friend has identified is part of the dream of peace in the middle east and a viable two-state solution.

I agree with the Foreign Secretary that events that are currently unfolding in the middle east and north Africa render the need for a search for a durable peace in the middle east more, not less, urgent. However, the Palestine papers have proved pretty conclusively that it is not the Palestinians who have not been prepared to compromise. What pressure can we put on Israel to ensure that it understands that the requirement for compromise applies to it as well, not just to everyone else?

Clearly all sides would have to make compromises to arrive at a two-state solution, and we have conveyed that message strongly to Israel in recent weeks. We have clearly expressed our disappointment that the settlement moratorium was not continued, and have made plain that we regard settlements as illegal. When Foreign Minister Lieberman of Israel visited London on Monday last week, I argued strongly that Israel needed to make the necessary compromises to allow direct talks to resume and to pave the way for a two-state solution. We will continue to convey that message.

Latin America (Bilateral Relations)

4. What plans he has to increase the prominence of bilateral relations between the UK and the countries of Latin America; and if he will make a statement. (37143)

The Government are strengthening partnerships with Latin America. I have seen for myself that it is a dynamic and important region during visits to Columbia, Chile, Mexico, Panama and Guatemala. My right hon. Friends the Deputy Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary will visit the region in the next few months.

What further specific steps is the Minister taking to improve the United Kingdom’s relationship with Mexico and Brazil, which have two of the world’s fastest-growing economies and are potential strategic allies in the 21st century?

I strongly agree with the sentiment underlying my hon. Friend’s question. I think most people would accept that the last Government neglected Latin America, and that is what we are trying to rectify. Along with other Ministers, I shall be accompanying the Deputy Prime Minister on visits to both Brazil and Mexico the week after next, when my right hon. Friend will take part in high-level meetings and, I hope, increase our engagement with both those important G20 countries.

We welcome the Foreign Secretary’s commitment to increasing our bilateral trade with Latin America, as set out in his Canning house speech last year. Surely, however, one of the best ways to advance British interests would be to establish a free trade deal between the European Union and Mercosur. What steps are the Government taking to bring the negotiations to a swift and successful conclusion?

I strongly agree with the premise of the hon. Lady’s question. We want free trade to open markets all over the world, and Latin America is a part of the world where economies are growing both strongly and at a sustainable pace. We will try to bring about more free trade agreements, as well as trying to encourage greater trade and co-operation between British businesses and companies throughout Latin America.

Ivory Coast

5. What recent assessment he has made of the political situation in Ivory Coast; and if he will make a statement. (37144)

The UK Government remain deeply concerned about the ongoing political crisis in Côte d’Ivoire. We support the strong statements that have been made by the Economic Community of West African States and the African Union. Both have made clear—and we agree—that Mr Laurent Gbagbo should immediately and peacefully hand over power to Mr Alassane Ouattara in accordance with the wishes of the Ivorian people.

The latest registration figures show that 31,000 refugees have fled from the Ivory Coast to eastern Liberia in the last two months alone. Having just returned from a medical visit to Liberia with representatives of the charity Merlin and the Royal Society of Medicine, and having met the President of Liberia and Health Ministers, I know that the country is hardly best placed to deal with such an influx, recovering as it is from 14 years of a brutal civil war. Can the Minister tell us what we are doing to help the people of the Ivory Coast, and how we are pushing for peace in the area?

I agree with my hon. Friend that this is a totemic issue for all Africa. It is essential that Laurent Gbagbo must not be allowed to defy the will of the people, and it is very important that his funding is cut off, so I am very pleased that the west African central bank—Banque Centrale des Etats de l’Afrique de l’Ouest—has now cut off the Ivorian national reserves and I am confident that this will apply real pressure.

Diplomatic Network

Our global diplomatic network is essential to protect and promote our interests worldwide. That is why we must concentrate our resources where they are needed most, especially in the emerging powers, to increase our influence, promote our values and seize opportunities for prosperity. I will be taking and announcing decisions soon on what that will mean in practice.

I thank the Foreign Secretary for that answer. Last week, in the European Union Bill Committee, the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) recalled that when he was the Minister for Europe, in the previous Government, his German counterpart told him that

“he expected to close possibly half of all German embassies and consular services around the world over the next five years.”

The hon. Gentleman added:

“Other member states may well do the same.”—[Official Report, 25 January 2011; Vol. 522, c. 196.]

Will my right hon. Friend please reassure me that we will not be closing any UK embassies and consular services?

The statement about Germany closing half its embassies might be an exaggeration. Far be it from the hon. Member for Rhondda to exaggerate on any issue, but I think that will turn out to be an exaggeration. Certainly, the UK will not be doing that. We will not, overall, be reducing the size of our diplomatic network. I think it would be absolutely wrong to do so, as it is part of the essential infrastructure of our economic recovery as well as of our influence in the world. I will be announcing decisions about this in the next couple of months, but that will not involve an overall reduction in our network.

The Foreign Secretary has spoken of the need to strengthen the UK’s diplomatic, strategic engagement with Syria—a point he reiterated a few moments ago. Will he take this opportunity to stress to the Syrians how important it is for them to butt out of the internal affairs of Lebanon? Does he agree that any new Lebanese Government who see Syrian-backed Hezbollah gain even greater importance will only further destabilise the middle east?

Yes, we will use our diplomatic network—to keep this relevant to the question—and I used our embassy in Damascus last week to do many of those things. We had some very frank discussions with Syrian leaders, as can be imagined, about a whole range of issues including Iran and human rights, in particular, and about the situation in Lebanon. The Government there should be formed by constitutional means. They should be a broad-based Government and should continue to support the work of the special tribunal for Lebanon so that the culture of impunity for assassinations in Lebanon comes to an end.

May I congratulate my right hon. Friend on the alterations he has made to the mission and structure of the Foreign Office? Will he confirm that it is his intention to deploy diplomatic staff to those areas of the world where they are most needed to further Britain’s interests?

Yes, I will certainly do that. I think that what my hon. Friend is driving at is that that will require some changes because the patterns of economic, political and diplomatic power in the world are changing, so we will need to adjust our diplomatic weight. That is what I am weighing up at the moment and we will make announcements to the House within the next couple of months.

Afghanistan (Corruption)

7. What recent steps his Department has taken to support measures to reduce the incidence of corruption in Afghanistan. (37146)

We are encouraging the Government of Afghanistan to live up to the commitments they made on anti-corruption at the conferences in Kabul and London last year. In addition, I met yesterday with General McMaster, the head of the international security assistance force’s anti-corruption task force, to discuss how the coalition could assist Afghanistan in bringing those involved in corrupt practices to justice.

Has it been worth the sacrifice of 350 of our valiant British soldiers to protect the election-rigging President of Afghanistan who refuses to arrest his corrupt brother, the vice president who was caught smuggling $51 million to his bolthole in Dubai, or the Government cronies who have stolen 70% of the country’s GDP from the national bank? Is not the truth that it is not the system that is corrupt in Afghanistan, but that corruption is the system?

There are, of course, wider issues involving national security that contribute to the presence of our forces in Afghanistan, in company with those of 47 other nations. It is not appropriate to discuss individuals, but I should say that the British Government are entirely clear: no one is above the law, no one is above inquiry, and the people of Afghanistan deserve a system of justice that ensures justice for all and that those involved in corruption are brought to book.

BBC World Service

8. What steps he plans to take to maintain provision of BBC World Service radio services when responsibility for its funding is transferred to the BBC Trust. (37147)

I will continue, as now, to set the objectives, priorities and targets for the BBC World Service with the BBC for 2014 and beyond. No foreign language service will be closed without my written authority.

The BBC tells us that this Government cut will result in the loss of 30 million listeners and 650 jobs. Would the Foreign Secretary describe that as a price worth paying—yes or no?

With the World Service, we are having to make sure that public money is spent as carefully as possible. As the hon. Gentleman knows, that has meant reductions across the Government. That is the legacy that this Government inherited from the vast debts piled up by the previous Administration, and none of it would be necessary were it not for that.

We are asking the World Service to bear the same proportionate reduction as the Foreign Office over the period 2008 to 2014. I think that is a fair thing to do, and I should let the hon. Gentleman know that the director-general of the BBC has stated his intention, when it is transferred into the BBC from 2014, to increase investment in the World Service again and hold it at a higher level until the end of the BBC charter period.

Would the Foreign Secretary please suggest whether it is possible to put a more formal structure in place, so that the BBC can guarantee the kind of proportion of money spent on the World Service over the next 10 years?

There is a formal structure relating to decisions about openings and closures of language services; those will remain the same, and the objectives and priorities of the BBC World Service will continue to be set in the same way. To respond to my hon. Friend’s point, that structure does not guarantee the absolute level of expenditure or investment by the BBC, but I would point out again that Mark Thompson, the director-general of the BBC, has said that his intention, subject to approval from the BBC Trust, is to increase the level of investment in the BBC World Service, and therefore I am sure that bringing the BBC and the World Service together is the right move for the future.

Sudan

The southern Sudan referendum is a momentous step towards the implementation of the comprehensive peace agreement. We welcome the positive reactions of the north and of observers of the referendum as we await the formal results. We will support north and south as they work on the remaining CPA issues, but obviously we will not be taking our eye off Darfur, as we work tirelessly to establish a lasting peace in that troubled province.

I thank the Minister for that answer, and I am sure he will be aware of the concerns shared across the international community on the continued presence of the Lords Resistance Army in south Sudan. A joint non-governmental organisation briefing in December 2010, entitled “Ghosts of Christmas Past”, documented some of the atrocities committed by that organisation on Christmas eve 2008. What assessment can the Minister can give us of the efforts of the international community to prevent the rise of that organisation in south Sudan and across the region?

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for raising the subject of the Lords Resistance Army. It is an organisation comprising about 400 fighters, under the leadership of an extremely evil commander, and although it is small, it can wreak havoc; it is able to displace many communities and terrorise many people. We are sparing no effort at all in helping those countries who are on the front line of tackling the LRA, and we are doing all we possibly can to bring its leader to justice in the International Criminal Court as well.

There are strong bonds with Sudan across the Salisbury diocese, including between Holt school in my own village and a school in Juba in southern Sudan, where educational resources are very stretched. In light of the referendum, there are growing concerns for the Christian minority that will be left in the north. What representations have the Government made to the Sudanese authorities about the importance of protecting minorities throughout Sudan?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for asking that question, because we are working very closely with the Government of Sudan. We made it clear to President Bashir’s Government that his requirements for debt relief are conditional not just on making progress on the CPA and achieving an inclusive peace with justice in Darfur, but on having a policy that respects the rights of all parts of that country.

I very much welcome what the Minister said about south Sudan and, particularly, Darfur. Last week, Human Rights Watch said:

“There are clear signs that the situation in Darfur is getting worse”

and

“the international community is failing to monitor and respond properly to what is happening”.

Does he agree that now is the time to give real priority to resolving the long-running and tragic crisis in Darfur?

I agree with the shadow Minister on that, because we must not take our eye off Darfur and there have been some worrying concerns recently—for example, three Bulgarian humanitarian pilots were captured, and we are demanding their immediate release—but I am pleased that significant progress has been made in the recent negotiations under the chief mediator, Djibril Bassolé, in Doha. In fact, two parts of the rebel forces—the Justice and Equality Movement and the Liberation and Justice Movement—have been engaged in the peace process. It is very important indeed that the Sudan Liberation Army now comes to the table and that every possible effort is made to build peace in that troubled province. Unless that peace is secured, there really cannot be a way forward and a future for Sudan.

President al-Bashir has said that southern Sudanese living in the north will be classed as foreigners and will lose rights accordingly. What will the UK Government do to ensure that the citizenship issues are properly resolved, so that people can live in the north or the south and have their rights protected accordingly?

I certainly share my hon. Friend’s concern about the southern Sudanese who have been living in the north, but I was heartened by what President Bashir said on his visit to Juba on 4 January. He made it clear that all the southerners who are living in the north are welcome to stay there, that they can move to the south if they want to and that their rights to property and their other rights will be maintained. That is the first time that President Bashir has said that absolutely categorically, and we will do all that we can to hold him to his word.

Piracy

10. What recent discussions he has had with ministerial colleagues on trends in the incidence of piracy. (37149)

We are extremely concerned about international piracy—in particular, the growing incidence of piracy off the horn of Africa and in the Indian ocean. I have recently set up a cross-Whitehall working group, with the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mike Penning), who has responsibility for shipping, and with the Minister for the Armed Forces. We are determined to work with the maritime industry to help it to counter the increased violence towards hijacked crews through the use of safe rooms and other improved security measures. We are considering ways to combat the so-called mother ships, which carry the pirate skiffs deep into the ocean.

I thank the Minister for that reply, but will he update the House on his discussions with our European allies about taking co-ordinated action to tackle piracy off the Somali coast, particularly following recent reports that Somali legislators have blocked anti-piracy legislation and even described the pirates as heroes?

I have not heard about those comments being made by the Transitional Federal Government. If they have made those comments, we absolutely deplore them. We are working closely with our EU counterparts. In fact, we are providing the command facility for Atalanta, the EU counter-piracy force. Currently, about 30 warships are off the horn of Africa, and we are working ever closer and going more deeply into the ocean to combat the problem. But I agree with the hon. Gentleman that there must be proper co-ordination between countries, and that is why we have a cross-Whitehall working group to consider what we can do. The pirates now hold 29 vessels and 694 hostages. The problem is definitely getting worse, as the pirates have been able to expand their reach into the ocean, and that is why we need firmer, tougher and more co-ordinated action.

May I press the Minister more on EU co-operation? I understand that Denmark has taken quite a lead and has made some inroads into preventing piracy.

I can assure my hon. Friend that there is ever greater EU co-operation, and that more EU countries are now coming into the combined operations. It is incredibly important that the EU should work together, but we want other countries to assist. We also need regional capacity to detain, try and imprison the pirates, which is why we are having discussions with the Governments of the Seychelles, Mauritius, Kenya and Tanzania.

I am glad that the Minister recognises that piracy is a growing threat to life, especially off the horn of Africa, and a big business worth more than £100 million a year, funding crime and, increasingly, terrorism. Does he accept that we are now close to a tipping point on that vital trade route? Will he work with international partners to boost the anti-piracy forces that he has mentioned, and will he consider revising their rules of engagement?

I am grateful to the shadow Minister for his questions. I would not say that we were at a tipping point, but the problem has got worse. The pirates now have greater capability, as they can deploy much further out into the ocean through their use of mother ships. The Royal Navy is keeping the rules of engagement under review at all times, and, as I have said, we have a ministerial working party that is looking at every single option for the future.

East Jerusalem

The hon. Lady will know that the status of East Jerusalem is fiercely contested, and that this raises political tensions. The United Kingdom takes the view that East Jerusalem is occupied territory under international law, which is why we have called on Israel to cease building settlements, and to stop the evictions and demolitions. Such actions only obstruct the peace process, under which Jerusalem’s final status will be settled.

I thank the Minister for his response. Given that he accepts the illegality of settlements on occupied territory, does he plan to support the draft UN Security Council resolution that calls for an immediate end to settlement building?

The draft resolution has not yet come forward for a vote. We are conscious of the terms in which it has been drawn, and the House will be well aware of our views on settlements. We hope to see a return to direct negotiations in which all these matters can be properly considered in order to achieve the settlement that we all want.

Recent leaks confirm that the Israelis and the Palestinians were making significant progress on agreeing on how to share Jerusalem as part of a negotiated agreement. What is the Minister saying to both sides to encourage them to resume negotiations?

The hon. Lady takes a close interest in these matters, and she will appreciate that the resolution to the question of Jerusalem’s status will come about only through a negotiated settlement. We are working very hard with both sides. I was in Israel and Palestine recently, talking to Ministers there, as was my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary. We have also been working with other partners behind the scenes to try to ensure that there are no obstructions to a return to negotiations, and that the settlement issue is not a barrier to those discussions. There are other issues relating to borders, refugees and Jerusalem that must be discussed, and the sooner the parties get together, the better.

Christmas Day Service (Cyprus)

12. What discussions he has had with his EU counterparts on the disruption of a Christmas day service in Rizokarpaso, Cyprus. (37151)

We have not had discussions in an EU context on this deeply regrettable incident, but my officials in Nicosia have met Archbishop Chrysostomos and made representations to senior political figures in the north of the island to emphasise the importance that we accord to allowing people in all parts of Cyprus to practise their religion freely.

I thank the Minister for those words on the unacceptable behaviour of Turkey’s troops in disrupting a Christmas day mass. Does he agree that Turkey should not be allowed to accede to the EU without guaranteeing religious freedoms?

Any candidate country that wants EU membership has to subscribe to, and apply, the democratic values that are central to the European Union, including the freedom to express religion and to worship freely.

Commonwealth (UK Role)

I remain committed to strengthening the UK’s relationship with the Commonwealth and ensuring that we are at the centre of plans to reinvigorate this unique organisation for the benefit of all its current and future members. This ready-made network can further our foreign policy and economic interests.

Following the Foreign Secretary’s highly successful trip to Australia and New Zealand, what opportunities has he identified for increasing trade between Britain and that part of the Commonwealth?

There are huge opportunities to do that. I was the first Foreign Secretary for 17 years to go to Australia. There was a certain omission in that respect under the previous Government. I spoke there to the Australian British Chamber of Commerce, which revealed tremendous opportunities further to boost trade and the economic ties between our countries. The Commonwealth now accounts for a growing share of world trade, so that is an added dimension to the importance of that remarkable organisation.

As the Foreign Secretary knows, the previous Government had started negotiations and discussions about the Act of Settlement with other Commonwealth countries that share our monarch as their Head of State. Does he agree that the provisions that mean that no Catholic or anyone who does not subscribe to the Church of England can become monarch are outdated, as are the rules on male primogeniture? Will he pursue those conversations with those countries?

I recognise the force of the arguments about something that was originally set out more than 300 years ago. Among the issues of middle east peace, the Iranian nuclear programme and so on, I have not yet put that at the top of my list to negotiate with other Governments, but it is a legitimate issue for the long term, on which all the Commonwealth Governments with the Queen as Head of State would have to be consulted and agree.

Does the Foreign Secretary agree that Commonwealth countries are the emerging markets of the future? As he develops his hard-headed internationalism, will he recognise that the network that is the Commonwealth, together with our influence, represent a huge opportunity for the United Kingdom?

Indeed. The Commonwealth now includes 54 nations on six continents, with 31% of the world’s population. It has, as I said, an increasing share of the world’s trade, and the proportion of the members of the Commonwealth’s trade with each other is growing, so it is not an organisation of the past. It will have increasing importance in the future.

Kashmir

Although it is the long-standing policy of successive Governments that, ultimately, the issue of Kashmir is one for the Governments of India and Pakistan to find an answer to while taking into account the wishes of the Kashmiri people, we recognise the deep concern that many MPs feel. We are keen to encourage the confidence-building measures that are emerging from the intermittent but continuing bilateral discussions between India and Pakistan, which we hope to see progress this year.

Surely the Foreign Office must be concerned at the ongoing problems with curfews and human rights abuses that are being reported in Kashmir. Will the Minister agree to meet a cross-party delegation of Members of Parliament specifically to address the need for demilitarisation and, we hope, a peaceful dialogue that involves the Kashmiri people themselves?

We do indeed acknowledge exactly what the hon. Gentleman has said. We apply United Kingdom funds to confidence-building measures, conflict prevention and human rights monitoring on both sides of the line of control, with a view to assisting in dealing with the difficult issues that have been particularly highlighted in the past year. The short answer to his question is yes, of course I will meet a delegation of all-party colleagues.

Tunisia

I called the outgoing Foreign Minister of the Tunisian Government last week to urge the Tunisian Government to reach out to the Opposition. We welcome the reshuffle that was announced on 27 January. The Tunisian Government should now build on that by implementing reform commitments, and I hope they will also ask for assistance not only in elections, but in building democratic institutions.

Does the Foreign Secretary recognise that the mass demonstrations in Tunisia may have gone off the screens, but they have not gone off the streets of the capital, and that demands are still being made there for human rights, freedom and democracy, an end to one-party rule and, above all, economic justice, because the neo-liberal economics has led to massive levels of youth unemployment, which has sparked off the wave of revolt across north Africa?

Broadly, yes. We should welcome the steps taken by the Tunisian authorities to liberalise the media, release many political prisoners and establish commissions to investigate corruption and human rights abuses during the recent unrest. We discussed this at the Foreign Affairs Council of the European Union yesterday and are ready in the EU to provide immediate assistance to prepare and organise the electoral process and support a genuine democratic transition.

British Citizens (Pakistan)

16. What recent discussions he has had with his counterpart in Pakistan on the deaths of British citizens in that country; and if he will make a statement. (37156)

I met the high commissioner of Pakistan yesterday to discuss with him a number of cases that have been raised by hon. Members during the course of this year about UK residents who, sadly, have been killed in Pakistan. The United Kingdom expects the very best attention to ensure that justice is done in all these cases, and I appreciated the high commissioner’s interest and willingness to assist.

The Minister will be aware of the representations that I have made on behalf of a constituent, Ms Ashiq, and the challenges that her family has faced since her father was murdered in Pakistan in June 2009 in securing information and responses from the authorities about their efforts to apprehend and prosecute his killers. I know that the Minister has raised these issues with the Pakistan authorities, which are keen to be helpful, but will he update the House on what steps he has taken to ensure that his officials play an active role in helping the families of British citizens who are killed abroad to receive the appropriate support and assistance from our consulates?

Sadly, during the course of the past year, 12 UK residents have been killed in Pakistan, mostly involving family or property disputes. I have taken the opportunity raised by those cases to ensure that our post understands full well the concerns that are raised by families and Members of Parliament here, and that we do all that we can with the authorities in trying to find out information and ensure justice. There is a limit to what we can do. Pakistan is a sovereign country with a sovereign criminal system, but our consular authorities do as much as they possibly can. I welcome the assistance and intervention of the high commissioner, which might lead to continued pressure being applied on the authorities to do even more, and I hope that the hon. Lady has a successful visit to Pakistan shortly with colleagues to see what more can be done there.

Topical Questions

Against a background of huge protests in Cairo today, we welcome Vice-President Suleiman’s statement that he intends to contact opposition parties to discuss political reform, but the new cabinet appointed by President Mubarak this week is disappointing in that it does not constitute the broad-based representative Government whom the people of Egypt seem to be seeking, and we continue to make this clear to the Egyptian authorities.

What discussions is the Foreign Secretary undertaking to ensure the safety of British officials and non-governmental organisations on the ground in Egypt?

A huge amount of work is being done by our consular staff, by our embassy, by the rapid deployment team that we have sent to Cairo, and we are taking every step possible to assure the safety of those people. We have been advising people in Cairo, Alexandria and Suez to leave if they can and if they have no pressing reason to remain. The vast majority of those seeking to do so have been able to do so on commercial flights, but I have also decided to send a charter aircraft to enable further British nationals to leave the country, if they wish to do so. That will set off for Egypt tomorrow and I will send further flights if necessary to ensure that people are able to leave if they wish to do so. But, of course, many remain, doing their work in Egypt, and we should salute the work they are doing.

T2. My constituent, Michael Hearn, was arrested on 8 December 2010 for a technical infringement of a local law by his employer, an infringement that he did not himself commit, and he has been in jail in Tawfiq detention centre in Afghanistan ever since then. I wrote last month to the Foreign Secretary to seek his intervention in this matter. Can my hon. Friend assure the House that he is doing everything possible to secure Mr. Hearn’s release? (37166)

Our consular officials have been in touch with Mr Hearn. They had a meeting with him as recently as 24 January, and he has access to legal advisers, and our consular officials have been in touch with them. We cannot intervene in the Afghanistan judicial process to seek an individual’s release, but we are doing all that we can to ensure his welfare and to make sure that he is in the centre that he wishes to be in rather than in prison. We will continue to support him during his detention and support the lawyers in their legal processes.

I note and welcome the fact that the Foreign Secretary is due to speak to Vice-President Suleiman after questions this afternoon. Is the right hon. Gentleman prepared to share with the House what specific steps he will be encouraging the vice-president to now take, beyond the discussions that he has already mentioned, to ensure the orderly transition to free and fair elections and the broad-based Government that EU Foreign Ministers agreed upon yesterday?

That is the direction in which we would like the Egyptian authorities to move. As I have said, it is disappointing that the new Cabinet does not constitute the broad-based Administration that we, the rest of the EU and so many of Egypt’s friends around the world were looking for. We continue to urge the Egyptian authorities to take the necessary steps to form such a Government to ensure that real, visible and believable reform is presented to the people of Egypt, as well as effective guarantees of free and fair elections. We think that it is necessary for them to respond to the mood and demands of the Egyptian people and to do so quickly if there is to be an orderly transition, rather than a violent and disorderly situation.

T7. Between now and 2016, the UK will hand over almost £50 billion of hard-pressed British taxpayers’ money to the European Union. Will the Foreign Secretary give hard-pressed constituents and British taxpayers an assurance that he will work with colleagues across all Government Departments to reduce that vast contribution, which could be better spent keeping the deficit low in this country and improving public services? (37171)

As my hon. Friend knows, we inherited from the previous Government a budget settlement that gave away a huge chunk of the UK rebate and bound us to increased contributions to the EU, but I assure her and her constituents that every Minister in this Government is committed to budgetary controls and to maximum economy, discipline and value for money in every aspect of European expenditure.

T3. A couple of months ago, the Ugandan gay rights campaigner David Kato asked me to raise in this Chamber the issue of the persecution of gay men and women in that country. Last week, David was beaten to death in his home in Kampala. Will the Foreign Secretary join me not only in condemning the murder, but in calling on the Ugandan Parliament and Ugandan politicians to cease the hateful and vile rhetoric that they deploy against gay people, which led directly to this murder, so that David Kato will have not died in vain? (37167)

We have made our view very clear to the Ugandan Government. I agree with the hon. Gentleman that the tragic death of David Kato, who was a prominent Christian and gay rights activist, was a tragedy and have issued a statement of condolence, and I am glad that President Obama has as well. I hope that no effort will be spared in bringing the perpetrators of this wicked crime to justice.

Following the premature release of al-Megrahi, do the Government have any plans to send more NHS cancer patients to Libya, given the better survival rate there? How does the Secretary of State feel this disgraceful leak will affect our relationship with the United States of America?

I detect from my hon. Friend’s question that she did not agree with the release of Mr Megrahi. Nether did I, and nor did my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister. Nevertheless, it was a decision taken by the Scottish Executive. On the question of relations with the United States, the Prime Minister undertook to have the Cabinet Secretary look at past papers on this case, and his report will be published shortly.

T5. Will the Foreign Secretary update us on the situation in Somalia and any action the British Government have taken, given the reports of fresh killings and fighting between police and troops in Mogadishu? (37169)

We are doing all we can to support the transitional federal Government and are pleased that the African Union mission in Somalia has come up to its mandated strength. We are working not only with the TFG, who must get their act together within the next seven months before their mandate runs out, but with the provincial Government of Somaliland and moderate clans in south and central Somalia.

Following the Secretary of State’s answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Derbyshire (Pauline Latham) on the release of the Lockerbie bomber, does he not agree that the previous Government hid behind the fig leaf of devolution in order to release a mass terrorist on dubious commercial grounds? Will he take steps to ensure that such a thing never happens again?

As I have said, the Cabinet Secretary’s report on that will be published in the not-too-distant future, so it would be wise to wait for that, rather than trying to anticipate it.

T6. The Bribery Act 2010 was due to be implemented in April, but Ministers confirmed yesterday that it will now be delayed. Is the Foreign Secretary not concerned that that delay could diminish the international reputation of British industry, even though most British companies behave perfectly ethically? The legislation passed through Parliament with all-party support. (37170)

The reputation of British industry on that issue is very high throughout the world, and the reputation of the British Government—actually, of successive Governments—is high on that issue, too. Both parties in the coalition supported the Bribery Act when in opposition, we support it now, and it will be brought in rigorously, effectively and fairly.

The family of Dr Alastair Penney, who is shortly to be released from jail in Taiwan, are concerned about the arrangements for his transfer back to the UK—to ensure that any appropriate medical assistance can be given. Will my hon. Friend the Minister meet Dr Penney’s family to ensure that their concerns can be addressed?

I am aware of the case, and I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for the diligence with which he has pursued it. I shall examine it again, and, if it requires further work or a meeting with him and officials from my Department, I shall make the necessary arrangements.

T8. Following the earlier question from my hon. Friend the Member for Inverclyde (David Cairns), it seems clear that the anti-homosexuality Bill that is before the Ugandan Parliament is creating terrifying conditions for lesbian, gay and transgendered people in Uganda. Will the Foreign Secretary consider the role that aid has to play in ensuring good human rights and in encouraging good governance? (37172)

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for raising the issue again. Our high commissioner in Kampala has taken every appropriate opportunity to engage the Ugandan Government on the issue, and to make his views known on the anti-homosexuality Bill that was tabled in October 2009. I met President Museveni back in the summer, when I discussed the matter with him and made it very clear that we expected his Government to respect human rights, Christian rights, gay rights, and all rights.

Given the fluid and volatile situation in Egypt, my constituent, Mrs Hugget, and others do not wish to travel to Sharm el Sheikh. What advice can the Minister give them? Their travel companies are obliging them to take their holiday, even though they do not wish to go and their travel insurance will not apply.

We take great care over our travel advice, and we review it not only day by day, but hour by hour. Of course, our concentration is on getting out of the difficult areas the British nationals who are stranded there and wish to leave. We constantly review the advice on the Red sea resorts, but I have to advise my hon. Friend that her constituents should keep in close touch with the travel company. If we feel it necessary to change the advice, we will do so and work with the travel companies in doing so.

T9. Given the Navy’s policy of catch and release, is it not little wonder that the number of incidents of piracy and the average ransom demand have doubled over the past 12 months? Will the Minister take on board and bring up the idea of special courts in the region, so that we not only take the weight off Kenya, but bring more of those pirates to justice? (37173)

Since the coalition Government came to power, the Navy have not apprehended any pirates and simply sent them on their way. That happened a bit in the past, but it does not happen under this Government. We take the whole issue of piracy incredibly seriously, but it is absolutely vital that we build regional capacity to detain, try and imprison the pirates.

My right hon. Friend might be aware that I was lucky enough to be able to witness the end of the referendum in south Sudan the other day, and to witness the jubilation of the people there. Nevertheless, there is huge corruption, very little infrastructure and very few skills to run a Government in that country. What role can the UK Government and the international community play in helping to form a new Government in south Sudan, if that is what the people have voted for?

I think we have a major role to play, and so do many other nations throughout the world with extensive development budgets. It will be a huge task to create the institutions for a functioning new state in the south of Sudan, but we will be there to assist with that through a diplomatic presence, a development programme and the provision of expertise, so the south Sudanese will find in the United Kingdom and in many other nations people who are ready and willing to help.

The Foreign Secretary clearly understands the added urgency presented by events in Egypt and elsewhere in making progress on the middle east peace process. Is not now the time for the Quartet or the United States, or both, to present, in the admirable way that he did earlier at the Dispatch Box, their final framework for a settlement to the United Nations to help to break the impasse?

A meeting of the Quartet is planned for this weekend. I hope that it will be possible for the Quartet or the United States to set out the parameters within which everyone should now be working on the middle east peace process. I cannot guarantee that that will happen, but the British Government would certainly like it to happen. We think there should be a real urgency to the middle east process, with a way back into the direct talks, and we are doing our utmost to assist in that. Over the past two weeks, I have held conversations about this with President Abbas, with the Israeli Foreign Minister and, of course, with Secretary Clinton. It is time, yes, to set out parameters, including basing a settlement on the 1967 borders.

Following the latest meeting of the Secretary-General with both Cypriot leaders, will the Secretary of State reaffirm, not least as a guarantor power, this country’s commitment to seeing a solution to the problem of Cyprus, whose division has scarred both the island and Europe for far too long?

Yes, we remain committed to seeking a bi-communal, bi-zonal federation of Cyprus with respect for the human rights of all communities, and we very much hope that the current process led by the United Nations will be successful in reaching that outcome.

The Foreign Secretary said earlier that he was helping south Sudan. No doubt he is pleased at the emergence of a new independent nation in the international community. What representations is he making about the deferred referendum in Abyei?

There has been a referendum in the south of Sudan in which it is thought that 99% of people voted for independence. The hon. Gentleman should not get too excited about the parallels in this case. The question of Abyei is one of the outstanding issues that requires negotiation between north and south as part of the comprehensive peace agreement. It is the major stumbling block in those negotiations, which need to be completed before 9 July. The south of Sudan is heading for independence, and we are doing everything we can to assist, including offering expertise in the demarcation of the border. I have had two conversations with former President Mbeki of South Africa, who is trying to bring the parties together, and we will continue to give every diplomatic assistance.

Zimbabwe used to be part of the bread basket of Africa, but for many years now it has been a basket case. Events unfolding in Zimbabwe over the next 12 months may well shape its future for many years to come. What steps are Her Majesty’s Government taking to ensure free and fair elections in Zimbabwe and a return to true democratic government?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for asking that question. Zimbabwe is facing a dramatic year. We are working closely with the South Africans, who are putting together a road map towards credible elections. It is most likely that there will be a referendum on the new constitution some time this spring or summer. It is absolutely essential that it goes smoothly and that it is free and fair and completely credible, because it will be observed very closely as the forerunner for presidential and parliamentary elections possibly later this year or next year.

The Secretary of State will shortly be appointing some very senior officials to some of the most important diplomatic posts of our nation. Will he assure the House that those who represent Her Majesty and the Government abroad, especially in Europe, speak and read, as the norm, a language other than English?

Yes, British diplomats are renowned for their language skills. That is why I was very disappointed when the Government whom the right hon. Gentleman supported closed the Foreign Office language school two years ago. It is a difficult thing to put back together. I am now looking not so much at putting it back together but at increasing the learning of hard languages in the Foreign Office. I will be allocating additional funds—[Interruption.] This is the answer to the question. I will be allocating additional funds for the learning of hard languages in the Foreign Office. It is very important that people who go to embassies, including around Europe, are able to speak those languages.

Probably the worst place in the world at the moment to be female or a child is the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where dreadful violations of human rights have been occurring, particularly in the east. Can the Secretary of State please give me his assessment of the current situation, especially as UN forces intend to withdraw in June this year?

I share my hon. Friend’s concern about what is happening in the east of the DRC, particularly in the Kivus. We are working closely with a number of non-governmental organisations, and with MONUSCO, the UN mission in the DRC. We will focus relentlessly and tirelessly on the points that he raised.

Order. I am sorry to disappoint colleagues. It is clear that Members simply cannot get enough of the Foreign Office team, to whom we are grateful.