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Topical Questions

Volume 522: debated on Tuesday 1 February 2011

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.