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Foreign and Commonwealth Office

Volume 529: debated on Tuesday 14 June 2011

The Secretary of State was asked—

Palestinian State (UN Membership)

Membership of the UN by September is one option under consideration by President Abbas. We believe that Israelis and Palestinians should return to negotiations. We will make a decision on UN membership only at the appropriate time.

Time and again, the Secretary of State has said that he is in favour of an independent Palestinian state based on 1967 borders. Surely with events going apace in the middle east, the time is right to show solidarity with the Palestinians, support them at the United Nations and prove, once and for all, that we are on the Palestinian side.

We have lent a great deal of support to Palestinians at the United Nations. For instance, as the hon. Lady will know, in February we voted for the Palestinian resolution on settlements. We voted the opposite way to the United States on that occasion, which is unusual for this country. We strongly support a future state based on 1967 borders, and we welcome President Obama’s recent speech in that regard. We must remember that the way to a viable and secure state is through negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians. It is to those negotiations that we want both parties to return.

I am disappointed in the Foreign Secretary’s answer. If we wait for negotiations to resume, we will wait for ever, given how things are going. President Obama made self-determination the focus of his speech to the middle east and made reference to the brave people struggling for freedom in the Arab world. Does that not also apply to the Palestinians, and would UN membership not take us a step forward?

The hon. Lady will have to be disappointed with the position of all European countries, because we have all withheld a decision on the question of Palestinian recognition and membership of the UN. It is vital to remember that the way to a secure Israel and a viable, prosperous Palestinian state is through negotiations between the two. She is right to be frustrated or exasperated by the time that the negotiations have taken. Nevertheless, there is no way to lasting peace in the middle east other than through those negotiations.

Will the Foreign Secretary impress upon the Israeli Government in a friendly but firm way that the only manner by which they can avoid an overwhelming vote in favour of a Palestinian state at the General Assembly is if the Israeli Prime Minister gives an unequivocal commitment in support of a two-state solution, as proposed by President Obama, and a commitment to enter into early and meaningful negotiations to that end?

Yes, I agree with that. My right hon. and learned Friend is right that it is important for Israel to show a readiness to negotiate in the light of President Obama’s speech and what could happen at the United Nations in September. Indeed, one advantage of the United Kingdom and other EU nations considering our position on this matter over the next few months is that it will maximise the pressure on both Israelis and Palestinians to enter such negotiations.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that an essential feature of statehood is identifiable and recognised borders? Will he therefore confirm that there will be no compromise on the principle that any settlement must be based on the borders of 1967?

My right hon. and learned Friend will know what the President of the United States has said about 1967 borders. We have always said that we mean 1967 borders with mutually agreed swaps of land. I therefore do not think that we can be as categoric as my right hon. and learned Friend, but based on those borders, subject to agreement, there will be a good deal of latitude.

What is the Secretary of State’s assessment of the moves towards Palestinian unity? Does the reconciliation process between Fatah and Hamas make it more or less likely that the United Kingdom will support UN membership for Palestine?

Our stance on that, if it comes to that point in September, will depend on many things, including the issues that I have commented on. It is important that the reformed Palestinian Authority—we still await many of the appointments to that body—uphold non-violence, are committed to a negotiated two-state solution, and uphold the previous agreements of the Palestine Liberation Organisation. Those are the factors by which we will judge the Palestinian approach.

Mr Speaker,

“peace cannot be imposed on the parties to the conflict. No vote at the United Nations will ever create an independent Palestinian state.”

They are not my words, but those of President Obama. Might not moving too quickly towards a unilateral declaration of statehood undermine moves towards peace entirely, and should we not be seeking negotiations towards an agreement between the two parties outside the UN?

My hon. Friend will have heard in my answers that we have placed our emphasis strongly on that. There is a need for a return to negotiations by both sides, and now that President Obama has made his speech about 1967 borders, I hope that Palestinians will take that approach. We have already talked about the Israeli approach.

Piracy (Horn of Africa)

3. What recent assessment he has made of the threat to UK shipping from piracy off the horn of Africa. (59273)

7. What recent progress his Department has made on its work to counter piracy off the horn of Africa. (59277)

Thanks to international navies and the self-defence measures used by large sectors of the shipping industry, there have been no hijacks in the critical gulf of Aden trade artery since November 2010. However, piracy continues to pose a significant risk to shipping and seafarers in the Indian ocean, with 18 successful hijacks having taken place this year, so we are not complacent. Britain is playing a leading role in the counter-piracy operations at sea, and we are leading the international work with regional countries to help put in place penal and judicial facilities to deal with this evil.

The Minister is no doubt aware of the role of many British service personnel, and indeed ex-service personnel, in protecting shipping off Somalia in particular. Does he agree that in the end, only when Somalia has a high degree of law and order, which it does not at the moment, will the problems be properly solved?

That is exactly why Her Majesty’s Government are putting so much effort into leading the international initiatives to help rebuild that failed state. Indeed, the Department for International Development has a four-year, £250 million programme for Somalia, which will focus on building regional judicial and penal structures, strengthening the police, strengthening regional coastguards and trying to help coastal communities find alternative livelihoods. As the hon. Gentleman says, the problem will be solved only on land.

We need to have a deterrent to piracy, and currently the British Chambers of Commerce states that 80% of those who are captured are then released. What measures can we put in place, and can my hon. Friend expand on the international agreements that we need to counter piracy?

I share my hon. Friend’s great concern, because catch-and-release simply encourages further piracy. I recently visited the EU Operation Atalanta naval headquarters at Northwood, and the Minister for the Armed Forces made it very clear to me that the Royal Navy and other navies are doing all that they possibly can not just to capture pirates but to gather sufficient evidence for them to be put on trial in courts in the region. That is why I and my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary are working very hard with regional countries to build the vital penal and judicial capacity.

I regret that the Minister’s reply was rather complacent. At a conference in Singapore last month, his colleague the Defence Secretary will have heard several Asian Defence Ministers express alarm at the considerable rise of piracy in the Indian ocean. Suggested solutions have included a greater use of convoys, Q-ships and private security; particularly importantly, changed and toughened rules of engagement; and possibly exclusion zones. The international community is united on the need for the matter to be brought to a head. As we are a major maritime nation, when will the Government get a grip and take a lead to combat this menace, particularly by getting international agreement and changed rules of engagement?

I can understand the right hon. Gentleman’s frustration. As I explained, there has not been a successful hijack in the gulf of Aden artery this year, because activity has been displaced into the ocean, and we are having significant successes. I can tell him that the EU agreed in May to amend its operational plan to deliver more robust action. I cannot discuss that publicly, but it is largely the result of efforts being made by my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary. I can assure the right hon. Gentleman that we are very much on the case.


4. What recent assessment he has made of the political situation in the Balkans; and if he will make a statement. (59274)

We welcome Croatian’s progress towards EU membership, and the arrest of Bosnian Serb general Ratko Mladic. We are seriously concerned by the political situation in Bosnia-Herzegovina, where there remains a need for sustained EU focus and a clear international strategy. There is also major work to be done on the dialogue between Serbia and Kosovo; to resolve the issue of Macedonia’s name; as well as in restoring a functioning political dialogue in Albania. My right hon. Friend the Minister for Europe visited the western Balkans last week to discuss those and other issues.

At the recent NATO Parliamentary Assembly, the noble Lord Sewel presented a draft report on Kosovo, which described a dire economy with weak institutions, ethnical divisions, corruption and organised crime, and poor relations with neighbours. Kosovo is not universally recognised as a state, but does the Foreign Secretary believe that it will one day be a viable European democratic state?

Yes, I believe it will be, but bringing that about requires a great deal of work. We have been encouraging other nations to recognise Kosovo, but it is important that work takes place on economic development and the rule of law. It is also important to develop a positive track record of compliance with the requirements of the IMF programme. We look to Kosovo to do all those things.

May I welcome, as I am sure the Foreign Secretary does, the arrest of Ratko Mladic and his dispatch to The Hague? Eight thousand Europeans were taken out and shot one by one in the biggest single mass murder since Katyn. It was not, if I may say so, Britain’s finest hour in foreign policy.

As we move forward in the Balkans, will the Foreign Secretary join me in urging President Tadic and responsible Serb politicians to recognise Kosovo, and to stop the blocks to Kosovo trading in the region and to its joining international institutions? The reason that Kosovo has the economic problems to which the hon. Member for West Worcestershire (Harriett Baldwin) referred, is that Serbia will not allow it—

Order. I think we have the thrust of the question. We are most grateful to the right hon. Gentleman.

I went to Belgrade last summer to discuss those issues with President Tadic, and urged him to enter into an EU-facilitated dialogue with Kosovo. That was the essential first step towards what the right hon. Gentleman is talking about. President Tadic agreed, and I now urge the Governments of Serbia and Kosovo to engage with each other constructively. With good will on both sides, a dialogue can help to move both states towards EU accession.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the scourge of organised crime in the Balkans is one of the biggest obstacles to good politics developing there?

Yes, absolutely—it is extremely important to tackle those things to maintain the European perspective of the western Balkans countries. That is why in Croatian accession negotiations chapter 23 is of such importance. That will be true of all those states, and they should heed my hon. Friend’s words.

Does the Secretary of State believe that Croatia’s membership of the EU would act as an effective catalyst for other states? Will he offer a time scale on that?

We hope that Croatia’s membership will encourage other states, although we also hope that they will draw the lesson that it is important to meet the conditions of EU membership. That is vital if the accession process is to have credibility in future. We are now in the closing stages of the negotiations on EU accession, and the Commission has made a positive recommendation. The matter will be discussed at the European Council next week; it would be premature for me to discuss dates ahead of that.

Popular Protest (North Africa and the Middle East)

5. What recent assessment he has made of the likelihood of further popular protests in north Africa and the middle east. (59275)

Demands for greater political, social and economic participation will continue in the middle east and north Africa unless Governments work to fulfil the aspirations of their people. Through our Arab partnership initiative, the review of the European neighbourhood policy and the Deauville partnership announced at the G8, we are working with partners in the region to support those who seek political and economic reform.

Given that Governments have disrupted access to the internet during protests on a number of occasions in recent months, what specific measures have the UK Government taken to support peaceful demonstrators organising online?

Of course, we always support access to the internet politically and diplomatically. Indeed, one measure in our draft resolution on Syria, which is before the UN Security Council, seeks freedom of access to the internet. We sometimes also take practical measures to try to maintain access to the internet or give people advice on how they can access it. I do not want to give any technical details of that, because it would of course make it easier to frustrate them.

One of the features of the popular protests is the flow of information from organisations such as the BBC World Service. I know that the Foreign Office is having another look at the budget for the BBC World Service, but when are we likely to get a decision about its future shape?

The Government have taken full note of the debate in the House two or three weeks ago calling for a review of that decision, and we are accordingly looking at the subject, along with the World Service, which is also considering its allocation of priorities. I think that by early July we will be able to come back to the House.

Owing to the popular protests in north Africa and the middle east, the Opposition have been arguing for months that the European Union’s External Action Service budget should be rebalanced in favour of post-Ben Ali Tunisia, post-Mubarak Egypt and, we hope, a post-Gaddafi Libya. Following the Deauville announcement, of which the Foreign Secretary spoke, will he tell us whether he now feels that the EU contribution is adequate to the challenge and risks, and what proportion of that money is new money?

The crucial thing is the money available for development and economic partnership, rather than the budgeting of the External Action Service. As the right hon. Gentleman will be aware, the proposal published on 25 May by the Commission set out a plan that included €750 million of additional resource in order for the EU to work with the economies of north Africa. That is subject to further discussion at the European Council next week, but that is the Commission plan.

Let me ask about one country in particular—obviously, Libya. On 13 April, the Foreign Secretary told us that

“the United Nations should take forward lead planning for early recovery and peace-building in Libya.”

Last Tuesday, he told the House that rather than the European Union or the United Nations,

“Britain is in the lead in post-conflict planning.”—[Official Report, 7 June 2011; Vol. 529, c. 38.]

Given his further worrying statement last week that planning is only at “an embryonic stage”, can he tell us who precisely is responsible for post-conflict planning? Is it the United Kingdom, the United Nations or the European Union? Furthermore, when will they come forward with something more than an embryonic plan?

The right hon. Gentleman is conflating several different subjects. What I said needed fleshing out in more detail was the immediate planning of the national transitional council in Benghazi for the day after Gaddafi—if we can express it like that. It is doing a lot of that work, and we are looking forward to it communicating that. That is taking place, and we are in the lead in terms of looking in detail at the stabilisation response. Our stabilisation response team has been in Benghazi and is now writing its report, but we have been working with Italy and Turkey on that. So the UN will have that responsibility for co-ordination of humanitarian assistance and for the future, but Britain has taken the lead in putting people on the ground and doing the thinking. None of those things is inconsistent with the others.

Will the Foreign Secretary take up with the Bahraini Government the specific case of Ayat al-Qormozi, the young woman who has now been imprisoned for nothing worse than reading out a poem to freedom at the Pearl roundabout, and can he do that as part of a more robust approach to the Bahraini Government and their Saudi guardians?

Yes, of course we take up and express to the Bahraini authorities the need for universal respect for human rights, including for due process, and that is what we look to them to bring about in their judicial process. I have strongly expressed that view to the Crown Prince of Bahrain, and we will continue to make those representations to the Bahraini authorities.


6. What representations he has made to the Government of Belarus on standards of governance in that country. (59276)

We have made direct representations at ministerial, ambassadorial and senior official level on a number of occasions, and of course we continue to condemn the imprisonment of Opposition politicians in Belarus, as well as the persecution and harassment of civil society leaders and human rights defenders there.

President Lukashenko’s Administration are responsible for a series of enterprises, the profits from which are kept within the presidential Administration, including the KGB. Owing to clear close financial links between state oppression and such enterprises, is it not time that the UK looked at prohibiting British trade and investment with those companies?

As the hon. Lady knows, together with our European Union partners we have agreed a set of sanctions targeted against leading members of the Belarusian regime. There is also a review of the possibility of additional economic sanctions. Not every EU country has expressed itself in favour of that course, and we must take account of the need to get the balance right between harming the regime and not trying to impoverish further a people already oppressed. However, I take seriously the point she makes.

The Minister will be aware that, in light of its economic failures, Belarus has requested a further £5 billion bail-out from the IMF. What discussions has he had with the Treasury to ensure that Britain will not support a bail-out package unless it comes with a firm commitment from the Belarusian regime to recognise the basic rights and freedoms of its media and civilians?

My hon. Friend puts her point well. As she rightly says, the economy of Belarus is in a dire state, and the Belarusian Government’s economic policies, as well as their internally repressive policies, are making a bad situation even worse for the people of that country. We are considering—both internally in the United Kingdom and in concert with international partners—what our approach might be in the event of Belarus applying for further help from the IMF.


We believe that the relationship between the interim Government and the growing number of political parties in Tunisia is a stable one, as we head towards the democratic elections in October. There are challenges—partly in the technical arrangements for a nationwide election and partly, of course, in the economic challenges that the country faces because of the events of recent weeks—but we believe that the building blocks for democracy will be in place as we get to October.

I am generally less optimistic about the Arab spring than the Government as a whole. However, given the unique history of Tunisia as probably the most progressive country in north Africa, it could act as a beacon of hope, yet there are reports of interference from fundamentalists in the proposed Tunisian democratic process. What further help can the Government give to the democratic forces in Tunisia?

The hon. Gentleman’s caution is well balanced and understood. It is right to recognise the good things that are happening—he is right about Tunisia’s background—but there are risks attendant. We have already committed about £1.5 million of the original £5 million of the Arab partnership initiative to work in capacity building, strengthening political institutions and other such issues as we head towards the election. There will be more money available through the partnership, but we are also looking to swap expertise and help to build up the embryonic political parties in just the sort of areas in which the hon. Gentleman would expect us to be involved.

I congratulate the Foreign Office on setting up the Arab partnership fund to enable the Westminster Foundation for Democracy and other participators to help the emerging political forces in Tunisia to march towards democracy. However, does my hon. Friend agree that it is also important not to overlook the moderate Arab states—Morocco, alongside Tunisia, and, a little further away, Jordan—which have not had a revolution but which are doing the right thing and moving towards democracy? We should be supporting them, too.

Yes, my hon. Friend is absolutely right, and we will do that. Relationships with both Morocco and Jordan are good. They appear to have put themselves ahead of the curve by responding to the aspirations of the people in what we would all consider to be an appropriate manner. We are looking to the WFD to deliver quite substantially on its obligations. Helping the political parties to develop is a heavy responsibility, but one in which the WFD can play an important part.

The Minister will obviously also be aware of the growing humanitarian pressures at the border between Tunisia and Libya. What offers of assistance, either technical or financial, have been made to try to address the issues of clean water and access to sanitation in that area?

We are very conscious of those pressures. First and foremost, most of them are being absorbed by the Tunisian people themselves; indeed, it is remarkable how many families have taken into their own homes those fleeing from neighbouring Libya. However, DFID has also been at work providing exactly the support that the hon. Lady would expect from us. Millions of pounds have already been committed, and this support will continue to assist people.

Legal Fees (Offences Abroad)

9. In what circumstances his Department considers providing financial assistance for legal fees of British citizens charged with offences abroad. (59279)

The Foreign and Commonwealth Office does not provide financial assistance for legal costs for British citizens arrested overseas. We provide information about the local legal system, including whether a legal aid scheme is available. We can also provide a list of local English-speaking lawyers, and we work with non-governmental organisations that might be able to offer support.

The Minister will be aware of the plight of my constituent, Stephen Scarlett, who remains in prison in Senegal despite the fact that his sentence ended in February. His family have been unable to get any financial support from the Foreign Office to help them to navigate the local legal system. Does the Minister agree that, in such extreme cases, the needs of such people are the most acute of all? Will he look into providing financial assistance in this case so that Mr Scarlett can be reunited with his family?

I understand the distress felt by Mr Scarlett and his family over the length of time that it is taking to resolve his case. He has been assisted by the British embassy in Dakar, and by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office as a whole. However, the responsibility for ensuring that he receives the best possible outcome rests with his lawyer. I can add that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office supports and part-funds three groups: Prisoners Abroad, Reprieve and Fair Trials International, all of which assist British citizens. We are aware that Fair Trials International has offered its services to Mr Scarlett’s family.

Middle East (Business Initiatives)

10. What support his Department is providing to co-existence projects and joint business initiatives between Israelis and Palestinians. (59280)

The Department for International Development spends about £73 million in Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories on a range of measures to promote peace through the conflict prevention pool and on economic development. The Foreign Office is spending some £70,000 this year on the kind of co-existence projects that the hon. Gentleman has mentioned, ranging from language development to courses and work inside Israel to help to bind communities together.

According to answers to written questions in January, only 1% of European Union aid to the Palestinians goes to civil society projects. What are the Government doing to ensure that a greater proportion of EU aid is spent on developing the co-existence projects that are so vital to the peace process?

The hon. Gentleman is right about the proportion spent, which I picked out for the answer that I have just given him. Sometimes it is difficult to separate these things out, category by category. For example, the £30 million that goes into the promotion of Palestinian economic development feeds into work on prosperity and co-existence issues. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office is open to more project applications coming in for exactly such projects, and I will certainly work with the posts involved, in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, to see what more we can do to encourage the activities that the hon. Gentleman has mentioned.

Will the Government make it clear to the Israeli Government that an attack on any future humanitarian flotilla would be met by international condemnation?

May I gently remind the Minister that we are talking, narrowly, about co-existence projects and joint business initiatives?

I believe that I would be right in saying that we see events such as the reopening of the Rafah crossing in Gaza as an opportunity to help economic development and to encourage co-existence, because the greater the economic development on the west bank and in Gaza, the more opportunity there will be for both, and the less need there will be for anyone to be tempted to try to use a flotilla as a means either of bringing in produce or of making a political point.

Corporations (Conflict Zones)

11. What steps he is taking to increase international legal protection for those affected by corporate abuses in conflict zones. (59281)

The Government totally deplore any company anywhere in the world that ignores human rights. It is especially important that companies set the highest possible standards when operating in failed states or conflict zones. That is why we support the excellent work being carried out by Professor John Ruggie, the United Nations expert on business and human rights. We particularly welcome the final version of his guiding principles, which deals with this subject.

I am grateful to the Minister for that reply, but will he go just a little further? Given the effect that legal protections could have on the lives of ordinary people in countries such as Peru, Indonesia, Mexico and even the Israeli-occupied Palestinian territories, where there have been cases of abuse, torture and even killings when citizens have protested against large-scale private sector projects, will the Government confirm that they are supporting Professor Ruggie’s recommendation that the UK Government explore additional legal protections for victims of corporate abuse in conflict zones?

I had the chance to meet Professor John Ruggie the other day, and I am working hard to ensure that the guiding principles are incorporated and endorsed by the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, as that would provide extra clout and credibility.


13. What recent discussions he has had with his US counterpart on the political situation in Afghanistan. (59283)

I last met Secretary Clinton on the eve of President Obama’s state visit. We had a productive discussion on a range of issues, including the political situation in Afghanistan.

I am grateful for that answer. Will the Foreign Secretary tell us whether those discussions also touched on the prospect of British troops remaining in Afghanistan post-2014, and if so, how many and with what remit exactly?

Yes, such matters were included in our talks, but they are also a matter of our public policy position. As we have said, British troops will not be engaged in a combat role after 2015 or in anything like the numbers that are involved today. We have set out our intentions in line with the prospects and aims for transition to Afghan security control throughout Afghanistan by 2014.

Given that it is highly unusual to set a withdrawal date in the middle of a counter-insurgency campaign, has my right hon. Friend received any indication from the Americans that they are considering the retention of a long-term strategic base or bridgehead area in the region so that real pressure can be exerted on both sides to reach an appropriate settlement?

The long-term relationship—after the insurgency and after the transition in 2014—between the United States and Afghanistan is subject to negotiation at the moment between those countries, so it is not possible to give a precise answer to my hon. Friend now, but it is possible to say that such matters are under discussion.

Last week, members of the Home Affairs Committee visited the border of Greece and Turkey and the detention centre at Filakio, where we were told that 50,000 Afghanis had crossed the border between Turkey and Greece last year. In his discussions with the Americans, will the Foreign Secretary talk about the mass migration—the illegal migration—of hundreds of thousands of Afghanis from Afghanistan into western Europe?

The right hon. Gentleman makes an important point, which underlines the need to bring stability to Afghanistan in the future so that those who wish to be in the country can have their homes and livelihoods there. I will certainly give attention to his point.

Given that the Taliban will not be beaten and that the situation does not seem to be getting any better, despite the surge, may I press on the Foreign Secretary again the need for the Americans to open meaningful, non-conditional talks with the Taliban, because the Americans need to realise that, as we proved in Northern Ireland, it is possible to talk and fight at the same time?

Yes, I think that point is well understood. In her speech of 18 February, Secretary Clinton called for a political surge alongside the military surge. That is very much in line with our country’s approach, so that is of course the case. At the same time, another thing that is changing, for which my hon. Friend should give credit, is the huge expansion and intensive training of the Afghan national security forces. That bodes well for the longer term.


14. What recent reports he has received on Syrian protests on the borders of Israel; and if he will make a statement. (59284)

We are deeply concerned by reports that a number of protesters have been killed and others injured. We recognise Israel’s right to defend herself. Any response must be proportionate, avoiding lethal use of force unless absolutely necessary, and the right to protest should be respected. I call on all parties to do everything they can to protect the lives of civilians and to avoid provocative acts.

I thank the Foreign Secretary for his answer, but what does this incident tell us about wider foreign involvement in Syria and the Syrian Government’s handling of protest and unrest?

I am not sure what this incident in itself tells us about international involvement in Syria. I certainly believe that Iran is engaged in giving direct support—both advice and technical equipment—to Syria in the suppression of the peaceful protest, which is an extraordinarily hypocritical position given Iran’s support for protests elsewhere in the Arab world. I cannot say that that is connected with this particular incident, but since the area on the other side of the Golan heights is under the direct control of the Syrian authorities, people can draw their own conclusions.

Does the Foreign Secretary agree that the recent incidents on the Syrian-Israeli border were organised by the Syrian Government in an attempt to distract attention from the brutal way in which they are dealing with their own internal rebellions?

I do not want to add to what I said a moment ago about that. It is a remarkably convenient distraction from the point of view of the Syrian Government. The position requires both sides—Israel in its response to such provocations, and Syria in any role that it may play in such provocations—to exercise much greater restraint.

On a point of fact, have there been any Syrian protests on the Israeli border? I thought that the protests were in the Golan heights, which, last time I looked, were Syrian territory illegally occupied by Israel.

The Golan heights are occupied territory, but no one can dispute the fact that the territory on the other side is unequivocally under the operational control of Syria. That is the point I am making.


15. What recent assessment he has made of the political situation in Libya; and if he will make a statement. (59285)

When I went to Benghazi I was impressed by the progress being made, by the sense of optimism, and by the belief in a democratic future that I heard about from ordinary Libyans and the leaders of the national transitional council. The Gaddafi regime is isolated and on the defensive, and, through a combination of military, economic and diplomatic means, we are ramping up the pressure for a genuine political solution for the Libyan people.

Does the Foreign Secretary not agree that further defections from the highest level of the Gaddafi regime, further loss of ground to the opposition forces, and the growing authority of the national transitional council all point to an inexorable squeeze on the regime?

My hon. Friend sums up the situation very well. All those are indeed increasing pressures on the regime. The high-level defectors included a number of generals and the head of the state-owned National Oil Corporation, and we have reason to believe that many others would defect if they could do so safely, or if their families would not be under threat if they did so. Certainly the morale of the regime is much lower than it was some weeks or months ago, and, as I saw myself, the morale and organisation of the national transitional council have improved considerably.

Will the Foreign Secretary confirm once and for all that the purpose of Britain’s military, economic and political involvement in Libya is regime change? Will he also confirm that, for that reason, it has been impossible for any traction to be applied by the European Union, NATO or Britain to bring about an urgently needed political solution and a ceasefire to prevent any more lives from being lost, before the war gets worse?

Our military role is defined by United Nations Security Council resolution 1973, and it is our implementation of that resolution that has saved thousands of lives. I know that the hon. Gentleman is an opponent of the resolution, but if we had not had it, far, far more people would have died than have done thus far in the situation in Libya. It is, additionally, true that we believe Colonel Gaddafi should go, but that is the belief of the vast majority of nations in the world—even many around Africa now, and even Russia at the G8 summit—and, judging from what I saw in Benghazi, it is the belief of a vast number of Libyans as well.


16. What recent reports he has received on the use of violence against pro-democracy protesters by the Syrian Government; and if he will make a statement. (59286)

The Syrian Government continue to use unacceptable violence against pro-democracy protesters. Syrian security forces have launched an offensive against Jisr al-Shughour and neighbouring villages. There are reports of a military build-up in other towns in Syria, including, overnight, Deir ez-Zur in eastern Syria. There are credible reports that more than 1,000 people have been killed since the beginning of the protests. The violence is unacceptable, and it should stop.

Has there been any progress in giving the Red Cross access to civilians who have been attacked by the military in Syria?

That is a good question. Sadly, the answer is no. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Development discussed the matter directly with the president of the International Committee of the Red Cross a few days ago. One of the things that we have called on the Syrian Government to grant is humanitarian access, which remains a prime consideration in Syria. I will discuss tonight with the Turkish Foreign Minister what further work can be done with Turkey— Syria’s closest and, perhaps, most important neighbour in terms of diplomatic relationships—to try to persuade the Syrians to grant such access.


17. What recent assessment he has made of the state of bilateral relations with Japan; and if he will make a statement. (59287)

The United Kingdom has a strong and broad bilateral relationship with Japan, encompassing long-standing commercial, cultural and official ties. These relations have been enhanced in recent months with the visit of the Japanese Foreign Minister to London and the Business Secretary to Japan. I also plan to visit Japan next month to develop the relationship further.

I thank the Minister for his response. Will he update the House on what the UK Government are doing to support British businesses that work in, and with, Japan, and particularly to ensure that supply chains operate effectively?

The hon. Gentleman makes an extremely valuable point, because there are literally hundreds of thousands of people in Britain whose jobs depend either directly or indirectly on direct inward investment from Japan, and about 17,000 Britons work in Japan. We therefore constantly turn our attention to how we can deepen the commercial relations between our two countries, which are, after all, the third and sixth biggest economies in the world, so this is crucial to the prosperity of our country.

Topical Questions

In addition to the many situations we have already discussed, I am deeply concerned by the worsening situation in Sudan. We call upon all parties to cease hostilities and return to negotiations, and to allow full humanitarian access. We are working very closely with the African Union to support the peace negotiations currently under way in Addis Ababa.

Further to those remarks, when does the Secretary of State expect those negotiations to resume, and what further action do the British Government intend to take in this regard?

Our special representative is intimately involved in those negotiations. A few days ago, I spoke to former President Mbeki, who is leading the conduct of the negotiations. In recent days, I have also spoken to President Kiir on the south Sudanese side and the Foreign Minister in Khartoum for the north, so we are highly active in trying to push for a solution, and that includes working with Ethiopia. It is not possible to say when the negotiations will resume, but real progress needs to be shown before 9 July, which is, of course, the date for the independence of South Sudan.

The whole House will be aware of reports that more than 5,000 Syrian refugees have registered with officials on the Syria-Turkey border and that many more are poised to flee Syria. I welcome the statement the Foreign Secretary has just made, informing the House that this evening he will be speaking to the newly elected Turkish Government about the situation in Syria. How hard will he, as a friend of Turkey and its EU membership aspiration, be pressing for that country to step up its regional leadership role, particularly in relation to Syria?

I will, of course, be doing that, and the Prime Minister has already spoken to the Prime Minister of Turkey since the Turkish election results on Sunday night. Turkey plays a strong leading regional role, and, despite its own election campaign, has made many efforts in recent weeks to persuade the Assad regime to adopt a different course. I am sure it will want to redouble its efforts now, given the worsening situation on its border, and I will strongly encourage it to do so, as well as take its advice about the wider international handling of Syria.

T5. The whole House will share the concern felt by many British nationals at the spread of violence and unrest in the Sudan. Will the Minister therefore update us on the current situation? (59300)

I certainly share my hon. Friend’s concern about what is happening in Abyei, South Kordofan and Unity state. To add to what my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary said, we are keen to see action at P5—the permanent five—level and for the issue to be raised at the United Nations Security Council in the very near future, hopefully this week.

T2. My constituent, Mr Jamal Teer, was evacuated from Libya as part of the British evacuation, along with his pregnant Libyan wife. They have now received a bill from the NHS for £1,255 for the birth of their child. Is this any way to treat a family fleeing Gaddafi, and will the Minister undertake to look into the matter with his ministerial colleagues here and in Wales? (59297)

I am clearly unaware of the precise circumstances described by the hon. Gentleman, although of course I will happily look into this matter. The case might be to do with regular UK status, and would therefore be hit by certain benefit regulations about being ordinarily resident in the United Kingdom. The decision might have more to do with that than anything else, but at this stage I would be very happy to look at the circumstances and see what can be done.

T6. What measures will we put in place to support the French at the G20 on food security? It is an issue that links foreign policy with prices in supermarkets for my constituents. (59301)

We welcome the French presidency’s aim to tackle high food prices through the G20. Since 2010, prices have pushed 44 million more people across the world into poverty and they are being driven fundamentally by a shortage of supply and increased demand. I urge countries such as Sudan and Zimbabwe, which used to be net exporters of food, to start producing food again, not least for their own people.

T3. The Secretary of State will be aware of the case of my constituent, David Petrie, who is one of a number of British citizens who, for more than 20 years, have been trying to secure equal pay under their European rights in Italy. I understand that the Minister for Europe will meet his Italian counterparts in a few days’ time. Will he take up this case again and try to bring the sorry saga to a conclusion? (59298)

Yes, I intend to visit Italy in the next week and this is certainly one of the items that will be on the agenda for discussion.

T7. Will the Foreign Secretary please confirm the UK’s policy on the use of Predator drones and, in particular, its legal and moral basis? (59303)

Our policy is that the use of drones is a matter for the Governments of the United States and Pakistan.

T4. Will the Foreign Secretary join me in welcoming the release of the Iranian trade unionist, Mansour Osanloo? Despite this encouraging step, Iranian trade unionists Reza Shahabi and Ebrahim Madadi are still in jail in Iran simply for belonging to a trade union. Will the Foreign Secretary agree to meet me and other interested MPs on this issue? (59299)

This is another example of the appalling human rights record of the Iranian Government. Either I or one of my ministerial colleagues will meet the hon. Gentleman, if that is acceptable to him. Iran’s human rights record has deteriorated steadily, even throughout this year. There are more journalists in prison in Iran than in any other country. The two leading opposition leaders have been detained. It is an appalling record of human rights abuse and the hon. Gentleman gives just another one of those instances.

T8. Will my right hon. Friend comment on the worrying situation in South Sudan and the considerable increase in violence in the disputed states of Abyei, South Kordofan and Unity, which are of course the subject of talks today in Addis Ababa between the Presidents of north and South Sudan, the former President of South Africa and the President of Ethiopia? (59304)

I certainly share my hon. Friend’s concern. That is why we have called on all parties to end this violence, to respect their humanitarian responsibilities and to allow access to urgently needed international assistance. It is essential they take action and do so immediately.

The Minister will be aware of the legislation passed in March in Egypt restricting the right to strike and criminalising protests. Will the Government raise concerns with the Egyptian authorities about restrictions on the right to protest and to take part in industrial action?

This is the kind of issue that I discussed with Egyptian authorities on my visit to Cairo last week. Clearly, we want to see a much more normal state of affairs in Egypt. We hope that the onset of elections and greater political freedom will bring that about. People having basic rights, including those to which the hon. Lady refers, is an important part of that.

Europe stands united in condemnation of the atrocities perpetrated by the Syrian regime, but progress in getting the Security Council similarly to declare condemnation of these abuses is frustratingly slow. The support of countries such as Brazil, South Africa and India could reduce the likelihood of a Russian or Chinese veto, which highlights the importance of these emerging powers. What steps are the Government taking to strengthen further the ties between Britain and the emerging powers, in terms not just of trade but of shared interests, such as human rights?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to draw the wider conclusion about the need to elevate these bilateral relationships. A good example of that is the UK-South Africa bilateral forum that we held here in London on Thursday, which included four South African Ministers discussing with their counterparts from the UK a whole range of issues and emphasising in particular the shared values between our country and a country such as South Africa. We will take forward that work energetically in the years ahead.

T9. Last week, many of us met constituents who took the time to have tea with us and discuss overseas aid. Many Members of Parliament have been concerned for many years about aid in return for trade. Will the Secretary of State confirm that his Department would never get involved in negotiations about overseas aid, in line with the commitment to give 0.7% of gross domestic product in overseas aid, in return for the privatisation of public utilities or contracts for British companies? (59305)

The hon. Gentleman might want to ask this question at International Development questions to get the authoritative answer. As he knows, across the House we are in favour of giving development aid on its merits and not for the kind of deals or arrangements that he talks about.

The recent elections in Nigeria exceeded international expectations as a fair process and a true democratic choice. Will the Minister encourage the Nigerian Government to extend that in the business sphere by tackling corruption and supporting a pro-entrepreneurship agenda, as that is the best way to secure a true and economic future for the Nigerian people?

I had the opportunity of representing Her Majesty’s Government at President Goodluck Jonathan’s inauguration in Abuja last month and I was very struck by his determination to root out corruption, to lift the burdens on business and, above all else, to put in place a road map for oil and power sector reform.

Can the Minister update the House on the progress that has been made in getting Palestinian leaders, including in Hamas, to recognise the right of the state of Israel to exist?

Clearly, at the moment Hamas does not recognise the right of Israel to exist. Hamas will remain a proscribed organisation from our point of view until it commits itself to a negotiated solution and a peaceful approach. The criteria that we apply to the new Palestinian Authority are those that I set out to the House earlier and last week, including accepting the previous agreements of the Palestine Liberation Organisation.

What discussions were had with President Obama when he was here concerning recent US calls for negotiation on the sovereignty of the Falkland Islands? Was he persuaded to support democracy in the south Atlantic as well as in the middle east?

There was no discussion about the Falkland Islands with President Obama on his recent visit. The UK’s position remains absolutely the same as it has been under successive Governments since 1982 and it will not change.

Ahead of Channel 4’s screening this evening of “Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields”, what recent assessment have the Secretary of State or Ministers made of the credibility of the Sri Lankan Government’s lessons learned and reconciliation commission and its new deadline to report in November this year?[Official Report, 16 June 2011, Vol. 529, c. 9-10MC.]

I spoke this morning to the Foreign Secretary of Sri Lanka, who had the opportunity to update me on some positive measures that were being taken in relation to Jaffna. I was in a position to remind him of the importance of having a credible and independent investigation of the various allegations that are now very much on the table from the United Nations and others. It is essential that those are dealt with. We note the new timetable for the LLRC to report in November, but, however long this takes, it will not be possible for Sri Lanka to move forward unless it has addressed some of the horrors of the past.

Returning to the western Balkans, the Foreign Secretary will be aware of the large and growing Serbian expatriate community in London. What positive message can we send to them about the prospect of visa requirements being eased in future and about how and when Serbia could eventually join the European Union?

As my hon. Friend knows, British visa requirements are a matter for the Home Office, and Serbia’s wish for visa liberalisation will be considered by Home Office Ministers when they next review the visa waiver scheme. I think that the message to Serbia is that this country strongly supports its ambitions to join the European Union and wishes President Tadic every success in taking through the very demanding programme of reforms that will be needed for it to meet the conditions for entry.

Is the Foreign Secretary aware of why his German counterpart went to Benghazi and said that the German Government were now recognising the transitional Government there? Does that represent a welcome shift in Germany’s position, given that the Germans abstained on Security Council resolution 1973 and opposed NATO action?

Actually, Germany has been supportive of what we have been doing. Although, as the hon. Gentleman points out, Germany abstained in the Security Council in March, it has since then been part of the contact group, and the German Foreign Minister, Guido Westerwelle, attended the London conference that I hosted at the end of March. Although Germany has not made a military contribution to the NATO effort, it has been helpful in many other ways and given political support to what we are doing. What the hon. Gentleman points out is further evidence of that consistent approach.

In far too many parts of the world, freedom of religion and belief either does not exist or is being severely undermined. Will my right hon. Friend establish a commission on freedom of religious belief to advise the Government on these important issues?

I have already established a human rights advisory group, and at its second meeting last week we had a specific discussion about that very subject—freedom of religion and freedom of worship. The Foreign Office paper for that discussion will be discussed at a Wilton Park conference to be held shortly. This is a vitally important subject in which the Foreign Office and many other people are now engaged.

The Foreign Secretary said that he had a conversation with the Crown Prince of Bahrain and that he is in favour of dialogue. It is all very well saying that, both here and in the United States, but at the same time the Government in Bahrain are crushing dissidents and locking up the people who should be part of the dialogue.

The right hon. Lady makes a very powerful point. The point I make in return is that, yes, we should be highly critical and condemn human rights abuses in Bahrain, but it is very important for us to play what role we can in encouraging the most constructive and moderate figures on both sides of the sectarian divide in Bahrain to make a success of the national dialogue that is now meant to resume on 1 July. The Crown Prince made a sincere effort in that dialogue at the beginning of the crisis, and I should like to see the moderate members of the regime do so again.