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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 534: debated on Tuesday 25 October 2011

Foreign and Commonwealth Office

The Secretary of State was asked—

Palestinian Territories

1. What assessment he has made of the economic situation in the Palestinian territories; and if he will make a statement. (76293)

May I first offer the apologies of the Foreign Secretary to the House? As I think the House knows, he is on his way to Australia—not, this time, to liberate it or meet a new regime but to attend the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting. I am sure we all wish him well.

There has been growth in the occupied Palestinian territories over the past couple of years, variously rated at between 6% and 10%. Things are easier in the west bank than in Gaza, but the United Kingdom has been supporting economic development in both areas.

Will my hon. Friend update the House on what steps have been taken, and what more can be done, to increase the flow of goods into the Palestinian territories?

Last year, following the difficulties over the flotilla, Israel moved from having a list of 120 goods that were allowed in to a less restrictive list. Efforts have been made to ease the amount going in, but more can still be done. For instance, 18 times the amount of concrete that goes into Gaza legitimately goes in through the tunnels, thus losing revenue and not providing the support that is needed for the construction of schools and so on. There is more to be done, and we press Israel to ease the restrictions still further for political and economic reasons.

As we are talking about the economy of the west bank, I point out that more than 100,000 families depend on the olive oil industry, which accounts for 40% of the west bank’s agricultural production. Some 7,500 olive trees have been uprooted by Israeli settlers since January, and the Israeli human rights organisation Yesh Din has reported 97 incidents, but none has led to any prosecutions or indictments. Does the Minister agree that that is unacceptable, and that the UK Government should make representations to the Israeli Government?

We continue to make representations on all examples of activities that we believe will damage the economy of the occupied Palestinian territories. The hon. Gentleman’s point about agricultural produce is a good one. Agricultural exports from the Palestinian territories were 10 times greater in 2010 than in 2009, but one tenth of what they were in 2006. That gives a measure of the problem. We do indeed raise the matter, and we ask both sides to continue their efforts towards negotiations on a final settlement that would, of course, ultimately be in the economic interest of both.

The prisoner exchange involving Gilad Shalit has been presented by Hamas in Gaza as a victory. Does the Minister agree that the cause of moderate Palestinian opinion, and perhaps even the Palestinian economy, could receive a boost from a successful bid for recognition of its statehood at the United Nations?

There are two issues there. First, the unconscionable detention of Gilad Shalit by Hamas was no cause for any victory celebration. We certainly welcome the fact that he has been released and hope that it indicates at least some degree of movement between the two parties. Ultimately, of course, what will benefit all is a negotiated settlement that leads to an independent Palestine side by side with a sovereign and recognised Israel. All the work that the United Kingdom does is to ensure that that is the most likely outcome of the various discussions that are taking place through the Quartet and the UN alike.

Businesses in the Palestinian territories repeatedly stress that economic progress fundamentally depends on political progress. As the position of the UK Government is to support the establishment of a viable Palestinian state, will the Minister update us on their position on the recognition of such a state by the United Nations?

I welcome the hon. Gentleman to his position on the Front Bench. We know that he will acquit himself of his duties extremely well.

Economically, an ultimate settlement of the issue between Israel and Palestine will bring benefits to all and is essential. We play our part by supporting the economy, with some £80 million this year going to the west bank and Gaza. However, the ultimate settlement will depend not so much on any universal declaration as on the process of negotiation. At present there has been no resolution put forward for the United Kingdom to vote on, and it is still not clear whether the UN process would be through the Security Council alone or through the General Assembly. However, the UK will always use its vote in the best interests of ensuring that the likelihood of negotiations towards a final settlement is assisted rather than hindered.


2. Whether he has made recent representations to the Government of Ukraine on the treatment of former President Tymoshenko. (76294)

My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister denounced the selective use of justice in Ukraine in the House on 12 October, and in late September my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister told President Yanukovych directly that cases such as Mrs Tymoshenko’s were a threat to parliamentary ratification of Ukraine’s association agreement with the European Union.

I thank the Minister for that reply. Does not the behaviour of the Ukraine Government towards ex-President Tymoshenko show that Soviet-style show trials are unfortunately not a thing of the past? Does he agree that if Ukraine wishes to be taken seriously as a true democracy, it should start acting that way?

Since President Yanukovych took office, he has declared that his prime foreign policy objective is to secure Ukraine’s closer integration with the EU through an association agreement. We need to keep reminding the Ukrainian Government that that integration involves not only economic reforms but reforms of the political and judicial systems to bring Ukraine into line with what we expect of a modern European democracy.

I share the sentiment of both the right hon. Gentleman’s question and the Minister’s answer: the treatment of Mrs Tymoshenko is totally unacceptable. Does the Minister agree that Mr Yanukovych is trying to play the EU against Russia, but that he is succeeding with neither? Is not the message for him that he should comply with the rule of law or face international isolation?

As I said, if Ukraine wants to make progress with its declared objective of closer integration with the EU, it must realise that that involves a clear and permanent commitment to political reform to establish modern democratic institutions.

The Government are right to make clear their deep concern about the legitimacy of the trial and conviction of Mrs Tymoshenko, but does my right hon. Friend agree that it is in the interests of both our countries that we continue to press Ukraine, and that we negotiate for it to join the association agreement and to sign the deep and comprehensive free trade agreement? Does he also agree that although we should register a protest, it would be a grave mistake to break off those talks?

I do not believe that isolating Ukraine will help us in persuading the Government there to continue to move towards full membership of the European family of nations. I certainly welcome the fact that friends of Ukraine, including my hon. Friend, deliver that message clearly to the Ukrainian authorities.

European Union

3. What the Government’s priorities are for the European Union in the next year; and if he will make a statement. (76295)

The Government’s immediate priority is for the eurozone to find a sustainable response to the current economic crisis, and to do so in a way that protects the rights of all 27 member states to take decisions over areas such as the single market. Beyond that, we shall continue to press for tight limits on EU spending and action to promote growth and jobs, through free and open markets, and by cutting regulatory costs on European business.

I thank the Minister for his reply. Just in case the House has not debated Europe enough in the past 24 hours, can he shed any light on why the Leader of the Opposition thinks that the Prime Minister was mistaken to stand up to the French President at the weekend? Is it not essential that Britain is represented at the EU meetings this week for the sake of our economy?

Order. This question is on the responsibilities of the Prime Minister and not those of the Leader of the Opposition.

My hon. Friend is right. Not just this House but the country will be glad that they have a Prime Minister who will stand up for the interests of this country, even at the cost of an occasional row.

But how is UK influence enhanced by the loose talk by the Prime Minister and other senior Cabinet Ministers of the repatriation of powers? What exactly is the Government’s policy on that? Can the Minister name a single other EU country that would support it?

The reality is that if the eurozone proceeds, as economic logic demands, towards closer economic and fiscal integration, there will be consequences for the whole EU. As part of that negotiation, we intend to insist that, as a first step, the interests of the 27 are protected over matters such as the single market, and that the particular British interest in financial services is properly safeguarded.

Those of us who opposed the creation of the single currency when John Major’s Government were sitting on the fence view with horror the prospect that its failure may now lead to the economic unification and economic government of Europe. Will the Minister reassure us that Britain would not countenance supporting such a mad and undemocratic idea?

Part of the critique that both my hon. Friend and I have consistently made of the single currency is that, in the absence of closer fiscal and economic union, a single monetary policy and interest rate would not be sustainable. However, it is the sovereign right of other European countries to choose whether to pursue closer integration now, and it would be disastrous for the UK were the eurozone to suffer a financial collapse or prolonged recession.

I want to take the Minister back to the repatriation of powers. The Government’s coalition agreement from last May promises that the Government

“will examine the balance of the EU’s existing competences”.

What progress has been made on this examination, has it come to any conclusions and, if so, will the Minister place them in the Library of the House of Commons?

The work has started. It is in its early stages, though, because in our first year in office we gave priority to implementing the referendum lock to try to repair the damage done to public trust in the EU by the right hon. Gentleman’s Government and their denying people the referendum on the Lisbon treaty that had been promised. That work will continue, and I would welcome constructive suggestions from the Opposition as much as from any part of the House as that work is carried forward.

I thank the Minister for that elucidating answer. This morning, the Deputy Prime Minister said that the return of powers from the EU to Britain was not going to happen. How does the Minister reconcile those remarks with the earlier remarks this morning from the Education Secretary? Do these remarks suggest that the coalition Government have no intention of seeking the transfer of powers and that all the Conservative party’s talk on this issue is simply an attempt to placate its own Back Benchers?

My right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister spoke about rebalancing the responsibilities of the EU and member states in the light of potentially dramatic changes to how the EU is organised. Frankly, it is a bit rich for the right hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire South (Mr Alexander) to lecture us, given that his party leader will not rule out joining the euro, rejects the idea that Brussels has too much power and claims that the President of France speaks for the British people. That makes the right hon. Gentleman a spokesman for a party that has no relevant contribution to make to the future of Europe.

Sri Lanka

4. What recent reports he has received on the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission in Sri Lanka. (76296)

We expect the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission to report in November. We are interested in its recommendations and conclusions, and we trust that it will deal with some of the credibility issues raised by the international community. We will also expect it to deal with some of the issues raised by the Channel 4 documentary during the summer.

The UN panel of experts concluded that the commission was “deeply flawed” and did

“not meet international standards for an effective accountability mechanism.”

Do the Government agree with that assessment? If not, why not? If they do, what are they doing about it?

In the first place, the responsibility lies with Sri Lanka to carry out its own investigation, which is why we want to wait for the results of the commission in November. We are aware that it will deal with some of the criticisms offered by the UN panel of experts, but we will make a judgment, not on what comes before but on what the commission actually says. We have made it clear that we expect to see progress by the end of the year on a series of matters that has already been raised with Sri Lanka, and if that is not the case we have other options to pursue.

Does my hon. Friend agree that if the Sri Lankan Government’s report does not answer the questions about the atrocities committed against the Tamil people, this issue will have to be taken forward as a matter of urgency?

It is all about the base of reconstruction and reconciliation for the future. The British Government and a number of others have sought to make it clear, in accordance with the wishes of the Government of Sri Lanka, that if reconstruction and reconciliation are to be properly based, that will involve looking back on the past as well as forward to the future. Progress has been made in Sri Lanka since the end of the conflict, but serious issues still need to be addressed and we expect the Sri Lankan Government to be in a position to do that.

Given the obvious sensitivities of the Sri Lankan situation, can the Minister confirm that the Foreign Office has in its possession a full minute of all meetings, both in Sri Lanka and on the topic of Sri Lanka, that the former Defence Secretary had during his time in office?

I welcome the hon. Lady to her position, and I wish her well in performing her duties.

The Foreign Secretary has made it clear that he is well aware of the visits to Sri Lanka by my right hon. Friend the Member for North Somerset (Dr Fox), the former Secretary of State for Defence, who had a particular link with Sri Lanka during his time as a junior Minister at the Foreign Office. I have no knowledge of whether any minutes were prepared of those meetings, but I will inquire. I am absolutely certain, however, that the Foreign Secretary was well aware of the meetings, and that he was absolutely confident that Foreign Office policy would be properly reflected by my right hon. Friend the Member for North Somerset.

There is continuing concern around the world about human rights protection and press freedom in Sri Lanka. Will my hon. Friend tell the House what action Her Majesty’s Government are taking, particularly in the context of the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in Australia, to ensure that Sri Lanka does not take a high-profile position in the Commonwealth in the future?

There are two issues involved there. The concerns about press freedom have been raised with the Government of Sri Lanka. The disappearance of a number of journalists has not been fully investigated, for example, and the Sri Lankan Government have been tasked with dealing with that matter. We welcome the lifting of the emergency regulations, although we have yet to see how clear the replacement legislation will be. As far as the Commonwealth is concerned, Sri Lanka will not be the sole focus of the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting. We expect any Commonwealth country hosting the meeting to meet the Commonwealth standards of good governance and respect for human rights, and that will be the same in 2013 as it is in 2011.

European Single Market

5. What recent discussions he has had with his EU counterparts on the future of the European single market. (76297)

My right hon. Friends and I take every opportunity with our EU colleagues, formally and informally, to argue that we need to deepen and widen the single market to secure economic growth and create jobs.

Will the Minister tell me how much of the Foreign Secretary’s valuable time was spent on the diversion of trying to appease rebellious Tory Back Benchers instead of trying to achieve reforms to the European single market, which might benefit Britain’s interests? An estimate will suffice.

If the hon. Gentleman had been studying the conclusions of last Sunday’s European summit rather than the brief from his Whips Office, he would realise that the summit agreed to give priority to EU action to benefit jobs and growth. He would also know that it called for full implementation of the services directive, completion of a digital single market by 2015 and a reduction in the administrative burden of European regulation on business by a quarter by next year. That is a European agenda that could have been written in London, and it was achieved because of the intensive diplomacy of my right hon. Friends the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary.

European free trade through the single market is clearly a good thing for this country, apart from the fact that we have recently seen an alarming increase in this country’s trade deficit with our European partners. What can Her Majesty’s Government do about that?

I am glad that my hon. Friend has raised that matter. I took note of the points that he and others raised in the debate yesterday evening, and I have looked at the latest figures. I am glad to be able to tell him that the trade deficit has narrowed since the figures that he and others cited yesterday were produced. The way to get the trade deficit down is, in part, through Government Ministers making every effort through commercial diplomacy to help our businesses to sell British goods and services in Europe and the wider world.

Now that the Prime Minister has managed to secure a seat at tomorrow’s summit in Brussels, what specific proposals will he put on the table, and which alliances will he build, or rebuild, to ensure that the eurozone 17 do not start to take decisions about the single market without us?

I am sorry that the hon. Lady, whom I welcome to her new responsibilities, overlooked the commitments already made on Sunday by all 27 Heads of Government to ensuring that the integrity of the single market is protected and that the rights of the Community at 27 are safeguarded. My right hon. Friend will be seeking both political and legal or administrative ways to ensure that the position of the Euro-outs is protected. He will find allies—my own experience in the General Affairs Council on Saturday certainly showed this—not only among other countries outside the eurozone, but among a number of eurozone member states that do not wish either the UK or other Euro-outs to be excluded from discussion.

Of course, as the Foreign Secretary pointed out yesterday, a real prize for this country will be completion of the internal market for services and liberalisation of the energy sector. Is that likely to be achieved under the Polish presidency?

I think that we will make some progress under the Polish presidency. I would like to think that we will accomplish everything my hon. Friend urges, but it is certainly our intention to continue to press forward with that agenda under the Danish and, if necessary, the Cypriot presidencies next year.

Human Rights (Egypt)

On 12 October, my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary had a conversation with the Foreign Secretary in Egypt, in which human rights issues were raised. Also, on 20 October, my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister paid a visit to Cairo, when human rights were again part of the subject of his conversation with the Prime Minister.

May I press the Minister to ensure that a fair proportion of the Arab Partnership fund is used to support women’s political participation in Egypt? I urge him to look at what percentage of the applications received for the fund were from women’s organisations and what proportion of grants awarded will support women’s rights.

Yes, I will. Clearly, the Arab Partnership work with Egypt is now under way on capacity building and democracy building, and about £1 million has been spent. I am not sure how easy it will be to divide it in the manner she described, but I will look at that. What has been clear from talking to activists who have been to the UK to talk to us is the determination to be involved in the processes. We have been very keen to make sure that they have been involved, and our work has been designed to assist women to participate at all levels in respect of the future of Egypt.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on the work of the Arab Partnership fund in Egypt and I encourage him to try to find even more resources for it as quickly as possible. Does he agree that the best way to protect human rights in Egypt is to help the country to acquire the kind of stable democracy that we in the west take for granted? Is that not the right way forward for that part of the world?

It is. My hon. Friend, whose work through the Westminster Foundation has been a great asset to the Arab Partnership, is absolutely right. There are various things that we look at. The constitutional declaration by the Egyptian Government on 30 March made equality and freedom of expression and opinion very clear, and we are waiting to see enacted a unified law on the construction of places of worship, which will grant equality to Copts and Muslims in that particular area. There are whole areas of equality where the statements by the Government there have been good, but it is essential that they are followed by actions. That will be underpinned by democracy.

Human Trafficking

7. What recent guidance he has issued to overseas posts on implementing the new Government strategy on human trafficking. (76299)

My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary wrote to all overseas posts on 19 July welcoming the strategy and outlining its aims. We soon expect to finalise with the Home Office the strategy for priority countries. When that process is complete, the Foreign Secretary will write to ambassadors and high commissioners in those countries, instructing them to incorporate trafficking objectives into their work.

I thank the excellent Minister for that response. Prevention is better than cure. If a young woman is trafficked into this country, she will be rescued, but it is better that she is not trafficked in the first place so that she does not have to suffer modern-day slavery and all that goes with it. It is our ambassadors and delegations abroad who are our first step in warning people of the dangers of trafficking. Does the Minister agree?

I strongly agree with my hon. Friend. We are working with foreign Governments to build their capacity to disrupt human trafficking—for example, we are working with judges and prosecutors in priority countries to increase prosecutions; we are working with the Serious Organised Crime Agency to prevent trafficking by building capacity; and we are addressing the root causes by alleviating poverty through our work with the Department for International Development.

The key necessity is to track down and prosecute those who are responsible for trafficking. Four international organisations are involved: Europol, Interpol, the Southeast European Cooperative Initiative, and the European Union. How are the Government attempting to co-ordinate those organisations?

I agree that it is desirable to co-ordinate that kind of international work, but we are also working in tandem with countries where our embassies are developing programmes of the type that I have just mentioned. We are not ruling out any ways of trying to achieve our common objectives.

Central Asia

8. What recent steps he has taken to strengthen relations with countries in central Asia; and if he will make a statement. (76300)

Central Asia is increasingly important to British economic and strategic interests. We shall be opening a British embassy in Kyrgyzstan early next year, and we are maintaining high-level bilateral contact with all five republics. The most recent such contact took place during a visit to central Asia by my right hon. Friend the Minister of State, Department for International Development.

When I was doing voluntary work in Tajikistan recently, it was noted that despite the good work of our ambassador, there was a very low-key British presence. Will the Minister ask the British Council whether it can raise its profile in that country? The council currently deals with it from Uzbekistan, and relations between the two countries are pretty poor.

I pay tribute to the voluntary work that my hon. Friend did in Tajikistan earlier this year. It is good that the interests of that important part of the world can be highlighted in the House of Commons. I will happily pass on what my hon. Friend has said to the head of the British Council.

Until fairly recently central Asia was awash with nuclear weapons, but following the declaration by Kazakhstan and a number of other nations, a nuclear-weapon-free zone has been established there. Does the Minister welcome its establishment, and will he guarantee that NATO will comply with the zone and not overfly it with any nuclear weapons or nuclear-armed aircraft so that we show respect for that attempt to introduce peace to what was once a very tense region?

We welcome any moves to reduce the threat from nuclear proliferation worldwide, and we look not only to the central Asian republics but to all signatories to the non-proliferation treaty to live up to their obligations fully.

Lydia Hunt

9. What recent discussions he has had with the Mexican authorities on progress in the investigation into the abduction of Lydia Hunt. (76301)

I raised the case directly with the Mexican Deputy Foreign Minister during my meeting with her in Mexico City last Tuesday, and my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary also raised it when he met the Mexican Foreign Minister in London in June. We expressed our concerns about Lydia Hunt’s welfare, the delays in locating her, and the slow progress in resolving the case through the courts.

I am very grateful to the Minister. My constituent Jonathan Hunt has been seeking his daughter’s return for three years since she was abducted to Mexico, although the country is a signatory to The Hague convention, which requires the determination of cases involving minors within six weeks. What more can the Minister do to help Lydia, and how can he tackle non-compliance with the convention by member states such as Mexico?

That, in essence, is the point that I put to the Minister when I saw her last week. We are keen for progress to be made as quickly as possible, but we are told by the Mexicans that legal obstacles prevent it from being made as quickly as we should like. We continue to press the case of the right hon. Gentleman’s constituent.


The situation in Syria continues to be a matter of grave concern. Estimates suggest that at least 3,000 people have been killed since the unrest began, including the documented total of 187 children. We continue to call on the regime to stop killing its own people and to free political prisoners, and we continue to urge other international action in order to show that the legitimacy of the regime has gone.

Syria, much like Iran, continues to brutally suppress its own people, flagrantly abuses human rights, and is still funding international terrorist organisations such as Hamas and Hezbollah on Israel’s borders. What pressure can the Government exert on Syria to stop further bloodshed?

The Government have been in the lead in promoting action in the European Union and the United Nations. The European Union has imposed seven rounds of sanctions on Syria, involving some 56 individuals and 19 entities, and most recently has put pressure on its oil exports, which constitute some 25% of its revenue. Further efforts will be made in the United Nations, although unfortunately a resolution that we had helped to draw up was vetoed by Russia and China on 4 October. It is vital for the United Nations to speak with one voice in its condemnation of what is happening in Syria.

The Minister is absolutely right that the veto by Russia and China was a disgrace, but what can be done to achieve solidarity from Turkey and Arab neighbours of Syria, who can have enormous influence both on Damascus and at the United Nations?

Yes, they can; the hon. Gentleman knows that from his own background knowledge. Last week I met Foreign Ministers representing Arab League countries. They have a delegation that is due to go to Syria on 26 October, and they have increasingly stepped up their concern. The hon. Gentleman is right that they must ensure that their leverage in relation to Syria—which may well be greater than ours—is used to benefit the Syrian people. We have been in close contact with Turkey, which continues to lend support to our efforts for more to be done internationally. It is essential that the international community speaks with one voice and that the Syrian regime stops killing its people and begins a transition.

EU Observer Status (UN)

11. What assessment his Department has made of implications for UK foreign policy of the EU’s enhanced observer status at the United Nations. (76303)

The EU’s formal status as a non-voting observer at the United Nations has not changed. The key difference is that now, where agreed, the High Representative, rather than the rotating presidency, speaks on the EU’s behalf at the General Assembly. The practical implications for our foreign policy have not been noticeable, but we have had to hold some tough discussions with those who thought Lisbon meant an automatic increase in the EU’s competence in international bodies.

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for that answer. We have recently witnessed major foreign policy crises in respect of Libya and elsewhere. What difference has the EU’s new status made to the way in which we and the United Nations have handled those crises?

I have to tell my hon. and learned Friend that it made very little difference indeed in practice, in part because the EU itself was divided. When we had to pursue a military campaign and the need arose for quick political decisions, it was individual member states’ Foreign Ministries, Defence staffs and intelligence agencies who made the decisions and took things forward. The EU has an important role to play in helping to rebuild Libya and integrate it into the wider community of nations.

Will the Minister confirm that on every working morning at the UN and all its agencies there is a co-ordination meeting of all the EU ambassadors, including the UK’s, and that when they decide to speak with one voice they have far more impact than a cacophony of 27 different voices? We have to stop appeasing the “Mad-Eye Moodys” who hate anything to do with the European Union; and when we can speak as one, we should speak as one.

I am waiting for the right hon. Gentleman to find his Harry Potter analogies. He is right to the extent that if the 27 EU member states are able to speak with one voice, that can often add to the weight of their voice, but it is important that that is done in a way that does not compromise the delineation of competences between the EU and member states as set out in the Lisbon treaty, which is why I am glad that at the General Affairs Council on Saturday we all agreed a framework agreement to make sure representation should not affect competence.


12. What recent assessment he has made of the Afghan High Peace Council’s role in the political process in that country. (76304)

The High Peace Council leads the Afghan Government’s reintegration and reconciliation efforts. Following the tragic assassination of former President and council chairman Rabbani, President Karzai has been reviewing the approach the High Peace Council takes to its work. We will continue to stand by his Government’s efforts to support Afghan-led reconciliation through the High Peace Council.

I am grateful to the Minister for his answer, but what is the UK’s latest assessment of the Afghan High Peace Council’s commitment to the inclusion of women in Afghanistan’s political process?

This issue is very important to the United Kingdom, and to the many Members who have written to me about it over the past few weeks. Women are represented on the High Peace Council; nine of its 70 members are women. They have also been represented in Parliament and in last year’s peace process. We continually stress to the Afghan Government that the commitment they have made to the equality of all their citizens and the inclusion of all in future processes must be met by action as well as words, and we will continue to take that forward as we look towards the Bonn summit.

I am encouraged by my hon. Friend’s reply. Will the Government do all they can to ensure that women attending the Bonn peace conference will be representative of the true aspirations of Afghan women, and will not just be placewomen put there for the benefit of the Afghan Government?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I recently met Fawzia Koofi, an Afghan woman MP who was outspoken in her determination to ensure that she and others like her should be properly represented, both at the Bonn summit and in other aspects of life. She reminded all of us that Afghan women have traditionally taken part in a great deal of decision making at local and provincial level, and she was keen to ensure that the gains made over the past 10 years in women’s lives should not be lost. We should stand absolutely beside those who believe that.

Detentions (Israeli Military Prisons)

13. What recent reports he has received on the continued detention of Palestinian children in Israeli military prisons. (76305)

We receive regular reports about the detention of Palestinian children from a non-governmental organisation, Defence for Children International. We remain concerned about the detention of children in military jails and the prosecution of children through military courts.

Will the Minister confirm the UK Government’s full support for UNICEF, which is calling for the immediate release of the 164 children in Israeli military prisons? Will he assure the House that as the relevant Minister he will do everything in his power to get these kids reunited with their families?

When I was in Israel a few months ago, I raised this matter directly with the Minister responsible, indicating the UK’s concerns about both the detention and the treatment of children. The Israelis have recently raised the age of criminal responsibility in the territories from 16 to 18, so it is the same as for Israeli children. None the less, I know that the Israeli Government do take seriously the fact that children are detained in circumstances that cause concern to NGOs and UNICEF, and we will continue to press them on this.

Does my hon. Friend agree that the tragedy of some of these Palestinian children in Israeli prisons has arisen because some of them have been groomed as terrorists by Hamas and Islamic Jihad, which goes against the Geneva convention and all kinds of international law? [Interruption] Will he take steps with the Palestinian Authority to try to ensure that children are not used in that way?

I hear comments from others, but my hon. Friend makes a fair point; the tragedy is that children have been used. There was a regrettable incident in which a Down’s syndrome youngster was a suicide bomber. It is not wrong for anyone to be alert to those risks. None the less, the majority of these children are not detained for such reasons and it is essential that Israel makes the right distinction between the two in order to retain international credibility and to ensure its own security.

South Sudan

14. What recent assessment he has made of political progress in South Sudan; and if he will make a statement. (76306)

President Kiir and South Sudan face many challenges, as the country has to build capacity and structures from scratch. For example, there are only 20 km of tarmacked road in a country the size of France. Furthermore, the country has to deal with hundreds of thousands of south Sudanese returning from the north. Britain is not only working with the international community, but taking the lead in a number of key areas of development.

The Minister will be aware that one of the first decisions taken by the Government of South Sudan was to apply for membership of the Commonwealth of Nations. Will Her Majesty’s Government give support to that application? Should the country wish to apply to become one of Her Majesty’s realms, would the Government also support that application?

On my hon. Friend’s first point, that is obviously a matter for all members and key criteria will have to be met, especially those relating to the core values of democracy, human rights and the rule of law. South Sudan is making good progress, however, and we should be ambitious and aim for membership in 2013. On his second point, it is obviously up to the Sudanese to decide whether to have an elected presidency or move to a constitutional monarchy with Her Majesty the Queen as Head of State.

What steps are the Government taking to assist with the resolution of the outstanding border issues between South Sudan and the north, particularly the situation in Abyei?

I certainly share the hon. Gentleman’s concern about Abyei. A framework agreement is in place, which states clearly that both sides must disengage, and we are urging them to do so as soon as possible. The UN-backed force of Ethiopians is in place and is deploying, but both sides—the Sudanese armed forces and the Sudan People’s Liberation Army-North—must disengage.


We strongly support the use of targeted sanctions in relation to our concerns about Iran’s nuclear activity, its human rights abuses and the recently discovered international terrorist activity in the United States. The choice is clear: those who continue to follow such a course can either remain on it and face further sanctions and isolation or they can respond to the wishes of the international community and have those sanctions lifted.

I thank my hon. Friend for that answer. Will he share with the House the Government’s assessment of the military dimensions of the Iranian nuclear programme, particularly given that the Iranians continue to refuse to co-operate with the International Atomic Energy Agency?

The IAEA is, in a sense, the keeper of the conscience of the world in relation to the bargain between those with nuclear weapons and those without. It has reported recently its increasing concern, as my hon. Friend says, about the possible military dimensions of Iran’s nuclear programme, and a further report is expected in November. Concerns have increased because of the news that the centrifuges are going to be moved to Qom, underground, and there is no civilian justification for the enrichment programme that Iran is working on. All those things are rightfully our concern.

The IAEA called the weapons programme in Iran “extensive and comprehensive”. May I ask the Minister whether sanctions are working, what more the UN should do and whether he favours an extension of sanctions into oil and gas exports?

The process of sanctions has been cumulative over time. There is evidence that they are beginning to have an impact on the economy in relation to Iran—above all, targeted on the individuals who are most responsible—but as well as the sanctions track there is a negotiations track. Nuclear powers have made it very clear, as have the E3 plus 3, that there is an opportunity for negotiation with Iran if it would be open about its nuclear policy. We urge Iran to follow that track so that sanctions can be lifted and the world can be convinced of the civilian purposes of Iran’s programme if that is, indeed, the case.

Topical Questions

I am sure that the whole House will want first to send its sympathy to the Government and people of Turkey in the wake of the devastating earthquake that has struck there. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has assured Prime Minister Erdogan that the United Kingdom is ready to help in whichever way Turkey thinks best.

At the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting that opens in Perth on Friday, we believe that the key focus of discussions should be on how to strengthen the Commonwealth for the future. We are committed to working to strengthen the Commonwealth as a force for democracy, development and prosperity and we believe that this CHOGM can and should be a defining one for the organisation.

I thank the Minister for that answer. The coalition agreement states:

“We will examine the balance of the EU’s existing competences”.

Will the Minister explain to the House when and how this Government policy will be delivered?

This work is under way. I am sure that as it continues there will need to be opportunities to debate the outcome in the House. I hope that my hon. Friend will contribute to that debate and come forward with constructive proposals of his own.

The House will be aware of disturbing reports this morning of an explosion at a fuel tank that has left more than 50 people dead in the Libyan city of Sirte. Of course that event needs to be investigated fully but it surely reminds us that Libya is still awash with weapons, including heavy weapons left over from the Gaddafi era. What steps are the British Government taking to support the Libyan authorities in securing those weapons so that they threaten neither the Libyan people nor international security?

The right hon. Gentleman is right to focus on this, as, indeed, we have. A team from the United Kingdom is already assisting in dealing with the collection of weapons—small arms—and with the issue of surface-to-air missiles that have gone missing in the area. We also have people involved in de-mining and decommissioning, so the United Kingdom takes this issue very seriously. It is essential that the militia come under proper national transitional council control, that there is proper direction of them, that arms are returned and that the politics of Libya can now get on and work for the future.

T2. There is a dangerous disagreement in Zimbabwe among the fragile unity Government about the process and preparation for elections next year. What aid can we give to the Southern African Development Community in preparing for and supporting fair elections in that country? (76319)

We support fully the role that SADC is playing as guarantor and facilitator under the global political agreement. We applaud the work that President Zuma has been doing and his personal leadership in producing an election road map. We support fully his and SADC’s efforts to create the conditions for credible and properly monitored elections in Zimbabwe, but the violence and intimidation must stop forthwith.

T3. Sakina Mohammadi Ashtiani has been in detention for six years and still remains under sentence of death. Her lawyer has fled; his lawyer is in detention; and the lawyer’s lawyer has also fled. Will the Minister update the House on what recent representations have been made in her case? (76320)

Representations have been made in relation both to Miss Ashtiani, who, indeed, remains under sentence of death and in detention, and to her lawyers. The House might like to know that some 61 individuals are now under EU sanctions because of human rights abuses, and that pressure will continue. We continue to raise the cases of all human rights abuses in Iraq, because they remain a stain on that country’s position, and we wish to see Miss Ashtiani given a fair trial as soon as possible.

T4. Brave constituents of mine who served in Afghanistan with 1st Battalion the Mercian Regiment know all too well that Afghanistan does not sit alone in a vacuum and that the regional dimension is crucial to its future stability. To that end, what prospect does the Minister believe that the Istanbul conference has in helping to bring about the regional co-operation and peace that is needed? (76322)

My hon. Friend is right: it is essential for Afghanistan’s future not only that its internal politics evolve—that involves the relationship with its near neighbours—but that its regional context is regularised. China, India and Pakistan all have a role to play, as well as countries further afield. The Istanbul conference is an opportunity to bring those nations together, with a common purpose in securing Afghanistan’s future and giving the Afghan people the opportunity of a viable, secure and democratic future.

T5. Earlier this month, a blast ripped through the Education Ministry in Mogadishu, killing at least 70 people. As fighting continues between the transitional federal Government and al-Shabaab and thousands continue to die from famine in the region, what steps are the Government taking to provide international leadership in promoting a lasting resolution to the conflict in Somalia? (76323)

The UK Government are doing all that we can. We are playing a vital part in the Djibouti process. We are supporting an uplift in the African Union Mission in Somalia to its mandated level of 12,000 troops. We are also doing all that we can to ensure that the transitional federal Government and the transitional federal institutions adhere to the benchmarks in the road map. If they do that, there is a chance for peace and progress, not just in the troubled capital but in the whole country.

T6. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Minister for his diligence in meeting, on a number of occasions now, constituents of mine who originally come from the Chagos islands. Will he update the House on what progress his Department has made with regard to visits to the Chagos islands by those islanders? (76324)

First, I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for the work that he has done in engaging the Chagossians in his Crawley constituency. He has been an absolute pillar of strength for that community. We have organised a number of visits back to the Chagos islands this year for Chagossians from the UK, the Seychelles and Mauritius. We will organise more visits in the future, and I want to get more members of the Chagossian community involved in environmental, conservation and heritage work in the territory.

Much has been said about the protection of human rights in Egypt. Has the Minister raised with the Egyptian authorities the recent brutal attacks on the Christian minority in Egypt that have led to personal injury and the destruction of property, while it seems that the police and security forces stood idly by?

The hon. Gentleman might be referring to the attacks of 9 October, which were particularly serious. They were indeed commented on and raised by my right hon. Friends the Foreign Secretary and the Deputy Prime Minister. The precise circumstances are unclear, but the Egyptian authorities have said that they will hold an inquiry to find out what happened. I return to my previous answer: the Egyptian authorities are very clear in words about the protection of all elements of the community in Egypt; it is essential that their authority carries through to deeds and that those who wish to see harmony support the authorities in ensuring that that happens.

T7. The forthcoming Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting is an opportunity to raise the persecution of gay men and women—indeed, all minorities. What steps can the Minister take to promote equality and tolerance? (76325)

I agree with my hon. Friend. CHOGM is an opportunity to ensure that the Commonwealth becomes a stronger force for promoting democratic values, human rights, the rule of law and, of course, equality and tolerance. That is why we warmly welcome the recommendations of the eminent persons group and the ministerial action group.

Will the Government take this opportunity to congratulate the people of Tunisia on their free and fair democratic election of a constituent assembly today, praise them for the number of women elected and pledge to work with the democrats and all forces that were elected in Tunisia for a democratic and pluralistic future?

I am so glad there has been an opportunity to raise the matter. I would like to thank my hon. Friend the Member for North Thanet (Mr Gale) who took part in the observer process as a strong friend of Tunisia. Indeed, the elections appear to have passed off peacefully, with a huge turnout and engagement which confounded the critics. I am pleased that the United Kingdom was able to provide support in the form of capacity building through the election process. For the people of Tunisia, who in a way started what we have been living through for all these months, it has been very important to see it through to a determined election process. We congratulate them and look forward to the next stage, which is the not unfamiliar territory of putting together a coalition in order to take matters forward.

The outcome of the first Arab spring elections in Tunisia at the weekend is likely to have an effect throughout the middle east, most particularly in Egypt where elections are supposed to be held next month. It is early days yet; we do not know the results, but given the likelihood of a significant dominance by the Ennahda party in Tunisia, what assessment has my hon. Friend managed to make already of the likely effects upon the situation in Egypt and elsewhere?

Again, I thank my hon. Friend for his work in Tunisia and for reporting back so quickly to the House. First and foremost, the fact that even in a relatively short time a community can come through a state of dictatorship to free and fair elections is a good example. Secondly, it will be the example to follow. There is no doubt that Islamic parties will be well represented in the Parliaments of states in north Africa that have elections, but as we know, the label encompasses quite a wide range of opinions about democracy. What we wish to see now is the Tunisian Government established and able to put into practice their determination of a pluralistic democracy. We hope that those in Egypt will see that example and begin to work through their own processes—

I should like to declare an interest.

Following the self-immolation of nine Tibetan monks in the past few weeks, what representations have the British Government made to the Chinese authorities to stop the consistent and systematic eradication of Tibetan culture, religion and language, and to give the Tibetan people their much needed and correct desire for self-determination?

The Government continue to have the same policy as the previous Government with regard to Tibet’s position in China, but we still make representations on a regular basis with respect to human rights and the conditions of the Tibetan people.

T8. As Shaker Aamer approaches the 10th anniversary of his incarceration without charge in Guantanamo Bay, can the Minister update the House on the Government’s representations on his behalf? (76326)

As many hon. Members know from correspondence, the return of Shaker Aamer to the United Kingdom remains an objective of the United Kingdom Government. His case continues to be raised both by officials and at ministerial level. It is a matter for the United States Government to determine, but our own determination and our efforts to return Shaker Aamer to the United Kingdom will certainly continue.

Given the Minister’s warm words on democracy and human rights in the middle east, in what practical ways are we helping countries such as Tunisia and Egypt?

The Arab Partnership was set up with a total budget of more than £100 million to cover a number of years and these countries in north Africa and beyond. Money is there to support capacity building, for people to go out to talk about election process, for party building and for basic communications. Bearing in mind that some of these countries have not had any sense of this, we have sent out skilled operatives, including Members of the House, to convey what Parliament and parliamentarians do, and to help build up the process through officials and others. That work is continuing. In places such as Iraq for example, although not part of the Arab Partnership, where that work is still needed to create a fully functioning relationship between Executive and—

Order. That is enough material for an Adjournment debate. We are very much obliged. We have heard enough, Minister. We are extremely grateful to the Minister, but the answers are simply too long.

T9. While rightly celebrating the elections in Tunisia, may I draw the Minister’s attention to the other geographic end of his responsibilities, to Kashmir? Will the Minister meet the Prime Minister of Azad Kashmir, who is visiting the United Kingdom this week, and will he make the case for self-determination of all Kashmiri people within an independent Kashmir state? (76327)

The position of the UK Government in relation to the resolution of Kashmir has been long held. It is a matter for the Indian and Pakistan Governments to settle with regard to the wishes and the interests of the Kashmiri people.

Is the Minister concerned at the reputation that the UK is acquiring in Egypt and other post-revolution Arab countries as being a safe haven for criminals from the anciens regimes there? What steps is he taking at the moment to ensure that fugitives from justice in those countries and their ill-gotten gains are returned?

I do not recognise the reputation that the hon. Gentleman describes, unless they are all going to Ealing. [Interruption.] Maybe just next door; I am sorry. Where a case can be proved against those who have come to the United Kingdom, which involves either seizure of assets or criminal activity, for which it is possible to remove people from the United Kingdom, we will respond to those requests.

Do the Government share my revulsion at reports that supporters of Gaddafi have been subject to revenge executions without any semblance of due process? Should not our satisfaction at the military outcome now be accompanied by a determination to persuade the new Government of Libya not to allow any descent into brutality?

Unequivocally, yes. But we should pay due tribute to the work of the national transitional council, which set out a clear set of principles on which it would seek to remove the regime and by which to govern, and Chairman Jalil has made it clear on a variety of occasions: no reprisals, no revenge, and respect for human rights. In the circumstances of conflict, that can be very difficult to deliver, but there is no doubt that the new Government have made clear their aims, objectives and principles. They wish to be different from the previous regime and we are right to stand by them and their determination to make those principles stick, no matter that circumstances may be difficult.

With regard to the eventual vote at the United Nations on Palestinian statehood, if the Government were to adopt a position that they would vote in favour of such a motion only if a comprehensive peace agreement had first been agreed, does not that effectively give the Israeli Government a veto over Palestine ever becoming a state?

I am not sure that that does represent the United Kingdom’s position. Attempts have been made to tease it out of me and the Foreign Secretary on many occasions and we will not succumb on this one. No resolution has been put to the United Nations on which a decision needs to be taken. We have made it clear that we wish to see a negotiated settlement, which is the only way in which this will finally be settled, and any vote we use in the UN, whether in the Security Council or the General Assembly, will be used to best effect to ensure that those negotiations continue and are successful rather than anything that might be a hindrance.

Would my hon. Friend please provide the House with an update of the situation regarding the convicted Lockerbie bomber, al-Megrahi? The fact that this convicted terrorist remains a free man is not only a complete disgrace, but a cause of real concern for all the families affected around the world.

There are two or three legacy issues that need to be dealt with. There are also issues relating to the provision of Semtex to the IRA and, of course, the death of WPC Fletcher. All those will be considered. That is an important part of the new bilateral relationship between the United Kingdom and Libya, but not all the issues are presently settled. The legal position of Mr Megrahi appears to have been settled by past actions, but the legacy issues will be examined anew by this Government and by the new Government of the national transitional council.