Skip to main content

Topical Questions

Volume 534: debated on Tuesday 25 October 2011

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.