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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 536: debated on Tuesday 29 November 2011

Foreign and Commonwealth Office

The Secretary of State was asked—

Syria

I speak regularly with my EU colleagues about Syria—most recently at the EU Foreign Affairs Council on 14 November, where we agreed a further round of sanctions on Syria.

This week, we have heard Turkey call for President Assad to step down. Will the Foreign Secretary give us an update on how secure President Assad’s position is in Syria?

It is not very secure. We absolutely agree with the Turkish Government. Indeed, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister called in August for President Assad to step aside. We believe that the regime has lost all legitimacy, certainly in the eyes of the world, but clearly in the eyes of millions of its own people as well. So the regime should now understand that it has no future, that democracy should be introduced in Syria, and the regime should leave office.

What conclusions have the Foreign Secretary and his EU counterparts reached on Iran’s involvement in propping up the Syrian regime?

There is no doubt that Iran has been involved in trying to prop up the Syrian regime. Iran is a country that has supported popular revolution in other parts of the middle east but then has been happy to collude in trying to repress such revolution in Syria—its ally. It has helped with technical equipment, expertise and advice on how to help the regime to deal with the situation, and it shows a hypocritical approach to events in the middle east.

Turkey is a vital ally of the United Kingdom and, indeed, the European Union. What discussions did the Prime Minister have with the Turkish President last week on what further specific measures Turkey can take to exert additional pressure on the Syrian Government?

We discussed this at some length—the Prime Minister with the President—and I discussed it with the Turkish Foreign Minister in the margins of the state visit. We are all working closely—Turkey and the European Union nations—with the Arab League. Turkey is considering a range of measures that it could take on Syria, but, as the hon. Lady knows, the Arab League has led the way at the moment in announcing sanctions. I would not be surprised if further measures now follow from Turkey, on the basis of the discussions that we had last week.

I very much welcome the EU sanctions and, indeed, those from the Arab League, particularly in the light of the very grim UN report, showing that Syrian Government forces have killed at least 256 children. Following the recent visit to London by Syrian opposition representatives, what more can the UK and our EU partners do to support the development of a cohesive and peaceful political opposition in Syria?

Cohesive and peaceful are two very important words. I met two separate groupings of the Syrian opposition last week: the Syrian National Council and the national co-ordinating body—a different grouping of the opposition. I encouraged them to find a common and cohesive platform together—at this extreme moment in their nation’s history, it is important for them to work together—and to maintain non-violent resistance to the Assad regime, to maintain their support around the world.

EU Economy

2. What recent representations he has received on the implications for his Department’s policies of economic conditions in the EU. (83283)

I have had a number of recent meetings with representatives of British business who have emphasised the immediate need for eurozone countries to act to restore stability to their currency and the need for the entire European Union to adopt policies to encourage growth and job creation through open markets and less-costly regulation.

Under the treaty on the functioning of the European Union, the financial transaction tax would have to go to the Council of Ministers, which requires unanimity. Will the Minister confirm that Her Majesty’s Government will veto the new Franco-German euro tax that will only damage the City of London?

My right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer made it quite clear at the most recent ECOFIN meeting that we would reject an EU financial transfer tax, and he was supported in his opposition by 11 other member states.

Can the Minister tell us what practical actions his Government have taken to encourage our European partners to complete the single European market?

I have discussed this in the past two weeks with senior members of the Commission, and I have encouraged them to introduce measures under the Single European Act. Yesterday, in Berlin, other Ministers and I talked to our German counterparts about joint action both to deepen the single market and to reduce the cost of regulations, especially for small and medium-sized businesses.

What discussions has the Minister had with his continental cousins about the fact that the euro is burning while Brussels is fiddling? Would it not be much better to have an orderly withdrawal from the euro, rather than the crisis that we have at the moment?

I think, as my hon. Friend would admit in private, the idea that the eurozone can somehow be dismantled in an orderly manner is rather far-fetched. The collapse of the euro and a prolonged recession in the eurozone would do profound damage to hopes for growth and job creation in the United Kingdom. It is our largest single trading partner.

Could the Minister for Europe tell the House how work on the Government’s stated aim of repatriating powers from the European Union is progressing?

My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister made it clear to the British people in his Mansion House speech the other week that we need a rebalancing of responsibilities in the European Union, with some things being done, yes, at the centre, but more things being done by member states in future. That work is ongoing.

Perhaps the Minister for Europe could be a little more forthcoming. How many staff in the Foreign Office are working full-time on this endeavour, will there be a White Paper on the repatriation of powers, and when, indeed, could the House expect such a publication?

I am afraid that the right hon. Gentleman will have to contain his excitement for a little longer. That work is ongoing, and of course, we shall keep Parliament acquainted with progress on it.

Tibet

3. What representations he has made to the Chinese Government following recent self-immolations in Tibet. (83284)

The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, my hon. Friend the Member for Taunton Deane (Mr Browne), raised our concerns about the increasing number of self-immolations in Tibetan areas with the Chinese Vice Foreign Minister in Beijing earlier this month.

I advise the House of my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests.

Recently, I met the Dalai Lama, who made clear his concern that all involved should work for a peaceful solution in line with the middle way. Does he share that approach?

We are seriously concerned about recent reports that young monks and nuns in Tibetan areas of Szechuan province have immolated themselves. As I said, we have taken that up with the Chinese Vice Foreign Minister, and with the Chinese embassy in London. We encourage, of course, the resolution of grievances that have led to that situation. We will continue to encourage the Chinese Government to take that constructive approach.

As the Chinese Government have been able to recognise and respect the autonomy of both Hong Kong and Macau in the People’s Republic, should they not allow autonomy for Tibet, to ensure that, within the People’s Republic, its unique culture and identity are properly respected and recognised, and will the Government try to encourage it to do so?

My right hon. and learned Friend makes a very fair point indeed. As he knows, we recognise Tibet as part of the People’s Republic of China, but we call for meaningful dialogue between the representatives of the Dalai Lama and the Chinese authorities in the interests of autonomy in future. Of course, we always call for respect for human rights.

I am sure that the Foreign Secretary welcomed China’s recent recognition of the aspirations and rightful demands of the Syrian people. Does he think that that is a positive development, as China may be beginning to realise that repression does not deliver genuine stability, and it should have the confidence to recognise the aspirations and rightful demands of the Tibetan people, too?

Such language is positive and I continue to believe, as I said in the House yesterday, that the veto of our proposed UN resolution on Syria by Russia and China was a mistake and did not take into account the legitimate aspirations of the people of Syria. On the question of Tibet, we encourage the meaningful dialogue of which I spoke a moment ago.

Equatorial Guinea

4. What assessment he has made of the implications for the governance of Equatorial Guinea of the recent constitutional referendum in that country. (83286)

We do not have an ambassador based in Equatorial Guinea, but we have an ambassador based in Cameroon who visits regularly and takes a close interest in developments there. He often raises directly issues such as human rights, good governance and lack of social development. We also raise those issues through the EU and the UN.

As the Minister knows, hon. Friends and I published an excoriating report after our visit to Equatorial Guinea in the summer. Does he agree that certain principles of good governance, such as democracy, liberty and the rule of law, are universal and eternal?

I agree that those principles are vital and they are ones on which we will focus and put a huge amount of emphasis. I thank my hon. Friend for his report, and I pay tribute to him and his colleagues for their energy and open-mindedness in reporting back to the Foreign Office on that visit.

Can the Minister update the House on the Government’s assessment of growing concern about the position in Malawi—unrest, autocratic rule and real oppression?

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for raising that. Although we are talking about Equatorial Guinea, I was in Zambia recently and had a chance not to visit Malawi, but to have an assessment of what was going on there. We are very concerned indeed about the way in which the Malawi Government evicted our high commissioner, but a high level delegation from Malawi recently came to the Foreign Office and we were able to have candid discussions with them. My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary made it clear that there are certain measures that need to be put in place before we resume normal diplomatic relations.

The Minister is both well travelled and, as he has just shown, dextrous in his response to questions.

May we assume from the Minister’s reply that the Government’s policy now is to encourage contacts with countries with records on human rights as despicable as that of Equatorial Guinea, and that hon. Members should accept private invitations for five-star business class visits paid for by the Governments?

We have full diplomatic relations with Equatorial Guinea. We never hold back in telling that Government about our concerns regarding human rights and lack of good governance, and we have made it clear to the Government of Equatorial Guinea that they have a per capita income of $15,000 a year, yet that masks extremes of wealth between the very rich and the very, very poor. I welcome hon. Members going there with an open mind and reporting back to us.

Iran

We worked closely with our EU partners in responding to the International Atomic Energy Agency report about the Iranian nuclear programme, and I hope we will reach further conclusions on Iran at this week’s Foreign Affairs Council.

What work are the Government doing to protect the safety and security of Foreign and Commonwealth Office staff in Iran, following the decision this week of Iran’s Parliament to call for drastic cuts in diplomatic ties? Will the Government respond to that with similar action if that call is agreed to by the Guardian Council?

The hon. Lady is right to raise the issue. The Iranian Parliament voted on Sunday to downgrade relations with the United Kingdom. As she says, the further decision of the Guardian Council is awaited. I have made it clear that if they go ahead with that, we will respond robustly. We will do so in consultation with our European Union partners. There is no Iranian ambassador currently here in London. The embassy is headed by a chargé so we are not able to respond exactly in kind, but we will respond in other ways and we will do so robustly.

Given that the latest International Atomic Energy Agency report provides no concrete evidence of a nuclear weapons programme—there is no smoking gun—does the Foreign Secretary accept that implied threats of military force could be counter-productive in that they could rally the people behind the hard-liners and drive whatever programme there is further underground?

To be clear, the IAEA report of earlier in November speaks of its serious concerns at credible information about Iran’s nuclear weapons programme, so we should be clear about that. As my hon. Friend knows, we are not advocating military action. We are pursuing a twin-track approach of being open to meaningful negotiations but increasing the peaceful and legitimate pressure on Iran through sanctions, and we will continue with that approach.

I welcome the Government’s newly announced sanctions in response to Iran’s nuclear programme. Ahead of the right hon. Gentleman’s forthcoming meeting with European counterparts in December to discuss the issue, what is he doing to encourage financial institutions across Europe to take action?

The Government made an important announcement on that a week ago. Last Monday my right hon. Friend the Chancellor announced that the British financial sector is required to sever all financial ties with Iranian banks. Similar action is being taken by the United States and Canada. I expect some other nations to follow suit and, as I mentioned earlier, we are now discussing within the European Union additional measures that will follow shortly.

Afghanistan

The principal outcome of the conference, which I attended on behalf of the United Kingdom, was an agreement by Afghanistan’s regional partners on the future of Afghanistan, involving commitments to non-intervention, to the inviolability of its borders and to support Afghan-led efforts on reconciliation and the political process. The group has agreed to meet again in June next year.

Given that Pakistan is vital to Afghanistan’s security, how will the Government assess the impact on relationships between Pakistan, Afghanistan and the United States, bearing in mind the tragic incident over the weekend involving NATO forces?

It was tragic indeed. My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary spoke with the Foreign Secretary of Pakistan on 26 November to convey the United Kingdom’s condolences to the families of those involved and to the armed forces and people of Pakistan. We support an urgent inquiry by the international security assistance force into the circumstances and encourage Pakistan to take part. In the meantime, all parties should do their utmost to rebuild trust and confidence between them and take no action that would make that more difficult.

The Minister will recall that I wrote to him a year ago having met a number of Afghan women MPs who were extremely concerned about the future and who regularly put their lives at risk in seeking to represent people in their country. What is he doing to ensure that the rights of women in Afghanistan will be supported in future?

If I do not remember the individual letter, I certainly remember the sentiments, which have been echoed by a good number of colleagues over the past few months. Yesterday I received a delegation of non-governmental organisations expressing their concerns about this and a large petition. We have ensured that the Minister for Equalities, my hon. Friend the Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Lynne Featherstone), the Minister responsible for combating violence against women, will attend the Bonn conference with my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary and that commitments to women in Afghanistan will be uppermost in our presentations. It is vital that the situation for women does not go backwards in Afghanistan and that the Government honour their commitment to equality.

Will conditions be attached to the withdrawal of our provincial reconstruction team in Helmand, such as an increase in the capacity of provincial government in the region, or will the team simply be withdrawn in line with the removal of combat troops by 2015?

We fully expect that the withdrawal of the provincial reconstruction team and those who support it will be in line with the timetable announced. We welcome the fact that further districts of Helmand were included last week in President Karzai’s announcement of a further tranche towards transition. We of course keep the closest watch on conditions on the ground, but so far our assessment is that the timetable will be able to be kept.

I welcome the Minister’s responses, but this was clearly the precursor to next week’s conference in Bonn on the future of Afghanistan. What are the Government’s objectives for the conference?

Our objectives are to fulfil the three themes of the conference: to look at future commitments from the international community to Afghanistan; to support the political process; and to discuss civilian transition in Afghanistan. It is a very important conference and we hope that all parties will be able to attend. It is not a NATO conference, for example, and we hope that it will be possible for Pakistan to send representatives, as its future security is intimately bound up with that of Afghanistan.

May I also thank the Minister for his very full response to my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Meg Munn) on protecting the significant gains that women have made in Afghanistan? What are the Government doing to ensure that the voices of Afghan women are heard at that conference and in subsequent discussions?

I appreciate the right hon. Gentleman’s questions. Civil society in Afghanistan and women’s involvement in it are growing. We have made representations over a lengthy period to the Government of Afghanistan to ensure that their own delegation includes a significant number of women representatives, which it will do, and they will voice their aspirations. Our delegation has also ensured that those issues are well up on the agenda, and it is important that the advances made by women in recent years, including that of 2.5 million girls now going to school, are not knocked backwards.

Somaliland

Our position on recognising Somaliland is well known, but of course we understand fully the aspirations of the Somaliland people. The Somali people themselves must decide their future, but in the meantime we urge Somaliland to play a very full role in the Somali peace process. It is for neighbouring countries and the African Union generally to take a lead in responding to any changed political circumstances.

I understand the position that the Minister has spelt out, but does he agree that everybody, including the transitional federal Government in the south, needs to respect and acknowledge 20 years of relative peace and exemplary democratic development in Somaliland, which means that we need a process that enables Somaliland, as the Minister has suggested, to be a part of the solution to the problems in the horn of Africa?

The Prime Minister has called an international conference on Somalia, which will take place on 23 February, and of course Somaliland will be invited. I recently had a meeting with President Silanyo and extended that invitation to him, and he indicated to us that he may well attend. It would be a very important step forward if Somaliland played a really full role in the Somali peace process.

Will my hon. Friend confirm that, if the Somalilanders take part in next February’s London conference, they will be able to do so without prejudice to their claim for de jure status, and that if they come to London they will be afforded the courtesy of separate talks with him and my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary, so that they might put forward in detail why they believe they should be granted de jure status?

Somaliland will certainly be invited, and I hope that it will accept the invitation. It is very important that all the different parts of Somalia attend the conference and play a full role, and we also expect the main Intergovernmental Authority on Development—IGAD—countries and a number of other international players to attend. I simply say to President Silanyo and to Somaliland that we understand their aspirations, which they need to push in such a way that it looks as though they are being constructive in the wider Somali peace process.

Iran

Iran’s nuclear programme and its support for terrorism are serious threats to stability in the middle east. We and many other nations are resolute in our response to those threats, and Iran must show that it is serious about addressing international concerns—or face increasing isolation and pressure.

Given Iran’s involvement in the brutal Syrian crackdown, as well as its support for Hezbollah, the threat to Lebanese security and yesterday’s assertion that Egypt could be the new Iran, is the Foreign Secretary concerned that a nuclear-armed Iran would further be able to curtail freedoms in the region?

Yes, of course. There are many dangers in a nuclear-armed Iran, the prime one being that Iran is a signatory to the non-proliferation treaty, that it would be a great breach of that treaty, and that nuclear proliferation throughout the middle east might then multiply greatly and become a threat to the peace of that region and to the world. The hon. Gentleman is also correct to argue, however, that a nuclear-armed Iran could feel in a stronger position to pursue other activities that were against the peace and the human rights of other countries in the region.

In tackling Iran’s nuclear programme, the international community must present a united front. Russia and China retain extensive trade links with Iran and appear unsupportive of additional UN sanctions. What progress have the Government made on persuading those other states to introduce and to implement robustly tougher sanctions on Iran?

It is important to recognise that Russia and China have supported all the United Nations Security Council resolutions that have been passed so far on this subject, and that they are part of the so-called E3 plus 3 process of negotiation with Iran. Those countries have certainly played their part in this. It is true, however, that they are not currently in favour of further tightening of the sanctions regime on Iran. We will continue to discuss that with them, but in the meantime we are pursuing tighter sanctions with the United States, Canada and the European Union in the ways that I described earlier.

In the context of sanctions, diplomatic efforts and intergovernmental discussions, does the Foreign Secretary agree that public opinion here in the United Kingdom, and across Europe and the west, is extremely important, and that more needs to be done to explain the exact nature of the threat that Iran poses to the public so that the public come along with whatever we are trying to do?

Yes, I fully take that point from the right hon. Gentleman. I think there is a very wide recognition of this issue. However, since it is a matter of escalating tension, and certainly of escalating pressure from our point of view over the coming months, we will make every effort to explain its importance and why we cannot simply ignore it.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that Hezbollah continues to be funded both with money and weapons, and that last night it launched four missiles from Lebanon on to Israel? Will he take urgent steps to ensure that the Lebanese Government fulfil United Nations resolution 1701?

Yes, it is deeply concerning that rocket fire has again taken place from Lebanon into Israel. I believe that it is the first time since October 2009 that we have seen such rocket fire. We strongly condemn any such action that stokes tension in the region, and we urge restraint on all sides.

Trade within Africa

When I was in Zambia, Mozambique and Namibia earlier this month, I saw for myself the excellent work that officials from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Department for International Development are undertaking in support of our African partners to improve the conditions for intra-African trade. The African free trade initiative remains the main vehicle for Her Majesty’s Government’s efforts on this important issue.

I thank the Minister for his response. There are still many obstacles to trade in Africa, including transport, trust relationships and intra-regional trade barriers, that countries such as China seem to be much more successful at overcoming. After his Nigerian mission in July, the Prime Minister pledged the UK to work with Nigeria and other partners towards enhanced west African trade integration. Will the Minister update us on progress?

Yes, indeed. The hon. Lady is absolutely right. Trade between sub-Saharan African countries currently stands at 14% of the region’s total trade, compared with Europe’s 60%. That is why DFID is making £160 million available to support the African free trade initiative. We have made good progress in east Africa with the east African trademark and in southern Africa with the Southern African Development Community trademark, and we are now looking to make similar progress in the west of Africa.

How often does the Minister take trade delegations out to countries in Africa, and what criteria does he use to select the countries that he goes to and the businesses that go along with him?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to raise this. We are putting a huge amount of emphasis not only on breaking down these trade barriers but on making sure that UK businesses are fully aware of the opportunities available. UK Trade & Investment is now being not just reactive but very proactive in identifying companies that might be able to get contracts in Africa. It costs five times as much to send a container from Mombasa to Bujumbura as it does to send one from Tokyo to Mombasa.

South Kordofan and the Blue Nile States

We are very concerned about the ongoing violence in South Kordofan and the Blue Nile states. We are working very closely with our international partners to push for an immediate cessation of hostilities, full humanitarian access, and the establishment of an agreed process to address the root causes of violence in both states.

I am grateful to the Minister for that answer, but given the role that Britain has played in trying to resolve this conflict, will he tell the House what pressure is being brought to bear on Khartoum to end the conflict in both regions, to allow full humanitarian access and to return to the terms of the comprehensive peace agreement?

I had the chance to visit Khartoum in July. I had a meeting with Sudan’s Foreign Minister, at which I made it very clear that the lack of humanitarian access, the lack of progress on the CPA and the action on both sides of sponsoring proxies were completely unacceptable. We also robustly condemned the recent bombing of Yida and Quffa. We need a negotiated political settlement to move this issue forward.

Turkey

11. What assessment he has made of the UK’s relationship with Turkey; and if he will make a statement. (83293)

Turkey is a key partner in trade and investment, and in building international security. Last week’s state visit by President Gul demonstrated the vitality of our bilateral relationship.

Economic growth in Turkey was 9% last year and its trade in goods with the UK is expected to reach £9 billion this year. Should not those be clinching factors in ensuring that we have a positive relationship with Turkey, and that the EU does not foolishly turn its back on that country?

We strongly support Turkey’s ambitions for EU accession. We think that Turkish membership of the EU would be extremely good news for the single market and for British and wider European business opportunities.

When the Turkish Foreign Minister met the Foreign Affairs Committee last week, he brought a representative all-party group of Members of Parliament with him on the delegation. Is that not a good idea? Why does the Foreign Secretary not take a cross-party group of Members of Parliament with him to the Bonn conference on the future of Afghanistan, particularly with regard to the issue of women in Afghanistan?

I think that my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary can speak with confidence not just on behalf of the Government but for the strong cross-party consensus in this House for a peaceful, constructive and democratic future for Afghanistan.

Does the Minister agree that a key aspect of the UK’s relationship with Turkey is its responsibility to Cyprus as a guarantor power? Will the Government ensure that the opportunities arising from the exploration of hydrocarbon reserves on the coast of Cyprus are fully respected, and that the resulting benefits for all Cypriots are fully preserved?

Like all countries that are signed up to the UN convention on the law of the sea, we support the right of the Republic of Cyprus to exploit its exclusive economic zone. We continually urge the leaders of both communities in Cyprus to work actively towards a settlement.

Further to the Minister’s previous comment, Cyprus would have been high on the Government’s agenda in their discussions with President Gul last week. We have to break the current deadlock in the talks. What more can the Government do to foster that aim? Will it include inviting the President of Cyprus to London?

It has not yet been possible to arrive at a date for President Christofias to visit London, but there is no objection in principle to that happening. Our role is to encourage and support the leaders of both communities to work with the Secretary-General of the United Nations to reach a comprehensive settlement. That is in the interests of every community in Cyprus.

Middle East

12. What recent assessment he has made of the status of the middle east peace process; and if he will make a statement. (83294)

13. What recent assessment he has made of the political situation in Palestine; and if he will make a statement. (83295)

We continue to support the resumption of negotiations on a two-state solution, based on the timetable set out by the Quartet. Political will and leadership are needed from both sides to break the current impasse. We welcome the progress that the Palestinian Authority has made in building the institutions of a functioning state. We continue to call on Israel to revoke its decisions to withhold tax revenues and to accelerate the construction of settlements. We remain concerned about the impact of the restrictions on Gaza.

I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer. Does he agree that it is time that the Palestinians returned to meaningful negotiations with the Israeli Government to ensure that there is a proper peaceful settlement, as we would all wish, rather than pursuing admission to the UN?

It is absolutely time for both sides to return to meaningful negotiations. The framework for that now exists, with the timetable set out by the Quartet at the end of September. Under that timetable, by 26 January both sides are meant to present their own substantive proposals on borders and security. I of course encourage the Palestinians to do that without preconditions, but I also encourage Israel to do so in a decisive and convincing manner.

The humanitarian crisis is still ongoing in Gaza. What action is my right hon. Friend taking to support trade and the banking system, to help the economy grow, and to ensure that ordinary people have the basic services that they need for a decent life?

We are clear that more needs to be done on Gaza. Israel’s decision to move from a list of 120 permitted goods to a list of specific prohibited items was a positive step, but there has been no fundamental change in the crossings regime or in the economic stagnation of Gaza. We are working alongside our colleagues in the European Union to try to achieve some real changes on the ground, and that means helping Israel to meet its target of reaching pre-2007 levels of exports, with resumed access to traditional markets.

It is very hard to see how there can be any confidence in Israel’s proposals while the settlements continue, the settler roads and the wall continue to be built, there is not free movement of Palestinians on the west bank, and the encirclement of Gaza continues. Will the Foreign Secretary put real pressure on the Israeli Government not just to stop settlement building but to remove all the settlements from the west bank?

The Israeli Government are in no doubt about opinion in this country and the opinion of this Government about that. Settlements on occupied land are illegal. We are very clear about that and have condemned recent decisions to accelerate settlement building, and I condemn them again today. That is a mistake by Israel, which does not bring peace any closer or help us arrive at a two-state solution. The right approach for Israel now is to embrace the negotiations of which I have spoken, and to do so in a decisive and generous spirit.

The current situation on negotiations is that the Quartet has asked both sides to put forward proposals on security and borders. The Palestinians have put forward initial proposals, but Israel has failed to do so. If we get to 26 January, the end of that period, and settlements continue to be built and there has been no progress in negotiations, what will the Foreign Secretary’s view be of Palestine’s application for full membership of the United Nations?

There have been initial proposals from Palestinians, but both sides are required to present more substantive proposals by 26 January. If that does not happen and the Quartet process does not succeed, the peace process will be entering a new crisis and a very troubling and concerning phase. I do not want to anticipate now how we will react to that in future at the United Nations. I set out our current position in my statement of 9 November.

In view of the complete lack of trust between Israel and Palestine, we have to dig deep to find common ground between the two sides. Does my right hon. Friend agree that in the short term we should focus on confidence-building measures to provide a platform for the resumption of negotiations in the future?

Yes, all confidence-building measures will be welcome; indeed, the Quartet and its representative Tony Blair have often worked on them. We would welcome such measures alongside the Quartet process of which I have been speaking, but we still have not seen any such measures in recent times.

Has the Foreign Secretary ruled out accepting that Hamas can be part of any peace process unless and until it signs up to the Quartet principles?

Hamas rules itself out by its behaviour at the moment, there is no doubt about that. That is the current position. Of course, there is discussion of Palestinian reconciliation. As the hon. Gentleman knows, we talked about that in the House yesterday. We look to a reconciled and new Palestinian Authority to have independent figures in it, to respect non-violence, to be in favour of a two-state solution and to respect previous agreements made by the Palestine Liberation Organisation.

Bosnia and Herzegovina

We are very concerned about the limited progress that Bosnia and Herzegovina has made over the past year in implementing the reforms necessary for both EU and NATO accession.

Given that we have now had nearly 14 months without the formation of any Government in Bosnia, does my right hon. Friend think that we, neighbouring states or the international community could be doing anything extra before there is very serious economic damage to that country, on top of the political instability?

We continue to urge on the leaders of all political parties in Bosnia and Herzegovina the need for urgent progress to establish that state-level Government. I talked about that to EU Special Representative Peter Sørensen and the international community’s representative, Valentin Inzko, a week ago. Every actor with influence on the Balkans needs to work towards greater stability in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Yesterday two German soldiers were shot and wounded by Serb thugs in northern Kosovo. It is a huge problem. Will the Minister and the Foreign Secretary appeal to President Tadic, whether it is in Bosnia and Herzegovina or in Kosovo, to assume responsibility? The proposed talks next week about Serbia joining the EU cannot get under way so long as there is no democratic law-and-order authority in Kosovo—or, indeed, in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

I deplore the incident that the right hon. Gentleman described, and I discussed it with my German counterpart yesterday. The Commission’s report on EU enlargement clearly sets out the fact that Serbia needs to address its relations with its neighbours if it is to make progress towards EU accession, as it hopes to do.

Topical Questions

Tomorrow and Thursday I will attend the EU Foreign Affairs Council, where we will discuss Egypt, Syria, Yemen and the European neighbourhood policy, and we will also examine the latest developments in the western Balkans and in the middle east peace process.

In his last middle east statement the Foreign Secretary called on the Israeli Government to make a more decisive offer than any that they have been willing to make in the past. Israel made profound offers during the peace talks, unilaterally withdrew from Gaza and has accepted the Quartet’s peace initiative. What representations has my right hon. Friend made to the Palestinian Authority to make similar genuine efforts towards peace?

It is very important, as we discussed a moment ago, that both sides embrace the opportunity of negotiations and respond to the Quartet timetable of substantive proposals by 26 January. In my view, that requires Israel to make that decisive offer, but it also requires Palestinians not to set preconditions for entering into such negotiations, and both sides to have the necessary spirit of compromise.

I join the Government in deploring the Iranian Government’s recent threats to downgrade diplomatic relations between Iran and the United Kingdom, and I welcome the sanctions imposed by the Chancellor of the Exchequer, which cut all ties with Iranian banks. Will the Foreign Secretary confirm whether those recent measures cover foreign subsidiaries of British banks, and foreign banks operating in the UK?

The measures apply to the UK financial sector—to credit and financial institutions here in the United Kingdom. They do not, therefore, apply to foreign banks that happen to operate in the United Kingdom. Of course, the necessary defining measures will set that out in detail. The sanctions will be quite far-reaching, particularly as we are joining the United States and Canada in the measures, and I expect other countries to join in as well.

T2. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the European Union has centralised too much power, and that it should be one of the Government’s stated aims to return powers and competences to London from Brussels as soon as possible? (83307)

Certainly, it is true that the European Union has not only too much centralised power but too much power in total, in my view. As my hon. Friend knows, I have long stated that I wish to see the repatriation of powers to the United Kingdom.

T3. During the visit of President Santos of Colombia, did we, the British Government, make representations about the appalling human rights situation in that country, particularly the attacks on and killings of human rights defenders? If so, did he give a concrete response? (83308)

Yes, I can assure the right hon. Gentleman that we raised those issues. I raised them myself with President Santos at my meeting with him last week. The Colombian Government are well aware of opinion in this country about those issues. However, it is fair to point out that President Santos’s Government are very clear about their commitment to human rights and have made a renewed, much stronger, commitment in Colombia to their observance in that country. I believe in his Government’s sincerity and their commitment to dealing with those issues.

T7. As small businesses in my constituency are keen to export goods and services to new markets, what is the Foreign Office doing to develop business and trade opportunities overseas? (83315)

UK Trade & Investment is reinvigorating its efforts not just to increase foreign direct investment in the UK but to encourage firms to export all round the world. That is one reason why the Foreign Office has gone ahead with its network shift, so we have 50 new people in China, for example, and we have new missions including four new embassies in Africa.

T4. I heard what the Secretary of State said about the commitment by President Santos on human rights abuses in Colombia. May I press the Foreign Secretary on that? Before we go ahead with programmes such as “Britain open for business” and others that support commerce between the two countries, will he ensure that, as far as possible, there are not only binding commitments but observed improvements? (83310)

Yes, there are already observed improvements in the behaviour and performance of the Colombian authorities in this regard. The UK and Colombia signed a joint statement on human rights during the president’s visit, so we never underestimate the importance of this issue. Our strong engagement with Colombia and our commitment to strong bilateral relations with it are part of encouraging the continued improvement in human rights observance by the Colombian Government. These strategies fit together.

My right hon. Friend has made repeated requests of the Egyptian authorities that they should announce a timetable for a rapid move from military to civilian rule. To that extent the elections yesterday, and the pride with which a huge number of people took part in them, are a very important step in the process. We wish it well, and we wish to see the transition to civilian rule move as quickly as possible.

T5. What assessment have Ministers made of the current political situation in Moldova, especially in view of the news of a delay in electing a new president? (83313)

The further delay in electing a new president is dismaying, but we welcome the fact that the 5 plus 2 talks are due to commence formally again very soon. It is in the interests of the whole of Europe for Moldova to move as swiftly as possible towards entrenching democracy, human rights and the rule of law.

Will my right hon. Friend act urgently to ensure that much more humanitarian aid reaches the Syrian refugees currently in Lebanon, and will he also act to bring about an international arms embargo covering all UN states to ensure that Syria is not armed further?

We are certainly assisting: Ministers at the Department for International Development have committed a sum of £20 million to support international organisations helping with the relief of humanitarian suffering in or around Syria. My hon. Friend will understand that humanitarian access in Syria is one of the great problems, because of the appalling behaviour of the regime, which means that we are not able to get that help to all the people who want it. Syria should certainly no longer be purchasing any arms from any EU country.

T6. At the end of October the Foreign Secretary announced plans to put guards on merchant vessels. Yesterday he said that action would be taken briskly, but did not confirm a time scale. [Interruption.] Will he today confirm what has happened since October, especially with regard to the establishment of procedures, protocols and various rules? When can we expect to see the pledge fulfilled? [Interruption.] (83314)

Order. I understand that the House is excited, but I am sure that when the Foreign Secretary traverses the globe his statements are greeted in respectful silence. It would be magnificent if that could happen here as well.

Yes, that is universally the case, Mr Speaker—particularly with announcements on tackling piracy, which the hon. Gentleman asked about. The Department for Transport has, in consultation with the shipping industry, produced national guidance for maritime security contractors. He may be happy to learn that this is due to be announced and published later this week. The regulation will require such companies to comply with DFT guidance and to apply to the Home Office for licence to carry firearms. This is an important change in our policy with regard to tackling piracy, and it will soon be able to take effect.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that we should use our presidency of the Council of Europe to push through reform of the European Court of Human Rights, so that it does not consider cases that have been properly considered by national courts but concentrates instead on serious and systemic human rights abuses?

That is the clear top priority of the British chairmanship of the Council of Europe, which I discussed with members of the Parliamentary Assembly and the secretary-general last Friday.

The Secretary of State will be aware that there are hundreds of journalists lying in Turkish jails without trial or sentences. Some of them have been there for nearly nine years. When the Secretary of State next meets his Turkish counterpart, will he mention this distasteful situation?

Yes, Mr Speaker. Human rights are at the core of our foreign policy all over the world. The hon. Gentleman raises an important issue, which we have of course discussed with Turkey. However, as he raises the matter now, I will make a particular point of mentioning it again at our next meeting.

What representations did Ministers make to the Turkish President when he was visiting the country recently about continuing human rights abuses in Turkey? Some 70 journalists are currently in prison, which is a worrying trend.

The Foreign Secretary will be aware that 90% of the species for which the UK has responsibility reside outside the UK in the overseas territories. They are therefore not the responsibility of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs but of his Department. Given that that 90% are his responsibility, can he assure the House that he is spending nine times as much as DEFRA on protecting biodiversity?

We had a very successful overseas territories consultative council last week. The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right about the biodiversity issue, and I can assure him that we are putting a huge amount of emphasis on it. We spent £15 million last year on biodiversity and environmental schemes in the overseas territories; they are a key priority of the overseas territories.

Does the Foreign Secretary want to welcome the announcement by New Delhi on Friday of the partial opening up of the vast Indian retail sector to foreign supermarket groups such as Tesco, which has been a key objective of UK commercial diplomacy for many years?

Yes, my hon. Friend points to a very important development. We have long advocated the liberalising and the opening up of the Indian economy. This will be vastly beneficial to the people of India and to the growth of trade. We want to see progress made on a free trade agreement between India and the whole of the European Union.

Of all the principal concerns and exhortations that the Foreign Secretary has conveyed to the Israeli Government, to which, if any, have they paid most attention?

I hope, of course, that they will pay attention to the entirety of our representations, and to the strong feeling in this House and across the world that it is important to make a decisive move to reach a two-state solution to help to avoid the future strategic isolation of Israel. It is, therefore, the entirety of our representations that I would urge upon them.

I share the Foreign Secretary’s concerns about the restrictions on Gaza. He reports that fewer than half of the agreed 15,000 vehicles a month are making it across the border to improve the humanitarian situation there. Most recently, Israel’s Deputy Foreign Minister spoke of further restrictions on energy and even water supplies in Gaza. Will the Foreign Secretary urge the Israeli Government to reject such collective punishments of the people in Gaza?

I was in Gaza a few months ago and able to observe the pressures on the state. I visited a United Nations Relief and Works Agency school to see the difficulties there. We will indeed continue to urge Israel to ease the restrictions on goods going in, because it is to the political and economic benefit of Gaza and Israel if that situation is eased.

Two thirds of Afghan women think that their lives have improved, but nine tenths fear a return to a Taliban-style Government. When Ministers meet their counterparts in Bonn next week, will they make it clear that Afghan women’s rights must not be traded away in any future peace agreement?

Yes, this is a very important issue. I shall be leading the UK’s delegation to Bonn next week, and we will underline that point in the make-up of our ministerial team, in everything that we say about the importance of human rights in Afghanistan, and in reiterating what I have said before—that a sustainable peace in Afghanistan will not be achieved without the extensive and wholehearted commitment of the women of Afghanistan.

During the UK’s presidency of the Council of Europe, will the Foreign Secretary make arrangements for himself and the Prime Minister to visit the island of Cyprus, particularly at this crucial time in the talks?

Clearly, we are heavily committed during our presidency of the Council of Europe, but my hon. Friend can be sure that we will visit Cyprus, because in the second half of next year it will hold the presidency of the European Union. We will be there, and I shall, of course, attend the regular meetings of Foreign Ministers that take place in whichever country holds the presidency. The answer to his question, therefore, is yes.

Does the Foreign Secretary think that getting rid of elected Governments, in any circumstances, is a price worth paying for saving the euro?

It is important, of course, that all Governments across the EU remain fully democratically accountable to their Parliaments and people, and so far as I am aware, that continues to be the case.