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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 541: debated on Tuesday 28 February 2012

Foreign and Commonwealth Office

The Secretary of State was asked—


We are working closely with the transitional Government to provide stabilisation assistance across a range of issues, including policing, security and prison reform, as well as on projects to promote youth and women’s political participation and human rights. We have also worked to ensure that Libya’s assets are available to fund its own reconstruction.

During a recent round table on women in Libya organised by the all-party group on women, peace and security and attended by the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for North East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt), we heard about the importance of the DDRRR—disarmament, demobilisation, repatriation, resettlement and reintegration—process of integrating the militias, which helps not only the men but the women engaged in the uprising by, for example, redefining “fighter” to include women. Will the Minister outline what support the UK Government are giving to the Libyan Government in developing their DDRRR plan to ensure that it addresses the concerns of women in post-conflict Libya?

This is a very important issue. From the beginning, including in the very first visit that I made to Benghazi in June last year, during the conflict, we have gone out of our way to support the involvement of women in the transition in Libya. We are working closely with all the relevant organisations on this. We co-funded the first women’s convention in Tripoli in November. We are about to start a six-month programme of support to promote women’s and youth participation in the political process in Libya. I am pleased that the election law that was approved earlier this month will provide, in effect, for a certain proportion of the seats in the national congress to go to women.

On 21 February, Gareth Montgomery-Johnson, a freelance cameraman, and several others were arrested in Tripoli by the Saraya Swehli militia. Despite repeated requests, the militia have refused to transfer Mr Johnson and his colleagues to the Libyan Government or to provide access to Human Rights Watch. His next of kin, who are constituents of mine, are increasingly concerned about the situation. Will the Secretary of State assure them that the Foreign Office will do everything in its power to release my constituent from militia captivity?

Yes, absolutely. The hon. Gentleman is right to raise the position of his constituent. We are aware of the situation. The embassy in Tripoli is doing everything that it can to assist. It is important that consular access is given to his constituent and to one other person involved, and so, while we have not yet achieved everything that we want on this, we are continuing to work on it.

Human Trafficking

The Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Home Office work closely with other EU member states to try to prevent human trafficking. Three of the countries recognised in the Government’s human trafficking strategy—Romania, the Czech Republic and Slovakia—are EU member states. We are working with partners in these countries to help to combat trafficking at source.

I pay tribute to the Foreign Secretary for his work in raising awareness of modern-day slavery. Given the international nature of human trafficking, what support has the Minister provided to the European Commission-backed project, led by the Human Trafficking Foundation, to set up a parliamentary network on trafficking that aims to promote and strengthen a network of parliamentarians and businesses against trafficking in human beings throughout all EU member states?

I share my hon. Friend’s abhorrence of this terrible crime. We are keen to work through the Commission and through other bodies in the European Union, at Parliament-to-Parliament level, and at Government-to-Government level. For example, we share skills, knowledge and experience, and fund projects that help countries to tackle the problem at source.

The whole House will share the Minister’s abhorrence of this form of modern slavery. Will he give an absolute guarantee that nothing that this Government negotiate at the European level will make it more difficult for women, in particular, who have been trafficked to be given proper refuge in this country and that nothing will give them an incentive to continue in slavery rather than risk being sent back to their country of origin to be re-trafficked?

Our intention always is to give paramount importance to the victims of such crime. When we negotiate in the European Union and elsewhere, we try to give those victims the most protection that we can.

Falkland Islanders

The Government support the Falkland Islanders’ right to self-determination. That support takes many forms, from the military deterrent on the islands to the work of our diplomatic network to promote their rights in the region and more widely. We do all that with the full endorsement of the Falkland Islands Government.

What discussions have taken place with Argentina to encourage it to rejoin the south Atlantic fisheries commission, which was set up in 1990 to facilitate action on conservation issues of mutual concern around the Falkland Islands?

It is a source of regret to us that the many fruitful negotiations between the United Kingdom and Argentina in the 1990s on this topic were effectively suspended in 2007, when the Argentines withdrew their co-operation. We want to work closely, co-operatively and in a friendly spirit with Argentina on a range of issues, including this one. It is a source of regret to us that that has not been possible in recent years.

The whole House and, indeed, the country will be outraged at reports that two British cruise liners, the Adonia and the Star Princess, were refused entry to a port in southern Argentina. What representations have the Government made to the Argentine authorities and to the international maritime authorities about this completely unjustified action?

We make frequent representations to the Argentines and to many other countries in south America. It is a source of sadness and frustration to us that people who are on holiday and who want to further relations between ourselves and Argentina at a people-to-people level are not able to do so. We enter the relationship with Argentina in a spirit of friendship and it is a source of sadness to us that it does not always do the same.

Independent Judiciary (Hungary)

4. What representations he has made to the Hungarian Government on state control of the judiciary in that country. (96690)

An independent judiciary is necessary for the preservation of democracy and fundamental freedoms. We have urged Hungary to consider the implications of its new laws and to continue working with the European Commission to ensure that those laws are consistent with EU norms.

I welcome that response from the Minister. There have been suggestions in the media over the past few days that progress is being made at the EU level. Will he spell out what that progress is? Will he give the House an assurance that this and the other outstanding issues with Hungary’s new constitution will be pursued vigorously by this Government?

On 17 January, the European Commission released its analysis of the incompatibility of specific elements of the new Hungarian constitution with EU treaty obligations. Letters of formal notice were sent to the Hungarian Government as the first stage of EU infringement proceedings.

Notwithstanding the EU’s concerns, is it not the case that the vast majority of Hungarians voted for Fidesz at the last election? We should remember that that party is led by a man who was at the forefront of the battle against the socialist dictatorship in Hungary, a country in which I have a great personal interest.

I certainly respect the will of the Hungarian electorate. However, we strongly urge the Hungarian authorities to consider the implications of the new laws for political balance and to work with the Commission to ensure that the laws are consistent with EU norms.

EU Economic Conditions

5. What recent assessment he has made of the implications for his Department of economic conditions in the EU. (96691)

The agreement on a second rescue package for Greece last week is encouraging for Greece and the European economy. The crisis in the eurozone is having a chilling effect on growth across Europe. The Government are arguing vigorously for EU action to promote growth by deepening the single market, boosting trade and cutting red tape.

Will the Secretary of State tell the House what his Department is doing to improve the economic conditions right here in Britain? Are we using our global network of embassies and business contacts to promote British exports, especially those of small companies?

Yes, we absolutely are. The prosperity of the country is one of our key objectives. My hon. Friend may have noticed that our exports to India, Turkey, Brazil and other emerging economies went up sharply in 2011. That is very important, given that the eurozone economy is flat and that our exports have declined. The Foreign Office is highly active in helping businesses, including small businesses, to seek out new export markets.

Will the Foreign Secretary update the House on the preparations that are being made in the event of a default by the Greek Government and the possible collapse of the euro?

We have contingency plans for many eventualities in the world, and I ensure that they are fully up to date. The right hon. Gentleman will understand why I do not go into more detail about those plans, because doing so can create a greater expectation that they are going to happen, but we are prepared for any eventuality.

19. I suggest that EU politicians are failing to recognise that the eurozone is a dead man walking. Given the effective suspension of democracy in at least two countries and the deepening democratic deficit across the eurozone, as politicians break the rules in order to save the euro and their dream of political union, why is Britain supporting the anti-democratic zeal of those politicians as they make worse this self-made crisis? (96708)

To put it in a slightly more balanced way, I have pointed out for many years that one of the disadvantages of the euro is the loss of national sovereign decision making to the countries concerned. However, there is one flaw in my hon. Friend’s argument, which is that it is very clear that not only the representatives but, at the moment, the people of Greece choose to try to stay in the euro. That is the democratic choice that they are making, and we should support them in it if that is their choice.

The European Union is our biggest trading partner, and a resolution to the eurozone crisis is clearly in our national interest. Given that our bilateral relationship with France is central to that, why is it being reported that the Prime Minister has refused to meet one of the leading presidential candidates, François Hollande, when he visits London tomorrow?

Yes, the bilateral relationship with France is of great importance, and it is true that our co-operation, particularly on foreign and security policy, is the closest that it has been at any time since the second world war. Relations with France are very good and very close. Of course, the Prime Minister sometimes meets opposition leaders and sometimes does not, but I am not aware of governmental leaders across Europe taking a different approach from his.


6. What recent reports he has received on the security situation in Syria; and if he will make a statement. (96692)

I am horrified at the continued violence of the Syrian regime against its own people. We will use all diplomatic and economic means to bring an end to the violence. Those responsible for the shelling of homes, the execution of detainees, the killing of political opponents and the torture and rape of women and children must be held to account in the future.

Journalists in conflict zones risk their lives every day to bring us unbiased news, and that is why my condolences go to the family and friends of Marie Colvin. On that note, will the Foreign Secretary update the House on the whereabouts of the wounded British journalist who was in Syria?

My hon. Friend is quite right—the thoughts of much of the nation have been with the family and friends of Marie Colvin. I am happy to confirm, though, that the injured British journalist Paul Conroy is safely in Lebanon, where he is receiving full consular assistance. I pay tribute to journalists who ensure that the world is aware of the crimes that are being committed, which we are determined to document and seek justice for. Too many people have already lost their lives in Homs and elsewhere in Syria, and we will urge the Syrian regime to ensure both an end to the violence against civilians and safe access for humanitarian agencies.

I congratulate my right hon. Friend on the UK’s initiative to help gather evidence of the crimes against humanity in Syria. Will he update the House on the progress of that important work, and can he confirm whether other nations and international organisations are involved as well?

This work is progressing. We are sending teams to border areas and ensuring that people can come to a single documentation hub to bring together the evidence of the crimes that are being committed. I spoke about that at the Tunis meeting of more than 60 nations last Friday, to encourage other nations to join in that initiative or take initiatives or their own, and I believe that other nations will be doing so.

What discussions has the Secretary of State had with Turkey, the Arab countries and our NATO allies about the idea of creating a safe haven in north-western Syria?

I have had many discussions over the last week with Turkey and Arab nations on the margins of our Somalia conference, in Tunis and at other meetings. That idea has been debated—in public, never mind in private—but the difficulty of establishing safe areas without agreement with the country concerned is considerable. Without such agreement, military force will be required—and sufficient military to force to be wholly effective, because one of the worst things we could do, I believe, is to tell people that they might be safe and be unable to provide that safety to them. None of those discussions, therefore, have led to the idea being adopted in the international community.

The Opposition welcome the fact that the EU yesterday announced further sanctions on Syria. Will the Foreign Secretary confirm that those sanctions included travel bans on a further seven close associates of President Assad? If that is correct, does he agree that the public naming of many more individuals in that way, specifically including military commanders presently engaged in murder and slaughter in Homs, would help to sharpen the choice for individual members of the security apparatus?

Yes—I agree in general. We adopted a number of measures yesterday in Brussels, including sanctions on the Central Bank of Syria. As the right hon. Gentleman says, we also extended by another seven names the list, which is now more than 150 strong, of individuals and entities on whom we have restrictions, travel bans and asset freezes. We are entirely open to extending that list further, but we of course take care to ensure that we are sure of our ground and that those individuals are actually complicit in the regime’s repression. As further evidence accumulates, we will certainly want to add to that list.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the unpalatable fact is that we do not have many options in relation to Syria? Does he also agree that one option worth following is to persuade the Russians to give up their unquestioning support for Syria on the ground that it is deeply damaging to their long-term interests and should cease? Does he remember the impact on Milosevic and Serbia of the withdrawal of Russian support?

My right hon. and learned Friend is right that that would be a desirable piece of persuasion to accomplish. I have had discussions with the Russian Foreign Minister, including at length after the vetoing of our Security Council resolution, and it must be said that the Russians are not yet persuaded of that position. However, I hope others will join in that persuasion. I have spoken in the last hour to the new UN and Arab League special envoy, Kofi Annan, who is charged with promoting a political process and solution. I hope that he will bring his persuasive powers to bear on both Russia and China.

As the situation in Syria continues to deteriorate, an estimated 70,000 Syrians are fleeing to Jordan and many more to Lebanon. What steps has the Foreign Secretary taken to put pressure on the Syrian regime to allow humanitarian assistance and to enable civilians to leave the country?

It is a constant cry of the international community, including among the more than 60 nations that met in Tunis on Friday, that humanitarian access needs to be granted, but the regime, which, in the view of the UN commission of inquiry, has committed crimes against humanity, is insensitive even to those demands for humanitarian access or for pauses each day in the conflict—it has refused to do that. We are doing our best to send humanitarian assistance. The UK has provided assistance that will amount to tens of thousands of food rations and other emergency supplies, and we are increasingly co-ordinating our work with other countries.

European Court of Justice

7. What progress has been made in selecting a replacement for the UK’s judge at the European Court of Justice, following the end of the incumbent’s appointment in 2012. (96693)

We expect to be in a position to nominate a candidate for this position within the next month. The successful candidate should be able to take up the position when the term of the incumbent judge expires later this year.

Poland, the Czech Republic and Slovenia involve their national Parliaments in the process of selecting the judges whom they send to the ECJ. Given the power that the ECJ can have on this country’s legal system, what plans does my right hon. Friend have to involve the House in any future appointments?

We have improved the nomination procedure by advertising the position publicly and subjecting applicants to interview by an independent panel of experts, prior to ministerial clearance. My hon. Friend raises a legitimate point. As things stand, parliamentary decisions on this matter are inconsistent with existing constitutional practice in the United Kingdom, and any change to the current procedure would, of course, set a precedent with wider implications. That can be debated in the House. I am conscious of the interest that the House takes and commit to keeping it updated on the progress made.

West Bank

Our private sector initiative in the west bank and Gaza supports about 500 companies. We attribute perhaps £50 million to sales and exports, and also support about 2,200 jobs.

Last year, I visited Rawabi, a new Palestinian city being built near Ramallah. It is the biggest private sector project in Palestinian history and is being facilitated by the Portland Trust with the Palestinian Authority. Does the Minister agree that economic progress will be an important component of peace? Will he update the House on the recent package of economic measures reportedly offered by the Israeli Government in response to the Quartet?

I do indeed agree with the right hon. Lady. The economic development of the west bank has been a significant feature of the past few years, coupled with security improvements, and it is a measure of the relationship between Israel and the Palestinian Authority that this has continued. We want the discussions between the Israelis and Palestinians that were started in Amman to continue. A package of support is part of those continuing discussions, and there is no doubt that a comprehensive settlement will be of benefit to both the Palestinian and the Israeli economies.

Commerce, restaurants and hotels continue to provide the highest number of jobs in the west bank, according to a recent United Nations Relief and Works Agency report on the Palestinian labour market. Given that these sectors stand to benefit directly from a future Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement, will the Foreign Secretary reiterate the importance of the Palestinian Authority returning to direct peace negotiations without preconditions?

Order. I remind the House that we are talking about private sector initiatives in the west bank, not about the peace process more widely. I want a brief reply from the Minister, and then we will move on.

The health of the private sector economy is a component part of the all-round package for the future of the Palestinian Authority and Israel to which my hon. Friend alludes. There is no doubt that a comprehensive settlement will benefit both the state and private sector economies, and I am pleased that she raised the matter.

Arms Trade Treaty

9. What recent progress has been made in negotiations on an international arms trade treaty; and if he will make a statement. (96695)

The United Kingdom remains committed to a robust and effective arms trade treaty. The recent preparatory conference in New York had a successful outcome as far as the Government and leading non-governmental organisations were concerned, and we look forward to the full negotiating conference in July.

The UK delegation clearly proved crucial in making progress at the conference. Throughout the Arab spring, Governments in the region have used policing and security equipment, including tear gas and batten rounds, against peaceful protesters, sometimes with lethal effect. Will the Minister give his strong support to a genuinely bullet-proof treaty that includes those items?

We have said clearly that we want a comprehensive arms trade treaty, which would include all conventional weapons, including small arms and ammunition. The precise details of the treaty have yet to be negotiated. I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s comments about the noticeable support of NGOs. I particularly thank Amnesty International for its recent comment on the preparatory conference. It said that

“the UK championed our right to be in the room during final negotiations”.

That is a measure of our relationship with NGOs in support of a robust and effective treaty.

Mr Speaker, you and the Minister will recall that one year ago I asked an urgent question on Bahrain, when the House was shocked to learn that we were still exporting arms to the country used in the repression of its citizens. Today, people are still locked up in prison, and Amnesty reports hundreds, dozens, scores of political prisoners and tear gas being thrown into confined spaces. It is just as brutal as ever it was, yet we have resumed arms sales to Bahrain. Again, may I ask the Minister and the Government to suspend arms sales to these repressive regimes until a political and peaceful solution has been found?

If the right hon. Gentleman looks at precisely what has been sold to Bahrain, he will find that licences for any items that could be used for internal repression have been refused. Body armour, sporting targets and rifles, and naval cannon have been sold, but these things cannot be used for internal repression. We support the reform process that is under way through the independent commission that is working in Bahrain, and we support all political parties in working towards a settlement and reforms there.

UN Commission on the Status of Women

My hon. Friend the Minister for Equalities is currently in New York attending the commission. She will be pressing for more progress on meeting the millennium development goals, tackling violence and discrimination against women, and challenging the way women are represented by the global media.

Given that the UN Commission on the Status of Women is focusing on the rights of women in rural areas, will the Minister say what action his Government are taking to encourage the participation of women in rural Afghanistan?

We are publishing our national action plan today, and Ministers at the Department for International Development have made it clear, in DFID’s “Strategic vision for girls and women”, that stressing the importance of empowering rural girls and women is essential for global prosperity, achieving the MDGs and ensuring safer and more stable rural communities.


11. What recent reports he has received on the political situation in Somalia; and if he will make a statement. (96700)

At the London conference on Somalia, the international community agreed on the need to inject new momentum into the political process, using the Garowe principles to chart a route to a broad-based constituent assembly, chosen by the Somali people, that will determine a new and representative Government for Somalia.

There is growing concern among British Somalis that the sense of isolation experienced by those who chew the drug khat is being exploited by al-Shabaab to recruit in the UK. Now that the UK is completely out of step with Europe, as the only country not to have banned khat, will the Foreign Secretary raise the matter with the Home Secretary as a matter of urgency?

Khat is certainly quite popular among many Somali people. Indeed, the only other bit of air activity I saw when I visited Mogadishu four weeks ago were planes arriving to deliver khat. However, I will certainly look at the point my hon. Friend raises and discuss it with the Home Secretary, as he suggests.

First, may I congratulate the Foreign Secretary and his team on his work on the Somalia conference? As the final communiqué of the conference says:

“We called on all those willing to reject violence to join the Djibouti peace process.”

How will the Government reach out and engage with those individuals to facilitate the broader base for the Somali Government that is necessary to make progress?

All the decisions that were made and set out in the communiqué at the end of the Somalia conference are to be taken forward by different authorities, and in this case by the authorities in Somalia, through the creation of a new constituent assembly and, then, a more legitimate and representative Parliament. That is a process that is there to be engaged with by people who want to be part of a peace process and want now to transform the position of their country. There will be some who are irreconcilable and wedded to violence, which is why the parallel agreement on expanding the funding of the AMISOM—African Union Mission in Somalia—forces is also important. This process is to be taken forward in Somalia, by Somalis, under the Garowe principles.

May I, too, congratulate my right hon. Friend and the whole of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office on their remarkable diplomatic and organisational achievement in convening such a widely attended conference? With an estimated 600,000 Somali refugees now living in Kenya, we now have an unusually valuable opportunity to ensure that our overseas aid expenditure goes on resettling them in their own country, before they unsettle Kenya.

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for his remarks. The conference was well supported by other nations, which were delighted with the outcome. We have received stronger diplomatic support, and a stronger welcome around the world, for this than for any other diplomatic initiative that I can recall in recent years. That in itself is welcome and shows the commitment of the international community to this matter. We do indeed put a great deal of our humanitarian assistance in the direction that my right hon. Friend describes. We are the second-largest bilateral donor to the horn of Africa, for exactly the reason that he described.

Given the Government’s support for the new stability fund, does the right hon. Gentleman agree that in order to retain confidence, humanitarian aid, including that for refugees, should be seen as something quite separate, necessary though it is?

Yes, there are many uses for development funds. Much of this is humanitarian aid delivered through international agencies, and it was of extreme importance during the recent famine in the horn of Africa. Increasingly, we want to be able to provide stabilisation support, and the more stable each area of Somalia becomes, the more we will be able to do that. At the moment, 60% of such funding is going to Somaliland, because that has become a more stable area. So, yes, we make a distinction between different things.


12. What recent reports he has received on the political situation in the Maldives; and if he will make a statement. (96701)

We remain concerned and unclear about the events of 7 February, in which power transferred from President Nasheed to his vice-president. We welcome an independent inquiry into those events, and we strongly support the efforts of the Indian Government and the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group in seeking to secure early elections by the end of this year.

I thank the Minister for that response. Will he tell us what progress the Governments have made on securing a date for those early elections, following the transfer of power?

So far, it has not been possible to secure a date from the new Administration. We remain absolutely convinced that an early date for elections—before the end of this year—is essential, and we will continue to support the efforts of Commonwealth and international partners to secure that.

Given that we have no firm date for elections in the Maldives, will the Minister assure the House that the Government will look closely at any invitations to the Queen’s diamond jubilee that might be sent to an unelected Commonwealth President?

My hon. Friend is taking us down a particular route, but we will have to wait and see what happens. We are quite sure that we need answers from the Administration about what has happened. I am in regular contact with the former vice-president and with former President Nasheed, to whom I spoke less than a couple of hours ago. We are watching the situation extremely carefully, but there are still questions to be answered if the situation is to be regularised as far as the United Kingdom is concerned.

Human Rights

13. What assessment he has made of the likely progress on human rights issues at (a) the next meeting of the Human Rights Council Advisory Committee and (b) the 56th session of the UN Commission on the Status of Women. (96702)

The advisory committee sat from 20 to 24 February, and we shall assess its recommendations when they are presented to the Human Rights Council. I said in an earlier reply that my hon. Friend the Minister for Equalities was currently in New York pressing for progress on ending discrimination and violence against women.

I thank the Minister for that response. What action are the Government taking to call on the Government of Sri Lanka to bring to justice those who are responsible for human rights abuses—particularly the many acts of violence against women—within a reasonable time scale?

We obviously want the Government of Sri Lanka to implement the HRC recommendations, and we will be pushing them as hard as we can to do so. We will certainly ensure that the hon. Lady’s strong representations on the subject are passed on.

West Bank

14. What recent reports he has received on settlement activity in the west bank; and if he will make a statement. (96703)

We receive regular reports from our posts in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem on settlement activity on the west bank. We were concerned to hear on 22 February of moves to legalise existing housing in Shvut Rachel and Shilo, both of which are deep within the west bank, but we acknowledge that those were the first such announcements this year.

I thank my hon. Friend for that answer. Is he aware of the campaign, supported by many of my constituents, to prevent the illegal demolitions in Silwan neighbourhood and the village of al-Aqaba? Will he pledge to continue to raise this important issue with his Israeli counterparts?

Yes, I spoke to the Israeli ambassador on 23 February about our concerns about the demolitions. We will continue to raise that issue. There have been a number of more positive moves over the past few months. I understand that some of the demolitions suggested in the Bedouin area of E1 have now been suspended, which we believe is good progress, as is the decision not to demolish the school at Khan al-Ahmar that I visited a short time ago.

Continued settlement activity on the west bank cannot be helpful in securing peace, but does the Minister believe that this is the only barrier to peace when the total withdrawal of all settlers in Gaza resulted in rule by Hamas and a continuing focus on attacks on Israeli settlements?

The hon. Lady rightly gives expression to the complexity of the situation in Israel and the difficulty surrounding the settlement issue, where one side sees it as an obstruction to progress but the other remembers what happened in relation to Gaza. The United Kingdom is firmly of the view that continued settlement expansion is an obstacle to peace, but that the confidence and security needed to create an overall settlement is essential between the two sides, which is why we welcome the continuing conversations in Oman between the Palestinian Authority and Israeli leaders.

Regional Security (Afghanistan)

16. What discussions he has had with his counterparts in Pakistan and other countries bordering Afghanistan on the effect on security of the draw-down of allied forces. (96705)

In the bilateral conversations with Pakistan and at the Istanbul conference in November last year, there was a focus on regional security in the full light of combat troop withdrawals. The long-term commitment of the international community to the security of Afghanistan will be confirmed at the NATO summit in Chicago in May.

The Minister will be aware of the humanitarian cost of previous fighting in the border regions between Afghanistan and Pakistan, including over 1 million displaced people. What assessment has he made of the impact on children and communities of the draw-down of allied forces, and what steps has he put in place to mitigate it?

The Department for International Development has a substantial programme to assist those in Afghanistan. We are acutely conscious of the issues affecting withdrawal. There will be a further conference in Tokyo this year where the long-term commitment on development will be considered. This conference can be seen in conjunction with those in Bonn and Chicago, as I mentioned, that will look comprehensively at the international community’s support for Afghanistan post-2014. Development issues and the protection of women and children are a key feature of that.

UK Exports

17. What steps he is taking to encourage the use of the UK's embassies and high commissions to support the promotion of UK exports. (96706)

Supporting UK firms is at the heart of our diplomacy. Our missions overseas are taking a leading role in campaigns to win new business. We have a dynamic Trade Minister in my noble Friend Lord Green and a highly focused prosperity directorate at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. We are determined to play our part in driving up British exports.

Under the previous Government, the number of embassies we had overseas was reduced and exports flatlined as a proportion of gross domestic product, whereas in Germany exports have increased as a proportion of GDP—up to 50% now. What steps are the Government taking to open more embassies to help firms like Herbert Engineering in South West Norfolk, which plans to export 65% of all its goods next year to countries as far away as China and Dubai?

My hon. Friend is spot on. Our exports in 2011 were up 10.7%, while our trade deficit fell from £36.7 billion in 2010 to £28 billion in 2011. It is, of course, our intention to get into surplus. That is one reason why we are opening new missions around the world, including five in Africa. I am glad that my hon. Friend highlighted the excellent engineering business, R J Herbert Engineering, which is a superb example of a medium-sized engineering company succeeding in tough export markets.


We receive regular updates on humanitarian access to conflict areas in Burma from non-governmental organisations and from our embassy and Department for International Development officials in Rangoon. Access is still very restricted, and we continue to press the Burmese Government to increase humanitarian access to all areas.

In addition to medical supplies, Médecins sans Frontières has recently highlighted the chronic lack of antiretroviral and tuberculosis drugs in Burma. In the light of that, what conversations has the Foreign Secretary had with the Burmese Government about the international supply of these drugs?

The Foreign Secretary visited Burma last month—he was the first Foreign Secretary to do so since 1955—and had a wide range of productive conversations with the Burmese Government and others. It is worth pointing out that although no United Kingdom aid goes through the Burmese Government directly, the United Kingdom is the largest donor of humanitarian assistance to Burma, and will be spending an average of £46 million a year until 2015 on precisely the sort of projects that the hon. Gentleman has identified.

I understand that our ambassador meets Burmese Ministers regularly. What is at the top of his agenda when it comes to highlighting the continued abuse of human rights?

My hon. Friend is right to draw the House’s attention to the appalling abuses of human rights that have been taking place in Burma for many years. I think it reasonable for us to acknowledge that progress appears to have been made in recent months, and, when appropriate, to reward it, but we should not anticipate further progress before it has happened. Our ambassador and others, including Ministers, are keen to continue to press the Burmese Government to liberalise society further in that country.

The progress in Burma is very welcome, and no doubt the Burmese Government will want to see changes to the current sanctions regime. I was pleased to note that the Minister said that it was probably too early for that to happen, but what discussions have been held with our European counterparts about the issue?

A decision is likely to be made in a few months’ time. I think it right for Britain to maintain a position on trade with Burma which is very tough, and which takes account of the concerns about human rights abuses in the country that are expressed frequently in the House, but we want to maintain a common European position, because we feel that that is an effective way in which to proceed. We will maintain that position with a hard-headed attitude which I hope will meet with the hon. Lady’s approval.

Topical Questions

I attended the EU Foreign Affairs Council in Brussels yesterday. We agreed on a number of additions to our sanctions against the Assad regime, notably the freezing of the assets of the Central Bank of Syria, a ban on imports of gold and precious metals, a ban on cargo flights, and the listing of seven more Government Ministers.

I am always sympathetic about the dangers facing the Israeli people from some of their aggressive neighbours, and will remain so, but does the Secretary of State agree that settlement-building programmes are never a means to an end and are, in fact, becoming a serious obstacle to peace?

Yes, I do agree with that. As the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for North East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt), has often pointed out, we have made very strong representations to the Israeli Government whenever settlements have been announced in recent times. Settlements are on occupied land, they are illegal—that is the view of almost the whole of the rest of the world—and this is an issue that Israel must address.

Given the recent violence in Afghanistan in response to the unintentional burning of the Koran at a United States air base, and given that it took some time for President Karzai to call for an end to the violence, are the Government fully satisfied with the efforts that he is making to bring the situation fully under control?

Yes. The British Government, along with our partners, condemn any behaviour that disrespects any religion. We welcome the apology from President Obama to President Karzai, which demonstrated sincere regret for the incident—which was, I believe, a genuine mistake, as was reflected in the right hon. Gentleman’s question—and we welcome the calls for calm from the Afghan Government. We echo President Karzai’s call to the Afghan people, as he put it,

“not to allow the enemies of peace to exploit the opportunity for their own ends”.

Is the Foreign Secretary fully satisfied more generally with the work that President Karzai is doing? The objective of achieving peace is one that we all share, but according to the latest reports there are continuing concerns about corruption, governance and, more broadly, the provision of services and security.

Of course there are always things that we are urging the Afghanistan Government to do, and addressing accusations of corruption and improving governance—both from Kabul and around the country—are important examples. However, our relations with the Afghanistan Government are very good. As the right hon. Gentleman knows, the Prime Minister and President Karzai met a month ago to sign a long-term enduring partnership between our countries, which demonstrates the good basis of trust between our Governments.

T3. Burhan Ghalioun, chairman of the Syrian national council, has said that a revolution in Syria will not be successful without the support of the minorities in that country, and he has offered to ensure that the rights of minorities are protected in a post-Assad Syria. With Kurds representing up to 20% of the Syrian population and the Christian community a further 9% to 12%, what discussions has my right hon. Friend had with the SNC and its chairman on this subject? (96714)

I discussed that issue, and many others, with the chairman and his SNC colleagues in Tunis on Friday. I have long encouraged them to set out their determination to protect minorities and to seek to represent all communities in Syria. On this occasion, I was impressed by the chairman’s determination to do so and by the speech he gave to the conference in Tunis, which contained a full commitment to democracy and the protection of minorities. It is very good that the Syrian opposition have made those things clear.

T2. Does the Foreign Secretary share my concerns about the proposed evictions of Palestinian families and the demolition of their homes in the Silwan area of East Jerusalem? If so, what representations is he making to the Israeli Government and what actions are the UK Government taking to help prevent the destruction of these Palestinian homes? (96713)

On behalf of the United Kingdom Government, I have made representations on Silwan both to the Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister and the Israeli ambassador. It remains a matter of concern for us, and we continue to press on these issues in the manner that the Foreign Secretary set out a moment ago.

T4. Given that the eurozone is a slow-motion train crash, will the Government divert some of the extra billions of pounds they are, yet again, about to throw at the inflated EU budget into furthering trade relationships with the Commonwealth? A shared language, shared accounting and legal systems and growing markets suggest that that is a no-brainer. (96715)

I think that my hon. Friend has had the euro as both a dead man walking and a train crash in the same Question Time, so his metaphors are becoming a little confused. However, we certainly are putting much-increased effort into our trade with emerging economies across the world, including many Commonwealth nations. My hon. Friend might like to know that the Commonwealth represents a steadily increasing proportion of the trade of the world. That underlines the importance of our renewed commitment to it under this Government.

T9. Twenty-four hours ago, a new President was sworn in in Yemen, yet at the same time 26 people were killed in a suicide bomb attack in the south. What steps are the Government taking to support the new Government of President Hadi at this crucial moment in Yemen’s history, and when will the Foreign Secretary visit the country? (96720)

As the right hon. Gentleman knows, I have visited Yemen, as has my ministerial colleague, my hon. Friend the Member for North East Bedfordshire and he will be visiting again in the not-too-distant future. Over the past few weeks we have had discussions with the then vice-president, who has since been inaugurated as the new President. Yemen now has a genuine moment of opportunity. We will revive the Friends of Yemen process, which has the potential to bring a lot of co-ordinated international support to the efforts of the Government of Yemen to bring stability and peace to their country.

T5. Last August the Deputy Prime Minister announced that up to £20 million from the Arab Partnership Fund would be allocated to Libya from 2012 to 2015. That investment is co-funded by the Department for International Development and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. How much of the money will be spent on poverty-reducing economic growth? (96716)

I cannot confirm the exact amount because the Arab Partnership projects in Libya are still being rolled out, but money is being spent not only on building capacity in Ministries that will be designed to work on these difficult issues, but on democracy building and the like. I will ensure that my hon. Friend receives a full list of current projects as soon as possible.

Ministers will know that there is a sizeable Somali community in Leicester, many of whom followed the deliberations of the recent conference with great interest. I am keen to find out how Ministers plan to continue to engage with that community. In addition, to what extent was the role of children discussed at the conference? What more can be done internationally to protect children in that part of the world?

There has been a huge amount of engagement with the Somali diaspora in this country, both on the part of FCO Ministers and from the Prime Minister downwards. Indeed, my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary has met Somali diaspora groups on a number of occasions, and I have had five such meetings and have visited the Finsbury Park mosque as a result of an invitation from the local MP. We will carry on that engagement, because understanding the views of these groups and their vision for the future, including that of their children, is incredibly important.

T6. Will the Foreign Secretary assure us that the UK will give no support, militarily or diplomatically, to Israel if it launches an armed attack on Iran? (96717)

My hon. Friend will be aware of our policy on Iran, which was debated thoroughly at the beginning of last week, when the Government’s approach was massively endorsed in this House on 20 February. So we have set out our policy in detail. We are not calling for or advocating a military attack on Iran, and at this moment we advise others not to do so. But we also believe that it is important to keep Iran under pressure and that no options are taken off the table.

If the Secretary of State is committed to the UK being a world leader on business and human rights, as I am sure he is, what is he doing to persuade the Secretary of State for Justice to drop the provisions in the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill that will shift liability for cost and insurance away from multinational companies and on to innocent victims in developing countries?

My Department has had discussions with the Ministry of Justice about this matter, and the hon. Lady will be aware of the Government’s position, as set out by the Justice Secretary. Of course if there is any change in that position, it will be for my right hon. and learned Friend to announce it.

T7. There is considerable nervousness among Christian communities across the middle east in these uncertain times, and apparently many Copts are beginning to leave Egypt. What discussions have the Government had with the Egyptian authorities on religious tolerance? (96718)

My hon. Friend raises a subject of considerable concern, not only in Egypt, but across a range of countries, as she rightly said. We engage bilaterally with those countries on the importance of the rule of law and of rights, stressing to Governments how important those things are. Equally, I keep in contact with the non-governmental organisations that deal with this issue; I saw representatives of Christians from Pakistan in my office just last week. This is a matter of concern all over the region and so the remarks made by Burhan Ghalioun in Syria about reaching out to Christian minorities there were particularly significant.

Reference has been made this afternoon to the emerging political and security difficulties in Afghanistan. Have the Government assessed how capable the Afghan state is of effectively administering the presidential elections due in 2014?

As the hon. Lady says, those elections are due in 2014. Over previous elections the Afghan state, supported by the international security assistance force, has shown an increasing capability to administer elections safely. I am sure that that capability will increase much further over the next two years, given that the build-up of the Afghan national security forces is continuing. As she knows, it is our intention that by the end of 2014 the Afghan national security forces will be able to conduct security all over Afghanistan for themselves, and that includes supervising elections.

T8. Given the growing tensions between Azerbaijan and Iran, which are extremely worrying, what are we doing to upgrade our diplomatic support to Azerbaijan, which is both politically and economically extremely important to this country? (96719)

We have good links with Azerbaijan, particularly given its current membership of the UN Security Council—it joined a few months ago. So our diplomatic contact and co-ordination with Azerbaijan has increased. As to the level of representation, we regularly review that but I do not have any new announcement to make about that at the moment.

Earlier, the Foreign Secretary outlined the atrocities in Syria. Will he say in which circumstances he would stop maintaining diplomatic relations with Syria?

There are good arguments for and against maintaining diplomatic relations in these circumstances. We have seen in recent days some of the advantages of maintaining relations, because our ambassador in Damascus has been very active in trying to secure the safe passage out of Syria of the injured journalist whom we were discussing earlier. Having people on the ground and having a channel of communication has a value, even when we so deeply disapprove of the conduct of the Government concerned. Of course, we must keep under review for security reasons the position of our embassy in Damascus and I stress that that is something that I keep under very intense review.

T10. The Minister will be aware of the shocking murder of Christians in Borno state, northern Nigeria, by Boko Haram. Will he outline what steps the British Government might be able to take to assist the Nigerian Government in dealing with that problem? (96721)

I certainly share my hon. Friend’s outrage at these attacks on both Christians and Muslim groups in northern Nigeria. The Prime Minister met President Goodluck Jonathan last week and the UK has offered to share experience on counter-terrorism policy, doctrine and legal frameworks. We have also offered to promote more bridge-building initiatives between Christians and Muslims.

In view of the fact that the Argentines are economically blockading the Falkland Islands and threatening the self-determination of the Falkland Islanders, will the Foreign Secretary make representations to his right hon. Friend the International Development Secretary to ensure that the UK votes differently at the World Bank and the Inter-American Development Bank and instead supports American efforts to galvanise a coalition among G20 countries to deny such loans to Argentina? In fact, will he make representations that we should stop making contributions to those loans?

I share the hon. Gentleman’s fury and frustrations about the economic blockade that the Argentines are seeking to enforce against the Falkland Islands. On this specific issue, I have made inquiries as I know that there are concerns in the House and I have been told that no UK taxpayers’ money is spent on providing finance to Argentina through the World Bank, nor does the Department for International Development give any aid at present to Argentina.

Building on the success of the marine protected area in the British Indian ocean, may I ask the Minister what recent assessment he has made of the merits of establishing marine protected areas in Pitcairn, Tristan da Cunha, South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands?

My hon. Friend might be interested to know that 90% of Britain’s biodiversity lies in the overseas territories, which is why a very important part of the forthcoming White Paper on the overseas territories will be devoted to how we manage that habitat and its biodiversity. Of course, the territories he has mentioned will play an important part in that exercise.