Skip to main content

Topical Questions

Volume 541: debated on Tuesday 28 February 2012

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.