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Topical Questions

Volume 543: debated on Tuesday 17 April 2012

Tomorrow my right hon. Friend the Defence Secretary and I will attend a meeting of NATO Defence and Foreign Ministers in Brussels. The meeting will prepare for the Chicago summit in May, which will focus on Afghanistan, improving military capabilities, and strengthening NATO’s network of partners across the world.

Will the Foreign Secretary join me in congratulating Aung San Suu Kyi on her election victory, and does he agree with claims by the Chindits—the lions of the jungle—that they have been abandoned by the UK Government in their fight against Burma’s ruling dictatorship?

Of course I very much congratulate Aung San Suu Kyi on those victories. We are pleased that such change is taking place in Burma. We will discuss at the EU Foreign Affairs Council in Luxembourg next Monday what we now do about sanctions on Burma. The Prime Minister had a very successful visit there last Friday. We are not abandoning anybody as we improve relations with Burma. In fact, we have stressed throughout the importance of the release of political prisoners, the upholding of human rights—far more effectively, we hope, than in the recent past of Burma—and the ending of regional ethnic conflicts. All of those are equally important.

T2. This week is the anniversary of the genocide that was perpetrated by Saddam Hussein against the Kurds, a genocide that is still not formally recognised in most countries. Will the UK recognise that a genocide took place and encourage others to follow suit? (102877)

Whether or not the term “genocide” is appropriate, it is clear that an appalling atrocity was perpetrated against the Iraqi Kurds, not least at Halabja. They were among a number of minorities who were attacked by Saddam Hussein. It is noteworthy that his indictment at the end of the day was for crimes against humanity. Very many suffered as a result of his activities and we should remember them all, as we remember the opportunities now created in Iraq for a new future.

T4. Following the recent threat by the Iranian leadership, what steps, if any, are being taken to prepare for the possible implications of Iran seeking to close the straits of Hormuz? (102879)

The Defence Secretary and I have both referred to that in the past and we have stressed that any such attempt would be unsuccessful. It is one of the reasons for our maintaining a force of minesweepers in the Gulf. It is one of the reasons for our joining the United States and France in sending ships through the straits some weeks ago to demonstrate our determination to protect international navigation, so I hope that Iran has taken note of that determination and will desist from any such attempt.

T3. My constituent John Lawton has been missing in Greece since Easter Sunday. He was competing in a marathon. He passed through the fourth checkpoint and has not been seen since. This is very distressing for his wife, Lynda, and son, Steve, who are out in Greece and with whom I am in regular contact. Can the Minister assure me and the Lawton family that everything possible is being done by the Government to support the family and to make sure that everything possible is being done by the Greek authorities at the highest level to ensure the widest possible search, and that the family receive support on the ground from the British embassy? (102878)

May I first express my sympathy to the Lawton family at what must be an incredibly traumatic time for them? I spoke to our ambassador in Athens this morning about this case. My understanding is that our embassy has been in regular contact with both the Lawton family in Greece and the Greek authorities at every level, from ministerial to operational police level. I am very willing to offer a meeting between our consular team in Greece and the Lawton family members who are there, and I am also very happy to meet the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, our hon. Friend the Member for Huntingdon (Mr Djanogly), in order to discuss the case further.

T5. Following the recent sudden death of the President of Malawi and the peaceful and constitutional succession of Joyce Banda as the new President, what assessment has the Minister made of the prospects now for full diplomatic representation in Malawi and the resumption of the direct foreign aid that is so important to so many people in that very poor country? (102880)

I had a chance to speak to President Joyce Banda a few days ago. I was extremely impressed by her determination to drive a programme of economic reform and to meet some of the milestones that we put in place for the bilateral relationship, so I am confident that we will be able to appoint a high commissioner in the very near future. Direct budget support will be up to the Department for International Development, but we will carry on providing aid to the Malawi people.

T6. I recently visited India with a view to helping a constituent whose son died there two years ago. They are still awaiting the outcome of the forensic findings of the loss of life investigation. Will the Minister or the Secretary of State meet me and, on a cross-party basis, other Members of the House who are similarly affected by loss of life investigations in India? (102881)

I congratulate my hon. Friend on the diligence with which he has pursued the case of his constituent. I have raised the case with the Indian authorities on two occasions but have not yet resolved it to his or my satisfaction. I am more than happy to meet him and others to try to make further progress.

T8. The International Crisis Group reported in December that:“Women in Sri Lanka’s predominantly Tamil-speaking north and east are facing a desperate lack of security in the aftermath of the long civil war.” It refers to forced prostitution and trafficking. Will the Minister raise those issues in his dialogue with the Government of Sri Lanka? (102883)

We thought that it was a good report, with elements that we certainly recognise and that also match some of the issues raised through the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission, so those concerns will form part of our dialogue with Sri Lanka as it works towards its own determination to secure peace and reconciliation for the future, which we believe must also be based on justice for the past.

T7. Following a recent visit to Gaza, I refer the House to my entry in the register. Have Her Majesty’s Government raised with Egypt the serious impact on Gaza’s economy, basic infrastructure and medical facilities and the Gaza strip’s sole power station of Egypt’s recent restrictions on fuel exports to the Gaza strip? (102882)

I have not raised that specifically with Egypt. We are aware of the concerns about power and fuel and the discussions among the relevant parties to try to resolve it. We are following those discussions closely and urge those parties to solve the issue so that some of the pain of the Gazan people can be relieved. My hon. Friend is right to raise it.

T10. Given that today is Palestinian prisoners’ day, can the Minister say what representations he has made regarding the number of Palestinian children currently detained in Israeli prisons and what concerns he has about the treatment they are suffering? (102885)

I have raised the issue of the detention and treatment of children on a number of occasions with the Israeli authorities. We appreciated the fact that the age of majority for criminal proceedings has been raised, but I still have concerns about access to lawyers. Indeed, from this Dispatch Box I have said that the shackling of children is wrong. We can continue to raise those issues on behalf of those affected.

T9. I congratulate my right hon. Friend on the diplomatic and responsible way in which the 30th anniversary of the Falklands conflict was handled recently. What is his view on Argentina’s continued reference to an illegal occupation, which does not reflect the principle of self-determination? (102884)

Our view on this is well known: we support the Falkland Islanders’ right to self-determination. For us this is not about territory, but about the rights of those people, who have been settled there for generations. We recently saw the birth of a ninth-generation baby on the Falkland Islands, and some of the families have been settled there since before Argentina existed in its current form. The Falkland Islanders have been there a long time. We uphold their right to self-determination and will always continue to do so.

I know that the Government are appalled at the recent turn of events in the west African state of Guinea-Bissau. Is the Minister in a position to update the House on what has happened in Guinea-Bissau and what efforts can be made to help restore democracy to that beleaguered land?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his interest in Guinea-Bissau. I gather that he has been there twice, including recently as an election observer. We absolutely deplore the coup d'état. Guinea-Bissau was making really good progress from a failed state towards a functioning democracy, so we support the statement by the Economic Community of West African States that the Prime Minister, Carlos Gomes, and the interim President, Raimundo Pereira, must be released and that the second phase of the election must go ahead on 22 April.

In the curious case of Mr Neil Heywood, can the Foreign Secretary reassure the House that everything that could have been done has been done, and everything that should have been done has been done, preceding and proceeding Mr Heywood’s tragic death?

Yes. My hon. Friend will be aware that before Foreign and Commonwealth Office questions today I issued a written ministerial statement, setting out what has happened since 14 November, since the tragic death of Mr Heywood, and I hope that it will be for the assistance of the House. As my hon. Friend knows, we have asked for—we have demanded—an investigation, and the Chinese authorities have agreed to conduct such an investigation. There has been a further discussion about that this afternoon, between my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and a visiting member of the Politburo, Mr Li Changchun, whom I too will meet shortly, so we are pursuing the matter extremely carefully but vigorously.

Further to Question 9, is not the worst aspect of the demolitions the practice of punitive demolitions, which is based on the doctrine of collective punishment, and does that not directly contravene article 33 of the Geneva convention?

I reiterate again that we raised with the Israeli authorities the issue of demolitions as one of great concern. They have been on the increase, and we see them as a setback to the peace process and to the need to build a proper relationship with the Palestinian authorities in order to get an ultimate settlement resolved. It will be resolved only within that context, but we are concerned about the recent increase, and we make our representations very clear.

I have great concerns about demolitions in East Jerusalem, and the Foreign Secretary himself recently talked about Israeli settlements in the west bank being illegal under international law, counter-productive, destabilising and provocative, but other than words of criticism are there any consequences for the Israeli Government, or do they pursue those policies with impunity?

My hon. Friend makes very clear, by echoing my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary’s statement, how seriously the United Kingdom takes those issues and how constantly we raise them, but again I have to come back to the fact that Israel sees the issue differently, and accordingly it is one of those things that ultimately will be resolved only by the settlement that every Member wishes to see between the Palestinian authorities and Israel. Differences of opinion on the matter are likely to remain, but we are increasingly concerned about the activities in East Jerusalem, and my hon. Friend is right to raise them, as indeed was my right hon. Friend when he made his statement.

Three hours ago the Foreign Secretary rushed out a statement about the death—possible murder—of a British citizen in China last November. There are so many different aspects to the matter that there is no time to go into them, but the statement makes it clear that the Foreign Office knew on 18 January about the allegations, that they were brought to the Foreign Secretary’s attention on 7 February and that it took two months for him to bring it to the attention of the Commons or the public. May I invite him to give a full oral statement, so that the many worries and questions that need to be raised can be put to him for a full answer?

The points are very clear in the statement that I have issued today—not in a rushed way but after full consideration, putting all the facts together for the House. On the one hand the right hon. Gentleman says that there is a rush, but then he asks for a rush on a great many other things. What is clear is that rumours within the British expatriate community about the matter were brought to officials on 18 January; that the allegations about Mr Heywood’s death, made by former Chongqing vice-mayor and chief of police, Mr Wang Lijun, were made on 6 February; and that on 7 February, the next day, officials brought those concerns to me—the same day that I instructed them to ask China to investigate. I think that puts into perspective some of the ranting of the right hon. Gentleman.

Will the Government seek prudent limits on the amounts of money that the European Central Bank can lend to weak commercial banks in the European Union, given our small shareholding and big interest in that difficult situation?

That may be more a matter for my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer, but of course the governance of the European Central Bank is also not primarily for the United Kingdom, given that we are mercifully not part of the euro—and are not going to become part of the euro. So we might not be in a strong position to seek those limits.

Are the Government aware that at least 65 executions, including of women, took place in Iraq in January, and that the Iraqi criminal justice system depends largely on confessions extracted routinely by torture? Surely that is a legacy that shames us all.

We have noted the increase in executions to which the right hon. Lady refers. We have issued a statement of deep concern and condemnation in relation to it. It is a measure of how far the justice system still has to go in Iraq that some of these hangovers of the past have to be overcome. The United Kingdom, as is its declared policy, will continue to work to oppose the death penalty and continue to work for the improvement of justice in Iraq.