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Topical Questions

Volume 546: debated on Tuesday 19 June 2012

Last week I travelled to Pakistan and Afghanistan where I visited our troops in Helmand and participated in the Heart of Asia conference, where I discussed the situation in Syria with Ministers from Russia, China and Turkey. This week I will meet the Foreign Ministers of the Gulf Co-operation Council, and the Government will host the visit of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi.

I thank the Foreign Secretary for his answer. Will he join me in wishing Aung San Suu Kyi a happy birthday? She is the embodiment of peace and reconciliation. Does he agree with me that the controversial constitution of 2008 still puts the defence services at the heart of the Burmese Government? Will he assure Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and the people of Burma that we will walk alongside them in their long walk to peace and reconciliation?

Absolutely, and I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her question. I think that the whole country will wish Aung San Suu Kyi well and will be delighted to see her this week. I am delighted that at your invitation, Mr Speaker, and that of the other place she will be coming to address us here in Parliament. It is important to recognise that there is still a long way to go in Burma. Although her party has won the 40 recent by-elections, that represents only a small part of the Parliament. I do believe that the President of Burma is sincere in his intentions, but there will be a variety of views about the democratic progress of Burma within the regime, so it is vital for all of us who believe in freedom and democracy across the world to work with Daw Aung San Suu Kyi over the coming months and years.

No, it was not that the hon. Lady was standing up inadvertently. It is that I am calling her to stand up advertently, on the basis that I alternate between the two sides of the House. Her opportunity is now and the nation wishes to hear her.

T9. Thank you very much, Mr Speaker. In the midst of difficult, apprehensive and gloomy times in the eurozone, what measures are the Government taking to ensure that we are engaging as proactively as possible with exciting emerging markets in sub-Saharan Africa, particularly Mozambique? (112372)

It was well worth waiting for that question, Mr Speaker. I can tell my hon. Friend that the FCO and UK Trade and Investment are actively supporting UK businesses throughout southern Africa, including in South Africa and Mozambique. Indeed, recent successes have included assisting Aggreko to secure a $255 million deal to construct a power plant that will supply electricity to both South Africa and Mozambique. That is a big success story.

T2. Will the Foreign Secretary explain exactly what the Government’s policy is towards the Democratic Republic of the Congo? Very controversial elections were held there last year, which were heavily criticised by the Carter Centre, the European Union and the Churches in the Congo. A great deal of military incursion is occurring, particularly in the east; the treatment of women there is appalling; and huge profits are being made by mining companies. We would be grateful if the House could be told exactly what the British Government’s strategy is in that situation. (112365)

The EU observers’ report found that the vast majority of people in the DRC were able to vote in relative peace and security, although I entirely accept that there were irregularities in that election. Looking forward, we are very concerned about what is happening in the Kivus, in the eastern DRC. It is essential that the situation there does not deteriorate further, and we urge all parties, including surrounding states, not to use proxies and to stay out of the situation. We urge all sides to work for peace in that troubled region.

T10. Credit is due to both the previous Labour Government and this coalition Government for the UK’s global leadership on the arms trade treaty. Vital economic issues are being discussed at the G20 meeting this week, but will the Foreign Secretary tell the House whether the Prime Minister will also use the opportunity to lobby other world leaders in advance of next month’s arms trade conference, so that we can get a robust, comprehensive and effective arms trade treaty to save millions of lives? (112373)

Yes. We do indeed regard a robust and effective arms trade treaty as absolutely vital. We have continued the work done by the previous Government. There is a strong degree of consensus on this, but it is important that the treaty is both robust and effective. Negotiations are due to start on the final leg of this in July, in New York, and Ministers will be keeping a close eye on it.

In Egypt, as we speak, the army appears to be working to frustrate the outcome of the democratic election that took place at the weekend. What action are the UK Government taking to support the people of Egypt who voted in that election?

We welcome the peaceful conduct of the second and final round of Egypt’s presidential elections, but this is a critical moment in the move towards democratic, civilian-led government in Egypt. We are concerned by recent announcements of the dissolution of Parliament and the reintroduction of powers of arrest and detention for the military. We want the process of drafting a new, inclusive constitution and the holding of new parliamentary elections to be taken forward as soon as possible and the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for North East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt), has today been making those representations to Egyptian Ministers.

I absolutely agree with the Foreign Secretary when he says that there are similarities between what is happening in Syria now and what happened in Bosnia in the 1990s. I also note that he mentioned “robust action”. If we take any robust action that involves our servicemen, may I ask the Foreign Secretary to ensure that it includes robust rules of engagement so that our servicemen, if by chance they were ever deployed in that dreadful country, would have sufficient means to defend themselves properly?

My hon. Friend speaks with a great deal of experience and I certainly take that point and agree with it. Should we come to that eventuality, we will try to do that. Having heard our earlier exchanges, he will be conscious that our efforts are devoted to a peaceful political transition in Syria and to a cessation of violence. At no stage have we advocated a military intervention, but we recognise that the situation is so grave and deteriorating so quickly, and that such crimes are being committed, that we cannot take any options off the table at the moment.

T3. I draw attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. Two Nobel peace laureates are in the United Kingdom today: Aung San Suu Kyi and His Holiness the Dalai Lama. Will the Secretary of State take this opportunity to update the House and the country on what steps the Government are taking to work with those Nobel laureates and the authorities in Burma and Tibet to address ongoing human rights issues? (112366)

I mentioned a few moments ago our support for democratic change and human rights in Burma, including the resolving of the conflicts that continue, such as that in Kachin state. Ethnic conflicts have continued although there is a ceasefire in place in many of them. All that work will continue. We have a regular and formal human rights dialogue with China. As the hon. Gentleman knows, we, like the previous Government, recognise Tibet as part of the People’s Republic of China—let there be no mistake about that—but we certainly speak up for human rights in China, as we have done regularly and will continue to do.

Gambian national General Omar Mbye is married to my constituent Deborah Burns and today appears in the Gambian Supreme Court to appeal a conviction for treason and a sentence of death. Will the Minister assure me that the Foreign Office is doing all it can to ensure that justice prevails in the Gambia, particularly in this case, and to ensure that this man is not executed?

General O. B. Mbye and seven other defendants were charged with and convicted of treason and sentenced to death. Their case comes up in the Supreme Court in Gambia today and I understand the general is married to a British citizen who is a constituent of my hon. Friend’s, so obviously we are following the case closely and will provide her constituent with all possible consular and other assistance. On a wider note, we have growing concerns about President Jammeh’s Government and his attitude to the Opposition and to human rights, as well as the way he is discriminating against minorities.

T4. One of my constituents, a UK resident for 40 years, and 16 members of her family have inherited land in southern Cyprus. In order to dispose of the land, the Greek high commission has insisted that she prove UK residence for the past 38 years. She has provided passports and medical records and has now been asked to produce utility bills from 1974, a nigh on impossible task. Will the Minister or his officials communicate with the Greek high commission to find a way forward for that family? (112367)

As Daw Aung San Suu Kyi reminded us in her speech from Oslo last week, while we celebrate her freedom there remain many prisoners of conscience in Burma. Will the Foreign Secretary urge the Government there to establish a review of the cases of all prisoners so that it is possible to determine the actual reason for their arrest?

Absolutely. I have discussed this issue regularly with the Burmese authorities including with the President of Burma directly. I was pleased that in January there was such a large-scale further release of political prisoners in Burma, but the hon. Gentleman is quite right to say that some remain. In many cases, the Government of Burma allege that there is a responsibility for a violent crime or particular crime—not just the holding of a political opinion. That means that these cases have to be gone through and resolved individually. We will certainly encourage the Government of Burma to do that.

Order. I am keen to accommodate colleagues. The evidence so far is that we have time for the questions but not always for the answers. We need short questions and short answers.

T5. Is the Minister aware that following the blockade of Gaza, the Gazans suffer an acute shortage of drinking water, with 90% of the water being contaminated and 90 million litres of untreated or partially treated sewage being dumped in the sea every day? Will he now tell the Israelis that this is a cruel and illegal way to treat Gazans? (112368)

The situation in Gaza has long been of concern to the UK Government, and representations are made to the Israeli authorities regarding their responsibilities there. Things have gradually been improving in respect of trade in Gaza. but this issue is bound up in the longer-running and larger dispute between Israel and the Palestinians regarding the middle east peace process. The concerns that the hon. Lady raises have been raised by the UK Government and we will continue to raise them.

Gosport-based Royal Navy sailor Timmy MacColl went missing in Dubai on 27 May. His pregnant wife and the rest of his family and friends are clearly very worried about his whereabouts. Will the Minister please reassure me that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office is doing all it can to bring him home safely?

Yes. I thank my hon. Friend for raising this case. Our consular teams in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and in Dubai are aware of this case and we have met representatives of the family. It is a distressing and puzzling case and we are giving as much assistance as we can, along with other agencies, to the investigation.

T6. Last week, a Conservative Member of this House expressed huge admiration for General Pinochet. Given that General Pinochet sanctioned sadistic torture against innocent men, women and children, will the Foreign Secretary condemn his colleague’s comments? (112369)

I am not aware of the particular comments, but the hon. Gentleman can rest assured that the Government support a strong, democratic, free and open future for Chile, and our relations with the Government of Chile are excellent on that basis. Looking to the future, there is no doubt about where we stand.

Will the Government seek a new and less intrusive arrangement with the European Union as many member states press on to a political union and centralised government that we could not conceivably join?

We want to see the eurozone restore economic stability. That is in the interests of the United Kingdom as much as any other European country. The Prime Minister is demonstrating, through his leadership on the agenda to do with growth, deregulation and trade, that the UK continues to shape the direction of the European Union in a way that serves the prosperity and security of the people of this nation.

T7. Further to the Minister’s answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Halifax (Mrs Riordan), is he aware that the Israelis allowed only three lorry loads of exports through the Kerem Shalom crossing in the weekend of 5 June, compared with an average of 240 truck loads a week before the blockade? That is why factories are standing idle and why a third of the population is unemployed. Will the Minister tell the Israeli Government that the blockade is not only inhumane but totally counter-productive? (112370)

Briefly, yes. The hon. Lady’s makes a comparison between what goes through now and what went through before the blockade, and we make exactly the same point. It is more than went through last year, but that is not good enough. It is in the interests of Israel and the people of Gaza and beyond that the economic prospects of the people of Gaza improve. Israel can play its part in that and we urge it to continue to do so, just as we encourage those in Gaza not to launch attacks on Israel.

The Prime Minister has rightly set his face against the EU’s proposal for an unjustified 6% increase in its budget. Will the Minister take this opportunity to express his opposition to the External Action Service’s claim for a 5.7% increase in its budget and qualify the motion that appears on the Order Paper today?

When that motion was debated and agreed without a Division at yesterday’s European Committee, I made it very clear that we were opposed to an increase in the External Action Service’s budget, and that we expected the EAS to live up to the terms of the decision establishing it, which said that it had a responsibility to secure value for money and to return to budget neutrality.

T8. As a greater number of American veterans of the Afghan war commit suicide than die in combat, and as uncounted thousands of our own troops return, broken in body and mind, should we not follow the example of Canada, Holland, France and Australia and bring our troops home at an earlier date than planned? (112371)

It is also important to remember the immense achievements of our troops in Afghanistan, who have helped to bring stability to areas of Afghanistan that would not otherwise have known it, and who have done so much to reduce the terrorism threat to this country and many others, and it is very important for that job to be completed, as we intend it to be, by the end of 2014. It is important to remember the achievements of our troops, and not just the problems that they encounter.

Order. The hon. Gentleman is a very experienced denizen of the House. He will know that points of order follow statements, and the hon. Gentleman’s point of order is one that we await with eager anticipation.