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Volume 548: debated on Tuesday 17 July 2012

It is a pleasure to speak in this debate on Cyprus under your chairmanship, Dr McCrea. I welcome the Minister, who is not the Minister for Europe, but his portfolio includes responsibility for human rights. The issue of human rights transcends the boundaries of Cyprus and should be a matter of concern to us all. Indeed, some years ago, the Minister was on the campaign trail in Enfield, Southgate and may know about the issue of Cyprus. It is certainly of great concern to my constituents and others.

In the past 40 years there have been many debates about Cyprus in this House. Over the seven years that I have been in Parliament, and particularly given my constituency interest, I have inevitably been involved in speaking on Cyprus and securing many such debates. This time it is a particular pleasure to have secured a debate, because this month Cyprus has assumed the presidency of the European Union. It is a great historic achievement of a small but important island in Europe. It is a cause for celebration of the independence and sovereignty of Cyprus. Its leadership comes at a crucial time, given the travails in Europe. I am sure that the House will wish the Cyprus presidency well over the next six months.

But—sadly, with Cyprus politics there is usually a “but”—the reason why there have been so many debates over nearly four decades is that Cyprus remains divided, with the north occupied by Turkish troops. Ministers—and perhaps the Minister here today—will visit Nicosia during the next six months. That city is the only divided capital in Europe; part of the island in the north remains occupied by troops from a foreign country—Turkey—leading to the north being one of the most militarised places in the world.

During this six-month period, pressure needs to be put on Turkey to properly recognise the Republic of Cyprus. The threats made by Turkish leaders to freeze relations with the European Union while Cyprus has the presidency should not wash with the United Kingdom or the Government. If—as many want—Turkey wants in time to be a member of the European club, it needs to play by the rules, which include respecting the rotating presidency and also respecting European agreements, not least the customs union. It is extraordinary that, although a key aim of the presidency is developing European Union maritime policy, Turkey refuses to fulfil the Ankara protocol and to accept Cyprus ships at its ports. I hope that the Minister will be able to assure me that during the next six months the Government will do all they can to put pressure on Turkey to recognise Cyprus and not let it off the hook during a period that can be seen too easily as a vacuum period.

The subject of the debate is Cyprus, but I have already spent time talking about Turkey. When I spoke in a debate two weeks ago about UK relations with Turkey, I spoke about Cyprus. Sadly, Turkey’s influence and involvement in Cyprus are significant. We and no doubt the Minister will want to reaffirm that the future of Cyprus must be properly determined by Cypriots, but Turkey calls the shots in the north. It is therefore incumbent on Britain to help to ensure that Cypriots— Greek and Turkish Cypriots—have the freedom and capacity to determine their future as a reunited island based on the principles of the United Nations framework of the bizonal, bicommunal federal solution.

Having been to Cyprus on two separate occasions in the past six weeks as Chairman of the European Scrutiny Committee, I very much endorse what my hon. Friend is saying. We are conscious of the problem that he has identified, and it would be extremely helpful if the present Cypriot Government addressed the problem of fraudulent titles, which is a problem for some 2,000 people in the UK who have interests in the land. A Minister in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Cyprus told me that they would try to sort it out. Does my hon. Friend agree that, just as we have to sort out the Turkish question, the Cypriots have a responsibility to sort out the problem of fraudulent titles?

I welcome my hon. Friend’s intervention on the issues of fraudulent titles and illegal occupation of land. The Foreign Office website advises UK citizens to be clear about property ownership in the north. It advises against exploiting the situation and highlights the illegality in the north. It is a huge problem that needs to be resolved.

I imagine the Minister who took up the brief today may have approached the debate with some weariness given the stalemate in the talks between the Cypriot leaders. The House is familiar with the debate. The main purpose of the debate today is to seek to break new ground and to urge the Government not to sit on the sidelines or just cheer or cajole from the terraces, but to take seriously our historical responsibilities and our responsibilities as a guarantor power. We have responsibilities to many of those represented here. I see my hon. Friends here. The Minister of State, Department for Transport, my right hon. Friend the Member for Chipping Barnet (Mrs Villiers), has a significant number of Cypriot constituents, as do my hon. Friends the Members for Enfield North (Nick de Bois), for Hendon (Dr Offord) and for Congleton (Fiona Bruce). It is clear that many Members are concerned that we do not simply let the next six months pass.

One of the areas of new ground is curiously an old one: religious and cultural heritage. Last May, I led an all-party group delegation, including my hon. Friends the Members for Enfield North and for Hendon and the hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire North (Jim Sheridan), to clean up some cemeteries and churches in Cyprus. Some of the cemeteries had been neglected, but most had been desecrated. Having visited the north last November, I witnessed for myself the desecration and damage. I resolved that the next time I returned we would do something practical about it.

Our delegation did not visit national political leaders, which is what usually happens. We wanted to focus on the local communities and villages to try not only physically to restore respect to trashed cemeteries and pillaged churches, but to restore the link between the village associations—both Greek and Turkish Cypriot—which, through the conflict, has sadly been lost.

Our visit’s aim was not to try to change the world or to solve the Cyprus problem—or indeed to restore all religious and cultural heritage—in a few days. The aim was to take some small but practical steps through cleaning a cemetery or a church to rebuild confidence and to make the point that, as British Members of Parliament with responsibilities, along with the Cypriots who were with us, we would not tolerate the desecration of religious heritage.

We will not accept the status quo. We made the point loud and clear that the situation cannot just be accepted and allowed to carry on. The memories of loved ones and the places of worship that people want to go to matter. Such respect transcends faiths, backgrounds and countries. It is about respect for common shared values. In building those small steps of confidence, the aim was to lead to a better future.

I am delighted that my hon. Friend has secured this debate. Does he agree that when we visited heritage sites on the north and the south of the island they were sadly not as they should be? By reaching beyond the politicians in the villages of Pigi and Peristerona, we saw people coming together from both sides of the island who have not seen each other for a long time. They shared that wish for respect and for restoration. We can reach above the politicians, and civic society has a role to play in helping to bring about the right solution.

That visit was one of the most positive that I have been on, because we were able to see that. The common refrain is that the problem is not the people but the politics and the involvement of an outside political force in the form of Turkey. For example, in Peristerona—because of our presence, no doubt—there was a feeling of wanting to do something about a church that, throughout the time of division, had not been touched. Over time, debris, rubbish and droppings had accumulated. While we were there, we were able to see that church cleared of the debris—we were able to make a video—for the first time. A Cypriot who lived in Liverpool just happened to turn up on a visit. He had been baptised in the church before it was destroyed and desecrated. To see someone take an interest and some care—local Turkish Cypriots were helping to restore it as well—made a big difference to him. He said that there is a brighter future and that we can do something about it—not just so much talk that we often hear about, but real, practical action.

There were, however, some who warned us against doing that. Particularly in the north, politicians tried to lobby against us and build division where there was none. The media also seemed to be against us. There was caution, too, from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. I see some of the team here, and I pay tribute to its helpful advice throughout the trip, for which I was grateful. There was a cautionary note saying that we should do things only when we had the approval of various people, not least Mr Kucuk in the north, the so-called Prime Minister. He would give us direction on whether we were able to go ahead with our cleaning activities.

What we actually found was that Cyprus does not wholly work like that—quite properly so. It works through villages. It works through different villages that take their orders from no one; they run themselves as they have done in years gone by. They will not simply take orders from those on high. They were concerned more with the relationship they had with us and the village association people, and they were willing to take steps. They said very clearly that they would give permission for future cleaning programmes, which was encouraging and we need to make progress.

One of the highlights was our visit to Assia. Again, there were cautionary notes about it being in a nationalist area and close to an army base. However, with Greek Cypriot association villagers who had the confidence to come over for the first time with us, we were able to build a good degree of confidence with local Turkish Cypriots, mukhtars and mayors and say, “Yes, together we can do something about this.” In that village, a mosque and a church need restoring, and together they want to work on them. We also went to a cemetery that had been trashed over the years, but they were able to go there for the first time and see that we cared about the fact that the cemetery needs to be in a better condition.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend, for securing the debate and for organising the visit. He mentioned the visit to Assia, which I found very poignant. Some of the people who accompanied us from the UK and, as he said, felt safe coming out with us, took us on a tour around the graveyard. One gentleman’s aunt had died on the day I was born, so I certainly feel a link with what we want to achieve in Assia. I certainly hope that, following our visit, we will have a programme of works, and that the mukhtars and the people in the north will engage with the people from the south, and from the United Kingdom, to ensure that graveyards are cleaned up, churches are repaired and some kind of civility is brought back to the island of Cyprus.

Those were poignant moments. The villagers of Assia have agreed to go back, in agreement with Bishop Porfyrios, to restore the crosses that have been broken and put them back in their place. That will be an important symbolic moment that says that this is a village where we care for our loved ones. In fact, when I went back in November, which was a motivation for this visit, they were saying, “How can we respect the living if we cannot respect the dead?”

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for letting me make a very brief intervention. I hope that he will understand why, at this point, I am also keen to remind hon. Members of our visit to the south. For example, in Kivisili we also saw a willingness to put right some of the graveyards that were not in a satisfactory condition. The spirit he talks about relating to our visit to the north is also reflected in the south.

We agreed to go across the whole island, so we visited Limassol, Larnaca, Dromolaxia, Kivisili and Kalo Choiro, as well as Afania, Assia, Genagra, Pigi, Peristerona and Nicosia. That was important. For example, we went to the Limassol mosque which, not long before we visited, had been partially burned by vandals. We were able to visit the mosque with Bishop Porfyrios and Imam Shakir, who were affirming their united support for a greater respect for religious and cultural heritage. The problem is not one of division or religious division—that is not a problem at all. They were saying that we can look at the issue of religious cultural heritage as one where we can respect religion, which can be a uniting, not dividing, force, to build confidence and trust for all Cypriots. I ask the Minister to support such confidence-building measures in areas of religious cultural heritage. Citizens from this country will be going to Cyprus to carry out such visits in the future.

This is a current issue, and there is a concern that it is not all positive. There are reports this week that the cemetery in the village of Trachoni in the north has been completely destroyed to make way for the building of a new police station. That does not help at all when we want to build a common future for Greek and Turkish Cypriots, and I ask the Minister to condemn that approach.

Would my hon. Friend be kind enough to take another question which relates, as I understand it, to the refusal of the Turkish Government to recognise the law of the sea and the exclusive economic zone in relation to gas? That is a huge issue that raises massive questions about good faith.

I was going to come on to that. The discovery of hydrocarbon reserves is a wonderful opportunity—a natural resource for the whole of the island of Cyprus—to help resource a reunited island. There are struggles in the region both with energy and finance, and that provides hope for a brighter future. That is why it is depressing that, at this time, Turkey is being provocative in bringing ships around to show an aggressive approach, and not fully recognising that this is a resource for Cyprus. Outside powers should not be trying to get their hands on it. As a guarantor power, Britain has responsibility for the independence of the island. This is a threat to that independence. I understand that the Minister for Europe has been vigorous in making representations, and I ask the Minister present to reaffirm that respect for the integrity of that resource for the benefit of the island, which offers real hope for the future—a dynamic that can happen now and can be assured.

This period could lapse into a vacuum period of six months where the talks are stalled, but we can make practical progress. In Famagusta, the fenced-off Varosha area has been looted, uninhabited and decaying for nearly 40 years. Will the Minister reaffirm what the Prime Minister has said—I am sure that he will want to do so—in response to my reference to this on behalf of other hon. Members? The Prime Minister said:

“We fully support all the relevant Security Council resolutions, including UNSCR550 and UNSCR789. We have raised this with the Turkish authorities”.

I urge the Government to continue to do that. The Prime Minister recognises

“that measures to build confidence between the communities in Cyprus can have great value in facilitating efforts towards a comprehensive settlement. We continue to encourage all parties to the Cyprus problem to develop such measures.”

Famagusta is one such area that can come under UN supervision and properly allow, in compliance with those United Nations resolutions, for the return of lawful inhabitants. Hon. Members believe that that would help to facilitate efforts towards a settlement. That does not need to wait for a settlement; progress can be made, as it can in the area of missing persons. There was a protest yet again last week by the relatives of missing persons. The relatives are still literally crying out for basic information about their loved ones, despite the great efforts of the communal committee for missing persons—work supported by the European Union, and by the UK taxpayer, too. Unfortunately, the whereabouts of those relatives are in the domain of Turkish authorities, in military bases and in Turkey itself. There must be compliance with the European Court of Human Rights judgments to allow the whereabouts of those missing people to be established.

It is important that we do not rely simply on the fact that the talks have stalled in the past six months, on what will be said, which is that we want to ensure that the Cyprus problem is resolved by Cypriots, and on the UN framework. Obviously, we want that, but we want to ensure that Britain takes its responsibilities seriously and that we as a Government step up our pressure on Turkey to recognise Cyprus when Cyprus has the European presidency. We also encourage Cypriots to step up and civil society to take a place where there are political talks and restore religious heritage and other things beyond that. We will be right behind them, supporting them every step of the way. We are doing that on behalf of British Cypriots and because of our historical responsibilities, so that we can, at long last, end the need for such debates in Parliament.

While we were in Cyprus, the mukhtars in the north part assured us that they would continue with some of the reconstructive works that they had engaged in before we got there. That was a sign of great hope and a positive step during our visit, but will my hon. Friend confirm that he has received letters of reassurance from the mukhtars to say that the work will continue, which they assured us during our visit that they would provide?

The words were positive. I have said that we need actions, not just words. It is disappointing that we have not yet had that practical confirmation from those authorities. We will pursue that. If the Foreign Office can help us to do that as well, that would be much appreciated, because we have laid the groundwork and now need to ensure that we carry on with it. We should now allow a lot of Cypriots to walk over the bridges that have been built, so that we can build confidence.

We are happy to talk about Cyprus a lot, but it is important that we do not have more debates about it in the present context of a divided island. We want to support and stand full square, throughout the House, for a free, reunited Cyprus. As the holder of the presidency of the EU, it should be free and reunited. We need that sooner rather than later.

It is a great honour to serve under your chairmanship, Dr McCrea. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, Southgate (Mr Burrowes). He is right. I belong in the elite group of people who have stood in Enfield, Southgate in a general election. He belongs in the even more elite group of people who have won in that constituency. I pay tribute to all colleagues who have joined us for this important debate, specifically my hon. Friend, who has a deep, consistent interest in this subject, which is a cause of great importance to a large number of his constituents and in which he takes an interest more widely.

Let me make a couple of points in response to specific issues that my hon. Friend raised, then touch on three themes that came out of the debate: cultural sites, missing persons and natural gas and mineral reserves, which were mentioned in an intervention by my hon. Friend the Member for Stone (Mr Cash).

The United Kingdom fully supports Security Council resolutions 550 and 789, which my hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, Southgate mentioned, and we will continue to raise those issues with the Turkish authorities. We urge Turkey to implement the additional Ankara protocol when we have a suitable opportunity to bring that to its attention. It is important that the European Union and Turkey find a way to make progress on this issue.

My hon. Friend was right to draw the attention of the House to this significant moment in the long history of Cyprus, because from 1 July until the end of this year it holds the presidency of the Council of the European Union. There are close links between our countries: Cyprus is one of only three EU member states in the Commonwealth; more than 80,000 British citizens live on the island; more than 300,000 Cypriots live permanently in the UK, many of them in Enfield and other parts of north London and across the country; a million British people visit the island annually; and 11,000 Cypriot students attend British universities. I strongly take on board the point that was made about our historical obligations and our contemporary interest in events happening in Cyprus.

Will the Minister commit to looking into the question of the fraudulent title to land? Many thousands of English—British—people have land in Cyprus. I raised that matter when I visited. Will he commit to taking that forward, to ensure that there is a proper resolution in the courts so that these titles can be remedied?

I will happily undertake to task the Department with looking into that. The Minister for Europe or I will write to my hon. Friend.

I have mentioned the three areas that I want to talk about in the five minutes available to me. First, on missing people, there are significant efforts to help families discover the fate of their relatives and give them the opportunity to bury them with respect. We understand that this is an important and sensitive issue for all Cypriots and recognise the need for it to be resolved. The work of the committee for missing persons is of great significance. Since its establishment in 1981, it has been one of the only institutionalised bi-communal committees in Cyprus. To date, the remains of 853 individuals have been exhumed from different burial sites located across the island and 321 remains of individuals exhumed within the framework of the CMP project have been identified through this process—255 Greek Cypriots and 66 Turkish Cypriots.

Of course, to complete its vital work the CMP must be granted access to all areas where it needs to excavate. I therefore urge all those in control of such areas, including the Turkish military, to co-operate fully with the committee. The Committee of Ministers responsible for the supervision of the Turkey v. Cyprus case in the European Court of Human Rights case has also underlined the need for Turkish authorities to take concrete measures in relation to the missing persons, and particularly in relation to the CMP’s access to all relevant information and places.

Secondly, the cultural heritage of the island, which my hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, Southgate discussed at some length, is a sensitive area and the technical committee on cultural heritage, established in April 2008, has the mandate to work on improving the situation. The committee has developed an action plan to protect vulnerable buildings. It has already started work on some projects and hopes, with further funding, to be able to implement more of its plan. The UK Government strongly believe that respect for religious and cultural buildings is a key element in building trust between different communities, including through the preservation of churches, mosques and other buildings of religious and cultural heritage.

Thirdly, and finally—I am conscious that I am slightly skimming through these areas, but I know that hon. Members will want to hear the response to specific points—my hon. Friends the Members for Stone and for Enfield, Southgate mentioned the discovery of substantial gas reserves in Cyprus’ exclusive economic zone, which we regard as good news for the island. There has never been any doubt about the United Kingdom’s support for the right of the Republic of Cyprus to develop the reserves that lie within its exclusive economic zone. Along with the international community we have publicly stated our recognition of Cyprus’ sovereign rights to do so.

We welcome President Christofias’s saying that the gas reserves should benefit all the people living in Cyprus. We hope that the Government of the Republic of Cyprus will take further steps to demonstrate to Turkish Cypriots that they have a clear interest in the development of these reserves. We call on all parties to handle the issue in a way that does not undermine the settlement process and urge both sides not to escalate the issue.

I express once again, on behalf of the Government, my gratitude to my hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, Southgate for raising this subject and reiterate that the Government remain committed to seeing a comprehensive settlement in Cyprus.

Treading carefully, because this Government and no other Government apart from the Turkish Government recognise the northern Republic of Cyprus, will the Minister undertake, or give us assurances, that his Department will assist either the all-party parliamentary group on Cyprus or hon. Members present in seeking assurances from the mukhtars in the north that they would undertake the work that we have described?

In the seconds that I have left, let me say that I will bring that to the attention of the Minister for Europe, who I am sure will take it on board as he does all representations from hon. Members.