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Middle East and North Africa

Volume 549: debated on Tuesday 4 September 2012

2. What steps he is taking to promote political and economic freedom in the Middle East and North Africa; and if he will make a statement. (118497)

In addition to diplomatic and political support given to countries in the region, following the dramatic events of the last 18 months, our Arab partnership programme, which is now worth £110 million, provides practical support with a range of projects, including election reform, media transparency and employment initiatives. We will operate across 15 countries in this coming year, with a budget of some £60 million.[Official Report, 5 November 2012, Vol. 552, c. 2MC.]

What action is the Minister taking to build commercial relationships for British business in Libya?

We would like to see Libya as the partner of choice in a range of commercial activities. The work done to date, following the re-establishment of the UK Trade & Investment office in September last year, has been to look at key sectors of mutual benefit to us both, such as health care, education and civil security. UKTI has led some 12 trade missions over the last year—about one a month—and has a further 27 planned.

The development of democracies in this region will take a long time. Many organisations, including the Westminster Foundation for Democracy, are involved in this, and they are learning from the experience of what works in those countries and what help they will need in the future. Will the Minister ensure that the total learning from all that work, funded by the Arab partnership fund and others, is brought together so that parliamentarians and, equally, people who work in the Foreign Office understand exactly how we can best support that process?

The hon. Lady makes a good point. I pay tribute to her work and that of other parliamentarians involved in the Westminster Foundation for Democracy. It is indeed the case that the various non-governmental organisations have different skills to apply, and it is important that we learn all the lessons from them. We have learned, as if we needed it told, that each of these countries is different, following slightly different paths and requiring different skills to be applied. The value that this country’s really good NGOs and parliamentarians can provide to the development of the democratic system will stand these countries in good stead. We certainly need to make sure that we have pooled all the lessons learned.

Last year, the Foreign Affairs Committee recommended a political surge in Afghanistan with talks involving all the regional players. The Government response agreed with that. A year later, however, nothing has happened. Despite the turmoil going on in the middle east and political paralysis in Washington because of the presidential elections, is it not time to give fresh impetus to this process and kill off the logjam of momentum caused by the delay?

Despite all the events that have taken place in different parts of the world, the United Kingdom has never ceased to focus on the fact that Afghanistan remains the principal foreign policy issue affecting the Government. The political paralysis that the hon. Gentleman describes is not necessarily there. Political processes continue in Afghanistan, and we continue to encourage both the Government and those whom we wish to enter into talks with President Karzai on the Afghanistan Government’s principles for engagement to maintain their activities. Following the death of the former chairman of the High Peace Council it has been difficult to get the process moving, but we continue to apply pressure, and we are sure that, as time moves on towards the presidential elections in 2014, the reconciliation process will continue.

What action is the Minister taking in relation to money that has been taken out of Egypt by the former regime and is now in UK banks?

Legal processes are necessary for the return of any money that has been frozen in the United Kingdom as a result of sanctions. We are continuing to work closely with the Egyptian authorities, and we are providing support to ensure that they have the necessary expertise to navigate through British legal processes. We want to ensure that money that rightfully belongs to those in Egypt who have rightfully reclaimed it is indeed returned.