Skip to main content

Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 554: debated on Tuesday 4 December 2012

Foreign and Commonwealth Office

The Secretary of State was asked—


1. What representations he has made to the Burmese Government on resolving the situation in Rakhine state. (131100)

10. What steps he is taking with the Burmese and Bangladeshi Governments to assist the Rohingya Muslim community. (131109)

We continue to raise our concerns about the recent violence in Rakhine state, as well as the conflict in Kachin and Shan states, with Burmese Ministers and Aung San Suu Kyi. My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary raised the plight of the Rohingya community in recent discussions with the Burmese President, stressing the need to resolve their citizenship status. Officials continue to emphasise the importance of our humanitarian aid programmes in Bangladesh and Rakhine with the Bangladeshi and Burmese Governments.

I thank the Minister for that response. Does it not surprise him that Aung San Suu Kyi, the most respected and peaceable person in Burma, has been in effect excluded from steps to resolve the situation in Rakhine? Will he urge the Burmese Government to invite Aung San Suu Kyi to visit Rakhine state as soon as possible to help to calm the situation?

We very much welcome the statement that Aung San Suu Kyi made on 9 November, as chairman of the parliamentary committee on the rule of law, on the situation in Rakhine state. The issue was raised with her by my right hon. Friends the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary when she was here in June, and our ambassador has raised it with her since. I will travel to that part of the world shortly and I will certainly discuss the issue with her, because I believe she has a role in resolving it and, indeed, all the problems facing Burma today.

We hear what the Minister says, but the situation is of great concern to all of us who care about minorities. I have been a critic in this House of the way in which Christians have been treated by Muslims in Pakistan—that is on the record—but this is a question of Muslims being persecuted in Burma. Can the United Nations and this country’s leadership and Government not do something about it?

Of course we remain extremely concerned about the situation in Burma, but we believe that it is moving in the right direction. We welcome President Obama’s recent visit there and I shall be taking a trade delegation on my visit. We believe that engaging with the Government commercially as well as politically is the right way to proceed. We are concerned about the ethnic violence and issues of religion, and we remain concerned—I shall raise these points forcefully when I am there—about the issue of the remaining political prisoners.

The Minister has rightly focused on issues regarding the Rohingya community in Burma, but equally there are hundreds of thousands of Rohingya Muslim refugees in Bangladesh and 20,000 or 30,000 of them in refugee camps. What steps can the Minister take to persuade the Bangladesh Government to begin the registration of undocumented Rohingya refugees and to provide access for non-governmental organisations to the refugee camps?

My hon. Friend makes a good point. The issue was raised by my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary during a meeting with the Bangladeshi Prime Minister, Sheikh Hasina, on 28 July. The former Secretary of State for International Development, my right hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr Mitchell), raised it with Prime Minister Hasina on 12 August. My noble friend Baroness Warsi raised it with the Bangladesh Foreign Minister, Dipu Moni, in October 2012 and the British high commissioner has also raised it in Bangladesh. It is important that we get aid to that part of Rakhine and that the Bangladeshis make it possible for that aid to reach the people.

The development of democracy in Burma will be successful only if it is pluralistic—a position that has long been held by the British Government. Is the Minister satisfied with the position that is being taken within the European Union, and what discussions has he had with his counterparts about ensuring that the common position does not move too quickly towards removing all sanctions and developing trade with Burma until all ethnic groupings are properly involved in its democracy?

As I have said, we have taken the view that the best way to encourage Burma on the path that we believe the President has set is to engage with them. We have taken a number of trade delegations there and I shall be taking one myself shortly. I have written to the chairman of the all-party group on Burma, the noble Baroness Kinnock, and, when I return from that part of the world—this will be in the new year—I am prepared happily to talk through what I will have learnt on the ground. I think I will be one of the few Ministers to have been to that area, so I will be able to give the hon. Lady a first-hand account of what I think is going on there.

While the focus has been on the Rohingya people and the atrocities that they have faced, including the destruction of a mosque recently, everybody in the area is suffering as a result of these problems. Will the Minister tell us how the humanitarian aid that we are providing will encourage a resolution to the difficulties?

I am pleased to say that we have an extremely good track record in that respect. We are one of the largest aid donors to Burma and have allocated £187 million to it over four years, which includes support for the process of ethnic reconciliation. We announced another £27 million in November for the humanitarian support of refugees and internally displaced people and for peace-building activities, drawing on our experiences in Northern Ireland. We have provided a further £2 million to Kachin, where there are 27,500 internally displaced people. We have a record that is second to none in providing the aid that is sorely needed in that part of the world.

I know from my visit to Burma in July that the country will welcome the trade delegation that the Minister is leading. However, I am concerned that, from feedback I have had and questions I have asked about other trade delegations that have been led by the Foreign Office in recent months, it seems that very little has been said about human rights on those trips. Will the Minister assure me that the plight of the Rohingya, the fate of political prisoners and other human rights issues in Burma will be very much on his agenda when he goes to Burma?

I can certainly give the hon. Lady that assurance. Trade is one part of what we are doing, as I have attempted to outline this morning. We believe in trade because, by engaging in it, we can form relationships and show the people of Burma what future they can have. However, that we are trying to increase our bilateral trade does not mean for a moment that we will ignore our drive for increased human rights and the recognition of different ethnic groups in Burma. I shall make those points to all the politicians I meet there. Indeed, I have made those points to the Burmese politicians I have already met.

Middle East

My priority for the middle east is to support peace and stability by urging the United States, with the strong and active support of the EU, to take a decisive lead in pushing the peace process forward; ending the violence in Syria; securing a diplomatic solution to the Iranian nuclear question; and supporting democratic transitions in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya.

I thank the Foreign Secretary for his commitment to those matters. Those of us who for the whole of our adult lives have been supporters of the state of Israel and of a state for Palestine were pleased by the decision of the United Nations last week, but dismayed by the response of the Israeli Government, who suggested that settlements should be built to the east of Jerusalem, effectively separating the two parts of the west bank. What does the Foreign Secretary think is the best way of getting the message through to the Israeli Government that that is neither the way to win friends nor the way to win peace?

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right in everything that he has just said. We summoned the Israeli ambassador to the Foreign Office yesterday to hear exactly that message from the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for North East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt), who has responsibility for the middle east. If implemented, the plans that were announced on Friday would alter the situation on the ground on a scale that would make the two-state solution with Jerusalem as a shared capital almost inconceivable, or certainly very difficult to implement. Much as we had misgivings, for some of the same reasons, about pressing for a resolution at the United Nations, we think that that was the wrong way for Israel to react. That message is coming loud and clear from all around Europe and the United States.

Summoning the Israeli ambassador for a stage-managed dressing down will achieve nothing and nor, quite frankly, will the isolation of Israel at the United Nations. Should Ministers not be redoubling their efforts to get Palestinians and Israelis who are prepared to talk to each other and who want to see peace to work together, because that is the only way we will achieve any progress towards a stable, two-state solution with a secure and safe Israel living peacefully alongside a viable and democratic Palestinian state?

I agree with the main point of the hon. Gentleman’s question, although I assure him that nothing that the my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary does is stage-managed. He imparted very clearly indeed the message that I think the whole House would agree with. The main point of the hon. Gentleman’s question is what I have expressed in all our discussions in the House over the past two weeks. Despite all the events of the past week, we have to achieve a return to negotiations and we particularly need the United States to play its necessary role in that. That is the only way in which we will secure a Palestinian state alongside a secure Israel.

Does the Foreign Secretary agree that one urgent priority must be for his Department to do whatever it can to help to end the indiscriminate carnage of tens of thousands of Syrian civilians by their own regime? May I commend him for persuading his European colleagues that reviews of the current arms embargo must be held every three months and not every year, and will he give urgent consideration to persuading his European colleagues—and, indeed, the Government—at least to allow air defence equipment to be made available to those trying to protect civilian communities throughout Syria?

I am grateful to my right hon. and learned Friend. He is right: last week the Government persuaded colleagues in the European Union that rather than roll over all sanctions on Syria for 12 months, including the arms embargo, we should do so for three months to allow ourselves flexibility to respond to a changing situation. As he knows, I do not follow him all the way in saying that we should supply air defence equipment, although opposition groups in Syria are clearly acquiring a variety of anti-aircraft weapons. The Government will be intensifying further not only our humanitarian assistance but our diplomatic efforts—including with Russia—to try to find a way forward on Syria.

Is not the building of additional illegal settlements, in addition to settlements that already house 500,000 people, a blatant breach of international law, together with the theft by the Israeli Government of huge sums of tax revenues belonging to the Palestinians? When will we take action such as economic sanctions or an arms embargo against this rogue state that is committing criminal acts?

The settlements are illegal and on occupied land, and the latest announcement undermines Israel’s international reputation and creates doubts about its stated commitment to achieving peace with the Palestinians. The Government have, of course, strongly advised Israel to reverse that decision. I spoke to the Israeli Foreign and Defence Ministers over the weekend, in addition to what the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for North East Bedfordshire, has done. We must remember, however, the point made by the hon. Member for Dudley North (Ian Austin): only successful negotiation will resolve this issue, and that will require the willing participation of Israel as well as the Palestinians.

What discussions has the Foreign Secretary had with our European partners following the General Assembly vote and Israel’s extremely regrettable response, bearing in mind the fact that the European Union is Israel’s most important trading and economic partner?

I am working closely with the French Foreign Minister, Laurent Fabius, with whom I spoke over the weekend. That was why the UK and France together summoned the Israeli ambassadors yesterday, and other EU partners then did the same. I have also been talking to the French and German Foreign Ministers about how we can more actively support a US initiative in the area over the coming month, with European states contributing to incentives and disincentives for both sides to return to negotiations.

The Foreign Secretary has shared with the House a number of calls that he has made to Ministers over recent days on the middle east. Given the announcement by the Israeli Government about further expansion of settlements, which we have already discussed, and the summoning of the Israeli ambassador to King Charles street yesterday, will the Foreign Secretary explain how abstaining in last week’s vote at the United Nations enhanced the UK’s influence with either Israel or the Palestinians?

The United Kingdom is in exactly the same position as before regarding influence with the Palestinians and Israel. We have frank but warm relations with the Palestinians and, of course, we are always able to speak to the Israelis. Countries that voted no or yes or abstained were all in the same position over the weekend in disapproving of the Israeli decision and placing pressure on Israel to reverse it. I do not believe that the different ways in which we voted in the General Assembly made any difference to that.

Let me ask a practical question. In the light of the decision by the Israeli Government to withhold £75 million of Palestinian customs duties, what conversations have Ministers had in recent days with international partners on how to sustain a functioning Palestinian authority? In the immediate term, that would ensure the continuing operation of Palestinian security forces on the west bank, but in the medium term it holds out the prospect of credible negotiating partners for the Israelis.

Of course we are in discussions with other countries on this matter. We must assess exactly what the financial implications are. As the right hon. Gentleman knows, we are already a major donor to the Palestinian Authority and the fourth biggest donor to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency. The immediate action has been that the consul general in Jerusalem and a Department for International Development team have visited Gaza to assess the situation there, but we must see how we can further assist if there is a deepening financial crisis in the Palestinian Authority.


3. What discussions his Department has had with the Libyan Government on reparations for previous victims of Libyan Semtex. (131102)

The Gaddafi regime left a terrible legacy, with many victims both in Libya and in the UK. My right hon. Friends the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary and I have consistently raised Gaddafi’s relationship with the IRA when we have seen the Libyan authorities.

It is now accepted that Libya provided the Semtex used both at Lockerbie and at the Warrington bombing in 1993. The US Government are vigorously pursuing a claim on behalf of the Lockerbie victims, whereas the UK is more passive in its support for the equivalent McCue case. Will the Minister review our position and undertake to go the extra mile for the UK victims, including those living in Warrington?

I know my hon. Friend’s position and his close relationship with those who suffered in Warrington, not least Colin Parry and his family. It has not been the UK’s position specifically to support individual compensation claims—that has been done privately—but the UK has offered facilitation and support to those making such claims. More important, the UK has also been able to support a process of reconciliation with the new Libyan authorities to make good the comment of President Magarief at the UN in September—he apologised for the crimes of the despot and is looking to try to ensure that things are repaired. We are working continually with the Libyan authorities on that. I am going there next week to help in that process.

Single Market

5. What recent discussions he has had with his EU counterparts on protecting the integrity of the single market. (131104)

I regularly discuss the single market with my counterparts both at bilateral meetings and in formal sessions of the Council.

With the Prime Minister increasingly marginalised and nobody believing a word that comes out of the Scottish First Minister’s mouth, what can the Minister do to protect the £9.7 billion of exports from Scotland to the EU, and to ensure that there is a credible single market in future?

I fear that the hon. Gentleman wrote his question before he saw the outcome of the European Council at the end of last month. Given the emphasis he places on trade, I am sure he will have warmly welcomed our Prime Minister’s intervention to secure the free trade agreement between the EU and South Korea, which is already delivering opportunities for British businesses. I am sure he will also welcome the British Government’s strong support for the opening of trade negotiations between Europe and Japan, which was agreed last week.

Now that the penny has finally dropped within the eurozone that it cannot have monetary union without fiscal union, which in turn leads to closer political and economic union, what guarantees can the Government give that a caucus within the eurozone will not override UK interests within the single market?

This is something to which we are giving priority both in the immediate discussions on banking union and in all future negotiations on the future of the EU. I can give some reassurance to my hon. Friend. The requirements of the single market are written into the treaties and the terms of numerous items of EU legislation. On top of that, all 27 Heads of State and Government have made repeated commitments at European Councils that they are committed to defend the integrity of the single market.

But the Minister knows how important access to the single market is to our ability to attract foreign investment in, for example, car manufacturing. Surely he admits that there is a growing resistance in Europe to what is seen as the Government’s à la carte approach to their membership. Does he accept that that is becoming dangerous to our economic interests?

Our colleagues in the EU fully accept that we have taken a sovereign decision, which I thought was supported on both sides of the House, to stay out of the euro. It therefore follows that we do not take part in certain arrangements. However, I also find that my European counterparts are eager to work closely with us on measures to develop free trade further; to strengthen the single market—for example, to cover the digital economy, transport and energy—and to find ways to cut the cost and complexity of regulation, which applies to all European businesses.

There appear to be a number of siren voices now starting to question the value of the single market to the United Kingdom. Will the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, together with the Treasury and the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, do some detailed work to set out the exact value to the UK of our being part of the single market, and put that work in the Library?

A lot of this type of information is likely to emerge from submissions by businesses and their representative organisations to the balance of competences review which is now under way. To take one example, British car manufacturers would probably face tariffs of just under £1 billion a year were we to be outside the single market and paying the 10% tariff to export to the EU. Membership of the single market directly sustains jobs and prosperity in places such as Swindon, Solihull and Washington New Town.

Middle East

During the recent Gaza conflict, I underlined to Israel the need to abide by international humanitarian law and avoid civilian casualties. I welcome the ceasefire reached on 21 November, and I am urging all parties to fulfil their commitments under that agreement.

Although I welcome the ceasefire, does the Foreign Secretary share my concerns that UN figures show that since 2003 as many Gazans have died during periods of calm as they have during periods of conflict? That appears to show that there has been systemic failure by the Israelis in protecting civilians in Gaza. What he is going to do about that?

Of course we are concerned about the wider situation, including the humanitarian situation—I spoke a moment ago about the visit of the Department for International Development and the consul general. It is why we urge all parties concerned to take the opportunity that might arise from the tragic events of the past few weeks not only to observe the ceasefire but to go on to make agreements that will open up Gaza to trade and to development more effectively, and to end the smuggling of weapons into Gaza. If those things could be achieved, the situation would be much brighter for all the people of Gaza.

During the recent conflict, many of the rockets fired from Gaza never actually left Gaza and injured large numbers of Palestinians. At the same time, the tunnels between Gaza and Egypt appear to have reopened, allowing the Iranian-supplied missiles to be restocked in Hamas’s arsenal. What action is my right hon. Friend taking to stop that practice, so that conflict does not arise again?

My hon. Friend is quite right to draw attention to those factors. The answer is connected to the answer I gave a moment ago to the hon. Member for Glasgow North (Ann McKechin). There is an opportunity for Egyptian-led negotiations to bring the smuggling of weapons to an end, and to open up access into Gaza. That is an opportunity that all concerned must seize. We have strongly encouraged the Egyptian Foreign Minister in that work. I congratulated him on the night of the ceasefire on achieving that. The Under-Secretary, my hon. Friend the Member for North East Bedfordshire, who has responsibility for the middle east, has spoken to the Egyptians to encourage this—it is the way forward.

Will the Foreign Secretary tell the House what recent discussions he has had with the Russian Government in relation to Gaza and Syria?

I will be with the Russian Foreign Minister on several occasions this week, including in Dublin on Thursday at the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe summit, so I anticipate holding discussions with the Russians during the course of this week.


The United Kingdom plays a leading role in supporting the political transition efforts in Yemen. My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary chairs the Friends of Yemen ministerial group, and our ambassador is in regular contact with Government, the opposition and civil society in Yemen.

I thank the Minister and the Foreign Secretary for giving Yemen their personal attention. I draw his attention to the publication today of the Amnesty International report showing that Ansar al-Sharia might be resurgent in the southern part of Yemen. They were responsible for extra-judicial killings, crucifixions and torture. What support can the Government give to President Hadi to deal with this terrible group?

In return, I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his unfailing attention to this, his courtesy in dealing with us and our officials, and the work of his all-party group.

The circumstances in the south continue to cause great concern. I am aware of the Amnesty International report, and we will continue to work in the south to bring the parties together and resolve the political difficulties that are now part of the national political dialogue. However, the re-entry into the area of such an unpleasant and dangerous group will be a focus of a visit to Yemen that I hope to make in the not-too-distant future, when I hope to be able to raise the subject directly with the authorities there.

Will the Minister please ensure that the political settlement process remains as genuinely inclusive as possible? In particular, will he ensure that the temptation to exclude the Houthi group, for being pro-Iranian, or parts of the Hirak, because of their extremism, is resisted and that as many people as possible are at the table?

As my hon. Friend knows from his own recent activities there, the Yemeni process manages to bring together people who, in other circumstances, it might be difficult to get round the table. I have not yet experienced a sense of exclusion of certain parties, but it is always a danger. If there is to be an answer in Yemen—among the many difficulties in the region, the process in Yemen towards a political transition has been more successful than most—it is essential that it comprises all those with a role to play. Certainly, his concerns will be borne in mind by the ambassador and all the rest of us.

Middle East

14. What his latest assessment is of the prospects for a two-state solution to the conflict between Israel and Palestine. (131113)

We welcome the agreed ceasefire following the crisis in Gaza. The recent violence only highlights the urgent need for the United States, supported by the UK and other partners, to launch a new initiative to push the peace process forward in 2013 to achieve a two-state solution.

Like many MPs, I am sure, I have been overwhelmed by messages from constituents asking me to express their horror and despair at the violence and the casualties in Gaza. What reassurances can the Foreign Secretary offer them regarding the security of civilians in Gaza, and does he agree that there cannot be a two-state solution without secure and viable borders for both states?

Yes, absolutely. The way forward is what we discussed a few moments ago: to make a success of the second stage of the ceasefire negotiations. Egypt did a very good job, supported by the UN Secretary-General and the United States, in bringing about the ceasefire. Now it is important to conclude the second stage, which will bring—we hope—improved access and an end to the smuggling of weapons. The hon. Lady is right to say that secure borders are necessary for Israel, as, too, is having a viable, sovereign state of Palestine. That is what we want for Palestinians.

The Foreign Secretary told the House earlier that the additional settlement building in the E1 area of East Jerusalem announced last week would clearly be unlawful. What prospect is there of prevailing on Israel to comply instead with the requirements of international law?

That is the point that the world is stressing to Israel—that those settlements are illegal, that they are on occupied land and, in particular, that the unfreezing of development in what is known as the E1 block threatens the prospect of a future Palestinian state being able to operate on contiguous land. This point is being made strongly, not only by us and our European partners but by the US and the whole Arab world. I hope that despite the election campaign in Israel—election campaigns affect the politics of any country—it will listen carefully to those points.

I welcome those comments from the Foreign Secretary, but we have been here before, and he must grow weary of repeating to the Israeli Government his condemnation of illegal settlement activity. Given the importance of Europe as a market for Israeli goods and services, which European Ministers shy away from putting economic muscle behind our protestations, and can he assure the House that he is not one of them?

I do not think there is enthusiasm around the European Union for that. The right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Sir Gerald Kaufman) talked earlier about economic sanctions in Europe against Israel, but I do not believe there would be anywhere near a consensus on that, nor is it our approach. We continue to try to bring both sides back into negotiations. Nevertheless, if there is no reversal of the decision that has been announced, we will want to consider what further steps European countries can take and I will discuss that with my counterparts in other EU nations.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that peace talks would bring added security to Israel and Gaza? What steps does he intend to take to get the parties to the table again? Indeed, what steps would need to be taken to introduce a sanctions regime, as outlined by my hon. Friend the Member for Chippenham (Duncan Hames)?

On the latter point, my reaction is the one I have already given. On the steps that are necessary to resume negotiations, of course this will require all sides to draw back from steps that make entering into negotiations more difficult. We have seen a sequence over the last week that has taken us further away from negotiations, rather than closer to them. This will require the decisive involvement of the United States. Indeed, I have said to Secretary Clinton that it will require from the United States the greatest efforts since the Oslo peace accords—a level of that intensity—to carry forward and restart the negotiation process.

Further to the Foreign Secretary’s earlier reply, now that Iranian-manufactured weapons have been fired from Gaza and have landed in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, what urgent action is he taking to stop the transportation of such weapons and how concerned is he about Iran’s role in fomenting conflict in the region?

I am very concerned about Iran’s role, as I think I have said before in the House. Indeed, there is substantial evidence of Iranian involvement and Iranian weapons being supplied, including those fired against Israel. The hon. Lady is quite right about that. Of course, the solution to that is ending the smuggling of weapons in Gaza from wherever they come—from Iran or anywhere else. It is now possible to reach such an agreement, with good will and further effort after the ceasefire agreement on all sides, so our main effort will be supporting that diplomatic initiative.

Is not one of the most offensive features of recent days the fact that the exercise of a legal right by the Palestinians at the United Nations has been met by illegal retaliation by the Israeli Government? Does my right hon. Friend accept that such illegal action serves only to undermine the authority of Mahmoud Abbas—and indeed of the Palestinian National Authority, which he leads—and in addition encourages those Palestinians, particularly in Gaza, who wrongly believe that violence is justified?

The announcement of additional housing units and the unfreezing of development in the E1 block undermines Israel’s reputation, as I said earlier, but it also undermines the Palestinian Authority in its efforts to bring about a two-state solution and could therefore embolden more extreme elements. These are among the reasons why it is an unwise policy and why we will look to Israel to reverse it.

The Foreign Secretary has told us of the representations that he and his hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State, the hon. Member for North East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt), have made to the Israeli Government. Will he tell us something of Israel’s response to those representations? What assessment has he made of the growing legal opinion internationally that anyone who trades with an illegal entity is themselves complicit in an illegal act?

Clearly the Israeli Government have not yet changed or reversed their decision. Ambassadors in these situations take back the representations of the host Government, which the Israeli ambassador committed himself to do at the meeting with the Under-Secretary, my hon. Friend the Member for North East Bedfordshire. We will continue to make such representations, as will so many other countries, but Sunday’s cabinet did not reverse the decision that was announced on Friday, so we will need to continue with this work.

The answer on trade and sanctions is really the one I gave earlier. Arms exports are covered by our consolidated criteria—we look at those strictly—but it is highly unlikely that wider economic measures in any direction will contribute to peace in the middle east.

I cannot fault the comprehensiveness of the right hon. Gentleman’s reply. We are genuinely grateful; he is trying to help the House.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that it would be a retrograde step to break off diplomatic relations with Israel, especially given that successive Israeli Governments have said that they would withdraw from most of the west bank under a properly negotiated treaty?

We hope of course that that will happen in due course. Diplomacy is what is needed most of all in this situation, so I do not think that we would contemplate breaking off diplomatic relations with any of those involved, but we are going to have to ramp up our diplomatic efforts in various ways. I am not going to rule out any diplomatic options over the coming weeks.

EU Banking Union

11. What discussions he has had with his EU counterparts on the UK’s position at the December 2012 European Council meeting on the development of a banking union. (131110)

13. What discussions he has had with his EU counterparts on the UK’s position at the December 2012 European Council meeting on the development of a banking union. (131112)

I have made it clear to my colleagues in the European Union that while we accept that the eurozone needs a banking union, the detailed arrangements need to safeguard the interests of those member states that will not be part of the eurozone or of the banking union.

This Government are relatively friendless in Europe in this regard. How will they ensure that any agreement on a banking union will continue to allow the UK to stay in the room during negotiations on shaping the supervisory rules?

I reject the hon. Gentleman’s caricature of our position. We are playing an extremely active and constructive part in the negotiations. We recognise that getting the arrangements for a banking union sorted out is of real importance to our friends and partners who have committed themselves to the single currency, and that their financial stability will be of great benefit to the United Kingdom’s economic interests.

The International Monetary Fund’s Christine Lagarde said at the weekend that a banking union was the first priority in saving the eurozone. If the Minister agrees with that, will he tell us precisely how many EU states agree with his plan for double majority voting to ensure that rules applying to banks in Britain are not dictated by a banking union bloc through the European Banking Authority?

All 27 EU Heads of State and Government said in the conclusions to the October European Council that, in the arrangements for a banking union, there needed to be a “level playing field” between the ins and the outs, as well as safeguards

“in full respect of the integrity of the single market in financial services.”

Has my right hon. Friend had an opportunity to read the blueprint published over the weekend by Mr Barroso, which contains 50 pages of detailed proposals for a full banking, fiscal and, ultimately, political union? Does he think that any of the proposals that this country has made have the remotest chance of being listened to in the context of that document, and of what Mr Noyer said the other day? Lastly, will my right hon. Friend ensure that the European Scrutiny Committee receives an early explanatory memorandum from the Government on those proposals?

I know that the legendary intellectual agility of the Minister of State will enable him to provide one pithy reply to the three questions that have just been posed.

I read President Barroso’s comments with interest. He was of course talking not about the immediate negotiations on a banking union but about the longer-term development of the eurozone and how to safeguard its stability. That objective is in the interests of the United Kingdom, but it is true to say that at some stage there needs to be a sensible, grown-up conversation between all members of the EU to work out the right architecture for a future Europe in which some will be members of the single currency and others will remain outside it.

At the recent European Union Council, the UK held a quadrilateral meeting with the Danes, the Dutch, the Swedes and the Finns. Will the Minister take this opportunity to outline the areas of common interest with those nations, and to underscore the importance of joint working with our northern European neighbours?

We talk to our northern European neighbours and, indeed, to other member states about the whole range of issues on the agenda of any particular European Council meeting. The countries that are not in the single currency certainly have a common interest in ensuring that whatever arrangements the eurozone may agree—they are some distance from agreeing among themselves about the right design at the moment—they take proper account of the integrity of the single market and the interests of those who are not part of the euro.

Following the failure of the Government’s too little, too late approach to the recent EU budget negotiations and given the Government’s isolation in Europe, there are now indications that the Prime Minister is preparing to cede powers and influence over the eurozone banking union in return for minor tweaks to the EU budget. Is there not now a real risk that the Government will neither secure a good deal for British taxpayers nor deliver safeguards to British business on the banking union?

That was another script written before the European Council concluded. I have to say to the hon. Lady not only that this Government have a confirmed commitment and record of working to secure the national interest of the United Kingdom, but that that record sits in stark contrast with the record of the shadow Foreign Secretary, who gave away £7 billion of the United Kingdom’s rebate when he held this office.

Order. I gently say to the hon. Member for Stone (Mr Cash), who has now left the Chamber and for whom I have the highest regard, that it is a courtesy to remain within the Chamber until all exchanges on the question posed have been completed. I feel sure that the hon. Member for Stone is as interested in everybody else’s opinions as he undoubtedly is in his own.


The humanitarian situation in Syria is dire. We have provided £53.5 million of assistance so far and are urging others to increase donations to the UN appeal.

Forty thousand dead, 2.5 million internally displaced, 200,000 refugees and, yesterday, more people killed in Syria by the Ba’athist regime than were killed in the whole of the Gaza conflict. President Obama has talked about “serious consequences” if Assad uses chemical weapons. Why are there no serious consequences already from the international community about what is going on in Syria, and what does President Obama mean by “serious consequences”?

The hon. Gentleman is familiar with the policy we have pursued towards Syria. There is no military solution in Syria; we are seeking a peaceful, political and diplomatic solution. We continue to do that, while recognising the new national coalition of the opposition, giving it increased but non-lethal assistance and delivering humanitarian aid on the scale I have described. I want to reiterate what President Obama has said—that any use of chemical or biological weapons would be even more abhorrent than anything we have seen so far. We have made it clear that this would draw a serious response from the international community. We have made that very clear to representatives of the Syrian regime and have said that we would seek to hold them responsible for such actions.

I welcome the Foreign Secretary’s statement a few minutes ago that he will shortly have further discussions with Russia. How will he respond if the Russians make it clear that they are not going to allow a western-backed Sunni rebellion to overthrow the Alawite regime?

My right hon. Friend’s question poses a number of questions. As we have discussed before, the motivations of the opposition in Syria are very complex. Yes, there is of course a lot of Sunni influence, but people of many different religious affiliations are involved in the opposition. They are not merely western-backed—they are particularly Arab-backed, so I would not want to define them as a western-backed opposition. It is in Russia’s interest to agree to a diplomatic solution for a transitional Government in Syria, and I hope the Russians will see the arguments for that at the meetings this week and subsequently.


16. What recent discussions he has had with the Government of Rwanda on violence in the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo. (131115)

My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and I have pressed Presidents Kagame and Kabila to work together to end the crisis. When I spoke at the United Nations in September, I made it clear that external support for the M23 rebels must stop. We welcome the communiqués that were issued recently by the Presidents of the DRC, Rwanda and Uganda, but it is crucial that they are translated into action to achieve sustainable stability in the eastern DRC.

The final report from the United Nations group of experts on M23 and the DRC has been publicly released, and the Prime Minister himself has said that the international community cannot ignore evidence of Rwandan involvement with M23. In view of the report, does the Secretary of State think that the decision of the former Secretary of State for International Development to reinstate budget support was wise?

The hon. Gentleman is right to raise the subject of the report from the UN group of experts, which has formed part of the information that the International Development Secretary has considered in reaching a decision about the aid budget and direct support for the Rwandan Government. However, the communiqués issued by the Ugandan, Rwandan and DRC Presidents stipulate that there must be a solution to the problem in the eastern DRC, which means not just a resolution of the conflict now but longer-term measures to ensure that the cycle of conflict is broken.

In September, when the former International Development Secretary gave £21 million of aid to Rwanda, what advice did the Department offer ahead of his decision? What advice did it offer last week, when the current Secretary of State cancelled the money? Was it different from the advice that was given in September?

Before the decision made in September by the former Secretary of State and the decisions made by the current Secretary of State, the Foreign Office and other relevant Departments were consulted, and the decisions were made across Government with the full agreement of those Departments.

Topical Questions

Today I shall attend the NATO Foreign Ministers’ meeting in Brussels, where I shall support Turkey’s request for NATO to deploy Patriot missiles in Turkey. Tomorrow I shall host a trilateral meeting with the Foreign Ministers of Afghanistan and Pakistan to discuss Pakistan’s support for the stabilisation of Afghanistan.

I have listened carefully to the Foreign Secretary’s responses in relation to Israel and Palestine, but can he explain to us clearly what advantage was gained by Britain’s abstention in the recent UN vote on Palestinian recognition?

I think that we were right to argue that pressing a resolution at the United Nations at this juncture—at this very moment—could lead to fresh complications, that we were right to argue that its amendment would have mitigated the consequences, and that we are right to argue now that Israel should not expand settlements on occupied land. All those positions are, I believe, correct.

T4. Do Ministers consider it a possibility that next year it could be a UK Government priority and a European Union priority to seek to end the division of Cyprus once its new President has been elected in February, given the good will that I understand exists in both communities in Cyprus—in part—in Turkey, and, I hope, in Greece? (131128)

I certainly hope that that will prove possible, but clearly a major new initiative must await the outcome of the Cypriot presidential election in February. I hope that whoever is elected will set ambitious goals, working with Turkish Cypriot leaders, the guarantor powers, the United Nations and others to bring about a settlement that would be profoundly in the interests of all communities on the island.

In view of heightened international anxiety about the possible use of chemical weapons in Syria, the United States has indicated that it is preparing contingency plans. Can the Foreign Secretary say whether the British Government’s assessment of that potential threat has been heightened in recent days, and whether the United Kingdom is contributing, or has already contributed, to international contingency planning?

Yes, our understanding of the threat has been heightened in recent days. We have seen some of the same evidence as the United States. I cannot give any more details, but I can say that we have already reacted diplomatically. We have expressed in no uncertain terms, directly to the Syrian regime, the gravity of any use of chemical weapons. In our view, as the Prime Minister has said before, that would require us to revisit our approach to Syria. I cannot, of course, discuss contingency plans in any detail, but we in the UK, including those of us in the Ministry of Defence, are always ready with a wide range of such plans.

T5. As chairman of the all-party group on Azerbaijan, yesterday I met representatives of the Azerbaijan Foundation of Democracy Development and Human Rights Protection. They made clear to me their strong desire to see the development of a free press in Azerbaijan. What can Britain and the British Government do to promote a free and unregulated press in Azerbaijan and the south Caucasus? (131129)

I share my hon. Friend’s view that a free press is integral to democracy in any country. The British Government have provided funding for professional training for journalists in Azerbaijan, and we support vigorously the work of the Council of Europe, the European Union and the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe to encourage and promote media freedom both in Azerbaijan and more widely in the southern Caucasus region.

T3. On trade with the middle east, what discussions have been held with the European Commission on the labelling of settlement goods? (131127)

The EU is actively considering whether the voluntary labelling scheme that has been in existence in the United Kingdom for some time might be extended to other countries. This matter is frequently taken up by our representatives, and discussions are ongoing.

The alarm bells are ringing over President Morsi of Egypt’s vast expansion of powers by presidential decree. A generous interpretation is that he is trying, by hook or by crook, to get the constitution on to the statute book; less charitably, it could be seen as a path to an Islamic state without the involvement of, or consultation with, Christians, liberals or women. What is the Secretary of State’s assessment?

My hon. Friend’s question illustrates the arguments on both sides in Egypt, and we have taken the view that it is not helpful for us to give a day-to-day commentary on a political controversy or struggle within that country. We are, of course, calling for effective dialogue between all the parties involved in Egypt, and we have expressed our concerns about a democratic constitution not being agreed that is satisfactory to most of the country, but there will be a referendum, now scheduled for 15 December, and it is interesting to note that as of yesterday the Salafists, who are on the more strongly Islamic wing of Egyptian politics, are threatening to boycott the referendum because the proposal is not Islamic enough.

T6. Is it not clear that the Netanyahu Government are completely impervious to words of condemnation or even the summoning of ambassadors, and that the time has come for action? Uncharacteristically, the Secretary of State dodged earlier questions about trade with the illegal settlements. Will he now take the lead in Europe by implementing a ban on all trade with the settlements, which, as he himself has repeated again in this House, are illegal? (131131)

My reaction to calls for economic sanctions of various kinds has not changed, but I also want to stress another point I made earlier: we will be discussing with other EU nations what our next steps will be, because the Israeli Government have not yet responded favourably to the representations we and other countries have made. We will be discussing that with other European Governments, therefore, but I would not want to raise the right hon. Gentleman’s hopes that there would be enthusiasm around the EU for such economic measures.

I know the Minister will join me in welcoming the premiers, chief ministers and Heads of Government of the British overseas territories, who are in London this week for the first overseas territories ministerial council. Will he update the House on the progress the Government are making with our overseas territories following the publication of this year’s White Paper?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising this important matter, and I congratulate him on the important work he has done in ensuring there are strengthening ties between the UK and the overseas territories. As he said, most, if not all, the overseas territories leaders are in London this week for the first joint ministerial council, at which we will be exploring how the UK Government, and most of the UK Government Departments, can strengthen ties in respect of financial and fiscal responsibility, building capacity in the Governments of the overseas territories and, importantly, strengthening environmental and economic and trade ties.

T7. In the light of the increasing instability in the middle east and concerns about a possible nuclear arms race in the region, will the Foreign Secretary tell us what pressure the British Government are exerting on Israel to sign the nuclear non-proliferation treaty? (131133)

This is a long-running issue, on top of all the other issues concerning Israel and the middle east that we have discussed today. Israel has maintained a position over decades of not signing the NPT. In the last review conference of the NPT we strongly encouraged the idea that there should be a conference dedicated to the middle east, and a Finnish facilitator of that conference has now been appointed. Disappointingly, the conference is not taking place this year, but we hope it will take place soon.

May I support the Government’s work towards an arms trade treaty? Does the Minister agree that as we seek to build a more sustainable economic model, we would do well to think about selling to the fastest-emerging nations our leadership in science—in agriculture and medicine—rather than arms?

I welcome my hon. Friend’s support for our work on an arms trade treaty, and we head towards a final conference at the UN next March seeking a robust, effective and legally binding one. His point about extending our opportunities through life sciences to growing economies—the USA, Canada, Brazil and India—is well taken. UK Trade and Investment is working hard on this matter and has already supported life science conferences in Abu Dhabi, Brazil and Germany this year.

T8. Why was the Foreign Secretary unsuccessful in stopping the former International Development Secretary’s decision to restore aid to Rwanda, despite the breach of the memorandum of understanding between the UK and Rwanda—or was he fully in favour of that decision? (131134)

The hon. Gentleman is trying to rewrite history. The previous Secretary of State for International Development first suspended direct budgetary support to Rwanda in July. He then, through detailed consultation with the Foreign Office and other Departments, partially restored it in September. The report by the group of experts, whose evidence we find compelling and credible, came out and we analysed it. As the partnership agreements between DFID and the Rwandan Government were also clearly not being honoured, the decision was made by the International Development Secretary, in consultation with Departments, to suspend direct budgetary support to Rwanda.

Rape is a pernicious weapon of war. Given the violence inflicted on women in the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo by the M23, what conversations is the Minister having with his counterparts in Rwanda to get them to use their influence to end such violence?

My hon. Friend is right to raise this very important issue. He will be aware that my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary has instigated a policy and a determination to instil a preventing sexual violence in conflict initiative to end immunity. I have had discussions in the region with senior Ministers in the Rwandan Government and with the President of the DRC to try to encourage them to engage with this very important initiative, to stop not just the rapes, but having child soldiers in the eastern DRC.

Ministers have been careful not to accuse the Burmese Government of orchestrating the violence towards the Rohingya. Last night, al-Jazeera released new evidence to suggest that the Burmese authorities, the military, the security services and local government officials have been involved in that sectarian violence towards the Rohingya. Will the Minister examine that evidence? If he finds it compelling, will he make the strongest possible representations to the Burmese Government that this violence has to end and that the Rohingya should be granted citizenship?

Of course the Burmese Government have set up an internal review into what has gone on in Rakhine, and we await the outcome of that. I can say to the hon. Gentleman only what I said earlier in the House: I shall travel to the area shortly and on my return I shall make myself available to the all-party group on Burma, when I will be able to pass on first-hand experience of what I have found on the ground, rather than some of these stories coming out of Burma at the moment.

There are substantial opportunities for trade with Brazil as it prepares for the Olympics and World cup. Being able to speak Portuguese is a big advantage in doing business in Brazil, so will my right hon. Friend outline what progress is being made in improving foreign language skills for the purpose of boosting trade?

We are very keen to improve foreign language skills, not least in Brazil. I was there on a visit with my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister a few months ago, and one of the things we discussed was getting more people to learn English in Brazil. We have had some extremely successful visits to Brazil by the sports Minister and others in the run-up to the Rio Olympics. As my hon. Friend says, our bilateral relations with Brazil are extremely good, and we hope that we can look forward to a period of increased trade.

Actions speak louder than words and despite the Foreign Secretary’s comments that our vote last week at the UN made no difference to our negotiation position, I can assure him that the UK’s failure to back the Palestinian resolution has severely undermined our credibility in the middle east. What actions are the UK Government taking to end the growth of illegal settlements and end the siege and blockade on Gaza?

I do not agree with the hon. Gentleman. I will visit the Gulf over the weekend and I think that we will find that UK influence is as strong as it was. It has grown considerably in recent years, and that will continue. We are making efforts, which I have described throughout this Question Time, to support the work of the Egyptian Government on Gaza, to deliver an unequivocal message to Israel and to encourage all back into negotiations, including Palestinians, without preconditions.

The Secretary of State constantly confirms that the occupation of Palestinian land is illegal under international law. What does he think the difference is in the mind of the Israeli Government between something lawful and something unlawful but unenforced by the international community? What is the difference?

I think the hon. Gentleman would have to direct that question to the Israeli Government. We are clear that the settlements are illegal and on occupied land, but we are also clear, as we have discussed in this House several times over the past few weeks, that we will resolve that only through a successful negotiation. I have not heard anybody argue that there is any other way to resolve it other than Israelis and Palestinians succeeding in negotiation together. We must encourage that process, which of course constrains us in many other things that people advocate that we do.

I am sorry to disappoint colleagues, including some who have been trying hard, but I am afraid that demand has massively exceeded supply today. I hope that that is understood.