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Topical Questions

Volume 554: debated on Tuesday 4 December 2012

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.