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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 557: debated on Tuesday 22 January 2013

Foreign and Commonwealth Office

The Secretary of State was asked—

Burma

1. What recent reports he has received on the security situation in Rakhine state, Burma; and if he will make a statement. (138331)

I visited Rakhine state in December. I visited five camps for displaced people and spoke to local community and political leaders. The security situation appears to have stabilised, though I stressed to Burmese Ministers the importance of a long-term solution that will not leave communities permanently displaced.

I am grateful to the Minister for that answer, and pleased that he has visited the camps in Rakhine state. I am sure that he will have seen reports in recent days that Rohingya refugees crossing the Andaman sea to Thailand have been captured by Thai officials and sold on to human traffickers. What urgent representations is he making to the Thai authorities on that matter, and will he give us an update on the situation?

The hon. Gentleman follows these matters closely, and he is referring to the 949 Rohingya in southern Thailand who were allegedly waiting for their escort to smuggle them across the border. It is worth saying that the embassy in Bangkok has raised the issue of the Rohingya with the appropriate Thai authorities, both bilaterally and through the European Commission, and that it continues to follow the issue closely, including in close conjunction with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

My right hon. Friend is well aware of the plight of the Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh. Will he update the House on the specific steps that the Government are taking, with the Burmese and Bangladeshi Governments, to ensure a permanent, stable future for those people?

My hon. and learned Friend makes a good point. My response can be divided quite neatly into two parts. First, in the short term, humanitarian access, co-ordination and security must be improved for the Rohingya people in Rakhine. I have seen that for myself and I am satisfied that that is happening. Secondly, in the longer term, those responsible for the violence must be held publicly to account for what they have done. Ultimately, the Burmese have to deal with the issue of citizenship, and that matter is being reviewed at the moment. The Bangladeshis need to play a better part in helping out those Rohingya who are on that side of the border.

The continued suppression of minority ethnic groups in Burma is clearly incompatible with the development of a proper democracy there. We all wish to see such a democracy developing, but what are the Government doing through their contact with the Burmese to stress that we cannot continue to support democratic development and the development of trade without the Burmese addressing those important issues?

The situation in Burma is complex, as the hon. Lady will accept. The country is coming out of a period of military rule. We believe that the President has embarked on the right journey, although he could move more quickly to deliver some of the reforms. The solution to 10 out of the 11 outbreaks of violence has been a ceasefire, but we have not yet seen that happen in Kachin state. This Government are helping out, through the Department for International Development, by being the largest bilateral donor of aid. We have also had many exchanges involving Burmese parliamentarians coming here to Westminster. The more engagement that British parliamentarians have with the Burmese authorities to show them how we do things here, the better. Perhaps that might include you, Mr Speaker, if you were able to find time in your diary to show the Burmese what we do here at Westminster and show them what a true democracy can look like.

Staying with Burma, is the Minister aware that the ceasefire in Kachin state has been breached, and that a village with 100 houses in it was burned today? Can he say what representations he is making to the Burmese Government to ask them to continue the ceasefire?

Yes I can. Indeed, not too long ago I made a statement about the situation in Kachin. We welcome what the President said about Kachin when he reiterated the Burmese Government’s stated commitment to a nationwide ceasefire and to peace building, although we do not recognise one or two other things he has said. It is important that there is a ceasefire in Kachin state and that the military in the area adheres to what the President is saying. It is also important, as I stressed when I was in Burma in December, that humanitarian aid gets to the people in Kachin.

Further to the question put by my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall South (Valerie Vaz), the Minister has noted the urgent and troubling situation in Kachin state, with the three civilian deaths reported last week and the military breaking a very short-lived ceasefire at the weekend. Will he tell us what discussions the Government have had not just with the Burmese authorities on the urgent need for peace talks but with the EU and the United Nations on his assessment of whether the resumed attacks bring into doubt the Burmese Government’s commitment to a ceasefire and their control over the military?

The hon. Lady raises a good point. There is a genuine question about control over the Burmese military; and until the Burmese military is brought under control, the peace process in Burma and the journey on which the President has embarked will be under serious question. We are anxious to help with what is going on in Kachin: we have increased our humanitarian aid, which now totals £3.5 million—as far as I am aware, the biggest donation in that area from any country. We are also one of the three bilateral members of the peace donor support group, which represents most of the major donors in Burma and is working closely with the Government to move from the ceasefire arrangements to political dialogue with all Burma’s ethnic groups.

Women's Health and Education (Afghanistan and Pakistan)

2. What assistance he is providing to ensure access to education and health for women in Afghanistan. (138332)

3. What guidance his Department is giving to heads of mission on the steps that should be taken to ensure continuing support for education and health care for women in Afghanistan and Pakistan. (138333)

5. What guidance his Department is giving to heads of mission on the steps that should be taken to ensure continuing support for education and health care for women in Afghanistan and Pakistan. (138335)

7. What guidance his Department is giving to heads of mission on the steps that should be taken to ensure continuing support for education and health care for women in Afghanistan and Pakistan. (138337)

13. What guidance is being given to heads of mission by his Department regarding the steps that should be taken to ensure continuing support for education and health care for women in Afghanistan and Pakistan. (138343)

16. What guidance is being given to heads of mission by his Department regarding the steps that should be taken to ensure continuing support for education and health care for women in Afghanistan and Pakistan. (138346)

Supporting access to welfare, including education and health for women and girls in Pakistan, remains a key priority for the UK Government. Despite some fragility, we believe real progress has been made in these areas in these states over recent years. I expect to be able to give more details in answer to questions in the next few minutes.

I am grateful for the Minister’s response. Does he accept that one of the real benefits of intervention by international countries in Afghanistan has been the progress made for women? What steps will he take to ensure that, for neighbouring countries as well as areas in Afghanistan, such progress is not reversed?

The right hon. Gentleman is right to point to specific progress. In 2002, fewer than 9% of women in Afghanistan had access to any health care, whereas some 57% now have access to it within an hour, whether they walk or use other means of travel. It is important for that progress to continue. To that extent, the Tokyo mutual accountability framework agreed by a number of nations sets some indicators for Afghanistan in return for future financial support post-2015. Support for women, including measures such as the Act on the elimination of violence against women, is a key part of that and we would like to see it implemented as part of that agreement.

Al-Jazeera has just reported a 22% increase in crimes of violence against women in Afghanistan. Despite the progress made, the truth is that many Afghan women cannot access education or health care for fears about their own safety. Will the Minister ensure that Afghan women are involved in planning for the 2014 London summit on Afghanistan’s future? Crucially, will he seek to guarantee women at least a 30% representation at that summit?

Yes, it has been vital that women have played an increasing part in political participation. Some 25% of members of Parliament in Afghanistan are women, and there are nine women members on the High Peace Council. Access to education remains key for the future. Some 2.3 million girls are now in education in Afghanistan compared with hardly any when the Taliban were in control. To ensure that that remains the case and in order to improve the chances of resisting violence against women—clearly, a serious issue in Afghanistan—it is crucial to keep that progress going.

As the Minister knows, security is fundamental to the delivery of education and health for women. What discussions has he had with the international security assistance force, his partners in Afghanistan, about the achievement of that security?

In many parts of Afghanistan, the security situation is very different from the situation that we sometimes see portrayed in areas such as Helmand and Kandahar. Bamyam province is governed by a woman, for example. Security issues are very different in different places. We have regular contact with ISAF and our own forces about the need to support the civil authorities that are promoting the rule of law in order to ensure that laws prohibiting violence against women are enforced, and our development work will, of course, continue after 2014.

We all want to see improvements in access to health and education for women and girls in both Pakistan and Afghanistan. How is the Foreign Office working with the Department for International Development to achieve that?

Very closely. Progress in both countries is being handled almost on a mutual basis: many meetings take place at which FCO and DFID officials are present in post together. I have already provided some details relating to Afghanistan, but progress is being made in Pakistan as well. Because 50% of women in Pakistan currently give birth at home and some 12,000 die in childbirth or for related reasons, we have so far contributed to the support of some 17,000 community midwives there. Work of that kind can be done only with the support of the FCO, working with the Pakistan Government, and the good work of DFID and the non-governmental organisations that work with it to provide care on the ground.

What is the Minister’s assessment of the contribution of women’s education to the long-term stability and development of Afghanistan?

It is utterly crucial. There is no recorded instance of a society in which women have been involved and engaged being in a worse position than before. That involvement and engagement is vital to progress.

We are supporting projects including Afghan Women In Business and the promotion of entrepreneurship for women in Afghanistan. The number of women who are engaged in business remains incredibly small, and the female literacy rate is only about 12%. Our work must involve a combination of involving women in education, helping them to become involved in business, and, of course, continuing to support their political participation.

As the Minister said earlier, more than 2 million Afghan girls have returned to school since the fall of the Taliban, but, according to press reports, hundreds of schools are closing all the time. As military operations are scaled down in Afghanistan, what action are the Government taking to ensure that the education of girls is maintained there?

When we talk of the scaling down of military activity, we should bear in mind that that refers to the withdrawal of international and United Kingdom forces from combat roles. In their place will be 330,000 Afghan security forces who know that part of their role will be providing domestic security to ensure that the progress that has been made—such as girls going to school—can continue, and that they will be protected in so doing. The example of Malala, the young woman in Pakistan who was threatened by people very similar to those who are threatening girls in Afghanistan, demonstrates the importance of that.

If women are to gain access to health and education, they must enjoy the same freedoms in the public space as men. I congratulate the Foreign Secretary on his initiative to prevent sexual violence in conflict and post-conflict situations, and on putting that initiative on the G8 agenda. How will it be implemented in Afghanistan, where it is clearly much needed?

My hon. Friend is right to pay tribute to my right hon. Friend and his initiative to prevent sexual violence in conflict and post-conflict situations, which has been warmly welcomed by Members in all parts of the House and internationally. The G8 summit in April will consider the best way of implementing it, which will involve not just national Governments but non-governmental organisations and human rights monitors. They will be vital to ensuring that women are protected locally, and that those who perpetuate violence towards them are accountable for their actions.

Does the Minister agree that one of the best ways of supporting education and health care for women in Afghanistan will be a successful transition in 2014? Will he update the House on how the talks in Doha are going? Is there any sign that the United States Administration are prepared to get involved in them?

Specifically and exclusively with reference to education and health for women in Afghanistan—nothing else. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman knew that.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to say that a successful transition is the most likely foundation for the continuation of the progress we have seen on women’s issues in recent years. Consultations are continuing with all parties, including in Doha, but perhaps the most successful line of conversation recently has been in the increased relationship between the Governments of Afghanistan and Pakistan. The United Kingdom has been closely involved in those arrangements to ensure that those Governments are working more closely together in isolating the extremists and finding the moderate politicians who will guarantee the future of Afghanistan.

The Minister mentioned brave Malala Yousafzai. Does he agree that when such girls have the courage to defy the Taliban in search of an education, the rest of the world has a responsibility to support them and to support education for women in the region?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right about that. The whole world was shocked by the attack on Malala, but what was remarkable was the response in Pakistan from women who felt horrified on her behalf. The fact that she has made such a stand is incredibly important. She is a source of joy to all of us with her recovery. She is a source of pride for us because she came to the United Kingdom to get the best health care in the world for her recovery. And she is a source of inspiration to everyone all over the world, youngsters and parents alike, because of her commitment to education.

One of the major health care issues facing Pakistan is population growth and a lack of family planning. For example, 80% of maternal deaths there could be prevented. What assistance is being given to Pakistan to address those issues?

Again, my hon. Friend is absolutely to the point. We support programmes that will encourage women to take more control of situations in relation to pregnancy and child birth, and programmes are designed to assist that. The more control that women have over those situations in societies such as Pakistan, the better it will be for their general well-being and all-round health care issues.

Afghan and Pakistani women are not just victims; they are often the most effective and vocal in calling for their right to access services. However, like Malala, they face intimidation and abuse, and often grave sexual violence. What do the Government plan to do to support and protect these women and human rights defenders, especially in the context of the preventing sexual violence initiative?

My hon. Friend asks a highly pertinent question. These non-governmental organisations and human rights defenders, with their local knowledge, are often those closest to circumstances where people can be identified and protected. It is the intention of the Foreign Secretary and the Prime Minister to raise this issue at the G8 summit in April, where we hope the international community will also recognise their importance and ensure that the protocol provides protection for human rights defenders and others who will do so much to ensure the implementation of the Foreign Secretary’s initiative.

Occupied Palestinian Territories

4. What recent reports he has received on the political situation in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. (138334)

We continue to monitor the protests in the west bank as well as reconciliation efforts between Fatah and Hamas. We are particularly concerned about the impact on the Palestinian Authority of Israel’s withholding of revenues. We call on Israel to release those revenues in accordance with its obligations under the Paris protocol.

Last month, the Foreign Secretary told the House that he would discuss the diplomatic options with his European Union partners if recent settlement activity was not reversed. Given the likely outcome of the Israeli general election, that looks more distant now than ever. He recently said that he would discuss the

“incentives and disincentives for both sides to return to negotiations.”—[Official Report, 4 December 2012; Vol. 554, c. 709.]

What discussions has he had with his EU partners about those?

We have many such discussions. As the hon. Gentleman will recall, I made my remarks in the context of the support we can give for what I hope will be a major effort by the United States on the middle east peace process—the greatest effort since the Oslo peace accords, as I have put it. Of course that awaits the outcome of the Israeli elections and the transition of personnel in the re-elected Obama Administration. I will be discussing this with the United States in Washington next week.

17. Does my right hon. Friend agree that a significant barrier to peace between Israel and the Palestinians is the continued supply of weapons and funding to Hamas in Gaza? What action are the Government taking to try to stop that funding and weapons supply? (138347)

Yes, my hon. Friend is absolutely right. The behaviour of Hamas and the continued supply of weaponry to Hamas are a major problem in bringing about a two-state solution and peace in the middle east. We call on all states through which such weapons might pass to interdict such weapons and prevent their passage.

If, as the Foreign Secretary has said, 2013 is to be the year of peace for Palestinians and Israelis, we urgently need both sides to begin meaningful peace talks. On his recent visit to the UK, did the secretary-general of the Arab League give any indication that its members would host urgent peace talks?

I discussed that with Nabil al-Arabi, the secretary-general of the Arab League, when he was here two weeks ago. The Arab League, like us, looks to the United States to launch a major initiative and looks to be able to give its support to it in the same way that we in the European Union will be able to contribute, as I have said before, and as has been quoted, with “incentives and disincentives”. When the Israeli elections are completed and a new Israeli Government have taken office, it is important that that Israeli Government should be ready to enter such negotiations. It is also important that Palestinians should be ready to do so without preconditions and that the United States should be ready to launch a major new initiative.

My right hon. Friend will recall that it has been the policy of successive British Governments for decades that there should be a two-state solution based on the 1967 borders. In the light of the political situation in Israel and the potential situation after the election, will he give the House his objective assessment of the possibility of ever achieving a solution based on two states and the 1967 boundaries?

My right hon. and learned Friend accurately describes the position of successive Governments. I have said before in this House that changing facts on the ground, principally the construction of settlements on occupied land, mean that the two-state solution is slipping away. The chances of bringing it about are not yet at an end, but it is very urgent. I do not want to speculate, of course, about the outcome of the election taking place at the moment in Israel, but I hope that whatever Israeli Government emerge will recognise that we are approaching the last chance of bringing about such a solution.

Let me pick up where the last question left off. In a speech to the House in November, the Foreign Secretary said:

“If progress on negotiations is not made next year, the two-state solution could become impossible to achieve.”—[Official Report, 28 November 2012; Vol. 554, c. 227.]

Today, he talked again of the greatest efforts since Oslo. In the light of today’s Israeli elections and yesterday’s US presidential inauguration, can he offer the House a little more detail on the substance of the major American initiative of which he has spoken? What other initiatives will be possible in the course of 2013 if we are not to see the end of the two-state solution, as he puts it?

The short answer on the details of the initiative is no, because it requires the United States to take the lead. That is not because other countries like us are not willing to play our own active part, but because the United States is in a unique position in the world to help bring Israel into a two-state solution. I will be going to Washington next week and discussing the question with the United States. The Secretary of State has changed and there have been many other changes of personnel in the US Administration, and I have put it to them that this should be the single highest priority for new momentum in American foreign policy, even with all the other challenges we face in the world today.

For five and a half years now, the Quartet has followed a largely economic policy in the west bank, personified by the work of Tony Blair, presumably to try to help lay better conditions for a political settlement. That strategy has comprehensively failed as the possibility of a political settlement is much further away now than it was then. Is it not now time for the Quartet to focus heavily on the politics rather than the economics?

It is very important that the Quartet does everything that it can to recognise the urgency of what we are speaking about on both sides of the House. At the same time it is very important that we do everything we can to support a Palestinian economy that is in a serious condition. As my hon. Friend knows, we provide £30 million a year in budget support to the Palestinian Authority, and the Department for International Development has provided £349 million in support of Palestinian development in the current four-year spending programme. However, the conditions are difficult, and other nations need to do more. It is important that the Israelis release the revenues that are owed to the Palestinians.

Safety of Women (India)

6. What recent representations he has made to the Government of India on the safety of women and the rule of law. (138336)

We regularly discuss human rights issues with India, including the protection of women, both bilaterally and through the EU/India human rights dialogue. Women’s rights are on the agenda for the next instalment of the dialogue. I welcome the fact that the Indian Government continue to take steps to promote the rights of women and hope they will continue their efforts in this regard.

One in three women will be beaten or raped in her lifetime in this world. Whether the rape and murder of Jyoti Singh, the events in Steubenville in Ohio, what is happening in Congo, or even what is happening on our own streets and towns in Britain, the scale of violence against women and girls is overwhelming. The One Billion Rising campaign is leading campaigners in 188 countries to call for that issue to be a priority for all Governments to eliminate. Will the Foreign Secretary join us in supporting that campaign, and say so today, and will he do all that he can to encourage the Leader of the House to make sure that on 14 February we can debate these matters in a One Billion Rising debate?

This Government will stop at nothing in trying to stamp out violence of any sort against women, wherever it takes place. Unfortunately, there is too much violence against women even in our own country. The Under-Secretary of State for International Development, my hon. Friend the Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Lynne Featherstone), is taking forward an international campaign to end violence against women, and will represent the UK at the UN Commission on the Status of Women, which will focus on the elimination and prevention of all forms of violence against women and girls. I would also say to the hon. Member for Walthamstow (Stella Creasy) that we are using Britain’s presidency of the G8 to run a year-long campaign, led by the Foreign Secretary, on preventing sexual violence in armed conflicts.

The Minister of State has ably demonstrated that there is plenty of scope for a full day’s debate, and to that we look forward with eager anticipation.

It is estimated that a rape takes place every 21 minutes in India. Does my right hon. Friend believe that the UK should offer specialist advice and training to the Indian police to help rape victims and to protect women from these horrific crimes?

I share my hon. Friend’s horror at the recent events, not least the rape of the 23-year-old medical student in Delhi. We welcome the steps that the Indian Government have taken to promote the rights of women, including laws on sex-selective abortions and action against human trafficking. We will work, if asked, with the Indian Government, but it is an internal Indian matter, which we shall certainly continue to raise with them.

18. The brutal rape and murder of the young 23-year-old woman was perhaps the starkest example of the brutality faced by many young girls growing up in India. The risk is that all the good intentions sound like impotent hand-wringing. Will the Minister perhaps be more specific about the steps in bilateral discussion with the Indian authorities that he seeks to achieve? (138348)

The right hon. Lady needs to acknowledge that India has a liberal constitution and a strong political framework, and that women hold high-ranking positions in politics and civil society, so we are sure that the Indian Government can continue those efforts. More specifically, DFID is working with the Indian Government, for instance, in Bihar, to help 60,000 more girls to stay in secondary school and give 3 million more women access to wider choices in family planning, health, nutrition, micro-finance, and skills for jobs. It is about enabling women and raising their status in Indian society, and we continue to do that in conjunction with the Indian Government themselves.

Will my right hon. Friend update the House on the advice that is being given to British nationals planning to travel to India, as they will be concerned about their personal safety following these awful events?

I have reviewed the advice that we gave this morning to travellers going to India. We have not changed our advice. Clearly, we urge women, wherever they are travelling, to take care, particularly if travelling at night in unfamiliar places, and ideally to travel in conjunction with others. People should always look at the Foreign Office website before they travel anywhere in the world, because our advice is kept constantly under review.

Tensions in the East and South China Seas

8. What reports he has received on the effect of rising tension in the East and South China seas; and what discussions he has had with countries in that region. (138338)

12. What reports he has received on the effect of rising tension in the East and South China seas; and what discussions he has had with countries in that region.

I receive regular updates from our embassies on both these situations and the Minister of State, my right hon. Friend the Member for East Devon (Mr Swire) was in the region last week. We regard these maritime disputes as regional issues and are encouraging all parties involved to pursue a peaceful resolution in line with international law. On the South China sea we encourage progress on the Association of Southeast Asian Nations-China code of conduct.

Can the Foreign Secretary confirm that the dispute—the protests—in the East and South China seas have been raised with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, and does he believe that the tensions will be resolved both peacefully and swiftly?

Yes, of course we have discussed this with ASEAN and bilaterally with many of the countries involved. We do not take a view on the strength of the various claims, but we encourage a peaceful resolution to these disputes in line with international law. ASEAN specifically has been working on a code of conduct, and we judge the code to be the best immediate prospect of managing the disputes, so we encourage all parties to work with that.

I accept what the Foreign Secretary says about this being a regional conflict, but stability in that area of the world is incredibly important for UK trade. In Telford we have a large number of Japanese companies and companies from the region. What discussions has he had with the Japanese Government on stability in that area?

I discussed this with the then Japanese Foreign Minister in October, Foreign Minister Genba, during our strategic dialogue. The hon. Gentleman is right—the UK has clear interests in the region, including preserving freedom of navigation and ensuring the safety of UK oil and gas companies operating in the region, but I am sure it is very much the right approach to encourage all parties to pursue a peaceful resolution, rather than for the United Kingdom to take a position on the strength of the various claims.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the dispute about the Senkaku islands cannot be regarded as just a regional issue, because of the United States’ commitment to defend both Japan and Taiwan, although the legal position of the islands is not so clear? As it is reported that the Chinese are massing missiles on the coast of the East China sea capable of hitting Japan, we could be facing a very dangerous international situation. As we are friends of all the disputants and their allies on this issue, this is an opportunity for the Foreign Secretary to show his statesmanship.

When I say that it is a regional issue, I do not mean that the rest of the world is not concerned about it. It is a matter to be resolved by the countries in the region. That is the important point. Of course we have been talking to the parties involved and have urged them to seek peaceful and co-operative solutions in accordance with international law, including in accordance with the United Nations convention on the law of the sea, so we will continue to take that role.

The rising economic importance of Asia is widely acknowledged, as well as the importance of those sea lanes, not only to the Asian economy but to the European and the wider world economy. I concur with the right hon. Member for Louth and Horncastle (Sir Peter Tapsell)—this cannot be just a matter of regional importance, especially with the increasing level of defence equipment expenditure taking place in that region. Can we therefore look at ensuring that the disputes are resolved through international law and not through military action?

The latter point is very important and absolutely right, but the best role that the United Kingdom can play in order to contribute to that is to do the sorts of things that I described. I do not think that the United Kingdom taking a position on the strength of various claims would serve very well our objective of trying to bring about a peaceful resolution, but the right hon. Gentleman is right to stress the importance of that.

Settlement Building (West Bank)

9. What recent representations his Department has made to persuade the Israeli Government to cease settlement expansion in the west bank. (138339)

I condemn recent Israeli decisions to expand settlements. I speak regularly to Israeli leaders, stressing our profound concern that Israel’s settlement policy is losing it the support of the international community and will make a two-state solution impossible. We will continue to press the next Israeli Government to cease settlement building.

The Secretary of State will be aware that the political process is critical if the peace process is to begin again. I know that the UK Government decided to abstain from the vote on whether to grant Palestine non-member observer status at the UN, but does he believe that the success of the vote was a positive or negative step on the road to a peaceful solution to the conflict?

Following that vote, there have of course been additional complications, including Israeli announcements on unfreezing settlement applications in the E1 area and the withholding of revenues for the Palestinian Authority, to which I referred a few minutes ago. That has meant Israel taking a step back, and that was one of the things we feared about going to the United Nations General Assembly in November. Nevertheless, it has happened. It is important for both sides to make progress. That will be our message to the next Israeli Government, and it continues to be our message to the Palestinians; both sides should be prepared to enter into negotiations without preconditions.

Clearly the election taking place today will have a significant effect on what happens to the next Israeli Government. What will my right hon. Friend do about the settlement activity to ensure that there is a just and peaceful solution to this long-standing problem?

This raises our whole approach to the middle east peace process. As other right hon. and hon. Members have quoted in the past half hour, I attach enormous importance to this in the year 2013, particularly as there will be a new or re-elected Israeli Government, and with the US Administration beginning their second term. If we do not make progress in the coming year, people will increasingly conclude that a two-state solution has become impossible.

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that last week Israeli soldiers murdered four innocent Palestinians on the west bank, including a 17-year-old boy? Taking that into account, along with the fact that Netanyahu said this week that, if re-elected, he will not negotiate on the 1967 borders, what specific action will the Government take to get the Israelis to see that their future survival depends on a two-state solution?

We will of course continue to put that case very strongly. It is very much in the long-term strategic interests of Israel and peace in the whole region to embrace a two-state solution, because all the alternatives will be more problematic, particularly for the Israelis. I think that many people in Israel strongly hold that view—clearly, views in Israel are divided—and it is certainly our view and that of almost all other nations of the world. The role of the United States will be crucial, which is why that will be top of my agenda when I visit Washington next week.

I draw attention to my entry in the register. Last month I and hon. Members from both sides of the House saw for ourselves measures to segregate Israeli settlements around East Jerusalem and the E1 area, which is bigger still, from the rest of the west bank. What does the Foreign Secretary think would be the consequences for the prospects for peace talks were the Israeli Government to proceed with extending the security barrier around the E1 area?

Such extensions, and any prospect of building in the E1 area, would of course be extremely damaging to the prospect for a successful peace process. That is why it is so urgent. Now that the planning process for the E1 area has been unfrozen, a clock is ticking, with potentially disastrous consequences for the peace process.

The Israeli Government’s response to Britain’s abstention at the UN was, in the words of the Foreign Secretary, “taking a step back”. Therefore, will he please discuss urgently with our European partners the co-ordinated response to the present situation on the ground and use the wish for Israeli to develop stronger trading relations with the European Union as a means of achieving progress in the middle east?

To be clear, the Israeli response is to the passing of the Palestinian resolution, not to the UK abstention; the hon. Gentleman may have misunderstood the motivation behind Israel’s policy, which clearly relates to the passing of the resolution.

As to the implications for future relations with the EU, provided that there is a major initiative on the peace process, in particular from Washington, we will all have to work out the “incentives and disincentives” that we can create to support that. But of course that is work to be done over the coming weeks and months.

Jaffna University Students

10. What assessment he has made of reported clashes between Sri Lankan security forces and Jaffna university students and the situation of those who have been arrested and detained. (138340)

We are concerned about the attacks on students at Jaffna university in November last year. Our high commissioner has expressed those concerns to the authorities in Sri Lanka, and we continue to monitor the detention of those students. We take every opportunity to raise human rights concerns with the Government of Sri Lanka, and I will raise those concerns, including this case, when I visit Sri Lanka fairly shortly.

I thank the Minister for his answer and his personal engagement. The attacks and arrests took place on the day after Tamil remembrance day. The region is highly militarised and even this week the Sri Lankan Parliament is looking at legislation to extend detention without warrant. When the Minister visits Sri Lanka next week, will he tell the regime there that he will not be persuaded by the language of reconciliation that it offers the diplomatic community, given that it offers only an arsenal of repression to the Tamil community?

The hon. Gentleman puts his case well. I expect to have straightforward private conversations with the Sri Lankan authorities. I will make the point that if reconciliation is to mean anything, a straightforward gesture such as converting the current triumphal expressions following the end of the war into a day of national reconciliation, as recommended by the lessons learned and reconciliation committee, would be a good step forward and perhaps start to defuse the tension, an increase of which would be very unwelcome.

Commonwealth Heads of Government are due to meet in Sri Lanka this November, with Australia in the chair. Have concerns about human rights been raised in the Minister’s preparatory conversations with the secretary-general and the Australian and Sri Lankan Governments?

Yes, concerns about human rights in Sri Lanka are raised among those who have the interests of all Sri Lankans at heart. The United Kingdom has made no decision yet as to the level of its attendance at the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting.

Latin America

11. What recent assessment he has made of the UK’s relations with countries in Latin America. (138341)

We are striving to broaden and deepen our relations in Latin America—after years of neglect, I have to say. There were 23 ministerial visits to the region in 2012. We have opened new posts in El Salvador and Recife, Brazil, and will do so in Paraguay this year. We will host the first UK-Brazil strategic dialogue in London on 4 February.

Now that the Falkland Islands Government have announced a date and wording for the referendum, what discussion have the Government had with Argentina and its South American neighbours about respecting the Falkland Islanders’ right of self-determination and the outcome of that referendum?

Of course, we regularly discuss with countries all around Latin America the importance of self-determination for the Falkland Islanders and our absolute commitment to that. I believe that one of the most effective impacts on public opinion and Governments in Latin America in recent months has been the fact that Falkland Islanders themselves have been going to many countries and explaining the history of their islands and their attachment to self-determination.

I note the excellent work of our ambassador and embassy in Chile. Does the Secretary of State agree that our relationship with Chile is particularly important, particularly when it comes to our situation with the Falklands and also Antarctica?

Yes, it is a very good and important relationship and we have built it up further. For instance, the UK is now the top destination for Chilean students receiving Government grants. The links between our countries are growing, and the Minister of State, my right hon. Friend the Member for East Devon (Mr Swire), is heading to Chile tomorrow.

We now come to topical questions. Demand always exceeds supply, so I remind colleagues that questions and answers should be very brief.

Topical Questions

We remain focused on the terrible events and tragic loss of life in Algeria and are now working to ensure that the identification and repatriation of the deceased takes place as quickly as possible. Our work on countering terrorism with Algeria and other countries in the region has been increased in recent times, and that work will be further intensified in the weeks ahead.

The Bulgarian authorities have confirmed that Hezbollah was responsible for the terrorist attack on tourists in Burgas airport last July. Will the Foreign Secretary renew his efforts to persuade Europe to proscribe Hezbollah?

Yes. This is of course an important development. I have discussed the aftermath of that terrible bombing several times with the Bulgarian Foreign Minister. It is certainly our view that we need to act against the military wing of Hezbollah, and we will be pursuing that over the coming days.

T4. While progress is slow in Somalia but things are improving considerably, what does the Foreign Secretary feel about the impact of the London conference almost a year ago? (138359)

My hon. Friend is right to raise the progress that has been made in Somalia. She will be aware, I hope, that we are planning a second conference in May this year that will be hosted jointly by the UK Government and the Somalian Government. It will prioritise the security sector, the justice sector, and building governance in the Somali Government so that they can provide services for their people.

I am sure that the Foreign Secretary will remember that in October 2011 he and I stood shoulder to shoulder in the same Lobby opposing a motion for an in/out referendum on Europe. He said at the time:

“It would create additional economic uncertainty in this country at a difficult economic time.”

I have not changed my mind—why has he?

Of course, the right hon. Gentleman will have to await the Prime Minister’s speech about this. Talking of changing minds, I understand now from the position taken by the Leader of the Opposition that he is not ruling out having such a referendum in future in any case. Talking of changing minds, the right hon. Gentleman and Labour Members did not support our referendum lock legislation, and I understand now that they have no wish to repeal it, which we welcome. Talking of changing minds, I believe that the Leader of the Opposition said that if he were Prime Minister for long enough he might take Britain into the euro, while now he says that he would not but will still not rule out backing euro membership for the future. No minds change more often on this subject than those of Opposition Front Benchers.

Many words, Mr Speaker, but not quite as many answers. Perhaps I can try the Foreign Secretary on this one: if he believes that an immediate in/out referendum will cause uncertainty, why would an in/out referendum many years from now not cause uncertainty?

As I say, I do not want to anticipate the Prime Minister’s speech. However, I think it is clear from my analysis of the policy of the Opposition that nothing could create more uncertainty than the adoption of their positions, and constant changing of their positions, either in this Parliament or the next.

T8. In a recently discovered TV interview from 2010, Mohamed Morsi, who is now the President of Egypt, is seen referring to Zionists as “bloodsuckers” and “descendants of apes and pigs”. What is Her Majesty’s Government’s assessment of those remarks and of the potential role that Mohamed Morsi might play in helping to arrive at a middle east peace settlement? (138363)

Of course, we absolutely do not agree with any such remarks. My hon. Friend is quite right to give the date, because those remarks were made well before the President of Egypt took office as President. We welcome, since he took office, his maintenance of the peace treaty with Israel and the work that Egypt has done, including engaging with Israel, to try to succeed in bringing about a ceasefire in the Gaza conflict that we saw a few weeks ago. We will continue to judge the President by his actions in office.

T2. At the global conference that the Foreign Secretary was good enough to host last week in the Locarno rooms, Christiana Figueres, the executive secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, made it clear that a settlement in 2015 would as much reflect national legislation as define it. What steps is his Department taking in bilateral arrangements with other countries to promote that national legislation? (138357)

We do a great deal of that in our bilateral relations. This work was started under the previous Government—I pay tribute to that—and it continues in the current Government. I think we are foremost among Foreign Ministries in promoting the recognition of climate change and the need to act on it within other countries around the world. We have done a lot of that in China and do a lot of it in Brazil and many other emerging economies, so that work has the continued energy that we have all put into it over the past few years.

As a warm Commonwealth friend and ally to Pakistan, what is the Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s assessment of the present political difficulties in that very important country in the region?

Pakistan has many political controversies and difficulties, even by our own standards, but it is approaching an election with the prospect of this being the first democratically elected Parliament and Government in the history of Pakistan that can be succeeded by another democratically elected Parliament and Government. That will be an important milestone in the history of Pakistan, so although many controversies swirl around, we must maintain our robust support for the institutions of a democratic Pakistan. We always make that very clear.

T3. Colombia’s FARC has just ended its two-month unilateral ceasefire while peace talks took place in Cuba. The Colombian Government refused to agree to a bilateral ceasefire and have now returned to a state of war, but FARC is willing to offer another ceasefire if the Government enter a bilateral truce. Will the UK Government use their influence with the Colombian Government to press for such a bilateral truce as a basis for further peace talks and an end to the war? (138358)

Yes, indeed we will. The hon. Gentleman will know that the official peace negotiations with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia started in October in Norway. It announced a universal ceasefire for two months, and the Colombian Government and FARC jointly announced a mechanism for civil society participation in the peace negotiations, and those negotiations continue. The British Government stand by—many hon. Members have written to me about this—ready to work with the authorities in Colombia to ensure long-lasting peace in the country.

Given the likely change in the political make-up of the Israeli Government following today’s elections, may I urge the Government to redouble their efforts to dissuade the Israelis from a pre-emptive strike against Iran, an act that would be illegal, that would reinforce the position of hardliners in Iran and that could lead to regional war?

We have made our position on that clear to Israel and we will continue to do so. We believe in a twin-track process, endorsed in this House, of negotiations and sanctions, so we are not in favour, in those circumstances, of a military strike. However, as my hon. Friend knows—he does not agree with this, but it is our policy—we have taken no option off the table for the future. We are now exploring the possibility of returning to negotiations with Iran on its nuclear programme, but that will require a readiness by Iran to enter into realistic negotiations.

T5. Given recent reports from eastern Congo and news of non-governmental organisations not being able to reach communities, particularly children, with food and medical treatment, what discussions has the UK had with the United Nations about plans and, crucially, a time scale for the comprehensive political framework for the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo? (138360)

The hon. Lady is absolutely right to raise this important issue. I will travel tomorrow to the African Union summit in Addis Ababa, where one of my main priorities will be to encourage regional countries to sign the memorandum of understanding, which will go into some of the detail that she has mentioned. There are two elements: one is to resolve short-term issues that involve the M23—talks are taking place in Kampala—and the other is to put in place longer-term strategies that will enable the aid and assistance to get in for long-term sustainable solutions in that troubled area.

Last March this House unanimously voted for a UK-equivalent to the US Sergei Magnitsky law. Ministers undertook to take that up if the US Bill became law. It now has, so when will the Government produce legislative proposals of their own so that we can ban those with blood on their hands from waltzing into Britain?

In this country we operate on the basis of making a judgment, not on speculation about applications, but on actual applications for visas. We have a presumption that someone against whom there is evidence of human rights abuses will not be admitted to the United Kingdom, and that is the policy that we intend to continue.

T6. Relations between Britain and Yemen are very good, so when can we restore direct flights between Sana’a and London, and allow Yemenis to apply in Sana’a for a visa to come to Britain, rather than have to go to Abu Dhabi or Cairo? (138361)

The right hon. Gentleman is correct that relations between Yemen and ourselves are extremely good, and we continue to be in contact about its national dialogue and progress towards further elections in a couple of years. The security situation remains the most important condition on whether direct flights are reintroduced. The scanners are now in place, but a decision on direct flights depends on training and the overall security situation.

My former constituent Lindsay Sandiford was sentenced to death in Indonesia this morning for drug trafficking. Whatever our abhorrence of that evil trade, does the Foreign Secretary agree that this is out of keeping with Indonesia’s historic progress towards democracy and human rights? Will he ensure that Mrs Sandiford, who has struggled with legal representation, receives the best possible consular support?

We are aware that Lindsay Sandiford is facing the death penalty in Indonesia. We strongly object to the death penalty and continue to provide consular assistance to Lindsay and her family during this difficult time. We have made repeated representations to the Indonesian authorities, and my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary raised Lindsay Sandiford’s case with Dr Marty Natalegawa, the Indonesian Foreign Minister, during the November state visit of the Indonesian President. We understand that under Indonesian law, Lindsay has at least two further avenues of appeal through the courts, as well as an opportunity to apply for presidential clemency should they be unsuccessful.

T7. The Europe chief executive of Ford cars has said that to“discuss leaving a trading partner where 50% of your exports go…would be devastating for the UK economy.”Ian Robertson of BMW has said:“To think about the UK being outside of Europe doesn’t make sense.”When will the Conservative party start putting the UK national interest above another bout of ideological self-indulgence? (138362)

It is precisely because the Government see the advantages to our national interest of active involvement in changing the European Union in the right way that we have succeeded in winning free trade agreements at European level with Singapore and Korea and are successfully pushing for the further deepening of the single market.

I was fortunate enough to attend the inauguration of President Mahama in Accra about two weeks ago, and I can say to my hon. Friend that the elections were free, fair and credible. The election observers uniformly came up with that view. The Ghanaian people and body politic need significant credit for five or six free and fair elections that have enabled the free transfer of powers to take place.

T9. What discussions has the Secretary of State had with the devolved Administration in Scotland on the implications and additional costs of a separate Scottish state establishing new foreign embassies and consulates in the event of a yes vote in the pending independence referendum? (138365)

I am not aware of the Scottish Government asking for the costings on establishing a diplomatic network around the world, but clearly the costs would be very substantial. Scots benefit, as all of us in the UK do, from having one of the largest diplomatic networks in the world and a Foreign Office that is one of the most capable in the world at providing consular support to its citizens. It would, of course, be very expensive to replicate that.

With E3 plus 3 negotiations on the Iranian nuclear programme effectively stalled as a result of Iranian prevarication, will the Foreign Secretary reassure the House that the British Government are still absolutely committed to sustaining and deepening sanctions against Iran?

Yes, we are very much committed to that. Indeed, the sanctions that were decided on in the European Union in October are coming into effect in stages now and over the coming weeks. We continue to encourage other countries to adopt similar sanctions, and I warmly welcomed Australia’s adoption last week of sanctions that closely match those of the United States and the EU. Unless Iran takes a more constructive approach to negotiations, sanctions will only intensify.

We continue to work closely with other EU member states to try to achieve a settlement, which would be agreed on the basis of a significant further cut from the figures that the Commission currently proposes, and to maintain and protect the United Kingdom’s rebate and so deliver a better deal than our predecessors achieved last time the negotiations took place.

Rising global food prices are a major cause of instability in developing countries, including those in north Africa. The UN has recently described the practice of converting agricultural land to biogas as a crime against humanity. What more can the Government do to persuade the EU and the US to stop subsidising that practice?

The Government are significantly engaged in multilateral discussions aimed at precisely that point and to address high and volatile global food prices, notably at the UN Food and Agricultural Organisation and the G20’s Agricultural Market Information System.

What contact are the Government having with the Government of Iran, and what are they doing to ensure that the aspiration of a middle east nuclear weapon free zone conference takes place, given that the one due in Helsinki was postponed?

As co-sponsor of the conference, we are determined to see it progress. It was not possible to hold it by the end of last year, but I remain in contact with Minister Laavaja, the facilitator, to see whether it can make progress. It is the United Kingdom’s intention to continue to press for this.

Order. To meet demand for Foreign Office questions would probably require a repeat performance on a daily basis, for which diaries sadly do not allow. I hope colleagues will understand that I could not accommodate any more. We must now move on.