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Topical Questions

Volume 557: debated on Tuesday 22 January 2013

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.