Foreign and Commonwealth Office
The Secretary of State was asked—
We continue to watch events in Tunisia closely. We condemn the assassination of Opposition leader Chokri Belaid. We have watched the peaceful transference of the premiership from Prime Minister Jebali to Prime Minister designate Laarayedh, which has been accompanied by strong statements by those in Tunisia about their adherence to democracy and building democratic institutions.
Matters relating to dates and timings of the constitution and everything else remain unclear. We have seen nothing at this stage to suggest that any date should be affected, but a new Government have not yet been formed. The Prime Minister designate has until the end of this week to create a Government. There may be an extension after that, but hopes are high that that Government will be confirmed. It will then be easier to see what dates will follow for the other parts of the democratic process of rebuilding.
I do not want to accuse the Minister of being complacent, because I tend to agree with him on Tunisia, but there is no constitution and no set date for the elections. Before the leader of the Opposition was assassinated, he said that anybody criticising the Government would be taken out, in effect, and there is video evidence of direct links between the ruling party and al-Qaeda. Should the Minister not reassess his policy?
I am not quite sure what reassessment the hon. Gentleman is asking for. As I have said, we are monitoring events as closely as we can. We are engaged with a variety of projects for democracy building in Tunisia, yet the constitutional processes being undergone are for Tunisians themselves. I spoke to our deputy head of mission just this morning. The streets are calm; people are expecting a Government to be formed at the end of the week. They are well aware of the difficulties of forming the Government and of the pressures between the political parties, but as he said, there are grounds for some optimism. These are obviously difficult days for Tunisia, but the fact that the process has been handled democratically and peacefully to date is much to be welcomed, and we will continue to encourage it.
I am sure the Minister can agree that Tunisia has made remarkable progress in its transition to democracy. For quite some time it has led the way in the region, but the inevitable wobble has now happened. Can he say what role the Deauville partnership has in helping the political, social and economic transition to democracy?
I very much appreciate what my hon. Friend says. There has been good progress, but we must all be clear that each state is different. These events in the Arab world will take time and there will inevitably be progress, both forwards and backwards. Tunisia is facing its own difficulties, but facing up to them well. The Prime Minister has made it clear that, as part of our responsibilities for the G8, the Deauville partnership will be reinvigorated to ensure that economic support is available to countries in transition. We believe that the G8 process this year will be able to deliver economic benefits to countries in transition such as Tunisia, which will be of enormous help to them.
Does my hon. Friend agree that building a stable democracy takes a long time? After all, it has taken us 800 years and it is far from perfect. Should not those of us who support the democratic changes in north Africa and the middle east therefore exercise both patience and perseverance?
My hon. Friend puts it very well. There is a great risk of trying to see all political developments through the prism of 24-hour news or a rolling news programme. These things will not be settled quickly. I suspect that we will not know the outcome of the Arab spring even by the time most of us have finished our period in Parliament. My hon. Friend is right: this will need patience. Equally, the commitment of those such as the United Kingdom to democracy-building institutions—which we are involved in through the Arab partnership and other partners—is a vital part of the process, if it is to be a success.
When President Marzouki came to Britain last autumn, he stressed the vital importance of establishing a broad-based constitution. In view of the difficult atmosphere following the death of Chokri Belaid, what specific actions are the UK Government taking to support the development of democracy, perhaps through Arab Partnership projects? This is an absolutely crucial time for Tunisia.
It certainly is. The hon. Gentleman is right to point to our engagement, through Arab Partnership, in various democracy-building processes. We are expecting a number of projects to be developed during the course of this year, at a cost of some £2.5 million, and we will be looking to develop projects on election monitoring, on the support of political parties and on democracy building. We are constantly looking, with the Tunisians, at what they will find most effective. Last year, one of the most effective projects was to help them to move their state broadcasting company into a public broadcasting company. Such efforts to open up democracy to more people are a vital part of the process that we hope will lead to the establishment of a new constitution in the time scale already set out by the Tunisians.
21. There are 60 British companies currently operating in Tunisia, compared with 1,800 French ones. What steps is my hon. Friend’s Department undertaking with UK Trade & Investment to ensure greater British economic engagement with Tunisia? (145895)
We continue to encourage more UKTI missions to Tunisia. Through the G8 process, there will be a major investment conference later this year for all those countries involved in transition, at which UK companies will be able to look at the opportunities that are available to them in Tunisia. We want UK companies to be prepared to take more risk. We are sometimes told by nations abroad that they see more of other countries’ companies than our own, but we do not believe that that is necessarily the case. We want to encourage British companies to become involved, and Tunisia presents a series of fine opportunities.
There is a clear need for the United States to lead an effort to revive the peace process. This was top of the agenda of my recent discussions with Secretary Kerry, and I welcome the focus that he has brought to bear on the issue since his appointment. We will make every effort to mobilise European and Arab states behind decisive moves for peace.
Does the Secretary of State agree that the starting point for negotiations should be the legal status quo—that is, that the whole of the west bank and east Jerusalem, within the 1967 borders, is Palestinian land, as agreed unanimously by the United Nations Security Council in resolution 242—and not the facts on the ground created by illegal settlement building?
Across the House, all of us have commented clearly about illegal settlement building on occupied land, but I think the starting point for negotiations has to be a common political will. That needs to be there in Israel, where a new Government are being formed, and among Palestinians, who continue to discuss reconciliation among each other. The true starting point is a common willingness to enter again into negotiations and to develop the middle east peace process, with the leadership of the United States but with the support of us all.
The Foreign Secretary seems to expect the Palestinians to have the patience of Job. He might be aware that, in the coming months, Israel is set to demolish hundreds of homes in the Palestinian town of Silwan to make way for a tourist attraction. Is he also aware that that is the single largest proposed demolition of Palestinian homes since 1967? What will he do to try to instil a sense of reality among the Israeli authorities to stop this unlawful theft of Palestinian land, which can only hinder the search for a two-state solution?
The hon. Gentleman is right to say that such actions hinder the search for a two-state solution. Our condemnation of illegal settlement building and of demolitions on occupied land has been very clear across the House, as I have said. The important thing in the coming months is to move beyond that and to get into successful negotiations. The only answer, in the end, will be an agreed two-state solution, and the time for that is slipping away. The hon. Gentleman rightly mentioned patience. The world has been patient, but the time in which a two-state solution can be agreed is now slipping away, partly because of changing facts on the ground. That demonstrates the urgency, and I believe, in the light of all the discussions I have had with Secretary Kerry so far, that he is fully seized of the importance and urgency of the issue.
I visited Lebanon the week before last, and it is a country whose stability we want to support. While I was there, I announced additional support for the Lebanese armed forces as well as for the Special Tribunal for Lebanon. We do our best to contribute to the stability of the Lebanese state, but that is often fragile—not least because of what is happening in Syria at the moment. I believe that we have many friends in Lebanon and that our announcements were strongly welcomed there.
As the right hon. Gentleman will know, the Israeli Prime Minister has recently given Tzipi Livni Cabinet responsibility for negotiations with the Palestinians. Does the Foreign Secretary agree that the appointment of a known vocal campaigner for a two-state solution is a welcome development? When will he or his Ministers meet Tzipi Livni and her Palestinian counterparts to see how Her Majesty’s Government could extend support for negotiations?
Of course we should and do welcome the appointment of Mrs Livni, although I stress that the final composition and make-up of the Israeli coalition has not yet been agreed—these things have not been finalised. Mrs Livni has worked hard in the past to try to bring about negotiations on a two-state solution. We are indeed in regular touch with her and have been even when she was out of government. The negotiations, which failed to reach a conclusion by 1 March now have a further 14 days to produce an Israeli Government by 15 March. We hope that, whatever the composition of that Government, they will be committed to serious negotiations and have the same sense of urgency that we in this House have just expressed.
From what I have said many times about the illegality of settlement building on occupied land it will be clear to the hon. Gentleman where we stand on matters of international law. Now, however, we have to find a solution to all of this, and that will come only from a successful negotiation between Israelis and Palestinians. I do not know anyone who thinks that there will be any other way of bringing about an end to building on occupied land and peace both for Israelis and Palestinians. That is what we want to promote: settlements are obviously a major issue in any such negotiation.
My right hon. Friend said a moment or two ago that the possibility of a two-state solution was slipping away. Does he understand that a large number of people, including well-informed commentators and analysts, believe that that time has now gone. If the position now is that the two-state solution is incapable of achievement, what are the prospects for any stability in Israel in the future?
If, indeed, that possibility has gone, the prospects for stability in the whole region—for Israel and others—would be greatly worsened. We should be clear about that, as it is part of the argument to Israeli leaders to get them to use the time remaining for a two-state solution to be brought about. On that, I differ from my right hon. and learned Friend in that while I think this may be the last chance for a two-state solution and that the time is slipping away, I do not think that the time for it has yet gone. That is why it was at the top of the agenda in all our discussions with the United States at the beginning of this year. We will do everything we can to support American efforts as President Obama arrives in Israel in three weeks’ time.
When the Israelis unilaterally withdrew from Gaza, the result was 7,000 missiles from Hamas on to Israeli towns and cities. Does my right hon. Friend agree that any negotiation on the administered territory on the west bank should be accompanied by a guarantee from Hamas of an end to its terrorism?
It is very important that rocket fire comes to an end. I am very concerned at reports of rockets being fired from Gaza into Israel last week, which was the first such incident since the ceasefire agreement in November. We call on all parties to respect in full the November ceasefire. We have consistently condemned the firing of rockets into Israel, which is not, of course, a helpful backdrop to peace negotiations.
I share the Foreign Secretary’s view that this is the last chance for a decisive move for peace. Is it not time to make it clear to the Israeli authorities that if it does not work on this occasion—if this move for peace ends as all the others have—the flagrant breach of international law that is represented by illegal settlements over 46 years, since 1967, will finally have to be met by some serious consequences, from the European Union and from ourselves?
It will be important for EU nations, including us, and for Arab nations to give careful and well-calibrated support to the American efforts. I have already been discussing that with Secretary Kerry. We need to allow time and space for this American effort to develop as President Obama visits the region later in the month, but I believe that it will important for us to be able to say in concrete terms, at crucial stages of any negotiations that may develop, what we will do to support the process and to incentivise the parties involved. Of course, it may also be open to us to disincentivise—if I may use that word—those parties at crucial moments.
In the context of conditions for peace, the right hon. Gentleman may not be aware that last Saturday, in Palestine, I visited the mothers and surviving family members—for some have been killed by the Israelis—of Ayman Ismail, who is being held in administrative detention and has been on hunger strike for 246 days, and of Samer Issawi, who is being held on trumped-up charges after being tried twice, once by a civil court which said that he should be released tomorrow and once by a military court which is holding him for 20 years, He has been on hunger strike for 223 days, and is in a critical condition. Will the right hon. Gentleman make clear to Netanyahu that if these men die, their blood will be on his hands?
I think we can be absolutely clear that it is important for justice to be properly done and human rights to be observed on all occasions, for a justice system to be properly upheld, and for problems that have arisen in relation to hunger strikes—of which we have seen many in recent times—to be dealt with through successful talks between the Israeli authorities and those concerned whenever possible. We have urged that. There have been such successful talks in the past, and I hope that the same can happen in this case.
On 18 February, the Bulgarian Foreign Minister told European Union Foreign Ministers that the Bulgarian Government took it as a justified assumption that two members of Hezbollah’s military wing had been involved in the terrorist attack in Burgas last July. Since then we have received representations from the United States and Israel about Hezbollah’s activity, and we have called on our European partners to respond robustly to terrorist actions on European soil.
I warmly welcome what the Foreign Secretary has said. This was a terrorist attack which cost the lives of six people, tourists innocently going about their business. Is it not high time the European Union acted against Hezbollah and banned it in its entirety? Otherwise, will not the EU be left looking a little bit casual, if not shoddy, in its approach to terrorism?
As my hon. Friend knows, we are clear about this. The United Kingdom proscribed Hezbollah’s external security organisation back in 2001, and extended that proscription to the military wing in 2008. We are now discussing the issue in the European Union, and we would like to see the EU follow what we have done. We are engaged in active discussion with EU countries. Some are supportive of this, some are awaiting evidence from Bulgaria before making a decision, and some have other concerns. We are seeking to persuade them that those concerns are not warranted, and that the European Union should take a decisive position.
24. The recent murder of Israeli tourists, together with a Bulgarian national, in Bulgaria is just the latest in a string of terrorist attacks by Hezbollah, from Argentina in 1994 to Cyprus and Turkey in 2011. Just what will it take for Europe to act against this terrorist organisation? (145898)
As the hon. Lady will gather, that is what we are discussing in the European Union. My Bulgarian colleague briefed us on the matter at the last meeting of the Foreign Affairs Council, and we are now having the discussions that I just described. As I say, some countries wish to look at the evidence in more detail, and some have other concerns about the impact on relations with Lebanon. However, I made it clear on my recent visit to Lebanon that we supported the Lebanese authorities’ statement that they would co-operate fully with the investigation and that there is no need for any decision we make about Hezbollah to have a damaging impact on Lebanon’s stability.
Hezbollah makes no distinction between its military activities and its political activities, so why does the EU feel the need to make such a distinction before it reaches a view about sanctions against Hezbollah?
The United Kingdom made that distinction and we believe that those wings are organisationally distinct, even if they both come under the same overall leadership. It is important to recognise that Hezbollah’s political wing is and will remain an important part of Lebanon’s political scene, and we have to be able to act in the interests of the stability of Lebanon. We do not believe that an EU consensus could be arrived at on the designation of the whole of Hezbollah.
I have listened carefully to the answers offered by the Foreign Secretary, and on this matter I sense that there is genuine cross-party agreement across the House. He says that active discussions are under way with European partners on the proscription of Hezbollah’s military wing, but that some countries are looking at further evidence. Given the terms of the report published by the Bulgarians on 5 February and the discussions that the Bulgarian Minister has had with other European colleagues, will the Foreign Secretary tell the House what further discussions he is going to have, particularly with the French and with others? What assurance would they need in order to be able to match the action that, with our support, the British Government have taken?
Of course, we are in active discussion with other European partners, including France. As I say, some are immediately supportive of designation, as we are, but some want to look in more detail at the evidence, although plenty of evidence is available. Some have concerns about the impact on the stability of Lebanon—concerns that I think are unfounded—on EU relations with Lebanon or on European troops serving in the UN mission in southern Lebanon, the United Nations Interim Force In Lebanon. So there are a variety of reasons for this, which I do not agree with, and it is clear that the right hon. Gentleman does not agree with them either. I shall, thus, quote the strong cross-party support in this House in the Government’s further discussions about this issue.
Arms Trade Treaty
The United Kingdom remains a determined driver towards a robust and effective arms trade treaty, as it has been for many years, particularly in the run-up to the conference in New York later this month. We are actively engaged in lobbying various other states, and we will continue to do that throughout the conference, both in New York and from London.
Just 10 days ago, in a debate in this House, the Foreign Secretary made a powerful speech on tackling sexual violence in conflicts. One way of turning those warm words into action would be by strengthening the draft text of the arms trade treaty, which calls on states only to “consider taking feasible measures” to avoid arms being used in gender violence. Will the Minister make getting those words strengthened in the treaty a priority?
We are looking actively to strengthen the treaty in a variety of places and to close off whatever loopholes we can. Tackling gender violence remains of exceptional importance to the United Kingdom and wherever there is a possibility of strengthening the text in relation to that, we will do so.
I congratulate the Government on campaigning for a universal treaty and on ensuring that national reports are declared openly and transparently. But does the Minister agree that in two or three weeks’ time the draft text of the treaty needs to include all arms and weapons transfers?
The key priority for the United Kingdom is to make sure, first, that we do not lose the strength of the text that was almost agreed last July. We also want to ensure that we can clarify and strengthen the text wherever possible, and transfers is indeed one of the priorities that we will be looking at in seeking to improve the text.
The UK director of Amnesty International has said that there are tighter international controls on the global trade in bananas than there are on arms. Will the Minister confirm that the UK Government will take this opportunity to push very hard for a very effective arms treaty that applies to all weapons and munitions and that ensures proper monitoring and an enhanced end-user certificate system?
The inclusion of all small arms and light weapons in the treaty is fundamental for us. I have had regular meetings with the director of Amnesty; I know her views and they are very similar to ours. It is vital that we get the broadest and most effective arms trade treaty out of New York. We will not be able to secure everything we would wish and we will not sign something just because it is a piece of paper. We want to ensure that it is robust and effective for those who use it and for end-users, too.
It is said that around the world someone dies on average every minute as a result of armed violence, including 50,000 people who will have died last July while the arms trade treaty negotiations stalled. What prospect of American support for an international arms trade treaty did the Minister and the Foreign Secretary discern from their talks with Secretary Kerry during his visit last week?
We very much want the United States to be a party to the agreement, but we know—as is well known—that they have issues with some items. The Secretary of State was made well aware by my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary of the importance we attach to the arms trade treaty. The United States is, of course, keeping its negotiating position carefully guarded in the run-up to the negotiations, as one would expect. We are very keen that the United States should be able to sign the agreement and, of course, that it should meet our objectives of being robust and effective.
I was a little disappointed to hear that no Minister from our Department for International Development would be attending the arms trade treaty talks later this month. Given that armed violence is estimated to cost Africa $18 billion a year, will the Minister assure me that tackling poverty and the extent to which arms transfers undermine socio-economic development will be at the top of his list of priorities when he goes to New York?
As the hon. Lady rightly says, I am going to New York. It is not possible for a Minister from DFID to go on this occasion, but they went last July. The Minister of State, Department for International Development, has been determined in all his efforts over the course of the past year to pursue our interests in the treaty and will continue to work the phones even while other people are in New York. There is no lack of engagement from DFID and the Government’s determination, supported, we know, by the whole House, will continue throughout the conference.
EU Treaty Change
Given that the Minister is unable to give any indication of a time scale for any potential intergovernmental conference on EU treaty change, what does he say to businesses in my constituency that have raised their concerns that uncertainty over the relationship with the EU could harm trade with the continent and threaten their viability?
I would say to businesses in the hon. Lady’s constituency that I hope that they will warmly welcome the efforts the Government are making to strengthen the single market in Europe, to promote free trade with the rest of the world and to cut the cost of European regulation on businesses of all sizes.
Will the Minister embrace collaboration rather than confrontation in Europe and welcome last week’s call for smarter regulation, more cost-efficiency, more free trade agreements and many other European reforms that are possible with or without a treaty issued by the Deputy Prime Minister and Liberals in government in the Netherlands, Germany, Belgium, Finland, Denmark, Sweden, Estonia, Romania and the UK?
There was indeed a great deal in that statement with which I, coming from a different political family, would find myself in disagreement—[Interruption.] I mean in complete agreement—although perhaps I disagreed with a few points. It is striking that when I talk to my European counterparts, from whatever political family they come, there is a common sense of the urgency of Europe’s collectively getting to grips with the challenges of global competition and taking the steps on deregulation and the promotion of free markets and free trade that will bring more jobs and prosperity to everyone in this continent.
Treaty change requires the agreement of all member states. However, the European Council President said last week in London that there was
“not much appetite . . . around the leaders table”
for opening the treaties. The Dutch Foreign Minister said:
“We will do everything to avoid treaty change”.
The French are not keen. The Germans are not keen. Which allies has the Minister found for treaty change?
I am sorry if the hon. Lady feels that the treaty of Lisbon is so perfect that it needs no reform at all. In respect of the President of the European Council’s comment, he has said before that he does not think that any treaty change is likely for the next couple of years, and I do not disagree with that opinion, but if the hon. Lady looks again at the report of the four Presidents, if she looks again at President Barroso’s blueprint for European reform, she will find there a proposal for substantial changes to the way the EU operates that would not be possible without changes to the treaties.
We are seeing some positive results and progress in areas such as the EU budget, fisheries and the extension of the working time directive. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the ongoing process of negotiation and alliance building is a vital part of realising the reforms needed in the EU and Britain’s relationship with its European partners?
I completely agree with what my hon. Friend says. The achievement of the first-ever reduction in a European financial framework, coupled with the agreement on the ban on the obscene practice of discarding fish—something for which this country has fought for many years—is clear evidence not only that this Government are committed to working with our partners in Europe to achieve common objectives, but that we are succeeding in delivering outcomes that should be welcomed right across the House and by everybody in this country.
We take regular opportunities to talk to the Government of the state of Israel about settlement policy which, as the House heard earlier, we consider to be illegal and an obstacle to peace. My most recent opportunity was a meeting with the Israeli ambassador last Friday.
Against the worrying echoes of the southern states of the USA 50 years ago and of apartheid South Africa 25 years ago, the Government of Israel introduced segregated buses for Israeli settlers living illegally on the west bank and for the indigenous Palestinian population. Appeasing the racist regime in Israel must stop. Will the Minister, with his European Union colleagues, end our cosy relationship in view of such behaviour?
As always, recognising the context of Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories, particularly in relation to some of the hopes expressed by my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary earlier, means acknowledging how difficult the circumstances are, but also points to the consequences of there not being a settlement and of actions being pursued that continue to place Israel in a difficult position with world opinion. The longer the status quo is believed to be realistic, the more dangerous things become. We must all lend our efforts to the determination expressed by a number of states that this year must be definitive if we wish to see Palestinians and Israelis live in the sort of peace and harmony that we would all expect to bring an effective settlement to that region.
Further to an earlier question, is not the crux of the matter that the Israeli Government, and previous Israeli Governments, do not believe that there will be any serious consequences as a result of what they do? Can one understand the sheer anger, resentment and frustration of the Palestinians who see no political progress at all? What would we do if we were in the same position as the Palestinians in the occupied territories?
The crux of the matter remains the extraordinary distrust and low levels of confidence between Israelis and Palestinians in relation to security matters and the long effects of the occupation, which has been so immensely damaging to both. As my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary said, we fear that unless there is effective action this year, the opportunity for a two-state solution is slipping away, the barrier between Israeli and Palestinian that we have all seen growing in our time in the House is getting more and more severe, and the opportunities, therefore, for people to live together in the future are getting more and more remote. The anger is understood. The fear of lack of security on the Israeli side is understood. That is why this year has to be definitive to make serious progress.
20. Is it not the case that in no other country would we allow large numbers of migrants to occupy its land, denying the land to local people? Why is so much energy put into the likes of Syria after two years, when nothing appears to be done about Palestine’s west bank, and in particular East Jerusalem, after 40 years? (145894)
I cannot accept the premise of the question that nothing is done in relation to this long-standing and deeply divisive issue. The United Kingdom has been a supporter of the Palestinian Authority and of its work towards statehood. We have condemned the possibility of settlements arising in new areas of East Jerusalem, we have condemned settlement building in East Jerusalem, and we continue to take the view that settlements are illegal and an obstruction to peace. As my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary has said during the course of these questions, this year must be definitive in making progress on both sides, so that the context of a secure Israel next to a viable Palestinian state becomes a reality before that window is lost and the situation becomes even more grave.
The Minister rightly condemns illegal settlements, administrative detention and the demolition of Palestinian homes, but it appears that he cannot do very much. What he can do something about is the import of illegal goods from those settlements, which are running at eight times the level of imports from all Palestinians, as a recent report called “Trading Away Peace”, with which I believe he is familiar, by 22 non-governmental organisations, said. Will he now take steps to prevent the import of goods from illegal settlements to the UK?
We continue to work with European partners on the possibility of extending voluntary labelling so that people can make their choices. We do not believe in a boycott of goods, but we believe in clear labelling so that people can see where goods have come from. We are certainly keen to ensure that no goods from settlement areas find their way into the European Union by being labelled as Israeli, and we are determined to ensure that that does not happen.
The Chequers summit on 3 and 4 February brought together the political and security leaderships from Afghanistan and Pakistan. Both sides committed themselves to taking all necessary measures to achieve a peace settlement over the next six months, called on the Taliban to open a political office in Doha, and reaffirmed their commitment to a strategic partnership with each other. We will continue to support the two Governments in bringing about peace, taking into account the stability of the whole region.
I think that all of us in the House would echo the sentiments of the US ambassador to Pakistan, who said that he wished it to be a stable, prosperous and democratic country. Very much in that vein, given that she is a sizeable and important power in that region, what steps is my right hon. Friend taking to ensure that radical Islamist elements within that country do not destabilise her nuclear role?
Across the House we are all very strong supporters of a democratic Pakistan. Pakistan is coming to a very important moment with a general election where, for the first time, a democratically elected Government will have served their full term to be succeeded by another democratically elected Government. The United Kingdom, of course, does a great deal to support Pakistan, particularly with the huge programme of the Department for International Development. That in turn is particularly focused on primary education in Pakistan, and we also seek to boost trade and investment.
One important aspect of the Chequers summit was that the Pakistani security establishment was there, representing the leadership of the army and the Inter-Services Intelligence. Their clarity and their support for pursuing a peace process, and for working with Afghanistan and with us in order to do so, were abundantly clear. This is therefore now the context in which Pakistan is looking at the Taliban. It wants the Taliban to come into reconciliation and peace.
Thank you, Mr Speaker; that is an interesting accolade.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary on that extraordinary summit between two powers that were very unlikely to share a room together even a few months ago. I also congratulate our embassy in Kabul on the extraordinary work it is doing to promote the commercial side of Afghanistan, particularly the mining projects, which in the long run are the key to prosperity for the country.
Both points are very important. The embassy is absolutely working hard on such projects. On relations between Afghanistan and Pakistan, one must never be complacent, and much work remains to be done. The two Governments, with our encouragement, have achieved a bigger improvement in their relations in the past six months than at any time in the previous 10 or 20 years. That gives us something to work on.
Repatriation of Powers (EU)
The Government have already made progress on securing reforms to the EU, by ending Britain’s obligation to bail out eurozone members, by ensuring that the smallest businesses are exempted from EU regulations, by securing protections on banking union and by achieving a shift in fisheries policy towards local and regional management.
But did President Van Rompuy not have a good point last week when he said that, rather than prioritising treaty change, the Government should be leading the charge for growth in Europe? With our economy having grown by a dismal 0.2% last year, should the Minister not take that advice rather than trying to weaken the rights of work for millions of employees across Britain?
It is this Government’s commitment to growth, jobs and prosperity in Europe that lay behind the achievement of the EU’s free trade agreements with the Republic of Korea and with Singapore, attained during the lifetime of this coalition Government, and it is the firm alliance between our Prime Minister and the German Chancellor that is driving forward, with the Commission, moves in Europe towards an historic transatlantic trade deal. I wish that the Opposition were sometimes a little less grudging.
I sincerely hope that the hon. Lady is not seeking, by means of that question, to suggest that she supports an end to our opt-out from the 48-hour working week under the working time directive. I hope that she is not being complacent about the European Court of Justice judgments that have caused such difficulties for the national health service and for the social care sector, problems that are not unique to the United Kingdom and concerns about which are shared by many other member states.
Force protection for the small UK military team supporting the C-17 operation in Bamako is being provided by the French as part of the wider Mali operation. Protection for the EU training mission, to which the UK has offered both military and civilian personnel, is being provided by French and Czech military personnel. We do not envisage UK personnel fulfilling a force protection role.
I thank the Minister for his answer. What lessons have been learnt from the EU mission in Somalia, which was relatively successful in keeping terrorists out of the security services, as opposed to a rather less successful exercise in Afghanistan in which many allied servicemen lost their lives as a result of terrorists entering the security services?
The hon. Gentleman is correct to say that we learn lessons from EU trading missions where they are taking place. Lessons have been learnt from Somalia. However, there are also differences, one of which is that we are going to infuse into the EU trading mission to Mali some civilian trainers who will focus on the Foreign Secretary’s prevention of sexual violence in conflict initiative to make sure that the Malian army understands the importance of that as well as the importance of humanitarian law and human rights.
This morning I returned from Mali, where I met its President and Prime Minister to urge early progress on a political process and reconciliation with all communities in their country. I also met and thanked members of our armed forces who have given logistical support to France and are now beginning to form the EU military training mission.
May I take the Foreign Secretary to the other side of the world and declare an interest as a member of the Tibet Society? He will be aware that there have now been more than 100 self-immolations in Tibet. He will also be aware of the big crackdown and harsh prison sentences for protestors, including families of the victims. I hope that he is also aware that next Wednesday there will be a big lobby by Tibetans coming to this House. What is he doing to support the growing number of Tibetan refugees, many of whom are escaping across the mountains to Dharamsala? In particular, what help can we give through the British Council to assist in education about and preservation of the Tibetan language and culture, which are being so brutally repressed by China in Tibet?
In a very short answer, Mr Speaker, we do indeed have serious concerns about the recent wave of self-immolations and urge the Chinese authorities to show restraint towards Tibetan protestors. As my hon. Friend knows, we believe in meaningful dialogue between the Dalai Lama’s representatives and the Chinese authorities as the best way to address and resolve the underlying grievances. There is no change in our policy towards Tibet, which we regard as part of the People’s Republic of China. However, we are always concerned about human rights issues and—in the interests of brevity, Mr Speaker—we will take an additional look at the points that my hon. Friend raises.
In the light of the latest round of the P5 plus 1 talks held last week in Kazakhstan, will the Foreign Secretary update the House on progress? In particular, will he share with the House, if he feels able, some of the specific guarantees that the UK Government would be looking to achieve from the Iranians as part of these important discussions, given that being clear about the objectives increases the likelihood of success in the negotiations?
These discussions took place in Almaty last week, on 26 and 27 February, and they were successful enough for further meetings to be agreed. Meetings of officials will take place in early April, also in Kazakhstan. Of course, it is pleasing that it is worth while having those further meetings. In the E3 plus 3 we have put a revised offer to the Iranians. However, that revised offer would involve both sides taking actions that then build confidence for further negotiations, without our thinking that we can resolve the entire problem in one move—one negotiation. We hope that Iran will continue to take a strong interest and a constructive role in these negotiations. It is too early to tell whether the Iranian position is to do that or to play for time, as has often happened in the past.
I note that the Foreign Secretary says that it is too early to tell about these negotiations and that the issue cannot be resolved in one go. I certainly recognise both those points. In recent days there has been quite a lot of speculation about the prospects for bilateral negotiations between the United States and Iran. Will he share the Government’s thinking as to the likelihood of a grander bargain between those two powers taking place in the months ahead?
The United Kingdom is, of course, open to bilateral discussions, which are difficult in our case because of the unavoidable closure of embassies. Nevertheless, I have from time to time met the Iranian Foreign Minister and we are open to the idea of other members of the E3 plus 3 having bilateral discussions with Iran. Such discussions sometimes take place at the margins of the E3 plus 3 meetings. It is important for Iran to know that we are seeking to settle the nuclear issue—Iran would, of course, have all the rights of a country under the non-proliferation treaty—and that the western world is not embarked on regime change in Iran. That sincerely is what we are trying to do. Any bilateral discussions that make that clear and allow negotiations to proceed more successfully on that basis would, of course, be welcome.
T3. My constituent Mr Percival is one of many who have been robbed by property fraud in Cyprus following the default of the Alpha bank. Will a Minister meet me to discuss with the Greek and Cypriot authorities what might be done to rectify this disgrace? (145902)
Ministers at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and our high commissioner in Cyprus regularly raise property issues with the Cypriot authorities. I have made a commitment to meet members of the all-party group on the defence of the interests of British property owners in Cyprus to discuss the particular case to which my right hon. Friend has referred and the broader issues. I would be very happy to talk to him in that context.
T4. The Foreign Secretary advised the House in a written ministerial statement that the Government would consult European Union partners on strengthening EU sanctions. Will he update us on those discussions and on what impact further sanctions would have on the North Korean leadership and the North Korean people? (145903)
The situation in North Korea following the nuclear test a few weeks ago is extremely serious. I summoned the North Korean ambassador and had subsequent discussions in Seoul in South Korea when I attended the presidential inauguration of President Park. We continue to work with EU partners and the UN in order to introduce a tougher sanctions regime for Pyongyang.
T5. Twenty-seven years ago, the arrival in Uganda of President Museveni’s regime seemed to herald a new dawn for the country. Last week I was visited by Bishop Zac Niringiye, the assistant bishop of Kampala, who used to be a parish priest at Christ Church, Beckenham. Bishop Niringiye, who was himself arrested three weeks ago, briefed me on the appalling levels of Government corruption now endemic in the country. What can Her Majesty’s Government do to succour the drive to end corruption in Uganda? (145904)
My hon. Friend is absolutely right to highlight the threat that corruption poses both in Uganda and across the African continent. We remain concerned about the situation in Uganda and he may be aware that the Department for International Development temporarily froze all UK aid going through the Ugandan Prime Minister’s office. The UK, along with other donors, is supporting the Government of Uganda’s action plan, which will be reviewed next April.
No, we have not had discussions with the European Commission, but we have made it clear in published documents that the great weight of international legal advice and precedent is that an independent Scotland would have to negotiate its membership of the European Union and other international organisations. In the case of the EU, that would, of course, require the unanimous consent of all member states for every term of that membership.
T6. I recently visited Gaza as part of a cross-party delegation with Interpal. While there I was alarmed to witness, on three different occasions, the shooting at and intimidation of Palestinian fishing boats that appeared to be clearly inside the six-mile limit agreed by the ceasefire. Earlier, the Secretary of State roundly condemned, as is right and proper, the firing of rockets into Israel, but does he agree that peace depends on both sides sticking to the terms of the ceasefire, including Israeli naval ships? (145905)
Yes indeed; the terms of the ceasefire must be adhered to by all. The opportunity for Gaza to get greater economic independence and a resumption of normal trade to and from Gaza will be of huge benefit. That package needs to hold together. Israel needs to have security in its southern area, but Gaza also deserves an important boost to its economy so that matters can move forward. The ceasefire must certainly hold.
I hope that the Minister sees a continuing important role for the nation state in Europe. Will he do all in his power to protect very small states such as Luxembourg, which has a successful economy, so that they can continue to do things their separate way, without any further loss of sovereign powers in any possible EU treaty change?
In my experience, Luxembourg’s Ministers are extremely vigorous and effective in protecting the interests of Luxembourg. However, I would add that the United Kingdom, as one of the biggest member states of the European Union, is usually able to exercise rather greater influence and to mobilise coalitions more effectively than a small country on its own, particularly one that might just have joined the EU.
T8. May I draw the attention of my right hon. Friend to the Fresh Start manifesto and, in particular, to the section on the budget? Will he confirm that we will insist that MEPs vote on the multi-annual financial framework in public, rather than in private as has been proposed by the European Parliament? (145907)
Elected representatives, whether in the European Parliament or this place, should be accountable to the people who elect them in the first place. A secret vote is a denial of that democratic accountability. I hope that Labour Members will exercise the maximum possible public pressure on the socialist group in the European Parliament to stand by that principle of political accountability, to which the Conservative party is committed.
Like the hon. Members for Brent Central (Sarah Teather) and for Kettering (Mr Hollobone), I was on an Interpal delegation to Gaza last week. I would be grateful if the Minister could tell us what is being done to lift the blockade on Gaza so that the terrible water situation can be addressed. Sewage cannot be processed, fresh water is unobtainable because of the pollution of the aquifer, and the material to set up a desalination plant or something like it cannot be brought in to provide a decent standard of living for the people of Gaza.
Following the end of the conflict towards the end of last year, there have been renewed efforts to ensure that Gaza progresses towards a normal economic situation and that the resources that are needed to rebuild the infrastructure can go into Gaza. The United Kingdom is clear that unless that happens, the divide between Gaza and Israel will remain. It is essential that that work proceeds and that the UK plays a full part in urging those changes.
T9. Twice in the past year, the UK has failed to vote at the UN to support the aspiration of Palestinians for their own state as part of a two-state solution. On each occasion, the reason given was that we did not wish to undermine a future US-led peace process. May we have an update on the time scale for that? When do Ministers think they might be able to vote in a different direction? (145908)
As my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary made clear in response to earlier questions, Secretary of State Kerry will visit Israel and Palestine shortly, as will President Obama. It is clear that there is a re-engagement all round with the issues that will affect the middle east peace process. We remain clear that this is a priority for the region and for the world, and we will give every assistance to that process.
Will the Secretary of State tell the House whether the Government have set out a clear list of powers that the Government desire to repatriate from the EU? In the light of that, are negotiations going on with our EU colleagues about the process that would be necessary to achieve that end?
As a coalition Government, we are committed to a programme of significant reform of the European Union, as has been set out in many speeches and public statements by Ministers throughout the Government. The question of a treaty renegotiation will be put to the electorate in the Conservative party’s 2015 manifesto.
Yes, and I had a report from our high commission in Colombo earlier today. We understand that former President Nasheed was rearrested earlier this morning, and he has access to lawyers. At present we remain puzzled about the turn of events. It was widely believed that an arrangement was in place following former President Nasheed leaving the Indian high commission a couple of weeks ago, in relation to his trial and his part in the forthcoming elections. We are watching the situation carefully and have made it clear to the Maldivian authorities that no harm must be oriented towards the former President.
Given earlier references to the regionalisation of fisheries policy, is the Minister hopeful that we will achieve the objective whereby regional advisory councils can make decisions on fish quota allocations and fisheries management?
In the light of the vote in the European Parliament the other week and the more recent decision at the Council of Ministers, the Government are confident but not complacent—I think that is how I would put it. I assure the hon. Lady that the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Newbury (Richard Benyon), working in close consultation with all three devolved Administrations in the United Kingdom, is determined to do his utmost to deliver the kind of deal that she and I wish to see.