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Topical Questions

Volume 559: debated on Tuesday 5 March 2013

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.

T7. Have the Foreign Secretary or the Foreign Office had any recent discussions with the European Commission about Scotland’s membership of the EU should it choose to leave the UK? If so, will he update the House? (145906)

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.

Following the arrest this morning of former President Nasheed in the Maldives, will the Minister update the House on the situation in that country?

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.

Order. I am sorry to disappoint colleagues but even a two-hour session for Foreign Office questions would probably not be sufficient. We must move on.