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Topical Questions

Volume 561: debated on Tuesday 23 April 2013

On Saturday, I met Friends of Syria ministers in Istanbul, where the Syrian National Coalition issued its clearest statement yet of its support for a political solution to the conflict, its commitment to a future for all Syrians, its rejection of all forms of terrorism and extremism, and its responsible approach on chemical and biological weapons. In return, the nations present undertook to strengthen their support for the Syrian opposition.

I thank my right hon. Friend for that reply. Britain’s relationship with Germany is one of the most important aspects of our influence within the EU. Will he outline how he and his Government have engaged with Germany, and how they will do so in future?

My hon. Friend makes a good point. Compared with the last year of the previous Government, we have nearly quadrupled the number of ministerial and senior official bilateral visits to Germany each year. We have established joint meetings twice a year of the British-German ministerial committees on the EU. I have made many visits to Germany, and as my hon. Friend knows, the Prime Minister works extremely closely with Chancellor Merkel. I believe it is right to say that we now work more closely with Germany than any previous Government.

As we move towards the final military draw-down in Afghanistan, what steps is the Secretary of State taking to ensure personnel protection for our remaining training forces, and for our brave men and women from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the Department for International Development and non-governmental organisations, who are working for a better future for the Afghan people?

Protecting people during the draw-down is extremely important. That is one reason for maintaining a substantial military force. As the right hon. Gentleman knows, our military numbers are coming down from 9,000 to 5,000 this year. We will then decide on the profile of withdrawal from then on. A large part of their job is the protection of the personnel who remain. We also work closely with the Afghan authorities and the very substantial Afghan national security forces to ensure that our hard-working personnel, to whom I pay tribute, are properly protected.

T4. Does my hon. Friend agree that the situation in Kashmir remains a key to lasting peace and security in Asia? What efforts are the Government making to help Pakistan and India to resolve their differences and unlock the great human and economic potential of the region? (152372)

I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. Efforts to resolve the issue in Kashmir continue and will be of huge benefit to both countries and the region as a whole. The UK is in contact with both Governments to urge them to do as much as possible to assist that reconciliation. We were particularly engaged after the incidents in January, when, once again, there were killings and shootings. It is important to note that those incidents did not disturb the dialogue that had grown up between India and Pakistan, which is important for the resolution of the issue.

T2. Following the Minister’s answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Richard Burden), is he aware that Ahava Cosmetics, which produces cosmetics in an illegal settlement, is currently labelled as “Israeli” in the UK? Despite complaints to trading standards, it refused to take up the matter. I welcomed his approach to EU-wide guidelines, but will he talk to his colleagues to ensure that the guidelines we already have are upheld and enforced? (152370)

It is of course essential that guidelines that have been introduced are adhered to, and that products are correctly and properly labelled. I am aware of the concerns about the product that has been mentioned—it is discussed. It is important that the voluntary guidelines are extended, and that settlement produce and Israeli produce are correctly labelled to give people a choice.

T5. A Palestinian news agency has reported that Hamas will seek to petition the EU to remove it from the terrorist list. What assessment has the Foreign Secretary made of those reports, and will he confirm that the British Government will remain steadfast in its position that Hamas is indeed a terrorist organisation? (152373)

Our position on Hamas is well known. We look to it, as we look to everyone in that region, to uphold previous agreements, forswear violence and make credible movement towards all of the Quartet principles that have been long established. There has been no change in our position on Hamas, and we do not, therefore, have direct contact with it.

T3. Will the Minister update us on the ratification of the UN arms trade treaty and what work we are doing with our international partners to implement it as soon as possible? (152371)

I am so glad that the right hon. Gentleman raised this point. It has been rather unnoticed in the past few weeks that the ATT was passed. It is one of the most important things the UN has achieved in recent years. Ratification will begin on 3 June, and we will be playing a leading part in encouraging states to sign up and ratify as soon as possible. I appreciate the support of the whole House. This has been a joint effort; it began in 2007 under the previous Government and we have seen it through to its successful conclusion. I would like publicly to congratulate Ambassador Jo Adamson, who has led the team in the United Nations and done a wonderful job.

T6. Last year, Conservatives on Essex county council passed a motion calling for the EU budget to be cut, a reduction in our contributions to the EU and for EU red tape to be slashed. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the good people of Essex should back Essex Conservatives on 2 May—the only party to stand up to Europe? (152374)

I absolutely agree, Mr Speaker. I am very grateful for the robust support of Conservatives on Essex county council on aspects of foreign policy. I am sure that they do a good job outside of foreign policy, too. Their support for a reduction in the EU budget is very important. It is something that people across the country want to see, and the Prime Minister has achieved the first ever reduction in the multiannual financial framework—a major diplomatic achievement for this country.

Human rights organisations were alarmed when sanctions against Burma were lifted. Could the Foreign Secretary use this as a lever to ensure that the United Nations can establish its human rights office in Burma, and to ensure that Burma releases all political prisoners, including Aung Naing?

It is worth pointing out to the hon. Lady that, yes, we agree with what she says, but human rights will be at the heart of the lifting of sanctions in Burma. We did it with the advice of Aung San Suu Kyi, because we believe that engagement with the Burmese Government is the way forward. We are deeply concerned about human rights and we remain deeply concerned about ethnic conflict, but we believe that now is the appropriate time to lift sanctions.

T7. Does the Foreign Secretary agree that the tragic bombing in Boston is a sad reminder of the ongoing threat of global terrorism, and stresses the importance of the United Kingdom having very close links with the intelligence services of our allies, particularly the United States? (152375)

Yes, absolutely. The tragic events in Boston are a reminder of that, as is this morning’s news about the operation in Canada to prevent a terrorist attack. We must always be vigilant about these matters and work closely with other countries. I explained, in my speech to the Royal United Services Institute in February, how we are extending our co-operation on counter-terrorism with many more countries in the world, given the more diffuse nature of the terrorist threat.

T9. I welcome the Foreign Secretary’s comments about Syria at the start of Topical Questions. Will he update us on what representations he has made with the international community to put pressure on Russia in relation to Syria? (152377)

Putting pressure on Russia is a constant effort. We discussed it at the G8 Foreign Ministers’ meeting, and I discussed it with Sergei Lavrov when he was in London last month. The Prime Minister speaks regularly, and will shortly speak further, with President Putin. Our diplomatic efforts with Russia are continual, but we have to say clearly that those efforts have not been successful so far and that therefore it is necessary to give greater support, in various ways, to the Syrian National Coalition on the ground in Syria in order to try and save lives and increase the incentive for the Assad regime to come to a political settlement.

T8. My hon. Friend will be aware that this year marks the 25th anniversary of Saddam’s mustard gas attack on Halabja. Will he support the principle of a UN inquiry into those many hundreds of western companies that supplied the chemical weapons that enabled Saddam to carry out his attacks? (152376)

I am aware that my hon. Friend was in Iraq recently for the commemoration on the 25th anniversary of this dreadful massacre, and he also spoke with great passion in a recent debate in the House. Following the incident, there were extensive UN and UK investigations into the use of chemical weapons and any involvement of UK companies. Those inquiries were fairly comprehensive and did not illustrate any UK involvement. From a UK point of view, I am not sure that any further inquiries are necessary.

Recently, the Prime Minister made the very eccentric contention that North Korean missiles could reach the shores of the UK, apparently in an attempt to bolster support for Trident’s renewal. Is it not time to scrap the Trident renewal, save £100 billion, spend it on public services and avoid hitting the vulnerable in society?

To be clear, the Prime Minister said that North Korea claimed that it had missiles that could hit the whole of the United States, and if that was the case, of course, it could also hit the UK. I mentioned earlier that it has paraded, but not yet tested, a 12,000 km-range missile. Looking decades ahead, as we do with these decisions, we have to be aware of the great variety of potential threats to the UK. It is vital, therefore, that we retain the ultimate deterrent in this country, the total cost of which is about 1.5% of the total welfare budget.

I hope my right hon. Friend will excuse me if I return to the question of Syria and the possible supply of arms to the opposition. Does he understand that it appears to many of us that the language being used by the Government is equivocal and delphic? In these circumstances, can we have an assurance that any material change in policy will be subject to the express endorsement of the House?

My right hon. and learned Friend knows that I come regularly to the House with updates on Syria—I think I have given seven or eight oral statements—and that on any major decision the House can express its view. I am sure that the business managers would want to facilitate that—let me put it that way. The next few weeks will be crucial, because we need to decide, with our European Union partners and the United States, the next steps that we can realistically take, and should take, in order to do what I was just talking about—to strengthen the opposition on the ground and increase the incentives for a political settlement in Syria. We have taken no decision about that, but if we do so, I will come to the House and describe that decision.

Will the Secretary of State take this opportunity to set out the UK’s opposition to boycotts, disinvestment campaigns and other attempts to de-legitimise the state of Israel, because the only way we will see peace in the middle east, with a secure Israel living peacefully alongside a viable Palestinian state, is by initiatives that bring people on both sides who believe in peace to work together, not by boycotts and all the rest of it, which just drive people further apart?

The hon. Gentleman puts it very well, and I know he cares passionately about this subject. The United Kingdom has always opposed boycotts and disinvestment. We believe absolutely that the future for peace in the middle east will come through negotiations between the two different sides. President Obama’s recent speech, in which he spoke about the urgency and possibility of peace, but also about the need for justice, provides a good base for both sides to proceed. We believe and hope that those opportunities should be taken as quickly as possible.

Sanctions against Zimbabwe were recently eased and the UK gave £90 million in aid last year, but many British pensioners are being robbed of their pensions, following Mugabe’s decision in 2002 to stop paying pensions to British citizens. Will the Minister meet me to discuss the case of my constituent Mr Scott, who worked for the Zimbabwean police for over 20 years and is being denied his pension, to end this injustice?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to raise this important issue on behalf of his constituent, but he will also be aware that many others have been affected by the withdrawal of pension payments. Hopefully his concerns will be assuaged by the fact that I have met representatives of civil servants who used to work in Zimbabwe who are not getting their pensions. I have also discussed the issue with the Zimbabwean Finance Minister, as part of the challenge to try to find a satisfactory resolution, but I am happy to meet my hon. Friend and his constituent to discuss the matter further.

Did the Foreign Secretary or the Prime Minister have any discussions with the Prime Minister of Israel on his recent visit to London, or can he say when he last discussed the middle east peace process with the Prime Minister of Israel?

Yes, I had discussions with Prime Minister Netanyahu in the margins of Baroness Thatcher’s funeral and the Prime Minister had a formal bilateral meeting with him that evening. As always, we are in close contact with the Israeli Prime Minister and, as always, we have urged him to make a success of the opportunity now to take forward the middle east peace process and find a lasting and just peace between Israelis and Palestinians.

Order. I am sorry to disappoint remaining colleagues, but I have a sense that even if we doubled the time allocation for Foreign Office questions—of which there is no immediate prospect—demand would probably still exceed supply.