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Foreign and Commonwealth Office

Volume 564: debated on Tuesday 18 June 2013

The Secretary of State was asked—


1. What assessment he has made of the open letter presented by an inter-faith delegation to the Minister responsible for the middle east and north Africa, on 14 May 2013, calling for the release of the seven Baha’i leaders in prison in Iran. (159997)

I was proud to receive that letter from a large number of faith leaders in the United Kingdom. It is a powerful expression of support for the imprisoned Baha’i leaders in Iran. I hope that the concerns of those with faith will be heard anew in Tehran, and we continue to call for the release of the seven imprisoned Baha’i leaders.

I thank the Minister for his comments and for receiving the letter and meeting us. On this day 30 years ago, 10 Baha’i women were hanged for refusing to abandon their faith. The continued incarceration of seven leaders is clearly of great importance to the Baha’i community, not just in Iran but around the world. What hope does the Minister have that the change in President may have an impact on the approach towards their persecution?

I am grateful to the hon. Lady not only for asking the question but for being present at the handing over of the letter. It remains the case that the human rights record in Iran is appalling. A lot of hope is being pinned on the possibility of change in Iran. As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said yesterday, it is rather too early to tell, but it has been reported that the new President talked at yesterday’s press conference about a more inclusive constitution. I am sure that we will wait to see what happens, rather than just judge on words. If there is any opportunity for the release of Baha’i leaders and for better treatment of the Baha’is and all other religious minorities in Iran, it would be warmly welcomed by the House.

There are 7 million Baha’is living all over the world, many thousands in the United Kingdom. Would it be possible to contact the faith and religious groups in this country, such as the Muslim Council of Britain, to see whether they could act as a bridge to the spiritual leader to discuss the release of these prisoners?

The excellent thing about the inter-faith letter that I received on 14 May is that it was signed by a collection of leaders from virtually all the faiths represented in the United Kingdom, and they made exactly that point—that spiritual leaders can speak to spiritual leaders. I have no doubt at all that those in the United Kingdom continue to urge religious tolerance throughout the world and they made that particular point in their letter.


2. What assessment he has made of the implications of the recent violence in Turkey for stability in the region. (159998)

10. What reports he has received on the Turkish authorities’ response to the recent demonstrations in Taksim square. (160007)

We are following events in Turkey closely and the Foreign Secretary and I have spoken in the past few days to our Turkish counterparts. We very much hope that matters can be resolved peacefully. A stable, democratic and prosperous Turkey is important for regional stability. Turkey remains an important foreign policy partner and NATO ally, and we shall continue to support its continuing reform agenda and encourage Turkey to respect its obligations as defined in the European convention on human rights.

The Minister’s words were subdued. Is he not shocked to see this increasingly modern, secular and economically successful country arresting young people for using Twitter, blocking trade union demonstrations with riot police and now threatening to use the army on the streets against its own citizens? Will he and the Foreign Secretary now publicly urge the Turkish Government to respect people’s basic rights and freedoms of assembly and expression?

It is important that all human rights, as set out in the European convention to which Turkey, like us, is a party, are fully respected. Some of the images from Istanbul and Ankara are certainly disturbing. As friends of Turkey, we hope to see those problems resolved peacefully. We noted the statements last week by the Deputy Prime Minister of Turkey that the police had overreacted in some instances and an investigation into those actions was needed. We support all efforts to address the protesters’ genuine concerns through dialogue and consultation.

Over the weekend, more than 100 civilians, including doctors and nurses treating the injured, were arrested and held in incommunicado detention. There have also been reports of beatings. In the light of that appalling situation, will the Minister not only state his hope, but call on the Turkish authorities to disclose the location of everyone who has been arrested and to release immediately medical professionals who are identified by the Turkish Medical Association? Will he also make a public statement condemning incommunicado detention, because we have not heard enough of the public outrage and it needs to be heard today?

We are obviously concerned about the reports of the arrest of lawyers and doctors who were treating injured protesters at the scene of the demonstrations. The freedoms of assembly, association and expression are important rights. It is fair to recognise that Turkey has carried through substantial judicial and political reforms in the past 20 years. It is a very different country from when the military ruled and the army were deployed on the streets at the first sign of a demonstration, but that does not detract from the fact that the basic freedoms and human rights that Turkey has signed up to need to be respected.

Although any response to protest must be proportionate, does the Minister agree that this is not the Arab uprising? The Turkish Government have been elected three times, and on the last occasion with more than 50% of the vote. If the protesters do not like the Government, the answer lies in the ballot box, not in violence.

My hon. Friend is right that the Government of Turkey have been elected three times with a decisive majority of votes from the people of Turkey. The electoral remedy is, indeed, available. It is also right to expect any democratic Government to abide by the national constitutional rules and international standards on human rights to which the country adheres.

Many people will be concerned about the generality of the Minister’s answers. Will he comment specifically on the recent reports that 38 young protesters in one city alone in Turkey have allegedly been arrested for comments made on Twitter? What representations has he made to the Turkish Government about upholding freedom of expression and the freedom to demonstrate? In particular, has he voiced concerns about the recent comments of the Turkish Interior Minister, who said that arrests would be initiated on the basis of protesters’ use of social media?

It is important that the Turkish Government, like any other democratic Government, abide by the rule of law and follow due process in respect of any action involving the police and the criminal-legal process. When talking to our Turkish counterparts, the Foreign Secretary and I certainly make clear the extent of the public concern in the United Kingdom. Those of us who have long been firm friends of Turkey and who want to see its European ambitions fulfilled see the process of judicial and political reform as an integral part of fulfilling those ambitions.

Chagos Islands

3. What recent developments there have been in Government policy towards the Chagos islands; and if he will make a statement. (159999)

As my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary stated in December last year, we are taking stock of our policy on the British Indian Ocean Territory. We are engaged in a programme of consultation, including with the Chagos islanders.

Will the Minister put a timetable on that consultation? He will recall that it was in the 1980s that the islanders were last able to live on the islands. Surely it is time to go beyond apologies, guarantee a right of return for the Chagos islanders to the islands, and allow limited fishing and ecological tourism on the islands, rather than having a no-take marine protection area, which is the Government’s current policy.

As I said in my previous response, we are undertaking a review. There is no fixed timetable for the conclusion of that exercise. It is important that the review is thorough and that it consults as wide a range of partners as possible, both inside and outside Whitehall. That cannot be rushed. However, I hope to provide the House with an update on the process before the summer recess.

I thank the Minister for his answer. May I seek assurances that consultations on the future of the Chagos islands will include representations from the Chagos islands community in this country, most of whom live in my constituency?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that question. Significant credit should be paid to him for the assiduous way in which he represents the Chagossian community living primarily in his constituency. I confirm that we will be consulting his constituents and Chagossians who live in Manchester, as well as those who live in Mauritius and the Seychelles.

21. As I understand it, the current arrangement with the US Administration expires at the end of 2014. Will the Minister assure the House that, notwithstanding the vital role of the base, the Government will make it clear to the US Administration that we will not simply roll over that deal? (160019)

If I may correct the hon. Gentleman, the existing agreement runs out in December 2016. The agreement set out in 1966 stipulated that it would automatically be rolled over unless one of the parties disputes it between 2014 and 2016. We welcome the US presence in Diego Garcia, which offers a shared strategic asset for both countries, but the hon. Gentleman has alighted on some of the main issues about resettlement—first is security, and the other serious issue is the potential impact on the United Kingdom taxpayer, which must be looked at thoroughly.

Middle East Peace Process

4. If he will consider the introduction of a ban on importing products from Israeli settlements in the occupied territories. (160000)

During my recent visit to Israel, I raised our serious concerns about settlement activity at the highest levels, including with Prime Minister Netanyahu. We are working to ensure that settlement produce is correctly labelled so that consumers can make an informed choice. However, I do not believe that imposing a ban on settlement goods will promote peace.

I thank the Foreign Secretary for that reply; I do not doubt his good intentions, but the time for rhetoric is passed. The latest expansion of illegal settlements is making a two-state solution impossible on the ground. Will he consider further steps and accelerate the labelling proposals he mentioned so that consumers can make a choice as to whether they support the Israeli system of apartheid?

The hon. Gentleman is right to say that settlement activity is steadily making a two-state solution impossible. That is why time is running out for a two-state solution, which was the case I made to the Israeli and Palestinian leaders on my visit to Israel and the occupied territories. We are taking up with other European countries the commitment of the EU High Representative to prepare EU-wide guidelines on the labelling of settlement goods—that is the direction we are taking on that policy. Above all, the answer is to get Israelis and Palestinians back into negotiations so that we can settle all the issues, including the future of settlements and final status issues. That is what we are concentrating on now.

I warmly welcome what my right hon. Friend has said about trying to get both sides into negotiations, because that is the way of resolving issues such as settlements and the legitimate concerns of both sides. What progress has he made in persuading President Abbas and the Palestinians to drop their pre-conditions for talks, which are an obstacle to resolving the issues mentioned by the hon. Member for Easington (Grahame M. Morris)?

We are encouraging both sides into negotiations. The Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for North East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt), was also in Israel and the occupied territories a few days ago, and spoke to President Abbas, as I did. We encourage the Palestinians to enter negotiations without pre-conditions; we also encourage Israel to approach those negotiations in a way that will allow them to succeed. I pay tribute to Secretary Kerry for the energy he has put into the process in his four and a half months in office so far. He and I discussed the issue in detail in Washington last week.

The Foreign Secretary has been clear over the years that settlements are not only undesirable but illegal. If the UK decided to impose a ban on goods from settlements, would it be within the law to do so?

The question before us is not so much about what would be within the law as about what best promotes peace. We are at a critical stage—we are often at a critical stage in the middle east peace process, but this is one of those truly critical stages where the coming days or weeks will determine whether Israelis and Palestinians come back into negotiations on a two-state solution. That is the only way to truly resolve the settlement issue and create a viable and contiguous Palestinian state, and that is our objective.

Israel, by its policies, is a racist, apartheid state. Will the Foreign Secretary confirm that all the products we are discussing are produced on land that is illegally occupied?

Yes, that is true. I absolutely agree, as other hon. Members have said, that settlements on occupied land are illegal. That is why the previous Government and my predecessor proposed and introduced the guidelines on settlement produce. This Government have continued support for them and, as I have said, we are discussing how to apply them across the EU. I believe we are taking the policy forward in the appropriate way.

Israel: Children in Detention

5. Whether he has had discussions with the Government of Israel on their response to the recommendations of the report “Children in Military Custody”, published by a delegation of British lawyers in 2012. (160002)

As my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary has just said, I visited Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories last week, when I had the opportunity to raise the issue of the report with the relatively recently appointed Israeli Minister of Justice. We will continue to press on the matter of children in detention.

It is a year since the publication of the “Children in Military Custody” report and the lack of reform is lamentable. Will the Minister press the Israeli Government on specific deadlines on specific issues, such as the implementation of the use of audio-visual recordings in all interrogations? Specific deadlines on specific issues could help progress.

In addition to my efforts last week, I will this week see the Israeli Attorney-General, who is paying a visit to the UK. I absolutely intend to raise that issue with him. The Government support the report. Provisions in it will benefit not only children, but how Israel is seen. Currently, some 238 children are within the Israeli judicial system, including 137 in Israel. The issues are pressing, and I will continue to raise them very straightforwardly with the Attorney-General when he is here.

Does my hon. Friend agree that the tragedy is that, unlike juvenile criminal trends in most societies, many crimes carried out by minors in the disputed territories are of a violent and ideological nature? What is his latest assessment of the Palestinian Authority’s sanction and glorification of violence?

The tragedy is that two groups of people have been separated for far too long, and the efforts that need to be made to bring them together have foundered constantly. The problem of children taking to the streets and throwing stones and the Israeli defence forces having to respond will not be settled until we have the overall settlement on which we are working so hard to support Secretary Kerry, as my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary mentioned a moment ago.

Geneva Conference on Syria

6. What his policy is on the possible inclusion of Iran as a participant in the forthcoming Geneva conference on Syria. (160003)

No decision has been made on participation. Our priority remains to see a diplomatic process in Geneva that succeeds in reaching a negotiated end to the conflict, but we will have to be prepared to do more to save lives and pressure the Assad regime to negotiate seriously if diplomatic efforts are to succeed.

Politicians should leave no stone unturned in the pursuit of a diplomatic solution. Does the Foreign Secretary therefore understand widespread concern that we are not giving diplomacy the best chance if Iran, a key player in the region, is excluded? Will he do what he can to encourage its inclusion?

It is of course important that the conference in Geneva brings together sufficient groups and powers to agree a sustainable settlement of the conflict in Syria, but it is also important to have the ability to start from common ground. That is what was agreed at Geneva last year—that a transitional Government should be created, with full Executive powers, formed from regime and opposition by mutual consent. We have seen no evidence that Iran agrees with that agreement, which we made with Russia and others. In the absence of such agreement, it is hard to believe that Iran would play a constructive role at the Geneva negotiation.

I hope Iran is included, because it is a key player, but whether or not it is included, can the Foreign Secretary say to the House in absolutely crystal clear terms that, if the Government decide to send arms to Syria, there will be a vote—I choose my words precisely—on a substantive motion before that decision is executed? Within that, I define as arms British planes policing a no-fly zone and possibly bombing anti-aircraft installations of the Syrian Government, and training, which could be training on the ground. Will he confirm a quote in The Sunday Times on Sunday:

“One senior Tory source said…‘The bottom line is that we will avoid at all costs a vote as we don’t think we can win it’”?

This is a cross-party matter.

It is a cross-party matter. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and I have made the position clear, so I do not think that the right hon. Gentleman needs to look at “a senior Tory source”. There is no Tory more senior than the Prime Minister. [Interruption.] Occasionally, one or two might think they are, but there are no Tories more senior than the Prime Minister and he has made it clear that the Government have a strong record of holding votes in the House of Commons on these issues when it is necessary to do so. We certainly would not want to pursue any aspect of our policy on this issue against the will of the House of Commons. That is neither feasible nor desirable, so of course we have made clear that there would be a vote. I have also made it clear that we would expect it to be before any such decision was put into action.

Order. We are deeply obliged to the Foreign Secretary, but we have quite a lot to get through and we need to be a bit sharper.

I would like to think that I heard the word “yes” in that answer, but I am afraid I did not. Nevertheless, and notwithstanding the unholy alliance between Iran and the Assad regime, how does it help the interests of this country to change yet another Arab dictatorship into another Islamist state, complete with weapons of mass destruction for al-Qaeda to use against us?

My hon. Friend must bear in mind that the change happening in Syria is not one that was activated here in the United Kingdom—it started in Syria. It came from the people of Syria themselves, as it has in many other countries, where many people want economic opportunity and political dignity for their own countries. The situation we face now is that the crisis is getting worse. We need a political solution and we will not get one if the more moderate and pragmatic parts of the Syrian opposition are exterminated over the coming months.

I hope the Foreign Secretary can help simple folk like me to understand things a little bit better. My right hon. Friend the Member for Neath (Mr Hain) asked a specific and precisely worded question on a substantive vote under a certain set of circumstances. Was his answer to that yes?

I do not know many other ways of having votes in this place on a specific issue than having a motion that talks about that issue. I was expanding on the right hon. Gentleman’s question to try to cover all eventualities. Of course we have a vote on an issue of that kind in the House of Commons. [Interruption.]

Iran and Russia have consistently supported the Assad regime. Given the recent reports that 4,000 republican guards are to be deployed to Syria, is it not even more important that Iran’s presence at the conference is taken seriously? They are part of the problem and therefore part of the solution.

My hon. Friend makes a valid point, but it is possible to argue that in both directions. As I said a moment ago, it is important to have at Geneva sufficient groups and sufficient powers to be able to make a workable and sustainable settlement of the conflict in Syria, but there is a balance between that and including those powers or groups that would make a settlement to the conflict impossible. None of Iran’s actions to date on Syria has been in the interests of promoting a solution or political settlement.

The Foreign Secretary has just reiterated the Government’s support for a Geneva II conference. Will he set out for the House whether he believes that the UK’s supplying arms to elements of the Syrian opposition would increase the likelihood of those talks taking place—or, indeed, succeeding—and how, if he and the Prime Minister decided to pursue that course of action, he would be able to provide assurances to the House on the likely end use of UK-supplied weapons?

We have not taken any decision about that, as the right hon. Gentleman knows. As he also knows, I have said in the House before that if we did so, it would be in certain circumstances: in conjunction with other countries, in carefully controlled circumstances and always in accordance with international law and our own national law. But we have taken no such decision to do so. We are clear that to save lives and promote a political solution it is necessary to give more support to the national coalition of the sort we have announced before in the House. That remains our position, and we believe it helps a political solution.


The humanitarian situation in Syria is dire. More than 93,000 people have been killed and 6.8 million are in need of humanitarian assistance. That includes at least 4.25 million internally displaced people and 1.6 million refugees. We have committed £171 million to provide food, health care, water and shelter for refugees inside and outside Syria.

In view of the dire humanitarian situation in Syria, does the Foreign Secretary agree that the overwhelming thrust of policy in Syria must concentrate on humanitarian measures, rather than on arming the rebels or military intervention?

There are many aspects to the problems in Syria. I was explaining to the media yesterday that our biggest effort is on the humanitarian side. The United Kingdom is one of the biggest national donors to help with the humanitarian situation. We are working on a further substantial increase in our humanitarian assistance, because the UN has called for another $5.2 billion over the next six months. As we speak, the Prime Minister is seeking agreement among the countries of the G8 that the humanitarian situation should be one of our top priorities.

Does my right hon. Friend understand that the urgency of the humanitarian problem is underlined by the fact that in the camps, particularly in Jordan, rape, violence and forced marriage are commonplace, which has an impact on the economic and political stability of Jordan itself? Can he satisfy the House that his Government—our Government—[Interruption.] Old habits die hard. Can he satisfy the House that our Government are doing everything in their power not only to contribute in the way he described, but to persuade other nations, particularly rich nations in the Gulf, to do so as well?

Our Government, of whom my right hon. and learned Friend is a vigorous supporter at all times, are indeed doing that, not only through the financial assistance I have described, but by sending specific support and equipment to Jordan to help ensure people are safely taken to camps as quickly as possible. We have also sent to the Syrian border some of the experts I have assembled on preventing sexual violence in conflict, and we certainly vigorously encourage other nations to join in meeting the UN’s appeal for funds.

Last week, I visited the Domiz camp in Iraq, where 150,000 fleeing Syrians have been given refuge and are being well looked after by the Kurdistan regional government and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees working together. Unfortunately, however, only 28% of Syrian aid is currently funded, and there is a shortfall this year of £3.8 billion as a result of people not meeting their obligations. Will the Foreign Secretary press the G8 at least for the members of the G8 to meet their obligations, so that lives and individuals on the ground can be helped?

The G8 is going on now, as the hon. Gentleman knows. As I mentioned a moment ago, one of the priorities of my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister is to agree at the G8 that the G8 together will supply a large share, a large slice of the new UN appeal for $5.2 billion. On my many visits to the middle east region, including the Gulf, of which there will be more shortly, I strongly encourage other nations to take part. The new appeal is several times bigger than the $1.5 billion appeal for the last six months, which shows that we are now dealing with the biggest humanitarian catastrophe of the 21st century so far.

22. In Jordan there are large camps. Everybody can see them on our TV screens and see what is happening. In Lebanon there are proportionately a similar number of Syrian refugees, but they are not in camps and are dispersed among the towns and cities. Nevertheless, the problem is real. Will my right hon. Friend ensure that Lebanon is not overlooked in any aid funding? (160020)

Yes, absolutely. I have visited centres for Syrian refugees in Beirut, where, as my hon. Friend rightly says, people are not in camps, although they are given vouchers, for instance, so that they can buy food locally. I pay tribute to the hospitality of the Lebanese people. The United Kingdom is, for instance, funding the construction of border observation posts for the Lebanese armed forces to try to assist the stability of the border in Lebanon.

Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership

8. What progress has been made towards agreeing a transatlantic trade and investment partnership between the EU and the US; and if he will make a statement. (160005)

The Prime Minister, together with President Obama and European Commission President Barroso, last night formally announced the launch of negotiations at the G8. This was fitting, given the UK’s leading role in getting the TTIP under way. This is a once-in-a-generation prize: the biggest bilateral trade deal in history.

An independent study by the Centre for Economic Policy Research has found that an ambitious EU-US free trade agreement could bring economic gains of £100 billion a year to countries in the EU. Will my right hon. Friend assure me that he will do everything in his power to bring about a successful agreement?

This is a top priority for the Government. Interestingly, not only would such a deal bring the benefits that my hon. Friend mentions to the EU, as well as similar benefits to the United States; it is also estimated to benefit the rest of the world, outside Europe and the United States, to the tune of £85 billion.

19. As we have heard, the agreement is potentially the biggest trade deal in history. Has the Foreign Secretary made any assessment of the benefits to Scotland of remaining part of the UK? (160017)

Order. That is extremely tangential to the question on the Order Paper, but a short, one-sentence reply will suffice.

The benefits to Scotland will be proportionate to the benefits to the UK and the EU, unless Scotland was so unwise as to leave both the UK and the EU at the same time.


Much progress has been made under the presidency of Juan Manuel Santos, notably the launch of peace talks. Clearly long-term challenges remain. We will continue to work closely with the Colombian Government to help to overcome them.

Will the Minister join me in congratulating the non-governmental organisation Justice for Colombia on bringing together joint representatives from this House to meet the FARC representatives in the peace talks in Cuba? Can he tell us what human rights discussions took place between the Prime Minister and President Santos earlier this month in London?

President Santos not only met the Prime Minister and discussed the peace process; he also met my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary and me, and we discussed those issues as well. I will shortly go to Colombia. I offered a meeting on 2 July, before I go, to the hon. Gentleman’s hon. Friend, the Member for Dunfermline and West Fife (Thomas Docherty). I hope to extend that invitation to his group, the parliamentary friends of Colombia, so that we can go through these things before I go to Bogota early next month.

Is it not the case that under both President Uribe and now President Santos, human rights have greatly improved in Colombia? One of the great success stories is that kidnappings and murders are down, and we have seen a 90% reduction in FARC guerrilla activity, which means that Colombia can make progress.

Yes, and we are very supportive of that. I re-read our annual human rights report yesterday. Key progress is highlighted in that report—the peace talks, the creation of the national human rights system and the work of the national protection unit, which now protects more than 10,000 Colombians—so we think things are moving in the right direction.

18. Given the latest murder by the Colombian army—of a 17-year-old boy—thereby continuing the so-called false positives, and the fact that President Santos has now legislated to allow military courts to deal with its human rights abuses, so continuing army impunity, will the Secretary of State accept that he was wrong to say that the Colombian army no longer carries out extra-judicial murders? (160016)

The Government have assured us that there will be no more impunity for servicemen, and I discussed this with both the vice defence Minister, Jorge Bedoya, during his visit here in March and subsequently with the constitutional court judge, Vargas Silva, who was here on 30 April. I will continue to discuss these matters. We are against impunity for the military, and we make our position on that very clear.

The Government of Colombia are making extensive efforts to counter the dreadful trade in narcotics. Will the Minister assure us that we will give that Government as much support for counter-narcotics as is possible?

Indeed, and narcotics impinges on the human rights of people in Colombia and, unfortunately, of people here in the UK, Mr Speaker. Yes, we will give our full support—we are giving our full support—to the Government of Colombia. President Santos is a keen Anglophile, and we are very supportive as a Government of what he is doing in leading his country from the dark days of the past to a much brighter future.

US-UK Discussions

I met Secretary Kerry in Washington last week. Our talks covered Syria, the middle east peace process, the G8 summit, Afghanistan and climate change.

At the start of his first term, President Obama said that he would close Guantanamo Bay within a year. Will the Foreign Secretary tell us how close the prison now is to closure, what is being done in the interim to ensure the health and well-being of Guantanamo detainees, what steps the Prime Minister has taken to secure the return of Shaker Aamer and whether it will be discussed during the G8?

The President has made a number of statements about Guantanamo Bay, including in the last few weeks reiterating his determination to close it. We welcome that. I have discussed with Secretary Kerry the position of the last remaining UK resident, Shaker Aamer, and expressed our wish to see him return to the UK. We will see after the G8 whether it has provided an opportunity for the Prime Minister to raise the issue with President Obama.

Will my right hon. Friend stress the importance of engaging with Iran? Recent developments there must offer some hope, as this remains a major power in a region with so much destabilising it.

Developments do offer some hope. We discussed the issue extensively yesterday on an urgent question. Positive statements were certainly made during the election campaign of Mr Rouhani, who has been elected as President of Iran. I am sure that the people of Iran will now look to him to deliver on those promises, and we will judge Iran by its actions over the coming months.

Within days of the UK and France pushing for the lifting of the Syrian arms embargo, the largest single contributing country to UN peacekeeping on the Golan heights announced the withdrawal of its forces. Will the Secretary of State confirm that in his discussions with Secretary Kerry, he stressed the importance of the United Nations for humanitarian and security aspects in and around Syria and affirmed that he would do nothing to undermine it?

The United Nations has an absolutely central role, and the hon. Gentleman can be assured that we believe in that and that we always make that case. Austria gave particular reasons, including recent trouble on the Golan heights, for its intended withdrawal, but we want to see that force continue there and be fully staffed and supported.

Aside from airing the possibility that western countries might arm the Syrian opposition, will the Foreign Secretary tell us what steps Secretary Kerry would like to take to bring Syria, and perhaps even Iran, to the negotiating table?

Secretary Kerry has been instrumental in trying to launch the “Geneva II”, as we might call it—a process of negotiation to come in Geneva between regime and opposition in Syria, supported by all of us. Work on that continues, and one thing the Prime Minister is discussing with other G8 leaders is our unity and determination together to bring about a transition in Syria through a conference in Geneva. I pay tribute again to Secretary Kerry’s efforts on this.

As we are witnessing the security handover to the Afghan authorities, may I remind the Foreign Secretary that we have been pressing him for some time to bring about greater involvement of the neighbouring powers—including Iran—in the maintaining of Afghanistan’s future stability and the securing of the gains that have been made, especially for women’s health and education? Has he made any progress on that during his discussions with Secretary Kerry?

A great deal of progress has been made on it recently, over a period of several years. As the right hon. Gentleman will know, neighbouring countries, including Iran, have regular meetings with Afghanistan. Relations between Afghanistan and Iran are reasonably good, and we do nothing to stand in the way of those good relations. It is important for Afghanistan’s neighbours to co-operate with it on security, on counter-narcotics, and, of course, on the economic development of the country.

National Parliaments (EU)

We believe that national Parliaments are the fundamental source of democratic legitimacy in the European Union, and we are working with EU partners and parliamentarians to find ways of strengthening Parliaments’ powers to hold to account those who make decisions in the EU.

A couple of weeks ago, at the Königswinter conference, the Foreign Secretary mentioned the concept of a red card that could stop future EU legislation that a group of member states found unattractive. Does he agree that the red card system, if implemented, should also apply to existing legislation, so that the European Union can be properly reformed?

My hon. Friend flagged up that proposal recently during her thought-provoking speech to the Hansard Society. It is an important, far-reaching and constructive idea which deserves serious consideration.

Can the Minister confirm that the Parliaments of countries that are applying the rules of the European Union in order to gain access to the single market, such as Norway and Switzerland, have absolutely no influence on decisions in the EU?

I agree with the hon. Gentleman. Certainly, Norwegian and Swiss leaders have consistently told me that they think the UK is in a better position to gets its own way in EU negotiations than they are.

Discrimination: LGBT

13. What steps the UK is taking with its international partners to prevent discrimination and violence against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people. (160010)

The United Kingdom works on human rights issues through international organisations, as well as bilaterally though our embassies and high commissions. Tackling discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation or gender identity is a UK priority. Our clear message is that human rights are universal, and should apply equally to all people.

Approximately three quarters of Commonwealth countries criminalise homosexuality. Will the Minister discuss the amendment of the Commonwealth charter to include LGBT equality, given the striking omission of discrimination on grounds of sexuality from the forms of discrimination to which the Commonwealth is rightly opposed?

If the hon. Lady has time, she should look at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s human rights and democracy report. It contains a section on LGBT rights, respect for which is an integral part of the Government’s wider international human rights programme. We lobby consistently to try to ensure—through our bilateral relations, and also through multilateral organisations such as the United Nations, the European Union, the Council of Europe and, indeed, the Commonwealth—that people respect human rights, irrespective of gender and sexual orientation.

The freedom to be oneself is a pretty fundamental human right. Will my hon. Friend ensure that organisations such as the Kaleidoscope Trust—which has a rather distinguished president, and whose parliamentary friends group I chair—Human Rights Watch and the Human Dignity Trust are able to work with his officials in territories where homosexuality is criminalised, and to support those who are standing up for the rights of LGBT people there?

My hon. Friend has made a powerful point. Of course I shall be happy to ensure that the relevant and important non-governmental organisations to which he has referred, along with others, engage with officials from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. He is also right to draw attention to the significant challenges that exist in some countries, but I assure him and other Members that we lobby vociferously, not just in countries such as Uganda and Nigeria but in Russia and Iran, where there are particular problems that need to be dealt with to ensure that there is equality of rights.

I urge the Minister to prioritise talking to other Commonwealth countries about this issue in the run-up to the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting. May I ask him specifically about Russia, however, where in the context of a wider crackdown on freedom of expression and human rights, the Duma has just passed a law introducing draconian penalties for propaganda for non-traditional sexual relations? Have the Government taken advantage of President Putin’s presence in the UK this week to push him on this issue and to urge him not to go down that path?

As I said a moment ago, we consistently lobby—through bilateral relations and our embassy in Moscow, as well as through the multilateral organisations I referred to earlier, particularly the UN with its universal periodic review—to make sure that countries like Russia adhere to the international framework for human rights, especially as it relates to LGBT rights. I can give the hon. Lady an assurance that we will continue to lobby through both those two sets of organisations, bilaterally and multilaterally, to try to make sure that all people have equal access to human rights.

Topical Questions

The Prime Minister will make a statement tomorrow on our G8 presidency. Not only have we secured the launch of negotiations for an EU-US trade deal, but we are also working on landmark agreements on tax and transparency.

Will the Foreign Secretary update the House, from the latest information known to him, on the conduct of the Burmese army and its oppression of minority peoples in Burma? Has its conduct improved, and will he say something about the systematic use of sexual violence on those helpless minority peoples?

We work hard with Burma on human rights, as the right hon. Gentleman will know, and the Minister of State, my right hon. Friend the Member for East Devon (Mr Swire), has been there quite recently. We have also started to establish military-to-military links so that we can have a dialogue with the Burmese military about these and other issues. There is still a lot of work to do in Burma on human rights, and we continue vigorously to take up issues such as the plight of the Rohingya people and continuing ethnic violence in some areas, but we are working with Burma to improve the situation.

T4. Having a well-targeted network of embassies is fundamental to extending British influence and trade across the world. How many new embassies have opened, and how many embassies that were closed under the last Government have been reopened, since May 2010? (160025)

I am glad to be able to tell my hon. Friend that so far we have opened six new posts and upgraded a further six posts, and over a five-year period, we will be opening up to 20 new embassies and consulates. That is vital in order for Britain to be well-connected in the world, and it is a sharp contrast from the withdrawal of British diplomacy from many areas under the last Government.

The Foreign Secretary said in answer to an earlier question that he would judge President-elect Rouhani on his actions. What specific actions will he be seeking from the Iranian regime and the newly elected Iranian President himself, in order for them to demonstrate in the months ahead a renewed commitment to resolving the nuclear crisis by peaceful and diplomatic means?

There are two main aspects to that. One is to meet the International Atomic Energy Agency’s transparency requirements, some of which I mentioned in detail when answering the urgent question in the House yesterday. That includes addressing the issue of the heavy water reactor at Arak and meeting the requirements for information across a wide range of matters that the IAEA has set out. The other thing is to respond constructively to the offer from the E3 plus 3 that has been on the table since February, and which would allow us to make a very significant start to defusing the tensions over the nuclear issue and resolving it. The new Administration in Iran will be judged on those two things.

T5. The BBC World Service is a trusted source of impartial news for hundreds of millions of listeners across the globe, yet the FCO is cutting its budget by about £2 million. Given that history suggests that soft power is far more effective at promoting democratic values than force of arms, will the Foreign Secretary reconsider this ill-judged and rather short-sighted decision? (160026)

The cut I announced last week was three quarters of 1% of the World Service budget, having not passed on any of the reductions in departmental budgets for the past two years. That is much smaller than spending reductions across the rest of the public sector in the UK, and I believe that a well-run organisation can take a 0.75% change in its budget. Of course by transferring the funding of the World Service to the licence fee in future, we will remove this problem of the World Service being affected by departmental budgets at all.

T2. The recent Africa progress report reveals that the moving of resources by companies into lower-tax jurisdictions costs the continent £25 billion a year. Can the Foreign Secretary guarantee that any deal on tax avoidance reached at the G8 will benefit Africa? (160023)

The hon. Gentleman is right to signify the importance and potential benefit to Africa of the discussions taking place at the G8. He also should be aware of the very positive and speedy way in which the United Kingdom’s Crown dependencies and overseas territories engaged with this important agenda, particularly as it relates to the automatic exchange of tax information, signing up to the multilateral convention on tax matters and putting in place action plans for beneficial ownership, which could have a significant positive impact on African economic growth and development.

T6. The Foreign Secretary was only 14 at the time of the last referendum on EU membership and therefore could not vote. So does he welcome the private Member’s Bill being introduced on 5 July that will give the British people an opportunity to vote on this important matter or does he share my concern that not all sides of the House are engaging fully in this important process? (160027)

I was only 14, although I had a big influence on how my family voted even at that stage, in 1975. It is absolutely right that we put forward again the opportunity, in the next Parliament, for the people of this country to have their say in a referendum on the European Union. I note that the Opposition Whips have circulated guidance for Opposition Members saying that they are looking for suitable speakers so that the Chamber is not completely empty at the time, but I wonder whether that will make any difference, given the emptiness of their policy.

T3. The Foreign Office Ministers will, I hope, be aware of the widespread concerns and worrying allegations about the conduct of aspects of the general election that took place in Malaysia in May. Such concerns related to intimidation at polling places, phantom voters and incomplete electoral rolls. Given the importance of the relationship between the UK and Malaysia, are any of the Ministers able to inform the House as to whether they will be taking those issues up with the Malaysian Government? (160024)

The hon. Gentleman is right to say that relations between the two countries are extremely important. Obviously, we have also seen those reports. I am going to Malaysia next week and I can confirm that I shall be looking into this at first hand.

The Prime Minister made clear our position in the House a few weeks ago: we recognise Tibet as part of China and we do not support Tibetan independence. We have well-established positions and dialogue on human rights, as the House well knows, but of course we also understand Chinese sensitivities and concerns about Tibet.

T8. Reverend Peter Cho of Tabernacle church, Newbridge in my constituency, has raised concerns this morning about nine North Korean defectors, including five children, who last month were forcibly repatriated by Laos and China. Does the Secretary of State share the concerns of Reverend Cho, the UN and other human rights organisations that these people could face false imprisonment and, potentially, execution? (160029)

We are extremely concerned about people being returned to North Korea—we have made our position clear—because we think they will possibly be subject to torture and certainly be subject to intimidation. We think that these people should be treated as refugees.

T9. Will the Foreign Secretary update the House on his meeting with the Ecuadorian Foreign Minister and, in particular, on whether any progress has been made in securing the removal of Julian Assange from the Ecuadorian embassy? (160030)

The removal of Mr Assange from the embassy would be easy to secure if he walked out. He will be arrested, in line with our law, if and when he does that. I had cordial talks yesterday with the Foreign Minister of Ecuador and explained again our legal obligations: we want a diplomatic solution, but it has to be within our law and we are legally obliged to extradite Mr Assange to Sweden. We did not make any breakthrough or substantive progress, but we have agreed that our officials will meet again to see how we can find agreement.

What action is the Foreign Secretary taking to increase the proportion of posts in the senior management ranks of the FCO, including those of high commissioner and ambassador, that are held by women?

I have, subject to the agreement of the Prime Minister and the Queen, appointed a higher proportion of women to those posts. I feel strongly about the subject and often discuss with the senior management of the FCO the need over the next few years to ensure that a higher proportion of senior positions, including senior ambassadorial positions, are held by women. I will continue the internal pressure over the coming months.

Will Ministers tell us how the balance of EU competences review is going and confirm that it has received strong representations urging the importance of Europol and the European arrest warrant in tackling cross-border crime, terrorism and human trafficking?

The balance of competences review is going well and I believe that we are on course to publish the first six reports arising from it before the summer recess. As my hon. Friend knows, the new calls for evidence include calls for evidence on various aspects of justice and home affairs and I am sure that his submissions, along with many others, will be warmly welcomed.

Erdem Gunduz, the standing man of Taksim square, stood for eight hours in peaceful protest yesterday. Will the Foreign Secretary ensure that he and others like him will be able to demonstrate peacefully without interference from Turkish authorities?

We certainly make it clear in all our conversations with the Government of Turkey that we look to Turkey to continue its progress in democratic and judicial reform and to respect all the human rights obligations into which it has entered.

It is now more than a year since Leading Seaman Timmy MacColl went missing in Dubai, leaving a young family behind in my Gosport constituency. I know that the Minister has taken a personal interest in the case, but will he assure me that he will continue to put pressure on the Dubai police to keep giving this matter the attention and resources it deserves?

I thank my hon. Friend for that question. This case is extremely distressing for the family. I was in Dubai recently, where I met the chief of the Dubai police. We discussed the case and we are continuing, through our representatives there, to urge the authorities to do all they can to see what, if any, light they can shed on that sad disappearance.

The transatlantic trade and investment partnership between the EU and the US has been a part of the G8 discussions in the beautiful surroundings of Fermanagh in Northern Ireland. Will the Secretary of State inform the House of what his hopes are for a successful outcome from those negotiations and for how they might progress?

Yes, indeed. I hope that what has been agreed in the splendid surroundings in Northern Ireland, which will have been much appreciated by the G8 leaders, will now be taken forward vigorously. It is vital to maintain momentum on the issue, to place as few obstacles in the path of the negotiations as possible and to build political support on both sides of the Atlantic. I did so when I visited the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations on Capitol hill last week.

Earlier, the Foreign Secretary reaffirmed the Government’s opposition to the boycott of settlement goods. Would he be prepared to provide some moral leadership by saying that he will personally agree to boycott such goods?

I am not in close control of the fresh produce purchased in the Hague household, since certain of my other duties interfere with that. While I am Foreign Secretary, I do not expect to have that onerous responsibility placed on me.

Many people who have seen the appalling scenes in Turkey on their television screens will have been dismayed by the rather meek response from the right hon. Member for Aylesbury (Mr Lidington) earlier. Will he give us a little bit more of a sense of the outrage that people are feeling around the world and confirm that he is putting real pressure on the Turkish Government to respect the right to peaceful protest?

In our dealings with the Turkish Government, we have to respect the fact that they are a democratically elected Government—they are not the kind of military regime that used to rule Turkey. At the same time, however, we have to say to our Turkish friends that they have entered into commitments to democratic reform, judicial reform and human rights, and that all their friends elsewhere in the world look forward to their continuing to deliver on that agenda.

Last week four men were convicted by the Turkish courts of the reckless killing of Cerys Potter. This is a landmark judgment. Does the Minister accept that it will have an impact only if the Turkish authorities insist on basic health and safety standards in such exercises as white water rafting?

I pay tribute to the tireless work that my hon. Friend has put into campaigning on behalf of his constituents. I spoke to the Turkish tourism Minister following my meeting earlier this year with my hon. Friend and his constituents, and I plan to be in contact with the Turkish Minister again in the wake of the court judgment so that we can offer the support and assistance that the Turks may wish to have from us in respect of learning some of the lessons from this tragic case.