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Topical Questions

Volume 564: debated on Tuesday 18 June 2013

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.