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Foreign and Commonwealth Office

Volume 569: debated on Tuesday 29 October 2013

The Secretary of State was asked—

Palestinian Child Detainees

Before answering, may I briefly place on the record my appreciation of the work of my predecessor, my hon. Friend the Member for North East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt)? He will be greatly missed by his many friends in the House and across the region.

Despite some progress, we retain serious concerns about Israel’s treatment of Palestinian child detainees. The British ambassador in Tel Aviv wrote again to the Israeli Justice Minister on 14 October to urge further action.

I welcome the Minister to his new post. May I commend the Foreign Office report “Children in Military Custody” for exposing how the authorities in Israel arrest Palestinian children in the middle of the night, interrogate them without parents or lawyers present, bully them into signing confessions in a language they do not understand, and jail children as young as 12 years old? Will the Minister outline what action he is taking and tell the House how many of the 40 recommendations in the report have been carried out?

I am due to make my first visit to the region next week, so will be addressing many of the concerns outlined in the hon. Gentleman’s question. As he knows, the Foreign Office funded the report carried out by Baroness Scotland. We continue to urge the Government of Israel to implement it in full. As I have said, I will be taking that up next week.

I warmly welcome the Minister to his responsibilities—if I may say so, he brings a terrific track record.

Does the Minister agree that the question of detainees is inextricably linked to the overall security situation in the region and progress in peace talks? Does he share my concern that Hamas is resolutely and literally trying to undermine the peace process in the region by building a tunnel from Gaza into Israel, no doubt for the purposes of promoting terrorism? What can we do to remove that obstacle?

That was quite a cheeky attempt by the hon. Gentleman. I think the Minister should try to focus his remarks on the issue of child detainees. We are grateful to him for doing so.

Thank you, Mr Speaker—it will, of course, be a great pleasure.

As I said in my answer to the previous question, I look forward to my initial visit to the region next week. The concerns that my hon. Friend raises will be a topic of much discussion. The encouraging thing is that, for the first time in many years, we are in a process. I encourage both sides to engage in that peace process for the greater good of the country and the region.

When the Minister visits the region, will he raise with his Israeli counterparts why Israel is the only country in the world that systematically tries children in military courts, and why about a quarter of the children currently in custody are held in Israel, which is also contrary to international law?

Yes, I will do so. As I have said, the Foreign Office helped to fund Baroness Scotland’s excellent report into many of the issues surrounding child detainees. We not only funded that report, but entirely support it. During my time as a Minister, I will do everything I can to ensure that its recommendations are properly and correctly implemented.

I join hon. Members who have concerns about the treatment of detainees, but is it not important to focus on the source of the problem, which is Palestinian children being infected by the glorification of violence and hate education, which, sadly, are supported by the Palestinian Authority? Can the Minister assure me that taxpayer funding does not support such activities?

Yes, on the basis of three weeks’ work, I can give my hon. Friend that assurance. In a sense, his question points to the importance of everybody concerned getting behind the peace process. If that comes successfully to fruition, many of those problems will be solved in its wake.

Detention of British Nationals (Russia)

2. What representations he has made to the Russian authorities regarding the recent detention of six British nationals in that country. (900729)

My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary raised the matter with the Russian Foreign Affairs Minister on 25 September and again on 6 October. Our ambassador in Moscow did the same with Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs Titov of Russia on 22 October.

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for that answer, but there are reports that some British nationals in Murmansk prison have not had access to medical attention, and that some are in solitary confinement. What representations have the Government made regarding the conditions of their pre-trial detention and their access to medical treatment? What response have the Government received?

Since the detentions were announced by the Russian authorities, we have sent a team of British officials each week to Murmansk to ensure that the detainees’ consular needs are being properly looked after. We have taken up with the prison authorities, or with other Russian authorities as appropriate, all the concerns that the detainees themselves have expressed to us about the conditions in which they are being held. At the moment, they are telling us that their conditions are “broadly acceptable”, but we stand ready to take up any further concerns that they may have.

Given the unjustifiable detention of British citizens, will Ministers follow the example of Councillor Wendy Flynn, mayor of Cheltenham, which is Sochi’s twin town, and refuse any offers of hospitality or visits in connection with Sochi’s winter Olympics in 2014?

I am afraid that the Government rules on accepting hospitality are already strict and limit what Ministers can do. The key point is that the Sochi winter Olympics will provide an opportunity for people from this country, including journalists and editors, to meet and engage with Russians of all backgrounds and to stand up for the values in which we believe.

As these exchanges have reinforced, there is concern on both sides of the House about the continuing detention of the British Greenpeace activists and journalists. Given the growing fears about the conditions in which they are being held—conditions condemned by the European Court of Human Rights last year, I understand—and the length of time they are likely to be incarcerated, can I ask the Minister gently what exactly it will take for the Foreign Secretary to persuade the Prime Minister to intervene on their behalf?

First, may I welcome the hon. Gentleman to his new responsibilities? Of course this is a return to European activity from the days when Tony Blair appointed him as one of his champions of the single currency in the Labour party. Having served his time in quarantine, he is now being allowed out again.

The hon. Gentleman may not have been here yesterday, but my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister made it clear at the Dispatch Box that he stood ready to speak to President Putin whenever that would best help the welfare of those who are being detained and lead to a satisfactory outcome for them. The search for a satisfactory outcome to this case remains at the top of the Government’s priorities, and it determines how we handle individual representations.

Sri Lanka (Human Rights)

We have serious concerns about the human rights situation in Sri Lanka, including freedom of expression and judicial independence. I will use my attendance at the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting to see the situation on the ground and raise our concerns directly with the Sri Lankan Government.

I thank the Foreign Secretary for that reply. However, if he and the Prime Minister are to attend the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting, what will their strategy be to ensure that the Sri Lankan authorities hear loudly and clearly the representations that are being made and, more importantly, take action?

Of course we will take up these issues. Between the Prime Minister and I we will be visiting the north of Sri Lanka to see for ourselves what is happening. We will press the Sri Lankan Government to investigate all human rights abuses, including the shocking allegations of acts of sexual violence committed during and after the conflict. We will urge them to allow free expression and to stop intimidation of journalists, and call on them to bring about reconciliation and political reform. It is important that we give that message to them in person.

19. It is both unfortunate and disturbing that the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting is being held in Sri Lanka at this time. While the intention of the Prime Minister to visit northern Sri Lanka, where the Tamils mainly live, is very much to be welcomed, will he and my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary raise at CHOGM the recommendations of the Commonwealth eminent persons group that were discussed at the last Commonwealth conference, in particular the recommendation of a commissioner for the rule of law, democracy and human rights? If such a commissioner had been appointed at the last CHOGM, we would have a much more objective assessment of the true circumstances in Sri Lanka at this moment. (900748)

My right hon. and learned Friend played a distinguished role in the eminent persons group report. It is a pity that not every aspect of that report was adopted by the Commonwealth as we debated it over the last couple of years, although the charter for the Commonwealth was agreed, as was a more active role for the Commonwealth ministerial action group. We will continue to raise these issues in the Commonwealth.

Just a moment or two ago, the Foreign Secretary said, in relation to human rights abuses in Sri Lanka, that he will be taking up these issues when he travels there. However, in answer to a written question in July, the Foreign Office stated that they “expect progress” in human rights and post-conflict reconciliation in the run-up to the summit in November. Despite writing to the Minister responsible to follow up on that answer, we have not yet received a reply. Will the Foreign Secretary set out now what specific progress on the two key benchmarks identified by the Government has been made since July?

First, I must congratulate the right hon. Gentleman on being appointed Labour’s campaign co-ordinator for the next general election. As he ran its last general election campaign and David Miliband’s leadership election campaign, we on the Government Benches are delighted with the appointment, even if it makes him a slightly part-time shadow Foreign Secretary.

There have been some steps forward in Sri Lanka, which we have to recognise, including the northern provincial council elections that took place in September. They were generally peaceful and well-regarded, but all the issues I listed remain. While there have been some steps forward, many more are needed.

Does the Foreign Secretary accept that there is mounting evidence that Sri Lanka is heading in the wrong direction? It is not simply that these issues “remain”. This month, the Foreign Affairs Committee criticised the

“scant evidence of progress in political and human rights”.

In August, the UN human rights commissioner said that Sri Lanka was

“heading in an increasingly authoritarian direction”,

and even the Government’s own 2012 human rights report warned of “negative developments”. The Prime Minister’s announcement six months ahead of the summit has proved both a misjudgment and a missed opportunity. Will the Foreign Secretary, even at this late stage, urge the Prime Minister to reconsider his decision to confirm his attendance at the summit?

No. There are many serious criticisms, including in our own reports, of the human rights record in Sri Lanka. Of course these are issues that we want to take up in Sri Lanka, but the right hon. Gentleman must recognise that the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting will consider matters such as the future of the millennium development goals, expanding international trade and upholding human rights in other parts of the world. We need to be present at those discussions with a quarter of the globe. We also need to recognise that the consequences for the Commonwealth of the United Kingdom not attending a Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting would be very serious and could be long term. That is why it is important, and that is why we decided to be there at the table, as well as raising the concerns so well expressed in this House.

For British Tamils in Wycombe, the situation in Sri Lanka is a cause of profound and continuous concern. Does the Foreign Secretary agree that British people who hail from troubled territories overseas are entitled to the most robust representation from the British Government?

Yes. My hon. Friend is absolutely right and those people will continue to see that robust representation, including at the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting.


The UK is deeply concerned about recent violent incidents in Kashmir. These incidents have caused regrettable loss of life on both sides of the line of control. We welcome the call for dialogue from both sides in response to these incidents and the steps they are taking to prevent future hostilities.

The territorial dispute in Kashmir is the longest running in the world. It is a particular issue for many of my constituents, and the violence and human rights abuses have spanned decades. I have been disappointed with the Minister’s response. What specifically can he tell me about action being taken on conflict resolution programmes in this area?

The first thing to put on the record is that we believe any solution should be between the two Governments of India and Pakistan. We welcome progress made in September during a meeting of both Prime Ministers in New York. The British Government do help, and we have had discussions on human rights as recently as last month. From our conflict pool, we support key work on projects to promote trade, development and capacity building in the area.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that Jammu and Kashmir are part of India and that part of India they should stay until such time as India says otherwise? Will the Government take action to ensure that state-sponsored terrorism in this disputed territory is not allowed to continue?

It is precisely for that last reason that we urge discussions between the two countries, and I am pleased to report that some progress has been made. Along with other positive measures, both countries have agreed to double bilateral trade by 2014 and India has lifted a ban on direct investment from Pakistan. As the hon. Member for Oldham East and Saddleworth (Debbie Abrahams) said, however, this is a long-running conflict, and we stand by to help; but ultimately it can be resolved only by the two countries in question.

Attacks on Christians (Pakistan)

5. What recent discussions his Department has had with the Government of Pakistan regarding attacks on Christians in that country. (900732)

We have publicly condemned the attacks on the Christian communities in Peshawar and raised the issue of religious minorities with the Pakistani Prime Minister and other Ministers, including during recent ministerial visits to Pakistan and at the UN General Assembly in September.

I share the Minister’s horror at the recent incident, as do many people in this country, particularly in the Christian community. We are accustomed to tolerance here. What practical steps are the Government taking to ensure that the Pakistani Government take steps to protect Christians in their country?

That assistance effectively comes in two ways, not only through the help we provide to tackle counter-terrorism, such as the enhanced strategic dialogue and the joint working group on counter-terrorism, but through our aid programme to Pakistan, which I hope addresses—and I am sure does address—the root causes of extremism and tries to ensure that this does not happen again.

What steps is my right hon. Friend’s Department taking to protect freedom of religious expression not only in Pakistan, but across the world?

That is a good one for my first Foreign Office questions. I will restrict my answer purely to Pakistan. The guarantees to which my hon. Friend alludes are established in the constitution of Pakistan, and we would urge everybody involved in the process to uphold those guarantees and ensure that these sorts of acts do not happen again.

21. The recent bomb attack on All Saints’ church in Peshawar, which the Minister referred to, was felt deeply not just in Pakistan, but by many in Scotland of Pakistani origin and others, because it was the home church of a Church of Scotland minister, who lost his mother and two other relatives in that dreadful attack. Besides going through the United Nations, how can the Minister raise this issue within the international community? For example, can the EU not also be involved in raising these concerns with Pakistan? (900750)

Yes, of course it can. Many other countries will have links to Pakistan in the same way that this country and the church the hon. Gentleman mentioned do, and I know that the EU will be raising the issue in the same way. There are very special relationships between this country and Pakistan, however, and the help that communities such as the one he represents and mentions can offer will be of enormous benefit at a time like this.

Does the Minister agree that the treatment of Christians is the canary in the mine for the treatment of other minority faiths and ethnic groups—especially, in the case of Pakistan, the Hazaras and Ahmadis—and will he press the Pakistani authorities first to provide protection for Christians and their property, and secondly to take action against discrimination, whether by the state or by other groups?

The answer has to be yes. It is a good question and a good point. Absolutely a key part of our intervention and conversations with the Pakistani Government is about ensuring that minority rights and religious freedoms, as enshrined in the constitution of Pakistan, are indeed protected.

Iran (Nuclear Capability)

6. What recent assessment he has made of how close Iran is to producing (a) sufficient weapons-grade nuclear materials to make a nuclear warhead and (b) a ballistic missile capable of delivering such a warhead to Tel Aviv or Riyadh. (900733)

Iran continues to enrich uranium to 20% and to expand its capacity for enrichment. This brings Iran much closer to having sufficient material for a nuclear device, should it decide to enrich further. Most large middle eastern cities and some major cities in Europe are within range of Iran’s several hundred medium-range ballistic missiles.

Clearly, enriching uranium beyond the 3.5% required for civilian use sends a very dangerous signal. Is not Iran’s apparent enthusiasm for talks nothing but a protective smokescreen to dissuade the Israelis from undertaking military engagement and to allow Iran to cross the nuclear finishing line and develop a nuclear warhead?

I believe we have to test to the full Iran’s willingness to negotiate and to come to an agreement with the international community on its nuclear programme. The programme continues: Iran claims that its 20% enriched uranium is fuel for its one small research reactor, but it already has enough enriched uranium to fuel that reactor for the next 10 years. That is why we argue that there is no plausible peaceful explanation for the continuation of enrichment and of many features of Iran’s programme. But we must test Iran’s willingness to negotiate, and we continue to do so.

But is not one of the dangers of Iran pursuing this nuclear ambition that it could empower some of the terrorist organisations that Iran sponsors around the world, and particularly in the middle east? Does not that further undermine the process of peace in that region?

Yes, it absolutely undermines the process of peace. The threat of nuclear proliferation in the middle east, which is what the Iranian nuclear programme presents to the world, is of course a major danger to the future of the middle east, just as we are trying to make progress in the middle east peace process and to bring together a peace conference on Syria. It is deeply unhelpful across the board.

Given that reciprocity has been a sticking point in previous nuclear talks with Iran, with, perhaps, opportunities missed by both sides, what thought has been given by the west to making a gesture of good will as a first move, perhaps with a relief of sanctions—time-limited if necessary—given that such a move might reinforce the hand of the moderates within the country?

Substantive changes in our policy on sanctions will require substantive changes in Iran’s nuclear programme, of course. Negotiations took place in Geneva on 15 and 16 October and a further round of such negotiations is now planned for 7 and 8 November, the end of next week. We welcome the improved tone and posture of Iran in those serious negotiations, but it will have to take serious and real steps for us to be able to reciprocate.

Iran (Nuclear Programme)

7. What recent assessment he has made of the prospects for successful negotiations with Iran on its nuclear programme. (900734)

I welcome the more positive approach taken by the Iranian Government at the recent E3 plus 3 talks in Geneva. Foreign Minister Zarif presented a basis for negotiations and we have begun more substantive discussions on how to address the serious concerns about the nuclear programme. If Iran is willing to take the necessary first steps on its programme, we are ready to take proportionate steps in return.

I am grateful for the constructive reply from the Foreign Secretary. Given that Lakhdar Brahimi, the UN and Arab League peace envoy on Syria, has recently said that Iran’s participation in the Geneva talks would be fruitful, natural and necessary, will the Foreign Secretary consider an invitation to him to help in that process and in the negotiations with Iran on nuclear weapons?

It will ultimately be up to the UN to decide who can be brought around the table in a Geneva peace conference. I have already discussed Iran’s approach to Syria with the Iranian Foreign Minister and have put it to him that it is time that Iran accepted—along with Russia and many other non-western countries—that last year’s Geneva communiqué is the basis for discussing the future of Syria and that we are out together to create a transitional Government and bring the conflict to an end. Iran has not yet indicated that; it would be very helpful were it to do so.

Notwithstanding the many problems that there have been between our two countries, there are people on both sides of the House who thought that the initial response from the Government to the change in tone from Iran was overly cautious. Surely this situation warrants a little risk. To what degree is the Foreign Secretary prepared to travel to try to solve, if at all possible, this ongoing situation?

We are all prepared to go a long way to resolve this problem and have indicated that in the direct discussions with Iran. I have already had two meetings with the Iranian Foreign Minister and a telephone call with him earlier this month. As the right hon. Gentleman will know, we have agreed to appoint non-resident chargés as a step up in our bilateral relations. We are, as he can gather, busily engaged in these nuclear negotiations and our officials will meet bilaterally again in the margins of the negotiations. Of course we have to conduct ourselves cautiously on something of such immense importance as Iran’s nuclear programme, but there is no lack of readiness to engage with Iran and to open up our diplomacy to them.

15. My right hon. Friend might have seen the BBC “Newsnight” report last night showing that there has been strong Iranian intervention to support the Assad regime. If it is wrong for the west to intervene militarily to stop mass murder in Syria, would it not be right for the United Nations to condemn Iran for supporting the Assad Government? (900744)

My hon. Friend is right to say that foreign intervention in Syria—directly so in the case of Iran—is helping to prop up a regime that is engaged in the brutal murder of huge numbers of its own people. That is now well known around the whole world. That policy will have to change if Iran is to play a constructive role in bringing peace to Syria.

In the discussions with Iran, has the issue of a nuclear weapons-free middle east been raised? When it came up at the nuclear non-proliferation review conference, Iran supported that principle. A conference that would include Israel has been envisaged. Does the Foreign Secretary have any plans for such a conference, and any news on when it might take place?

We do have plans for that. The hon. Gentleman and I have discussed this matter before and, as he knows, the United Kingdom was instrumental in putting a commitment to such a conference into the nuclear non-proliferation review in 2010. A Finnish facilitator has been hard at work trying to assemble the conference. The atmosphere in the middle east has not exactly been conducive to doing so, but the United Kingdom will continue to press for that conference to be brought together.


8. What recent assessment he has made of the effects of the conflict in Syria on stability in the region. (900736)

The situation in Syria is worsening. There are now more than 2 million refugees putting severe strains on neighbouring countries. One third of the UK’s £500 million humanitarian funding for Syria will go to Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey and Iraq, and we are redoubling our efforts to find a political solution to the crisis.

What specific request for humanitarian assistance have the Government received from the Lebanese and Jordanian Governments?

They have requested large-scale assistance to deal with the huge refugee population. Syrian refugees now make up roughly one fifth and one twelfth of the total populations of Lebanon and Jordan respectively. The total assistance that we give to Lebanon has gone past £70 million, and we also give tens of millions to Jordan, so a great deal of British assistance is going to those countries. We are the second biggest donor in the world to the Syrian humanitarian crisis.

May I put it to my right hon. Friend that, despite his great personal effort—on which I warmly congratulate him—to try to bring about a successful Geneva II conference on Syria, it is unlikely to make much real progress unless all sides are involved: not only Iran but the Alawites? I ask him to reflect on the success of the Geneva conference of 1954, which against all expectations put an end to the Indochina war, in which enormous casualties were suffered by France. Anthony Eden insisted, despite the strong opposition of John Foster Dulles, that all sides should be present. Why cannot my right hon. Friend do the same?

It was around that time that the right hon. Gentleman was personal assistant to the said Sir Anthony Eden. It is modesty only that prevents him from pointing out that fact to the House, but I have done so in his stead.

There are certainly lessons to be learned from 1954—and, indeed, from other successful peace negotiations—and the process does require all sides to be ready to make the necessary compromises for peace. We would base a Geneva peace conference on the outcome of our talks in Geneva last year, with the aim of creating a transitional Government with full executive authority, made up of figures from the regime and from the opposition in Syria, by mutual consent. Of course it is envisaged that Alawites would be represented in any regime delegation to such a conference, as my right hon. Friend has suggested.

The Foreign Secretary has referred to the large amounts of aid given by the UK and the US to help the humanitarian refugee crisis in the middle east, but in a recent meeting the Jordanian interior Minister contrasted the amount committed by the UK and the US to the amount actually delivered on the ground. Will the right hon. Gentleman comment and clarify whether the money to help with the refugee crisis is getting through?

The UK has a very strong record of delivering our assistance, and I am not aware of any dissatisfaction on the part of Jordan, although I will discuss these matters with His Majesty the King of Jordan tomorrow, so I will check whether there is any further assistance or more rapid delivery of it that we can provide to Jordan over the coming weeks.

We all agree that progress at the Geneva II talks is vital to stability in the region, but when I spoke to the Syrian National Coalition last week it told me that it had not yet decided whether to attend the talks. Will the Foreign Secretary tell us what efforts he is making to ensure that it is in the room for the vital discussions that are needed?

The reason the Syrian National Coalition was here in London last week and why the hon. Gentleman was able to meet it was that it had come to meet me and 10 other Foreign Ministers to discuss going to the Geneva talks. That was the whole purpose of the day! The hon. Gentleman is right to point out that the full body of the national coalition has not yet taken the decision on that. It has to convene a general assembly to do so, and the date for it keeps shifting; it is now most likely to be towards the end of next week, around 9 November. It did receive a clear message from me and from many other Foreign Ministers, including Secretary Kerry and Prince Saud, the Foreign Minister of Saudi Arabia, that it should be prepared to go to Geneva and to take part in a peace conference.

UK Exports

9. What progress his Department has made on increasing UK exports to established and emerging markets. (900737)

Between 2009 and 2012, UK exports increased by 23% in the wake of the deepest recession in post-war history. This growth has primarily been driven by demand in emerging markets. In South Korea, exports have risen by 103%; in China, excluding Hong Kong, by 80%; in Russia by 76% and in Brazil by 64%. Exports to the US increased by more than 8% between 2010 and 2012, although UK exports to the EU were flat.

I thank the Minister for his response. During the past decade, the value of bilateral trade between the UK and Israel has increased by over 60% to about £3.8 billion. It gives me particular pleasure to note that the trade between Wales and Israel with respect to life sciences is doing extremely well. As a result of these facts, will the Minister join me in welcoming this growth in trade between the UK and Israel—a country that is forward looking in its economic performance.

We greatly welcome the flourishing of UK-Israel trade, which is the result of concerted efforts by the Government, including, as my hon. Friend said, the creation of the UK-Israel tech hub, which celebrated its second anniversary this month, and our burgeoning co-operation with Israel in respect of life sciences, which was cemented in an memorandum of understanding on science co-operation, signed by my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary during his recent visit to Israel in May.

Half of Scotland’s trade is with the rest of the UK, and half of the UK’s trade is with the rest of Europe. Will the Minister outline the benefits Scotland gets from the wider exports that the UK does with the world and the economic benefits that that brings for my constituents and others in Scotland?

Yes, with both pleasure and conviction. Scotland benefits from being part of the UK in this renaissance of trade that the UK is undergoing. I must point to a recent fabulous article in Le Monde, which said we can now predict sustainable future growth—gone are fears of repeated recessions and new injections of liquidity. The jobs market and consumer confidence are both improving—improving for the United Kingdom and improving for Scotland, as well as for England, Wales and Northern Ireland.

What conclusions does the Minister draw from the fact that exports from some countries outside the EU to the EU are increasing more rapidly than our own?

My right hon. Friend will be aware of my earlier comment that trade with the EU has been adversely affected by the downturn in the EU economy. I think what it shows is the flexibility of the British economy, not least because we did not join the euro and because this Government have a more determined approach to driving exports globally, both with our existing partners and in emerging markets.

The British embassy in Washington part-sponsored a state-by-state study of jobs in the United States that are linked to exports and the potential gains from a comprehensive EU-US trade and investment deal. No such study has been carried out in relation to the United Kingdom. Will the Government commission a similar area-by-area analysis of British jobs, output and exports?

The hon. Gentleman raises an interesting point. I shall certainly look into it, and I should be happy to discuss it with him in more detail. British trade with the United States remains incredibly important. I will not rehearse the statistics again, but we have been vulnerable to the rather changeable circumstances in the domestic UK economy of late.


10. What assessment he has made of opportunities for the UK arising from recent ministerial delegations to China. (900738)

Recent visits by my right hon. Friends the Chancellor of the Exchequer, the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change and the Secretary of State for Transport highlighted the huge potential of the UK-China relationship. Their visits achieved significant breakthroughs in relation to civil nuclear co-operation, low-carbon partnerships, financial services, transport and inward investment.

I welcome that news, and, in particular, the jobs that the investment will bring. Perhaps most significant is the fact that Britain will be the first country outside China to have its own renminbi investment quota, which will establish London as a leading centre for renminbi trading. Does the Foreign Secretary agree that this success is founded on our open society and our long record of promoting open economies, and demonstrates to our partners in China that Britain is most certainly open for business?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Britain is very much open for business, and it is in China’s interest to invest in it. According to official Chinese statistics, the United Kingdom is now the most popular destination in Europe for Chinese investment, and the fourth most popular globally. Last year, our own exports to China hit £1 billion a month for the first time.

Some of the ministerial delegations included British business men so that the case could be made for British business. How many of them were of Chinese origin?

I do not have that information at my fingertips, but I imagine that quite a few of them were. I will write to the right hon. Gentleman with the details. What I can say is that we have built a tremendous relationship—in both directions—with China, founded on the activities of Chinese business men and British business people of Chinese origin, and we will continue to do so.

LGBT Community (Russia)

11. What recent discussions he has had with the Russian Government regarding violence against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people in Russia. (900740)

My right hon. Friends the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary discussed our concern about those attacks when they met their Russian opposite numbers last month.

As the Minister knows, there is significant and growing concern in this country about violence in particular but also about the banning of certain publications, and about threats to remove children from LGBT couples. Will he consider raising the issue with the Council of Europe?

We will certainly consider raising, at every possible opportunity, our concern both about Russian legislation on the matter and about what is, inevitably, anecdotal evidence of appalling attacks on individual LGBT Russian citizens and civil society organisations.

Does the Minister agree that, while these attacks are quite outrageous—as is the fact that the Russian Government seem to be legislating towards such behaviour—it is better to engage with Russia than to boycott events if we are to bring about change?

I agree with my hon. Friend both about the importance of making our views clear and about the importance of engagement. Our diplomats who are stationed in Russia make a point of attending meetings of civil society organisations, including LGBT organisations, to demonstrate that we are standing up for the values in which we believe.

Iran (Child Executions)

We receive regular reports on the human rights situation in Iran, including information about executions. Executions for crimes committed by people under the age of 18 are a breach of international law, and the UK opposes the use of the death penalty as a matter of principle.

According to leading human rights groups, Iran has the shameful record of being the world’s largest executioner of juvenile offenders. What representations can the Government make to ensure that that barbaric practice ends, in accordance with the country’s obligations under the convention on the rights of the child?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. This country has, under the EU sanctions regime, helped designate over 80 human rights violators in Iran, and, of course, helped establish the UN special rapporteur on Iran’s human rights and lobbied for his mandate to be renewed at the March UN human rights council.

Is the Minister aware of growing concern about the human and civil rights of Baha’is in Iran and, in particular, about the UN special rapporteur’s report? What action does he intend to take?

I thank the hon. Lady for raising that point. I am absolutely aware of that concern, which is a key concern of the UN special rapporteur. As I said in answer to the previous question, our country lobbied extremely hard to ensure that the mandate was extended for a further year and will do so again in the future precisely so that these concerns can be addressed.


13. What recent discussions he has had with the Colombian Government regarding human rights and peace talks in that country. (900742)

The Prime Minister, Foreign Secretary and I met President Santos during his visit to London in June and discussed a range of subjects, including the peace process and its potential to improve respect for human rights. Officials from our embassy in Colombia regularly make representations to the Colombian Government on human rights cases.

The Minister of State recently told the House he would make representations to the Colombian Government regarding the arrest of leading trade unionist Huber Ballesteros. Will the Minister update us on what progress has been made, including a possible visit to Mr Ballesteros in prison, and what does he think the future holds for trade unionists and others in terms of human rights in Colombia?

As the hon. Gentleman knows, we are aware of the detention of Mr Ballesteros. He was detained on 25 August. Our ambassador to Colombia wrote to the Colombian prosecutor-general on 28 August highlighting our interest in the case and requesting information on the charges. Staff at our embassy in Bogota are seeking permission to visit Mr Ballesteros in prison.

The hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire North (Jim Sheridan) does much to champion the cause of Colombian trade unions, but does the Minister agree that it is more important to protect British citizens from the flow of illegal drugs from Colombia, and will he therefore tell the House what discussions he has had with the Colombian narcotics team about how to stop this flow of illegal and damaging drugs?

Order. I think not, actually. That is a very important matter, but it does not directly relate to human rights or peace talks. The Minister of State requires no encouragement, and on this occasion I do not wish to offer him any.

Overseas British Risk Register

14. When he plans to issue guidance to UK businesses through the overseas business risk register on trade with illegal settlements. (900743)

We will update our online guidance for citizens and businesses on overseas markets, including Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories, in the coming weeks, in line with the UK action plan on business and human rights.

I thank the Minister for his reply, but may I ask him urgently to review the documentation on the UK Trade & Investment website’s “Doing Business in Israel” section, which, according to Oxfam, encourages British businesses to invest in settlements in the Jordan valley by giving details of Israeli grants available for settlements business?

Yes, I will certainly look at the guidance the hon. Lady mentions. The UK Government’s policy on this is very clear: settlements are illegal and they are an obstacle to peace, but we work in concert with our EU partners in producing guidelines that affect this issue.

Topical Questions

May I remind Members to ask pithy questions and Ministers to provide pithy answers, because there is a lot of interest and I am keen to accommodate Members?

Today I am hosting the World Islamic Economic Forum. This is the first time it has ever been held outside an Islamic country and Asia, reflecting London’s growing position as a major centre for Islamic finance.

Prageeth Eknaligoda is a Sri Lankan political cartoonist who has disappeared. Both I and pupils at St Austell’s Penrice community college will be interested to learn what my right hon. Friend knows about his whereabouts and whether he will raise this matter with the Sri Lankan authorities.

We regret that Mr Eknaligoda’s whereabouts are still not known more than three years after his disappearance. We have made clear to the Government of Sri Lanka the need to take decisive action to guarantee press freedom, including by investigating attacks on the media and disappearances and ensuring those responsible are brought to justice. The forthcoming Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in Colombo will be our opportunity to shine a spotlight on this and other matters.

Last week, I had the great privilege of meeting Aung San Suu Kyi, following her discussions with Government Ministers. She impressed upon me the urgency of the international community seeking to put pressure on the Burmese Government to reform the constitution in Burma. I would be grateful if the Foreign Secretary would set out what steps the Government anticipate taking to achieve that goal.

Aung San Suu Kyi was very clear about these things in all the meetings she had, including the one with EU Foreign Ministers in Luxembourg last Monday. These are issues that we have taken up for some time with the Government in Burma, including directly with President Thein Sein on his visit to the UK earlier this year. Of course, we are continuing to raise them, as there is an urgency about constitutional change ahead of elections in Burma in 2015. So we will continue to raise them over the coming weeks directly with Burmese Ministers.

T3. We have heard today about the strength of the trade relationship between this country and Israel. Will the Government use the influence that that relationship brings to make progress on peace, particularly in relation to the settlements? (900755)

Yes, of course, we will. As I said in answer to an earlier question, there is now a moment of hope—or perhaps I should say opportunity—that has not been there for some years. I am visiting the region for the first time next week and will certainly do what the hon. Gentleman urges.

What the Government have already shown in their three and a half years in office is that they have been able to bring powers back to this country: through the reform of the fisheries policy, which has abolished the practice of discarding that the hon. Gentleman’s Government tried and failed to reform in their 13 years in office; in getting a cut on the budget for the European Union; and in getting us out of the bail-out mechanism to which his Government committed us. That is a fine track record on which to look forward with high hopes for the future.

T5. The UN envoy, Mr Brahimi, is in Syria today and he has said that President Assad can play a constructive role in the transition in Syria. The Friends of Syria group has said that President Assad can play no role in the transition, so what is the UK’s position on whether he can play any such role? (900757)

It was agreed in Geneva last year that a transitional Government in Syria would have full executive authority, and that it would be formed from regime and opposition “by mutual consent”. That phrase is very important; I do not think anyone can envisage circumstances in which opposition groups in Syria would give their consent to President Assad being part of that transitional Government.

T4. Rocket attacks on Israel from Gaza have resumed, and Hamas threatens to restart suicide attacks. Will the Minister condemn the statement from the leader of Hamas that the Palestinians should withdraw from peace talks and launch a third intifada? Does he believe that the Palestinian Authority are sufficiently strong and well motivated to resist that call? (900756)

I believe that the Palestinian Authority are certainly well motivated—that is a good way to put it. I believe that President Abbas is a courageous man of peace, and he has taken many risks and overcome much opposition in order to get back into the peace process and into negotiations with Israel. I absolutely condemn any encouragement to him to do anything other than that, and Hamas for saying that that should cease. We want to see those negotiations continue over the coming weeks and bring success.

T6. Much of the instability in various parts of the world is caused by volatile and high food prices, a driver of which is the conversion of agricultural land into biodiesel, a practice described by the United Nations last year as a crime against humanity. What discussions have the Government had with the EU to encourage it to drop its 6% target on sources which could and should be food? (900758)

My hon. Friend is right to identify this as an important issue. Our colleagues in the Department of Energy and Climate Change have the lead on it, and I will make sure that their attention is drawn to his comments. I assure him that they take the issue particularly seriously.

T8. What discussions is the Foreign Secretary having with European Governments, particularly the Italian Government, about the tragedy unfolding in the Mediterranean as a result of refugees drowning? (900760)

Yes, we have already had discussions with the Italian Government. The Italian Foreign Minister, Emma Bonino, was here on Friday and that, of course, was one of the subjects we discussed. In addition, the Prime Minister has discussed it with his counterparts in the European Council. It is important that European countries work effectively together on this matter and, in particular, that we work to help Libya, for instance, to secure its land borders. The insecurity of those borders is causing a lot of the problem for the maritime borders of EU states.

Many of my constituents are concerned about human rights abuses not just in the north of Sri Lanka but in the east. They are also concerned that the visit by the Commonwealth Heads will somehow legitimise that desperate reality. Will the Secretary of State undertake to leave the Sri Lankan authorities in absolutely no doubt that that is not the case?

Yes, absolutely. My hon. Friend is quite right. The authorities are in no doubt about our position as things stand, as I explained to the House earlier. They will be left in no doubt by me, the Prime Minister and the Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, my right hon. Friend the Member for East Devon (Mr Swire), on our visit to the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting.

What assessment has the Secretary of State made of an independent Scotland’s place in Europe and the world compared with the advantage that Scotland derives from being part of a strong United Kingdom?

Scotland derives enormous benefit, of course, from being part of the United Kingdom and the United Kingdom benefits enormously from Scotland’s being part of it. It is important to understand that if Scotland left the United Kingdom, it would also be leaving the organisations of which the United Kingdom is a member, including the European Union.

T9. I thank the Minister for his answer to my earlier question. May I now encourage him to congratulate not just this House on issuing a yellow card to the Commission’s proposal for a European public prosecutor but the Parliaments of France, Hungary, Ireland, the Netherlands, the Czech Republic, Sweden, Romania, Slovenia and Cyprus? Does that not show the value of national Parliament’s power to tell the Commission to stop interfering and is there not a case to go— (900762)

Order. I think that the hon. Gentleman should seek an Adjournment debate—but it might take him some weeks to get it.

My hon. Friend is right to draw attention to the fact that the deployment of the yellow card as regards the European public prosecutor’s office is the second time that the number of national Parliaments submitting reasoned opinions has passed the threshold set by the treaty that forces the Commission to reconsider its original proposal. I wish all strength to the arm of national Parliaments in continuing to use those powers to the full.

I am sure that this House has every confidence in the Foreign Secretary to represent the Government at CHOGM and the Prime Minister should clearly make a gesture and stay away. When he is making representations, will the Foreign Secretary seek the signature of the Sri Lankan Government to the declaration of commitment to end sexual violence in conflict?

I seek that all over the world. It is my declaration, which I proposed at the margins of the UN General Assembly, and I am pleased that, by the middle of this month, 134 countries had signed it. Sri Lanka is exactly the sort of country we want to add its signature to it, so I will press the Government hard on that subject at the margins of CHOGM.

Is a judicial system that encompasses stoning for adultery, severance of limbs for theft and flogging for alcohol consumption compatible with membership of the Commonwealth and is it something that the Foreign Secretary intends to raise with the sultanate of Brunei at CHOGM?

We are aware of the announcement of the phased introduction of criminal sharia law in Brunei and are looking into what that means. I shall be raising the issue with the Deputy Foreign Minister of Brunei, Pehin Lim, in London tomorrow.

Have Ministers considered using the large number of influential Russians who live in London in their efforts to persuade the Russian Government to take a more liberal line on human rights?

We are prepared to consider all appropriate opportunities to ensure that we influence the Russian authorities for the better on human rights. I would not rule out the hon. Gentleman’s suggestion, although it depends a little on which individual we are talking about.

Democratic elections in the Maldives were suspended nearly two months ago. What are the Government doing to make sure that these elections take place?

It is very important that these elections are now allowed to take place. The legal actions that have been taken to try to stop the elections and to stop the second round going ahead after a successful and well-regarded first round of elections have increasingly looked just like attempts to disrupt the elections and to prevent the people of the Maldives from being able to have their democratic say. The strong statement that I issued on this on 19 October has, I think, been noticed in the Maldives. We hope the authorities there will now allow an election to go ahead that will be able to determine freely and democratically the presidency of the Maldives.

What representations has the Foreign Secretary made to the Burmese Government on the recent violence in Kachin state, which makes constitutional reform that much more urgent?

Again, this is one of the subjects that we discuss regularly with the Burmese Government and, indeed, that we discussed with Aung San Suu Kyi on her visit last week. Progress has been made, of course, in bringing ceasefires into effect in ethnic conflicts, but the conflict in Kachin state has been the most serious in recent times so it is always very high on the agenda for our discussions with Burmese Ministers.

Small businesses produce the kind of niche products that are well received in export markets, but they often lack the expertise and confidence to sell abroad. What steps is the Department taking to assist and encourage smaller businesses in particular?

I think I am right in saying that since the formation of this coalition Government, we have had a net gain of more than 400,000 small businesses, which is a tremendous success. My hon. Friend is correct. We need to do more to encourage small businesses to export. It is incumbent on all of us in the House to encourage our local businesses to raise their game. With respect to UK Trade & Investment, the reconfiguration of the British chambers of commerce initiative is designed to help small businesses, but each of us has a part to play in making sure that our small and medium-sized enterprises grow into large export businesses, which are so important for the economy.

Barclays bank made the decision to end banking facilities for money transfer companies such as Dahabshiil and that decision will devastate countries such as Somalia. Will the Foreign Secretary take this opportunity to speak up and explain what he will do to try to prevent the closure of this legitimate route of money transfer to a country that depends on it for its security and to achieve transformation there?

I am grateful for the hon. Lady’s question. She is right to make the point that remittances are extremely important, particularly as they relate to Somalia. But most Somali remittances are made through small scale businesses that operate in cash and do not have bank accounts. They will therefore be unaffected by a commercial decision by Barclays bank. However, the Government are taking the decision seriously. The Treasury, which is leading on this matter, the Department for International Development and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office are working to find a solution, and DFID is developing a pilot project to help secure international remittance channels.

Everyone will have been appalled by the tragedy which occurred off Lampedusa recently. Many of those who died were Eritreans fleeing one of the most repressive states in Africa. What steps are the Government taking to try to improve governance in Eritrea to reduce the push factor?

My hon. Friend is right to raise this important issue, but it is not solely an Eritrean problem, although he is right to point out that Eritrea continues to violate its international obligations and domestic law and has taken no steps to improve its human rights record. It also needs to be said that poor governance, corruption and a lack of economic development are fundamental drivers for the sort of migration that we saw and the terrible tragedies. I can assure my hon. Friend that we in the Foreign Office will continue to work to try to improve all those aspects to limit the necessity for migration.

Will the Foreign Secretary update the House on the work of the chemical weapons inspectors in Syria, and will he say when he expects the destruction of precursor chemicals to begin?

This work is going reasonably well so far. The Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons staff have had access to 21 of 23 sites that have been identified. The actual destruction of munitions and of production equipment for chemical munitions has been taking place. Based on the submission made by the Syrian regime on 27 October—just a couple of days ago—decisions now need to be made about the resources needed and the timetable for the destruction of all chemical stocks, including precursors. That programme will be put together by the middle of November.