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Topical Questions

Volume 569: debated on Tuesday 29 October 2013

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.