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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 571: debated on Tuesday 3 December 2013

Foreign and Commonwealth Office

The Secretary of State was asked—

European Parliament

1. What assessment he has made of the recent decision by the European Parliament to meet in a single location. (901368)

14. What assessment he has made of the recent decision by the European Parliament to meet in a single location. (901381)

We have been clear that there should be a single seat for the European Parliament. The current arrangements are indefensible, ludicrously expensive, impractical and one of the most striking illustrations of EU waste.

If there is one thing that unifies this House more than any other, it is that the European Parliament’s commute between Brussels and Strasbourg once a month, at a massive cost of over £10 million a time, is a waste of money. Is he not surprised, therefore, that one British political party abstained in the parliamentary vote and failed to protect the British interest and the taxpayer interest—the UK Independence party?

I am afraid that I am not surprised, because that party’s representatives are often absent in key votes in the European Parliament when significant British interests are at stake. I congratulate those Members of the European Parliament, from all political families, who supported the initiative that our colleague, Ashley Fox, led and co-ordinated.

The decision on a single seat was taken under a Conservative Government and in relation to an EU treaty, so presumably it will have to be amended by an EU treaty. Which other member states support us, and should we not wait until the Chamber is ready to host the European Parliament again in full session in Brussels before proceeding?

What was striking about the debate and the vote a few days ago was that the clearly expressed will of a decisive majority of Members of the European Parliament was that there should be a single seat, and it seems to me that their voice should be heard clearly. The Parliament has also said that it wishes to initiate proposals for treaty change at a future opportunity to try to give effect to the change it is now recommending.

Given that that travelling circus costs €180 million a year, or €1 billion over the course of the EU’s seven-year budget, which is a staggering figure, does the Minister agree that those involved in the single seat campaign in the European Parliament, including Members from my party, deserve to be commended for putting an end to that kind of waste?

I am happy to repeat those commendations. Of course, there is not only financial waste; an unnecessary amount of carbon is emitted as the Members, their staff and the accompanying luggage are transported from one place to another.

Trade and Investment (Africa)

2. What recent steps his Department has taken to promote trade and investment opportunities for British firms operating in Africa. (901369)

Boosting trade and investment is one of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s major priorities in Africa. We have strengthened commercial teams throughout the region. Last month I launched high-level prosperity partnerships with Angola, Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana, Mozambique and Tanzania. That combines expertise from the Department for International Development, UK Trade & Investment, the FCO and the private sector to create a paradigm shift in the UK’s trade relationship with those five countries.

Does the Minister agree that with growth rates of up to 8%, a population of 1 billion and a combined GDP of around $2 trillion, and with sub-Saharan Africa being the second-fastest growing region in the world, trade is an effective alternative to aid and strengthens diplomatic ties?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Six of the world’s top-10 fastest growing economies are in sub-Saharan Africa. Certainly, among the main focuses of African Governments are economic development and growth, wealth and job creation. They are becoming more determined to stimulate economic growth as a major focus in alleviating poverty. We need to ensure that, in addition to building trade and investment co-operation we assist in building Government capacity and ensure that UK businesses are aware of the significant opportunities that exist in sub-Saharan Africa.

Obtaining investment is vital to Africa. What actions is the Department taking to encourage trade and investment specifically in northern Nigeria, which seems to be left out on many occasions?

The hon. Gentleman will be well aware of the challenges that are being faced in northern Nigeria. I was there earlier in the year and saw some of the excellent work that is being done in trying to alleviate some of the conflicts and to encourage co-operation between the various religious groups. I also saw some of the work that the Department for International Development is doing to build capacity in terms of providing services and trying to create the security and stability that is the precursor to economic investment and development.

I congratulate the Minister on the work that the Government are doing, particularly through the FCO working with UKTI in promoting trade around the world. Does he agree that Kenya and east Africa is a particularly important market for us where we may be able better to integrate our DFID aid work and our UKTI and FCO trade work? I was there this summer, and have been there in recent years, and one sees that Kenya is on the front line of the global race, with corruption and with progressive British capitalism based in Nairobi.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right that Kenya is a major trading partner for the United Kingdom. Significant UK businesses are already investing in Kenya. Only this morning I spoke to open the UKTI Kenya conference at Mansion House in the City of London, which was extremely well attended. In addition to the obvious focus on the financial services sector, we need to focus on a whole range of areas and economic sectors where the UK has particular expertise, such as the automotive industries.

Usually diplomatic networks are used to promote trade and export by celebrating national days, but a survey over the weekend showed that of 20 UK diplomatic and consular postings, not a single one was doing anything to celebrate St Andrew’s day. Why was that?

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will be aware that the UK diplomatic missions around the world, particularly in Africa, do everything they can to promote all UK businesses, including Scottish businesses that go on UK trade missions. When I was in South Africa I promoted a Scottish trade mission to secure work for businesses in Scotland and in the rest of the United Kingdom.

In 2011, President Goodluck Jonathan and the Prime Minister signed an agreement to increase trade between Nigeria and the UK. Will the Minister update us on how that is progressing, particularly in certain business sectors?

The hon. Lady is absolutely right that the Prime Minister and President Jonathan stipulated that trade needs to increase significantly by 2015. We are on track to meet those targets, not just in the obvious oil and gas and extractive sectors but across a whole range of economic sectors, particularly as in southern Nigeria the levels of affluence mean that the Nigerian middle class is growing. That is creating huge opportunities for businesses in the consumer and creative arts sectors, and that is something that our missions are supporting.

Gibraltar

We remain very concerned by delays at Gibraltar’s border with Spain and are pressing the Spanish authorities to act on the European Commission’s recommendations to them. We continue to work closely with the Government of Gibraltar to uphold the sovereignty of the United Kingdom and the rights of the people of Gibraltar, including by challenging unlawful Spanish incursions into British Gibraltar territorial waters.

Having spent a short period of my Royal Air Force service in Gibraltar, I am aware of the importance of having a workable border crossing. Will my right hon. Friend urge the Commission to keep its promise to make it easier for traffic to cross the Gibraltar border and follow up this matter with Spain so that the people of Gibraltar can enjoy the EU rights that Spain owes them?

I completely agree with my hon. Friend. We are indeed continuing to press the Spanish authorities to implement what the Commission has recommended they do, including adding to the number of traffic lanes so that cars can get through more smoothly and looking at how to risk-profile travellers crossing the border so that those who may be smugglers or other criminals can be properly identified and ordinary citizens not inconvenienced.

May I urge the Minister to use all his influence to temper the language that is being used in this dispute? There undoubtedly is a dispute, but the Spanish are great allies of ours: they are fellow members of the European Union and many British people live in Spain. Can we just lower the temperature and stop throwing brickbats at each other?

I would be only too pleased if we could lower the temperature. It is not just a matter of lowering the temperature in verbal exchanges but of expecting our NATO allies in Spain to desist from the unlawful incursions into British Gibraltar waters that have been all too common.

EU and Ukraine

4. What recent discussions he has had with his European counterparts on the relationship between the European Union and Ukraine. (901371)

This was the main focus at the October Foreign Affairs Council. The decision to put on hold the signature of the EU-Ukraine association agreement is a missed opportunity. The EU’s door remains open. It is, of course, up to Ukraine to decide whether to walk through it and I strongly urge the Ukrainian authorities to respect the right of their people to express peacefully their views on this issue.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the Ukrainian President’s recent decision not to sign the association agreement is doubly disappointing in that it would have brought great benefits to the Ukrainian people? What more can the European Union do to help Ukraine turn its back fully on its Soviet past and embrace a democratic European family?

My hon. Friend is right. Agreement on a deep and comprehensive free trade area would eliminate 99% of customs duties, in trade value, with Ukraine. That would save Ukraine about €500 million per annum. Economic analysts suggest that 6% would be added to Ukrainian GDP through more open trade with the European Union. The door will remain open and I believe that that message will be clearly communicated by all EU member states.

The situation in Ukraine is obviously intense and it is important that nothing is done by any outside parties to exacerbate it. Will the Secretary of State give some more information about what the UK Government are doing to try to get the negotiations back on course and to encourage the agreement with Ukraine to go ahead?

It is for Ukraine to make a decision about this. The advantages of an association agreement and a deep and comprehensive free trade area are self-evident. It is for the people of Ukraine and their Government to make a judgment about that. The door remains open, as I said a moment ago. We will continue to make that point to them, including in all our discussions with Ukrainian Ministers over the next few weeks. I think the rest of the EU will do the same, but in the end it has to be their decision and their judgment.

May I warmly welcome the fact that the door remains open, particularly in the light of the reaction of the Ukrainian people and the distinct possibility that there might be a change of policy or even a change of the Ukrainian Government themselves? Does the Foreign Secretary agree that the alternative would not only dash the hopes and interests of the Ukrainian people, but give a very serious boost to the dangerous ambition of President Putin to try to restore some form of Russian empire?

Clearly, it is open to Ukraine to change its policy. As my right hon. Friend knows, there is a great deal of discussion about that in Ukraine at the moment. Again, I urge the Ukrainian authorities to respect the right of peaceful protest and to investigate thoroughly why police violence was used several days ago. I believe it would also be in the long-term interests of Russia for Ukraine to have more open trade with the European Union. The sorts of economic benefits that I have said would flow to Ukraine would go on to benefit the Russian economy as well.

The Foreign Secretary said a moment ago that the benefits of this potential agreement are self-evident. The EU High Representative has described it as the

“most ambitious agreement ever offered to a partner country”,

yet, as we have heard, the Ukrainian President has refused to sign it. Will the Foreign Secretary set out a little more of what he believes were the main barriers to the deal being agreed and whether he still believes they can be overcome, given the external pressure on Ukraine?

One principal barrier was the pressure from Russia not to sign or make such an agreement with the European Union. As I have said, we disagree with that assessment even from Russia’s point of view. It would be in the interests of Russia and the whole of eastern Europe to have more open trade and co-operation with each other. We will go on setting out the advantages, but we will also look to Ukraine to clearly meet the criteria set out in the association agreement. Reliable studies have suggested that average wages in Ukraine would rise and that exports to the EU would rise by an estimated 6%. The arguments are very clear, but in the end it is for Ukrainians to make their judgment on them.

I am grateful to the Foreign Secretary for the candour of his last answer, which confirms the role that Russia clearly played in the events that unfolded at the summit. Reports suggest that the International Monetary Fund has a stand-by facility of between $10 billion and $15 billion to provide emergency financial support for Ukraine should Russia take steps to increase economic pressure on the country. Will he set out the British Government’s position on that stand-by facility, and say whether he thinks there might be circumstances in which it is appropriate to make it available to Ukraine?

If Ukraine is to make use of that facility, it is necessary for it to engage in important structural reforms. The reforms on which the IMF has made a new arrangement conditional would help to build a more stable and prosperous Ukraine, which again is important.

It is also important to note in passing that although this agreement has not been signed, deep and comprehensive free trade areas have been agreed between the EU and Georgia and Moldova, so parts of the EU’s Eastern Partnership have continued to progress.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the first priority must be to put pressure on the Ukrainian Government to stop the shocking violence that has been committed over the last few days against the peaceful protesters currently in Independence square? Does he, however, take some encouragement from the stated commitment of the Government of Ukraine that they still wish to achieve, in due course, closer relations with the European Union, which is clearly the overwhelming desire of the Ukrainian people?

That does seem to be the desire of the majority of the Ukrainian people, so all hon. Members will of course hope that Ukraine is able to go in that direction. My hon. Friend is quite right to say that the first priority at the moment is to stress the need to allow peaceful protest. We have done that in the statements we issued at the weekend and in what I have said today. The incident at the weekend provoked domestic outrage and international condemnation, quite rightly, but we will keep the door open, as he and others have asked.

Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership

5. What discussions he has had with his US counterpart during negotiations on the transatlantic trade and investment partnership on the US blockade of the Republic of Cuba and its effect on European companies doing business in that country. (901372)

My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary has discussed the transatlantic trade and investment partnership with Secretary Kerry. Both are keen supporters of this free trade agreement, which is worth up to £10 billion to the UK economy. They did not cover Cuba in those discussions.

Will the Minister use all his influence to persuade the United States to lift the blockade, which is bad for Cubans, bad for trade and bad for British business?

We make it clear to the United States that we disagree with its approach to Cuba. We think that the blockade is counter-productive and that the way to strengthen the chances of both economic and political reform in Cuba is through engagement, including on trade.

At the heart of this argument is a tactic that the United States has deployed in a number of different scenarios—namely, that it seeks to impose restrictions on US companies trading around the world, but also on non-US companies trading outside the jurisdiction of the United States. Will the Minister use the TTIP talks to try to persuade the United States to reconsider that tactic not just in Cuba, but more widely?

I am not sure that the TTIP talks are the right opportunity for doing that, but my right hon. Friend certainly makes a good point. As he knows, we have both UK and EU legislation specifically to counter the extraterritorial impact of US sanctions against other countries’ companies operating in or trading with Cuba, and we continue to keep under review the necessity for such legislation as regards other countries.

EU Treaty Change

A number of ideas being considered in European capitals would require treaty change. The President of the Commission has made proposals requiring treaty change, and the fiscal compact’s signatories hope to see the compact put into the treaties before January 2018. Europe is changing because of the eurozone crisis, and we should expect that process to include treaty change.

Does that mean that negotiations have actually commenced, and if so, when do they have to be concluded? What is the absolute deadline to meet the commitment for a referendum in 2017?

No. Clearly, negotiations have not commenced, although the Government continue at all times to work on seeking a more competitive European Union that is less regulatory, and in any such negotiation we of course want an EU that will be more accountable to national Parliaments as well. The position of the Conservative party, rather than of Her Majesty’s Government as a whole, is to implement the European Union (Referendum) Bill, which was passed in this House on Friday, and that means a referendum by the end of 2017.

Would it require treaty change to ensure that the benefits paid to EU citizens are paid at the rate prevailing in their home country?

It does not require treaty change to ensure that the concept of free movement is carried out on a more sensible basis. It should not be about exporting child benefit, for instance. The Prime Minister has set out changes that we can make without treaty change. However, it is possible to contemplate, as the Prime Minister has also set out, having new arrangements on free movement for countries that join the EU to slow the access to each other’s labour markets until we can be sure that it will not cause vast migration. Some of those arrangements would require treaty change.

17. The Foreign Secretary and the Prime Minister will have had discussions with Chancellor Merkel about the EU referendum process. Given that the new coalition agreement in Germany has no mention whatever of EU treaty change, what progress has actually been made? (901385)

I assure the hon. Gentleman that there have been many coalition agreements in Germany—there has been one every four years for decades—that have not mentioned treaty change, but that have been followed by many changes in European treaties. Indeed, Chancellor Merkel said at a conference just last month:

“Germany is ready to develop the treaties still further.”

That is the position of Chancellor Merkel herself.

If the Foreign Secretary achieved his reform objectives and any consequential treaty changes in principle with European Council members, but another country subsequently rejected those treaty changes in a referendum, what would he do?

That argument can be made about any treaty in the European Union. In respect of past treaties, including those that the right hon. Gentleman negotiated, my party would say that the people of this country should have had the right to say no in a referendum. Treaty change, of course, requires unanimous approval. As he well knows, that has not stopped many treaties over the past 15 years—indeed, over the past few decades—and it will not stop treaty change in future.

Preventing Sexual Violence Initiative

7. What progress has been made on the preventing sexual violence initiative following his recent visit to Sri Lanka for CHOGM. (901374)

At the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting, the UK secured agreement to strengthen capacity to tackle sexual violence in conflict-affected states, to improve the monitoring and documentation of cases of sexual violence, and to empower victims to access justice. Thirty-four members of the Commonwealth have endorsed our declaration of commitment to end sexual violence in conflict.

I thank my right hon. Friend for that response. He met many civil society groups in Sri Lanka recently and spoke at length about this issue. Will he assure me and the House that we will maintain the pressure on this issue, particularly in respect of our Commonwealth partners?

Yes, absolutely. I gave a speech on this issue at a special event in Colombo in Sri Lanka a few weeks ago. I also met local non-governmental organisations and civil society representatives to learn more about it. We will continue to raise this issue in Sri Lanka and other conflict-affected states, where such matters are controversial and sometimes historically difficult, and to gather the maximum possible support ahead of next June’s global summit, which I announced last week.

18. In Sri Lanka, it is not unusual for a rape case to take 12 years to be resolved or brought to court. There is little or no accountability for security forces that are involved in such violence. Will the Foreign Secretary outline the specific measures that were agreed with the Sri Lankan Government following his recent trip? (901386)

In common with other Governments, we have called on the Sri Lankan authorities to investigate in an independent and credible manner the allegations of sexual violence, including the allegations that it was committed by Sri Lankan forces during and after the recent conflict. The Prime Minister has made it clear that in the absence of an independent investigation, we will press for an international investigation. We will continue to put that case. Sri Lanka has not yet stated its support for our declaration on ending sexual violence in conflict, but we will continue, as I am sure will Members across the House, to argue that it should do so.

I warmly commend my right hon. Friend for his initiative on preventing sexual violence in conflict. To deliver the results that he and all of us want to see, what point has he found in his research to be the most incentivising on the leaders of countries that we need to encourage to make the matter a priority?

The crucial point is that although there is an overwhelming moral argument for dealing with the issue, there are also important considerations of conflict resolution. Conflicts are not resolved unless sexual violence is tackled, because it perpetuates conflict, divides communities and pits them against each other into the long-term future. Many leaders across the world can see that, which is why countries such as Somalia and Ministers in the Democratic Republic of the Congo support the initiative that we have taken.

21. The Prime Minister has said that if the investigation to which the Foreign Secretary has just referred is not completed by next March, he will call for an independent international inquiry. Does the Foreign Secretary stand by that statement? (901392)

Yes, of course. I do not think the hon. Gentleman will have found any statement in recent years where the Prime Minister and I differ—I hope he has not. Opposition Front Benchers are thinking hard about that now. Of course we stand by that statement. In March, there will be a session of the Human Rights Council, of which, I am pleased to say, the United Kingdom was re-elected as a voting member last month. We will use that position to raise this issue along with many others around the world.

Forty-one out of 53 Commonwealth countries criminalise same-sex relationships, as documented by the Kaleidoscope Trust in a report just in advance of the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting. What progress was made in addressing that stain on the reputation of the Commonwealth and the personal freedom of its citizens?

Frankly, too little progress has been made on that in recent years. The United Kingdom raises the matter, and in fact I gave a speech at the previous CHOGM in Australia specifically about the importance of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender rights in the Commonwealth. We raise the matter regularly with our partners in the Commonwealth, but it is an area in which the human rights record of the Commonwealth as a whole is not good enough.

I very much welcome the Foreign Secretary’s efforts on the preventing sexual violence initiative, but as he has said, he came away from CHOGM without having got a commitment from President Rajapaksa to endorse the initiative. Given that face-to-face lobbying by the Foreign Secretary, and I hope by the Prime Minister as well, failed to convince the Sri Lankan Government to sign up, what steps does he think he can take now to ensure that they make that commitment in the near future?

We can take many steps. First, 34 countries of the Commonwealth—and 137 countries in the world as a whole—have now signed the declaration. I spoke last night to the diplomatic corps here and said that now that only a minority of countries in the world have not signed our declaration on sexual violence, it is time for them to get on with it and not be left out of that work. Of course, Sri Lanka is one of the hardest countries to convince about that, for instance because one of the provisions of our declaration is that there will be no amnesty in peace agreements for crimes of sexual violence and that there will be real accountability for what happened in the past. It is easy to see why the Sri Lankan Government do not want to embrace those issues, but we will keep on raising them with them.

May I congratulate my right hon. Friend on taking important steps towards dealing with this vile problem? Does he agree that it may be necessary to amend the Geneva convention to deal with these problems, and will he look at what can be done through the convention?

My right hon. Friend makes an important point. So far, we have agreed among the G8 nations and the 137 nations that have now signed the declaration that I put forward that crimes of sexual violence in conflict are grave breaches of the Geneva conventions and their first protocol. That does not require us to change the Geneva conventions, but it does require us to get the whole world to recognise that those crimes are breaches of the Geneva conventions in any case and should be part of the rules of warfare that the whole world should accept for the future.

Treatment of Prisoners (United States)

8. What steps his Department is taking to promote the humane treatment of prisoners held in the US; if he will make representations on the fairness of the trial of the Miami Five to his US counterpart; and if he will make a statement. (901375)

The British Government work through our network of US posts and with the EU to promote the humane treatment of prisoners held in the United States. The United States Government have stated that the Miami five have had the same privileges available to them as all other US prisoners.

I am grateful to the Minister for that reply, but will he indicate his response to widespread reports that US-based journalists were paid to write prejudicial articles about the case before and during the trial? In the interests of natural justice, will he make representations to the US State Department on the issue?

As the hon. Gentleman is no doubt aware, this complicated case stretches back many years. If I am correct, the trial was in December 2001—more than a decade ago. It is further complicated by the fact that there are intelligence implications and a read-across to other cases in Cuba. The UK has no direct locus in this case as it exists between the US and Cuba. If the hon. Gentleman has information that should have been made available about the case, I suggest it is made available to US judicial authorities as a matter of urgency.

EU Membership

In his speech at the beginning of the year the Prime Minister set out five principles for real change in the EU: global competitiveness, democratic legitimacy, powers flowing back to nation states, flexibility, and fairness between eurozone and non-eurozone. Those are our priorities for reform.

Does my right hon. Friend acknowledge that the great majority of those reforms, and those set out in the Fresh Start project manifesto and others, can be achieved without treaty change, and that when we make it clear that the new reformed EU that most of us want to achieve is not just a case of promoting little-Englander interests, but rather trying to achieve a sustainable outward-looking, globally competitive EU for the benefit of all 28 nations, we increasingly find that we are pushing at an open door?

I warmly welcome the useful contribution that Fresh Start has made to the debate on EU reform, and I think my hon. Friend puts it extremely well. Indeed, many other countries are now also seeing that it is time to move on to new arguments and a new perspective on the European Union. For instance, following their investigation into subsidiarity, the Dutch Government said it should be ensured that EU action is taken only where necessary, with national action always pursued where possible.

Will the Foreign Secretary tell the House his top policy priority for renegotiation, which will have most influence on him and whether he votes to stay in or leave the EU?

I am not going to choose from among the five priorities as they are all important. Global competitiveness, democratic legitimacy, powers flowing back to nation states, flexibility, and fairness for the non-eurozone are all crucial priorities and important to this country’s future in the European Union.

Well, that was as clear as mud. Can I try again and ask the Foreign Secretary which, of the five abstract principles he referred to, is his top-level policy that would persuade him to vote to stay in the European Union?

Unlike the Labour party we are capable of thinking of more than one thing at a time. There are five themes, and since I have set out five, asking for one is not particularly helpful. We have also delivered more than one. We have already cut the EU budget for the first time, which Labour did not do, and we have protected the rebate in full, which Labour failed to do. We have put a stop to involvement in eurozone bail-outs, which Labour never achieved, and we will go on sticking up for Britain in Europe on more than one subject at a time.

Should reasserting control of our national borders be a priority? For example, does it make any more sense to have a single European work force than it does to have a single European currency?

As I said earlier, I think reforming the concept of free movement on a sensible basis is the right way to think about that. Freedom of movement of workers in the European Union clearly has many benefits, including for British people, but we also know that it is susceptible to being abused. I therefore think the reforms set out last week by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister are the right way to proceed.

As the Foreign Secretary reflects on the answers he has just given, he will be mindful, I am sure, of the European Scrutiny Committee’s conclusion on the justice and home affairs block opt-out that,

“there is little evidence of a genuine and significant repatriation of powers.”

Should the House believe the European Scrutiny Committee or not?

As I reflect on the answers I have just given, I can assure the hon. Gentleman that I shall consider them to have been very good answers. European Scrutiny Committee reports should always be taken extremely seriously. The Committee looks at issues in great detail, the Government respond to them in detail and many are debated in this House.

Iran

We are upgrading our bilateral relations on a step-by-step basis, including through the appointment of non-resident chargés d’affaires, direct contact between the Prime Minister and President Rouhani, and meetings between officials. Our dialogue with Iran has covered bilateral relations, the nuclear issue and Syria.

I thank the Foreign Secretary for that answer. While I welcome all efforts to improve relations with Iran to encourage peace and stability in the whole region, will he assure me that we will continue to take a tough stance on the treatment of opposition groups and minorities by the Iranian authorities?

Absolutely. I can readily give that guarantee. We have clearly made progress on the nuclear issue, with the interim agreement we have concluded, and are stepping up bilateral relations, but that in no way inhibits us from expressing our views on human rights. Iran continues to have one of the worst human rights records in the world for the treatment of journalists and minors, and for the continued house arrest of key opposition leaders. We will always feel free to raise those issues with Iranian leaders.

May I take the Foreign Secretary back to his favourite subject, a nuclear weapons-free middle east? That has now become a greater possibility with an interim agreement with Iran. Will he update us on progress on a conference that would include Israel, which of course is the only country in the region that has declared nuclear weapons?

I do not have an update beyond the one I gave the hon. Gentleman a couple of weeks ago, but I will keep in touch with him as he is extremely assiduous on this matter. I agree with his assessment that the interim deal achieved with Iran on the nuclear issue reinforces the case for, and brings closer, a conference for which he has long campaigned and which the United Kingdom would like to see.

Iran, through its proxy Hezbollah, continues to support the brutal Assad regime. What leverage can the Foreign Secretary bring to bear on Iran’s role in Syria? Would President Rouhani’s recent move towards peace not have more credibility if he took a much more constructive role in attempting to resolve the conflict in Syria?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Iran continues to play a role in Syria that in our view perpetuates the conflict and contributes to the appalling human rights abuses and oppression by the Assad regime. There have so far not been wider changes in Iran’s foreign policy, alongside the nuclear deal that we have concluded. We will of course press for those changes. Our non-resident chargé d’affaires is today making his first visit to Iran and discussion on Syria will be included on the agenda.

Following on from the Foreign Secretary’s answer, what is his assessment of the prospect of Iran accepting the terms of the 30 June Geneva final communiqué and participating in the Geneva II talks on 22 January?

That is an important question, and one that I put to the Iranian Foreign Minister. We think it should be possible for all nations to work on Syria together, on the basis of the Geneva I communiqué. I have said to the Iranians that if they were able to do that, then many countries, including the UK, would be more favourable to their inclusion in future international discussions. While they have not ruled that out, they have yet not committed to it. We will continue to press them to do so.

Middle East

13. What assessment he has made of the effect of recent announcements of settlement building on the middle east peace negotiations. (901380)

Recent settlement announcements have had a detrimental impact on trust between the two parties. During my recent visit to Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories, I made clear our serious concerns about the announcements and our strong opposition to settlements.

Last week, the United Nations Secretary-General described Israeli settlement building in the Occupied Palestinian Territories as a cause of great concern, saying that it risked the continuation of negotiations and must cease. I am glad that our Minister shares those concerns. Will he use his influence to shape European trade policies in a manner that is consistent with our Government’s view on the illegal settlements?

Yes, we will. As I suspect the hon. Gentleman knows, we welcome the EU guidelines on the eligibility of Israel entities for EU funding and the agreement reached last week that, on the other side, allows Israel to participate in Horizon 2020. We will absolutely make those representations.

Announcements of new settlement building must be unhelpful, but does the Minister recognise Israel’s good will in continuing its programme of releasing more than 100 convicted prisoners, many of them terrorists who carried out horrendous crimes, at the same time as the Palestinian national broadcasting authority perpetuates calls for violence against Israelis and Jews?

Yes. If the Palestinian broadcasting authority is perpetuating calls for violence, that is totally unacceptable, and I would have no hesitation in condemning it. It is fair to say that it was made clear to me a couple of weeks ago that the Palestinians believe that the original agreement was that there would be no push towards representation in international bodies in exchange for prisoner release and that the settlements issue should be renegotiated at a later stage.

As the middle east peace negotiations continue, are the Palestinians speaking with one voice? What is my right hon. Friend’s assessment of the relationship between Fatah and Hamas?

It is absolutely clear that those Palestinian entities involved in the peace process are indeed speaking with one voice. It is clear, however—I suspect that this is what lies behind my hon. Friend’s question—that there is a very considerable difference between the Palestinian authorities engaged in those processes and the authorities in Gaza. I would call on those authorities in Gaza to make it clear that they deplore terrorist activities of all sorts.

When hon. Members raise the issue of, say, trade with illegal settlements, the Government say that they do not want to upset the peace talks, but 4,000 settlements have been announced—800 last week—and those are destabilising the peace talks. What are the Government going to do about that in order to support the peace talks?

I am not sure that I understand the distinction that the hon. Gentleman makes, because the Government have repeatedly condemned Israel’s announcements about expanded settlements in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. They are illegal under international law and, as I have said, they undermine the possibility of a two-state solution. We are quite clear about that.

Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership

15. What assessment he has made of progress on the transatlantic trade and investment partnership talks. (901382)

Negotiations are progressing well and are on track to meet our shared ambition of concluding them in 2015. There will be a third round of talks next month, followed by an EU-US ministerial stock-take of progress to be held in early 2014 to set the direction of talks for next year.

I thank the Minister for that answer. Does he agree that these talks will, because of the enormity of both the European and the US economies coming together, lead to a substantial growth in the global economy? Does he also think that this will be a catalyst to a further improvement and enhancement of the single market, justifying Britain’s membership of the European Union?

I think that my hon. Friend’s hopes are very well placed. This deal has the prospect of being transformative for the world economy, bringing perhaps an additional £100 billion a year for the EU and £80 billion a year for the United States over the longer term. That would include £10 billion a year for this country.

Topical Questions

I am about to join NATO Foreign Ministers in Brussels this afternoon, where we will discuss plans for the NATO summit in Wales in 2014. We will also discuss our long-term commitment to Afghanistan, building defence capabilities and work with non-NATO partners.

I thank the Foreign Secretary for that answer. If the Sri Lankan Government do not address war crimes and human rights by next year, will the Foreign Secretary consider setting up, along with other countries, a war crimes tribunal?

As I mentioned a few minutes ago, we will pursue this at the Human Rights Council in March. If the Sri Lankan Government have not set up an inquiry of their own by then—so far, they have refused to do so—we would favour an international inquiry that is independent, credible and thorough. We will discuss with other countries in the Human Rights Council how best to do that and what we propose to do in detail. We will keep the House informed.

T5. The Prime Minister recently completed his first visit to India in three years. Representing as I do a Wolverhampton constituency, I have a significant Punjabi diaspora community in my constituency. May I highlight to the Front Bench the real issue of drug misuse in Punjab, particularly among young men? Given Britain’s expertise in rehabilitation, may I urge the Foreign Office, along with the Department for International Development, to provide British expertise in this area? (901398)

We will take a look at that. The Prime Minister’s visit to India was certainly very successful. We have greatly strengthened our relations with India with the Prime Minister’s three visits and all the other work we have done. My hon. Friend draws attention to an important issue, and I undertake to him that we will look at it in more detail.

Can the Foreign Secretary offer the House an explanation as to why it has taken the Prime Minister three years to make his second visit to China this week?

I think the right hon. Gentleman could have phrased the question in a slightly more positive way, for instance by asking why it is that this Prime Minister has taken the biggest ever trade delegation to China or why we now have more dialogue between the UK and China than ever before, more people-to-people exchanges, more students studying in each other’s countries than ever before, and more trade and investment than ever before. Clearly the Prime Minister gets extremely good value out of the visits he makes.

T6. Given Iran’s influence in the region, what prospect is there for talks other than nuclear with Iran on areas of mutual benefit and interest, including regional security? (901399)

We are having talks today, as I mentioned a moment ago. Our new non-resident chargé is visiting Tehran today. This is the first visit by a British diplomat in more than two years, since the evacuation of our embassy, and those talks will be about various aspects of our bilateral relations. Of course that can include regional affairs and we look forward to discussing those more with Iran over the coming months.

T2. Following the Prime Minister’s recent announcement that the UK will establish a public registry of the beneficial ownership of companies, will the Foreign Secretary tell the House what the Government will be doing to ensure that the UK Crown dependencies and overseas territories also establish registries, and what action the Government will take if they fail to do so? (901394)

The hon. Gentleman hopefully will be aware that last week we held the joint ministerial council in London, which all the overseas territories’ leaders attended. All those territories which have significant financial services sectors have responded very positively to the Prime Minister’s G8 agenda of trade, tax and transparency and all of them have committed not only to join multilateral exchange of tax information, but to consult on both having central registries of beneficial ownership and on making that information public.

T7. While warmly welcoming the interim agreement on Iran, does the Foreign Secretary agree that it will be crucial for Iran to honour both the spirit and the letter of its commitments, and is not one of the most important obligations its promise either to convert back or to dilute that part of the uranium enrichment up to 20%, because there is little or no relevance for a 20% enrichment other than for potential military purposes? (901400)

I absolutely agree. My right hon. and learned Friend is right. It is a key part of the interim agreement we have reached with Iran that the whole stock of the uranium enriched to near 20% must be converted or diluted. In the coming weeks we will form a joint commission with Iran that will oversee the implementation of this agreement, and the implementation of it in detail—as well as in spirit, as he rightly says—will be crucial to its success and to our ability to negotiate a comprehensive and final agreement with Iran.

T3. Many of my constituents are very keen to see justice, self-determination, peace and prosperity for the people of Kashmir. Will the Foreign Secretary update the House on the Government’s work to encourage talks between Pakistan and India? Will he come to Dudley or hold a meeting in London to meet my constituents, who have got a great deal of knowledge and expertise on how Britain could help in this area? (901395)

I undertake that one of my ministerial colleagues will meet the hon. Gentleman’s constituents. Of course, these are important and long-running issues, and I want to pay tribute to the Governments of Pakistan and India for the recent work they have done together to improve their relations. The Prime Minister has discussed this in India, and I have discussed it recently with Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif of Pakistan. It is not for Britain to mediate or to try to determine the outcome, but we do want those two countries to enjoy the very good relations that would represent a great breakthrough in world affairs.

T8. Given the Prime Minister’s current visit to China, does the Secretary of State share the US Vice-President’s deep concern about the new air defence identification zone that China has unilaterally set up over the Senkaku-Diaoyu islands? (901401)

In common with the rest of the European Union, we note with concern that China has established an air defence identification zone in the East China sea. The UK, as my hon. Friend knows, does not take a position on the underlying sovereignty issues, but we urge all parties to work together to reduce tensions and to resolve issues peacefully, in line with international law.

T4. A year ago, 13-year old Mahmoud Khousa was targeted and killed by a drone-fired missile in the streets of Gaza as he walked to the shops to buy a pencil for his sister. According to Amnesty International, it would have been clear to the Israeli military that Mahmoud was a child. Does the Minister agree that it is a travesty that, 12 months later, nobody has been held to account for Mahmoud’s death? Will the Minister use his influence to achieve justice for Mahmoud and his family and to send a strong message that nobody should be allowed to target innocent 13-year-old children? (901397)

I am sure there is total agreement right across the House that there is absolutely no excuse for the targeting of children in any form of military strike. I am not entirely sure how a drone could be that precisely targeted, but the hon. Lady absolutely has my undertaking that we regard this as a matter of the utmost seriousness, and we will take it up in no uncertain terms with the Israeli authorities.

T9. In the light of the Prime Minister’s timely and very welcome visit to China, will the Foreign Secretary tell the House what he is doing to ensure that British diplomats speak Chinese and other languages vital to our success, and to reverse the decline in language teaching in the Foreign Office that he sadly inherited? (901402)

This is a very important issue. Almost unbelievably, the last Government closed the Foreign Office language school. This year, I reopened it. It has 40 classrooms and is able to teach civil servants from across the rest of Government as well. We have sharply increased the number of posts that require the speaking of Mandarin, of Arabic, and of Latin American Spanish and Portuguese. The decline in diplomatic languages that the last Government presided over is now well and truly being reversed.

We welcome the prospect of the EU-US trade deal, but I would grateful if the Minister confirmed that the NHS will be exempt from the trade negotiations, in exactly the same way that Canada achieved such exemption in its EU trade negotiations. I have had confusing correspondence with the Government on this.

We are seeking a specific reference in the investment chapter of the transatlantic trade and investment partnership to enable the British Government to continue to legislate in the public interest where necessary, but we also want a deal that allows our pharmaceutical and medical devices sectors to compete for more business in the United States.

Will Ministers take up with the Government of Bangladesh the increasing concerns of Bangladeshis in this country, and others, about the intimidation, threats, violence and persecution of minorities, both political and faith?

I can assure the right hon. Gentleman that the answer to that is yes. As he knows, the next round of Bangladeshi parliamentary elections is scheduled for 5 January, and my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary spoke to the Foreign Minister of Bangladesh in November to find an agreeable way to run those elections—in a fair, free and satisfactory fashion.

On 11 October, a constituent of mine, Mr Nick Dunn, a 27-year-old former Paratrooper who served on the front line in Afghanistan and Iraq, was taken from the MV Seaman Guard Ohio ship off the coast of Tamil Nadu. Five other UK residents were also taken, including a constituent of the Secretary of State. What discussions has the Secretary of State had with the Indian authorities, and what are his Government doing to secure the immediate release of Mr Dunn and his colleagues from the Puzhal prison, in Chennai?

This is an important consular case, which the Prime Minister has raised with the Prime Minister of India and which I have raised with the Indian Foreign Minister, and we intend to have discussions in the coming weeks with the chief secretary of Tamil Nadu state, which is where the men are being held. Consular officials have been providing assistance since the men were detained, and liaising with the Estonian and Ukrainian embassies, as nationals of those countries are also involved. We have visited the men four times to confirm their welfare, and we are pressing the company they work for to fulfil its obligations and to ensure that the men have good lawyers.

The probability is that we will be working for all the objectives that I stated earlier so that, by achieving them, we will be able to recommend that Britain stay in the European Union—but we will have to achieve them.

Amnesty International is warning that Gaza’s 1.7 million residents are facing a public health catastrophe, with chronic fuel and power shortages. The Foreign Secretary often says that he is repeatedly urging the Israeli authorities to ease their restrictions on Gaza, but nothing ever happens on the ground. Will he now at least call for a formal assessment of whether the human rights conditions in article 2 of the EU-Israel association agreement are being met?

The British Government have made their views on this matter abundantly clear; I draw the hon. Lady’s attention to the statement that we released recently on the situation in Gaza. She has suggested that the situation is dire, but she will also be aware that part of the problem was the creation of the tunnels, which have now been blocked up. We are urging the Israeli authorities to facilitate free trade and to alleviate the appalling humanitarian situation in Gaza.

Further to my hon. Friend’s answer to that question, is he aware that millions of tonnes of aid from Israel go into Gaza every week? Is he also aware that it would be perfectly possible for the Egyptians to open their border to let goods into Gaza?

Indeed I am perfectly aware of that; the issue was discussed with the Egyptian Deputy Prime Minister only yesterday.

Last week, at a meeting in this building, a representative of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights described the situation in Syria as probably the worst refugee crisis since the second world war. Given the fact that nobody seems to want to talk about it, including those in this Chamber, will the Government redouble their efforts to work with the international community to bring to an end the conflict that is devastating that region?

Yes. Although the issue has not been asked about in questions today, it is actually our top foreign policy priority. It has now been agreed that a Geneva II peace conference will be convened on 22 January, and we are encouraging all concerned to attend. In the meantime, the United Kingdom continues to be one of the biggest contributors to the humanitarian relief effort and to helping to ensure the stability of neighbouring countries. We will also strongly support the donor conference being held in Kuwait next month to raise more international funds to assist the plight of the Syrian people.

Recent developments in the East China sea are adding to many other concerns about China, including those being expressed about cyber-attacks, Sri Lanka, Syria, climate change and intellectual property rights. Does not this suggest that the west needs a co-ordinated, holistic policy towards China, rather than just a scramble for trade and investment?

It is important to be able to raise a wide range of issues with China, as we do. I had an excellent bilateral meeting with the Chinese Foreign Minister in Geneva 10 days ago, at which we discussed the full range of our co-operation and the Prime Minister’s visit, as well as issues such as the importance of dialogue on human rights. It is a good thing for both countries to boost trade and investment as we are doing, and we are now taking that to new levels with China, which will greatly help the prosperity of the British people.

May I repeat the call from my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Meg Munn) for the Foreign Secretary to keep the spotlight trained on Syria? People believe that the war is over because Assad has agreed to downgrade his weapons programme, but the conflict and destruction are continuing and people are continuing to die. Can we demonstrate not only that the UK believes in minimising the use of weapons but that we are on the side of the ordinary people who are suffering in that crisis?

This is a very important point. The hon. Gentleman will know that the UK, through the Department for International Development, has so far allocated £500 million. That is the biggest contribution we have ever made to a single humanitarian crisis, and it requires it. It warrants it because it is, as we heard a moment ago, the biggest humanitarian crisis for decades. So we will do that and we will do more in the future, as well as trying to make sure that the political process of the Geneva peace conference has a chance of success and assisting with the dismantling of the regime’s chemical weapons. All three of those tracks of our work on Syria are very important.

Order. I am genuinely sorry to disappoint remaining colleagues. I did try to widen the envelope, but the capacity to do so is not infinite. Just before we come to the statement by the Secretary of State for Education, I must tell the House that I have a short statement to make.