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Foreign and Commonwealth Office

Volume 574: debated on Tuesday 21 January 2014

The Secretary of State was asked—

Christians (Middle East)

Government Ministers regularly speak out against abuses of the right to freedom of religion or belief. I met minority Christian communities in Egypt in December and in Algeria during my visit there last week precisely to highlight this issue.

My right hon. Friend will be aware of the plight of Christians in Iraq, which often goes unreported in the western media. The scale of the exodus of Christians owing to sectarian violence is unprecedented and those who remain often flee to Kurdish-controlled areas to escape violence in Baghdad. However, although they are physically safer in places such as Irbil, they are struggling to survive. What steps is the Department taking to encourage the Iraqi Government to protect Christians in that country and to improve their security?

My hon. and learned Friend is absolutely correct. The security situation of Iraq’s Christians, and indeed other minorities, remains precarious. We continually urge the Iraqi Government, through ministerial contacts and by all other means, to protect all communities and to deal appropriately with those who are found responsible for acts of violence and intimidation because of political, ethnic or religious affiliation.

The Geneva II peace conference for Syria is taking place tomorrow. What actions are the UK Government going to take to ensure that the voices of Christians and other religious minorities are heard during those negotiations, to ensure that freedom of religion and belief are enshrined in any new constitution?

The hon. Lady is right to raise that issue, and it has been a key concern for the Foreign Secretary and all involved on behalf of the Government. We have absolutely urged the coalition to make sure it is broad based and includes Christians who it will bring to Geneva II. Our hope is that that will be achieved.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that persecution of Christians is also continuing unabated in Iran, with reports of Christians being lashed for drinking communion wine, having their homes raided and having Bibles confiscated? Is my right hon. Friend aware of the particular case of Maryam Naghash Zargaran, who last year received a sentence of four years of imprisonment on account of her Christian beliefs and whose health is now reported as deteriorating? Will my right hon. Friend take up her case with the Iranians?

I certainly will, and my hon. Friend correctly highlights the serious position of Christians, and indeed of other minorities, in Iran. It is important to remember that despite the very welcome unfreezing that is going on in some areas, in other areas little or nothing has changed, and that will very much be part of the negotiations as we move forward.

The Minister will be aware that the last three years have proved among the most difficult for Christians right across the region. What specific steps is the Minister taking to point out consistently that tackling the persecution of Christians in the region is fundamental to the UK Government’s approach to dealing with issues of toleration?

The hon. Gentleman is right to raise an issue that is often raised in correspondence that Members from across the House send into the Foreign Office. As a result of that, I have made a particular point of going to visit Christian communities in order to highlight their concerns and to ensure that the Governments in many of those countries know we care about those concerns. I had a very good visit with the Coptic community in Egypt the week before Christmas and, as I said in my answer, I have just been to see the Christian community in Algeria during my visit there. I will continue to do that and also to examine with the Churches, and in particular with people such as the Archbishop, with whom I had a conversation about this over Christmas, what more we can do to work better with them.


2. What recent assessment he has made of the UK’s relations with Pakistan; and if he will make a statement. (902064)

Our relations with Pakistan remain strong, and we pay tribute to the people of Pakistan in their struggle against recent terrorist violence. Last June, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister was the first foreign Head of Government to visit Pakistan after its new Government took office.

Does the Minister agree that Pakistan’s long-term economic future depends not on more aid, but on more trade and, especially, on improved European Union market access? Does he also agree that Pakistan’s recent joining of the generalised system of preferences plus—GSP plus—is excellent news, as it will open up duty-free access to much of the EU market? However, is he confident that Pakistan will sign up to the international conventions on labour and on good governance?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his question. Pakistan’s joining the GSP will drive better governance, as it grants vulnerable countries duty-free access to the EU on two thirds of tariff lines if they implement 27 international conventions on human rights, labour standards, sustainable development and good governance. That is good news for Pakistan and for the EU. Pakistan stands to gain an estimated $500 million and 1 million new jobs from this agreement. It is a sign of a deeper and more effective relationship that benefits both our two countries, given that the UK was at the lead on it.

23. Many of us are deeply fearful about the chasm between the official Government position in Pakistan on religious freedom for Christians, Hindus and other religious minorities, and the reality on the ground. Has the Minister had any discussions with the Pakistani Government on the vexed and vexatious blasphemy laws? (902085)

As the Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, my right hon. Friend the Member for Faversham and Mid Kent (Hugh Robertson) just said, we raise issues of religious tolerance, particularly in respect of Christian minorities, wherever we go. Baroness Warsi repeatedly raised the issue of religious freedom and minority protections at the highest level during her visit to Pakistan in October 2013, and she referred to the issue in an open letter on 25 December. It is worth saying that she had a frank and open discussion with the Prime Minister of Pakistan, Nawaz Sharif, in the margins of the United Nations General Assembly in New York in September.

The principal area of concern for many of my constituents of Pakistani origin is the problem of the disputed area of Kashmir. Will my right hon. Friend explain to the House what the latest position is on encouraging both Pakistan and India to work together to give the people of that disputed region the right to decide their future for themselves?

I could with your indulgence, Mr Speaker, as I am coming to that question later on this morning. We are heartened by greater communication between India and Pakistan. The lines of communication are now better, but the problems in that region can be solved only by the two Governments of Pakistan and India and the people of Kashmir themselves.

May I draw the right hon. Gentleman’s attention to the work in Stoke-on-Trent of the Andrhal Welfare Trust, which is licensed in Pakistan and in the UK? It does vital work to ship out educational material and equipment, and information and communications technology equipment. Shipments are being detained for a lengthy time in Karachi, so, in the interests of education, will he examine how the process can be speeded up?

I pay tribute to that trust; anything that further improves education in Pakistan is manifestly a good thing from the UK perspective. If the hon. Lady would like to draw any problems with customs to my attention, I will ensure that officials look into them.

Iran’s Nuclear Programme

3. What recent progress has been made on securing a comprehensive agreement with Iran on its nuclear programme. (902065)

12. What recent progress has been made on securing a comprehensive agreement with Iran on its nuclear programme. (902074)

I welcome the entry into force yesterday of the Geneva joint plan of action. This agreement halts progress in Iran’s nuclear programme in return for proportionate sanctions relief, and will be implemented in parallel with the negotiations on a comprehensive agreement.

There has been an encouraging start to these negotiations, so will the Foreign Secretary give his assessment of the wider possible implications of success for other challenges in the region, including Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq, and for the prospect of a normalisation of diplomatic relations between the UK and Iran?

Some encouragement should be taken, as my hon. Friend says, from the start of the negotiations and from yesterday’s agreement to begin implementing the interim deal. I must stress that a huge amount of work remains to be done to arrive at a comprehensive settlement of the nuclear issue. It will be formidably difficult to do so, but it must remain the main priority. It is too early to say whether that will be accompanied by wider changes in the foreign policy of Iran. In the meantime, we are working, step by step, on building up our bilateral relations, including two visits in recent weeks by our new chargé d’affaires.

I welcome any progress in improving relations with the Iranian Government notwithstanding the overnight debacle surrounding the invitation to them to attend Geneva II. Does the Foreign Secretary agree that constructive Iranian involvement is required to secure a viable regional security settlement? With that in mind, does he think that Britain should adopt a Gorbachev-like approach to our engagement with reform-minded Iranian politicians, including those in power and those of the future?

As I mentioned a moment ago, it would be extremely welcome if there were other wider and constructive changes in the foreign policy of Iran. I intend to have a telephone discussion later today with the Foreign Minister of Iran, building on our recent contact. The United Kingdom is very much in favour of engagement with Iran, but we also need to see commitment from it. It was open to Iran yesterday to say that in the Geneva II process it would support the implementation of Geneva I, which every other country is in favour of and is seeking in the talks this week, but it was not able publicly to make that commitment.

May I draw it to the House’s attention that I am co-chairman of the all-party group on Iran and was recently a guest of the Iranian Parliament on a parliamentary delegation?

I commend the work of the Foreign Secretary and welcome the progress that has been made, but will he take account of the fact that many of those in the current Administration in Iran felt, I think quite rightly, badly burned by their experiences of acting in good faith 10 years ago and finding that their best efforts were thwarted, in this case, by forces inside the United States. We must ensure that that does not happen again.

Absolutely, we must take account of events 10 or 11 years ago and make sure that we give encouragement to those in Iran who are in favour of better relations with the west and with the region. That has been one of the arguments for proceeding quickly with an agreement on an interim deal. Indeed that was one of the reasons for urgency, apart from the advances of the Iranian nuclear programme, in coming to that deal, so I hope that we can now build on that, and we will make every effort to do so.

Will the Foreign Secretary focus his attention on the issue of nuclear proliferation? In welcoming the interim agreement with Iran, does he not accept that it is now important to press ahead with the possibility of a non-proliferation treaty-led conference for a nuclear weapons-free region as a whole, and to use the current good atmosphere to achieve that outcome?

Yes, I do accept that. That was an important outcome, promoted by the United Kingdom, of the NPT review conference in 2010. The progress that we are making with Iran is an additional argument in favour of bringing together that conference. There has been some renewed diplomatic momentum behind this over the past couple of months, which we are encouraging. Therefore, I very much hope that, over the course of this year, we will be able to make some serious progress on this.

Has my right hon. Friend made any assessment of the impact, in relation to foreign policy opportunities with Iran, of the fact that an invitation was extended by the United Nations and then withdrawn? Can he conceive of any circumstances in which there would be a long-term and effective settlement in Syria that did not have the commitment of Iran behind it?

It is very important to the future peace of Syria, when ever we are able to bring that about, to have Iranian commitment to it. That is extremely important, which is why we have never opposed on principle Iranian involvement in the Geneva II process. I stressed last week in the House that it would be important for Iran to give some constructive signal that it would approach Geneva II on the same basis as all other nations, which is to implement the Geneva communiqué of June 2012. It is a great shame that it felt unable to do that publicly yesterday, which is why, to save the Geneva II process, the UN Secretary-General rescinded the invitation that he had issued on Sunday.

Does the Foreign Secretary agree that whatever the difficulties with Geneva II and Iran’s participation in it, we should not let them in any way get in the way of the progress that we need to make on the agreement on the nuclear programme? In that respect, will he assure the House, in relation to the question from my right hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn (Mr Straw), that the resistance that previously existed is not still so potent as to prevent, for example, UK designated banks that are authorised to deal with transactions with Iran from doing so?

As the hon. Gentleman knows, there are certain measures of sanctions relief that we will now implement, which we agreed yesterday among EU Foreign Ministers. That is part of implementing this deal and we will ensure that that relief can be delivered effectively. Of course, it is also important at the same time to ensure that remaining sanctions are rigorously enforced. I will consider the point that he has raised in the light of that.

Will the Foreign Secretary confirm that since he signed the joint agreement with Iran, Iran has installed and started IR-1m centrifuges, which have an enhanced enrichment capacity? Although that might be within the letter of the agreement, does he agree that it flies in the face of its spirit and undermines faith in the Iranians’ willingness to restrain their enrichment capacity?

Discussions about more advanced centrifuges and Iran’s intentions to install them have been one of the issues that had to be resolved in agreeing from yesterday to implement this deal. However, the E3 plus 3 countries are satisfied with the arrangements that have been made, which do not involve Iran bringing such centrifuges into operation.

What conversations is the Foreign Secretary having with his P5 plus 1 partners to secure International Atomic Energy Agency access to sites such as Parchin, a site that the EU body suspects the Iranians are using to test nuclear weapon technology?

The hon. Gentleman raises an important issue, as such issues will need to be addressed beyond the interim deal if we are to arrive at a comprehensive deal. There are many aspects to what the IAEA terms the possible military dimensions to Iran’s programme. To reach any comprehensive deal, the international community would have to be satisfied about what is happening in places such as Parchin.


The most recent assessment of the human rights situation in Bahrain is in the FCO’s update to its annual human rights report, published last September. The report noted the positive steps taken by the Bahraini Government to improve the human rights situation and highlighted areas where more needed to be done.

The Select Committee on Foreign Affairs recommended that if Bahrain’s human rights record did not substantially improve by this January, the Foreign Office should designate it as a country of concern. Today, Human Rights Watch launched its world report and stated:

“Bahrain’s human rights record regressed further in key areas in 2013”,

from, I have to say, a fairly low base. Will the Minister accept the recommendation of the Select Committee and designate Bahrain as a country of concern?

Clearly, we follow events in Bahrain very carefully and the Foreign Secretary spoke to the Crown Prince about the situation recently. With the full backing of the King, the Crown Prince has begun a set of meetings to start a political dialogue process. We very much hope that that will see concrete steps taken to improve the situation.

What is the Foreign Office doing to object strongly to the stripping of nationality from 31 Bahraini citizens? That is a disgrace. Bahrain always cites the UK as an example of another country that has in the past stripped people of their nationality, so I would be glad if the Foreign Office would refute that.

We have a regular programme of contacts with the Bahrain Government that cover a considerable number of areas across our bilateral relationship. That is an issue that we discuss with them regularly and it will most certainly be part of the Crown Prince’s new political dialogue. I very much hope that some progress will be made.

LGBT Rights (Russia)

I discussed the issue with Foreign Minister Lavrov at the UN General Assembly in September. The Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport raised concerns about lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights with Deputy Prime Minister Golodets in December and the Prime Minister made clear the strength of feeling about the new law to President Putin in September.

Will the Foreign Secretary commend and applaud the message of equality and diversity implicit in President Obama’s decision to include two gay athletes in the USA’s official delegation to the winter Olympics in Sochi?

Yes, I absolutely commend that. The United Kingdom will continue to make our views very clear about this issue, in Russia too, with Russian leaders, and worldwide. I hope there will be better reflection in Russia over time on this issue.

I welcome the Foreign Secretary’s words and the confirmation that the Government will continue to raise this at the highest level, but what will such conversations achieve? It is clear that despite the expressions of international concern, not just Russia but several Commonwealth countries too, are moving in the wrong direction on LGBT rights. Now that Russia and the UK are both back on the Human Rights Council, does he perhaps see that as a way of making sure that it is not just about words, but about action too?

We must all hope so. We cannot control the decisions in other countries but we can make the arguments and make our point very clear, as I did in a speech at the Perth Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in 2011. We have raised these issues with the Nigerian Government and we fund actual projects as well. It is not just words from the United Kingdom. We have provided funding in Russia for the Side by Side film festival, we have funded a project to increase the capacity of LGBT civil society organisations in Russia, and FCO officials in Russia meet LGBT activists regularly. We do give meaningful support, as well as the words of all of us in this House.

European Union (Free Movement)

6. What recent discussions he has had with his EU counterparts on reforming the principle of free movement within the EU. (902068)

I discussed free movement with my Hungarian and Bulgarian counterparts last week. My right hon. Friend the Minister for Europe raised free movement at the December General Affairs Council and the Prime Minister was clear at the December European Council that free movement cannot remain completely unqualified.

When my right hon. Friend discusses these issues with his counterparts in Europe, will he remind them that because British immigration was previously out of control, if there is to be confidence here in the single market, and if we are to welcome talented and skilled migrants to work in our country, a broken system that allows mass population movements from the south to the north of Europe—because migrants think that if they cannot get jobs, they can certainly get generous benefits—must be fixed?

Certainly I make the point to colleagues across the European Union that the long-term sustainability of the free movement of workers requires the sort of reforms that my colleagues in the Government have announced in recent weeks, particularly on rules that govern our social welfare system. Other member states share our concerns on abuse of free movement, particularly Germany, Austria and the Netherlands, so we will continue to make these points.

Following the Prime Minister’s statement after the European Council meeting, there was a suggestion that there should be a cap. Does the Foreign Secretary have a figure as to what that cap should be?

No, we have not set out a particular figure, because that is for discussion with member states in the future. There needs to be a discussion about how we handle these things. In the long-term future, as the right hon. Gentleman knows, across the House we are strongly in favour of the enlargement of the European Union, but the next member state to join the EU is quite some years away in all probability. These are things that need to be discussed in the context of the whole future of the EU.

Common Fisheries Policy

The UK has recently secured important reforms to the common fisheries policy. We have banned the wasteful practice of discarding edible fish, decentralised key decisions on managing fisheries from Brussels to groups of national Governments, and introduced legally binding measures to end overfishing. This is tangible progress towards a more competitive and flexible EU.

It is right that we move to end the scandal of discarding healthy fish. It shows how renegotiation within the EU is possible. Will the Foreign Secretary join me in paying tribute to the leadership of my hon. Friend the Member for Newbury (Richard Benyon) in his success in those renegotiations, and perhaps even set out for the House what further negotiations a Conservative Government plan?

My hon. Friend is right to pay tribute to our hon. Friend the Member for Newbury (Richard Benyon). This is an important negotiating success. It shows that decision making can be decentralised away from Brussels, producing at the same time a more sustainable and successful policy overall. That decentralisation and the greater accountability to national Parliaments are important aspects of the changes we want to see in the European Union, as the Prime Minister set out in his speech a year ago.

The right hon. Gentleman will have noticed that fish swim around and are no respecters of national boundaries, which means that any effective policy to conserve stocks has to be agreed with our neighbours, so why do some in his party still seem to hanker after a return to a chaotic series of multilateral and bilateral agreements, which would be devastating for our marine environment, rather than the sensible reforms that he and our Government before him achieved?

The observation that fish swim around is not among the most devastating revelations to be heard in the House of Commons recently, but we know the point that the right hon. Gentleman is making. The point I would make in return is that the common fisheries policy has been one of the European Union’s greatest catastrophes, and we are much more likely to encourage good conservation and a prosperous future for fisheries across the European Union if this is done on a more decentralised basis. It is not about not co-operating with our neighbours; it is about co-operating with them on a meaningful scale and at a regional level so that sensible decisions can be taken, unlike the absolutely disastrous policy that preceded it.

Is the Foreign Secretary, like me, a fan of “The Bridge”, the Danish/Swedish drama currently on BBC Four on Saturday evening? The Danish/Swedish model lies at the heart of the common fisheries policy reforms. If that is the new way forward for decentralisation, which other models might he alight on in that regard?

Well, so many Danish/Swedish models on a Saturday evening must be very enjoyable, but I cannot say that I have been watching that programme. Of course, the decentralised model of decision making is the one that will work, rather than a one-size-fits-all approach for 28 countries. Such an approach is not right for fisheries, or for so many other areas. Again, that is the point of seeking real reform in the European Union.

The Foreign Secretary is right to describe the common fisheries policy as a disaster, but in fairness he should probably acknowledge that it was a Conservative Government who signed us up to it in the first place. He is also aware that Cabinet documents have shown that the Scottish fishing fleet in a European context has been described as “expendable”. Is it the UK Government’s current position that they prefer land-locked European Union member states such as Slovakia having a more direct say over the Scottish fishing industry than the Scottish Government?

No, the Government have stood up for fisheries in Scotland, and we have done so very energetically in recent decisions. Indeed, it is intended that a great deal of the benefit of the changes in the common fisheries policy will be felt by Scotland. The United Kingdom can always be counted on to do that, and I think that we will do so more successfully than would a separate Scotland, which would in any case be outside the European Union.

Company Beneficial Ownership

8. What recent discussions he has had with representatives of the Governments of the Crown dependencies and overseas territories on establishing registers of company beneficial ownership. (902070)

The Government are in ongoing dialogue with the Crown dependencies and overseas territories on the establishment of central registries of company beneficial ownership. I discussed the issue with territory leaders at the joint ministerial council last November, as did the Treasury Minister. We agreed to continue to work in partnership to tackle the global challenges of corporate secrecy.

Supporters of Christian Aid from St Andrew’s church in Chippenham who met me before Christmas will welcome the Government’s decision to publish a register of company beneficial ownership and the leadership they have shown on the matter, but given that so much money is leaving developing countries for our overseas territories, it is very important that similar transparency is shown there. If the consultations that are currently being launched by the Cayman Islands and the British Virgin Islands provide a further opportunity for the Government to present evidence to encourage them to publish a register, will he please take that opportunity in the hope that that might happen?

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will get back to his normal form, having recovered from his splendid paternity leave.

The first thing that needs to be said is that the overseas territories and Crown dependencies have responded extremely positively and have taken steps in response to the Prime Minister’s G8 agenda of tax, trade and transparency by signing up to multilateral conventions on tax matters and signing agreements automatically to exchange tax information—a significant step change in tax transparency—as well as setting out action plans and consultations as regards setting up registers of beneficial ownership and making them accessible to the public.

Jammu and Kashmir

We are aware of allegations of human rights abuses on both sides of the line of control. We are clear that allegations of human rights abuses require proper investigation, and we regularly raise concerns through our missions in Islamabad and Delhi, as appropriate.

The number of civilian deaths attributed to the Indian forces is now greater than the number attributed to terrorist attacks in the region. Will the Minister assure me that these issues are being raised not only in our official discussions but at ministerial level, given the number of delegations and trips to India in recent years?

Indeed. The hon. Gentleman will know that in the past few years India and Pakistan have made progress on trade, with both countries agreeing to double bilateral trade by 2014. India has lifted a ban on direct investment from Pakistan, and both sides have implemented a new visa regime. Ultimately, we want to encourage progress between India and Pakistan. Our position, as is well known, is to allow both sides to decide the pace of dialogue, as any direct involvement or international intervention would not be welcomed—by India, certainly.

Is the Minister aware of the petition signed by thousands of my constituents —and, I believe, people in other constituencies —asking for a debate about human rights in Jammu and Kashmir, and can he assist by giving us such a debate in Government time?

I was not aware of the petition to which the hon. Lady alludes, but her comments will certainly have been noted, not least by the Chair.

Afghanistan (Security Arrangements)

10. What recent discussions he has had with his Afghan counterpart on security arrangements after 2014; and if he will make a statement. (902072)

My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary discussed this issue with Foreign Minister Osmani at the NATO Foreign Ministers meeting in December. The UK’s long-term commitment to Afghanistan is made clear in the enduring strategic partnership document signed by the Prime Minister and President Karzai in January 2012 and reviewed annually by a ministerial joint commission.

I am sure that the Minister is aware of the campaign being run by Amnesty International aimed at strengthening and protecting the rights of women in the security arrangements and more broadly in civic society. What can he say to the House that will reassure those campaigners?

The UK has made it absolutely clear to the Afghan Government that the historic gains since 2001, including on women’s rights, must not be lost. These commitments are enshrined in the Tokyo mutual accountability framework, and we will be doing everything possible to ensure that the Afghan Government meet them.

Does the Minister agree that the security situation in Afghanistan post-2014 is linked to working with Pakistan to stop the terrorism that is going from one country to the other across the large border between the two countries?

Absolutely. Anybody who has come back from Afghanistan recently, particularly from the military side, will point to the real improvements made by the Afghan security forces. It would be a great shame if that were lost in the political discussions that take place above that.

May I join my right hon. Friend for Newcastle upon Tyne East (Mr Brown) and old boss in paying tribute to the work of Amnesty International in Afghanistan and thank the Minister for his reply? On 23 April last year, I asked the Foreign Secretary what steps he was taking to ensure the protection of British forces and civilians in Afghanistan. In the light of the shocking events in Kabul in the past few days, can he provide reassurance to them and their families as to what is being done to provide protection now and after the military draw-down?

After the military draw-down, of course, the hope is that a NATO-led mission will replace the international security assistance force. Britain’s part in that will be to provide mentors and trainers. We keep the security situation in Kabul and elsewhere under close review on a daily, if not hourly, basis, and we amend the advice accordingly.

Geneva II Summit

The objective of Geneva II is to establish by mutual consent a transitional governing body in Syria with full executive powers. The regime, opposition and invited states should attend on that basis, and all sides need to improve the dire humanitarian situation, including through prisoner releases and improving access.

I thank the Foreign Secretary for that answer. Did the United Nations Secretary-General consult him before Iran’s invitation to Geneva II was issued, and if so, what was his response to that consultation?

There have been many consultations at the UN Security Council, such as between the Secretary-General and the permanent representatives, including the UK’s permanent representative. Our advice has always been what I said in the House last week—that we were not opposed in principle to Iran attending, but that we wanted a clearer and more constructive public commitment by Iran to the objectives of the Geneva II conference, which I have just set out. In the light of Iranian unwillingness to make such a commitment yesterday, the Secretary-General was right to rescind the invitation.

As the Soviet Union of the middle east, Iran continues to prop up the Assad regime. What steps is my right hon. Friend taking to try to stop Iranian influence in Syria?

Of course, we want Iran to desist from supporting the brutality of the Assad regime, which has been highlighted again overnight by shocking evidence of the torture, abuse and murder of people in detention at the regime’s hands. We will always try persuasion, but in the end it is in Iran’s interests for there to be peace in Syria. We therefore ask Iran to embrace that opportunity.

Will the Foreign Secretary correct me if I am wrong about the tortuous diplomacy over Geneva II? Iran’s participation is clearly essential to getting an agreement to end the catastrophic war. Iran knows that a transitional Government is the only way of doing that. On the other hand, it does not want to be seen to be abandoning its long-term ally, the barbarous regime in Syria. As we know from Northern Ireland, preconditions often kill the prospect of any negotiated solution. How will we resolve that impasse?

The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right about it being a tortuous process, including over the past few days, but it should be possible for Iran to say what others, including Russia, are able to come to Geneva II and say—that our aim is to implement the objective of the Geneva I communiqué: a transitional governing body by mutual consent. It was not a precondition, but it was fair to expect Iran to come to the conference on the same basis as all other foreign states. The practical reality is that if it was not prepared to say that, it would have led to the collapse of the conference. It was clear that if it did not do that, we would not be going to Geneva II tomorrow.

With the spotlight falling on Russia ahead of the winter Olympic games, will the Foreign Secretary press the Russians to increase their contribution to humanitarian aid, the need for which is in large part caused by their support for the Assad regime?

Yes, we do raise that with Russia, and we particularly raise the issue of humanitarian access. We and other countries are providing generously for humanitarian relief in and around Syria, but the regime continues to deny access to more than 200,000 people in besieged areas. We continue to look to Russia to help to lift the regime’s sieges of those areas.

This morning’s reports in The Guardian of the systematic killing and torture by Syrian Government forces of 11,000 detainees are deeply disturbing. The important work done to collect and publish that material was essentially a privately funded initiative run by a London-based law firm. In the light of that, will the Foreign Secretary set out what steps the international community, and the UK Government in particular, are taking to help catalogue and document evidence about alleged gross violations of human rights?

We have a done a great deal, and the right hon. Gentleman is right to highlight the evidence that was published last night. That was done with the assistance of the Qatari Government, so it was not entirely a private initiative. I have seen a lot of the evidence. It is compelling and horrific, and it is important that those who have perpetrated those crimes are one day held to account. The United Kingdom has done a great deal in the documentation of human rights abuses, and part of the support we have given to moderate political forces in Syria is to train human rights activists in the recording and documentation of crimes, many of which have therefore come to the world’s attention. We will do more of that.

We all welcome the fact that the Geneva II conference is due to commence in Switzerland tomorrow. Will the Foreign Secretary today set out what he would regard to be realistic ambitions for the discussions this week? Does he agree that confidence-building measures could be an important step towards securing further progress, and if so, does he believe in the relative likelihood of local ceasefires, humanitarian access, or prisoner exchanges being agreed in the coming days?

Confidence-building measures would assist enormously, including prisoner releases and local ceasefires. Although there have been discussions about those issues over the past 10 days, they have not yet borne fruit, and it is important that real effort is made on that in the opening stages of the Geneva II talks. I will attend the opening of those talks tomorrow and speak on behalf of our country, and I will encourage progress from all sides on the creation of a transitional governing body. Realistically, we are starting a process; it is important that a political process is started and then pursued.

EU Codified Constitution

13. If he will make an assessment of the effect of a codified constitution on member states’ ability to regulate within the European Union. (902075)

European Union member states have widely differing constitutional structures. In Germany, for instance, the constitutional court has highlighted instances of where the Bundestag’s rights are close to being infringed. In the UK, European Union law takes effect only by virtue of the will of Parliament.

We are fortunate in that our constitution is unwritten, or rather written on a number of documents. Why does the existence under EU law of a written constitution protect the rights of Germans, while our unwritten constitution does not give the UK equivalent protection?

My hon. Friend is right about the importance of the German constitutional court and its written constitution, and it has sometimes warned of the limits of the EU’s role. It has insisted that questions should be referred to the German Parliament, but it has never directly overridden EU law, and we must bear that in mind about its constitutional structure. As my hon. Friend knows, and as he supported in the European Union Act 2011, we have made clear the ultimate sovereignty of Parliament in this country. That is the constitutional position, but we made it clearer in our 2011 Act.

What assessment has the Secretary of State made as to whether an independent Scotland would be able to regulate within the EU without having to negotiate to join in the first place?

A Scotland that left the United Kingdom would have to negotiate afresh its membership of the European Union. It would have to do so without some of the favourable settlements that we have achieved in the past with the European Union, such as the rebate. Not only would Scotland no longer be entitled to the rebate, but it would have to contribute to the rebate of the rest of the United Kingdom.

Topical Questions

Yesterday I attended the Foreign Affairs Council of the European Union in Brussels, and later today I will travel to Switzerland to take part in the Geneva II talks.

On 4 January, Francisco Toloza, another leading member of the Patriotic March political movement in Colombia, was arrested and charged with the usual accusation of rebellion. Given that 25 of that group’s leading members were murdered last year alone, do the Government still insist that Colombia is a democratic country that allows opposition political participation?

The answer is yes, we do. Human rights continue to be an important part of our relationship with Colombia. They were discussed with President Santos during his visit to the UK from 6 June last year. We have never hidden our concerns about human rights in that country. Equally, we are supportive of the mass improvement in the general well-being of Colombians under the president and his negotiations with the FARC guerrillas. My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary will have an opportunity to raise those matters when he visits Colombia shortly.

T4. Holocaust memorial day takes place next Monday. Will the Secretary of State join me in commending the role that British veterans played in defeating the Nazis in the second world war, and in liberating the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp almost 70 years ago? (902057)

Yes, absolutely—my hon. Friend is right to highlight the vital role of British forces. Later this year, we will have the 70th anniversary of D-day, when it will be important to remember that it made possible the liberation of Europe and the role of British forces in doing exactly what he has described.

Given the publication by the Foreign Office of its Scotland analysis paper last week, what is the Foreign Secretary’s assessment of the impact on Scotland’s exports and influence of reducing a diplomatic network of 14,000 people spread across 267 locations and 152 countries to just 70 to 90 diplomatic offices?

It is clear that Scottish independence would involve a huge reduction in its diplomatic presence and influence around the world. We make a great impact as the United Kingdom on so many issues all over the globe. It would not be possible to do that with between 70 and 90 offices in place of our current 267 embassies and consulates. It would also not be possible to replicate the huge effort that the UK Government and UK Trade & Investment put in to promoting Scottish exports and trade around the world. For instance, I am very proud of everything I have done to promote the interests of scotch whisky all over the world.

T6. The Foreign Secretary has often highlighted the fact that a warrant is needed for GCHQ to search content. We now know that the dishfire scheme acknowledged by the National Security Agency allows people in GCHQ to search the content of people’s text messages. To avoid reading the content, analysts are warned to flick a toggle on the form. Can the Foreign Secretary confirm that it would be unlawful to read content without a warrant? How can he be sure that all analysts always tick the right box on the form? (902059)

My hon. Friend knows that I cannot go into intelligence matters in Parliament beyond the statement I gave on 10 June last year. Therefore, I do not confirm or deny reports that appear in newspapers that may or may not be true. However, I can always confirm that the legal structure in this country is very strong and robust. As I have said before, the interception of the content of communications in the UK requires a warrant from me or the Home Secretary. The interception of communications commissioner then reports to the Prime Minister on how we and our officials do our jobs.

T2. Back in 2006, I was delighted to be able to smooth out some red tape to allow Father Jean-Pierre Ndulani from the Congo to come to my constituency to work as a priest in the Wellburn care home run by the Little Sisters of the Poor. He returned to the Congo in 2012. Not long after his return, he was kidnapped along with two colleagues. I have written to the Foreign Secretary’s office and am grateful for the response, but may I urge him to use all the powers within his good offices to find out the whereabouts, and more importantly the well-being, of Father Jean-Pierre? Many of my constituents still ask me about him. (902055)

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising that case. He mentioned his correspondence with the Foreign Office. I will visit the Democratic Republic of the Congo shortly, when I will ensure that I raise that specific case with the Congolese authorities.

Somalia banned the celebration of Christmas, but we give it £130 million in aid. Is it not time to play hardball with that country?

The hon. Gentleman will be well aware that there is a very small religious minority in Somalia. For some considerable time, we have worked with the new federal Government of Somalia to improve human rights for everybody in Somalia, irrespective of their religious persuasion. We have worked to encourage a human rights commission, to finalise a human rights road map and to support the United Nations assistance mission in Somalia—UNSOM—in taking a strong lead on building and monitoring human rights there.

T3. Pakistan’s federal sharia court has ordered the Government in Islamabad to implement only the death penalty in cases of blasphemy, and the 60-day time limit for the Government to appeal against that is almost up. Given that blasphemy laws are already being abused to settle personal scores, does the Foreign Secretary agree that this could lead to more abuse and a climate of intolerance against religious minorities in Pakistan? (902056)

Yes, I have raised these issues, and the whole issue of the death penalty in Pakistan, with Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and his national security adviser. I have made very clear the United Kingdom’s longstanding view on the death penalty and I hope that there will continue to be, one way or another, a moratorium on the death penalty in such cases.

Following the Prime Minister’s Bloomberg speech on EU reform last year, last week the Chancellor welcomed more than 300 parliamentarians and leaders across Europe to the Fresh Start conference to debate a series of reforms on trade, free movement and deregulation. Is it not the case that Conservative Ministers and Members are leading the EU reform and renegotiation debate, on which our opponents and coalition partners are strangely silent?

I could not possibly disagree with that observation. I congratulate Fresh Start and Open Europe on holding the conference last week, which my right hon. Friend the Chancellor addressed. It was interesting that people were there from many other EU countries who want to have the discussion on how the EU becomes more flexible and more competitive, with greater accountability to national Parliaments. That is the debate we are leading.

T5. Further to the case raised by the hon. Member for Wansbeck (Ian Lavery) on Colombia, will the Minister address the case of Huber Ballesteros, who will face trial in a number of weeks, also on a contrived charge of rebellion? Will he address these human rights issues in a way that does not just send a signal to the Santos regime that they somehow fall within a margin of tolerable excess in the context of a peace process? (902058)

That is not the case. We are, of course, aware of the detention of Mr Ballesteros on 25 August. Our ambassador to Colombia wrote to the Colombian prosecutor general on 28 August to highlight our interest in the case and to request information on the charges. Staff at our embassy in Bogota are seeking permission to visit Mr Ballesteros in prison. It is simply not the case that we turn to one side and avert our gaze to what we regard as human rights violations in Colombia.

My right hon. Friend will be alarmed, as I was, at the release of documents last week on the attack at the Golden Temple in 1984. The Prime Minister made a swift response in terms of the Cabinet Secretary. Will my right hon. Friend update the House on the timeline for the inquiry and for a possible statement to this House?

I know that my hon. Friend is very assiduous in pursuing this matter. As the Prime Minister said last week, these events led to a tragic loss of life. We understand the legitimate concerns that the papers that have been published will raise. As he said, the Prime Minister asked the Cabinet Secretary to look into this case urgently and to establish the facts. That review by the Cabinet Secretary will soon reach its conclusion, and its conclusions and findings will be published in the near future.

T7. Despite its vast mineral wealth, for too many years the Democratic Republic of the Congo has been held back by corruption, poor infrastructure and conflict. In the east of the country, more than 800,000 people have been forced to flee their homes by the M23 rebel militia group. I note that the Minister said that he does have a visit due, but given the huge economic potential of central Africa what concrete actions are the Government considering to support peace and economic development in the DRC? (902060)

The hon. Lady raises a very important issue. Significant discussions have been taking place and will continue to take place. We support the Democratic Republic of the Congo through our significant bilateral aid programme, as well as by supporting multilateral institutions. The progress made by the UN mission and the Secretary-General’s special representative to negate the influence of the M23, which has now completely surrendered, and to tackle other armed militia groups in the eastern part of the DRC, is a key cornerstone to creating stability and security, which will then lead to developmental assistance.

Further to the shadow Foreign Secretary’s question, may I ask my right hon. Friend, on the wider issue of foreign policy, what assessment he has carried out on the impact on Scotland of our foreign policy and all the work done by our embassies and high commissions day in, day out, including UKTI, on behalf of this country and its citizens?

My right hon. Friend is right to refer to this point, because in addition to what I mentioned in response to the shadow Foreign Secretary, this country has a huge consular network—one of the biggest of any country in the world. We look after British nationals wherever they are overseas, and there is no way that a Scotland separate from the UK could compete with that network. An ambassador of a new country arriving in, say, Washington DC would be the 179th ambassador arriving in town, which could not compete with the influence of the UK in Washington.

T8. A number of individuals and charities in my constituency have contacted me about the difficulties they have encountered in funding legitimate humanitarian action in the disputed region of Kashmir. Will the Secretary of State allow a Minister to meet me briefly to discuss these concerns? (902061)

Either I or my noble Friend Baroness Warsi, who has responsibility for these matters, will, I am sure, be happy to meet the hon. Gentleman.

Will the Foreign Secretary update the House on what is happening to his constituent, my constituent and others arrested from a vessel off Tamil Nadu? Can anything more be done to expedite their release? Given that they were only obeying orders, should it not be the captain who faces the charges, and should these men not be freed?

My right hon. Friend makes his point extremely well. As he knows, I am familiar with this case, because one of my constituents is involved. The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, my right hon. Friend the Member for East Devon (Mr Swire), will be meeting him and other Members about the matter this afternoon. I have raised it with the Indian Foreign Minister, and the Prime Minister has raised it with the Prime Minister of India. It has also been raised with the Ministry of External Affairs in Delhi this month, and will be raised now with the Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu.

T9. If we are to end the bloodbath in Syria, will it not have to involve Iran, and should we not get on and start the peace process now? If the Foreign Secretary does not agree, will he set out how he will achieve this without the help of Iran? (902062)

As we discussed earlier, we will start the Geneva II process tomorrow. We were not opposed in principle to Iran’s involvement, but we all have to face up to the fact that if the invitation to Iran yesterday had been proceeded with, without the necessary statement from Iran, the whole conference would have collapsed, and there would be no Geneva II process at all. Diplomacy involves some difficult compromises and tortuous moments, as the right hon. Member for Neath (Mr Hain) said, and this has been one of them, but it is vital that we get this process going.

Extreme brevity is now required, as will be exemplified, I know, by the hon. Member for Maldon (Mr Whittingdale).

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the latest laws passed in Ukraine severely restricting democratic protest represent a further step backwards and are fuel for the shocking violence seen overnight? Will he send a clear message to the Ukrainian Government that we will take measures against those responsible and a message to the Russian Government that this is for the Ukrainian people to resolve?

Yes, I agree with all of that. I issued a statement on this yesterday. We believe it was a serious mistake for the Ukrainian Administration to enact legislation placing greater restrictions on fundamental freedoms, and we will continue to make that argument.

May I draw the Foreign Secretary’s attention to my point of order yesterday about the Government’s failure to brief me about the destruction of chemical weapons in my constituency? Will he undertake, first, to answer, as a matter of urgency, my five named day questions, and secondly to ensure the high-level ministerial briefing for me that was promised to the company—not to me—and thirdly will he put on the record his apology to my constituents for his failure?

I hope that the hon. Gentleman’s appetite can be satisfied, at any rate for today. We shall see.

Broadly, yes. I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman has not had a briefing on this. I shall ensure he gets one from the relevant Ministers. Of course, this was the destruction not of chemical weapons—let me reassure him about that—but of precursor chemicals that are no different in form when they come to the UK from other industrial chemicals that are regularly destroyed here. He is entitled to a detailed briefing, however, and I shall ensure that he gets one.

Can my right hon. Friend bring us up to date on what the Government are seeking to achieve from the very welcome conference on international wildlife crime taking place in London next month?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who has a particular passion and knowledge in this important area. The purpose of the summit is to draw together the work being done in a range of states, supported by the UK, the USA and interested African states such as Gabon. The purpose is not just to talk about what can be achieved; we want real results on security, the environment and the economy, reducing demand as well as cutting off the supply.

May I ask the Minister on his next visit to Burma to raise the letter that Mr Speaker has written to Minister Soe Thein with a list of political prisoners and to ask for their unconditional release?

I am travelling to Burma very shortly. I raised some individual cases with some success when I was last there, last year. I should be delighted to take the list to which the hon. Lady refers and raise it with the authorities when I meet them in the coming days.

I genuinely apologise to colleagues whom I was not able to call, but we did proceed relatively slowly today, which did not greatly assist matters. However, this is a box-office occasion and I shall try to bear in mind those who were not able to contribute today for subsequent occasions.