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Topical Questions

Volume 574: debated on Tuesday 21 January 2014

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.