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Topical Questions

Volume 576: debated on Tuesday 4 March 2014

I thank the Secretary of State for that answer.

With the Antarctic Act 2013 now successfully passed, what reassurance can Ministers give on encouraging other signatory states to the treaty to ensure that they, too, put into their domestic law measures to protect the Antarctic?

My hon. Friend deserves huge congratulations on successfully piloting his private Member’s Bill through Parliament and the significant positive contribution that the Antarctic Act 2013 will make. Other countries need to ratify the treaty’s provisions quickly so that they can come into effect. I know that through his contacts he is pushing Germany and the United States, and I can inform the House that my officials are in regular contact with their counterparts and will use the Antarctic treaty meeting in April to continue to push other countries to ratify.

Given Chancellor Merkel’s confirmation that she does not support a fundamental reform of the European Union’s architecture, will the Minister for Europe update the House on when we may expect some clarity from the Prime Minister about what powers he wants repatriated to the UK?

I was heartened by Chancellor Merkel’s strong words about her determination to work with the Prime Minister to secure a European Union that is significantly more competitive, more democratic and more flexible than it is today. I wish that, instead of carping all the time, the hon. Gentleman would join us in that great project of reform.

T2. The coalition Government have set great store by encouraging stronger economic, cultural, religious and tourism links with India. With that in mind, there is constant lobbying for the reintroduction of direct flights from London to Gujarat, and especially Ahmedabad. What diplomatic efforts can Ministers launch to assist that campaign and get that much needed reform in place? (902810)

Of course the issue of direct flights between London and Ahmedabad is ultimately a commercial decision for airlines, but India hosts the largest UK diplomatic network in the world and we now have a British trade office there. I visited Gujarat and met the state’s Chief Minister Modi in March 2013, and we would welcome such direct flights because a huge section of the population travels to and does business with that thriving and vibrant part of India.

T5. What impact will our worsening relations with Russia have on our ability and that of our NATO allies to bring military equipment from Afghanistan back home via the overland route through Russia? (902813)

That remains to be seen, but as the hon. Gentleman knows, the Ministry of Defence has important arrangements not just Russia but with several central Asian countries, and there are also other routes out of Afghanistan. There has been no impact so far, but we will keep the House informed.

T3. Next week will mark three years of devastating bloodshed in Syria and one of the worst humanitarian crises of our time. Will my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State tell the House what assessment he has made of the effectiveness of the preventing sexual violence initiative in ensuring that those who have survived sexual violence receive the comprehensive services that they need not only inside Syria but in the wider region? (902811)

We have started our work on that, but there is much more to do. The team of experts that I formed, who can be deployed anywhere in the world to help local groups and authorities to combat sexual violence, have been deployed to the Syrian border. Of course we have ensured that of those people who will be entitled to come to the United Kingdom, we shall strongly prioritise those who are vulnerable to violence, including the victims of sexual violence. However, we are only scratching the surface of this immense and tragic issue, which we will discuss further at the preventing sexual violence summit that I will host in London in June.

T6. Following the Israeli Prime Minister’s visit to Washington this week, will Ministers give their assessment of the progress of the Kerry talks between Israel and Palestine towards achieving a two-state solution and, especially, regarding illegal settlements? (902814)

There remains, I hope, healthy optimism that something positive will come out of the Kerry process. I think Members on both sides of the House will commend the energy that the United States Secretary of State has brought to the issue. He hopes to agree outline terms by the end of March, and at that stage we will be in a much better position to see how we might take the process forward.

T4. On Saturday, more than 100 people were injured and, tragically, 29 were killed as a result of the brutal mass stabbing in the Chinese city of Kunming. Does my right hon. Friend agree that, whatever the underlying issues, that horrific attack is no solution to the problem? Will he join me in expressing our condolences to the families of those affected? (902812)

I strongly condemn the brutal terrorist attack at Kunming train station on 1 March. My thoughts and sympathies are with the families of the victims and those injured. Our consular team responded immediately to reports of the incident, speaking to local police and hospitals where the victims were taken for treatment. The Yunnan authorities have confirmed that no British nationals were caught up in the attack. We remain in touch with the local authorities and receive regular updates.

T7. One of the main reasons given to this House in 2001 for our involvement in Afghanistan was that 90% of the heroin consumed in Britain came from Afghanistan. Thirteen years later, and after the tragic deaths of 447 of our brave soldiers, 90% of the heroin on the streets of Britain is still coming from Afghanistan, where the heroin crop is at a record level. Helmand is controlled by the Taliban. Can this be described as “mission accomplished”? (902815)

The hon. Gentleman is right that the flow of narcotics from Afghanistan remains a very serious problem that has not been defeated, but of course many other things have been achieved in Afghanistan, and he is losing sight of that in his question. Terrorist bases that were operating for al-Qaeda in Afghanistan have been destroyed, the threat to the world from terrorism originating in Afghanistan is now much less than it was in 2001, and the Afghan people have been able to make enormous progress in other ways—so that is only one dimension on which we should measure the operations in Afghanistan.

Touching on the Foreign Secretary’s responsibility for GCHQ, in a speech this morning the Deputy Prime Minister initiated an independent review of the intelligent balance that needs to be struck between digital freedom and national security. Even to a keen supporter of the intelligence services like me, that does not seem unreasonable. Why were Conservative Ministers not willing to support it?

The Deputy Prime Minister was speaking in his own capacity on that issue. I reiterate what I have said to the House before about the extremely strong system of oversight that we have in this country, with which my hon. Friend is very familiar. Of course, there are issues being looked at now by the Intelligence and Security Committee, and I think it wise for most of us to await the Committee’s report.

There is obviously an appetite for democracy in Bangladesh. Why do the Government not go further in pressing, as the EU and other countries have, for fresh, free and fair national elections in that country?

I understand the point the hon. Gentleman makes, but he needs to recognise that the elections were held in accordance with the Bangladesh constitution. I understand that voters in more than half the constituencies did not have the opportunity to express their will at the ballot box, but the final result of elections in Bangladesh is ultimately a matter for the Bangladeshi people to judge. The United Kingdom will continue to provide support through updating electoral registers and training polling officials.

In February 2011, I was on an Inter-Parliamentary Union delegation to Georgia. We went to the border with South Ossetia where, through binoculars, we saw Russian troops and the Russian flag displayed. The Russians had invaded in 2008 and they remain there today. Anyone who believes that doing nothing will remove the Russian troops from Crimea should look at history; it will actually do the reverse.

Of course I will come on to these issues in a minute, in my statement. My hon. Friend is quite right to point to what has happened in Abkhazia, South Ossetia and, indeed, Transnistria, where Russian troops remain stationed on a permanent or long-term basis. There is every indication that the intentions for Crimea are the same.

T8. Notwithstanding the Minister’s answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Rochdale (Simon Danczuk), the political violence and deaths in Bangladesh are deeply disturbing. How are the Government using their good offices to assist the parties there to restore civil order and create good governance? (902817)

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to highlight the appalling electoral violence in Bangladesh, which we completely condemn. We continue to support the Government structures by updating electoral registers, training polling officials and putting in place new systems for publishing details, particularly as people stand for office. Those improvements will, we hope, create and strengthen the foundations for better future elections.

What assessment do Ministers make of reports that Iran is stepping up its already considerable military assistance to the Syrian regime?

The simple answer is that those reports are almost certainly credible. One of the most damaging aspects of the conflict in Syria is the help given by both Iran and Hezbollah to the regime forces. That will need to stop before there can be any peace in that country.

When the Foreign Secretary visited Colombia recently, did he raise the fact that last year 78 human rights defenders, political activists and community leaders were killed—the highest number for a decade? Does that not suggest that the Government’s constant reiteration of the claim that things are getting better in Colombia is not the case and that more needs to be done to protect people engaging in perfectly legitimate political activity?

Yes, in Colombia two weeks ago I raised those issues with the President and other Ministers, including the increase in the number of deaths of human rights defenders last year, which is very important. Part of the answer is a successful peace process, and the Colombian Government have been right and courageous to embark on that. If successful, it will change the entire environment in Colombia, but more needs to be done in other ways to protect human rights defenders, and that is certainly something we discussed with the Colombian Government.

Does my right hon. Friend the Minister for Europe agree that although the free trade agreement with the United States is a very good step in the right direction, it is nevertheless very unambitious that the EU spends only 2% of its annual budget on trade, compared with over 40% on subsidising farming?

I must say that if the Commission is looking for a way to allocate its priorities better, beefing up its excellent team in the Directorate-General for Trade would be a good way of going about it.

There has been international condemnation of Putin’s actions as Russian aggression intensifies in Ukraine. However, European leaders seem hampered by the dependence of much of the European Union on Russian oil and gas. What effective action will be taken to stop Putin walking over the will of the people of Ukraine?

I will be making a statement on Ukraine in a moment, as the House knows, and setting out many aspects of that. It is very important that we maintain a clear and united international response.

Will the Government support an independent Crimea if its people vote for that in a referendum, because presumably the Government will support an independent Scotland if its people choose to be independent?

Here in this House and in the United Kingdom we believe in freedom, democracy and self-determination around the world, but my right hon. Friend will recall that the referendum in Scotland is taking place with the agreement of this House and of the Government of the United Kingdom as a whole. Under the Ukrainian constitution, that would be the proper arrangement in Crimea as well.

Why did the UK refuse to join 146 other states at the recent conference in Mexico on the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons?

Because we believe that there are other international forums that are more effective for achieving those aims.