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Topical Questions

Volume 582: debated on Tuesday 17 June 2014

I have announced to the House by written statement this morning that following discussions with the Iranian Foreign Minister we will be reopening our embassy in Tehran. Initially, that will be with a small diplomatic team, but it is an important step forward in our bilateral relations with Iran. In addition to discussing our common interests, we will continue to press Iran to reach a deal with us and the other nations of the E3 plus 3 on its nuclear programme and to promote stability in the region by ending its support for sectarian groups.

I welcome the visit of the Chinese premier to the UK this week. Does the Foreign Secretary agree that it is important that we continue to build a long-term relationship with China on the basis of our shared global interests as well as on the basis of trade? Trade is particularly important to businesses in my constituency and across the west midlands, where companies such as Jaguar Land Rover have been leading a surge in exports to China over the past two years.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. That economic partnership is flourishing, as the Prime Minister’s visit to China in December showed. There are record levels of bilateral trade and investment, and UK exports to China were up 15% last year. China also invested more than £8 billion in the UK last year. Jaguar Land Rover is particularly to be congratulated on its fantastic export performance.

Mr Speaker, as you know, the next British European Commissioner will have to face scrutiny from the European Parliament before the nomination can be confirmed. Would it not be more appropriate for the British people to scrutinise that appointment first, through this House?

I am sure that whenever the Prime Minister puts forward the name of the man or woman whom the Government wish to fill that role, there will be ample opportunity for Members of this House to express their various views.

T2. Last year, the Palestinian Authority paid more than £60 million to Palestinians convicted of terror offences. What is the Foreign Secretary’s assessment of that policy of financially rewarding terrorism? Is he aware of recent reports that the Palestine Liberation Organisation has been mandated by the Palestinian Authority to continue that awful practice on its behalf? (904235)

The Palestinian Authority is working very hard, as we want it to do, in its new incarnation and with its new members. It is committed to the Quartet principle of bringing about a lasting and peaceful two-state solution with Israel, and we look to it to do that. We expect all its actions to be consistent with doing that. We give considerable financial aid to the Palestinian Authority, and I know that the Department for International Development takes great care over the allocation and use of that aid.

T6. It took two years to bring the murderers of my constituent, Khuram Shaikh, to trial, owing to the close links between one of the suspects and the Sri Lankan President. The trial is now well advanced, but we have just learned that it might have to start again because the President is contemplating promoting the judge. For the sake of Khuram’s family, will the Minister work with his counterparts in Sri Lanka and press for the trial to run its course? (904239)

We continue to impress upon the Sri Lankan authorities the importance that we and the family of the murdered British national, Khuram Shaikh, attach to bringing those responsible to justice. They are in no doubt as to the seriousness with which we view these terrible events, and have assured us that they view them in the same way. We hope that, nearly two and a half years after this heinous crime took place, the accused will now face a fair trial that is free from political interference. The trial is now under way, and we continue to provide consular assistance to Khuram Shaikh’s family.

T3. What steps is my right hon. Friend taking to ensure that the upcoming Palestinian elections in places such as East Jerusalem will be free and democratic? (904236)

As I mentioned earlier, it will be of paramount importance that those elections, which are scheduled to take place within six months of the formation of the new Government, are free and democratic and that Palestinians throughout the occupied territories are able to take part in them. We will of course make representations to the Israelis and to the Palestinians about that.

T9. Given the far-too-regular incursions of Spanish ships into British territorial waters and the continuing long delays at Spanish border crossings, what further actions are Ministers taking to resolve the issue over Gibraltar? Will they give me a guarantee that a Minister will visit Gibraltar real soon? (904242)

In answer to the hon. Gentleman’s last question, I am hoping to visit Gibraltar again in the near future, and I remain in regular contact with the Chief Minister and the Gibraltar Government. We make protests to Spain in respect of every illegal incursion into British Gibraltar waters and, now that the deadline has passed, we are pressing the European Commission to take action to ensure that Spain respects her European responsibilities to allow the decent movement of people across the border, subject only to proportionate and fully justified checks.

T4. On a visit to Djibouti at the end of last year I saw the enormous investment that is going in there and the opportunities for trade and business links. What have the Government been able to do to reinforce the trade links between the UK and Djibouti, perhaps through UK Trade & Investment? (904237)

I know that my hon. Friend takes a keen interest in progress in Djibouti and the important UK-Djibouti links. He will be aware that we held a highly successful and well-attended Djibouti-UK trade and investment conference in London last year and there has been follow-up from that. We hope that will continue by taking UK companies to Djibouti, particularly in key economic sectors that are aligned with the priorities of the Djibouti Government.

Those of us who voted against the incursion into Iraq did so honourably on two main bases—first, there was no imminent threat to the United Kingdom, and secondly, the humanitarian problems that would be created and future discontent. How, therefore, can the Foreign Secretary now defend the actions of Tony Blair, who took us to war on a tissue of untruths?

All hon. Members on all sides of the House debated and voted honourably on that issue and we should respect the arguments made then and now on both sides. As I said to the House yesterday in the course the statement, we must await the outcome of the Chilcot inquiry before we try to pass judgment on those events, and we must concentrate for the moment on what we do now. I made it clear that we are not planning in these circumstances a British military intervention in Iraq.

T5. I welcome the announcement that our embassy in Iran is to reopen. In supporting improved relations between our two countries, we must not forget why the embassy had to close in the first place. It was because local security forces stood back and allowed a mob to storm the embassy and take it over. Has my right hon. Friend received any guarantees that this will not be repeated? (904238)

Yes; this is a very important point. As I set out in the written statement that I have issued today, our primary concerns when considering whether to reopen the embassy were that we had an assurance that our staff would be safe and secure, and that we had the confidence that they would be able to carry out their functions. The Foreign Ministry of Iran has given assurances. We will continue to discuss those issues in the run-up to the reopening of the embassy and they remain our paramount concerns.

In view of the rapidly changing circumstances in Iraq, and in view of the fact that the President of the United States has changed his policy a little, may we have continuing reports on the developing situation instead of relying on Question Time or a statement from the Foreign Secretary? I have had several e-mails in the past few days from women MPs in Iraq who are very concerned about their circumstances. What assurances can we give them?

I always try to keep the House thoroughly informed about a wide range of crises and I will do so on Iraq. If the right hon. Lady needs any specific information, she can contact my office in the Foreign Office. If she does that, we will supply all the information we can.

T7. Given the situation in Ukraine and the Russian military manoeuvres taking place, what support are we giving to NATO nations such as the Baltic states and Poland? (904240)

We are giving a great deal of support. My hon. Friend may be aware that we sent four Typhoon jets to take part in Baltic air policing patrols. Some of our soldiers have taken part in other exercises recently in the Baltic states. When we meet as NATO Foreign Ministers next week in Brussels we will discuss this and the further action that we can take to strengthen the credibility and the visibility of NATO’s commitment to collective defence.

On the same subject, in a statement on 28 April the Foreign Secretary advised that a request from Ukraine for non-lethal military support was being considered sympathetically. What was the outcome?

Yes, we decided—sympathetically—in the light of that to supply certain items, including fuel and body armour. I think that those have been published, but if they have not I will make sure that the hon. Lady receives details of them.

T8. The Secretary of State referred to the pause in negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians, but there has been no pause in the expansion of what he himself has described as illegal settlements. What is the point of something being illegal under international law if the international community is not willing to deal with the criminal breaking the law? Is not this softly, softly approach towards Israel failing to bring about peace and justice for the Palestinians? (904241)

No one has succeeded in bringing about lasting peace so far, but we have to continue to try to do so. The only way in which Palestinians will be able to enjoy what I think we all believe in here—a viable and sovereign state of their own—is through successful negotiations arriving at a two-state solution. All our actions are therefore consistent with promoting that.

May I turn the Foreign Secretary’s attention to the situation facing the Democratic Republic of the Congo and its neighbouring countries? There have undeniably been huge changes and improvements in the DRC and I commend him for his work on violence against women and rape as a weapon of war, but is he not concerned that last week there was an exchange of fire between Rwandan forces and the DRC, and that Rwanda still appears to have some military ambitions in that region? Will he put pressure on it to desist?

The hon. Gentleman raises an important point, and I can give him an assurance that we are heavily engaged from a diplomatic perspective in trying to support the international community in finding a resolution to the challenges that the eastern DRC has faced for far too long. To that end I met both the Rwandan Foreign Minister and Senator Feingold, the US special representative for the region, to encourage everybody to work together, both to find a lasting solution to remove the militia groups that operate in the eastern DRC, including the ADF and the FDLR, but also to find long-term solutions to the big problem.

We should welcome the resumption of diplomatic relations with Tehran and their normalisation, but is it not necessary to reassure our closest allies in the middle east that there are severe limits for the foreseeable future as to the kind of relationship that we can have with Iran? Will it not in fact be the kind of relationship that the west had with the Soviet Union during the cold war—diplomatic relations, trade and practical co-operation in specific areas?

There are limits, and it will start off with a small diplomatic team and we will seek to build that up in stages as relations develop, so it will be a small embassy to begin with. Of course, many difficult areas of relations will remain, including on the nuclear issue, on regional stability and on human rights in Iran, and we will not shrink from pursuing those issues just as strongly as we always have.

Further to Question 9, the Foreign Secretary will be aware of Prime Minister Modi’s belligerent comments about India’s relationship with Pakistan in the past. Will there be discussions on that relationship during his upcoming trip to India?

Of course, we will always discuss regional security issues, but we should welcome the invitation that Prime Minister Modi extended to other south Asian regional leaders to his inauguration, and the fact that Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif of Pakistan responded so positively to that and attended the inauguration. That was the right way to start out, and we hope that policy will continue in the same vein.

On matters European, is there truth in the latest word coming out of Berlin that Chancellor Merkel is firming up in her support behind her preferred European presidency candidate? Where British Government influence upon her is concerned, was that decision assisted, in direct contradiction to the view of the Prime Minister, by the British Conservative MEPs voting to admit to membership of their group the ultra right-wing German Conservatives, who are the thorn in the flesh of the self-same Chancellor Merkel?

As the Prime Minister made clear, he regards the CDU/CSU as a sister party with whom we continue to enjoy close and positive relations. In respect of the proposals for the new President of the European Commission, we are of the view that it is important that the Commission is led by a man or woman who has energy, drive and a determination to take through an agenda of economic and political reform to face the serious challenges that Europe confronts, not least getting back to work the millions of jobless youngsters in Europe.

Has the Secretary of State emphasised to the Israeli Government that travel restrictions or other constraints that would prevent Ministers in the technocratic Government from meeting will mean only that they are unable to meet their responsibilities not just to all Palestinians but to the peace process?

Of course we want the technocratic Government of the Palestinian Authority to be able to function. They have committed themselves to the Quartet principles—that, to us, is a very important test—and so we want them to be able to function and to make decisions.

Order. I am sorry to disappoint remaining colleagues but, as I have often said, this is a box office occasion on which demand greatly exceeds supply, and we should now move on.