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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 584: debated on Tuesday 22 July 2014

Foreign and Commonwealth Office

The Secretary of State was asked—


1. What assessment he has made of whether the recent use of force by the Israelis in Gaza is proportionate; and what steps he is taking to promote a ceasefire in that conflict. (904983)

2. What steps his Department is taking to support projects which foster co-operation and co-existence between Israelis and Palestinians. (904984)

11. What recent discussions he has had with his Israeli and Palestinian counterparts and others on the continuing violence and loss of life in Gaza. (904993)

15. What recent discussions he has had with his Israeli and Palestinian counterparts on progress towards peace in that region. (904998)

May I begin by apologising for the Foreign Secretary’s absence? He is in Brussels attending the EU Foreign Affairs Council. In his absence, I am, of course, delighted to be answering 14 of the 25 oral questions today.

As the Prime Minister said in his comprehensive statement yesterday, we are clear that Israel has a right to defend itself against these attacks. No country would stand by as rockets are fired or terrorist tunnels are constructed into their territory. We are equally clear that Israel’s response must be proportionate, taking all necessary steps to minimise civilian casualties in line with international humanitarian law.

I thank the Minister for his response, but we have seen kids being bombed on beaches, tanks attacking hospitals and hundreds of civilians—babies, mothers, patients—being killed. Thousands of Rochdale people and millions of people in the United Kingdom expect their Government to condemn more and understand less. Will the Foreign Secretary and the Minister call Israel to account over its actions in Gaza?

Nobody can fail but be moved by the incredible heart-wrenching scenes we have seen on television. I spoke to the Israeli ambassador and the Palestinian head of mission to the UK yesterday, and I raised concerns about the civilian deaths and casualties with the Israeli ambassador and urged him to ensure that any allegations relating to proportionality be investigated, and he assured me that this would be the case.

We realise that peace is not just about a settlement between Governments, but about people living together. I know that the Foreign Office invests significant resources in single community projects, but in order to build up confidence and break down barriers between the peoples in the region will the Minister look at how we can support cross-community initiatives?

The right hon. Lady is right to point out that there are some wider issues to be dealt with. Our aim is to support and strengthen constituencies for peace through the tri-departmental conflict pool fund. In 2013-14 we funded 17 projects through the conflict pool programme for Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories, with a budget of £4 million.

I welcome the Minister to his post. I support Israel’s right to defend itself and I condemn the actions of Hamas, but may I urge the Minister to redouble the British Government’s efforts not just to achieve a ceasefire but to restart peace talks designed to achieve a lasting peace, so that we can end this recurring spectre of the suffering of thousands of innocent Palestinians?

That is exactly what the Foreign Secretary is trying to achieve in his work in Brussels today, and the Egyptian leadership is making efforts to do the same, bringing parties together in the region. The UK has three objectives: to secure a ceasefire; to alleviate humanitarian suffering; and to keep alive the prospects for peace negotiations, which are the only hope for ending the cycle of violence once and for all.

Will the Minister confirm that if the Foreign Secretary last week, when he was Defence Secretary, had ordered British troops to fire on civilian communities in the way the Israelis have, he would be guilty of a war crime?

I am not going to get drawn into that. I think the hon. Gentleman raised the same issue with the Prime Minister yesterday and I will leave my comments there.

Last week, four boys, all from the Bakr family, aged seven to 11 years—Zakaria, Ahed and two boys named Mohammad—were playing hide and seek among the fishermen’s huts at the Gaza city harbour when, as they ran along the beach, their bodies were ripped to shreds in an instant by an incoming Israeli shell. What threat did those little boys pose to Israeli security, and will the Minister condemn the murderous behaviour of Israel as completely disproportionate and a crime against humanity?

The hon. Gentleman makes an important point implicitly, which is that, sadly, the location of this battlefield is one of the most populous areas on the planet. Hamas and Israeli armed forces are conducting these operations in densely populated areas, not least in the Shujai’iya district. Unfortunately, that is also where the tunnel systems are operating and from where, on average, 147 rockets are hitting Israel every day—but, absolutely, as I said before, there are questions to be raised about the civilians, and I put those to the Israeli ambassador yesterday.

First, may I welcome my hon. Friend to what, although it does not look like it at the moment, is the best junior ministerial job in the Government? Although an urgent ceasefire is essential, the reason Gaza is ablaze again remains the same as ever: the inability of the Palestinian Authority, Hamas and Israel to make the necessary concessions to each other to ensure a middle east peace agreement. Will he use his time in office to ensure that the UK does all in its power, together with friends from Washington to all the Arab states, to drive the parties together again for the negotiations that each must have with the other? Will he ensure that they do understand that whatever the justifications for their actions—God knows, we have heard and sympathised with them all for decades—it is no longer worth the loss of life of any more little boys and girls?

First, I pay tribute to the work my right hon. Friend did as Minister with responsibility for the middle east. I am grateful for the support he has already provided me with, and I hope it continues. He rightly says that we must participate, with other nations, in looking for a long-term solution. A cessation of the violence will allow the opportunity to tackle the underlying causes of instability in the Gaza strip, without which the long-term security of both Israel and Gaza will not be secured.

The Israeli defence forces have detected 18 Hamas-built tunnels and found 45 others extending from Gaza into Israel. Many of the tunnels in Gaza originate in civilian areas, beneath homes, greenhouses and mosques. Does my hon. Friend agree that it is quite understandable that Israel seeks to find these tunnels and destroy them to protect its country and its civilians?

It is worrying that on 8 July a Hamas spokesman called on civilians in the Gaza strip to serve as human shields. We have seen on television the pictures of those tunnels, and I have seen reports that 20% of the concrete that goes into Gaza is put to use in making them. That is a shocking indictment of the priorities of Hamas and it needs to change.

19. I draw the House’s attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. On 15 July, 17 July and 20 July, Israel agreed to accept a ceasefire, but was greeted by Hamas firing more rockets at Israel. What assessment has the Foreign Secretary made of the refusal by Hamas to accept a ceasefire? (905003)

My hon. Friend rightly points out that Israel has put forward its interest in a ceasefire, and that remains today. We call upon Hamas to join the ranks in Egypt to discuss not just the ceasefire but long-term peace prospects for the area.

Respectable democracies should not meet unacceptable attacks with unacceptable and disproportionate responses, including the bombing of mosques and hospitals, and the deaths of hundreds of civilians. Is the Secretary of State today raising with other European Governments the EU-Israel association agreement, which is supposed to be based on the shared values of respect for human rights, peace and stability?

I will not pre-empt what the Secretary of State will announce at his meeting. I know that his primary objective is to join all the parties and call for an immediate ceasefire.

Does the Minister agree that the terrible carnage in Gaza means that the prospects for the two-state solution we all want are vanishing? It was still very possible back in 2000; I recall that when I was middle east Minister I had discussions with Prime Minister Barak and Yasser Arafat in Palestine, but that all collapsed and Hamas was elected. Now, Israel’s refusal to negotiate seriously with Hamas, coupled with its merciless assault on Gaza, risks inviting in something even worse and more extreme—ISIS. Surely we should learn from Northern Ireland that to end wars people have to negotiate with their enemies or the terror simply gets worse.

I pay tribute to the right hon. Gentleman for his interest and experience in this area. He is right to point out that we face very difficult challenges. On a positive note, we welcome the announcement of the formation of a new interim technocratic Government for the Occupied Palestinian Territories, reuniting Gaza and the west bank under a Government committed to peace, which is a necessary condition for resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Last week, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency issued a statement showing that Hamas had left missiles and rocket launchers inside a school in Gaza. Does that not show that Hamas is using its civilians to protect its missiles and that Israel is using its missile defences to protect its civilians from attack?

As I implied earlier, it is unfortunate that these events are taking place in one of the most populous areas of the world, and Hamas seems to be taking advantage of that to launch its attacks.

Is the hon. Gentleman aware that I warned Yitzhak Rabin, the former Israeli Prime Minister, that if he did not make peace with Fatah, he would be left with Hamas? He made the effort and was murdered for his pains by another Jew. Will the Minister make it clear that, with the death toll rising to 600, which includes the murder of 25 members of one extended family, he will join John Kerry, who has derided and scorned Israel’s claim of pinpointing its attacks and warned it that not only will it suffer more casualties but that it will be left with Palestinians who will refuse ever to negotiate with it?

The right hon. Gentleman illustrates how complex these matters are. I join him in congratulating John Kerry on the work he has done. The UK Government strongly support the tireless efforts of the US Secretary of State and his team to facilitate a final status agreement between the Israelis and the Palestinians, and I know he is pursuing that now he has arrived in the region.

My hon. Friend will know the impact that white phosphorus shells can have on civilian populations in particular. Many of us were appalled to see the use of them in a previous Israeli incursion into Gaza. Will he inform the Israeli ambassador, and all parties in this conflict, that the eyes of the world are on them, and that, whatever their reasons for prosecuting this conflict, we will be watching them very carefully to see how they are doing that?

The use of white phosphorus and indeed of cluster munitions was raised in the Prime Minister’s statement yesterday. We have seen no evidence to date that they have been used during recent events in Gaza. However, the defence section in Tel Aviv will approach the Israeli defence forces to inquire whether they are being used in this current campaign.

May I welcome the Minister to his post and say that I fully appreciate the reasons for the new Foreign Secretary being in Brussels today. As we have heard, Operation Protective Edge has already cost more than 580 Palestinian lives, most of whom are civilians and many of whom are innocent children. Last week, I warned that an Israeli ground operation in Gaza would bring more suffering for the Palestinians and would be a strategic error for Israel. The Opposition are clear that we oppose this escalation. Do the Government?

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his kind remarks; I hope that I get the same warm welcome at every Foreign Office questions. He is right to remind the House of the heavy death toll that is being endured in the region, with almost 600 dead, 3,600 injured and 83,000 displaced so far. These matters are being raised in Brussels as we speak, and I think the Foreign Secretary intends to put out a statement on his return.

That was a troubling answer, even from a colleague whom I welcome to his position on the Front Bench. I welcome the fact that the US Secretary of State John Kerry has travelled to Cairo seeking an urgent ceasefire, but the pattern of rocket attacks, periodic invasion and permanent occupation does not bring security for Israel and brings further humiliation and suffering for the Palestinians. As in the past, this incursion will end with an agreement. The question is how many more children and civilians need to die before such an agreement is reached. Does the Minister accept that the absence of such an agreement will recruit more terrorists at exactly the point at which Hamas had been weakened by events in Tehran, Syria and Egypt?

I think that the right hon. Gentleman misses the point. The work that has been going on is trying to achieve a ceasefire, which is why the Foreign Secretary, who is in Brussels at the moment, will be flying to the region very shortly. John Kerry is there and so is Ban Ki-moon. We also must not forget that Hamas is firing an average of 147 rockets every single day. Were that to stop, the situation in Gaza would change significantly.

Freedom of Religion and Belief

3. What recent discussions he has had with his overseas counterparts on upholding freedom of religion and belief. (904985)

4. What recent discussions he has had with his overseas counterparts on upholding freedom of religion and belief. (904986)

We remain deeply concerned about a disturbing and unwelcome trend of persecution on the basis of religion or belief. Regrettably, this is not confined to a single region nor to a single faith, but we counteract it wherever we can. This has included recent work from Sudan to Nigeria, from Iraq to Burma, and from Pakistan to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

I thank the Minister for that answer, but in Egypt Coptic and Orthodox churches are being attacked, in Mosul in Iraq Christians have been driven out by ISIS, Muslims in Burma are facing violence from mobs and Christians in Pakistan face persecution from the state. Is it not time that the international community, led by this UK Government, took more action on this growing crisis?

The hon. Gentleman is right to highlight these terrible things. Some hon. Members will have seen the reports in The Times this morning about ISIS in Iraq, and they are truly troubling. We continue to work through the United Nations to ensure that states implement Human Rights Council resolution 16/18, which focuses on combating religious intolerance, protecting the human rights of minorities and promoting pluralism in society. The hon. Gentleman will have to agree, however, that ensuring freedom of religion and freedom of speech in some of these countries, which face the most horrific internal disruptions, is extremely difficult.

Ayatollah Tehrani’s gift of illuminated calligraphy to the Baha’i is an act in the spirit of the UN declaration of human rights, which states that everyone has a right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion. Notwithstanding what the Minister has just said, which I welcome, what more can Britain do to celebrate such acts and challenge religious intolerance, wherever it occurs in the world?

I think that it would be appropriate for me to pay tribute to my noble Friend Baroness Warsi, who has been doing some excellent work in this area, not least by convening a high-level international grouping on the subject during the UN General Assembly ministerial week in New York. She will reconvene that group. We have also set up an advisory group on the freedom of religion or belief in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and we will continue to do what we can through our embassies around the world. It is extremely difficult work at this time, when religions of all types, not just Christians, are facing the most horrific oppression in all four corners of the world.

Will the Government continue to make representations to the Government of Pakistan to reform their blasphemy laws, which are often used to persecute and prosecute minority communities, including the Christian community? In particular, will the Government take up the case of Aisha Bibi, a mother of five children and a Christian who has been convicted under these laws and has been imprisoned for four years awaiting an appeal?

We raise these issues consistently at senior ministerial levels in Pakistan. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and my right hon. Friend the then Foreign Secretary lobbied Prime Minister Sharif during his visit in May. We made it clear that Pakistan must guarantee the rights of all its citizens, regardless of their ethnicity.

Given our historic ties with and moral responsibility for the people of Hong Kong, will the Minister make it clear that our growing friendship with China requires its leaders to keep their promise at the time of the handover to allow free and fair elections in Hong Kong by 2017?

Indeed. I met Martin Lee and Anson Chan when they were over here last week. We stand by our early commitments. We want to see a transition towards universal suffrage, but ultimately that must be decided by the Government in the Hong Kong special administrative region, by the people of Hong Kong and by the Government in Beijing.

Will the Minister update the House on the violence in Mandalay in Burma earlier this month, and on the fact that the religious affairs Minister is now in custody?

The hon. Lady probably knows better than almost anyone in the House that the situation in Burma remains extremely difficult. Given our meetings and exchanges across the Floor of the House, I think that she recognises the extraordinary work and support that we are putting in to ensure a transition from one form of government to a democracy in Burma, with all its religious and ethnic divides. We continue to lobby. I had the Burmese ambassador in recently to raise my concerns about the consensus but also about religious tolerance, with the Rohingya. If the hon. Lady wishes to come and see me, I am always happy to discuss the situation in Burma, as she knows. We are the first Government to have produced a cross-Burma strategy showing all the work that we are doing there.

Will the Minister of State speak with the Secretary of State for International Development to ensure that UK taxpayers’ money does not go directly to states that persecute the Christian Church worldwide?

I think we have got better at ensuring that our aid goes to the right places, but the hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to raise it. Of course, there is an issue. As we have reached 0.7% of GDP going to our aid budget, and as the GDP of this country increases due to the success of the Government’s long-term economic plan, there is more money around to help alleviate poverty around the world. It is up to us to ensure that that money reaches the right target.

The world will have been shocked by the recent attacks on and violent expulsion of Christians in Mosul, but this is only the latest outrage in a rising tide of religious intolerance around the world, largely but by no means exclusively targeted at Christians. The United Nations declaration of human rights states that everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion. In this country, we enjoy that right, but too many around the world are persecuted for their faith. What, if any, substantial initiatives has the FCO taken to advance and protect those rights?

If I might say so, I think that the right hon. Gentleman might have written his question before I answered the first question, because I addressed the issue that he raises. I talked about the work being done by my noble Friend Baroness Warsi in convening high-level groupings at the UN General Assembly in ministerial week in New York, which she will be doing again. I have talked about the FCO’s new advisory group on freedom of religious belief. I have talked about our work with ambassadors and journalists around the world to encourage religious tolerance, which we will continue to do. We continue to take this issue, which is one of the FCO’s six human rights priorities, extraordinarily seriously. In a way, the issue is being addressed today in the girl summit, which follows the preventing sexual violence initiative summit. The Government cannot be accused of not doing our best.

In Sri Lanka, mosques and churches are subject to attacks by radical Buddhists. Will my right hon. Friend take the matter up with the Sri Lankan Government so that religious minorities are protected in this traditional land in Sri Lanka?

We remain concerned by the significant surge in attacks on minority groups in Sri Lanka—not least the recent anti-Muslim violence. I met representatives of the Sri Lankan Muslim community to listen to their concerns, which we have raised with the Sri Lankan Government. The March UN Human Rights Council resolution, which was driven by the UK, urges the Sri Lankan Government to investigate all alleged attacks on members of religious minority groups and temples, mosques and churches.

Given the track record of President Rajapaksa on accountability and reconciliation, is the Minister satisfied that he has the will and the capacity to act?

The hon. Lady will know that I went to the UNHRC to speak in favour of a resolution, which has brought about the inquiry. We still say that the Sri Lankan Government should listen to what is being suggested and should abide by the UN ruling. [Interruption.] The hon. Lady says from a sedentary position, “Will they?” Well, that remains to be seen. The answer is that they should. The UN has spoken. It wants an international inquiry, and Sri Lanka should respond.

Given the rise of religious intolerance, the violence in the middle east region and the ghastly widespread human suffering in Gaza, does my right hon. Friend agree that one notable exception to religious intolerance is the role of Christians and Christianity in Gaza?

I pay tribute to Christians who are suffering oppression all over the middle east and the rest of the world. It must be extraordinarily difficult to be a Christian in Gaza at the present time.


5. What recent assessment he has made of the political, security and humanitarian situation in Iraq. (904987)

7. What the Government’s policy is on the future constitutional and political status of Iraq; and if he will make a statement. (904989)

The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant poses a threat to Iraq, the region and beyond. I welcome the appointment of a new Parliamentary Speaker last week in Iraq, and hope a new and inclusive Government will be formed quickly. The UK has announced £5 million of humanitarian support for the people of Iraq.

I was for seven years the special envoy on human rights to Iraq, and the Minister accompanied me on one occasion, so he should be better informed of that than most. Has he seen the report by the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights? She says:

“Every day we receive accounts of a terrible litany of human rights violations being committed in Iraq against ordinary Iraqi children, women and men, who have been deprived of their security, their livelihoods,”

their education, their homes—and many of them, of course, have fled. What exactly are the British Government doing to help Iraqis at this time? The amount of money the Minister mentioned is totally insufficient.

If I may, I shall first pay tribute to the work that the right hon. Lady has done. It was a pleasure to travel with her and she is hugely experienced in this area. Unfortunately, the chaos that we are currently witnessing in Iraq is allowing many humanitarian problems to exist and allowing human rights violations to take place. We are working with the Iraqi leaders, and the urgent priority is the formation of an inclusive Government that can command the support of all the Iraqi leaders in the communities, and jointly combat the threat of ISIL. We welcome the fact that Iraq’s new Parliament met on 15 June to appoint a Speaker. The right hon. Lady will know that now the Speaker is in place, a President and a Prime Minister can be appointed. Those are positive steps in moving forward.

Unfortunately, the Foreign Secretary is not here, but in his last appearance as Defence Secretary, he told me three times that the British Government were in favour of a unified state in Iraq. Is the reality not that a state of Iraq will continue only if there is the loosest possible confederation? Given the facts on the ground, we should be doing far more to support the Kurdistan region, which is democratic and pluralistic, at this time.

I was in northern Iraq last month and I was there when President Barzani made the statement of intent to move towards independence. We have heard no more details on that and we will not react to that until something more is forthcoming. However, Iraq needs to be united in tackling the challenges it faces, including the serious threats that are posed not only in Iraq but in the wider region. To achieve that, a new and inclusive Iraqi Government must be formed as quickly as possible, which includes the Kurds. The hon. Gentleman will know from his visits to the country that the Kurds have been distanced from what is going on in Baghdad, as have the Sunnis. Moderate Sunnis have indeed been pushed into ISIL. We are looking for a more inclusive Baghdad Government, which will unify Iraq.

May I welcome my hon. Friend to his new position? It is a well deserved promotion. The Kurdistan Regional Government now have a 1,000 km border with ISIS. Their budget has not been paid since March by the central Government. Would the Minister’s Department look at what help we can offer the Kurdistan Regional Government? As John Kerry said, these people share our values. It is important that we support them in their struggle against ISIS.

It is not just the payment for the peshmerga; funds from Baghdad have been withheld in other areas, too. The UK will not take sides in that dispute, but we have offered on a number of occasions to mediate if that would be helpful and the offer remains on the table. We believe there is potential for a win-win solution to be found that can benefit both the Kurdistan region and the rest of Iraq, and indeed Turkey and Britain, as they promote exports of oil.

Like Boko Haram and the Taliban, when ISIS rape and enslave women, it is strategic—they are terrorising whole communities—but when our outstanding former Foreign Secretary led an international campaign against such violence, it was labelled “trivial” by many in our press. Will the new Minister please reject that fundamental misunderstanding of how communities are terrorised in such conflicts, and will he commit himself to fighting violence against women and girls as a security as well as a humanitarian priority?

First, I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for her work and commitment in this field. I would be grateful for the opportunity to meet her, to discuss it in more detail. She will be aware that a girl summit is taking place at Lancaster house today, and it will be focusing on those very issues.

May I raise again the issue of Christians in Iraq? I do not think the Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the right hon. Member for East Devon (Mr Swire), answered the previous question in any detail. What are the Government doing in the international community and the UN and with the Iraqi Government to bring attention to the plight of Christians in Iraq, given the terrible threats made against them?

There are threats to Christians, for example in the Mosul area, where they are experiencing intolerance and indeed brutality because of ISIL. That is a particular tragedy for Mosul, given that it has one of the oldest Christian communities in the world. We will work with the new Government in Baghdad to raise these matters further.

Does the state of Iraq have the necessary defence and security capability to recapture the territory lost to the caliphate forces?

My hon. Friend asks an important question. Because of the disparity in the way Iraq is currently operating—I have encouraged a more inclusive approach—there is a disjointed capability. The Americans have moved in with their advisers and are working very hard indeed to upgrade the authorised military capability, so that we do not need to lean on the militias, such as the Shi’ite militias, to tackle ISIL.

First, I welcome the Minister to his post. What is the Government’s assessment of the nature of the relationship between Prime Minister Maliki and the Kurdistan Regional Government?

As I implied and as the hon. Gentleman is aware, there has not been a good relationship between Baghdad and the Kurdish region. An improvement in that relationship is a prerequisite of Iraq remaining unified.

Property Mis-selling: Cyprus

Following our lobbying, the Cypriot Government have now formed a ministerial committee to address property issues, including foreign currency mortgages and title deeds. We continue to work with that committee and with the Cypriot Government generally to try to resolve property problems, which undoubtedly cause great anguish to those British citizens caught up in them.

The Minister is aware that thousands of British citizens, including a number of my constituents, have lost large sums of money—sometimes their life savings—as a result of a particular property mis-selling scam, and now some of them are being pursued in the British courts by some of the banks involved in the scandal. The decision by the Cypriot Government to set up a committee is therefore welcome, but can the Minister take a more active role in trying to ensure that those who have suffered from the scam do not suffer even more?

This certainly remains a high priority for us in our meetings with Cypriot Ministers; it is a matter which our high commissioner takes up regularly with Cypriot officials and Ministers and which I have raised on many occasions with successive Foreign Ministers of Cyprus. Clearly, when a matter is before United Kingdom courts, there are limits to what Ministers can do to intervene, but I will always be happy to talk to the hon. Gentleman if there are particular constituency cases he would like to discuss.


8. What recent assessment he has made of progress in the P5+1 negotiations with Iran on that country’s nuclear programme. (904990)

Negotiations with Iran on a comprehensive agreement have been tough but productive. It was not possible to reach a deal by 20 July, but both sides are committed to building on the progress that has been made. We have therefore agreed with Iran to extend the Geneva interim agreement until 24 November to give us the time to bridge the differences, in particular on the core issue of enrichment.

I congratulate the Minister on his well deserved appointment. Does he consider that the timetable set for agreement between the five permanent members of the Security Council plus Germany and Iran on the enrichment of nuclear materials is sufficient?

I am grateful for that welcome. The right hon. Gentleman and I have spent much time in this place discussing some of the very issues that we are talking about now. He is right to raise concerns about the deal. Rather than making a bad deal, we believe it is important to delay it to make sure that we have an appropriate deal. Talks have been productive. Both sides have worked hard on a draft text but more time is needed to bridge the differences that remain, in particular on enrichment, and to agree the details of how the agreement will be implemented.

21. The joint plan of action abandons the demands made by the six United Nations Security Council resolutions that Iran must halt all enrichment, so what assessment has my hon. Friend made of the message that this would send to the Iranian regime about how serious we are about sticking to our guns where Iran’s nuclear capabilities are concerned? (905005)

I appreciate my hon. Friend’s concerns and pay tribute to him for his interest in this area. We are looking for the appropriate deal to be struck. It has not been on the table up to this point. It was decided to delay matters until November and I hope to be able to report back to the House very soon on what progress has been made.

Murder Trials: British Nationals Abroad

We provide a high level of support to families whose loved ones are murdered or on trial abroad, alongside UK police and specialist non-governmental organisations which we part-fund. Support can include providing additional information about local lawyers, accompanying families to meetings and attending trials at key points. We are currently reviewing what additional support is possible and consulting widely on the matter.

Will the Minister look again at what financial assistance the Government can provide to parents of those murdered abroad, specifically including interest-free loans so that families of victims can attend trials on foreign soil and see for themselves that justice is done?

I am well aware that the hon. Gentleman has a particularly sensitive case in his constituency, but I can assure him that we look at the individual circumstances of every case and an assessment is made of vulnerability. We use NGOs such as Missing Abroad, which can help secure free or cheap flights. Also, we use NGOs to provide video conferencing facilities to enable loved ones to watch the proceedings that take place. I hope he has been contacted about the consultation. We are looking at what more we can do to help the families.

Bilateral EU Free Trade Agreements

10. What recent progress has been made on negotiations on bilateral EU free trade agreements; and if he will make a statement. (904992)

Earlier this month the European Union held the latest negotiating rounds on two major free trade agreements with the United States and Japan respectively. We are aiming to agree these deals next year. Between them they could add £15 billion to the United Kingdom’s economy each year.

I am grateful for that answer, although I think it is unfortunate that because of our membership of the European Union, we cannot enter into bilateral agreements ourselves. Nevertheless, does my right hon. Friend agree that the transatlantic trade and investment partnership will provide a useful boost to Jaguar Land Rover and other motoring companies in the west midlands and elsewhere?

A successful TTIP deal would indeed provide great opportunities for the United Kingdom’s very successful automotive industry, which has hit records in both production and exports during the lifetime of this Government. It would also benefit other areas of this country, most notably Scotland.

The Minister is trying to catch me out by mentioning Scotland, but he knows that there are major concerns in three areas about the TTIP between the EU and the US. One is food safety, with the use of hormones in the US, which may be forced into Europe. Secondly, there is the problem with the threat to public services and privatisation of the service. The third area of concern is dispute settlement in other agreements, which allows tobacco companies to take countries such as Australia to court for introducing packaging which shows people the damage caused by smoking tobacco. Will the Minister give me an assurance that we will not sign up to these three items without bringing them before the House for agreement?

As regards food safety, clearly we should be guided at all times by rigorous scientific analysis of what the risks amount to. On investor-state dispute settlements, the United Kingdom is already party to more than 90 of these, and the TTIP would provide explicit protection for the right to regulate, so I do not think the hon. Gentleman’s fears would be realised.

23. It is estimated that EU-US free trade will save the average family £400 a year through cheaper prices and increased competition. With such huge potential benefits, will my right hon. Friend push to ensure that the TTIP negotiations are completed as quickly as possible? (905007)

We believe that it is in the interests of every family in the United Kingdom that this successful trade deal is concluded as soon as possible. Priority areas for us include the automotive industry, financial services, procurement, agriculture, and food and drink. There are tremendous opportunities for British business through a successful TTIP negotiation.

Would it not be sensible for the Minister to ensure that his boss is properly briefed on the benefits to Britain of a successful EU-US trade deal, perhaps before the Foreign Secretary is next tempted to go on the airwaves and talk up the possibility of a British exit from the European Union?

The entire Government, since we came into office in May 2010, have made it a priority to increase the prosperity of the whole of Europe, including the United Kingdom, through a commitment to free trade—a priority that was sadly neglected under the Government in whom the hon. Gentleman served.

Middle East

We welcome the efforts to secure a ceasefire, which remains the best means of ending the current cycle of violence. I call upon Hamas, as I have already said, and all militant factions in Gaza to cease hostilities so that the bloodshed on both sides can stop.

What steps is my hon. Friend taking to ensure that there is no further escalation of violence in Gaza, that Israel acts in a proportionate and responsible manner, and that international aid and support gets through to the people who are suffering in Gaza?

We have increased our funding to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, the main UN organisation operating in Gaza, by £5 million. The Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary have been communicating with the parties involved in Gaza, and indeed in Israel, to encourage them to listen to what Egypt is saying and to agree a ceasefire.

Securing a ceasefire is urgently needed to stop this terrible loss of life. Will discussions on a ceasefire include considering the future of the terror tunnels, from which Mumbai-type atrocities are being planned against Israeli civilians?

The immediate priority is to have a ceasefire in place, and then, as John Kerry has stated, we can move towards a longer term solution, which must include all aspects, including—dare I say it?—the territories. These must be considered following on from the ceasefire itself.

Arms Sales: Russia

22. What discussions he has had with the French Government on arms sales to Russia; and if he will make a statement. (905006)

The United Kingdom has already suspended all such export licences to Russia where exports could be used against Ukraine. We have discussed the possibility of an EU-wide arms and defence exports embargo with the French Government, both bilaterally and at European Council and Council of Ministers meetings.

I urge the Minister to press the French and other EU countries more on that, because it really is time we all put principle ahead of short-term economic interest and stopped arming the Russian regime.

The Prime Minister made the British Government’s position clear yesterday during his response to questions on his statement. It is obviously for the French Government to take that decision, which at the moment they plan to take in October this year, and to defend whatever decision they take.

Order. Emulation of the brevity of the hon. Member for Torbay (Mr Sanders) is now required. I call Mr Barry Gardiner.

The Foreign Secretary is very clear about the use of sanctions against Russia and about their potential efficacy. Why, therefore, has the Foreign Office consistently said in relation to Sri Lanka that it does not believe in applying sanctions there or in other parts of the world?

The French Government, arms sales, Russia; I am sure that there was some relevance to those subjects in the hon. Gentleman’s question. I am working hard to find it.

Our priority in dealing with the Government of Sri Lanka has been to secure an independent investigation into the serious reports of human rights abuses in the north of that country. The Prime Minister has championed that priority and we achieved considerable success in that regard at the United Nations Human Rights Council.

It was a good question; it was just the wrong one. I am afraid that my efforts have failed. Even the Clerks, in all their distinction, cannot remotely fathom the pertinence of the inquiry by the hon. Member for Brent North (Barry Gardiner) to question No. 22, and I rather doubt whether the hon. Member for Torbay can either. But there we go—it is the last day, and there will be some latitude.

Topical Questions

In addition to the crisis in Gaza, our focus is very much on Ukraine. As the Prime Minister said yesterday, our approach is that, first, we need to see the repatriation of the victims’ bodies and the beginning of an independent investigation of what happened to flight MH17. Secondly, we believe that Russia must stop providing supplies and training to the separatists. Thirdly, we need to reassess this country’s and the European Union’s long-term relationships with Russia. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs is in Brussels today discussing exactly those matters with his European counterparts.

Does the Minister agree that the horrendous destruction of flight MH17 was a direct consequence of a regional crisis fomented by President Putin? Does he also agree that we must now move to tier 3 sanctions on defence, energy and banking? And, further to the question asked by the hon. Member for Torbay (Mr Sanders), surely those Russian sailors in Saint-Nazaire should now return home immediately.

We are certainly among those countries that have been pressing for some time at European meetings for a tougher and more rigorous sanctions policy to be adopted by the European Union. Sadly, the crisis in Donetsk and Luhansk appears to have been fomented quite deliberately by the Russian authorities, to whom the separatists look for matériel, for arms and for moral encouragement. It is in the interests of all of Europe that Russia desists from that policy and seeks reconciliation.

I welcome the Prime Minister’s statement yesterday on flight MH17. I also welcome whatever further steps can be agreed at the Foreign Affairs Council. In the light of recent developments, however, may I urge the Government urgently to seek an emergency meeting of the European Heads of Government? Does the Minister accept that, in reality, only the European Council is capable of taking the scale of diplomatic response that is increasingly obviously required?

We certainly do not rule out the necessity for that to happen, perhaps within a matter of days. I think it would be wise to assess the outcome of today’s Foreign Affairs Council meeting first, but the Prime Minister is alive to the possibility of such a meeting.

T4. Does my right hon. Friend share my concern that the stalled election process in Afghanistan is undermining the democratic institutions that so many of our brave men and women fought so hard for and sacrificed so much to deliver? (904976)

My hon. Friend is right to raise concerns about the election process in Afghanistan. Abdullah Abdullah received 45% of the vote in the first round, and that figure remained the same in the second. Ashraf Ghani went from 31% in the first round to 56% in the second, with an extra million people voting. He threatened to form a breakaway Government, and we are grateful for the work of the United States, and of John Kerry in particular, on reconciling that matter. The votes are now being recounted and we look forward to the result.

T2. The BBC seems to have missed it, but 100,000 people marched through London on Saturday to protest against the terrible suffering of Palestinians in Gaza. Smaller demonstrations are taking place every day, many will march in Newcastle on Saturday, and I have received hundreds of e-mails and letters on the subject. Will the Minister ensure that his counterparts in Israel understand the mounting sense of outrage among the British people? (904974)

The increased diplomatic pressure that is being placed on the situation, including by John Kerry going to the region and, indeed by our own Foreign Secretary and the Secretary-General of the United Nations, shows that there is a huge amount of growing international pressure to seek a solution. The Foreign Secretary has done his best to communicate with his counterparts in Israel, Egypt and, indeed, the Palestinian authorities. We hope for, and will work towards, a ceasefire as soon as possible.

T5. Will the Minister congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood (Eric Ollerenshaw) on organising a trip to Bosnia next week, in which I will be taking part, to refurbish a centre for women affected by sexual violence in conflict, which is something in which the previous Foreign Secretary took a great interest? (904977)

I am very happy to congratulate both my hon. Friends on their commitment to that project, and my hon. Friend the Member for Redditch (Karen Lumley) in particular on her tireless work to highlight the continued importance of this country’s relationship with Bosnia and Herzegovina. The Bosnian Minister played a very important role at the recent summit to help prevent the use of sexual violence as an instrument of war. We need to learn the lessons of that experience.

T6. The NATO summit at the Celtic Manor in Newport is a real chance to put Wales’s leading cutting-edge businesses in the world’s shop window. However, concerns have been raised with me that not enough is being done to promote those Welsh businesses. In the run-up to the vital NATO summit, what are the Government going to do to ensure that Welsh business is promoted to the hilt before, during and after it? (904978)

I certainly believe that the NATO summit in Wales will provide an unparalleled opportunity to highlight not only Welsh business but the attractiveness of Wales as a destination for inward investment and for tourism. We saw how Northern Ireland benefited from the Enniskillen summit last year. I assure the hon. Gentleman that my colleagues at the Wales Office have the issue very much on their list of key priorities at the moment.

The Russian response to the downing of the aircraft has been a mixture of disingenuousness and paranoia, and they have abandoned realism. It has already been argued that steps should be taken to make them take a more realistic approach, but is there not a real challenge for the north Atlantic alliance, both with the European Union and with NATO, to ensure that we act in such a united and unified way that the Russians are in no doubt about the seriousness with which we take their conduct?

I completely agree with my right hon. and learned Friend. It is important that the Atlantic alliance generally—this applies whether we are talking about NATO or the European Union—remains united, resolute and determined, because we face a very grave challenge. It is certainly the case that the NATO summit will need to give a high priority to a reassertion of article 5 of the doctrine of collective defence.

What actions are the Foreign Office team taking to ensure consular access to Andargachew Tsege? He is an Ethiopian-born British citizen who was seized at Sanaa airport by Ethiopian officials on 23 June, sentenced to death in absentia by a court in Ethiopia and held at an undisclosed location in Ethiopia. Despite the efforts of my hon. Friend the Member for Islington South and Finsbury (Emily Thornberry) and me, he still has not had consular or legal access. Could the Foreign Office urgently contact the Ethiopian Government and ensure that access is obtained?

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to raise this concerning case. I reassure him that we are doing everything we can to ensure that the gentleman concerned gets consular access. I spoke to the Ethiopian Foreign Minister last Friday night, and my colleagues at the Department for International Development spoke to the Ethiopian Prime Minister. We continue to press the Ethiopian Government to get access. I have approved a letter to be sent to the hon. Gentleman and other hon. Members who are particularly interested in this case, to set out what continued action we intend to deliver.

T8. The Minister said earlier that Israel has the right to defend itself against missile attack, and I entirely agree, but he went on to say that the response must be proportionate. Is it not transparently obvious that the response is not proportionate, but grossly disproportionate and outwith international law? On that basis, will he not look again at the preferential trade arrangements that Israel enjoys at the moment? (904982)

We spoke about this outside the Chamber, and I am aware of the hon. Gentleman’s concerns and views. The Prime Minister has spoken about the issues of proportionality, and I have mentioned my discussions with the Israeli ambassador. I see no need at the moment to look at any of the EU negotiations.

Yesterday I asked the Prime Minister about the Litvinenko case, and I am delighted to say that the Home Secretary has today announced a public inquiry, so let me press home the advantage. I also asked him yesterday about the Magnitsky case. Considering that the Americans have already done it and that other countries in Europe have done it, why on earth have we not introduced what the House demanded more than two years ago, which is a clear statement that those who were involved in the murder of Sergei Magnitsky and in the corruption that he unveiled are not welcome in this country? That is now the eighth time I have asked.

We have made it very clear, whether we are talking about people from Russia or any other country, that someone against whom there is clear evidence of complicity in human rights abuses would not be welcome in the United Kingdom.

Given the appalling events in eastern Ukraine and the fact that our EU neighbours seem reluctant to adopt a robust line against the bully in the playground, has the time not come for the UK to lead by example and to close our financial services to Russia?

I think that it will be important to make sure that whatever sanctions are imposed on Russian interests are effective and do not just lead to Russian money migrating somewhere else, and to make sure that they have a sound legal basis. That is what we are working to achieve. The Prime Minister has made it clear that we regard financial services as very much on the table in such discussions.

Human rights abuses and the persecution of Christians in Iran are at their worst levels for decades—second only to North Korea. Some 700 executions have taken place, with many of those people killed for their religious beliefs. What discussions has the Minister had with the Iranian Government about protecting Christians in Iran?

I mentioned earlier that our embassy in Iran is shortly to open; some technical issues still need to be resolved. Once it is open, there will be more and more opportunity to raise those very issues. Three concerns jump out immediately—freedom of expression, freedom of religion and rights for women—and I will pursue those issues when I have an opportunity, I hope, to visit Iran in the forthcoming period.

Given the massive potential economic benefits from concluding a successful transatlantic free trade agreement and the fact that Britain is one of the leading international trading nations of the EU, would it not make sense for the UK to be granted the trade portfolio within the Commission?

There are a number of Commission portfolios for which our excellent candidate, my noble Friend Lord Hill, would be admirably qualified. As my hon. Friend knows, discussions are ongoing about who should fill which portfolio.

I was hoping not to have to say this, but if I may, I will write to the hon. Gentleman with the details. I hope to be able to assure him that there have been no such cases, but I will certainly write to him with more details.

What assessment has the Minister made of the double war crime perpetrated by Hamas with regard to not only hiding themselves and their weaponry among the civilian population, but deliberately targeting and desiring the murder of innocent Israelis?

I mentioned earlier the important role that Hamas can play in organising and agreeing to a ceasefire. Unfortunately, it is the case that it has used some of its weapon systems in civilian areas, which has led to too many deaths. As we have said again and again, I hope that all parties can now come to an agreement on a ceasefire, led by the Egyptians.

What is the difference between a Russian Government who deserve sanctions for their involvement in bringing down MH17 and an Israeli Government who refuse to apologise for bombing hospitals and killing children who were playing football on the beach?

We have to look at each case on its merits. With regard to Russia, the Prime Minister made our position very clear in the House yesterday. The hon. Gentleman overlooks the fact that the desperate need in Gaza is for a ceasefire and a cessation of the appalling violence and loss of life among men, women and children on both sides. The sooner that happens, the better. Our diplomatic efforts are designed to help bring that about.