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Topical Questions

Volume 584: debated on Tuesday 22 July 2014

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.