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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 587: debated on Tuesday 28 October 2014

Foreign and Commonwealth Office

The Secretary of State was asked—

Nuclear Weapons (Vienna Conference)

1. Whether the UK will be officially represented at the conference on the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons to be held in Vienna in December 2014. (905688)

The Government have received an invitation to the conference on the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons to be held in Vienna in December. We are considering whether to attend.

I urge the Government to attend the conference and to join the family of nations around the world that supported the previous conferences. One hundred and twenty-eight nations attended the 2013 conference in Norway, 145 went to Mexico earlier this year and the New Zealand Government, on behalf of 155 nations, have urged universal attendance at this conference. They have drawn attention to the first ever resolution that was passed by the UN General Assembly in 1946, which drew attention to the devastating effects of nuclear weapons and nuclear warfare on humanity as a whole. Britain should be there and should not boycott it, as it will apparently do along with the other five permanent members of the Security Council.

The House will be aware of the hon. Gentleman’s consistent views on this subject. The goals of the conference are unclear and, consequently, none of the P5 nuclear weapon states has attended the conferences in the past, as he said. We do not believe that a ban on nuclear weapons is negotiable, nor that it would even be observed by many nuclear powers. Even if it could be achieved in theory, in practice the confidence and verification measures that would be necessary to make it effective are not in place.

Does my hon. Friend agree that the greatest humanitarian effect of Britain’s possession of a nuclear deterrent is to reduce the chances of nuclear war or nuclear blackmail against this country?

The House is, as ever, grateful for my hon. Friend’s interest and expertise in this matter. The Government’s policy is that the Vanguard class submarine will be replaced at the end of its life in the late-2020s by the successor strategic submarine, which will carry the Trident missiles, subject to main-gate investment approval for the programme in 2016. I know that he will approve of that.

The last conference was attended by more than 140 states and by the United Nations, the Red Crescent and representatives of civil society. What message does it send to the rest of the world and to rogue regimes that seek to have nuclear weapons that the UK is prepared to boycott such a conference? The Minister went to school in Vienna. Why does he not take the opportunity to go back and take part in the conference?

As I said, the objectives of the conference are unclear. That is why the P5 nations have not attended in the past. The hon. Gentleman suggests that we are doing nothing. We have reduced the number of nuclear warheads that we possess by well over 50% since the peak of the cold war. In 2010, this Government announced further reductions to have no more than 120 operationally available warheads and a total stockpile of no more than 180 warheads by the mid-2020s. That is action, which is what the Government need to pursue.

Religious Minorities (Algeria)

2. What recent representations he has made to the Algerian Government on ensuring that Christians and other religious minorities are protected from persecution and discrimination. (905689)

We regularly discuss human rights with the Algerian Government, although we have not raised religious freedoms specifically. Human rights will be on the agenda for the next meeting of the EU-Algeria political dialogue.

I thank the Minister for his answer, although I am disappointed that religious persecution has not been raised with the Algerian Government. What advice is the Foreign and Commonwealth Office giving to colleagues in the immigration service to ensure that they are fully equipped to offer good advice and support to people from Algeria and north Africa more generally who apply for asylum on the basis of religious persecution?

I certainly will raise the matter with my Algerian counterparts. The hon. Lady has raised an important issue. She will be aware that regulations governing religion in Algeria came into force in May 2007. They are designed to be multi-faith and not to focus on one particular religion. I would be delighted to meet her to discuss the matter in more detail.

The atmosphere in which religious discrimination takes place is affected by other issues in a country, including economic pressures and the like. Does my hon. Friend think that the recent successful elections in Tunisia will ease the atmosphere in respect of persecution across the area more generally? Does he also think that economic development in the area, which is necessary for justice to prevail, is getting a boost from our work in Algeria?

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for his question, and Tunisia is to be congratulated on the considerable progress it has made. It has just completed parliamentary elections, and presidential elections will follow in November, replacing the technocratic Government who have guided the country on its transition towards its new status as a fully fledged democracy. I very much welcome those changes: strong civil society, national dialogue, an apolitical army, and new progress towards a constitution.

Religious intolerance and persecution is a problem throughout the world. What will the Government do to raise that issue with the Human Rights Council next year, and what does the Minister think the United Nations can do now to tackle the problem?

The hon. Gentleman makes an important point, and the issue is raised at the United Nations General Assembly and in our bilaterals. Britain will continue to raise the issue on a regular basis at all our meetings, not just those in the middle east but also with other countries where there are questions to be asked in that area.

What is the Minister doing for my constituents who have complained not only about the treatment of Christians in Algeria but also about the increasing pressure on Christians in Pakistan? What are we doing to monitor that, and what will we do about it?

As I said, we are having bilaterals on that issue. The specific issue in Algeria is to do with new regulations that have been introduced. The rules are there but they now need to be implemented, and we will continue to have a dialogue on that. I intend to visit Algeria soon, and given the concern that the House has expressed today, I will certainly raise that issue during my visit.

Chagossian Resettlement

3. What progress his Department has made with the British Indian Ocean Territory Chagossian resettlement feasibility study; and if he will make a statement. (905690)

The independent feasibility study on resettlement of the British Indian Ocean Territory is on track to report by January 2015. Ongoing consultations with interested parties, including Chagossians, are taking place so that all relevant facts are considered in the analysis of the practical costs and risks of resettlement.

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for that answer. Given upcoming negotiations on extending the military base on Diego Garcia with the United States, may I have assurances from the Department that the interests of the Chagos islands people will be very much part of those discussions with Washington?

That is precisely why we have commissioned the KPMG report. The way that the Chagossians were treated following their removal in the ’60s and ’70s was clearly wrong, and substantial compensation was rightly paid. We welcome the US presence in Diego Garcia. It is an increasingly important asset for both our Governments, but there have been no formal discussions with the US about the possibility of extending the exchange of notes to date.

I met 60 members of the Chagos community in my constituency on Friday—a faithful people but as they do not have the right to return they once again feel that will not adequately mourn their dead as they approach All Hallows next week. Their elders are passing away without having recorded their stories of displacement, and their young are finding it increasingly difficult to find salaried employment or to visit their friends in Crawley and other places across the country. They also worry about us ceding sovereignty. Does the Minister agree that we should be doing more for those people, rather than less?

I assure the hon. Gentleman that there are no issues of any sort about ceding sovereignty—we should deal with that point straight away. The draft KPMG report, which we were not obliged to undertake, will be out on 17 November, and thereafter there will be time for all those who have been consulted to make such points before the final report early next year. That is why we have included the Chagossians in the testimony.[Official Report, 3 November 2014, Vol. 587, c. 5-6MC.]

A previous Father of the House and great friend of mine, Sir Bernard Braine, was a passionate advocate of the rights of the inhabitants of Diego Garcia when the whole idea of turning it into a base was launched. In his memory, may I say that I very much hope that the guarantees that he received from the British Government of the time about looking after those people will be fulfilled?

My right hon. Friend is right to remind the House of our responsibilities towards the Chagossians, and as I said earlier, the actions of the ’60s and ’70s were clearly wrong and substantial compensation was rightly paid. It is worth pointing out that the British High Court in 2008, and the European Court in 2012, ruled that the compensation was a full and final settlement of the Chagossians’ claims.

Turkey

Turkey is an important security partner for the UK in NATO and in actions against terrorism. She faces major challenges because of the conflicts in Syria and Iraq, and we value the Turkish humanitarian contribution and her support for coalition activities against ISIL.

I thank the Minister for that reply. The security situation in Turkey remains extraordinarily delicate. What support have the Government given to assist Turkey with those serious security concerns while also respecting the rights and freedoms of its citizens?

Only last week we held one of our regular discussions with the Turkish authorities about counter-terrorism co-operation. The subjects discussed included better work to detect explosive traces in material going through airports and how we can better share information about airline passengers to guard against future terrorist attack.

The Minister referred to Turkey’s role with regard to Syria. Does he agree that it is absolutely deplorable that the Turkish Government are not providing assistance to the besieged people of Kobane and the other Syrian Kurds facing an existential threat from ISIL? Turkey needs to get off the fence and to decide which side it is on. Is it with ISIL, or is it with the civilian population and the Kurds in Syria?

The Turkish Government have made it very clear that they are on the side of the coalition and against ISIL. They are now allowing Kurdish fighters to cross through Turkish territory to take part in the fighting around Kobane. It is also worth the hon. Gentleman bearing it in mind that Turkey is providing refuge to 1.5 million people who have fled the fighting in Iraq and Syria, and we ought to acknowledge that contribution too.

Turkey’s security interests with regard to Islamic State are absolutely engaged, as are those of the other two major regional powers, Saudi Arabia and Iran. If those three countries can be got to agree a political strategy towards Islamic State, we will begin to have a sensible military strategy to underpin it. What work is going on to get those three countries to discuss that seriously?

There was a coalition meeting of Ministers in the margins of the recent NATO ministerial meeting at which that political discussion was taken forward. Clearly, we would welcome it unreservedly if it were possible to rally all the regional powers towards a united effort to defeat ISIL and to see the Iraqi Government, the legitimate authorities, re-establish control over all their territory.

For four years, I have noticed that the Tory Con-Dem Government have very much been apologists for Turkey. The Prime Minister indicated that he wanted Turkey in the European Union. Here we are again, apologising, or at least this Front Bench is apologising, for Turkey’s failure to act in concert with the British and Americans. What is it that gets Tory Ministers so engaged in wanting to befriend Turkey and to get it into the EU?

The Government do not apologise for upholding the national interest of the United Kingdom by working closely with Turkey, which has been our NATO ally under Governments of different political colours over many decades. There are issues on which we disagree, in which case we make our views clear, but I hope that even the hon. Gentleman would welcome the work that the Turkish Government are doing to try to bring about a reconciliation with the Kurds—something we all want to see.

Gaza

On 12 October, at the reconstruction conference in Cairo, the UK pledged £20 million to help kick-start Gaza’s recovery. It is essential that both sides take the necessary practical steps to allow reconstruction. Reconstruction of Gaza is necessary and urgent to get the economy back to business, but progress to a political settlement must follow quickly on its heels.

I thank the Secretary of State for his answer. Many in the House were concerned about the impact on ordinary Palestinians during the 50-day conflict. Of particular concern was the bombing of the hospital in Gaza. Will he advise us what the Government are doing to help rebuild vital medical facilities in Gaza?

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Development is deeply engaged in that question. As I have said, we have pledged £20 million and we will continue to work with the UN and other agencies, but we urgently require an unsticking of the process that allows construction materials into Gaza so that physical reconstruction can commence. When that process is under way, I am sure there will be significant further pledges of assistance on top of the billions of dollars already available to reconstruct Gaza as a result of the Cairo conference.

Have any arrangements been agreed to ensure that much-needed building materials for hospitals, schools and homes will not be diverted to rebuilding the terror tunnels, which Hamas claims it has started to do?

This is the essential challenge: ensuring that construction materials in the quantities needed can enter Gaza under a monitoring regime that is satisfactory to the Israelis as well as the Palestinians and that they are applied to the rebuilding of homes, schools, hospitals and infrastructure, and not diverted for military purposes. Such a mechanism is in place. There was a temporary glitch—hopefully—earlier this week in its operation, but officials are working flat out to try to resolve it. I hope we see major progress over the next few days.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that, while Hamas continues to rule Gaza with such brutality and to amass missiles—as we have heard, many of them are from Iran—the prospect of a viable and democratic Palestinian state looks ever more unlikely?

The challenge to the authority of the Palestinian Authority from what is happening in Gaza is an impediment to progress on a broader middle east peace settlement, but I am of the view that we must first bring humanitarian relief to Gaza, which means getting started urgently on reconstruction. We then need a sustained ceasefire and settlement around Gaza as a step to proceeding to a resumption of the wider middle east peace process. I hope for significant American leadership to revitalise that process over the coming weeks and months.

I agree with the Secretary of State that the urgent and pressing matter is the humanitarian and reconstruction needs currently faced by the people of Gaza. Is it a forlorn hope—can he give us some hope—for a political solution in the medium to long term that allows the security needs of the Israelis and the Israeli nation to be met at the same time as the lifting of the economic constrictions and the strangulation of Gaza? That has to be the way forward.

The hon. Gentleman is exactly right. All hon. Members would agree that the Gazan economy needs to be reactivated so that people can get back to something like life as normal. The stranglehold imposed by the access regime needs to be relaxed, but it can be relaxed only in the context of Israel feeling safe and secure.

Ukraine

The UK is providing £19 million of assistance to the Ukrainian Government. We are one of the largest contributors of election and border monitors, but most importantly, we are maintaining pressure on Russia through sanctions to withdraw troops, to cease support for separatists and to respect the sovereignty of Ukraine.

I am sure the House wishes President Poroshenko and Prime Minister Yatsenyuk every possible success in resolving their dispute with Russia peacefully. I met the Prime Minister in the summer and he told me that his country was desperately short of resources and equipment. I urge Her Majesty’s Government to do whatever they can to help.

The Government have already made non-lethal equipment available to support the Ukrainian armed forces, and we are working with European Union partners to look at the needs of the Ukrainian economy over the coming winter. Ukraine faces a massive energy crunch over the next few months, and the Ukrainian economy is likely to have shrunk by more than 6.5% since before the conflict began. We are acutely aware—we discussed this at the Foreign Affairs Council last Monday in Luxembourg—of the fact that Ukraine is likely to be looking for further support from the EU this winter.

Can the Foreign Secretary assure us that the Government are doing everything they can to ensure that the dismemberment of Ukraine stays at the forefront of everyone’s mind? Can he absolutely assure the House that there is no intention on our part of allowing this to slip down the agenda, thereby allowing the aggression to stand and the de facto creation of new Russia to become embedded?

The right hon. Gentleman is exactly right. The big risk is of a frozen conflict and people’s attention turning elsewhere, and it would be disingenuous of me not to acknowledge that some of our European partners are more robust on the agenda that he has set out than others. We are determined—and we have some powerful allies in the European Union—to maintain the pressure on Russia, including keeping sanctions in place, until Russia complies with its obligations under the Minsk agreement, in particular: the removal of Russian forces; the proper monitoring of the border between Ukraine and Russia, not the line of control between separatists and Ukraine forces; and an end to active Russian support for the separatists.

Last night I returned from Kharkiv, which, as my right hon. Friend knows, is just to the north of Donetsk in eastern Ukraine. In Kharkiv on Sunday, the situation was calm, peaceful and orderly, and I suspect we will find that the results of the election will prove to be fair and a proper reflection of what the people of Ukraine want. That being so, will my right hon. Friend call the Russian ambassador in and tell him that it is wholly inappropriate for the Russian Foreign Minister to seek to promote unofficial elections in Donetsk and Luhansk?

Sunday’s elections were a clear demonstration of Ukraine’s commitment to democracy. We have made it clear, and the European Union again last week endorsed a collective position, that we will not recognise illegal elections organised by separatists. The only elections we will recognise are those organised by and operating under Ukrainian law.

It is good to be back on the Front Bench after a short absence. I thank hon. Members for their messages of good will, especially those from some Government Members who are somewhat fearful of their own party’s direction at the present time.

In our current debates about the European Union, we should not forget that its expansion to include former Warsaw pact countries was a victory for peace and democracy. It was a foreign policy victory for the west, championed by the Conservative Government at the time, and it means that war between member states is almost inconceivable. However, for countries outside the EU, such as Ukraine, it can be a very different story. Following the elections, what more can we do with our European partners to stop the further undermining of Ukrainian sovereignty and ensure that a newly elected Government there is free to choose its own path for the country’s future?

First, I welcome the right hon. Gentleman’s return to his place on the Front Bench. We look forward to debating all these issues with him.

Of course the election on Sunday was important in underscoring the legitimacy of the Ukrainian Government. I have already set out our demands that the Russians comply with their obligations under the Minsk agreement—withdrawing their troops from Ukrainian territory, allowing proper monitoring of the border and ending their support to the separatists—but it goes further than that. It is about the more subtle forms of Russian control and influence over the Ukrainian economy and political system. We are working closely with President Poroshenko and his Government to ensure that Ukraine has a robust position in response to those forms of pressure. Although the European Union does not agree on all issues in relation to the Russia-Ukraine dispute, it is pretty much clear and unified in its view that Ukraine must be allowed to choose its own future free of external pressure.

Israel and Palestine

7. If he will encourage Israelis and Palestinians to participate in projects which bring them together and build a new generation of leaders committed to peace and dialogue. (905694)

10. What steps his Department is taking to support projects that foster co-operation and co-existence between Israelis and Palestinians. (905697)

11. Whether he has discussed with his Israeli counterpart the content of the debate in the House on 13 October 2014 on Palestine and Israel; what recent discussions he has had with his Israeli counterpart on the future of the peace process; and if he will make a statement. (905698)

Despite the tragic events during the summer, we remain committed to supporting efforts for peace. Our embassy in Tel Aviv and the British consulate general in Jerusalem work closely with all sectors of society, including the ultra-Orthodox communities, Israeli Arabs and Palestinian communities affected by the occupation, to build constituencies for peace.

I thank the Minister for his answer, but on an International Development Committee visit to the middle east earlier this year, it was noted that the conflict fund had insufficient funding to support groups that were promoting peace from both sides. I urge the Minister to expand the conflict fund pool and look again at organisations such as Cherish, Parents Circle and Middle East Education Through Technology, which are trying to get peace in the region.

Certainly, the Department for International Development, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Ministry of Defence are keen to receive strong applications for the conflict, stability and security fund—as the conflict fund is now called—for joint projects that bring Palestinians and Israelis together to achieve peace. This is the first time I have heard that there are issues to do with the funding. I will certainly look at it and write to the hon. Gentleman.

It is important to step up the work that the Minister outlined, because the only way to resolve this conflict is through a stable, two-state solution with security and peace for both Israel and Palestine. There is no legalistic, unilateral or bureaucratic route to that objective; it will be achieved only by getting Israelis and Palestinians working together to build trust, to compromise and to negotiate and by means of economic development and trade in the west bank and by the reconstruction and demilitarisation of Gaza.

The whole House would agree with the hon. Gentleman. I, too, had the opportunity to visit Gaza, Jerusalem, Israel and the occupied territories over the last few weeks. I was astonished by the amount of energy there and by the people who absolutely want to work together. One example of that is the UK-Israel tech hub, which is driving economic and technological collaboration between the UK and Israel. The hub is working with Israeli and Arab experts, including Palestinian, to support work and build partnerships in the quick-growing Arab internet sector.

May I draw the Minister’s attention to comments made last week by the Israeli deputy Defence Minister, Moshe Yalom, a Likud party MP and close ally of Prime Minister Netanyahu. He said about President Abbas:

“He is a partner for discussion; a partner for managing the conflict. I am not looking for a solution, I am looking for a way to manage the conflict and maintain relations in a way that works for our interests.”

Has the Foreign Secretary discussed those comments with Israeli officials?

We take on board the comments made, and it is interesting to note that on Yalom’s visit to the United States, no senior representation was there to meet him. That is perhaps a reflection of how out of sync those comments were. As the Foreign Secretary has reiterated, it is important that we focus on humanitarian efforts, which were discussed at the Gaza donor conference in Cairo, which I attended. Then we should see an immediate return to negotiations.

16. Even strong supporters of the state of Israel are concerned that building on the west bank is likely to postpone the peaceful dialogue that we all want to see. What is the Government’s position on that? (905703)

The Prime Minister, the Foreign Secretary and I have condemned the building in the occupied territories. Such building certainly makes it more difficult for Israel’s friends to defend it against accusations that it is not taking the process for peace seriously. We very much encourage all sides to come to the table. I visited the E1 area on my recent visit, and it was clear what difficulties this building would cause in the conurbation between Ramallah, Hebron and Bethlehem. We discourage the building of any further settlements there.

Illegal settlements are not just about how to defend the Israeli Government. Surely, the result of such settlements is to put the possibility of a two-state solution further and further into the future, to the extent that it could be argued that such a solution has now been completely undermined. Does my hon. Friend accept that no leader of the Palestinians could accept a solution that, for example, made it impossible for a Palestinian state to have East Jerusalem as its capital?

The issues raised by such settlements are very serious indeed, but we must not allow them to deflect from the bigger issue of reaching an actual settlement. It is possible for land swaps to take place and, as my right hon. and learned Friend implies, what is happening is illegal under article 46 of The Hague regulations. However, we do not want people to be distracted by the settlements; we want them to come to the table and restart the negotiations.

Does the Minister agree that the key point is for the Israelis and the Palestinians to get round the negotiating table to discuss a two-state solution without preconditions, reflecting Israel’s security interests and the legitimate aspirations of the Palestinians?

My hon. Friend’s question illustrates the complexity of the situation. We do require leadership on both sides. From Israel we require a commitment to dialogue and to avoiding all actions that undermine prospects for peace, including settlement activity, while the Palestinian Authority must show leadership in recommitting itself to the dialogue and establishing itself as the authoritative voice in Gaza.

The Arab peace initiative could prove vital in assisting a move towards the essential two-state solution for Israel and the long-suffering Palestinian people. Does the Minister agree that in the light of yesterday’s welcome Tunisian election results, which were good news not only for the Tunisian people but for the wider Arab world, it is right for such regional initiatives to be considered as a matter of urgency?

I think that those are wise words. I have congratulated Tunisia on the journey it has made, bearing in mind that it was responsible for the very start of the Arab spring. It is a small ray of hope in a very complex area, and I hope that other nations will take a lead from it.

Order. I am sorry not to have accommodated more colleagues on question 7, but both questions and answers have been extremely long.

EU Sanctions (Russia)

8. What assessment he has made of the effectiveness of EU sanctions against Russia in encouraging a change of approach by that country towards eastern Ukraine. (905695)

EU sanctions are having a clear impact on Russia’s economy. Capital flight has increased, and Russian access to western financial markets is severely constrained. Sanctions are estimated to have slowed GDP growth by 1%, and to have contributed to the rouble’s falling by 20% against the dollar since 1 January. The fall in the oil price is piling further pressure on the Russian economy.

What is the Foreign Secretary’s considered assessment of the relationship between the dependence of some of our European partners on Russian energy supplies, and the effectiveness and robustness of the sanctions that we have pursued against Russia?

The sanctions are robust. I think that the important relationship is between the dependence on Russian energy supplies and the robustness of the position of some of our partners on the question of maintaining those sanctions. Fortunately, the sanctions that are in place will last until March or May, depending on the type of sanction involved, before any opportunity arises to debate their renewal or otherwise. That means that, at the very least, we shall get through the winter with the sanctions in place.[Official Report, 3 November 2014, Vol. 587, c. 6MC.]

We hear that today, having apparently endorsed the main Ukrainian elections, Moscow has yet again reiterated its support for separate elections in Luhansk and Donetsk, thus undermining the peace process. Does the Foreign Secretary think that that should lead the European Union to review the level of sanctions that is appropriate, and, if necessary, enhance it?

I think that the correct response is simply to ignore, and refuse to recognise, the results of any elections that were organised illegally by the separatists.

24. Sanctions should be a means to a diplomatic end. These sanctions are clearly having an impact on the Russian economy, but will the Secretary of State update the House on what diplomatic reaction there has been from President Putin in the light of the pressure on his economy? (905711)

I do not think that the phrases “diplomatic reaction” and “President Putin” usually go hand in hand. There has certainly been a reaction from President Putin, but I am not sure whether it could be described as diplomatic.

Channels are open. The Germans, in particular, maintain a close dialogue with the Kremlin. I think that the Kremlin understands, and needs to understand, the determination of the European Union to stand firm, and the fact that Russia must honour its obligations under the Minsk agreement. There is nothing else to discuss at the moment.

ISIL

9. What assessment he has made of the effectiveness of UK military strikes in Iraq in helping to tackle the advance of ISIL. (905696)

The United Kingdom is part of a coalition of more than 60 countries supporting the Government of Iraq against ISIL, and RAF strikes are assisting Iraqi ground forces. A number of strategically important towns in the north have been liberated by the peshmerga, but the scale of the problem remains significant. The coalition’s air intervention has halted the rapid ISIL advance, but it alone is not capable of rolling back ISIL’s gains. Ultimately, the fight against ISIL in Iraq must be led by the Iraqis themselves, with the new Government ensuring that there is an inclusive and unified response.

The Secretary of State has rightly acknowledged that the air strikes are only one element of a wider political and military strategy, including support for the creation of a more representative Iraqi Government. Having just returned from Iraq with the Foreign Affairs Committee, I am aware of ongoing disputes between Irbil and Baghdad, which may well have a negative effect on the achievement of that aim. What progress does the Foreign Secretary think can be made, and what are the implications if the situation cannot be resolved?

There are still outstanding disputes between Irbil and Baghdad, but, if I may say so having been there two and a half weeks ago myself, the mood music between Irbil and Baghdad is much better now than it has been for months, probably years. Kurdish Ministers are now in Baghdad. There is a serious discussion going on about the division of oil revenues, which is one of the crucial outstanding issues. I told the House a week or so ago, and I repeat again today, that I am optimistic about relationships between Irbil and Baghdad at least in the medium term.

Important though air strikes are, of course alone they are not going to defeat ISIL. In his answer to the Member for Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock (Sandra Osborne) my right hon. Friend explained the political progress being made in Iraq. Will he update the House on how he sees the importance of political progress in Syria in also defeating ISIL?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. In the fullness of time, pushing ISIL back in Iraq, which is our first priority, will not be sufficient to defeat that organisation; there will have to be political progress in Syria as well. At the moment we are focused on ensuring the consolidation of the Syrian moderate opposition and the organisation of the additional training and equipping that the US Congress has now agreed to finance for Syrian moderate opposition fighters.

Speaking of the campaign against ISIL, the US director of national intelligence recently testified that the Syrian opposition is composed of at least 1,500 separate militias, and a recent US congressional report went further in claiming that the Free Syrian Army does not actually refer to any

“organised command and control structure with national reach”,

so can the Foreign Secretary set out whether the Government’s own scoping exercise that is under way is focused on the Free Syrian Army, or whether support for other opposition groups is being considered as part of this exercise?

We will be working closely with our American allies, and General John Allen in his newly appointed role will be the overall co-ordinator of this programme, but the Americans have made it very clear that while the Free Syrian Army will be part of this programme of training and equipping, the whole thing will not operate under the umbrella of the Free Syrian Army; other organisations who are judged to be moderate and share our objectives will be able to participate.

But does the Secretary of State accept that in Syria it is going to be months, if not years, before the Syrian moderate opposition will be strong enough to push back the Islamic State terrorists in the north? Is there not a fundamental gap in international strategy, including that of the British Government, if that is what they are relying on to remove Islamic State in Syria?

My right hon. and learned Friend is absolutely right; it will take time—it will take time to train and organise the force that will be able to do this. In the meantime, we will use coalition air strikes to contain and degrade ISIL, but defeating it on the ground will take Syrian boots, and training those Syrian boots is going to take time.

During a visit by the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs to Iraq and Kurdistan last week we were told of the gratitude of the Iraqis and the Kurds towards the British Government for the help they are giving. We also saw the peshmerga being trained with the new weaponry that has been sent to Kurdistan, but they are taking enormous hits. They are very brave as we all know, but they are taking enormous hits and they need more weapons; that is the message they wanted us to get across.

I am grateful to the right hon. Lady and she will not be surprised to learn that I heard a very similar message when I was in Irbil a couple of weeks ago. The Prime Minister has appointed Lieutenant General Sir Simon Mayall as his security envoy to the Kurdistan Regional Government. Part of his task is to assess the needs of the peshmerga, and their abilities as well—there is no point giving them weapons they cannot maintain or use effectively. We have supplied them with some heavy calibre machine guns, which they are now deploying to good effect, but we are constantly open to suggestions from the peshmerga about any additional requirements they may have.

The point has just been made that the peshmerga are defending hundreds of miles of frontier with just rifles, and what they desperately need is equipment, equipment and equipment. To what extent is the Foreign Office liaising with our allies to make sure there is not a duplication of equipment and to enable us to supply the very important equipment the Peshmerga need?

There is co-ordination with allies. Part of the point of the US appointing General John Allen to act as a co-ordinator for the coalition is to ensure that we do these things efficiently and effectively. My right hon. Friend is right to suggest that the peshmerga are defending 1,000 km of frontier in what is effectively ISIL-controlled territory. They are doing that extraordinarily bravely, but there are still significant deficiencies in their weaponry, and we must look collectively at those and address them as rapidly as we can.

Kurdish Peshmerga

As I have just said, the Prime Minister has appointed Lieutenant General Sir Simon Mayall as his security envoy to the Kurdistan region of Iraq. At the request of the Government of Iraq, we have delivered over 300 tonnes of supplies to Irbil. This includes over 100 tonnes of weapons and equipment from the UK. We are instructing peshmerga soldiers on the operation of the heavy machine guns that we have delivered, as well as on counter-IED techniques.

I thank the Secretary of State for that answer. Does he believe that more could be done by regional states to support the fight against ISIS by the peshmerga? Does he also believe that more could be done to ensure that we retain the support of our constituents who rightly think that more should be done by the regions?

Yes, but let me answer that question slightly more widely. The situation in Iraq, including in the Kurdistan region, is complex. There is a lot of history and a lot of baggage in the region. While the neighbouring states are all—remarkably—aligned in their desire to see ISIL defeated, the historical pattern of relationships and enmities between the different groups means that we have to take care when deciding who does what and how they do it. We need to be sensitive to the context of the region.

This is not just about Iraq and Syria. As the Foreign Secretary knows, ISIL-backed groups have also been successful in bringing Yemen to the brink of civil war. What further action can be taken to help the Governments of the whole region?

Specifically on Yemen, we are very concerned about the security situation there and we continue to support the legitimate Government in Sana’a and to work with regional partners. I had a meeting with Gulf Co-operation Council partners the week before last, at which we considered carefully the options for supporting the legitimate regime in Sana’a against the Houthi coup.

Political Prisoners (Burma)

I last raised the subject of political prisoners with Burma’s Deputy Foreign Minister Thant Kyaw in June. We welcome the release of more than 1,000 political prisoners since 2011, but we are concerned by the recent rise in politically motivated arrests and we continue to lobby for the unconditional release of all political prisoners.

I am grateful to the Minister for that answer. He has confirmed that the number of political prisoners in Burma is going up. Will he tell us how many additional political prisoners have been arrested there this year?

Since 8 October, 3,000 petty criminals have been released, as well as 91 in August and 109 in September, including child soldiers. The answer, however, is that one political prisoner in Burma is one too many, and we will continue to make that point to visiting Ministers, who come here fairly regularly these days.

As well as raising the subject of political prisoners, will the Minister also raise the subject of the killing of the journalist Aung Naing by the Burmese army?

I shall certainly raise that matter; we have raised it already, but I shall give the hon. Lady an update on the results of our investigations.

The Minister has rightly raised concerns that the headline figures for the release of political prisoners are perhaps not what they seem. Concerns have been raised about conditions being attached to the release of prisoners, for example, and about the continuing arrests of human rights defenders and journalists. Does he share the concern of the United Nations special rapporteur on human rights about signs of possible backtracking by the Burmese regime? What can we do to ensure that Burma remains on the road to democracy as we approach next year’s elections?

As the hon. Lady knows, we have continuing concerns, not least in Rakhine and Kachin. Only yesterday I was discussing these concerns with the Archbishop of Canterbury, who has just been there. The big goal in all this is the parliamentary elections next year. We will continue to do everything we can to ensure that they are inclusive and credible elections, from which can flow a better and more democratic Burma for all the component parts of that wonderful country.

Southern Lebanon

We regularly assess the security situation in southern Lebanon, as well as the rest of the country. We are concerned about the continued low-level violence, but commend the crucial role of the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon—UNIFIL—in maintaining the peace and de-escalating conflict when it occurs.

My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary will know from his previous job that Iran provides funds and arms to insurgents who previously killed and maimed British soldiers in Afghanistan and Iraq. Iran is now doing the same with Hezbollah in southern Lebanon. What steps can we take to stop Iran being such a dangerous body in that part of the world?

We are watching the situation carefully, but we currently judge that neither Israel nor Hezbollah wants to escalate the situation in southern Lebanon. Both sides have chosen to make public statements following recent incidents, and UNIFIL-led tripartite meetings involving the Lebanese armed forces, the Israeli defence force and the UN are arranged, and have successfully reduced tension and prevented escalation.

Topical Questions

Since the summer, the Foreign Office has responded to multiple crises. The UK has joined the coalition against ISIL in Iraq and Syria, pledged £20 million to help rebuild Gaza, led a tough European response to Russian aggression in Ukraine, and been front and centre of the international fight against Ebola. Beyond those immediate crises, my priority is to put the national interest at the heart of everything the Foreign Office does: to redouble the FCO’s efforts to help British companies abroad; to lay the ground for a renegotiation of Britain’s relationship with the European Union; and to ensure that the Foreign Office builds stability overseas to maintain our security at home.

What steps is the Minister taking to bring more allies to make a significant contribution to the fight against Ebola?

The UK is leading on the Ebola response in Sierra Leone, and the British people should be extremely proud of what we have delivered: we have so far pledged nearly £250 million; we are building 700 beds in the country; we have about 750 service personnel deployed in support of that operation; and we are lobbying furiously for support from both European Union partners and other countries around the world. I am pleased to say that that lobbying effort is beginning to bear fruit, with significant pledges of both money and, more importantly, clinical workers to support the effort we are carrying out in Sierra Leone.

May I welcome, on behalf of the Opposition, the UK’s £205 million contribution to helping tackle the spread of Ebola, and of course the additional EU resources secured at last week’s Council meeting? Will the Foreign Secretary set out how quickly those resources from other EU member states will be utilised? The commitments are important but, as he recognises, it is vital that action is taken on the ground in west Africa.

Many of the financial commitments that have been made are commitments to support the UN fund. The UN recognises that the three framework countries—the United States in Liberia, France in Guinea and the UK in Sierra Leone—are best positioned to deliver an effect on the ground. One thing we are trying to do is get partner countries to plug in to the framework that we have already put on the ground. So we are building these 700 beds, we have a logistics operation in place and where we are told, for example, by Australia, “I can give you 50 clinical staff”, we can plug those in straight away; they do not have to set up an operation on the ground.

Let me ask a little more about the operation on the ground. It is, of course, right that we acknowledge the extraordinary work being undertaken by British aid workers, officials and troops based in the region, who are putting themselves at considerable personal risk. I also pay tribute to the International Development Secretary, who sent an important signal by travelling there with British troops. Of course it is the responsibility of the Government to support their efforts and to take every possible precaution with the safety of British personnel, so will the Foreign Secretary set out what measures are in place to support the diplomatic and consular staff, as well as the military, who are currently based in west Africa?

That is a very good question. I can tell the right hon. Gentleman that we have slimmed down our diplomatic staff, removing from Freetown people who are medically vulnerable and dependants who do not need to be there. We are constructing, and will have in operation within the next 10 days, a dedicated 12-bed unit, run by British military medics, for the treatment of international health care workers and British nationals to a western standard of care. We also have a medevac capability, which has been pretty thin over the past few months but which by the end of this month will have surged in capability so that we would be able to deal with any foreseeable level of medevac requirement from Sierra Leone.

T3. Ministers will be aware that Boko Haram continues to detain 200 young women in Nigeria and that the country becomes progressively more unstable and divided as the weeks go by. What can the UK do diplomatically to try to support more effective government in Nigeria? (905680)

As my hon. Friend knows, an election is taking place in Nigeria next year and, in the pre-election season, it is quite difficult to change government behaviour. We are working closely with the Nigerian security services, military and intelligence services to try to track down the Chibok schoolgirls and other people who have been kidnapped by Boko Haram.

T2. It is vital that the countries affected by Ebola get the right medical, logistical and engineering personnel they need not only to deal with the immediate situation but to rebuild their health systems. What advice and training are the Government giving to British nationals who are travelling to the region to help fight this virus? (905679)

The British Army medical corps has established a facility just outside York to train people who have volunteered to work in UK facilities in Sierra Leone. These people have nursing qualifications and experience, but they need training around the specific precautions that are required to be taken in relation to protective equipment to prevent infection by the Ebola virus. Ensuring that people understand how to protect themselves is the key to slowing down the transmission rate of this disease.

T7. Iran’s recent execution of a 26-year-old woman has attracted international condemnation. It is a tragic reminder that Iran continues to lead the world in executions per capita and retains one of the world’s worst human rights record. In the light of that, what discussions has the Minister had with the Iranian Government and the UN about upholding the rights of women in Iran? (905685)

The Prime Minister raised that matter at bilateral talks with Iran during the UN General Assembly meeting. They were the first such talks to take place in many, many years. If Iran is interested in moving forward and participating in a more responsible attitude in the region, it is that sort of behaviour that needs to be curbed. We will continue placing pressure on the country to change its ways.

T4. There are massive asks on both the Palestinian and Israeli leadership in taking us to a place where we can have meaningful peace discussions. Will the Minister reconsider his earlier comment that the issue of settlement building was something of a distraction, and that we should not be fixated on it. It is no more a distraction than achieving peace in the region and security for the Israelis. (905681)

I would like to answer this question, because I know exactly what the Under-Secretary of State, my hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood) was trying to say earlier on. The settlements are illegal and building them is intended to undermine the prospects of the peace process. We must not allow that to happen. These are buildings; buildings can be transferred and demolished. Where these buildings are built must not be allowed to define where the final settlement line can go. We must be very clear about that.

I very much welcome the comments condemning the illegal settlements, but if the Government’s response to calls for sanctions against Israel is “not yet”, how many additional illegal settlements are required for the answer to be “now”?

The Foreign Secretary has just made it clear that we do not want the settlement issue to hog the wicket here. We need to focus on the humanitarian efforts. Gaza will face an emergency in a number of weeks when the winter weather approaches. That is a priority. Then we need both sides to come back to the table. That is our focus at the moment, and we do not want to be distracted by the settlement issue.

T5. The election results in Tunisia at the weekend are welcome and prove that secular and non-secular parties can co- exist in the middle east. As the Minister has welcomed those results, will he let the House know what aid the UK Government can give to Tunisia to ensure that that country becomes a beacon for democracy in the middle east? (905683)

It is right that we again pay tribute to Tunisia for the journey that it has taken. It is operating in a tough neighbourhood, but it is not yet out of the woods, as there are still concerns about jihadist threats and about what is happening on its borders. But the journey it has made is thanks to its strong civil society and its direct approach in wanting to have elections—first parliamentary and then presidential. We are working with it through our Arab Partnership programme. Funding from the Deauville Partnership and the Westminster Foundation for Democracy is helping to support governance in Tunisia.

A transatlantic free trade deal would be a massive win for the UK and the world, but there have been concerns about procurement and health care, among others, that need addressing, and, I believe, debunking. Will the Minister give us an update on progress and consider making a statement on this important issue?

I am most grateful to my hon. Friend for introducing this, because it is time to slay a lot of urban myths that have crept up around the transatlantic trade and investment partnership. If TTIP goes through, it will mean an economic prize worth up to £400 for each household in the UK, and £10 billion to our economy. If we delve into the details and look at the investor state disputes settlements and so forth, there is absolutely no reason to think that TTIP can undermine the NHS or anything else.

T6. There are accusations that some UK companies are being short-changed on contracts associated with the construction of World cup venues in Qatar, and even claims that some moneys unpaid have been siphoned off to Syria and into the hands of ISIL. Will the Minister urgently look into these allegations and offer support to UK firms regarding their reimbursement by the Qatari royalty, Government or businesses? (905684)

I was in Doha last week and I raised this very issue. Qatar has what is called the kafala system, which is now being upgraded, and the hon. Gentleman may be aware of it. It is being replaced to give greater rights to migrant workers, of whom there are 1.3 million in Qatar, but it is also giving responsibilities to the employers to make sure that they look after them. It is something that will be raised this week when the Emir of Qatar visits this country.

I welcome the contributions by UK doctors and others to reconstruction in Gaza, but is not the cycle almost bizarre? We fund the United Nations Relief and Works Agency to do valuable work in building schools and homes, the Israeli defence force destroys some of them, and then regularly we pay to have them rebuilt after a long period of argument about whether the cement will be used for the schools or for tunnels. What can we do to resolve this cycle?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We do not want to repeat this cycle. In six years, we have been round this buoy three times. A different mood is developing. We are picking up the agenda that was arrived at in April with John Kerry. As I mentioned, we had a successful donor conference in Cairo, and there is growing pressure on Israel to come to the table, but also on the Palestinian Authority to show proper leadership in Gaza, and that was reflected in its cabinet meeting there two weeks ago.

T8. I have just returned from Mali, which continues to face real security threats for al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups. The military commander of MINUSMA says that just 30 bilingual English-French speaking staff officers would make a huge difference to the Malian army’s response to these threats, and the EU training mission says that it needs to continue beyond May of next year. What consideration are the Government giving to increasing our support for the Government in Mali? (905686)

I have discussed this with my French opposite number and we have made it clear that we will support the French proposal to extend the mandate of the EU training mission in Mali. I am not aware of any request to us to provide further staff officers to the mission, but I will speak to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence.

Would the Government welcome a visit from the Swedish prosecutor if she were to seek to question Julian Assange in the Ecuadorian embassy in London?

My hon. Friend will know that the Swedish prosecutor is, quite rightly, a fiercely independent lady, and independent of the Executive, as she would imagine. These are matters for the prosecutor to decide on, but if she wished to travel here to question Mr Assange in the embassy in London, we would do absolutely everything to facilitate that. Indeed, we would actively welcome it.

T9. Will the Foreign Secretary update the House on recent actions he has taken to tackle anti-LGBTI legislation, particularly among our Commonwealth friends? (905687)

None of my right hon. and hon. Friends is leaping to their feet to give the hon. Lady the detailed answer that she requires, and it would probably be best if I offer to write to her.

My constituent Bill Irving and six other British citizens are still in India, a year after being taken off their ship. Although they are now out on bail, Billy is effectively trapped in a hotel room and is in financial difficulties because he cannot work. What help can my right hon. Friend give Billy and the other British citizens to speed up the legal process and assist with the hotel bills?

They are certainly well represented by their Members of Parliament, whom I have met regularly. I have also raised the case regularly, and at the highest levels, with the Indian authorities, as have other Government Ministers—the Deputy Prime Minister did so in August when he met Prime Minister Modi. We cannot interfere in the Indian legal process, but we continue to press for the case to be resolved quickly, and our consular staff continue to provide them and their families with full consular assistance.

Thank you, Mr Speaker.

Will the Government condemn in the strongest terms the current efforts by the Israeli Government and settler movements to divide the area of al-Aqsa mosque, one of the holiest places in the whole of the Muslim religion? Does the Foreign Secretary concur with the US State Department’s statement last week that Israel is poisoning the atmosphere and making support difficult, even from its closest allies?

I share the right hon. Gentleman’s concern. Anything that makes it more difficult to reach a peace settlement is extremely unhelpful and we condemn it. We want both sides to work for a sustainable peace. I think that the degree of frustration now being experienced, even among Israel’s closest friends, is expressed by the response he referred to from the United States, hitherto often seen as an uncritical supporter of Israeli actions.