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Topical Questions

Volume 587: debated on Tuesday 28 October 2014

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.