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Foreign and Commonwealth Office

Volume 589: debated on Tuesday 2 December 2014

The Secretary of State was asked—

Colombia

The UK is a prominent supporter of the peace process and we have regular discussions with the Colombian Government. Last month, the Deputy Prime Minister reaffirmed the UK’s commitment when President Santos visited London. We are considering now how the UK can best support the implementation of any peace agreement, drawing further on our experiences in Northern Ireland.

Following the Colombian army’s rampage in a village near Turnaco, in which nine bombs were dropped, machine guns were fired at civilians and two young men were shot dead, one of them later by the army as they took him away pleading for his life, with the army then dressing the men in FARC uniforms and claiming they were guerrillas—that incident does not get reported in the world press—is it not right that we have a bilateral ceasefire and not the unilateral ceasefire that keeps being offered by FARC?

The big prize remains the ceasefire with FARC, which will benefit all the people of Colombia. I have always been happy to discuss the peace process and human rights with Members of both Houses. In October, I met at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office Members from the Parliamentary Friends of Colombia, the all-party group on Latin America and the all-party group on human rights. I am happy to do that again to discuss these things, and I am also putting together a meeting, as I promised, with the Colombian ambassador. If the hon. Gentleman wants to come to the meeting with me, he is more than welcome.

Last December, I visited Colombia, with part of the talks being about reforming the Colombian intelligence services—the DAS. Does the Minister agree that for there to be public confidence in the peace process, the Colombian Government need to go further and faster in reforming their intelligence services?

I do not think it is for me to give a running commentary on the intelligence services of Colombia. We assist the Colombian Government in our mutual desire to stamp out the drugs trade—we co-operate closely with them on that. A lot of things need to be reformed in Colombia, not least the perception of impunity for the armed forces, but I say again that the big prize is, first, to secure the peace—then the dividend can be cashed in.

The unlawful killings of innocent people in Colombia continue, as they did even last week. I am delighted that the Minister is arranging a meeting with the ambassador, but may I ask him whether he would invite along the Justice for Colombia all-party group, because the people on it are working at the sharp end and can tell us exactly what is happening in Colombia?

My meeting really should be for Members of both Houses who wish to accompany me, many of whom are expert advocates for Justice for Colombia.

Last week, I met Irrael Solano, indigenous governor of the Zenú community, who is on a death list of the so-called Caribbean coast commando. At least 60 members of his community have been assassinated, so he takes that threat very seriously. Will the Government urge the Colombian Government to do whatever they can to protect Señor Solano and other human rights defenders along the Caribbean coast?

Indeed, and I think the hon. Gentleman is a perfect candidate to come with me to raise these matters personally with the ambassador in January. We are concerned about human rights defenders, as I have made clear, including when I was in Bogota. I hope that the Colombian Government will realise how keen an interest this House takes in both the peace process and the wider case for justice for all in Colombia.

The Minister is aware that a number of Northern Ireland Members have engaged both with the Colombian Government and the FARC negotiators in Havana. Is he also aware that we are particularly concerned that the democratic opposition in Colombia, which is not represented at the negotiations, should have its position affirmed because it, along with civil society groups, has a key role to play in taking the peace process forward—a peace process for which it has fought so long?

All have a role to play in gaining peace in that country, which has been ruined by the civil war with FARC. When I was recently in Cuba, as the first British Minister to visit in 10 years, I raised this matter with Cuba, which is playing host to the peace process. I say again that these negotiations with FARC are quite a long way through and what we need to see is a final settlement with FARC—we have just seen the release of the brigadier general and the others who were taken by FARC within the last month or so. That remains the big prize and everybody should have a say in the peace that will ensue from that.

Land grabs have been a predominant feature of the conflict, and restitution of land is a key part of the peace discussions. With the Government promoting business opportunities in Colombia, will the Minister say what guidance they issue to UK companies on forced displacements and what safeguards they insist on to ensure that the UK is not supporting economic projects using illegally acquired land?

All British companies anywhere in the world are issued with guidelines on ethical investment, and those operating in Colombia are no exception. I am delighted that in 2013 we met our £1.75 billion bilateral trade and investment target for Colombia two years ahead of schedule. We have now set a revised target of £4 billion by 2020. Growth stood at 126% from 2009-12. Ethical investment is important, but so too are investment and bilateral trade. We are a Government who believe that increased trade is the sea on which all ships rise together. That benefits all in Colombia, even the poorest.

EU: UK Membership

2. What steps he has taken to prepare for renegotiation of the terms of the UK's membership of the EU with his EU counterparts; and if he will make a statement. (906369)

12. What assessment he has made of the scope for reform of the EU under the new European Commission. (906379)

I have already visited 10 member states over the past few months to discuss EU reform with my counterparts and others. More and more leaders across Europe agree that the EU needs to change. We have already made progress: the June European Council agreed that EU reform was necessary and that the UK’s concerns should be addressed.

I wish the Foreign Secretary well in his renegotiation. Does he share my view that we should be confident about achieving it? Some areas will require treaty change but others will not, particularly as there is common interest in benefits for migrant workers and in limiting the access shared by Germany, Denmark and other member states.

I agree that we should be optimistic about the scope for achieving change in the European Union because more and more of our EU partners agree with the agenda that we have set out. They agree that the European Union must reform to survive and prosper in the future. But it goes further than that. We have already had success: our Prime Minister is the first one ever to have negotiated a reduction in the EU budget; we have opted out of the eurozone bail-out fund; and we have secured vital protections for non-eurozone countries in the banking union. I am confident that we will secure the reforms that the EU so urgently needs to be more competitive and more democratically accountable and, crucially, to make it acceptable to the British people, who, under a Conservative Government, will be the ones who have the last say in 2017.

The British people should have the final say on the UK’s relationship with the EU, and I applaud the Prime Minister’s approach on an in/out referendum. The constituents who contact me support a trading partnership with Europe, but not a political union. Will the Secretary of State emphasise the vital importance of trade when discussing the future of the UK in the European Union? My constituents who work for major multinational companies headquartered in Basingstoke want to know that that is at the forefront of our negotiations.

I could not agree more with my right hon. Friend. Trade is at the heart of the European Union. Completing and deepening the single market and extending it into the digital, energy and services markets—areas on which we have scarcely scratched the surface—is the way to deliver economic growth in the European Union in the future, together with completing international trade treaties such as the transatlantic trade and investment partnership that will also hugely expand our opportunities.

We are not part of the eurozone and neither is Poland. Part of a reformed European Union will have to accommodate those countries that are not part of the eurozone. When did the Secretary of State last meet his Polish counterpart to discuss what that new architecture might look like?

I have had a couple of meetings with my new Polish counterpart and had more extensive meetings with the former Polish Foreign Minister Sikorski. I will be going to Brussels later on this afternoon and will have the opportunity to meet my Polish counterpart again. What the hon. Lady says is absolutely right. An essential emerging feature of the new EU architecture is the fact of the eurozone and the non-eurozone. If those countries in the eurozone wish to pursue closer political integration, they will be able to do so. Those countries that are outside the eurozone must be assured of the integrity of the single market, even though they will not take part in that process.

When the Secretary of State is meeting all his important European Union people, will he tell them that there are many people in this country and in this House who value the peace and prosperity that the European Union has brought to this country? Given the threatening world in which we live with President Putin and all the other things that are happening, we value that relationship and want to build on it.

Of course we value the benefits that being in the European Union brings us, principally through the single market but also with security, as we have seen in the confrontation with Russia over Ukraine. What we now need to do is address the bits of the European Union that are not working effectively, that are holding Europe back so that it is no longer competitive in the world and that represent a failure of democratic accountability so that we get a European Union that is acceptable to the British people. We as a Conservative Government will allow the British people to have the final say on that.

I caution my right hon. Friend that it is rarely wise to reveal too much detail of one’s negotiating objectives more than six months before the negotiations can possibly begin. In such circumstances, one’s negotiating partners tend to give a very hostile response even in areas where they might ultimately be willing to compromise.

My right hon. and learned Friend’s advice is very wise. I think the correct approach is probably to show a little ankle, but not too much. We need to be clear to our European Union partners that we are entering negotiations with a constructive agenda. We want to get a reformed European Union and a renegotiated relationship between Britain and the European Union that is acceptable to the British people, but the hurdle is high because it will be the British people, under a Conservative Government, who make the decision in a referendum in 2017.

In his first answer this morning, the Foreign Secretary was specific about the number of European countries he has visited as Foreign Secretary, so will he now be specific about at least some of the repatriations he is seeking from the European Union? Even a little ankle will do.

The right hon. Gentleman’s question was slightly unfortunately timed, given the question asked by my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Kensington (Sir Malcolm Rifkind). Of course we do not want to run around Europe at this stage in the negotiations with a list of specific repatriations. It is far more important to establish the principle and how we will deliver it—that is, the principle of subsidiarity and how it will be effectively overseen within the European Union.

I think that the whole House, including the Foreign Secretary’s Back Benchers, will have noted the unwillingness to name even a single repatriation, but one will do when he gets back to his feet. What is the Government’s estimate of the economic benefit of the UK’s membership of the European Union?

As I have said, we are clear that the UK benefits enormously from access to the single market in Europe. We want to remain part of the European Union and we are entering these negotiations on the basis of a clear intent to negotiate the very best deal we can for Britain, addressing the concerns clearly expressed by the British people. In the end, it will be the British people who decide whether that package is good enough.

Does the Foreign Secretary agree that any change in our relationship with the European Union should be based on trade and co-operation and not on political union?

We want trade and co-operation to flourish in the European Union and we do not subscribe to the view that ever-closer union is the answer for United Kingdom. I regard it as significant progress that in the conclusions of the June European Council this year we had for the first time an explicit recognition that not every country will pursue the same level of integration and closer union. That is progress.

Incitement to Hatred (Palestinian Media)

3. What assessment he has made of the effects of incitement to hatred in the Palestinian media on prospects for a peace settlement in that region. (906370)

I am aware of recent provocative material published in parts of the Palestinian press. We deplore incitement on both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and we are clear that inflammatory language and images damage still further the already fragile prospect of a peace settlement.

Official Palestinian Authority TV has praised as martyrs the terrorists who mowed down civilians on the streets of Jerusalem and the terrorists who killed rabbis and others at prayer in a Jerusalem synagogue. Does the Foreign Secretary agree that this is about perpetuating hatred and violence rather than promoting peace?

Yes, and we do not hesitate to raise these instances of incitement with the Palestinian Authority. I spoke to President Abbas last night and raised these issues with him while at the same time thanking him for his personal robust condemnation of the synagogue attack in West Jerusalem. We have to raise these issues whenever they occur, but we should also praise robust responses by leaders of the Palestinian Authority when they make them.

None of us would condone the incitement of hatred, and there is no doubt that there are people on each side who make matters worse, but does the Foreign Secretary agree that illegal settlements, extra-judicial punishments and discriminatory laws also make the search for a peace settlement much harder?

Yes, we are clear that settlements in the occupied territories are illegal under international law and, perhaps even more importantly, deeply unhelpful to the prospects of a peace process. We urge the Israelis at every opportunity to cease the settlement programme. If we are to move forward into peace talks, which I fervently hope we can do in the coming weeks and months, there will have to be a cessation of settlement activity while that process is ongoing.

The Israeli Knesset will soon vote on the Jewish state Bill, which would deny national rights to Israel’s minorities, remove Arabic as a national language and assert that Israel’s identity as a Jewish state comes before its nature as a democracy. At a time when tensions between Jews and Arabs are running high, does the Foreign Secretary agree that it is wrong for the Government of Israel to press ahead with that discriminatory piece of legislation?

That is a piece of legislation before the Israeli Parliament, but I can tell the hon. Gentleman that we are always opposed to discriminatory legislation. Depriving people who are resident within a state of their citizenship and discriminating against them with regard to language will never be conducive to the peaceful co-existence that I think virtually everybody seeks for Israel and Palestine.

Does the Foreign Secretary agree that public opinion in the UK is moving strongly against Israel because it is morally indefensible to support a state that has policies of ethnic cleansing and apartheid?

I am not sure that I agree with the hon. Gentleman’s characterisation of the reasons, but I agree that public opinion is moving against Israel in a country that has traditionally been understanding of the Israeli position. We have made the point strongly to Israeli Ministers and politicians that they are losing the argument and public opinion not only in Britain, but in Europe and, perhaps more importantly for them, in the United States.

What will be the effect on the Palestinian media of the renewed Israeli policy of demolishing the houses of offenders, thus making their families homeless and punishing the entire family for the crimes of one person? Is not that inhumane, and ought it not to be stopped?

We do not approve of the collective punishment strategy and make our views on that very well known on every possible occasion. I cannot give the right hon. Gentleman an analysis of the impact on the Palestinian media, but I can see exactly where he is coming from. We will continue robustly to oppose policies of collective punishment.

Palestine

4. What assessment he has made of the implications for his policies of the vote by the House on 13 October 2014 on recognising Palestine as a state alongside Israel. (906371)

This weekend marks 67 years since the UN General Assembly adopted resolution 181, which recommended a two-state solution, and it has been 21 years since the Oslo peace accords, so it is no wonder that Parliaments and citizens around the world are calling for debates and for leadership in implementing plans that were devised and agreed decades ago. However, British recognition of Palestine must be not just symbolic but strategic and used in the wider context of securing that solution.

I think I half-thank the Minister for that answer, because really he has not done anything, and nor have this Government, to recognise what Parliament has said. By 274 votes to 12 we called for recognition. Some 40% of Labour Friends of Israel voted for that recognition, as did 40 Conservative Members of Parliament. What will it take to get this Government to stand up, do the right thing, get out from under the shadow of the USA and speak for the UK Parliament?

Well, I ask the hon. Gentleman what is the right thing. We can only use this card once, and we need to use it sensibly. We need to bring parties back to the table. This Government share Parliament’s commitment to recognising a Palestinian state but as a contribution to a negotiated two-state solution. We are in the process of getting people back around the table. That is what John Kerry is committed to, and that is what should happen next.

I accept what the hon. Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk (Michael Connarty) said about the Back-Bench debate, and I think it was unfortunate that the Government did not ask more Members to be here to express those views. I take the view myself that if we are going to get peace, the overall position is that a recognition of Palestine has to come at the same time as an overall peace agreement. Do the Government agree that that is the best way forward?

I pay tribute not only to the debate that took place in this Chamber but the debate that took place yesterday called by the hon. Member for Easington (Grahame M. Morris) and prompted by an e-petition signed by over 100,000 constituents. We do pay attention to these issues. Bilateral recognition would not end the occupation. Without a negotiated settlement, the occupation and the problems that come with it would still continue. That is why, at the stage we are at now, we must invite people back to the table, and I hope this will happen very soon.

The Minister said that the Government can only play this card once. After the horrific events in Gaza over the summer and the recent violent clashes in the west bank and Jerusalem, will he tell this House how many more children have to die before the Government decide that it is the right time to play the card to give the Palestinian people an equal seat at the negotiating table, and recognise that recognition of the Palestinian state is a contribution to meaningful negotiations and not a consequence of them?

I hear what the hon. Lady says, but if she had attended yesterday’s debate she would be aware that the whole world is concerned about this. Ban Ki-moon, the UN Secretary-General, has said, “Is this what we do—reconstruct and then it gets destroyed, reconstruct and then it gets destroyed?” We must bring people to the table to make sure that there is a long-term solution to the problems and so that we do not see another Operation Cast Lead, Operation Pillar of Defence or Operation Protective Edge. That requires both sides to come together, and there is much work to do before Britain is going to be ready to recognise Palestine as a state.

Will the Minister consider for a minute how it would sound to a Palestinian to hear him say that recognition of their right to self-determination is a card to be played, any more than how it would sound to an Israeli to say that recognition of Israel is a card to be played? What is he actually doing to talk to European partners to secure recognition and not to put the day off?

Forgive me if my comment sounded flippant—that was not my intention at all. Anybody who attended the debate yesterday, or indeed the debate that took place in this Chamber, will know of my personal commitment to working with people on both sides. I spent some time in Israel. I visited Gaza and saw the destruction with my own eyes. I should also underline the commitment that Britain is making to the reconstruction; that was outlined when I attended the conference in Cairo. I say again that it is important that given where we are in the process, with John Kerry about to embark on a new round of talks, that is what we should allow to take place at this very moment.

Falkland Islands

5. What steps the Government are taking to support Falkland islanders experiencing harassment by the Argentine Government. (906372)

As I said only yesterday to representatives of the Falklands Islands Government who were in London for the Overseas Territories Joint Ministerial Council, this Government remain steadfastly committed to the defence and security of the Falklands. We will continue to speak up for the islanders’ right to self-determination and to provide them with support as they seek to develop and internationalise their economy.

I thank my right hon. Friend for his answer, particularly his reference to self-determination for the Falkland islanders. Does he agree that anything other than self-determination would be nothing other than an affront to the 255 British servicemen who gave their lives during the Falklands conflict?

Yes, I entirely agree. As a result of that conflict, we are still mine-clearing on the islands. I congratulate BACTEC, the company in my hon. Friend’s constituency that has just secured the contract to carry out the fourth phase of de-mining in the Falklands. The people of the Falkland Islands have spoken. I was there in February. There was a 92% turnout, and 99.8% voted yes. People in the region should respect their human rights and their rights to self-determination.

The Minister will know that there is going to be an election in Argentina soon and that rhetoric against the Falkland Islands usually increases considerably in such periods. What representations are the Government making to other countries in Latin America and the Caribbean, including some that are in receipt of British development assistance, to try to neutralise the rhetoric that will come out of Argentina?

We do not seek to neutralise anything; we just seek to tell it as it is and we encourage the Falkland islanders, who are by far the best advocates, to travel around the region to tell others about their life. The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right: we anticipate an increase in rhetoric, threats and intimidation as we approach the election, but we are hopeful that after it we might be able to have a more mature and sophisticated relationship with whoever will be the President of Argentina.

ISIL

Britain is one of 60 countries participating in a coalition to defeat ISIL and we are making a significant contribution, including the air campaign and training Iraqi ground forces. The training of those local forces is critical in order for them to take and hold the ground, maintain security and begin the process of stabilisation and governance.

I thank the Minister for that answer. He will know that ISIL needs to be defeated in Iraq and Syria. Two years ago, I raised with the then Foreign Secretary the creation of safe havens on the border of Turkey and Syria. They could now be used by the Free Syrian Army as a launching pad to defeat ISIL in Iraq and Syria as well as the brutal Assad regime. I understand that some Arab countries have raised the issue with the United Kingdom. Will we support them?

I understand what my hon. Friend is saying. We have had discussions with our Turkish counterparts and others, and General John Allen is also looking at the issue. It needs to be considered in the wider context of the campaign and it is on the table at the moment, but that is as far as it goes.

18. Do the Government recognise that the failure of reconstruction after the last Iraq war shows that any military effort will be insufficient unless the UK does far more to engage with its partners and allies, to enable good governance in currently ungoverned spaces in Iraq and Syria to prevail? (906385)

The hon. Gentleman raises a critical point. The international community, especially Iraq’s neighbours and Iraq itself, must play a crucial role in providing assistance and technical support and governance and stabilisation once the fighting has happened. We are seeing successes: Iraqi forces have liberated the key town of Baiji, and the National Guard programme is formalising the militia structure, to improve security as well as command and control. They are stopping ISIL in its tracks and pushing it back, out of Iraq. This is a turning point.

I pay tribute to our superb efforts in Iraq, but I absolutely agree with the hon. Member for Barrow and Furness (John Woodcock) that we are not going to defeat ISIL—the question is about defeating ISIL, not containing it—by doing what we are doing at the moment. We will defeat ISIL only if we engage politically with the Government in Baghdad and find ways of engaging with the friendly Sunni forces in Iraq. What discussions are the Government having with Baghdad about how they can extend their political influence?

My hon. Friend makes an important point. It is the inclusivity of the al-Abadi Government, in contrast with the Malaki Government, that is making sure that Sunnis are included in Iraq and Baghdad. It is therefore important that they, not us, take the space, which is why the boots on the ground are Iraqi boots, not ours, so that they can move towards more inclusive governance and reconstruction capability.

Many Yazidi Kurdish women have been abducted by the so-called Islamic State. They have been held as slaves and raped. What are the Government doing to ensure that there is more publicity about the issue and that we do more to stop these crimes against humanity?

The hon. Lady raises an extremely important point that underlines exactly why ISIL and its ideology must be removed from Iraq and, indeed, Syria, and prevented from spreading elsewhere. We are working very closely with our Kurdish counterparts on this very issue. I shall visit the region soon and raise the matter.

One crucial part of the effort to defeat ISIL is surely to help those made even more vulnerable by its advance. Given that the World Food Programme has had to suspend assistance to almost 2 million Syrians, what action are Ministers taking to help to ensure that the World Food Programme can resume its efforts to ease the plight of Syrian refugees?

The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. While we discuss military matters and indeed governance, an entire generation is suffering in Syria itself. Britain is one of the largest donors to Syria. We have committed over £700 million in aid to provide support on the very issues he talked about, and we have also provided £23 million-worth of aid to Iraq. If I may, I shall look into the issues concerning the World Food Programme and get back to him.

Middle East

7. What steps his Department is taking to help bring Israeli and Palestinian leaders back to peace talks. (906374)

9. What recent assessment he has made of the likelihood of a two-state solution emerging in the middle east. (906376)

The UK is fully supporting US-led efforts, working with the Egyptians, to bring Israeli and Palestinian leaders back to negotiations aimed at achieving a lasting peace. We are also working with European partners, especially France and Germany, to support that US-led process.

I thank the Minister for his answer. The point that I want to make was possibly covered earlier, but it is so serious that it is worthy of repetition. Illegal Israeli settlements are causing friction, to say the least, and they are a roadblock in the peace process. What is the Secretary of State doing with his EU counterparts to challenge this and to make sure that there are no roadblocks?

As I said earlier and have said on previous occasions in the House, the settlements are illegal. We condemn them, and every time a new one is proposed, we make that view known to the Israeli Government. But I have gone further than that, and I repeat today that we have to be clear that we will not allow the fact of illegal settlements to define the shape of an eventual settlement. We cannot allow one of the parties to this conflict to build themselves into a position to dictate the eventual peace. Settlements can be built and settlements can be removed, but every settlement that is built is illegal and it cannot be allowed to stand immovably in the way of the peace process.

The Secretary of State has talked about the preference for a successful peace process, but actions speak louder than words. The 1,000 acre land grab around Bethlehem in September surely indicates that Israel does not really have the serious intention of allowing a two-state solution. Given that, should we not be thinking about how we are going to recognise Palestine?

This is not an excuse, but a great deal of domestic politics is involved in this issue. The 1,000 acres that my hon. Friend mentioned have not, as I understand it, been developed in any way; it was simply a designation. It is unacceptable, but it is a political statement, and we have to make sure that it does not stand in the way of an eventual two-state solution.

Order. I am afraid that colleagues will have to see what opportunities are presented during topical questions. Progress today has been incredibly slow, and we have a lot of questions to get through.

EU Food Imports

We estimate that about £4.5 billion of EU food exports stand to be affected, of which the UK share amounts to £39 million. At the same time, import restrictions have led to price increases to Russian shoppers of about 15%.

Russia’s ban on EU food imports has contributed to the creation of an imbalance between market demand and supply in the dairy industry, particularly in Northern Ireland, where we rely greatly on exports. In view of that, will the Minister have immediate discussions with his ministerial colleagues in the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs with a view to pursuing other global markets for the dairy industry?

I completely understand the hon. Lady’s point about producers in Northern Ireland. As she knows, some EU compensation arrangements are available, but she has put her finger on the really important point. My colleagues in DEFRA and UK Trade & Investment want to work with producers in Northern Ireland and elsewhere both to access the EU funds available for getting into alternative markets and to promote the excellent produce from Northern Ireland in third markets worldwide.

Given that Russia’s food import problems are due to the financial sanctions imposed on it by the EU because of Russia’s illegal behaviour in Crimea and eastern Ukraine, and given that yesterday the rouble had its worst day since the 1990s, does the Minister agree that financial sanctions will bring Russia to the negotiating table, and will he continue with them?

Russia has certainly suffered heavily as a result of the imposition of sanctions in the way that my right hon. Friend describes. We have seen a flight of capital out of Russia, as well as the precipitate fall in the value of the rouble. I hope that the Russian leadership will accept that it is in the interests of the Russian people to implement the Minsk agreement with Ukraine in full and, in particular, to return to Ukraine control of her sovereign borders.

Further to the question from the right hon. Member for Croydon South (Sir Richard Ottaway), world leaders rightly made their views known about the Russian actions in Ukraine at the recent G20 summit in Australia. Will the Minister say more about the effect that he thinks the sanctions and the recent fall in the oil price are having on Russia and, in particular, whether he believes that the combined effect is producing a change in Russian attitudes towards fostering nationalism in Ukraine and possibly in other countries with Russian-speaking minorities?

I agree with the right hon. Gentleman’s implicit point that we are concerned not just about Ukraine, but about the doctrine of a right to intervene in support of Russian speakers anywhere in the world. The answer to his question is that, sadly, we are not yet seeing a return to serious talks and the implementation of the Minsk peace agreement by the Russian leadership, but the impact of sanctions on the Russian economy, coupled with the decline in oil prices, is catastrophic. It is in the interests of the Russian people that we see a change.

What assessment has the Minister made of the impact on the people of Russia and on Russian public opinion of the effect of the sanctions and the declining oil price?

The people of Russia—ordinary families—are bearing the brunt of the cost of the Kremlin’s adventurism in Ukraine through much higher inflation, a lack of access to high-quality, good-value imported produce, and a decline, every week, in the value of the rouble in their pockets.

Malaysia

I plan to visit Malaysia early next year. My visit will coincide with the start of Malaysia’s chairmanship of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and its elevation to a non-permanent seat at the UN Security Council. My discussions will focus on issues of mutual interest, including trade, security, the Commonwealth and human rights. My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary looks forward to welcoming Malaysia’s Foreign Minister to London next week.

I am grateful to the Minister for his reply. He will be aware that last week, the Malaysian Government went back on their pledge to repeal the sedition law, and are instead entrenching and extending its characteristics. He will also be aware that there is growing international concern that the law is being used to imprison political opponents and religious minorities, particularly the Christian community. Will he and the Foreign Secretary undertake to ensure that those issues are raised with the Malaysian Government in their engagements over the next few weeks?

My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary reminds me that such issues always are raised. He will certainly raise them. We are aware of the recent comments by Prime Minister Najib regarding the Malaysian sedition laws. We will look at his comments about the proposed legislation closely. We are clear that the Malaysian Government should conform to international standards and norms.

Hezbollah

11. What estimate he has made of the number of rockets in Hezbollah’s arsenal in southern Lebanon which could be deployed against Israel; and what diplomatic efforts his Department is making to seek a reduction in that number. (906378)

We are aware of continued reports of Hezbollah’s arsenal of weapons in southern Lebanon. Those weapons pose a threat to regional security and are in violation of UN Security Council resolutions.

Hezbollah’s extensive arsenal contravenes UN Security Council resolutions 1559 and 1701, which call on it to disarm, yet the UN peacekeeping force in Lebanon has not stopped the re-arming of Hezbollah and rarely inspects Hezbollah-controlled villages for illicit activity. Given that every Israeli city is now within range of the rockets, will the Minister use his good offices in the UN to ensure that the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon has the resources it needs to police southern Lebanon effectively?

My hon. Friend makes an important point. That matter was raised with me during my visit to Israel. We are committed to supporting peace and stability in Lebanon. Since 2012, the UK has been delivering a $31-million programme to train and equip the land border regiments to provide stability. More work needs to be done with the UN and we must ensure that Hezbollah agrees to the UN resolutions.

Lebanon’s position in the middle east is being destabilised by the fact that a quarter of the population is made up of Syrian refugees. The United Nations has called for countries throughout the world to resettle at least 130,000 of those refugees. Why have only 90 been allowed into the United Kingdom?

As has been made clear before, we feel that it is best that refugees are kept closer to the region so that they can return. The whole House should pay tribute to Lebanon for its work in taking 1.2 million refugees, which, as the hon. Gentleman says, is almost a quarter of its population. The UK Government have provided more than £273 million to help with stability in the area and to support refugees there.

Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership

The seventh round of negotiations concluded in October, and our ambition remains to agree a deal next year that could benefit the average British family by £400 a year.

I thank my right hon. Friend for his answer. Will he confirm that as part of his negotiations, he will reiterate that signing TTIP is not the start of the privatisation of the NHS?

I can absolutely confirm that to my hon. Friend. In early October, both the United States and EU chief negotiators made it clear in public statements that there would be no provisions in the trade agreement that would limit the ability of Governments to regulate health provision or other public services.

At a meeting in my constituency last Friday, those very concerns about the privatisation of the health service were raised, as were concerns about the reduction in minimum standards such as the minimum wage and conditions at work, and about the ability of a UK Government to put conditions on suppliers to the UK. Can the Minister give my constituents some reassurances on those points?

I would like to think that the right hon. Gentleman made it clear that he was not going to add to the scaremongering rumours that he has just described, especially given that the Government in whom he served were an ardent champion of this trade deal with the United States. It is clear that the TTIP deal will not limit the ability of Governments to legislate for, or to regulate, public services. It will provide businesses large and small in this country with enormous opportunities to get access to a US market of 300 million customers, and the entire House should be united in supporting that.

EU (Freedom of Movement)

15. What recent discussions he has had with his EU counterparts on freedom of movement within the EU. (906382)

I have discussed EU migration extensively with my counterparts as part of a series of visits to EU capitals to discuss EU reform and renegotiation. We are not alone in seeing EU migration as a qualified right. We secured reference in the June European Council conclusions to the need to protect EU migration from misuse, and last week the Prime Minister set out his proposals for doing just that.

Will the Secretary of State confirm that we should use the Dano judgment, which confirmed that member states have significant leeway, to ensure that people who come to the UK come to work, not to claim? Will he also confirm that we can do that without threatening our position as a member of the EU?

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. The Dano judgment has once again shown that sometimes we in this country assume that the body of EU regulation requires us to do things that it actually does not. We sometimes find, as we did in that case, that there is more flexibility to work within the existing treaty powers than is assumed.

Topical Questions

Since the last Foreign and Commonwealth Office questions, I and my team have been focused on the major foreign policy challenges facing the UK—ISIL in Iraq and Syria, Russian aggression in Ukraine, the middle east peace process, Libya and the Ebola outbreak. In addition, I have been continuing my programme of visits to EU capitals, exploring the common ground that exists on the need for EU reform, explaining Britain’s requirements for its future relationship with Europe and listening to the views of parliamentarians, academics, journalists, commentators, Ministers and Government officials across the continent.

I thank my right hon. Friend for his answer. What assessment has he made of the co-ordination across Whitehall Departments in delivering the Government’s response to Ebola, both in Sierra Leone and here in the UK?

Over the summer I led the Government’s cross-departmental response, involving a huge amount of resource from the Department for International Development, the mobilisation of our diplomatic networks by the Foreign Office, and a massive infusion of manpower and capability by the Ministry of Defence. The people of Britain can be immensely proud of the way that the UK has stepped up to the plate and, using a combination of military and civilian resources, delivered real effect on the ground in Sierra Leone.

The Foreign Secretary has just paid generous tribute to the Department for International Development, and I echo those sentiments. However, he is reported to have recently called the Government’s own commitment to enshrine in law a pledge to spend 0.7% of UK GDP on international aid as “bizarre” when he was thousands of miles away from Westminster—[Interruption.] Some Members seem to agree with that sentiment. Ahead of Friday’s discussions of this issue in the House, is he prepared to repeat that judgment at the Dispatch Box today or has he had his mind changed?

Unlike the Government in whom the right hon. Gentleman served, we have delivered the 0.7% target. We made a political commitment to do it and we have delivered on that political commitment. Talk about the need to legislate is yesterday’s discussion. We are doing it—something he never did.

T2. Stability in north Africa—in Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia, where there has been remarkable progress by the Tunisian people—has been helped immeasurably by the United Kingdom’s Arab Partnership programme. Will my hon. Friend confirm that that programme will continue and that, just because there is some success in those areas, we will not take our eye off the ball or off the need to do more in north Africa? (906394)

My right hon. Friend can take part of the credit for some of the success stories that we have seen in Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco. He is right that we should not forget these countries. Bilateral trade continues to flourish and the Arab Partnership scheme is very important. I visited Algeria last week and we look forward to the Prime Minister’s visit when he comes here next week.

T4. In Uganda there appears to be renewed attempts to target and persecute the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community. If the Ugandan Government proceed with new legislation in this area, what will be the impact on bilateral relations with the UK? (906396)

The FCO’s work to combat violence and discrimination on the basis of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights is an important part of our international work in Uganda and elsewhere. I have made representations to the Ugandan Government and will continue to do so, and I will continue to work with NGOs and parliamentarians interested in this issue. It is a high priority for the British Government and for me.

T3. The Foreign Secretary has made it clear that any renegotiation with the EU will have trade at its heart, which my constituents welcome ahead of the referendum, but does the Minister envisage concurrent discussions on bilateral free trade agreements with high-growth economies such as India, which will be needed in case the British people choose to leave the EU, or will any such discussions come after the referendum vote? (906395)

As my hon. Friend knows, the treaty provisions are that the EU has exclusive competence over international trade negotiations, which means that we benefit from the collective leverage of a market of about 500 million people in prising open access to third markets. As regards India, the Prime Minister raised with the Indian Prime Minister at Brisbane the need to reopen the EU-India talks on free trade which had been paused because of the Indian election. We hope very much that Mr Modi’s Government will want to take that forward now.

T5. Is the Minister really saying that Britain has fulfilled its commitment by taking 90 of the most vulnerable Syrian refugees, when 130,000 need to be resettled around the world? (906397)

The UK Government have taken the view that because we expect Syria to be rebuilt with a new and democratic future, we want to support these people as close to their home as possible. Britain is proud to be the second largest international donor of humanitarian aid to Syria, supporting those communities so that they will eventually be able to return and rebuild their country.

T7. The Foreign Secretary knows that my constituent, Ollie Gobat, was brutally murdered in St Lucia in an apparent assassination. I am grateful that officials are discussing assurances on the death penalty to allow UK police to support the investigation, at St Lucia’s request, but we are seven months on from Ollie’s murder. The death penalty has not been applied in 19 years. Will the Minister pick up the phone to the St Lucian Prime Minister and help to resolve the outstanding issues so that we can get justice for Ollie and his family? (906400)

This is indeed a tragic and brutal murder, and my heart goes out to the Gobat family. I wrote to the St Lucian Prime Minister on 14 October to seek assurances that any person convicted of this crime will not receive the death penalty, and following my hon. Friend’s excellent work, yesterday I wrote to the St Lucian high commissioner to press him on this issue. I will take up the suggestion to phone the St Lucian Prime Minister if an answer is not forthcoming, and I will speak to my hon. Friend as soon as I have done so.

T6. The Secretary of State is a former Transport Secretary, so will he admit to motorists in my constituency and other rural areas that the Government’s bid for a rural fuel discount has completely failed because he has no friends in Europe? (906399)

The UK has many friends in Europe, and one of the most striking things of the past four and a half months has been that everywhere I have gone in Europe, it has been emphasised to me—again in Italy last week—how central Britain’s role is to the European Union. Indeed, my Italian counterpart said clearly that he cannot imagine a European Union without Britain at its heart.

T9. I previously raised the case of Asia Bibi with the Prime Minister, and authored a letter signed by 57 Members of Parliament from across the House calling for justice in this case. I understand that the Prime Minister raised the case with Prime Minister Sharif, but what was his response? Is Prime Minister Sharif prepared to reform these laws, because I have spoken to the senior leadership of the main opposition in Pakistan, the PPP, and it is prepared to work with him to do that? (906402)

Asia Bibi is a Christian woman who was sentenced to death for blasphemy in 2010. That sentence has obviously provoked international condemnation, and was the first death sentence handed to a woman under Pakistan’s new blasphemy laws. We are deeply concerned that the Pakistan court has upheld the imposition of the death penalty, and we hope the verdict will be overturned on appeal. The Prime Minister will be in the Chamber tomorrow, and I understand that he and the Foreign Secretary will try to raise this matter again.

T8. Aston academy secondary school in my constituency and Makunduchi school on the island of Zanzibar in Tanzania have had a link for more than 20 years, with regular visits of staff and pupils from both schools to one another, lifting the horizons of young people in both countries. How does the Minister’s Department support such twinning arrangements? (906401)

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for that question, not least because I remember visiting Aston school in 2001 when I was a parliamentary candidate in Rother Valley. More recently, as Minister for Africa I have visited a number of schools, and twinning arrangements such as that in Zanzibar are a fantastic way to support schools and build understanding of what the British Government are doing by supporting the DFID budget and the foreign affairs team. I recommend that more colleagues encourage such schemes in their constituencies, just like the hon. Member for Wrexham (Ian Lucas), who supports an excellent scheme in Lesotho.

In his answer to question 11, the Minister mentioned the welcome assistance given by this country to the Lebanese border regiment. Will he look again at that, particularly in Lebanon and Jordan, to see what further assistance we could give armed forces in those countries to prevent contagion from Syria and Iraq?

I pay tribute to the work done by my right hon. Friend when he covered this portfolio. He will be aware from his visit to the region of the start of a programme to build watchtowers, and the MOD is very much involved in that to prevent ISIL from running across the border and taking hostages. More funds are being provided for that successful programme, and I will be visiting Lebanon soon.

For nearly half a century, on and off, I have heard Ministers say that they are committed on behalf of the British Government to justice for Palestinians, yet the situation has deteriorated for Palestinians over that time—it is has certainly not improved in any way. Would recognising a Palestinian state not show a genuine commitment on behalf of the United Kingdom that we want justice for Palestinians, as well as ensuring that the state of Israel is secure?

The hon. Gentleman’s timeline merely serves to underscore how complex, difficult and intractable the problem is. Our commitment to a two-state solution is loudly expressed at every opportunity—no one can be in any doubt about it—but, as the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood) has made clear, recognition is a tool to be used in trying to bring about the peace settlement all hon. Members ardently desire.

May I just say what a great school Aston academy is? Of course, it was Aston comprehensive when I went there, but I will not ask about that.

Does the Foreign Secretary agree that millions of people around the country will have taken the Prime Minister’s speech last week on immigration as setting out that the revision of the rules on benefit claimants would be a red line in the renegotiation?

I am happy to agree with my hon. Friend both on Aston academy and on the Prime Minister’s speech last Friday. The right hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire South (Mr Alexander) called for clarity on our agenda with the European Union. He got clarity from the Prime Minister on Friday, but I have not heard him acknowledge that.

In this Question Time, Members have mentioned official Palestinian media and TV, and the Palestinian Authority. Effectively, they are talking about the apparatus of a Palestinian state. Surely calls for peace should be heard with equal respect for both Israel and Palestine. Is it not time the UK Government followed this House of Commons and gave recognition to the Palestinian state, which would be the first stage of the two-state solution?

This is a bit like groundhog day. The Government will recognise a Palestinian state at a time of our choosing. We will choose that time on the basis that it is designed to deliver the maximum possible impetus to the peace process.

Will Her Majesty’s Government be supporting the resumption of World Bank loans to Argentina? If so, would it not be bizarre for the UK to underwrite loans to Argentina, which is awash with its own cash, and which is in the process of acquiring 24 advanced combat aircraft for its defence portfolio, which could present a risk to the Falkland Islands?

Further to the earlier answer on Colombia, the Minister will be aware that paramilitaries continue to target members of the peace movement. In the past three years, 60 members of the Patriotic March have been assassinated. Will he take steps to put pressure on the Colombian Government to protect peace activists in Colombia?

Yes, we will do that, and already do so. When I was in Bogota, I met a lot of peace defenders and human rights activists, and a lot of Government officials. We continue to be extremely concerned about the situation, but I repeat what I have said: we are very keen to help to move forward the FARC peace negotiations, which will bring peace to the whole country. However, serious institutional issues in the country will then need to be addressed. The UK Government will provide every assistance we can in that respect.

Marlborough house is one of the great meeting places of the Commonwealth and yet, reportedly, the Labour party says that it wants to sell it. What is the Government’s view?

I read that report with some incredulity. The Government are trying to put the “C” back into FCO, but it seems that the Labour Opposition are trying to put Marlborough house back on the market. That is the difference between us. We can accuse the Labour Government of many things, but we can never accuse them of being helpful to, supportive of or keen on the Commonwealth.

With reference to the forthcoming ministerial visit to Malaysia, will the Minister consider its sedition laws? They are constantly being used to gag the opposition, including important opposition leaders such as Anwar Ibrahim. We left those laws behind. Why do we not get rid of them?

I will be brief because I have already addressed this issue. My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary is meeting the Malaysian Foreign Minister next week, I believe. He will raise that issue, as we always do. We are studying the implications of the Malaysian Prime Minister’s comments and will respond in due course.

Will the UK Government be represented at the forthcoming Vienna conference on the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons?

We have decided to accept Austria’s invitation to attend the Vienna conference on the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons on 8 and 9 December. We will be represented by Mrs Susan le Jeune, the UK ambassador to Austria and permanent representative to the International Atomic Energy Agency.

May I raise again the case of my constituent Ghoncheh Ghavami, who is still facing prison in Iran and is forbidden from leaving that country? I am grateful to the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, the hon. Member for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood) for meeting Ghoncheh’s family with me, but I found the Foreign Secretary’s view, that there is little he can do because Iran does not recognise dual citizenship, somewhat unhelpful. Ghoncheh is a British citizen and is entitled to the support of the Foreign Office. May I ask the Foreign Secretary again what he is doing to ensure that she can come back to her home in Shepherds Bush?

I was not intending to be unhelpful; I was simply pointing out one of the realities we have to deal with. She is a British citizen and we make representations on her behalf. One of the by-products of the nuclear talks with Iran is that we have far more contact with Iranian counterparts than we might otherwise have done. I take every opportunity to raise this with Minister Zarif, my opposite number, and will do so again when I see him at the Afghanistan conference in London this week. Iran’s position is that it does not recognise her British citizenship and will therefore not engage with us on this issue.