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Topical Questions

Volume 589: debated on Tuesday 2 December 2014

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.