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House of Commons Hansard
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Oral Answers to Questions
03 March 2015
Volume 593

Foreign and Commonwealth Office

The Secretary of State was asked—

Palestine

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1. What criteria the Government will use to determine the right time for the UK to recognise Palestine as a state. [907827]

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We want to see the establishment of a sovereign and independent Palestinian state, living in peace and security alongside Israel. We have been clear that the UK will recognise a Palestinian state bilaterally at a time when we judge it best to help bring about peace.

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I thank the Minister for his answer, but does he not see that constantly saying that the UK recognition of the state of Palestine should be conditional on negotiations between Israel and Palestine in effect gives Mr Netanyahu or his successor a veto over the UK’s sovereign decision to recognise Palestine, especially as that Prime Minister is making a very divisive speech in Washington today? How can this be right?

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Although I understand the hon. Lady’s passion—we have debated this matter in the House on a number of occasions—I hope she appreciates that such recognition is not simply a tick-box exercise but a strategic tool, which will have consequences when implemented, and which is therefore best used at a time when it will advance the process and leverage positive change.

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The previous Foreign Secretary said that we were in the last chance saloon for the two-state solution. If the Government wait long enough, there will be no opportunity for a two-state solution and the question will then be completely irrelevant.

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I am sad to say that I agree with my hon. Friend, as many of the ingredients that we witnessed in the build-up to last summer’s conflict are beginning to re-emerge. If we are to avoid another significant and punishing conflict, all parties must come together immediately after the Israeli elections are complete and a new Government are formed, to address these grave challenges.

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There is no legalistic or bureaucratic route to Palestinian statehood and it cannot be imposed from outside. We will see a viable Palestinian state—the two-state solution that we all want—only as a result of proper negotiations between the Israelis and the Palestinians, which Britain should be doing everything it can to foster. We need to see the demilitarisation of Gaza, Iran no longer sending rockets to Hezbollah and Hamas, and Britain promoting organisations such as Project Cherish, the Parents Circle-Families Forum and Middle East Education Through Technology to bring together people on both sides who want peace.

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I am not sure that was a question, but I certainly agree with the spirit of the hon. Gentleman’s comments. We want the Palestinian Authority to assert itself in Gaza, not just have a technocratic Government. We want the Palestinians to end the political stalemate with Hamas, as he implies, but we also want Israel to allow the free movement of people, particularly the politicians, into Gaza, and to increase trade between Gaza and the west bank.

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The Minister is right—we have debated the subject a number of times. The House also voted by an overwhelming margin in favour of recognising a Palestinian state. Under what circumstances does he consider that the timing of such an announcement should be at odds with the sovereign will of the House?

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As I said in my initial reply, this is not just a tick-box exercise. It is not something that we debate in Parliament and then move on to the next subject. There are real consequences of when we choose to recognise the Palestinian state. We want to be part of that process and to advance it. When we can leverage positive change, we will do so.

Libya

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2. What recent discussions he has had with his counterparts in North Africa on the political and security situation in Libya. [907828]

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The political and security situation in Libya remains a concern. We call on all parties to agree to a ceasefire, to engage with the UN dialogue process to find a lasting solution, and to unite to defeat the Islamist extremism which is establishing a foothold in that country. I speak regularly to my Egyptian counterpart. I visited Algeria on 19 and 20 February for discussions which were dominated by the situation in Libya.

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I welcome the Egyptian Government’s response to the terrible murder of 21 Egyptian Coptic Christians in Libya and especially the bridge building shown by President Sisi and religious leaders to the Coptic community. What more can the UK do to support Egypt in its vital role in working for stability in Libya?

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My hon. Friend is right that Egypt will play a vital role in the solution in Libya, as all European countries, many of which are very concerned about the situation there, and the United States recognise. Similarly, there are still significant challenges in the human rights situation in Egypt. We were very pleased with the clear statement that President Sisi made on the rights of religious minorities in Egypt. However, as with many other elements of the Egyptian constitution, we now need to see that being delivered on the ground.

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Following engagement with ourselves, the Prime Minister appointed the National Security Adviser to engage with the Libyan authorities on reconciliation and finding ways forward for compensation for victims of IRA terrorism that was sponsored by the Gaddafi regime. Will the Foreign Secretary update the House on what progress the National Security Adviser has made in that work?

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I regret to have to tell the right hon. Gentleman that the reality on the ground in Libya is that there is no authority to engage with. I am afraid that at the moment I can report no progress on those measures. The urgent need now is to see a Government of national unity created and for the Libyan people to deal collectively with the threat to their society that is posed by the establishment of ISIL cells. Once we have such an authority in place, we will of course re-engage with that agenda.

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As the United Kingdom was one of the leading countries that helped the Libyan people overthrow Colonel Gaddafi, do we not have both a political obligation and a political interest to help all the democratic forces in Libya trying to create a new, decent country? While I recognise that the Government do indeed have a priority in that respect, I urge my right hon. Friend to ensure that the British Government do all within their power—perhaps even more than they are doing at the moment—over the crucial weeks and months that will determine whether Libya does indeed become a moderate, secular force or continues to be a hotbed of anarchy and potential terrorism.

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I agree with my right hon. and learned Friend that the next few weeks and months will be crucial for Libya. Would that it was as simple as getting behind the democratic authority in Libya—it is not clear that there is a democratic authority behind which we can get. We need a coming together. I do not want to overplay the prospects, but the UN Secretary-General’s special representative, Bernardino León, is making some progress, and the Prime Minister’s envoy, Jonathan Powell, is also working hard. We will continue to engage, because having a stable Government in Libya is vital to our security.

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The Tobruk-based Government have agreed to return to the UN talks, but on the condition that they are recognised as the only authority that can take part in those negotiations. What is the view of Her Majesty’s Government? Do they support the Tobruk-based Government?

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Our view is that both the Tobruk regime and the Misratans, and indeed the regime in Tripoli, must attend the talks with the UN Secretary-General’s special representative on a no-preconditions basis and on the terms he proposes in order to discuss how they can form a Government of national unity of some kind so that we can begin to rebuild Libya, which could be a prosperous and successful country, and one whose stability is vital to our own interests.

Middle East Peace Process

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3. What recent assessment he has made of progress with the middle east peace process. [907829]

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I have to be candid with my hon. Friend: progress has stalled pending the Israeli general election on 17 March. The British Government strongly supported US Secretary of State John Kerry’s efforts to reach a final status agreement and were disappointed that the parties did not make more progress in 2014. I have discussed many times with Secretary Kerry, most recently when we met in London on 21 February, what the next steps will be. We will press the US to revive the initiative and all the parties to resume serious negotiations as soon as possible after the Israeli elections, and I urge them to be ready then to step up and show the bold political leadership that will be necessary to achieve peace.

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I am glad to hear that my right hon. Friend will join me in asking for renewed international pressure on Hamas to disarm and renounce violence. Does he agree that unless that happens it is difficult to envisage a unified and prosperous Palestinian state existing alongside Israel?

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My hon. Friend is right that for an enduring solution Hamas must disarm and be prepared to accept Israel’s right to live in peace, but Israel must also stop making illegal settlements in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. We need to keep up the pressure on both sides if we are to get a sustainable solution.

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Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that one of the most positive possibilities for advancing peace in the middle east would be the success of the international negotiations with Iran on its nuclear projects? Will he take this opportunity to make it clear that any attempt to disrupt those talks by the Israeli Prime Minister when he addresses the United States Congress later today would be bad for the whole of the middle east and bad for Israel too?

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My reading of the US Congress is that it probably does not need much encouragement to instinctively be very sceptical about the process of dialogue with Iran on the nuclear dossier. However, some small progress is being made there, and I would very much regret any attempts to destabilise or derail that process. On the wider question, settling the Israel-Palestine issue is the big roadblock to a more enduring peace in the middle east.

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Does the Foreign Secretary think that peace will not be forthcoming until Hamas renounces violence and can speak with a single voice? In Israel, we have seen the emergence of a moderate centre ground. Does he think that either condition is going to happen?

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I am going to be slightly careful about the second part of my right hon. Friend’s question because Israel is two weeks away from a general election, so I do not want to speculate about different parts of the political spectrum. What is clear is that there needs to be a broad-based movement within Israel that seeks peace, understands that trade-offs are required in order to achieve peace, and places the greatest premium on getting an acknowledgement of Israel’s right to live inside peaceful pre-’67 borders in perpetuity.

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Is it true that Tony Blair is still a so-called middle east peace envoy? What progress has he secured on the ground, and do the UK Government still have confidence in his efforts?

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It is true that Tony Blair remains the Quad envoy to the middle east. Mr Blair has made a large number of visits to the region; most recently he has been in Gaza. He continues to engage, and I have no doubt that his role will be kept under constant review.

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May I take my right hon. Friend back to the question of settlements, which it is accepted throughout this House are wholly contrary to international law? More to the point, the continual encroachment by the Israeli Government makes it impossible for East Jerusalem to become the capital of a Palestinian state. Can he conceive of any circumstances where a leader of the Palestinians would be able to accept a peace arrangement based on giving up East Jerusalem?

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I think that is highly unlikely. As my right hon. and learned Friend knows, the Government’s position is that that should not be the case. I have said in this House before and I will say again that settlements are just buildings. Buildings can be built and buildings can be removed, and we must not allow illegal building to stand in the way of a sustainable solution if it can otherwise be found.

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I am sure that the Foreign Secretary agrees that the middle east peace process will be more difficult to restart if reconstruction in Gaza continues to proceed as slowly as it is currently. What further efforts, if any, will Ministers be making to speed up the delivery of aid, including British aid, that was promised by the international community at the Cairo conference, before they hand over the challenge to this Front Bench on 8 May?

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If I may say so, I think that the hon. Gentleman is getting a little bit ahead of himself there.

We have a good track record on the delivery of our aid pledges in respect of Gaza. A number of other countries have made very forward-leaning aid pledges but they have not yet been followed through. So there is a problem with money, but there is also a physical problem of being able to get materials into Gaza and get works progressed. That is caused partly by the security situation in Sinai and the Egyptian response to that, and partly by the situation between Israel and the Palestinians in Gaza. I do not think, honestly, that we are going to get much progress before the Israeli general election, but as soon as that election is out of the way, this has to be a major priority.

Falkland Islands

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4. Whether he has had discussions with the Argentinian Government on the future of the Falkland Islands; and if he will make a statement. [907830]

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There have been no discussions between the UK and Argentina on the future of the Falkland Islands during the course of this Government. Any such discussions will take place only when the Falkland Islanders wish them to, and they have made it clear that they do not.

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My right hon. Friend will be aware that the Argentinian Government have brought out new bank notes showing the Falkland Islands as part of Argentina. I think that we have all received a letter from the Argentinian ambassador and a book, “Malvinas Matters”, complaining that there has not been any dialogue. May I reiterate what the Minister has just said? We should not have any negotiations with Argentina on sovereignty until the Falkland islanders want to leave the United Kingdom.

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I am aware that a number of right hon. and hon. Members have received that book, which seeks to discredit the Falkland islanders’ right to their own future. It ignores the inconvenient truth that some people on the islands can trace their Falklands ancestry back through nine generations, which is longer than the current borders of Argentina have existed. On the issue of the 50 peso bank note, we cannot stop the Argentinian Government doing these stunts. It is worth a whopping £3.72, according to today’s exchange rate—I think it probably has the equivalent political value.

Patagonia (Welsh Community)

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5. What plans officials of his Department in Argentina have to mark the 150th anniversary of the founding of the Welsh community in Patagonia. [907831]

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Our embassy in Buenos Aires, in co-ordination with the British Council in Argentina and Wales, will facilitate official visits to Argentina for the celebrations in July to mark the 150th anniversary of the arrival of Welsh settlers in Patagonia. It will also work hard to promote Wales in Argentina through cultural and other events.

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The Minister will surely be aware that the 25,000 Welsh speakers in Argentina have a very special place in the hearts of everyone living in Wales. Does he agree that this important anniversary—notwithstanding other matters that, with amazing timing, have just been raised—perhaps offers the opportunity to rebuild a more friendly relationship? Will he come to a photographic exhibition on the Welsh colonies in Argentina, which I hope to organise in the House later this year if all kinds of other events allow?

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I would be delighted to continue in this role after the May election, but that is up to the Prime Minister. We should all celebrate the great story of the arrival of 153 Welsh settlers in Chubut in 1865. I am pleased that the First Minister of Wales will go to Argentina, and I am delighted that the National Youth Choir of Wales, the London Welsh choir and the National Orchestra of Wales will all visit Patagonia this year. I hope that they will concentrate on Welsh relations with Argentina, rather than anything else.

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The history of the Welsh settlement in Patagonia is an incredible story of tenacity, innovation, fortitude and triumph over adversity, with a thriving Welsh-language community in Chubut province today. Will the Minister ensure that the FCO Argentine mission has an obligation to strengthen relations between Patagonia and Wales?

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We have absolutely no problem with the people of Argentina. We enjoy extraordinarily good relations with them, and the Welsh factor is enormously important. When the Welsh Affairs Committee visited last year, it was presented with a declaration on the Falklands, and I expect similar stunts this year. I hope that right hon. and hon. Members and the Argentinians will remember that the members of the Welsh community chose to emigrate and have become Argentine citizens by choice. By comparison, the Falkland islanders have exercised their own right of self-determination and, frankly, it is hypocritical for Argentina selectively to ignore that.

Ukraine

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6. What assessment he has made of the success of recent diplomatic initiatives relating to peace and security in eastern Ukraine. [907832]

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10. What steps his Department is taking to ensure a lasting ceasefire between Russia and Ukraine. [907836]

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We support all diplomatic efforts that aim to bring about a peaceful resolution to the crisis in Ukraine. Since the latest Minsk agreement was signed on 12 February, Russian-backed separatists have seized control of the strategically important town of Debaltseve. It is not yet clear that Russia has any intention of honouring the commitments it made in Minsk. I held talks with Secretary Kerry last weekend, and I will discuss Ukraine with EU Foreign Ministers on Friday in Riga. In all such discussions, we will continue to argue for a strong and united response to Russia’s actions until such time as we see full compliance on the ground.

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I am sure that the House will want to take this opportunity to send its condolences to the friends and supporters of Boris Nemtsov, following his horrific murder last weekend.

The death toll in eastern Ukraine has reached 6,000 according to the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. It also detects an escalation in hostilities, despite the signing of the ceasefire agreement. Does the Secretary of State agree that the EU standing together on tougher sanctions is the only way we can make it clear to President Putin that Russia’s actions in Ukraine are unacceptable?

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I of course share the hon. Gentleman’s view on the appalling murder of Nemtsov in Moscow.

The hon. Gentleman asked about stepping up sanctions in response to Russia’s failure to comply with Minsk. The Minsk agenda runs until the end of this year, so it will not be until the end of December that Ukraine will regain control of its border with Russia, even if all the milestones are complied with. We believe that the tier 3 sanctions should be extended to last until the end of the year, so that we have a tool with which to ensure compliance. We can always suspend or partially suspend the sanctions if the milestones are being met, but we need to have the tool in place right the way through the programme.

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Many of my constituents have asked me why, when President Hollande and Chancellor Merkel met Putin, there was no senior British political presence or representation. When will Britain play its full part in protecting the sovereign nations of Europe?

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I do not recognise the premise of the hon. Gentleman’s question. We are playing our part. While Mrs Merkel and President Hollande have done a good job of negotiating the Minsk implementation agreement under the Normandy process, which always involved the four countries of Germany, France, Ukraine and Russia, our role has been, is and will remain to stiffen the resolve of all 28 EU members to be united and aligned with the United States in deploying what has proved to be a powerful sanctions weapon.

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I certainly echo the sentiment of the Foreign Secretary’s final remarks. At this difficult and dangerous moment, it is vital that Europe and NATO stand united in ensuring that the Minsk agreement is implemented in full. However, may I bring him back to his remarks about tier 3 sanctions? Does he believe that new EU restrictive measures should be on the table at the next European Council meeting, as opposed simply to the roll-over and extension of existing measures that he described in his answer?

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The European Commission has been tasked to look at a menu of possible additional measures that could be taken. As I have indicated, I think that we need two tools. We need an extension of the existing tier 3 measures through to the end of December. Putin has been telling oligarchs around Moscow that the sanctions will be over by the end of July: “Just hold your breath and it’ll all be fine.” We need to show him that that will not be the case. Alongside that, we need a credible set of options that we can implement immediately if there is a failure to comply with milestones in the Minsk implementation agreement or a serious further outbreak of conflict in the region.

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I welcome the Foreign Secretary’s answer, but let me return to the appalling murder of Boris Nemtsov on Saturday in Moscow, to which he has referred. Clearly, the priority needs to be a thorough and impartial investigation into the murder. President Putin has a personal responsibility to show that the Russian authorities are willing and able to identify Mr Nemtsov’s killers and to bring them to justice. Will the Foreign Secretary confirm whether he has raised this matter with the Russian authorities, and give his assessment of the steps that have been taken by the Russian authorities to begin investigating the case?

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We have heard a lot of noise from Moscow, but we have not yet seen any serious action. The omens are not promising. I heard just this morning that some countries’ intended high-level delegations to the funeral have not been able to obtain Russian visas. That probably tells us all we need to know.

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The intransigence of the Russians is exemplified by the fact that they still hold in custody two Members of the Ukrainian Parliament, both of whom are members of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe. When will my right hon. Friend get tough and insist on expelling Russia from the Parliamentary Assembly and the Council of Europe itself?

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We do not have plans to take that step at this stage, but I assure my hon. Friend that we raise the matter regularly—indeed, the Minister for Europe raised it with the Russian ambassador only last week. I am going to Kiev later this week, and we will continue to work with the Ukrainians to try to secure the release of those two Ukrainians, as well as the Estonian border guard who was captured by the Russians six months ago.

Bedouin Villages

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7. What reports he has received on displacement of Bedouin in southern Israel. [907833]

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9. What representations he has made on the potential demolition of the village of Umm al-Hiran in Negev. [907835]

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We are deeply concerned about proposals to demolish Bedouin villages. We are monitoring the situation closely, including talking regularly to organisations that work with those communities.

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In an earlier answer to an Opposition Member, the Foreign Secretary said that we were talking only about buildings in relation to the peace process. He forgot to say that in order to facilitate the peace process, we have to get people out of those buildings, and that is the big issue. May I push the Minister a little further? There are a number of impending demolitions of villages to make way for Israeli settlements. Will the Minister discuss that issue with the Israeli Government, urge them to reconsider the upcoming evictions and demolitions due for next month, and instead consider villages co-existing side by side in the spirit of peace?

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I agree with the hon. Gentleman, but the displacement issues in southern Israel, and the potential demolition of the Umm al-Hiran villages, are not in the occupied Palestinian territories but in green line Israel. That is a slightly separate debate or concern—if I can put it that way—to the illegal settlements that have been put forward, but nevertheless we are concerned and are having a dialogue with Israel about that.

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I welcome the Minister’s words, but may I urge on him a sense of urgency and purpose—urgency because the demolition order for Umm al-Hiran may be given in two weeks’ time, and purpose in the sense that action is needed? Will he ask the British ambassador to visit the village, and will he invoke the EU-Israeli association agreement that makes favourable trade relations dependent on Israel’s respect for human rights?

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As I clarified, that is a different matter from the debate about the occupied Palestinian territories, but nevertheless we want a robust planning process that adequately addresses the needs of the Bedouin communities. We must keep pushing for that dialogue.

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Will the Minister confirm that the displacement of the Bedouin constitutes ethnic cleansing?

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Again, I reiterate the difference between the two issues: one concerns the illegal settlements, and the other is a planning matter that we have raised concerns about. I visited the E1 area, which is where much of the attention is currently focused, and we have discouraged the growth of settlements in that area. Were the plans to go ahead, we would have a break between the Hebron and Bethlehem conurbations, and that would effectively end the middle east peace process.

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Is the displacement of the Bedouin from the E1 area contrary to international humanitarian law—yes or no?

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It is contrary to international law in that sense, and any nation has obligations when dealing with occupied territories and their occupants. We are discouraging Israel from further build, but the land swaps will be integral to any future long-term peace agreement. That is why we are in this quagmire.

Iran: Hamas/Hezbollah

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8. What recent assessment he has made of the extent of Iran’s financial and material support for Hamas and Hezbollah. [907834]

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We have serious concerns about Iran’s support for militant groups, including Hezbollah and Hamas. That includes financial resources and training, as well as the supply of military equipment.

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I thank the Minister for that answer. As part of our talks with Iran on its nuclear programme, will there be a specific condition on Iran to stop sponsoring and harbouring terrorism, whether that is supporting the Houthis in Yemen, interfering in Syria, interfering in Iraq with its militias against the Sunnis, or supporting Hezbollah, to ensure that we have a long-term solution, not a short-term fix?

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Discussions around a nuclear solution are separate to those other matters, but my hon. Friend is right to raise the issue. Iran is having a destabilising effect in the region, and that is a violation of UN resolution 1747 which makes illegal the export of weapon systems and armaments from Iran.

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Iran arms Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza, and it now threatens to arm Palestinians on the west bank who currently support President Abbas. In view of the Minister’s previous reply, what specific representations have the Government made to the United Nations about that flagrant breach of UN resolutions?

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The hon. Lady will be aware that the Prime Minister had his first meeting with the Prime Minister of Iran at the United Nations General Assembly and very much put those points down. She is right that Iran must question its role in the region. It must ask itself whether it wants to be a part of the problem or a part of the solution. We have spoken about Hamas and Hezbollah. Hezbollah is effectively propping up the Assad regime, because he is losing the officer class, which is depleted because of the war.

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Next week, as chair of the British Group of the Inter-Parliamentary Union, I will be welcoming the first delegation of Iranian parliamentarians to visit this country for some time. Will my hon. Friend welcome that development? He knows not only that the House will give full and appropriate courtesy to parliamentarians from Iran, but that it will take the opportunity to engage them in the full and frank discussion of matters between us, which is the only basis on which parliamentarians can build a relationship.

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My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. It is through full and frank engagement that we can get our message across. Dialogue with Iran has increased. We must ensure that Iran not only talks the talk, but that its actions speak as loud as its words.

EU Membership (Renegotiation)

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11. What assessment he has made of the level of public demand for a renegotiated settlement between the UK and the EU. [907837]

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I assess that mainstream opinion in the UK is that the EU is not currently delivering for Britain. We need to fix that problem, and only the Conservatives have a clear plan to do so. We will negotiate a new settlement with our EU neighbours, and one that works for Britain. We will then put that new settlement to the British people in an in/out referendum before the end of 2017. Only a Conservative Government will make that commitment. Labour and the Liberal Democrats do not want change, and UKIP cannot deliver it.

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The Conservative party is the only sane and significant party to guarantee, following a renegotiation, an in/out referendum on our membership of the EU. How many countries has the Foreign Secretary visited to discuss that renegotiation, what levels of engagement has he had, and is there a positive desire for change in other states that matches ours?

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I am grateful for the right hon. Lady’s three questions. The Foreign Secretary is a specialist in providing a pithy answer on a postcard.

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Thank you, Mr Speaker, for that vote of confidence.

I have currently visited 23 of our partners in the European Union. In a nutshell, there is a very strong view that all member states want Britain to remain in the EU, an understanding that that can happen only if there is significant change in the EU, and a clear willingness to engage with us, particularly on our demands for improved competitiveness in the EU, which all member states want.

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19. The Conservative manifesto at the last general election states:“European countries need to work together to boost global economic growth, fight global poverty, and combat global climate change. The European Union has a crucial part to play…A Conservative government will play an active and energetic role in the European Union to advance these causes.”Will that be the Conservative party’s policy in the next Parliament? [907846]

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That is exactly what we are doing. The hon. Gentleman seems to subscribe to the view of the world in which Britain sits isolated on the edge. We are a major player in Europe. We have the second largest economy in Europe. We are leading the way in so many areas within the European Union. We have to seize this opportunity to shape the European Union in a way that works for Britain. It went off the rails somewhere over the past 20 years, and we must take this opportunity of reform and renegotiation to get it back on the rails. Crucially, we must then let the British people have the final say on whether the package we have negotiated is good enough or not.

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16. Like you, Mr Speaker, I have complete confidence in the Foreign Secretary. I am sure he has sensed not only that there is increased public demand for renegotiation, but that there is absolutely no movement in public demand for that referendum. Is that his assessment, and will he commit to a referendum prior to the end of 2017? [907843]

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I reiterate the commitment that the Prime Minister has already made that there will be a referendum by the end of 2017 if there is a Conservative Government. There is virtually no movement in polling evidence in the demand for a referendum. I will say something else to my hon. Friend: by creating the referendum we have—I will use the phrase again—lit a fire under our partners in Europe. They now know that they have to deliver change that is substantive and meaningful; not some backroom political deal, but something that will satisfy the British people in a referendum. That is what is driving the debate.

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It is clear that the European Union needs to reform to create more growth, more jobs and more competitiveness, so what is the Minister’s reaction to the warning issued this morning from the executive vice-president of Ford, Mr Jim Farley, who said, on the prospects of “Brexit”,

“We really hope that doesn’t happen and we believe that the UK being part of the EU is critical for business”?

Why does the Conservative party call for the march of the makers in one breath, yet pursue a policy that poses a direct threat to manufacturing jobs, manufacturing investment and trade? Is it that the Foreign Secretary does not see the contradiction, or is it instead a complete and utter absence of leadership when it comes to the European Union?

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It is that we need to resolve this issue. Of course, most people in this country recognise the value of the single market to Britain’s economy, but that comes at a price and it is a price we pay in loss of sovereignty and loss of control over many of our own affairs, including some that we do not need to lose control of. The debate will be on the correct balance between what is done at national level and what is done at European level, on the accountability of the European Union institutions to the people of the European Union, and on the European Union’s ability to drive economic growth across all our economies. That is what people in this country want resolved, and by resolving it we will create a more certain climate for business in the future.

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The Foreign Secretary has kindly shared with us that he has spoken to 23 other member states and that they all support the United Kingdom’s remaining in the European Union. Can he tell us whether he supports Britain remaining in the European Union? Does he understand the damage that his policy is doing to British business and British interests in order to maintain a temporary peace in his party?

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What would cause continuing damage to British industry is not resolving this issue once and for all. The only way to do that is to have a frank and open discussion about the problems in the European Union, to renegotiate the package and to put it to the British people—and then we have settled it for a generation.

MV Seaman Guard Ohio (UK Citizens)

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12. What steps he is taking to secure the return of the UK citizens who were aboard the MV Seaman Guard Ohio when she was detained by the Indian authorities. [907838]

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We have regularly raised this case at the most senior levels of Government, and have pressed for the legal process to be resolved as soon as possible. My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary will be raising the issue yet again when he visits India next week. Last month, following requests from three of the men, we issued emergency travel documents. The men will still require permission from the Indian authorities before they are able to leave the country.

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I thank the Minister for that answer, but it is now eight months since an Indian court quashed the charges against my constituent Billy Irving. He, and the other UK citizens, are still unable to leave India because the legal process has ground to a halt. Will the Foreign Office redouble its efforts to persuade the Indian authorities to conclude the legal process quickly and get these men home?

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The hon. Gentleman knows that we have raised this again and again at the highest possible level. Indeed, I am meeting him, and other Members who have been assiduous in raising this with us, in the next couple of days to update him. What we cannot do, however, is simply ignore the Indian judicial process or interfere with it. That is not to say that we do not share hon. Members’ frustrations about the pace of progress.

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These six British soldiers all fought for the British Army on the front. They feel utterly betrayed by the Government because of what they see as a lack of assistance in their hour of need. They were all acquitted and freed on 10 July last year. We must be able to do something to get these people home. We must redouble our efforts.

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My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister raised this with Prime Minister Modi in November 2014. The Deputy Prime Minister did so on his visit to India in August, as did the Foreign Secretary when he met his counterpart in October. I have done so numerous times at ministerial level and with the high commissioner here, and most recently British officials in Delhi raised concerns with the Ministry of External Affairs on 16 and 23 February. Members have been right to raise this again and again and we have kept Members informed. This has taken up a huge amount of time, but, in the management of expectation, I say again to the hon. Gentleman—I say it slowly and clearly—that we cannot ignore the Indian judicial process. We are dealing with a sovereign country, but we share the frustrations about the pace of progress.

UN Human Rights Council

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13. What his priorities are for the 28th session of the UN Human Rights Council in March 2015. [907840]

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Our priorities include the renewal of UN mandates on Syria, Burma and Iran, increasing international attention on Libya, Ukraine and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, responding to UN reports on Gaza and ISIL activity in Iraq, and thematic resolutions on freedom of religion or belief, combating religious intolerance, and privacy. My right hon. and noble Friend Baroness Anelay is representing us at the session.

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I am grateful to the Minister for his answer, but does he not see that Government attempts to undermine the European convention on human rights damage our international reputation on this issue and diminish our influence on human rights?

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No, and if the hon. Lady looks at our record, particularly when this Government held the chairmanship of the Council of Europe, she will see that, on the contrary, we upheld the standards and values embodied in the convention and successfully negotiated sensible, pragmatic reforms to the way in which the convention is implemented that are in the interests of all states.

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22. What does the Minister think this session’s high-level panel on the death penalty can achieve, particularly when so many Human Rights Council members use the death penalty? [907849]

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It is true, of course, that many of the members of the Human Rights Council, who have been elected by the membership of the United Nations generally, still have the death penalty. The United Kingdom, both at the UN Human Rights Council and in our bilateral and multilateral relationships of all kinds, continues to stress that we regard the death penalty as completely unacceptable.

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Will the Minister use the opportunity of the Human Rights Council to raise the human rights crisis in central America, in particular in Mexico? Will he also raise these matters with President Peña Nieto during his visit and tie any future trade developments with Mexico to improvements in its human rights record and dealing with those who killed, probably, the 43 students—but also thousands of others who have died—and the forces that have acted with impunity in that country?

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The hon. Gentleman will recall from the recent debate in Westminster Hall, in which he and I spoke, that we have a strong relationship with Mexico. We use that to seek improvements to Mexico’s human rights record and to give Mexico practical help in trying to improve its judicial and police systems in particular. That work will continue.

British Influence in the World

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14. What steps the Government have taken since 2010 to increase British influence around the world. [907841]

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Despite the very tight spending environment, this Government have since 2010 opened nine new diplomatic missions in emerging countries and fast-growing economies and upgraded a further six posts. We have opened an FCO language centre and a diplomatic academy, and shaped the international agenda, including through groundbreaking conferences on the preventing sexual violence initiative, cyber-security and Somalia, and hosting successful summits of NATO and the G8.

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My constituents certainly recognise the increased standing of this country across the world under this Government. The Government have rightly made a priority of ending the practice of rape and sexual conflict as a tactic of war and addressing the shameful failure to bring perpetrators to justice. Will the Minister update us on this important initiative?

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It is a cause of pride for this Government and this country that the FCO, particularly under the leadership of my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House, has for the first time got the international community to take seriously the scandal of the sexual abuse during war and conflict of countless numbers of women and, let us not forget, many men as well. We are now seeing the fruits of that, in the way in which countries such as Nepal, Bosnia, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Kosovo are taking up the challenge to put right the wrongs of the past and amend their practices for the future.

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When this question was handed out, I was not sure that the Government would be aware that US General Ray Odierno would express concern about our defence capability, following Government cuts, or that the British General Sir Richard Shirreff would describe the Prime Minister as “a bit player” in the Ukraine crisis. When will the Minister recognise how much this Government have marginalised Britain?

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I wish the right hon. Gentleman could talk to the leaders of countries such as Poland, Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia, who have been grateful for the resolute political leadership this Government have given, and for the very practical contribution we have made to Baltic air policing and NATO training exercises to defend their security. The—[Interruption.]

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I think the right hon. Gentleman is in the middle of his sentence.

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I think that the right hon. Gentleman should reflect on the record of his Government and the state of decay in which they left the Foreign Office after their stewardship.

Topical Questions

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T1. If he will make a statement on his departmental responsibilities. [907817]

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This week, we are delighted to welcome the President of Mexico and Senora Rivera on their state visit to the United Kingdom. Indeed, right about now, they should be being received by Her Majesty on Horse Guards parade. The UK and Mexico enjoy an excellent bilateral relationship, and we look forward to broadening and deepening that partnership this week.

My three key priorities continue to be Russia and Ukraine, the struggle against violent Islamist extremism and our plans for the reform of the European Union. Later this week, I will visit Ukraine to discuss the situation on the ground and to assess implementation of the latest Minsk agreement. I will then travel to Warsaw and on to Riga to meet my EU counterparts over the weekend.

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As part of the Mexican state visit, it is good to see the flags of the British overseas territories flying in Parliament square today. I am encouraged to hear that London and Madrid are talking about better relations over Gibraltar. I seek assurances from my right hon. Friend, however, that there will never be any discussions over the future of Gibraltar’s sovereignty so long as the people of Gibraltar wish to remain loyal to this country.

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That is our position, and I confirm that it will remain our position so long as there is a Conservative Government.

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Last year, 2014, was dominated by news of horrendous violence against those of different faiths, from Boko Haram abducting Christian girls in Nigeria to the attacks by ISIL against Christians, Yazidis and other religious minorities within Iraq. In the light of those developments, does the Foreign Secretary agree that a global envoy for religious freedom, reporting to the Foreign Secretary should be appointed? If this Government choose to act, we will support them; if they do not, a Labour Government will act.

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Our general approach is to try to get things done using the mechanisms we have. We have an extensive diplomatic network around the world, and we have large amounts of soft power at our disposal, including the leverage that our large aid budget gives us. I do not think simply creating new posts and ticking a box delivers in the way the right hon. Gentleman and the previous Government seem to think it will.

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T4. The Minister will know that the UN has delayed by six months its report on human rights in Sri Lanka. A number of Sri Lankan constituents in my constituency are waiting for this report and are actively contacting their MP about it. Will the Minister push for the urgent release of this document, and will he please update us? [907820]

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We have worked closely. I have been to Sri Lanka and met the new President, the new Foreign Minister and the new Prime Minister, and the new Foreign Minister has been here. We recognise the concern of all the victims. We remain firmly committed to the Geneva process. This will not be an indefinite deferral; the report is due by September. The extra time recognises the changed political context in Sri Lanka, and it will allow the new Government to deliver on their commitment to engage with the high commissioner and establish their own credible accountancy process.

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T2. The persecution of the Rohingya by the Burmese Government still continues, and the appalling humanitarian situation they, and especially the refugees, face continues, too. Will the Foreign Secretary speak to Ban Ki-moon and ask him to go to Burma and personally to negotiate unrestricted humanitarian access for the Rohingya in the Rakhine state? [907818]

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Ban Ki-moon chairs a Friends of Myanmar meeting in New York, which I have attended. He is fully aware of what is going on in Burma. We remain extremely concerned about the plight of the Rohingya, not least the white card issue that has just emerged, and we continue to lobby the Government in Burma on that basis.

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T6. The ongoing crisis in Ukraine and our relationship with Russia have real implications for the United Kingdom’s energy security. Many might say that, had energy security been a more key component of strategic foreign policy for successive European Union Governments, we might now have more room for manoeuvre with Putin. Can the Foreign Secretary assure us that full consideration of our long-term energy security is currently at the forefront of, and central to, our response to the evolving situation in Ukraine? [907822]

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Yes, it is a key agenda item. I can reassure my hon. Friend that the United Kingdom is in a much better energy security position than many of our European Union partners. However, as our non-military response to Russia essentially depends on EU unity, we often find that we are as weak as the weakest link in that chain. There is an urgent need to ensure that the European Union as a whole improves its energy security over the coming years, both for reasons of competitiveness and for the sake of our own national security.

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T3. What work will the Foreign Secretary do with his international counterparts to build on the progress that was made at the United Nations climate change conference in Lima last December? What role does he think that the Commonwealth has in that regard, given the vulnerability of a number of small island states? [907819]

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We are strongly committed to seeing a successful outcome to this year’s Paris meeting, and we played a leading role in the EU discussions on securing a forward-looking EU position. We will use our Commonwealth membership and our bilateral relationship with the Commonwealth countries to reach out to the nations to which the hon. Gentleman refers, so that we can seek the ambitious global agreement that I think Members on both sides of the House would like to see.

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T9. There is another country in Europe that has been occupied and divided for not just one year, but 40. What priority are the Government giving to solving the Cyprus problem? [907826]

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We continue to give strong support to the efforts of the United Nations envoy, Espen Barth Eide, to bring the two communities in Cyprus together. A settlement would be in the interests of all communities there. I was very pleased that yesterday the Foreign Office re-hosted a meeting at which the chambers of commerce of both Greek and Turkish Cypriot communities were represented by their presidents, both of whom spoke eloquently about the way in which a settlement would increase the prosperity of everyone on the island.

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T5. There is huge frustration among my many constituents who have roots and family ties in the disputed territory of Kashmir. Little progress has been made for decades, and the region still suffers as a result of militarisation, violence and human rights abuses. What recent discussions has the Secretary of State had with India and Pakistan, and what hopes has he for a better future for Kashmir in which account will be taken of the views of Kashmiri people? [907821]

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My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary raised the issue with Nawaz Sharif when he was here recently, and will raise it again when he travels to India. We are encouraged to note that some talks appear to be taking place between India and Pakistan, because we know how much concern there is throughout the country.

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Given our admission that we were unsighted over Russia and Crimea, and given that we were short of Arabists following the Arab spring, is there not a case for spending more on our foreign policy capabilities? Would that not only ensure that we were better sighted, but reduce costs in the longer term because we would be able to avoid making further mistakes?

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The Foreign Office makes a huge effort, in difficult fiscal times, to focus our resources on key elements of policy analysis and capability, including those involving the middle east and Russia, which, as my hon. Friend suggests, are particularly important. About 170 of our officers are now registered as having ability in Arabic, and a similar number are registered as having ability in Russian.

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T7. We know that 163 Palestinian children are being held in Israeli military detention, and that many are being held inside Israel in direct violation of the fourth Geneva convention. What representations is the Secretary of State making to the Israeli authorities with a view to ending that brutal aspect of the illegal occupation? [907824]

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We routinely make representations to the Israelis on all aspects of illegal conduct—of which that is just one example—and we will continue to do so.

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As the Government prepare for renegotiating the European treaties, will they give their full support to the Swiss in their efforts to change their terms of free movement of people as a sign of their sincerity and a symbol that free movement of people is not an unchallengeable part of the European state?

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As everybody knows, Switzerland is outside the European Union and has negotiated terms for access to the single European market, as has Norway, but those terms require the Swiss and Norwegians to accept wholesale the body of EU law without having any say in the making of it, to contribute financially and to abide by the principles of free movement. The Swiss have sought unilaterally to change that arrangement and they have been firmly rebuffed by the EU.

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T8. Does the Secretary of State agree with his fellow Conservative and counterpart in Norway Vidar Helgesen that with the single market needing bold leadership for its completion and with Europe facing its biggest security crisis since the cold war, it would be a disaster for Britain to sleepwalk out of the EU? [907825]

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I had another very good meeting with Vidar Helgesen when he was in London last week, and he is quite open in saying, as my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary has just said to the House, that Norway has access to the single market but has to contribute to the EU budget, implement EU law and accept freedom of movement without any say in how those decisions are made, which is why my view is that this country is better off in a reformed EU, rather than adopting the kind of status Norway has.

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Is the Foreign Secretary able to update the House on any progress in the Syrian peace talks and in particular, if it remains the Government’s ambition to remove President Assad, what progress we have made in building up an alternative Government capable of taking on IS?

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I have to tell my right hon. Friend candidly that the co-ordination between the civilian Syrian opposition and the moderate armed opposition is still disappointing. It is one of the areas on which we and our allies are working. We are committed to taking part in the programme of training and equipping members of the moderate Syrian opposition outside Syria, and that programme is beginning to gather pace now.

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Was it the UK that first offered, or was it Ukraine that first requested, the presence of British military advisers, and can the Foreign Secretary assure us that their presence is more likely to lead to a peaceful settlement, rather than an escalation of the process?

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There has been a discussion between the Ukrainian Government and ourselves and a number of other European Governments and the United States about various types of assistance, including non-lethal military assistance, and there was agreement among those different allied Governments to supply help to Ukraine. We think that the training will enable the Ukrainian army to operate more effectively than it has been able to do up until now, and that that offer of training would have been justified irrespective of the Russian intervention in the east.

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Recent reports emerging from Iran say the regime has been secretly enriching uranium since 2008 at an underground plant in suburban Tehran named as Lavizan-3. What assessment has the Foreign Secretary made of this concerning news, and does he agree that no deal should be signed with Iran until the International Atomic Energy Agency has unfettered access to all the nuclear programme?

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My hon. Friend is right that this is a new piece of information. We have no corroboration of that report at the moment, but he is absolutely right that we will need to look into it and be clear before we reach any conclusion with Iran in the nuclear negotiations.

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The Minister, the hon. Member for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood), earlier said that he did not feel it was right to do anything about the Israel-Palestine situation until after the Israeli election, yet given that none of the major parties in that election is committed to withdrawal from the occupied territories, is not now the time to say that Britain intends to recognise Palestine?

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If only it were that simple. I understand that the hon. Lady’s point is well made, but I can tell her exactly what any such statements now will do: they will play to the hard right in the Israeli elections. That will not make a settlement more likely; it will make it less likely.

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rose

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Order. Foreign Office questions are a box office hit, and demand always exceeds supply. Last but not least, I call Mr Andrew Stephenson.

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Pendle is home to a number of Pakistani Christian families, whose concerns I raise in the House. Given our long-standing cultural and economic ties, and the support that we provide to Pakistan via the Department for International Development, what more can my ministerial colleagues do to ensure religious freedom and tolerance there?

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My hon. Friend raises an important issue. The Pakistani diaspora in this country is a large one and we have a very strong relationship with Pakistan, but we are concerned about the misuse of blasphemy laws there. I have raised the issue with the Prime Minister and through the parliamentary delegation that went to Pakistan only last week.

Royal assent

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I have to notify the House, in accordance with the Royal Assent Act 1967, that Her Majesty has signified her Royal Assent to the following Acts:

Pension Schemes Act 2015

Serious Crime Act 2015.