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House of Commons Hansard
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03 March 2015
Volume 593
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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.