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Topical Questions

Volume 600: debated on Tuesday 20 October 2015

The Foreign Office is focused on protecting Britain’s security, promoting Britain’s prosperity and projecting Britain’s values around the world. My priorities remain the struggle against violent extremist Islamism in all its forms, the containment of Russian actions that threaten the international rules-based system, and the renegotiation of Britain’s relationship with the European Union.

I thank the Foreign Secretary for that answer. The Chancellor is right to say that China is vital to our future, but in the light of its recent economic slowdown, what are the Government doing to enhance our trading relationships with the high growth-potential economies of our Commonwealth partners?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We very much welcome the state visit by the President of China and Madame Peng, which starts today. Of course, China is hugely important to us in terms of bilateral trade, but so is the Commonwealth.

This Government have unashamedly put the Commonwealth back into the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. We have reinvigorated our network within the Commonwealth and look forward to the upcoming Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in Malta. We are an early investor in the Commonwealth Enterprise and Investment Council. Trade between two Commonwealth countries is much cheaper than trade by one Commonwealth country outside the Commonwealth. This is an area that we are concentrating on and we want to see far greater trade within the Commonwealth.

It was reported yesterday that 14 cleaners who work at the FCO were called to an investigatory meeting by the Department’s contractor, Interserve, because they had the temerity to write to the Foreign Secretary to congratulate him on his reappointment and ask to discuss the living wage. Given that a basic freedom is the right of any individual to contact us as elected representatives, without fear or favour, will the right hon. Gentleman join me in condemning this attempt to intimidate staff for having exercised that right?

The right hon. Gentleman wrote to me about that matter last night and I have investigated it. I have confirmation from Interserve that although a review meeting was held, no disciplinary action was taken against any cleaner as a result of their writing that letter. It has been reported that some of the people involved in writing the letter were the subjects of redundancies. Redundancies were unfortunately necessary because the Foreign Office is surrendering the Old Admiralty building as part of the campaign to reduce the estate footprint of Government Departments and save the taxpayer money. He will be pleased to know that all the redundancies announced by Interserve in connection with the Foreign Office contract were carried out in consultation with the Public and Commercial Services Union.

I am sorry that the Foreign Secretary did not feel able even to condemn the calling of those cleaners to a meeting—it seems to me that people should be able to write to whoever they want. One cleaner who works full time said that they want to be paid the living wage for cleaning offices in the right hon. Gentleman’s Department because they cannot afford to pay their rent without claiming housing benefit. The letter states:

“I really don’t want to receive any benefits, but at the moment I have no choice.”

Given that other Whitehall Departments currently pay the London living wage of £9.15 an hour, why are staff cleaning the offices of the right hon. Gentleman paid so much less?

The good news is that from next April all cleaners working for Interserve, including those on the Foreign Office contract, will receive the national living wage when it is introduced.

T2. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the UN Human Rights Council resolution on Sri Lanka achieved an historic opportunity for justice for the victims of grave human rights abuses in that country? Will his Department continue to scrutinise the implementation of that resolution? (901638)

Yes we will. We see the resolution as the start of a process, not as its end, and we withstood criticism from the Opposition Benches on our whole policy towards Sri Lanka. We have been at the forefront of getting this resolution, and we are in the right place. I met Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera a couple of weeks ago in New York, and Prince Zeid more recently in London. We stand ready to help and assist in the implementation of this resolution.

T3. Turkey is currently hosting 2.5 million refugees, including 2.2 million Syrians, and organisations based in Turkey are struggling to alleviate the rank poverty and conditions affecting those refugees. Does the Secretary of State agree that the UK should play its part in helping to co-ordinate a new response to take appropriate action to help those affected? (901639)

Yes, I do. My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary and I raised that matter with our European counterparts, and we urged other countries to commit themselves to the levels of support that the United Kingdom has already led in providing.

T5. Does the Foreign Secretary agree that the best way of bringing a long-term solution to the migration crisis is to work with our partners to ensure good governance and economic growth in the middle east? (901641)

Yes. Not only in the middle east but in all countries of origin, the long-term solution is to improve conditions and seek stability, security, good governance, the rule of law and economic growth.

T4. When was the last time that the Foreign Secretary spoke to the Russians about the situation—particularly the military situation—in Syria? (901640)

I spoke informally to the Russian Foreign Minister when we were together in New York for the UN General Assembly at the end of last month. That was the last time that I discussed the situation with the Russians.

T6. Since September there has been a worrying resurgence in intercommunal fighting in the Central African Republic after the reported beheading of a young Muslim taxi driver. Hundreds of people have been killed and thousands displaced, and there is now genuine concern that the conflict will descend into genocide, and worse. Will my right hon. Friend reassure the House that the British Government are providing political and humanitarian support to the President of the Central African Republic? (901643)

My hon. Friend is right and we fully support President Catherine Samba-Panza and her interim Government. It is striking to note that a country the size of France has a population of just 4.6 million, meaning that there is little infrastructure and almost no state outside the capital. None the less, the UK is leading with £58 million of contributions to date.

May I draw the Foreign Secretary’s attention to the worrying situation of my constituent Rebecca Prosser? She was working in the Strait of Malacca on a documentary about piracy for Wall to Wall productions. She had the right visa for Singapore and Malaysia, but it had not yet been authorised for Indonesia. She was arrested in May and has been detained there ever since. I am grateful for the opportunity to meet the Minister and I have met the Indonesian ambassador, but my constituent is on trial right now. She is a hard-working, law-abiding young woman who has committed a visa breach. Will the Foreign Office do everything it can to support her, and at least have a consular presence in the courtroom where she is on trial?

The right hon. and learned Lady came to see me about this matter, and quite rightly so. I personally raised their case with the Indonesian Foreign Minister at the UN General Assembly in September. She knows that immigration offences are taken very seriously in Indonesia. The trial is progressing at the moment. As I said to her at the time, their lawyers judge that a low media profile is the best way of bringing this immigration case to a conclusion, so it is probably better not to say more than that at the moment.

T7. Will the Minister update the House on progress on the issue of the letttori in Italy, following the recent Pontignano conference? (901644)

I discussed this issue in the margins of the Pontignano conference, and we continue to press Italian Ministers to take action to remedy this injustice that has persisted for far too long.

In the negotiations, we are seeking to ensure that the EU is focused on greater competitiveness, but we also recognise the EU’s important role in protecting employment rights.

T8. Will the Foreign Secretary outline how many ISIL fighters remain in Iraq, and what would be required to remove that murderous organisation from that country? (901645)

It is estimated that there are 10,000 to 13,000 active ISIL fighters in Iraq. We always said, at the beginning of the intervention last summer, that it would probably take three years to defeat ISIL militarily. I spoke to General John Allen, the US President’s special envoy on this subject, just a few weeks ago. His view is that that remains correct, and we still have another two years to go to a military solution in Iraq.

Will the Foreign Secretary update the House on the case of Karl Andree and what representations have been made since the cancellation of the Saudi prison contract last week; and perhaps also on the case of Ali Mohammed al-Nimr, about whom the Leader of the Opposition has again written to the Prime Minister?

As I have said on many occasions previously when I have been asked to comment in the House on these judicial matters in Saudi Arabia, our judgment is that we achieve most by speaking privately but regularly to our Saudi interlocutors. Let me say to the hon. Gentleman that I do not expect Mr Andree to receive the lashings that he has been sentenced to, and I do not expect Mr al-Nimr to be executed.

T9. What representations have been made by Ministers to the Government of China and to the Chinese ambassador in London on the human rights situation there, particularly with regard to the recent arrest and detention of a substantial number of lawyers and rights campaigners? (901646)

The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, my right hon. Friend the Member for East Devon (Mr Swire), met human rights defenders last week to discuss these specific issues. We raise human rights issues regularly in our meetings with our Chinese counterparts. We also have a formal UK-China human rights dialogue—twice a year, with formal meetings—committed to nothing but the discussion of human rights issues of concern.

Vice is an online news service based in Shoreditch. Recently, three of its journalists were arrested in Turkey. Thanks partly to the intervention of the Foreign Office, the two British citizens were released from jail, but Mohammed Rasool, an Iraqi citizen, is still in jail 50 days later. Will the Foreign Secretary undertake to take this matter up with the Turkish Government, and, generally, the press freedom needed in that country?

We do, as the hon. Lady knows, regularly discuss with Turkish Ministers concerns about human rights, including freedom of the press. She will also know that we, like other countries, do not lobby on behalf of citizens who are nationals of other states. It is for their Governments to take the lead in doing that.

We have today seen the well-worn exchange of differing opinions on Israel and Palestine. Whatever the tit-for-tat arguments might be, does the Foreign Secretary accept that the fundamental moral principle beneath all this is that Israel’s annexation of its neighbours’ land through settlement building is illegal, and that there is no place, either in this argument or in this House, for those who will not publicly admit to that principle?

I am not going to define who can and who cannot take part in the argument, but we believe that settlement building breaches international law and that it is essential that we do not allow the facts on the ground to make impossible a two-state solution, which we all fervently hope will be the ultimate solution to the Palestine question.

As part of ongoing discussions and negotiations with the European Commission, will the Foreign Secretary and the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs ensure that the European maritime and fisheries fund is approved as quickly as possible in order to underpin fishing communities throughout the UK?

I know how important this issue is to the hon. Lady’s constituents, and I shall make sure I discuss it with my opposite number in the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs so that we can continue to make those representations.

Given the momentum for Turkish accession to the EU, will the Foreign Secretary confirm that the reunification of Cyprus will be a significant condition? Amid all the other challenges, this one is surmountable, given the increasing confidence and wider benefits, not just for Cyprus but for the wider region.

I visited Cyprus a couple of months ago, and I am committed to going there again next month. I have been keeping in touch with both the Greek Cypriots and Mr Akinci, the Turkish Cypriot leader, whom I spoke to a couple of weeks ago. I am cautiously optimistic that we are seeing an alignment in Cyprus that may make a settlement possible—I do not want to over-enthuse about this, but many people think we now have a chance, the like of which we have not seen for decades.

Will the Foreign Secretary give us his assessment of the current strength, effectiveness and numbers of the Free Syrian Army, a subject on which he has been very quiet recently? We want to get rid of ISIL and Assad, but there has been no mention of the FSA.

There are many groups, running into the thousands, operating in Syria, and they form together in various alliances and umbrella organisations. The non-ISIL, non-al-Nusra part of the opposition probably has a fighting strength of about 80,000 soldiers deployed across the country. That is my latest estimate.

Order. I am sorry to disappoint remaining colleagues, but as usual demand has outstripped supply.