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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 602: debated on Tuesday 24 November 2015

Foreign and Commonwealth Office

The Secretary of State was asked—

Tibet

1. What discussions he had with the President of the People’s Republic of China on human rights in Tibet. (902302)

During last month’s state visit, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and President Xi Jinping discussed the importance of ongoing dialogue on issues about which we disagree, including human rights. I set out the Government’s position on Tibet, including our human rights concerns, in a parliamentary debate secured by the hon. Gentleman in June.

I thank the Minister for that answer. He will be aware that the UN Committee against Torture met last week in Geneva to review China’s record, and it expressed serious concerns over China’s continued use of torture to extract confessions from prisoners. In response, the Chinese delegation denied all allegations of endemic, systematic acts of torture. China also claims to hold no political prisoners at all. Will the Minister or the Foreign Secretary ensure that the routine use of torture in Chinese jails, including in Tibet, is raised with China at the next UN Human Rights Council?

We would normally raise such matters regarding Tibet or anywhere else. I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on keeping Tibet at the forefront of the House’s deliberations, and there have been two debates on the issue, most recently in June and before that in December. The recent state visit was a huge success. President Xi acknowledged the importance of improving protection for human rights and said that China was ready for increased exchanges and co-operation on that issue with the UK. The UK is one of the few countries in the world to have an annual human rights dialogue with China, and that is an incredibly important architecture within which to press the Chinese and raise such matters. We shall continue to do so.

The Minister will recall that in an exchange on 22 October he confirmed that China is ready to co-operate with the UK and other countries in the area of human rights. Were matters such as Tibet and the persecution of Falun Gong practitioners, the alleged forced harvesting of organs, and the harassment of Ai Weiwei discussed with the Chinese President when he visited the UK?

The right hon. Gentleman credits me with almost total recall, but our position has been consistent. My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary raised the issues of Falun Gong and organ harvesting with State Councillor Yang Jiechi during the UK-China strategic dialogue in Beijing in August. We have raised specific concerns about reports of organ harvesting on numerous occasions, including in response to a written question on 15 July.

What discussions have taken place to promote the importance of the freedom of religious expression in Tibet, in particular among the Uyghur people?

We raise those issues consistently with the Chinese within the framework of the UK-Chinese human rights dialogue, and our annual human rights report is updated every six months. Some comments about the recent state visit have implied that our relationship with the Chinese is purely one of commerce, but that is wrong. This is not a binary relationship. As we get closer to the Chinese and are seen as a good partner to China on the world stage, and in terms of inward investment and trade between both countries, we can discuss such matters more maturely than many other countries can. It boils down to whether we believe in megaphone diplomacy, or in getting alongside the people we are trying to talk to, and pointing out that the way to do things is the way that we do things.

Political Stability: North Africa

2. What steps his Department is taking to support political stability in Tunisia, Libya and the surrounding region. (902303)

The UK is actively supporting UN efforts, led by the Secretary-General’s new special representative, Martin Kobler, to reach a lasting political agreement in Libya. We are helping Tunisia and other north African countries to build legitimate, inclusive institutions and develop their economies, as well as strengthening their counter-terrorism capabilities. I will visit Tunisia soon to discuss the effectiveness of UK political and security co-operation with that country, and I plan to meet UN Special Representative Kobler later this week.

Does the Foreign Secretary agree it is in our interests for countries at risk of extremist infiltration, including those in north Africa, to receive advice, assistance and support in monitoring their borders, thereby helping to control them?

Yes, I agree. Since the Sousse attacks in Tunisia, we recognise that we need to focus a bit more attention on those countries that are, let us say, one step away from the chaos that is going on in Libya—countries that are making a success of things, but which still have some vulnerabilities and are being targeted by the extremists. We need to help them to build resilience against extremism.

The Foreign Secretary will know that Tunisia’s economy has been badly hit by the collapse of its tourist industry. What steps is he taking to encourage other countries, particularly those in the Gulf states, to assist the Tunisians in maintaining both economic and political stability?

First, we need to work with the Tunisians to improve security so that the tourist trade can resume as soon as is practical. The EU is looking at the relaxation of olive oil quotas to allow Tunisia greater access to the European market for olive oil, a product it has aplenty, if it is able to export it. The Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood), visited Tunisia a couple of weeks ago and discussed with the Tunisians a 49-point plan to support their economy. We are, with the French, seeking to act as cheerleaders for support within the European Union for the Tunisian economy.

Does the Foreign Secretary agree that we should take this opportunity to encourage institutions such as the Westminster Foundation for Democracy, and a range of other organisations and institutions in our western allies—the United States, France and Germany, to name but three—to ensure political stability and democracy is brought to Tunisia, Libya, and, hopefully, other north African countries?

Yes, I agree. Of course, Tunisia is ahead of the game, as it were. It is one of the success stories of the 2011 Arab spring, with a functioning constitution and democratic elections. All of that is challenged, however, by the desire of the extremists to target such success stories. We must stand with them.

I am sure the Foreign Secretary will join us in expressing outrage at the terrorist atrocity in Mali in which 22 people, citizens of Mali, China, Russia, Belgium, Burkina, Israel, Lebanon, the US and Senegal, were slaughtered. Given that we now see al-Qaeda, Boko Haram and Daesh-affiliated organisations operating across the Sahel and the Maghreb, including in Tunisia and Libya, will the Government say more about their regional approach to working with countries across the Sahara and the Sahel to tackle terrorism?

We are working with a wide range of countries, including, crucially, Nigeria. This is, of course, a pincer movement from Nigeria in the south and the Sahel in the north. We are working with a full range of countries. I would say, however, that if we are to stop the spread of terrorism, we have to tackle it at its heart, and its heart is in Raqqa, Syria.

The security situation in Sinai is a threat to Egypt and other countries in north Africa, as well as to the coalition against ISIL, as we saw with the recent terrorist attack. What is the Foreign Secretary’s assessment of the security situation in the Sinai region and its impact on political stability?

The security situation in Sinai is very serious. The Egyptian army is engaged in combat with terrorist groups across Sinai. The Foreign Office travel advice recommends against all travel to Sinai, except the area around Sharm el-Sheik. Sharm el-Sheik is itself still considered safe for travel, although travel through the airport is advised against. We seek to work with the Egyptian authorities to deal with the terrorist challenge it is facing in Sinai.

Does the Foreign Secretary believe that further air strikes alone will move us towards political stability in the wider region? Perhaps he will take this opportunity to address the efficacy of military intervention in Syria and how it will contribute to a wider initiative to end civil war and secure reconstruction. Does he have a plan for securing the peace that includes measures to close down all sources of finance and new recruits to the terrorist cult Daesh, including a Government inquiry into its financing? Why are the Government attempting to make a case for war while failing to address the clear and present need for a long-term, comprehensive peace plan?

The short answer, as we have acknowledged many times, is that, no, airstrikes alone will not destroy Daesh—as the hon. Lady implores me to describe it from the Dispatch Box—but they have to be part of the overall solution. On her other specific inquiries, if she will wait until Thursday, she can look forward to hearing from the Prime Minister how this fits into our broader strategy.

I am grateful to the Foreign Secretary for his response, and I wait in anticipation for Thursday’s statement. I am also grateful for his using “Daesh”; I wish that other Members would follow suit. As we understand it, in Syria today, the USA is bombing Daesh and does not support the Assad Government; Russia, which supports the Assad Government, says it is bombing Daesh but is also targeting rebels; Turkey is bombing Daesh but is also targeting Kurdish forces in the north; while the Australians, Canadians, Saudi Arabians and others are supporting the USA. If military action forces Daesh to give up territory in Syria and Iraq in the coming weeks and months, which force does he expect to take its place on the ground?

Again, the short answer is that the hon. Lady has correctly identified that the situation is extremely complex. As the Prime Minister has said, we have to resolve these two things in parallel: we have to get a political solution to the civil war in Syria so that we can get everybody dealing with the challenge posed by Daesh, instead of fighting each other, and that is what our comprehensive strategy will seek to achieve.

Beneficial Ownership

3. What recent discussions he has had with the Governments of British overseas territories with financial centres on central registers of beneficial ownership. (902304)

I discussed progress on central registers of beneficial ownership with the Premiers of the Cayman Islands, the British Virgin Islands and Bermuda yesterday and will have a further opportunity to do so when they are in London next week for the joint ministerial council.

In April 2014, the Prime Minister wrote to the overseas territories:

“The rest of the world is watching us closely and public registries will demonstrate the sincerity of our commitment to improve corporate behaviour and set a new standard for transparency of company ownership.”

It is clear he wants overseas territories to have public registers of beneficial ownership. Will the Minister ensure that overseas territories adopt public registers or, at the very least, ensure access for the public in line with the fourth EU anti-money laundering directive?

The hon. Gentleman should give the overseas territories credit where credit is due. Progress has been made towards the greater use of central registers, and we are currently working on security and police forces’ access to them, but, in the longer term, he is entirely right: ultimately, we will have to move in the direction of public access to that information. But the overseas territories are making progress.

Clear progress has already been made. The territories have already fulfilled their commitments on automatic tax exchange, and this was achieved working in partnership with them.

Syria: Displaced People

4. What support the Government are providing to countries neighbouring Syria to help displaced people. (902305)

15. What support the Government are providing to countries neighbouring Syria to help displaced people. (902318)

One of the five principal strands of the international counter-ISIL strategy is humanitarian and stabilisation support. The UK has been at the forefront of providing humanitarian support, having committed more than £1 billion to assisting host countries that have opened their doors to refugees fleeing Assad’s regime and terrorist organisations, including al-Nusra, al-Qaeda and Daesh.

Will the Minister, while carrying on this important work, work flat out with colleagues to build a robust and energised—there is the key point: energised—consensus against ISIL among the other countries of the middle east?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right that we must be energised. The Government are committed to working with the now 65-strong counter-ISIL coalition on our five-point strategy: defeating Daesh on the battlefield; cutting off its funding streams; stemming the flow of foreign fighters; countering the online messaging; and providing the humanitarian and stabilisation support I have already mentioned.

Does my hon. Friend agree that we must do all we can to support the people living in refugee camps and the host communities in the region and to ensure they can return to their homes and rebuild their lives in safety and security?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We have done a huge amount in providing stabilisation and humanitarian support to do just that—to allow people to stay in the region, but also to help the vulnerable who need to be taken away from the region and supported, which is why we are taking 20,000 refugees here in the UK.

The issue for Syrian refugees in the region is that they are not allowed to work legally when they are in neighbouring countries. What are the Government doing to support countries such as Jordan economically, so that that can change and refugees may work in such countries legally?

The hon. Gentleman makes a valid point. I visited Zaatari camp, which contains 100,000 refugees. What the hon. Gentleman said is an issue, and causes a bit of tension locally with people in the camp willing to be paid less, but wanting to work. We are working with Jordan and the United Nations to provide employment programmes. The skills can be kept up, so that when the guns finally fall silent in Syria we can transfer those skill sets back into the country.

When I visited the Zaatari refugee camp, I saw at first hand the amount of aid that the UK Government are giving to help the situation on the ground in Syria, as well as in Lebanon, Turkey and elsewhere. The UK is the second-highest donor to those countries. Will the Minister update us on what progress has been made on getting other neighbouring countries and other partners to make their proper contribution to helping the humanitarian crisis in the region?

I am grateful for the right hon. Gentleman’s support. Sometimes the number of 20,000 refugees that the UK is taking is taken out of context in comparison with the work we are doing to support people such as those in the Zaatari camp. We are providing support to other countries, but we are also encouraging the neighbours. That is one reason why we are hosting a conference here in February, along with Kuwait, to encourage other countries to provide donations so that we can be ready for post-conflict reconstruction both in Iraq and in Syria.

Syria

I discussed the situation in Syria with Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov at the two recent meetings of the International Syria Support Group in Vienna. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister also discussed Syria with President Putin in the margins of the G20 summit in Antalya last weekend.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that when ISIL represents the most immediate threat to our national security, we should target its headquarters in Syria instead of leaving military action there to other countries?

I think my hon. Friend well knows my views and those of the Prime Minister on this issue. We believe that it is morally unacceptable to outsource to others an action that is essential to the defence of the United Kingdom and UK citizens around the world. That is why we are seeking to build a consensus in this House for taking military action against Daesh in Raqqa.

On the situation in Syria, has the Foreign Secretary seen the letter in today’s The Times in which nearly 200 Islamic scholars have denounced ISIS terror in the strongest possible terms? That is the sort of propaganda we should use, and the Foreign Office should use it in different parts of the world. Should we not make it perfectly clear, as those scholars have, that the atrocities in Paris have nothing to do with the wicked west? We went to war over Kosovo in order to protect Muslims—and we were right to do so.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. Our position is a moral one. We are defending the right of people—whether they be Christians, Yazidis, Jews or Muslims—to practise their religion freely against a tyranny that imposes its view by beheadings, rapes and mass deportations. We must end this terror. The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right that a vital tool in our armoury is the very substantial body of thoughtful, moderate Islamic scholarship around the world. We need to ensure—and when I say “we”, I mean all nations of good will, as this has to be led essentially by the Muslim countries of the world—that that moderate view prevails. We need to help the Muslims of the world reclaim their religion from the extremists.

Is my right hon. Friend aware of this morning’s appalling news that a Russian bomber has been shot down by a NATO country, Turkey? Is that not potentially extremely dangerous, given that nothing like that happened during the whole of the cold war period? If we are to get a solution in the north of Syria and Iraq, we have to look to building a moderate Sunni regime there. We may have to go back at the end of the war to redraw the boundaries drawn up by Sykes-Picot.

Our view, and the strong view of, I think, all our partners and allies, is that we need to preserve the territorial integrity of Syria. I can promise my hon. Friend that if we start opening up boundaries in the region, we will prolong the agony.

As for the reports that have been coming in this morning of the shooting down of what was possibly a Russian air force jet near the Turkish-Syrian border, we are seeking further details urgently in both Moscow and Ankara. Clearly this was potentially a serious incident, but I do not think it would be wise to comment any further until we have more certainty about the facts.

Following its shockingly brutal attacks in Paris, no one doubts that we must defeat Daesh in both Iraq and Syria, and that that must be linked to the urgent need for a peace plan to end the Syrian civil war. When does the Foreign Secretary expect a decision to be reached on which opposition groups will take part in the talks that are due to start on 1 January, and what is his current assessment of the chances of securing a ceasefire during the discussions about the formation of a transitional Government?

As the right hon. Gentleman will know, both those issues—the ceasefire and the definition of the opposition groups who will take part in the talks—have been at the heart of the International Syria Support Group’s work. Working groups have been tasked with drawing up an agreed list of opposition participants, and I hope that when the ISSG next meets—we expect it to do so during the second week of December—we shall be able to approve a list. However, I should emphasise that there are still some differences among members of the support group. The Russians and the Iranians do not necessarily take the same view of who is an acceptable interlocutor as many of our other partners.

The unanimous agreement of United Nations Security Council resolution 2249 last Friday was a significant moment in the fight against Daesh, because the world community has come together to fight this evil using, in the words of the resolution, “all necessary measures”. What is the Foreign Secretary’s latest assessment of how Daesh’s base in Syria is contributing to and co-ordinating threats both to its neighbours and to the rest of the world, as we have seen recently and tragically in the killings in France, the suicide bombings in Lebanon and Turkey, the blowing up of the Russian airliner, and, of course, the killing of British tourists in Tunisia?

As the Prime Minister has said on many occasions, there is no doubt that the head of this multi-tentacled monster is in Raqqa in Syria. Its logistics, its controlling brain and its strategic communications, which are extremely effective, are all run from that headquarters. We will not destroy it by cutting off its limbs; we can destroy it only by going for the head and the heart. I should add that while some of the activity that is being conducted around the world in the name of ISIL is clearly directed from Raqqa, in other cases it is inspired by ISIL propaganda but not directly controlled from Raqqa, so it is a mixture.

EU Referendum

Our immediate priority is to ensure that the European Union Referendum Bill passes into law, so that those who are eligible to vote can do so. The Government are, however, also committed to supporting efforts to maximise registration, and the Electoral Commission plans to launch a national public awareness campaign in the run-up to the referendum.

Given that even the unelected House of Lords is now calling for the voting franchise to be extended to 16 and 17-year-olds, and given the change in public attitudes, will the Government reconsider, and legislate for the extension of that franchise?

On three occasions, this House—the elected House—has voted against lowering the voting age to 16 for the referendum, and the Government will propose to overturn the latest amendment from the Lords. I must say to the hon. Gentleman that it is a bit rich for him and his party to carp about the franchise, given that they voted against having a referendum at all.

Will the Minister assure the House that following the completion of the Prime Minister’s renegotiations there will be more than sufficient time before the referendum itself to air arguments both for and against remaining in the EU?

I can assure my hon. Friend that there is going to be ample time for those arguments to be aired both in this House and outside.

May I press the Minister a little further on the issue of 16 and 17-year-olds? The other place passed its amendment on this by a big majority on 18 November. There are rumours of disagreements within the Government and within the Cabinet on how to respond. The Prime Minister has so far left the door open to change in the questions he has been asked previously about this. We know that 16 and 17-year-olds are capable of understanding the issues and we know they are interested and want to take part, so why will the Minister not agree to the amendment and give 16 and 17-year-olds a proper say in the future of our country?

There are hon. Members in various parts of the House who champion the cause of reducing the voting age to 16, but I say to the right hon. Gentleman that the right time to debate that issue is during discussions on proposed legislation where such a change would apply to the franchise for all elections and referendums and not as a one-off tacked on to a Bill for a particular referendum.

Refugee Crisis

7. What recent discussions he has had with his counterparts in the EU Foreign Affairs Council on the refugee crisis. (902309)

As the hon. Lady can well imagine, I discuss the current migration crisis with my EU counterparts on a regular basis—for example at the Foreign Affairs Council last Monday in Brussels and when I met the Visegrad Group of EU countries in Prague the previous Friday. All of them agree now on the importance of a comprehensive approach to tackling the underlying causes of irregular migration, and the UK is playing a leading role in delivering this approach.

I thank the Secretary of State for his answer. Can he share with us what progress has been made with our European colleagues to create simple and safe routes for refugees to be reunited with their families who have already found sanctuary in Britain?

The refugees we are mainly discussing in relation to the hon. Lady’s question about discussions with my EU colleagues are those arriving within the Schengen area. As Britain is not in the Schengen area, clearly those people would not be able to access the UK in the normal course of events, so their future will be within the Schengen area unless and until at some point in the quite far-off future they obtain EU citizenship.

Will my right hon. Friend explain what more action can be taken to stop Assad’s murder of his own people, which together with ISIL terror, is contributing to the current refugee crisis?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Clearly there is agreement across the EU that we need to address these issues upstream, and one of the most pressing upstream challenges is the civil war in Syria. As I have already said once this afternoon, the Prime Minister will set out our comprehensive approach to that problem—military, political and humanitarian—on Thursday.

What part of the discussions at the EU Foreign Affairs Council has centred on the very real genocide that is happening, including in UNHCR refugee camps in Lebanon, Jordan and the Kurdish autonomous region, by radicalised Islamists linked to Daesh who are killing people—killing Christians—in those camps and driving them out of them?

I have to tell the hon. Gentleman candidly that that has not been the focus of the discussion in the Foreign Affairs Council about the migration crisis, but I am aware of concerns about what is going on in the camps. The UK’s approach is to invest heavily in providing safe and appropriate facilities for refugees in the region so they can return to Syria in due course, and we will continue to advocate that approach and encourage our EU partners to put more money into that effort.

EU Reform

8. What discussions he has had with his EU counterparts on the proposals for EU reform in the Prime Minister’s letter of 10 November 2015 to the President of the European Council. (902310)

9. What discussions he has had with his EU counterparts on the proposals for EU reform in the Prime Minister’s letter of 10 November 2015 to the President of the European Council. (902311)

My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has had productive rounds of talks with every European leader and with the Presidents of the European Council, the European Parliament and the European Commission. The Foreign Secretary, the Chancellor and I also maintain regular contact with our counterparts right across Europe.

Will the Minister go further and confirm that the Government will not seek to tear up hard-won employment rights as part of this renegotiation with the European Union?

We believe that our flexibility opt-out from the 48-hour week under the working time directive is important for keeping employment levels in this country high, compared with the tragic levels of unemployment in many other European nations, and we shall certainly be fighting very hard to ensure that we keep that opt-out.

I set out the position on that in my statement and my subsequent answers a week ago. It is important that we secure a package of changes that will be seen by all as irreversible and as legally binding.

The Government used to complain about Tony Blair giving the UK’s rebate back to the European Union, so why did the Prime Minister not ask for a reduction in our EU membership fee in his letter? Are the Government now happy that we gave up our rebate, or has the Prime Minister asked only for the things that he has already had agreed by the European Union, so that he can tell us that his negotiations have been a success—on the basis that if you ask for nothing and get nothing, it looks like a success?

My hon. Friend would do well to do as he has done before, and to applaud the Prime Minister’s success in getting the first-ever reduction in the EU’s multi-annual budget. I can assure my hon. Friend that the negotiations will be tough and, at times, difficult, but I am confident that they will end with a better set of relationships between this country and the EU.

But surely it is the case that the very modest proposals set out in that letter are the only ones that the Government believe the rest of the European Union are prepared to agree to. That is why an end to free movement, which so many British people want to see, is not even going to be discussed.

We have made it clear that we want the freedom of movement for workers to be just that, and not a freedom to select the best welfare system anywhere in Europe. In our approach to this subject, we must also take into account the fact that hundreds of thousands of British citizens are able to work, study and live elsewhere in Europe.

Further to the previous question, will the issue of freedom of movement—the principle, not the detail—be discussed or not?

I have to ask the hon. Gentleman to re-read the letter that the Prime Minister sent to Donald Tusk last week. It makes it clear that, while we accept the principle of freedom of movement for workers, we want to secure changes to ensure that we can reduce the pull factors exerted by elements of our welfare system, which add to the migration into this country.

Following on from what my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley (Philip Davies) said, if the bar is so high and so tough, what are the difficulties? What is the Prime Minister really going to fight for? What is the thing that is holding him back? Where is it? Come on! The bar is so low that this negotiation is just a joke.

I perhaps look forward to the day when my hon. Friend is able to join me at ministerial meetings in Europe, where he will see that the task of negotiating is not quite as easy as he made out in his question. I cannot give a running commentary on ongoing negotiations, but I remind him that President Tusk said that the British requests are tough and that it would be

“really difficult to find an agreement”.

That indicates that we have a real negotiation in front of us.

Yemen

10. What steps he plans to take to ensure that potential breaches of international humanitarian law by the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen are investigated. (902312)

Britain has made its support for President Hadi in Yemen very clear and recognised his legitimate request for military assistance in deterring the Houthi-Saleh aggression, which has compounded an already dire humanitarian situation. We are aware of reports of alleged violations of international humanitarian law, and both the Foreign Secretary and I have received repeated assurances from Saudi Arabia of compliance.

Can the Minister give a timeline for the “proper investigations” pledged earlier this month into any breaches of humanitarian law in Yemen?

These investigations must be concluded, they must be looked into and they will be ongoing. The situation on the ground is very difficult and, in many cases, we are unable to have access to verify what has happened. I am pleased to say that progress is being made by the UN envoy, Ismail Ahmed, in bringing the parties together in Geneva very shortly, and that is where we need to focus in terms of getting a ceasefire in place.

The humanitarian consequences of the conflict in Yemen, a country I know well, are heart-rending. Does the Minister agree that international peace talks leading to a political settlement are the best way to bring an end to the humanitarian suffering and any potential breaches of international law in Yemen?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to say that we are discussing important challenges in the middle east, but unfortunately the scale of the situation in Yemen is dire; 20 million people are facing famine and starvation, as there is a lack of oil, water and the support that they need. There is no governance there and until we have a ceasefire, the port of Hodeidah will not be able to be opened up to allow that humanitarian support to come into the country.

Human Rights Watch has documented 27 air strikes since 26 March that appear to have violated the laws of war in Yemen. On 11 November, the Foreign Secretary that he supported “proper investigations” into human rights violations from all sides in the Yemen conflict. Can the Minister therefore explain why the UK failed to support the Dutch at the last meeting of the UN Human Rights Council when they called for a credible investigation into these violations?

The hon. Lady raises important points. I met non-governmental organisations and had a round-table discussion on policy, and many of these issues were raised. As she states, there was an international discussion on this matter in that process. We have been wanting to encourage Saudi Arabia and other parties that are involved—it is not just the Saudis in this coalition, but 10 other countries—and we want these cases looked into efficiently and properly by the country itself.

ISIL: Iraq

Since operations by the global coalition began last year, ISIL has lost more than 30% of the territory it once controlled in Iraq. Most recently, Kurdish forces retook Sinjar, and Iraqi security forces have taken Baiji and are preparing to take Ramadi. Slowly but surely, ISIL is being pushed back, and I am confident that it will be driven out of Iraq in time.

As chair of the all-party group on Islamo- phobia, I do wish we would formally refer to these people as Daesh. As they are steadily pushed back in Iraq, does my right hon. Friend agree that cutting their supply lines with Syria will hasten its defeat and, importantly, bring about the restoration of Iraq’s territorial integrity.

I completely agree with my hon. Friend. Of course, the retaking of Sinjar is a very important step in that, as it sits astride the most important supply route from Raqqa into Iraq. Ultimately, we need not just to cut the supply lines, but to go to the heart and the head of the beast in Raqqa.

Does the Secretary of State regard Turkey as a reliable ally in the battle against ISIL, given that not only has it today shot down a Russian jet, even though the Russians are also trying to fight ISIL, but it is buying oil from ISIL to prop it up and it is bombing the Kurds, who are also fighting ISIL? This Syrian engagement is an almighty mess.

I see that old habits die hard, and that the hon. Gentleman remains an apologist for Russian actions. Turkey is an important NATO ally. It holds the key to a number of really very important questions, both in relation to the battle against ISIL and to the migration challenge that Europe faces, and it will remain a very important partner for this country and for the European Union.

Syria

Following my recent discussions in Vienna, an International Syria Support Group will now meet on a regular basis, in parallel with Syrian-led discussions between the opposition and the regime facilitated by the UN, to take forward a transition process for that country. The UK will work with our international partners to maintain momentum in this important endeavour.

Is it not clearer than ever that the presence of ISIS in Syria represents an immediate threat to our national security? Given that the UK has significant military assets that could make a significant contribution to the fight against ISIS, is it not incumbent on us in this House to support our allies, and our failure to do so would cause complete bewilderment on their part?

It is true that we do have military capabilities, in particular the precision weapons available on Tornado aircraft, that would make a difference to the military battle on the ground in Syria. It is incumbent on us—and we have accepted this challenge—not only to make the case for military intervention, but to set that case in a broader context of a comprehensive approach to the Syria problem. The Prime Minister has taken on himself the responsibility of delivering his comprehensive strategy to the House.

It is ever more apparent that, unless we deal with the biggest recruitment sergeant for Daesh in Syria, namely the aerial bombardments and other abuses of civilians by the Assad regime, we will not tackle the cancer that is Daesh. Will the Secretary of State say a little more on how he plans to sequence and prioritise strategic UK engagement in efforts to bring about a ceasefire and political transition alongside a comprehensive plan to tackle Daesh?

Yes, we will do it through the International Syria Support Group that we have set up. The hon. Lady is absolutely right that we will not get a ceasefire or the opposition groups working with the rump of regime forces against Daesh unless and until they can be clear that Assad is going at a clear and defined point in the transition process. At the moment, we do not have agreement across the ISSG, particularly with the Russians and the Iranians, about that point. That is where we have to go, and the fundamental thrust of all our discussions is around trying to get agreement on a route for an exit by Assad so that the rest of the pieces of this jigsaw can drop into place.

Middle East

13. What recent discussions he has had with (a) the Gulf Co-operation Council and (b) other Governments on plans to improve security in the middle east. (902315)

Given Britain’s strong strategic, diplomatic and economic ties with Gulf nations and other states in the middle east, both the Foreign Secretary and I regularly meet our counterparts to discuss a range of issues including security. In recent weeks, the UK hosted the Egyptian President here in London. The Foreign Secretary has visited Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain. I have returned from Oman, and will shortly be heading to Kuwait—I say that hopefully, looking at the Whip on duty.

As we face an epidemic of jihadist violence, can my hon. Friend assure the House that, in his extensive and close dialogue with our Gulf friends and partners, he will continue to press on them that the funding by some of them of these dangerous jihadi organisations really must stop?

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. One of the five key traits of the strategy is preventing the funding that is taking place that is keeping ISIL alive. It is important that all countries across the middle east in the coalition of 65 work hard to prevent that from happening.

18. Will the Minister raise in his discussions the current terrorist attacks on Israeli civilians? Some 108 Israelis have been killed or injured by shootings and stabbings on the streets in recent weeks. Will he also condemn the incitement that goes with that, including the statement from the Palestinian cleric in Gaza who said that Jews should be turned into body parts to stab “the myths of the Talmud” out of their heads? (902322)

The hon. Lady raises a very serious point. Thankfully, in the past couple of weeks there has been a reduction in violence in the west bank. Since the start of the current spate of violence, we have spoken regularly with both sides—the Israeli Government and the Palestinian Authority—and we urgently need to de-escalate tensions and get all parties back to the table.

Rohingya: Burma

I saw for myself in July the desperate plight of the Rohingya community. Alleviating that situation remains a priority for us. We take every opportunity to press the Burmese authorities to tackle the issue, and we will continue to press the incoming Government.

Last week, a key National League for Democracy official said that the plight of the Rohingya people is not a priority. What discussions has the Minister had with the new leadership about the refugee crisis—there are 140,000 people in internally displaced camps, to which humanitarian institutions do not have sufficient access—and about reform of the discriminatory 1982 citizenship law?

As I said in my written statement to the House on 20 November, the landmark elections on 8 November were

“a victory for the people of Burma”,—[Official Report, 20 November 2015; Vol. 602, c. 25WS.]

notwithstanding the fact that the Rohingya were disfranchised from those elections. That is something that the incoming Government will have to deal with. I concur with what President Obama has said about the Rohingya in the past few days. Like him, we hope they will be

“treated fairly and justly in their own country”,

and we believe, as he does, that they are

“deserving of the world’s protection and the world’s support.”

The incoming Government in Burma are going to have an awful lot on their plate and will have to manage expectations. We stand ready to help them to do so, and addressing the grievances of the Rohingya people must be pretty near the top of that list.

I should tell the House that I have written to Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, I hope with the concurrence of the House, to congratulate her and the National League for Democracy on their magnificent victory on 8 November. I am very grateful to the Minister for what he has just said.

Topical Questions

My priorities remain the struggle against violent extremist Islamism in all its forms, including our response to the recent despicable attacks in Paris and the middle east; the containment of Russian actions that threaten the international rules-based system; and the renegotiation of Britain’s relationship with the European Union. Decisions that have been taken in the strategic defence and security review will underpin the diplomacy that allows us to make effective progress in all of those areas, backing our undoubted soft power with hard power. Tomorrow I will travel to Malta for the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting and for the state visit of Her Majesty the Queen.

Given the changes to the ministerial code, is it the Foreign Secretary’s view that Ministers and the civil and diplomatic services remain bound by the UK’s international treaty obligations?

T2. How does the strategic defence spending review provide the Foreign Office with new tools to deal with the situation in Syria, particularly relating to wider strategy and co-ordination? (902293)

I have said to my colleagues across Government, long before the publication of the SDSR yesterday, that the most important reinforcement our diplomacy could have is clear statements about this country’s determination to back its armed forces. We have done that, first with the commitment to 2% and then, in the SDSR, turning that commitment into specific programmes and plans that will deliver to our armed forces the capability we need to back our soft power with hard power.

T6. I spent a lot of time over the weekend listening to people in Dudley tell me their views on Syria. On the whole, they said that they think there is a case for dealing with ISIL-Daesh, especially after the attacks in Tunisia and Paris, but they want to know exactly what practical difference Britain can make, how civilians will be protected, and whether there is a comprehensive plan to rebuild Syria afterwards, with a proper Government in place of Assad, who used chemical weapons on his people. (902297)

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman and I am glad to hear that he is carefully taking the pulse of his constituents. On the last point, as I have said several times already today, the Prime Minister will set out a comprehensive strategy. That is not just about military intervention, but about how we use that military intervention to achieve the political solution we need in the wider conflict in Syria.

On the specific military point, the UK does have capabilities that will make a difference. The dual-mode Brimstone missile on our Tornado aircraft is a precision weapon unlike anything that any of the other coalition allies are able to deploy. That in itself, because of its precision and its low payload, will ensure minimisation of collateral damage and collateral casualties. That is one of the reasons our allies are so keen that we take part in this campaign.

T3. There has been another weekend of deadly terror attacks on Israeli citizens, including a brutal stabbing yesterday. Will the Foreign Secretary condemn those attacks, and does he agree that sanctioned incitement to commit terror must end? (902294)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. As I articulated in a previous answer, we need to get all parties back to the table. Unfortunately, it seems that the planets are misaligned at the moment. We need to reconfigure and ensure that all parties are able to come back and prevent the scale of violence from increasing.

T10. What steps is the Foreign Secretary taking to ensure that genuine law-abiding refugees leaving Syria are not locked out of the asylum process as a result of border measures being introduced across the EU after the brutal attacks in Paris? (902301)

Clearly it is a matter for each member state of the European Union and other European countries to determine their own border controls. The way forward has to be for asylum seekers to be properly assessed and screened at the first safe country they go to and for us to tackle the problem in the camps in the near east, so that people get some assurance of a decent life and opportunities for education for their children there rather than hazarding this appallingly dangerous voyage to Europe.

T4. I gather that I have been successful in securing a debate next Monday on Britain’s role in the middle east. Does the Foreign Secretary agree that in order that we play a constructive role in dealing with ISIS and other instabilities in the region we need a comprehensive strategy towards the middle east as a whole, not just Syria? (902295)

Yes, I do agree. The Government are working up a Gulf strategy looking at how the UK will engage with this very important region—important for our security and for our prosperity as well—over the next five to 10 years.

Does the Foreign Secretary agree that defeating Daesh abroad requires rock-solid unity at home? Britain’s Muslim community are part of our pillar of strength. Will he join me in deploring yesterday’s headline in The Sun which sought to cast doubt on that unity of purpose? Britain’s Muslim community hate Daesh and want it defeated, and headlines like that in The Sun yesterday sow division when what we need is unity.

It is absolutely clear to me that the overwhelming majority of the Muslim population here in the UK and indeed across the Muslim world deplore what is going on and are sickened by the fact that it is being done ostensibly in their name. They are very clear that their religion does not in any way support or authorise the actions being carried out by Daesh, and we should help them to reclaim their religion from the terrorists and the extremists.

T5. Improving economic ties between the UK and sub-Saharan Africa is important, so what are the Government’s objectives at the global African investment summit next week? (902296)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right that economic development is central to everything that we do. Ahead of the global African investment summit I will be meeting a collection of Presidents, Prime Ministers and Foreign Ministers at Lancaster House, to look at economic development and at working with those countries to develop their businesses alongside British business, to grow Africa out of poverty.

The Foreign Secretary has several times today mentioned the need for a comprehensive strategy. We have heard before about financial sanctions. Will he update the House on what conversations he has had with counterparts in the US and the EU about stopping the supply of cash and financial services to Daesh?

The hon. Lady is absolutely right that the fight is not only on the battlefield but in cutting down on finances. At the working groups where we discuss these matters we are looking to freeze accounts. Huge amounts of work have been done through the financial services authorities to identify the flow of funds coming from large donations from individuals, but we are also looking at the money streams coming from Daesh itself as it sells exports, antiquities and oils. We are winning this, and that is reflected in the fact that the amount that foreign fighters get on a monthly basis has been reduced because the funding streams into Daesh are being reduced.

T8. Will the Government support all efforts to address the increasing instability in Burundi, which affects not just its own people but the entire region? (902299)

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising the situation in Burundi. It is important that there is a regional solution, and I have had discussions with the Rwandan Foreign Minister and the new Tanzanian Government, which have engaged the African Union and the EU. We got over a difficult moment a few weeks ago, but this is still a matter of grave concern, and I have had a number of frank and open conversations with the Burundian Foreign Minister. Indeed, I sent him an open letter, as did several members of the international community.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights estimates that Russian air strikes have killed 400 civilians, 97 of whom were children. When the Foreign Secretary meets Foreign Minister Lavrov in a couple of weeks will he urge him to refocus those air strikes away from the opposition armies that are fighting Assad’s reign of terror towards the terrorists who brought down that Russian airliner?

That is absolutely right. That is exactly what we have urged the Russians to do. If they want to fight ISIL we are happy to work with them, but at the moment a significant proportion—the majority, in fact—of their airstrikes are directed at the moderate opposition fighting Assad. In fairness, I should say that since the Russians acknowledged that it almost certainly was terrorist action that brought down that airliner they have directed a larger proportion of their strikes against ISIL-held territory.

T9. Can my hon. Friend provide any further detail on discussions that he has had with the Iraqi Government about ensuring that measures are taken to promote security and enhance Iraq’s economic regeneration in areas that have been liberated from ISIL’s control? (902300)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right: the focus should be on supporting Iraq. Unfortunately, many Sunnis in Iraq still believe that they are not properly represented in Baghdad. We are working with Prime Minister Abadi to encourage laws on the national guard and on financial services to go through so that Sunnis have a place and are represented properly in Baghdad.

I thank the Under-Secretary for writing to me about my Yemeni constituents. I read the Home Office advice to which he directed me, but does he agree that it does not inspire confidence that the Home Office managed to mis-translate “Médecins Sans Frontières”? Will he meet me and the Home Office to discuss that further?

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for raising that matter, and I should be delighted to meet her to discuss it in more detail.

The world’s attention is rightly on the middle east and Syria, but there is an ongoing situation in Ukraine. Has my right hon. Friend made a recent assessment of the situation in Ukraine, and has he had any conversations with his Russian counterparts?

Mr Lidington: We remain concerned about the situation in Ukraine. I was last there in early October, when I met the Prime Minister, the Foreign Minister and other Ukrainian leaders and parliamentarians. The latest situation is that there has been an upsurge of fighting in certain locations around Donetsk, and the key thing is to use all diplomatic energies to ensure that the Minsk process is followed through to the end, and that all parts of it are completed.

We are right not to be part of Schengen, and we are right to call for reform, but does not the invoking of the EU mutual defence clause remind us why we have to be part of a reformed EU as well as part of NATO?

What France has done by invoking that article in the treaty is ask other member states—and crucially not the European institutions—to come to its assistance in all possible ways, to react to the terrorist onslaught on Paris the other week. It is important that we bear in mind that that treaty article refers to the need for the EU always to co-ordinate its work with that of NATO.

The Foreign Secretary will be aware that the former Prime Minister of Canada, Stephen Harper, was robust in his support of self-determination for the people of the Falkland Islands. Will my right hon. Friend take the opportunity when Mr Trudeau visits this week to emphasise how grateful we are for the Canadians’ support for the Falkland Islands, and to ask whether the policy will remain the same under this premiership?

My hon. Friend can be reassured that we expect the same from Prime Minister Trudeau, who is on his way to London to meet our Prime Minister and Her Majesty before travelling on to the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in Valetta. We expect exactly the same relationship—it is an ancient and potent relationship between ourselves and Canada. My hon. Friend will be aware that there has been an election in Argentina and we look forward to working with the new Government of Argentina who, we hope, will not demonstrate the bullying and bellicosity shown by the former Government of Argentina to the people of the Falkland Islands.