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Topical Questions

Volume 602: debated on Tuesday 24 November 2015

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.