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House of Commons Hansard
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Oral Answers to Questions
12 January 2016
Volume 604

Foreign and Commonwealth Office

The Secretary of State was asked—

European Union

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1. What discussions he has had in the Council of the EU as part of negotiations on the UK’s membership of the EU on free movement of people in the EU and access to in-work benefits. [902963]

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2. What discussions he has had in the Council of the EU on the Prime Minister's letter dated 10 November 2015 to the President of the European Council as part of negotiations on the UK's membership of the EU. [902964]

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13. What progress the Government has made on the renegotiation of the UK's terms of membership of the EU. [902975]

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14. What progress has been made on negotiations to reform the EU and the UK's relationship with it. [902976]

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Before I answer, let me take a few seconds to update the House on the breaking news from Istanbul, where an explosion has occurred in the Sultanahmet area, killing at least 10 people, with many more injured. This is a tourist area of the city and we already know that some tourists are involved in this incident. We are seeking to verify whether any British nationals are involved, and if we get any news on that in the course of the next hour, I will update the House accordingly. In the meantime, I offer my sympathies to the victims, their families and everyone else affected by the attack. [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear.”]

The Government are negotiating reform of the European Union and a new relationship for Britain with the European Union to fix the aspects of our membership that cause so much frustration in Britain. Following a substantive and constructive discussion at the December European Council, member states agreed to work towards mutually satisfactory solutions at the February European Council.

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I echo the Secretary of State’s sentiments regarding the situation in Istanbul. Does he accept that the Government’s failing negotiations will put at risk British jobs, employments rights, opportunities for my constituents to work abroad and ultimately the economic growth that the Government have promised? If the Prime Minister is getting nowhere in these talks, how on earth will he get on in the negotiation that he is really thinking about—the one with his own Back Benchers?

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On the contrary—a successful negotiation will set the EU on a clear course to create jobs and economic growth and to ensure Europe’s competitiveness in the future, and a referendum settling the question of Britain’s membership of a reformed European Union for the future will allow Britain to exploit to the full the opportunities that membership of such a Union will offer.

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The letter of 10 November is clear. It is also clear that whatever the outcome of the discussions on that letter, none of the situations set out in that letter are deal-breakers for the Prime Minister. At the end of the day he will recommend a yes vote and a referendum. Why does he not get on and do it now, set a date, face up to his Back Benchers and promote the European Union for the good of Britain?

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The Prime Minister has been clear throughout that once we have an agreed deal, he will make a recommendation based on his assessment of the best interests of Britain. That is what drives him; that is what will determine the recommendation he makes.

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Many people are suspicious about the seriousness of this renegotiation when three of the so-called demands were accepted without any negotiation at all. Why, for example, did the Government bother to ask for a cut in red tape and for more competitiveness when the European Council has made it clear—in European Council after European Council in recent years—that that is exactly what it intended to do anyway?

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It is true that we have seen, particularly under the present Commission, some very welcome moves to address some of the measures that make the European Union increasingly uncompetitive in the global market. But we are not seeking to get a political fix by one Commission: we are looking for an institutional restructuring that cements these arrangements for the future to ensure that the direction of travel remains one that the British people can be comfortable with and that will benefit the British economy and this country for the future. That is what we are going to do.

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All four of the Prime Minister’s demands in these negotiations are important, but making sure that we as a country continue to enjoy the full benefits of the single market without being a member of the eurozone is clearly vital for millions of British jobs. Does my right hon. Friend agree that this is the key area for measuring the success of the negotiations, and can he update us on progress on that?

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My right hon. Friend will know, and opinion polling shows, that many people in this country regard the question of migration and access to welfare benefits as the key area, but my right hon. Friend makes an extremely important point. All our European Union partners, inside the eurozone and outside, recognise that that issue has to be addressed. As the eurozone integrates, as we believe it will have to do to be a success—and we very much want it to be a success—the interests of those European Union members not inside the eurozone must be protected. Only if we can be confident that those interests will be protected can we welcome the integration of the eurozone countries to protect their interests and the interests of the euro in a way that will not damage ours. So I agree that it is an absolutely vital area.

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The thoughts of everyone on these Benches will obviously be with those caught up in the incident in Istanbul.

As I understand it, the Prime Minister has called for a “united, harmonious and mutually respectful” debate within the Conservative party on the issue of Europe. In a united, harmonious and mutually respectful way, may I ask the Foreign Secretary to confirm that a referendum could not be held within six weeks of the date of the Scottish, Northern Irish, London and Welsh elections? If it were, that would be disrespectful to both the decision of this House and the people engaging in those elections.

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As the right hon. Gentleman knows, that is not what the Bill provides for. But given the timescales involved and the fact that we now expect the conclusion to be reached at the February European Council, I think he can be confident that it will not be possible to hold a referendum before the date of the Scottish elections that he referred to.

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I put it to the Foreign Secretary that if the referendum were held within six weeks after the date of the elections, the two campaign periods would intersect, with all the complications that would arise. Therefore I ask him again: will the date of the referendum be at least six weeks after the date of the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish elections?

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What I am trying to convey to the right hon. Gentleman is that that is not what the Bill provides for; the Bill does not place any prohibition on a referendum being held in that period. Ultimately, however, the decision will be made by this House because the date will be decided by a statutory instrument brought before the House.

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I hope that the Foreign Secretary is aware that the overwhelming majority of the 800,000 Poles working in this country have come to work. They pay miles more in income tax than they claim in benefits. Can we get back to real, constitutional renegotiations that affect the sovereignty of this country rather than the fixation of the media on in-work benefits?

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We are elected to, and have to, address the concerns of the British people, and there are four areas on which we need to make progress with our European Union partners. One is migration and access to welfare benefits, but the others—ensuring that the EU is competitive, that there is a proper mechanism for the repatriation of powers to the member states, and that the relationship between the euro and non-euro countries is properly regulated to protect the interests of the non-euro countries—are also very important. I agree with my hon. Friend that we have to make progress on all four.

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May I, through the Secretary of State, thank the Europe Minister for meeting an MPs’ delegation yesterday on the plight in Portugal of Paramjeet Singh, and for his efforts to date? As the case in Portugal moves to the political, ministerial stage, will the Foreign Secretary say how our Government hope to take the matter forward?

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We are following the case closely and we have already made the Portuguese authorities aware of Mr Singh’s asylum status in the UK. India has not yet presented Portugal with a formal request for extradition, and as such we are not aware of the full details of the charges that he faces in India. We will continue to monitor Mr Singh’s case and will make a decision on further action when all the facts are available. Ultimately, however, it is the Portuguese authorities that have jurisdiction in Mr Singh’s case and will decide whether or not to extradite him to India.

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One area not raised in the letter of 10 November was that of national security. Would the Foreign Secretary like to tell us a little about that issue and how important ensuring that proper national security is maintained will be in relation to our remaining a member of the European Union?

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As my right hon. Friend knows, national security is reserved to the member states and we regard it as very important that that should remain the case. However, there is a tension because national security interacts with many other agendas where the European Union does have competence—for example, around the regulation of telecommunications. Ensuring that that balance is maintained correctly, and that the crucial national security interests of the member states cannot be interfered with by the European Union, remains one of our priorities in the negotiations.

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May I first thank the Secretary of State for the update on the situation in Istanbul? Of course, our thoughts are with anyone caught up in this awful situation.

Those campaigning to leave the European Union have made much of the unrealistic argument that Britain can simply walk away and magically retain trade agreements that are in place precisely because we are a member of the EU. What assessment has the Secretary of State made of the impact on British industry and British business of Britain having no say in future EU regulations that we will almost invariably be required to comply with? In other words, what will “out” look like for British industry and British jobs?

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Let me first welcome the hon. Lady to her position on the Front Bench. Indeed, let me welcome all the new members of Labour’s Front Bench team, across the party. Let me also pay tribute to the former shadow Minister for Europe, the right hon. Member for Wolverhampton South East (Mr McFadden). It is a sad indictment of today’s Labour party that people get sacked for refusing to excuse the actions of terrorists who murder innocent people and threaten our way of life.

We are clear that Britain benefits from access to the single market. If Britain voted to leave the European Union, we could not be guaranteed continued access to the single market. Britain benefits from the free trade agreements that have been negotiated by the European Union with third countries. We could not guarantee that renegotiating such agreements with the United Kingdom would be a priority for all those third countries if we were outside the European Union. But in the end, this is a balancing act. A proper calculation has to be made between the costs and the benefits of membership. What we are trying to do in this negotiation is decisively to alter the balance in favour of British membership so that we can convince the British people that that is the right future for Britain.

Kamal Foroughi

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3. What recent representations he has made to the Iranian Government on the case of Mr Kamal Foroughi. [902965]

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As my hon. Friend is aware, Iran does not recognise dual nationality, so we have not been granted the normal consular access to Kamal Foroughi. We continue to raise the case of Mr Foroughi’s detention at the highest levels, including representations from me and the Foreign Secretary, as well as the Prime Minister.

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Mr Foroughi is now 76 years of age, and there are serious concerns about his health, including the possibility that he may be suffering from cancer. Will the Minister update the House on what steps the Foreign Office has taken to promote Mr Foroughi’s wellbeing during his detention at Evin prison?

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I am grateful to my hon. Friend for organising a meeting in December with his constituent, Mr Foroughi’s son. We certainly share the family’s concerns for Mr Foroughi’s health. The case was raised most recently on 22 December by our chargé d’affaires with the deputy secretary-general of the Iranian High Council for Human Rights. I hope to visit the country soon. The Foreign Secretary and I will continue to make the case for clemency, but also for consular access.

Syria

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4. What diplomatic support the Government are providing to the countries surrounding Syria to help displaced people. [902966]

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The UK has provided £559 million to help the 4.6 million Syrian refugees in neighbouring countries. I will visit Turkey later this week, and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Development will visit Jordan and Lebanon, in both cases to discuss the conference on supporting Syria and the region that we will co-host with Kuwait, Germany, Norway and the United Nations in London early next month. The purpose of that conference is to secure significantly greater international support for Syria and for the refugee host countries.

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Does my right hon. Friend agree that the UK can be proud of the response to the UN appeal for aid for those suffering in Syria? That includes, if I may say so with you in the Chair, Mr Speaker, the response of many Members of this House, including you, to my own Singing for Syrians initiative—

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Give us a song!

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I will not give the House a song, but I might be able to give the final figure at some time in the next few weeks.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that other countries should follow our lead?

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Yes, and I very much welcome my hon. Friend’s Singing for Syrians initiative. That and initiatives like it show an extraordinary solidarity with the Syrian refugees. Yes, other countries should do more. The UK is the second largest donor to the Syrian humanitarian crisis, after the United States. We can be incredibly proud of that record. I am also proud that the Syrian conference we will hold on 4 February will not just ask people to pledge additional money. We will go to the conference with innovative ideas, worked out with the Governments of Jordan and Turkey, to allow refugees proper access to the workplace in their host countries and to healthcare and education in a way that provides holistic support for those refugees, not just a UN handout.

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Of course, there would be fewer displaced people to Syria’s neighbours if Russia stopped its despicable bombing of civilians. Has the Foreign Secretary had a chance to confirm reports that on Saturday the Syrian Emergency Task Force’s humanitarian headquarters in the city of Idlib were bombed by Russia, and what representations can the UK make on that?

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We make regular representations to the Russians, first about the indiscriminate nature of their bombing, including the bombing of civilian areas, and secondly about the fact that they are still, for the overwhelming majority of their airstrikes, targeting the moderate opposition fighting the Syrian regime, not Daesh.

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Stability in Syria and the region requires the removal of Daesh. Will the Secretary of State join me in congratulating the Iraqi forces on the recent liberation of Ramadi, and when will he hold the next counter-ISIL/Daesh coalition meeting?

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I join in the congratulations to the Iraqi armed forces on their achievement in liberating Ramadi. It is but one step in a challenging process of ridding Syria of the evil of Daesh, but we will support the Iraqi Government and the Iraqi armed forces in that endeavour.

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Yesterday the Secretary of State for International Development confirmed that yesterday marked the first time that food aid could be provided via convoy to the people of Madaya, as agreed with the Syrian regime. I have read newspaper reports today that there was a food aid delivery last October. Could the Foreign Secretary confirm the number of occasions the United Nations has requested humanitarian aid from the UK Government in relation to Madaya and how many times we have responded positively to such a request?

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My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Development made a statement on that issue yesterday. The specific question asked is properly an issue for her Department, so I will ask her to write to the hon. Lady. What I can say to the House is that the use of starvation as a tool of warfare is illegal in international law—it is a breach of international humanitarian law—and we have made that point repeatedly to the Syrian regime and to the Russians.

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There are currently some 16,000 refugees on the Syrian side of the Jordanian border, and Jordan has offered to help with their dispersal. Could the Foreign Secretary update us on what support we are giving to the Jordanians?

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We are helping and supporting the Jordanians with the Zaatari refugee camp. As I have said, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Development will be in Jordan later this week, discussing that, among other issues. There has been an upsurge in fighting in the southern area of Syria, with Syrian Government troops, supported by Russian airstrikes, becoming active in a part of the theatre that has been quiet for quite a long time. That is deeply destabilising for Jordan and puts at risk the possibility of supporting the refugees to whom the right hon. Lady refers.

Ukraine

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5. What recent assessment he has made of the political situation in Ukraine and the prospects for full implementation of the Minsk agreements. [902967]

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Ukraine is facing multiple challenges, both over domestic reform and the security situation in the east. We believe that the full implementation of the Minsk agreement remains the best chance of achieving a peaceful solution in Donbass, and we will continue to press all parties, especially Russia, to do more to meet those commitments.

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I celebrated Ukrainian Christmas with Huddersfield and Colne Valley’s Ukrainian community over the weekend. We enjoyed holubchi, varenyky and borscht. Understandably, the community is very concerned about the situation in Ukraine. Will the Minister continue to do everything he can to implement the ceasefire, the withdrawal of heavy weapons and the return of democracy to Ukraine?

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The need for the implementation of the ceasefire and the withdrawal of weapons were among the issues on which I pressed the Russian authorities in my meetings with First Deputy Foreign Minister Titov in Moscow just before Christmas 2015. I reiterated in my meeting yesterday with the Mayor of Lviv, Mr Sadovy, the United Kingdom’s commitment to the independent sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine.

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Under the Minsk agreement, the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe is charged with monitoring ceasefire arrangements and weapons withdrawal. When did the Minister last meet the OSCE on this issue, and what is his assessment of its most recent report?

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I last discussed those points directly with Michael Link, the director of the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, at the OSCE ministerial meeting in mid-December. The OSCE is doing a heroic job, with its monitors sometimes under direct personal threat from the continued fighting in the Donbass. It does not yet have access, to which it is entitled, to the whole of the Donbass, and we continue to press the Russians to use their influence over the separatists to allow the OSCE to carry out its mission fully.

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Will my right hon. Friend confirm that, in any discussions the Government have with Russia in relation to Syria, Ukraine will not be used as a bargaining chip and our desire to see Russia and its arms out of Ukraine will remain undiminished?

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I can give my hon. Friend an unqualified assurance on that point. We will continue to talk to Russia about Syria and other matters, but we are absolutely clear that there is no trade-off between any agreement over Syria and our resolute support for Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.

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rose—

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Oh, very well. I call Sir Gerald Howarth.

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I am grateful to you, Mr Speaker. As my right hon. Friend knows, corruption is a major problem in Ukraine, and one that is continuing to undermine the economic recovery of that country. What efforts are the British Government making to impress on the Ukrainian Government that they must end the practice of corruption if they want our continued support?

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My hon. Friend puts his finger on one of the central challenges facing the Ukrainian Government and political parties in carrying out domestic reform. I do not think the House should underestimate how challenging that is in a country where corruption has been endemic for so long. We are doing what we can—not just through words, but with United Kingdom technical assistance—to enable the Ukrainians to move towards fighting corruption and establishing genuinely independent and impartial judicial and legal systems. The first projects under the good governance fund, which the Prime Minister announced last March, are now up and running in Ukraine.

Terror Financing

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6. What progress has been made on reaching an international agreement on terror financing. [902968]

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A key strand of the strategy to defeat Daesh is to cut off its financing. A series of international agreements restricting Daesh’s income streams has come into force, including UN Security Council resolution 2170, which restricts Daesh’s trade networks and sanctions individuals who are financially supporting Daesh, and UN Security Council resolution 2253, adopted in December—it was recently agreed by all Finance Ministers, including the Chancellor—which reorientates the UN al-Qaeda sanctions regime to target Daesh.

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I thank the Minister for that response, but will he outline what specific steps are being taken to undermine the flow of finance from oil sales by Daesh, which are obviously fuelling this nasty terrorist group?

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The hon. Lady is right to highlight the importance of oil sales to Daesh, which account for about half of its revenues. It receives between $2.5 million and $4 million a day across all sources, but oil is very much the highest of them. Most of that is in fact sold to the Assad regime. We are making an impact—taxes in Mosul and Raqqa have been forced to go up; the salaries of the foreign fighters there have gone down; and smuggling routes are being closed off—so we are defeating Daesh using financial means.

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The international convention for the suppression of the financing of terrorism has received widespread ratification across the world, but it has not been ratified by some major actors, in particular Iran and Somalia. What steps can my hon. Friend take to ensure that it is universally adopted, so that terrorist financing is shut off across the world?

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My hon. and learned Friend is right to articulate the loopholes that still exist. We are hoping that Iran, which has committed itself to continued talks in the Vienna process, will make the necessary changes to ensure that the loopholes are closed.

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Currency is clearly flowing out of ISIL towards Afghanistan to fund its huge operations there. As with any criminal organisation, currency will be flowing out of ISIL into foreign and western bank accounts to secure a future that it foresees. What success have we had in stemming that flow and capturing the people who are involved in the transfer of currency from ISIL as it exists as a state to wherever else it is going?

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The hon. Gentleman is correct. It is not only finances that are moving out of Iraq and Syria, but people. The fighters are moving to other parts of the world to promote their extremist cause. Afghanistan is one of those places and Libya is another. We are closing in on the individuals who are providing the accounts and we now have the legislative means to close them. It will be difficult, but we need to work with those countries outside Iraq and Syria if we are to defeat extremism and close the financial channels it uses.

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One hundred and eighty-seven countries have ratified the international convention for the suppression of the financing of terrorism. What confidence can we have in, and what action can we take against, any of those signatories that are dealing in some of the oil that is funding Daesh?

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My hon. Friend is right to articulate that point. This is the main funding source that is keeping Daesh alive. It is able to use those funds to pay for the fighters who are causing so many of the problems in Iraq and Syria. It is hoped that the Vienna talks will lock down those countries—Iran has already been named—to ensure that they honour their commitments so that we can close down the financial channels.

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Following on from the question from my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney South and Shoreditch (Meg Hillier), an estimate by Associated Press at the end of October 2015 was that between 40,000 and 50,000 barrels of oil a day were being produced to finance Daesh in Iraq and Syria to the tune of $40 million a month. In the light of the agreement on terrorist financing that was reached in December, which the Minister mentioned, and the coalition military action, what is his current estimate of the finances available to Daesh?

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I made it clear that there is an estimate that Daesh is receiving between $2.5 million and $4 million a day. This matter is very difficult to understand because it does not keep accounts and it certainly does not share its accounts. There is not the transparency that we would like to see from any country. We are fully aware that its main source of income is the illegal sale of oil to the Assad regime. We have closed off other avenues, but the main one is sales to the Assad regime.

The Commonwealth: Trade and Diplomatic Connections

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7. What steps the Government are taking to promote trade and diplomatic connections with other Commonwealth countries. [902969]

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The United Kingdom is committed to strengthening its engagement with the Commonwealth. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister led a strong delegation to the Commonwealth summit in Valletta in November, where my noble Friend the Minister for Trade and Investment, Lord Maude, and I promoted trade opportunities.

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I am grateful for that answer. Given that three quarters of UK-Commonwealth trade is with India, Australia, Canada, Singapore, South Africa and Malaysia, how does my right hon. Friend propose that the UK can broaden its trading links with the other 46 Commonwealth nations?

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My hon. Friend makes a good point. This question affords me the opportunity to pay tribute to the noble Baroness Scotland and to congratulate her on her appointment as the next secretary-general of the Commonwealth. We hope that she will refocus it. I am sure that Members from all parts of the House will want to work closely with her in the coming months and years.

At Valletta, we had the biggest ever Commonwealth business forum, which was organised by my noble Friend Lord Marland and the Commonwealth Enterprise and Investment Council. Lord Marland, the Minister for Trade and Investment and I are working very closely together on having more regular meetings of Commonwealth Trade Ministers, so as to expand Commonwealth trade both bilaterally between the UK and other Commonwealth members and within the Commonwealth.

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The Africa all-party group, which I chair, recently met governmental and non-governmental representatives from African Commonwealth countries who expressed real concern that the European economic partnership agreements, which were negotiated in haste, under pressure, and often with many negotiators on one side and few on the other, will do real damage to Africa’s emerging service and manufacturing industries. What is the Minister doing to redress the balance of power?

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The EU has trade deals involving 17 Commonwealth countries, and it is currently negotiating further agreements with Canada, Singapore and regional blocs in Africa. Africa is an area of huge potential for the Commonwealth—in fact, one of our recent successes is the east Africa oil and gas high value opportunity, which will support UK businesses in gaining access to local markets. One should look at the opportunities presented by potential investment in Africa, rather than the negatives.

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21. Does the Minister agree that we cannot just wait for the result of the referendum on our membership of the EU, and that we must press ahead now with fostering further strong trade links with our Commonwealth friends? [902986]

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An in-swinger by the hon. Lady.

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Thank you, Mr Speaker. We are a key member of the Commonwealth, and we know that trade between two Commonwealth countries is on the whole 19% cheaper than trade outside the Commonwealth. We should concentrate on growing trade in the Commonwealth, and I am sure that like me my hon. Friend believes in the good Conservative philosophy that a rising tide lifts all ships. [Hon. Members: “What?”]

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I am slightly thrown by the Minister’s last words, Mr Speaker.

At the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in November, the first ever women’s forum agreed 36 points of action. In any discussions that the Minister has with other Commonwealth heads, will he take on board those 36 points to ensure that women are not left behind?

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Indeed, and the hon. Lady will know, as I do, that the Commonwealth charter focuses on such matters. We have an opportunity, and I am happy to meet her to discuss those issues in the run-up to the next Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in the United Kingdom in spring 2018. We have the opportunity to shape the agenda.

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The Minister will know that Commonwealth countries represent some of the most important future emerging markets for the United Kingdom. Would it not be better if we could sign our own free trade agreements directly with Commonwealth countries, and not depend on Brussels to do it on our behalf?

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I repeat to my hon. Friend that we want to encourage trade within the Commonwealth, and, as he knows, the Commonwealth makes those trade agreements with the EU. That is the current situation, and that is what we should concentrate on.

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Trade between Commonwealth member Rwanda and the UK has grown steadily since the end of the genocide and the election of Paul Kagame as the country’s President in 2000, but there are worrying signs of intolerance, dissent, and repression of the media, and a recent referendum agreed to lift the two-term limit on holding presidential office. Does the Minister have any concerns about President Kagame’s increasing grip on power and associated reports of human rights abuses in Rwanda?

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I welcome the hon. Gentleman to his position on the Front Bench. The Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (James Duddridge), who has responsibility for Africa, visited Rwanda as recently as a month ago. I am sure he would be happy to meet the hon. Gentleman to discuss the findings of his trip.

China: Diplomatic and Economic Relations

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8. What recent assessment he has made of the strength of diplomatic and economic relations between China and the UK. [902970]

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Our diplomatic and economic relationships with China are stronger than ever. Last year’s state visit by President Xi Jinping delivered substantial benefits for the UK economy and established a new global partnership. Last week in Beijing I launched a new visa service to boost tourism and business, announced plans to build a new embassy to better serve our interests and reflect the level of our bilateral relationship, and reaffirmed the common approach with a common statement on the Syria crisis. Those are all achievements.

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I welcome my right hon. Friend’s recent visit to China. Does he agree that with China set to become the world’s largest economy in the first half of the century we should be using every opportunity to boost our exports to the Chinese market of 1.3 billion people to help secure jobs in my constituency and across the United Kingdom?

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China is a vital trade partner. It is also an important investment partner, with a huge willingness to invest in UK infrastructure and a huge ability to absorb investment by UK companies in China. Our relationship with China is about more than just trade and investment, however. As the relationship grows, we will have increasing opportunities to engage with the Chinese on other key interests and to make our voice heard.

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What opportunities will arise for those who wish to export food produce from the United Kingdom to China? What further discussions have taken place with the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, following her visit to that country in November?

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The hon. Lady puts her finger on a very topical subject. I discussed it again with the Chinese Foreign Minister during my visit. We look forward to Chinese customers being able to buy excellent British beef and lamb in their supermarkets in the very near future. The Chinese have assured us that they will make progress towards the necessary regulatory amendments to allow that to happen.

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Our strategic partnership with China is incredibly important, not least to trade and investment. My right hon. Friend will know that the all-party group I chair has promised to help 50 parliamentarians organise China seminars in their constituencies during this Parliament. Upholding the rule of law is also important, particularly to British business confidence in Hong Kong at the moment. Will my right hon. Friend update the House on the disappearance of British citizen Mr Lee Bo?

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Yes. My hon. Friend is absolutely right that a proper rule of law system is vital for the economic, as well as the social, development of China. The Chinese Communist party is committed to implementing the full rule of law in China by 2020 and we are committed to supporting it in that endeavour. On the question of Mr Lee Bo, I raised the case with the Chinese Foreign Minister last week. The joint declaration and the basic law are clear that law enforcement in Hong Kong is a matter for the Hong Kong authorities, and that offences committed in Hong Kong should be tried in Hong Kong courts. As I said while I was in Beijing, if it turns out, as some have speculated, that Chinese state security entities have spirited Mr Bo out of Hong Kong, that would be an egregious breach of the basic law of the joint declaration, and of the principle of one country, two systems, which we very much support.

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It is of course right for the Government to pursue a stronger relationship with China, but it is also true that they should tackle unfair trading practices when they come across them. Will the Secretary of State update the House on the contribution he is making to tackle the Chinese Government over the unfair dumping of Chinese steel imports on the UK market?

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The hon. Lady is absolutely right. We raised this issue with President Xi when he was here in October. We were given a commitment that China intends to address its overproduction of steel. The problem is not only China, of course; this is a global problem. The Chinese said they were going to close some of their more polluting steel plants. I pressed them on that in Beijing last week and emphasised to them that it is through the prism of steel that their claims to be treated as a market economy are likely to be judged in the European Union. If they want a fair hearing on market economy status, they must address the steel issue. It is in their interests to do so.

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I congratulate the Secretary of State on the common statement, between the UK and China, on Syria. What action will he take to express concern at recent reports that Chinese police have arrested worker activists in the manufacturing centre of Guangdong? Does he agree that the current crackdown on labour rights NGOs in China does nothing to calm jitters in the context of the current economic downturn?

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Regrettably, such incidents do occur in China, but we have a forum for raising concerns, through a formal human rights dialogue with China. We expect the next human rights summit to be in March or April, and we have a list of issues we will raise with the Chinese, including the question of how they operate around labour activists.

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I always used to wonder why Foreign Office questions took longer. A senior Clerk said to me, “Mr Speaker, the reason they tend to take longer is that Ministers, perhaps understandably, feel they are addressing not merely the House but the world.” I think that probably explains it, but I would like to make a bit of progress.

St Helena

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9. What assessment he has made of the implications for his policies of the findings of the Wass report on child abuse in St Helena. [902971]

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The UK Government take child safeguarding in the overseas territories extremely seriously. We and the St Helena Government accept all the recommendations in the report, and a senior UK official has been appointed to be based in St Helena to oversee and implement all the recommendations.

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The Wass report notes, at paragraph 1.48, that

“it should be recognised that Claire Gannon was not properly briefed for the task that confronted her when she arrived on St Helena in February 2013.”

Was it the responsibility of the Foreign Office, the Department for International Development, the governor or other staff in St Helena to provide the briefing?

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Prior to all governors going out to overseas territories, the Foreign Office organises extensive briefings in all policy areas, and I can assure the House that, in addition to the normal briefings, we now provide specialist briefings on child safeguarding. This subject was central to the Joint Ministerial Council only last month; in fact, it was the main issue we discussed.

Occupied Palestinian Territories

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10. What discussions he has had with the Government of Israel on reducing tensions in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. [902972]

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Incidents of violence have slowed, but we remain concerned about the situation and encourage both sides to de-escalate tensions. My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary and I have called on all sides to restore calm.

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While the peace talks stall and tensions escalate, the continued expansion of settlements makes a two-state solution ever more difficult to achieve. What representations is the Minister making to the Israelis about the illegal settlements?

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I made a statement at the weekend about Israel’s announcement on settlements. The hon. Lady is absolutely right. We are an important friend—an ally—of Israel, but the issue of settlements makes it much harder to achieve, and takes us further away from, the two-state solution we seek.

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17. November 2017 marks the 100th anniversary of the Balfour declaration, which was an historic step in the creation of modern Israel. Are there any plans to mark this anniversary? [902979]

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My hon. Friend is absolutely right. During this Parliament, we mark a series of events and decisions that took place during and after world war one, including the Balfour declaration, the then Foreign Secretary’s letter to the leader of the British Jewish community, Lord Rothschild. We are proud of the role that Britain played in supporting the birth of the state of Israel, but the incompletion of the Oslo accords reminds us that there is still work to do to honour the declaration in full. But, yes, we will mark the Balfour declaration anniversary this year.

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20. The only way truly to de-escalate tensions is through the restarting of meaningful peace talks. What are the UK Government doing to support this aim? [902984]

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We continue to press both sides to come together. John Kerry said not long ago that the middle east peace process must not become a tired old slogan or some throwaway phrase we use to appease our consciences. We need to get both sides back to the table. That is what the Palestinian and Israeli people want.

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Will the Minister tell us, then, what the Government are doing to ensure this issue remains at the top of the international agenda?

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As I say, we call on both parties to resume talks as soon as possible. Prime Minister Netanyahu, on his visit to London and when he was in Washington, and President Abbas have made it clear that they are committed to the two-state solution, but we should also make it clear that the status quo is not acceptable. We currently have a 1.5-state solution, not a two-state solution or a one-state solution, which I do not think is what Israel wants, because the Jewish community would be the minority. We need to get the parties together to work towards that two-state solution, because the status quo is not acceptable.

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Has the Minister made representations about the current Palestinian campaign of inciting violence, which has led to 40 young Palestinians committing acts of terrorism, including shootings and stabbings of Israeli civilians on the streets of Israel?

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The hon. Lady is absolutely right to raise that point. Both sides need to refrain from rhetoric and from taking actions that clearly inflame the situation rather than take us where we want to be. Some of the acts of violence are not incited, although some are. It shows the frustration of some individuals who have lost faith in their own leadership. The fact that youngsters can get out a knife and go off and kill an Israeli, knowing the consequences, reflects the dire situation we face. That makes it all the more urgent that the leaders come together and move towards a two-state solution.

Topical Questions

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T1. If he will make a statement on his departmental responsibilities. [902953]

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I am very happy to update the entire universe on my priorities for 2016. They remain: Syria and the EU negotiation. Our priority in Syria includes humanitarian support focused on the London conference on 4 February, working through the Vienna process to achieve a negotiated political settlement to the civil war and continuing coalition military action against Daesh. In 2016, we will also seek to conclude our renegotiation of Britain’s relationship with the European Union, and then hold the referendum that the Conservative party promised at the general election and that this Conservative Government will deliver.

May I update the House? While we have been sitting, President Erdogan has confirmed that the attack in Istanbul was an attack by a Syrian suicide bomber and an act of terrorism.

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I am grateful for that update, and I am sure that the whole House will be thinking of events in Istanbul this morning.

There were two bombings and a series of killings last week in Bujumbura. Given the failure of the latest round of talks in Arusha to resolve the ongoing conflict in Burundi and the increased risk of civil war—and, potentially, genocide—will my right hon. Friend update us on the present position and on the steps that the Government propose to take with the United States and our other allies to facilitate a peaceful solution in this part of Africa?

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I was in Bujumbura last month and urged the country’s Foreign Minister to attend talks in Entebbe, so it is disappointing that the Burundian Government have not followed up and continued the talks in Arusha either on 6 January or this Friday. While in Bujumbura, I met the US ambassador, and my US opposite number was there only the day before. The international community speaks with one voice in saying that the Burundians should come and discuss the issues with all parties to develop a dialogue about what can be done to bring Burundi back from the brink of civil war.

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All our thoughts are with those killed and injured in what the Foreign Secretary has just reported as a terrorist attack in Istanbul.

The conflict in Yemen between the Houthis and the Saudi-led coalition has so far claimed over 7,000 lives and created, in the words of the UN Humanitarian Co-ordinator, Johannes van der Klaauw, a “humanitarian catastrophe”, with more than 2.5 million people internally displaced and 7.5 million people without enough food. Last week, Sky News reported that six British personnel are advising the Saudis on targeting in connection with the conflict. Will the Foreign Secretary tell us exactly what assistance these individuals are giving, and, if it is related to targeting, whether they have reported any potential breaches of international humanitarian law?

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The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. I cannot tell him whether it is six people, but we do have a military presence in Saudi Arabia, and we are working with the Saudi Arabians to ensure the following of correct procedures to avoid breaches of international humanitarian law—to ensure that target sets are correctly identified and processes correctly followed and that only legitimate military targets are struck. It is important that we ensure Saudi Arabia has that capability.

We also use the personnel who are present as a quick check—it can only be a quick first check—when we receive reports, as we have recently, of breaches of international humanitarian law that would, for example, involve the deliberate striking of civilian targets. So far, in every case, our people on the ground have reported that there is no evidence of deliberate breaches of international humanitarian law.

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Last week, the Minister of State told the House that he wanted to see “genuine intelligence evidence”. However, we know that human rights organisations have already reported what they regard as potential breaches. For instance, a hospital supported by Médecins Sans Frontières in northern Yemen was hit by a missile recently, and another MSF hospital in Sadaa was destroyed last October.

In the light of those reports, and given that the Government’s own policy is not to grant arms export licences if

“there is a clear risk that the items might be used in the commission of a serious violation of IHL”

—international humanitarian law—will the Foreign Secretary launch an immediate review of arms export licences for Saudi Arabia relating to the use of British-supplied weapons?

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We need to be careful here. The MSF hospital attack in Sadaa is still being investigated, but so far there is no evidence that it was hit by a missile, although it clearly came under attack. We are looking urgently at the situation on the ground.

We have a very robust export licensing process. There is a series of questions against which any export licence application must be tested, and we apply it rigorously. When a conflict is under way, whether we are talking about Yemen today or Operation Protective Edge in Gaza in the summer of 2014, we take particular care to apply the criteria diligently. That is what has been done, and that is what will be done in relation to any future arms licensing applications that are received.

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T3. My former constituent Ahmad Zeidan, who is a British national, is currently serving a nine-year custodial sentence in the United Arab Emirates. Mr Zeidan’s family have informed me that, while in prison, he has been subjected to brutal beatings and threats of physical and sexual violence by police officers. Mr Zeidan maintains that he is innocent, and that he was coerced into signing a confession written in Arabic, a language that he cannot read. Will the Minister meet me, and representatives of Mr Zeidan’s family, to see what can be done to help secure his early release? [902956]

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I should be happy to meet my hon. Friend, and the family as well. We are aware of the situation, and, as my hon. Friend knows, we have been providing consular assistance for Mr Zeidan and his family, but we stand ready to provide further support.

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T2. What representations has the Foreign Secretary made about the Baha’i, who continue to be persecuted in Iran? [902954]

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In our meetings—including meetings held during my visit to Iran last August, and my subsequent meetings with Foreign Minister Zarif, whom I see fairly often because he is involved in the International Syria Support Group—we regularly raise the issue of the persecution of minorities in Iran, which is one of many human rights concerns that we have about that country.

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T4. Given the appalling suffering that Ebola caused in 2014 and 2015, what steps is the United Kingdom taking to ensure that it is permanently addressed in west Africa? [902957]

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The UK has announced a two-year, £240 million package to support Sierra Leone’s long-term recovery, which includes boosting capability to respond to future Ebola outbreaks and other emergencies. We are also working closely with the Government of Sierra Leone, the World Health Organisation and other partners to reduce the risk of further outbreaks, and to prevent them from growing into epidemics.

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T6. I commend Ministers for their prompt and proactive response to the dreadful news from Chennai yesterday morning that my constituent Ray Tindall and the other men on the Seaman Guard Ohio had been sentenced to five years in prison. May I suggest, however, that it would be proactive now for the highest level of the British Government to contact the highest level of the Indian Government to find a political solution to bring the lads home, given that the legal processes have not necessarily worked well? [902959]

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As the hon. Gentleman knows, as soon as we heard the news yesterday morning I called a meeting of all the local Members of Parliament, which he attended. Since then I have spoken to Samir Farajalla, the chief executive officer of AdvanFort, and I have just come from an introductory meeting with the new Indian high commissioner, at which I raised the issue. As the hon. Gentleman will know, there is now to be a 90-day appeal period. We are seeking clarification on a number of fronts, and I am committed to keeping Members informed of developments, but at the forefront of our thoughts at the moment are the safety and wellbeing of the men and their families.

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T5. Increased diplomatic and political co-operation is vital in settling international and regional disputes in the Asia-Pacific region. What steps are the Government taking to progress the strategic partnership between Japan and the UK? [902958]

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I am grateful to my hon. Friend for her question. Fortuitously, I was in Japan on Friday conducting a strategic dialogue with my Japanese counterpart. The strategic defence and security review published last autumn identified Japan as Britain’s principal security partner in Asia. That will continue to be the case and we are building that security partnership while strengthening our trade and investment partnership.

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T8. Ahead of his visit to Sri Lanka shortly, will the Minister give an undertaking to the House to raise with the Sri Lankan Government, notwithstanding the progress they are making, the recent allegations of human rights abuses, the demilitarisation of the north, political detainees and, crucially, the international involvement of judges and prosecutors to give everyone the confidence we need that people will be brought to justice for human rights violations and war crimes? [902961]

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Indeed, I will commit to that, and I thank the hon. Gentleman and other colleagues from the all-party Sri Lanka and Tamil groups for coming to a meeting with me yesterday where we shaped some of the ideas I might pursue in my forthcoming visit.

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T7. What assessment has the Minister made of the role of regional airports—for example, Southampton airport in my constituency—in increasing trade links and growing prosperity across Africa? [902960]

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Southampton airport has regular flights to Amsterdam that access about 55 different African destinations. This drives bilateral trade, increases tourism and helps grow Africa out of poverty. I hope London Southend airport in my constituency does what Southampton’s has done, and develops a strong link with KLM. I would be keen to visit my hon. Friend’s constituency to learn from the work she has done.

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I have spoken about my constituent William Irving in this place on a number of occasions and have written to the Secretary of State and his colleagues urging the UK Government to assist, but, as we have heard, yesterday Billy and his colleagues from the Seaman Guard Ohio were sentenced to five years’ hard imprisonment in an Indian jail, despite their consistently protesting their innocence. Can the Secretary of State please assure me that the UK Government will leave absolutely no stone unturned in getting Billy and his colleagues back home as soon as possible?

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Indeed, and the hon. Lady is absolutely right to raise her constituency issue. We discussed this yesterday in the meeting. I would just say to the House that there have been over 30 ministerial contacts over this ongoing case, from the Prime Minister and Prime Minister Modi down. We are in a judicial process. There is a 90-day appeal process and—believe you me—we are doing everything we can to ensure the best possible outcome.

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T9. Last year’s elections in Burma were an important step towards greater democracy. Can the Minister update the House on measures the Government are taking to ensure that religious minorities, such as the Muslim Rohingya community, are protected following these landmark elections? [902962]

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I am grateful for the hon. Lady’s question, and this affords me an opportunity to congratulate Daw Aung San Suu Kyi on her staggering victory in the recent elections. We are, and remain, the biggest bilateral donor to Rakhine. We are disappointed of course—we have said this repeatedly—that the Rohingya were debarred from taking part in the election. I raised this most recently with the Burmese Foreign Minister when I was in New York. Daw Suu has many things on her plate—not least only eight out of a possible 16 ceasefires with some of the ethnic groups—but dealing with the problem in Rakhine and dealing with the Rohingya people in a fair and inclusive way must be at the top of that agenda, and we will continue to assist her in any way we can to that end.

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Does the Foreign Secretary think it would be in the UK’s national interest to have the “fax democracy” of Norway, whereby we would be sent the rules and regulations of the single market, abide by the freedom of movement principle, and pay into the EU budget but have no seat around the negotiating table?

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That model has never seemed very attractive to me. Some people have talked about the Norwegian model in the domestic debate here, but perhaps they have failed to understand how it works. As the hon. Lady has just said, it involves accepting all the rules and paying all the subs but getting no vote and no seat at the table. That does not look like a good plan to me.

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Birmingham airport has recently initiated regular flights to China, but France, Holland and Germany all have more such flights than the United Kingdom. What can the Secretary of State do with the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills and the Department for Transport to encourage more regular flights to China in order to promote trade and tourism?

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My hon. Friend did not mention airport capacity in the south-east, but it is of course intimately linked with his question. As he will know, the Government are now urgently carrying out further studies around the Davies report on airport capacity in the south-east and we will make a decision as soon as possible on that matter.

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On new year’s day, Nashat Melhem murdered two Israelis in a bar in Tel Aviv and wounded eight others. He then killed a taxi driver, a Bedouin Israeli, while escaping. He himself was killed a week later in a shoot-out with the police. The Palestinian Authority’s Ministry of Health has described him as

“one of the dearest martyrs”,

and the Fatah Facebook page has commented:

“Congratulations and may Allah receive you in Heaven”.

What pressure will the Government bring to bear on the Palestinian Authority to ensure that this kind of encouragement to violence is stopped?

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The right hon. Lady is absolutely right. This is the sort of rhetoric I was referring to earlier, and it takes us into a very dark place. It is the sort of rhetoric that President Abbas should be condemning straight away. I will visit Israel and the west bank shortly, and I will certainly raise these matters to ensure that this kind of encouragement and incitement to violence is stopped.

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The Foreign Secretary’s update on the evolving situation in Istanbul reminds us of the dangers posed by violent fundamentalism. What lessons does he think we can learn from countries such as Morocco, which act as a beacon of hope within the Islamic world?

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Morocco is one of the countries that has moved forward since the Arab spring, and it is an exemplar of how the democratic process can succeed. My hon. Friend and I have both visited the Mohammed VI imam training institute, which has done much to train imams to ensure that the moderate message of Islam is promoted. I would like to see that work spread out across the Maghreb and elsewhere, because Morocco is an excellent model for other countries to follow.