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Topical Questions

Volume 604: debated on Tuesday 12 January 2016

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.

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?

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.

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?

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.

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?

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.

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)

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.

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

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.

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)

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.

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)

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.

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)

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.

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)

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.

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)

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.

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?

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.

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)

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.

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?

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.

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?

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.

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?

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.

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?

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.