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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 606: debated on Tuesday 23 February 2016

Foreign and Commonwealth Office

The Secretary of State was asked—

Abolition of the Death Penalty

We oppose the use of the death penalty in all circumstances and advocate global abolition. The Government support a number of programmes around the world to promote both abolition and a moratorium on executions in those countries where the death penalty is still on the statute book.

I thank the Minister for his response. Will he present a new strategy for the abolition of the death penalty, following on from the 2010 to 2015 strategy? Will that new strategy include Saudi Arabia?

We oppose the death penalty in every country in the world, including Saudi Arabia, where it is still part of the criminal law. The abolition of the death penalty remains integral to all the human rights work that my Department does.

I welcome the fact that the long-term trend is for reducing the number of executions and also the number of states carrying out executions. Will the Minister join me in expressing concern about areas of the world where that is not the case? Does he agree that if it is wrong to take a life, it is wrong for the state to take a life in revenge?

That is certainly my view, and the Government’s position is to oppose capital punishment. We need also to bear in mind the fact that while capital punishment exists, it is potentially a risk for a British citizen, anywhere in the world, who might be found guilty of a criminal offence.

Does the Minister share my horror that the United States remains in the top five countries for executing people, despite a reduction in the number of executions last year? When did he last speak to his American counterpart about the US record on executing people?

As I am sure the right hon. Lady knows, in the United States this is largely a matter for a state legislatures and state governments, rather than for the federal Government. We do take up cases with the relevant authorities, as appropriate, and when the lawyers and British citizens ask us to do so.

Belarus is the only country in Europe that still executes its citizens. Does my right hon. Friend share my concern that in the past three months two of its citizens have been sentenced to death? If Belarus wants to become a full member of the Council of Europe, should it not abide by international norms and the European regulations?

I very much agree with what my hon. Friend says. In all our dealings with the Belarusian Government, we do make clear the need for them not only to move to international and European standards on capital punishment, but to take action to improve what remains a dismal human rights record in that country.

Further to the Minister’s answer to the question from the right hon. Member for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart), is he aware of the concerns of Reprieve that drugs manufactured by UK company Hikma Pharmaceuticals were exported last year to the state of Arkansas for use in lethal injections? Hikma has told me in correspondence that it does not export for this purpose but that

“any sales to these entities usually occur through the use of distributors”.

This seems such an obvious loophole, so why is nobody closing it?

I am happy to look into the case that the right hon. Gentleman describes and to write to him in due course.

Syria Peace Talks

On 11 February, the International Syria Support Group, meeting in Munich, reached agreement to deliver humanitarian assistance to besieged communities and to implement a cessation of hostilities. I am pleased to say that the first deliveries of aid have now been made, and yesterday there was an announcement of agreement between Russia and the United States on the detailed arrangements for the cessation of hostilities, which will come into force at midnight on Saturday. If that cessation is fully implemented—faithfully implemented—by all the parties, this could be an important step towards a lasting political settlement in Syria.

The bombing of two hospitals and other health facilities in northern Syria is completely unacceptable and a clear breach of international humanitarian law. Does the Minister agree that those responsible must be brought to justice and that that reinforces the need for the UN Security Council to refer the situation to the International Criminal Court?

The hon. Lady identifies an incident that has caused widespread outrage across the world, but in her question she has put her finger on the problem: a referral to the International Criminal Court requires a resolution of the United Nations Security Council, one veto-holding member of which is the Russian Federation, so it is unlikely that we will succeed going down that route.

Turkish policy towards Syrian Kurdish forces seems inconsistent with our own; inconsistent with the prospect of supporting Syrian peace talks; and inconsistent with the opportunity to form a united front against Daesh. What is the Foreign Secretary’s assessment?

My hon. Friend is right that the Syrian Kurds are an important part of the equation and they have to be brought into any enduring solution in Syria, but Turkey has a problem with links between PKK—a terrorist group that is designated as such in both Turkey and the UK—and Syrian Kurdish groups. There are overlaying conflicts here, and the Turkish-Kurdish conflict is a major complicating factor. What we have seen over the past weeks is very disturbing evidence of co-ordination between Syrian Kurdish forces, the Syrian regime and the Russian Air Force, which is making us distinctly uneasy about the Kurds’ role in all of this.

With the Russian indiscriminate bombing of civilians in Syria driving the refugee crisis in a deliberate foreign policy tool to destabilise and weaken Europe, does the Secretary of State agree that now is not the time even to talk about weakening EU sanctions against the Putin regime?

I very strongly agree with the right hon. Gentleman that now is not the time to send Russia any signals of compromise or of pulling back. The only language that Mr Putin understands is the language of strength and, I am afraid, the language of confrontation. When unacceptable behaviour on the scale that we have seen in Syria occurs, we have to stand up to be counted, however inconvenient that may be for some who have to be counted.

Whether we like it or not, Russia is an essential prerequisite to any successful talks. The American Secretary of State has a close working relationship with the Russian Foreign Minister, talking to him nearly every week. When did the Foreign Secretary last talk to the Russian Foreign Minister and what is he doing to improve his personal relationship with him?

Our relationships with our Russian counterparts are difficult. I last spoke to Sergei Lavrov on 11 February during the Munich International Syria Support Group meeting where he and I had some prolonged and robust exchanges around the table. I do speak very regularly with the US Secretary of State, most recently meeting him on Saturday morning, so I am very much aware of the discussions that he is having with our mutual Russian counterpart. The problem is that Russian policy on Syria is made not in the Russian Foreign Ministry, but inside a tiny cabal around President Putin at the heart of the Kremlin.

What dialogue has the Minister had with our French counterparts as a result of the Syrian crisis regarding the safety and child protection arrangements for unaccompanied child refugees who are at grave risk and who are due to be dispersed from the jungle camp in Calais?

I have had discussions about the situation in Syria with my former French counterpart who retired the week before last and with my new French counterpart, Jean-Marc Ayrault, on a regular basis. The issues relating to would-be migrants accumulated around Calais are for the Home Secretary, and she has very regular discussions with her counterpart, Bernard Cazeneuve.

My hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh) is absolutely right that the Russians are a key part to establishing a meaningful political settlement in Syria. Does my right hon. Friend agree that that does not mean that we give in to the Russians across the rest of Europe and that the NATO commitment in the Baltic states is just as important to counterbalance whatever partnerships we use the Russians for in Syria?

My hon. Friend is right. We are dealing with a raised level of Russian assertiveness—indeed, aggression—in many areas: in the Baltic, in Ukraine, and now in the middle east, and we have to be robust in all areas. He is also right—and our hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh) was right—that Russia holds the key to the situation in Syria. I have said in the House before, and I shall say again today, that there is one person in the world who has the power to bring the misery in Syria to an end by picking up the phone and making one phone call, and that person is Vladimir Putin.

The whole House will welcome the ceasefire agreement, which is badly needed, but there have been promises from Russia before. The Russians have repeatedly claimed to attack terrorist groups when, in fact, they have attacked moderate opposition forces and civilians, so can the Foreign Secretary set out how breaches of the ceasefire agreement will be assessed?

The hon. Lady has put her finger on the problem. The ceasefire agreement will allow continued operations against Daesh, al-Nusra and associated terrorist groups designated by the UN Security Council, and no one would disagree with that. The problem is that the Russians claim that all their action to date has been against those groups. On the face of it, the Russians could be entering into this arrangement on the basis that they will not change their behaviour at all. Clearly, the cessation of hostilities will fail before it has even got off the ground if that is their intention, so everything hinges on Russian good intentions.

So can the Foreign Secretary explain what consideration has been given to a UN resolution to strengthen the ceasefire agreement and support the peace talks?

First, an arrangement has been agreed between the Russians and Americans for investigating alleged breaches of the ceasefire, and there is a commitment on both sides to working up a co-ordination cell to try to identify legitimate targets that can be struck during the ceasefire. As for the UN dimension, we are looking at that, and we would very much welcome a UN resolution behind the ceasefire. We already have UN resolution 2254, which we agreed on 18 December in New York, but we welcome further UN resolutions. That can only happen if the Russians are prepared to work with us, because they have a veto.

Kurdistan: ISIL/Daesh

Daesh is progressively being defeated in Iraq as the competence of Iraqi security forces improves. Specifically on Kurdistan, we are providing the Peshmerga with air power, logistical support, weapons and training.

Reports suggest that 45% of Kurdish forces are composed of women. Nesrîn Abdalla, a unit commander in the Syrian Kurds women’s protection units, recently said:

“We do this not just to protect ourselves, but also to change the way of thinking in the army, not only to gain power, but to change society, to develop it.”

What particular steps have the Government taken to ensure women’s participation in regional diplomatic talks, post-Daesh?

May I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for that quote and for the work that she has done in pioneering the role that women can play? That is something that Staffan de Mistura, the UN envoy, recognises, and he is trying to include women’s voices in the peace talks that are taking place at the UN. On our front, British training is taking place in northern Iraq, and UK training teams will train female units in the Peshmerga.

Further to the question from the hon. Member for Reigate (Crispin Blunt), who chairs the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs, what is the Minister’s current assessment of relations between the Turkish Government and the Kurdistan Regional Government?

It is an important relationship that the two are developing, not least because there are economic benefits for both from the sale and movement of oil. As my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary has outlined, there are concerns in Turkey because of the role, involvement and influence of the PKK, and we will monitor that carefully.

Since the breakdown of the peace process last summer, there have been reports of an escalation in violence and of breaches of human rights in south-eastern Turkey in Kurdish areas such as Diyarbakir and Cizre, with the deaths of hundreds of innocent civilians, curfews, the imprisonment of democratically elected politicians who would be key interlocutors in any future peace process, the imprisonment of academics, and lack of access for journalists to key areas. Will the Minister assure me that that will form part of the peace talks on Syria?

I am grateful for the hon. Lady’s question. I was able to raise the matter during my visit to the north of Iraq at the end of last year. We are concerned about the reports of alleged human rights abuses and we need to make sure that those are not overlooked.


I much appreciate the right hon. Gentleman’s courtesy in notifying me of his travel plans. I know that he has only relatively recently got off a plane, so we are delighted to have him here, especially in view of the fact, of which he has previously informed the House, that he is responsible for three quarters of the world.

Mr Speaker, you have just stolen my first line again.

On this important subject, it is, I repeat, for India and Pakistan to find a lasting resolution to the situation in Kashmir, taking into account the wishes of the Kashmiri people. It is not for the UK to prescribe a solution or to act as a mediator.

Undoubtedly, this House has a great deal of respect for UN resolutions, and I am sure the Minister is aware that in 1948 the UN Security Council passed resolution 47 instructing the Governments of India and Pakistan to prepare for a plebiscite to determine the future of Kashmir. Almost 70 years have passed, thousands of Kashmiri men, women and children have been slaughtered, atrocities are committed daily, yet there is still no sign of any action to allow these people to vote on this most important issue. Does the Minister agree that the people of Kashmir should have the right to self-determination, and will he give an assurance—

Will the Minister assure us that the British Government will do everything in their power to make that happen?

We do not intend to support an international conference or plebiscite on Kashmir. Our long-standing position is that it is for India and Pakistan to find a lasting resolution. We are acutely aware of the allegations of human rights abuses in Kashmir. This was discussed with my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister when Prime Minister Modi was here in November 2015, and we continue to monitor the situation closely.

Many of my constituents who are of Kashmiri origin and heritage take the view that this entire problem was left behind by the UK when we ruled that area. Does the Minister not feel that there is an obligation on the UK to take a more proactive role and to do something positive to bring about a resolution to this long-running problem?

My hon. Friend will be aware that we are talking about two sovereign countries, India and Pakistan. It is not for the United Kingdom to come between them, other than to urge them to talk. There are some good moves and communications between the leaders of Pakistan and India and they are discussing the subject, among other things, which we very much welcome.

But I would say to the Minister that the situation has been going on for decades, and the UK has some expertise in building more peaceful settlements. Is there not a bit more that the UK could do to promote confidence-building measures between India and Pakistan, and at the very least raise this as a priority with the EU special representative so that some of our other allies know that this is more of a priority?

We do things as best we can without getting directly involved, and we welcome the fact that on 25 December Prime Minister Modi visited Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif in Pakistan, the first such visit for 11 years. That must be good news, but the hon. Gentleman knows full well the long-standing position of the Government—and when he was in government the position was no different—that this is a matter for the Indians and the Pakistanis to resolve, not the United Kingdom.

Commonwealth: Trade and Diplomatic Connections

5. What steps the Government is taking to promote trade and diplomatic connections between the UK and other Commonwealth countries. (903699)

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

The renaissance in British manufacturing and engineering is not only testament to the Government’s determination to rebalance our country’s economy, but has greatly contributed to a record 62% fall in unemployment in my constituency since 2010. Does my right hon. Friend agree that our historical links—especially trade links—with other Commonwealth countries are vital to the continued success of those sectors and to the jobs they support?

I am pleased to hear the figures from my hon. Friend’s constituency, and they can be echoed around the country as a result of the Government’s economic policies. We are an open, free-trading state, and we trade around the world. Trade within the Commonwealth is extremely important, and we need to do more to promote it. Trading between two Commonwealth countries is, on the whole, 19% or 20% cheaper than trading outside the Commonwealth. That is something we need to do, and we need to involve Commonwealth Trade Ministers more formally in working out how we can increase intra-Commonwealth trade.

Last year, Prime Minister Modi and our Prime Minister designated next year as the year of culture between India and the United Kingdom. Will the Minister join me in welcoming the British curry festival, which is taking place in New Delhi in March? British chefs from Leicester, London and Reading will be going to Delhi to make curry. Does he not agree that that is a real example of good relations between Commonwealth countries?

At the risk of currying favour with the right hon. Gentleman, let me say that we must all wish our curry chefs every success when they travel to India. We must hope that they make a speedy return, because we would all miss our curry were they not home in our country.

Characteristically—or maybe uncharacteristically—the Minister has more or less answered the question I was going to ask. Leaving aside trade between the UK and Commonwealth countries, the functioning of the Commonwealth will surely be enhanced if there is more trade between all Commonwealth countries. To what extent can the UK play a role in enhancing that intra-Commonwealth trade, particularly in areas where we have substantial Department for International Development, as well as Foreign Office, representation?

It is as well to remember that we are an equal partner in the Commonwealth; we do not run the Commonwealth, and we wish Baroness Scotland every success in so doing. [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear.”] She clearly has the universal support of the House, which is manifestly a good thing. We want her to refocus the Commonwealth, and we want to spend much more time—similar issues are being discussed elsewhere in the world—discussing boosting trade, getting rid of tariffs and promoting intra-Commonwealth trade. That we can do. My noble Friend Lord Marland is doing a great job at the Commonwealth Enterprise and Investment Council, and he had a great collection of 2,000 businesses at Valletta. We are hosting the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting here in 2018, and business will play a large role in that Commonwealth conference.

May I ask a more serious question about the Commonwealth and diplomatic relations? How many members of the Commonwealth do not have an extradition agreement with this country? Increasingly, people who commit ghastly crimes flee to Pakistan, and we cannot bring them back to face justice. What is he doing about that?

That is a very wide-ranging accusation. If the hon. Gentleman will write to me, or come to see me, about a specific case, I will be happy to look at it. We deal with things case by case.

EU Referendum

The conduct regulations that set out the detailed framework of how the referendum poll will be administered have now been agreed by both Houses of Parliament. The date of the referendum must now be agreed by Parliament in a further statutory instrument, which was laid before both Houses in draft yesterday.

A record number of people registered to vote in the Scottish independence referendum— 97% of the adult population. What efforts are the UK Government making to match that success?

This is, as the hon. Gentleman will know, the responsibility of the Electoral Commission, which is planning a campaign to raise awareness of the need to register in good time for the referendum.

Will the Minister give comfort to the Scottish students who are studying through Erasmus across Europe by providing details of what contingency plans are in place should there be a no vote in the EU referendum?

My advice to Scottish students studying in universities elsewhere in the EU would be to ensure that they are registered to vote so that their votes in the referendum count along with everybody else’s. The hon. Lady puts her finger on one of the uncertainties about a potential British exit from the European Union, because, after all, it is European law and the treaties that give British citizens the right to live, study and work in other EU countries.

The Minister may recall that in response to my amendment to the Finance Bill last year, the Government promised to negotiate with the European Commission for a zero rate of VAT on women’s sanitary products, and the Chancellor repeated that pledge in his autumn statement. It is time the tampon tax was ended, so did the Prime Minister use his recent negotiations to raise this issue and, if so, what progress has been made?

As I think the hon. Lady knows, value added tax was already part of the EU system before the United Kingdom joined the European Community in the 1970s. A review of the current EU directives on value added tax is due to take place this year, and that is the appropriate forum in which to raise this issue, where the Government very much hope to secure the reforms about which she speaks.

Successive UK Governments have signed up to a range of EU agreements vital in protecting our environment, upholding workers’ rights, and ensuring an EU-wide energy market. The removal of such environmental controls and statutory maternity pay, for example, would be a backward step. I am sure, therefore, that the Minister will agree that our membership of the EU is vital in promoting the interests of the people of Scotland and across the UK. However, he will be aware that the Justice Secretary said last week that

“our membership of the European Union prevents us being able to change huge swathes of law and stops us being able to choose who makes critical decisions which affect all our lives.”

Can the Minister therefore confirm specifically—[Interruption.]

Can the Minister therefore confirm specifically how his Government’s plans have been constrained by European legislation or regulation?

As with every member state of the EU, particular issues will come up—particular legislative measures—where we find some of the rulings irksome. On balance, however, as my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister set out very clearly yesterday, the Government are convinced that membership of a reformed European Union will make the British people more prosperous, more secure, and more influential in the world than any of the alternatives so far proposed.

It is therefore important that voters have the full facts at their disposal when making a choice in June. Have the Government calculated the cost of implementing the proposals agreed at the EU Council last week, particularly those relating to the administration of the new benefits rules? What will the net saving to the Treasury be?

Some of this will be a matter for the implementing regulations that will now follow, both at European level and at national level. The answer to the hon. Lady’s question will depend in large part on the level of benefits and tax credits in the United Kingdom at the appropriate time. These matters will therefore become clear as time goes on.

I wish the Minister great success in trying to alter the level of VAT on sanitary towels. If the British people decide in the referendum to leave the European Union, would it then be up to the British Government to decide the level of VAT on sanitary towels and other products?

That would depend on the nature of the subsequent relationship. The reason that value added tax has, since before our membership of the EU, been dealt with, to an extent, at EU level is that the price at which goods are sold has a direct impact on the notion of a single market and free trade within Europe. The issues that my hon. Friend raises would have to be tackled in the course of negotiations about such a future relationship.


7. What assessment his Department has made of the effects of high oil supply and low oil and gas prices on (a) Russia and (b) countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council. (903701)

Brent oil prices are hovering around $30 a barrel—the lowest in 13 years—as a consequence of lower global demand, continued high OPEC production and the resilient production in the USA. GCC countries are taking action. They are, in fact, diversifying their economies and removing subsidies. Historically, about half of the Russian Government’s revenues have come from oil and gas, and Russia’s GDP declined by just under 4% last year.

Falling oil prices are clearly having a dramatic effect on the economies of many oil-producing countries. I was part of a delegation that visited Saudi Arabia last week, where we heard about what its Government are doing to diversify. What encouragement are our Government giving to other countries to help and support them to diversify, and what opportunities are available to British companies to provide assistance?

As my hon. Friend outlines, there are enormous opportunities not just in Saudi Arabia but across the Gulf. We are working on diversification with countries that produce and export hydrocarbons, and helping them with renewables and green energy. Saudi Arabia has also expressed an interest in opening up tourism. Those are important aspects in which Britain can play an important role.


8. What discussions he has had with other members of the international coalition on improving diplomatic co- ordination against Daesh. (903702)

9. What discussions he has had with other members of the international coalition on improving diplomatic co-ordination against Daesh. (903703)

Britain was a driving force behind the creation of the global coalition. We hosted the first coalition meeting in London in January 2015. I frequently discuss the campaign against Daesh with coalition and other international partners, including at a coalition small group meeting in Rome earlier this month.

The Kurdistan Regional Government army has been valiantly battling against Daesh over a 1,000 km frontline since summer 2014. Will my right hon. Friend pay tribute to the peshmerga and say more about the role they may play in the liberation of Mosul?

I am very happy to pay tribute to the Peshmerga. They have proved themselves to be an extraordinarily resilient fighting force and perhaps the most effective force operating against Daesh. The UK is training and providing equipment to the Peshmerga. I had an opportunity a couple of weeks ago to meet President Barzani of the KRG, to talk about the liberation of Mosul and the role that the Peshmerga might play. I am pleased to be able to report two things. First, the KRG appear to have become more open to the idea that the Peshmerga will play a role in the liberation of Mosul. That will be very important. They have also agreed to Iraqi Government security forces being based in the KRG to prepare for the assault on Mosul. Those two things make it much more likely that we will see a successful assault on Mosul earlier rather than later.

Seeking a diplomatic solution in Syria has gone hand in hand with our humanitarian aid in the region. Will the Secretary of State set out how increased diplomatic co-operation will improve and assist our humanitarian aid in the region, specifically in neighbouring countries such as Jordan and Lebanon?

As the whole House will know, we hosted in London on 4 February a very successful conference on Syria and the region, raising $11 billion in a single day. The real significance of that meeting, however, was that we moved on from the idea of simply collecting money and distributing it to working with the host countries in the region to ensure that refugees are able to access the labour market, get education for their children and access healthcare, making them less likely to feel the need to decamp and become irregular migrants heading towards Europe.

Daesh moves into areas of conflict and ungoverned spaces. King Abdullah of Jordan has asked that we reach out to areas such as Bosnia and Herzegovina, Albania and Kosovo, as he regards them to be among the next potential trouble spots. Are we making any progress?

Yes. The right hon. Lady is right. We should be very much focused not only on the countries that already face that challenge, but on the countries that are next in line for the challenge, and we should seek to reinforce them. I am happy to tell her, if she was not aware of this, that the Prime Ministers of all the western Balkan countries were in London yesterday, and I had the opportunity to meet the Prime Ministers of Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, Serbia, Albania, and Montenegro. We are working closely with them to ensure the resilience and the European trajectory of that region.

On the issue of Daesh fighters returning home to countries here in Europe, what diplomatic co-ordination efforts have been made to develop a common response among countries in Europe to ensure that we keep our citizens safe and prevent those people from coming back to wreak havoc, through terrorism, on towns and cities in the UK?

Different countries in Europe have different domestic legislation around that issue. We in the UK have some of the most robust measures available to us to deal with returning fighters. It is precisely because of the importance of the exchange of information between European partners that the Prime Minister was able to confirm yesterday that we believe that Britain is safer and more resilient against the threat of terrorism because of its co-operation within the European Union.

Order. The hon. Gentleman must be heard. There is some chuntering from a sedentary position, by which he should not remotely be deflected. Stick to your course, man.

You are very kind, Mr Speaker. As operations against Daesh in Iraq are successful, what is the threat of Daesh’s moving to Libya? Has the Foreign Secretary made an assessment of that eventuality?

There is clearly a risk that as Daesh is militarily defeated in Iraq and then in Syria, the embryonic Daesh presence in Libya, particularly around Sirte, could become a new base for operations just 100 miles off the coast of Europe. That is why we are working with our partners and allies to encourage the formation of a Libyan Government of national accord that we can work with to start stabilising the country and pushing back on the Daesh footholds in Libya.

Further to the last question, can the Foreign Secretary say how far ahead we are in bringing about that co-ordination and establishing a stable authority in Libya to take on Daesh? We have seen recently an increase in Daesh activity, and there is still a lot of disconnect between the different bodies in Libya. Will he give us a bit more information about what progress is being made?

There is progress being made among European partners and with the US on preparing the kind of support we could give to a Government of national accord in Libya when and if one is formed. The problem is that several months after we first expected that to happen, the Government have still not been formed. We are working very closely with the parties in Libya and with the regional powers who have influence, particularly Egypt, to encourage Prime Minister Siraj to take the necessary steps to get that Government formed and approved so that we can engage. There is a strong commitment by the European partners to engage once that Government have been created.

Israeli Election

10. What assessment he has made of the effect of the outcome of the March 2015 election in Israel on the peace process in that region. (903704)

Much gets said, as we know, during election cycles, and we were concerned by some of the statements that were made during the Israeli election. I was in Israel last week, and I can confirm that I had meetings with Prime Minister Netanyahu. He has made it very clear that he remains committed to the two-state solution.

It is more than 20 years since Oslo. There are now more than 350,000 illegal Israeli settlers in the occupied west bank and 300,000 illegal Israeli settlers in occupied East Jerusalem, and the Netanyahu Government continue to announce the building of more illegal settlements. Does the Minister believe that that will aid the peace process? If not, what is he doing about it?

The Prime Minister, the Foreign Secretary and I have made it very clear on the record that that is unhelpful and takes us in the wrong direction. During my visit last week, I visited some of the settlements that are developing. Although announcements of new settlements have slowed, the existing settlements are starting to grow, and that happens without people seeing it. There is an area to the north of Jerusalem called the Ariel finger, which, if it continues to grow as it is doing, will eventually link up towards the north of Jericho. That will essentially mean that there will be no two-state solution. We need Israel to show that it is committed to the process and stop the settlements.

13. On the issue of words, something that is regularly rubbished is the issue of incitement. We are seeing increasing incitement from the Palestinian Authority and on media such as Palestinian TV, some of which has been referenced by those committing knife attacks on civilians. Last week I visited a Jewish school in Brussels, where I heard some appalling stories of anti-Semitism being perpetrated in Europe, with people deliberately conflating Jews and Israel. Will the Minister condemn not only the incitement coming out of the Palestinian Authority, but the sort of attacks we are seeing in Europe as a result? (903707)

I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend that it is unacceptable for Israelis going about their business to be subject to some of the brutality and the murder we are seeing. Israel has the right—in fact, I would go further and say it has the obligation—to defend its citizens. We are seeing the anti-Semitism there, or such reactions, then reappearing, often through websites such as Facebook and so forth, in Europe or closer to home. We have been working hard with our international colleagues—the Prime Minister is very committed to this—to make sure that we stamp out anti-Semitism no matter where it is.

A clear majority of Israelis consistently support setting up a Palestinian state alongside Israel. Does the Minister agree that actions such as Hamas’s rebuilding the terror tunnels to mount attacks on Israeli civilians from Gaza make that less and less obtainable?

The hon. Lady is absolutely right. With some of the developments, it seems like déjà vu in the sense that we are going round this buoy again—rebuilding the tunnels, the aggravations, and then the missiles start to fly. Where does that actually take us? It is not a confidence-building measure, in the same way that building settlements is not a confidence-building measure. We need to make sure that we empower the Palestinian Authority to look after and take responsibility for the governance of Gaza. That is the way forward.

Surely there is a big contrast in the growth of extremism. The Israeli authorities deal with Jewish extremism—they investigate, they prosecute and they condemn—whereas the Palestinian Authority names schools after violent extremists, names sporting events after them and glorifies them on television. Will my hon. Friend take this opportunity to condemn absolutely the attitude of the Palestinian Authority and urge it to cease this senseless encouragement of violence?

My right hon. Friend makes a very powerful argument. It is important to see that affirmative actions can be taken on both sides to reduce tensions, but I would raise the specific matter of using words to inflame the situation. For example, the recent remarks by the Health Minister in the Palestinian Authority condoning the attacks that are taking place were unhelpful. That takes us in the wrong direction, so we should do things to encourage those involved to refrain from doing so, and take steps to encourage them to act as a consequence.

Overseas Territories: Registers of Beneficial Ownership

11. By what date he expects to have set a timetable for overseas territories with financial centres to adopt central registers of beneficial ownership or similarly effective systems. (903705)

I had productive discussions at the Joint Ministerial Council with leaders of the overseas territories in December. We agreed progress on implementing central registers, and equally effective systems should be kept under continuous and close review. Discussions are still ongoing, but I want to see significant progress ahead of the anti-corruption summit that will be hosted by the Prime Minister in May.

Will the Minister confirm that the overseas territories and Crown dependencies will attend the summit? Will we do our part to make sure that we secure their commitment to clean up their act and make company owners public?

Final invitations for the summit have not yet gone out, but discussions are very much ongoing. In fact, the director for overseas territories and the National Crime Agency are currently visiting the Cayman Islands and British Virgin Islands to thrash out some of the detail that is needed.

Does the Minister expect the registers to be publicly available, or will they be closed registers that can be accessed only by the relevant authorities?

There will be open registers available for law enforcement agencies to interrogate. There will not be publicly open registers. That is a long-term aspiration, but initially we want there to be access for law enforcement agencies. That will create greater transparency and reduce corruption and terrorist payments.

In April 2014, the Prime Minister said:

“I believe that beneficial ownership and public access to a central register is key to improving the transparency of company ownership and vital to meeting the urgent challenges of illicit finance and tax evasion.”

Nearly two years have passed and there still appears to be no timetable for transparency arrangements in respect of the financial centres. Why is that?

There has been much progress, which the hon. Lady dismisses too readily. There are checkpoints. Only last week, I spoke to overseas territory leaders. There are people out there at the moment and we hope to crystallise some of the improvements before the May summit on corruption. That summit was called by the Prime Minister and will be held here in London, which demonstrates the British Government’s commitment to this important issue.

Will the Minister tell the House the exact date by which he expects overseas territory financial centres to ensure that there are proper transparency arrangements, or will we continue to hear more excuses for inaction in the years to come?

This is a matter of direction, rather than an ultimate destination. We will constantly ask the international community to do more to create greater transparency, but it is crucial that the international community, whether it is the Crown dependencies, the overseas territories or other overseas Governments, move together on this, because we want to eliminate the problem of corrupt and untransparent moneys, rather than shift it from territory to territory.

Topical Questions

I remind colleagues that in topical questions, there are supposed to be quick-fire questions and quick-fire answers.

The Foreign Office’s mission is to protect Britain’s security, promote Britain’s prosperity and project our values through our diplomacy. The Prime Minister’s deal with the European Union offers the basis for Britain’s future prosperity and security in Europe. The crisis in Syria, the resulting irregular migration to Europe, the increased levels of Russian aggression and the continuing terrorist threat from Islamist extremism remain the principal threats to the security of the UK and UK citizens around the world.

I should refer Members to the Register of Members’ Financial Interests and to my position as the chairman of the all-party parliamentary group on Sri Lanka. As we know from Northern Ireland, reconciliation is possible only if both sides want to move forward. Will my right hon. Friend welcome the progress that has been made by the Sri Lankan Government in uniting the whole island by growing the economy and building a strong democracy? Indeed, will he encourage them to continue doing so?

Yes, I most certainly will. I was in Sri Lanka last month, where I met the Prime Minister and the Foreign Minister and travelled to Jaffna in the north. I have subsequently spoken to Prince Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein, the high commissioner in Geneva, who was in Sri Lanka from 6 to 9 February. We look forward to his update on Sri Lanka at the UN Human Rights Council in June.

As events in Ukraine and the middle east have reminded us, nations that are committed to peace, security and democracy need to stand together in the face of aggression. Our membership of the European Union is one of the most important ways in which we do that. The Foreign Secretary knows that ending our alliance with the EU would send a dangerous signal, including to President Putin and Daesh. Why does he think some of his Cabinet colleagues cannot see that and are intent on a course of action that would weaken Britain’s voice and influence in the world and undermine our security?

Each person in this country will have to make up their own mind about the question before them in the forthcoming referendum. I have always said that this is a balancing equation—there are plusses and minuses in any international relationship. However, I entirely agree with the right hon. Gentleman that on the question of Britain’s security and influence in the world, there is no doubt that we are stronger, safer and more influential by being part of the European Union than being out of it.

I am very grateful to the Foreign Secretary for that reply. The report of the UN Human Rights Council’s commission of inquiry on Syria, which was published earlier this month, found that:

“Flagrant violations of human rights and international humanitarian law continue unabated”.

The ceasefire that is due to come into effect this Saturday is desperately needed, but it will relieve suffering only if it is adhered to, as the Foreign Secretary said. What is his assessment of the prospects of ensuring that Russia respects the ceasefire by ending its attacks on the Syrian people? If it does not, what further pressure can be put on President Putin to do so?

As I have said, the Russians will say that they are complying with the ceasefire, and that continued attacks and airstrikes are justified by the terms of that ceasefire. It will be necessary to pore over individual attacks between the US and Russia in the co-ordination cell to identify exactly what happened. Whatever the technicalities, the big picture is this: unless the level of Russian airstrikes dramatically decreases, the ceasefire will not hold because the moderate armed opposition cannot and will not lay down their weapons while they are being annihilated from the air by Russian aircraft.

T2. My hon. Friend the Minister for Africa will be aware that the Tanzanian electoral commission annulled the general election results in Zanzibar at the back end of last year, and there has been increasing electoral violence in Zanzibar as we head towards the poll on 20 March. What representations will we make to the Tanzanian Government to ensure that the poll passes off peacefully, and that we do not return to the violence of 2000 and 2001? (903635)

We are deeply concerned by the decision of the Zanzibar electoral commission to annul the elections for the Zanzibar presidency, and indeed the House of Representatives on 28 October. Our position was set out in a statement by the British high commissioner on 29 October, and we have raised those concerns at the highest level, including when the Foreign Secretary made a telephone call to then President Kikwete in October and my telephone call to the new Foreign Minister Mahiga in December, and the Under-Secretary of State for International Development, my hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip, Northwood and Pinner (Mr Hurd), met the same individual in January. I hope to visit Tanzania in the coming months and reinforce those points in person.

T3. Given the Minister’s response to earlier questions relating to the benefit to the UK of remaining in the EU, is it not a real concern that many of his Government colleagues would put our security and economic future at risk by a Brexit? (903636)

In this referendum, Members of Parliament will each have one vote, along with every member of the United Kingdom electorate. In my experience, there are deeply held views both for and against British membership of the EU in my party and that of the hon. Lady. My view is clear: this country will be more prosperous, secure and influential in the world through continued EU membership.

T4. Given the ongoing Russian incursion into Georgian sovereign territory, does my right hon. Friend absolutely condemn the situation in the southern Caucasus? Does he think that the situation in Abkhazia and South Ossetia must now be regarded as the new normal? (903637)

We should be alert to Russia’s aggressive actions in former Soviet Union countries wherever they are, not just in Ukraine. Arguably, we were too slow to recognise that what was happening in Georgia was the beginning of a new dimension to Russian foreign policy, and we should resist it robustly wherever it arises, and push back against it wherever we can.

T6. Will the Secretary of States confirm whether his discussions with the United States about Libya have included the possibility of UK military action, and that there will be no UK military action in Libya without approval from this House? (903639)

As the hon. Gentleman knows well, we have a long-established convention that before committing UK forces to combat, in all situations where it is possible—that is, other than in a direct emergency or where considerations of secrecy make it impossible—the Prime Minister is committed to bringing the issue before the House and allowing it an opportunity for debate.

T5. What assessment has the Department made of the security situation in Burundi, and what steps have been taken to bolster the presence of Her Majesty’s Government in Bujumbura? (903638)

In response to the crisis, the UK has stepped up humanitarian support to refugees fleeing Burundi, providing £14 million to Tanzania and £4 million to Burundi. The Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood), and I have also decided to recruit a full-time Burundian co-ordinator, based in Bujumbura. That will be good news as I know that hon. Members—including my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford (Jeremy Lefroy)—have been pressing Her Majesty’s Government to do that, and it will be welcome news on both sides of the House.

T7. On 12 January, the Secretary of State told this House that China’s claim to be treated as a market economy should be judged through the prism of steel. Given that 70% of the Chinese steel industry is owned by the Chinese Government, will the Secretary of State now confirm that China should emphatically not be granted market economy status? (903640)

I think what the hon. Gentleman will find if he checks the record is that I had just come back from China where I had conveyed the message to the Chinese that their claim to market economy status, and the European Union’s consideration of that claim, would be judged through the prism of their actions in relation to steel. They gave me assurances then, as they gave us assurances in October, that they are seeking to address overcapacity in the Chinese market. We have just had a discussion this morning about this in Cabinet. I learned this morning that there are protests in China about the loss of steel jobs, just as there are in the UK and in other places throughout Europe. The reality is that we have a massive surplus of steel capacity throughout the world and we have to address it.

T9. Following the recent action against Daesh in Libya, will my hon. Friend update the House on the situation there, as well as his plans to create a permanent memorial to the victims of Sousse, whose murders were planned from Libya? (903642)

As my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary has outlined, there is a migration and a concern that Daesh is moving out, under pressure in Iraq and Syria, to other parts of the world, including Libya. My hon. Friend is right to make the connection between what happened in Libya, the training and the terrorist attack that took place in Sousse killing so many Britons. I am pleased to say that we will hold a memorial service on 12 April to mark this event.

T8. A recent UN report suggested that, in a disturbing violation of human rights, Saudi Arabia’s military operation in Yemen is targeting civilians. Is the Minister confident that the UK Government are fulfilling their obligations under the arms trade treaty in relation to Saudi Arabia? (903641)

We have discussed, and are looking in detail at, the UN panel of experts report. It was done by satellite evidence—we have to bear it in mind that the experts did not actually visit the country itself. We have shared and discussed information with Saudi Arabia. I had a letter from the ambassador this week confirming that every effort is being made to follow human rights law in support of President Hadi and UN resolution 2216.

Our immigration controls in Calais are governed by the treaty of Le Touquet, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Europe well knows. He will also know, and the House of Commons Library has said, that the treaty can be broken only if the British or the French choose to do so, and it has absolutely nothing to do with whether we are members of the European Union. Will he ask whichever person who said it to stop talking this nonsense that if we leave the EU we are suddenly going to find a massive great refugee camp in the heart of Kent?

The Le Touquet treaty is certainly vital to this country’s border security. Of the 100,000 people who have been prevented from entering the UK in the past five years, roughly a quarter were stopped at Calais at the juxtaposed controls. We co-operate very closely with the French Government, but I fear my hon. Friend underestimates the extent of domestic French opposition to and protest against the juxtaposed controls. If we left the EU, the stock of good will towards Le Touquet and this country would be severely depleted.

T10. On the Foreign Office website, there is very clear advice to private companies thinking of doing business with illegal Israeli settlements. It states:“Financial transactions, investments, purchases, procurements as well as other economic activities…in Israeli settlements or benefiting Israeli settlements, entail legal and economic risks”and “we do not encourage or offer support to such activity.”Do the Government give exactly the same advice to public bodies, including local councils, with regard to their procurement decisions? (903643)

Yes, we are clear with local authorities that they are bound by and must follow procurement rules, but we are clear that we do not support boycott movements. The Minister for the Cabinet Office was in Israel just last week and made that abundantly clear then.

With the United States wishing to continue its military presence on Diego Garcia for a further 20 years, what discussions is the Foreign and Commonwealth Office planning to have with Washington about helping to facilitate the right of return of the Chagos islanders to the British Indian Ocean Territory?

We have made it clear that we want the US presence to continue, but the Government have not yet held discussions with the US about continuing that arrangement. I very much welcomed discussing the issues with my hon. Friend a few weeks ago in connection with the all-party group visit to the Foreign Office. I will continue to liaise with him when the Government come to a conclusion, following the KPMG report and the consultation.

Following yesterday’s drop in the value of sterling, what other implications does the Foreign and Commonwealth Office anticipate for Britain and Northern Ireland as a result of the uncertainty around the referendum?

Uncertainty always has a cost to business. Business hates uncertainty, and the markets will reflect it. That is why it is right to hold the referendum at the earliest possible date—23 June—and settle this issue once and for all so that Britain can get on with Britain’s business.

When I canvass the streets of Newark for the local elections, people ask me about the views of my local councillors on refuse collection or on potholes on Newark’s roads. I rarely hear them ask me their views on foreign policy. Does my right hon. Friend agree that foreign policy is set by the Foreign Secretary and by the Government and should be debated in this House—not by our town halls—so we should all support the Government’s action against boycotts and sanctions?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. One of my colleagues has just reminded me that my hon. Friend is not the only one who pounded the pavements of Newark. I think everyone on these Benches did so. Yes, foreign policy is, of course, a matter for the Government of the United Kingdom, and it is the business of this Parliament. It is very important that we have a single foreign policy, which is clearly projected so that Britain’s position in the world is understood and strengthened.

Demand always massively exceeds supply at Question Time, especially at Foreign Office questions. We do not really have time, but I am allowing time for one last question. I call Mr Richard Burden.

May I press the Foreign Secretary further on the answer he gave to my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield South East (Mr Betts)? Is there anything in World Trade Organisation or other rules that fetters a public institution’s ability to act on the advice that the FCO puts on its website, which my hon. Friend quoted?

Public bodies in this country are bound by the EU procurement directive in their purchasing activity and must follow those rules.

I am sorry to disappoint colleagues, but at least we know that there is huge interest in what the Foreign Office does and says. We will have to leave it there for today.