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Topical Questions

Volume 606: debated on Tuesday 23 February 2016

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.