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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 611: debated on Tuesday 24 May 2016

Foreign and Commonwealth Office

The Secretary of State was asked—

EU Sanctions: Russia

1. What assessment he has made of the likelihood of EU sanctions against Russia being renewed as a result of that country’s recent actions in Crimea and the Donbas. (905037)

15. What assessment he has made of the likelihood of EU sanctions against Russia being renewed as a result of that country’s recent actions in Crimea and the Donbas. (905053)

Russia is failing to fulfil its commitments under the Minsk agreements. Ceasefire violations in the Donbas continue, and these must end. Russia must stop supporting and directing the separatists. Last year, the European Council decided sanctions should be clearly linked to the full implementation of the Minsk agreements. We strongly support the continued application of this robust approach, and we expect that the European Union will extend tier 3 sanctions for a further six months this summer. There are separate sanctions in place relating specifically to Crimea, and our strong view is that they must remain in place while Russia’s illegal annexation continues.

More than 9,000 people have died as a result of hostilities in Ukraine. Given the recent tensions, including over the supply of electricity to Crimea, will the Foreign Secretary tell the House what more can be done to reach peace in the region?

I regret that I have to say to my hon. Friend that it is a long haul of maintaining pressure on Russia—through isolation from the international community and through maintaining the EU sanctions that are in place. At the moment, we have no other tools that are likely to prove effective.

I very much understand the need for sanctions because of Russia’s aggression towards the Ukraine, but one problem is that milk and other dairy products are very much involved in those sanctions, and that is having a dramatic effect in terms of the downward price of dairy products. Is there any way that the food and dairy side of these sanctions can be taken away?

The sanctions my hon. Friend refers to are in fact Russian counter-sanctions that have been imposed against EU producers. I am pleased to be able to tell the House that, despite the sanctions measures Russia has taken in retaliation against EU agricultural producers, agricultural exports from the European Union in 2015 were up by 6%, showing that our producers—Europe-wide producers—are able to address the challenge of Russian sanctions and to find alternative markets elsewhere.

On the Ukraine, does the Secretary of State accept that Russian bombing of Syrian civilians to provoke refugees and possibly to tilt the balance in favour of Brexit is part of a strategy to fragment European resolve on Ukraine? He is frowning—obviously he has not thought about that.

There is definitely a Russian strategy to try to fragment European resolve. It is probably a step too far to suggest that Russia’s engagement in Syria is designed only to apply pressure over Ukraine. Russia has important and historical equities in Syria and is seeking to defend its interests there. But, overall, Russia’s behaviour in Syria and Ukraine gives us deep cause for concern about the established security settlement that we have been used to living with for the last 25 years.

Did the Secretary of State read the Max Hastings article in The Sunday Times this Sunday, in which he expresses deep concern about the threat from Russia and about the way Russia is now preparing to use cyber-methods against Europe and our allies? Will he take action to make sure that this country of ours is prepared to match up to those threats, and will he seek succour from the European Union in doing that?

I did not read the article in The Sunday Times that the hon. Gentleman refers to, but I am very familiar with that author’s views on this subject and very familiar with the problem. We are taking action to strengthen our cyber-defence and, as I announced three years ago when I was Defence Secretary, to create an avowed UK offensive cyber-capability. We are still the only nation that has publicly declared the fact that we are developing an offensive cyber-capability for retaliatory purposes if we are attacked.

The Foreign Affairs Committee was in Russia last week and would certainly agree with the assessment that our relations with Russia are in the deep freeze, as reflected by my right hon. Friend’s rhetoric. Russia appears to be strategically stuck in its position in the global naughty corner of international relations. Do we not need to be thinking about ways in which we might get Russia out of this position, even if it is only a substantial investment in people-to-people links, Chevening scholarships, cultural relations and everything else?

I am pleased to be able to tell my hon. Friend that although our relationships with Russia are in a very difficult phase at the moment and we have suspended most business-as-usual relations, we have maintained our cultural links with Russia and cultural exchanges do continue, including at ministerial level. Russia has its own agenda, and from the point of view of the Kremlin it is not so obvious to me that it will regard its current strategy as failing and in need of revision. Russia is ensuring that the countries that it regards as its near abroad are unable to make free choices about their futures, and I judge that to be the No. 1 priority for the Kremlin.

Does the Foreign Secretary believe that there is any scope for expanding the EU sanctions to include the Russians involved in the murder of Magnitsky and also the Russians involved in the expropriation of $100 billion dollars-worth of shareholders’ money in relation to Yukos?

The right hon. Gentleman will know that the Yukos issue is a matter that is currently before the courts, and there has been a recent decision in this case. We have looked at the options for expanding sanctions to cover other areas, but we found that the individuals who could be targeted are already either, in effect, covered by other measures or would not be affected by the kind of sanctions that we could impose. So, as a Government, we do not see any prospect of expanded sanctions.

Returning to the original question by my hon. Friend the Member for Eastleigh (Mims Davies), does my right hon. Friend agree that there can be no question of EU sanctions or Council of Europe sanctions being lifted until Nadiya Savchenko is unconditionally released, until intervention in Donbas has ceased, and until the future of Crimea is properly and freely determined?

That is our position. Of course, we need to maintain a consensus within the European Union on renewal of sanctions, and that is work that we are continuously engaged in. I am confident that sanctions will be rolled over this summer, but we have to make the case again every six months for continuing those sanctions.


2. What recent discussions he has had with his Bangladeshi counterpart on the protection of human rights in that country. (905038)

7. What representations he has made to the Government of Bangladesh on violence towards lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people in that country. (905044)

I would like to start by expressing my condolences to the families of those who lost loved ones and homes to Cyclone Roanu over the weekend. I welcome the strong leadership shown by the Government of Bangladesh.

I raised my concerns about human rights and violence against LGBT people again this morning with the Bangladeshi high commissioner. The Minister of State, Department for International Development, my right hon. Friend the Member for New Forest West (Mr Swayne), raised this with the Prime Minister of Bangladesh during his visit there in August 2015.

With extra-judicial killings, disappearances of political opponents and fraudulent elections, Bangladesh is quickly becoming a failed state. Does the Minister not think that it is time to start applying some form of sanctions to try to get Sheikh Hasina to hold a proper general election as soon as possible?

Like all those in this House, I was absolutely appalled by the senseless murders of the LGBT activists Xulhaz Mannan and Mahbub Tonoy, and we call on the Bangladeshi Government to bring those responsible for the killings to justice. The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. Extremist-related murders of members of minority religious groups and those whose views and lifestyles are contrary to Islam have increased in Bangladesh since February 2015, and we are discussing this regularly with the Government of that country.

The Minister has said that he has talked to the Bangladeshi Government, but does he really think that that Government are taking sufficient steps to tackle the issue of violence against LGBT people?

Clearly I do not. We have a certain amount of leverage in Bangladesh—we are the largest grant aid donor, giving £162 million in 2015-16—so our voice has some influence there. In the past year our human rights and democracy programme has provided safety training for bloggers, and we have also funded a project promoting the rights of LGBT groups in Bangladesh, but there is a huge amount more to do. We are not shy of pushing the Government of Bangladesh in the right direction, but sometimes it takes a little bit of time and persuasion.[Official Report, 26 May 2016, Vol. 611, c. 1MC.]

The human rights of secularists in Bangladesh are threatened. Last month, Nazimuddin Samad, a law student in Dhaka, was killed for blogging, “I have no religion.” Will my right hon. Friend raise this with his Bangladeshi counterparts and ensure that secularists’ rights are also protected in Bangladesh?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. There was not only the Daesh-claimed killing on 9 April in Dhaka of Nazimuddin Samad, but the murder on 23 April of Rezaul Karim Siddique in Rajshahi, in the east of the country. This is becoming an all too familiar occurrence in Bangladesh. There is a disagreement: Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina blames the opposition parties for trying to destabilise the country and the victims for insulting Islam; we think the problem goes beyond that.

Do not the Government of Bangladesh’s inability to protect human rights and the absence of effective opposition to that Government require the UK Government, which continues to provide substantial aid to Bangladesh, to have a timetable for intervention to ensure that democracy and human rights continue in that country and do not fall under a single-party state?

I do not think my hon. Friend is suggesting that we should tie our aid, which helps some of the worst-off people in the world, with political progress, but I take on board his point. There is much more we can do in Bangladesh and we are trying, not least through the role of the new Commonwealth Secretary-General. Bangladesh is of course a member of the Commonwealth and we want the Commonwealth to take more action in that country, which at the moment is not heading in the right direction.

Around 70 to 80 women and children are trafficked from Bangladesh abroad each day. Law enforcement is failing to prevent forced prostitution. What discussions is the Foreign Secretary having to press that legal systems prevail for women and girls in Bangladesh?

The hon. Lady is absolutely right, although of course it is not just Bangladesh that is affected. We have done a lot on human trafficking through legislation; we have also done a lot on the supply chain, where I know there are concerns. We continue to raise the matter, not just in Bangladesh but in countries around the world. It is something we want to erase. It is unfortunately all too common and we take it seriously.

I am delighted to hear that the Minister is so concerned about the recent killings of liberal activists in Bangladesh. He mentioned the brutal murder on 25 April of Xulhaz Mannan, editor of the country’s first and only LGBT magazine, and the appalling fatal machete attack on blogger Nazimuddin Samad on 6 April. Surely the Government of Bangladesh have been far too slow to act. What additional pressure are he and the Government prepared to put on the Government of Bangladesh to ensure that these murders are dealt with properly?

The Government of Bangladesh would argue, as the high commissioner did to me this morning, that one of the victims of these crimes was a cousin of a former Foreign Minister of Bangladesh, so this is something they are taking extremely seriously. I do believe that Bangladesh has a problem, and we will continue to talk to our Bangladeshi counterparts on a range of issues, some of which are of very great concern.

Yazidi Population: Syria and Iraq

Britain and other countries have been appalled by Daesh’s actions against Yazidis and other minorities in northern Iraq. It has prompted us to join other countries in taking action through the formation of the international coalition against Daesh, which now includes more than 60 countries.

As the Minister will know, many Yazidi women and girls who suffered sexual slavery at the hands of Daesh experienced severe trauma, but they struggle to access the support they need. What steps have the UK Government taken under their preventing sexual violence in conflict initiative to promote access to mental health care for all those victims?

The hon. Lady is right to point to the importance of the support that we need to provide not just to the Yazidis, but to other minorities that have been affected by Daesh. We are the largest donor to Iraq’s humanitarian pooled fund and there are a number of programmes, including those of the Department for International Development and the human rights and democracy fund, to provide exactly the sort of assistance that is required immediately.

As the Minister and the questioner have made clear, the key threat to the Yazidi population and other religious minorities is the control of territory by Daesh. Does my hon. Friend therefore welcome the news this morning that a major assault has been launched to retake Falluja, and does he agree that the liberation of towns and cities is the way that such threats will finally be put to an end?

My hon. Friend is right. Little by little, we are able to remove from Daesh the territory that it has held. Falluja was one of the first cities to fall to Daesh. Along with Mosul, these will be important changes that show that Daesh is finally being removed from the territory. But as the hon. Member for South Shields (Mrs Lewell-Buck) pointed out, once we have defeated Daesh militarily, there is a huge amount of work to do on stabilisation and humanitarian support for the people who have suffered so much as a result of the atrocities.

The Yazidi people of Iraq were given two choices by Daesh in 2014—convert or die. Will the UK Government accept that what happened in Sinjar was genocide, and urge the Iraqi Government to work with the International Criminal Court to bring murderers and rapists to justice?

The hon. Lady raises an important point. Britain stepped forward, along with other countries, to make sure that we were able to provide airdrops and safe passage on Mount Sinjar, which were critical to support for the Yazidis. Her question has been debated at length in this Chamber and I very much support her views, together with John Kerry and the European Parliament, and this Parliament voted on the matter. However, it is not for us to make those judgments; it is for the International Criminal Court. We are helping to collect the evidence to make sure that when the time is appropriate, we can bring those people to justice.

Does the Minister agree that the money that this country spends supporting refugees in Iraq and Syria can support a far greater number of people far better than attempting to relocate refugees to the UK, and that it is right that the focus of our efforts is to support people in the region?

My hon. Friend raises an important point. The Yazidis as a group are endogamous and have not grown as much as other groupings in Iraq. They want to stay together and they want to stay in the area. For every one person that we are able to support in the UK, we can support more than 20 people in location—clearly, on a different standard, but it means that our money can go a lot further and we can pride ourselves on being one of the largest supporters in Syria and Iraq.

The Minister has just repeated the arguments he made to the House on 20 April against referring the genocide of the Yazidi people to the UN Security Council, which this House unanimously rejected. The Minister’s arguments have been challenged in the other place, where the noble Lord Pannick QC pointed out that article VIII of the convention on the prevention of genocide explicitly gives the UK Government the power to make such a referral. May I press the Minister to respect the will of this House and refer the matter to the UN Security Council without further delay?

I very much join in the spirit of the hon. Lady’s remarks, but we have to work within the mechanics of such a referral. We took the initiative to bring the situation to the awareness of the International Criminal Court in 2014. Our efforts were vetoed by two permanent members of the Security Council. That will happen again unless we are able to provide the necessary evidence, which is exactly what we are doing. We will hold those people to account, but there is an order and a process that we must honour. I entirely agree with the spirit of what the hon. Lady wants to do.

Middle East: Press Freedom

4. What recent representations he has made to his counterparts in the middle east on press freedom in that region. (905040)

We encourage all countries to respect freedom of the media. On concerns about freedom of expression in the middle east, we clearly set out these concerns in our annual human rights report, which was most recently published in April.

It is now four years since the Saudi writer Raif Badawi was arrested. Earlier this month his wife was sentenced to 1,000 lashes for promoting her husband’s cause around the world. Given that it was British engineers who have extracted Saudi oil and built their roads, and given our massive co-operation on matters of defence and foreign policy, are not people around the world and in this country right to have expected a bit more progress than the Government have obtained so far?

The hon. Gentleman and I have debated these matters, both publicly and privately, for a long time. We have a right, duty and determination to raise those matters both in public and in private, and we make no distinction between the two. My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary has done that on a number of occasions, as have I. It is for the court in Saudi Arabia to follow its processes, as I have explained to the hon. Gentleman in the past. We must encourage advancement in society in Saudi Arabia, but that will not happen overnight.

While encouraging press freedom, what more can the Foreign Office do to tackle Daesh’s misuse of the internet, to ensure that free speech is not twisted and abused?

My hon. Friend makes a powerful point, which we have raised in this House on a number of occasions. The tool used by Daesh to exploit others and to reach every home in every corner of the globe—it will also be used by future extremists—is the internet. We need to make sure that we are able to counter those messages. Daesh is sending a false message of hope, promising a fast track to paradise. We have formed the strategic communications cell in the Foreign Office, which is bringing together expertise from around the country and, indeed, the world to make sure that we can counter the Daesh messages, whether they be on Twitter, Facebook or other websites.

What representations has the Minister made to President Erdogan’s Government in Turkey about their action against press freedom and their suspension of parliamentary immunities, which may open opposition MPs to accusations of offences such as insulting the President? Will the Minister confirm that there are no plans to introduce an offence of insulting the Prime Minister and that a country engaged in such anti-democratic activities would not be eligible for European Union membership?

I concur with the right hon. Gentleman’s view that a free and fair media environment makes for a healthier society. We encourage constructive debate, which is a vital component of a fair and functioning society, no matter where it happens. My right hon. Friend the Minister for Europe has raised the right hon. Gentleman’s specific point with the Turkish Government.

On the importance of setting an example, can the Minister conceive of circumstances where, on finding that a Scottish newspaper was to publish some inconvenient information about Libya, a Minister in the last coalition Government would have tried to suppress that edition?

I think that the right hon. Gentleman is wandering down a particular rabbit hole. We never intervene in the media in that manner, unless it is a matter of state security.

Press freedoms are being withdrawn in Turkey. Will the Minister outline the Government’s current position on Turkey’s accession to the EU?

Turkey is covered by my right hon. Friend the Minister for Europe. If I may, I will ask him to write to my hon. Friend.

Very prudent, especially as the question related to press freedom. It was rather naughty of the hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton (Kevin Hollinrake) to seek to divert the Minister from the path of virtue, but he was not so tempted.

Does the Minister agree that press freedom in Turkey has been in decline for many years? Despite the fact that he is not directly responsible for the issue, he must know that President Erdogan has been cracking down on his opponents when they make even the mildest of criticisms of him in the press, and now that the immunity of MPs is being lifted in Turkey, human rights will decline even further.

We do not want to see journalists being intimidated, the internet being blocked or people’s ability to speak freely being interfered with, wherever they are in the world. We will continue to make that case from this place and in our direct communications with those Governments.

Does my hon. Friend share my view that the notable journalist and writer T. E. Lawrence—better known as Lawrence of Arabia—was an exponent of freedom in the middle east? Now that the Government have prevented the export of his robes and dagger, where will the public be able to see them as an inspiration for greater understanding of the middle east and to encourage greater freedom in that part of the world?

I congratulate my right hon. Friend on weaving in an important aspect of our history and making it relevant to this question. He is absolutely right about the importance of saving not only the robe but the dagger for the nation. They will not be leaving the country. The dagger was given to Lawrence of Arabia by Sherif Nasir after Lawrence’s fantastic attack on Aqaba. On his way there—this was glossed over by the media at the time—he accidentally shot his camel, but he continued on another camel and was able to take Aqaba. He later moved to work in the Foreign Office, and I would like the garment—the gown or the robe—and indeed the dagger to be on display in the Foreign Office. I am not sure that we will be successful in that, but I am glad to say that the dagger will stay in the United Kingdom.

We are very glad that the Minister is spending his time in the Foreign Office so profitably and is becoming so learned.

European Migration: Western Balkans

5. What assessment he has made of the effectiveness of recent steps to reduce migration to Europe through the western Balkans. (905042)

Since agreement was reached between the EU and Turkey on additional measures to control migration to Europe, we have seen a very significant reduction in the number of migrants arriving in Greece and transiting through the western Balkans.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the root cause of the migration pushing people through the Balkans has been the civil war in Syria? Does he agree that this country must certainly never be part of the Schengen area, which could allow people to be pushed to the UK?

I strongly agree with my hon. Friend’s point. Of course we must not be part of the Schengen area. We will not be part of the Schengen area, and thanks to the special arrangements we have negotiated with the European Union, we are able to enjoy the benefits of membership without being forced to take part in the passport-free area.

I would say to my hon. Friend that although the Syrian civil war was clearly the immediate cause of the flow of refugees that Europe faced, primarily last year, statistics show that about 50% of those arriving in Greece are actually not from Syria or the surrounding area but come from further afield. What started as an exodus from the Syrian civil war and the Daesh occupation has become a wider movement of people.

The measures introduced by our European partners—working with other countries, particularly in the former Yugoslavia —such as the civil protection mechanism are starting to have an impact in the region. What further work can be done to share information through Europol to make sure that we really tackle the scourge of smuggling across eastern and central Europe?

The hon. Gentleman is right: sharing information between European security agencies, intelligence agencies and border police is key to breaking the business model of the smugglers. That is one of the key elements to solving this problem. Such people are being exploited by the organised criminal gangs that are taking their money, often for very little in return, and we need to nail them.

On migration to Europe, there has been a great deal of discussion recently about potential new EU member states. Article 49 of the treaty, which deals with countries applying to join the EU, says:

“The applicant State shall address its application to the Council, which shall act unanimously”.

It is therefore clear that each existing member state has a veto. However, this weekend a serving member of the Government went on national television and denied this. One of the seven principles of public life is:

“Holders of public office should be truthful.”

Will the Foreign Secretary therefore take this opportunity to confirm the correct position, as the Prime Minister has already done on Sunday?

Yes, I am very happy to do so. As we have said ad nauseam, everyone single member state has a veto on the accession of any new member state. In our case, any proposal to expand the European Union would require the approval of this House. I can assure the House that those safeguards remain in place and are undiluted, and all my colleagues in the Government should be fully aware of that situation.

Palestinian Territories: Radicalisation

I condemn all violence and all efforts to incite or radicalise people to commit violence in the middle east. During my most recent visit to the Occupied Palestinian Territories in February, I raised this issue with the Palestinian Authority and urged them to do more to tackle this issue and make clear their opposition to violence.

Last week, the Fatah party in Palestine described the terrorist who killed 26 people and wounded more than 80 in a shooting attack at a Israel’s main airport in 1972 as a “hero” and said it was

“proud of every fighter who has joined our mighty revolution”

against Israel. Does the Minister agree that the success of the two-state solution that we all want rests upon the Palestinian Authority starting to teach its young people about peaceful coexistence?

My hon. Friend makes an important point about peaceful coexistence. It is important that President Abbas condemn statements such as that when they are made. I have noticed a disjunct between the elderly leadership and the youth, who feel disfranchised and so are taking matters into their own hands. I looked into the particular claim that my hon. Friend has raised; I understand that it was placed on Facebook and so was not attributed to a particular Minister, as has been the case in the past. Nevertheless, it should be condemned and removed, as my hon. Friend indicated.

Does the Minister agree that people’s expectation that they will be able to carry on living in their own homes would not normally be regarded as a sign of radicalisation? He will know that in the past week he has received a number of parliamentary questions from me and others about the fact that more than 90 Palestinian Bedouins, mostly children, have lost their homes in the village of Jabal al-Baba. He has said in his written answers that the Foreign Office condemns that but also that it has not raised that specific case with the Israeli authorities. Is it not time to do so, not least because the demolished structures are EU funded?

I fully concur with the spirit of what the hon. Gentleman has said. I have visited one of the Bedouin camps. I should make it clear that that situation is different from the situation for those based in the occupied Palestinian territories; some are being removed in green line Israel, as well. These people are reliant on farming and so need space, so there is the internal issue of making sure that they are given the same amount of space if there is a requirement for them to be moved.

Sombath Somphone

I raised Sombath’s disappearance with Laos’s then Foreign Minister, now Prime Minister, Dr Thongloun Sisoulith, when we opened the new Lao embassy in London in November 2014. Sombath’s disappearance was raised at the annual EU-Laos human rights dialogue in October. We will continue to highlight our interest in this particular case.

I thank my right hon. Friend for his reply. In addition to the disappearance of Sombath, the whereabouts of three students arrested in 1999 and another nine arrested in 2009 are still unknown. Can my right hon. Friend update the House on what the UK is doing more generally about discussions with Laos on human rights?

Indeed I can. We have an annual EU-Laos human rights dialogue; the last one was held in October 2015, and the next is scheduled for the final quarter of 2016. The Laos Government agreed to establish a thorough, transparent and impartial investigation into Sombath’s disappearance following a British recommendation in Laos’s universal periodic review of human rights last year. We will not cease in pursuing this particular case and the others to which my hon. Friend alludes.


The past couple of years have been long and difficult for Yemen, so I very much welcome the cessation of hostilities that began on 10 April and the UN-led talks that began in Kuwait on 21 April.

Yesterday, a suicide bomb in Aden killed 45 people who were trying to join the Yemeni army. What steps can we take to stop that beautiful city in Yemen, where I and other Members of this House were born, being destroyed by the civil war going on between the various forces?

First, I pay tribute to the right hon. Gentleman for raising these matters regularly. He has huge expertise on Yemen, and I am pleased that he is able to hold the Government to account on what we are doing in this important area of the middle east. He is right that events are taking place because hardliners want to throw the talks and the cessation of hostilities off track. We encourage both sides to stay firm in their commitment to a political solution, not least because of the humanitarian catastrophe taking place.

A series of serious allegations were made yesterday by Amnesty International about the alleged use of UK-manufactured cluster munitions against civilians in Yemen by the Saudi-led coalition. Did the Minister, or any UK personnel operating in Saudi Arabia or Yemen, have any knowledge that those cluster munitions were being used? If so, what action has been taken?

That is probably more a question for the Ministry of Defence, but from my understanding—my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary has just confirmed this—we are not at all aware of this. Let me make it clear that the munitions that the hon. Gentleman has mentioned are almost three decades old. They are probably past their sell-by date, and it would be dangerous for anybody to go anywhere near them.

Iran: Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action

The International Atomic Energy Agency’s most recent report on Iran’s nuclear activities concluded that Iran is complying with its obligations under the JCPOA. We have been working to help British businesses take advantage of new commercial opportunities, and to ensure that Iran benefits from sanctions relief, including seeking to address barriers within the international banking system to both objectives.

Since the signing of the nuclear deal, a religious minority still suffers from systematic persecution. Baha’is and Christians are routinely harassed, arrested and detained, and have received sentences totalling 193 years for simply manifesting their faith. What will the Government do to ensure that the new dawn in relations shines a light on Iran’s human rights abuse of religious freedom?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Iran’s human rights record remains shocking, as does its record of interfering in the affairs of its neighbours in the Gulf. The JCPOA, to which he referred, is a narrowly targeted agreement designed to shut down Iran’s capability to produce a nuclear weapon, and it has been effective in delivering that outcome. We will continue to make representations—I spoke with the Iranian Foreign Minister in Vienna only last week on some specific human rights cases that affect dual nationality British citizens, and we will continue to make such representations.

The Foreign Secretary referred to Iran’s interference in the affairs of neighbouring countries, and he mentioned the Gulf. Will he say something about our Government’s attitude to Iran’s interference in other countries in the region, particularly its role in Iraq and in helping Assad in Syria?

The hon. Gentleman is right. Iran is a significant player in the politics of Iraq, although generally not in a way that is helpful, and it is a significant backer of the Assad regime in Syria, with Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps ground forces taking part in action in defence of the regime. Iran is also a member of the International Syria Support Group, and as such it is incumbent on it, as well as on Russia, to apply pressure on Assad to deliver on the commitments made in the Vienna forum..

Middle East

11. What assessment he has made of the effect of the recent activities of Hamas in Gaza on the middle east peace process. (905049)

The recent activities of Hamas in Gaza, including attempts to rearm and rebuild tunnel infrastructure, undermine efforts to improve the situation in Gaza and harm prospects for the middle east peace process. Hamas and other militant groups in Gaza must permanently end rocket fire and other attacks against Israel.

In April, two new terror tunnels built by Hamas to launch attacks on Israeli civilians were discovered. Does the Minister believe that Hamas is planning new attacks on Israel?

As I said earlier, I believe that is a worrying development, and we seek to place pressure on Hamas, and all those close to it, to recognise that it will take us back to where we were two years ago, unless there is a direction of travel.

Does the Minister place any significance on the founding charter of Hamas, which is clearly, or to a large extent, a stream of the most visceral anti-Semitism, and even includes approving references to the “Protocols of the Elders of Zion”?

I have many conversations about that situation and the challenges we face in the middle east, not least in Gaza and the west bank. A number of commentators have said, “You need to speak to Hamas; you need to get them to the table”, but until Hamas changes its constitution, in which it clearly does not recognise the state of Israel, it will be impossible for us to move forward.

Departmental Estate: Rodent Eradication

12. What steps he is taking to eradicate rodents and other vermin in his Department’s Whitehall estate. (905050)

The FCO facilities management contract covers pest control activities. However, the continued presence of mice in the FCO main building has given my officials “paws” for thought. After careful consideration, we appointed Palmerston the cat last month as chief mouser to the FCO to complement the work of our contractor. I am pleased to report to the House that he has settled in “purr-fectly” and is performing his duties more than satisfactorily.

I congratulate the Foreign Secretary on following my excellent example in Speaker’s House, where for five years we have had a first-class cat who has done the necessary. Its name, of course, is Order. [Laughter.]

I am sure the whole House will welcome the Prime Minister’s statement, and also the arrival of Palmerston, the FCO’s rodent killer, but there is a serious point here. May I ask my right hon. Friend whether Palmerston has been security cleared or not? He may recall that the Chancellor’s cat, Freya, had access to the Foreign Office and No. 10 Downing Street, and it was thought that she might have been “got at” by a foreign power. May I ask him: has Palmerston been positively vetted by the security service and scanned for bugs by GCHQ? Can my right hon. Friend assure the House, and the more paranoid element of the Brexiters, of Palmerston’s British provenance and that he is not a long-term mole working for the EU Commission?

He is definitely not a mole and I can “cat-egorically” assure my right hon. Friend that Palmerston has been regularly vetted. As for being a sleeper, he is definitely a sleeper—I am told very often in my office. But unlike Freya, who went missing for two years, his attendance record has been 100%. My experts tell me that that pretty much rules out the possibility of him being a Commission employee. I should also tell the House that while Palmerston has so far caught only three mice, his Twitter account, “Diplomog” has attracted 8,158 followers, with a rate of growth that implies he will overtake me by the summer recess.

Egypt: Human Rights

Ministers and senior officials regularly raise human rights concerns with our Egyptian counterparts. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister discussed these issues with President Sisi during his visit to the UK in November. I regularly raise our concerns with the Egyptian ambassador, most recently on 17 May.

I am grateful to the Minister for that answer. Ibrahim Halawa, an Irish national who has been in custody now for 1,000 days, faces a possible death penalty for being caught up in a pro-democracy demonstration. He is just one person in a concerted crackdown by Egyptian authorities against those who defend human rights. Will the Minister make every effort, when speaking to the Egyptian Government, to impress on them the view that we hold, which is that this is unacceptable?

If I may, Mr Speaker, I would like to pay my condolences on the loss of aircraft EgyptAir MS804, yet another disaster for Egypt. The whole House will want to share their thoughts and prayers.

Tourism is very important for Egypt. The right hon. Gentleman touches on freedom of expression, and people will be watching Egypt carefully. I raised the matter of Ahmed Abdullah when I met the ambassador on 17 May. I will continue to press for greater freedom of expression in Egypt.

I share the condolences expressed by the Minister.

Human rights in Egypt are deteriorating rapidly. Giulio Regeni, a Cambridge University student, was tortured and killed in Egypt while conducting academic research. This happened during the British-Egyptian year of academic co-operation. Does the Minister accept that killing an academic marks a fundamental attack on academic freedom? Will the Minister explain why the murder of a British-based academic was not raised by the Prime Minister’s special envoy on a visit to specifically discuss academic co-operation?

We debated these matters in detail in a very productive Westminster Hall debate. The hon. Lady will be aware, as will the House, that Giulio Regeni was an Italian citizen and that therefore it is appropriate and right that the Italians take the lead. We have worked closely with, and provided support to, the Italians as they have pursued the matter, however, and have raised it with Egyptian officials as well.

Topical Questions

My priorities for 2016 are the campaign against Daesh in Iraq and Syria, managing our relations with Russia and seeking to protect the rules-based international system, as well as, of course, ensuring Britain’s continued membership of, and leadership in, the EU.

Last year, after the Prime Minister’s historic visit to Jaffna, the UN Human Rights Council passed a consensual resolution on accountability and reconciliation, following the atrocities at the end of the Sir Lankan civil war. When the resolution comes back before the UN in June, will our Government do whatever they can to ensure that Sri Lanka lives up to its promises? Progress to date has been slow to non-existent.

I start by offering my heartfelt condolences to the people of Sri Lanka affected by the terrible floods and landslides that have hit so much of the country. I expressed that message personally to Foreign Minister Samaraweera last week.

The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights will give his assessment of progress at the next meeting of the UNHRC in Geneva in June. Before then, I myself will visit Geneva to discuss with him how we can encourage and support the Government to deliver fully against their commitments. We recognise that there is still much more to be done, and the UK will continue to support and encourage the Sri Lankan Government to deliver fully against their commitments.

Amnesty International reported this week that unexploded British-made BL-755 cluster submunitions have been found in Hayran, Yemen. We know what these weapons can do, especially to children, who mistake them for toys. Amnesty also reports that on 1 March two children near the village of Fard were herding goats when they found some other cluster bomblets. They played with them until one went off, killing the eight-year-old and severely injuring the 11-year-old. Does the Foreign Secretary regard the use of cluster bombs in civilian areas as a breach of international humanitarian law?

As the right hon. Gentleman knows, the UK has long since given up the use of cluster munitions. Their use or supply is illegal under British law. As the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood), said earlier, the weapons described were manufactured decades ago, but the Ministry of Defence is urgently investigating the allegations, and I believe there will be an urgent question on this subject shortly.

I am grateful for that reply. As the House knows, we are a signatory to the convention banning the use of cluster munitions, but sadly Saudi Arabia is not. It is alleged that this particular type of BL-755 was designed to be dropped from one specific jet—the UK-manufactured Tornado used by the Saudi air force. Under the cluster munitions convention, member states should

“make…best efforts to discourage States not party to this Convention from using cluster munitions.”

What steps has the right hon. Gentleman taken to discourage the use of British-made cluster munitions mounted on British-made jets by Saudi Arabia—an ally with which we have extensive military co-operation—and will he now commit to suspending arms sales to Saudi Arabia and to making the strongest possible representations that it must cease the use of cluster munitions in this conflict?

We need to be careful. There is no evidence yet that Saudi Arabia has used cluster munitions. The right hon. Gentleman is right that Saudi Arabia is not a signatory to the convention banning cluster munitions, but nor is the United States. We have always made it clear to the Saudi Arabians that we cannot support the use of cluster munitions in any circumstances, as to do so would be unlawful for Ministers and officials in this country. We believe we have an assurance from Saudi Arabia that cluster munitions have not been used in the conflict, but as I said earlier, the MOD is urgently investigating the allegations. I am sure that my ministerial colleague will have more to say in response to the UQ.

T3. What specific commitments can the Government make to support Burundian civil society organisations in their peace-building efforts in light of the need to foster and strengthen social cohesion among Burundian communities from conflicting political, ethnic and social groups? (905029)

Through the conflict, stability and security fund, we are seeking to reduce the impunity and address the causes of conflict. We are working with the Burundians in general and with the international community, the country’s human rights commission, the truth and reconciliation commission and the court system. I met human rights organisations in private in Bujumbura in December to hear their detailed concerns, and I addressed the UN Security Council in March. I am pleased to report that the Arusha talks have now started under the chairmanship of former Tanzanian President Mkapa. I look forward to hearing reports about how they are going.

T2. Last year, Nepal suffered a major earthquake, which badly injured the country’s spirit. In the meantime, the world has contributed hugely to rebuild the nation. At the same time, Nepal has adopted a new constitution. What support have the Government given to Nepal to help with the implementation of its new constitution? (905028)

The February amendments to the constitution were a significant moment for Nepal, as I think the hon. Gentleman would agree, and a step towards resolving long-standing differences. We continue to encourage peaceful dialogue and compromise to reach a political situation that meets the concerns of all Nepali citizens. I discussed this most recently with Nepal’s deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Foreign Affairs, Kamal Thapa, in London on 27 April.

T6. What assessment has the Minister for Africa made of the International Monetary Fund’s regional economic outlook and the opportunity of the result to tackle extremism in the region? (905032)

As a region, sub-Saharan Africa has seen uninterrupted economic growth over the last 20 years. The IMF regional economic outlook for sub-Saharan Africa projects a growth rate of 3% on average across the continent. Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania and Senegal are all expecting to grow well in excess of double that figure, with the Ivory Coast growing from 8% to a potentially staggering 10% growth annually. Africa clearly continues to offer some great investment opportunities for UK business.

T4. What recent representations has the Minister made to his counterparts in the Nigerian Government on the continued detention of the British citizen Nnamdi Kanu of the indigenous people of Biafra? Is the Minister confident that Nnamdi is receiving all his rights under international law? (905030)

I have continued representations with the Nigerian Government on Biafran and other issues and I will continue to do so. I have met a series of Members of Parliament who have constituency interests in Biafra, and I am happy to continue to do so. The British Government recognise Nigeria as a geographic area that holds together as one country, not as separate countries.

T7. The 26th of June will mark one year since the attack on holiday makers on the beach at Sousse, resulting in the loss of 38 lives, with 39 people wounded. What is the Minister doing to assist families in marking this anniversary in peace? What are the Government doing to assist the Tunisian Government in promoting security and the country’s economy? (905033)

My hon. Friend is right to raise the devastating impact of this attack on the Tunisian economy. We are working very closely to provide support to the country’s policing in order to secure its borders. We are doing all we can to support the Britons affected by the bombs—whether it be the families of the bereaved, those who were injured in the attack or even those who saw what happened and need psychological support. We held a commemoration service in April.

As “Project Fear” reaches dizzy new heights, the Prime Minister and certain members of this Government are making clear on a daily basis the potentially disastrous consequences of Scotland and the UK leaving the EU. Given that, will the Secretary of State confirm why this Government have taken our country into such a precarious position?

If the hon. Lady is asking why we are holding a referendum, it is because the British people are entitled to have their say on this important issue. For 40 years, their voice has been ignored, and because we have a Conservative Government, they will now have their say on 23 June. I hope that we politicians will listen to what they say and will accept their verdict.

T8. As chairman of the all-party parliamentary group for the Philippines, may I ask my right hon. Friend to join me in congratulating President Rodrigo Duterte on his victory, wishing him well, and finding a mutually convenient time to meet him? (905034)

I congratulate the Filipinos on their vibrant show of democracy. Mayor Duterte has received a strong mandate from the electorate, who want greater prosperity and security in the years ahead. My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary visited the Philippines in January, and plans for further ministerial visits will be made after the new Government take office on 30 June.

Can the Secretary of State tell us how remaining in the European Union gives us stronger control in finding solutions to issues such as population migration, which are often caused by conflict and the results of climate change?

Working with our partners in the European Union on such complex and long-term issues clearly reinforces our ability to have effect. In my nearly two years as Foreign Secretary, I have visited more than 70 countries in six continents, and in none of those countries has anyone ever suggested to me that Britain’s voice would be more influential if we were outside the European Union. Quite the opposite: being in the European Union means that our influence is augmented, not diminished.

T9. In 2010, the Prime Minister said: “I am here to make the case for Turkey’s membership of the European Union and to fight for it.” In 2014, he said: “In terms of Turkish membership of the EU, I very much support that.”Is the Foreign Secretary really claiming that we should take it from those words that the Government intend to veto Turkey’s accession to the EU—and, if there is no remote prospect of its joining the EU, why is so much taxpayers’ money being spent on preparing it for accession? (905036)

Turkey applied to join the European Union in 1987, and, as the Prime Minister observed—I think—yesterday, given the current rate of progress it will be decades, if not longer, before it gets anywhere near EU membership. However, there is a benefit for us in seeing Turkey on a European-facing path, and thus under pressure to improve human rights and compliance with the rule of law. If we do not keep that path open, we shall not have that leverage.

Ultimately, though, we have a veto. [Interruption.] We have a veto over the terms and conditions on which any applicant country is able to join the European Union, and we have made it absolutely clear that there can be no question of further accessions and access to free movement within the European Union until an applicant country has reached the average level of GDP per capita across the European Union. That means no more poverty gradient in the EU. [Interruption.]

I think we all know that the hon. Member for Shipley (Philip Davies) cannot be vetoed. He never has been, and he never will be.

Earlier questions have referred to the middle east, and to deploring extremism wherever it may be found. Is it not a matter of grave concern that the new Israeli Defence Minister is extremely right-wing and ultra-nationalist? He said last year that what he described as “disloyal” Israeli Arabs should be beheaded. Does that not illustrate how far the Israeli Government have gone in their extremism and their rejection of any idea of a two-state solution, and should that not be condemned?

It is a matter of grave concern. The polarisation of views in Israel/Palestine makes it less likely that we shall be able to achieve the two-state solution that the House and most of the world so ardently crave, and harder for us to do so.

In answer to a written parliamentary question from me, the Economic Secretary to the Treasury reported that on 16 January £657 million of frozen Iranian assets had been unfrozen, and therefore returned to Iran or Iranian citizens. What are the Government doing to monitor those funds and ensure that they are spent correctly, rather than being handed over to terrorists or funding action against British troops?

My hon. Friend asks two separate questions. First, we are committed to the unfreezing of Iranian assets. Some who were opposed to the joint comprehensive plan of action—JCPOA—agreement with Iran suggested that up to $150 billion would flow back to Iran in short order, but to date we think that the process has managed to achieve about $11 billion. Secondly, there are of course international agreements in place to monitor and prevent money laundering and the financing of terrorist organisations, and those apply to Iran as much as to any other country.

As I said earlier, Tunisia is going through a difficult period at the moment. It has been subjected to a number of terrorist attacks and attempted attacks. We have almost doubled the size of our embassy there, and we are doing our best to ensure that we provide support during this difficult period. I would be happy to discuss in more detail some of the challenges relating to freedom of the press with the hon. Lady outside the Chamber.