Skip to main content

Topical Questions

Volume 617: debated on Tuesday 22 November 2016

My immediate priority is to build a strong relationship with the incoming US Administration with the aim of making progress on our shared goals at every level of the international agenda. Foremost among them are vanquishing Daesh, responding to the crisis in Syria and standing firm against the challenge from Russia.

According to figures released last week, Scotland has taken over a third of the Syrian refugees in the UK to date. However, the UK Government plan to take only a third as many as Sweden by 2020. How does the Foreign Secretary explain to his counterparts in Europe the UK’s shirking of its responsibilities?

I must reject the hon. Gentleman’s assertion that this country is not doing enough to help the people of Syria or the region. As he will know fine well, this country is the second biggest global donor to the response to the humanitarian crisis in that region, and we can be proud of our record in giving humanitarian support there, and in offering sanctuary and refuge here in the UK.

T2. Israel is often criticised for its strict control of the border with Gaza, yet Egypt has closed its border completely. Will the Minister update me on any discussions he has had with Egypt about its border with Gaza? (907367)

This is an important point. President Sisi is very conscious of the challenges that Egypt is facing from its own extremists, and Britain is providing support on that. In the longer term, there will be plans for the border to reopen. Unfortunately, many of the tunnel systems were used to smuggle in to Hamas equipment that was being used against Israel, but the strength of the relationship between Israel and Egypt is allowing them to co-ordinate things to make sure that that is curtailed.

T4. It has been widely reported that the Foreign Secretary had to write to the Culture Secretary after she suggested that the UK should abandon hosting the 2023 European capital of culture. My constituency of Dundee has spent a huge amount of time and money preparing a leading bid for the title, which would bring a multi-million European boost to my city, as well as a major lift for tourism, and for social and economic development. Can the Foreign Secretary confirm whether he has had a reply to his letter? Will he today give me his personal commitment that the competition will go ahead as planned? (907369)

As I repeatedly told the House, we may be leaving the EU but we are not leaving Europe, and we are certainly not leaving the EU for a small time to come. In that time, we are fully paid-up members and it is my view that we should take part to the full, including in such cultural co-operation as the hon. Gentleman describes—and we will do so. We will also continue to take part in such European cultural ventures beyond our exit from the EU.

T3. Does the Foreign Secretary believe that a radical free marketeer, admirer of Mrs Thatcher, opponent of Maastricht, Catholic, social conservative cannot be an entirely bad egg? So will he give his félicitations to François Fillon for his progress so far in the presidential elections—after all, he is a great anglophile—and in doing so underline that our priority must be good relations with our nearest and dearest ally? (907368)

It is wonderful to hear of a senior French politician, who is married to a British wife—[Interruption.] A Welsh wife, indeed. I hesitate to blight Monsieur Fillon’s chances by offering him my congratulations or my support at this stage.

T5. The Bedouin village in the Negev of Umm al-Hiran was due to be demolished today, despite the Bedouin having lived there since they were wrongfully displaced from their own land in 1956. That contrasts with the expansion of settlements in the west bank. I worked in Gaza 25 years ago, at the time of the Oslo accord. A quarter of a century on, what is the Minister doing to get us back on track? (907370)

It is. The rules are different, depending on whether or not Bedouin camps are in the west bank or in Israel proper. Nevertheless, the necessary support measures must be given to those people if they are going to be moved. I visited a Bedouin camp the last time I was there, and I will be looking at this particular announcement and making a statement on this later today.

T6. Following the Foreign Secretary’s recent visit to the western Balkans, what assessment has he made of the UK role in providing stability to that area? (907371)

As hon. Members will know, the UK played a crucial role in bringing an end to the conflict in the former Yugoslavia. As my hon. Friend knows well, there are people across that region who look to us for encouragement and support, and we will be hosting a western Balkans summit here in London in 2018 to try to encourage further stability and confidence building in that region.

T7. There are few things more patriotic than paying our taxes, but the Foreign Office governs a network of tax havens that shield some individuals and some companies from paying their fair share. Will the Foreign Secretary set a deadline for when UK-governed jurisdictions have at least to have the same transparency as here in the UK? (907372)

As the hon. Gentleman will know, this Government have done an enormous amount in tackling tax evasion, and, as a result, have collected enormous amounts of funds. Ultimately, these matters are for the Treasury, and I am sure that he will have the opportunity to put those questions at Treasury questions.

T9. Despite the fantastic efforts of campaigns such as the Great Big Rhinos project run by Paignton zoo, the decline in endangered species across the world is alarming, particularly in the African elephant and the rhino. Given the need for a more co-ordinated international effort to tackle this decline, can the Minister confirm the outcome of the recent Hanoi conference and what action the UK Government are taking in response? (907374)

As my hon. Friend will know, the Secretary of State for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has been taking the lead in Hanoi in urging the international community to take tougher measures against elephant and rhino poachers. The figures are heartbreaking. In the late 1990s, there were 1.2 million elephants in the world. In Africa, the figure is now down to 300,000. In fact, it has gone down 120,000 since 2010. It is a catastrophic loss for Africa and for the world, and the UK is leading the fightback. We will be holding a summit on the conservation of endangered wildlife in London in the next couple of years.

T8. The Prime Minister will attend the Gulf Cooperation Council leaders’ summit next month as a guest of honour. Does she intend to use the opportunity to push for greater information-sharing with the UK from Saudi-led coalition operations in Yemen so that UK defence personnel are able to form a complete understanding of the coalition’s regard for international humanitarian law? (907373)

We are very honoured that our Prime Minister is the first female Prime Minister to be invited to attend the GCC in the Gulf. It emphasises the very strong relations that we have with that area. This Government are doing everything they can to satisfy themselves of the compliance of Gulf countries, notably of Saudi Arabia, with the principles of international humanitarian law.

Following the decision of the Indian Government to withdraw the 500 and 1,000 rupee notes, what efforts has the Minister made to ensure that British citizens of Indian descent are able to exchange their money?

As my hon. Friend will know, it is for the Indian Government and the Reserve Bank of India to define what is Indian legal tender. However, I can say that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office has updated its travel advice, advising British nationals travelling to India how to act in this matter, and we advise those nationals to monitor the situation closely.

I can tell the right hon. Gentleman that the Foreign Office is in regular contact with the Iranian Government at all levels. The matter has been raised by the Prime Minister with President Rouhani, and by me with Foreign Minister Zarif. My hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood) has only recently had meetings on that very subject. The matter is of the utmost priority for this Government, and we are doing our level best to resolve it.

Talks on the future of Cyprus have broken down without agreement. As one of the guarantor powers, can the Minister advise what the Government will do to try to influence the situation and to enable the talks to continue?

It is an exaggeration to say that the talks have totally broken down, but they have stalled for the moment, and we are giving every possible support that we can to enable the talks to continue in the hope that they can yet reach a successful conclusion for the reunification of the island.

Will the Minister assure us that the UK will continue to assist in the gathering of evidence for war crimes and crimes against humanity in Syria, so that, eventually, those responsible for these terrible atrocities will be brought to book?

I can reassure the right hon. Lady, who I know has campaigned on this issue for many years, that the initiative that we started in September at the UN General Assembly with the Belgians and other countries continues to work well. We are gathering the evidence that we need, and I am confident that in due course we will bring Daesh operatives to justice.

All countries of the EU, with the exception of the United Kingdom, have resumed direct flights to Sharm el-Sheikh, which are so vital to the Egyptian economy. What more do the Egyptian Government have to do to persuade the Government to resume direct flights?

This has been a very difficult matter. As the House will know, the Egyptian Government are strongly desirous of our resuming flights to Sharm el-Sheikh. Unfortunately, we are not yet able to do so. Perhaps the best I can say is that consultations and work are still going on between our two Governments and between our security services to give the UK Government the reassurance that they need.

In South Africa, black people were not able to vote, all political opposition was outlawed, and different races could not even get married. In Israel, there is freedom of movement, assembly and speech, all governmental institutions are integrated, and all citizens can vote, so is it not a disgrace and an insult to the middle east’s only democracy and to the black people who suffered under apartheid to hear Israel described as that, as we have heard a former Minister do this afternoon?

The hon. Gentleman makes two separate points, and we need to consider both distinctively. I will be visiting South Africa in the new year and I will be looking at some of the election processes that take place. We are supportive of both countries, but in the case of Israel, it is a democratic country in a very tough neighbourhood and Britain stands by our friendship. We are an ally of Israel and long may that continue.

What discussions have the Government had with their counterparts about the very dangerous political crisis in the Democratic Republic of Congo?

I visited the DRC during the summer, and I pay tribute to the work that my hon. Friend has done in that regard. As in other parts of Africa, there is a president who does not want to honour the constitution and wants to stay on longer. We request that he recognises the constitution and stands back. We need the electoral commission to complete its work so that there is an updated electoral register and fresh elections can take place. We hope that happens soon.

My constituent, Helen Veevers, faces allegations in Kenya that she conspired to poison her father. She is concerned that she could be the victim of police corruption in that country. Can the Minister reassure me that the Foreign Office is making representations and will keep a close eye on the situation?

The hon. Gentleman will be aware that this is a very delicate case indeed. We are providing consular support. I do not believe it is in anyone’s best interests for us to expand any further on the details. I would be more than happy to meet the hon. Gentleman directly after Foreign and Commonwealth Office questions to say what more is happening.

I am sorry to disappoint remaining colleagues, but demand today has been exceptionally high. We must now move on.