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Topical Questions

Volume 619: debated on Tuesday 10 January 2017

I call Mr Virendra Sharma. Has the feller now manifested himself? No, sadly not. Never mind. He is not here, but Rebecca Pow is.

My priorities for 2017 are to renew our efforts to address the crisis in the middle east; to work towards securing the best deal for Britain in the negotiations with our European partners that will be begun by the triggering of article 50; and to build an even stronger working relationship with the US Administration. As I have said, I have just returned from furthering that ambition in the US. As this is the last FCO questions before the end of the Obama Administration, let me repeat formally my thanks to John Kerry for his tireless dedication.

Illegal trading in wildlife is now the fourth most lucrative transnational crime, and it has a hugely destabilising effect on habitats and on many communities. On that note, will the Secretary of State tell me what his Department is doing to help to combat the poaching and illegal ivory trading in Africa?

This Government have made it clear that combating the illegal wildlife trade is one of our priorities. We have a dedicated illegal wildlife trade team in London, working with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. As my hon. Friend will know, the Secretary of State recently came back from a highly successful conference in Hanoi on the ivory trade. We are supporting—[Interruption.] With our funds, we are supporting—[Interruption.] Let me tell the hon. Member for Islington South and Finsbury (Emily Thornberry), who mocks the elephants, that the number of elephants is diminishing by 8% every year. Thanks to the efforts of this Government, that issue is being raised up the international agenda again. We are spending considerable sums of money to support those who are combating the poachers.

All questions and answers from now on need to be extremely brief, irrespective of how distinguished those who put the questions are or judge themselves to be. I call Mr Alex Salmond.

When the right hon. Gentleman was a columnist, he was supportive of some aspects of President Putin’s policies. When he became Foreign Secretary, he became vehemently hostile to Russian policy. After his visit to New York, we are told he is pursuing a twin-track policy, which means that we will be supportive and hostile at the same time. At what time during his visit to Trump Tower did he decide that duplicity was the best policy?

I really must ask the right hon. Gentleman to go back and look at what I said previously. I have never been supportive of the policies of President Putin in Syria. Quite frankly, I do think it is important to understand that Russia is doing many bad things—if we look at what they have done on cyber-warfare and what they are doing in the western Balkans, there is no doubt that they are up to no good—but it is also important for us to recognise, and I think he will find that this is exactly what I said a few years ago, that there may be areas where we can work together, and that is what we should do.

T3. Does my right hon. Friend agree that until the divisions between the Sunnis and the Shi’as are reconciled, there will not be full regional peace, security and prosperity in the region? What role can Britain play in that process? (908022)

My hon. and learned Friend asks a very fundamental question, because in a sense there is a cold war feel to the relationship between the Sunnis and the Shi’ites, yet the doctrinal difference is actually almost insignificant. Both agree on the absolute centrality of the Prophet Muhammad, but the big issue is about the succession—whether the successor was Ali, the cousin and son-in-law, or Abu Bakr, the father-in-law. She is absolutely right that if the two sides can be reconciled, prosperity and security will improve, and I hope Britain can have a role to play. [Interruption.]

As I have just been advised by our most esteemed procedural expert in the House, we do not need a lecture in each of these cases. We need a pithy question and a pithy reply.

On Sunday, the Foreign Secretary met Steve Bannon, Donald Trump’s chief strategist, a man whose website is synonymous with anti-Semitism, racism, misogyny, homophobia, the hero worship of Vladimir Putin and the promotion of extremist far-right movements across the world. May I ask the Foreign Secretary how he and Mr Bannon got on?

I do not wish to embarrass any member of the incoming Administration by describing the friendliness or otherwise of our relations. What I can say is that the conversations were genuinely extremely productive. There is a wide measure of agreement between the UK and the incoming Administration about the way forward, and we intend to work to build on those areas of agreement.

T5. When the Russian air force skirts along British airspace, Royal Air Force pilots fly Typhoons from my constituency to see them off. Does my right hon. Friend believe that our economic sanctions against Russia are hitting the targets just as effectively as our RAF pilots are? (908024)

I am grateful for that question because it is important for the House to keep in mind the importance of the sanctions. The support for sanctions against Russia—for instance, over Ukraine—is not as strong as it should be in other parts of the European Union, and the UK is in the lead in keeping the pressure on.

T4. Following the Foreign Secretary’s trip to America, how confident is he that we might have a US-UK free trade agreement on the table within the next couple of years? Does he believe there is an appetite for it to be based on mutual standard recognition, rather than on single standard imposition? (908023)

The short answer is that my enthusiasm is nothing compared with the enthusiasm of our friends on the other side of the Atlantic. We will get a good deal, but it has to be a good deal for the UK as well.

T7. Will the Minister please tell me what Britain is doing to ensure that the lessons of the past are learnt, and that proper stabilisation and reconstruction planning is in place for Mosul once that city is liberated? (908026)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We did not learn the lessons, or the lessons were not learnt, in 2013 when there was a failure to listen to the moderate Sunni voices. That is what allowed Daesh to develop. Extremism is flourishing across north-east Africa and, indeed, the middle east, and will do so unless we engage with those moderates to ensure that they are brought to the table. That is why planning in places such as Mosul and Aleppo needs to be done at once, before the guns fall silent.

T6. When the Foreign Secretary met the President-elect’s team, did he make it clear to them that the United Kingdom will not share intelligence with his Administration if his Administration is then to use it in association with a revived US torture programme? (908025)

I am sure the House will forgive me if I remind the right hon. Gentleman that we do not discuss intelligence matters or their operational nature.

Does my right hon. Friend share my disappointment that the Palestinian authorities did not issue a prompt condemnation of the murder of Israeli soldiers over the weekend? Does he believe that the Palestinian Authority’s glorification of violence, refusal to recognise Israel and refusal to meet face to face is one of the major obstacles to a two-state solution?

I am very grateful to my right hon. Friend for that point because it is absolutely true. Yes, resolution 2334 has been characterised as a settlements resolution. As I have explained to the House, it also contains some valuable language about terrorism. But there can be no lasting solution for that part of the world unless there is better leadership of the Palestinians and unless they renounce terror.

T8. Next week a new President is due to be sworn in, but the current President is refusing, point blank, to budge. The people of Gambia have voted to end 22 years of civil liberties and human rights abuses at the hands of President Jammeh. Will the Minister join his counterparts across the world in condemning this and telling President Jammeh that he has eight days to get out of office? (908027)

Not in so many words, but I have had the opportunity to congratulate President-elect Barrow. I believe absolutely that the previous President, who has been there since 1994, should recognise the will of the Gambian people and step down.

May I ask the Foreign Secretary what agreement there will be on policy towards Russia between the British Government and the new US Administration, given the new Administration’s indebtedness to President Putin through the leaking and hacking of emails of the Democratic National Committee and Hillary Clinton’s campaign chairman?

I make no comment on the electoral efficacy of the hacking of the DNC emails, except to say that it is pretty clear that it did come from the Russians. The point that we have made to the incoming Administration, and indeed on Capitol Hill, is just this: as I said earlier, we do think that the Russian state—the Putin Kremlin—is up to all sorts of very dirty tricks, such as cyber-warfare, but it would be folly for us further to demonise Russia or to push Russia into a corner, so a twin-track strategy of engagement and vigilance is what is required.

The Foreign Secretary referred to the middle east process. Secretaries of State Clinton and Kerry failed in their efforts to get a bilateral agreement between Palestinians and Israelis. Is it not now time to go to the international sphere, in the sense of the Arab initiative originally introduced by Saudi Arabia in 2002?

The only way forward is for both sides to get to the negotiating table and recognise that a two-state solution is the way forward.

Does the Foreign Secretary share the concern on both sides of the House at President Erdogan’s latest power grab, following the retrograde steps he has already taken to Islamise a formerly secular Turkish society?

It is very important to recognise that the Turkish state—the Turkish Government—was the victim of a violent attempted coup in which hundreds of people died. It was entirely wrong of many Governments in the EU instantly to condemn Turkey for its response rather than to see that, again, there is a balance to be struck. Turkey is vital for our collective security; the last thing we need to do is to push it away and push it into a corner.

Last month, a UK Government spokesperson told Sky News that the Government are

“aware of reports of an alleged airstrike on a school”

in Yemen

“using UK-supplied weapons and are seeking further information regarding the incident.”

Can the Minister update us today on progress on that?

I know the hon. Lady follows these events very closely. I do not know the details of that particular Sky report—I have not seen it. I am very happy to meet her outside the Chamber to discuss it. I can give her a reply in due course, or I can give her a public reply in the now much-vaunted and much-publicised debate we are having on Yemen on Thursday.

Since 1953, the Foreign Office has supported Marshall scholarships to help young Americans to study in the UK. Will my right hon. Friend continue to support this increasingly important aspect of the special relationship?

The Government, of course, support the Marshall scholarship programme. It is another example of Britain’s soft power, and I am delighted to say that we have made additional funding available to enable 40 scholars to study at UK universities from September this year.

The Foreign Secretary and Ministers will be aware of the deteriorating situation in Zimbabwe, economically and politically. What role can the British Government play over the next six months or so, which will be crucial to the people of Zimbabwe?

The hon. Lady knows the country very well indeed. Obviously, our relationship has been strained because of the current leadership. She speaks about six months, and who knows what will happen in those six months, but we are working closely with the neighbouring countries to provide the necessary support for the people, who are suffering more than ever before under the current President’s regime.

Does the Foreign Secretary agree that improving trust and intelligence sharing with Egypt is vital to our security efforts in Libya? Given that we have heard no security concerns over the Sharm el-Sheikh airport, does he agree that resuming flights there would be a good place to start and would have important security dividends for UK citizens here?

It is, of course, true that the loss of UK tourist business to Egypt has been very severe, and we are working hard with our Egyptian counterparts to get the reassurances that we need to restore those flights, which we all want to happen.

Earlier this morning, the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, the hon. Member for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood), said that the Government only support UN Security Council resolutions when they know they can be enforced. So, if the Israelis continue with the settlement programme, what steps will the Foreign Secretary take to enforce resolution 2334?

The hon. Lady will know very well that we are working with our international counterparts to persuade both sides to get to the table, to persuade the Palestinians to drop their violence and recognise the existence of the state of Israel and show some leadership, and to persuade both sides to understand that a two-state solution is the only way forward. I believe that that is the best thing for the Government to do.

Many of my constituents are concerned that the recent UN vote marks a change in the British Government’s stance towards Israel. Will the Foreign Secretary confirm that that is not the case, and that we remain steadfast allies of that beacon of liberalism and democracy in the middle east?

As is well known, the state of Israel is just about the only democracy in that part of the world. It is a free and liberal society, unlike many others in the region. I passionately support the state of Israel. It was very important that, in resolution 2334, the UK Government not only stuck by 30-year-old UK policy in respect of settlements, but underscored our horror of violence against the people of Israel.

Just as a matter of interest—perhaps others are not so interested— does the Foreign Secretary find that his counterparts are somewhat surprised to find a genuine British eccentric holding the position he holds?

I honestly cannot speak for the response of my counterparts. The hon. Gentleman can take this in whichever way he chooses, but all I can say is that there was a wide measure of agreement on both sides of the table on some of the problems that our societies face in America and UK, on the need for some fresh thinking, and on the huge potential of the UK and the US to work together to solve those problems.

I very much doubt that the proposition that the Foreign Secretary is an exotic individual would be subject to a Division of the House.

The Foreign Secretary will be aware of my constituent Billy Irving, who is wrongly imprisoned in India. As we await yet another judgment, what are the Foreign Secretary’s plans to get Billy and his colleagues home whatever the outcome? Will the Foreign Secretary reassure us and them that that remains his priority, and that it will not be derailed by his Government’s Brexit bedlam?

Our heart goes out to Billy Irving’s family and all those involved. I raised this matter with the Minister of External Affairs and the Indian Foreign Secretary when I visited India in October. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister also raised it with Prime Minister Modi. We are pressing for speedy due process to take place. As the hon. Lady knows, we await the outcome of the appeal process.

My right hon. Friend was an outstanding Mayor of London. During his time, he was the first to champion the City of London and a believer of the value of the single market. Will he assure us that, in his meetings with the incoming Trump Administration, he disabused Wilbur Ross, the incoming Commerce Secretary, of his view that Brexit is a God-given opportunity for London’s commercial rivals to take business from the City?

My right hon. Friend will find that the City of London has been through all sorts of vicissitudes that people prophesied would lead to its extinction. I remember people making exactly the same arguments about the creation of the single currency and about the economic crash in 2008, and the City of London has gone from strength to strength. Canary Wharf alone is now a bigger financial centre than the whole of Frankfurt. By the way, that opinion was shared completely by our friends and counterparts in Washington. I have no doubt that the commercial and financial dominance of the City of London in this hemisphere will continue.

Further to the question of the hon. Member for East Renfrewshire (Kirsten Oswald), my constituent Ray Tindall and the other men of the Chennai Six, who are in prison for a crime they did not commit, will be looking for a little bit more than thumb-twiddling and warm words. Does the Minister have any concrete proposals to get those innocent men home within the next six months?

As I have said, we take this matter incredibly seriously. We have raised it on a number of occasions and will continue to do so. We cannot seek to interfere in the legal process of another country, but let me assure the hon. Gentleman that we are doing absolutely everything we can to urge a speedy process and to make sure the men get help in prison.

Finally, a cerebral and immensely patient Member of the House who is unfailingly courteous at all times, Jeremy Lefroy.

Thank you, Mr Speaker. What support are Her Majesty’s Government giving to the welcome moves towards a settlement in the Democratic Republic of the Congo?

I had the pleasure of visiting the country last year. I was very concerned about the delay to the elections, of which my hon. Friend will be aware, and President Kabila not recognising that his time was up. I am pleased that political dialogue has now been developed between the Government and the Opposition, and that we are now on a programme to ensure elections happen in 2017. I will return to the country very soon to make sure that is enforced, and to offer our support and assistance to this important country.

I am sorry to disappoint remaining colleagues. This Question Time session probably enjoys a greater demand than any other, but I am afraid supply is finite.

Two hours, the Minister chunters from a sedentary position. I certainly would not object to that. He is a member of the Executive. If the Government want to table such a proposition, I think there might be very substantial support for it. I try to expand the envelope, but there are limits: if we do not have a longer session people will have to be briefer in questions and answers.

We now come to the urgent question. I call John McDonnell.