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Topical Questions

Volume 621: debated on Tuesday 21 February 2017

By the next time I answer questions in the House, the Government will have invoked article 50. My priority for the rest of the year therefore will be to ensure the smoothest and cleanest possible departure from the EU consistent with maintaining close co-operation with our European friends. I shall also strive—the Opposition can never achieve this—to work alongside the new US Administration as we deal with common challenges posed by Russia and the crises in the middle east.

In July 2015, the highest court in Colombia decided that Her Majesty’s Government had discriminated against its embassy employee, Mr Darwin Ayrton Moreno-Hurtado, on the basis of his ethnic identity and religious convictions. The court ordered his immediate reinstatement, yet Her Majesty’s Government stubbornly continue to refuse to obey the court in Colombia. Does the UK Government not take seriously the judicial decisions of courts in Colombia, or do they not take seriously the need to cease ethnic and religious discrimination against their employees in Columbia?

As the hon. Gentleman well knows—I have written to him in detail—it is impossible to reinstate that person as the job no longer exists.

T3. Bath has a great local charity called GlobalARRK, which helps women who are stuck overseas, often facing domestic violence. What is my right hon. Friend doing to help stuck parents who are unable to return to their home country with their children? (908830)

My hon. Friend will know that we have a programme to support the return of children whose parents are stuck in the wrong country. We do it through our—oh, what is it? We do it through our proper processes in making use of all our consular services.

I am sure the whole House will welcome the recent positive political developments in the Gambia. The Gambian authorities are already investigating allegations that the former President Jammeh smuggled millions of dollars’ worth of assets out of the country before his departure last month. What steps are the Government taking to help track down any missing assets, including any that might have ended up in the UK, and to make sure that any proceeds of corruption are returned to the Gambia without delay?

We are doing everything we can to support the Gambia’s judicial system. The hon. Lady will know that the new President Barrow has indicated that he would like the UK to be the Gambia’s principal partner of choice in tackling corruption in that country and putting the Gambia back on an even keel. I can tell you, Mr Speaker, that when I recently went to the Gambia, there were crowds in the street dancing—[Interruption.] Not necessarily because they were pleased to see me—perhaps they were—but because they were delighted that the Gambia was being welcomed back into the Commonwealth. I can say that their joy was unconfined.

T9. Further to comments made last week by my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary, would he care to suggest what the great British public should watch on television rather than the former Prime Minister and former Member for Sedgefield and his disgraced colleague and guacamole-loving former Member for Hartlepool? (908836)

I am very grateful to my hon. Friend for his question. I hesitate to advise the British public what to watch on television, but I have to say that I think they will exercise their infinite sagacity and wisdom in not heeding the siren voices of those who try to overturn the democratic decision of this country’s people last year to embark on a course that I think will lead us not only to democratic emancipation, but to a new course of global prosperity.

T2. A report published by Physicians for Human Rights, an independent non-governmental organisation, states that recently, during the conflict in Indian-occupied Kashmir, Indian authorities responded to protesters—who were unarmed—by killing 87 of them and injuring 9,000. What representations have our Government made to the Indian authorities about that excessive use of force? (908829)

We discuss a wide range of issues with the Indian authorities. As for the specific issue raised by the hon. Lady, earlier in the year the state Government of Jammu and Kashmir ordered the establishment of special investigating teams to look into deaths of civilians and the involvement of police personnel during the five-month-long unrest in Indian-administered Kashmir, and we will of course monitor their reports closely.

There were also crowds of people to welcome us when we arrived in Ghana a week or two ago. Although we could not quite work out whether the welcome was for us or for the Minister for Trade and Investment, it was thoroughly enjoyable nevertheless.

It seems to me that the greater the number of trading connections that we forge, particularly in west Africa, the stronger the foundation on which to build good international relations will be. Does my right hon. Friend agree that withdrawal from the European customs union will give us a once-in-a-generation opportunity to boost our diplomatic relations worldwide?

I thank my hon. Friend for his work as trade envoy to Ghana. Indeed, I thank all our trade envoys, who do a fantastic job around the world. It is thanks to the efforts of my colleague the Minister for Trade and Investment and others that we are seeing increased trade with countries such as Ghana, and I was very proud to see British firms operating there. I believe that the largest single private sector employer in Ghana is a firm run by a Brit. We should all be proud of the contribution that those firms are making.

T4. Former Prime Minister Blair has acknowledged that people voted to leave the European Union but not at any price. Does the Foreign Secretary agree that when the price of Brexit becomes clear, people should be asked to confirm that that is a price that they wish to pay? (908831)

The House gave a clear mandate, 6:1, to give the people the decision on whether to stay in the European Union. All sorts of threats and all sorts of blandishments were made to the people of this country to persuade them to vote to stay in. Those threats and those warnings have proved to be fallacious, and I think that all future such threats will be taken with a pinch of salt.

T10. Many sectors in my constituency rely on foreign workers, from highly skilled workers in pharma to seasonal workers in agriculture, and including 12% of workers at Addenbrooke’s, my local hospital. I know that the Foreign Secretary values the important contribution to the economy made by foreign workers such as EU nationals, but will he also acknowledge that it is important to give them some certainty about their future as soon as possible? (908837)

I fully accept that we need to give all the 3.2 million EU nationals in this country the maximum possible certainty, and that we should do it as fast as we possibly can. Unfortunately, however, I do not think it is reasonable to do it before giving certainty to UK nationals in other EU countries. We would like to get on with that as fast as possible, and it is up to our friends and colleagues abroad to join us.

T5. Last week, on the issue of securing peace between Palestine and Israel, Donald Trump said: “So I'm looking at two-state, and one-state…I can live with either one.”Having heard that direct quote, how can the Foreign Secretary say, as he did earlier to my right hon. Friend the Member for Gordon (Alex Salmond) and my hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk (Martyn Day), that US policy has not changed or is not changing? (908832)

I really must accuse the hon. Gentleman of failing to listen to the answer that I gave a few moments ago. I am not here to defend or explain what the American President said, but he made it very clear that there should be dialogue, and he also made it very clear that he thought that the illegal settlements should no longer continue. The solution is a deal between the two parties, and that is what everyone in the House believes and wants.

Today, once again, the ghastly prospect of famine stalks the world in four countries with which Britain has very close and long-standing historical connections: Yemen, north-east Nigeria, South Sudan and Somalia. Will the Foreign Secretary ensure, perhaps through the co-ordinating mechanism of the National Security Council, that every sinew of government is bent to address and combat this unconscionable situation?

Yes, I can certainly give my right hon. Friend that assurance. The whole House can be very proud of the work being done by the Department for International Development, and the huge contribution this country makes through UK aid to all four of the regions he identifies. He has recently been to Yemen, and he will know that this is a very difficult and intractable problem, but it is the UK who is trying to knock heads together and get a deal.

T6. Despite its continued violations of international law, Israel enjoys favoured trade status with the UK and the EU. Does the Minister agree that if the UK Government are serious about peace and justice post-Brexit, we must revisit trade negotiations with Israel while it continues to deny Palestinians their rights? (908833)

If the hon. Lady is suggesting that we should boycott Israeli goods, I must say that I completely reject her advice.

Does the Foreign Secretary agree that any global Britain strategy should include the whole of the global British family, which means the British overseas territories and the Crown dependencies? What guarantees will the Government give that they will be included in any new arrangements post-Brexit?

I am certain I can give my hon. Friend the assurance he seeks. I know that one prime focus of his thoughts is Gibraltar, and I can assure him that the sovereignty position remains totally unchanged. Gibraltar is fully involved in the preparations for the process of leaving the European Union.

T7. Will the Government support the UN special rapporteur’s call for a full UN inquiry into abuses against the Rohingya Muslims by the Burmese army at the UN Human Rights Council this month? This is a specific question. (908834)

The UN high commissioner for human rights has issued a substantive report on the widespread human rights violations, and of course the UN special rapporteur also referred to violations in her recent press briefing. A full report is due in March. In the light of these two reports, the UK will consider, with international partners, the scope for further enhancing scrutiny of the military’s actions in Rakhine. I can confirm that I will be attending the Human Rights Council.

Brexit provides an opportunity to review the role of the FCO, which has been woefully under-resourced for far too long. Does my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary agree that there should be a moratorium on any asset disposals until such a review is complete, and that such a review should also examine how finally to bring other Departments with overseas representatives under the control of the respective heads of mission?

I am delighted for the support from my right hon. Friend in campaigning for proper funding for our diplomatic missions overseas. It is true that we have an absolutely unparalleled network around the world, and it is also true that the missions will be needed more than ever as we forge a new global future. That point will be heard loud and clear by the current occupant of the Treasury, who was, after all, the previous Foreign Secretary.

T8. Last month the all-party group on Yemen met in-country NGOs, who raised significant concerns about the safety of aid workers in Yemen, particularly those at checkpoints, who were at risk of being caught in aerial bombardments. Will the Ministers tell me, please, what specifically the Government are doing to end aerial bombardment in Yemen so that aid can get through? (908835)

The hon. Lady raises an important point. I will be visiting Riyadh this week and having discussions with President Hadi and, indeed, Adel al-Jubair. We are concerned that we need to move towards a political resolution, and we want the military component that has been taking place to end.

The Israeli Prime Minister has recently spoken about coming together with the Gulf Co-operation Council on security issues. Countries such as Jordan and Egypt have played a significant role in previous peace processes. Does the Foreign Secretary think that the GCC has a significant role to play in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process?

My hon. Friend brings a wealth of knowledge to this subject. I do think that the GCC and the Arab countries more generally hold the key, and that a variant of what used to be called the Arab peace plan is indeed where we will end up. What it will take now is for both sides to see that, and to make progress.

The announcement by Toshiba last week regarding NuGen will mean that new foreign investment will be required for the Moorside nuclear development. Does this not place a new question mark over the UK’s decision to pull out of Euratom, which will create more instability for the industry?

We shall remain a full member of Euratom while we remain part of the European Union, and we intend to make sure that all our research into nuclear fusion will continue after we leave.

We all look forward to the day when a sovereign Palestinian state exists alongside a safe and secure Israel. Does my right hon. Friend agree that that can be achieved only through face-to-face negotiations between the Palestinians and the Israelis?

I certainly agree with that, and those negotiations should take place as fast as possible and without preconditions.

With Iran testing missiles, Russia plotting coups and North Korea murdering dissidents, does the Foreign Secretary agree that now is the time to renew western resolve and leadership, which has sometimes been lacking during the past eight years?

I completely agree. One of the interesting phenomena of the global reaction to the new US President is how much it is at variance with some of the commentary I have heard from the Opposition Benches this morning. When I go around the world, I find that many people in foreign ministries and other Governments are hopeful that they will see American leadership again where it has been lacking. They are particularly encouraged by the role of the United Kingdom in helping to transmit and improve American policy.

Last week I led a delegation to Kosovo, and I can tell my right hon. Friend that the President, the Prime Minister and others that we met there greatly appreciated his visit. May I invite him to reaffirm our continued support for Kosovo and to take part in any future initiatives to help it?

Yes, I certainly shall. I much enjoyed my time in Kosovo. All those on the Labour Benches who have sprung to the defence of their former Prime Minister today should know that he is memorialised, at least in Kosovo, in that no fewer than eight 16-year-olds there have been christened Tony Blair.

President Putin might be President Trump’s new best buddy, but he is certainly not ours. Will the Foreign Secretary give his full support to the Magnitsky amendments that we are going to debate in a few minutes, which would allow the assets of any Russians involved in the murder of Magnitsky to be seized in the UK?

We will be looking very carefully at that debate as it unfolds, and at the arguments that are made. We think that we have good provision in our statutes at the moment, but we will take account of the debate as it evolves.

I recently had a meeting in my constituency surgery with a delegation from Cameroon regarding the lack of democracy in that country. They described fear, brutality and a lack of education in English-speaking Cameroon. What role can the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the conflict, stability and security fund play in supporting democracy in that area?

First, I want to pay tribute to the diasporas based in the UK that provide us with an understanding of what is going on in their countries. I also pay tribute to the work that my hon. Friend is doing, and I absolutely agree with the concerns that she has raised about Cameroon. She is right to point to the conflict, stability and security fund as a way for us to provide funds to achieve that security, and we will be doing just that.

A few moments ago, the Secretary of State confirmed as Government policy something that this House resolved without a Division on 9 February—that there should be a halt to the planning and construction of residential settlements in the occupied Palestinian territories. Given that that is the case, why is the UK permitted to trade specifically with those illegal settlements?

It is the policy of the UK, and I think of many of our friends and partners, to continue to trade on the grounds that that is the best way to support the economy of the region. Many workers in the region come from populations within the occupied Palestinian territories, and their livelihoods depend on that industry. That policy is widely understood and supported, and we will continue with it.