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Topical Questions

Volume 631: debated on Tuesday 21 November 2017

Last week I visited Dublin, where I discussed how to strengthen the bonds between our countries and address Ireland’s unique circumstances, including the land border, as the UK leaves the EU. I am closely following the situation in Zimbabwe, where our primary goal is for the country’s people to be able to decide their own future in free and fair elections next year. I am deeply concerned by the suffering in Yemen. Britain supports Saudi Arabia’s right to protect its security, while urging that emergency supplies get through to the millions who depend on them.

The United Nations special rapporteur on freedom of expression and human rights reports that the Iranian regime is undertaking a campaign of harassment, persecution and intimidation against staff of the BBC Persian service and their families that is aimed at preventing them from doing their jobs. What representations has the Foreign Secretary made to the Iranians about this?

We have made repeated representations to the Iranians about human rights concerns, but I will certainly be happy to take up the issues the hon. Lady raises in person during the course of my projected visit to Iran in the next few weeks.

T3. With coalition talks breaking down in Germany and the increasing possibility of a second German election, and given that any new UK-EU trade deal needs the unanimous consent of all EU Governments, is the Foreign Secretary being advised that we might need a bit more time to secure a new trade deal? (901932)

My hon. Friend asks a very thoughtful question about what is happening in Germany, but I do not, as it happens, think that the German Government will be in any way incapacitated when it comes to the negotiations in December or, going forward, doing a great free trade deal with the UK over the next 18 months.

Last Wednesday, the Prime Minister was asked about the recent elections in Somaliland, but in response she talked about the entirely different country of Somalia. Will the Foreign Secretary take the Prime Minister to one side and ask her to leave the foreign policy gaffes to him? On a more serious note, will he tell us how the Foreign Office is working to help to preserve peace and democracy in Somaliland in the wake of last week’s post-election violence?

Somaliland is in fact a rare beacon of peace and stability in the region, and we congratulate it—in the end—on the conduct of the elections. We also congratulate the extraordinary steps taken by the election candidates to commit to ending female genital mutilation and to putting in place the legislative framework to achieve that.

T5. In April last year, I had the pleasure of visiting Palestine, but also the sadness of witnessing a young Palestinian boy being tried in an Israeli military court for throwing stones, with no choice of representation and the whole process conducted in Hebrew. We stand up for fairness, so will the Minister tell me whether his Department plans to review the “Children in Military Custody” report that was funded by his Department and published in 2012? (901935)

We continue to urge Israel to implement the recommendations in the “Children in Military Custody” report. I raised the issue with the Israeli authorities during my visit to Israel in August 2017, and Ministers and the British ambassador to Tel Aviv have spoken and written to the Israeli Justice Minister and the Israeli Attorney General. The UK continues to have strong concerns about reports of the ill treatment of Palestinian minors in Israeli military detention.

T2. The Foreign Secretary will be aware that despite last week’s climate change talks, the world is still not on track to limit global warming to less than 3° C. What steps is he taking to ensure that we get back on track? (901931)

As the House will know, the United Kingdom has been in the lead in championing measures to mitigate climate change. We can be very proud of the impact that we have had in cutting our own carbon dioxide emissions and, of course, working with our friends and partners around the world to implement the Paris accord, which is the way forward.

T7. Does the Foreign Secretary agree that there are several very important preconditions for the successful expression of a global Britain? Does he agree that, quite apart from the need for a better-funded Foreign Office, there needs to be far more effective co-ordination and expression of Britain’s truly formidable soft power? (901937)

My right hon. Friend raises the absolutely fascinating conundrum of how effectively the Government could marshal the extraordinary panoply of UK soft power. I never normally disagree with him in any way, but I tend to think that our soft power is so huge that it would not necessarily benefit from any political attempt to co-ordinate it. What I can say is that I believe the work of the British Council is often unsung, although it is hugely important. I think that all Members want to support that organisation and to see it properly funded.

T4. In April last year, my constituent Sharon St John’s son, Adrian, was murdered in Trinidad. He was just 22. The police investigation has been shrouded in secrecy amid allegations of corruption, and the case against one of the alleged killers has now been adjourned 20 times. Sharon and I have met FCO officials and the Trinidad and Tobago high commissioner here in London, but what more can our high commission do to support Sharon and her family, and what further pressure can our Government exert on the Trinidad authorities to ensure that the case will now be heard? (901933)

This is a genuinely troubling case. There is an additional horror in being a relative of a victim of homicide when the event has taken place abroad because of the unfamiliar context, all the complexities of dealing with it, and the problems with the justice system. We will continue to monitor that case very closely. We now have a specialised unit in the Foreign Office to deal with cases of exactly this sort.

T8. My right hon. Friend will no doubt be aware that over the weekend Antonio Ledezma, the former mayor of Caracas and leading opponent of President Maduro, fled his house arrest, evaded security forces and made it out of Venezuela, managing to reach Spain. Any claim now that Venezuela constitutes anything like democracy is fantasy. Will my right hon. Friend join me in sending the best wishes and thoughts of all Members to the brave opposition politicians in Venezuela, and to Mr Ledezma, who said at the weekend that his new aim was “to spread the hope of all Venezuelans to escape this regime, this dictatorship”? (901938)

I totally agree with my hon. Friend. Antonio Ledezma is but the latest opposition figure to flee from Venezuela. On 10 October, I raised our concerns with the Venezuelan Foreign Minister, who denied that Venezuela was in crisis. That is immoral, it is wrong, and it is why this Government consistently argued for targeted EU sanctions, which were adopted on 14 November.

T6. We continue to hear reports of violence and human rights violations in Kashmir. Tensions in the region remain high, and there seems to have been little or no progress towards peace and security. What recent discussions about Kashmir has the Minister had with the Indian and Pakistani Governments, and what assessment has he made of prospects for any improvement in the security situation in the region? (901936)

The situation in Kashmir is still tragic, as it has been for many decades. The position of the British Government remains that this is an issue to be resolved between the Governments of India and Pakistan, but we continue to champion issues relating to human rights abuse with both Governments whenever they occur, and we will continue to monitor the situation extremely carefully.

T9. We have a lot to thank the Kurdish administration for, such as protecting minorities and its fight against Daesh in recent years. Will my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary speak to his counterparts in Baghdad to stop the intransigence of the federal Iraqi Government towards the aspirations of the Kurdish people for independence? (901939)

This has been a difficult recent chapter between the Kurdish region and Iraq. So far, because of good sense on both sides and a desire to reconcile, there has been no physical conflict at the border area. It is essential that both the Government in Baghdad and those in Erbil find a way through the present constitutional difficulties to make sure that the long-standing concerns of the Kurdish people are recognised within a united and strengthened Iraq. The United Kingdom will do all in its power to make sure we put our words to that effect.

Who shall we have? I was going to call Mr Burden, but he is not standing, so I can’t and I won’t. I call Jo Swinson.

At the last Foreign Office questions, the Foreign Secretary told me that the UK could not pinpoint any direct Russian cyber-attacks on this country. Today, he tells us the Prime Minister’s comments last week about Russia’s sustained campaign of cyber-espionage and disruption refer only to other countries. Why does he think the UK is uniquely immune to Russian interference, or is he just complacent about the threat?

I should be clear with the hon. Lady that, because of the sensitivity of the intelligence involved, it is impossible for us to pinpoint these attacks in public. When the Prime Minister referred to “meddling in elections”, she was referring to meddling in other countries.

If the hon. Member for Newark (Robert Jenrick) will confine himself to a short sentence, I will call him, but if he won’t, I won’t.

There is no hiding from the fact that the loss of a British judge on the International Court of Justice is a major failure for British diplomacy. What lessons will the Foreign Office learn to ensure that this does not happen again?

I cannot quite agree with the construction my hon. Friend places on events, but I repeat my congratulations to the Indian judge. As the House will know, a long-standing objective of UK foreign policy has been to support India in the United Nations.

The military orders issued against the Bedouin villages of Jabal al-Baba, Ain al-Hilweh and Umm el-Jimal will involve the forcible transfer of over 400 people, which the director of the Israeli human rights organisation B’Tselem has described as a war crime. If Israel believes such actions can continue without consequence, what reason will it have to think it should do anything other than carry on with such actions with impunity?

The hon. Gentleman’s words and concerns are echoed by the United Kingdom. As has repeatedly been made clear, we believe that concerns about demolitions, threatened demolitions and movements make a peace settlement more difficult, and we are repeatedly in contact with Israel about that. We still hope that current events in the region give Israel an opportunity to recognise that it can have a secure viable future with a two-state solution. We will do everything in our power to press it to take that opportunity, as the Palestinians should as well.

What representations has my right hon. Friend made to the Government of Pakistan about human rights abuses and the desire for freedom in Balochistan? [Interruption.]

Badakhshan is of course a region of Afghanistan, so interference in Badakhshan from Pakistan would be a serious issue. My hon. Friend may perhaps be referring to Balochistan, where we continue to raise reports of human rights abuses with the Government of Pakistan.

My constituent Laura Plummer has been imprisoned in Hurghada, Egypt, for several weeks, having taken Tramadol with her to help to manage her boyfriend’s back pain. She might be tried on Christmas day. We make no criticism of the Egyptian authorities, but will the Foreign Secretary continue to make representations to them to make it known that this was a very naive young woman who has made a very bad mistake, but has not in her mind committed a crime?

I recognise the work that the hon. Gentleman is doing on behalf of his constituent and I thank him. We are providing every consular assistance to Laura Plummer and, as he may know, I have intervened in the matter with the Egyptian Foreign Minister, Sameh Shoukry.

Does the Foreign Secretary regret the Russian veto of the UN vote on an investigation into the use of chemical weapons in Syria?

I do. It is shameful, and another aspect of Russia’s continual abetting of some of the worst excesses of the Assad regime. That is certainly one of the things that I will take up when I go to Russia at the end of next month.

The right hon. Member for Cynon Valley (Ann Clwyd) should not worry; I have preserved her contribution for the belated adoration of the House.

Thank you, Mr Speaker. What assessment has the Foreign Office made of the current political situation in Cambodia?

As the House will be aware, the opposition leader in Cambodia has recently been arrested and imprisoned. Cambodia continues to be a one-party state. There is a closing space for civil society, and there are increasingly brutal crackdowns on the opposition. This is an area of extreme concern for the international community and Cambodia remains an outlier in Asia.

The humanitarian crisis for the Rohingya represents a critical test for the US Administration. Although Secretary Tillerson’s condemnation of abuses is welcome, action is needed to bring about a comprehensive end to the crisis. Will the Secretary of State update the House on what discussions he has had with our US allies to urge them to take an international lead in addressing this crisis?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right that any pressure on Burma and the Government in Naypyidaw would be greatly assisted by more pressure from the United States. Rex Tillerson is now actively engaging. Burma is not an area where the US has traditionally been in the lead, but the UK, working with the US, is building pressure internationally. I have already mentioned to the House some of the things that we have done at the UN and elsewhere to exert pressure on the Burmese Government.

Will the Minister tell us what discussions he has had with the Government of India about their human rights record in the state of the Punjab, critically in relation to my constituent, Jagtar Singh Johal, who has been in custody since 4 November without charge? There is now a possibility—or accusation—of torture, and the Prime Minister indicated the Government’s personal interest on BBC radio yesterday. Will the Minister advise me and the House how the Secretary of State is working with the office of the Prime Minister to assist my constituent and his family in Dunbarton?

We have taken this issue very seriously. The deputy high commissioner managed to gain access, and we have now had a meeting with the hon. Gentleman’s constituent. We take any allegation of torture seriously, as, indeed, do the Indian Government. It is completely unconstitutional and offensive to the British Government. We will work very closely to investigate the matter and will, of course, take extreme action if a British citizen is being tortured.