Topical Questions

Oral Answers to Questions — Foreign and Commonwealth Office – in the House of Commons at 2:30 pm on 19th January 2010.

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Photo of Meg Munn Meg Munn Labour, Sheffield, Heeley 2:30 pm, 19th January 2010

If he will make a statement on his departmental responsibilities.

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Photo of David Miliband David Miliband Secretary of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office

No one in this House can fail to be moved by the plight of the Haitian people today. It is a human tragedy of enormous proportions, with more than 50,000 confirmed dead and 3 million in need of assistance-fully one third of the total population of that country. The UK Government have so far pledged £20 million, and the British public almost the same. UK search and rescue experts are working alongside teams from 27 countries. Yesterday, the EU pledged more than €345 million. An increasing amount of aid is reaching those who need it-a huge task given the extent of the damage to the limited infrastructure of Haiti. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Development, the Prime Minister and I are working closely with the UN, whose lead co-ordinating effort is vital, and with key partners-above all, the US and Canada-to ensure that all necessary steps are taken for the effective delivery of aid.

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Photo of Meg Munn Meg Munn Labour, Sheffield, Heeley

I declare an interest in relation to a recent visit to Iraq supported by the Kurdistan regional government.

The forthcoming Iraqi elections are an important step in the development of Iraq, but so is the development of trade links. Will my hon. Friend agree to organise the first UK trade mission to Kurdistan, Iraq's safest and most open region, to support its future development?

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Photo of Ivan Lewis Ivan Lewis Minister of State (Foreign and Commonwealth Office)

I begin by paying tribute to my hon. Friend for her long-standing interest in Kurdistan. Before Christmas I visited Iraq, and I went to Baghdad, Basra and Erbil. There is absolutely no doubt that there is a tremendous appetite for a much closer business and trading relationship and a normalisation of the economic relationship between Kurdistan and the United Kingdom, and I will certainly look into her specific proposal.

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Photo of Andrew Selous Andrew Selous Shadow Minister (Work and Pensions)

On 1 December, the Foreign Secretary said that he would follow up the issue of the 8,000 desks provided by the United Nations for schoolchildren in Gaza that cannot be assembled because Israel will not let in the screws and brackets. Could he kindly tell the House what follow-up action he has taken since then?

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Photo of David Miliband David Miliband Secretary of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office

I cannot, but I will write to the hon. Gentleman as soon as we get an answer. I asked for the issue to be followed up, and I will certainly write to him and place a copy of the letter in the Library.

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Photo of Steve Pound Steve Pound Labour, Ealing North

While I am sure you have received a blizzard of congratulations on your birthday today, Mr. Speaker, may I add my voice, particularly as I believe you share this glorious anniversary with three Conservative Members of Parliament and, possibly even more felicitously, with Dolly Parton?May I ask my hon. Friend the Minister for Europe what assessment he has made of the European arrest warrant as a counter-terrorism measure?

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Photo of Chris Bryant Chris Bryant Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Europe)

Happy birthday, Mr. Speaker-I hope that that does not wind you up.

My hon. Friend makes a serious point about the European arrest warrant, which is one of the most important crime prevention tools that we have in Europe. It proved vital following the 21 July attempted bombings, when we had to secure the arrest of a citizen in Italy. The only sadness is that the Conservative party does not support it.

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Photo of Desmond Swayne Desmond Swayne Parliamentary Private Secretary To the Leader of the Opposition

On 3 January the Prime Minister announced with great fanfare the conference on Yemen, and this afternoon the Minister of State has given its importance further billing. However, we discovered in a written answer yesterday that the conference is likely to last two hours. Has the announcement been over-sexed just a little bit?

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Photo of David Miliband David Miliband Secretary of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office

My felicitations as well on your birthday, Mr. Speaker. I do not know whether it was the mention of Dolly Parton that excited the hon. Gentleman.

The meeting on Yemen will bring together 21 countries including the United Kingdom. It will be a serious look at the security, economic and political issues in that country, and I hope that it will also lead to more cohesive international engagement with Yemen. The hon. Gentleman should welcome the meeting, as it will make a useful contribution to a dangerous situation.

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Photo of Keith Vaz Keith Vaz Chair, Home Affairs Committee, Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee, Chair, Home Affairs Committee

I declare my interest in respect of Yemen and welcome the conference. However, what is the rationale behind the Department for Transport suspending direct flights between Sana'a and London? Surely this is the time when we should be engaging with the Yemeni Government and people, not isolating them by preventing them from flying direct to London.

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Photo of Ivan Lewis Ivan Lewis Minister of State (Foreign and Commonwealth Office)

I would lead a chorus of "For He's a Jolly Good Fellow", Mr. Speaker, if it would guarantee unanimous support from the Opposition.

My right hon. Friend raises an important issue, but the first responsibility of any Government is the security of its citizens. The Department for Transport has very good information that suggests that in that context, at the moment it is in the best interests of Yemen and of the UK for those flights to be suspended. However, I want to make it very clear that representatives of the British Government are currently in Yemen supporting the Yemeni Government and advising them about how they can enhance security measures at their airport to ensure that those flights can be resumed in future. Once we have a report back from that visit, we will be able to make decisions.

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Photo of William Hague William Hague Shadow Secretary of State (Foreign Affairs)

I support what the Foreign Secretary said about the plight of the people of Haiti and the efforts made to alleviate it.

Does the Foreign Secretary share our concern about recent developments in Iraq involving the disqualification from the forthcoming elections of large numbers of Sunni candidates on the grounds of their former membership of the Ba'ath party, possibly even including the current Defence Minister, who became a strong opponent of the Saddam regime? Would it not be deeply disturbing and dangerous if Iraq's politics became once again more sharply sectarian? The United States is very active in trying to change that situation. Can the Foreign Secretary say what representations the British Government have made, and what representations they will be making, to the Iraqi Government?

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Photo of David Miliband David Miliband Secretary of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office

It has been a foundation of UK policy in Iraq over successive years to argue the case that Iraq needs to establish itself as a pluralist democracy in the middle east. It is very important that the sectarian potential of that country does not become the basis on which politics is organised.

We view with genuine concern any attempt to restrict the candidates in the forthcoming March elections. In that context, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office Minister, my hon. Friend Mr. Lewis, was in Iraq just before Christmas and was able to discuss directly with Prime Minister Maliki the importance of opening up the democratic process. A very large number of candidates are putting themselves forward for election; as far as we are concerned, it should be as large as possible.

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Photo of Jim Sheridan Jim Sheridan Labour, Paisley and Renfrewshire North

Many innocent families were forced off their properties during the 1974 occupation of northern Cyprus. Therefore, does my hon. Friend agree that any peace process must allow those people to go back to their legally owned homes or to get compensation?

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Photo of Chris Bryant Chris Bryant Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Europe)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right that one of the key issues is going to be property. That is why we support a whole-package solution to Cyprus. In the end, the solution must not be dreamed up in Ankara, Athens or London; it must be a resolution of the two sides, which everybody in Cyprus can then vote for. The decision of the Court of Appeal today in the Orams case is going to provoke quite a lot of soul searching over the days to come.

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Photo of Andrew MacKay Andrew MacKay Conservative, Bracknell

Following the election of the new President in Croatia and the successful resolution of a territorial dispute with Slovenia, will the Foreign Secretary accept that there is no need for any further delay in Croatia becoming a member of the European Union, and will he and his fellow Foreign Ministers use their best offices to ensure that that happens as quickly as possible?

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Photo of David Miliband David Miliband Secretary of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office

We welcome the election of the new Croatian President, although I hope that on reflection, the right hon. Gentleman will realise that he slightly misspoke. There is a major outstanding issue before membership of the European Union, namely full co-operation with the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia in respect of the situation in the 1990s. I spoke to the Croatian Foreign Minister last week and said that the UK would not block the opening of chapter 23, which is an important chapter in the renegotiations, but I emphasised to him that while we welcome what the Croatian Prime Minister has done in terms of setting up a taskforce to find the important lost documents that are at the heart of ICTY co-operation, it remains the responsibility of the Croatian authorities to pursue this case to the end.

I hope the right hon. Gentleman recognises that that sort of conditionality is an important part of becoming a functioning member of the European Union. May I make this point, Mr. Speaker, because I think it important? The Croatian Foreign Minister said that he agreed with that approach, because he is helping to drive a process of reform in Croatia so that it can come to terms with its own past. That requires the sort of openness and transparency that is at the heart of the EU accession process.

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Photo of Rob Marris Rob Marris Labour, Wolverhampton South West

The Foreign Secretary today repeated that the UK Government favour sanctions against Iran because that country might be trying to develop nuclear weapons. However, the UK Government do not support sanctions against the state of Israel, which already has nuclear weapons. Will he please explain that contradiction?

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Photo of David Miliband David Miliband Secretary of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office

I do not think that that is a contradiction because, first of all, we are clear that the possession of nuclear weapons by any state in the middle east is not a contribution towards peace in that region. That is why we have long supported a middle east that is free of nuclear weapons. Secondly, Iran is a signatory to the non-proliferation treaty. I would have liked to see Israel itself sign the NPT a long time ago, but it did not do so. Thirdly, it is very clear in the Arab world that although the Israeli programme may be viewed with disdain, it has not been the basis for mass proliferation in the middle east. The danger of the Iranian programme is that it will be the basis for precisely that sort of proliferation right across the Arab world.

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Photo of Lembit Öpik Lembit Öpik Liberal Democrat, Montgomeryshire

The three Baha'is detained in Tehran and the one detained in the town of Semnan turn out to be relatives of the seven Baha'i leaders whose trial commenced on 12 January. Is the Foreign Secretary willing to meet me and a delegation of UK Baha'is to hear our concerns about the arrests and the trial? We also encourage him to seek assurances of fairness and justice from Tehran.

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Photo of Ivan Lewis Ivan Lewis Minister of State (Foreign and Commonwealth Office)

We are very concerned about the situation facing the Baha'i community, and I personally agree with the hon. Gentleman's concerns. I am more than happy to meet him and a delegation as soon as possible.

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Photo of Jeremy Corbyn Jeremy Corbyn Labour, Islington North

May I take my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary back to the answer that he gave to my hon. Friend Rob Marris, which contained a huge non sequitur? If my right hon. Friend is condemning Iran, as I would, for developing nuclear weapons, why cannot he-in the same unequivocal terms-condemn Israel for holding and developing nuclear weapons? There is an obvious danger of proliferation in the region simply because there are nuclear weapons there and, therefore, an implied threat.

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Photo of David Miliband David Miliband Secretary of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office

We do clearly say that that policy of a middle east free of nuclear weapons is the right vision for the future. Equally, I think that it is right to recognise that the development of the Iranian programme is of concern not just in Israel, but right across the Arab world. Now, it is absolutely clear that if the Iranians do go ahead and develop a nuclear weapons capability, the chances of Israel disarming are zero, and that is why the immediate challenge that we face does relate to the Iranian programme. That is why it is very important to stop the rot in the NPT before it gets any deeper.

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Photo of Mark Harper Mark Harper Shadow Minister (Work and Pensions)

I listened carefully to the Foreign Secretary's answer to Mrs. Ellman. He agreed, I think, that leaders of Israel should be able to come to the United Kingdom without fear of arrest. What I did not hear in his answer was the steps that the British Government will take to ensure that that can happen.

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Photo of David Miliband David Miliband Secretary of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office

The issue arises in respect of an anomaly in English law with respect to the taking out of arrest warrants on the basis of so-called prima facie evidence-a different test than is required for prosecution. So under English law, arrest warrants can be issued even when there is no chance of a prosecution taking place. The Government are looking at ways to remedy that anomaly, but it is important that we do so in a way that preserves our commitments to pursue war crimes and allows private individuals to make representations in such cases. When we have been through all the legal aspects, we will come forward to the House with an answer.

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Photo of Tom Watson Tom Watson Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee

The Government have sought to reassure concerned Members about the EU negotiations on the free trade treaty with Colombia. That has been reassuring, but will the Minister raise the case of Liliana Obando, a human rights campaigner who, to use the words that the Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, my hon. Friend Mr. Lewis used earlier, is facing trumped-up charges and a bogus trial for her human rights activities?

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Photo of Chris Bryant Chris Bryant Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Europe)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising this matter. We will indeed do so. The human rights situation in Colombia is a matter of significant concern to us, with the number of trade unionists and others murdered every year. We need to ensure that if we move forward with a trade deal with Colombia and Peru, it contains robust and enforceable human rights clauses.

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Photo of Norman Baker Norman Baker Shadow Secretary of State for Transport

Last year, the Government changed their long-standing position on the status of Tibet to recognise Chinese sovereignty, despite the fact that it has no historical basis. The Chinese secured a major diplomatic victory as a consequence, but the Government said at the time that the decision would enable progress in Tibet. Can the Minister point to one single concrete achievement for Tibet that has resulted from that badly judged decision?

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Photo of Ivan Lewis Ivan Lewis Minister of State (Foreign and Commonwealth Office)

I can; I was the first British Minister ever to be allowed to visit Tibet.

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Photo of Jane Kennedy Jane Kennedy Labour, Liverpool, Wavertree

Did my right hon. Friend hear the comments by Khalil al-Hayya yesterday in which he roundly rejected the Egyptian proposals for reconciliation on the Egyptian border with Gaza? Does not that clearly indicate the responsibility that Hamas carries for the suffering of its own people?

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Photo of David Miliband David Miliband Secretary of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office

My right hon. Friend is right that Hamas bears a strong responsibility for seeking reconciliation on a basis that would allow the Palestinian people to find a way to achieve the state that should be their right, but is not yet their reality. Hamas bears a heavy responsibility in that area. Given that the whole Arab world has endorsed the Arab peace initiative, the question is why Hamas has not, and that question needs to be repeated again and again.

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Photo of Nigel Evans Nigel Evans Conservative, Ribble Valley

After the last demonstrations in Iran, hundreds of political prisoners are languishing in jail, some being tortured and 17 facing the death penalty. I do not think that Iran cares a stuff about having good relations with the UK, but can the Foreign Secretary use his influence with the international community to protect the lives of these innocent political prisoners?

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Photo of David Miliband David Miliband Secretary of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office

It is a tragedy that Amnesty International has said that the human rights situation in Iran is the worst for 20 years. That is a blot on the copybook of a civilised and historic nation that deserves a civilised regime. I believe that it is not in Iran's interest to be isolated, and I do not believe that the hon. Gentleman is quite right to say that Iran does not care at all about its isolation. However, the people on the streets of Iran deserve our admiration for their determination to stand up patriotically for what their revolution was all about-serving the interests of the people in the Islamic republic.

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Photo of Lindsay Hoyle Lindsay Hoyle Labour, Chorley

Will my right hon. Friend now relinquish his duty of laying a wreath at the cenotaph and ensure that the overseas territories lay their own wreath? That decision has been deferred for a long time. Can it now be taken-yes or no?

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Photo of Chris Bryant Chris Bryant Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Europe)

It has not been possible to secure unanimity on that decision, so we have no plans, I am afraid, to bring it forward this year.

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Photo of Tobias Ellwood Tobias Ellwood Shadow Minister (Culture, Media and Sport)

I welcome the Secretary of State's comments on Haiti, but may I ask whether we are using all our assets? The Type 23 frigate, HMS Iron Duke, is in the Caribbean but not being utilised. Our military stabilisation and security teams, which performed so admirably after the Indonesian earthquake, remain to be dispatched to Haiti. Will he consider those assets?

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Photo of David Miliband David Miliband Secretary of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office

Unlike the situation in Indonesia, Haiti's Government have been all but eradicated. The Ministry of Defence has certainly looked at the use of all its assets as part of the international effort under UN leadership, and we will continue to consider any way in which we can make a difference in Haiti.

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Photo of Denis MacShane Denis MacShane Labour, Rotherham

The President of the European Union Council, Mr. Van Rompuy, has been in London today. Will the Foreign Secretary inform the House on whether he stopped the traffic?

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Photo of David Miliband David Miliband Secretary of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office

As it happens, I was not listening to Capital Radio at 8.30 am, when the Council President's motorcade-for I assume that it was a motorcade-went through London. However, I know that he was delighted to meet the Cabinet after his meeting with the Prime Minister this morning, and that he and the Prime Minister set out a very ambitious agenda for European growth and jobs that will support the efforts being made in this country to ensure that the fragile recovery is turned into strong and robust growth.

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Photo of Philip Davies Philip Davies Conservative, Shipley

Will the Foreign Secretary tell the House how many powers have been handed from the European Union back down to national Parliaments since the principle of subsidiarity was recognised under European Community law by the Maastricht treaty? In the same time, how many powers have gone from national Parliaments up to the EU?

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Photo of Chris Bryant Chris Bryant Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Europe)

One of the most important powers that Parliament now has, following the Lisbon treaty, which the hon. Gentleman opposed, is the power to say no to legislation proposed by the Commission. I would have thought that he would support that-it is one of the reasons why I would have thought that he would support the Lisbon treaty-but if he wants to remain on the extremist wing of Europe, he should feel free to remain there.

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Having minority representation (worded carefully as I believe there are far more of us than our representation in the political elite indicates) does not make an opinion extremist: Nazi's were in the majority in Germany and Stalinists in the USSR - did that...

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Photo of Mark Pritchard Mark Pritchard Conservative, The Wrekin

Even without the nuclear question, Iran remains a malevolent, oppressive and destabilising influence in Latin America, the horn of Africa, central Europe and Lebanon. What discussions has the Secretary of State had with the Government of India to try to convince Iran to understand the will of the international community?

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Photo of David Miliband David Miliband Secretary of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office

I was pleased to meet my Indian opposite number at the G8 meeting and then at the Commonwealth conference. It is important to recognise that when the IAEA voted recently on a resolution on the Iranian nuclear programme, India supported the majority position-I think that 22 of the 25 countries supported it. That is an important step forward, and I was pleased that it did so.

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Photo of Angus MacNeil Angus MacNeil Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Scotland), Shadow Spokesperson (Culture, Media and Sport), Shadow Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

With the terrible events in Haiti, and as we look forward to its reconstruction, can the USA's blockade or embargo of Cuba be helpful to regional prosperity, including in Cuba's near neighbour, Haiti, in the years to come?

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Photo of Chris Bryant Chris Bryant Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Europe)

We have long opposed the blockade of Cuba. We think that it is inappropriate and does not encourage Cuba to open its society and economy. We think that it is wholly misguided, as we regularly tell our American counterparts.

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Photo of Stewart Jackson Stewart Jackson Shadow Minister (Communities and Local Government)

Over a number of years the Foreign Office has been complicit with the Government of the Republic of Turkey in denying the Armenian genocide of 1915. In the dying months of this Administration, is the Foreign Secretary happy that this situation should prevail?

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Excellent question; unfortunately same meaningful response from the Foreign Secretary despite demolition of his arguments in the recent legal opinion by eminent...

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Photo of David Miliband David Miliband Secretary of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office

My hon. Friend the Minister for Europe has happily deferred to me to answer this question.

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Photo of David Miliband David Miliband Secretary of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office

My hon. Friend says that he knows the answer, but he did not spring to his feet. Mr. Jackson will know that it has been the long-standing position of the British Government, as articulated both publicly and privately in Turkey, that there should be a proper historical investigation into those events that has the confidence of both sides. However, he should recognise that the recent opening of closer relations between Turkey and Armenia is a significant step forward. As it happens, last Tuesday, when the Turkish Foreign Minister was here, was also the day when those talks took a further step forward beyond so-called football diplomacy and into real diplomacy. That is something that we should welcome and congratulate both sides on.

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Photo of John Bercow John Bercow Chair, Members Estimate Committee, Chair, Speaker's Committee for the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority, Speaker of the House of Commons, Chair, Speaker's Committee on the Electoral Commission, Speaker of the House of Commons, Chair, Members Estimate Committee, Chair, Speaker's Committee for the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority, Chair, Speaker's Committee on the Electoral Commission

I am glad that the House is in such an ebullient and, on the whole, good-natured mood. As usual, I have tried to practise the maximum inclusivity and have done my best to be accommodating, but from now, if we are going to get everybody in, we will need pithier questions and pithier answers.

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Several hon. Members:

rose -

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