Topical Questions

Oral Answers to Questions — Foreign and Commonwealth Office – in the House of Commons at 2:30 pm on 6 April 2010.

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Photo of Eric Illsley Eric Illsley Labour, Barnsley Central 2:30, 6 April 2010

If he will make a statement on his departmental responsibilities.

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

On 1 April I announced that I had instructed the British Indian Ocean Territory Commissioner to declare a marine protected area in the territory, which will include a no-take marine reserve. By establishing this marine protected area, the UK has created one of the world's largest marine protected areas and has doubled the global coverage of the world's oceans benefiting from protection. I wish to emphasise that the creation of the MPA will not change the UK's commitment to cede the territory to Mauritius when it is no longer needed for defence purposes. It is also without prejudice to the outcome of the current pending proceedings before the European Court of Human Rights. The BIOT administration has been tasked with taking the establishment of an MPA forward in order that this is achieved in a realistic, sustainable and affordable way.

Finally, on a separate topic-[Hon. Members: "This is a different question."] No. On a separate matter, Mr. Speaker, I hope you will allow me to say, I am sure on behalf of the whole House, that we utterly condemn yesterday's attack on the US consulate in Peshawar and the earlier suicide attack in Lower Dir. There can be no justification for these bloody acts.

Photo of Eric Illsley Eric Illsley Labour, Barnsley Central

May I return my right hon. Friend to the question that was raised a few moments ago-the problems that some of our overseas posts are experiencing as a result of exchange rate fluctuations? Surely it cannot be right that some of the staff at our overseas posts have to volunteer to work for a period for no salary to make up the posts' funding. Can we reinstate the overseas pricing mechanism and reinforce the measures that my right hon. Friend mentioned a few moments ago?

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

That is certainly one of the issues that will be considered in the next comprehensive spending review. The £75 million that has, in effect, been added to the Foreign Office budget for this year will ensure that the comprehensive first-class global network that we have is maintained and developed.

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

May I associate the Opposition utterly with what the Foreign Secretary just said in condemnation of the attack on the US consulate in Peshawar?

Following up the question by Mr. Illsley, will the right hon. Gentleman look again at the recent report of the Foreign Affairs Committee, which warned of "very severe strains" on the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and

"an unacceptable risk to the FCO's ability to perform its functions" as a direct result of his decision to transfer the entire exchange rate risk of the Foreign Office's expenditure to the Foreign Office for 2008-09? Given that no other major Foreign Ministry in the world conducts its affairs in that ridiculous way, will he now concede that it was a grave and short-sighted error and join me in saying that, whoever the Foreign Secretary is in one month's time, they should pledge to reverse that bad decision?

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

I think the right hon. Gentleman will find that many other countries are having to make the sort of efficiency savings that the Foreign Office in this country has made. As he will have seen, the French Foreign Ministry and those of other countries are facing severe budgetary strain, and we make no apology for taking our efficiency measures seriously. However, I thought that he would want to welcome the fact that we have secured the £75 million to ensure that, when the Labour party returns to the Government Benches in one month's time, we are able to ensure significant long-term progress through the comprehensive spending review.

Photo of William Bain William Bain Labour, Glasgow North East

Does my right hon. Friend recollect that in 1997 this country was politically isolated in Europe and the social chapter had shamefully been left unsigned? Does he agree that great progress has been made in areas from justice to climate change through a more positive engagement in the intervening 13 years? Would that not be put at risk if we were to become the great ignored of the EU in the coming weeks?

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

My hon. Friend makes an important point. The pro-European part of the Conservative party is leaving this House, and we have already paid tribute to one such right hon. Gentleman. In 1997 this country was a source of despair to its friends and disdain to its enemies, and that has been reversed over the past 13 years-on Europe, on overseas aid spending and on a range of human rights and other democracy-promotion issues. We will fight this election proud not only of our foreign policy record, but of the fact that we are going to be proactively and positively engaged with the European Union.

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

I cannot believe that the Foreign Secretary tried to suggest with a straight face that scrapping the overseas pricing mechanism was a good idea, or that he defended it. How can he seriously suggest that subjecting to the mercies of the foreign exchange market the budget of his Department and our ability to project our influence overseas is a good idea? Did he really sign up for it?

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

I certainly did not say anything other than that the efficiency savings that we are making are important. The hon. Gentleman is very welcome to check Hansard in the leisure time that he has over the next three or four weeks. However, the fact is that we run a comprehensive service, with 261 posts throughout the world. It is widely recognised for its influence both in bilateral and multilateral relations, and long may that continue.

Photo of Mike Gapes Mike Gapes Chair, Foreign Affairs Committee, Chair, Foreign Affairs Committee

Almost one year ago the Sri Lankan civil war came to an end. Some 280,000 Tamils were then put in detention, and 70,000 people in Sri Lanka are still in detention camps. What are our Government doing to press on the Sri Lankan Government the need to ensure that the Tamil population are completely released and reintegrated into society, so that they feel that they have a stake in a future Sri Lanka?

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

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to raise that issue. We have provided £13.5 million of assistance in the post-conflict period to help almost 300,000 people who have been displaced by fighting. Of course, there has been some progress in terms of the number of people in camps falling to about 80,000, but that is not good enough. The Government will continue to apply pressure to the Sri Lankan Government until all those people are allowed to return home safely and freely.

Photo of Tony Baldry Tony Baldry Conservative, Banbury

Does the Secretary of State agree with the Foreign Affairs Committee that the current exchange rate pricing mechanism for the Foreign Office is simply unsustainable? The extra £75 million is welcome, but it is a one-off, and this is not an issue that can wait for a comprehensive spending review. Does not the Secretary of State think that he should negotiate a new bilateral deal with the Chancellor of the Exchequer?

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

On reflection the hon. Gentleman, who I know follows these matters carefully, will understand that that would not be a very sensible course. Any Government after the general election will have to set a framework for public spending for all Departments, and it is quite right that the Foreign Office has negotiated a special bilateral agreement for this year. That is very important, but it is also important that we then take a long-term look at the funding of the Foreign Office and other Departments. The ability to do so on a three-year or even longer-term basis is a good thing, and that is the right way to proceed.

Photo of Barry Sheerman Barry Sheerman Chair, Children, Schools and Families Committee, Chair, Children, Schools and Families Committee

In the nearly three years during which my right hon. Friend has been Foreign Secretary, has he ever taken a Labour fundraiser with him when meeting the leader of a foreign country?

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

No, I certainly have never taken a Labour fundraiser to a meeting with a foreign Government, and I look forward to the day when the shadow Foreign Secretary can give me a straight answer to the question whether Lord Ashcroft has ever been taken to meetings with foreign Governments in places where Lord Ashcroft has business interests. I have written to the right hon. Gentleman three times about that; I know that the postal service has its problems, but we have never had a reply.

Photo of Shailesh Vara Shailesh Vara Shadow Deputy Leader of the House of Commons

Following the recent worrying events in South Africa, what discussions has the Foreign Secretary had with his overseas counterpart to ensure the safety and security of British football fans who will be travelling to South Africa later in the year to the World cup finals?

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

I hope that all UK citizens will be supporting the English team, and I am sorry if Angus Robertson wants to distinguish between English, Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish fans in respect of the World cup. Obviously, we talked about the issue when we met the South African President and South African Foreign Minister during the state visit last month. They are taking the issues of security and wider provision for fans extremely seriously. The bilateral engagement between our two countries is of a very high order on this important issue.

Photo of Andrew MacKinlay Andrew MacKinlay Labour, Thurrock

Will the Secretary of State tell us what representations were or will be made by him to the Israeli Government in relation to the Palestinian and Arab Christians who were denied access to the holy places over Easter, the most important festival in the Christian calendar? Will he do all he can to ensure that access is given to these Palestinian Arabs, who are a minority, so that they can celebrate that important feast in future?

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

First of all, I am sure I speak on behalf of Members on both sides of the House in paying tribute to my hon. Friend's unique contribution to the affairs of this House. I shared a corridor with him when I started my parliamentary career; I shall leave it at that. It was a tremendous privilege to get to know him.

My hon. Friend has raised an important issue. One of the constant conversations that we have with the Israeli Government is about ensuring that there is maximum support for interfaith harmony in Israel and that any restriction of movement is lifted, other than in the most extenuating of security circumstances.

Photo of Bernard Jenkin Bernard Jenkin Conservative, North Essex

Can the Foreign Secretary confirm that it is his Government's policy to increase the British contribution to the European Union by billions of pounds and to pay for that by cutting back on the funding of British overseas postings run by his Department? Because that is the net result.

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

The hon. Gentleman knows perfectly well, because he is quite an intelligent man; that that is not the policy of this Government nor, indeed, of his party.

Photo of Barry Gardiner Barry Gardiner Labour, Brent North

I hope that my right hon. Friend recalls the Royal Society's prognosis of July last year that tropical coral reefs might survive on this planet for only another 40 years because the rate of destruction was so great. Does he understand the very real hope that his announcement on Friday of last week, about the designation of the marine protected area in the Chagos archipelago, has given ocean scientists around the globe?

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

Last week's announcement has been widely welcomed in the scientific and environmental community, and for good reason. A unique resource is being created for the future-for all future generations, for the planet, for scientific research and for the protection of the environment. It is a very good symbol of the sort of internationalism and the sort of responsibility that this country should stand for.

Photo of Patrick Cormack Patrick Cormack Chair, Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, Chair, Northern Ireland Affairs Committee

As one who believes that our country is extremely well served and represented by our diplomatic service, may I ask the Foreign Secretary to assure the House that there are no plans to close or amalgamate any of our embassies?

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

I have spoken to the hon. Gentleman on many occasions and have come to know his wisdom and his commitment to the House and to our political system. I hope that he will not be too embarrassed if I pay tribute to him from this side of the House and thank him for his very many years of outstanding service, not just to his constituents but to the House. I know that we have tried to remove him at successive general elections, but without much success.

In respect of the Foreign Office's 261 posts around the world, we keep all our posts under very close review but there are no plans at the moment to close any embassies.

Photo of Brian Iddon Brian Iddon Labour, Bolton South East

It is not just that Palestinians in Jerusalem and East Jerusalem are being prevented from praying; they are having their houses confiscated in ever-increasing numbers as well. Is my right hon. Friend aware that some of those Palestinians are having to seek asylum in this country, and should they be audacious enough to return to their own country and step off the plane at Tel Aviv, they are in danger of being tortured, put back on a plane and returned to Britain?

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

My hon. Friend makes a very important point. I wish him well in his retirement and thank him for all his service to his constituents, and of course to our party and the House.

Jerusalem is rightly at the centre of all the great religions; it is a tinderbox. It is very important that all sides are very careful in the actions that they take in that respect, and that the rights of all denominations and all faiths are respected in that special place. The committees and other structures that have been created to govern the holy sites are there for a purpose, and the rules and norms that they have established need to be adhered to very closely indeed.

Photo of Robert Key Robert Key Conservative, Salisbury

The people of Estonia have held this country in particular regard ever since the intervention of the Royal Navy in their war of independence after the first world war. In fashioning the future foreign and defence policy of this country, will this Government and the next never forget the professionalism and sacrifice of Estonian forces fighting alongside British forces in Afghanistan and the professional and courageous military personnel who, on a tiny budget, show courage above all possible expectations?

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

I think that the hon. Gentleman is the last of the parliamentary swans making their swansong at questions this afternoon, but he is a very fine swan indeed. He has been a great Member of this House and I pay tribute to him and to the many other retiring sensible, pro-European Conservatives who still exist.

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right about Estonia and its contribution. Our troops, in Afghanistan now and in previous conflicts, have known perfectly well that the Estonians have been very strong and successful allies of ours.

Photo of Christopher Fraser Christopher Fraser Conservative, South West Norfolk

Further to the question by my hon. Friend Mr. Chope, does the Minister agree that NATO should be the cornerstone of European defence?

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

Yes I do, and I am delighted that the Lisbon treaty makes that clear.

Photo of Geoffrey Clifton-Brown Geoffrey Clifton-Brown Shadow Secretary of State for International Development, Shadow Spokesperson (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs)

Following on from the question by Meg Munn about business in Iraq, is the Foreign Secretary aware that businesses that I speak to feel that the British Government are not supporting them adequately? Given that Iraq has the world's second largest oil supply and that there is a desperate need to rebuild its infrastructure after the war, what more can he do to build ties with the incoming Iraqi Administration so that British business can do more business with Iraq?

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

This is the only European country that has held an Iraq investment conference and we are committed to UK Trade and Investment and other embassy functions that support commercial diplomacy. The hon. Gentleman's question would be better if he could give me any details of companies that he says have been frustrated. We would be very happy to work with them, because I assure him that many other companies are delighted rather than frustrated.