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Topical Questions

Oral Answers to Questions — Foreign and Commonwealth Office – in the House of Commons at 2:30 pm on 3rd May 2011.

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Photo of William Hague William Hague The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs

Yesterday I visited Cairo to underline the United Kingdom’s support for what the people of Egypt have achieved in the last three months and for their democratic and peaceful future. Across the middle east, this Government will continue to offer their support to ensure that the countries of the region can meet their people’s legitimate aspirations and that events do not result in the suppression of those aspirations, as we are seeing in countries such as Syria.

Photo of Fiona Bruce Fiona Bruce Conservative, Congleton

I thank the Minister for his response with regard to the treatment of minorities such as the Hazara population in Pakistan. What can also be done to encourage and support the protection of the rights of minorities more widely in Pakistan, such as Hindus,

Christians and women, in the light of accounts of human rights violations, such as forced conversion, forced marriage, beatings, rape, false imprisonment and even murder?

Photo of Alistair Burt Alistair Burt The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs

My hon. Friend makes serious points about the concerns over human rights in Pakistan. They are points that the United Kingdom Government take up, which have of course been more sharply in focus in recent weeks given, sadly, the murder of Shahbaz Bhatti, the Christian who was Minister for minorities in Pakistan, who was known to a number of us in this House. We are all concerned about the circumstances there, but the Government are working with us and we will continue to support efforts to protect all minorities in Pakistan from the issues that my hon. Friend raised.

Photo of Douglas Alexander Douglas Alexander Shadow Foreign Secretary

The House is aware that the Prime Minister will shortly give a statement on the death of Osama bin Laden, but I hope the Foreign Secretary will agree that the success of the Arab spring could yet be an even more significant blow to al-Qaeda. Given that, will he update us on the work being done to stop the repression of demonstrators in Syria? In particular, when will the European Union act, and will the Foreign Secretary give an undertaking to work to ensure that Syria does not take Libya’s vacated place on the UN Human Rights Council?

Photo of William Hague William Hague The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs

I fully agree with the right hon. Gentleman. Indeed, this is a moment for people across the middle east to reflect that in so many countries it has been possible to bring about peaceful and democratic change—that may yet happen in more countries—and that the violent philosophy of al-Qaeda that only violence and death can bring about change is bankrupt and should increasingly be vanquished across the middle east. That does, indeed, bring us to Syria. The UK is at the forefront of pressing for action by the European Union. At the end of last week, we secured agreement on an arms embargo and the revocation of the association agreement that had been put in place with Syria. We are now working with our European partners on targeted sanctions such as asset freezes and travel bans—I will be discussing those further with the French Foreign Minister this evening—and we are also highly active at the United Nations Security Council on this issue, although the right hon. Gentleman will understand that Syria is a difficult issue at the UN Security Council and that some of the members, including permanent members, require a good deal of convincing that the United Nations should be taking any action.

Photo of Julian Smith Julian Smith Conservative, Skipton and Ripon

British business continues to be bogged down by regulation and directives from Brussels. What plans does the Minister for Europe have to work with ministerial colleagues to challenge that over the coming months?

Photo of David Lidington David Lidington The Minister for Europe

My hon. Friend is right in his analysis. Securing less costly, less burdensome regulation on European businesses, especially small and medium-sized enterprises, is a priority in our engagement with our European counterparts for every Minister in this Government, from the Prime

Minister downwards. I am delighted to be able to assure my hon. Friend that the Prime Minister’s initiative in that respect is gaining increasing support from other Heads of Government across the European Union.

Photo of Rosie Cooper Rosie Cooper Labour, West Lancashire

Described as the single greatest advertisement for Britain, the value of the BBC World Service cannot be underestimated, especially given that Syrian demonstrators hold up placards with “Thank you BBC” on them. Will the Minister therefore consider making the appropriate representations to stop the disproportionate reduction in the BBC World Service output before it is too late?

Photo of William Hague William Hague The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs

Nothing disproportionate has happened or will happen to the BBC World Service. The reduction in its spending between 2007 and 2014, the period for which the Foreign Office is under spending restraint, will be exactly the same as the proportionate reduction in the rest of the Foreign Office family and a good deal less than that for the British Council. It is important that we save money across the public sector—we have had to do so given the behaviour of the previous Government—but the World Service has a secure future, as does the Arabic service. Transferring the BBC World Service into the licence fee funding arrangement means that it has a secure future for the long term.

Photo of Christopher Pincher Christopher Pincher Conservative, Tamworth

Piracy off the west coast of Africa, particularly the coast of Somalia, continues to grow. It represents a clear threat to the lives of seafarers and costs international commerce billions of pounds. What steps does the Minister envisage taking, with the Government of Somalia, to bring to an end this dangerous form of robbery?

Photo of Henry Bellingham Henry Bellingham The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs

Obviously, a long-term solution to the problem of piracy lies on the land, which is why we are working so hard to provide a stable Somalia. We have taken the lead in the international contact group on piracy, and last year we provided £6 million in support of regional prosecution and prisons capacity and some new equipment for the improvement of the Seychelles coastguard. We are taking the lead, and I hope that other countries follow it.

Photo of Grahame Morris Grahame Morris Labour, Easington

Let us be clear about the impact of the spending cuts on the Arabic division of the BBC World Service. In one month it will be forced to reduce its daily output of live TV news from 15 hours to seven and of live radio from 12 hours to seven, and it will also lose 44 of its Arabic staff. In the light of the recent monumental events across the Arab world and the integral role of the BBC World Service as a provider of impartial information, will the Foreign Secretary act now to save this valuable service?

Photo of William Hague William Hague The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs

The answer really is the same as the one I gave a few moments ago: we have to operate within all the spending constraints involved in repairing the budgetary catastrophe left to us after last year’s general election. Unfortunately, that has consequences for the World Service too, but the Arabic service, along with so many other services of the World Service, will not just be secure for the future; it can be developed further for the future, along with BBC World, which is also of importance in the Arab world, because we have secured its long-term future within the BBC licence fee.

Photo of Simon Hughes Simon Hughes Deputy Leader, Liberal Democrats

The recent report to the Secretary-General of the United Nations made it clear that war crimes had been committed in Sri Lanka by both the Tamil Tigers and the armed forces of the Government of Sri Lanka. What action do our Government propose to take in the UN and the Commonwealth to make sure that Sri Lanka, a member of the Commonwealth, upholds the rule of law and that war crimes are punished?

Photo of William Hague William Hague The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs

This is a vital subject and it is crucial for the long-term health of Sri Lanka that these problems are addressed as a part of reconciliation for the long-term future and in bringing different communities together in Sri Lanka. Our Government strongly supported the commissioning of the report by the Secretary-General. We are considering that report carefully, but in the meantime we look to the Government of Sri Lanka to respond to it in detail and make it clear how they intend to proceed.

Photo of Andrew Miller Andrew Miller Chair, Science and Technology Committee (Commons)

In the light of the second bombing of the gas pipelines from Egypt to Israel and Jordan, what conversations has the right hon. Gentleman had with the new regime in Egypt to stress the importance of the 30-year peace treaty between Israel and Egypt?

Photo of William Hague William Hague The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs

The hon. Gentleman is quite right—of course that is important. I had lengthy discussions yesterday with the Prime Minister and Foreign Minister of Egypt. Regional peace and the future of the middle east peace process are absolutely integral to this matter, so they formed an important part of our discussions. As part of that, we look to Egypt to respect that treaty with Israel, and it is in no doubt whatever about our position on that.

Photo of Mark Lancaster Mark Lancaster Conservative, Milton Keynes North

Will the Minister join me in commending the work of FCO Services for both the UK and international Governments and will he confirm that there are no plans to move the organisation from Hanslope park in Milton Keynes?

Photo of Henry Bellingham Henry Bellingham The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs

I pay full tribute to FCO Services and all its staff at Hanslope park in my hon. Friend’s constituency. They are highly professional and it is an impressive trading fund, with a profit for the last financial year that will exceed its £4 million target. It now gets a quarter of its income from other Government Departments and is also bidding for contracts overseas, so it is one of the jewels in the FCO crown.

Photo of Tony Lloyd Tony Lloyd Labour, Manchester Central

The situation in Syria has naturally been overshadowed by events in Libya and almost totally by the news from Pakistan yesterday. Clearly the deaths of so many people and the actions of the authorities in Damascus have been gross and unacceptable. Will the Secretary of State tell the House what pressure he has been able to bring to bear on those who have a voice in Damascus—those in the Arab League, for example, and, importantly, our good friend Turkey?

Photo of William Hague William Hague The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs

Yes, this is a very important subject. We have of course made our own views clear directly to the Syrian Government. Last Wednesday evening I called the Syrian Foreign Minister and communicated directly to him the views of the United Kingdom about the unacceptable violence against protestors. I urged the Syrian authorities to go down the route of reform rather than repression, but, sadly, they are increasingly taking the route of repression. The hon. Gentleman is right that Turkey plays an important role and there have been Turkish representatives in Damascus over the past week, again urging reform. As I mentioned earlier, I took up the subject with the Arab League in Cairo yesterday to urge it to use its best efforts to encourage Syria down the right path.

Photo of Eric Ollerenshaw Eric Ollerenshaw Conservative, Lancaster and Fleetwood

Two weeks ago, Bosnia’s Serb Parliament agreed to a referendum questioning the legitimacy of the Bosnia and Herzegovina state court, which deals with war crimes. Does the Minister agree that that potentially undermines the Dayton peace accord and could set off the worst crisis in the 16 years since the war finished? What is he doing with our allies to ensure the peace and stability that has been achieved so far will not now be squandered?

Photo of David Lidington David Lidington The Minister for Europe

My hon. Friend is right that that is a potential challenge to the Dayton accord and it is not something that the British Government regard as acceptable. We are emphasising to our European partners and other members of the international community that we all need to work to strengthen the statehood of Bosnia and the integration of its communities within a single country, and we should be prepared, if needs be, to invoke the Bonn powers to make it clear that what the Republika Srpska is now proposing is simply not acceptable.

Photo of Ben Bradshaw Ben Bradshaw Labour, Exeter

In his response to the Chairman of the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs about the Arab League’s response in Syria and Bahrain, the Foreign Secretary stressed the importance of consistency in our response to the Arab spring. How is it adequate simply to urge dialogue on both sides in Bahrain, given the Bahraini Government’s outrageous and continuing human rights abuses?

Photo of William Hague William Hague The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs

That is not the only thing that we are doing. Of course, we have made our protests clear based on credible reports—and there are credible reports—of human rights abuses over the Easter period. I also spoke to the Bahraini Foreign Minister, Sheikh Khalid al-Khalifa, and made our protests. In Bahrain, there is still hope of dialogue and the situation is therefore different from some of the others in the middle east. Serious efforts at dialogue have been made by some of those who are now in authority, so we call again on them—on the ruling family and ruling group in Bahrain and on opposition groups—to enter into such a dialogue, which is the only viable way to a future for Bahrain.

Photo of Jo Swinson Jo Swinson Liberal Democrat, East Dunbartonshire

Gaddafi’s forces have been bombarding Misrata’s port, preventing essential food and medical supplies from reaching the population for four days now. Elsewhere in Libya, aid convoys have been intercepted and attacked, and supplies stolen. Does the Foreign Secretary agree that creating safe corridors for humanitarian aid is within the terms of the United Nations Security Council resolution 1973 in order to protect civilians? What will the coalition do to make sure that vital aid gets through to the people who so desperately need it?

Photo of William Hague William Hague The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs

We have done a great deal to make sure that aid gets through, to take people out of Misrata, including vulnerable people such as migrants who have been concentrated near the port, and to get humanitarian aid in. However, my hon. Friend is right that that has been more difficult in recent days, again because of the barbaric actions of the Gaddafi regime. It is much preferable, of course, to take in humanitarian aid separately from military activity, for very good reasons which she will fully understand, but if that becomes impossible we will have to consider other ways.

Photo of Richard Burden Richard Burden Labour, Birmingham, Northfield

Returning to the question of Hamas, does the Foreign Secretary agree that the reported comments of Ismail Haniya yesterday were appalling and are already being seized on by enemies of peace on both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian divide? Does he agree that we must not be deflected from the cause of peace but must recognise the potential for unity between Fatah and Hamas and recognise that peace is ultimately built between enemies, not with friends?

Photo of William Hague William Hague The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs

Peace is indeed built between enemies rather than friends, but as the hon. Gentleman rightly points out, that cause would be assisted if it were possible to show across many different divides in the world a good deal of unity about what happened on Sunday night and about the removal from the scene of the author of some of the world’s greatest terrorist acts. It would have been better for Hamas to have joined in the welcome for that, as that would have been a boost in itself to the peace process.

Photo of Matthew Offord Matthew Offord Conservative, Hendon

Judge Goldstone recently retracted the central finding of his UN report that Israel had intentionally targeted Palestinian civilians. What steps is the Secretary of State taking to inform members of the UN General Assembly of Judge Goldstone’s reconsideration of his report and admission about his inaccurate conclusion?

Photo of Alistair Burt Alistair Burt The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs

We know that Judge Goldstone would have much preferred the Israeli authorities to have co-operated with his report, which would have given it a different flavour. His comments are extremely important, but it is equally important to make sure that an investigation on both sides into the incidents, as he recommended, is done. He was satisfied that the Israeli Government had done their best to fulfil that commitment, but Hamas, we are afraid, has done nothing at all to fulfil that commitment.

Several hon. Members:

rose —

Photo of Ann Clwyd Ann Clwyd Labour, Cynon Valley

On a point of order, Mr Speaker.