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House of Commons

Tuesday 30 October 2001

The House met at half-past Two o'clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]


Barclays Bank Reorganisation Bill [Lords]

National Australia Group Europe Bill [Lords]

Read a Second time, and committed.

Oral Answers to Questions


The Secretary of State was asked—


1. Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle): What recent discussions he has had with the Governments of India and Pakistan about the security situation in Kashmir. [8785]

6. Mr. David Crausby (Bolton, North-East): What recent discussions he has had with the representatives of the Indian Government about combating terrorism. [8790]

12. Mr. Henry Bellingham (North-West Norfolk): If he will make a statement on the situation in Kashmir. [8796]

The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Mr. Jack Straw): My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and I have had a number of discussions with our Indian and Pakistani counterparts. Both countries are playing important roles in the international campaign against terrorism. We have long called for an end to external support for terrorism in Kashmir, and we condemn all acts of violence there. The House was united in its revulsion of the terrorist attack on the State Assembly in Srinagar on 1 October, in which at least 38 people were killed—an act for which the terrorist organisation Jaish-i-Mohammad, linked to Osama bin Laden, claimed responsibility. We have continued to urge both countries to act with restraint, to respect human rights and to look constructively at ways to resolve the issues between them.

Mr. Prentice: Our eyes are fixed on Afghanistan, but the real powder keg is next door, in Kashmir. Only today, the Pakistan Government accused the Indians of state-sponsored terrorism, after 22 Kashmiris were killed and 26 properties were torched. I despair. Where will it all end? This has been happening for more than 50 years.

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General Musharraf has accepted an invitation to speak to the United Nations General Assembly on 10 November. Is there not a case for trying yet again to involve the UN in brokering a settlement? The issue has been festering for a long time, but a settlement seems as far away as ever.

Mr. Straw: My hon. Friend is right to say that the situation in Kashmir is serious, and he asked where it will end. The hopes of all of us are that it will end with a peaceful resolution.

My hon. Friend asked about the role of the UN, which I have thought about carefully. However, I doubt that there is a role for the UN in this matter, unless it is at the request of both Pakistan and India. In our judgment, the best hope for a peaceful future for Kashmir lies in a continuation of the talks that were started in Agra in July, but which then, sadly, stalled.

Mr. Crausby: My right hon. Friend will know that India, the largest democracy in the world, has suffered more than most countries from acts of terror over the past 20 years. Will he therefore support India in its efforts to persuade the UN to adopt a comprehensive convention against terrorism?

Mr. Straw: Not only do we support India's proposed comprehensive convention on terrorism, but we have been working actively with the Indian Government on its text. I discussed it in some detail with India's Foreign Minister, Jaswant Singh, when he was here a couple of weeks ago. We are both working hard to ensure that key sections of the text, which some member states want to be removed, are retained in order to ensure that the convention is effective.

Mr. Bellingham: Does the Foreign Secretary agree that the Government should take account of the various communities in this country, which may have a different perspective on this difficult problem? Will he undertake to avoid the mistakes of his predecessor who, every time he looked at the matter, managed to upset people on every side?

Mr. Straw: I shall leave that second point to one side, as I do not believe that my right hon. Friend the previous Foreign Secretary did upset people on every side. The truth is that the Kashmir problem is one of those issues—of which there are, sadly, too many around the world—in which emotions run high. That means that, if one departs from what are regarded as well-worn texts, it is possible for some people to take offence.

The hon. Gentleman asked about taking account of different perspectives in this country. My constituency contains about 13,000 people of Pakistani origin, and about the same number of people of Indian origin. The hon. Gentleman will therefore understand that I have been living with the Kashmir issue for many years.

Dr. Brian Iddon (Bolton, South-East): Further to the question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Pendle (Mr. Prentice), does the Foreign Secretary see any future in talks between India and Pakistan without the intervention of an international mediator, as has happened

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in the middle east? Does he agree that the views of the people of Kashmir on both sides of the line of control should be taken into account?

Mr. Straw: Yes. The views of the people, wherever the final line is drawn, will need to be taken into account. However, with regard to the question of my hon. Friend the Member for Pendle (Mr. Prentice), it is worth bearing in mind that in recent years more than 200,000 people of the Hindu religion have been forced out of Jammu and Kashmir and many of them are now in refugee camps. It is a complicated situation.

Our judgment is that the United Nations or an external mediator will be able to have a constructive role only if it, he or she is asked to exercise that role by the two countries overwhelmingly concerned in this, namely Pakistan and India.

Mr. John Wilkinson (Ruislip-Northwood): Is the Foreign Secretary saying that the UN resolution on Kashmir which followed the 1948 war, as a consequence of which the UN observers were set up in the line of control, is no longer valid? If that is the case, does he have any confidence that an enduring solution can be found? Is it not true that the major powers ought to bring pressure to bear to ensure that opportunism does not occur at this critical time of crisis in south-west Asia?

Mr. Straw: Of course we take account of the resolution passed in 1948. However, one difficulty is that India claims that the terms of the 1948 resolution were superseded by the Simla agreement of the early 1970s, and Pakistan disagrees. Simply exchanging arguments about previous texts will not resolve the situation. It can be resolved only by direct discussion between India and Pakistan. That is why we greatly welcomed the Lahore declaration of two years ago—sadly followed by a resumption of violence—and the talks in Agra, near Delhi, in July. We look forward to a resumption of those discussions. A peaceful future for all the peoples of the area can come about only as a result of discussion and agreement.


2. Mr. Andrew Rosindell (Romford): If he will make a statement on the Government's policy on the sovereignty of Gibraltar. [8786]

The Minister for Europe (Peter Hain): The Government stand by their commitment to the people of Gibraltar set out in the preamble to the 1969 constitution, which enshrines the principle of consent of the people of Gibraltar to any change in sovereignty. Through the dialogue in the recently resumed Brussels process, we aim to build a better future for Gibraltarians, including normalising relations with Spain.

Mr. Rosindell: The Minister will have seen recent press reports suggesting that the Government propose holding a referendum in Gibraltar. Will he confirm that the Government will respect the result of any such

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referendum? Can he also confirm that the Spanish Government will respect the result of a referendum put to the people of Gibraltar?

Peter Hain: The answer to that is yes. That is it. The hon. Gentleman may have been referring to a report that appeared in The Guardian. I am sure that he reads it avidly and is a great fan. It said that a secret deal was being hatched over Gibraltar. It was so secret that the Foreign Secretary told the House on 22 June that dialogue with Spain had resumed, I told the House on 10 July that the formal process of Brussels meetings was taking place, on 19 July I told the House that the first meeting in the process had been fixed for 26 July, and on 26 July the Foreign Secretary and Spain's Foreign Minister, Mr. Piqué, held a press conference. Big deal. If The Guardian had said that the story was four months old, it would not have made the front pages.

Mr. Lindsay Hoyle (Chorley): I think that the point of the article was that a leak from the Foreign Office suggested that Gibraltar was to be handed over to Spain. I am glad that the Minister can confirm that he will respect and abide by the decision of the people of Gibraltar. I hope that he will put Gibraltar's case to Europe as well.

Peter Hain: We will abide by and respect the law, because it is enshrined in the 1969 legislation. My hon. Friend speaks on this issue, and I discuss it with him. I ask him and the people of Gibraltar not to take any notice of scaremongering and political posturing. Our objective is to improve life on the Rock and give Gibraltar a better future. To make progress, we need to unfreeze frozen minds in this House, in Spain and in Gibraltar. Then I think a better future will await the people of Gibraltar.

Rev. Martin Smyth (Belfast, South): We understand the problem of frozen minds. We recognise that there has been no question of secrecy, but when meetings are fixed other things can be fixed, and the Minister will be aware that Ministers and other members of the Council in Gibraltar have written expressing their concern about the continual failure of Her Majesty's Government in negotiations with Spain to clear the airways and allow the people of Gibraltar, who are part of the European Community, the rights of other citizens in that Community.

Peter Hain: It is precisely such issues that we are discussing with Spain, and I am sure that the hon. Gentleman, who represents a Northern Ireland constituency, will agree that talking is the best way to solve these intractable problems, dating back many centuries. I believe that there is the best prospect of making real progress on this matter—the Foreign Secretary has taken a lead on it—that we have seen for many a long year. The people of Gibraltar and the House should welcome that prospect.

Margaret Moran (Luton, South): Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is an anachronism that in 2001 we still effectively have an outpost colony within a major European Union partner? What deadline has he set for

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building a sustainable future for Gibraltar and better relations between Gibraltar, the United Kingdom and Spain?

Peter Hain: That is our objective in these discussions. Spain is an important ally of this country. It is a modern, democratic power in Europe and in the world, and we attach great importance to our relationship with Spain and the close friendship between our two Prime Ministers. It is precisely in order to move forward our relationship with Spain, to which my hon. Friend alluded, and to enable the people of Gibraltar to normalise relations with Spain, that we are engaged upon these discussions—discussions that the Opposition also had when they were in government. They embarked on a similar process of dialogue, and they might need to be reminded about that if they get too uppity on the issue.

Mr. Richard Spring (West Suffolk): Will the right hon. Gentleman confirm the right of the people of Gibraltar to vote in European elections, and will he tell us when a decision will be taken as to where and how they will vote?

Peter Hain: I am glad that the hon. Gentleman got uppity and asked an important question, and I am grateful to him for the opportunity to reply to it. Yesterday, I had discussions on that matter with Minister de Miguel in the margins of the General Affairs Council in Luxembourg and I think that there will be progress. It is important that the Court judgment giving the Gibraltarians the right to vote in the next European elections is honoured and implemented, and we intend to do so, with Spain's agreement as well.

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