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House of Commons

Tuesday 23 May 2006

The House met at half-past Two o’clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]


Leicester city council bill

Bill read the Third time, and passed.

Liverpool city council bill

Bill read the Third time, and passed.

Maidstone borough council bill

Bill read the Third time, and passed.

Oral Answers to Questions

Foreign and Commonwealth Office

The Secretary of State was asked—


1. Mr. Ian Austin (Dudley, North) (Lab): What her most recent assessment is of the threat posed to regional security by Iran’s nuclear programme. [72677]

The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Margaret Beckett) rose—

Hon. Members: Hear, hear.

Margaret Beckett: Thank you. Iran is undermining the authority of the International Atomic Energy Agency through its failure to take the confidence-building measures repeatedly requested of it by the IAEA. In the process, Iran is undermining the credibility of the non-proliferation regime, which remains a cornerstone of international peace and security. Iran’s insistence on this approach is raising regional and international tensions and risks destabilising the region.

Mr. Austin: I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer and congratulate her on her new position. Does she agree that President Ahmadinejad’s apparent determination to develop nuclear weapons is made all the more worrying by his sponsorship of terrorist organisations such as Hezbollah, his denial of the holocaust, his threat to wipe Israel off the map, and the middle eastern arms race that would result from such development? What is the UK doing to build international support to ensure that that course of action does not take place?

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Margaret Beckett: I share the view of my hon. Friend that all the things that he has identified heighten concern about the stance of the Iranian regime. He asks me what the UK is doing. We are part of the EU3, which has been discussing these issues. We are now discussing them with the United States, Russia and China in an attempt to accelerate realisation within Iran that the international community as a whole is united in wishing Iran to return to compliance with what is urged on it by the IAEA. We have been engaged in substantial talks on that—particularly my predecessor, to whom I pay tribute in this respect—and we will continue to be so until, as we hope, success is achieved.

Sir Malcolm Rifkind (Kensington and Chelsea) (Con): Will the right hon. Lady accept my good wishes? Is she already learning that diplomats are people who can be disarming, especially when their countries are not? With regard to Iran, will she share with her American colleague the view that while the Americans are right to say that no option, including the military option, can at this stage be taken off the table, they ought also to be more generous in offering to Iran the kind of normalisation that they have felt able to achieve with Libya, in exchange for a full renunciation of nuclear weapons and a uranium enrichment programme?

Margaret Beckett: I am grateful to the right hon. and learned Gentleman for his good wishes, and also for his advice. Although I may not have been engaged in negotiations in the Foreign Office in the past, I have a certain amount of experience of negotiations at large—

Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock) (Lab): Not least in the Labour party.

Margaret Beckett: Particularly, perhaps, in the Labour party.

Although I take the point that the right hon. and learned Member for Kensington and Chelsea (Sir Malcolm Rifkind) makes, as part of the discussions to which I have just referred we should try to put together a balanced approach that clearly indicates the danger of sanctions against Iran unless it is prepared to come back into compliance with the will of the international community, but there is also a great deal of discussion about whether it is possible to offer a substantial package of incentives. That balance is important to give Iran a clear choice which it can sensibly, reasonably and viably make.

Mr. Doug Henderson (Newcastle upon Tyne, North) (Lab): I echo the words of my hon. Friend the Member for Dudley, North (Mr. Austin) in welcoming my right hon. Friend to her new post. She will be aware that there is considerable concern in the House not only about the potential for nuclear proliferation in Iran, but about some of the likely repercussions of a response to try to deter such proliferation. I am particularly concerned about what the impact might be not only on the middle east generally, but specifically on Iraq, and the need to keep the Shi’ite community on the side of the international parties involved there. Will she discount any military action in Iran unless it is explicitly called for by a United Nations resolution?

Margaret Beckett: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his good wishes. Everyone must recognise the
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dangers to the region as a whole of problems in Iran and Iraq. It is clearly not the intention of the international community to take military action, but it is the intention of the international community to encourage Iran to see the nature of the choice that lies before it and to take the choice that is in the interests of the Iranian people.

Mr. Paul Keetch (Hereford) (LD): I, too, welcome the Foreign Secretary to her new position and join her in congratulating her predecessor on his role in the EU3. Does she agree that it is odd that in this dispute the two countries most closely concerned, the United States of America and Iran, are not speaking directly to each other? Does she agree with the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, who has suggested that it is possibly time for negotiations between Iran and the United States? Is she prepared to act as a broker in any such negotiations?

Margaret Beckett: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his good wishes and thank him for suggesting that I should put myself right in the middle of difficult and delicate international negotiations. It is clearly for Iran and the United States to decide what dialogue and negotiation should take place between them, and although it is perfectly reasonable for an American politician to comment on that matter, it would not be wise for me to do so.

Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North) (Lab): I congratulate the Foreign Secretary on her appointment and ask her whether she considers that Iran has broken the non-proliferation treaty, and if so, in what way. Is she conducting any direct discussions or negotiations with Iran, which is, after all, the only country in the region that is still a signatory to the NPT; and does she think that the NPT is an important treaty and document?

Margaret Beckett: We take the view that Iran has contravened some of its obligations, but whether or not we take that view matters much less than the fact that the IAEA board has clearly stated that it shares our concern, as has the international community at large. The breach concerns the apparent concealment by Iran of some of its activities. I thank my hon. Friend for his remarks, but my concern is to encourage Iran to see the nature of the choice that lies before it and to make a choice that will contribute to peace and security in Iran and, indeed, provide Iran with civil nuclear power, if that is what it wants, while also contributing to peace and security in the wider world.

Mr. William Hague (Richmond, Yorks) (Con): I join in the welcome to the Foreign Secretary and congratulate her on her first diplomatic triumph in persuading the Prime Minister that the idea of splitting responsibility for the Foreign Office and creating a Secretary of State for Europe was truly bizarre—the idea had to be abandoned on the day of the reshuffle within about two hours of being embarked upon. After that diplomatic triumph, will she indicate when a formal offer will be made by the EU3 to Iran, and can she tell the House any more about the nature of that offer? Given that the Iranian Government have described the suspension of uranium enrichment as “not on the agenda”, if they maintain that position
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after the receipt of the EU3 offer, will she be prepared to give vocal support to meaningful sanctions against Iran as part of her balanced approach, including a ban on the sale of all military, nuclear and dual-use technology?

Margaret Beckett: I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his good wishes. Just as the right hon. and learned Member for Kensington and Chelsea (Sir Malcolm Rifkind) gave me good advice about diplomats, he should not believe everything that he reads in the media about the nature of negotiations within the Government. I cannot say much more to him at the moment about the nature of the offer that might be made. Work is continuing and, as I am sure that he will appreciate, the greater the anxiety to make a substantial and worthwhile offer, the more important it is that detailed and careful work is carried out.

I cannot say much more about the nature of the offer or whether it is likely to come in the next few days, but I assure the right hon. Gentleman that thorough work is continuing. Given that what Iran has indicated will be unacceptable, it is clear that Iran is likely to face a stark choice. We all hope that it will not be necessary to move towards sanctions, but if it is necessary to do so, the sanctions will be those that people feel are capable of having an effect. At this point, I no more want to discuss the exact nature of those sanctions than I want to say much more about any formal offer.


2. Paddy Tipping (Sherwood) (Lab): What discussions she has had with representatives of the Iraqi Government on that Government’s new structure. [72678]

The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Margaret Beckett): Earlier today, I spoke to the Iraqi Foreign Minister, Dr. Hoshyar Zebari to congratulate him on his reappointment. I will continue the regular and close dialogue with Iraqi leaders established by my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House.

Paddy Tipping: I warmly welcome the Foreign Secretary to her new post. I welcome, too, the formation of the first broadly based elected Government in Iraq. It has been a long process. Will she commit to stay with the task, however difficult, until democratic renewal is finally achieved?

Margaret Beckett: I am grateful to my hon. Friend. I share his view that it is extremely important that we welcome the formation of a Government of national unity in Iraq and commit ourselves to work with them. Although the conventional wisdom is that it has been a long process—I understand that people would have liked it to be shorter—I would point out that there was initially the period of election verification, and then the period of coalition building. Considering that the Iraqis have no experience of this kind of democracy at all, compared with what has happened in other nation states with rather more experience, we should perhaps be congratulating them on their speed.

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Mr. Alex Salmond (Banff and Buchan) (SNP): I welcome the Foreign Secretary to her post. Is the four-year timetable for the withdrawal of the significant presence of UK troops from Iraq an official position; how exactly did it emerge yesterday; and, if it is not the official position, what is the timetable for withdrawal?

Margaret Beckett: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his good wishes. What has been said very clearly about the potential for withdrawal is that it is hoped to move towards Iraqi control of particular cities and provinces. A process of assessment is now under way, and we expect the report from that quite soon. It would be what I might call a conditional process, in the sense that it would depend on what the conditions were assessed as being in those cities and provinces and whether the Iraqis were able to take control of the security situation there, which would be a precursor to troops being withdrawn. As he will appreciate, it is potentially a step-by-step process. I am not going to attempt to put a timetable on it. The process has not yet begun. We hope that it will be able to begin soon, because that will demonstrate how Iraq is moving to a more peaceful position.

Mr. Michael Moore (Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk) (LD): I join the many others who have congratulated the Foreign Secretary on her new position and wish her every success in her new role. A quick glance at today’s Order Paper shows that she has quite a bit to be getting on with.

Yesterday, the new Iraqi Prime Minister said very clearly, in public:

He indicated that by the end of this year most provinces will be under Iraqi control. Is there an agreed timetable, or are there even agreed criteria, for the transfer of security responsibilities? When will we get a chance to have a detailed strategy for Iraq from the Government which we can debate in this House?

Margaret Beckett: The remarks made yesterday by the Iraqi Prime Minister about June refer to the process of assessment that I mentioned a moment ago. We expect the report of the assessment committee in June, and it is certainly hoped that that will allow us to begin to transfer some provinces and cities. The hon. Gentleman will know, I hope, that our own Prime Minister has pointed out that it is an objective timetable. It is hoped that it will be a step-by-step process, but it will depend on the position in those cities and provinces. Of course, people can express all kinds of hopes for the speed with which the process will continue, but it will be, I hope, a measured speed based on conditions on the ground, not on some artificial timetable.

EU Constitution

3. Mr. David Gauke (South-West Hertfordshire) (Con): What the Government’s policy is on pursuing ratification of the EU constitution. [72679]

The Minister for Europe (Mr. Geoffrey Hoon): The Government have made it clear that the constitutional
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treaty will be ratified in the UK only after a referendum. However, following the rejection of the treaty in the Dutch and French referendums, the European Council agreed on a period of reflection to consider the way forward. The European Council will come back to the matter this June. We will participate constructively in these discussions.

Mr. Gauke: First, I wish the Minister for Europe well in his post. I do not know whether congratulations are in order, but I certainly wish him well.

Given that, in recent weeks, the German Chancellor, the Italian Prime Minister and the President of the European Commission have said that there may yet be life in the European constitution, does not the right hon. Gentleman believe that it is time to make it clear that the British Government oppose trying to reawaken it and that we will not support its integrationist policies and objectives, such as giving more powers to European institutions over criminal justice?

Mr. Hoon: The Government have made it clear that they will participate effectively in any discussions on the future of the treaty. As I have seen in my first 10 days back in the job, there is a range of views throughout the European Union about the best way forward. It is sensible to consider them and to discuss with our partners an appropriate way forward. We should not make early decisions—we are not doing that, and it is right and proper, in the best interests of this country, to remain fully engaged in those conversations with our European partners.

Keith Vaz (Leicester, East) (Lab): I welcome my right hon. Friend back to the Foreign Office as Minister for Europe. He obviously did the job so well last time that the Prime Minister had to have him back. As he knows, last week, the EU published a report, which showed that Bulgaria and Romania were generally on track to join the EU in January next year. Given that the EU’s rules and regulations were designed for the EU at 15 and that the constitution was designed to update its efficiency, does he agree that it is important that those elements of the constitution that can be taken forward with our colleagues and will result in a more efficient and effective EU should be effected before other steps are taken to ratify it?

Mr. Hoon: I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s good wishes. I am delighted that I made such an impact in the two short months when I did the job previously. He is characteristically modest in refraining from adding that he succeeded me in the position and that whatever work I was able to do was clearly overshadowed by his contribution.

My hon. Friend is right that the process of enlargement has necessarily led in the past to institutional change. It is perhaps stating the obvious that, as the EU has grown, it has been necessary to adjust the way in which decisions are made to reflect the new reality. However, as I said earlier, it is important at this stage to continue to hold conversations with our European partners so that we are not isolated and to ensure that the voice of Britain is heard at those discussions. That is the position that the Government will take.

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