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5. Harry Cohen (Leyton and Wanstead) (Lab): What recent representations she has made to the authorities in China about the use of the death penalty and the use of the bodies of executed prisoners. [80215]

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The Minister for Trade (Mr. Ian McCartney): The Government regularly raise human rights issues with the Chinese Government. The death penalty and the use of organs from executed prisoners were discussed at the last round of the European Union-China human rights dialogue in May. The then Minister for Trade, my hon. Friend the Member for Dudley, South (Ian Pearson), also raised the issue of the use of organs from executed prisoners with the Chinese Government on 7 April this year.

Harry Cohen: There are no figures for the number of prisoners executed annually in China, but Amnesty International puts the figures at at least 3,400—that is more than the rest of the world combined. There is evidence that organs, skin and tissue from executed prisoners are being harvested for transplants and collagen. Will the Minister make it clear that using executed prisoners as an industry is both immoral and unacceptable, and will he insist that the highest standards are applied to China in that regard?

Mr. McCartney: I will be going to China soon and I will be discussing some of these issues. I will do so in my usual forceful way —[ Interruption. ] I am a diplomat now, so it will be my diplomatic forceful way. The point has been well made on both sides of the House on this and other issues. The thing is to have regular dialogue and to offer support in terms of changing the whole nature of what my hon. Friend describes and encouraging China to make changes in its legal system in relation to the issues that he and others have raised. I give him and the House the assurance that I will regularly raise those issues, among others, while I am doing this job.

Mr. Paul Keetch (Hereford) (LD): Is the Minister aware that there has been some suggestion that bodies and body parts of executed Chinese prisoners form at least part of some of the exhibitions that we see in London? Will he take up the suggestion that has been made in the press with his colleagues at the Department for Culture, Media and Sport and assure the House that there is no way that the personal effects or bodies of executed prisoners will be used for exhibitions in London or anywhere else in the United Kingdom?

Mr. McCartney: I will be honest with the hon. Gentleman: that is the first I have heard of such a suggestion. It fills us all with horror. I will raise the issue and get back to him.

John Bercow (Buckingham) (Con): Given that the British Transplantation Society insists that the harvesting of organs of executed prisoners is taking place, but that, in written answers on 12 May, the House was told that the Government were not yet persuaded of the fact, will the right hon. Gentleman undertake to communicate with the British Transplantation Society, which contends that the weight of accumulated evidence is now such that the position is incontrovertible? The harvesting of organs is taking place. Denials by the Chinese Government are untrue and they must be held to account without delay.

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Mr. McCartney: As late as 10 April this year, the Chinese authorities again strenuously denied what the hon. Gentleman is saying. Again, I can only reassure the House that I am having wide-ranging discussions on the issue with the Chinese. Points have been meticulously made by Members, parliamentary groups and Select Committees, and by non-governmental organisations and organisations with an interest in China that operate outside the House. Before I go to China, I will meet the non-governmental organisations to talk through the issues that they would like me to raise as a priority. When I come back, I will report back to the NGOs. I gave a commitment in the Foreign Affairs Committee debate to report back to the Committee as well. I am happy, not about the issues, but to raise those issues systematically with our colleagues. It is important for the good relationship that we have with them to make progress on some of the issues that have been raised in the House.


6. Mr. Mark Lancaster (North-East Milton Keynes) (Con): If she will make a statement on the political situation in Iraq. [80216]

The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Margaret Beckett): The Iraqi Government of national unity are now firmly in place and the business of government has begun in earnest. Prime Minister Maliki and his team are committed to working to a national unity agenda. They have announced a national reconciliation plan and set clear priorities—primarily security, electricity supply, economic reform and building democratic structures. The hon. Gentleman may know that the Prime Minister announced on 19 June the imminent transfer of security responsibility in Muthanna province, to be followed by other provinces. Iraq will continue to need our support and that of the international community as it works on those priorities.

Mr. Lancaster: I was fortunate to visit Iraq recently with the Defence Committee. The Secretary of State is right that it appears that two or perhaps even three of the provinces that are under British supervision may well soon be handed back to Iraqi control, but the fourth—Basra—will not. Although the Prime Minister’s reconciliation plan is welcome, does the Secretary of State agree that the biggest problem in Basra appears to be a governor whose only interest is self-interest?

Margaret Beckett: We are anxious to ensure that the security plan that has been devised by the Prime Minister—he has already done a good deal to promote it—is followed through effectively and that there is a clear structure of control and command in the hands of the commander of the armed forces in the area. The Prime Minister is well aware of concerns about security in that area and is determined to address them.

Ann Clwyd (Cynon Valley) (Lab): Is not one of the best indications of the improving political situation in Iraq the fact that eight newly-elected Iraqi MPs are visiting the House of Commons today? They have met my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and you, Mr. Speaker. Clearly, we hope that the MPs will enjoy themselves during their week. They will be following
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individual Members to find out how we do things and see whether they can translate any of their experiences into their important work in Iraq.

Margaret Beckett: My right hon. Friend is entirely right. I was grateful to her for giving me the opportunity earlier today to meet those new MPs, who, incidentally, are a very impressive bunch. I am also grateful for the work that she is doing to show them various parts of the country and aspects of our parliamentary experience. I hope that you will be pleased to know, Mr. Speaker, that I strongly urged them to learn from the many good things about our Parliament, but not necessarily to follow some of our examples of behaviour.

Mr. Michael Moore (Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk) (LD): The Iraqi Prime Minister’s announcement on Sunday was indeed welcome. Yesterday, the White House confirmed that it was considering a steep reduction in the number of US troops in Iraq. To what extent have British Ministers been involved in those discussions? Does the fact that Italian and Japanese withdrawals are going ahead mean that we can finally expect a statement on a comprehensive strategy to prepare the way for the withdrawal of British forces?

Margaret Beckett: I am always a little nervous when people leap from one important and worthwhile step forward to a whole group of assumptions that are set some time ahead. An unfortunate feature of the discussions is the fact that the media tend to harden up anything said—however tentatively—into some kind of detailed commitment. It is of course the case that the Prime Minister has announced the beginning of a process that is based on the circumstances on the ground and the reality in different areas. We all hope that progress can be made, but the hon. Gentleman will know that there is sometimes a better option of redeployment. In any event, the Iraqi Government will wish—we will want to work with them—to support the handover in al-Muthanna and any other province that is considered for some time. The important process offers considerable hope for the future, but no one should second-guess it at this stage.

Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North) (Lab): When does the Foreign Secretary expect British and American troops to terminate their tour of duty in Iraq and actually leave?

Margaret Beckett: When they and we believe that the job that they have gone there to do is done, or when and if the Iraqi Government ask them to leave.

Mr. Michael Ancram (Devizes) (Con): It is well known that the reconciliation plan to which the Foreign Secretary referred arose from informal dialogue that took place over a long time with representatives of the Sunni insurgents. Representatives of the American Government, apparently including the ambassador, were involved in that dialogue. Were representatives of the British Government also involved in the dialogue?

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Margaret Beckett: With respect to the right hon. and learned Gentleman, he has moved on a little from discussions about changes in the provinces. I simply say that of course we are closely involved in all discussions that take place about how circumstances in Iraq can be improved.

Mr. Keith Simpson (Mid-Norfolk) (Con): The Foreign Secretary has touched on the proposed national reconciliation plan, as have other Members. She will be aware that one of the proposals is for a form of amnesty—it is an ambiguous proposal—for some of those who have been involved in the insurgency. Does she think that, at this stage, it is acceptable for a British Government to sign up to such an amnesty if it is with people whom the Government know have been responsible for the deaths of British military personnel in Iraq?

Margaret Beckett: With respect to the hon. Gentleman, I was not talking about the national reconciliation plan; the hon. Member for North-East Milton Keynes (Mr. Lancaster) was. However, I will simply say that the Iraqi Prime Minister’s statement was, of course, very carefully worded. He spoke about wanting to draw people into the political process, but he also spoke about people who had not committed crimes. I think that, yet again, people are leaping forward—I do not recall that the word amnesty was used. Although there is clearly a wish to draw people who have been involved in the insurgency into the political process if that is possible and practical, the Iraqi Government are approaching this matter in a very careful way. They have chosen with care the words that they have used, so it would be a mistake for us to be any less cautious in our phraseology.

South Africa

7. Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock) (Lab): When the Government became aware of the existence of the former South African regime’s Project Coast. [80217]

The Minister for Trade (Mr. Ian McCartney): The then Conservative Government were aware of the existence of legitimate South African chemical and biological defence programmes from the 1980s. Initial reports indicating offensive chemical and biological weapons activities, later known as Project Coast, were not received until 1993, but they were inconclusive. There were also unsubstantiated claims of chemical weapon use by South African forces in Angola, Mozambique and Zimbabwe in the 1980s and 1990s. More detailed evidence of previous offensive activities was received in the years leading up to the truth and reconciliation commission hearings in 1998, when further details of the offensive activities emerged. In 1994, we understood that the South African Government had terminated offensive chemical and biological weapons activities.

Andrew Mackinlay: Has the Minister ever had the feeling that officials have been less than candid with him? Can I draw to his attention that, following the submission of a series of parliamentary questions from me on this matter, there was convened in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office on 13 January a strategy
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handling meeting to deal with “Mackinlay’s questions”, which was attended by 13 officials from the FCO, the Ministry of Defence and the security and intelligence services? Why was that necessary to deal with my questions, if they are not hiding more information on this subject? Is it not a fact that unauthorised— [ Interruption. ]—The Minister may laugh, but this is a serious matter. There was greater involvement between Porton Down and the South Africans’ chemical and biological weapons regime than they now wish to disclose.

Mr. McCartney: In eight years in Government, I think that I can say with some certainty that no one has pulled the wool over my eyes yet—but one never knows. That meeting was not to handle my hon. Friend, but to handle his questions. He raised 22 questions with specific concerns and allegations, and I am happy to try to answer them, in conjunction with other relevant Departments—although we have already answered 20 of the 22.

The meeting was held to discuss the draft answers to my hon. Friend’s parliamentary questions. Representatives of various Departments and agencies attended, including the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the MOD and the Health Protection Agency.

Andrew Mackinlay: And the spooks.

Mr. McCartney: The issue raised is not current. The United Kingdom investigation took place in the late 1990s and the early 2000s. Officials from the relevant Departments have changed, and Departments want to ensure that we are working with the same information. The allegations made by my hon. Friend have also been made in various books and elsewhere, including on the internet. There is absolutely no evidence of the conspiracy that my hon. Friend suggests.

European Constitution

8. Mr. Shailesh Vara (North-West Cambridgeshire) (Con): If she will make a statement on the future of the European constitution. [80218]

The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Margaret Beckett): There is no consensus among member states on how to proceed with the constitutional treaty. The European Council agreed a twin-track approach based on delivering concrete results under the current treaties and on further consultations between member states. Decisions on how to continue the reform process will be taken by the end of 2008, but with no presumption about the outcome or end date of the process.

Mr. Vara: I am grateful to the Secretary of State for that response. Do the Government still support a European Union constitution?

Margaret Beckett: The hon. Gentleman will be well aware that we were part of the negotiations that agreed those proposals, but he is equally well aware that the circumstances surrounding the constitutional treaty changed when the French and the Dutch had their
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referendums and the answer was no. The Government were part of the negotiations and we accepted the treaty, but at the moment there seems little likelihood of it going forward in its present form.

Mr. David Kidney (Stafford) (Lab): Sir Digby Jones, the retiring director general of the CBI, in his valedictory interviews to the media this week, has said both that he supports our membership of the European Union and that he is very strongly in favour of radical reform of its institutions and procedures because such reform is in Britain’s economic self-interest. Does my right hon. Friend agree that urgent reform is needed, and that those who oppose our membership of the EU and such reform are not acting in the best interests of this country?

Margaret Beckett: I am afraid that I have not had the opportunity to study what Digby Jones said and the precise reforms that he was suggesting, so I am a little wary of appearing to endorse them. However, I wholeheartedly share my hon. Friend’s view that it is very much in our interests to make a success of our continuing membership of the European Union, with our EU partners, and that there may come a time when some changes will need to be made to help to ensure that continued success.

Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire) (Con): As the Foreign Secretary’s colleagues indicated earlier today that the Government are not in favour of exhuming corpses, would not the best thing to do with this one be to leave it under the concrete to which she referred?

Margaret Beckett: I am not sure where the reference to exhumation comes from—

Sir Patrick Cormack: Try the answers on China.

Margaret Beckett: Oh—right. That subject was a little bit of a mystery to me at the time when the answer was given, but it did sound particularly gruesome. The constitutional treaty remains in existence, but it is not being pursued at this time.

Mark Lazarowicz (Edinburgh, North and Leith) (Lab/Co-op): As my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford (Mr. Kidney) pointed out earlier, it is in the UK’s interest to make sure that the European Union works efficiently and effectively, so may I urge my right hon. Friend to consider introducing, with the other member states, those elements of the treaty that would lead to more efficient and transparent work by the EU? Only those who are against our membership of the EU would be against such proposals.

Margaret Beckett: As my hon. Friend may know, there is an agreement that we should continue with a greater degree of transparency in the European Union’s work, but the precise proposals put forward at the last European Council will of course be reviewed to see their practical effect. However, he is absolutely right to say that we need constructive and good ways of working with our EU partners. I am not quite sure what process
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my hon. Friend was urging on me, but discussions are indeed beginning on, and some consideration is being given to, whether ideas that were in the constitutional treaty that do not require a new treaty base—such as direct transmission of information to national Parliaments—are steps that could be considered. But equally, and as he knows, no such decisions have yet been taken.

Mr. Graham Brady (Altrincham and Sale, West) (Con): Given that the Government had conceded that there should be a referendum if the constitution were implemented in this country, and given that elements of it are being brought forward—such as the proposal to remove the veto over police and home affairs—can the Foreign Secretary give a clear statement to the House on the circumstances in which she believes that a referendum would still be necessary if parts of the constitution were brought forward?

Margaret Beckett: I repeat what I just said: there is no suggestion that we should try to bring forward something that would require a new treaty base. The hon. Gentleman will, I am sure, recall that a variety of measures were rolled into the constitutional treaty—if I may put it like that—some of which would not require a new treaty base, such as direct transmission of information to national Parliaments. However, although the ideas that he referred to concerning the police and justice system have been raised by various individuals and commentators, there are no proposals to that effect. [Interruption.] There are no proposals to that effect before us at the present time, and I do not intend to commit us to a referendum on proposals that have not even been put forward.

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