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Iran

8. Tim Loughton (East Worthing and Shoreham) (Con): What recent progress has been made by the UN Security Council on Iran; and if she will make a statement. [98356]

The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Margaret Beckett): Iran has not taken the steps required in Security Council resolution 1696 and the International Atomic Energy Agency board resolutions, which would allow talks to begin on the basis of the generous proposals presented by Javier Solana on behalf of the E3+3 in June. I chaired a meeting of E3+3 Foreign Ministers in London on 6 October, and we agreed that there is now no option but to seek a new Security Council resolution imposing sanctions. We have begun consultations with partners.

Tim Loughton: I went on the Inter-Parliamentary Union delegation to Iran in June, when I was able to eyeball parliamentarians. Is the Foreign Secretary aware that the Iranian economy is in a fragile state and is haemorrhaging money in order to subsidise basic supplies to keep the masses placated? Until recently, the Guardian Council consistently vetoed legislation on money laundering in a country through which the bulk of the heroin trade passes and which has given large
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sums of money to terrorist organisations. Given that the US Administration have taken steps to isolate the Iranian regime financially by blocking the access of Iranian banks, what steps is the Foreign Secretary taking to encourage UK financial institutions to follow suit and to work with her European counterparts to isolate the Ahmadinejad regime financially and in terms of trade?

Margaret Beckett: We have led the way in trying to persuade people to help to counteract money laundering. As I said in reply to an earlier question, we remain in close contact with our EU colleagues and our Russian, Chinese and American colleagues on the most effective way to deal with the position in Iran. We are anxious to try to maintain the balance between exerting firm and clear pressure on Iran to come to the negotiating table and not giving those who want to call off the negotiations the excuse to do so.

Middle East

9. Richard Burden (Birmingham, Northfield) (Lab): What recent assessment she has made of prospects for peace in the middle east; and if she will make a statement. [98357]

The Minister for the Middle East (Dr. Kim Howells): My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister visited the region from 9 to 11 September and met key leaders. We welcomed the commitment by Prime Minister Olmert and President Abbas to meet without conditions. The Government remain fully engaged and continue to call on the Palestinians and Israelis to make progress on the road map, to which both President Abbas and the Israeli Government remain committed.

Richard Burden: Does my right hon. Friend agree that one of the important building blocks of any durable peace is that the democratic rights of all people in the region are respected and upheld? In that context, is he aware that the Inter-Parliamentary Union, at its 115th assembly, expressed its deep concern at the continuing detention of more than 30 elected Palestinian parliamentarians? Has he made representations to the Israeli Government about their being either released or charged, and what has been the Israeli Government’s response?

Dr. Howells: My hon. Friend is right. This does not help the peace process in any way whatsoever, nor does it set a good example of how a democracy should be treated. We might not agree with the Hamas Government—we certainly disagree with them about many things—but those parliamentarians have been elected by the Palestinian people and they should be released. At the European General Affairs and External Relations Council meeting of 17 to 18 July, we continued to support the EU position that those parliamentarians should be released forthwith.

Mr. Crispin Blunt (Reigate) (Con): Do the Government believe that there is any prospect of Hezbollah disarming if the Shebaa Farms area is not surrendered by Israel to the United Nations or directly to Lebanon?


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Dr. Howells: Shebaa Farms must be a central feature of the post-conflict discussions that take place between all parties in the region. The hon. Gentleman, who is extremely interested in this subject, knows as well as I do that there is also a dispute as to who Shebaa Farms belongs to. Is it Syrian? Is it Lebanese? Is it to be regarded and negotiated on as part of the Golan heights package? It is a difficult one. It is clear to me from the discussions that I had in Beirut in the middle of the bombardment in July that Shebaa Farms is a central issue that must be addressed if we are serious about getting a permanent peaceful settlement in Lebanon.

Mrs. Louise Ellman (Liverpool, Riverside) (Lab/Co-op): Does my hon. Friend consider Iran’s repeated threat to wipe Israel off the map as a serious threat to the renewal of the peace process given Iran’s continuing support for terrorism and its policy of acquiring nuclear weapons?

Dr. Howells: It is difficult to understand why Iran makes these threats. It is interesting that when I speak with the Iranian ambassador, he tries to tell me that it is a rhetorical device that I should not take any more seriously than I take anything else that is said. I do not think that that is what international diplomacy can afford to be about these days, especially not from a country that is hell-bent, as far as I can read it, on developing a nuclear bomb. President Ahmadinejad has difficulties enough at home in trying to meet the election pledge that got him elected after that cooked-up election with a list of candidates personally picked by a kind of fascist theocracy. Instead of threatening another sovereign state, he ought to be concentrating on trying to tap the enormous potential in Iran—great natural resources, a huge population, and a great culture—to make that country wealthier in line with his election promises.

Mr. Michael Ancram (Devizes) (Con): Does the Minister agree that in any two-state solution there can be no stable Palestinian state without the exclusively democratic participation of Hamas, and no secure peaceful Israel without an agreed and permanent ceasefire from Hezbollah? In that regard, what discussions are the Government having, if not with the Government of Iran, at least with the Government of Syria?

Dr. Howells: Certainly, we must step up our discussions with all the parties in the area, which will unquestionably include the Syrians. We are beginning to understand that there is a way out. The war in the Lebanon was horrendous and a lesson to us all. It could easily have spilled over into other areas. We must intensify all the negotiations, which must be region-wide, to reach an all-middle east settlement. I hope that not only the nations named by the right hon. and learned Gentleman but the states of the Gulf become more involved in determining that middle east peace process. If that happens, we can begin to make progress.

Ann Clwyd (Cynon Valley) (Lab): I am sure that you will be concerned to know, Mr. Speaker, that among the 35 Members of Parliament properly elected by the
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Palestinian people who are in jail in Israel is the Deputy Speaker of the Palestinian legislative council. There can be no excuse for keeping those people in prison. Will my hon. Friend make every attempt to get them either released forthwith or properly charged with a criminal offence?

Dr. Howells: I agree with my hon. Friend, and I know that she has done a great deal of work to try to bring that about. I hope that she continues that work, as there are few Members who have such a reputation in the middle east, as well as in the House. We rely very much on her analysis of such extremely difficult situations. This, however, is a relatively simple question. Those imprisoned are important parliamentarians, with whom we may not agree—we may be vociferously opposed to what they stand for—but who have nevertheless been elected by the Palestinian people and must be able to speak on their behalf.

Darfur

10. Mr. Andrew Robathan (Blaby) (Con): What assessment she has made of the effectiveness of United Nations policy and the resolutions of the UN Security Council on Darfur. [98358]

The Minister for the Middle East (Dr. Kim Howells): The UN is playing a critical role in efforts to resolve the appalling conflict. Successive Security Council resolutions have offered significant UN assistance, imposed sanctions, referred the situation to the International Criminal Court and underlined the consequences of non-compliance. Resolution 1706 mandating a UN force demonstrates the UN’s continued commitment to Darfur. We are pressing Sudan to accept the UN deployment, which remains the best opportunity to secure lasting peace.

Mr. Robathan: In the late 1930s, the failure to take effective action against the Italian invasion of Abyssinia led to a complete loss of credibility for the League of Nations. The awful, complex situation in Sudan and Darfur is not the same, but what can the UK Government do, as a permanent member of the Security Council, to ensure that the UN, the only truly international peacekeeping show in town, maintains its credibility?

Dr. Howells: This is a test at least as pointed and severe as Rwanda and Srebrenica. We cannot afford another Srebrenica or Rwanda. The hon. Gentleman is therefore right. It seems to me that the challenge is not just to focus the eyes of the Security Council, although it would be good if all its permanent members were focused on resolving the issue, but to provide an example to the world of how the United Nations can act under difficult circumstances to rescue huge numbers of people from the most dreadful fate.

Mr. Chris Mullin (Sunderland, South) (Lab): What discussions have we had with the Chinese Government about Darfur? Are not they the key to breaking the deadlock?

Dr. Howells: I would not agree with my hon. Friend that the Chinese Government are the single key, but there is no doubt that they are an important interlocutor. My right hon. Friend the Foreign
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Secretary and other Ministers have spoken frequently to the Chinese about the matter, and we will continue to do so. The Chinese play a very important role, and not just, incidentally, in relation to the amount of oil that they buy from Sudan, which is nevertheless an important variable in the equation.

Pakistan

12. Dr. Vincent Cable (Twickenham) (LD): What recent discussions she has had with the Government of Pakistan on security issues; and if she will make a statement. [98360]

The Minister for the Middle East (Dr. Kim Howells): My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State met the Pakistani Foreign Minister, Khurshid Kasuri, at the margins of the UN General Assembly on 19 September. They had a comprehensive exchange of views on security issues.

Dr. Cable: Does the Minister agree that it is easier for Britain to co-operate on security with Pakistan if the latter observes basic human rights? What assessment has he made of the recent Amnesty report, which says that elements in Pakistan’s security forces are responsible for large-scale disappearances, illegal detention, rendition and torture?

Dr. Howells: Human rights are certainly at the centre of our relationship with Pakistan. There are great problems in Pakistan—there is no question about that—but President Musharraf has made a number of extremely brave decisions, and has taken initiatives to try to reinforce human rights in a country that suffers hugely from terrorist problems, from Balochistan right up to the north-west frontier. We must do all that we can to encourage, in the most constructive way, the case for enhanced human rights in Pakistan, but we should understand, too, that President Musharraf has made great strides in bringing that country into a more civilised and democratic state.

Mr. Keith Simpson (Mid-Norfolk) (Con): Even given what the Minister has just said, does he have any evidence whatever that Pakistan’s intelligence and security officers are involved in supporting terrorist activity—and not only terrorist activity in Afghanistan, but terrorist activity aimed, indirectly, at the interests of this country?

Dr. Howells: We have many worries about the infiltration of terrorists and weapons across the borders, especially the borders of Helmand, Kandahar and perhaps Nimruz provinces with Balochistan in Pakistan. President Musharraf has tried to reassure us that he has complete control of the Inter-Services Intelligence agency in Pakistan. I really believe that he has been trying to bring elements of the ISI firmly under Government control, because it does his Government no good in the eyes of the international community to be seen to be helping, or even just to be suspected of helping, in any way the terrorists who are killing British, American, Dutch and Canadian soldiers on just the other side of the border.


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Termination of Pregnancy

3.32 pm

Mrs. Nadine Dorries (Mid-Bedfordshire) (Con): I beg to move,

The aim and objective of the Bill are to reduce the number of abortions that take place each year in Britain. That figure has reached 180,000, or 600 a day, and rising. There is now far greater knowledge and awareness, and much less stigma, surrounding the issues of pregnancy. The morning after pill can now be bought over the counter and there are pregnancy home-testing kits that can be used in the very early stages of pregnancy. The aim of my Bill is to reduce the number of abortions performed, and I wish to concentrate on social abortions that take place between the 21st and 24th weeks of pregnancy.

In 1990, when the House set the abortion limit at 24 weeks, viability—the date at which a foetus could survive outside the womb—was the principal consideration. Science has moved on, and so should the debate. Advanced medical scanners are now used by people such as Professor Campbell, one of the UK’s most highly respected neonatologists, and I am grateful to him for his help and insight. The images produced by ground-breaking foetal monitoring techniques show the layperson how a foetus looks and behaves in the mother’s womb. The images are moving, and there is no doubt that they have informed public opinion. However, they simply reaffirm information that the medical profession has known about for some years, which is why the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists states that for late abortions foeticide must take place first.

To put it simply, the professionals insist that a foetus must be put to death in the womb before it is aborted. The majority of abortions over 20 weeks take place using foeticide. Guidelines were drawn up recently because doctors simply do not want to perform abortions on babies they think may have a chance of survival or who may be aborted alive. In accordance with Royal College guidelines, a late abortion takes place over two days. On day one, a lethal injection is inserted into the foetal heart—I will spare hon. Members the details of the way in which that procedure is executed. When the doctor is convinced that the foetal heart has completely stopped, labour is induced and the foetus is delivered using forceps on day two.

Many doctors think that a foetus is sentient—that is to say, conscious—from 18 weeks. Many of us have seen scanned pictures in the newspapers showing the smiles, the thumb-sucking and the kicking, and it is hard to disagree. Doctor John Peebles, a leading foetal development consultant from University College hospital said only last week:


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Doctors do not like foeticide and they do not like late abortions. They have to perform 3,000 abortions a year on babies of over 20 weeks’ gestation for social reasons. There is evidence that what we are debating from 20 weeks could be a sentient being.

Some doctors argue that babies are sentient from 18 weeks—at that point, the foetus is no longer a collection of cells and embryonic fluid. If we accept that, and I believe that the evidence is compelling, we are morally obliged to reconsider the legality of late abortions. Some Members may question the science of viability and claim that perhaps only a few babies would survive. Some Members may take issue with the point of sentience, waiting for yet more concrete scientific proof. There may even be Members who think that foeticide is an acceptable practice. It is a prescribed practice by the Royal College, but anyone who supports the upper limit of 24 weeks endorses foeticide.

If we put the three together—viability, sentience and foeticide—the evidence is overwhelming and compelling. The time has now come to reduce the limit to 21 weeks. It is 2006—not 1967 and not 1990. Time and medical technology have moved on, and so has the mood of the nation. Polling this year showed that the overwhelming majority of British people support moves to end late abortion for social reasons. We now know beyond doubt—thanks to the comprehensive, respected Ferguson study undertaken over 25 years—that women who have abortions subsequently have twice as many mental health problems and three times the risk of major depressive illness as women who have not had an abortion or who have carried a pregnancy to term.

Last Friday, The Times published a letter from 12 leading UK professors, consultant psychiatrists, obstetricians and doctors calling for a revision of the Royal College guidelines, stating that we now have a duty to inform women of the risks associated with having an abortion. My Bill calls for a 10-day cooling-off period that would give the mother breathing space, allowing her time to think, to be counselled and advised of the risks of abortion and to be guided through the options, which should include the possibility of carrying the pregnancy to term. I call that a woman’s right to know and to choose, because without information, what choices does a woman have? A period of informed consent is about empowerment—it is about whether or not the decision to abort is fully thought through. It is about making an informed decision.

Many pro-choice campaigners describe abortion as a relief to most women. I am sure that it is a relief from the panic-ridden, helpless situation in which many women find themselves, but as well as relief they experience an overwhelming sense of grief and trauma. Whereas relief is a temporary emotion, the grief and loss may last for many years. In fact, they may not even set in for many years.


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