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House of Commons

Tuesday 16 January 2007

The House met at half-past Two o’clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions

Foreign and Commonwealth Office

The Secretary of State was asked—

Arms Trade Treaty

1. Mr. Alistair Carmichael (Orkney and Shetland) (LD): If she will make a statement on progress towards establishing an international arms trade treaty. [115401]

The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Margaret Beckett): The United Kingdom has led international efforts to secure a legally binding treaty to end the irresponsible trade in arms worldwide. On 6 December 2006 we successfully pushed through a resolution establishing a UN process to work towards a treaty, and we will continue to build support for the initiative in UN discussions during 2007 in preparation for the meeting of the group of governmental experts in 2008, which will look at the draft parameters of a treaty.

Mr. Carmichael: Can the Secretary of State tell the House what scale of financial and staffing resources her Department is giving to the arms trade treaty work in the coming financial year, and how that will compare with preceding financial years?

Margaret Beckett: I am afraid that I do not carry the detail of the Department’s finances on this issue at my fingertips, but I will certainly write to the hon. Gentleman. A great deal of work is going on. We are preparing a paper, as are other contributors, to take forward the process of negotiation.

Roger Berry (Kingswood) (Lab): I congratulate my right hon. Friend and her predecessor on the UK Government’s leadership on this issue, which has taken place alongside the work of non-governmental organisations such as Amnesty International and Oxfam. Will she give an assurance that the UK’s objective is that such a treaty should cover trade in all conventional arms and all dual-use goods and technologies? Will she advise the House on what progress is being made in persuading the US Administration to modify their previous position and become an enthusiastic supporter of this noble effort to secure action against the abuse of human rights through the arms trade?

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Margaret Beckett: I thank my hon. Friend for his remarks, and I agree that a great deal of work was done on this matter by my predecessor. As my hon. Friend will know, we are certainly committed to such a treaty covering all conventional arms, and to focusing on some core principles about when trade is unacceptable. I thank him and his colleagues on the relevant Committee for the work that they do on scrutinising the export of arms. I fear that, although we are certainly engaged in discussions and will endeavour to persuade the United States of the merits of this process, it may take some little time. It was the only country to vote against the proposal.

Robert Key (Salisbury) (Con): In pursuing that welcome process, will the Secretary of State draw to the attention of the United Nations the unique circumstances that have led almost everybody to support this move? For once, we in this country have both sides of the House, the Christian Churches, the NGOs and the bishops all in agreement. The people of this country, and I believe the vast majority of the population of the world, think that this issue is important. Let us have a swift process please, and let us hope that the Secretary of State will win the day with this argument.

Margaret Beckett: I thank the hon. Gentleman, and I am grateful to him for mentioning the Churches and the NGOs, because I meant to pick up on what my hon. Friend the Member for Kingswood (Roger Berry) said about those. The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to say that there is even more support for these moves than we might have thought. We got a very good vote—139, I think—in the first committee, and 153 votes for the resolution. That is about three quarters of the membership of the United Nations. It has indeed been a cross-party, cross-faiths supported movement, and we will certainly get on with it as fast as we can.

Mr. Denis MacShane (Rotherham) (Lab): I congratulate my right hon. Friend on her energy on this subject, but is she aware that in Africa one of the biggest suppliers of weapons is the People’s Republic of China? Will she invite our embassy there to seek to monitor that, and to put on the public record what we know about that huge new growth industry in a country that is not democratic and not really much interested in solving this problem?

Margaret Beckett: My right hon. Friend is right to say that there is concern. One of the things that remains a source of some concern, and that we will continue to work on, is that although only the United States voted against the proposal, there is less involvement that we would like to see from other major arms exporters—not only China, but Russia, Pakistan, India and some of the Arab countries. It is important that the support that is built in taking forward the treaty should bring in the major arms exporters. One of the things that I hope and believe will help with that is the involvement of the arms industry itself, which understands the dangers of the unregulated trade.

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Mr. Gerald Howarth (Aldershot) (Con): Does the Foreign Secretary not accept that under successive Governments, the United Kingdom has had one of the strictest arms control regimes in the world, and that Britain’s defence industries make a huge contribution to the defence not only of this country, but of our allies? Those who are engaged in Britain’s defence industry—some 300,000 of our fellow citizens—are engaged in a noble effort, which should be supported by the House.

Margaret Beckett: The hon. Gentleman is right to say that we have had stringent controls on the export of arms—quite rightly—under successive Governments. He is also correct to say that there is a right to self-defence, and that there is a legitimate trade. One of the excellent things about the initiative that we are taking forward is that it focuses, with the support of the existing industry, on the real dangers of unregulated trade.


2. Albert Owen (Ynys Môn) (Lab): If she will make a statement on the political situation in Lesotho. [115402]

The Minister for the Middle East (Dr. Kim Howells): His Majesty King Letsie III of Lesotho dissolved Parliament on 24 November for an election to be called within 90 days, in accordance with the constitution. The election will be held on 17 February. Our non-resident high commissioner, Paul Boateng, visited Lesotho on 4 December. High commission staff are monitoring the situation and remain in regular contact with Lesotho Government Ministers and officials, the chairman of the independent electoral commission, political parties and civil society organisations.

Albert Owen: The Minister will be fully aware of the strong links that exist between Welsh communities and the Kingdom of Lesotho, especially in the field of education. He will know that among the problems affecting the country’s economic stability are poor health and the exacerbated problem of AIDS. The situation is being made even worse by the exodus of medical practitioners and doctors from the area. What are the UK Government doing to stabilise the situation so that Lesotho can deal with its health problems, tackle its economic problems and bring about political stability?

Dr. Howells: The United Kingdom is the only developed country to implement and review systematic policies that explicitly prevent the targeting of developing countries in the international recruitment of health care professionals. The NHS leads the way in the ethical recruitment of health care professionals and has worked with the Department for International Development to draw up a list of countries from which it will not actively recruit, including all countries in sub-Saharan Africa and the Caribbean. The NHS will contract only with private recruitment agencies that are signed up to the code of practice.

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James Duddridge (Rochford and Southend, East) (Con): In retrospect, would not the Government have been in a better position if they had not reneged on a commitment to maintain a full-time high commissioner in Maseru?

Dr. Howells: No, certainly not. Our high commissioner based in Pretoria visited Lesotho three times in 2006; his most recent visit was in December 2006. That small poor country will be adequately covered by our high commissioner in Pretoria.

Ian Lucas (Wrexham) (Lab): One of the major challenges facing the new Government in Lesotho will be the delivery of primary education for the first time to the country’s young people. Will my hon. Friend commend the work being done to carry through the global schools initiative by Dolen Cymru/Wales link, which is sending school teachers from Wales to Lesotho for long periods to assist in the delivery of education to young people for the first time in a country that has been starved of opportunities in the past?

Dr. Howells: I commend the excellent work of Dolen Cymru in Lesotho. My hon. Friend reminds us of the strong links that Wales has with Lesotho and other communities; my town of Pontypridd has strong links with Mbale in Uganda. Such links are based on teachers and doctors working with professionals in those countries so that no money donated is wasted, and it is all used to the best effect.

European Constitution

3. Ann Winterton (Congleton) (Con): What her policy is on the treaty establishing a constitution for Europe. [115403]

The Minister for Europe (Mr. Geoffrey Hoon): At present there is no consensus among EU Governments on the future of the constitutional treaty. The German presidency has been asked by EU leaders to present a report to the European Council in June on possible next steps, following consultation with all EU Governments. I set out the Government’s approach in my written ministerial statement of 5 December 2006.

Ann Winterton: Will the Minister give an assurance that no Labour Government would sign a European Union treaty that would give permanent EU competence over United Kingdom affairs by removing the right of Parliament to amend or repeal European Union treaties through the relevant Acts of Parliament?

Mr. Hoon: I am not entirely sure that I follow the reasoning behind that question. What is important is that successive British Governments have supported section 2(1) of the European Communities Act 1972, which was taken through the House by the then Conservative Government. Subsequent Conservative Governments—incidentally, they were supported by the shadow Foreign Secretary—have argued for extending the competence of the European Union, for example at the time of the Maastricht treaty. They have never argued for a referendum on the subject—I have
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checked—and neither did the shadow Foreign Secretary during all the time that he was in government. The people whom the shadow Foreign Secretary opposed during the Maastricht process are now running Conservative party policy on Europe.

Kelvin Hopkins (Luton, North) (Lab): The process is apparently being driven by Chancellor Merkel in Germany. Two decisions have been made by democratic vote in France and Holland, rejecting the constitution. When my right hon. Friend next meets Chancellor Merkel, will he remind her about those democratic decisions, and say that we respect democratic decisions even if she does not?

Mr. Hoon: I think that my hon. Friend is being a little harsh on other EU Governments, who of course supported the idea of consultation and encouraged the German presidency. The reason why Chancellor Merkel is so interested in the subject at present is that Germany has the presidency. It is important that all member states find a way forward; there is no agreement at present, as I have said, but that is the purpose of the efforts being made by the German presidency—as, I suspect, efforts will be made by subsequent presidencies.

Mr. Andrew Mackay (Bracknell) (Con): Will the Minister confirm that it is still Government policy that if there is any new European constitution, it should be put to the British people in a referendum?

Mr. Hoon: It is absolutely clear that there should be a referendum on the European constitutional treaty, and that remains the Government’s position.

Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe and Nantwich) (Lab): May I be helpful to my right hon. Friend— [Interruption.] May I be helpful—as always—and ask him whether, in a constructive mood, we could cease to accept any more transport directives until we have carried out an audit of the effect of European directives on safety for aviation, maritime affairs and, specifically, inland waterways?

Mr. Hoon: I have long learned to appreciate help from my hon. Friend, and it is important that proper audits be carried out before any future directives are accepted on the subjects that she mentions.

Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire) (Con): In the same constructive spirit, may I too be helpful to the Minister? I suggest that he take Chancellor Merkel to one side for a cup of coffee and tell her that if she is looking for consensus, we have consensus in this country on the subject: we are agin it.

Mr. Hoon: I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman’s support. I cannot help but notice that immediately behind him is the hon. Member for Shipley (Philip Davies), who, I understand, has been given permission by the Leader of the Opposition to campaign for the Conservative party to advocate leaving the European Union. There appear to be 57 different policies among Conservative Members, and that of the hon. Member for South Staffordshire (Sir Patrick Cormack) is only one of them.

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Keith Vaz (Leicester, East) (Lab): My right hon. Friend will know that the German presidency has suggested a meeting on 25 March in Berlin, at which it hopes to make a Berlin declaration, which will consist of a statement of the fundamental values of the European Union. Will he tell the House that the Government will fully support such discussions, and that where there are matters on which Governments can agree, and that do not require constitutional change, we will move forward in a spirit of co-operation?

Mr. Hoon: My right hon. Friend is right. The 50th anniversary of the signing of the treaty of Rome, which will be marked by a declaration in Berlin next March, is an important anniversary in the history of the European Union. It is right that we should not only celebrate the achievements of the European Union, but look to the future, as regards the principles that guide the decisions that we will take. It is vital that the United Kingdom should participate enthusiastically in that process, as we will, and I am sure that the Leader of the Opposition will join us in that celebration.

Angus Robertson (Moray) (SNP): Does the Minister for Europe remember the serious disquiet in Scotland, Norway and Iceland following the enshrining of fisheries as an exclusive European Union competence in the constitution? Does he not agree that if there is a renewed constitution or similar treaty, it should command the support of nations inside and outwith the European Union, and those who might seek to join at a future date? Bearing that in mind, will the Government give a commitment to revisit the issue, should such negotiations be started?

Mr. Hoon: We are constantly reviewing policies in those areas. No doubt, the hon. Gentleman is thinking about his party’s position going into the Scottish elections, as it advocates leaving not only the United Kingdom but the European Union.

Mr. Wayne David (Caerphilly) (Lab): Does my right hon. Friend agree that what the European Union requires is not a grand constitution but modest pragmatic change?

Mr. Hoon: My hon. Friend is quite right. What is important as we take the European Union forward—and the British Government have consistently advocated this—is step-by-step developments and benefits for the citizens of Europe. That is the best way of acknowledging the significant changes that Europe has made in the interests and for the benefit of citizens of the UK and elsewhere.

Mr. Graham Brady (Altrincham and Sale, West) (Con): In reply to my written question, the Prime Minister confirmed yesterday that he responded to the German Chancellor’s request by appointing Mr. Kim Darroch and Ms Nicola Brewer to liaise with the German EU presidency on the drafting of the new political declaration and

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What terms of reference have Mr. Darroch and Ms Brewer been given? In particular, will they be told to make it clear to the German presidency that the EU constitution is not acceptable to Britain, and that a referendum would have to be held on any new treaty containing significant elements of the constitution?

Mr. Hoon: Two very distinguished civil servants have been appointed to deal with the questionnaire that the German presidency will circulate to all member states. It is vital that member states find a way forward, and I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will join me in acknowledging that, because it is in the interests of both the European Union and the United Kingdom. We want to ensure that the UK is constructive and positive, and finds a way through the difficulties facing the EU. I have already made clear our position on a referendum in the UK.


4. Lynne Featherstone (Hornsey and Wood Green) (LD): What recent assessment she has made of developments in the situation in Darfur; and if she will make a statement. [115404]

9. Helen Jones (Warrington, North) (Lab): What recent discussions she has had on the situation in Darfur; and if she will make a statement. [115409]

The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Margaret Beckett): President Bashir has now accepted UN support for AMIS—the African Union Mission in Sudan—and has allowed the first UN military personnel into Darfur. That is important, but it is only the first step. We urge the Government of Sudan, the UN and the African Union to work for full implementation of the joint support package and an urgent resumption of the political process. All sides need to observe the ceasefire, too, particularly the Government of Sudan, who have been bombing the rebels, as that is vital for progress on the humanitarian front.

Lynne Featherstone: I thank the Secretary of State for her reply, but has a time line been developed for the United Nations and the African Union to be on the ground? At what point will that protection start to be provided for people in Darfur?

Margaret Beckett: There are three stages to the deployment: first, light support, in which 180 personnel, 34 of whom have already arrived, are expected to be involved; secondly, heavy support; and, finally, the establishment of a full hybrid African Union and United Nations force. There is no specific timescale, but everyone who wishes the position in Darfur to improve is anxious that as many of those people as possible should be deployed as soon as possible, and that is something for which we are all working.

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