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On Thursday, Dr. Mohammed eI-Baradei, the director general of the International Atomic Energy
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Agency, who I met the week before last, issued another report on Iran’s nuclear programme. The report makes it clear that Iran is continuing—and, indeed, expanding—its uranium enrichment activities in defiance of the Security Council. If mastered, those activities would give Iran the know-how to produce fissile material that could be used in nuclear weapons.

President Ahmadinejad claims that bullying western powers are trying to deny Iran its rights. He says that Iran’s ambition is simply to generate electricity. For the sake of clarity, it should be put on record—I do so now, and I hope that it is marked—that we have no wish to deny Iran, or any other country, its rights under the nuclear non-proliferation treaty, provided that it meets its obligations. We have not sought to stop Iran building a nuclear power station at Bushehr to generate electricity. We have even offered to help Iran develop a modern nuclear power industry, if it shows that its intentions are peaceful. I do not know whether that constitutes the appeasement of which my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay) accused me and others—it is great to have a new slur put against one’s name. Never before have I been called an appeaser; clearly, I shall have to clean up my act.

Andrew Mackinlay rose—

Dr. Howells: Just a moment. That was the offer made by the E3 plus three, or if my hon. Friend wants to say it another way, the P5 plus Germany. It was one offer among many. Today, I have heard pleas for us to try to engage with Iran in whatever way we can. We have tried endlessly to engage with Iran, and we will continue to do so. The notion that somehow we are not part of an attempt to engage with Iran in rational discussions is probably the most serious slur of all. I will give way to my hon. Friend, if he is brief.

Andrew Mackinlay: The Minister knows that I hold him in high personal regard, and any suggestion of being an appeaser was not made against him personally. If he had listened carefully to what I said, he would know that the charge of appeasement was related to the offer by the EU3 to do a deal with Iran and then persecute the PMOI. That is a narrow point, but it is appeasement, which is cynical and indefensible. I hope that the Minister will address that point.

Dr. Howells: That is the most perverse description of events that I have heard, but I shall try to address it.

Above all, Iran needs to establish that it is not developing nuclear weapons. Iran has to answer some basic questions. If its ambitions are solely peaceful, why did it hide its enrichment programme for so long? Why is the military involved in a supposedly civilian programme? Why does Iran not give a full account of its dealings with AQ Khan’s network, which helped North Korea and Libya with their secret nuclear weapons programmes?

Mark Pritchard: On the matter of AQ Khan, does the Minister agree that the Pakistani authorities should send out the message that they are not going to put people under luxury house arrest but put them in prison serving serious prison time in order that others who might be tempted to proliferate nuclear technology do not do so?

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Dr. Howells: The hon. Gentleman is right to raise that question. We have raised it with the Pakistani Government on many occasions, because what the hon. Gentleman describes as luxurious house arrest is not an appropriate punishment for what the AQ Khan network did. In relation to Iran, the matter is extremely serious, and I shall add to that.

I have taken part in two debates this morning —this and the previous debate on Lebanon and Syria—in which I have heard Rafsanjani described as a moderate. I saw him give an interview in the run-up to the last presidential election with Gavin Esler on a BBC World interview. He declared: “Yes, of course we have hidden aspects of our nuclear policy. We would not have been able to develop it otherwise.” Rafsanjani was in charge of that Administration. We should be careful about dividing Iran into reformers, moderates and extremists. We have all got form, and Rafsanjani has got some too.

The International Atomic Energy Agency board of governors and the UN Security Council have set out the essential steps that Iran needs to take to build confidence, which include the full suspension of enrichment-related and reprocessing activities. The measures required by the Security Council would not affect Iran’s pursuit of nuclear energy. Iran does not need to enrich uranium to generate electricity. However, the suspension wouldhelp to provide confidence that Iran is not seeking the know-how to make fissile material for weapons.

There is an argument—I did not hear it this morning, although I was waiting and prepared to hear it, and have discussed it with Dr. el-Baradei among others—that the IAEA board and the Security Council are wrong to insist on a suspension because Iran has either mastered enrichment or cannot be stopped. That is entirely misguided. Iran has enriched relatively small quantities of uranium, but it has not learned how to operate the process properly. Iranian scientists are yet to solve a range of technical problems and therefore although suspension remains crucial and pressing, there is still time for diplomacy to work. We remain committed to finding a negotiated solution and our approach has been to make it clear to Iran how it might benefit from meeting its obligations. At the same time, we have made it clear that it will face the risk of greater international isolation if it fails to take the steps required by the Security Council.

In June 2006, Javier Solana—the EU’s high representative—presented proposals to Iran on behalf of the so-called E3 plus three—the UK, France, Germany, China, Russia and the US. Those proposals are far-reaching and offer a way forward that would provide confidence that Iran is not developing nuclear weapons. The proposals would also give Iran everything that it needs to develop a modern civil nuclear power industry, plus other political and economic benefits. Despite that, Iran has failed seriously to engage in discussions. The proposals are still on the table and, even at this stage, I hope that Iran will acknowledge the benefits of them and take the steps required by the Security Council so that talks can begin. The current sanctions will be frozen if Iran complies with the proposals and would be lifted in the event of a long-term solution. I welcome the efforts by Javier Solana in the past few weeks to urge the Iranians
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to take a positive path. I hope that everybody understands the significance of that and that real attempts have been made to engage with the Iranian Government. If the Iranians do not address international concerns, the Security Council will have no choice but to impose further measures.

I was glad to hear the hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk (Mr. Simpson) talk about the effectiveness of financial sanctions, which are incredibly important. We know that such sanctions worry the Iranians most. An indication of that is the 400,000 Iranians who live in Dubai, where they think that they can do their business. They are living there in preparation for what they consider the inevitable imposition of sanctions as a consequence of the intransigence of the Ahmadinejad regime. Iran is not North Korea. It has a great history, as the hon. Member for The Wrekin has described, and it has a large merchant class—traders, scientists and engineers. The people of Iran want a prosperous country, but they know that that will not happen under the leadership of Ahmadinejad. The people of Iran understand that economic sanctions would be effective and therefore they are taking measures to ensure that, if necessary, they can carry on with their business outside Iran.

The hon. Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski) asked about the straits of Hormuz. I was recently in Oman, where people are very worried that the straits of Hormuz will be blocked. This time next year, about 20 per cent. of our gas will come by ship from Qatar, where there is the biggest gas field in the world. There is always a reluctance to talk about the politics of energy in discussing this type of politics, but if we attempt to turn on the lights in our homes and nothing happens, we will be very worried about the straits of Hormuz. It is extremely important that measures are taken to ensure that the straits are kept open—all the Gulf states believe that that should be the case. We must redouble our diplomatic efforts in the Gulf to ensure that the other states in that area put pressure on the Iranians together with the E3 plus three and any other group of nations.

On the proscription of Mojahedin-e Khalq, the Home Office rejected an application for de-proscription last year and that is, strictly speaking, a matter for the Home Office. As hon. Members know, however, the MEK is proscribed under the Terrorism Act 2000 and its involvement in violence means that it has little support in Iran. The MEK claims to support human rights and democracy, but it is hard to square that with its authoritarian structure and claims by respected human rights non-governmental organisations of serious violations of the rights of its own members. I understand that an EU court has ruled that the EU’s proscription of the MEK is illegal for
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procedural reasons and not because there is not a case against the MEK. The MEK remains proscribed in the UK.

Mr. Binley: Will the Minister give way?

Dr. Howells: No, I shall not give way. I understand that there is currently a legal challenge to the proscription, which the Home Office is dealing with. I certainly do not want to prejudice that case.

Another argument that I have heard from time to time is that sanctions will make Iran more rather than less determined to defy the international community. Security Council resolution 1737, which was adopted on 23 December, imposed a number of sanctions that focused on Iran’s sensitive nuclear and missile activities. Those sanctions are a useful political toolkit to counter the activities of greatest concern, and they are also having a political effect. The Security Council’s unanimous adoption of the measures has shown that President Ahmadinejad’s claim that the international community is disunited and lacking in the will to act is a fantasy. Far from making the Iranian regime and people more united, the measures have, as we have heard from hon. Members, fuelled greater debate inside Iran about the costs of the course on which the regime has set the country. My hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn) rightly raised the issues whether that was fair and whether Iran should be able to continue with fissile material production, because Israel also has a bomb. Why on earth would we want another nation to have a nuclear bomb in one of the world’s most volatile regions?

Jeremy Corbyn: I did not say that. Will the Minister give way?

Dr. Howells: No, I will not give way. I will try to answer the questions put to me by my hon. Friend in my own way. There is no question that Israel should come clean about its nuclear bombs and delivery systems. The hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk and others have made the important point that Israel will start to develop a second strike capacity. I know from my discussions in the Gulf that the Egyptians, the Saudis and Turkey will want a bomb because they feel threatened by that regime, which is why there is no more important issue on the international horizon. We must do everything that we can diplomatically. An invasion or a bombing campaign is not on the horizon, and the Government have nothing to do with such suggestions. When I was in Washington before Christmas, I also heard nothing about such an approach. We must get real about the situation and try to understand that, if we are to persuade the Iranian people that this is not the proper course, we must take much of the advice given to us by the hon. Member for The Wrekin.

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Burial Grounds

12.30 pm

Tony Baldry (Banbury) (Con): Death becomes us all. Everyone hopes that, having died, their remains will be cremated or buried with dignity. There is, however, a problem. In many parts of the country there is a shortage of burial space. I shall raise with the Minister concerns that relate to my own constituency, but I know from e-mails that I have received and approaches that have been made to me since the debate has been publicised, that her response will be read with interest in many parts of the country.

Bicester in Oxfordshire is one of the fastest growing towns in England. There has been substantial new housing in recent years, and substantial further new housing is anticipated in the immediate future. Bicester is a town of some 32,000 people and is growing rapidly. It has a cemetery and the responsibility for the upkeep and maintenance of that cemetery appears to have fallen to Bicester town council.

In the local government hierarchy, Bicester town council has, in effect, the status of a parish council elsewhere. Parish and town councils have limited powers. They receive no grant from central Government; they have to raise all their own money. They are under various other statutory constraints. For example, it is not open to a town council to spend any money outside its boundaries without applying to the Secretary of State for specific approval.

That brings me to my first two questions for the Minister. First, in a unitary local authority such as a London borough or a metropolitan district, there is no ambiguity about the fact that it is the unitary authority that is responsible as the burial authority, whereas in counties such as Oxfordshire there are three tiers of local government—in this instance, Oxfordshire county council, Cherwell district council and Bicester town council—and my understanding is that both the district council and the parish or town council are burial and cremation authorities under the Local Government Act 1972. Have I got that right? If so, it may be sensible in policy terms to separate responsibility for the maintenance and upkeep of cemeteries—a responsibility that can clearly be discharged by the town or parish council—from the responsibility of having to make provision for new cemeteries. In terms of both statutory powers and the ability to raise the funds needed to negotiate and purchase the land required for those cemeteries, that would be a more appropriate responsibility to place on district councils.

Bicester town council has remaining in its existing cemetery approximately 200 burial plots and I understand that there are about 60 burials a year, so it will not be long before the cemetery is full. The publication “Local Council Administration”, in its seventh edition, which I think is the most recent, calculates that at two burials per grave, 1 acre of land may be expected to last 70 years for 2,000 inhabitants. Given that Bicester has a population of 32,000 and growing, we are talking about the town council having to acquire a sizeable acreage of land for a new cemetery—I would anticipate at least 10 acres, and for a local council that has to raise all its own money year on year, that is a quite substantial burden.

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Secondly, can the Minister confirm that there is at present limited statutory responsibility on local authorities in terms of a duty to bury the dead? I think that I am correct in saying that under section 46 of the Public Health (Control of Disease) Act 1984, there is a duty on burial authorities to bury or cremate the dead where it appears that no other suitable arrangements would be made. That relates to what I think are described as paupers’ funerals. The 1972 Act provides that burial authorities “may”, rather than “shall”, provide and maintain cemeteries. I think that that fact was confirmed in the Government’s consultation paper “Burial Law and Policy in the 21st Century: The Need for a Sensible and Sustainable Approach”, published in January 2004. It states:

Perhaps the time has come to place on district authorities a statutory responsibility to provide burial grounds and to ensure that the costs or what in local government parlance are described as the “new burdens” of such a responsibility are fairly met through the financial support mechanisms for local government.

Notwithstanding the financial difficulties, Bicester town council has done its best to find land for a new cemetery. I firmly believe that Councillor Debbie Pickford, the leader of Bicester town council, is to be commended for the very considerable energy and effort that she has devoted to this particularly sensitive subject. The difficulty is that although the town council approached a wide range of landowners in and on the outskirts of Bicester, none of them was willing to sell any land. That is perhaps understandable. Any people who own land on the edge of Bicester have hopes that in due course such land will be designated for housing and, in the absence of any compulsory purchase, they are unlikely voluntarily to sell such land now for the purposes of a cemetery.

Two developers have planning permissions to develop quite sizeable areas of new housing on what are known in shorthand as Gavray drive and the south-west option. The town council approached the developers of the housing on Gavray drive and the south-west option, asking if they would be able to give the town council some land for a new cemetery. Both declined. Again, that is not entirely surprising. Builders of sizeable housing developments such as those find that ever increasing section 106 burdens are placed on them—for example, having to provide land for new primary and secondary schools, contributions to main roads and so on—and they are understandably reluctant to give up further land on which they have planning permission to build houses. In short, the town council was not able to find any landowner in the immediate vicinity of the town who was willing to sell land for a cemetery.

The town council then looked to see whether any suitable site existed on land already in its ownership. Such land is very limited and, as I am sure the Minister will appreciate, for a growing town such as Bicester, any
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recreational or amenity land in the town centre is very much valued. One site was identified, but there was then a further complication. A rock stratum goes through the town, which would make conventional burial extremely difficult, so the town council considered the possibility of above-ground burial chambers and visited a cemetery in Bedford where some above-ground chambers are already in place.

Perhaps not surprisingly, that suggestion met widespread opposition from local residents, which I think reflects the perfectly understandable cultural sensitivities about burial. Those are perhaps best summarised by an extract from the “Local Council Administration” handbook, to which I have referred. It states that

Indeed, at the last meeting of the planning committee of Cherwell district council—the local district council—it refused planning permission for such a cemetery on the grounds that it would result in the loss of an attractive, well used area of public space and would be inappropriate on a small, highly constrained site in a residential area.

By definition, most town councils are likely still to have in their ownership only small land sites in residential areas. This issue is not in any way unique to Bicester. I think that there is a collective sensibility about what we believe a burial ground or cemetery should look like. That said, I readily recognise that such sensitivities may vary widely from country to country, so what might seem usual and acceptable in, say, Spain or Italy would not find public support here.

In short, the town council has done everything in its ability to try to purchase new land for a cemetery and has considered the potential of its own limited existing land holdings, all without success. That causes me to ask the Minister what the Government’s position is on three issues: the reuse of graves; the ability of a town or district council to acquire land for a cemetery by compulsory purchase; and the need to designate land for cemeteries in the planning process and the local development framework. I appreciate that the last two issues are not immediately within her brief, but her Department has clearly been given the lead responsibility regarding the law and policy on burial grounds. As I gave the Department notice of the issues that I intended to raise, I hope that she will give a full response.

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