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House of Commons

Tuesday 20 March 2007

The House met at half-past Two o’clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Private Business

Broads Authority Bill ( By Order)

Order for Second Reading read.

To be read a Second time on Tuesday 27 March.

Oral Answers to Questions

Foreign and Commonwealth Office

The Secretary of State was asked—

Terrorism (Iran)

1. Mr. David Burrowes (Enfield, Southgate) (Con): What recent assessment she has made of levels of Iranian support for terrorism. [128288]

The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Margaret Beckett): We have long-standing concerns about Iran’s support for terrorism. We assess that Iran continues to fund and arm extremist groups engaged in violence in Iraq. It remains a leading supplier of military and financial assistance to Lebanese Hezbollah, and it funds and retains close links to Palestinian Islamic Jihad and Hamas.

Mr. Burrowes: Does the Secretary of State believe that the United Nations Security Council’s proposed sanctions against Iran will put adequate pressure on Iran not to acquire nuclear weapons and not to support terrorist organisations such as Hezbollah and Hamas with funding and weapons? Is there any real prospect for peace in the middle east if Iran’s nuclear ambitions and support for terrorism are not thwarted?

Margaret Beckett: As I have said to the House before, it is a deliberate decision by the international community to seek sanctions against the Government of Iran, but to do so in a way that is incremental, reversible and deliberately designed to encourage Iran into negotiation rather than continued defiance. The hon. Gentleman asked me whether I thought that the sanctions would be adequate. If he is asking whether I think that this is all that is required to be done, the answer is no. That is deliberately not the way in which the international community is approaching this matter. If, as we hope, a resolution on the issue carries
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later this week, that will represent a further indication to the Government of Iran that, yes, there is a choice open to them, but that to choose to remain as they are will not be cost free.

Mrs. Louise Ellman (Liverpool, Riverside) (Lab/Co-op): What action is being taken to prevent Iranian support for terrorism through re-arming Hezbollah in Lebanon in contravention of the UN resolutions and in the face of the presence of the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon—UNIFIL—which seems powerless to do anything about it? Is she concerned that there could be a parallel with what happened during the years between Israel leaving Lebanon and the outbreak of the war, which was damaging for all sides?

Margaret Beckett: I think that the whole House will share my hon. Friend’s concern about the consequences of re-arming Hezbollah in the way that she has described. We are aware of the Israeli Government’s concern that some re-arming is taking place. We also believe that UNIFIL is acting as something of an obstacle. My hon. Friend will know that other steps are being taken to increase supervision at the border, to try to impede the continued transfer of arms. That is also a concern of the United Nations, whose Secretary-General continues to express anxiety about the matter. I can assure my hon. Friend that it is not our understanding that there is still a free flow of arms, as was the case in the past, but we share her concern about any continued flow of arms to re-supply Hezbollah. We continue to keep up pressure on the Government of Iran and on those who are active in Lebanon to resist and obstruct any such activity.

Mr. Brian Binley (Northampton, South) (Con): The Government have refused to accept the judgment or the spirit of the European Court of First Instance to annul the proscription of the main opposition party in Iran, the People’s Mujaheddin of Iran—the PMOI. Will the Secretary of State, whose Government have so shamefully refused to enact the judgment of a legally constituted court, tell us what impact she expects this to have on the world at large?

Margaret Beckett: We continue to take the view that the course of action that we are pursuing is correct, and we always regret it when our view is not shared by others. Of course, we engage in dialogue and take heed when views of the kind that the hon. Gentleman describes are expressed, but we do not intend to change course at present.

Mr. Wayne David (Caerphilly) (Lab): Clearly, the Iranian Government have a choice: to work with the international community or to defy it. Will the Foreign Secretary confirm that, if they continue to defy international opinion, she will work to ensure that they become increasingly isolated, politically and economically?

Margaret Beckett: I can certainly give my hon. Friend that assurance. There are indications that the Government and other major players in Iran are becoming concerned that their course of action continues to be resisted by the international community—in a way, it
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appears, they had not expected. I assure my hon. Friend that we will search for opportunities to keep up the pressure, not least because the Government of Iran have consistently claimed that they were carrying out enrichment and reprocessing in order to have access to modern civil nuclear power. Access to such power is available to them by peaceful means through the international community, in a way that would be acceptable and, indeed, almost unprecedented. We shall continue to press Iran to pursue that course.

Willie Rennie (Dunfermline and West Fife) (LD): Following the tentative steps towards substantive discussions between the United States, Iraq, Iran and middle east neighbours, what additional encouragement can the UK Government give the United States to engage further in discussions with Iran?

Margaret Beckett: I believe that the hon. Gentleman is referring to the neighbours conference that took place in latter days. That is an ongoing event, but the Government of Iraq, who hosted the conference, also involved the G8, the P5 and others on this occasion. Several international players, including the United Kingdom, were therefore present at an official level. I am told by those who attended the conference that it was constructive and useful, and further discussions are taking place about whether a similar event might take place at ministerial level. I do not anticipate that happening in the near future, but if it appears that such an event might be scheduled and that it might help to take forward international support for peaceful development in Iraq, we will certainly play our part.

Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock) (Lab): May I take the Foreign Secretary back to her reply to the hon. Member for Northampton, South (Mr. Binley)? She said that the Government continue to take the view that the PMOI should be proscribed, but she has not told the House why, and what more it should do to satisfy the Foreign and Commonwealth Office that it has a clean bill of health and that it has given up military action. What more can it do, and why does she continue to ignore the views of the European Court and insist that that organisation stays on the list? That flies in the face of the views of distinguished parliamentarians, including our former colleague Lord Archer of Sandwell and former Conservative Home Secretary David Waddington. The view—

Mr. Speaker: Order. I think that the Secretary of State might manage a reply.

Margaret Beckett: My hon. Friend quotes a number of people, not least our former colleague Lord Archer, for whom I have great personal respect. I am afraid, however, that we continue to judge that there is insufficient evidence to show that that body has turned away from the path of terrorism and violence. Until we judge that the evidence demonstrates that much more fully, it would not be right or responsible to lift the proscription.

Mr. William Hague (Richmond, Yorks) (Con): Will the Government support the idea of the forthcoming UN resolution adding prominent members of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps to the list of
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those targeted by financial sanctions, given its role in the funding and carrying out of violence in Iraq and Lebanon? Do not we need a sharp increase in the peaceful pressure on Iran in the form of financial sanctions by European Union countries, in addition to UN sanctions, so that the maximum peaceful pressure is applied before it is too late?

Margaret Beckett: We do consider how such sanctions could be extended, but we have consistently taken the view, which the right hon. Gentleman might share, that part of the key goal of the E3 plus 3 should be to maintain unity among ourselves. We would therefore rather have a resolution that does not go quite as far as some would want than one on which we are divided. I assure him that we maintain the maximum amount of pressure to make our stance as strong as possible, but we are also mindful of the wish to maintain agreement.

On the right hon. Gentleman’s reference to the possibility of further action by the EU, he might be aware that we urged EU colleagues at the recent General Affairs Council to exploit to the full the opportunities presented by the UN list, and to consider financial measures that the EU can take outside the UN sanctions regime.

Bilateral Relations (Nigeria)

2. Helen Goodman (Bishop Auckland) (Lab): What discussions she has had with the Nigerian Government on bilateral relations; and if she will make a statement. [128289]

The Minister for Trade (Mr. Ian McCartney): The UK and Nigeria have had excellent bilateral relationships. The Under-Secretary of State, my noble Friend Lord Triesman, visited Nigeria on 1 February and had discussions with the President, the Interior Minister, the Minister for Federal Capital Territory and the chairman of the Independent National Electoral Commission. He had discussions with the Vice-President in London on 19 February.

Helen Goodman: I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for that answer. I recently met a delegation of Nigerian parliamentarians who were concerned about the integrity of the forthcoming elections. Have the Government discussed that with the Nigerian Government? What support are we giving to ensure that those elections take place on a proper basis?

Mr. McCartney: I thank my hon. Friend for that question. We have indeed discussed the matter and we understand the vice-president’s concerns about the unfairness of the process. We have commitments from the Government and the electoral commission that elections will be held on schedule in April. There is great expectation among the Nigerian people and we would be concerned if the elections were delayed for any reason. Consequently, we are helping to do two things. First, the European Union and the Commonwealth plan to send observer missions to the elections. Secondly, we have put in place a £7 million
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election programme fund to help create conditions for a successful election. It includes assisting with voter registration and voter education programmes.

Mr. Gary Streeter (South-West Devon) (Con): I commend the Minister and his Department for the pressure that they have applied to the Nigerian Government to ensure that the elections take place in four weeks, thus embedding important democratic events in that strategic nation. Will he say a little more about whether we will send parliamentarians from, for example, this country, as election overseers and monitors? Will he provide more detail about how we will link with the EU in overseeing that important election?

Mr. McCartney: I am hopeful that the EU and the Commonwealth will consult us about representation from this place. I will report back to the House on the discussions that are taking place to ensure that the hon. Gentleman’s wishes, which are shared cross party, come to fruition. It is critical that the observer posts are as strong as possible. A recognition of our role in Nigeria would be welcome.

Jim Sheridan (Paisley and Renfrewshire, North) (Lab): What discussions has my right hon. Friend held with the Metropolitan police and the chairman of the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission in Nigeria on the seizure of property in this country by those identified as being involved in and charged with corruption? Such people effectively take the money from the poorest people in Nigeria and launder it in this country.

Mr. McCartney: I thank my hon. Friend for that question. I have not met the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission in Nigeria, but the Metropolitan police and my officials in the Foreign Office are working closely with it. In the past few months, that work has led to the arrest in London of a former Nigerian governor and the repatriation of £1 million to the people of Nigeria. We will continue such capacity building. The commission is important and it contributes to rebuilding democratic structures and institutions in Nigeria.

Substantial progress needs to be made on corruption. I give a commitment that not only the Government, but the European Union will work with a capacity-building project, to which we will contribute, to ensure that the Nigerians have the ability to track down corruption effectively, end it and return the stolen resources to their people.

Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cotswold) (Con): Nigeria is a huge country of 140 million people. It has extreme wealth, accounting for 20 per cent. of United States oil supplies, yet it also suffers extreme poverty. One in five children does not live to the age of five; 7 million children do not go to school; and 55 per cent. of families do not have access to clean water. There is therefore a desperate need for change in that country. Will the Minister pledge today not only that we will participate fully in observer status in the elections and help the Independent National Election Commission, but—more important—that immediately after the presidential elections he will act as a broker between
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the United States and ourselves to ascertain how a genuine package of assistance can be put in place to help one of the poorest countries in the world?

Mr. McCartney: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question. I believe that everyone understands where we are coming from on the elections, the resources for them and observer status to ensure that they are fair, free and democratic. Again, Britain has been at the forefront of cancelling debt. For example, the United Kingdom alone has cancelled £2.8 billion. Some $18 billion of debt has been cancelled through the Paris Club deal. Indeed, 60 per cent. of Nigeria’s debt has already been written off. That is crucial for the reasons that the hon. Gentleman gave: writing off debt must channel into capacity building for health, education and infrastructure. Every dollar that we write off is a dollar to be spent on the children and citizens of Nigeria. We are at one on that.

Mr. Mark Field (Cities of London and Westminster) (Con): My constituent, Mr. David Littlechild, spent some weeks earlier this year in prison in Lagos. I want to take this opportunity to put on the record my thanks to the Minister for the hard work that was undertaken by his Department, and particularly by Lord Triesman and his civil servants. There were, however, specific concerns about the speed and quality of the service of the high commission. Will the Minister make representations in respect of our embassies and high commissions in other countries in sub-Saharan Africa, to ensure that British nationals are properly looked after?

Mr. McCartney: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his comments, although I take no credit as my noble Friend Lord Triesman and our staff on the front line did that work. It is important to understand that our staff on the front line—whether in Africa or elsewhere where there are difficulties—try to help British nationals in distress on a daily basis. Sometimes that can be done quickly and effectively, and on other occasions it can take a considerable amount of time, but, hopefully, it is always done effectively. I will take back to the Department the hon. Gentleman’s good wishes, but I also give him this assurance—not just by our embassies working on their own, but by them working in partnership with other countries’ embassies in difficult areas of the world, we are trying to ensure that our front line has the capacity to intervene and to assist British nationals who have problems. Sometimes those problems are of their own making and sometimes they are not, but regardless we try our best to ensure that there is effective representation for them.

Humanitarian Intervention (UN Policy)

3. Mr. David Hamilton (Midlothian) (Lab): If she will make a statement on recent progress towards reform of UN policy on humanitarian intervention. [128290]

The Minister for Trade (Mr. Ian McCartney): We strongly support the United Nations world summit agreement on the responsibility to protect. That was an important development in international thinking on intervention where states are unable or unwilling to
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protect their populations. We have encouraged the Security Council to act in accordance with that principle, although some members have resisted. We have secured references to it in important resolutions on the protection of civilians in armed conflict situations, such as in Darfur.

Mr. Hamilton: I thank the Minister for that answer, but may I take him one point further? Is it not the case that because of some British overseas involvements, especially in Iraq, our position on humanitarian aid has been compromised as we are often seen as a puppet, and not as a country fighting for the rights of individuals in countries that are ruled by dictatorships?

Mr. McCartney: No, I reject that, and I shall give an example from the past seven days showing why what my hon. Friend says is not the case. Last week in Darfur I had a meeting with a Sudan Justice Minister and the inability of the Sudan ministries to take action to ensure the safety of their own population. In that regard, it is essential that we give leadership on the responsibility to protect. The international community has a responsibility, but individual Governments also have the responsibility to work with the international community. In Sudan, we have so far put in £60 million to support the creation of a UN international peacekeeping force. The problem has been the unwillingness of the Sudanese regime to participate effectively. As a consequence, there is a continuing deterioration in the situation of the citizens of Darfur and of Sudan in general. So no, we are not second-class citizens when it comes to arguing this case. We are fully behind the responsibility to protect, and the more we do that, the more that countries that are reluctant to do so will be forced to take their responsibilities to their own citizens seriously.

Mr. James Gray (North Wiltshire) (Con): The responsibility to protect is, of course, not the United Nations’ responsibility; it is the responsibility of the host nation—of the nation concerned. Does the Minister agree that one nation that has demonstrably fallen down in its responsibility to protect is Zimbabwe? When will the Government do something worth while in respect of Zimbabwe?

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