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Gulf War

3. Ben Chapman (Wirral, South) (Lab): What discussions she has had with the UN on the request for part of the money paid to people detained in Iraq during the first Gulf War to be repaid. [134733]

The Minister for the Middle East (Dr. Kim Howells): My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary has not had any discussions with the United Nations about the request to recover overpayments to claimants identified in the 2006 audit of the United Nations Compensation Commission. Her Majesty’s Government, along with other permanent members of the governing council of the UNCC, agreed to the adoption of a “best efforts” approach to recover overpayments. We are taking such an approach in contacting concerned claimants. We are aware, however, that in some cases it will be difficult for claimants to repay the money, and we will handle them with due concern for the claimants’ welfare.

Ben Chapman: But does my hon. Friend understand that these were payments, modest ones, made 17 years ago to those detained against their will in the first Gulf war? My constituent, Chris Shaw, received a payment of £9,000 and is now being asked to repay £1,300 within 30 days. Is that not shameful, and ought it not to be written off?

Dr. Howells: I certainly think that, in the case of my hon. Friend’s constituent, that is an unreasonable demand. However, I am sure that he knows that there have been UNCC-approved compensation awards totalling $52 billion to 1.5 million claimants worldwide, and so far $21.8 billion has been paid out. That amounts to 5 per cent. of Iraqi oil revenues. The figures for Britain are that 5,000 United Kingdom claimants have received awards totalling $428 million. Those are large sums, but I take on board my hon. Friend’s point and, as I said, where there are difficulties we must look carefully at the demands and where possible ask that the most difficult payments be written off.

UK-Islamic Relations

4. Mr. Greg Hands (Hammersmith and Fulham) (Con): What recent assessment she has made of UK relations with the Islamic world. [134734]

The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Margaret Beckett): The United Kingdom has strong relations with Muslim-majority countries and communities, through our governmental, people-to-people, cultural, educational, trade and other links. Based on shared values and interests, we are working together for a safer, more just and more prosperous world for all, addressing the common challenges that face us all, such as development, terrorism and climate change.

Mr. Hands: Turkey is crucial to our relations with the Islamic world. What specific steps is the Foreign Secretary taking to follow up on the statement of the
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Prime Minister earlier today on the political crisis in Turkey, and would intervention by the Turkish army in the selection of a new President of that country result in the UK dropping its support for Turkish European Union membership?

Margaret Beckett: Irrespective of our approach to Turkish EU membership, everyone must recognise that it is highly undesirable for armed forces to interfere in a democratic process. We would certainly discourage that, and we have done so very firmly with the Turkish military.

Emily Thornberry (Islington, South and Finsbury) (Lab): Does my right hon. Friend agree that another very important Islamic country is Bangladesh? In the light of recent developments such as the warrant for the arrest of one of the major political leaders and the house arrest of another, the putting off of elections and the increasing dominance of the military, will she look again at Britain’s support for the interim Government?

Margaret Beckett: We do of course keep a careful eye on the position in Bangladesh and recognise the concerns that my hon. Friend identifies, and I hope that she will recognise that there was great anxiety about the position in Bangladesh before the caretaker Government were appointed. Throughout the state of emergency and in our engagement with that Government, we have emphasised the need to balance concerns about stability and security with respect for individuals’ rights and democratic processes. We have urged them to put in place the circumstances and conditions that will lead to well run, free and fair elections, to recognise that concern exists about the timeline identified for those elections, and to recognise that there is a great deal of work to do before they can be carried out in a way that could meet suitable standards.

Mr. Robert Walter (North Dorset) (Con): May I return to the question of Turkey, which is our most important ally in the Islamic world, and ask the Foreign Secretary, given that the nominee for the presidency of Turkey is her opposite number—the Turkish Foreign Minister, Mr. Gul—whether she has congratulated him on his nomination or counselled him otherwise?

Margaret Beckett: I would never venture to counsel even as good a friend as Abdullah Gul as to how he should judge his political career. This is of course a matter for the people and the democracy of Turkey, and our chief hope and concern is that it should be democratically and peacefully resolved.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North) (Lab): Is it not interesting that on Sunday hundreds of thousands of people demonstrated in Turkey in defence of the republic and of freedom, and against the nightmare of a religious-run state? Should we not congratulate all those who demonstrated and all their supporters on the fact that Turkish freedom and democracy will not be undermined?

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Margaret Beckett: My hon. Friend makes a very powerful point. As I said to the hon. Member for North Dorset (Mr. Walter), it is of course right and proper that people make their views known, and in peaceful ways that contribute to the democratic outcome that we all hope to see.

Mr. William Hague (Richmond, Yorks) (Con): Events since the last Foreign Office questions have underlined that our most difficult relationship in the Islamic world is with Iran. Should we not do everything we can to make it clear that Iran can have a normal relationship with the western world if it suspends nuclear enrichment and some other activities, but that if it does not the United Kingdom will ask other EU countries to join the United States in taking progressively more serious economic and financial action against Iran—on access to the banking system, export credits and investment in oil and gas fields—so that the maximum peaceful pressure can be applied against nuclear proliferation, before it is too late?

Margaret Beckett: I agree with every word that the right hon. Gentleman has just uttered. He is right to say that it is very important not only that we maintain pressure on Iran to realise that there is a price to be paid for continuing on her present route, but that we do so in concert with our partners. He may be aware that at the last meeting of the General Affairs Council it was agreed that the European Union will indeed fully implement, and go slightly further than is demanded by, the previous UN sanctions resolution. We shall continue to urge our colleagues to maintain that firmness.

Mr. Hague: Given that approach by the European Union, is the Foreign Secretary happy with the recent agreement by the Austrian energy firm OMV to develop Iran’s Pars gas field? Is not the view of the US State Department, which said,

one that should be shared throughout the European Union?

Margaret Beckett: I understand the concern that the right hon. Gentleman raises. Although this is of course a matter for the Government of Austria, we do have some concerns about whether we are all trying to make the right kind of decisions, in the context of the overall background to which he refers. As I say, it is a matter for the Austrian Government, but there will no doubt be others who share the concern that he—and, indeed, the United States Government—have expressed.

Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle) (Lab): There are only three or four fully functioning democracies in the 44 states of the Islamic world. Why should that be the case?

Margaret Beckett: That is a very interesting question—to which, I fear, I do not feel inclined to try to give a full answer in the middle of Question Time.

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High Commission (New Delhi)

5. Peter Luff (Mid-Worcestershire) (Con): If she will make a statement on the future accommodation and offices of the UK high commission in New Delhi. [134735]

The Minister for the Middle East (Dr. Kim Howells): The FCO’s estate in New Delhi provides efficient office and residential accommodation for our staff and those of other Government Departments. We do, of course, keep our estate strategy in New Delhi, as elsewhere, under constant review.

Peter Luff: Given the ties of history that bind our two nations and the economic and political significance of India to this country and the wider world in the 21st century, does the Minister agree that it is desirable that the British high commissioner to New Delhi should continue to reside at 2 Rajaji Marg as he does at present? If it is impossible to negotiate a commercial deal with the Indian Government to enable him to do so, will the Minister give me a categoric assurance that the new residence will be of sufficient prestige to demonstrate to the Indians and the wider world how seriously we take that relationship?

Dr. Howells: I very much hope that our high commissioner stays there, if only for the architectural value of that beautiful building, which also has a beautiful garden. In 2006, 7,500 guests were entertained at the residence, including the hon. Gentleman. I do not know what wine he enjoyed, but I know that the wine is as good as the architecture.

Mr. Ken Purchase (Wolverhampton, North-East) (Lab/Co-op): Notwithstanding property wrangles, the Minister will be anxious to reassure the House that the services rendered by our post there continue apace, not least the consular services, especially in the light of the continuation in custody of my constituent, Panjab Singh, who has been held since Christmas eve by the authorities in the Punjab, without proper trial. It is strongly suspected that he has been mistreated. I know that the consular services are working hard, but will the Minister assure me that every effort will be made to assist my constituent, as happens in every other case of such difficulties in the sub-continent?

Dr. Howells: I can certainly give my hon. Friend that assurance. India is an extremely important country for the UK and we will do everything we can to continue with the excellent consular services that are provided. It is a complex country and, as my hon. Friend knows, there is considerable devolution to the states that make up India, which has, on occasion, resulted in great difficulties in some consular cases, including the one he raises.

Climate Security

6. Mr. Adrian Bailey (West Bromwich, West) (Lab/Co-op): What assessment she has made of the outcomes of the recent UN Security Council debate on energy, security and climate; and if she will make a statement. [134736]

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The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Margaret Beckett): The UN Security Council debate was a landmark event. The participation of 55 countries was an all-time record for a thematic debate. The vast majority of those who participated recognised climate security as an issue of immediate international concern. That should add momentum to the UN negotiations to galvanise collective action.

Mr. Bailey: Does my right hon. Friend agree that much of the debate about climate change so far has been understandably couched in terms of the humanitarian consequences of failure to address it? However, the security implications of failure to deal with the humanitarian issue are profound and important. Can she make an assessment of how far the international community has appreciated that and taken it into account in developing policies to combat climate change?

Margaret Beckett: My hon. Friend is right. It would be fair to say that we have been in on the early stages of recognition by the international community of the security implications of that challenge. As he may know—and, by coincidence, on the very day of the debate in the Security Council—a group of retired American generals and admirals published their own assessment of the security issue, describing climate change as

They also identified it as a security risk to the United States, as it is to the whole world.

Mr. Andy Reed (Loughborough) (Lab/Co-op): Is it not the case that the countries that will be most affected by the first changes in climate will be the poorest, such as Bangladesh, where large parts of the country will disappear? What assessment has my right hon. Friend made of the possibility of some 100 million refugees pouring out of some of the poorest countries and the security implications not only for the surrounding countries, but the regions in which they sit?

Margaret Beckett: My hon. Friend is entirely right, and the country that he uses as an example—Bangladesh—is an area where substantial movement of people is causing security difficulties. However, I advise him and the whole House that a range of different threats have much the same effect. For example, there is great concern about the implications that difficulties with the flow of the River Nile would have, both in Egypt and all along its course, and about the pressures caused by the possible migration of millions of people. My hon. Friend is therefore right to identify such challenges. It is very important that the countries of the world work together to adapt to the changes that are already inevitable and to head off those that are not, as they might be even more damaging.

Middle East

7. Andrew George (St. Ives) (LD): What recent discussions she has had with her counterparts in those countries with an interest in the middle east peace process. [134737]

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The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Margaret Beckett): I am in regular contact with my EU, US, Israeli, Palestinian and Arab counterparts, as well as with other international partners, to discuss ways to move the peace process forward. I most recently discussed that with my EU counterparts at the General Affairs and External Relations Council on 23 April.

Andrew George: On this 10-year milestone of the Government’s election, what does the Foreign Secretary believe has been the most successful contribution that Britain has made to achieving lasting peace in the middle east, and what has been the least successful?

Margaret Beckett: I am not sure that it is very fruitful to assess Britain’s contribution in that way. Over the past 10 years, all my predecessors in this post, and my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, have made a most determined effort to do everything possible to move the middle east peace process forward and to identify the potential of the road map. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister displayed the same determination in respect of the Northern Ireland peace process. At present, there is an opportunity to move the road map process forward, with regular meetings taking place between President Abbas and Prime Minister Olmert. That opportunity could slip away, but many people from all parts of the world are determined to try to work together to get a good result.

Sir Gerald Kaufman (Manchester, Gorton) (Lab): Now that an independent judicial inquiry has exposed the reckless culpability of Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert—his popularity rating is now 2 per cent.—in bringing about an invasion of Lebanon that killed 1,200 Lebanese and 160 Israelis without achieving any of its objectives, what action is being taken by my right hon. Friend and her road map and other partners to require the Israeli Government to comply with the UN Security Council resolutions that that Government have violated consistently?

Margaret Beckett: My right hon. Friend is referring to the interim report of the Winograd committee, which is, of course, a matter for the Israeli Government. Of course I recognise that a series of international resolutions have made various calls on different participants in the middle east. The Government are determined to do everything we can to support the peace process and move it forward, as in the end that could provide the answers to many of the questions that my right hon. Friend has raised.

Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cotswold) (Con): Will the Foreign Secretary utterly condemn those who have been holding the BBC correspondent Alan Johnston for the past 50 days? Will she join me in sending a message of sympathy to his family, colleagues and friends at this very difficult time? She will know that the whole House will support her in any effort that she makes to secure his release, but can she give us any additional information this afternoon—for example, about who might be holding Mr. Johnston? What discussions has our high commissioner in Jerusalem had with President Abbas about this matter?

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Margaret Beckett: First, I am sure that the whole House will want to express its sympathy and concern for Alan Johnston and his family. He has been most cruelly treated, despite his long-standing friendship with, and support for, the people of Palestine. We are certainly doing all we can to work with his employers, the BBC, and with his family and other interested parties to try to be effective in obtaining his release.

There is little I can say to the hon. Gentleman about the situation. There are people who, it is thought, are likely to be holding Mr. Johnston, although they deny it. Every effort is being made at every level. My hon. Friend the Minister for the Middle East raised the matter when he chaired the Security Council recently, and the hon. Gentleman may know that the Prime Minister of the Government of national unity, Prime Minister Haniya, said only yesterday that he and his colleagues are also working quietly, but actively, to try to release Alan Johnston. Everyone is doing everything they can and we will continue to do so. I know that the hon. Gentleman understands that sometimes such things are better conducted more in private than in public.

Mark Lazarowicz (Edinburgh, North and Leith) (Lab/Co-op): One of the continuing obstacles to the middle east peace process is the presence of illegal settlements in the occupied territories. Notwithstanding the limited withdrawals from Gaza not long ago, the evidence is that the rate of increase of settlements on the west bank is growing; in fact, some settlers removed from Gaza are taking on new settlements in the west bank. What are the Government doing to increase pressure on Israel to stop the growth of illegal settlements in the occupied territories, which is now clearly undermining the peace process?

Margaret Beckett: I am not aware of evidence that suggests that the pace of settlement expansion has increased, but we absolutely share my hon. Friend’s view in opposing any extension of settlements. We believe that they should be halted and that any construction barrier beyond the green line should also be halted. Both are contrary to international law and run the risk, whatever anyone’s intention, of creating so-called “facts on the ground”, which could impede the peace process. That, too, is something we deplore, as we have made very plain and will continue to do so.

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