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House of Commons

Tuesday 9 October 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—


1. Derek Wyatt (Sittingbourne and Sheppey) (Lab): What assessment he has made of the recent presidential elections and other political developments in Turkey. [156123]

The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (David Miliband): Turkey’s recent parliamentary and presidential elections have delivered a strong popular mandate to the AK party to continue with a programme of reform and economic development in that country. That has sent out a strong signal about Turkey’s commitment to democracy both in Turkey and elsewhere in the Muslim world. When I went to Turkey on 5 September I made it clear that the UK remains committed to supporting Turkey’s modernisation and its EU accession. I am confident that the new Turkish Government will be positive partners for the UK and the EU.

Derek Wyatt: What are we doing on the soft power front? Is the British Council being upgraded, and will we do more school twinning and that sort of thing?

David Miliband: I am happy to confirm that the British Council is active in Ankara and across Turkey; when I was there, I participated in a seminar that it organised. I think that the school twinning is now supported by the Department for Children, Schools and Families, which has a special website for international twinning operations. The increasing engagement of Turkish business with business across the EU and indeed globally is a positive sign. I might add in parentheses that Turkey’s commitment to helping to support the development of a stable and peaceful Iraq is also an important indication of the way in which Turkey wants to fulfil its international responsibilities.

Sir Peter Tapsell (Louth and Horncastle) (Con): Will the Secretary of State bear in mind that one of the many reasons for not invading southern Iraq was that it was likely to precipitate a Turkish invasion of the Kurdish north? As that may be imminent, are we strongly advising Turkey not to do it?

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David Miliband: I find that a peculiar question, given that we have just been through a referendum— [Laughter.] That is the next question. We have just been through an election campaign in Turkey— [Interruption.] I do not want hon. Members to use their best lines before a later question. We have just been through an election campaign in Turkey, in which PKK terrorism was a serious threat to southern Turkey, and the governing party’s restraint in refusing to undertake the sort of activities to which the hon. Member for Louth and Horncastle (Sir Peter Tapsell) referred was a marked feature of that campaign. Although he talks about the imminence of some sort of Turkish invasion of northern Iraq, it would be better to commend the Turkish Government on their restraint and say that we want to work with them, and that we want the Iraqi Government to work with them and to make sure that we crack down on that dangerous terrorism in northern Iraq.

David Lepper (Brighton, Pavilion) (Lab/Co-op): Does the Secretary of State share the concern felt by many people in the Republic of Cyprus about the fact that the new Turkish Government have still not kept to their undertaking that once they had secured the opening of EU accession negotiations, they would lift their embargo on ships from Cyprus entering Turkish ports?

David Miliband: Obviously, I discussed relations with Cyprus when I was in Turkey. The fairest thing to say is that there are responsibilities on both sides. My hon. Friend rightly refers to the embargo, but it is important that we emphasise that there are responsibilities on both sides. The 8 July UN process that has now been started needs to be followed through, with responsibilities on both the Turkish and Cypriot sides.

Patrick Mercer (Newark) (Con): The Secretary of State will be aware that on the sixth anniversary of the 11 September bombing, a large bomb was intercepted in Ankara. It is likely that it was to be detonated with a device in Germany. Has he any comment to make on the political implications of that for Turkey?

David Miliband: When I was in Turkey I talked with the Turkish Government about the terrorism that they face; we all know about the Istanbul bombing, which claimed many lives. The political implications are twofold. First, we need enhanced security co-operation, including with the Turks, and that is taking place. Secondly, we need to send out a very strong message that those who would seek to plant bombs anywhere in Europe will affect people of all religions and none, and that is why it is in all our interests to make sure that we work together against them.


2. Richard Ottaway (Croydon, South) (Con): What steps he is taking to promote investment in Iran. [156124]

The Minister for the Middle East (Dr. Kim Howells): The Government do not promote investment in Iran. UK Trade and Investment’s advice to business makes it clear that potential investors should be aware of the
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implications of existing and future sanctions before investing in Iran. Any company or individual considering investment in Iran should contact officials in UKTI, who will be able to inform them of the legal constraints and considerable commercial and political risks that they would face.

Richard Ottaway: I am sorry to tell the Minister that that is a very misleading answer. The UK Trade and Investment website says:

Is the Minister aware that Iran is exporting terror, threatening to wipe Israel off the map, manufacturing nuclear weapons and manufacturing bombs to kill our troops? He is using taxpayers’ money to support the economy that has paid for that. Does he accept that that is nothing short of a policy of appeasement, and will he stop it?

Dr. Howells: No, I do not accept any of that.

Michael Fabricant (Lichfield) (Con): Unplug the website.

Dr. Howells: Unusually, the hon. Gentleman gives good advice from a sedentary position. There is a sentence that needs to be changed, and I have spoken to the chief executive of UKTI about that. However, many British and European companies in Iran are trading within the law imposed by sanctions. UKTI gives them advice and tries to help them to ensure that they do not encroach beyond the law, which is an important function. I quite agree, however, that the regime in Tehran is obnoxious, and we must do everything that we can to put pressure on it to ensure that it changes those policies.

Mr. Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield) (Lab/Co-op): I agree with my hon. Friend that it is not a very nice regime in Iran, but is it not time that we started new initiatives and a new dialogue with Iran? Is it not about time that we distanced ourselves from the United States and showed Iran that we want to talk to it? Is that not the way to persuade it to change its ways?

Dr. Howells: We have always maintained diplomatic relations with Iran, unlike the United States. My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary has met the Iranian Foreign Minister, and we have had many discussions with the Iranians. The E3 plus 3 has made offers to Iran which, by any definition, are very generous and sensible. We have offered, for example, to help them with a civil nuclear programme, but they have rejected those offers. They have constantly played for time, and they are developing—as far as I believe on the intelligence that we have been given—a nuclear bomb programme. They have enriched uranium with that in view, which is something that we cannot ignore—it is extremely important. In my view, it is one of the most serious difficulties that the world faces at the moment, because if the Iranians develop a nuclear bomb, there will be proliferation across the world, as others will want to develop nuclear bombs.

Mr. David Lidington (Aylesbury) (Con): How does the Minister explain recent reports that the British Government are resisting pressure from France and the
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United States to accelerate further EU sanctions against Iran? Given his very strong criticism of the Iranian regime, will he commit the Government today to press urgently for action to deny Iranian banks access to European financial systems and to impose restrictions on European investment in Iranian gas and oilfields?

Dr. Howells: Yes, I can give the hon. Gentleman those assurances and tell him that my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary will argue at the appropriate EU meetings next week that we should tighten sanctions across Europe against the Iranian regime. I am very confident that that is exactly what we will do.

EU Reform Treaty

3. Andrew Rosindell (Romford) (Con): What his policy is on holding a referendum on the new European constitutional treaty. [156126]

6. Mr. Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con): What Government policy is on a national referendum on the new treaty reforming the constitutional arrangements of the European Union; and if he will make a statement. [156129]

The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (David Miliband): The mandate for the reform treaty agreed by all 27 Heads of Government makes it clear that the constitutional concept has been abandoned. The reform treaty reforms the EU institutions just as previous amending treaties have done. In line with these precedents, ratification should be a matter for Parliament.

Andrew Rosindell: Given that today’s European Scrutiny Committee report describes the new treaty as “substantially equivalent” to the EU constitution, does the Foreign Secretary not accept that the British people should have a right to vote on that in a referendum? Does he not remember that that was his pledge at the last election?

David Miliband: I am sorry, but I think that the hon. Gentleman must have listened to the “Today” programme rather than read the document from the important Committee. Let me read to him exactly what it says. It says that the reform treaty is “substantially equivalent” to the constitutional treaty

Mr. Mark Francois (Rayleigh) (Con): Read page 16.

David Miliband: Whatever the shadow Minister shouts out, that is in the section of the Committee’s report labelled, “Conclusion”—which, I think, is rather important in this respect. The framework referred to earlier does not supersede the conclusion of the report, and I suggest he reads it more carefully.

Mr. Hollobone: I, too, have been reading the European Scrutiny Committee’s report, from which I quote, for the benefit of the Foreign Secretary. It states that

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so will the Foreign Secretary ensure that he and his junior Ministers abandon that bogus argument, which has fallen apart under detailed examination?

David Miliband: We know the hon. Gentleman’s position. He says that leaving the EU would be a positive step. I suggest that he reads the legal draft that came out on Friday, which was put in the Library and given to the Clerks of the Committees of the House. It makes absolutely clear the direction in which Europe is moving, which is to respect the red lines that the United Kingdom has asked for. I commend to him the words of the chairman of his own party’s democracy taskforce, the right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke), who said that if Parliament cannot decide this sort of thing, Parliament is worthless. Parliament should not be worthless.

Chris Bryant (Rhondda) (Lab): The treaty makes it clear that if it goes through, Britain will increase the number of votes that it has in the Council. In other words, it will increase our power to make decisions in Europe. It also makes sure that the French, who for years have been trying to prevent the liberalisation of their energy policy, to the detriment of British consumers, will have to comply with European policy. Would it not make sense for us to ratify the treaty as fast as possible, in the interests of the British?

David Miliband: My hon. Friend makes important points. I, for one, look forward to the treaty coming before the House and being debated at great length, so that the myths that have been propagated can be properly debunked.

Ms Patricia Hewitt (Leicester, West) (Lab): Does my right hon. Friend agree that the new treaty gives the European Union the opportunity to put behind us procedural arguments about the changes required for enlargement, and instead gives us the opportunity to concentrate on the really urgent challenges that we face, notably climate change?

David Miliband: My right hon. Friend makes an important point. If she has read, as I have, the report of the Dutch council of state, which is the only independent legal body to have looked at the treaty, she will know that it considers that

In other words, it does indeed lay the basis for us to ensure that the EU gets on with its proper business, which is about climate change, jobs, crime and immigration.

Mr. William Cash (Stone) (Con): As a member of the Select Committee that produced the report, I condemn the remarks made by the Foreign Secretary. He is coming to see us on 16 October and he will not have quite such an easy ride in front of the Committee as he may try and get away with on the Floor of the House. The
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document is substantially equivalent to the treaty and requires a referendum. The Foreign Secretary said the other day that we are a parliamentary democracy and that we therefore make such decisions in Parliament. The Referendum Act 1975 was passed by Harold Wilson and a Labour Government. It specifically returned, as it should, the right of the British people, through their representatives, to make a decision by referendum to enable the people of this country on an impartial question to come to a decision about a matter of massive importance to their future—

Mr. Speaker: Order.

David Miliband: The fairest thing to say for the hon. Member for Stone (Mr. Cash) is that he has been consistent on the issue. When the Maastricht treaty came before the House, dozens of Back Benchers who are still in the House, and Front Benchers, voted against a referendum. He voted in favour of a referendum. I look forward to talking with him and his Committee next week. He cannot deny that the quotes that I have given from his report are accurate.

Mr. David Drew (Stroud) (Lab/Co-op): Although some of us on this side of the House will take no lessons about referendums from the Conservative party because of its failure to hold one on the single market and on Maastricht, we still feel that this is a manifesto commitment. If anything, a referendum gives significant authority to the Foreign Secretary when he goes to talk about the red lines in respect of ensuring that at least those red lines are kept and that we seek further improvements. Will he stick to his guns and go for a referendum?

David Miliband: I will certainly stick to my guns, but that involves saying that the decision should be taken in this House. My hon. Friend is right to say that we still have a couple of months before the treaty is finally signed in December. We shall work right up until that final agreement to ensure that the red lines are properly respected. The Prime Minister said that yesterday and I am determined to repeat it today. I look forward to taking on the discussion with my hon. Friend, because it will become clear that Europe and the Heads of Government have rejected a centralised or federalist future. We have the opportunity to make the European Union work for people and I think that that is what unites the two of us.

Mr. William Hague (Richmond, Yorks) (Con): On the question of the treaty being substantially equivalent to the constitution, should not the Foreign Secretary have read on to paragraph 45 of the Committee report? It states:

Given that the report says that his central argument on the treaty’s constitutional characteristics is not helpful and is even likely to be misleading, should he not now drop this specious line of argument? Is he not simply padding along in the footsteps of the Prime Minister at the weekend and trying to treat the people of this country like fools?

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