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House of Commons

Tuesday 8 January 2008

The House met at half-past Two o’clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Private Business

Bournemouth Borough Council Bill [ Lords]

Order for Second Reading read.

To be read a Second time on T uesday 15 January .

Manchester City Council Bill [ Lords]

Order for Second Reading read.

To be read a Second time on Tuesday 15 January.

Oral Answers to Questions

Foreign and Commonwealth Office

The Secretary of State was asked—

Diplomatic Service (Closures)

1. Mark Pritchard (The Wrekin) (Con): How many UK embassies and diplomatic missions were closed in 2007. [175891]

The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (David Miliband): No UK embassies closed in 2007. Two diplomatic missions were closed: the high commission office in Kingstown, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, and the British consulate in Nagoya, Japan.

We continue to manage the Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s overseas network to reflect changing demands and challenges. We will ensure that our resources are aligned with our priorities and that the UK has a cost-effective and flexible network of overseas representation around the world.

Mark Pritchard: Since 1997, when the Government came to power, more than 35 embassies, high commissions and sovereign posts have been closed. Given the Chinese scramble for Africa, is it right that out of 53 African countries, 23 do not have any British diplomatic representation at all?

David Miliband: It may help the House if I give it the actual facts, rather than the partial presentation given by the hon. Gentleman. In 1997, the UK Government had 242 overseas posts. In 2007, there were 261. In the past 10 years, the number of overseas posts has increased by 19 by any calculation.

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In respect of the situation in Africa, I think that the hon. Gentleman will agree that a measure of a country’s commitment to Africa or its engagement is not the number of posts but the effectiveness of its activities, including its funding. By no stretch of the imagination is it possible to argue that the UK’s influence in Africa is lower today than it was 10 years ago. In fact, it is massively enhanced. There has been cross-party agreement about the activities of the Government on this issue over the past 10 years.

Mr. Mark Hendrick (Preston) (Lab/Co-op): How does my right hon. Friend determine the relationship between the Government’s Foreign Office priorities and the resources at their disposal in deciding which diplomatic missions to keep open?

David Miliband: The most important criterion is that the Foreign Office’s network is aligned to the shape of the modern world rather than the world as it was after 1945. There has already been a 20 or 25 per cent. reduction in the number of personnel deployed in Europe, which in part reflects the amount of extra business done in UKRep—the UK Permanent Representation to the European Union—in Brussels and the multilateral engagement that we have. I see that continuing, with the shifting of more of our diplomats—UK staff and locally engaged staff—towards the middle east and south Asia, where, by any stretch of the imagination, we need more representations to meet all the national interests that we have at the moment. That seems to me to be the alignment of people and priorities that we should be seeking.

James Duddridge (Rochford and Southend, East) (Con): What consideration has the Secretary of State given to accrediting Department for International Development staff in countries where there is no Foreign Office support, particularly in Africa, in countries such as Lesotho and Swaziland, where there are excellent DFID staff?

David Miliband: Of course, in most of Africa DFID and FCO staff work side by side. Many of the problems that DFID focuses on are complementary to the work on conflict prevention or good governance that is at the heart of the FCO’s work. On the accreditation of staff—I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman means that technically—DFID staff, like Foreign Office staff, are there to represent the whole UK. They do that extremely effectively.

Ann Clwyd (Cynon Valley) (Lab): As my right hon. Friend knows, my particular concern is East Timor, and the closure of the embassy there in 2006 and the removal of our remaining staff in 2007. East Timor is a country that is emerging out of considerable conflict and it needs a lot of help. I know that there is an ambassador in Jakarta and that the intention is that the ambassador and his staff should visit East Timor. However, given the continuing concern in East Timor, can my right hon. Friend tell me how often the ambassador has been there since the closure of the embassy?

David Miliband: My right hon. Friend has anticipated some of my answer. I do not have to hand the number of times that the ambassador in Jakarta and his staff have visited East Timor, but I shall be very happy to provide her with that information.

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Mr. Keith Simpson (Mid-Norfolk) (Con): The Foreign Secretary has been somewhat creative with his figures in respect of embassies, high commissions and consulates. He says that their numbers reflect how the world is changing, so I presume that the closure of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office language school and the withdrawal of the FCO’s contribution to the cost of maintaining defence attachés are also connected with that. Do not the figures given by my hon. Friend the Member for The Wrekin (Mark Pritchard) have more to do with financial cuts imposed by the Treasury than with any changes in the nature of the world? After all, the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs has said that the Foreign Office budget will see a reduction of 5.1 per cent. per annum across the board and that that will jeopardise its work. Can the right hon. Gentleman tell us how many more embassies, high commissions and consulates have been identified for closure over the next two years to pay for those cuts?

David Miliband: It is very odd to define increased spending as cuts. The increased spending over the next period will be used in the areas of greatest need. Moreover, it is right that we do not use defence attachés for non-defence work, as they are specialists and should work on defence matters. The hon. Gentleman accuses me of creative accounting, or at least creative number work, but he may be interested to know that Germany has 226 posts, the US 262 and France 275. The UK holds a diplomatic network of outstandingly qualified individuals who work closely with DFID and British Council staffs. They provide a network that, in times of crisis, has shown itself to be more than adequate for the country’s needs. I am sure that he will seek to criticise the Government about many things, but I believe that we should all be proud of the nature of our global network and its deployment around the world.

Environmental Protection (Lisbon Treaty)

2. Kerry McCarthy (Bristol, East) (Lab): What discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs on the effect of the provisions to the treaty of Lisbon on the ability of EU member states to agree effective policies on environmental protection.[175892]

The Minister for Europe (Mr. Jim Murphy): Tackling climate change is recognised as a specific objective of EU policy for the first time in the Lisbon treaty. The treaty also includes welcome proposals to liberalise energy markets and promote energy efficiency.

Kerry McCarthy: I thank my hon. Friend for that response. I very much welcome the fact that tackling climate change is now a specific EU policy objective and that we have the necessary legal framework for it, but does he agree that we also need greater international co-operation to meet EU-wide targets on climate change? What progress is being made on that front?

Mr. Murphy: My hon. Friend is right. She takes a keen interest in these matters, and will know that article 2 of the Lisbon treaty states that the EU will

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That is a remarkable change in the EU’s posture. We are making real progress on reducing carbon emissions: we have set a target for reductions totalling 20 per cent. by 2020, and have also established a number of demonstration plants for carbon capture and storage. Progress must also be made through other organisations, such as the G8, the World Bank and the UN, but the EU is a crucial component in any international climate change strategy.

Mr. John Redwood (Wokingham) (Con): If the EU is making such progress, why is it that several EU countries will not meet their Kyoto targets, and why are carbon emissions going up in Britain?

Mr. Murphy: The UK is the first and so far the only country to have set binding targets for reducing carbon emissions. We are leading the way in Europe and throughout the world, but carbon emissions can be reduced only through international co-operation. We cannot set up a patriotic front against climate change, as such change does not recognise the national boundaries and borders that the right hon. Gentleman seems to believe in. In fact, I understand that he opposes the binding targets on carbon emissions.

Mr. Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield) (Lab/Co-op): How effective has the UK been, either alone or with our European colleagues, in talking to the Japanese about their disgraceful behaviour in taking whales?

Mr. Murphy: We were talking about national borders, and now we have moved on to whales; I assume that we are now talking about the animals and not the Principality. We continue to raise the question of Japan’s whaling practices, and its capture and killing of whales. I shall bring my hon. Friend’s question to the attention of our colleagues in the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. That Department leads on the specific question of whaling, as Japan is not likely to be part of Europe in the foreseeable future.

Mr. Oliver Heald (North-East Hertfordshire) (Con): How was it that the EU emissions trading system ended up issuing permissions to pollute at 6 per cent. higher than the current level of pollution? What is going to be done about a situation in which Britain set tough targets and ended up having to buy 22 million tonnes of carbon and other similar countries such as Germany and France issued so many permits that they were selling them? What will Lisbon do about that?

Mr. Murphy: I hope that the hon. Gentleman does not mind my saying so, but the basic premise of his assertion is absolutely correct. The problem in the past was that there was not enough international co-operation and countries set their own targets in a way that did not fit international priorities or the scale of the problem. Over the next 30 years, if we continue at the current pace, international and world energy demand will increase by a remarkable 50 per cent. That is clearly unsustainable, which is why there is a real need for internationally agreed binding targets of the type that the United Kingdom was first in the world to agree to.

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British Council (Russia)

3. Ben Chapman (Wirral, South) (Lab): If he will make a statement on the future of the British Council's offices in St Petersburg. [175893]

5. Ms Gisela Stuart (Birmingham, Edgbaston) (Lab): If he will make a statement on the operation of the British Council in Russia. [175895]

The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (David Miliband): On 12 December the Russian authorities announced that they planned to shut down the British Council offices in St. Petersburg and Yekaterinburg on 1 January 2008. I made it clear in my written ministerial statement of 13 December that the Russian Government’s threat against the British Council was illegal. It is therefore the intention of the British Council to remain open and operational in St. Petersburg and Yekaterinburg.

Ben Chapman: While I applaud the Government’s decision and recognise of course that it is in times of political difficulty that the British Council’s independent and continuing role in bilateral education and cultural links becomes particularly important, is not the key question how we avoid the council’s work becoming a pawn in the foreign affairs game and ensure that people on all sides recognise the importance of its continuity?

David Miliband: My hon. Friend makes an important point. The independence of the British Council is asserted on both sides of the House. Certainly it is not a political football from our point of view, and our message to the Russian Government is that they should not use the British Council as a political football. I hope that that can be a united message, because 1.25 million Russians benefited from the activities of the British Council last year, and that must be in both our countries’ interests.

Ms Stuart: Given that it is the British Government’s view that the British Council’s operations are legal in the Russian context and comply with tax laws, international conventions and the agreement reached with the Russians, and given that the actions of the Russian Government appear to be illegal, what practical help can the British Government give the staff at the offices of the British Council still based in Russia so that they can continue their operation?

David Miliband: My hon. Friend raises an important point. The first thing to say is that, while a threat was issued on 12 December, it has not yet been carried out. Our first priority is to send a clear message to the Russians that this is illegal and there is nothing to be gained by them—in fact, there is everything to be lost, in terms of services for Russian people and of the reputation of Russia around the world—in carrying out this threat. Certainly, my conversations with European and other G8 colleagues suggest that there is unanimous incomprehension at the proposal of the Russian Government to crack down on the British Council. Our duty of care to our staff is obviously something that we take seriously and the offices are in the first instance a matter for British Council management. I assure my hon. Friend that both at official level in Russia and at ministerial level, we take the duty of care to both sets of staff extremely seriously.

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Michael Fabricant (Lichfield) (Con): The Foreign Secretary may be aware that the news agency TASS, the newspaper Izvestia and The Moscow News, the English newspaper, have said that the British Council performs activities not in accordance with what it ought to be doing. They have suggested, for example, that it is an agent of the Secret Intelligence Service and that it interferes in the politics of Russia. The Foreign Secretary will know that that is nonsense. How can he reassure the House and, more important, President Putin, that it is not the case?

David Miliband: The best way, of course, is to agree with the hon. Gentleman. I am sure that my agreement with him will have a profound resonance. We can at least both say that there is absolutely no foundation to those allegations. The legality of the British Council activity seems to me to be clear. It may be worth reading into the record that the British Council’s activities are fully compliant with not just international law, but Russian law. Its presence and its activities are specifically endorsed by a 1994 cultural centres agreement signed by Russia. I give him my absolute assurance on the independence and legality of the British Council’s work.

Mr. Mark Francois (Rayleigh) (Con): We share the Government’s view that Russia’s action is wholly unacceptable, so can the Foreign Secretary explain why, although the Prime Minister said at the last EU summit that its conclusions would “reflect” the “anger” that EU leaders felt about the matter, it was not even mentioned by the time that the summit concluded? Do we not now have the worst of all worlds: a Prime Minister who blatantly gave in to European leaders last month, but who managed to offend them into the bargain so that we do not get their help when we request it in turn?

David Miliband: It is frankly pathetic for the hon. Gentleman to try to turn the issue into an anti-European diatribe, when the European Union presidency has issued a statement denouncing any Russian action. I am sorry that he or his researchers have not been able to find— [Interruption.] No, I am sorry; he says that I am wrong, but I will do the research for him; I will send him the European presidency statement, which shows a united European view on the issue. I thought that he confined his Europhobia to issues to do with the European Union, but it seems not.

Chris Bryant (Rhondda) (Lab): Is not the really worrying thing about the Russian ban on the British Council outside Moscow the fact that it is far from the first time that the Russians have tried to undermine the work of the British Council in Russia, and that it is not the only non-governmental organisation in Russia that has been systematically undermined by its Government in the past few years? Is it not important that we continue to be robust, not least now that Mr. Lugovoi has been elected a member of the Duma? The issue is part of a smokescreen to try to hide the fact that one of his colleagues in the Duma said the other day:

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Mr. Speaker: Order. That is far too long.

David Miliband: I am sorry that hon. Members interrupted my hon. Friend—[Hon. Members: “It was Mr. Speaker.”] Mr. Speaker is always correct in his interruptions, but Opposition Members are not. My hon. Friend has spent a lot of time on the issue. He is, of course, absolutely right. The shocking quotation that he read out should indeed be denounced. I will just pick up two of the points that he made. First, let us not yet talk about Russian actions. There have been threats, but there have not yet been actions against the British Council outside Moscow, and we should continue to urge the Russian Government not to take any actions. Secondly, we need to continue to give the Russian Government the clear message that we will continue to take the Lugovoi issue seriously; the request for his extradition remains in force, and it remains a commitment of ours to see justice done in this country. At the same time, we are determined to work with Russia on a range of international and bilateral issues. We must continue to make that twin-track message clear.

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