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Council of Ministers

11. Mr. Charles Walker (Broxbourne) (Con): If he will make a statement on the agenda of the Slovenian presidency of the Council of Ministers. [175901]

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The Minister for Europe (Mr. Jim Murphy): Slovenia took on the European Union presidency on 1 January, and we congratulate it on being the first of the 2004 new member states to do so. We welcome its strong focus on the Lisbon jobs and growth agenda, economic reform, climate change and further EU enlargement.

Mr. Walker: I, too, welcome the presidency of Slovenia, one of the EU’s smallest nations. What measures will we, as a sovereign Government, take to ensure that Slovenia does not fall under the undue influence of our friends across the channel, such as France? What will the Government do to protect our national interests during this important period?

Mr. Murphy: It is difficult to answer such an unusual question, which is bizarre and absurd in equal measure. Slovenia is a proud and newly independent member state, which has an ambitious agenda for the rotating presidency. Let me stumble towards an answer to the hon. Gentleman’s question: we are providing logistical support and secondees to the Slovenian Government, and I visited Ljubljana recently. It is vital for the Slovenian presidency to be a success. Together, we have celebrated the independence of the nations that were freed from the tyranny of communism and are now proud members of an alliance of democracies.

Sir Stuart Bell (Middlesbrough) (Lab): When you called me, Mr. Speaker, I almost said, “Merci”.

May I confirm that the first thing that the Slovenian Parliament will do is ratify the Lisbon treaty, in accordance with the Slovenian presidency? Will not the hon. Member for Broxbourne (Mr. Walker) be happy when our Parliament, too, ratifies the Lisbon treaty?

Mr. Murphy: My hon. Friend is right. We will take a similar approach to the treaty to that which previous Governments took to other European treaties, including Amsterdam, Nice, Maastricht and the Single European Act. We have an established constitutional principle in the United Kingdom: the Palace of Westminster—the House of Commons and the House of Lords—gives its agreement to such European treaties.

Topical Questions

T1. [175840] Mr. Kevin Barron (Rother Valley) (Lab): If he will make a statement on his departmental responsibilities.

The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (David Miliband): I briefed the House yesterday on the situation in Pakistan and Kenya and the steps that the Government are taking to help those countries on the path to democracy and development. I can confirm that President Kufuor of Ghana is on his way to Nairobi, and we will do all that we can to assist him.

In 2008, the Foreign Office will focus its policy work on four matters: countering terrorism and weapons proliferation; promoting a low carbon, high growth global economy; preventing and resolving conflict; and developing effective international institutions—most critically, the United Nations and the European Union.
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With your permission, Mr. Speaker, I should also like to mention two events in Lebanon earlier today. I am sure that the House will want to condemn strongly the rocket attacks overnight from southern Lebanon on Israel. Secondly, I can confirm reports of an explosion in Rmeileh, 30 km south of Beirut, in which two UN peacekeepers have been injured but, fortunately, not killed. We are seeking more details, but I am sure that the House will join me in deploring any attacks on UN peacekeepers.

Mr. Barron: In my right hon. Friend’s statement on Pakistan yesterday, he said that it was crucial that the delayed elections be seen to be free and fair. He also said that, if invited, the Commonwealth could play a positive role in monitoring such elections. Has such an invitation been extended at this stage? What actions are the Government taking to ensure that the Commonwealth is prepared if such an invitation comes along?

David Miliband: My right hon. Friend raises an important point. I have spoken to the Commonwealth secretary-general, who confirmed that approaches have been made to the Pakistan Government to make it clear that the Commonwealth would like to have monitors there. I spoke to Pakistan’s acting Foreign Minister last Friday to re-emphasise our belief that Commonwealth monitors could play a constructive role in not only Pakistan’s election but its eventual re-entry to the Commonwealth.

Mr. William Hague (Richmond, Yorks) (Con): Across the House, we are united in deploring the rocket attacks against Israel and any attacks on UN peacekeepers, as the Foreign Secretary said, and also in intensifying the pressure on Iran to suspend its nuclear enrichment programme and return to negotiations. The Foreign Secretary gave a welcome assurance in November that he had agreed with the other members of the Security Council that a new UN resolution, imposing sanctions on Iran, would quickly be introduced unless Javier Solana reported a positive outcome to his discussions. Mr. Solana reported no such positive outcome, yet no UN resolution has been agreed so far as we know. Will the Foreign Secretary assure the House that it is postponed rather than abandoned?

David Miliband: Yes, although I would not want to use the word “postponed”, or associate myself with it at all. The six members of the E3 plus 3 made it clear that if there were no positive outcome from the work of Javier Solana and the work of the International Atomic Energy Agency, which is pursuing important issues relating to previous Iranian activities in respect of uranium enrichment, there would be a new Security Council resolution. I can confirm to the right hon. Gentleman that intensive work is going on among all six Governments, designed to take forward a resolution on a unanimous basis. I can also say that yesterday I met the secretary-general of the IAEA, Dr. el-Baradei, and emphasised the importance of his work and the urgency of taking it forward in respect of critical issues to do with contamination that remain to be answered by the Government of Iran.

Mr. Hague: The Foreign Secretary also assured us in November that the Government would press for further EU sanctions against Iran, to be agreed before the end of the year—that is, before the end of 2007.
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The Minister for the Middle East told the House in October that the Government were “very confident” that EU sanctions against Iran would be tightened. We welcomed that, but again, no such additional action has yet been taken. Is it not vital that it is taken, if Iran is not to conclude that the world does not have the will to uphold the non-proliferation treaty?

David Miliband: It is vital that that action is taken forward. The right hon. Gentleman will know that, in an unprecedented statement, European leaders at the European Council in December agreed the text of a very strong statement in respect of this issue, which made clear the readiness of the EU to move forward. Obviously the EU track and the UN track are complementary, but I assure him that there are intensive discussions taking place on an EU basis, as well as on the UN track.

T5. [175844] Nigel Griffiths (Edinburgh, South) (Lab): Will the Foreign Secretary report to the House on what has happened in Basra since our forces handed over provincial control in December?

David Miliband: My hon. Friend raises an important and timely point, given the visit to London today of General Mohan, the commander of Iraqi security forces in Basra. I met General Mohan this morning, as did my hon. Friend the Minister for the Middle East, and the Secretary of State for Defence is meeting him this afternoon. General Mohan told me that although the security situation of course remains difficult—some of that was discussed earlier this afternoon—he is confident that Iraqi security forces have the capacity to take their work forward. I very much hope that the unity that he called for—on security issues, economic reconstruction and political reconciliation—can bring unity across the House on how we move forward on the issue of Iraq, even though I understand that there will never be unity on the original decision five years ago.

T3. [175842] Mr. Andrew Mackay (Bracknell) (Con): As last July the Prime Minister rightly described the Darfur crisis as one of the great humanitarian disasters of our generation, and as the joint African Union and United Nations force was supposed to be 19,000 strong on 31 December—that is, last week—but is only 9,000 strong on the ground, and comprises mainly African Union troops, what are the Government doing to put the matter right?

David Miliband: The right hon. Gentleman has long made important contributions on this issue, and he is right to highlight the discrepancy between the agreed intended size of the AU-UN force and its current size. I spoke to the UN Secretary-General over the Christmas and new year break, because of the difficulties in Pakistan, and was able to register the importance of the issue. The mission in New York is also taking it forward. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will also agree that, in parallel to the work to ensure that the force, with the right equipment, is on the ground in Darfur, we must pursue the work to bolster the comprehensive peace agreement, which has brought three years of peace between north and south, but needs to be taken forward further. I hope that the political track, as well as the military track, can be taken forward in 2008.

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T7. [175846] Mr. Siôn Simon (Birmingham, Erdington) (Lab): Assuming that the Minister can give us no further information about the worrying rocket attacks from southern Lebanon into Israel overnight, can he say what he thinks might be the impact of President Bush’s visit tomorrow—his first in all these years as US President?

The Minister for the Middle East (Dr. Kim Howells): I hope that my hon. Friend will accept that these rocket attacks are very worrying. Two rockets came from Lebanon into Israel. We do not know who fired them: we suspect that elements of Fatah al-Islam, the group that caused the devastation in the refugee camp in the north of Tripoli, may be involved, but we have had no confirmation of that. My hon. Friend asks what difference the visit will make. I very much hope that it will continue to focus the attention of the world on the need for far more work to be put in on the middle east peace process, which has been a desultory process for far too long. The intensity that we witnessed in the run-up to Annapolis and since is to be welcomed. With luck, and particularly with the energy of the Americans, we hope to start to see some real achievements.

Mr. Edward Davey (Kingston and Surbiton) (LD): Further to his answer to the right hon. Member for Bracknell (Mr. Mackay), is the Foreign Secretary aware that the UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon warned yesterday that UNAMID still does not have enough helicopters to carry out its peace-keeping mission in Darfur? While I recognise that our own armed forces are in need of more helicopters, particularly in Afghanistan, what is the British Government doing to ensure that UNAMID has the 24 helicopters that it was promised? The people of Darfur have waited long enough. When will the Government, with our EU and NATO allies, provide those life-saving helicopters?

David Miliband: I again welcome the hon. Gentleman to his post, and to his first Foreign Affairs questions. He rightly raises a detailed point about helicopters. Of course, the pressure on helicopter numbers is reflected not just in Afghanistan but in Chad, where an important French drive is taking place. The hon. Gentleman asked how we were taking discussions about this forward, and I can assure him that in NATO, in the EU and at the UN, strong diplomatic representations are being made at the political and official level. He referred to the calls already being made on British forces, and he will know that although it is easy to talk about deploying one or two helicopters, to do that requires significant numbers of staff in support. It is a complex matter, but I strongly share the hon. Gentleman’s sense of urgency about the situation, and I acknowledge the need to ensure that countries with forces at their disposal send them to the areas where they are most needed.

T8. [175847] Mr. Ronnie Campbell (Blyth Valley) (Lab): What further assessment has my right hon. Friend made of the Bali agreement, particularly of aspects that would benefit the people of the UK?

David Miliband: My hon. Friend raises an important point. This is the first time that the House has had a chance to discuss the matter since the very important
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Bali conference, where my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and the Minister for the Environment played a critical role in the last hours of the negotiations in securing an agreement. It is not a final global deal on climate change, but it includes for the first time commitments for all countries to be engaged in emissions reduction. Secondly, it specifies 25 per cent. to 40 per cent. cuts in emissions by the developed nations that were signatories to Kyoto by 2020. I think that that provides a basis for serious negotiations over the next two years. Perhaps the greatest thing achieved in Bali was the setting of a deadline for those negotiations, of December 2009—the last date by which we need an agreement if there is not to be a gap when the current Kyoto commitments lapse in 2012.

T4. [175843] Simon Hughes (North Southwark and Bermondsey) (LD): Ministers will know that since 1 January this year, Sri Lanka has seen the death of one member of parliament, the death of a military commander of the Tamil Tigers and of other Tamils, and, in the last 24 hours, the death of the Minister responsible for nation building. Given that the Sri Lanka Government have announced that they will terminate the ceasefire agreement next Wednesday, what are Her Majesty’s Government doing to try to bring both sides together again to facilitate a long-term and secure settlement for Sri Lanka so that all its peoples can live in peace?

Dr. Howells: I share the hon. Gentleman’s concern about the deteriorating situation in Sri Lanka. We have been trying for a long time to help the Norwegians, who have been attempting to broker peace and have done sterling work there. Indeed, my right hon. Friend the Member for Torfaen (Mr. Murphy), a former Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, has been out to Sri Lanka to try to build bridges between the communities on the basis of his experience of what happened in Northern Ireland—but it is a very difficult process. I think that the most distressing feature is how the Government have won some military battles, but then become less enthusiastic about reconciliation and involving everyone who lives on that troubled island in a more inclusive way. We will continue to work with the Government, however, to emphasise that reconciliation must take place. There must be talks; otherwise the killing will continue. A Minister died yesterday, and we have seen—

Mr. Speaker: Order. I must stop the Minister there.

T6. [175845] Mr. Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con): Does the Foreign Secretary believe that it would benefit the international community if the Republic of Ireland became a member of the Commonwealth, and are Her Majesty’s Government involved in any co-ordinated efforts within the Commonwealth to extend an invitation to the Republic so to do?

The Minister for Europe (Mr. Jim Murphy): There is a series of important reforms of the operation of the Commonwealth, which Her Majesty's Government strongly support—but it is largely for other countries to seek membership. It is not for the United Kingdom to extend invitations to other countries at our behest or
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suggestion. It would be for Ireland to initiate such an application, and it has not done so, nor does it appear to wish to submit such an application, now or at any point in the near future.

T9. [175848] Kelvin Hopkins (Luton, North) (Lab): Will my right hon. Friend seek meetings with Senator Barack Obama to discuss how he might lead America to a more peaceful world, in contrast to the present incumbent of the Oval Office?

David Miliband: We will seek meetings with all presidential candidates from the United States, to help lead America to move forward in a productive fashion.

T10. [175849] Mr. Andrew Robathan (Blaby) (Con): I am sure the Foreign Secretary agrees that trust plays a vital part in any discussions that he has with other Foreign Ministers, but in 2005 he, and indeed all Labour Members, stood for election on a manifesto commitment relating to the constitutional treaty which stated:

Given that all other Foreign Ministers in the European Union consider the new EU treaty to be a constitution in all but name, how can they ever have any faith in anything that the Foreign Secretary says—or were he and the Prime Minister deliberately misleading the British people?

David Miliband: Twenty-six of the 27 leaders of the European Union clearly do not believe that the treaty is the same as a constitution, because they do not propose to hold a referendum.

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Mr. Robathan: They’ve said it!

David Miliband: Despite what the hon. Gentleman says, only Ireland, which is required constitutionally to hold a referendum, is going to do so—and what the 27 have actually said is that the constitutional treaty has been abandoned. That is the truth of what they have said.

Ann McKechin (Glasgow, North) (Lab): Last month the Secretary of State for International Development said that the humanitarian crisis in Gaza was

Essential medicines have run out, fuel supplies have been cut, and supplies of clean water have been severely restricted. When will the United Kingdom Government remind the Israeli Government that that form of collective punishment is a clear breach of the Geneva convention, and insist that they live up to their duties with regard to humanitarian care?

David Miliband: My hon. Friend has raised an important point. I assure her that we cover the issue of Gaza in all conversations with the Israeli Government. Since the declaration of Gaza as a hostile territory on 30 October we have continued to raise the humanitarian situation there, most recently at the NATO Foreign Ministers’ joint meeting with middle eastern countries. As my hon. Friend will know, on 4 January there was a further tightening of the situation. It remains critical and deserves the attention of the Government, and I assure my hon. Friend that it is receiving it.

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