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4. Bob Russell (Colchester) (LD): When he last had discussions with the Government of Israel on the establishment of settlements on Palestinian land. [224416]

The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (David Miliband): I most recently raised this issue with the Government of Israel during the UN Security Council debate on the middle east last month. Israeli settlement building anywhere in the occupied Palestinian territories is illegal under international law. That includes settlements in both east Jerusalem and the west bank.

We regularly press the Israeli Government, both in public and private, to implement an immediate freeze on all settlement activity, including so-called “natural growth”. The Prime Minister made that clear during his speech to the Knesset on 21 July.

Bob Russell: I am grateful to the Secretary of State for that answer. The problem is that the Israeli Government are not listening. They are not acting and are, therefore, exacerbating the problems in the middle east. Is it not time that the British Government and other democracies told Israel that it must uphold United Nations resolutions, and with that in mind will the right hon. Gentleman meet a delegation from War on Want when it holds a mass lobby of Parliament on 19 November?

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David Miliband: I am always happy to meet hon. Members or delegations, and either I or my hon. Friend the Minister of State will meet them on that date, depending on availability. When we talk of Israel implementing its commitments under UN resolutions, which I support, we must also call on all parties to implement all their commitments under the UN Security Council resolutions. It is important to say in respect of settlements that there are commitments under the US-brokered road map that must also be adhered to, and which are vital for the sort of confidence that negotiations need.

Richard Burden (Birmingham, Northfield) (Lab): As well as the illegality of the settlements themselves, does my right hon. Friend agree that one of the disturbing things that has happened recently is the upsurge in injuries as a result of settler attacks on Palestinians in the west bank? Although the Israeli Government cannot control their militants any better than the Palestinians can control their militants, is it not worrying that according to the UN between 80 and 90 per cent. of cases have their files closed by the Israeli authorities before prosecution?

David Miliband: Certainly, violence on any side is to be deplored. In the west bank at the moment, as I have seen for myself, there is a delicate process of building up the Palestinian security force, with a training centre in Jericho funded by the UK and the new move into Jenin, which has put Palestinian security forces on to the streets of Jenin, including its refugee camp, for the first time. That needs to be supported, and it needs to be supported by the Israel Defence Forces controlling areas where it still has a presence, and also by the Israeli Government. We certainly adhere to the principle that violence on any side is to be deplored.

Mr. Crispin Blunt (Reigate) (Con): To my knowledge we have been regularly pressing the Israelis on the issue since 1995-96, when in the wake of Oslo it was clear that settlement building was continuing. Since Oslo the number of settlers has more than doubled. Every single day that a Palestinian is looking across at a settlement, the fact of Israel’s settlement policy gainsays whatever else Israel says about seeking peace and a sustainable two-state solution. When will we actually do something about it?

David Miliband: The problem that the hon. Gentleman identifies is absolutely right and the diagnosis is shared on the Government side. What we do about it is to press the Israelis, both publicly and privately, and work with our partners to ensure that there is a robust peace process. I think the hon. Gentleman will agree that for seven years after January 2001 there was no political process at all. Alongside settlement building, the absence of a political process meant that there was nothing for Palestinians or Israelis who wanted a two-state solution to invest in. The political process that has been established since Annapolis—faltering as it is—none the less offers the only hope for a sustainable solution. It is that political process that we should invest in.

Tom Levitt (High Peak) (Lab): I very much welcome my right hon. Friend’s answer to the question. Does he acknowledge that in the run-up to the recent parliamentary elections on the west bank it was the behaviour of the Israelis, through settlement policy and others, which led
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many Palestinian voters into the political arms of Hamas? Would it not be unfortunate if there were to be that same tendency between now and the presidential elections in the west bank and Gaza, and if the Israeli policy continued to have that effect?

David Miliband: It would be much worse than unfortunate. It really does torpedo the hopes of many of us for the two-state solution, which is the only solution in the region. President Abbas, as the directly elected leader of all the Palestinian people, is the right person to lead those negotiations. He is someone successive Israeli leaders have said they want to work with. The truth is that the moderates need to invest in each other—that is the only way in which they will make progress.


5. Stephen Hammond (Wimbledon) (Con): If he will make a statement on Iran’s nuclear programme. [224417]

The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Bill Rammell): Dr. Mohammad el-Baradei, director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, reported on the state of Iran’s nuclear programme on 15 September. Once again his report confirmed that Iran had failed to suspend enrichment-related activities and had made no progress on the transparency measures the Security Council and the IAEA have long called for, and that as a result of Iran’s failure to engage, the IAEA had been unable to make any substantive progress on resolving the questions about studies with a possible military dimension—studies that it judges are of serious concern.

Stephen Hammond: The Minister will of course know that there is a UN ban on sales from Iran, and an EU ban on sales to Iran. However, given what he has just said about the possible military applications, and given the expansion of the nuclear programme, what are the Government doing to secure a UN ban on sales of arms to Iran?

Bill Rammell: We have taken the lead, through the European Union and the Security Council, in putting in place effective sanctions on Iran, and we will continue to make the case for improved sanctions. As the Foreign Secretary said, we very much want to take a twin-track strategy, in which we urge Iran to engage. There is a significant offer on the table following the EU3 plus three negotiating process, and I strongly urge the Iranians to engage in that process.

Tony Lloyd (Manchester, Central) (Lab): Would my hon. Friend agree that, while he and the Foreign Secretary are absolutely right about the dangers that Iran poses to the region, and indeed to the whole world, it would be very helpful if the new Administration in Washington were prepared to hold a proper dialogue with Tehran? I mean a dialogue not without precondition—a dialogue in which we are determined to push the very important issues. Washington does matter, as it is the one voice that would make a real difference in Tehran.

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Bill Rammell: Washington certainly matters, and Bill Burns’s commitment to go to the Geneva talks is a positive step forward. Undoubtedly, Washington has to play a role, but we need a co-ordinated, concerted effort by all the international partners to make it very clear that a nuclear-engaged Iran is not the way forward. However, offers are on the table for diplomatic engagement with Iran. That is very much the path that we want Iran to take.

Mr. John Horam (Orpington) (Con): How do the Government evaluate the role of Russia in relation to Iran’s nuclear programme? Has the Minister noticed any change since the war in Georgia?

Bill Rammell: That is something that my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary recently discussed with the Russians. It is clear that they have supported, diplomatically, the efforts to ensure that the Iranians understand our position, and they have supported successive UN Security Council resolutions. Through dialogue, we will ensure that we continue to put across the argument to the Russians that they need to work with us on this crucial issue, as indeed they are doing.


6. Danny Alexander (Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey) (LD): If he will make a statement on the political situation in Zimbabwe. [224418]

The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (David Miliband): My written ministerial statement to the House yesterday made our position clear. Zimbabwe’s people want the agreement that was signed on paper to work in practice. That requires a Cabinet to be appointed without further delay that will reform Zimbabwe’s economic management and the behaviour of its security forces. We continue to provide humanitarian relief to the Zimbabwean people to the tune of more than £50 million a year. We remain ready to support recovery when a new Government show commitment to reform.

Danny Alexander: I am grateful to the Foreign Secretary for that answer, and for his statement yesterday. Once again, President Mugabe is stalling plans to involve the Movement for Democratic Change in the Government of Zimbabwe. Does the Foreign Secretary think that Thabo Mbeki is still a credible mediator now that he is no longer in office, or does he agree that until there is a credible mediation process in place, Mugabe will simply use the lack of progress to cling on to power, to the detriment of the Zimbabwean people?

David Miliband: President Mbeki’s role came from his presidency of the Southern African Development Community; obviously, his role has now changed. However, the responsibility is clearly on Mr. Mugabe. The agreement has been signed. It is sitting there waiting for implementation. Mr. Tsvangirai is ready to work with Mr. Mugabe on the distribution of Cabinet portfolios, and that is the key test now. An agreement has been made, but no Government have been formed. During that time, more misery has been caused to the people of Zimbabwe. The next step is absolutely clear; it is not for Mr. Mbeki or anybody else to take it, but Mr. Mugabe, and the world needs to hold him to account for that.

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Tony Baldry (Banbury) (Con): Given that Mugabe is yet to deliver on anything, why does the Foreign Secretary think that he will deliver now? The only reason why we have got so far is pressure from South Africa. The Foreign Secretary grimaces, but if it had not been for some of the intervention from South Africa, we would not have got this far. What are the UK Government doing together with the Government in Pretoria, if not with Mbeki, to ensure that pressure is maintained on Mugabe?

David Miliband: The greatest pressure is from the Zimbabwean people who voted for the Opposition. There is also pressure from the economic collapse that is happening in the country. In the end, the deal was struck not between the British Government and Mr. Mugabe, but between Mr. Tsvangirai and Mr. Mugabe, and it is his decision to engage in the agreement that is critical. South Africa remains an important partner: remember, it has 3 million Zimbabwean refugees in its country, so it has an overriding interest in tackling the problems in Zimbabwe, and we remain in close touch with the new South African authorities to try to ensure that the right pressure is applied from all sides, not only from South Africa, but from elsewhere in southern Africa.

Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cotswold) (Con): Is the Foreign Secretary aware that the United Nations Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs estimates that by next spring up to 6 million Zimbabweans may be in need of food aid? What representations has the British Government made to the non-functioning Zimbabwe Government to allow NGOs and others who can build up proper food stocks to do so, so that those people do not suffer?

David Miliband: That is precisely the issue that the Secretary of State for International Development and I discussed with the Secretary-General of the UN in New York. The hon. Gentleman is right to say that the projections for famine are stark and clear. The UN is an important part of the process, but he is also right to say that the relaxation of the ban on NGOs is a critical part of the agreement that now needs to be adhered to.

Mr. Mark Francois (Rayleigh) (Con): May I pursue the last point further with the Foreign Secretary? With the food crisis in Zimbabwe reaching very serious proportions and, as we have heard, a new Government still not formed, what specific plans—British, EU, Commonwealth or other—exist for a serious humanitarian relief effort, if the political crisis continues to escalate but the supply situation in Zimbabwe continues to deteriorate?

David Miliband: I hope the hon. Gentleman was not suggesting that the current programme, which delivers food through the World Food Programme to over 2 million people, is not serious. It is a very serious programme, which is already under way. The hon. Gentleman says the situation will get worse and he is right. That is why the World Food Programme needs to be in charge of a scaling up of the programme from 2 million to 5.3 or 5.4 million—that is the figure that I had, rather than the 6 million that the hon. Gentleman mentioned. None the less, that means a massive famine across the country,
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and the World Food Programme is in the key position to organise that effort. The UK will be a strong supporter of its work.


7. Mr. Peter Bone (Wellingborough) (Con): What his latest assessment is of the political situation in Afghanistan. [224419]

The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Bill Rammell): As the Prime Minister saw during his visit to Afghanistan in August, progress since 2001 has been significant. The Afghan people increasingly have a voice about their future through their representatives at both the local and the national level, but progress is fragile and the issues are challenging. There is no room for complacency. We are working with the Afghans and our allies to encourage greater political focus in advance of next year’s elections, and the UK continues to support the Afghan Government in delivering a better future for their people.

Mr. Bone: I thank the Minister for his response. Does he agree with Brigadier Carleton-Smith, commander of 16 Air Assault Brigade, who said:

Bill Rammell: I certainly would not support dialogue with those who are committed to violence, but I would support Afghan efforts to reach out to those within the Taliban who are genuinely prepared to leave the path of violence and engage in the legitimate political process. That is a message which we need to put across forcefully.

Ms Diane Abbott (Hackney, North and Stoke Newington) (Lab): What is the Government’s response to commanders on the ground who are saying that the current war in Afghanistan cannot be won militarily?

Bill Rammell: I urge my hon. Friend to read very carefully the comments that have been made; I do not believe that that is an accurate description of them. I believe, and it is certainly the Government’s view, that we can prevent the Taliban from usurping the legitimate will of the Afghan people through their democratically elected Government, but that will mean that we need a comprehensive strategy—the one that we have in place, which has a military dimension but has a social, economic and political one as well.

Mr. Bernard Jenkin (North Essex) (Con): The Defence Committee visited Afghanistan this year as well as last year, and it was clear to us that everything in Afghanistan is worse this year than it was last year. When will the Government be realistic, as I believe Brigadier Carleton-Smith is being realistic? In view of what the Minister has just said, will he not endorse the invitation issued by the President of Afghanistan to Mullah Omar for talks? Unless the Taliban can be separated from al-Qaeda, they will fight alongside al-Qaeda. They are not the same as al-Qaeda, and there is no need for them to be part of al-Qaeda’s effort.

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Bill Rammell: First, as I said earlier, I do not believe that it is an accurate description to say that there has been no progress. To take one example, although there are further challenges, poppy cultivation in Afghanistan, as was endorsed by the UN, is down this year compared with last year. With regard to the Taliban, I reiterate what I said a moment ago. If individuals within the Taliban are prepared to renounce the path of violence, yes, we should talk to them, but that commitment needs to be made.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North) (Lab): Although the original intervention was perfectly justified, British troops have now been involved in Afghanistan for longer than the duration of the second world war, so is it not necessary to make it perfectly clear that their presence there simply cannot be open-ended? We cannot be there for years to come.

Bill Rammell: We need to be clear that we have a responsibility to the Afghan people, but we also have a responsibility in our own interest. To turn the debate back to poppy cultivation, bearing in mind that 95 per cent. of heroin on our streets comes from Afghanistan, we have a vested interest in seeing this through. We certainly do want the Afghan authority to take ever greater responsibility so that the necessity for us to be there is diminished, but we need to maintain our commitment and responsibility.

Sammy Wilson (East Antrim) (DUP): This week 100 soldiers from the Territorial Army have returned to Northern Ireland from Afghanistan, and will rightly be honoured by Belfast city council at the end of the month. But as the political situation in Afghanistan is still fragile, the Americans say that they need about three more battalions, and the outgoing British commander has said that the situation is still very fragile and the Taliban are still resilient, will the Minister comment on the likelihood of troops being withdrawn within the next three to five years? Or is it likely that soldiers from Northern Ireland and elsewhere will be going back to Afghanistan for further tours of duty?

Bill Rammell: First, I pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman’s constituents, who are doing a superb job on behalf of this country. We have a commitment. We have a continuing presence, which we keep under review, but I will certainly not make arbitrary commitments about time scales over which there may or may not be a reduction in troop levels.

Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North) (Lab): British troops have now been in Afghanistan for longer than the duration of the second world war, and the Ministry of Defence is talking about keeping them there for 30 years. Does not the Minister agree that it is now time for a change of course? The war has already spread over into Pakistan, thousands are dying, and there is no military solution there. Does he not accept that there has to be a political solution that also involves the withdrawal of western troops from Afghanistan?

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