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10 Feb 2009 : Column 379WH—continued

Secondly, I want to say a few words about Iran. I welcome without reservation President Obama’s decision to have contact with the Iranian regime. It is very easy to talk to one’s friends, but if one simply refuses to talk to people one ends up diminishing the opportunities for mutual understanding, let alone the opportunities for
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diplomatic progress. However, in line with that new American approach to Tehran, there needs to be real determination on the part of European countries to back up America’s carrot with a rather bigger stick than European powers have been willing to brandish up to now.

I know that it is difficult to get European agreement on these matters. However, more than 12 months have passed since the Prime Minister said that we needed to have a block on new European oil and gas investment in Iran and so far no legislative action to give effect to that ambition has been forthcoming. Frankly, it is galling to hear the Iranian deputy Commerce Minister boast, as he did last month, that 67 per cent. of Iran’s foreign trade in 2007 came from Europe and that he is able to say:

I hope that the Minister will be able to tell us what her colleagues are saying to their counterparts in other European countries about the need to back up President Obama’s diplomatic overtures to Iran with sanctions that clearly demonstrate the intention of the whole of the European Union to isolate Iran commercially if it is not willing to enter into serious discussions about how to obtain verifiable assurances that it will not develop nuclear weapons.

Thirdly, the question of Iran brings me on to broader questions of nuclear doctrine and nuclear policy. In the past 12 months, it has been striking to see how men who have been characterised as hawks in US politics—men such as former Secretaries of State Kissinger and Shultz and former Senator Sam Nunn—are now campaigning very publicly for significant changes in US nuclear doctrine and for a major reduction, to be achieved through negotiation, in the stocks of nuclear weapons that are held internationally. Do the British Government support those initiatives? The Foreign Secretary’s paper last week suggested that they are behind such an approach, but I want to tease out from the Minister whether our Government believe that that new strategy has implications for their policies on the modernisation of Trident and the future of the British nuclear deterrent.

Finally, I cannot avoid saying a few words about the allegations that have been made about torture and abuse. Harking back to my opening remarks about the importance of America’s democratic moral example, if we and the United States say that we stand for democracy and the rule of law, evidence that we have failed to live up to those standards in practice does us significant harm in international relations and indeed in terms of domestic public confidence.

Can the Minister say whether the Government are minded, even at this stage, to make fresh representations to the US Administration following the court ruling in the case of Mr. Binyam Mohamed? In a letter to my right hon. Friend the Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague), dated yesterday, the Foreign Secretary said:

That is, he did not discuss them with Secretary of State Clinton when he visited the United States. In the letter, the Foreign Secretary goes on to argue that that was because the High Court had given British Ministers a
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copy of its judgment in “advance” of it being handed down, on “strict conditions” of confidentiality. However, the Foreign Secretary went on to say in his letter to my right hon. Friend that a US spokesman had said on 4 February that

The right hon. Gentleman went on to say in his letter:

The problem that we have here is that the judges stated on 4 February that it was

The judgment said that there would not be a breach of national security if that summary was made public. I accept, straight away, that it is possible for judges to get it wrong and to make assumptions that the disclosure of particular material would not harm national security interests when, in fact, it could do so. I also accept that the terms of an intelligence-sharing relationship must give to the country supplying the information a veto on whether or not that information is disclosed, but it is of course open to a country supplying intelligence to decide to waive that right of confidentiality. I find it baffling that the Foreign Secretary appears not even to have made a request to the US to do that. I therefore hope that the Minister will also be able to say something about that point when she responds to the debate.

In my view, relationships between Britain and the United States need to be built on both friendship and frankness. There will be times when our interests clash and there will be occasions when we disagree about particular issues. However, I am confident that our shared values and our shared interests mean that the relationship between our two countries will remain of critical importance to both in the years to come.

12.10 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Gillian Merron): I congratulate the hon. Member for The Wrekin (Mark Pritchard) on securing the debate, which is, as he said, timely. Indeed, it could not have been much more timely if he had chosen the date. I endorse his congratulations to President Obama, and I join him in his tribute to the Americans who have stood by us and those who have fallen with us. I am sure that the whole House would do the same.

The UK’s relationship with the United States is our single most important bilateral relationship, and is vital to our prosperity and security. It is based on shared values and shared objectives, and has been cemented, over many years, through the work that we do together on a wide range of issues that are important to the peoples of both countries. Those issues range from climate change to terrorism and the economy, with many points between. We will be a close and productive partner to the new Obama Administration—I look forward to that—and will seek to grow and strengthen the partnership through a common commitment to tackling the challenges faced by the people of Britain
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and America. In that context, I, too, welcomed Vice-President Biden’s speech, in Munich on Saturday, on foreign policy, which set out with clarity and vision how we can expect our partner to act in future.

Our Prime Minister was among the first world leaders to speak to President Obama after his inauguration, and my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary held discussions with Vice-President Biden in Munich at the weekend. Hon. Members will be aware that the Foreign Secretary was one of the first Foreign Ministers to hold face-to-face discussions with Secretary of State Clinton last week in Washington. Hillary Clinton has summed up the UK-US relationship as having stood the test of time, and I believe that to be the case.

We strongly welcome the early steps and commitments that have been taken by President Obama, including those on climate change, and the Executive orders of 22 January on the closure of Guantanamo Bay and on the review of detainee treatment and interrogation techniques. The Government have long held that the Guantanamo Bay detention facility should be closed, and those early moves demonstrate to us a real commitment to addressing the challenges of violent extremism in a manner that is consistent with human rights, civil liberties and the rule of law. We strongly welcome that.

Mark Pritchard: Will the Minister put on record whether the Government would be prepared, on the request of the American Administration, to take into this country detainees who have been released from Guantanamo Bay but who are not UK citizens?

Gillian Merron: No, I cannot confirm that. The Foreign Secretary has said recently that we have undertaken our duty. However, we will work with countries that are already seeking our assistance in facilitating the closure of the detention facility.

Mr. Davey: The Minister has said how much she welcomes the new Administration’s commitment to closing Guantanamo Bay and to opposing torture. Does that not make more ironic the Government’s positions of not being prepared to take any more detainees from Guantanamo who are not British residents or citizens, and of not pushing the American Administration to publish summaries of intelligence reports that British judges wanted published, because they might reveal torture? The Government’s position on both those issues is the reverse of what the Minister is welcoming from the American Administration.

Gillian Merron: I have listened to the hon. Gentleman’s comments, but I do not share his views. The Government’s position has always been that we wanted Guantanamo closed, and it has also been our position to support British citizens and those who were legally resident in the UK, and to seek their return. We have brought back a number of such people, but there are a small number outstanding. I refer the hon. Gentleman to the Secretary of State’s statement of last week on the matter. I shall return to the issue, as the hon. Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Lidington) has asked me to do so.

Let me address some of the specific points that have been raised. The hon. Member for Aylesbury asked about protectionism. I assure him that the Foreign Secretary has already raised concerns, during meetings
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with his counterparts, about perceived protectionism, and he will continue to do so. It is worth remembering that President Obama has repeated his commitment to avoid taking a protectionist approach in response to the global economic situation. I feel it is our duty to continue to build on that position.

Several hon. Members discussed Iran. The UK and the US are very much as one in recognising the threat that a nuclear armed Iran would pose to security in the middle east and beyond. We wholeheartedly support the new Administration’s desire to engage directly with Iran, as expressed by President Obama and reiterated by Vice-President Biden at the weekend. Overnight, President Obama has again said that the US is looking for openings that can be created where we can start sitting across the table face to face. Also overnight, the Iranian President said that Iran is ready to hold talks in a fair atmosphere. We are discussing strategy closely with the US, with a view to convincing Iran to change its approach to nuclear. It is essential to dissuade Iran from progressing towards obtaining the technology that is needed to make a nuclear bomb. The possibility of direct US engagement may help to change the dynamic, but Iran must act to rebuild the confidence of the international community. It continues to enrich uranium and to increase its capacity to do so in defiance of five UN Security Council resolutions.

More broadly, we welcome President Obama’s promise to take the lead in working for a world in which the roles and risks of nuclear weapons can be reduced and ultimately eliminated. Last week, the Foreign Secretary launched a policy information paper on the subject, outlining the UK’s position and the work we have done in that area. We applaud the United States’ decision to enter the multilateral debate about Iran’s nuclear programme. That is vital not just for the middle east, but for the global integrity of the non-proliferation treaty. On 27 January, President Obama said,

The hon. Member for Aylesbury talked about sanctions. The UN Security Council has passed three sanctions resolutions imposing a range of measures—banning the supply of items that could contribute to Iran’s nuclear and ballistic programmes, denying visas for key officials and entities associated with proliferation, and calling on states to exercise vigilance with all Iranian banks and to inspect cargoes on Iran Air and the Islamic Republic of Iran Shipping Lines.

Mr. Lidington: Will the Minister confirm whether the Government are content, even if not happy, with the current support of the Governments of France and Germany for such sanctions?

Gillian Merron: The EU has implemented those sanctions and has gone beyond them by freezing the assets of more entities, banning more officials from travelling and imposing further financial vigilance requirements against Iranian banks. We will work with international partners this year and beyond to bring further pressure
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to bear on Iran, including through extended and toughened sanctions. I say to the hon. Gentleman that this is something to which Iran has to respond. I hope that Iran will take that opportunity in the spirit that President Obama offered.

We welcome the priority given to climate change by the new US Administration. It is a distinct policy shift from the previous Administration and we welcome that. We will encourage the United States to define what it believes constitutes dangerous global temperature increase, and discuss what its contribution to avoiding it might be. However, of course, there is an immediate opportunity, and we encourage the new Administration to play a leading role when the world meets in Copenhagen in December to agree the follow-up to Kyoto. The new US commitment in the area of climate change means that we have a much better chance of securing an ambitious global agreement on how to tackle the problem.

On the economy, close working with the new US Administration to counter the effects of the global economic downturn will be crucial. The economic crisis is global in nature and has consequences for every country. As hon. Members have said today, we need global solutions, which is why we are in close and regular contact with the new US economic team and others to ensure a co-ordinated and effective approach. Of course, as hon. Members know, President Obama will join the Prime Minister and other world leaders at the London summit on 2 April, which will build on the action plan agreed at the Washington summit in November last year. The summit will include matters such as enhancing sound regulation, strengthening transparency, reinforcing international co-operation, and promoting integrity in financial markets. Crucially, it will also include reforming multilateral institutions.

Hon. Members raised the matter of the EU. A strong EU-US relationship is important for our opportunities and chances to improve the world. The relationship needs to be strong and I feel that hon. Members have acknowledged that. However, there will inevitably be disagreements. There have been disagreements at regional level, for example, over the US policy on Cuba, and between individual countries—as hon. Members have mentioned—for example, over Iraq.

The US and the EU have strong economic ties that will underpin the relationship and take us through the rough and smooth. The Foreign Secretary was heavily involved with the informal discussions with his counterpart EU Foreign Ministers last year during the French EU presidency. They considered key priorities on which to engage with the new Administration and the vital partnership that we need to develop. Transatlantic relations were a welcome priority for the French presidency. The EU needs to continue to present focused clear and positive messages to the US to cement early involvement.

The result of the meetings among the Foreign Ministers of the EU was a paper that sets out many of the important issues that require close EU-US co-operation, in particular, the middle east peace process, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Russia, Georgia and other matters. We should consider the comments made by the Foreign Secretary about the approach of the EU to the US. In relation to that, I have in mind the comments of the hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr. Field). He wisely said that we should exercise caution in our expectations of the new President. The Foreign Secretary
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suggested—I believe this is right—that the EU’s message to the new Administration should be about what the EU can offer the US, rather than simply being a list of expectations and hopes for US movement and help. The EU needs to think about how it can add value and get the best from the relationship. It needs to exercise activity and suggestion in what it can do in key areas of EU-US co-operation.

I shall now refer to the specific matter raised in respect of Mr. Mohamed. Perhaps I could clarify the issue for the benefit of hon. Members. The hon. Member for Aylesbury asked a legitimate question about what was discussed with Secretary of State Clinton. It is, indeed, the case—as has been confirmed—that the Foreign Secretary did not discuss the detail of the judicial review of Mr. Mohamed’s case because, under the terms of the embargo, he would have been in contempt of court to have discussed the matter with Secretary Clinton. However, I can say to the hon. Gentleman and other hon. Members that the Foreign Secretary will meet Mr. Mohamed’s legal representative this week. I hope that that will be welcomed.

I also wish to put on the record that the subject of the ruling was not the position of any specific Administration; it was about the principle of intelligence relationships. I refer hon. Members to the Foreign Secretary’s statement to the House last week when he made it clear that it is right

On the disclosure of intelligence, about which the hon. Member for Aylesbury asked, I can again do no better than refer to the Foreign Secretary’s statement when he said that

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I would like to conclude my comments. Our relationship with the United States is, without doubt, as important now as it has ever been. As hon. Members have confirmed today, US leadership is crucial for us in so many important issues, including many that have not been raised today. I particularly wish to mention development and the reform of the UN, which are crucial to our advancement. We are right to be close to the US and we will continue to ensure that that is so. We will also continue to offer the US our support, which will be unequivocal, but not uncritical. It is emphatically in the UK’s interest to do so. As Vice-President Biden said in Munich on Saturday:

Mark Pritchard: Does the Minister agree that it is particularly unhelpful to the so-called special transatlantic relationship when some Members of the House suggest that all this country’s and, indeed, some of the world’s current economic ills started in America?

Gillian Merron: It is important to say from where the economic challenges come, but perhaps the purpose of this debate—I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will feel that this is a good note on which to end—is to consider what we can now do together to overcome the challenges that we face.

12.28 pm

Sitting suspended.

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