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House of Commons

Tuesday 24 February 2009

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. David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): What assessment he has made of the implications of the outcome of the general election in Israel for UK policy in the region; and if he will make a statement. [257913]

The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (David Miliband): The composition of the next Israeli Government is not yet clear. However, at the earliest opportunity, the UK will engage with Israel’s new Government on the important task of reinvigorating a serious political dialogue aimed at establishing a lasting and just regional peace between Israel and its neighbours. Working with and supporting all parties in their efforts to reach that goal will remain a central tenet of the UK’s policy in the region.

David Taylor: With right-wing religious nationalists now vying for control of the Knesset, there appears to be little prospect of peace for the families and friends of the 1,300 Gazans killed and 5,500 injured by Israeli military operations before and during the recent general election campaign. Does my right hon. Friend agree that Hamas’s rocket attacks on Israel can no longer be accepted by our Government or the international community as justification for the Israeli Government’s criminal actions in the slaughter and maiming of innocent Palestinian citizens?

David Miliband: I think that the prospects for peace probably seem very remote for a large number of people in the middle east, which is a reason for us to redouble our efforts to secure that peace. On the second part of my hon. Friend’s question, it is very important that we condemn all loss of innocent civilian life on any side. We should not get into the business of justifying one set of civilian losses because of another. A vital part of our work and, critically, the work of the new US Administration, is to try to build a durable peace that is in the interests of Israelis and Palestinians alike.

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Mr. Anthony Steen (Totnes) (Con): Is the Foreign Secretary aware that Israel is one of the most advanced countries in the world in tackling human trafficking? The number of convictions of traffickers is up and the amount of compensation paid to victims and the amount of legislation on the statute book are increasing. Will he take a lead from the Israeli Government and see that all embassies with which we have visa arrangements have leaflets explaining to people applying for visas that they should be aware of the dangers of human trafficking?

David Miliband: I was not aware of Israel’s record in that regard, and I shall certainly find out our own practice in that area. The work against human trafficking brings together all civilised people, and if there is anything that we have to learn from the Israeli approach, we will certainly do so.

Mr. Andy Slaughter (Ealing, Acton and Shepherd's Bush) (Lab): I have just come back from Gaza, where I saw whole business districts, villages, hospitals and schools that had been systematically razed to the ground by a Government of the centre left, as we are now told to call them. The prospects for progress on peace and other matters being made by a Government of the far right seem unlikely without pressure from this Government and their international partners. What does my right hon. Friend believe those pressures should be?

David Miliband: The picture that my hon. Friend paints of the situation in Gaza was confirmed to me by Senator Kerry, whom I met on Sunday and who had also recently been in Gaza. He painted a picture of extreme devastation right across Gaza. As I said, there is not yet a Government in Israel, but the most significant thing is that in the latter part of last year, we were talking in the House about the importance of the new US Administration engaging on middle east issues from day one, which has indeed happened.

I will be in Sharm el Sheikh on Monday with Secretary Clinton at the donors conference, talking about not just the narrow issues of humanitarian aid and reconstruction but the wider political issues that are raised. I will be in Cairo later today, where I will certainly take up those wider political issues. Those are the key points that need to be on the table for any Government who emerge in Israel.

Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire) (Con): Will the Secretary of State and Mrs. Clinton, when they are together next week, make it quietly but firmly plain to those who aspire to power in Israel, first, that indiscriminate slaughter is not an acceptable instrument of policy and, secondly, that a two-state solution is the only viable solution to middle eastern problems?

David Miliband: The hon. Gentleman is right to emphasise the importance of restating a commitment to a two-state solution. It is fair to say that it is an indicator of how dangerous the situation is that the mere repetition of that commitment is in itself important. At this time, it is very important to keep on the table the commitment to a two-state solution, especially by the United States, given that the division between Gaza and the west bank currently threatens the very heart of the idea of a contiguous and viable Palestinian state.

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Mr. Mark Hendrick (Preston) (Lab/Co-op): My hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, Acton and Shepherd's Bush (Mr. Slaughter) made the point that a Government of the centre left could not find a road to peace, and it seems likely that we will have a Government of the right in Israel shortly. The Foreign Secretary has made it plain that he, along with the international community, wishes to redouble his efforts to try to get a settlement and agreement in the region. How optimistic is he, given the clear political obstacles that the composition of the new Government presents?

David Miliband: The situation on the ground means that anyone who claims to be optimistic at the moment is not engaging with the facts. It is not an optimistic, but a dangerous moment. The dangers mean that not only European countries and the United States, but—critically—countries throughout the Arab world, as well as Israel, have to peer into the abyss of the idea of a two-state solution disappearing. That is dangerous for Israel and for the whole Arab world. It is one reason for my putting such stress in the past six months on the Arab peace initiative, which offers not only a two-state solution, but the prospect of 23 states—Israel and 22 states of the Arab League—normalising relations with each other on the back of the creation of a Palestinian state. That regional approach is essential at this time.

Mr. David Lidington (Aylesbury) (Con): Does the Foreign Secretary agree that Israel is entitled to insist that the Palestinians and the wider Arab world accept her right to exist? Does he also accept that, when Israeli political leaders talk about refusing to countenance a Palestinian state or make promises about expanding illegal settlements, that undercuts the position of every Arab leader who is genuinely committed to peace?

David Miliband: Yes, it is important—I hope that it is noted—that, in all parties in the House, there is an absolute commitment to the centrality of Israel at the foundation of a stable middle east and to the fact that Israel, never mind the Palestinians, will have safety and justice with the creation of a Palestinian state. It is significant that, across the United Kingdom political spectrum, every party is committed to the goal of a safe Israel alongside a viable Palestinian state in a region that benefits from that co-existence. I think that the cross-party commitment to using all Britain’s assets to further that goal is widely welcomed, and it is something that I carry with me as I travel in the region.

Democratic Republic of Congo

2. Judy Mallaber (Amber Valley) (Lab): What representations he has made to the Governments of Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo on the effects on civilians of the military conflict in eastern DRC. [257914]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Gillian Merron): The Foreign Secretary and the Minister for Africa urged the Presidents of Rwanda and of the DRC to work to resolve the instability in eastern DRC when they visited the region last year. We have continually raised the protection of civilians with both Governments, directly and through the European Union and the United Nations. Those efforts, as part of international pressure, have led to real political progress.

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Judy Mallaber: I thank the Minister for that answer. The current joint operation in eastern Congo is unlikely to eradicate the presence of the Forces Démocratiques de Libération du Rwanda—FDLR—before the Rwandans reach the end of the time that they had allocated for that. Will my hon. Friend press the United Nations mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo—MONUC—and the Congolese Government to ensure that there is a strategy in place to deal robustly with what remains of the movement? Does she agree that it is essential quickly to get the reinforcements for MONUC, which were agreed in December at the UN, to deal with the FDLR and with the Lord’s Resistance Army in northern Congo, where 900 people have recently been killed?

Gillian Merron: First, I commend my hon. Friend’s work in the region and her assessment of the position. I can give the reassurance that we have continued to press the DRC Government to plan for post-military action, including humanitarian work and stabilisation, in the way that she describes. As she says, MONUC is key to that, as is the DRC Government’s working with MONUC and the reinforcement of MONUC troops. I understand that most of the 3,000 reinforcements have been identified, and that MONUC will soon send extra troops to northern Congo.

Mr. Robert Walter (North Dorset) (Con): May I press the Under-Secretary a little further on the future of the United Nations peacekeeping force in the Congo? It has become clear that the MONUC force is incapable of effectively keeping the peace in eastern Congo. I understand from this morning’s Financial Times that discussions have taken place between the British and the French Governments about the future of UN peacekeeping forces, including the one in the Congo. Will the Under-Secretary give us a little more information about that?

Gillian Merron: Indeed, there are discussions at the UN about all peacekeeping operations. It is important to emphasise that a successful political process will bring peace and a decent future to the region—the problems cannot be solved by military means alone. However, the role of MONUC troops is essential and that is why we seek and support their reinforcement.

Mr. Eric Joyce (Falkirk) (Lab): May I draw my hon. Friend’s attention to early-day motion 810, which refers to the sad death of Dr. Alison Des Forges? Dr. Des Forges met a number of hon. Members the day before she was killed a couple of weeks ago. She was unquestionably one of the world’s leading authorities on the great lakes region. Will my hon. Friend join me and the House in sending her condolences to Dr. Des Forges’s family?

Gillian Merron: I certainly will. I would add that perhaps the greatest tribute that we can give to somebody of such stature is to seek peace and a decent future for the DRC and, indeed, the whole region. I thank my hon. Friend for his contribution, both through the all-party parliamentary group and by drawing the issue to the attention of the House through his early-day motion.

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Iran’s Nuclear Programme

3. Paddy Tipping (Sherwood) (Lab): What recent discussions he has had with his EU counterparts on Iran’s nuclear programme. [257915]

The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Bill Rammell): The Foreign Secretary and other Ministers regularly discuss Iran and its nuclear programme with our European Union counterparts. The EU has consistently been at the forefront of the international response to the Iran nuclear issue. The E3 plus 3 reaffirmed its unity and commitment on 4 February to achieving a diplomatic resolution to the Iran nuclear issue.

Paddy Tipping: I am grateful for that reply, but will the Minister ensure that those European discussions link closely with the potential of the new President of the United States, who seems to hold the possibility of a more flexible and open approach towards Iran?

Bill Rammell: We very much welcome the US Administration’s willingness to engage directly with Iran, which I think is what my hon. Friend was referring to. However, no one should be in any doubt that President Obama has made it clear that a nuclear-armed Iran is unacceptable. Iran has to make a choice between, on the one hand, the very generous E3 plus 3 offer and a transformed relationship with the international community and, on the other hand, continuing on the path of confrontation, increasing isolation, and tougher and expanded sanctions.

Mr. Mark Harper (Forest of Dean) (Con): When the Secretary of State meets the US Secretary of State next week, what will he be able to tell her about what further steps the EU is going to take, given that the International Atomic Energy Agency has confirmed that Iran has now enriched enough uranium to make a nuclear weapon?

Bill Rammell: The US is reviewing its position with regard to Iran, and we are discussing the issue. However, as I have made clear, President Obama has made it clear that a nuclear-armed Iran is unacceptable. We all need to work together to force Iran to confront that fundamental choice: on the one hand, engagement and all the benefits that it can bring or, on the other, increased isolation.

Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North) (Lab): Does the Minister not agree that this might be a good opportunity to launch the idea of a nuclear-free middle east, which would involve the non-development of nuclear weapons by any existing states in the middle east and, of course, nuclear disarmament by the only nuclear-armed state in the region, namely Israel? Does he not also agree that this year’s forthcoming non-proliferation treaty preparatory committee, or prepcom, would be a good time to launch such an initiative?

Bill Rammell: I am sure that my hon. Friend would welcome the fact that this country and this Government are the most forward-leaning of the nuclear weapon states in terms of disarmament. We need constantly to reiterate that. We are also very committed to a nuclear-free middle east and have consistently urged the Government of Israel to sign up to the NPT as a non-nuclear weapon state.

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Mr. Douglas Hogg (Sleaford and North Hykeham) (Con): The possible formation of a Government under Mr. Netanyahu is a matter of some concern in the context of the Iranian nuclear programme. Will the Minister and EU Ministers impress upon any Government headed by Mr. Netanyahu the vital importance of restraint and of working in concert with the EU countries and the United States, and that his Government should not contemplate any unilateral action?

Bill Rammell: Let me make it clear to the right hon. and learned Gentleman that we have consistently been 100 per cent. committed to a diplomatic solution. Nevertheless, we face a serious challenge in respect of Iran. The whole international community needs to focus Iran on the choice that it faces.

Dr. Stephen Ladyman (South Thanet) (Lab): Carrying on doing what we are doing and expecting it to have a different outcome would seem to be folly. What we are doing now seems in no way to be slowing down the Iranian nuclear programme. If we are to avoid the accusation in two years’ time that we allowed the world to drift into a nightmare, how do we and our EU partners take things to the next level in applying pressure on Iran? In particular, those in the Arab world have just as much to lose from a nuclear-armed Iran, so how do we get them to join us?

Bill Rammell: My hon. Friend makes an exceedingly pertinent point. In all the discussions that I have in the middle east, there is significant concern, among the Gulf states and other middle east states, about the position of Iran. We need to maximise the consensus and force Iran to face the choice that is before it. The United States Administration have rightly said that they are willing in principle to open a direct dialogue with Iran. We need to reinforce that. We also need to maximise the unity and get Iran to the point where it makes the choice that is necessary.

Mr. Mark Francois (Rayleigh) (Con): The latest report from the IAEA states that Iran has now stockpiled more than 1,000 kg of low-enriched uranium. If Iran continues at this pace, it will be a matter not of if, but when, it actually has a nuclear weapons capability. Can the Minister therefore assure the House that the EU will now finally muster the will to impose the key sanctions that the Prime Minister first announced back in 2007 on investment in Iranian oil and gas?

Bill Rammell: The European Union, as I argued earlier, has been at the forefront of those internationally arguing for and urging sanctions. The latest IAEA report is one of real and serious concern. It underlines the reasons why we have a lack of confidence in that Iran has not responded to the IAEA report and is not allowing legitimate access. We need to keep up the argument that that is what we rightly expect Iran to do.

UK-China Relations

4. Mr. Denis Murphy (Wansbeck) (Lab): What assessment he has made of the provisions of the UK-China framework for engagement. [257916]

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