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House of Commons

Tuesday 31 March 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. Mr. David Jones (Clwyd, West) (Con): What recent reports he has received on Iran’s nuclear programme; and if he will make a statement. [267595]

3. Sir Malcolm Rifkind (Kensington and Chelsea) (Con): What his most recent assessment is of Iran’s nuclear programme; and if he will make a statement. [267597]

The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (David Miliband): The International Atomic Energy Agency’s latest report of 19 February shows that Iran continues to refuse to suspend its proliferation-sensitive nuclear activities and has not granted the IAEA the access that it seeks as required by five UN Security Council resolutions. We, and the international community, will continue to press for Iran to fulfil its international obligations and restore confidence in its intentions.

Mr. Jones: Does the Secretary of State agree that while President Obama’s recent outreach to Iran is welcome, diplomatic overtures must be backed by a readiness on the part of the United States and the EU to impose such further sanctions as are necessary until such a time as Tehran can demonstrate to the unequivocal satisfaction of the UN inspectorate that it has abandoned its ambitions to develop a military nuclear capability?

David Miliband: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his enunciation of the policy, which I think has support across the House. It is the so-called dual-track policy, which is that we should seek to engage with Iran, that we should make it clear that we have no quarrel with the Iranian people and that the choice of Government in Iran should be a matter for them. However, whatever the Government in Iran, they need to abide by their international responsibilities. If they refuse to do so, there are costs associated with that decision.

The hon. Gentleman is right that there are responsibilities on the EU and the US, but the responsibilities go wider. The international coalition, which is right to fear an Iranian nuclear weapons programme, goes wider than the EU and the US. Russia, China and the Gulf states
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have responsibilities, too, and I am sure that the hon. Gentleman would want to join me in working to ensure that they are part of a global coalition against an Iranian nuclear weapons programme.

Sir Malcolm Rifkind: With North Korea, it has proved useful to include its neighbours, Japan and South Korea, in the negotiations to discourage it from going down the nuclear weapons route. Should not Iran’s neighbours, particularly Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Egypt, be invited by the Security Council to join the negotiations over Iran, especially as the Iranians need to realise that those three countries might themselves go nuclear if Iran ends up as a nuclear weapons state?

David Miliband: Only up to a point. The multilateral negotiations are not being conducted under a UN framework—the E3 plus 3 is not a UN body, but it is recognised to have a global coalition behind it. The right hon. and learned Gentleman might have an important point, which was at the heart of the E3 plus 3 offer agreed under my chairmanship last May in London. It concerns what will happen in the future if Iran ceases its nuclear weapons programme or restores the confidence of the international community that it does not have a nuclear weapons programme. There are important regional political issues about Iran’s legitimate interests in the region, but no discussion of those issues can take place without the involvement of the countries that he has mentioned.

Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North) (Lab): Will the Secretary of State acknowledge that Iran is a signatory to the nuclear non-proliferation treaty and that the best way to prevent any ratcheting up of tensions in the region is to declare our support for a nuclear-free middle east? That would include Israel’s having to bring its nuclear weapons to a de-alert status and would help to promote the idea of disarmament throughout the region to bring about stability, rather than the obviously very great danger of the development of an arms race across the region.

David Miliband: We have done that for a long time. It is important to be clear that through the Iranian programme we face the danger of proliferation and the sort of domino effect described by my hon. Friend. Iran, of course, is a signatory to the NPT. My hon. Friend is right. Inherent in the idea of the drive towards multilateral disarmament, eventually including the global abolition of nuclear weapons—a commitment that every signatory to the NPT makes—is the idea of a drive towards a nuclear weapons-free middle east, too.

David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): At a meeting of the board of governors of the IAEA in Vienna on 2 March, the director general, Dr. Mohamed el-Baradei, reported, in addition to what the Foreign Secretary has said, that Iran continues to work on heavy water projects and that it declines to implement the additional protocol that is required of it. His recommendation was that a method should be found to find a way through by transferring these activities from national control to multilateral control. How does the Foreign Secretary think that that might be achieved in the short to medium term?

David Miliband: I spoke to director general el-Baradei about that issue when I met him at the Munich security conference. Inherent in the idea that Iran has to win the
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confidence of the international community that its uranium enrichment programme does not have dual use is the notion that we are open to a range of ideas for multilateral engagement with Iran over a civilian nuclear power programme—a programme that, above all, is destined only for peaceful use.

That is why we have strongly supported Russian support and investment in the civilian Bushehr nuclear power plant. There is a range of options on the table, as long as Iran is clear that it cannot pursue a programme that fails to win the confidence of those of us who believe that anything other than a solely peaceful programme—and one that has the confidence of the international community that it is solely peaceful—is ever going to be able to play any part in stabilising the middle east.

Mr. Malcolm Moss (North-East Cambridgeshire) (Con): As well as selling air defence systems to Iran, Russia has continued to block attempts by the west to impose tougher sanctions on Iran. What are the Government doing to ensure that Russia does not continue to block the sanctions process?

David Miliband: The hon. Gentleman has made an important point. I am sure that he will have seen, as I did, at least a report of the interview that President Medvedev did for the BBC on Sunday, when he stated unequivocally that Russia does not want the development of an Iranian nuclear weapons capacity. That is why Russia has supported successive UN Security Council resolutions to that end.

The hon. Gentleman is also right that it is important to recognise the urgency of the matter and the need to make it clear to the Iranians that the American offer currently being developed and made represents the best chance that Iran will ever have of normalising its relations with the rest of the world, and above all with the US. The whole world can play a role in supporting American outreach in that regard. It is not only for Europeans but for Russians and Chinese as well to make it clear that this is the best chance that Iran will ever have to regularise its relationships with the rest of the region and the rest of the world, but that cannot be done while there is so much concern about its nuclear weapons intentions.

Rob Marris (Wolverhampton, South-West) (Lab): I wish a happy new year to Iranians here and around the world. The Foreign Secretary rightly talks about multilateral engagement with the Government of Iran. Does he agree that part of that process should also be multilateral engagement with the Government of Israel about its nuclear weapons, as that would build confidence among the Iranians that there is an equivalent process there?

David Miliband: The multilateral basis of engagement with the Iranians is first of all in respect of its NPT obligations. That is why this is an IAEA process, as well as a UN process. The sort of confidence and stability that I know that my hon. Friend wants to see in the middle east can be achieved only if nations abjure the sort of rejectionist rhetoric that has emerged from Tehran, which produces the sort of fears that can lead to a nuclear arms race.

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The other thing to say is that not only Israel is worried about an Iranian nuclear weapons programme. If one talks to people from any Arab or Gulf state, one sees that there is a very high degree of concern among them for obvious reasons, given the tinderbox that is always the middle east. The last thing that it needs is a nuclear weapons arms race. In that context, we have a real opportunity, and responsibility, to bring old foes over the Israel-Palestine issue together on the Iranian issue. We believe that it is essential to move forward on the middle east peace process, but we must also recognise that there are also new coalitions to be built on the Iranian nuclear issue.

Mr. David Lidington (Aylesbury) (Con): A moment ago, the Foreign Secretary spoke about the urgency of the process. Given that it is more than 12 months since the Prime Minister threatened new sanctions on Iranian oil and gas, and nine months since the E3 plus 3 made the offer to transform relations if Iran would suspend enrichment, will the right hon. Gentleman say today how much longer we are prepared to wait before we go back to the EU and the UN to ask for more sanctions? That would clearly show that we are taking both tracks of the dual-track process that he has described with equal energy and determination.

David Miliband: The hon. Gentleman asked the same question several times last year. I know that he shares the Government’s commitments on this matter, but I say to him—in the nicest possible way—that one very big thing has changed since then. For the first time in 30 years there is an American Government who want to open a bilateral channel with the Iranian Government and people. By any stretch of the imagination, that is a big change.

Given that the whole world, as well as the American Government, is committed to seeing that outreach take place— [ Interruption. ] I hear an Opposition Member shout, “How long?” but the Americans have not even completed their review yet, so let us hold our horses about that. It surely makes sense to say that the Americans should complete their review and ensure that the elements of their multilateral and bilateral outreach are clarified for the Iranians. If the Iranians do not respond in a positive way, we can then ensure that further steps are taken. If the hon. Gentleman pauses to think about it, he will recognise that now is not the time to be rushing for more sanctions; instead, now is the time to be backing the American outreach, which is a once-in-a-generation opportunity both for us and for the Iranians.

General Affairs Council

2. Mr. James Plaskitt (Warwick and Leamington) (Lab): What discussions he had in the most recent meeting of the General Affairs Council on the contribution of the European Council’s European economic recovery plan to the development of employment in the environmental sector. [267596]

The Minister for Europe (Caroline Flint): At the General Affairs Council on 16 March 2009, I discussed the proposal to invest €5 billion of EU funds in a number of projects, including on carbon capture and storage and energy infrastructure, ahead of final agreement at the spring European Council.

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Mr. Plaskitt: On Friday, I met representatives of several companies in my constituency, all of which are involved in environmental technologies with a wide range of potential applications. They seek in particular help with research and product development. Does the EU recovery plan contain anything for them?

Caroline Flint: The package outlined, in terms of carbon capture and storage and opportunities involving wind power, provides an exciting future in which businesses can grow. The environmental business sector is growing apace, at 5 per cent. each year. I suggest that my hon. Friend makes sure that his constituents are aware of what we are providing domestically through the Carbon Trust, the environmental transformation fund, the Technology Strategy Board and the various other ways in which we are supporting businesses to become low carbon and to make their good ideas reality. What is most important is where the EU adds value to what we do at national level. The €5 billion package will be helpful to boosting environmental technologies here and throughout the rest of Europe.

Mr. Crispin Blunt (Reigate) (Con): I imagine that the Minister has noticed the remarkable similarity between Questions 2, 8 and 17. Has the Government’s competence so disintegrated that they cannot even adequately disguise an exercise in arranging questions for themselves to answer?

Caroline Flint: I am absolutely delighted that some Members, especially on the Labour Benches, are interested in what the EU has to offer that is additional to what we in this country can do alone. We are more interested in the substance than in the process.

Simon Hughes (North Southwark and Bermondsey) (LD): The EU is to be commended on directing between 60 and 70 per cent. of its economic stimulus funding to proposals relating to the environment. Will the Minister speak to her colleagues in her Department and more widely across Government to make sure that the G20 decisions and the Budget announcements show the same level of commitment as the EU has shown to environmentally sustainable projects? Here in the UK, environmental projects account for less than 10 per cent. of the total; if it were 50 per cent., we would be getting somewhere.

Caroline Flint: The debate now is on how to green the economy as part of our way out of the recession facing us and other countries around the world. Six months ago, when I started this job, it was hard to conceive of reaching agreement on a package at EU level, but we did. I hope that the G20 will ensure that opportunities to use fiscal stimulus to stimulate low-carbon economies, which would be good for our planet and good for jobs and skills in future, are at the heart of its achievements.

Mr. Mark Francois (Rayleigh) (Con): Given that the European economic recovery plan will not work if we cripple businesses with excessive red tape, can the Minister for Europe redeem herself from yesterday’s incredible admission that she has not read the Lisbon treaty, and so does not know what Europe has to offer, by assuring us that the Government will work hard in the negotiations to protect the UK opt-out on the working time directive, which has as critical an effect on environmental employees as it does on many others across this country?

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Caroline Flint: Yesterday, the hon. Gentleman asked me whether I had read the elements of the Lisbon treaty that relate to defence. I answered honestly that I had read some, but not all, of it, but I have now done so. I have no doubt that he spends many nights and many hours—alone, I presume—poring over the Lisbon treaty to discover some hidden plot. This Government are working with our European partners to engage constructively and to ensure that we find a way out of the recession facing the world, which is a darned sight more than the Opposition are doing.

EU-US Relations

4. Mr. Andy Slaughter (Ealing, Acton and Shepherd's Bush) (Lab): What steps his Department is taking to encourage partnership between the EU and the US. [267598]

The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (David Miliband): A strong and vibrant EU-US relationship is clearly in the UK’s interest. It provides an essential basis for meeting many of today’s most pressing challenges, from the global economic crisis and climate change to foreign policy priorities, including Afghanistan, Pakistan, the middle east and Iran. I shall continue to work to strengthen that relationship with European and American colleagues, as will the Prime Minister when he represents the UK at the EU-US summit in Prague next Sunday.

Mr. Slaughter: I am grateful for that answer. One area where one might expect closer partnership working is the middle east. Given the appointment of Senator Mitchell, but the relative failure of the Quartet and the Annapolis process, what role does my right hon. Friend see for the EU, and Britain within the EU, in moving the peace process forward?

David Miliband: I thought that my hon. Friend was going to anticipate a later question by complimenting the Quartet representative on the outstanding work that he has done, side by side with Senator Mitchell, to take forward change on the ground in the west bank and Gaza. My hon. Friend might try to catch your eye to make that point later, Mr. Speaker. The appointment of Senator Mitchell has in fact brought respect and applause from across the middle east, because of his obvious knowledge of the region, given his work on the settlements issue in 2001-02, and his record in the Senate and elsewhere. From my conversations with Senator Mitchell on four occasions, he will make a distinctive contribution to a region that needs urgent engagement on a problem—that of Palestinian statelessness and Israeli insecurity—which, if not solved soon, will never be solved.

Angus Robertson (Moray) (SNP): Has the Secretary of State had the opportunity yet to look at the details of the US stimulus package? The majority of the $787 billion of new money is being spent at a state level. May I encourage him to employ that approach in the United Kingdom and throughout the European Union, rather than to pursue his Government’s plans of cutting public spending by £1 billion in Scotland, £500 million in Wales and nearly £200 million in Northern Ireland?

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