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House of Commons

Tuesday 30 June 2009

The House met at half-past Two o’clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Business Before questions

New Writ


Oral Answers to Questions

Foreign and Commonwealth Office

The Secretary of State was asked—


1. Mr. Adam Holloway (Gravesham) (Con): What discussions he has had with the Afghan authorities on the conduct of the forthcoming presidential election in that country. [282687]

The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (David Miliband): I met the Afghan Foreign Minister, Dr. Spanta, in Trieste on Friday. Our embassy in Kabul is in regular dialogue with the Afghan authorities, particularly the Independent Election Commission of Afghanistan, which is running the first Afghan-led elections since the 1970s. We are also in close contact with the United Nations Development Programme, which is co-ordinating the international effort to support the election commission. In Helmand province we are working with the election commission, the governor and the Afghan national security forces to ensure credible elections on 20 August.

Mr. Holloway: What reports has the Foreign Secretary received of fraudulent voter registration in the run-up to the elections, such as the mass registration of women in Nuristan?

David Miliband: My attention has not been drawn to the example that the hon. Gentleman has given, but the United Nations and other authorities have been as vigilant as possible in ensuring that the extra voters who have been registered—4 million or so have been registered,
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which is obviously a good thing—are indeed real voters. I understand that about 85 per cent. of people in Helmand province have been registered, and we are confident that the appropriate procedures have been followed there. However, if the hon. Gentleman has any particular evidence that he wishes to supply to me, I should be happy to have it.


2. Mr. Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con): What is his most recent assessment of the political situation in Iran; and if he will make a statement. [282688]

7. Tom Brake (Carshalton and Wallington) (LD): What recent reports he has received on the political situation in Iran; and if he will make a statement. [282693]

The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (David Miliband): It is for the Iranian people to decide on their Government. The whole world has watched the post-election debate, demonstrations and violence against protesters with mounting concern. The grim effectiveness of the clampdown by the authorities has clearly not ended the debate inside Iran.

We are extremely concerned about the continued detention of some of our locally engaged staff in Tehran. That constitutes unacceptable harassment and intimidation, as European Foreign Ministers made clear in their joint statement on Sunday. I have discussed the issue with Iranian Foreign Minister Mottaki, and we agreed in our second telephone conversation yesterday that a swift resolution was in both our interests.

Mr. Hollobone: Has it been possible to make an accurate assessment of the number of Iranian protesters who have been arrested and imprisoned, and have any British nationals been harassed or detained?

David Miliband: It has not been possible for us to conduct an independent assessment of the total number of protesters who have been arrested, let alone the number who have been intimidated. As for the hon. Gentleman’s question about British nationals, he will know of the case of a dual-nationality Greek-British journalist who was detained for a time. The handling of his case is being led by the Greek authorities, and I talked to Foreign Minister Bakoyannis about it at the weekend. Obviously any detention or intimidation of journalists or diplomatic staff is to be deplored, which is why we are working so hard on the case that is currently at the top of our list of priorities: that of our own locally engaged staff.

Tom Brake: The European Union has said that there will be a “strong and collective response” if the issue of embassy staff is not sorted out. Can the Secretary of State tell us what the nature of that “strong and collective response” might be?

David Miliband: No, because one of the features of a strong and collective response is that we do not advertise its various aspects in advance. At this stage, it is important for the Government of Iran to recognise that the unanimous view was first that the arrest of the nine staff constituted intimidation and harassment of an unacceptable kind, secondly that it was imperative for the individuals concerned to be released unharmed as soon as possible and able to
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go about their business, and thirdly that there would be a strong and collective response in respect of intimidation and harassment.

It is important to understand that what is happening in Tehran and the wider country is not a bilateral dispute between Iran and Britain. There is a debate within Iran about how the people want to be governed, but it is also the case that Iran seeks engagement with the wider international community. The wider international community is determined that that engagement should take place on the basis of mutual respect, including respect for all our staff.

Mike Gapes (Ilford, South) (Lab/Co-op): The Foreign Secretary will be aware that the Foreign Affairs Committee visited Iran two years ago, and we were greatly assisted in our visit by several locally engaged staff. Will he send a message, through whatever channels he has, to our people in Iran that the FAC greatly appreciates the work they have done for us and that our thoughts are with them at this time?

David Miliband: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his comments. It is important that so many Members now recognise that some 10,000 of the 16,000 Foreign Office staff are locally engaged, increasingly in positions connected with political reporting and economic analysis. The nine staff who were arrested on Saturday constitute the locally employed element of our political and economic section in the embassy in Tehran. I am sure that my hon. Friend’s thoughts and good wishes will be important to them, but there is a more general principle here: these staff operate for diplomatic purposes, and they should be given full respect for that role.

Mr. Denis MacShane (Rotherham) (Lab): As the Foreign Secretary correctly says, it is a matter for the people of Iran to choose their own Government, but it is also a matter for the rest of the world that President Ahmadinejad exports anti-Semitism, exports fundamentalist terrorism, that he may, if he gets nuclear weapons, export some of those, and that he also exports regional instability. We must be much firmer and actually call this gentleman for what he is.

David Miliband: I take my right hon. Friend’s comment in the spirit in which it was intended. There has been disgust not just across this House but across the international community at the anti-Semitic remarks President Ahmadinejad has made in recent weeks and years. However, one thing that has become clear in the last few weeks in respect of other aspects of my right hon. Friend’s question is that all power does not reside in the presidential office in Tehran: the role of the supreme leader is absolutely critical, not least on the nuclear file. It is therefore very important that we not only make clear our own views, but also understand the different layers of governance that exist in the Islamic Republic of Iran.

Mr. Edward Davey (Kingston and Surbiton) (LD): May I place on record my support for the Government’s position on the British embassy staff arrested by the Iranian authorities, and reinforce the Foreign Secretary’s message that Britain has been restrained and measured in response to the unrest since the Iranian elections? Given such sensitivities and the uncertainties over the future of internal Iranian politics, will the Foreign
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Secretary reassure the House that beyond the reasonable reaction to the unacceptable Iranian actions that we have seen, Her Majesty’s Government will refuse to be provoked by the supreme leader, President Ahmadinejad and anyone else in the Iranian conservative leadership, and instead recognise that silence, patience and restraint at such a time can be the most powerful of diplomatic weapons?

David Miliband: First, I am very grateful to the hon. Gentleman for the preliminary part of his remarks. I am not sure that I can sign up to “silence”, as that may be going a bit far in the conduct of foreign policy, but I certainly think we should be firm but not macho in the way we go about it, and that is what I shall try to do.

Mr. William Hague (Richmond, Yorks) (Con): It is of course utterly unacceptable intimidation that Iran continues to detain four locally engaged staff from our embassy, and in making that clear the Foreign Secretary has the united support of the House. This transparent ruse by Iran to portray what is a crisis of the credibility of its own Government, using violence against their own people, as a dispute with the United Kingdom is totally unjustified and will deceive, and should deceive, no one. We also support the proportionate steps the Government have taken in response to this, and strongly welcome the supportive stance of the other EU Foreign Ministers. When the Foreign Secretary spoke yesterday to Mr. Mottaki, the Iranian Foreign Minister, did Mr. Mottaki repeat the assertion by the Iranian Foreign Ministry that there was no wish to damage or downgrade relations with the United Kingdom, and if so, how did he square that with the continued detention of four of our staff?

David Miliband: Foreign Minister Mottaki was clear that he wanted to raise the level of engagement not only with this country but with other European countries. It is a matter of record that it is not the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Tehran which goes around arresting people, but I made it very clear, and Mr. Mottaki understood and responded, that we did expect the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to engage actively in securing the release of the remaining staff. We want to take that process forward, and that is what is going on at the moment.

Mr. Hague: Let us look ahead on this matter. Given the failure in the past to agree meaningful European sanctions with real bite on Iran on the issue of its nuclear programme—that has been illustrated by the fact that oil and gas sanctions announced by the Prime Minister 18 months ago were never implemented—is it not vital to start work across the European Union during the rest of this year on the serious economic penalties that ought to follow if Iran does not enter into negotiations on its nuclear programme by the end of the year? Will the Foreign Secretary take the opportunity to send a strong message to other European capitals that although we all want to see a positive Iranian response to President Obama, if no meaningful progress is made by the end of the year, it will be necessary for the EU to take a dramatically hardened stance and demonstrate the will that has eluded it in the past?

David Miliband: I genuinely say to the right hon. Gentleman that I am disappointed by the first half of his question. He said that no meaningful sanctions with
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bite were being imposed by the European Union, but for the record I should point out that the sanctions imposed by the EU as a result of Iran’s flouting of the United Nations Security Council go beyond, and well beyond in a number of respects, the requirements of the Security Council. To portray the situation as one where there is a lonely voice on the Opposition Benches calling for tough sanctions in respect of the Iranian nuclear programme —[Interruption.]and similar voices on the Government Benches against those of 26 recalcitrant European colleagues says more about his attitude towards his European colleagues than it does about the reality of the situation. This is not a matter where he needs to bring his Europhobia to bear, because there is a strong and united view among a number of countries in Europe on it and there is unanimous support for the actions that have been taken by the European Union. We will need to go further; private work needs to be done on the when and the how, but I should emphasise the word “private”.

Mr. Tom Clarke (Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill) (Lab): As one who visited Iran during a period of great tension, when we had nobody at our embassy and the American embassy was similarly closed—this was prior to the release of Terry Waite, John McCarthy and Brian Keenan—may I gently urge my right hon. Friend, despite the fact that I welcome everything he had to say, to accept that there is a difference between rhetoric and diplomacy?

David Miliband: I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend’s long-standing interest in these issues and the humanitarian perspective that he brings to all our discussions. I agree that, of course, there is a difference between rhetoric and diplomacy. In this case, we have tried to be absolutely clear about things because, whether in respect of rhetoric or diplomacy, clarity helps. In this case, there is a clear and united demand from across the House and the country, from across Europe, and from the United States and others that these hard-working diplomatic staff, who are of Iranian origin and have Iranian citizenship, and who are doing an important job in a completely proper way, should be released and allowed to get on with their work as soon as possible.

Sir Malcolm Rifkind (Kensington and Chelsea) (Con): Does the Foreign Secretary agree that the repression in Iran is already having consequences far beyond the borders of that country and has dealt a body blow to Iran’s aspirations to be seen as the champion of Islam in the middle east? Has not President Ahmadinejad been revealed, not as a popular President who is governing with the consent of the people of Iran, but as a local despot who is sustained in power merely by the work of the militia and the police?

David Miliband: Perhaps the right hon. and learned Gentleman’s question gives me a chance to point out the important independent role that has been played in Iran by the BBC Farsi service. Since its inception last year, it has established itself as an authoritative and independent reporter on that nation’s affairs, and it has a very wide following in Iran. It is important to say that although it receives public money, it receives no public instruction as to how it should behave or what it should report. Crucially, in response to his question, I should point out that it has given an unvarnished view of the
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sort of violence that has been meted out by state authorities in Iran since the election. That has contrasted most strikingly with the passion of the debate that took place before the election day, which was a credit to Iran.

EU Regional Aid Programmes

3. Andrew George (St. Ives) (LD): What recent discussions he has had in the General Affairs and External Relations Council on progress in the delivery of EU regional aid programmes. [282689]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Chris Bryant): Delivery of the EU structural and cohesion fund programmes was discussed at the General Affairs and External Relations Council on 15 June. We are awaiting detailed proposals from the European Commission on an amendment to the structural funds regulation to allow accelerated funding, as suggested in its communication of 3 June on employment.

Andrew George: Notwithstanding the Minister’s response, and given the uncertainty about and the cuts to the Learning and Skills Council, the Higher Education Funding Council and the regional development agencies budgets in the UK, what reassurance can the Minister give the EU Council and deprived UK regions, such as Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly, that those convergence programmes will not suffer from the lack of UK match funding?

Chris Bryant: I can make an absolute guarantee that not a single extra penny needed for match funding in the UK would be brought forward by this proposal, which has not yet been outlined in full detail by the European Commission. There would not be a single penny missing in relation to the European social fund, which, as the hon. Gentleman knows, has already delivered significant extra benefits in Cornwall through the EMBARK programme and Workforce Cornwall. I hope that he will not be touting round the myth that the proposal would bring in extra money—every penny of match funding has already been provided.


4. Harry Cohen (Leyton and Wanstead) (Lab): What recent discussions he has had with his Chinese counterpart to seek to achieve progress towards Tibetan autonomy within an overall China. [282690]

The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Mr. Ivan Lewis): The Foreign Secretary last raised the status of Tibet with Chinese Foreign Minister Yang during his visit to the UK in February during the UK-China summit. He called for substantive dialogue between the Chinese authorities and the Dalai Lama’s representatives to address the underlying issues in Tibet.

Harry Cohen: Will the Minister urge his Chinese counterpart to end the outdated rhetoric of hostility towards the Dalai Lama and his Tibetan supporters? Will he tell him that that autonomy is a genuine and workable concept within an overall China, that it is not independence, as the hardliners pretend, and that it can help to provide an important degree of self-determination and can protect the unique Tibetan culture? Will the Minister take practical steps, such as offering to mediate, to help resolve this long-standing injustice?

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Mr. Ivan Lewis: First, may I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for his long-standing interest and commitment on this very important issue? It is possibly early days for me to start mediating in such an historic dispute, but it is absolutely clear that we believe that the only way forward is for the Chinese authorities to resume bilateral discussions with the Dalai Lama’s envoys. It is worth noting that it has always been the Dalai Lama’s position not to advocate independence but to advocate autonomy. We believe that that is now consistent with the British position and that this window of opportunity should be used for the benefit of Tibet.

Norman Baker (Lewes) (LD): The UK Government have rightly promoted the idea of dialogue, as the Minister has just set out. Is not the reality that over many years the Chinese have engaged in dialogue but have never given any ground, even of a limited nature? What action are the Government taking to co-ordinate a response with other European Union countries, the United States and other allies to put pressure on the Chinese authorities to be a little less intransigent and to recognise the basic human rights of Tibet?

Mr. Lewis: Our position has recently become aligned, for the first time, with that of the European Union. There is a clear, strong and united position, and the European Union uses its dialogue with China constantly to raise the question of Tibet. For example, during the last round of our bilateral human rights dialogue we called for due process in Tibet and full transparency to allow unhindered access for diplomats and journalists. We also called for reform of the use of the death penalty to limit the scope of its application. Now that our position, for the first time, is aligned with that of the European Union, I believe that we have the best possible opportunity to influence the Chinese to do the right thing by Tibet.

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