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House of Commons

Tuesday 20 October 2009

The House met at half-past Two o'clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Business before questions

Leeds City Council Bill

Motion made, That the Bill be now considered.

Hon. Members: Object.

Bill t o be considered on Tuesday 27 October.

Reading Borough Council Bill

Motion made, That the Bill be now considered.

Hon. Members: Object.

Bill t o be considered on Tuesday 27 October.

City of Westminster Bill [ Lords]

Motion made,

Hon. Members: Object.

To be considered on Thursday 22 October.

Oral Answers to Questions

Foreign and Commonwealth Office

The Secretary of State was asked-

Iran's Nuclear Programme

1. Jane Kennedy (Liverpool, Wavertree) (Lab): What his latest assessment is of developments in Iran's nuclear programme; and if he will make a statement. [293902]

The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (David Miliband): Iran's nuclear programme is the leading threat to the non-proliferation regime. The latest International Atomic Energy Agency report says that Iran has still not suspended its enrichment or heavy-water-related activities and has failed to engage with the IAEA on the possible military dimensions. The revelations about a secret site near Qom show Iran's disregard for its obligations to the IAEA and the United Nations Security Council, and increase our concerns about its intentions. The Geneva meeting on 1 October
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with the E3 plus 3 was a start to the essential process of engagement; there now needs to be intensive and serious follow-up.

Jane Kennedy: Does my right hon. Friend share the frustration of many ordinary people in Iran-they have shared this with me by e-mail-with the regime's complete refusal to engage with the international community on this issue? The regime is led by someone who not only denies the holocaust, but denies his own people a democratic outcome. Will my right hon. Friend consider what unilateral steps the United Kingdom could take to increase the pressure on Iran to engage more positively?

David Miliband: My right hon. Friend makes an important point about the Iranian people, some 50 or 60 per cent. of whom are under the age of 30. They represent a country of great civilisation and education, and they have internet access, to pick up on her point. The requirements on the regime can best be understood by realising that there will never be a better time for Iran to engage with the international community in the search for what Iran proclaims to be its only aim: civilian nuclear power.

The United Kingdom is proud to be at the heart of the international drive to establish normal relations between Iran and the international community over the nuclear file. However, I am sure my right hon. Friend will have seen the important announcement by the Treasury in respect of a financial sanction for one of the banks that has been closely involved in proliferation-related activities. That represents the sort of step that she is suggesting.

Mr. David Amess (Southend, West) (Con): With Austria's leading energy company investing heavily in Iranian offshore and onshore oil, and with Germany being a big exporter to Iran, will the Secretary of State tell the House what pressure he is applying to our European partners to comply with sanctions in order to try to change the regime peacefully?

David Miliband: I do not have to tell the hon. Gentleman just about the pressure on other European countries; I can point him to the fact that the European Union-all 27 countries of it-has tougher sanctions than are required by the United Nations, which indicates how seriously Europe takes the issue.

Meg Munn (Sheffield, Heeley) (Lab/Co-op): May I welcome the leading role that Britain is taking in Europe on this issue? What discussions has the Foreign Secretary had with other partners in Europe about their taking further steps and bringing further economic sanctions to bear?

David Miliband: At this moment, we are engaged in a critical phase of engagement with Iran. The President of the United States has said that he wants to reassess the situation at the end of the year, and he will do so with the international community. My hon. Friend is right to say that the dual track must be a dual track, in that engagement takes place, but increased pressure can be brought to bear, as appropriate. At the E3 plus 3 meeting that I chaired in New York in September, there was agreement that we must pursue the dual track with equal emphasis on both elements.

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Sir Malcolm Rifkind (Kensington and Chelsea) (Con): Does the Foreign Secretary agree that the missing link in international efforts to achieve a diplomatic solution has, unfortunately, been the continuing reluctance of Arab states to be prepared to put public pressure on Iran, despite their oft-repeated-in private-serious reservations about Iran's nuclear ambitions? Does he agree that if the Arab states were to put public pressure on Iran, that would make it much more likely that Russia and China would co-operate in the Security Council, and much less likely that the United States or Israel would be tempted towards military intervention?

David Miliband: The right hon. and learned Gentleman makes an important point. It is fair to say that the thinking that he outlines explains the emphasis that we have put on the relationship between the E3 plus 3 and the Gulf Co-operation Council and other Arab states. A very important meeting took place in New York between the E3 plus 3 and the Arab states, led by the GCC. The sort of international unanimity that he refers to is very important. People often talk, rightly, about the fears in Israel of the Iranian nuclear programme, but he will know, as will the whole House, that those fears are matched throughout the Arab world, which recognises the dangers of a nuclear arms race in the middle east of all places.

Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North) (Lab): Will the Foreign Secretary acknowledge that Iran is still a signatory to the nuclear non-proliferation treaty and that that should be welcomed as a sign of at least an ability to negotiate? Will he also recognise that now is the time to push for a nuclear-free middle east, which will of course require the disarmament of all nuclear states in the region, including Israel, as a way of bringing about long-term peace and security?

David Miliband: My hon. Friend will know that we have voted consistently for the aspiration of a nuclear-free middle east as part of a drive for nuclear disarmament around the world. However, I think that it is important to bear in mind that although it is right to acknowledge that Iran is a signatory to the NPT-and that is welcome-signing is only the first step. Obeying the treaty's injunctions and following its requirements should go with that signature. I hope that my hon. Friend will join me in sending a united message from this House that Iran has the hand of engagement outstretched towards it and that it will be treated as a normal country, not least in respect of civilian nuclear power, but that it must behave as a normal country would in its relations with the IAEA and the rest of the international community.

Mr. David Lidington (Aylesbury) (Con): Like the Foreign Secretary, we hope that the talks in Vienna today under the aegis of the IAEA are successful. Does he agree that we ought to be concerned at the indications from the Iranian state broadcast and others in recent days that the offer to send material abroad for enrichment might not actually be delivered? Does he agree that it is important that the Group of Six make it very clear to Iran during these talks that any agreement has to involve Iran's existing stockpiles being taken abroad in return for nuclear fuel rods being supplied for scientific research, as well as immediate access for international inspectors to the facility at Qom?

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David Miliband: There is quite a lot of detail in this. The Tehran research reactor proposal is an important proposal, which would involve the export for development of the low-enriched uranium that Iran has established. It is a very important proposal. The best thing for me to say is that it is good that Iran has said that in principle it is interested in that proposal, but it needs to turn that in-principle interest into an agreement that gets that low-enriched uranium out of the country to be properly fabricated and developed. If that happens, we can be absolutely clear-as Iran will be showing us not just by word but by deed-that it is interested only in peaceful civilian purposes for its nuclear programme. This is an important issue and I look forward to continuing to discuss it with the House.


2. Mr. James Gray (North Wiltshire) (Con): What the Government's policy is on the status of Tibet; and if he will make a statement. [293903]

The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Mr. Ivan Lewis): We regard Tibet as part of China, albeit as an autonomous region. Our interest is in long-term stability, which can be achieved through respect for human rights and greater autonomy for Tibetans. We believe that substantive dialogue between the Chinese authorities and representatives of the Dalai Lama is the best way to achieve this.

Mr. Gray: May I first call the House's attention to my entry in the Register of Members' Interests, where I record a recent visit to Tibet? During that visit I became increasingly convinced that the Government's change in stance on the status of Tibet was quite correct. Tibet needs to be an integral part of the greater People's Republic of China, albeit an entirely autonomous region. Does not the Minister agree with me about two things? First, that the change of stance should have been announced to the House in an oral statement rather than sneaked out in a written statement, which meant that no one could ask any questions about it. Secondly, I do not believe that much use was made of the leverage that could have been achieved by the UK Government's change in stance to press the Chinese Government on human rights issues, both in Tibet and across the greater People's Republic. Does he-

Mr. Speaker: Order.

Mr. Lewis: In terms of leverage, the fact that I was the first Minister to be invited by the Chinese Government to visit Tibet recently and that the all-party group, of which the hon. Gentleman is a member, was also allowed and encouraged to visit Tibet demonstrates that that shift in policy has enabled us to exercise significant influence over the Chinese Government. Let us be clear about the issues. It is extremely important-we have made this clear to China-that although we recognise the economic and social progress that is evident in Tibet, there are still major concerns about human rights. The Chinese Government should begin immediate negotiations with the representatives of the Dalai Lama and encourage visits from other politicians, and from journalists and opinion formers around the world, to demonstrate a greater level of openness. There must
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also be no equivocation on religious freedom, which is enshrined in the constitution of China in relation to Tibet.

Mr. Lindsay Hoyle (Chorley) (Lab): I welcome my hon. Friend's visit to Tibet to get an understanding of and a feel for what is happening there. Does he recognise that we will not solve the problem merely by having MPs and Ministers visiting the country? What needs to be dealt with is the intolerance shown towards the Tibetan people and the lack of freedom. What pressure can he put on the Chinese Government, as well as speaking to the Dalai Lama?

Mr. Lewis: My hon. Friend raises an extremely important point. Subsequent to my visit, my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary and I raised the issue of human rights violations with Dai Bigguo, the state councillor from China, and I have also had a lengthy meeting with the very able ambassador to China. Various issues need to be addressed: we must make sure that ethnic Tibetans benefit from the economic growth undoubtedly now taking place in Tibet, and that their language and culture are protected. In addition, we must ensure that ethnic Tibetans have access to fair justice and that there is genuine religious freedom, particularly in the monasteries.

Richard Younger-Ross (Teignbridge) (LD): In 1904, Colonel Younghusband took British troops into Tibet. In 1947, those troops left and we recognised the Tibetan people's right to self-determination. Why do this Government not allow them that self-determination? Why are we not putting more pressure on the Chinese Government to recognise that right? At present, we are exerting less pressure in that regard than we did in 1947.

Mr. Lewis: When the hon. Gentleman asks why Britain does not allow the Tibetans freedom, he is clearly living in the past. The other important point is that the Dalai Lama himself does not demand independence for Tibet: what he demands is genuine autonomy and religious freedom, which has long been the policy of the rest of the international community. There is no doubt that, as a consequence of the policy change that we made last year, we now have greater leverage to influence China's policies in relation to Tibet.


3. Andrew Rosindell (Romford) (Con): How much his Department has spent on (a) hosting and (b) supporting the involvement of young British people in NATO activities in the last 12 months. [293904]

The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Mr. Ivan Lewis): In the last 12 months we have spent £22,000 in support of the Atlantic Council UK. This covers activities from 2008 to 2010. The council undertakes activities to raise NATO's profile and, as the hon. Gentleman will be aware, recently set up a youth chapter. From November, it will begin a schools programme to further raise awareness of NATO's activities.

Andrew Rosindell: Does the Minister agree that it is worth investing money in educating young people about NATO's historical role during the cold war, when it
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ensured that the free world remained free? It is a great organisation that has done so much for our freedom and liberty. Will he raise this matter with his counterparts in other countries to ensure that they are also investing in young people's education about NATO? Will he meet a British delegation from NATO's youth chapter-

Mr. Speaker: Order. I have said this many times, but I shall say it once more: Members should ask one question, not two-and certainly not three.

Mr. Lewis: Thank you very much, Mr. Speaker. First, I agree with the hon. Gentleman about NATO's central role in our national security, and in the relationship between the EU and the US. Of course we expect all NATO members to make their fair contribution when it comes to engaging young people and raising awareness among them. Finally, of course I would be willing to meet a youth delegation.

Mr. David Crausby (Bolton, North-East) (Lab): Does my hon. Friend agree that educating young people about NATO's future role is absolutely vital? What can he do to ensure that the future generation completely understands the threat that faces us, and what NATO can effectively do to defend us?

Mr. Lewis: I agree with my hon. Friend. It is very important that we do not fall for the myth that will be familiar to all hon. Members from their constituency responsibilities-that young people are somehow not interested in politics or international affairs. All hon. Members who visit local schools and colleges know that young people are incredibly interested in the issues that affect the world. The problem is that we have to demonstrate to them the relevance to their everyday lives of what goes on in this House and in conventional politics. Central to that is our future security and the role of NATO.

Freedom of Expression

4. Dr. Evan Harris (Oxford, West and Abingdon) (LD): What steps he is taking to promote the protection of free expression in countries without a free press. [293905]

The Minister for Europe (Chris Bryant): We work to safeguard the international framework that protects and promotes the right to freedom of expression and to support positive change on the ground. We raise individual cases where freedom of expression has been threatened, and we challenge countries to change practices that curtail the exercise of these rights.

Dr. Harris: I draw the House's attention to the fact that I am a patron of Article 19, which campaigns for the rights of journalists abroad. Will the Minister join me in welcoming the fact that this week the Government have tabled amendments in the House of Lords to the Coroners and Justice Bill to get rid of the laws of sedition and criminal defamation in this country? Will he urge his colleagues to promote the fact that we have done this as a way of delivering similar freedoms to journalists in other countries?

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Chris Bryant: It goes against the grain to congratulate a Liberal Democrat. None the less, I am more than happy to do so because I know the hon. Gentleman has played a very important role, along with Article 19, with which we try to work closely, to get rid of the obsolete offences of sedition and criminal libel, not least because other countries have sometimes pointed to those offences in the UK and said that that is a reason why they should be able to continue with laws that deliberately hinder the freedom of expression and the freedom of opinion, which we believe is an essential human right.

Mark Lazarowicz (Edinburgh, North and Leith) (Lab/Co-op): Will my hon. Friend make representations to the Government of Morocco about free expression in that country? I was contacted at the weekend by a constituent whose brother is one of seven human rights activists who were detained last week by the Moroccan authorities. I understand that they have been threatened with life imprisonment or even the death penalty. Will my hon. Friend make efforts to intervene in this case and ensure that freedom of expression exists in that country as well?

Chris Bryant: I am more than happy to look into the individual case if my hon. Friend is able to pass on the information to me regarding the situation in Morocco. The right to express oneself, a free press and free media are essential. Around the world, one of the most important things that we have contributed to that is the BBC World Service.

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