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House of Commons

Tuesday 1 December 2009

The House met at half-past Two o'clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Business Before Questions

City of Westminster Bill [ Lords]

Lords message (25 November) relating to the Bill considered.


Transport for London (Supplemental Toll Provisions) BILL [ Lords]

Lords message (25 November) relating to the Bill considered.


Oral Answers to Questions

Foreign and Commonwealth Office

The Secretary of State was asked-


1. Simon Hughes (North Southwark and Bermondsey) (LD): What steps he is taking to support the talks aimed at bringing a resolution to the situation in Cyprus; and if he will make a statement. [302594]

The Minister for Europe (Chris Bryant): The Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary recently met President Christofias to reaffirm our support for the settlement process, and I met both leaders in Cyprus last week. The UK has also written to the United Nations offering to cede approximately half the sovereign base area land for incorporation into a reunited island, should there be a final agreement.

Simon Hughes: The House and others will be grateful both for the Government's continuing interest and for the Minister's specific commitment to this issue. Given that many people believe that the best chance in the near future of a peaceful settlement remains while President Christofias is President of Cyprus and Mr. Talat is the President in the self-declared northern republic, what do the Government plan to do at the European Council later this month to try to move things on, and what other pressure can be exerted to try to ensure that the next few months are not yet another wasted opportunity?

Chris Bryant: The hon. Gentleman is right to say that this is a unique opportunity given that the leaders in each community have staked their political careers on desiring and willing a settlement. I saw the buffer zone
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last week, and it must seem to any sane person a disgrace that we still have a divided capital city in Europe, 20 years after the fall of the Berlin wall. We are determined to do everything that we can. We think that it is important that Turkey adheres to and complies with what it has said that it would do under the Ankara protocol. It is also important that Turkey continues further along the route towards accession to the European Union. Perhaps the motto that might best serve the talks at the moment is the words of Sheridan, the first Under-Secretary in the Foreign Office, when he said:

We should determine to succeed.

David Lepper (Brighton, Pavilion) (Lab/Co-op): I thank my hon. Friend for the support that the UK Government have given to the efforts to determine the whereabouts of people on both sides who have been missing since the Turkish invasion of 1974. Will he put additional pressure on the Turkish Government to reveal more information about the possible whereabouts of the remains of those missing people?

Chris Bryant: Last week, when I met the Committee on Missing Persons, it was one of the most distressing parts of my visit, as it must be for anyone who goes to Cyprus, to see so many cadavers laid out and to know that many more are missing. Their families have no sense of closure about what happened so many years ago. We will continue to put pressure on all those involved to ensure that any information that is out there can be made available to the organisation. However, it is probably going to have to speed up its work as the further we get away from those events, the more difficult it is to find answers to what happened.

Mr. Mark Francois (Rayleigh) (Con): Like the Minister, I too have visited Cyprus this year and we would all like to see progress towards a lasting settlement. He mentioned the buffer zone. Given the vital need to maintain public support for the process on both sides, does he believe that there is now scope for further confidence-building measures such as opening extra border crossings, to try to demonstrate to people across the island that real progress is being made and a settlement is yet possible?

Chris Bryant: I agree with the hon. Gentleman that the more confidence-building measures can be put in place, the greater the likelihood of maintaining political support for the talks and for any eventual solution. My own feeling of optimism rose dramatically when I spoke to the individual leaders who are actively involved in the talks, but sometimes when I spoke to the media my optimism plummeted. Sometimes the media in Cyprus are overly sceptical and cynical about the process. I think that there is significant progress being made and it is important that agreement has been reached to intensify the talks in the new year.


2. Mr. Bernard Jenkin (North Essex) (Con): What progress is being made towards holding a conference on future policy on Afghanistan in January 2010 as proposed by the Prime Minister in his Guildhall speech? [302595]

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The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (David Miliband): The London conference on Afghanistan will be held on 28 January 2010. The purpose is to mobilise international efforts in support of a combined military and political strategy in Afghanistan. In addition to the Government of Afghanistan, partners in the international security assistance force, Afghanistan's immediate neighbours and international institutions are being invited.

Mr. Jenkin: What is the objective political end state that the allies are seeking to achieve in Afghanistan?

David Miliband: The shared objective across the international community is an Afghan Government and security forces that are able to defend themselves from being overrun by a Taliban misrule that would eventually become a safe space for al-Qaeda. To make that possible, we need to wage a genuine counter-insurgency struggle on both sides of the Durand line-in both Afghanistan and Pakistan-in partnership with the Afghan Government and the Pakistani Government.

Mr. Michael Clapham (Barnsley, West and Penistone) (Lab): Is the conference likely to discuss the prospect of a high commissioner for Afghanistan? What is his view on the current campaign against Kai Eide, the head of the UN mission in Afghanistan? Is that campaign likely to have a negative impact on politics in Afghanistan?

David Miliband: Kai Eide is the UN special representative in Afghanistan and has a very important role at the head of the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan. There will be mourning across the House for the loss of UN staff in Afghanistan, a number of whom were killed in a terrible incident last month. That civilian leadership from the UN is very important, and I think that Kai Eide has done his work in a professional and appropriate manner.

I spoke to Kai Eide when I was in Kabul last week and emphasised to him our continued commitment not just to the role of the UN, but to his leadership. Obviously, it is up to him how long he goes beyond his two-year mandate for which he was appointed. I also point out to right hon. and hon. Members that there is an important civilian role in the international security assistance force-NATO has nominated a civilian to play a role in ISAF to ensure that the latter's operations are linked properly to the civilian side. In that sense, it is important that civilian leadership is provided both through the UN and in ISAF in Afghanistan.

Sir Menzies Campbell (North-East Fife) (LD): If, by the time that the conference is held, it has become clear that President Karzai is unwilling, or unable, to fulfil his obligations, will the conference be able to accept and embrace a provincial, rather than a national strategy to prevent President Karzai from being an obstacle to progress?

David Miliband: Since the Prime Minister's statement at the Dispatch Box in December 2007, the importance of the local governance agenda in Afghanistan-not just at the provincial level, through the 34 provinces, but at the district level, through the 394 districts-has been at the centre of the Government's work.

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I am sure that the right hon. and learned Gentleman knows that Afghanistan is a country of some 40,000 villages and has rarely been governed from Kabul; it has been governed by local tribal structures. That is why it has been at the heart of the endeavours of the Government and the international community to ensure that, as well as forging the appropriate partnership in Kabul, we strengthen, wherever possible, local governance-that means provincial and district governance-and that remains our commitment.

Ann Clwyd (Cynon Valley) (Lab): As my right hon. Friend knows, at the start of the conflict, considerable attention was given to the situation of women in Afghanistan. According to the report from the UN high commissioner for human rights, she is concerned that the Afghan Government do not seem to be giving enough attention to the protection of women. What can we do in this conference to bring the situation of women to the fore of the agenda again?

David Miliband: My right hon. Friend makes an important point. At every stage, we should be stressing our commitment to the constitution of Afghanistan, which gives equal rights to all its citizens and should provide the ring within which any former insurgents are willing to return to the political system. The constitution of Afghanistan should be the benchmark by which all Afghan Governments and international partners are held to account.

Mr. Keith Simpson (Mid-Norfolk) (Con): Yesterday, the Prime Minister announced a series of benchmarks for the Afghan Government, including that all 400 provinces and districts must appoint a governor free of corruption within nine months. We assume that when the conference takes place on 28 January, President Karzai will be held to those benchmarks, but will the Foreign Secretary tell the House how they will be monitored, how "free from corruption" will be determined, and by whom, and what penalties there will be if the various deadlines that the Prime Minister laid down have not been met?

Mr. Speaker: I say to the Foreign Secretary that there were three questions there, but that one answer will suffice.

David Miliband: The answer is that, by definition, the conference is in two months, and even the timeline to which the hon. Gentleman referred is nine months. Of those benchmarks, the 34 provincial governor appointments are, of course, key, and it is well understood, within Afghanistan and internationally, what constitutes fair and effective governance. I stress that that also applies at district level, which he mentioned. At each stage, whether in respect of police or army training, or gubernatorial appointments, the international community will take a collective view, as will the people of Afghanistan.


3. Ann Winterton (Congleton) (Con): What recent assessment he has made of the political situation in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border area. [302596]

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David Miliband: The Afghanistan-Pakistan border region is ungoverned, unstable and a haven for terrorist and militant groups, including al-Qaeda. Countering that threat needs the Afghan and Pakistani Governments to work within their own jurisdiction and, crucially, together on their shared problems of terrorist activity, narcotics and weapons trafficking and limited economic opportunities. We continue to encourage such collaboration and make our contribution to the international effort to support effective counter-insurgency in both countries and on both sides of the border.

Ann Winterton: Does the Secretary of State agree that one of the most deep-rooted problems is the unrecognised Durand line, which is as critical today as it was in 1893, when it split the tribal areas, which the Afghans called Yaghistan, the land of the unruly? How can we now expect Pakistan to sort out that border, which is the legacy of a colonial past?

David Miliband: The hon. Lady will know that there are many legacies of the colonial past, not least on the Pakistan side of the border, where the Frontier Crimes Regulation of 1903 remains the basis of the legal system and political parties continue to be banned 61 years after independence. Although I know what she means when she says that the Durand line is unrecognised, in fact it is recognised by everyone, but also disputed by everyone, so it is a disputed line rather than an unrecognised line. I hope that she will agree with me that the issue today is not redrawing the Durand line, which would not be a source of progress anywhere; rather, what both sides of the border need is the sort of stability that can come from effective institutions, and not just military institutions, but political and economic institutions ones. Sadly, they have been lacking for too long on both sides of the border.

Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock) (Lab): The Foreign Secretary made reference just now to our contribution to counter-insurgency, as did the Prime Minister yesterday. Can he tell the House whether a D notice was in existence prior to yesterday's announcement by the Prime Minister of the numbers of special forces deployed to the region and if so, why it was in existence before that statement and why it was no longer necessary after it?

David Miliband: To make sure that there are absolutely no mistakes in this often tangled territory, I will write to my hon. Friend with an answer to his question and ensure that there is a full understanding in all parts of the House.

Mr. Keith Simpson (Mid-Norfolk) (Con): Let us try one question for the Foreign Secretary. Is he confident that the Pakistan army and, in particular, the intelligence services are prepared fully to undertake their commitments in dealing with the Taliban and al-Qaeda?

David Miliband: I hope that the hon. Gentleman will understand that even when he says "the Taliban", he sets out the complexity of the situation. He will know better than I that the Pakistani authorities, including the Government and Inter-Services Intelligence, are absolutely clear about their obligations to take on the Pakistan Taliban. The argument that is happening is
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about the Pakistani authorities' responsibilities in respect of the so-called Afghan Taliban. The distinction has been strongly drawn in Pakistan between those groups that are dedicated to the overthrow of the Pakistani state, relative to those other groups that are a threat to our troops and to those on the Afghan side of the border. Our argument-or, most recently, my discussion with the Foreign Minister of Pakistan at the Commonwealth conference on Friday-was to say that the multiple insurgencies that threaten Pakistan need to be addressed together. He understood that point, but he also made the fair point that, for public opinion in Pakistan, the first priority is to get a grip on the various organisations-not just the Pakistan Taliban, but Lashkar-e-Taiba, which we discussed in the House during the debate on the Queen's Speech. That remains the case, but from our point of view, it is essential that the Pakistani authorities address the multiple insurgencies that provide a home for al-Qaeda, as the Prime Minister said yesterday.

Mr. Denis MacShane (Rotherham) (Lab): But is not the political situation worsened by the propaganda that argues that the west is fundamentally anti-Muslim? That was not helped by the Swiss referendum result on Sunday or the unfortunate intervention by the Leader of the Opposition last week, for which he graciously apologised. Can my right hon. Friend find an opportunity to make a speech insisting that Britain is not an anti-Muslim nation? We have to keep stressing that in order to make it clear.

David Miliband: I hope that my right hon. Friend will look back at the speech that I made in May at the Oxford Centre for Islamic Studies, in which I addressed that issue among many others. It is a complete calumny to suggest that anyone in this House sees the war in Afghanistan as part of an anti-Muslim effort of any kind whatever-certainly no one in the Government believes that, and I do not believe it to be the case in any part of the House.

I do think, though, that it is very important to continue to emphasise that the vast majority of Afghans, Muslims as they are, do not want to side with the Taliban and do not want to go back to Taliban misrule. The greatest resource we have in the counter-insurgency in Afghanistan is the fact that the Afghan people do not want to go back to the 1990s-and nor do we.

Mr. David Heathcoat-Amory (Wells) (Con): Question 5, Mr. Speaker.

The Minister for Europe (Chris Bryant): Reform of the EU budget has not been discussed recently at the General Affairs and External Relations Council-

Mr. Speaker: Order. I think that the Minister was seeking a grouping.

Chris Bryant: I apologise.

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