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House of Commons

Tuesday 6 April 2010

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. Andrew Selous (South-West Bedfordshire) (Con): What assessment he has made of developments in Afghanistan since the London conference of January 2010. [325349]

The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (David Miliband): Since the London conference, the Government of Afghanistan have made progress on some of their commitments, including the Afghan Cabinet's decision to approve the sub-national governance strategy and President Karzai's recent decree boosting the high office of oversight's powers to tackle and investigate corruption. In other areas, progress is slow-too slow. We continue to work with the Afghan authorities to encourage similar progress to be made in those other areas.

Andrew Selous: One area of our policy in Afghanistan-where, tragically, another British soldier lost his life at the weekend-on which I believe the Government have failed very badly is explaining to the public why we are there. Does the Foreign Secretary believe that that is the case and, if so, what is he going to do about it?

David Miliband: Every death of a British soldier in Afghanistan is a tragic event, and I think that the hon. Gentleman's attempt to link this to a particular Government decision is unwise and not worthy of him. There is unity across the House that the border lands of Afghanistan and Pakistan are the gravest terrorist threat to this country and that stability in Afghanistan is absolutely essential not only to countering the threat that al-Qaeda might re-establish itself there, but to achieving stability in Pakistan. That is the fundamental reason why we are there, and it is why all three major political parties support our presence there. We all know, however, that there will not be a military solution in Afghanistan-the combined military and civilian effort will create the conditions for a political settlement, which is, after all, the only way to provide stability in that country.

Mrs. Ann Cryer (Keighley) (Lab): What assessment has my right hon. Friend made of developments in Afghanistan regarding the well-being of women and their health, education and ability to work for their families?

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David Miliband: I am sorry that this will be the last occasion on which my hon. Friend asks a question in this House; she has raised a very important point. On education, one can point to a qualitative shift. There are now, after all, about 6 million to 7 million children in school in Afghanistan, nearly half of them girls, which is a complete revolution in comparison with a decade ago. In other areas, however, as we heard from the civil society representatives at the London conference, progress has been much slower, including in areas such as political representation and health care, which my hon. Friend mentioned.

Mr. William Hague (Richmond, Yorks) (Con): Amid all the debates that we will have in the coming election campaign, should we not all remember that throughout every hour of it we have 10,000 British servicemen and women in real battles in Afghanistan and that their role must be a paramount concern for whoever is elected on 6 May? Is it not true that the military advances made on the ground will be of long-term benefit only if the Afghan political processes also succeed and are seen to be legitimate? When the Prime Minister announced UK strategy for Afghanistan in November last year, he pledged that President Karzai would ensure that all 400 Afghan provinces and districts had a governor free from corruption and appointed on merit within nine months-by August this year. Is the Foreign Secretary confident that such benchmarks will still be met?

David Miliband: Perhaps you will allow me, Mr. Speaker, to say that I thought it completely appropriate for the Prime Minister when he spoke in Downing street this morning-and for the Leader of the Opposition when he made his response and for the leader of the Liberal Democrats, who I think took time out from the hurly-burly and political battles that the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague) mentioned-to say that this election campaign provides a chance not to forget what is going on in Afghanistan, but to discuss with and engage the British people on that issue. That is something that I-and, I hope, other right hon. and hon. Members-will be keen to do, because this is the time to engage the British people on the sacrifice being made and the purposes behind it.

As to President Karzai's commitment, I believe that it was in his inaugural speech in the third week of November when he made the commitment to the transfer of security leadership and to extend governance issues in respect of corruption. The Prime Minister's commitment remains. Early signs, over the three or four months since the announcement, have been positive and a number of provinces have had replacement governors who are, I think, an improvement on their predecessors.

Mr. Hague: In light of all that, should we not all accept how alarming it is to those who support the efforts of British forces in Afghanistan to read so many reports in recent days of apparent division between President Karzai and western nations? Given that steps to reduce corruption and to improve local government are vital for the counter-insurgency effort, is the Foreign Secretary absolutely confident that relations between this country and the US on the one hand and President Karzai on the other hand are as they should be, and that there is a clear enough mutual understanding of the approach needed to handle the situation in Kandahar, to conduct the elections well in September and to make
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progress on the integration and reconciliation process? Is he happy that all that is as it should be? Is not agreement on such things indispensable to our success in Afghanistan?

David Miliband: Agreement on such things is, indeed, indispensible, but verbal agreement is, of course, only one step in the process. I am absolutely confident that since the London conference there has been renewed unity not only between Britain and the United States but across the international coalition about the military and civilian strategy that is needed and the political settlement that can be generated. In respect of the Afghan Government, as I said in Kabul in November, words must be turned into deeds. That is the case both now and in the run-up to the Kabul conference, which is the moment when the international effort generated in London and the Afghan effort mobilised locally by a new Government-whose Cabinet has not yet been fully appointed, which points to some of the problems that exist-will need to be joined. That will be a very important moment to judge progress and how much confidence we should have. It would be unwise at this stage to say anything other than that we must continue to press very strongly on the agenda that President Karzai set out in November and that we have committed to-and we want to see it matched.

Finally, if you will allow me, Mr. Speaker-I apologise for talking at such length, but the Afghan issue is so important-the right hon. Gentleman has referred to comments made at the weekend. It is very important that we say very clearly that any suggestion that Britain, or any other country, has irregularly interfered in the election processes of Afghanistan is completely without foundation. Our troops were there guaranteeing the safety of people seeking to go and vote. I am sure that it is a unified position across this House to have absolutely no truck with such malign suggestions, especially about our troops, but actually about our whole country.

Sir Menzies Campbell (North-East Fife) (LD): I associate myself and my hon. and right hon. Friends with the Secretary of State's observations about Afghanistan and the debt that we owe to those who serve there, but, in his usual restrained way, he has not, I think, given the House a full and proper account of the Government's response to these extraordinary and bizarre allegations of external interference in the presidential elections. What representations has Her Majesty's Government made to President Karzai about these allegations, and if he is to be the centrepiece of political development, how can we have confidence when he makes such remarks?

David Miliband: I pleaded with Mr. Speaker to allow me to get in an extra sentence or two in order to address that, and I am sorry if that did not provide the comprehensive answer that the right hon. and learned Gentleman wanted. The Prime Minister spoke to President Karzai on Sunday, when he made absolutely clear our position in respect of these allegations. President Karzai did not repeat the allegations; in fact, he committed himself to working with the United Kingdom, but as I said in respect of an earlier question, it is important to turn those assurances into deeds. President Karzai is the elected leader of Afghanistan-he is the choice of the Afghan people. He certainly got more votes than any other candidate in the election, and it is by virtue of that election that he is our partner in securing our interests in that country.

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European Security and Defence Assembly

2. Mr. Christopher Chope (Christchurch) (Con): What his policy is on the future of the European Security and Defence Assembly. [325350]

The Minister for Europe (Chris Bryant): Following the lead we in the UK gave last week, as laid out in my written ministerial statement, all 10 member states have agreed to close the Western European Union. We believe that future arrangements for inter-parliamentary dialogue should reflect the intergovernmental nature of European security and defence policy, should involve all EU and non-EU European allies and should be cost-effective for the British taxpayer.

Mr. Chope: I thank the Minister for that response, but is he not closing down one organisation without clearly setting out the arrangements that he wishes to put in place for the proper scrutiny of international defence issues?

Chris Bryant: That was not a unilateral decision, although the hon. Gentleman is absolutely right that Britain took the lead. Many countries said that they wanted further action and that the architecture for examining common security and defence policy in Europe was no longer sufficient, but they did not want to do anything about it. We took the courageous step of saying that we wanted to withdraw. We now have a year during which we can negotiate precisely what the future structure should look like. I pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman and others who have sat on the Assembly, but it was costing us some €2.3 million a year, and we believe that that money could be better spent elsewhere.

Ms Gisela Stuart (Birmingham, Edgbaston) (Lab): Whether it is the WEU or the Council of Europe, is the Minister satisfied that we increasingly only have structures that serve those countries which are member states of the EU and that therefore marginalise those countries which are not? I think that that will do us long-term damage.

Chris Bryant: The complexity of the WEU was that it had so many different categories of membership. There were the 10 core member countries, but all 27 members of the EU were allied, and then there were other countries, such as NATO allies, who took on observer status. That is why we believe that now is the right time to put together a more appropriate structure, so that the Parliaments around Europe, including our allies such as Turkey-one of the countries which my hon. Friend may have been alluding to-can closely scrutinise the common foreign, defence and security policy that has developed across the whole of Europe.

Mr. Mark Francois (Rayleigh) (Con): The Minister pointed out in his written statement of 30 March that the EU's common security and defence policy remains intergovernmental and is thus a matter for national Parliaments. How does he see these arrangements operating in future, and how will he accommodate NATO allies such as Turkey and Norway, which are associate members of the current Assembly but which are not in the EU? How is this actually going to work?

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Chris Bryant: One of the most important things is that we ensure that we have a cost-effective structure. The costs that have been incurred by the WEU Assembly alone for the United Kingdom over the past few years have been phenomenal. We believe, as does every other country among the 10 core members, that it is right to wind up that organisation. We do not believe it would be right-I can probably garner the hon. Gentleman's support for this, at least-for the European Parliament to take on responsibility for considering this matter. We believe that it is clearly laid down in the Lisbon treaty that that should not be a responsibility for the European Parliament. I look forward to debating some of those issues with him over the next few weeks, since he has already turned down five debates with me on Europe since the beginning of the year.

Middle East Peace Process

3. Richard Burden (Birmingham, Northfield) (Lab): What his most recent assessment is of progress in the middle east peace process; and if he will make a statement. [325351]

The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Mr. Ivan Lewis): We welcome the Quartet's determination to move swiftly to proximity talks addressing issues of substance. We continue to press both sides to show the courage, commitment and compromise needed to make real progress. The UK remains determined to do everything possible to achieve comprehensive peace in the middle east.

Richard Burden: You will know, Mr. Speaker, that although all hon. Members in this place spend most of their time taking up issues at home, issues that arise abroad affect us all. Does my hon. Friend share my concern at the escalating violence in Gaza, and will the UK Government make it clear to the Israeli authorities that we will oppose any repeat of Operation Cast Lead and that no UK arms or equipment should be used in any such operation?

Mr. Lewis: My hon. Friend is right to draw attention to our concerns about the escalation of violence over the weekend. We want to see an immediate end to all violence in Gaza. The rocket attacks from Gaza into Israel must stop, and we also urge restraint from the Israelis. More fundamentally, we want to see Israel remove all obstacles to humanitarian assistance getting into Gaza, and we want to see the release of Gilad Shalit. Both steps would be important confidence building measures in support of the peace process.

Mr. Paul Keetch (Hereford) (LD): Will the Minister give his most recent assessment of progress in the middle east peace process in relation to the former Prime Minister, Mr. Tony Blair? Will he give us one concrete thing that Mr. Blair has achieved?

Mr. Lewis: I was going to congratulate the hon. Gentleman on his contribution to this House over a number of years-I still do-but I can give more than one example. One of the most important sources of progress in the middle east in recent times has been the improvement in economic development and enhanced
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security in the west bank. The former Prime Minister has played a crucial role in making that progress possible alongside President Abbas and Prime Minister Fayyad.

Mr. Keetch: Will the Minister tell us how many Foreign Office resources have gone into supporting Mr. Blair's role? How many diplomats and how many security people have been involved? Should not that money have been diverted to the Foreign Office team on the ground? Is not that the best way for British foreign policy money to be spent?

Mr. Lewis: The hon. Gentleman should be aware that the former Prime Minister was appointed by the Quartet. He is the Quartet's representative in the region, and an appropriate level of resource is deployed by the United Kingdom to support his efforts in that role. I must say to the hon. Gentleman that it is disingenuous to ask questions to which he has already received the answers in writing.

Mrs. Louise Ellman (Liverpool, Riverside) (Lab/Co-op): What role is Iran, with its opposition to Israel's very existence, playing in Gaza in escalating violence and supporting Hamas?

Mr. Lewis: My hon. Friend is right to raise concerns about the interference of Iran in Gaza and elsewhere in the middle east. There is no doubt that Iran poses a threat not only because of the development of its nuclear weapons but because of its continued support for a variety of terrorist organisations in the middle east that destabilise sovereign states. We need to be clear. If there is to be stability and progress, it is important that we take the role and threat of Iran seriously.

Mr. David Lidington (Aylesbury) (Con): First, I agree with both the hon. Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Richard Burden) and the Minister about the priority that needs to be given to trying find a peaceful way forward in Gaza at the moment. Does the Minister agree that it would help us in trying to persuade the Israeli authorities to reopen the border crossings if they could be given the assurance that effective measures are in place to stop the smuggling of arms and explosives into the Gaza strip? In that context, can he say why, more than 12 months after our Prime Minister said that he was looking for ways to use British naval resources to stop such smuggling, no action seems to have been taken?

Mr. Lewis: UN resolution 1860 makes the importance of stopping smuggling very clear, which is the point that the hon. Gentleman has raised. Surely he is aware of the significant development in relation to Egypt creating a security strategy, which means that there is a serious reduction in the capacity of those who seek to smuggle those weapons, goods and services. As he is aware, that is vital not only for security, but because Hamas collects taxes and benefits from the smuggling of goods and services.

Sir Gerald Kaufman (Manchester, Gorton) (Lab): Has the Minister seen the article in the 29 March edition of The New Yorker by its editor, David Remnick, who is a staunch supporter of the state of Israel? Mr. Remnick writes:

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When are the Israeli Government going to be persuaded not only that the oppression of Palestinians is wrong in itself, but that it jeopardises the future of the Jewish state?

Mr. Lewis: The article to which my right hon. Friend refers is entirely consistent with statements that have recently been made by President Peres of Israel. It is very clear to us that there is urgency in terms of progress in the peace process, which relates to the creation of a viable Palestinian state alongside an Israel that is free from the threat of terrorist attack, the final status issues being dealt with as quickly as possible, borders being consistent with 1967, the status of Jerusalem, refugees and the offer from the Arab League to normalise its relations with Israel. The only recent glimmer of hope has been the Arab League summit at which Arab League leaders expressed their support once again for proximity talks and reiterated their offer, in return for two states, to normalise relations with the state of Israel.

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