Previous Section Index Home Page

Mr. Lewis: My hon. Friend has a long track record of raising issues to do with Burma. It is important that the House continues to shine a light on events in Burma. As our Prime Minister said recently, the new election laws
6 Apr 2010 : Column 809
are totally unacceptable. The targeting of Aung San Suu Kyi and the National League for Democracy is particularly vindictive and callous. As a consequence of those new laws, the NLD has now said quite rightly that it is unable to participate in elections that will be illegitimate. Of course, we work with our international partners, especially those countries that have the biggest capacity to influence the situation in that country, and we continue to raise Burma with the Chinese.

Mr. Keith Simpson (Mid-Norfolk) (Con): The UN special rapporteur on human rights in Burma has made the unusually strong recommendation that the UN should consider establishing a commission of inquiry into war crimes and crimes against humanity committed by the Burmese regime. Last month, the UK ambassador to the UN said that Britain would support the establishment of a commission of inquiry. What steps are the Government taking to build an international coalition to take that forward, particularly by working with countries such as Australia that have already expressed strong support?

Mr. Lewis: First, we are pursuing an arms embargo against the regime in Burma with our international partners. We want the UN to take action as soon as possible on that initiative of our Prime Minister.

We support a commission of inquiry in principle, but it is important that we do not propose a vote at the UN on such an issue when we do not have sufficient international support for it to be successful. If that were to happen, it would give false comfort to the regime, so a lot of work must be done to build sufficient consensus to ensure that there is maximum international support for establishing such an inquiry.

Mr. Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield) (Lab/Co-op): Does my hon. Friend realise just how much frustration is felt by those of us on both sides of the House who have campaigned on Burma for many years when we see so little progress? In his response to my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry, South (Mr. Cunningham), he did not say when we will ask China to face up to its responsibilities in the region and the country.

Mr. Lewis: Mr. Speaker, this is an opportunity to pay tribute to your personal role in ensuring that the issue of Burma continues to be a high priority for parliamentarians inside and outside the House.

My hon. Friend the Member for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman) will be aware that my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary recently visited China, and this was one of the issues on his agenda. We make it clear in our bilateral and multilateral discussions, including with ASEAN and China, that everything possible must be done to put pressure on the regime so that it understands that until it is committed to democratic reform and free and fair elections, its isolation in the world will inevitably continue.

EU Budget (Reform)

13. Mr. Shailesh Vara (North-West Cambridgeshire) (Con): What recent discussions he has had on prospects for reform of the EU budget; and if he will make a statement. [325361]

6 Apr 2010 : Column 810

The Minister for Europe (Chris Bryant): Reform of the EU budget was last discussed at the December European Council. Heads of Government agreed that the Commission should produce a report in order for the Council to provide orientations on priorities during 2010. Her Majesty's Government remain committed to far-reaching reform of the EU budget.

Mr. Vara: I am grateful to the Minister for those comments. In 2005, however, the Government gave away £7 billion of money that was due to us from the European Union rebate in return for a complete review of the EU budget, which was supposed to have finished by the end of 2009 but clearly has not happened so far. By breaking their promise, and effectively giving away £7 billion of British taxpayers' money for nothing, have we not seen how useless the Government are at standing up for Britain's interests?

Chris Bryant: I really like the hon. Gentleman, but he sometimes speaks the biggest load of tosh when he absorbs everything that is poured out by his Front Benchers. The truth of the matter is that he, like many hon. Members, voted for enlargement of the European Union. We believed that it would be in the interests of this country to bring 10 new countries, and then a further two, into the European Union because we would be able to improve trade with them and they would be able to improve their human rights. However, we cannot wish something and not will the means, and if those new countries were to join the European Union, someone would have to pay that bill-we were prepared to step up to the mark. It is a shame that the hon. Gentleman's party has become so Europhobic that it dare not even look at the facts.

Keith Vaz (Leicester, East) (Lab): Will the Minister reassure the House that, in any discussions on the reform of the budget, we will not lose sight of the goals that were set by the Lisbon agenda at the European Council in 2000?

Chris Bryant: My right hon. Friend is absolutely right that we need to ensure that Europe is competitive, and able to compete for new jobs and to be part of future economic models, rather than relying on its historical system of budgetary expenditure. That is why we have supported reform of the common agricultural policy for a long time, and I personally believe it is morally offensive that Europe should overpay so that other parts of the world are not able even to compete on a fair basis.

Overseas Operations (Financing)

15. Mr. Tim Boswell (Daventry) (Con): What recent assessment he has made of the financing of his Department's overseas operations; and if he will make a statement. [325364]

The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (David Miliband): I refer the hon. Gentleman to my written statement of 10 February, in which I made it clear that I have agreed a package of measures with the Treasury to offset the foreign exchange pressures on the
6 Apr 2010 : Column 811
FCO budget in the year ahead and allow us to continue to deliver a world-class and comprehensive diplomatic service.

Mr. Boswell: At this stage of my political career, may I drop any ritual references to the Government's overall difficulties with economic management or their shedding of the overseas pricing mechanism, which has given rise to these difficulties? Let us concentrate on the main point. Does the Foreign Secretary accept that Members on both sides of the House want this country to have a first-class foreign service representation and will not tolerate any deviation from that?

David Miliband: Yes.


16. Hugh Bayley (City of York) (Lab): What assessment he has made of the likely outcome of the forthcoming shura to be held by President Karzai of Afghanistan; and if he will make a statement. [325365]

Mr. Mark Francois (Rayleigh) (Con): Sixteen comes directly after 15.

The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (David Miliband): Indeed; I am grateful for the help from the Opposition Front Bench. The forthcoming peace jirga will be the Government of Afghanistan's opportunity to secure the support of the Afghan people for their reintegration and reconciliation proposals. To deliver this support, we encourage the Government of Afghanistan to make this event as inclusive as possible.

Hugh Bayley: Afghanistan needs a politics of national unity to defeat the Taliban and corruption, and to create conditions that will allow British troops to leave. What is my right hon. Friend doing to try and ensure that when the Loya Jirga is held later this month, it ends up creating a more inclusive politics for Afghanistan?

David Miliband: My hon. Friend makes a very important point. The greatest resource for international forces and for the Afghan Government is that less than 10 per cent. of the Afghan people want the Taliban back. There is widespread hatred for the brutality that they represent. However, a political settlement for Afghanistan is something that this Government have been advancing for some time, saying clearly that the purpose of military and civilian effort is to create the conditions for a political settlement. The peace jirga is the first chance to take that forward. It is not about negotiations, but about preparing the ground. We want it to be as wide as possible-1,200 to 1,500 participants have been mentioned. I welcome that. It is also important to say that all the tribes of Afghanistan must have a say in that future political settlement. It is not a matter of including former insurgents, only to find that northerners then leave the political settlement. It is important that all the ethnic tribes are balanced in a political settlement that can endure.

Topical Questions

T1. [325374] Mr. Eric Illsley (Barnsley, Central) (Lab): If he will make a statement on his departmental responsibilities.

6 Apr 2010 : Column 812

The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (David Miliband): On 1 April I announced that I had instructed the British Indian Ocean Territory Commissioner to declare a marine protected area in the territory, which will include a no-take marine reserve. By establishing this marine protected area, the UK has created one of the world's largest marine protected areas and has doubled the global coverage of the world's oceans benefiting from protection. I wish to emphasise that the creation of the MPA will not change the UK's commitment to cede the territory to Mauritius when it is no longer needed for defence purposes. It is also without prejudice to the outcome of the current pending proceedings before the European Court of Human Rights. The BIOT administration has been tasked with taking the establishment of an MPA forward in order that this is achieved in a realistic, sustainable and affordable way.

Finally, on a separate topic-[Hon. Members: "This is a different question."] No. On a separate matter, Mr. Speaker, I hope you will allow me to say, I am sure on behalf of the whole House, that we utterly condemn yesterday's attack on the US consulate in Peshawar and the earlier suicide attack in Lower Dir. There can be no justification for these bloody acts.

Mr. Illsley: May I return my right hon. Friend to the question that was raised a few moments ago-the problems that some of our overseas posts are experiencing as a result of exchange rate fluctuations? Surely it cannot be right that some of the staff at our overseas posts have to volunteer to work for a period for no salary to make up the posts' funding. Can we reinstate the overseas pricing mechanism and reinforce the measures that my right hon. Friend mentioned a few moments ago?

David Miliband: That is certainly one of the issues that will be considered in the next comprehensive spending review. The £75 million that has, in effect, been added to the Foreign Office budget for this year will ensure that the comprehensive first-class global network that we have is maintained and developed.

Mr. William Hague (Richmond, Yorks) (Con): May I associate the Opposition utterly with what the Foreign Secretary just said in condemnation of the attack on the US consulate in Peshawar?

Following up the question by the hon. Member for Barnsley, Central (Mr. Illsley), will the right hon. Gentleman look again at the recent report of the Foreign Affairs Committee, which warned of "very severe strains" on the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and

as a direct result of his decision to transfer the entire exchange rate risk of the Foreign Office's expenditure to the Foreign Office for 2008-09? Given that no other major Foreign Ministry in the world conducts its affairs in that ridiculous way, will he now concede that it was a grave and short-sighted error and join me in saying that, whoever the Foreign Secretary is in one month's time, they should pledge to reverse that bad decision?

David Miliband: I think the right hon. Gentleman will find that many other countries are having to make the sort of efficiency savings that the Foreign Office in this country has made. As he will have seen, the French
6 Apr 2010 : Column 813
Foreign Ministry and those of other countries are facing severe budgetary strain, and we make no apology for taking our efficiency measures seriously. However, I thought that he would want to welcome the fact that we have secured the £75 million to ensure that, when the Labour party returns to the Government Benches in one month's time, we are able to ensure significant long-term progress through the comprehensive spending review.

T2. [325375] Mr. William Bain (Glasgow, North-East) (Lab): Does my right hon. Friend recollect that in 1997 this country was politically isolated in Europe and the social chapter had shamefully been left unsigned? Does he agree that great progress has been made in areas from justice to climate change through a more positive engagement in the intervening 13 years? Would that not be put at risk if we were to become the great ignored of the EU in the coming weeks?

David Miliband: My hon. Friend makes an important point. The pro-European part of the Conservative party is leaving this House, and we have already paid tribute to one such right hon. Gentleman. In 1997 this country was a source of despair to its friends and disdain to its enemies, and that has been reversed over the past 13 years-on Europe, on overseas aid spending and on a range of human rights and other democracy-promotion issues. We will fight this election proud not only of our foreign policy record, but of the fact that we are going to be proactively and positively engaged with the European Union.

T4. [325377] Mr. Mark Harper (Forest of Dean) (Con): I cannot believe that the Foreign Secretary tried to suggest with a straight face that scrapping the overseas pricing mechanism was a good idea, or that he defended it. How can he seriously suggest that subjecting to the mercies of the foreign exchange market the budget of his Department and our ability to project our influence overseas is a good idea? Did he really sign up for it?

David Miliband: I certainly did not say anything other than that the efficiency savings that we are making are important. The hon. Gentleman is very welcome to check Hansard in the leisure time that he has over the next three or four weeks. However, the fact is that we run a comprehensive service, with 261 posts throughout the world. It is widely recognised for its influence both in bilateral and multilateral relations, and long may that continue.

T3. [325376] Mike Gapes (Ilford, South) (Lab/Co-op): Almost one year ago the Sri Lankan civil war came to an end. Some 280,000 Tamils were then put in detention, and 70,000 people in Sri Lanka are still in detention camps. What are our Government doing to press on the Sri Lankan Government the need to ensure that the Tamil population are completely released and reintegrated into society, so that they feel that they have a stake in a future Sri Lanka?

The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Mr. Ivan Lewis): My hon. Friend is absolutely right to raise that issue. We have provided £13.5 million of assistance in the post-conflict period to help almost 300,000 people who have been displaced by fighting. Of
6 Apr 2010 : Column 814
course, there has been some progress in terms of the number of people in camps falling to about 80,000, but that is not good enough. The Government will continue to apply pressure to the Sri Lankan Government until all those people are allowed to return home safely and freely.

T6. [325379] Tony Baldry (Banbury) (Con): Does the Secretary of State agree with the Foreign Affairs Committee that the current exchange rate pricing mechanism for the Foreign Office is simply unsustainable? The extra £75 million is welcome, but it is a one-off, and this is not an issue that can wait for a comprehensive spending review. Does not the Secretary of State think that he should negotiate a new bilateral deal with the Chancellor of the Exchequer?

David Miliband: On reflection the hon. Gentleman, who I know follows these matters carefully, will understand that that would not be a very sensible course. Any Government after the general election will have to set a framework for public spending for all Departments, and it is quite right that the Foreign Office has negotiated a special bilateral agreement for this year. That is very important, but it is also important that we then take a long-term look at the funding of the Foreign Office and other Departments. The ability to do so on a three-year or even longer-term basis is a good thing, and that is the right way to proceed.

T5. [325378] Mr. Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield) (Lab/Co-op): In the nearly three years during which my right hon. Friend has been Foreign Secretary, has he ever taken a Labour fundraiser with him when meeting the leader of a foreign country?

David Miliband: No, I certainly have never taken a Labour fundraiser to a meeting with a foreign Government, and I look forward to the day when the shadow Foreign Secretary can give me a straight answer to the question whether Lord Ashcroft has ever been taken to meetings with foreign Governments in places where Lord Ashcroft has business interests. I have written to the right hon. Gentleman three times about that; I know that the postal service has its problems, but we have never had a reply.

Mr. Speaker: Order. I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman, but we must press on.

T8. [325381] Mr. Shailesh Vara (North-West Cambridgeshire) (Con): Following the recent worrying events in South Africa, what discussions has the Foreign Secretary had with his overseas counterpart to ensure the safety and security of British football fans who will be travelling to South Africa later in the year to the World cup finals?

Angus Robertson (Moray) (SNP): English football fans.

Next Section Index Home Page