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House of Commons

Tuesday 7 October 2008

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. Mr. Andrew Robathan (Blaby) (Con): What recent developments there have been in UK-Iran relations. [224413]

The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (David Miliband): I hope, Mr. Speaker, that you and the House will allow me to thank my hon. Friends the Members for East Renfrewshire (Mr. Murphy), for Pontypridd (Dr. Howells) and for Sheffield, Heeley (Meg Munn), who in their time at the Foreign Office all made an important contribution to the country, and did so with grace, humour and determination, in the best traditions of this House.

In early September, the Iranian deputy Foreign Minister visited the UK for meetings with a range of Ministers and senior officials, including myself. The discussions covered Iran’s nuclear ambitions, its role in the region, human rights and its relationship with the UK. We remain very concerned by Iran’s behaviour in all those areas, and we are working bilaterally and with our partners to address them.

Mr. Robathan: I had the good opportunity to visit Iran in July, and it was extremely interesting. I share the Foreign Secretary’s concerns about Iran’s nuclear programme and human rights. However, we were told by people in Iran that bellicose statements threatening Iran militarily make those who do not support the Ahmadinejad regime rally behind it. It is a lesson of history that people will often rally behind a regime when their country is threatened. Will the Foreign Secretary take on board the fact that language is very important? That is not to say that we should not carry a big stick, but language is very important.

David Miliband: I agree with the hon. Gentleman. I am glad that he and other hon. Members have been to Tehran; that sort of engagement is important. I hope that he will not find bellicosity in statements from the Government—I do not believe that he will. The whole House will have read the bellicose statements made by President Ahmadinejad at the UN and will have been
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appalled by them. I can affirm to the hon. Gentleman that there will not be bellicosity from the Government on this issue, because is it far too important. We are also making a serious offer to Iran for economic, cultural and scientific co-operation. I think that that is the way forward, but it is not a way forward while the Iranian Government continue to defy not only the UN Security Council, but the International Atomic Energy Agency, which has continuing serious concerns about their programme and about their refusal to come clean about it.

Sir Gerald Kaufman (Manchester, Gorton) (Lab): Would my right hon. Friend, on behalf of Her Majesty’s Government, make it clear that an attack on Iran by Israel would trigger off uncontrollable, convulsive and irreversible consequences that would damage not only the region, but the entire global system, and that such an attack must not take place? It would be an attack on one of the nastiest regimes in the world by another of the nastiest regimes in the world.

David Miliband: I do have genuinely huge respect for my right hon. Friend, but I cannot associate myself with that last sentence which he uttered. He will know that almost from my first day in this job I have emphasised that we are 100 per cent. committed to a diplomatic course with Iran and to a process of making it a serious offer that presents it major economic—never mind political—benefits, but that we must be insistent that a uranium enrichment programme in defiance of not only the UN Security Council, but of Iran’s obligations under the non-proliferation treaty is a serious danger to stability in not just the middle east, but in the world. The middle east has enough problems without a nuclear arms race, and it is very important that we address that matter diplomatically on all fronts.

Mr. David Heathcoat-Amory (Wells) (Con): Could the Foreign Secretary say a little more about the outcome of the human rights discussions, because how Iran treats its own citizens gives some indication of how it might treat other people if it ever got the chance? Is he aware of reports of widespread executions, including mass executions and the executions of minors? If he has not already done so, could he make it clear to the Iranian Government that if they want to play a part in the world order and to persuade others that their own religion is other than barbaric, they must conform better to world standards of human rights?

David Miliband: The right hon. Gentleman makes an important point: how a country treats its own citizens is often a good indicator of how it is willing to treat citizens in other parts of the world. Perhaps I can give him the figures, which are horrific. Some 235 people have been executed in Iran during the first eight months of this year, and there were more than 300 executions last year—that was an increase from 177 in 2006. He also rightly says that Iran executes more juvenile offenders than any other country in the world. He is absolutely right to raise those human rights questions. We raise them too, and we deplore the way in which the Iranian Parliament is also now discussing a draft penal code that would set out a mandatory death sentence for the crime, quote unquote, of apostasy. If adopted, that would violate the right of freedom of religion, which is
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also an important basis of any civilised society. I am pleased that he has raised the issue of human rights, and I assure him that we have raised it too.

Mr. Denis MacShane (Rotherham) (Lab): Would the Foreign Secretary agree that President Ahmadinejad’s speech to the UN was probably the most consistently anti-Semitic speech by any leader since the end of the Third Reich? Does he also agree that the Conservative Muslim Forum’s argument that Iran should have nuclear weapons is not helpful? The Prime Minister said last night, in an important speech, that we have to look at tightening up and increasing sanctions. Does the Foreign Secretary agree therefore that we need unity in this House, in Europe and with the United States and the world’s democracies, but not with those who find excuses for Iran’s leader?

David Miliband: My right hon. Friend makes three important points. If he looks at the special UN Security Council discussion on the middle east the week before last in New York, he will see that I specifically raised President Ahmadinejad’s description of the, quote unquote, cesspool of Zionism, which was a disgraceful, anti-Semitic attack and a threat to a whole country. It was one member state of the UN threatening the life of another, which I am sure is abhorrent to all hon. Members. It is fair to say that we have seen a fair degree of unity across the House—in all three main parties—on this issue. The twin-track diplomatic approach is the right one. The so-called carrots of economic and scientific co-operation are right, but they have to be balanced by the potential sticks of economic sanctions. That is the right way for the world to express its displeasure at the way in which Iran is defying world opinion.

Mr. David Lidington (Aylesbury) (Con): First, may I associate my colleagues with the tribute to the outgoing members of the Foreign Secretary’s ministerial team? I also welcome his three new colleagues and hope that they have a good, fruitful and enjoyable time at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office—[Hon. Members: “Short!”]

We too would like to see the day dawn when we can enjoy a better relationship with Iran, but given that the IAEA says that it is still being refused access to key sites and that the most recent UN resolution—1835—contained no new specific sanctions, does the Foreign Secretary believe that he should now seek to persuade the EU at least to agree to the oil and gas sanctions and the ban on export credits that the Prime Minister has repeatedly promised but that have not yet been delivered?

David Miliband: I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman’s kind words and agree with all but one of the words that was used during his welcome for my new team.

At the last oral questions, we talked about how the European Union would implement resolution 1803. I am sure that the House will be pleased that on 7 August a common position was established in respect of banking and a range of other issues relevant to 1803, which shows the EU’s determination to implement its sanctions obligations in full—and even go beyond the requirements of that resolution. In respect of the Prime Minister’s promise to pursue oil, gas and other sanctions on the
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Iranian regime, I assure the hon. Gentleman that that remains an important part of our agenda, both within the EU and internationally.


2. Anne Snelgrove (South Swindon) (Lab): What recent assessment he has made of the durability of the ceasefire between Israel and Hamas. [224414]

The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (David Miliband): The ceasefire agreement between Israel and Hamas has done much to reduce the violence. It has endured longer than many expected, but anyone who goes there will know that it remains fragile. We are concerned that it has not been accompanied by a significant improvement in the humanitarian situation in Gaza. There remains an urgent imperative to improve the access for humanitarian supplies, commercial goods and people.

It is also vital, to ensure that the ceasefire holds, that all involved do their utmost to resolve outstanding issues, including the return of Corporal Shalit and tackling arms smuggling.

Anne Snelgrove: I saw for myself the terrible effect of the blockade during a visit to Gaza earlier this year. Thanks to the ceasefire, some humanitarian supplies are getting through, but is my right hon. Friend aware that mortar and rocket attacks on Israel are still occurring? Hamas has set up summer camps for young people to indoctrinate them against Israel and for paramilitary training. On the other hand, the blockade continues to stop economic—

Mr. Speaker: Order. Supplementary questions must be brief. The hon. Lady’s material sounds more like an Adjournment debate.

David Miliband: My hon. Friend makes the important point that all sides have responsibilities in resolving the continuing crisis—not only the humanitarian crisis but the security crisis that has landed Israel with 6,000 rockets since 2005. I can assure her that we are absolutely determined to pursue both security for Israel and justice for the Palestinians. In the end, that will be possible only through the two-state solution that is so important for the middle east.

Mr. Richard Spring (West Suffolk) (Con): Given the negative impact that rocket attacks from Gaza into Israel have had on public opinion about Israel, and the fact that they are therefore wholly counterproductive, what discussions has the Foreign Secretary had with Arab countries, notably Egypt, to secure a permanent cessation of rocket attacks for the reasons that he has spelled out?

David Miliband: I met the Egyptian Foreign Minister in New York two weeks ago and talked about Egypt’s work to broker the ceasefire and to establish open crossings that do not allow the flow of arms but instead improve the economic situation in Gaza. The hon. Gentleman will know that this is an historic problem that has gone on for many decades and involves difficult security issues. However, I hope that he will also agree
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that in the end only a political solution will deliver the long-term change that is needed in Gaza and the west bank. In that context, the new talks that are being led by President Abbas to seek reconciliation between the two factions for the Palestinian people is an important step forward.

Ann Clwyd (Cynon Valley) (Lab): May I say that the release of some of the Palestinian prisoners is to be welcomed, but nevertheless more than 40 elected Members of Parliament are still in jail without charge and without trial? When we were there with the Inter-Parliamentary Union at the end of July, we made it clear that that was totally unacceptable. They are elected Members of Parliament and should be either charged or released.

David Miliband: I agree completely with my right hon. Friend and would use exactly those words in respect of the 42, I think, elected MPs who have not been released. They should be either charged or released.

Mr. Stephen Crabb (Preseli Pembrokeshire) (Con): Would the Foreign Secretary reaffirm that the ceasefire between Hamas and Israel does not amount to a formal renunciation of violence by Hamas, which has so far refused to budge one inch in the direction of the Quartet principles? Until the group signs up to peaceful engagement in line with those principles, there can be no seat at the negotiating table for Hamas.

David Miliband: Yes, that is an important point. The ceasefire is a significant step forward and it would be wrong to suggest that it has no importance, not least for people in Israel and for those who live in the misery that exists in Gaza. The elected Hamas Government in Gaza need to concern themselves with the economic and social conditions there and tackling the rocket attacks is one way of doing that. The hon. Gentleman is also right that the negotiations for a two-state solution can occur only between two sides that believe in a two-state solution and are willing to renounce violence in the way set out by the Quartet.

Mrs. Louise Ellman (Liverpool, Riverside) (Lab/Co-op): On 13 September, President Ahmadinejad told Ismail Haniya, the leader of Hamas, that Iran would continue to give practical support to Hamas until Israel was destroyed. Does my right hon. Friend agree that that ideological hatred is the real obstacle to peace?

David Miliband: My hon. Friend makes a very important point. That is the root cause of some of the problems in the middle east. Some of the comments made in the interview described by my hon. Friend and some of those made at the UN, to which I referred earlier, are completely beyond the bounds of civilised discussion. The other issues on which my hon. Friend has campaigned—namely the perpetuation of anti-Semitic propaganda, notably in schools and elsewhere, in parts of the Arab world—remain an enduring cause of some of the strife. Obviously there needs to be a political solution, but the sort of commitment that she has to mutual understanding and respect is at the heart of an enduring solution.

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3. James Brokenshire (Hornchurch) (Con): If he will make a statement on trends in opium production in Afghanistan. [224415]

The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Bill Rammell): Opium production in Afghanistan is dropping. Compared with last year, the overall area under opium poppy cultivation this year is down by 19 per cent. and the number of poppy-free provinces is up from 13 to 18. However, production fell by only 6 per cent. due to higher yields. Those figures reflect the growing success of the Afghan Government’s drug control strategy. As security and governance improve across the country, more areas are becoming poppy-free.

James Brokenshire: While heroin production has decreased across the whole of Afghanistan, the Minister will be aware that there has been a sharp increase in Helmand province, which now accounts for around 60 per cent. of the country’s output. Some people describe Helmand as the world’s biggest producer of illicit drugs, so will he explain what practical measures he is taking to ensure that heroin from Helmand does not get into the hands of drug pushers in this country?

Bill Rammell: The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. Progress is being made across Afghanistan, but there are particular problems in Helmand province. However, we must retain our comprehensive strategy for building institutions and developing alternative livelihoods for poppy farmers. Crucially, the strategy is about interdiction and law enforcement, and the proposed changes to NATO’s operational plan, which would allow ISAF—international security assistance force—troops to do more against illegal narcotics operations in Afghanistan, can help us to move forward.

Mr. David Crausby (Bolton, North-East) (Lab): A surge in military operations in Iraq has clearly been effective, so does my hon. Friend accept that a surge in operations to prevent and destroy poppy production in Afghanistan is absolutely essential if we are to deny the warlords and the Taliban weapons and resources?

Bill Rammell: We need to be clear that we need a comprehensive strategy in Afghanistan. A military component is a crucial element of that, but there need to be the other ingredients as well. We certainly have a strong military presence in Afghanistan, but we also need others to make that contribution.

Mr. Keith Simpson (Mid-Norfolk) (Con): The Minister has talked about a comprehensive strategy. We all know that there have been divisions in the past between the Americans and ourselves about dealing with opium production, and further contradictory views have been expressed recently by both British and American officials. The UN Secretary-General has said that the security situation in Afghanistan has “deteriorated markedly” this year, it is reported that our ambassador in Kabul raised serious concerns about the direction of our strategy, and General Petraeus has said that there has clearly been a deterioration in the situation in Afghanistan. Given those views, will the Minister accept our long-standing calls for an immediate, high-level assessment
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of the state of Afghanistan and of British goals there? Will he commit the Government to making full, quarterly reports on the country and on what we are doing there?

Bill Rammell: May I say to the hon. Gentleman that we have a comprehensive strategy, and that we keep it under constant review to ensure that it is working? However, there is no difference between us and the US on this issue. I returned to foreign affairs two and a half days ago, and it is three and a half years since I previously held responsibility in this area, but I believe that there is now a stronger degree of co-ordination and determination to make progress on these issues. The terrain is difficult and extremely challenging, but we need that comprehensive strategy and the UK and US are determined to work at it together.

Mr. David Drew (Stroud) (Lab/Co-op): The comments of the British commander in Afghanistan at the weekend certainly gave many of us food for thought. With that in mind, does the Minister agree that it is about time that we reassessed whether it is fair for the British to be leading not only in the Helmand campaign but also in drugs interdiction?

Bill Rammell: We need to be clear that our responsibility for drugs interdiction is one of the responsibilities that we have taken on, and that other G8 partners have taken on different responsibilities as part of a co-ordinated effort across the board. It is a difficult situation. We are making progress and I think that we can defeat the Taliban in their efforts to usurp the will of the Afghan people through their democratically elected Government, but it is not just a question of having a military strategy. What we need is a comprehensive military, economic and social development strategy.

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