Foreign & Commonwealth Office Questions

Hugh Robertson answers back bench MPs’ questions on subjects including the treatment of prisoners held in the US, the Middle East peace negotiations and the humanitarian situation in Gaza.

Treatment of Prisoners (United States)

Grahame M. Morris (Easington) (Lab): What steps his Department is taking to promote the humane treatment of prisoners held in the US; if he will make representations on the fairness of the trial of the Miami Five to his US counterpart; and if he will make a statement. [901375]

The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Hugh Robertson): The British Government work through our network of US posts and with the EU to promote the humane treatment of prisoners held in the United States. The United States Government have stated that the Miami five have had the same privileges available to them as all other US prisoners.

Grahame M. Morris: I am grateful to the Minister for that reply, but will he indicate his response to widespread reports that US-based journalists were paid to write prejudicial articles about the case before and during the trial? In the interests of natural justice, will he make representations to the US State Department on the issue?

Hugh Robertson: As the hon. Gentleman is no doubt aware, this complicated case stretches back many years. If I am correct, the trial was in December 2001—more than a decade ago. It is further complicated by the fact that there are intelligence implications and a read-across to other cases in Cuba. The UK has no direct locus in this case as it exists between the US and Cuba. If the hon. Gentleman has information that should have been made available about the case, I suggest it is made available to US judicial authorities as a matter of urgency.

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Middle East

Duncan Hames (Chippenham) (LD): What assessment he has made of the effect of recent announcements of settlement building on the middle east peace negotiations. [901380]

The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Hugh Robertson): Recent settlement announcements have had a detrimental impact on trust between the two parties. During my recent visit to Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories, I made clear our serious concerns about the announcements and our strong opposition to settlements.

Duncan Hames: Last week, the United Nations Secretary-General described Israeli settlement building in the Occupied Palestinian Territories as a cause of great concern, saying that it risked the continuation of negotiations and must cease. I am glad that our Minister shares those concerns. Will he use his influence to shape European trade policies in a manner that is consistent with our Government’s view on the illegal settlements?

Hugh Robertson: Yes, we will. As I suspect the hon. Gentleman knows, we welcome the EU guidelines on the eligibility of Israel entities for EU funding and the agreement reached last week that, on the other side, allows Israel to participate in Horizon 2020. We will absolutely make those representations.

Mrs Louise Ellman (Liverpool, Riverside) (Lab/Co-op): Announcements of new settlement building must be unhelpful, but does the Minister recognise Israel’s good will in continuing its programme of releasing more than 100 convicted prisoners, many of them terrorists who carried out horrendous crimes, at the same time as the Palestinian national broadcasting authority perpetuates calls for violence against Israelis and Jews?

Hugh Robertson: Yes. If the Palestinian broadcasting authority is perpetuating calls for violence, that is totally unacceptable, and I would have no hesitation in condemning it. It is fair to say that it was made clear to me a couple of weeks ago that the Palestinians believe that the original agreement was that there would be no push towards representation in international bodies in exchange for prisoner release and that the settlements issue should be renegotiated at a later stage.

Mr Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con): As the middle east peace negotiations continue, are the Palestinians speaking with one voice? What is my right hon. Friend’s assessment of the relationship between Fatah and Hamas?

Hugh Robertson: It is absolutely clear that those Palestinian entities involved in the peace process are indeed speaking with one voice. It is clear, however—I suspect that this is what lies behind my hon. Friend’s question—that there is a very considerable difference between the Palestinian authorities engaged in those processes and the authorities in Gaza. I would call on those authorities in Gaza to make it clear that they deplore terrorist activities of all sorts.

Mr Andy Slaughter (Hammersmith) (Lab): When hon. Members raise the issue of, say, trade with illegal settlements, the Government say that they do not want to upset the peace talks, but 4,000 settlements have been announced—800 last week—and those are destabilising the peace talks. What are the Government going to do about that in order to support the peace talks?

Hugh Robertson: I am not sure that I understand the distinction that the hon. Gentleman makes, because the Government have repeatedly condemned Israel’s announcements about expanded settlements in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. They are illegal under international law and, as I have said, they undermine the possibility of a two-state solution. We are quite clear about that.

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Topical Questions

Lisa Nandy (Wigan) (Lab): A year ago, 13-year old Mahmoud Khousa was targeted and killed by a drone-fired missile in the streets of Gaza as he walked to the shops to buy a pencil for his sister. According to Amnesty International, it would have been clear to the Israeli military that Mahmoud was a child. Does the Minister agree that it is a travesty that, 12 months later, nobody has been held to account for Mahmoud’s death? Will the Minister use his influence to achieve justice for Mahmoud and his family and to send a strong message that nobody should be allowed to target innocent 13-year-old children?

The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Hugh Robertson): I am sure there is total agreement right across the House that there is absolutely no excuse for the targeting of children in any form of military strike. I am not entirely sure how a drone could be that precisely targeted, but the hon. Lady absolutely has my undertaking that we regard this as a matter of the utmost seriousness, and we will take it up in no uncertain terms with the Israeli authorities.

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Simon Hughes (Bermondsey and Old Southwark) (LD): Will Ministers take up with the Government of Bangladesh the increasing concerns of Bangladeshis in this country, and others, about the intimidation, threats, violence and persecution of minorities, both political and faith?

Hugh Robertson: I can assure the right hon. Gentleman that the answer to that is yes. As he knows, the next round of Bangladeshi parliamentary elections is scheduled for 5 January, and my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary spoke to the Foreign Minister of Bangladesh in November to find an agreeable way to run those elections—in a fair, free and satisfactory fashion.

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Caroline Lucas (Brighton, Pavilion) (Green): Amnesty International is warning that Gaza’s 1.7 million residents are facing a public health catastrophe, with chronic fuel and power shortages. The Foreign Secretary often says that he is repeatedly urging the Israeli authorities to ease their restrictions on Gaza, but nothing ever happens on the ground. Will he now at least call for a formal assessment of whether the human rights conditions in article 2 of the EU-Israel association agreement are being met?

Hugh Robertson: The British Government have made their views on this matter abundantly clear; I draw the hon. Lady’s attention to the statement that we released recently on the situation in Gaza. She has suggested that the situation is dire, but she will also be aware that part of the problem was the creation of the tunnels, which have now been blocked up. We are urging the Israeli authorities to facilitate free trade and to alleviate the appalling humanitarian situation in Gaza.

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Robert Halfon (Harlow) (Con): Further to my hon. Friend’s answer to that question, is he aware that millions of tonnes of aid from Israel go into Gaza every week? Is he also aware that it would be perfectly possible for the Egyptians to open their border to let goods into Gaza?

Hugh Robertson: Indeed I am perfectly aware of that; the issue was discussed with the Egyptian Deputy Prime Minister only yesterday.

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