Foreign & Commonwealth Office Questions

Hugh Robertson answers back bench MPs’ questions on issues including security at Camp Liberty in Iraq and protection for British civilians working in Afghanistan.

Camp Liberty (Resettling Detainees)

3. Mike Freer (Finchley and Golders Green) (Con): What reports he has received on the progress that has been made on resettling detainees held in Camp Liberty. [902785]

The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Hugh Robertson): The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has informed us that as of 20 February, 327 residents from a total of approximately 3,200 have been relocated outside Iraq thus far.

Mike Freer: I thank the Minister for that answer, but in 2013 there were at least four missile attacks that were likely to have been the result of actions by Iraqi or Iranian militia. What can we do to improve security while the resettlement process continues?

Hugh Robertson: The Foreign Secretary raised that specific issue when he met Iraqi Foreign Minister Zebari at the end of November—a meeting I attended. We have repeatedly supported the United Nations in its calls for more to be done to protect the residents, and we will continue to remind the Government of Iraq, as a sovereign Government, that they are wholly and totally responsible for the security of the camp.

John Cryer (Leyton and Wanstead) (Lab): There are clearly fears over the security of Camp Liberty because of what has happened previously, which has just been mentioned. Is there anything more we can do to ensure the security of those people inside the camp?

Hugh Robertson: The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right and there continue to be worries about the security of the camp. We must set those in context with security worries across Iraq at the moment. More than 700 people were reportedly killed by terrorist violence in January, and it is a serious situation across the country. We will continue to remind the Government of that country of their responsibilities, and do all we can to ensure the security of the camp.

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Afghanistan (British Civilian Personnel)

11. Stephen Doughty (Cardiff South and Penarth) (Lab/Co-op): What steps his Department is taking to provide protection for British civilian personnel currently working in Afghanistan. [902794]

The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Hugh Robertson): Government Departments take the duty of care for our civilian personnel serving in Afghanistan extremely seriously and all civilian personnel are provided with a high level of protection, but for obvious reasons, which I am sure the hon. Gentleman will understand, we do not publicly comment on the nature of that protection.

Stephen Doughty: I thank the Minister for his answer. In the light of the recent horrific attacks in Kabul, and, indeed, the risks to British civilians working for peace and development worldwide, can the Minister assure us that the Department will be keeping advice given to civilians under constant review and that proactive communication will continue to be made, particularly with non-governmental organisations, on that matter?

Hugh Robertson: Yes, I can certainly give the hon. Gentleman that assurance. The travel advice is reviewed on a regular basis and each time there is an attack or any intelligence. It is cross-checked against what we are doing in other parts of Government and is kept under constant review.

Mr Tobias Ellwood (Bournemouth East) (Con): The Minister will be aware that the Afghan elections are approaching. The international security assistance force is drawing down, but the crucial US-Afghan partnership agreement has yet to be signed. Will the Minister update the House on when that important agreement will be finalised?

Hugh Robertson: No, I cannot. We continue to encourage the Afghan Government to sign that agreement for all the reasons my hon. Friend mentions. We believe it is clearly an important part of the future of Afghanistan moving forward, and we will continue to encourage the Afghanistan Government to sign it as soon as possible.

Ms Gisela Stuart (Birmingham, Edgbaston) (Lab): This Friday morning there will be a meeting to commemorate the life of Alex Petersen, one of the young men who lost their lives in Kabul in January. That highlights the fact that those at risk are not just the civilians who work for the British Government, but the civilians who work for contractors and in other peace-building capacities. Will the Government focus on them as much as on British UK Government personnel?

Hugh Robertson: Absolutely we will, and I join the hon. Lady in paying tribute to all those who lost their lives because they were clearly doing a very valuable job, attempting to make the lives of ordinary Afghans better than they are at present. The point of the travel advice is to provide precisely the sort of guidance she seeks. Some 13 foreign nationals were killed in the attack I think she is referring to, and it is a great tribute to them all that young people continue to go to Afghanistan and carry out that work.

Mr David Heath (Somerton and Frome) (LD): Obviously, one significant threat to civilians is bomb attack, which underlines how despicable it was that my constituent Jim McCormick, a convicted fraudster, made £50 million out of selling to the Governments of Afghanistan, Iraq and other countries a completely bogus and useless bomb detector. Would it surprise the right hon. Gentleman to know that those useless detectors are still being used in Iraq and many other countries, and that a company in Romania is now patenting, and presumably will produce, an identical device, which obviously will be equally useless? Will he take measures to inform as many countries as possible of these eventualities, and prevent them from using this device and thereby putting civilians at risk?

Hugh Robertson: I can only say that I agree with the hon. Gentleman’s comments entirely. When the Foreign Office was made aware of this issue in 2010, we attempted then to inform everybody of exactly what had happened and what the consequences would be, and we will continue to do that.

Mr John Spellar (Warley) (Lab): British civilians working for both the Government and, as my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Ms Stuart) stressed, non-governmental organisations have played a crucial role in helping the ordinary people of Afghanistan, especially women, to improve their lot and have a better future, which is why they are targeted by the despicable Taliban. So what are the Government doing to ensure their safety, not only now, but especially after the military draw-down?

Hugh Robertson: I suppose the answer to the question of what we are continuing to do now is the British military presence in Afghanistan, the aim of which is to increase security throughout that country. A series of programmes will continue after the draw-down, particularly the training of the Afghan military and police, and the Government will do all they can. I echo the comments the right hon. Gentleman made about the contribution made by so many people in the voluntary sector.

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Topical Questions

Seema Malhotra (Feltham and Heston) (Lab/Co-op): Following the Israeli Prime Minister’s visit to Washington this week, will Ministers give their assessment of the progress of the Kerry talks between Israel and Palestine towards achieving a two-state solution and, especially, regarding illegal settlements?

The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Hugh Robertson): There remains, I hope, healthy optimism that something positive will come out of the Kerry process. I think Members on both sides of the House will commend the energy that the United States Secretary of State has brought to the issue. He hopes to agree outline terms by the end of March, and at that stage we will be in a much better position to see how we might take the process forward.

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Mr James Clappison (Hertsmere) (Con): What assessment do Ministers make of reports that Iran is stepping up its already considerable military assistance to the Syrian regime?

Hugh Robertson: The simple answer is that those reports are almost certainly credible. One of the most damaging aspects of the conflict in Syria is the help given by both Iran and Hezbollah to the regime forces. That will need to stop before there can be any peace in that country.

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Sandra Osborne (Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock) (Lab): Why did the UK refuse to join 146 other states at the recent conference in Mexico on the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons?

Hugh Robertson: Because we believe that there are other international forums that are most effective for achieving those aims.

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