By Matthew Barrett
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Following on from the last few days' rolling blogs, I have below a final list of the MPs (and Baroness Warsi) appointed as Ministers for each department. I have put new appointments in bold.
Department for Business, Innovation and Skills
Department for Communities and Local Government
By Harry Phibbs
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The Europe Minister David Lidington indicated to the House of Commons yesterday that it is highly unlikely that Ministers will attend any European Football Championship games. He was challenged the inconsistency of boycotting the opening games - in protest at the imprisonment of Yulia Tymoshenko - yet not ruling out attending later stages.
Mr Lidington explained it as follows:
We have consistently said to the Ukrainian Government that the selective use of justice in Ukraine is unacceptable and we want their policy to change. There is still time for improvement to take place, but unless that happens I do not want to hold out much hope that our policy will shift.
Regarding the Neo Nazi element among Ukrainian football fans the Conservative MP for Harrow East asked the following:
By Joseph Willits
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Yesterday in Parliament a debate was motioned, and passed unopposed without a vote, to approve a European document related to Croatia's joining of the European Union. Europe Minister David Lidington began the debate by speaking of enlargement more generally, saying that the Government has long been "a strong supporter of EU enlargement as an effective and dynamic agent of change ... the European Union will remain strong only if it is outward-looking and continues to grow".
EU accession, he said, "has helped to entrench democracy, the rule of law and human rights in parts of our continent where those values and traditions were crushed for most of the 20th century." Enlargement would "create stability, security and prosperity across Europe".
Lidington said that providing accession criteria had been met, it was important that EU membership should be available to any European country, whether it be Spain or Portugal, or a Balkan or eastern European nation. The Minister made reference to Margaret Thatcher's Bruges speech of 1988:
By Paul Goodman
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I wrote yesterday evening about William Hague's apocalyptic warning at the conference of the Alliance of European Conservatives and Reformists (AECR) that "The jobs and the life savings of tens of millions of people in Europe may be at stake."
And promised in doing so to write an account of the rest of the conference, which I will divide into a brief mix of reporting and comment. It took place in London and those present were welcomed by Jan Zahradil, the AECR's President. Zahradil is a member of the Czech Civic Democratic Party (CDS).
In his reply David Lidington MP, Foreign Office Minister, noted the declining Hindi Service reach and the possibility of use of DfID funds to ensure some continuation of service beyond the planned reprieve:
More in Hansard.
By Jonathan Isaby
At the end of proceedings on the European Union Bill yesterday, there was an opportunity for the Commons to debate and vote on the amendment from Wellingborough MP Peter Bone, which he wrote about here on ConHome last month.
The thrust of his amendment was that an in/out referendum on British membership of the European Union would be triggered if people voted against a transfer of a competency to Brussels under the terms of the new EU Bill.
"Let me explain why the Committee should support my new clause. First, it would not alter in any way the purpose of the European Union Bill. The Bill is designed, under certain circumstances, to give the British people, through a referendum, a say on our relationship with the European Union. My proposal would merely extend the referendum lock, under certain circumstances, to whether we should remain part of the European Union.
"Why do I think that this would improve the Bill? If the British people have a chance to approve or disapprove of a transfer of power in the future, and they say yes, then there is clearly no need for an in/out referendum, as it would show that the British people are happy with their relationship with Europe. If they say no, clearly they are unhappy with a proposed change to the European Union. Surely it is right that the alternative question is then put as to whether the British people wish to remain in the European Union.
"An added advantage is that the in/out referendum would be triggered by an event, not by politicians. In the past, referendums have been timed to favour the proponents of the referendum, not necessarily for the benefit of the British people."
By Jonathan Isaby
The European Union Bill returned to the floor of the Commons yesterday for the first of three days this week. (Europe Minister David Lidington wrote about its benefits here on ConHome yesterday)
The Bill sets out that if there is deemed to be a transfer of power to the EU and the government of the day supports it, that there should be a referendum on the matter - although it is the government which decides if a transfer of power has taken place.
He explained that overall he felt the Bill was "a great improvement on the existing position", but explained his amendment thus:
"It will be very disillusioning for all those whom we have promised and have led to expect that there will be a referendum on great transfers of power or great decisions in the European Union if that referendum does not take place. We want to do all that we can to avoid that sense of disillusionment. It is against that background that I seek to deal with the problem of the significance condition, to which hon. Members have referred.
"Simply, amendment 11 would give Parliament a vote on the question of whether certain transfers of power to the European Union are significant enough to warrant a referendum. As the Bill stands, the decision on whether matters are significant enough is in the hands of the Minister alone, subject to a challenge in the courts. Parliament does not get a say, however, at least on the question of whether there should be referendum."
"Broadly, the question is this: does Parliament decide, or does a single Minister decide? The Government propose that a single Minister should decide, but, as my hon. Friend knows, there is a fall-back position, namely that the Minister should be challenged not in the House but by means of judicial review. I find that somewhat strange, as did some of the distinguished academic witnesses who gave evidence to the European Scrutiny Committee.
"Under the Bill, if one of our constituents is aggrieved by what the Government propose, his recourse will be not to his Member of Parliament but to the courts, through judicial review. I think that that in itself sends a very odd signal. What should I tell a constituent who comes to my surgery and complains about the European Union, as some of my constituents do when it introduces a regulation that has an adverse effect on their jobs or companies, or when they disagree with some transfer of power? Should I say, “I am sorry. You may want a referendum, but you have come to the wrong place: you need to visit the solicitor’s office down the road”? I do not think that that is a very satisfactory state of affairs."
"I see no reason of policy or substance that is an obstacle to my proposal. Perhaps the Minister will tell us why. He has been very reasonable and persuasive on many other points in the Bill... He has been a model of charm and ministerial competence, but he has not yet produced any credible reason why we cannot have a vote in Parliament to decide whether something is significant enough to trigger a referendum, as opposed to leaving it simply to a Minister. What is wrong with trusting Parliament?"
Summing up later on, Europe Minister David Lidington set out his reasons for opposing it:
Last Thursday, on the orders of William Hague, the ECR group in the European Parliament, that includes Tory MEPs, voted to support the formal creation of the European External Action Service. I write formal because the EEAS has been in effective existence for some time. The EEAS is a deliberately bureaucratic name for what is the EU foreign service. It has, blogs Dan Hannan, a budget twenty times larger than the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. It has 7,000 staff members, operating in 130 global embassies.
Last week's ECR votes were decisive in seeing the EEAS motion pass*. Without ECR support, reports EurActiv, there would have been no decision until the autumn - time, some believe, that could have been used to dilute the EEAS' powers.
Charles Tannock MEP, the ECR's Foreign Affairs spokesman, told EurActiv:
"We were opposed to the creation of the EEAS but we are now reconciled to engaging constructively within the new architecture in the best interests of our countries."
That is an EU-constructive rather than an EU-sceptic position. This is the latest example of the Coalition government engaging with the EU in what it calls a "constructive" rather than "sceptical" way. The ambition is to make arrangements work better rather than delay or frustrate.
This morning's Telegraph reports that the EU desk will be moved to the centre of the UN General Assembly as part of a "back down" by William Hague:
"Baroness Ashton, the EU foreign minister or "High Representative", will be given a special seat alongside a new European UN ambassador with "the right to speak in a timely manner, the right of reply, the right to circulate documents, the right to make proposals and submit amendments (and) the right to raise points of order". EU sources told The Daily Telegraph that William Hague, the foreign secretary, was forced to "back down" and accept the plan as part of the creation of a Brussels diplomatic service under the Lisbon Treaty."
"Supporting the EU in having enhanced rights in the UN General Assembly is a good example. We want the High Representative to be able to do what the rotating presidency used to do: to speak and act in support of an agreed common position. The Foreign Secretary explained that policy in more detail in a written ministerial statement earlier today. If the General Assembly agrees, the High Representative will have the rights necessary, and no more than the rights necessary, to fulfil the representational role previously carried out by the rotating presidency. That includes the right to speak after the member states have spoken, but not the right to a seat among individual UN members and certainly not the right to vote in the General Assembly. These arrangements will not give EU delegations enhanced rights in United Nations agencies or in other international organisations."
Mr Lidington was also warm about the relationship that the Coalition wants with Baroness Ashton, the "High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy":
"The High Representative has made a very good start to her challenging role. She has an impossible job-almost three jobs, in fact: High Representative, British Commissioner in Brussels and chair of the Foreign Affairs Council. She has been criticised for not being at two different ministerial meetings that were held in two different countries at the same time, but that seems more than a little unfair. I am told that she has 400 days of appointments in the year, and she does not yet really have a proper department to help her. The Conservatives wished her well when she embarked on her task and my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary and I are already working closely with her."
Labour MPs were delighted at Mr Lidington's contributions yesterday. Labour's former Europe Minister, Chris Bryant welcomed Mr Lidington's "conversion". And this from Michael Connarty MP:
"I am sensitive about intruding on private grief, but I am witnessing the acting out of a scenario in which a Minister who takes a very positive approach to issues relating to the European Union is surrounded by a large number of Eurosceptic Members of Parliament who had previously imagined that they were serving under a Eurosceptic Government. The words "a cosy consensus" have been used, but I am not sure that what is happening. I see it more as the sweet breeze of EU realism blowing through the Conservative Government."
"I regard this whole decision as a triumph of European aspirations and European parliamentary ambitions over reality. I am deeply worried about the manner in which this game of multidimensional chess will play out, and I have already indicated to my hon. Friend the Minister my concern about the overlapping functions and the contradictions that will emerge between the necessity of maintaining our bilateral relations with other countries and the extremely ambitious proposals in this decision on global reach. It is phenomenal to imagine an external action service on this scale that would in any way be regarded as not interfering with our domestic diplomatic service."
* Not all Tory MEPs voted for the EEAS. Dan Hannan, Nirj Deva and Roger Helmer, for example, voted against. I also understand that Geoffrey Van Ordern MEP abstained.
In the Lords yesterday Baroness Kinnock gaffed with an acknowledgement that foreign embassies and related activities were facing budget cuts across the globe:
"We have had staff redundancies in Argentina, Japan and across the United States. Programmes in Afghanistan in counter-narcotics have been cut, capacity building to prevent conflicts in Africa, counter-terrorism and radicalisation in Pakistan, the list goes on."
“The Rt Hon Friend Baroness Kinnock explained to the House of Lords that his government was cutting Foreign Office expenditure on counter-terrorism programs in Pakistan and anti-narcotics programs in Afghanistan, not from any reassessment of strategic priorities, but because of the movement of exchange rates and the Government’s overall debt crisis, which is not the way to run an effective foreign policy. Yesterday we had the spectacle of Gordon Brown standing up in the House of Commons talking about fighting terror, while in the House of Lords his Minister was admitting that we are cutting spending thanks to the Labour's debt crisis. It suggests that we have a government, and in particular a Prime Minister, which is indifferent to the point of negligence towards the global interests of the United Kingdom.“I have three questions for the Minister [Chris Bryant MP].“First, how did the government get itself into this mess ? We know that the problem started with the decision to end the Overseas Price Mechanism transfer exchange rate risk from the Treasury to the Foreign Office. Did ministers not understand at that time what harm might be done to Britain's international interests and why did the present Foreign Secretary allow this to happen on his watch?
“Second, what is the scale of the damage done so far? Can the Minister confirm the figure given to the Foreign Affairs Select Committee by his Permanent Secretary that the cost to the FCO in 2008/09 was £60 million, and Baroness Kinnock's statement to the House of Lords yesterday (20 January 2010, column 992) that the shortfall has risen to £110 million in the current financial year and is set to rise further in 2010/11?
“That figure adds up to about a quarter of the budget for the FCO's core activities, once you strip out the ring-fenced budgets for the British Council and the BBC World Service. We know from the Permanent Secretary's evidence that as a consequence the FCO has now "stopped most training" and put some staff on involuntary unpaid leave or four day weeks. We know from Baroness Kinnock that there have been reductions in conflict prevention work in Africa and in climate change programmes.
“Isn't it time for the government to come clean about what it is doing and make public a full list of the cuts which it is imposing as a result of its exchange rate policy?
“Third, what are Ministers' intentions for the future? I have seen an internal FCO memorandum which says that "further cuts could and should not be achieved by salami slicing" but instead by stopping activity, closing posts and reducing staff numbers. Officials have been instructed to grow its work up contingency plans for substantial cuts which could be implemented soon after the election". The memorandum states that this plan was discussed with the Foreign Secretary and his ministerial team on the 21st of December. Did the Minister and his colleagues approve this strategy? In particular how far has work now proceeded on a contingency list of British posts overseas which might be closed?""
The non-proliferation treaty has a good history: "When we look at the history of the non-proliferation treaty, we can take some pride in the fact that it has helped, in its way, to keep the peace in the world over recent decades. Most importantly, the existence of the treaty and the framework of inspections and controls it incorporates have provided mechanisms that have prevented proliferation. In trying to imagine how the world might have developed if the NPT had not existed, I think we would today see a world with many more powers in possession of nuclear weapons. The NPT and the International Atomic Energy Agency have also provided a mechanism for allowing certain countries—the ex-Soviet republics of Belarus, Ukraine and Kazakhstan, and also South Africa—to dismantle nuclear weapons programmes that they had on their territory."
But today's challenges are enormous: "There are now not only sovereign states that have developed or are seeking to develop nuclear weapons capability in defiance of the non-proliferation treaty, but terrorist groups that make no secret of their wish to obtain weapons of mass destruction and use them to create as many victims as possible. Today the ambition and example of North Korea and Iran are testing to the limit whether the controls embodied in the NPT actually work and will provide a safeguard against further proliferation."
The International Atomic Energy Agency needs to make unannounced inspections: "We would like to see the parties to the treaty set themselves a number of objectives next year. One should be to strengthen the inspectorate by, for example, making the additional protocol, with its provision for unannounced inspections, mandatory for all signatories to the treaty. Another should be to make it easier for action to be taken against violations of the treaty or defiance of the IAEA. For example, there might be provision for automatic reference to the Security Council if a country acted in the way that Iran has done, having withdrawn from the additional protocol after originally subscribing to it."
One for the localists amongst you: there were oral questions on communities and local government yesterday.
Monmouth MP and pugilist David Davies asked about the Government's programme to tackle violent extremism, a topic which Shadow Minister for Communities and Local Government Paul Goodman has also been pursuing.
"David T.C. Davies: When I last raised this issue, I asked the Secretary of State for an assurance that not one penny of Government money was being given to extremists or to violent extremists. She was unable to give me that assurance at the time, but the Department has now had a year to look into the issue. Can we possibly be given an assurance today that not one penny of Government money is being given to extremists, and if not, why not?
Hazel Blears: The hon. Gentleman is correct in saying that he has raised the issue before. I am delighted to be able to tell him about the range of work that has been done in the last 12 months. First, extensive guidance was published for all local authorities in June last year, setting out exactly the criteria on which groups should be funded. We fund groups that stand up to tackle violent extremism and uphold our shared values. The hon. Gentleman will be aware that following a point of order raised by the hon. Member for Wycombe (Mr. Goodman), I undertook to place in the Library of the House, by the end of April, full details—they are held in our Government offices—of the projects being funded."
That answer does not inspire confidence.
"Mr. Paul Goodman (Wycombe) (Con): As the Secretary of State has answered this question herself, may I first say to her that we believe she had no alternative to the course that she took in suspending relations with the Muslim Council of Britain?
Let me now return to the question. The House will have noted that, for the second time, the Secretary of State was unable to give my hon. Friend the Member for Monmouth (David T.C. Davies) the guarantee that he seeks that extremists have not got their hands on taxpayers’ money. As I know from correspondence with her, the reason is simple: no system exists to check who receives the cash before it is given. That is frankly scandalous. Can the Secretary of State at least guarantee that when she publishes information on where last year’s Preventing Violent Extremism money went—she has promised to do so—she will publish the details of who received the money, down to the very last penny?
Hazel Blears: The hon. Gentleman is wrong to say that there is no system for checking the allocation of those funds to community groups. There is a system, for local authorities, the police and a range of other organisations, to ensure that the funds are allocated to groups that uphold our shared values and are committed to standing up to tackle extremism.
I have told the hon. Gentleman that this is not a ring-fenced grant, for the very reason that we want the work to be embedded as mainstream work for local authorities, and to draw in funding from other sources to ensure that it can be done in a proper, comprehensive fashion. I have also told him that we will place the information in the Library. We have told local authorities that the grant is not ring-fenced, but because of its exceptionally sensitive nature, the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, my hon. Friend the Member for Tooting (Mr. Khan), has written to local authorities saying that we will continue to monitor it extremely carefully. The hon. Gentleman must accept, however, that if we want this work to be embedded as mainstream activity, we must be prepared to make sure we are working in proper, effective partnership with our local authorities."
Something has gone wrong here, and MPs are right to keep pressing until we find out what it is.
Yesterday saw Foreign Office questions.
Shadow Deputy Secretary of State for Wales David Jones and former Foreign Secretary Sir Malcolm Rifkind both asked about Iran's nuclear ambitions:
"The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (David Miliband): The International Atomic Energy Agency’s latest report of 19 February shows that Iran continues to refuse to suspend its proliferation-sensitive nuclear activities and has not granted the IAEA the access that it seeks as required by five UN Security Council resolutions. We, and the international community, will continue to press for Iran to fulfil its international obligations and restore confidence in its intentions.
Mr. Jones: Does the Secretary of State agree that while President Obama’s recent outreach to Iran is welcome, diplomatic overtures must be backed by a readiness on the part of the United States and the EU to impose such further sanctions as are necessary until such a time as Tehran can demonstrate to the unequivocal satisfaction of the UN inspectorate that it has abandoned its ambitions to develop a military nuclear capability?
David Miliband: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his enunciation of the policy, which I think has support across the House. It is the so-called dual-track policy, which is that we should seek to engage with Iran, that we should make it clear that we have no quarrel with the Iranian people and that the choice of Government in Iran should be a matter for them. However, whatever the Government in Iran, they need to abide by their international responsibilities. If they refuse to do so, there are costs associated with that decision.
The hon. Gentleman is right that there are responsibilities on the EU and the US, but the responsibilities go wider. The international coalition, which is right to fear an Iranian nuclear weapons programme, goes wider than the EU and the US. Russia, China and the Gulf states have responsibilities, too, and I am sure that the hon. Gentleman would want to join me in working to ensure that they are part of a global coalition against an Iranian nuclear weapons programme.
Sir Malcolm Rifkind: With North Korea, it has proved useful to include its neighbours, Japan and South Korea, in the negotiations to discourage it from going down the nuclear weapons route. Should not Iran’s neighbours, particularly Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Egypt, be invited by the Security Council to join the negotiations over Iran, especially as the Iranians need to realise that those three countries might themselves go nuclear if Iran ends up as a nuclear weapons state?
David Miliband: Only up to a point. The multilateral negotiations are not being conducted under a UN framework—the E3 plus 3 is not a UN body, but it is recognised to have a global coalition behind it. The right hon. and learned Gentleman might have an important point, which was at the heart of the E3 plus 3 offer agreed under my chairmanship last May in London. It concerns what will happen in the future if Iran ceases its nuclear weapons programme or restores the confidence of the international community that it does not have a nuclear weapons programme. There are important regional political issues about Iran’s legitimate interests in the region, but no discussion of those issues can take place without the involvement of the countries that he has mentioned."
Yesterday the House of Commons debated democracy and human rights. A number of Conservative MPs made interesting contributions.
Tony Baldry, chairman of the International Development select committee, highlighted the desperate situation in Sudan:
"Before we move on from Sudan, let me point out that Darfur shows the fragility of the international community’s ability to support the emerging norm of the international community’s responsibility to protect. The matter is not just about the failure of the Security Council to enforce that; the international community does not have the military lift capacity to do so either. We are hoping that things in Darfur will not get worse and that something will turn up. There is no UN peacekeeping force in Darfur, effectively, and there is no real process in Darfur. The responsibility to protect is just being forgotten."
David Lidington, part of the Shadow Foreign Affairs team, indicated his determination to make the promotion of human rights a central plank of foreign policy:
"The promotion of human rights should not be seen as an add-on, but as an integral part of our thinking, incorporated in, for example, our national security strategy and our policies on international development. For instance, I should like us to build plans for the reduction and eradication of human trafficking into our poverty reduction programmes, and to find a way in which to integrate our concern for human rights into the pursuit of millennium development goals."
The Shadow Foreign Secretary led an Opposition debate calling for an inquiry into the Iraq war. The Government successfully defeated Mr Hague's motion but twelve Labour MPs voted with the Conservatives. Highlights of Mr Hague's contribution and David Lidington MP's closing remarks are pasted below.
There are signs of things improving in Iraq: "For those of us who supported the invasion of March 2003, recent signs of hope in Iraq are welcome indeed. The security situation has improved, the Iraqi economy is growing, stumbling but genuine steps towards political reconciliation have taken place and optimism among the people of the country has risen. But we all have to recognise that the path to this renewal of hope has lain through a painful trauma, including the deaths of 175 members of our armed forces. While the 23 days of the initial military campaign to overthrow Saddam were astonishingly successful, the constant theme of those who have written about their involvement in subsequent events is that things went seriously wrong in the preparation for, and execution of, the occupation of the country."
An inquiry into the Iraq war will be less useful the more it is delayed: "As it enters its sixth year, the conflict in Iraq will soon have lasted as long as the second world war. The formative decisions—about the occupation of Iraq, the disbandment of the army, de-Ba’athification and the overall manner in which the military occupation was conducted—were made either in the immediate aftermath of the invasion five years ago, or in some cases well before it. Decisions and analyses relating to the origins of the war and its planning were therefore made up to six or seven years ago. Any inquiry would presumably take many months to hear and assemble evidence; so even if the Foreign Secretary were to announce an inquiry at the Dispatch Box today, it would entail key participants of those early decisions trying to give a crystal clear recollection, by the time they gave evidence, of events of perhaps seven or eight years earlier. An inquiry announced next year or the year after would require those recollections to stretch back anything up to a decade, with accompanying documents, e-mails and files intact. With the best will in the world, that is going to be difficult for those involved. A continuing delay of months or years—for all we know, the Prime Minister may well mean years—is not merely the postponement of an inquiry, but the diminishing of its value. Its task at a later date would be more difficult, and the accurate and detailed picture of important moments and key meetings would necessarily be more difficult to assemble."
America has conducted searching inquiries without undermining the morale of troops: "There have been far more searching investigations and discussions in the US Congress—and, indeed, in the Iraq study group, as far as we can see—about the nature of the United States’ involvement in Iraq than anything that we have seen in this country. Indeed, there are far more regular reports to Congress—General Petraeus is about to testify to Congress again—than anything that we see here. This is a separate point that the Government should attend to. There should be regular quarterly reports about progress in any theatre of war."
Our soldiers are hardy enough not to be undermined by an Iraq inquiry: "I often speak to soldiers and senior officers who have returned from Iraq, and the notion that their morale would be in any way undermined by our commencing an inquiry into the origins and conduct of the Iraq war is one that most of them would consider truly laughable. The morale of those wonderful people is made of far sturdier stuff than that. It depends on their training, their colleagues, their leadership and their equipment. Far from their being undermined by an inquiry, there are few who would not welcome it, for they above all others want to know that all of us politicians have learned from mistakes for which some of their colleagues paid with their lives."
The Government has launched reviews into fifty other areas of policy: "Since the current Prime Minister took office, the Government have announced at least 50 separate reviews of different areas of policy, all presumably designed better to inform future policy making. They cover a vast range of subjects, from casinos to 24-hour drinking to the promotion of tourism and to sunbeds... Many of these reviews are in the military area, such as the review of support for the armed forces, the armed personnel review and the review of the role of the military. It defies credibility that there should be time and resources to review a vast range of subjects, including many in the field of defence, but that any review or inquiry into probably the most important events of the decade is too much of a distraction from the matters in hand."
Closing the debate David Lidington MP offered the following:
"I want to believe that the Government of my country, whichever party happens to be in government at any one time, measure the advice given to them by their professionals in the diplomatic service, the Ministry of Defence and the armed forces. I want to be confident that the Prime Minister and the full Cabinet have access to all the information, including the dissenting opinions, available in Whitehall and from outside advisers. I also want to be confident that the Government will be straight with Parliament and the public about the decisions that they recommend on the nation’s behalf. The debate has shown that the Government are bereft of any plausible reason to resist an inquiry. It is in our national and democratic interest to press ahead with one, and I hope that hon. Members of all parties will feel able to support the motion this evening."
David Lidington MP, Conservative Foreign Affairs: "I want to talk briefly about three specific countries. China has been mentioned a lot, and it would be wrong of me to omit it because I had the opportunity to go to Beijing and Lhasa last month as part of a cross-party delegation led by the hon. Member for Wirral, South (Ben Chapman). We had some frank conversations in both cities about human rights and what struck me was that although the Chinese officials to whom we spoke firmly defended the policy of the Chinese state, they were prepared to engage in discussion and argument. We saw some evidence that life had improved considerably—particularly in terms of freedom to pray in Tibet and in Xining, where we visited a mosque—from what used to be the case, especially during the cultural revolution. As other hon. Members have said, there are still massive problems such as the denial of routine internet access, the blocking of sites such as the BBC’s, the difficulties and persecution faced by unlicensed religious groups and the re-education through labour campaign that, as the hon. Member for Cheadle (Mark Hunter) pointed out, amounts to full detention without trial.
The prospect of the Olympics in 2008 provides an opportunity for Britain and the EU to accelerate the human rights dialogue with China. Clearly, we are dealing with a country that represents a quarter of the world’s population, is a permanent member of the Security Council and without which it will be impossible to tackle many serious global challenges, such as climate change or international terrorism. There are important reasons for Britain to have a constructive relationship with China, but I hope that the Minister will agree that we do not serve our own interests if we ignore the question of human rights. Frankly, I think that the Chinese would be astonished if we were to do so. I hope that we will see that dialogue pressed forward with greater urgency.
My impression is that the Chinese Government want, at the time of the Olympics, to showcase the history, culture and tremendous modern economic achievements of the Chinese people. They know that they will be subjected to unprecedented international scrutiny and that a lot of that scrutiny will be critical. It is opportune to keep reminding the Chinese Government of the commitment to ratify the international convention on civil and political rights and to bring forward the changes to the criminal justice code that have often been promised but have not been fully delivered.