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Sir Malcolm Rifkind MP 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."

North-East Cambridgeshire's Malcolm Moss wanted to know about the role of Russia:

"As well as selling air defence systems to Iran, Russia has continued to block attempts by the west to impose tougher sanctions on Iran. What are the Government doing to ensure that Russia does not continue to block the sanctions process?

David Miliband: The hon. Gentleman has made an important point. I am sure that he will have seen, as I did, at least a report of the interview that President Medvedev did for the BBC on Sunday, when he stated unequivocally that Russia does not want see the development of an Iranian nuclear weapons capacity. That is why Russia has supported successive UN Security Council resolutions to that end.

The hon. Gentleman is also right that it is important to recognise the urgency of the matter and the need to make it clear to the Iranians that the American offer currently being developed and made represents the best chance that Iran will ever have of normalising its relations with the rest of the world, and above all with the US. The whole world can play a role in supporting American outreach in that regard. It is not only for Europeans but for Russians and Chinese as well to make it clear that this is the best chance that Iran will ever have to regularise its relationships with the rest of the region and the rest of the world, but that cannot be done while there is so much concern about its nuclear weapons intentions."

Shadow Foreign Office Minister David Lidington, stressed the fierce urgency of now:

"A moment ago, the Foreign Secretary spoke about the urgency of the process. Given that it is more than 12 months since the Prime Minister threatened new sanctions on Iranian oil and gas, and nine months since the E3 plus 3 made the offer to transform relations if Iran would suspend enrichment, will the right hon. Gentleman say today how much longer we are prepared to wait before we go back to the EU and the UN to ask for more sanctions? That would clearly show that we are taking both tracks of the dual-track process that he has described with equal energy and determination.

David Miliband: The hon. Gentleman asked the same question several times last year. I know that he shares the Government’s commitments on this matter, but I say to him—in the nicest possible way—that one very big thing has changed since then. For the first time in 30 years there is an American Government who want to open a bilateral channel with the Iranian Government and people. By any stretch of the imagination, that is a big change.

Given that the whole world, as well as the American Government, is committed to seeing that outreach take place— [ Interruption. ] I hear an Opposition Member shout, “How long?” but the Americans have not even completed their review yet, so let us hold our horses about that. It surely makes sense to say that the Americans should complete their review and ensure that the elements of their multilateral and bilateral outreach are clarified for the Iranians. If the Iranians do not respond in a positive way, we can then ensure that further steps are taken. If the hon. Gentleman pauses to think about it, he will recognise that now is not the time to be rushing for more sanctions; instead, now is the time to be backing the American outreach, which is a once-in-a-generation opportunity both for us and for the Iranians."

Shrewsbury and Atcham MP Daniel Kawczynski asked about Ukraine:

"When does the Minister envisage Ukraine becoming a member of the European Union? [ Interruption. ] “Not too soon,” I heard someone say. Has the economic crisis in Ukraine delayed that country’s entry into the European Union?

Caroline Flint: Ukraine will become a member of the EU when it meets all the requirements, and that is a matter for Ukraine. With the eastern partnership being launched, it is important for Ukraine to show that it is ready to reform and to find a consensus across the political divide to move forward on an issue that is very popular among the Ukrainian people, namely joining the EU."

Mark Lancaster, a Shadow International Development Minister, was exercised about Sri Lanka:

"The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Bill Rammell): We have become increasingly concerned about the humanitarian situation in northern Sri Lanka and in particular about the fate of the many civilians caught in the conflict area. We have made repeated calls on both the Sri Lankan Government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam to agree an urgent humanitarian ceasefire to allow civilians to leave the conflict area safely and for increased humanitarian supplies to be brought in.

Mr. Lancaster: One of the great tragedies of the conflict has been the loss of civilian life, particularly in the so-called Government safe zones. Many feel that the only way in which we can have a lasting settlement is if the alleged abuses of human rights are investigated. Does the Minister agree? What action are the British Government taking to ensure that that happens?

Bill Rammell: I agree with the hon. Gentleman. The scale of losses since January this year—more than 2,600 civilians killed, more than 7,000 injured and hundreds of thousands internally displaced—is truly shocking. The UN Commissioner for Human Rights has expressed very serious concerns about the civilians reported killed and injured in the conflict. We are urging all parties to investigate those matters, and we believe fundamentally that there needs to be full and independent investigation."

Opposition Whip Michael Fabricant came in on the same matter:

"The Minister has rightly identified the problem in northern Sri Lanka with the Tamils, but is he aware that in parallel with all that is the persecution—I think that is the right word to use—of journalists in the Sri Lanka Broadcasting Corporation and in national newspapers in Colombo What steps can the Government take to try and protect journalists and ensure that journalists can speak out and speak the truth?

Bill Rammell: We have the power of advocacy, but we do not have the ability to mandate actions on the ground. Nevertheless, the aspect that the hon. Gentleman has identified is a matter of the highest priority. The attacks and threats to journalists, members of civil society and others is extraordinarily concerning, as is the culture of impunity. We have urged and continue to urge the Government of Sri Lanka to do everything possible to investigate such instances and ensure that those responsible are brought to justice."

Sleaford and North Hykeham MP Douglas Hogg warned against unilateral action by Israel:

"We are right to be very concerned about Iranian nuclear ambitions; so, too, are the Government of Israel. However, does the hon. Gentleman accept that it is important that we should stress to Mr. Netanyahu and the Israeli Government that their interests are best served by working in concert with the United States and the European Union, rather than by contemplating any unilateral action on their own part?

Bill Rammell: I very much agree with the right hon. and learned Gentleman’s statement. There is a shared interest, and all our interests are served by our presenting the Iranian Government with that choice—a choice between engagement, with all the political and economic benefits that that can bring, and much tougher sanctions imposed on behalf of the whole international community."

David Heathcoat-Amory poured cold water on the merits of the European Council's European Economic Recovery Plan. The beleagured Europe Minister, Caroline Flint, explained that:

"The overriding aim of the European economic recovery plan is to stimulate demand and boost consumer confidence across the EU. The €5 billion package discussed at the General Affairs and External Relations Council and agreed at the spring European Council on 19 and 20 March focuses particularly on improving energy and broadband infrastructure. It will deliver cheaper, greener energy and better internet access, particularly to consumers living in rural areas."

Mr Heathcoat-Amory was unimpressed:

"Would the right hon. Lady agree that spending yet more taxpayers’ money in this way is unlikely to do anything good for consumers, as it all has to be paid for? Will she instead look at the continuing blizzard of high-cost, job-destroying regulations that are pouring out of Brussels? The European Scrutiny Committee has to look at more than 1,000 such regulations a year. Will she ask for at least a moratorium on such regulation, at least for the duration of the recession, in the interests of employment and consumers alike?

Caroline Flint: I would have to disagree with the right hon. Gentleman’s suggestion that investing in carbon capture and storage and renewables is a bad thing to do. There is a time when regulation is right. We need to look at how we better regulate the banks and the way that they work. Over the past few years, we have seen some huge reductions in regulation in the European Union, and there is a target to reduce the number by another 25 per cent. by 2012. That has been greatly influenced by the better regulation unit that we set up here in the UK, which has found favour in other member states, and certainly within the Commission. I look forward to less red tape, but where we need it, it has to be SMART—specific, measurable, attainable, realistic and timely."

I guess an acronym is easier to digest than the details of the Lisbon Treaty!

Sir Patrick Cormack (MP for South Staffordshire) wanted to know about the fate of eastern European countries:

"Is the right hon. Lady confident that enough is being done to address the problems of the countries of eastern Europe that 20 years ago were members of the Warsaw pact, and which now see their hopes collapsing around them and their economies in shreds?

Caroline Flint: The hon. Gentleman asks an important question. We need to be clear that some, not all, countries in eastern Europe are facing difficulties at this time. I agree with the Prime Minister, who said in a speech only the other week that it is important that we ensure within the European Union family that none of the members is left behind. That is why the G20 is important, but also important is what happens afterwards to ensure that Europe comes out of this recession stronger and better able to equip itself for the future."

Opposition Whip Stephen Crabb asked about Pakistan:

"The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (David Miliband): I maintain regular and frequent contact with Foreign Minister Qureshi, Prime Minister Gilani and President Zardari, as well as opposition figures in Pakistan. Our recent discussions have covered political development, stability in Pakistan’s tribal areas and in Swat and prosecuting those responsible for the attacks in Mumbai.

Mr. Crabb: I am grateful to the Foreign Secretary for that reply. Even before yesterday’s brutal attack, President Zardari had appeared on UK media outlets appealing for direct and urgent UK assistance for Pakistan in tackling its Taliban problem. According to some reports, the Taliban control vast swathes of the Swat valley. Can the Foreign Secretary spell out how he intends to respond to that appeal, and what practical assistance we can give to Pakistan? If Pakistan continues its slide into bloodshed and violence, the consequences for the entire region will be catastrophic.

David Miliband: There are three or four ways in which we can respond to the needs of Pakistan. We are close friends of the Pakistani people, as well as of the Pakistani Government and the political parties. As well as the economic aid, which is substantial—not just the Department for International Development programmes, which amount to £500 million, but the International Monetary Fund loan, which we strongly supported and which is being well implemented—we can offer security support, which obviously we do not detail publicly. Finally, we can offer political engagement with Pakistan. It is significant that today, the United States Government have called a meeting in The Hague to discuss with the whole region the situation in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and that the US has proposed setting up a trilateral body of Afghanistan, Pakistan and the US to work on economic and security issues. Those are two examples of what has come out of the Riedel review on Afghanistan and Pakistan, both of which have the strong support of the British Government. Such political engagement with the problems in Pakistan and Afghanistan is essential."

Shadow Foreign Secretary William Hague asked about Afghanistan:

"I know from what the Foreign Secretary has already said that he will agree that the United States White Paper on Afghanistan and Pakistan, published at the end of last week, is very much to be welcomed. In December, the Prime Minister announced that he would be leading the UK review of policy on Afghanistan. Now that the United States has published its review, will the Foreign Secretary undertake that the British Government will complete and publish the review led by the Prime Minister? In particular, will he ensure that it is published and put before Parliament before any final decisions are made about the commitment of additional British forces to Afghanistan?

David Miliband: I think that the right hon. Gentleman asked about this in the House at the end of last year. I said that initial results from our review had been fed into the American review, which is right. I, too, am pleased by a significant number of the aspects of the Riedel review, the so-called “review of reviews” by the President’s appointee. The Prime Minister will discuss Afghanistan and Pakistan with the President tomorrow, and there will be EU-US discussion later.

As the right hon. Gentleman knows, troop numbers are decided on the basis of the situation on the ground, and they will always be reported to this House at the appropriate time.

Mr. Hague: The Prime Minister referred in December to a UK review. There would be great disappointment in the House if the British Government did not produce a review—a basis—for decisions that are to be made. General Sir Richard Dannatt seems to have gone ahead of Ministers by giving journalists the impression that 2,000 additional troops will be deployed. Is that an accurate number in the minds of Ministers? Will the Foreign Secretary assure the House that, if the Government are to authorise additional troops, they will entirely satisfy themselves that those troops will be accompanied by the right equipment, including the right number of helicopters, the right civilian back-up of every kind, and some reasonable prospect of a well-thought-out political process running alongside their difficult military mission?

David Miliband: I can certainly confirm that no decision has been made to send 2,000 troops or any other number to Afghanistan. Indeed, the UK has not been asked by the United States for any more troops, although we always keep the number under review for obvious reasons. The right hon. Gentleman knows that there has been some increase in the number of troops precisely to ensure better protection of the troops who are already there. The defence and protection of our troops is prominent in the minds of military commanders, as well as those of Ministers.

As the right hon. Gentleman knows from the debate about Afghanistan that we held earlier this year, it is vital that the Afghan Government lead the drive for a political solution under the tag of reconciliation. It is also right that the Afghan Government must be clear that the contract of which President Obama spoke last week includes a crackdown on corruption, which does so much to sap the confidence of the Afghan people, never mind the international community, in progress in that country."

Shadow DEFRA Minister Anne McIntosh asked about the G20 summit:

"What does the Foreign Secretary hope to achieve from the G20 summit to defeat protectionism and promote free trade, and what in his view would constitute a successful summit?

David Miliband: I am pleased to answer that. In addition to the measures on financial regulation and macro-economic co-ordination and the help for the developing world, it is vital that international leaders first make the right statements against protectionism, and secondly, ensure the right mechanisms to follow them through. Those mechanisms began to be put in place at the Washington summit, but I look forward to the hon. Lady reading the final communiqué of the G20 summit, which I think will show substantial progress in a number of areas. She knows that the agenda for the G20 is much broader than that for the Washington summit, but I believe that there will be important progress in those areas, which will more than justify the leadership that has been given on the issue by the Prime Minister and the Government more widely."

Tom Greeves

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