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Commons Chamber

Volume 453: debated on Wednesday 22 November 2006

House of Commons

Wednesday 22 November 2006

The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions

Northern Ireland

The Secretary of State was asked—

Hospital Cleanliness

1. What steps are being taken to ensure the highest standards of cleanliness in hospitals in Northern Ireland. (100586)

We are committed to maintaining the highest possible standards of cleanliness in Northern Ireland’s hospitals. A regional strategy, underpinned by rigorous independent monitoring, was launched in October 2005.

I thank my hon. Friend for his reply. May I draw his attention to the result of the inquest yesterday into the death of Mr. Brendan McDowell, who died after acquiring an infection in hospital? What is my hon. Friend doing to ensure that such a tragic event does not happen again?

As my hon. Friend has raised that issue, I am sure that the whole House will wish to join me in sending our sympathies to the family of Mr. McDowell, particularly his widow. We should pay particular heed to what she said yesterday after the inquest:

“They need to listen to the patient. They need to listen to their family. They need to put more hygiene practices into the wards.”

Of course, she is right. She and, indeed, all the people of Northern Ireland can be sure that we will not rest on the matter. We will pursue the Northern Ireland action plan for cleaner hospitals as well as the action plan on tackling health-care-acquired infections. We will take rigorous action to pursue the need for ever cleaner hospitals in Northern Ireland.

Mr. McDowell’s widow has been in contact with the office of my hon. Friend the Member for Strangford (Mrs. Robinson). Will the Minister advise us what checks have been conducted to ensure that hospital staff comply with barrier nursing and other protocols to reduce the spread of infection? In particular, are any such checks carried out without informing staff in advance?

Each trust has a responsibility to put in place an action plan to reduce infections, and it is for it to make sure that it monitors performance. In addition, there is mandatory surveillance for MRSA and other infections. People admitted to hospital are vulnerable, and of course there are infections, but we must make sure that one does not impact on the other. Every health trust has a responsibility, and the Department will continue to monitor that impact closely.

Given the sharp increase in cases of Clostridium difficile in Northern Ireland, and given that deaths from MRSA have risen fourfold in the past four years alone, is it not time that the Government gave infection-control staff the power to override managers and insist on closing wards and isolating patients when clinically necessary, even if that means breaching Government targets?

The hon. Gentleman has a long history of raising those issues. Although he presents a long-term picture he, like me, will be encouraged by the fact that MRSA infections in our hospitals show signs of decreasing as a result of the rigorous enforcement of strategies that have been put in place. If it is clinically necessary to close a ward, we will do so. It is important, however, to prevent infections in the first place, particularly through the ward sisters charter that I launched a few weeks ago, in which we make it quite clear that the ward sister is in charge. Whether someone is a consultant or a cleaner, a patient or a visitor, they have a responsibility to make sure that the hospital is kept as clean as possible.

Pledge of Office

The Northern Ireland (St Andrews Agreement) Bill, which was debated in the House last night, incorporates four new commitments within the pledge of office.

Given that the new pledge of office does not include a specific or explicit requirement for a commitment to non-violence and exclusively peaceful and democratic means, will the Secretary of State assure the House that, in the event that Stormont is restored and a Minister or his political party is in any way connected with violence or criminal activity, that behaviour in itself will constitute a breach of the pledge of office and he will take action?

There are procedures under legislation dating from the Northern Ireland Act 1998 on the Good Friday agreement for exactly that eventuality. Of course, as I have said before, I think, to the hon. Member for Belfast, East (Mr. Robinson), I would take action, as would any Secretary of State in those circumstances. We should not underestimate the importance of the change in the pledge of office which, for the first time, includes specific commitments to support policing and the rule of law, as detailed in paragraph 6 of the St. Andrews agreement, reference to which appears in the title of the Bill.

In the Secretary of State’s opinion, would it be a breach of the commitment in the new pledge of office to uphold the rule of law, including support for the courts, if a Minister were deemed to have misled a court, if a senior civil servant were deemed to have misled a court in an affidavit seen and approved by a Minister, or if a Minister misrepresented a court when it clearly found against him on a key matter?

I have no idea what the hon. Gentleman is referring to, but if he is talking about a situation in which devolution takes place, of course all Ministers, including that Minister and their ministerial team, must abide by such conditions. It is important, if we are to make devolution work, to prepare for government through the Programme for Government Committee. What will happen on Friday is absolutely key; if it falls over on Friday, there are no prospects of moving forward. People need to understand that; that was part of St. Andrews. That is where we should focus—on the big picture, as I hope the hon. Gentleman will do.

If there are no nominations or designations at the meeting on Friday, what is it about? What will be its business?

As the right hon. Gentleman will know, because he was party to the St. Andrews agreement—he was present at it and played a constructive role—24 November, this Friday, was always part of the process of moving forward in that an intention needed to be indicated as regards who would be nominated by the two largest parties to be First Minister and Deputy First Minister on 26 March, when restoration occurs. If that does not happen—if the parties, including the Democratic Unionist party, are not even in a position to indicate an intention to nominate on 26 March—people will say, “What is the point of going on at all? Where is the confidence in the system and what is the prospect of success?”

Tomorrow I will make a direction to the Stormont Speaker for the parties to convene under her in Stormont at 10.30 am on Friday for that process to go forward. If people do not turn up and give that indication, we will all draw our conclusions, which will be very bleak indeed, as there would not seem to be a lot of point in proceeding with the rest of the process. I remind the right hon. Gentleman that, as the hon. Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan) said yesterday, the legislation that went through yesterday, which is going through the House of Lords today, probably contains 90 per cent. of what his party—the DUP—wants.

Just to clarify this, is the Secretary of State saying that what he is looking for on Friday is an indication rather than a nomination?

I am happy to clarify that for the hon. Gentleman, particularly given his key position as Chairman of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee. It was always the case that nobody will be taking ministerial office on Friday. Ministerial office is taken on 26 March when the pledge is taken. On Friday, it is an absolutely key and indispensable part of the St. Andrews process—let the House be in no doubt about that—that the parties make an indication to nominate for 26 March, when the pledge will be taken. Everybody knows that when they give that indication on Friday, they accept the process whereby they will be taking the pledge when they assume full ministerial office, because it will be the law of the land, assuming that the legislation receives Royal Assent. That is what should proceed on Friday; if it does not, I do not think that people will have any confidence at all in the rest of the process.

(Aylesbury) (Con): Does the Secretary of State agree that a verbal pledge to support policing has to be matched by practical action to support policing, particularly by a readiness on the part of republicans to give information and evidence to the police, the courts and the Assets Recovery Agency to ensure that criminals can be brought to justice?

I completely agree with the hon. Gentleman, who puts it extremely fairly and accurately. However, let me reiterate a point that I made in passing last night. If inflammatory statements are made by DUP Members about never devolving policing and justice “in my political lifetime”, that is hardly an encouragement to Sinn Fein to move as quickly as we all want it to move on policing. It is already co-operating on policing, as it needs to do and as any democratic party holding ministerial office needs to do. If it is a question of moving the process forward, making statements such as “never in my lifetime” when Parliament has expressly legislated for the devolution of policing and justice is hardly an encouragement to those who need to fulfil their obligations on policing and the rule of law to do so very quickly.

Sewel Convention

3. If the Government will adhere to the Sewel convention in relation to Northern Ireland legislation if powers are devolved to a Northern Ireland Assembly. (100588)

The UK Parliament retains authority to legislate on any issue, whether devolved or not. However, the Government would not normally bring forward legislation with regard to devolved matters except with the agreement of the Northern Ireland Assembly.

I am grateful to the Secretary of State for pointing out British sovereignty in Northern Ireland and the convention that would be followed. Will he confirm that the Irish language is a devolved matter and that there is no prospect of the Government introducing legislation before the date that he set for devolution? Will he also indicate that the Government have no intention of breaching the convention if there were a devolved Parliament, which would therefore decide the matter, and that, if the Government were to legislate, they could do that only with the Assembly’s agreement?

I am happy to confirm that it is a devolved matter, provided that there is something to which to devolve it and that there is an Assembly up and running from 26 March. As the hon. Gentleman knows, we will shortly announce a consultation paper, which will explore several options on a way forward. That consultation will last three months and we will have to see where we go from there. There is no slot in the Queen’s Speech for rushing through emergency legislation before 26 March. Assuming that restoration happens—as I hope that it will—on 26 March, of course it remains the case that, although Parliament is sovereign, we would not legislate on a devolved matter, except with the Assembly’s acceptance and agreement.

It is clear that the Government are deadline-led while the DUP is condition-led on devolution. Although I believe that setting conditions is reasonable, does not the Secretary of State agree that, for the DUP’s position to remain credible, it must be specific about the exact conditions and how they can be fulfilled? Is not it the case that, unless it does that, it fails the same test as it set Sinn Fein and the Government?

I well understand the hon. Gentleman’s point and I sympathise with it. We are at a difficult moment in the process. The Unionist community is not sure what Sinn Fein will do about policing—that is a serious problem for all of us—although the House made it clear yesterday where it wants to go through the pledge of office, which is explicit in the Bill that we considered and a change from the Good Friday agreement.

On the other hand, nationalists and republicans are not sure whether their goal of devolution of policing and justice, for which the House legislated earlier this year, will be realised in their political lifetimes. When people make such statements, it leads to a lack of confidence rather than encouraging confidence. If we go back to the same old position of, “I’m not going to move until you move; I won’t jump until you jump”, people may fall off the edge of the cliff.

In getting to a devolved Assembly, does the Secretary of State accept that asking parties to designate, nominate or indicate on Friday who will take up specific offices in future is effectively asking people to jump first before Sinn Fein has made the slightest move to support policing? Indeed, it has retreated to its pre-St. Andrews position of demanding that it gets its hands on the levers of power over policing before it supports policing. The SDLP and other nationalists never demanded that. Will the Secretary of State clarify that there can be no jumping first and that this party will not repeat the mistakes of David Trimble and his party?

I am not asking the DUP to repeat anything that it might describe as a mistake. It is not a question of jumping first. I am in danger of repeating myself, but if there is no willingness to express even an intention to nominate on Friday for 26 March, what is the point of proceeding, given the Bill that went through the Commons last night? It is not a question of jumping first. It is my firm view that, unless we breathe a bit of confidence into the process—an indispensable step of it happens on Friday, and consequences will ensue if things do not happen then—we will not achieve the common goal that the hon. Gentleman and I share, for which I legislated in the Bill, at the request of his party, the SDLP and the House by providing for an explicit commitment to support for policing and the rule of law.

Domestic Rates (Revaluation)

4. What representations he has received on the revaluation of domestic rates in Northern Ireland in the last 12 months. (100589)

Representations to the Government on the domestic rating reforms in the past 12 months have included responses to a consultation on the draft Rates (Amendment) (Northern Ireland) Order 2006, as well as other more targeted consultations on individual aspects of the reforms. In addition, the Government have met political parties, Government agencies, local government, representatives of the community and voluntary sector, and other stakeholders to discuss the reforms.

Is it not becoming clear that the imposition of this unjust and unpopular house price tax in Northern Ireland is simply a harbinger of things to come in the rest of the country, including in England?

If I may say so, I will not take lessons on unfair taxes from a member of the party that introduced the poll tax. What I will say to the hon. Gentleman is that the British Government are looking to the Lyons report in respect of England and Wales and alternative forms to the current council tax. Sir Michael Lyons will publish a report in due course and my right hon. and hon. Friends will consider it. One thing that we will not do is reintroduce the poll tax.

With reference to the water and sewerage services order, does the Minister agree that the judgment of Justice Weatherop yesterday in Belfast did not warrant the Government’s jubilant press release, as the Regional Development Department was found wanting in the consultative process—so much so that the court attached a judicial declaration to the legislation for Parliament to consider? Is that not a unique situation? Will the Minister now properly and adequately consult major stakeholders? As the political imperative of Friday 24 November was cited in the case and is now effectively departed, will he postpone consideration of the legislation next Tuesday?

The Under-Secretary of State, my hon. Friend the Member for Inverclyde (David Cairns), is dealing with the matter of water charges. Yesterday in court, there were 16 counts for the Government to consider and the judge rejected 15 of them. The Government are looking at the 16th count, but will continue to lay the order next week. We will proceed to introduce water charges because a significant revenue element needs to be brought forward. As finance Minister, I need to secure it in order to improve services in Northern Ireland. We will continue with the process and examine the legislation in the light of yesterday’s judgment.

That is gracious of you; thank you, Mr. Speaker.

Will the Minister kindly confirm and clarify the doubt that has arisen because of the slippage of the 24 November deadline that there will be a cap on rates and additional relief for pensioners in Northern Ireland?

We have considered strongly in the light of representations made at the same time as the agreement the points made by hon. Members throughout the House. We have set a cap at £500,000 and we have said that we will consult on additional measures to help pensioners, but I must emphasise that they are part of the St. Andrews agreement. If we do not secure agreement on those matters on Friday, I will have to reflect seriously on what I do about the rates order and other proposed changes, which were conditional on that agreement.

The Minister said that he was

“anxious to ensure that no-one in Northern Ireland suffers undue hardship as they adjust to this new rating system”.

Will he now confirm and make it abundantly clear that, if we do not have devolution on 26 March, the Government will still keep the rate cap as in England and that, indeed, he will provide extra relief for pensioners in Northern Ireland?

I have said that issues about rate cap and pensioners arose as a result of representations from parties during the St. Andrews agreement. In the event of no agreement taking place, I will have to reconsider whether we wish to progress down those lines with regard to the cap and help for pensioners. We introduced those proposals because of the St. Andrews agreement; if there is no agreement, I will have to reconsider what I do in the light of that action.

The Secretary of State and his ministerial team have often, and quite rightly, said that decisions about the future of Northern Ireland should be taken by local politicians from the Province. Indeed, they asserted just as much yesterday. Given that the DUP, the UUP and the SDLP voted against the draft Rates (Amendment) (Northern Ireland) Order 2006 in Committee on 25 October, how can its introduction be justified against such local opposition?

The hon. Gentleman will know that we have been consulting on the matter, as the direct rule team, from the start of 2002, when the Assembly brought forward proposals to introduce changes. All parties in Northern Ireland are committed to changing the current system. They have differences about how we do that but, in the absence of devolution, we have a duty to look after the good government of Northern Ireland. We shall progress the order on that basis.

Equal Opportunity

5. What steps are being taken to ensure recruitment in the public sector in Northern Ireland demonstrates equality of opportunity to people irrespective of religious affiliation. (100590)

Under fair employment legislation, public sector employers must ensure that their recruitment processes demonstrate equality of opportunity. Specified public authorities are deemed to be registered with the Equality Commission for Northern Ireland and must monitor and review their employment practices and, as appropriate, take affirmative action. The commission will advise employers on their duties.

I thank the Minister for that reply, but despite the nice words, we now have the most stringent equality legislation in the entire United Kingdom—[Interruption.]

Order. Sometimes the hon. Members who cheer me when I ask the House to be silent are the ones who immediately start talking.

We have the most stringent equality legislation in the United Kingdom. Yet despite that, the most recent figures in Northern Ireland show that Protestants make up only 34 per cent. of recruits to the Northern Ireland Housing Executive, only 46 per cent. of the general service grades in the civil service in Northern Ireland, and less than 50 per cent. of employees in the Child Support Agency. What will the Minister and the Equality Commission for Northern Ireland do to offer genuine equality of opportunity to our community in the public sector in Northern Ireland?

I accept that there are disparities in employment in certain areas. Too few members of the Catholic community are represented at senior level and there are difficulties in recruiting members of the Protestant community to posts at junior levels. We need to remedy both problems. Catholic representation at senior levels has improved steadily, but we are commissioning research to identify the underlying reasons for low levels of applications from members of the Protestant community for junior grades. I understand that the point is serious, and the figures that I have given the hon. Gentleman in parliamentary answers indicate that. We need to examine the underlying causes and improve the situation, to ensure that we have fair treatment of people from all sides of the community.

May I ask the Minister, in the light of his comments, what steps he has taken to ensure equality, fairness and openness in opportunities for promotion in the senior civil service, and to ensure the recruitment of Irish nationals to the civil service on a fair and equitable basis?

We are trying to ensure equality of opportunity for people and equality of outcome if we can. We need to ensure that we improve Catholic representation at the senior levels and that more people from the Protestant community apply for positions at junior levels. On Irish nationals, my hon. Friend will know that we are considering regulations to ensure that all citizens from the European Union have an opportunity to apply for posts in the civil service in Northern Ireland.

Rating System

6. What progress has been made since 7 November 2006 on implementing changes to the Northern Ireland rating system. (100591)

The draft Rates (Amendment) (Northern Ireland) Order 2006 was made by the Privy Council on 14 November. It will come into operation on 1 April next year.

I am grateful to the Minister for that answer. Will he explain why a retired teacher living in a house in Northern Ireland that is worth £300,000 will pay £700 more in rates than the Prime Minister will pay on his £3 million house in Connaught square?

If the hon. Gentleman does his homework, he will find that the situation has changed, because of the cap that we have introduced as a result of the St. Andrews agreement, which I hope he will support. Before he starts telling me, my Government and my party about fairness in local government, he should remember that it was his party that introduced the poll tax. That is what we remember about local government finance. The system that we propose is fairer than the current system and fairer than the poll tax, which his party supported.

NHS Psychologists

7. What plans he has for the number of psychologists to be employed in the NHS in the Province over the next three years. (100592)

Since 2001, the number of clinical psychologists working in health and social service trusts has increased from 98 to 150. My Department currently funds 11 training places each year.

I thank the Minister for his response, and for a number of positive decisions that he has taken to improve the lot of the NHS in Northern Ireland. Is he aware that the professional body for psychologists has recommended that a senior clinical psychologist should be responsible for a population of approximately 30,000 people, and yet in Northern Ireland a psychologist will cover an area containing 100,000? Does he agree that the provision of talking therapies often proves much more effective than medication? What progress is being made in ensuring that such talking therapies are more widely available in our Province?

The hon. Lady is correct that various improvements are being made to the health service in Northern Ireland, not least in this area. She is right, too, to point to the role of counselling services in providing support to people. The Under-Secretary of State, my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Garston (Maria Eagle), recently announced a new £1.7 million scheme to provide more counselling support to young people in Northern Ireland, and I hope that the hon. Lady will welcome that.


The Prime Minister was asked—


This morning I had meetings with ministerial colleagues and others. In addition to my duties in the House, I will have further such meetings later today.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the humanitarian crisis in Darfur continues to be of great concern? Does he also concur that the agreement brokered by the UN in Addis Ababa last Friday is the positive way forward, and that we must do all that we can to ensure that the Government of Sudan abides by that agreement?

First, as my hon. Friend rightly says, the agreement of 17 November last week is obviously the right way forward for Sudan. It would involve a cessation of violence, but, most importantly, the force of the African Union and the United Nations coming into Sudan. It is important that we keep up the pressure on the Government of Sudan, and I pay tribute to the work of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Development, who has done a superb job. We will need to keep up the pressure on the Sudanese Government, and I will have an opportunity to speak to President Bashir later today. This is a very serious situation, and it has been so for some time. We have the prospect of a way forward, but we need to take it.

The Prime Minister has recently seen for himself the incredibly brave work that our troops are doing in Afghanistan. Anyone who has visited Helmand is struck immediately by the vital role played by helicopters. Is he convinced that all our NATO partners are doing everything that they can to maximise the number of helicopters in Afghanistan? Will he push that point as hard as he can at the NATO summit at Riga next week?

We certainly will do so in relation to any of the issues that our forces on the ground raise with us. As the right hon. Gentleman rightly says, our work in Helmand is of tremendous importance. I found that both our troops in Helmand province and those who are working on reconstruction were in very good heart at the prospects of success in what they are doing. It is true that at next week’s NATO summit, we must make sure that not just the United Kingdom but all our NATO partners are doing their utmost to stabilise the situation in Afghanistan and to give that Government the prospect of success that they and the Afghan people deserve.

I agree with what the Prime Minister says about the morale of our troops. It is also incredibly welcome that 37 NATO countries are represented in Afghanistan. But does he agree that far too many restrictions—the so-called national caveats—are still imposed on how those troops can operate? Will he press at Riga to have those caveats reduced, so that NATO is not fighting with one arm tied behind its back?

We raise the issue of the caveats the entire time, but several countries, for reasons related to their own politics, are reluctant to remove them. We will say to those countries, however, that even if they retain some caveats on the deployment of their forces, particularly in a fighting situation, much more could be done none the less to support reconstruction and development, for example. The truth is that British troops are doing a fantastic job, and as I saw myself the other day, they have troops of other countries working alongside them. In particular, the Americans and Canadians, who, sadly, have also lost troops in defence of the Afghan mission, are working extremely well with our forces. However, it is important for NATO to recognise that not just the security of our world and the prospects for Afghanistan, but its own credibility, rests on our doing everything we can to help the people of Afghanistan in their search away from the Taliban and in favour of democracy.

May I turn to the issue raised by the hon. Member for City of Chester (Christine Russell)? In Darfur more than 200,000 people have been murdered, while probably more than 2 million have been driven out of their homes and are living in refugee camps. Anyone who goes to listen to their stories cannot fail to be horrified by what they see and hear. Is the Prime Minister aware that while six months ago all of Darfur was open to the aid agencies, today large parts of the area cannot be accessed? What will the Government do to ensure that aid can reach the people who need it?

The only solution is to ensure that the agreement brokered last week in Addis Ababa is implemented. What that involves, essentially, is a United Nations-African Union force of far greater numbers—some 17,300 troops, I believe, and 3,000 police; the United Nations giving logistic support; and the Sudanese Government participating not just in the ceasefire, but in re-engaging with the rebel forces. All that must be done.

It is also important for us to look at the prospect of a no-fly zone. That could play a part as well. However, the difficulty that we face is very simple. It is clear that it is not UK or American forces that can carry out this particular mission. That is clear because it is not just our will, but the will of the African countries that are there. The absolute key is to put significantly larger numbers of troops on the ground, backed by the proper logistics and support, and that is what we will be working to achieve.

I welcome the fact that the right hon. Gentleman went to Darfur. He is absolutely right—it is a terrible situation—but the only solution is the one that we have put forward. It is worth emphasising from the outset that the UK, along with the United States and other allies, has been at the forefront of attempts to get the situation resolved.

The Prime Minister mentioned the peacekeeping force. He is absolutely right: unless it is hugely enlarged, the people in the camps simply will not leave to go back to their homes. Will he ensure that in the negotiations—which are vital—the Government do not give ground and that the force is larger, has better logistics, is better equipped and, vitally, has the link to the UN without which it will not be able to do its job properly?

I think that that is important, and that is why what Kofi Annan agreed last week with the Sudanese Government is extremely important. As I have said, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Development has been to Sudan some six times, and has been immensely active. We have the outlines of an agreement; the point is to get it implemented. All I can tell the right hon. Gentleman is that we will be working very closely with our allies, particularly the United States, to ensure that that is done.

The Sudanese Government should recognise that if they do not seize this opportunity, it will raised in the United Nations and the pressure will grow for strong measures against them. I urge the African Union nations to get behind the concept of a hybrid force involving the African Union and the United Nations. It is the only prospect that we have of succeeding, and we must seize it now.

Clearly, in the long term neither aid nor enlarging the force in Darfur will do the trick. We need a political solution.

Is the Prime Minister aware that the last town attacked by Sudanese forces, Birmaza, was the place where the ceasefire talks with the rebel groups were to take place? Does he believe that that shows a complete lack of commitment to the peace process by the Sudanese Government? What steps will he take to maximise the pressure on them and ensure that they see no alternative to stopping the killing and no alternative to a fundamental peace agreement in Darfur?

We will do what we have been doing up to now and ensure that we have the broadest possible support and agreement, and not just for the hybrid force. We must also ensure that we get the Sudanese Government to re-engage with the rebel groups that are still fighting. As the right hon. Gentleman knows, some of the rebel groups accepted the Darfur peace plan and some did not. Some are continuing to fight. The problem arises when the Government of Sudan then use the militia to try to defeat the rebel groups. It is not just a question of the African Union force going in; it is also a question of the Sudanese Government calling a ceasefire and then re-engaging with the rebel groups. I assure the right hon. Gentleman that we will do everything we can to make that happen.

We raise this issue on every possible occasion—in the European Union, in the United Nations and in the course of our relations with other African countries. I had a meeting with the vice-president of Sudan just a short time ago, and, as I said earlier, I will be speaking to the President later today. Ultimately the situation must lie there, but I think that it is clear from the work we have done, and from statements by the United States of America, that if the Government of Sudan do not seize this opportunity, we will have to consider tougher measures against them.

My right hon. Friend leads a Government who have a proud record in compensating our miners and their widows and families for the suffering that the boys endured in Britain’s pits. The one area that is not resolved is compensation for surface workers. Some in the Department of Trade and Industry are scheming to prevent surface workers from pursuing their claims. Will my right hon. Friend agree to meet with colleagues and myself to discuss that, so that we can prevent a scar from growing on the reputation of his Government and a shame descending on the Labour Benches, which will happen if we allow this injustice?

As my right hon. Friend implied, we have paid out more than £3 billion in compensation. Literally thousands upon thousands of miners have had compensation that I do not believe they ever would have got except under a Labour Government. However, my right hon. Friend is also right to raise the surface workers issue, and we are looking into that very closely. I can assure him that the DTI will co-operate fully with those running the scheme in order to see what can be done, and I am perfectly happy to meet him on that issue.

Can the Prime Minister confirm that the White Paper on nuclear deterrence and the future of Trident will definitely be published before the end of the year?

Can the Prime Minister also confirm that the House of Commons will be given the opportunity to vote on the options available, not just the principle? On an issue as significant as the future of Trident, should not the whole House of Commons determine Britain’s future?

I am sure that there will be an opportunity to vote on the issue—I know that my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House is discussing that with the usual channels—and, of course, there should be. However, I suspect that, in the end, this issue will be less about process and more about where we stand on it. I believe that it is important that we maintain the independent nuclear deterrent. I do not know whether the right hon. and learned Gentleman has a position on that, or not.

Q2. Local government workers are today lobbying Parliament about their pension scheme. Will the Prime Minister use his influence to try to secure a settlement that is broadly in agreement with the agreements reached last October with other public sector workers? Some say that they support public servants, but is not the way to show support for public servants to make sure that their pensions are secure for the long term? (101590)

My hon. Friend is right that trade unions and local government employers have been working hard to reach agreement on this issue. The Government will soon be in a position to consult on the new pension scheme for local government. It will be fully consistent with the agreement that we reached some time ago. The new pension scheme will reward local government workers with the benefits that they deserve, while ensuring that the costs of it are fair to employees, employers and taxpayers. We will certainly abide by the agreement that we entered into. It protects public service pensions, while making sure that for new claimants we move to a different, more sustainable basis for the long term.

Is the Prime Minister aware of the deep concern that is felt in the boroughs of London about yesterday’s announcement by the Culture Secretary on the Olympic levy? Does he understand that the hard-pressed council tax payers of boroughs such as Bexley already have to contend with the drunken-sailor spending attitude of Mayor Livingstone, and that now they will also have to contend with the untrammelled pressure that will come from the Olympic levy? Will the Prime Minister look again at putting a cap on what that levy should be for London?

We have already outlined our proposals for funding the Olympics, but I must say to the hon. Gentleman that I believe that winning the Olympics was fantastic for Britain—not only for London, but for the whole country. I think that this country will benefit enormously from hosting the Olympics in 2012.

Q3. Is the Prime Minister aware that Cancer Research UK will this afternoon deliver a petition with a quarter of a million signatures? It asks the Government to build on the current NHS cancer plan and to commit to updating it beyond 2010. Does he agree that although cancer services have been transformed, it is absolutely vital to keep planning for the future, to keep up the momentum so that we can meet the cancer challenge that still lies ahead? (101591)

My hon. Friend is right in saying that there has been tremendous progress in the past few years. When we came to office, just over 60 per cent. of suspected cancer patients were seen within two weeks; the figure is now almost 100 per cent. That is a big change and thousands of lives are now being saved every year as a result of improvements in cancer treatment. However, my hon. Friend is also right to indicate that we are six years through the 10-year cancer plan—there are another four years to go—and I know that the head of cancer services in the NHS is looking carefully at whether we need to publish an update of that plan. But it is right to say that cancer services, like cardiac care, is an area in which massive improvements have been made as a result of the investment and reform of the past few years.

Q4. The Prime Minister will be aware that Airbus is a great British and European success story, employing thousands of my constituents and those of other Members. He will also know that the sale of the remaining British shares in Airbus has cast a shadow over the long-term future of those high-quality manufacturing jobs. What are the British Government doing actively to ensure that those excellent and vital jobs have a long-term future? (101592)

What we are doing is making a huge investment in Airbus, which has paid off for the taxpayer because Airbus has been a tremendous success story. The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right—thousands of people are employed on the Airbus programme doing fantastic work. These are high-skill jobs, and I can assure him that we will continue to be fully committed to the Airbus programme. Indeed, I think that I am right in saying that it has orders for more than 2,000 aircraft, representing some five years work, or more. It is an investment about which we feel very strongly and we will continue to do all that we can to support Airbus.

The Prime Minister may be aware that over the past decade some 14,500 teenagers have been seriously injured at work. Shockingly, 66 of them died. Will he join me in congratulating the Institution of Occupational Safety and Health and the Health and Safety Executive on preparing a workplace hazards course for year 10 pupils, and will he ask the Education Secretary to consider making that course mandatory throughout the curriculum?

I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Education Secretary will listen carefully to what my hon. Friend has just said. The HSE and the IOSH are absolutely right to bring forward a plan that will help to make young people more aware of the potential hazards in the workplace. However, as a result of legislation passed over many years, I am pleased to say that we have an immensely improved record on health and safety in the workplace.

Q5. Is the Prime Minister aware that consultants at Worthing hospital, which is threatened with downgrading because it is in a Conservative area, have been told that they must not see their patients before eight weeks, even if their patients’ conditions deteriorate? Those consultants believe that it is unethical for them not to continue to see their patients and they do not want to spend their time sitting around twiddling their stethoscopes, even if it means that the hospital does not get paid. Who is acting in the best interests of those patients—the consultants or the failed accountants at the strategic health authority sorting out the financial mess in the NHS? (101593)

Of course, the consultants in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency and elsewhere should do what is ethical and what is right for their patients. The decisions are taken, obviously, by the local primary care trust and the strategic health authority, but let me point out two things to the hon. Gentleman. As a result of the investment that we have made in the national health service, which he opposed, there are 4,500 more nurses in his strategic health authority and almost 600 more consultants. Let me tell the Conservatives something. They talk about the inequality or inadequacy of the health funding and its disbursement, but their policy is to ensure that

“NHS resource allocation…reflects more accurately the fact that most NHS resources should be given to those areas where the disease burden is highest.”

That is his policy. If we did that, we would have to reduce health service spending in his area. [Interruption.] Yes, I am afraid that he is wrong and I am right, and what is more, as a result of this Government’s policy we have increased investment in his area by more than 30 per cent. That is what a Labour Government do after the Tories years of neglect.

This August, I visited a hostel in Wakefield for women fleeing domestic violence. There, I met a woman who had had to leave her home because of violence from her own son. Does my right hon. Friend agree that we need to do more to help people meet the challenges of parenting out-of-control children, whether they are tackling toddler tantrums or teenage tearaways?

I entirely agree with what my hon. Friend says. The announcement yesterday of additional funding and help for parents is an important part of ensuring that people get the help that they need. Where children may be going off the rails and getting into difficulty, it is especially important that parents get the support and intervention to help them. My hon. Friend is right: this is not about telling people how to run their families or interfering with their family life, but about supporting people who are in need. That helps the families and the children, and it also helps communities that face antisocial behaviour from children who are not behaving.

Will the Prime Minister undertake to stay out of the clutches of the Metropolitan police until the end of the week, because we are looking forward enormously to his visit to the Scottish Labour conference on Friday? Is he aware that every time he attacks the SNP, support for Scottish independence soars to new, unprecedented levels? Will he promise to launch another furious assault on us this coming Friday?

Yes, I will and I shall tell the hon. Gentleman why. It is because by ripping Scotland out of the UK we would damage the economy, living standards, health service and education in Scotland. He has no positive proposals for Scotland because the only policy that he has has been rejected twice before and will be rejected a third time.

Has my right hon. Friend found time to read an article by Polly Toynbee in The Guardian yesterday, which said that a proposal by the NHS to move out-patient facilities into a brand- new building, yet to be opened, and to build a brand- new local care hospital in my constituency is being cynically portrayed as a hospital closure by Wandsworth council? Does he agree with the hon. Member for Tunbridge Wells (Greg Clark) that council would do better to take its social policy advice from Polly Toynbee?

Well, Polly Toynbee has not always been fully in accordance with our policy, but my hon. Friend is right to say that those changes are necessary. As for those who go on about the need to tackle poverty in this country, some of us remember when, under the last Conservative Government, child poverty increased year on year and there were 3 million unemployed. As a result of the policies of this Government, we have taken 700,000 children out of poverty and 2.5 million pensioners out of acute hardship, and the new deal has taken 1.6 million people off benefit and into work. Every single bit of that was opposed by the Conservatives.

Q6. Last week, Milton Keynes hospital announced the closure of its surgical assessment unit with the loss of some 23 beds—the first cuts of some £18 million savings that need to be found by March. Can the Prime Minister explain to my constituents why, at a time when the Government are forcing Milton Keynes to expand, they are forcing our health service to contract? (101594)

When the hon. Gentleman talks about the health service contracting overall, it simply is not right to give the example that he gives without putting the other side of the picture, because it is also true that we have funded a £130 million scheme to concentrate all clinical services on one site and provided a new angiography treatment unit, a new GP practice, 5,500 more nurses and almost 800 more consultants in his area. Yes, there will be changes in any health service—there should be changes as the changing pattern of health care demands them. In the past few years, we have increased the number of people working in the health service, cut the waiting times and lists dramatically—[Interruption.] Yes, we have. We have the largest hospital building programme ever under way and the fact is that the hon. Gentleman’s party, having first opposed the extra money for the health service, is now opposing the reform. That is why, whatever campaign he runs, when people look at which party really cares about the health service they will realise that it is the party that invests in it and is prepared to take the difficult challenges seriously to make it fit for the 21st century.

Q7. My right hon. Friend had the chance to hear directly from Hackney residents, when he visited my constituency earlier this year, how much they welcome the Government’s investment in regeneration, housing and education. We had a second city academy open this year and our first city academy, Mossbourne, received an outstanding Ofsted report only last month. Will my right hon. Friend reassure my constituents that they will continue to receive that level of investment, especially in education and the much-needed affordable family housing? (101595)

My hon. Friend is right to say that Hackney has undergone huge changes in the past few years. I used to live in Hackney—opposite the Holly street housing estate, which has been changed significantly in the past few years. She is particularly right to draw attention to the success of the city academy programme, of which Mossbourne is a very good example. It is literally transforming educational opportunities for some of the poorest children in one of the poorest boroughs in the country. That is why, again, we must keep the money going in, accompanied by the reform.

Q8. The Prime Minister is well aware that our armed forces in Helmand province in Afghanistan are involved in a desperately dangerous mission, and are putting their lives on the line every hour of every day. Apparently, Brigadier Lorimer, who takes command of British forces next spring, has said that he will need more soldiers, Warrior armoured vehicles, tanks, artillery pieces and helicopters. Will the Prime Minister honour the commitment that he gave to the people of this country in a television interview, when he said that the Army will get whatever it needs to ensure a successful outcome to its mission? (101596)

Yes, of course I will honour that. All the time, we keep under review what we need in the Helmand province and elsewhere. I absolutely assure the hon. Gentleman that I am conscious of our responsibility to our forces out there, who are doing immensely difficult work in very challenging circumstances. Of course we will listen carefully to any requests that are made to us.

Let me also point out that the work that the forces are doing in that area is quite extraordinary. I met the Governor of Helmand province when I was there, and the work that they are doing not only in fighting the Taliban, but with reconstruction and development, is quite remarkable. There is a paradigm that can help us to succeed in Afghanistan, which is to do with marrying together the elements of security and force with those of reconstruction and development. I assure the hon. Member for Macclesfield (Sir Nicholas Winterton) that in relation to our armed forces and boosting the development effort, we will do whatever is necessary to succeed.

My right hon. Friend may be aware that some madrassahs in Pakistan call themselves religious schools, but are actually centres for training al-Qaeda terrorists. When he meets the President of Pakistan, will he try to persuade him to close down the madrassahs that are funded by al-Qaeda supporters in the middle east?

As my hon. Friend would expect, I raised those issues with both President Musharraf and Prime Minister Aziz. We are doubling our aid to Pakistan in the next few years, and some of that additional money will go precisely to support education, which helps to deal with some of the causes of extremism in some of the madrassahs. Not all madrassahs are as my hon. Friend describes, but it is important that those that are potential breeding grounds for terrorism are dealt with. One of the most hopeful signs that I got from my visit to Pakistan was the sense that it understood that anything that supports extremism there, or the Taliban in Afghanistan, is a strategic threat not just to Afghanistan and the rest of the world, but specifically to Pakistan.

Q9. The Prime Minister may be aware of the budgetary deficit facing North Wales police, which has already led to the redundancies of 120 civilian staff— No it has not. The deficit has also led to a standstill in the recruitment of uniformed officers for the past 15 months. Is the Prime Minister therefore prepared to meet me and members of the North Wales police authority to discuss this financial crisis that threatens the future of effective policing in north Wales? (101597)

All I can say to the hon. Gentleman is that as far as I understand it, there are actually more police officers—indeed, record numbers of police officers—in Wales. It is partly as a result of that, and the measures that we have introduced, that crime is down. Of course, I know that there will be concerns about any changes that are made, but I have to say to him that if he looks back over the past few years, he will see that not just on crime, but on education and health, there have been tremendous improvements in Wales, and the numbers of people working in those public services are at record levels.

Will my right hon. Friend urge retailers, the stock exchange and those with huge city bonuses to contribute to the Farepak fund, and will he use the new Consumers, Estate Agents and Redress Bill to legislate so that the situation never arises again?

As my hon. Friend will know, the Department of Trade and Industry has launched an investigation to see what lessons can be learned from Farepak’s collapse, and whether we need to change the law to give consumers additional protection. The Government will work very closely with the administrators, the family fund people and all of those who are trying to deal with a very difficult situation, and I totally sympathise with all those people who are caught up in it. We will do our best not merely to mitigate the effects of Farepak’s collapse, but to learn the lessons and ensure that it does not happen again in future.

Q10. After the conflict ended, cluster bombs used in Lebanon by Israel had resulted in 159 casualties, including 23 deaths so far. In Geneva last week, why did the UK not support calls from the UN Secretary-General, the International Committee of the Red Cross and 27 nations for urgent action? In Oslo next year, will the Prime Minister push for a ban on those indiscriminate bombs, or does he agree with the Minister of State, Ministry of Defence, who has responsibility for the armed forces, and who strongly advocates the use of such bombs? (101598)

We are working hard with our other allies to deal with that issue, but I hope that the hon. Gentleman understands that, in the end, the only way that we will deal with it effectively is to make sure that we deal with the root causes of conflict in the middle east—that means Israel and Palestine, and it means Lebanon. It means making sure that, across the middle east, the cause of extremism is put on the back foot. I believe that it is important always to make sure that we realise that the reason why the conflict exists is deep-rooted, and if we want to deal with the situation, we have to pull it up by the roots.

Point of Order

Order. I think that I know what the point of order is. If the hon. Member for Clwyd, West (Mr. Jones) was misinformed, it was up to the Prime Minister to put him right, not the hon. Member for Vale of Clwyd (Chris Ruane).


Offender Management

Mr. Secretary Reid, supported by the Prime Minister, Mr. Secretary Prescott, Mr. Chancellor of the Exchequer, Secretary Margaret Beckett, Mr. Secretary Darling, Ms Secretary Hewitt and Mr. Gerry Sutcliffe, presented a Bill to make provision about the provision of probation services, prisons and other matters relating to the management of offenders; and for connected purposes: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time tomorrow, and to be printed. Explanatory notes to be printed [Bill 9].

Orders of the Day

Debate on the Address

[Fourth Day]

Order read for resuming adjourned debate on Question [15 November],

That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty, as follows:

Most Gracious Sovereign,

We, Your Majesty’s most dutiful and loyal subjects, the Commons of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland in Parliament assembled, beg leave to offer our humble thanks to Your Majesty for the Gracious Speech which Your Majesty has addressed to both Houses of Parliament.—[Alun Michael.]

Question again proposed.

Foreign Affairs and Defence

It seems generally accepted that the international environment in which our country finds itself is one of the most difficult and complex that it has seen for many a year. It is difficult because international challenges—global terrorism, nuclear proliferation, climate change, conflicts within and between states, illegal migration, rapid globalisation in some parts of the world and chronic underdevelopment in others—are increasing both in scale and severity. Their direct impact on Britain is increasing, too. Foreign policy is one of the most crucial means by which we can deliver on our domestic priorities. That international environment is complex, because its many different aspects are closely linked and are mutually reinforcing; they cannot each be dealt with in isolation, but must be tackled together.

Let me begin by setting out some of the most immediate and urgent challenges that we face. The Prime Minister has stated often that there is no more pressing diplomatic task for the country or the international community than to seek a peaceful resolution to the ongoing conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. If we can do so, it will benefit the entire region and remove a key source of global tension and division. That is why we are working closely with the European Union, the United States and regional partners, both to develop practical initiatives, such as strengthening Palestinian institutions and improving Palestinian security, and to restart the political process itself.

At the same time, we remain one of the world’s biggest donors to the Palestinian people; this year alone, despite our concerns about a Hamas Government in office, we have committed £30 million to the people of Palestine, and played a key role in developing the main international mechanism through which all donors can channel assistance while bypassing the Hamas-run Finance Ministry. We intend to contribute £12 million through that temporary mechanism.

What discussions has the Foreign Secretary been able to have, and with whom, to urge the return to Israel of the kidnapped soldiers?

There have been many discussions, with a variety of players; indeed, hardly a stone has been left unturned between states, organisations and anyone who may have influence and can exert it favourably. To be honest with the House, there have been many occasions when it has appeared that the soldiers’ release might be possible—even imminent—but every time that prospect has gone away. We continue to exert similar efforts.

Does the Foreign Secretary acknowledge that although it is entirely understandable that Israel withheld the $55 million a month of revenues collected on behalf of the Palestinian Authority, and despite the increased aid through the temporary international mechanism, the reality is that public services in the Palestinian Authority are being starved of funds? Hospitals are closed, schools cannot function and day-to-day life is under severe threat. Is she confident that the viability of the Palestinian state can be maintained?

First, I accept that the loss of revenues flowing to Palestine has left a huge gap in its budget and I accept, too, the right hon. Gentleman’s point about the importance of the health and education services. As I think he knows, that is why we made a priority of funding those issues through the temporary international mechanism. I accept entirely, however, that that cannot make up for the loss of revenues, which is why we have put so much emphasis on, and are so anxious for, the emergence of a new Government—a Government of national unity. That could be the key—with the release of Corporal Shalit and others, for example—to unlocking the flow of those revenues again. I can assure the right hon. Gentleman that we are discussing that issue with the Government of Israel and putting pressure on them to unlock that flow of revenues as soon as can be achieved.

In the pressure that the Foreign Secretary is putting on Israel, what is she saying about the continued construction of the illegal wall in Palestinian land and the continuing settlement policy on the west bank?

We have always maintained pressure and sought to convince our Israeli colleagues about the best way forward both for Israel and Palestine when discussing all the issues that my hon. Friend raises.

Has my right hon. Friend also raised with the Israelis how the constant road blocks, the expropriation of land and allowing illegal Israeli settlers to continue to attack Palestinian farmers who are trying to harvest their crops is making the Palestinian economy even worse, and the fact that the British taxpayer will not be willing to subsidise for a long period the costs that the Israelis are imposing through their measures to deepen the occupation?

Yes, we have made such points to the Government of Israel on many occasions and if the need arises we shall continue to do so.

I have spoken recently on the phone to President Abbas about the developing situation, and about our hopes and our offer of support to him in putting together a Government of national unity. Yesterday, in London, I met the Israeli Foreign Minister, Minister Livni. We had a constructive meeting and talked about the moves of the President to build a Government of national unity and about the prisoners held by both sides in the conflict. However, just as I stood up to leave that encouraging meeting, we received the tragic and shocking news of the assassination of Pierre Gemayel. I am sure that the whole House joins me in expressing our horror and dismay at that act, and our deepest sympathy to the family of Mr. Gemayel and to the people and Government of Lebanon. We welcome the UN Security Council’s unequivocal condemnation of his murder last night.

I join my right hon. Friend in condemning the assassination of Mr. Gemayel. However, can she explain the moral difference between that assassination and the continual Israeli targeted assassinations of Palestinian leaders, one of which recently led to the death of 18 members of one family, including children and a baby?

I think that everyone in the House, including my right hon. Friend, is aware of the extremely difficult situation and the terrible problems that are caused by all such steps, not least, as he rightly identified, when there is what is generally known these days as collateral damage into the bargain.

No one yet knows for sure who carried out this particular attack. It is imperative that an independent and thorough investigation begins at once, and we will offer whatever support is asked of us, just as we continue to support the work of the United Nations on the death of Rafik Hariri. We expect that report in the not-too-distant future.

Many people have already pointed the finger at Syria, but it is too early to reach definitive conclusions. Of course, the reason why so many are looking in Syria’s direction is because of its long record of destructive meddling in Lebanon. It is increasingly the will of the international community that there should be an end to outside interference in Lebanese affairs, as was mandated by Security Council resolution 1559. Indeed, as we have identified before, Syria faces a strategic choice. If the Syrian authorities are ready to play a constructive role in the region, we have made it clear that we will be prepared to work with them. However, if they support terrorism, promote instability and interfere in other countries, we will unite with our regional and international partners to seek to prevent that.

Recent press reports have stated that the Syrian Government will help the situation in Iraq only if we help them to regain the Golan heights. Will the Secretary of State give a categorical assurance to the House that we will not side with the Syrians in that dispute with Israel?

All I can say to the hon. Gentleman is that we are a long way from being confident that we have seen an end to difficulties between Syria and Iraq. The Syrian Government are well aware that, like the Iraqi Government, we would like to see the policing and sealing of the border between Syria and Iraq. Let us see what that delivers. Any other discussions, including territorial discussions, are a very long way down the road.

The same strategic choice faces Iran. We, with France, Germany and our other European partners, are leading efforts to encourage Iran to address international concerns about its nuclear ambitions, its support for terrorism and its dismal internal human rights record. Thanks in part to those efforts, the international community is now more united than it has been for a long time, and the Iranian regime has been presented with a clear choice. On the one hand, we have offered Iran the chance of an improved relationship with not only Europe, but the wider international community. That would give Iran help in developing a civil nuclear power programme, an energy partnership and a trade co-operation partnership with the European Union. It would give Iran help with joining the World Trade Organisation and with the first lifting of US sanctions since the 1979 resolution in some areas of real need. However, if, on the other hand, Iran continues to defy the International Atomic Energy Agency and the Security Council, it should be in no doubt that that relationship will deteriorate and that the international community will wish to respond

In respect of Iran’s nuclear ambitions, will the Foreign Secretary take the opportunity to confirm the Government’s commitment, which was made in the Labour party manifesto, to retain our nuclear deterrent?


Both Iran and Syria can choose to be part of the solution in Iraq, not part of the problem. We welcome, as a step in the right direction, Syria’s decision to resume diplomatic relations with Iraq.

If my right hon. Friend will forgive me, I must make a little more progress.

British soldiers and civilians alike are working in tough conditions and with considerable courage to try to help to build a better future for the Iraqi people, and the horrific murder of some of our servicemen and women in Basra on Remembrance day underlines both their courage and their sacrifice. Indeed, the appalling reports of killings and kidnappings which we continually hear are a clear sign that the fate of that country is hanging in the balance. As I have said to the House before, we owe it to our own forces and to the Iraqi people to hold our nerve in this critical period. There is no question of us cutting and running from Iraq. To do so would be an act of gross irresponsibility, abandoning the Iraqi people to bloodshed perhaps even worse than we see today.

I agree that we should not cut and run. Given that the Prime Minister appears very willing to discuss Iraq with the Iraq study group, and given the deteriorating situation in Iraq, can the Foreign Secretary explain to the House why the Prime Minister seems so unwilling to come to the Chamber and discuss the current situation in Iraq and future policy options, when the rest of the country is discussing this very issue?

I completely reject the hon. Gentleman’s basic contention. We have done a little research because I had a slight feeling that the issue might be raised. Since March 2003 there have been 60 debates in the Chamber and in Westminster Hall on the subject of Iraq, so the Government have been perfectly prepared to discuss these matters.

The Foreign Secretary will have noted that the Speaker has imposed a 10-minute limit on Back-Benches speeches today. That is because there is huge interest in the issues of Iraq and Afghanistan. Our troops are risking their lives there hourly and daily. May I have an assurance from the Foreign Secretary that there will be further specific debates on the Floor of the House, not in Westminster Hall, and that we will be kept fully informed, as we have not been to date?

Absolute nonsense. I do not think that the right hon. Gentleman necessarily always attends those debates, but I repeat that there have been many opportunities. It may well be that there will be more in the future, but he knows that that is a matter for the Leader of the House.

I am deeply grateful to the Foreign Secretary. May I return her to the subject of Iran? It seems that so often in the Chamber we speak about Iran’s nuclear ambitions, and we rarely speak about Iran’s grisly human rights record, which she mentioned. Has she had any conversations with Iranian representatives about the plight of Ahwazi Arabs, who have been oppressed for many years by the regime in Tehran? There are at least 10 whose trials have been very dubious, according to Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, yet who are up for the death sentence. Will she speak to the country’s representatives about its grisly human rights record?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. He is right—there are a great number of examples of difficult human rights issues in Iran. I readily confess that I am not completely familiar with the specific issue that he raises, but my hon. Friend the Minister for the Middle East has undertaken to look into the matter if he contacts him, and we will make some inquiries on his behalf.

Although there can be no question of us abandoning Iraq in the present circumstances, that does not mean that things are standing still. Our approach has evolved significantly in recent months in response to a dynamic situation. All along, we have had a clear view of what should be the future of Iraq. We want to see a fully sovereign Government taking complete responsibility for providing security and governing in the interests of all the people of Iraq.

Despite the difficulties, Iraq has made a great deal of progress down that path. For the past six months—and it is only six months—Iraq has had a Government of national unity, democratically elected under a new permanent constitution. As I made clear to the House at the end of October, the process of transferring security responsibilities to Iraqi security forces is well under way. Prime Minister Maliki is determined to press ahead with that, and we are equally determined to help him to do so successfully and sustainably. We expect Najaf to be the next province to be transferred to Iraqi control in December. In our own area of responsibility, we expect Maysan to follow in January, and the progress of our current operation in Basra gives us confidence that we may be able to achieve transition in that province too at some point next spring. So there is a clear perspective looking forward, notwithstanding the very obvious difficulties that Iraq faces, but it continues to demand our wholehearted attention and our unwavering support.

The middle east is inevitably likely to dominate many of our discussions today, but British soldiers and civilians are engaged elsewhere around the world, building peace, supporting democratic institutions and safeguarding human rights and the rule of law.

I will give way to my hon. Friend. I have been speaking for 16 minutes without making very much progress, so it will be the last time that I accept interventions for a while.

I am enormously comforted by my right hon. Friend’s words about the security situation in Iraq, but we both know that emerging democracies need continued support. Will she reassure me that when we leave Iraq because it no longer needs military support we will continue to support that emerging democracy through what will be difficult times?

I can certainly give my hon. Friend that assurance. As she knows, there is no one better fitted than our skilled and courageous Foreign Office staff and public servants in a wide range of institutions to help to provide such advice and support.

The people of Darfur have suffered immensely in the past three years from unacceptable violence, daily insecurity and profound humanitarian misery. Millions have had their lives disrupted and often much worse. The UK has been leading the international community’s efforts to resolve that crisis. Last Thursday’s agreement in Addis Ababa on a peacekeeping force for Darfur and a resumption of the political process show that there is increasing international consensus on the way in which we should address the ongoing, deplorable violence in Darfur. We need the Sudanese Government to agree that peace, stability and prosperity in Sudan will continue to be a top priority for them.

The Foreign Secretary has been characteristically generous in giving way.

Earlier, the Prime Minister spoke about the need to take a look at the proposal to construct a no-fly zone over Darfur. However, given that that proposal was originally endorsed by the United Nations as long ago as 2004, and that with every day that passes without that protection we witnesses an increase in the number of dead, dying and destitute in the region, does the right hon. Lady not agree that it is imperative that much greater urgency be attached to the matter, and that the zone is established quickly and enforced regularly so that people receive the protection that they need?

I gave way to the hon. Gentleman because he takes a great interest in the issue, which he has raised on many occasions in the House. I take his point entirely, and I assure him that we will look at it again. I simply say, however, that we have concentrated on trying to put an international force on the ground so that it can effectively counter some of the problems that have arisen. I take his point, too, about the no-fly zone, but although there were great hopes last Thursday that the new agreement would indeed be implemented and would hold, there are indications that that may not happen as speedily as we hoped. That must be the focus of our efforts, but I can assure the hon. Gentleman that we will certainly bear in mind the strong point that he made.

In Afghanistan, NATO faces its greatest test. Success in its mission is crucial for its credibility in future. With our NATO allies, the UK is engaged in a struggle to turn a failed state into one that provides for its people and functions as a part of the international community. What has been achieved is rarely reported. Since 2001, more than 4.5 million people who fled their homes have returned. Men and women have turned out in their millions to vote in free and fair elections; 6 million children are now in school, over a third of them girls; 72 new hospitals and clinics have been built; and 35,000 children who would have died are alive thanks to immunisation programmes. British soldiers, alongside the Dutch and the Canadians, are supporting the Afghan Government’s efforts to bring security to the south of the country. It is a tough job, which they are carrying out with incredible professionalism and bravery.

It is genuinely difficult, because I know that with every country I come to someone will wish to intervene. We could be here all afternoon. The hon. Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (Derek Conway) was first on his feet, so I will give way to him.

I am grateful to the Foreign Secretary for her generosity. The point that she made about our NATO allies was quite right, but will she tell the House what support she and her Department can give the Defence Secretary to persuade our allies that national caveats have affected operations on the ground? She will know that General Richards made a request for five infantry support companies from some of our NATO allies, but their national caveats prevented them from taking part in Operation Medusa, so they could not help to save 12 Canadians from being shot. Real lives are at stake, and there is a serious problem for British commanders on the ground. The Government and the Opposition are as one on this, but what is the position of our NATO allies?

The hon. Gentleman will know that there is a meeting in a few days’ time, and I shall come on to that. We certainly continue to talk to our allies about what can be done, as well as about what further technical and other support can be provided.

I am sorry, I must make progress.

I am sure that the whole House will join me in paying tribute to the outstanding work that military and civilian personnel from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the Department for International Development, the police and other organisations are doing in Afghanistan and, indeed, Iraq. I hope that no one objects if I single out from my own Department Stephen Evans and his team in Kabul, Nick Kay and his team in Lashkar Gah, Ros Marsden and her team in Basra and Dominic Asquith and his team in Baghdad. Our diplomats rarely receive the recognition that they deserve for doing a difficult and often dangerous job in those countries and others across the world.

Those are a few issues that are rightly at the forefront of our minds, but in focusing on what is most urgent we must not lose sight of the important underlying factors that drive and exacerbate global insecurity. Here, too, Britain is making a difference. Last month, we took the lead in tabling a resolution at the UN General Assembly on an international arms trade treaty to end the irresponsible trade in arms worldwide that fuels conflict and ruins lives. Since the last Queen’s Speech, a great deal has been achieved in the fight against global poverty. At Gleneagles, G8 Governments pledged to increase aid by $50 billion a year by 2010, with half going to Africa; to cancel debt worth another $50 billion; and to provide AIDS treatment to everyone who needs it. During our presidency of the G8, we were instrumental—in fact, key—in securing those agreements. Last year, the UK provided £5.9 billion in official development aid, making us the third largest donor in the world. We were instrumental in the launch of the international finance facility for immunisation, which is expected to prevent 5 million child deaths before 2015, and more than 5 million adult deaths after that date. The Government White Paper, “Eliminating world poverty: making governance work for the poor”, sets out how we intend to work with others to meet the challenges ahead.

We will not end global poverty, however, unless we give developing countries the means and the tools to help themselves. The World Trade Organisation round is our best opportunity to do so, but we have only a narrow window—a matter of months, perhaps—to secure the ambitious pro-development deal that we all want. There have been some encouraging signs. Pascal Lamy has restarted WTO negotiations at a technical level. Leaders at the Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation summit in Hanoi made a commitment to break the deadlock, and they recognised that to do so all sides would have to move beyond their current positions. If others move, the European Union must be ready to move, too. In his speech last week, Peter Mandelson confirmed that we are.

We must not underestimate the cost of failure. If we cannot resolve those differences our own economies will suffer, but if we cannot overcome them or find a compromise we condemn millions of men, women and children to a life of poverty or to no life at all. If we cannot work together on that agenda, which is clearly in all of our interests, it weakens the hope of building a global consensus, whether on counter-terrorism, international crime or energy security. Nowhere is that need for mutual trust and action more obvious or vital than in the global challenge that may come to define our generation—climate change. The remaining few who do not think that that is a foreign policy issue simply fail to grasp the sheer magnitude of the challenge that we face. An unstable climate will place huge additional strain on the international tensions that we are already trying to resolve. Many of them are at breaking point, but climate change has the potential to stretch them far beyond that point. As I have reminded the House before, they have played a part in, for example, the conflict in Darfur.

The recent Stern review has now clearly laid out the challenge for the international community. It has shown that it will not cost developed or developing countries the earth to tackle climate change but that it will cost the earth, literally as well as financially, if we do not. Through the G8 plus 5 process that began at Gleneagles, through our role in pushing ambition in the EU, through our increasing co-operation with China, India and Brazil and through our links with individual states in the United States, Britain is helping to set and drive the agenda—but no country, however powerful, can address any of the challenges that I have identified, or others that I do not have time to set out, on their own. They call for concerted global action—for a truly international consensus that brings together countries from across the political and the economic spectrums.

One element of that will have to be a more effective multilateral system that includes a reformed United Nations, better equipped to face those challenges. For the UK, that means that we are forging new partnerships with emerging economies and powers around the world. On recent visits to India and Brazil, I have spoken of the need for us to act as global partners and restated our support for the growing influence and role of those countries to be fully reflected in the Security Council and other international organisations.

While we are developing partnerships that are new in depth or in scope, we continue to value our previous partners and relationships. The Commonwealth continues to do much important work, about a third of which we directly fund, not least in promoting democracy, good governance and the rule of law. We have other strong allies, such as the United States, although there are from time to time differences between us on some areas of the global agenda, such as the international arms trade treaty or, indeed, climate change. It is we who are taking initiatives and asking our American colleagues to join us. None of the matters that we have spoken of today, from global poverty and Africa to the middle east peace process or reconstruction in Afghanistan, can possibly be addressed, let alone resolved, without American involvement.

Our membership of the European Union—the largest political union, the biggest economic market and the largest aid donor in the world—gives us a far more powerful voice on the international stage than we have when speaking as a single nation. That is why the Government have put Britain at the centre of Europe, from where we can influence how the European Union speaks and how it acts beyond its borders, rather than migrating to the margins and losing that hard-won leverage.

One of Europe’s greatest achievements so far has been the successive waves of enlargement that have created an ever wider circle of prosperous and stable democracies. Earlier this year, I accompanied Her Majesty the Queen on a state visit to the Baltic states. Those are countries transformed—confident free nations and strong allies as well as trading partners of the United Kingdom. At next month’s European Council there will be a strategic discussion on further enlargement, but we are clear that further enlargement, coupled with rigorous conditionality, will bring clear benefits to Europe and to Britain. We must honour our existing commitments on enlargement, above all by moving forward accession negotiations with Turkey and Croatia. For that to happen, those candidates will need to fulfil their existing obligations to all member states and to make progress towards meeting European standards, and we will support them in that process.

Later this month, Latvia will act as host to the NATO summit. It will be the first territory of the former Soviet Union to do so—a powerful symbol of how NATO, like the European Union, has erased cold war divides and helped to create a modern and united continent. In Riga, we want NATO to make the decisions that will allow it and us to meet the challenges of the century to come.

Those are some of the strong global partnerships through which we carry out a distinctive British foreign policy. It is a foreign policy that does not rely on gesture or political grandstanding, but is conducted through quiet and steady progress. The hard grind and sheer determination of our soldiers and our civilians around the world means that Britain continues to be a strong, independent and positive force in that world.

A full day’s debate on international affairs in this House is much needed, and some might say that it is long overdue. The last time we had any such debate was in July, and that was short in duration and necessarily dominated by the turmoil in Lebanon at the time. Without extending the argument about on how many occasions Iraq has been referred to in this Chamber or in Westminster Hall over the past few years, it is obvious that given the extent of concern in Parliament and among the wider public about international affairs, and the legitimate debate about foreign and defence policies that in any case takes place outside the House, Ministers should do their best through the coming Session to ensure that such matters can be debated at regular intervals, in particular with regular reports to the House about the situation in Iraq and Afghanistan.

I want to reinforce the need for that focused debate, especially on Afghanistan, as that was at the heart of the terrorist problem that we faced on 11 September. The Foreign Secretary was able to take very few interventions on that issue to address fundamentally how the distraction of Iraq had undermined our effectiveness in dealing with the problem in Afghanistan.

I am glad that my opening remarks have been a vehicle for the hon. Gentleman to make that point. The Secretary of State did her best to take a lot of interventions, and I shall try to take a few as well, if they arise.

In the past year alone, as the Foreign Secretary said, we have seen the escalation of two major attempts to break out of the constraints of the non-proliferation treaty, to one of which there has been a fairly effective and united response but to the other of which there has not. We have seen the continued unacceptable abuse of human rights in countries such as North Korea, Burma and Zimbabwe. We have seen continuing conflicts in some parts of Africa, with the United Nations sometimes struggling to assert its authority. In the western Balkans there have been signs of a slow reversal in some of the progress that has been made. Of course, we have all been immensely concerned by what appears to be a steady deterioration in the situation in the wider middle east, which has inflicted a terrible human toll on Iraq, Afghanistan, Lebanon and Gaza. I echo what the Foreign Secretary has said about the outrage that we all feel about the assassination of Mr. Gemayel yesterday in Lebanon. It has reminded us of how serious the situation is. It is not unreasonable, in the light of that and other recent events, to be genuinely alarmed about the situation and worried that our policies might be overtaken by events.

Following the Lebanon war, my right hon. Friend has rather more credibility in Lebanon than the Government, given the lines taken by the respective parties. Will he reinforce my request this morning to Mohammed Raad, the leader of the Hezbollah faction in the Lebanese Parliament, for at least one of the Hezbollah members of the Cabinet and the other four members who recently left the Cabinet to rejoin it to demonstrate that they are not going to see the destruction of the Siniora Government by assassination and murder, even if that is the objective of Hezbollah policy?

Of course it would be good if those former Ministers were prepared once again to join a national unity Government in Lebanon, provided that the terms were acceptable to the other parties. That would be a welcome development. It seems unlikely at the moment, but the call for unity in Lebanon is well made.

Let me join in other things that the Foreign Secretary said. She referred to the vital role of the United States, on which we agree, and to the hugely positive influence of European Union enlargement, on which we also agree. We welcome her emphasis on climate change in foreign policy. I join, too, with great enthusiasm in her tributes to Foreign Office diplomats, who, when we travel abroad as the Opposition, we also see doing an extraordinary and sometimes inspiring job around the world.

In any such debate there will be a good deal of common ground between Government and Opposition, and it would be surprising if there were not. Nevertheless, the difficulties that we face require frank assessments and open debate. Let us make it clear that no one who wishes this country harm should mistake our readiness to debate such matters for a sign of weakness. Far from it—it is a sure demonstration of our strength. Nevertheless, when the Chief of the General Staff speaks out as he did about the presence of our troops in Iraq, when the Prime Minister appears to assent—I say “appears” to give him credit—to a televised suggestion that the situation there is a disaster, and when the Chancellor says that the decisions that were made in the early days could and perhaps should have been different, Ministers should be neither surprised nor irritated that others in this House have many questions to ask. The public want to know where we have gone wrong, why mistakes were made and what Britain should do next to improve matters. Just as the Government are entitled to support for many of their objectives, the House is entitled to ask many questions.

Before considering the affairs of Iraq and Afghanistan, I shall follow the Foreign Secretary into a few other areas of immediate concern, of which one is Darfur. The plight of hundreds of thousands in refugee camps and the murder of large numbers who never made it to the camps have moved and angered hon. Members of all parties and people throughout the world. Many of us have been there—I went with my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr. Mitchell) earlier in the year and my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition was there only yesterday. We give credit to the Secretary of State for International Development and Foreign Office Ministers, who have worked hard on those matters.

We have all called and worked together for proper access for aid workers, the implementation of peace agreements and the acceptance by the Government of Sudan of a United Nations peacekeeping force. The framework determined at the weekend between the UN Secretary-General and the Khartoum Government to add UN forces to the African Union mission in Sudan appears to be a major step forward and we welcome the comments of the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary today about achieving a larger, stronger and better equipped force in Sudan, and further intense pressure being placed on the Sudanese Government, if necessary.

In those matters, we are at one with the Government, and the same is true of another area of crisis in recent months—North Korea. Its testing of a nuclear device met with clear resolve and unity in the UN Security Council, including a vital and determined response from China. The return of North Korea to the six-party talks is testament to the influence of the Security Council when acting in a united fashion. I know that the Foreign Secretary agrees that it is imperative to maintain that resolve. North Korea must not be allowed simply to buy time or deflect international criticism by going along with talks, and the sanctions against North Korea must be enforced rigorously.

Perhaps the Secretary of State for Defence can say in his winding-up speech whether he is confident that the coalition necessary to enforce those sanctions, especially the provision on cargo inspections, is in place and that any supply of nuclear technology to North Korea can be detected and stopped, especially without South Korean co-operation in the proliferation security initiative. Perhaps he can also say whether the onward proliferation of material from North Korea to other countries can be prevented and whether United Kingdom naval assets will have a role to play in boarding and inspecting suspect vessels.

The response to North Korea is in sharp contrast with that to Iran. The importance of Iran’s progress in nuclear capability is hard to overstate, especially given the possible effect of that success on the intentions of half-a-dozen or so other middle eastern nations, which may wish to develop a nuclear arsenal of their own. If that happens, the efforts of two generations of world leaders, diplomats and intelligence agencies to prevent the uncontrolled spread of nuclear weapons will be in ruins.

Yet the international community is in danger of losing credibility in its dealings with Iran. Security Council resolution 1696 gave Iran 30 days to suspend nuclear enrichment, but 114 days have passed without action. Since Iran was referred to the Security Council by the International Atomic Energy Agency on 4 February this year, because it was found to be in grave breach of the non-proliferation treaty, nine months have passed with no substantive action by the international community. Together, the members of the Security Council have potent combined leverage over Iran, which is dependent on Russia for technology and expertise to build a civilian nuclear programme, receives massive Chinese investment in its domestic infrastructure, cannot develop its oilfields adequately without investment and modernisation—requiring foreign investment—and is not capable of building nuclear power stations without external assistance.

Yet a Security Council resolution that would make use of that leverage has not yet proved attainable. I appreciate that that is as frustrating for Ministers as for everyone else. Again, I hope that the Defence Secretary can give us the Government’s latest assessment of the stage of development that Iran’s nuclear programme has reached. I also hope that the Government can tell the House what Security Council measures Russia and China are prepared to support. If no meaningful UN action is to be taken, what else can be done? It is not an issue from which the world can walk away.

Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that the Iranian political situation is internally complicated, that President Ahmadinejad will use international pressure to consolidate his nationalist position and that the United States could change its attitude to engage with Iran to try to split the hard-liners and others in Iran? If that does not happen, the situation may get worse if Russia and China are not prepared to act with sanctions.

There is a legitimate debate to be had about that, but many efforts have been made to engage with Iran in recent years, including efforts, which we fully supported, by the Foreign Secretary’s predecessor to engage successfully with it. The process is not easy—not even the United States would find it easy. Sticks as well as carrots are required. A stick-and-carrot approach has worked in some other cases. Libya is not the same as Iran, but it is an example to which we can point.

The right hon. Gentleman pointed out that there is general international agreement about the way forward on North Korea and that that is lacking on Iran. However, I have not heard a positive suggestion from him about something that the UK could do that it has not already done. Perhaps he would like to make such a suggestion.

That is precisely what I was about to do—I thank the hon. Lady for the invitation. We are considering not only a vital British national interest, but a vital global interest. If the Security Council cannot overcome its differences, it is time for like-minded countries to explore and implement, if necessary, formal or informal restrictive measures against Iran. They should at least be prepared to do that. Such measures could include EU action against investment in Iran’s oil and gas fields, limitation of the access of Iranian banks to the European financial system or a visa ban on persons connected with the Iranian nuclear and ballistic missile weapons programme. Other hon. Members may have other ideas.

Such decisions would involve tough choices, but although sticks and carrots are necessary to make progress, only carrots have been tried so far.

Again, the debate is focusing on Iran’s nuclear ambitions, but the list of groups in Iran that have suffered extreme human rights abuses, as attested by all the international organisations, is growing. Will the right hon. Gentleman add his voice to those who call for Iran to respect the human rights of all individuals, especially the Ahwazi Arabs?

Yes, of course. The hon. Gentleman has made that point earlier in the debate and on many previous occasions. We all agree about the importance of human rights, but I do not want to go into detail because there are many subjects to cover in the rest of my speech.

My right hon. Friend mentioned the progress that the Government have made on getting Libya to get rid of its weapons of mass destruction. Does he share my concerns about other north African countries, such as Tunisia and Algeria, which are also trying to pursue such weapons?

There is a need for more positive engagement with the countries of north Africa. I do not want to speculate about their weapons programmes but European countries have a role in engaging much more closely with them in the years ahead. That should be part of this country’s coherent foreign policy.

We can prepare British or European measures on Iran. I hope that the Government are discussing those matters with their European counterparts and that they can reassure the House that any discussions with Iran about Iraq—of course, the door should be open to such discussions—will not come at the price of concessions over its breach of the non-proliferation treaty.

The behaviour of Iran and North Korea in the past year demonstrates beyond doubt that the non-proliferation treaty is in urgent need of attention and some repair. Up to 40 countries are now considered to have the technical know-how to produce nuclear weapons, and black market proliferators are at work. The risk of a nuclear device or nuclear material falling into the hands of terrorists has grown. Thinking is going on around the world about how to strengthen the bargain inherent in a non-proliferation treaty, possibly by the creation, some argue, of international fuel banks to make enriched uranium accessible to all legitimate nation state customers for peaceful purposes.

Is it not now time for this country and others to place a very high priority on that work and to champion some constructive ideas about it? The Foreign Secretary told me in a written answer last month that

“progress made…during the 2005 NPT Review Conference provides an important foundation for further efforts to strengthen the Treaty”.—[Official Report, 30 October 2006; Vol. 451, c. 251-52W.]

Yet that conference failed to agree on a single recommendation of substance. A treaty to end the production of fissile material for weapons purposes has been on the proliferation and disarmament agenda for decades, and in June the Foreign Secretary told me that her officials were “assessing” a draft treaty put forward by the US in May. It is fair to ask whether they have reached any conclusions about that and whether they can tell us more about the proposal for a system of international control of the fuel cycle, which the UK apparently put forward earlier this year.

I am pleased that the right hon. Gentleman mentions the non-proliferation treaty. Is he fully aware that the terms of the 1970 treaty also include within it an obligation on the five declared nuclear weapons states to undertake long-term disarmament? In that light, is it right for his party, or indeed anyone else, to support this country’s rearmament with an increased nuclear capability? Should we not be showing the way on the NPT by adhering to it ourselves?

The hon. Gentleman will discover that, since that time, the UK has greatly reduced the number of nuclear warheads that it deploys, so the UK has set a rather good example in that respect. What happens in the future is a matter for debate, but I was glad to hear the Foreign Secretary say earlier that she is committed to maintaining a British nuclear deterrent, since there had been some discussion in the press about those matters. The House should have a proper debate when the time is right.

I shall move on a little more quickly to discussing the situation in the wider middle east, which has become a cauldron of dangers where the prospects for peace have gone backwards rather than forwards in some respects in recent months. The various crises in Afghanistan, Iraq, Lebanon and the Israeli-Palestinian post-peace process should be approached first of all with frankness—as over-optimistic assessments destroy our credibility and undermine public support—then with realism, acknowledging that there are no quick fixes, and long-term application and planning. Many of these problems will be with us throughout the life of this Government and well into the next. We must make every possible effort to work with cultures that are very different from our own.

It is particularly important not to think of these conflicts as simply different fronts in a single struggle, as the motivation of an Iraqi militia man may be very different from that of a supporter of Hezbollah in Lebanon and quite different again from that of an al-Qaeda terrorist hiding on the Afghan-Pakistan border. Terrorism is now the greatest threat to our national security, but it does not come from a single or simple source and our rhetoric should not encourage the idea that we are engaged in a clash of civilisations. It should encourage the idea that we are in the business of making long-term friends among the many peoples and Governments of the middle east and north Africa who have no hostility towards us.

Our strategy should not lump countries and peoples together, but appreciate their differences. Syria may respond differently in future from Iran and perceptions held by Palestinians are often different from those in neighbouring Arab states. Similarly, recognition in the House that terrorism cannot be defeated by military means alone—partly, as it has turned out, because it has some of its roots in our own society as well as overseas—means that in fighting it, we must uphold our own highest values. That is why I was pleased to hear the Foreign Secretary criticise Guantanamo Bay to the Bush Administration, which I did earlier in the year. We agree on that. When we frame our own anti-terrorism laws, they must be tough and effective, but also justified in order to uphold our own highest values.

The Prime Minister ranged over some middle east issues in his major speech on foreign policy last week, but we would like to understand more about what it meant in practice. It seemed that its emphasis on dialogue with Iran and Syria was meant to be significant and new, but the policy that he articulated was not. Ministers have always been open to dialogue with Syria and Iran, as indeed they should be. The Foreign Secretary did not discuss what thought has been given to the wider diplomatic machinery that could be established, irrespective of Syrian and Iranian engagement. It may be difficult to secure that, but those countries could join in such machinery in the future. There is surely a good case for creating a contact group of major powers, working closely with constructive nations of the region such as Turkey, Jordan and the countries of the Gulf Co-operation Council. Such a group could be developed and strengthened over time.

That may be one of the ideas being considered in Washington by the Baker commission. It is important that there be British engagement with that commission, and the Prime Minister was absolutely right to speak to its members last week. However, the Secretary of State did not say what continuing contact Foreign Office Ministers will have with that commission and whether parallel thinking is taking place here on this side of the Atlantic at the same time. Although we have already debated the case for an inquiry on Iraq—we will return to it on another occasion—I hope that Ministers will be clear that one of the things that everyone will wish to examine in future is the advice given by the British Government to the Bush Administration now and in the coming weeks. I hope that the Defence Secretary will be able to expand on that later today.

International co-operation and external support for Iraq, anchored in a powerful contact group, are almost certainly necessary, given that at some stage an Iraqi Government will have to stand on their own. Whenever that is, their early days could be shaky, to say the least. Equally, however, external diplomacy alone is not going to solve the problems that have now arisen within Iraq and we should not delude ourselves into thinking that it will. Surely those problems can be solved only there.

On the background, I suspect that there is still a lot of common ground between Ministers and Opposition Front Benchers. We, like them, believe that the invasion of Iraq and the overthrow of Saddam Hussein were justified. We, like them, believe that many mistakes were made in the aftermath, although they are irritated when we say so even though they say so themselves. We agree with them that the adoption of an arbitrary timetable for withdrawal would be unwise, given that it would obviously set a timetable for insurgent activity itself, but the Foreign Secretary suggested in her speech today a hopeful transfer of more responsibility to Iraqi forces. At the same time, I suspect that we all recognise that a partition of Iraq is unlikely to present a solution, other than an extraordinarily bloody and violent one, and that the military means available are no longer sufficient on their own to guarantee success.

If all those things are the case, immediate events in the politics and government of Iraq become the vital cog without which the wheels of western military force and international diplomacy cannot usefully turn. British and American efforts are therefore dependent on the ability of the Iraqi Government to achieve some of the things that the Foreign Secretary spoke about—a national reconciliation, about which she was so positive, stemming sectarian violence, disarming militias, finding agreement on the sharing of oil revenues, dealing with the appalling level of corruption and improving the effectiveness of economic reconstruction.

It may be necessary to bring greater pressure to do those things, together with an intensified effort to build up what is already one of the few possible success stories in Iraq—the creation of an army unquestionably loyal to its elected Government. I hope that the Defence Secretary will clarify the Government’s view of US proposals for increased involvement of troops in training Iraqi forces. A lot has been done already. Is there a similar line of thinking among our own Government? To what use will the £100 million offered by the Chancellor at the weekend actually be put? Our assessment of the importance of these domestic objectives and whether they can be realised within Iraq will surely determine the effectiveness of our military contribution and our international diplomacy. Only when we know that the Iraqi Government are capable of accomplishing those objectives can we all assess how long our military presence will be useful. The same applies to Afghanistan.

The right hon. Gentleman makes a powerful case for international co-operation in Iraq. However, his own Back Benchers advocate leaving Europe, while the Front Benchers are talking about distancing themselves from American policy. If the unthinkable happened and his party came to power, whom would it work with in respect of international affairs?

I am not sure that that intervention was wholly up to the level of the debate so far, which is not about differences in European policy. I have emphasised the agreement with what the Foreign Secretary said about EU enlargement and working with the United States, so I shall carry on to make two more points, then let others speak.

We have troops in Afghanistan, as in Iraq, whose performance is one of extraordinary resilience and sometimes outright heroism. My hon. Friend the Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox), the shadow Defence Secretary, has always said that there would be two unacceptable outcomes in Afghanistan: to fail to act or to act and fail. Government assessments in the past have been rather over-optimistic, including when the Defence Secretary said in July said that neither the Taliban nor the range of illegally armed groups posed a threat to the long-term stability of Afghanistan. Such assessments seem complacent now, and were seen as such at the time. If NATO’s deployment was informed by the same thinking, it is no wonder that serious difficulties have been encountered.

Again, not everything that should be done is in the gift of this country. The creation of an effective judiciary and the combating of a massive level of corruption must be carried out if we are not to face long-term failure, but other things are within our gift.

I shall give way to my hon. Friend in a moment, as he has been to Afghanistan so often.

The Government have been working on some of the things that need to be done, such as the Prime Minister’s announcement of aid for Pakistan at the weekend, but they have been slow to do other things.

Brigadier John Lorimer, who is shortly to take over command of British forces, has requested a number of Challenger tanks and Warriors, as well as an entire battalion. However, the answer that he has received is that his request is unlikely to be met. Does my right hon. Friend agree that if we are to win the war against the Taliban, we must arm our troops with the right kit to perform the task?

There does seem to be a gap, to which my hon. Friend has pointed, between repeated prime ministerial assertions that our troops will of course have everything that they want, and reports, which often filter through, that they want a good deal more than has been provided for them. Our troops were short of helicopter lift for a long time, but have received only two additional Chinooks in recent months. Co-operation and relationships between the Department for International Development and the Ministry of Defence in Helmand province are often said to be poor.

It is appropriate that I should intervene at this stage, because the misinformation on which the previous intervention was based ought to be corrected. The press speculation about General Lorimer—[Hon. Members: “Brigadier Lorimer.”] I apologise. The speculation about Brigadier Lorimer was contained in an article in which he was quoted as knocking down the very suggestion that was made to support the article. I can confirm to the House what Brigadier Lorimer himself has confirmed, which is that the request that was allegedly reported in the press has not yet been made. There is of course a process for review of troops, but there is no truth in the assertion that a request has been made, which will be refused.

I am grateful for that intervention, although we are left in something of a grey area about whether the request is coming. I do not know what Brigadier Lorimer has said, but I know that he will be delighted to have been promoted to general by the Defence Secretary on the Floor of the House. Nevertheless, our troops and officers returning from Afghanistan often express concerns about such matters, which cannot simply be brushed aside.

Our calls—to add to the list of what ought to be done—for stronger co-ordination of the often duplicated international reconstruction efforts have been ignored. Those matters now need further attention, along with another major effort to obtain further help from our NATO allies. As the Foreign Secretary said, failure to do so will undermine NATO’s ability, not only in Afghanistan, but in every other area of alliance business.

On counter-narcotics, on which Britain is in the lead, the huge growth in opium cultivation this year of 59 per cent. surely calls for a reassessment of strategy. Other approaches, such as the licensed growing of opium for legal purposes, have been discounted, but it may be time at least to consider pilot projects in the future.

Finally, the Prime Minister has been right to emphasise the importance of breathing new life into the middle east peace process. However, it is important to recognise that that will not be easy, nor would it automatically solve the problems of Iraq and Afghanistan even if it was. Hopeful rhetoric about the peace process must not, therefore, become a substitute for fresh actions and reassessment in Iraq and Afghanistan. However, given the deepening crisis in Lebanon—where UN resolutions requiring the disarmament of Hezbollah are going entirely unimplemented—the endless stand-off in Gaza, and the steady separation of Palestinian and Israeli people, which suicide bombings and the response to them have brought about, a new international emphasis on middle east peace is of course desperately needed.

The leadership on that will have to come from America, although it cannot be successful without the support of many other nations. The Prime Minister said in September that he would dedicate himself, with the same commitment that he has given to Northern Ireland, to advancing peace between Israel and Palestine. We should like to know what that will mean in concrete terms and what initiatives will be involved.

We hope that Britain will be in the forefront of that effort, but it is vital to recognise that British influence in the middle east is at a low ebb. Many of the moderate nations of the middle east do not feel that they have been a priority for British diplomacy for some years. That has been a weakness in British foreign policy. This country needs a long-term and refreshed approach to the countries of the middle east, pursued for many years to come and across political parties, to deepen our political, cultural, economic and educational links with many Muslim countries.

No, I am so sorry, but I really must finish my remarks.

The need for a new approach is partly because of the same strategic reason why we are advocates of Turkish membership of the European Union, but it is also because strengthened alliances will be necessary to cope with all the situations that I have described, which reach beyond NATO, beyond Europe and beyond the transatlantic relationship. We also need those allies to help us to bring about the necessary reform of international institutions and treaties that are struggling to keep up with the rapid changes in the world, which include the United Nations and the NPT.

We should be the clear advocates of the reform of those institutions and of a struggle against terror which upholds our own highest values, while reaching out to new friends. I hope that the Government will increasingly be able not only to chart the way forward on the immediate crises that we are debating—and to accept some of the proposals that we have made—but to chart the way towards a coherent foreign policy on the middle east that would command genuine bipartisan support in the House.

Order. I remind the House that Mr. Speaker has placed a 10-minute limit on Back-Bench speeches, which comes into effect now.

I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary on her opening remarks and to the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague), because it is important that we show a bipartisan view in the House on many of these issues. That has come across powerfully in the two speeches that we have heard from the Front Benches.

In his Mansion House speech, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister spoke well about our close and enduring friendship with the United States. Long before 9/11, but more since, we have stood shoulder to shoulder with our American allies. My right hon. Friend emphasised that it was always right to keep that partnership strong. His personal commitment to the alliance came through when he said:

“Post 9/11, there were no half-hearted allies…There were allies and others.”

I firmly support that, and I speak from the point of view of someone who considers himself to be a Euro-Atlanticist. I believe strongly in a vibrant Europe being an equal partner with the United States, but it must be a true partnership, in which we do not always hitch our wagon to America’s star on foreign and defence policy. It must be a partnership in which there is a frank exchange of views between friends who might not always see eye to eye, but who remain firm friends and are totally honest with each other.

In our lifetimes, I believe that China will become an equal to and even overtake Europe and the United States economically. It will not be the first time in our history that we have faced an economic superpower, but it will be the first time that we have faced one devoid of our traditions of freedom and democracy, which we in western Europe and the United States have enjoyed for generations. For that we reason, we should all be Euro-Atlanticists.

But true and lasting friendship between Britain and the United States will endure only if we are open and frank with each other. We are equal in the friendship; we are not a client of the United States. When I was a defence Minister receiving briefings, I often felt that the present US Administration sometimes saw us as a client first and as a friend second. I have certainly felt that about some of the aspects of how we have handled the conflict in Iraq.

We entered the conflict with a plan for war, but the sad truth is that the US-led coalition had no plan for the peace. President Bush has been given a pretty powerful reminder of that in the mid-term elections, which saw disastrous results for his Republican party. The power of the ballot box has humbled an arrogant Government, who, while they controlled the White House and both houses of Congress, were prepared to ride roughshod over dissent and doubt. History tells all of us elected to public office that whatever our ambitions, we cannot lead people where they will not go.

There can be no more damning comment on the lack of clear policy for post-conflict Iraq than that by Henry Kissinger, who has made it clear that there will be no military victory in Iraq. A peaceful Iraq will emerge only if we engage with other powers in the region, which means Syria and Iran, as well as the moderate Arab powers to which my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister referred in his Mansion House speech.

Before the hon. Gentleman moves off the subject of an equal relationship with the United States, does he agree that the transfer of technology in relation to the joint strike fighter will be a key test of whether we have such a relationship? Does he agree that if we do not receive that transfer of technology, we should not enter the programme?

I know that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and Ministers in the Ministry of Defence have been working hard on that matter. I entirely agree with the right hon. Gentleman’s point.

Notwithstanding the events in Lebanon in the past 24 hours and the nuclear ambitions of Iran, those two countries could play as much of a role in creating a stable Iraq as they are now playing in destabilising it by fomenting terror and strife. We engaged in the Iraq conflict without, I believe, a clear plan B. We won the conflict, removed Saddam and disbanded his security forces, only to see the country slip into chaos. We now scramble about trying to train enough Iraqi forces, although I recognise the progress to which my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary referred in her opening remarks.

British servicemen and women have laid down their lives in the conflict and our thoughts must be with them and their families. Our forces risk their lives there daily. The plain fact is that we want our troops home, but we must recognise that that is not possible at this time. But while our forces are there, of course, they need our full backing and support. Even more than that, they need us to work out and work for a peaceful resolution to the conflict.

The mantra that we are in Iraq as long as the Iraqi Government want us there will no longer wash. At first, that gave us some comfort and reassurance that we were following a process to bring about a stable and free country, from which we could then withdraw our forces. I, like many others, felt that there was light at the end of the tunnel. Sadly, despite the progress to which my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary referred in her opening remarks, at present, I cannot really see that tunnel.

The Prime Minister was right to say that we must engage with other powers in the region, and I am sure that he has felt that for some time. He certainly demonstrated a better grasp of the underlying problem than President Bush when he made every effort to revive the middle east peace process. He reaffirmed that strategy in his Mansion House speech.

True friends tell each other the truth, no matter how difficult and painful that might be from time to time. It is up to this Government to be honest and plain-speaking with our American friends. Too many young lives have been lost, and more are at risk as our soldiers struggle to contain the violence on the streets in Iraq. The Iraq conflict saw us take our eye off the ball in Afghanistan, and our British forces there are now engaged in some of the fiercest fighting that they have witnessed since the Korean war. That is another reason why we need the help of other countries in the region, and we must be grateful to Pakistan for the role that it has played. Would that our NATO partners put as much effort into helping to solve the issues in Afghanistan as Pakistan has done.

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence has said that our forces are stretched but not overstretched. There is a fine line, however, and one that is easily crossed. The 1998 strategic defence review said that

“we must match the commitments we undertake to our planned resources, recognising that there will always be the risk of additional short-term pressures if we have to respond rapidly to an unforeseen crisis.”

Since the publication of the SDR, the world has much changed. Until 9/11, no one had heard much about the Taliban in Afghanistan or planned any large operations in Iraq. The NAO report on recruitment and retention in the armed forces should be read by every Member of the House. If our foreign policy objectives involve the use of military force, we must recognise that those will be realised only if we have the resources. We must not bite off more than we can chew.

Our forces in Iraq and Afghanistan are fighting for our freedom as much as for the freedom of the peoples of those countries. We ask so much of the men and women of the British armed forces, and we owe them a duty of care. Throughout our history, we have challenged tyranny and injustice. We have been prepared to fight for freedom. About 10 days ago, our country mourned those who died in terrible world wars in the previous century. If we and our American friends do not now seek positive engagement with other countries across the middle east to stop the spread of terror in Afghanistan and to end the conflict in Iraq, many more of our young men and women will die. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has a good grasp of that, and he must ensure that the vacuum left in western foreign policy by the electoral reversals of President Bush is now filled.

Forty-three years ago today, the world lost a young President who recognised the foolishness of America trying to go it alone. He said:

“What kind of peace do we seek? Not a Pax Americana enforced on the world by American weapons of war.”

He said:

“I am talking about genuine peace, the kind of peace that makes life…worth living, the kind that enables men and nations to grow and to hope to build a better life for their children—not merely peace in our time but peace for all time”.

The world has changed beyond all recognition since then, but I hope that our Government will at least remind our American friends of that warning given by one of their own, which is still powerfully relevant today.

I draw the House’s attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Interests.

It is always a pleasure to follow the right hon. Member for Islwyn (Mr. Touhig). He was always courteous and a pleasure to deal with as a Minister in the Ministry of Defence. I regret to tell him that some cases, not least that of Mr. John Horsman, still need to be resolved, but I always appreciated his efforts on his and other people’s behalf. He has set out a series of ideas in his thoughtful contribution today, to which I hope that those on the Front Bench have listened carefully.

The Foreign Secretary and the shadow Foreign Secretary set out the vast range of issues that require urgent attention in the world today, not least the challenges of nuclear proliferation and climate change, which the Foreign Secretary was right to say is as much a matter of foreign policy as of anything else. As other Members have done, I want to pay tribute to our armed forces, which underlines how we are united in praising their professionalism, dedication and bravery in the most challenging of circumstances.

As for many right hon. and hon. Members, it was an honour for me to be asked to lay a wreath in my constituency on Remembrance Sunday. We must never forget the sacrifices that our armed forces make on our behalf. Equally, I pay tribute to those in the diplomatic service, who are often nowadays in the front line. Wherever they serve this country, they remain second to none in the regard in which they are held in the House and across the world.

This is not an easy time to be in either the armed forces or the diplomatic corps. As the Foreign Secretary said in her opening remarks, this is a fast-changing and uncertain world. That puts stresses and strains not experienced for generations on the diplomatic corps and armed forces. Nowhere is that more obvious than in Iraq. The Liberal Democrats opposed the invasion of Iraq in March 2003 and voted accordingly. Three weeks ago, we had the first full debate on the situation in Iraq in more than two years.

In the time that has elapsed since that debate the devastation in the country has continued, with at least 100 civilians killed every day, Iraqi politicians being attacked and kidnapped and scores of bodies being discovered by Iraqi police, apparently tortured and often killed in execution style. The statistics continue to make desperate reading. According to the United Nations 3,700 civilians were killed in October, many more than was originally thought, and the highest number since the war began. So far this month at least 47 United States troops have been killed, and five British soldiers have, tragically, lost their lives. That must surely give us pause for thought, if not here certainly across the Atlantic, where congressional elections have altered the political landscape and now promise to reshape the strategic framework for Iraq.

May I suggest that the issue of Iraqi civilians is not just a question of casualties but a question of displacement? According to some estimates, a couple of thousand families are being displaced each week as the sectarian violence grows and families concentrate on their ethic origins.

Sadly there are all too many details on which we could spend time this afternoon that illustrate the desperation in Iraq, but the hon. Gentleman makes an important point.

In the United States the new Democratic Congress is weeks away from taking the reins, but already the Defence Secretary is gone and new urgency attends the work of the bipartisan Iraq Study Group. In the United Kingdom, meanwhile, old mantras remain. As my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for North-East Fife (Sir Menzies Campbell) said earlier in our debates on the Gracious Speech, phrases such as

“We will not cut and run”, “We will stay the course”, and “We will stay for as long as the Iraqi Government want us to”…are meaningless…when judged against the complexity of the circumstances in Iraq”.—[Official Report, 15 November 2006; Vol. 453, c. 34.]

The same point was made today by the right hon. Member for Islwyn.

It is not clear whether those were the lines used last week when the Prime Minister gave evidence to the Iraq study group by video link, but it is surely symbolic that he has resisted any serious public debate on a new Iraq strategy here in Britain in the past few months. By contrast, he was keen to offer his thoughts at length and in private to those in Washington who have been embraced by the President as the key to a new strategy.

Britain has reached a decisive moment. Our support for the efforts of our armed forces and so many others in Iraq has always been on the basis that we recognise our responsibilities to the Iraqis and to wider regional stability, but in the three and a half years since the invasion we have seen the strategy fail. Ultimately our duty is to our armed forces and their security. We must ensure that they have sufficient and appropriate resources, and a credible mission that they can hope to achieve.

The head of the Army, General Dannatt, showed that all those matters are now in question, and exposed the frailties of the situation. Mr. Baker, Mr. Hamilton and their colleagues in the Iraq study group carry a heavy burden. Beyond the USA and here in the UK, people watch and wait for a clear new direction on Iraq. It will have to be based on broader international involvement, not least by Iraq’s neighbours. Events on the ground risk overtaking the development of any new strategy. We see that Syria has renewed diplomatic relations with Iraq for the first time in more than 20 years. The Iraqi President has been invited to Iran for a conference on security. Clearly Iraq’s neighbours are beginning to recognise that they have a serious role to play in Iraq and its diplomacy as well as in other ways, and the new strategy from Washington must also recognise that.

None of this is easy, not least in the context of the serious problems elsewhere in the middle east, but the time has come when difficult choices must be contemplated. In this country we must consider the work of the Iraq study group and the response from the US Administration, but we must do so on British terms. In heeding the warning of General Dannatt we must, as our amendment suggests,

“announce proposals for a strategy for Iraq providing for a phased withdrawal of United Kingdom armed forces”

in months, not years.

Our military capabilities have been stretched in the last few years, and particularly in the last few months as Britain has taken on its extra responsibilities in Afghanistan. Five years after the invasion to oust the Taliban, the need to support a free and democratic Afghanistan—free from international terrorists—is unchanged, and for our own safety here at home we need to be successful. As has been said, huge progress has been made, not least thanks to the sustained efforts of our armed forces, diplomats and others, and also our European and NATO allies—but the successes are in danger, and our mission has clearly changed. Over the past six months, we have had to face up to the consequences of the disastrous diversion in Iraq as the Taliban have re-emerged more violent and more focused than ever. That has meant British soldiers fighting a war rather than keeping the peace.

Our armed forces face enormous challenges and terrible dangers. They must have the weaponry, the equipment and the assets that they need, and along with our NATO allies we must have a coherent strategy with the resources to make it work—but that will not provide the whole solution. Hearts and minds will not be won by military action alone. Such action must be one part of a concerted approach, with adequate resources to create new livelihoods that do not depend on the export of death and misery from the poppy fields. Building a new country is essential if we are to avoid another failed state; otherwise we are in danger of failing that state, and reaping the consequences here at home.

That is also true of the middle east. The horrors of yesterday’s events in Lebanon go beyond the terrible tragedy of Pierre Gemayel’s assassination. Whoever was responsible, and whoever lies behind whoever was responsible, has made the terrible calculation that to destabilise Lebanon further after the disastrous war with Israel earlier in the summer and the political manoeuvrings of recent weeks will advance their influence and cause. But to what end? If there is one recurring lesson in the middle east it is surely that violence generates violence and disaster for all the peoples of the region, and even by the bloody standards of the conflicts of the last few decades, this has been a truly appalling year.

In Israel, Lebanon and Gaza, too many continue to pay the highest price. Even now, the ceasefire in southern Lebanon is fragile: the risks of a return to conflict are still high, and the provocations remain. The shelling of Israeli towns by Hezbollah and Hamas was undoubtedly the origin of the conflicts earlier this year, and in recent weeks the shelling of Israelis from Gaza has created more fear, injury and death. In such circumstances there can be no doubt that Israel has a right to defend itself, but there are constraints under international law. Once again in recent weeks—as we saw earlier in the year—the scale of Israel’s military response has been disproportionate. While this goes on, the prospects for peace remain limited. Nevertheless, the two-state solution must remain the basis for future peace, justice and security for Israel and the Palestinians. Israelis must enjoy the right to live securely within their borders, and Palestinians must have the prospect of a viable state that offers them security as well.

Does my hon. Friend agree that the subdivision of the west bank by the wall, the barrier and the trenches, and also by access roads, rules out the establishment of the Palestinian state that the Palestinians have sought for so long?

My hon. Friend is right. The continuation of those policies by the Israeli Government certainly undermines the possibility of securing a viable Palestinian state.

A number of things will have to happen to put us back on the road to peace. We will need to see some success from the current desperate attempts to form a unity Government in the Palestinian territories. We support all who say that Hamas must recognise the state of Israel, must renounce violence, and must accept the existing peace accords as a basic premise for acceptance by the rest of the world. Those will remain the conditions for the development of long-term peace and the key to future assistance, beyond the basic humanitarian aid that is so desperately needed right now.

Does the hon. Gentleman recognise that one of the problems is the enforced poverty in Palestine resulting from the west’s refusal to pay money directly to the Palestinian Authority, which has created mass unemployment, along with the inability of Palestinian producers to export any goods for a meaningful price? The cycle of poverty and deprivation continues, and the violence also continues as a result.

Those are important points. It is essential for the Palestinians to be able to export their goods, trade and earn money to keep the basics of life going. Equally, although the Government have taken credit for the temporary international mechanism, it is a tragedy that it took so long to put that in place. As has been made clear from interventions in our debate, the retention by the Israeli authorities of millions of dollars of tax receipts due to the Palestinian territories is a desperate way of undermining their viability and the basics of life there. I hope that in the reply to the debate we can be given some further information about how our Government are pressing the Israelis to make that money available, perhaps through the temporary international mechanism, or in another way.

For the world to address these issues, we need to get back to the road map. At times it appears that parts of it have been shredded and the timetable is embarrassingly out of date, but it remains the only starting point for a peace plan that will be the key to stability, not only in Israel and Palestine, but across the middle east. Over the next few months that will be the key test for the Quartet, but especially for our Government.

At the Guildhall, the Prime Minister rightly said that there needs to be a whole middle east strategy, starting with Israel-Palestine and involving Iran and Syria, too. In many ways, that will be unpalatable. We rightly expend much effort on the nuclear crisis in Iran—as the shadow Foreign Secretary did earlier in our debate. If it were to develop a nuclear weapon, that would be a catastrophe for us all. We cannot lose sight of those countries’ involvement with Hezbollah and Hamas but, regardless of how difficult the diplomatic footwork might be, we need to have engagement with those countries—robust but proper engagement.

There is talk of a peace conference, and last week some of our partners in Europe took the lead with an initiative setting out a five-point plan. A peace conference that addresses those points might help us to find a way back to the Quartet’s road map, as the Foreign Secretary put it in her recent speech at the Royal United Services Institute. It is a mark of the desperation of recent months that the international community has so badly lost its bearings.

Beyond the middle east, we face a broad range of challenges. In Darfur, countless people die and suffer, and the regime carries on without any sensitivity to international concerns. As the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition made clear today, there needs to be a recognition in Sudan that the international community must be involved to tackle the killings and the maiming and all the other crimes that are being committed. We must not let up the pressure on the regime to sort out a ceasefire, and we must make it plain that we will not relent, and that we will press for tougher measures at the United Nations if it does not comply, including sanctions.

I do not wish to minimise at all the terrible tragedies in Darfur and Iraq, but is the hon. Gentleman aware that, hidden away from the cameras and with no media coverage, more people die each week in Zimbabwe than in Darfur or Iraq? Given that neither the Foreign Secretary nor the shadow Foreign Secretary mentioned Zimbabwe, would the hon. Gentleman like to give his party’s view of what should be happening in Zimbabwe?

The hon. Lady has been an effective campaigner on that issue in recent years, and it is important for her to put her comments on the record today. In fairness, the Front-Bench Members who have contributed made comprehensive speeches which I hope, in their broad sweep, would include concerns about Zimbabwe. The Liberal Democrats remain appalled at what goes on in Zimbabwe allegedly in the name of democracy, but in fact only for the benefit of President Mugabe and his kleptocracy. The Prime Minister once said that what is happening in Africa was a scar on the conscience of the world—and what is happening in Zimbabwe is one of the biggest parts of that scar.

Before the hon. Gentleman moves on to another topic, I wish to raise a matter that connects Zimbabwe and Sudan: the role of the Chinese. China is the most influential nation in terms of putting pressure on Mugabe and the regime in Khartoum—although it must be understood that the Khartoum regime is a coalition, and that not all the people in it are necessarily guilty of the problems in Darfur. As China could do more than any other nation to put pressure on those regimes, does the hon. Gentleman agree that it is up to the British Government to talk continually to the Chinese so that they understand their world responsibilities?

The hon. Gentleman makes an important point, and people might have been slightly alarmed by the recent international summit that China hosted for African leaders. The nature of Chinese diplomacy in Africa is very clear, and I agree with the hon. Gentleman that we must hope that the Foreign Secretary and her Ministers make it abundantly clear at regular intervals to China that it has important influence with those countries, and must use it.

I wish to focus on one further issue in particular: cluster munitions. Earlier this summer up to 1 million bomblets were fired on Lebanon, and it is reported that only 50 per cent. detonated on impact. Of the cluster-bomb strikes, 90 per cent. occurred in the last 72 hours of the conflict in Lebanon. That has left up to 500,000 devices that are still live, littering hillsides, villages, orchards and fields in civilian areas. Reports say that so far at least 21 Lebanese civilians, including children, have been killed and more than 100 have been injured by late-detonating bomblets.

On Monday, Israel admitted that its use of cluster munitions broke its own army rules. General Halutz said that there were enough grounds from a preliminary inquiry to convene an official investigation into whether court-martial offences had been committed. Such admissions are welcome, and we hope that an official investigation will be undertaken, and that those responsible will be held to account. The point is, however, that such munitions should be banned; as the Secretary of State for International Development has said, they are equivalent to land mines.

What is being done to get them banned? Earlier today, the Prime Minister did not address that question when it was put to him by my hon. Friend the Member for Dunfermline and West Fife (Willie Rennie), who asked about Britain’s role at the conference in Geneva last week. Is it right that Britain obstructed progress at those talks? Also, can we be told a little more about the distinction that we understand is beginning to be made between “dumb” and “smart” cluster munitions—a distinction which, frankly, very few people outside the United Kingdom Government seem to accept? All such munitions should be banned, and Britain should be taking a lead in that.

Let me respond to the points that the hon. Gentleman has made. On the use of cluster bombs in Lebanon, I hope that he is aware that we have called on the Government of Israel not only to make a public statement about their use, but to produce maps indicating where they were used. I also hope that he is aware that the Department for International Development has provided more than £200,000 to the Mines Advisory Group, and we have a commitment to provide £1 million to the United Nations Mines Action Service, particularly to address the issue in Lebanon.

The hon. Gentleman raised a different point about the initiative. Actually, we took the lead. It is nonsense to say that no nation other than the United Kingdom understands the distinction between “dumb” and “not dumb” cluster munitions. At a conference at the beginning of November, we took the lead in trying to get a mandate to discuss those issues between the states parties—the convention on certain conventional weapons parties. We have obtained that. The Norwegian initiative, which I think the hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife (Willie Rennie) was referring to in his question today to the Prime Minister, would take the issue outside that forum. That means that it would be discussed by people—very well-meaning people, no doubt—who do not use or produce cluster weapons. We have taken the lead in getting the issue discussed among producers and users of cluster weapons, because we think that that is the most important step forward to take.

I am grateful to the Foreign Secretary for her intervention. On her first point, several months have now passed since those cluster munitions were dropped on southern Lebanon, and it is unacceptable still not to have maps or other assistance in identifying where they are. I hope that the pressure she mentioned is kept up at a very high level indeed.

On the second point, it has been very difficult to get information on the Government’s stance on cluster munitions, and what the Foreign Secretary has said is perhaps the most extensive statement that we have thus far had. I suggest to her that she might wish to make a written statement—or perhaps an oral statement—to the House, so that we can quiz her, or other Ministers, about the Government’s policy on that; that would be very welcome.

As we approach a new era in Britain with a new Prime Minister, the UK desperately needs to re-establish its credentials internationally by rebalancing its foreign policy. The relationship with America will always be of primary importance, but the world increasingly needs a European voice with British emphasis. Britain must and can be a key player in the common foreign and security policy. There are a growing number of issues in respect of which it is only right that Europe have a common position, even if, on occasion, that differentiates us from the United States of America. I am thinking of issues such as Russia’s increasing assertiveness and the middle east peace process, both of which impact directly on Europe and its borders, and on which Europe can and should have a significant influence.

That does not mean, however, that we will be competing with the USA; we must be complementary, if not always polite. In recent years, the relationship with America has often been uncomfortable, but as US Administrations and British Governments come and go, these issues can be fixed without undermining our most important bilateral relationship. However, repositioning ourselves in the mainstream of Europe and the international multilateral system underpinned by international law is one of our biggest challenges. The need to do so is the saddest legacy of the present Prime Minister.

I want to welcome the visit of my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister to Pakistan, and to emphasise the important links between Pakistan and this country. I very much hope that these improved links will lead at long last to the resolution of the agonising problem of Kashmir, which has tormented that beautiful but tragic part of the world for so long.

I also appreciate the reference in the Gracious Speech to the situation in Palestine, which remains one of the worst injustices in the world. The fact that there are other tragedies does not detract from the nature of that tragedy. What is more, it is a running sore that will poison the middle east until a solution has been arrived at. Members in all parts of the House have condemned the assassination of Mr. Gemayel in Lebanon, but it has to be pointed out that the Israeli Government carry out targeted assassinations of Palestinian leaders regularly and frequently, often killing innocent people in doing so. The Israelis complain—justifiably—about the impact on their country and its morale of rockets fired from the Gaza strip on to, for example, the home town of the Israeli Defence Minister, Amir Peretz. But they now admit that they have used cluster bombs illegally in their invasion of Lebanon.

Let us remember that, although this was called a war between Israel and Lebanon, it was not: it was a war between Israel and Hezbollah, which was accompanied by an Israeli invasion of, and appalling damage and casualties to, Lebanon. That invasion, which achieved none of its objectives—the two kidnapped soldiers remain kidnapped, and the threat from Hezbollah remains and will continue—attracted international attention. However, it must be pointed out that, although that invasion was deeply culpable, it is not the only Israeli invasion and aggression that has taken place in the middle east. Israeli soldiers have been kidnapped by Hezbollah and by Hamas, but the Israelis themselves kidnap people—including many members of the Palestinian Government—but of course, they call it “arrest”, not kidnapping, so that is all right.

Gaza remains the hidden tragedy in which Israelis indiscriminately slaughter innocent civilians, including many children. When 13 members of one family, including children and a baby, were killed by the Israelis a short while ago, the Israeli Prime Minister called it a “technical error”. Just imagine what he, other Israelis and militant Jewish organisations would have said if Jews and Israelis had been killed and it had simply been dismissed as a technical error.

Would the right hon. Gentleman like to comment on Britain’s response to the United Nations when a resolution was proposed condemning that action?

This Government and my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister have played an extremely active role in trying to bring about a peace process, and they were largely responsible for the formation of the Quartet, an issue with which I shall deal before I sit down.

The people who were killed as a result of that “technical error” are still just as dead as if they had been killed deliberately. Corporal Shalit, who was kidnapped in the summer and whose kidnapping is the stated reason for Israeli aggression in Gaza, remains unfree. So the situation remains: the Israelis kill and maim, their own citizens are killed and murdered—by rockets, for example—and their soldiers die. They achieve none of their objectives, and they will achieve none until a peace process is arrived at.

Meanwhile, every single Palestinian is in grinding poverty, and there is widespread unemployment. Palestinian unemployment, poverty and deprivation, which are at third-world levels, are made even more unacceptable by the fact that the Palestinians live minutes away from Israelis who possess first-world standards of living. Such living standards are often a result of subsidy by the United States Government, who also subsidise Israeli armaments.

The Palestinians are not only forced into grinding poverty; they are humiliated at the 300 or more checkpoints that the Israelis have erected, and which impede Palestinians’ freedom of movement. I led our House of Commons and House of Lords official Inter-Parliamentary Union delegation to the Palestinian territories just under a year ago, and we were treated abominably by Israeli soldiers, who threatened us at gunpoint. But we experienced that for only a few days; for the Palestinians, that is their life, every single day, with no let-up. That is totally unacceptable to any civilised society, including the civilised society upon which Israel was founded, and according to which it conducted itself for so long under enlightened leadership. Such leadership is distinct from this ineffable Israeli Prime Minister, whose rating has fallen in the Israeli polls to 7 per cent., and—I am very sorry to say—from the Defence Minister and leader of the Israeli Labour party, who has tarnished that party’s wonderful record as the founding party of Israel.

The wall—the illegal wall, which was condemned by the International Court of Justice—is still being built, as has been pointed out. However, none of what the Israelis are doing is doing them any good whatsoever. The wall is not only being built in Palestinian territory and creating deprivation and separation, but is turning Israel into a self-created ghetto. My family came to this country from the ghettos of eastern Europe. Israel was created to ensure that no Jews ever again would have to live in a ghetto. So the Israelis have now created their own ghetto, in which their own Jewish and Arab citizens have to live, and in which they have no freedom of movement whatsoever. Therefore, the situation is not only appalling for the Palestinians, but for the Israelis. They are still getting away with murder, and there is no point in pretending otherwise. They kill large numbers of people, whether through technical errors, as they call them, or in other ways, and destroy families, none of which does the Israelis any good, let alone anyone else.

It is with deep regret that I say that while the United States supports the neocons who still surround President Bush even after his electoral setback, the Israelis will be impervious to international opinion. It is no use appealing to the good will of Ehud Olmert, because he does not have any. It is no use appealing to the good will of Amir Peretz or Shimon Peres, because they have sunk the noble identity of the Israeli Labour party into the alliance with Olmert and others. Now we have the Yisrael Betenu party—a racist party that wants to ship off Palestinians—sitting around the same Cabinet table as Labour leaders in Israel. That is absolutely obscene.

On many occasions, I have advocated economic sanctions against Israel. I still believe that if the Israelis will not listen to reason and act with reason, economic sanctions are the only way.

The Gracious Speech did not mention the armed forces or defence as such at all. It did say:

“My Government…will…support the new Iraqi Government in its efforts to build an enduring constitutional settlement, and to assist the Government of Afghanistan.”

This would be an appropriate place to put in a warm tribute to our armed forces, who put their lives on the line on a daily basis to give effect and meaning to that support.