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Commons Chamber

Volume 461: debated on Tuesday 5 June 2007

House of Commons

Tuesday 5 June 2007

The House met at half-past Two o’clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Private Business

National Trust (Northern Ireland) Bill

Read the Third time, and passed.

Oral Answers to Questions

Foreign and Commonwealth Office

The Secretary of State was asked—

EU Constitution

EU institutional reform will be discussed at the European Council later this month. We expect the presidency to issue a report on the way forward before, but quite possibly only just before, the Council meets. We have made clear to partners our belief that the EU should return to the model of an amending treaty that makes the EU more effective and better able to deliver benefits to EU citizens.

The Foreign Secretary will know that a group of countries within the EU—most notably the Czech Republic, the Netherlands and, to a certain extent, Poland—still have deep reservations about any revived form of the EU constitution.

Of course. Those countries look to Great Britain for strong leadership. I very much hope that the Foreign Secretary can give them some assurance from the Chamber today.

I can certainly assure the hon. Gentleman and any of our allies who are looking for a lead that it remains very strongly our view that the only way forward that makes sense for the EU is indeed the pursuit of an amending treaty that does not have the characteristics of a constitution. It is not quite clear to me that all of the member states that he lists have exactly the same concerns as we do, but it is certainly true that they have concerns and that we, of course, have ours.

Will the Foreign Secretary help the House by letting us know whether it is the Government’s view that criminal justice should continue to be administered on an intergovernmental basis with national vetoes, and whether the Government will seek a referendum of the British people if there should be any change to that position?

We are some considerable distance from knowing what will be on the table with regard to the treaty and, therefore, whether acceptance of anything proposed would be likely to trigger a referendum in the UK. But I can certainly assure the hon. Gentleman and the House that there is strong understanding on the part of the Government of the concerns that there would be about the area that he highlights in particular. That is certainly something at which we will look carefully to see where Britain’s national interest lies.

Do not the bellicose language coming out of Russia on the one hand and the failed foreign policies of the USA on the other underline the need for politicians across Europe to stop vacillating on the question of European reforms and to make sure we get the amending treaty agreed as soon as possible, so that we can act in a more unified way to meet the world challenges that we face?

My hon. Friend makes an interesting point. It would be helpful if we got the right kind of amending treaty, but the EU is not paralysed. It is continuing to work; useful decisions on, for example, climate change continue to be made. But it would be good to get a good agreement.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that we need to persevere with certain parts of the original treaty, such as capping the numbers in the European Parliament and ending the rotating six-month presidency? This would contribute to a reduction in the bureaucracy of the EU, and by enhancing the decision-making powers of the Council, we could get on with discussing the real issues that Europe faces, such as climate change and security.

My hon. Friend is right that there are proposals that could improve the effective and efficient working of the EU. It is to such proposals that we are primarily directing our attention.

Will the Secretary of State indicate the extent to which there have been discussions between herself, the present Chancellor of the Exchequer—soon to be Prime Minister—and the Prime Minister himself on the basis upon which any treaty might be signed? I asked the Prime Minister about this issue the other day and got no answer. Perhaps the Foreign Secretary will enlighten us.

Does the Foreign Secretary agree that modest change is required to European treaties? We now have an EU of 27 states and we need changes to make it function effectively.

My hon. Friend is right; there are practical proposals of the kind to which he and my hon. Friend the Member for Wakefield (Mary Creagh) referred that could make the working of an EU of 27 more effective and efficient. Those are the kinds of changes that we hope our colleagues will wish to seek.

No doubt the constitution and EU matters were discussed this morning at the joint ministerial committee between UK Government Ministers, the new SNP Scottish Minister for Europe, Linda Fabiani, and other devolved Ministers. Could the Secretary of State update the House on the matters that were discussed and inform us of which issues proposed by the devolved Administrations she will take forward?

No, I cannot do that as it is not the practice to discuss the issues aired and the debates that take place at such meetings. However, the mechanism that exists for ensuring that everyone is aware of the different concerns of different players, including the devolved Administrations, has worked well in the past, and I trust that it will continue to do so in the future.

Is it not right that we should be at the forefront of the European Union reform agenda? I wish the Foreign Secretary well in the discussions that are to take place. Will she reject the scaremongering of Opposition Members who only seek to damage our position in Europe, and does she agree that it is right that in a Europe of 27 we should reform the institutions to make sure that they are better placed, in order that we can protect British interests?

I agree with my right hon. Friend. The European Union is an important fact of today’s political life, and the United Kingdom is a major and important player within it. The more effectively the EU works together, the more that is in our national interest as well as our international interests.

I hope that the right hon. Lady accepts that there are no Conservative Members who are not greatly in favour of the EU reform agenda. Does she not think that it would have been helpful to her and the Prime Minister if we had had a proper set-aside debate to discuss fully the future of the EU and the position that they should take in Brussels?

I am not familiar with the term “set-aside debate”, but I take on board the hon. Gentleman’s point that there is a need for discussion. However, there has been quite a lot of discussion, and there will be more in future. There are a number of Select Committee hearings and there will be a debate in this House before the Council meets. There is an issue that has not been fully appreciated in the House; that is not a criticism, as I understand why it is so. Colleagues have, perhaps, not fully appreciated that the debate on this matter has not moved on in recent weeks. We talk about frozen conflicts, but this has almost been a frozen debate; there has been very little change.

I very much hope that there will be an amending treaty. I urge the Foreign Secretary to look at an element of the way in which the EU currently works which is utter folly: the caravanserai every six weeks from Brussels to Strasbourg. That is a complete waste of time and money. Does she agree that it is the consequence of a political fix of many years ago which is now long outdated?

I have a good deal of sympathy with that point. However, as I am sure my hon. Friend knows, this issue has been examined and reconsidered repeatedly under different Governments without a different decision having been reached.

I remind the Secretary of State that the previous draft treaty met considerable resistance in fishing communities because of its insistence that the conservation of marine biological resources should be a sole competence of the EU. Does she accept that that was an inappropriate extension of EU powers, and will she give us some undertaking to resist its inclusion if we are to have another EU draft?

To that I simply say, with some caution, that I am well aware that there are many issues about which various people have reservations and which they would like the opportunity to re-examine, and I hope that the hon. Gentleman will forgive me for stating that I hope that something of that level of detail will not be in the amending treaty.

Is it not part of the EU modus operandi that major changes in political power and democratic accountability are slid through piece by piece, with each piece portrayed as being of relative insignificance? Is there not a risk that the growing gap between what political leaders do and what electorates want will lead to a shrivelling of support for the whole political process and the European project?

To a certain extent, I take on board my hon. Friend’s point. However, I view with some irony the cheers of encouragement he receives from those on the Opposition Benches, since no Government in our history did more to slide through incrementally—bit by bit—changes in our relationship with the European Union than that represented by the Opposition party.

Does the Foreign Secretary recognise that there is huge dissatisfaction across this House at the Government’s persistent refusal to give their views and to express their goals for the forthcoming EU summit? The Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee wrote to her saying that

“the Committee regards the refusal of the FCO to provide a Minister to give oral evidence during this crucial phase of the discussions on the future of Europe as a failure of accountability to Parliament.”

The Chairman of the Home Affairs Committee, on the vital question of the veto on criminal law, said

“It has not been easy for us to discover what the Government’s position is…We don’t know what it is.”

Is that because Ministers do not want Parliament to know what their position is, or because they are in a state of paralysis and do not themselves know what their position is?

I of course understand the concern and dissatisfaction of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee. It is unfortunate that it was not possible for us to reach the kind of agreement that it wished to see according to the timing that it had in mind. However, the Minister for Europe, my right hon. Friend the Member for Ashfield (Mr. Hoon), has just confirmed to me that he was able to go, and would have been prepared to go, before the Committee this week, last week or the week before. In May, when the Select Committee had hoped to take evidence from both of us, it was again not possible to find a mutually agreed date, so there is no unwillingness. As it happens, my right hon. Friend will be giving evidence, and I will be giving evidence to the Scrutiny Committee and to the Foreign Affairs Committee, and there will be a debate in this House, so we are very willing to make our views known. However, I repeat to the right hon. Gentleman what I said a moment or two ago: there are perfectly understandable anxieties that the Government’s position has in some way changed without the House being informed, but the fact is that it has not changed.

If the Government’s position has not changed, the Foreign Secretary will recall that they were elected on a manifesto that promised a referendum on the EU constitution. Does she also recall that the Prime Minister said, when he finally agreed to hold a referendum,

“what you can’t do is have a situation where you get a rejection of the treaty and then you just bring it back with a few amendments and say we will have another go”?

So should the Foreign Secretary not honour the Government’s pledge by guaranteeing now that if the new treaty transfers competencies from Britain to the EU by incorporating parts of the rejected EU constitution, the British people will have their say in the referendum that they were promised?

First, there is no suggestion of bringing back the constitutional treaty in its previous form. Secondly, the right hon. Gentleman talks about transferring competencies, but I am sure that he will recall that there is much in the constitutional treaty, which was drawn together from a whole range of sources, that is already in the existing treaties. The notion that there will be some huge transfer of competencies is not well founded. We will assess the position once the negotiations have taken place, but is certainly not the intention of this Government that a treaty that has the characteristics of a constitution is one that we would wish to see agreed.


We remain very concerned about Iran’s nuclear programme. The International Atomic Energy Agency director general, Dr. Mohamed el-Baradei, reported on 23 May that Iran had not complied with Security Council resolution 1747. The Security Council is, as envisaged in that resolution, considering further measures to persuade Iran to suspend its proliferation-sensitive activities and to return to negotiations.

The Secretary of State will of course be aware that the extent of Iran’s nuclear programme became apparent largely as a result of a series of disclosures made by an associate of the People’s Mujaheddin of Iran. Given the obvious value and importance of that information not only to Britain but to the rest of the world, could the Secretary of State please explain why that organisation continues to be branded a terrorist organisation and to be proscribed not only by the EU, but by the British Government under the provisions of the Terrorism Act 2006?

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman is aware that it is not the habit of any Government to discuss details of concern about terrorist issues and organisations. However, it is the view of this Government and of the European Union that this is a proscribed organisation and should remain one; that has been explored on many occasions and has been reaffirmed on an equal number of occasions.

A couple of weeks ago, a delegation of members of the Iranian Parliament, together with Iranian trade unionists, visited this House and met with Opposition and Government Members to discuss issues of mutual interest between Iran and Britain. There were clear disagreements, but there was also a strong feeling that the dialogue was valuable and useful to both sides. I urge the Foreign Secretary, while maintaining the primacy of the need for Iran to comply with international treaties, nevertheless to pursue every avenue to maintain a dialogue at all levels between our two countries.

As my hon. Friend may know, I met the Iranian Foreign Minister at the meeting in Sharm el Sheikh a couple of weeks ago. We do maintain a dialogue with the Government of Iran, not least because we think that it is important to encourage them to recognise the benefits to Iran, as well as to the rest of the international community, of a greater understanding and appreciation on the part of that Government of the importance of pursuing peaceful negotiations on their perceived nuclear programme and on several other issues. We do maintain that dialogue, but it occurs within some very firm parameters.

Given that the EU is Iran’s largest single trade partner, can the Foreign Secretary tell us whether she has urged her EU colleagues to agree to restrict EU export credit guarantees to Iran?

The issue has been touched on, but not yet discussed in depth. It is, of course, very much one of the issues that may well be pursued when we come again—as we are likely to do in the near future—to consider whether there is scope for further sanctions against Iran, given that it appears not to be willing to comply with the existing resolutions.

Does the Foreign Secretary agree that it is essential that we ensure that Iran remains a member of the non-proliferation treaty system, that dialogue be continued with it, and that we do our best to persuade all neighbouring countries in the region, including Israel, also to sign the non-proliferation treaty so as to try to bring about the dream of a nuclear-free region?

I can say something that I do not say very often, which is that I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. I hope that that is not a source of dismay to him. We do believe that Iran should remain in the non-proliferation treaty. Indeed, we would like to see Iran observing its provisions, which is even more important than staying within it. We have consistently urged on the Government of Israel that they should sign the non-proliferation treaty and it is very much our policy that we would like to see a nuclear weapons-free zone in the middle east.

Iran’s continued flouting of its nuclear obligations is worrying and unacceptable, and the international community must be clear and united in delivering that message. Does the Foreign Secretary agree that the diplomatic initiatives by Condoleezza Rice have been consistent with those of Europe and others in efforts to make Iran comply with United Nations resolutions? If so, does the Foreign Secretary agree that Vice-President Cheney’s recent speech, in which he threatened the use of naval power against Iran, delivered as it was while he stood on the deck of one of the two American aircraft carriers just off the coast of Iran, undermined that diplomatic approach and was counter-productive?

It is not for me to answer questions about the policy of the Government of the United States. I will say only therefore that it is indeed the case that the United States has been a major partner in the discussions and negotiations with Iran about its use of nuclear power and that that has been a useful and constructive role.

Given the growing concern about Iran’s nuclear capacity, how does my right hon. Friend regard the statement made last Sunday by President Ahmedinejad that the Lebanese war had pressed the button for Israel’s destruction?

I am afraid that I view those remarks in much the same spirit as I view many of President Ahmedinejad’s comments, which is that they are not helpful to the wider international community or to the reputation of Iran.

The Foreign Secretary will know that Iran’s ballistic missile programme is intertwined with its nuclear programme. What estimates have the Government made of when Iran will be capable of deploying missiles outside the region?

Assessments of that kind continue to be made. We are concerned about Iran’s intentions. While pursuit of civil nuclear power is perfectly acceptable, we are anxious to ensure that nuclear weapons are not something that Iran pursues. That is a major concern on its own. The question of a delivery mechanism is, if I may say so, at present somewhat secondary, and long may it remain so.

While I encourage my right hon. Friend’s and the British Government’s commitment to dialogue, what is her response to the comments by Mohamed el-Baradei, the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, that Iran should be permitted limited uranium enrichment under strict supervision? Are not those comments in the current circumstances hardly helpful and possibly reckless in the extreme?

My right hon. Friend highlights some of the observations made recently by Dr. el-Baradei, who has also indicated his view that perhaps Iran has already succeeded in mastering the technology that is required for the enrichment of uranium. That is not a view that we share; nor indeed am I aware of any evidence that sustains that view. We remain strongly of the view that it is in the interests of everyone who wishes to see sustained peace in the middle east for Iran not to continue to pursue a programme that calls the security of that peace into question. I certainly urge anyone, no matter what their role or responsibilities, to avoid saying things that might give a different impression.

The Foreign Secretary has rightly expressed her frustration at failing to persuade the Iranians to comply with the international community and the feeling across the House that they are playing for time. Will she come back to the question raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Bury St. Edmunds (Mr. Ruffley)? Does she agree that the EU should use its leverage as Iran’s largest trading partner to increase the pressure on Iran by saying that it is prepared to limit the access of Iranian banks to the European financial system, progressively to restrict new export credit guarantees to Iran, and to begin targeted action to restrict European investment in Iranian oil and gas fields? There is a feeling on both sides of the House that some of our European partners are dragging their feet on this.

I am not sure that that is entirely justified, although I understand the anxiety. Of course we are keeping all the options and possibilities under review. The hon. Gentleman will recall that when we reached agreement in Vienna almost a year ago, part of the decision was that if we were driven to sanctions, which no one wished to have to implement, they would be incrementally increased if the necessity arose, with the possibility of reversal because the offer of negotiations remained on the table. That remains the position. So any and all of the measures that the hon. Gentleman raises are not outside the bounds of consideration. We are merely taking things step by step to see what is most effective at that moment in time.

UK/Brazil Economic and Trade Committee

4. If she will make a statement on the progress of the joint economic and trade committee with Brazil. (140312)

There has been a good deal of progress under the UK-Brazil joint economic and trade committee. It is an excellent initiative for developing our strategic economic relationship with Brazil. Good relationships have been established at both Government and private sector level. The Confederation of British Industry is delivering a comprehensive programme aimed at improving the business environment with Brazil. A full programme of activities is under way for the UK-Brazil year of science.

I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer. I welcome the establishment of the Jetco because Brazil is one of the world’s four really big emerging economies and probably the one on which we have focused less than the other three. I am advised that there are real opportunities for British companies in Brazil’s high-quality expanding aerospace industry and in its programme of developing energy infrastructure and tourism infrastructure. What encouragement and support is my right hon. Friend giving to British companies so that they do not leave those opportunities to the French, Germans and Italians?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend both for his question and for his interest. UK Trade and Investment has transferred more than £5 million of its resources from existing mature markets to focus on emerging markets, including Brazil. As a result, six additional offices have been added to UKTI’s network in Brazil. So undoubtedly there is a determination at government level to assist British companies in increasing their exports to Brazil. I am delighted to be able to say that exports from the United Kingdom to Brazil increased by some 9.5 per cent. in 2006 over 2005.

Brazil is developing a market in biofuels, although some people refer to it as deforestation diesel. May we have an assurance that, although we are keen to develop such markets with Brazil, it will not be at the expense of environmental concerns?

Sustainability is an important principle in the way in which major British companies operate in countries such as Brazil, and it is certainly something they will take into account.

Brazil is an enormously important strategic partner for the UK in the battle against climate change, as my hon. Friend the Member for Scarborough and Whitby (Mr. Goodwill) pointed out. May I press the Minister to be more specific about how we should measure the success of the Jetco initiative and when we should expect it to bear fruit?

I have indicated one measure—the level of economic activity by British companies in Brazil, which has increased over the past 12 months. We want to put in place arrangements that will allow continuing exports while equally ensuring that there is a two-way exchange of ideas, information, science, knowledge and understanding, which is something the Jetco initiative will foster.


The Iraqi Government should recognise the importance of free and democratic trade unions. Currently, the finances and membership of Iraq’s trade unions continue to be restricted by decree 8750 passed by Iraq’s Interim Government in 2005, and law 150 passed by Saddam Hussein’s Government in 1987. We have encouraged the Iraqi Government to ensure that free and comprehensive elections can take place among members of the General Federation of Iraqi Workers, so that legislation can be introduced to allow properly constituted trade unions to operate freely in the country.

I thank the Minister for that reply. Does he agree that the Iraqi trade union movement seeks to unite working people of whatever religion, and even no religion? That requires the support of democrats everywhere to build a democratic, civil society, whatever their view about the invasion might have been.

Yes, I agree entirely. Through the Department for International Development, we are providing funding for the International Centre for Trade Union Rights and have co-funded union training with Unison. The aim is to provide core training on the role of trade unions in the workplace and society, negotiating collective agreements, union organisation and, importantly, women’s involvement in trade unions.

Are the Government helping the Iraqi Government to meet one of the main concerns of Iraqi trade unions? Oil revenue that should be channelled into raising living standards is actually being siphoned off in large volumes to rich Gulf states as reparation for the first—not the second—Gulf war, including payments to companies that claim missed business opportunities at that time.

The hon. Gentleman will know that measures were taken and decisions reached at the United Nations on the payment of reparations and on other forms of payment to account for the loss of property and profits and damage during the first Gulf war period and the invasion of Kuwait. I am sure he agrees that we should see an end to those payments, which have been going on for a long time and are draining revenue that should be used to build Iraq. The Government are doing everything they can to persuade Iraq’s neighbours in the Gulf to forgo those reparations so that reconstruction can take place.

Given that I have spent a considerable amount of time talking to Iraqi trade unions on my several visits to Iraq, I agree that it is important that laws that militate against them be repealed as quickly as possible. I would like to press our diplomats in Baghdad to make more efforts to pressurise the Iraqi Government to repeal those laws. Secondly, does my hon. Friend agree that as the Iraqi trade unions are mainly non-sectarian they have an important role to play in the future reconciliation programme in Iraq, and that we should not underestimate the power of their membership to achieve what others, seemingly, are failing to achieve?

Yes, I agree with my right hon. Friend’s assessment of the role of trade unions in Iraq and their character. I pay tribute to the work that she has done over very many years in defence of free Iraqi trade unions. She will know, as well as I do, that trade unions were sometimes used under Saddam Hussein as intelligence-gathering operations for his secret police and for the repression that they exercised. I certainly agree that we—our diplomats and everyone else—must do everything possible to try to convince the Iraqi Government that it is a priority that they should take seriously.


We are encouraged that the Juba peace talks between the Government of Uganda and the Lord’s Resistance Army resumed on 1 June and that the cessation of hostilities agreement has been extended. We believe that the Juba talks offer the best chance for many years to achieve peace. We call on all parties to remain focused on finding a peaceful resolution to this long-running conflict and to implement their commitments.

I thank my right hon. Friend for her response. However, she will be aware that there have been criticisms by the International Crisis Group, among others, about the level of representation at those talks and the structure of those talks. Does she agree that it is important for all members of the international community, including the United Kingdom, to support the talks process fully and to commit themselves, along with the Governments of Sudan and Uganda, to a much fuller redevelopment and reconciliation programme in northern Uganda, so that we can secure the lasting peace that everyone wants?

I take the point that my hon. Friend makes, and I can certainly assure her that we keep those matters under consideration. We have, of course, already provided £250,000 to a UN fund that was set up to support the talks process. We are supporting the work of local civil society groups, as well as the deployment of police to the northern districts. We are active, and officials from our high commission and other representatives from the international community remain active in trying to work with and to help to support the talks. We will, of course, continue to keep under review the scale and nature of the representation and will make changes if they seem to be required.

Does the Secretary of State not accept that a major stumbling block to peace is the fact that the leaders of the Lord’s Resistance Army are still indicted by the International Criminal Court? Does she not agree that it would be far better if they were dealt with by Acholi justice, rather than by pursuing them through the ICC?

No, I am afraid that I do not accept that for two reasons. First, of course I understand the concern that the hon. Gentleman raises and that it could be a factor, but I simply say that, if it were not for the existence of those ICC warrants, I doubt whether members of the Lord’s Resistance Army would consider coming to those talks anyway. I accept that it is a matter of concern, but there are pros and cons, so I do not take the view that those warrants are inevitably damaging. Secondly, whether or not they remain in place is, of course, not a matter for us, but for the ICC itself.


7. What recent discussions she has had with her Chinese counterpart on China’s human rights record; and if she will make a statement. (140315)

We raise human rights regularly with the Chinese Government, including at the highest levels. My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary raised a number of human rights concerns during her visit to China in May, when she again met Chinese Premier Wen and the newly appointed Foreign Minister Yang. The Minister for Trade also raised human rights concerns during his introductory meeting with the new Chinese ambassador at the end of May.

I thank the Minister for his reply and, indeed, for the Government’s willingness to raise human rights issues during their visit to China, but do they now plan to send any specific signals on the unacceptability of continuing infringements on the grounds of personal belief—whether for Christian house churches or the Falun Gong movement—and continuing violations of the rights of Tibetans, such as the shootings at Nangpa La in September last year, or the arrest and imprisonment for 12 years of Sonam Gyalpo for possession of a video of the Dalai Lama? Could the frequency of the talks that the Minister mentioned be increased? For instance, the UK-China human rights dialogue could be increased to three or four times a year, instead of the present two sessions.

I can certainly give the hon. Gentleman the assurance that we push very hard on human rights, and my right hon. Friend the Minister for Trade, who has responsibility for human rights, has certainly never been backward in pressing the Chinese on this crucial issue. At the moment, we are fighting very hard to hold the number of meetings with China on human rights to which they agreed, and it will be very difficult to get them to agree to a larger number of meetings, very important though that aim might be.

Does the Minister agree that China’s record on the death penalty is quite atrocious? What is worse still is its policy of using without permission the vital body organs of condemned prisoners. When was that specific point raised by Ministers with their Chinese counterparts?

Those points were certainly raised by my right hon. Friend the human rights Minister during his meeting in May. The hon. Gentleman is quite right to highlight those two important issues. Any civilised Government will be shocked that somewhere between 6,000 and 10,000 people a year are executed in China. We have been working hard to persuade the Chinese to review that situation. I am sure that he will agree that it is good news and a real step forward that the high court in China has once again gained the right to review all death sentences passed in China.


9. What discussions she has had with the Government of the Islamic Republic of Iran on the security situation in Iraq; and if she will make a statement. (140317)

I discussed Iraq with Foreign Minister Mottaki on 3 May at the margins of the Sharm el Sheikh meetings on Iraq. All Iraq’s neighbours have a stake in a secure and stable Iraq. We have consistently made it clear to the Government of Iran that the training, equipping and funding of illegal armed groups by agencies of the Iranian state is unacceptable.

I thank the Foreign Secretary for her very helpful answer. Given that there was an eight-year war between Iran and Iraq, she will be aware that it is almost certain that Iran has good intelligence bases in Iraq and that, just as it did during the Iran-Iraq war, it would have used insurgents against the Saddam Hussein regime. What is her assessment of the present situation regarding Iran’s intelligence operations in Iraq?

I find myself in difficulty because of course it is our policy not to discuss intelligence operations. I simply say to the hon. Gentleman that I am sure that there are many ways in which Iran has perfectly legitimate links with, and relationships in, Iraq, as will have been the case over many years for a variety of reasons, as he says. We continue to urge Iran to use whatever links and contacts it has positively in support of a stable and secure future for Iraq, which, in the end, is in the interests of not only the country itself, but all its neighbours.

Is it not ironic that one of the many evil consequences of our invasion of Iraq is that we have merely served to increase massively the power and influence of a fundamentalist Islamic regime in the region? Is it not even more ironic that to provide a fig leaf of respectability to get us out of this mess, we have to cut a deal with people who are fundamentally opposed to our national interests?

Sadly, in many parts of the world, cutting deals with people who are not necessarily in favour of our national interests is part of the business of conducting foreign policy.

Four years ago, we went into southern Iraq to liberate the local Shi’ites from the vicious oppression of Saddam Hussein. Four years later, apparently with the backing of Iran, those same Shi’ites are fighting and killing our forces and celebrating our every setback on the streets. Why are we still there?

The right hon. and learned Gentleman is perfectly well aware of why we are still there. We are still there because there is a contribution that we can make to trying to establish better armed forces and police forces in Iraq in a way that will enable them securely and peacefully to maintain their own state. It is not the case that all of those whom he describes are opposed to the presence of the multinational forces in quite the way in which he says. Although it is easy to find people in Iraq who say that they look forward to the day when the multinational forces will leave, if the next question that they are asked is whether they would like the forces to leave now, almost invariably the answer is, “No, certainly not.”

Human Rights

10. What recent representations she has received on human rights; and if she will make a statement. (140318)

We receive letters regularly from members of the public, Members of Parliament and Tibetan support groups on the human rights situation in Tibet. My right hon. Friend the Minister for Trade met the Foreign Affairs Committee in May to discuss its concerns about Tibet in more detail. We continue to raise Tibet-related issues with the Chinese Government, and we did so most recently in the UK-China human rights dialogue in February.

Recently, a world Tibet support conference took place in Brussels, and his holiness the Dalai Lama had planned to attend. I understand that the Chinese Government put pressure on the Belgian Government, and so the Dalai Lama was effectively blocked from attending that conference. Given the pivotal role that he plays in protecting human rights and seeking a negotiated settlement for Tibet, will the Government show his holiness a better welcome when he visits the UK in May next year?

The Government have been informed that the Dalai Lama wishes to visit the United Kingdom in May 2008. When specific requests are received for meetings with Government Ministers, we will consider them carefully and sympathetically. I will respond to the Dalai Lama’s international office in the usual way and he will be received as a distinguished religious leader.

What representations has the Minister received recently on the human rights situation in Syria? Last week, its President, like the Chancellor of the Exchequer, was elected unopposed, with the support of a ruthless political machine. Will the Minister review his policy on engagement with Syria?

As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said a few moments ago, we have to deal with all manner of difficult regimes, and sometimes with regimes that do not have a trace of democracy about them. We take seriously Syria’s role as a major player in the middle east, especially as regards Iraq and Lebanon.

On the 40th anniversary of the six-day war and the consequent occupation of Palestinian territory, may I ask my hon. Friend whether he has had any recent discussions with the Israeli Government about them holding so many Palestinian prisoners without charge, including those who were elected, and children?

Yes, we have, and we will continue to do so. We have, on a number of occasions, both through our ambassador and through ministerial contact, pressed the Israelis either to charge those individuals or to release them.

One of the most important human rights is the right to a fair trial. I have been in correspondence with the Minister for Europe about my constituent, Nick Morley, who faces trial in Macedonia in relation to a possible driving offence. The judge has made it clear that evidence put forward by expert witnesses on behalf of the defence will not be admitted; evidence will be accepted only from the prosecution. May I urge Ministers to make representations to the Macedonian Government to make sure that a fair trial is secured?

I understand that my right hon. Friend the Minister for Europe has encouraged the hon. Gentleman to write at the end of the trial, because we cannot interfere during the course of it, but we will certainly be prepared to review the situation when he contacts my right hon. Friend.

On the issue of human rights, will the Minister join me in condemning the decision taken by the University and College Union last week to call for a boycott of academic institutions in Israel?

We are aware of the proposed boycott, and I have to say to my hon. Friend that I do not think that it would be at all helpful. What we need is more discussion, more reconciliation and fewer threats, wherever they happen to come from.

Given that the brutal military dictatorship in Burma commits some of the most egregious human rights abuses to be found anywhere in the world, and that only last month the tyrannical Government of that country, in defiance of international opinion, renewed the house arrest of Aung San Suu Kyi, does the Minister share my horror, and more particularly that of Human Rights Watch, at the fact that the Government of Burma were invited to the Asia-Europe meeting in Hamburg on 28 and 29 May? Ought not the international community be prepared to exert pressure on India, China and Russia to force the Government of Burma to stop killing their people, and to start respecting and liberating them?

Yes, I agree with every word that the hon. Gentleman said. It is a great shame that commercial considerations are often put far above humanitarian ones when it comes to dealing with the Burmese Government.

With regard to human rights, is my hon. Friend aware that when I visited Israel as the emissary of the then Prime Minister a few days after the end of the six-day war 40 years ago, I begged the then Israeli Prime Minister, Levi Eshkol, to have regard for the human rights of the Palestinians who, even at that early stage, were being oppressed. After 40 years, is it not time that that terrible cancer, which has afflicted Israelis, Lebanese, Palestinians and everyone else in the region, should be brought to an end? The only way to do so is to secure a settlement that brings human rights to the Palestinians and ends those terrible encroachments on Palestinian territories.

My right hon. Friend will know that the Government’s policy is to construct a two-state solution. That means that on Israel’s border there must be a viable Palestinian state with an economy that works and is capable of sustaining employment and wealth in that country. It ought to happen, as that is a very, very small part of the world. Geographically, it is something that the international community ought to be able to handle. I quite agree with my right hon. Friend: we draw back from making difficult decisions at our peril, because this will remain the most difficult and intractable problem for a very long time to come. Wherever I go, it is the problem that is always quoted as the chief symbol of injustice. We need an Israel and a Palestine living alongside each other in peace and harmony, and that is what we must aim for.

May I congratulate the Minister on his foresight in being able to answer the question from the hon. Member for Worsley (Barbara Keeley) before she had even put it to the House? Does he agree that the work of the new Human Rights Council is critical to improving human rights in the world, so it is important that individual council members examine critically their own human rights record? For example, countries such as Cuba should do so. Does he therefore agree that the universal peer review mechanism should be implemented as soon as possible, and that it is important that the British Government make representations to Mexico, which chairs the committee of the council and, indeed, any other committee members that have influence, to ensure that that review mechanism is put in place?

Yes, as I am sure the hon. Gentleman knows, we worked hard to ensure that those who were elected to the council have a good human rights record in their home territory. That was not always the case, and it was a great disappointment to us that some countries with repressive regimes were elected. It is therefore extremely important that the review take place and that the Mexican Government are proactive on this. I am afraid that for far too many years the way in which human rights were handled in the United Nations meant that very little was done and that there was great reluctance to become involved, even in the worst human rights situations in individual states. This is an opportunity for the world to move on and for the United Nations to play a much more proactive and useful role than it has previously done.

We saw an egregious assault on human rights on television the other weekend, with the beating-up of Mr. Peter Tatchell in Moscow in a Gay Pride demonstration. Added to the denial of human rights to Mr. Litvenenko’s widow by the contemptuous refusal to co-operate with judicial and legal authorities in the UK on the extradition of a suspect, and the contempt shown by Russians for the murder of Anna Politkovskya, the investigative journalist whose death has still not been explained, as well as Mr. Putin’s threat two days ago to aim his missiles at our cities, is it not time to say to Russia, “If you want to be friends with Britain and Europe, get your human rights in order and drop this aggressive, hate-filled language against the values of Europe and of western democracies”?

We try on every occasion to stress to the Russians the importance of improving and maintaining human rights. It is a key value, and if the Russians are to extend their undoubted economic influence, they must understand that. The world is looking for improvements in human rights in Russia, and the Government certainly are.

EU Constitution

Following an extended period of reflection, EU institutional reform will be discussed at the forthcoming European Council. As part of the continuing negotiations in the run-up to that meeting, we have made it clear to our partners that the EU should agree an amending treaty that makes the European Union more effective and better able to deliver practical benefits for EU citizens. Such an approach would be consistent with the way in which treaty change has been agreed in the past.

Will the Minister undertake not to bring back any items from the constitutional treaty without a referendum, including any tinkering with the criminal justice system? Does he understand that that is a matter of trust for the British people, and that the public perception of the Government’s trustworthiness is as crucial as it is fragile?

I have made clear and I have repeated on a number of occasions from the Dispatch Box the fact that if the constitutional treaty returns in its present form, there would be a referendum. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has made that clear. However, if the hon. Gentleman is suggesting a referendum if any dot or comma reappears in any subsequent treaty, that is a matter for discussion and negotiation, and ultimately a matter for decision by the House.

May I try to help the Minister to clear up the confusion over a referendum? On 20 March, he told the House that there would be a referendum if there was a new treaty. The Foreign Secretary, replying to a question earlier this afternoon, said that it depended what was on the table. Can the right hon. Gentleman give me some indication of what on the table might lead to a referendum, or are we to be kept completely in the dark for ever more?

I have made clear on a number of occasions the position of the Government. If the constitutional treaty returns in its present form, there would be a referendum. On any other question, it depends on what is agreed at the European Council. I am delighted that the right hon. Gentleman has raised the issue, because it allows me to remind the House that in the course of his distinguished service as a Whip on the Government Benches between 1992 and 1997, he whipped Conservative Members of Parliament against a referendum on the Maastricht treaty.

But my right hon. Friend will be aware that not everyone is as violently in love with the constant imposition of unworkable systems from the EU as some Opposition Members. It might be helpful if we were clear that at present, even in matters such as transport, there are constant impositions that are costing the United Kingdom not only vast amounts of money, but vast amounts of efficiency in very difficult areas. Will my right hon. Friend give an undertaking that nothing will be brought in, even by the back door, that will lumber this country with even more rubbishy and unworkable legislation?

I made it clear in my answer a few moments ago that it is important that we recognise the practical benefits that the European Union can deliver in transport and in a range of other matters, where international co-operation through the mechanisms of the European Union provides real benefits for EU citizens and for citizens in the United Kingdom. That is a perfectly proper test of the way in which we should approach the negotiations.

It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody). Having heard that question, I wish her the best of luck in the forthcoming reshuffle. If the Minister will not answer questions from the respected Labour Chairman of the Home Affairs Committee, will he perhaps do me the courtesy of answering one from me instead? Is it the policy of the Government that criminal justice matters within the EU should remain subject to national veto, or are the Government countenancing downgrading that critical issue to qualified majority voting?

I begin by welcoming the hon. Gentleman to his new responsibilities. I note that his predecessor, the hon. Member for Altrincham and Sale, West (Mr. Brady), is sitting a few rows behind him. In giving him advice about the conduct of his new responsibilities, I am sure that his hon. Friend will encourage him to keep in step not only with the grass roots of the Conservative party but with the hokey cokey of the leadership too. I hope that he is able to do that while maintaining his vigorously anti-European sentiments.

On the question about the Home Affairs Committee, may I make clear to the House that I was not invited by that Committee to give evidence? Had it invited me, I would have been delighted to respond positively, as I did to the Foreign Affairs Committee when it invited me to give evidence. For the sake of historical accuracy, may I remind the House again that it was a Conservative Government who introduced the European competence in respect of home affairs and justice? Indeed, the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague) voted against a referendum on that issue. Obviously, the matter will have to be negotiated at the European Council.


Child Maintenance and Other Payments

Mr. Secretary Hutton, supported by the Prime Minister, Mr. Secretary Prescott, Mr. Chancellor of the Exchequer, Secretary John Reid, Mr. Secretary Hain, Secretary Alan Johnson and Mr. Secretary Alexander, presented a Bill to establish the Child Maintenance and Enforcement Commission; to amend the law relating to child support; to make provision about lump sum payments to or in respect of persons with diffuse mesothelioma; 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 118].

Termination of Pregnancy (Counselling and Miscellaneous Provisions)

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to require counselling of a pregnant woman as a condition of her consent to termination of her pregnancy; to require the pregnant woman to see a registered medical practitioner prior to receiving counselling; to introduce a minimum period of 7 days following counselling before registered medical practitioners may certify an opinion referred to in section 1(1) of the Abortion Act 1967; to require the forms used for certifying and giving notice of the reason for termination of a pregnancy to state risk to the physical and mental health of the pregnant woman as separate grounds for abortion; and for connected purposes.

Whenever an attempt is made to change the law on abortion, MPs and the press are inundated with ludicrous claims from abortion groups. One such claim is that women are being kept waiting for abortions, and that any amendment, however minor, will cause that wait to be even longer. In fact, the latest figures show that 67 per cent. of abortions are carried out before the 10th week of pregnancy, and 89 per cent. are undertaken before 12 weeks. One young woman said recently:

“I had the pregnancy test on Monday, had a scan on Tuesday and the abortion on Wednesday, and no one asked me if I was sure.”

What is the reason for pressurising a young woman into making a major decision affecting her future without providing her with the full facts and a short period of reflection to give her time to consider her future?

This ten-minute Bill does not aim to tighten the law on abortion. Its primary purpose is to ensure that women are properly informed of the possible effects on their physical or mental health following abortion. It seeks to inform women what grants and help are available, to which they are entitled should they decide to exercise their right to proceed with their pregnancy. Such women also need to be made aware of any groups to which they can turn for help and which will provide support, both during their pregnancy and thereafter. Let us be clear: such groups still operate, despite attempts by pro-abortionists to blacken their reputation and to prevent them from continuing their valuable work. Rather than welcoming assistance for their peer group, however, the abortion sisterhood do everything that they can to obscure and block it.

The second aim of the Bill is simply to ensure that proper records are kept of the reasons for abortion. At present, abortion on demand is carried out on the catch-all ground of risk of injury to the physical or mental health of the woman. Members will be interested to learn that of 186,416 abortions on resident women in 2005, 178,341 were carried out on that ground—96 per cent. in total under that criterion.

An increasing number of doctors are becoming seriously concerned about the possible effects of abortion on women involved in this destructive form of medicine. Even the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists has been forced to admit that increasing numbers of the younger generation of their members are refusing to have anything to do with the operation, which is causing considerable anxiety and is probably the reason why so many NHS abortions are carried out in clinics and paid for by the NHS. We are finding the same development among general practitioners, who are refusing to refer girls for abortion—and believe me, it will not stop there. Younger doctors are showing a great deal more mettle than their forebears on any number of issues. They are certainly willing to counsel those seeking abortion, but they are not willing to send them off for an operation which can, in the long term, do them a great deal more harm than good.

The general public, too, are unhappy with the present situation, as a recent survey of opinion by CommunicateResearch has shown. Seventy-eight per cent. of women would like a compulsory cooling-off period between diagnosis of pregnancy and abortion, 85 per cent. want more help to be given to those who want to keep their baby, 87 per cent. think that public funds should go to charities offering alternatives, and 96 per cent. want a right to be fully informed about the health risks involved in abortion.

One of the factors in the abortion lobby which I find most difficult to understand is the manner in which it sets out to destroy any evidence that does not fit its aims. To understand this, we have to remember that the abortion-on-demand lobby was established by people like Margaret Sanger—an elitist who quite openly called for abortion for the poor, for people who had been in prison, and for any of those she regarded as second-class citizens. Margaret Sanger was not interested in women’s rights, and that ethos is still basic to the abortion movement. That is why it sets out to destroy the reputation of people doing genuine research in this field.

The latest piece of major research on the possible effects of abortion on women’s mental health was carried out in New Zealand and was led by a scientist who supports abortion on demand. Evidently, however, he also supports a woman’s right to know what she is choosing, and he was in no way hesitant about publishing the results of his work. He is to be commended for that. The results appeared in The Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry in January 2006. The research made more psychiatrists and doctors aware of the possible dangers to their patients of abortion and resulted in the American Psychological Association withdrawing an official statement denying a link between abortion and psychological harm. It also resulted in a group of leading psychiatrists and psychologists writing to The Times and calling on the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists and the Royal College of Psychiatrists to change their guidelines on abortion—guidelines which an increasing number of people regard as shameful.

However, we have to face the fact that we are dealing with a hardcore group of doctors who have built their careers on the acceptance of abortion. Not only that, but a considerable number of them were involved or remained silent—[Interruption.]

Order. Let the hon. Lady speak, because another hon. Lady is going to have an opportunity to rebut the case.

A considerable number of those involved remained silent in bullying campaigns against colleagues who refused to support their total denial of any human rights for pre-born infants. Fortunately, a younger generation of more enlightened doctors will see them out.

In the meantime, we have the question of women’s rights to consider. We can ensure that women receive adequate information by making independent counselling mandatory. By that, I do not mean simply therapeutic counselling but rather crisis management and the provision of relevant information. No woman would be forced to have counselling but, if she refused, she would have to sign a document indicating that she had done so. That would ensure that doctors did not get away with claiming that the woman had had counselling when, in practice, it had not even been offered.

In addition, we must also ensure that clear information on the grounds for abortion is available to doctors or scientists who carry out research. Even pro-abortionists admit that women who have suffered any kind of psychiatric illness should not have abortions. However, the New Zealand study showed that even women without past mental health problems are at risk of psychological ill effects after abortion. It showed that women who had abortions had twice the amount of mental health problems and three times the risk of major depressive illness of those who had given birth or never been pregnant.

In December 2005, Finland’s National Research and Development Centre for Welfare and Health published a three-year study of the entire population of women in Finland. It found that, compared with women who had not been pregnant in the previous year, deaths from suicide, accidents and homicide were 248 per cent. higher in the year following an abortion. The study showed that the suicide rate among women who had had abortions was six times higher than that of women who had given birth in the previous year, and double that of women who had suffered miscarriages.

Whatever I feel personally about abortion, the Bill does not seek to tighten the grounds. I simply ask the House to support the measure to ensure that women who present for abortion consider carefully what they are choosing, that they are fully informed of the health risks and the available alternatives—

I understand that people have deeply held views on the subject of the debate. On the 40th anniversary of the Abortion Act 1967, I am gravely concerned about the motivation behind the Bill and the measure’s impact on women. I believe that I speak on behalf of the silent majority who value the 1967 Act and understand that it has saved hundreds of women’s lives.

The Bill will lead to delays for women seeking an abortion. Inevitably, the more socially deprived and excluded women would be the most affected. They would have to travel several times to see a doctor, attend counselling, revisit the doctor and then turn up for the procedure. That is a requirement of the Bill. When a woman faces an unwanted pregnancy, she is already under great stress. In my view, creating further obstacles is unethical.

As we have heard, of women who have abortions, 89 per cent. have one in the first trimester and 67 per cent. have one under 10 weeks. That allows for the procedure to be medical or early surgical, thus offering women greater choice. The Bill will push more women into having later abortion, which is more invasive and more expensive to the NHS and women.

Despite the widely held belief, women in Great Britain do not have abortion on demand. All women who currently seek an abortion must go through their pregnancy options with two medical practitioners before they are granted permission to have an abortion. They must qualify under the conditions of the 1967 Act and prove to the doctors that they meet the criteria, as outlined by Parliament.

Women do not make such a decision lightly. Those who seek an abortion from a medical practitioner tend to have made up their minds for themselves long before they turn up for the procedure. Of course, counselling should be—and is—available to those who want it. The British Pregnancy Advisory Service has an excellent scheme to train counsellors in non-directional counselling, if it is required. That is the important point: counselling should be non-directional and voluntary. Making counselling a requirement for access to abortion goes against the principles of counselling. Unregulated counselling can be distressing and misleading. It would also be costly to provide and, if many women do not want it, a waste of resources.

I ask the House what would be the purpose of such compulsory counselling. The Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists states in its 2004 guidelines that abortion is not directly attributable to psychological trauma and that few women suffer long-term distress. Why put women through extra delays? In some states in America, misleading information is given to women through this counselling and with the clear intention of deterring them from choosing an abortion. My question is whether that is the purpose of this Bill, too.

The Bill also proposes that women wait a minimum period of seven days following the counselling before an abortion is granted. That could mean that women could be seriously disadvantaged and pushed into later abortions that would not have been necessary without the imposed delay. Cooling-off periods prolong the anguish of women who have decided that they cannot continue with their pregnancy. They effectively reduce the time limit further and may prevent a woman from getting an abortion, even if she presents before 12 weeks, as there is restricted access to post-12-week abortions in some areas. The earlier an abortion takes place, the less invasive it will be for the woman and the possibility of complications will be reduced.

In 2005, the Family Planning Association published research by Newcastle university, which found that reducing the waiting time for an abortion by 10 days permits more abortions to take place at an earlier stage of pregnancy, using less invasive measures, and at a lesser cost to the NHS. A delay in treatment results in abortion taking place later and at greater emotional and financial cost. It would undoubtedly force some women to continue a pregnancy against their wish, but the best way to reduce the numbers of unintended pregnancies is to improve women’s access to contraception, as well as educating women—and men—about sexual health.

This Bill is an attack on women’s reproductive rights. It would without question force a small number of vulnerable women to continue with a pregnancy against their will and it would deny every woman seeking an abortion the ability to make her choice within the time scale that is appropriate for her. I urge this House to reject the Bill today, to stand by the rights of women and to ensure that, in this anniversary year of the 1967 Act, we protect the rights of women and safeguard the Act itself.

Question put, pursuant to Standing Order No. 23 (Motions for leave to bring in Bills and nomination of Select Committees at commencement of public business):—

Corporate Manslaughter and Corporate Homicide Bill

Lords Reasons for insisting on their amendments to which the Commons have disagreed and for disagreeing to the Commons amendments to the Bill in lieu, considered.

Lords Reasons: Nos. 2A, 3A, 5A, 6A and 10B.

I beg to move,

That this House insists on its disagreement with the Lords in their amendments Nos. 2, 3, 5, 6 and 10 but does not insist on its amendment 10A in lieu thereof, and proposes amendments (a) and (b) in lieu of the Lords amendments.

Last month, the Bill returned to this House from the other place with a number of amendments. The House was happy to accept the majority of them, many of which address matters first raised and debated in this House. On the remaining issue—the extension of the offence to custody—the Government took a different view. None the less, after listening to the strong views expressed on that both here and in the other place, the Government sought to respond positively and offered a significant concession in the Bill: a power to extend the new offence to custody in the future. We also announced other measures to tackle this important issue. That compromise has been rejected in the other place, which has asked us to consider the issue again. The Government believe that they have gone as far as they are able on this matter.

I wish to explore the compromise issue. If the compromise is only in terms of commencement and the Minister now accepts the principle that the offence will extend to custody, why does he not accept the amendments from another place and simply deal with the commencement issue? On the other hand, if he does not accept the principle and if what is being proposed is merely window dressing, why does he expect the other place or this House to accept it as a compromise?

This is not window dressing. This is a serious movement by the Government, from a position of not accepting the principle to accepting it. The issue is to do with time scale. I want to make clear what the Government’s arguments are.

If the Government have now accepted the principle, they must be able to estimate how long it will take to prepare the Prison Service and the police for this change. I am sure that this House would be helpful and indulgent if the Minister were to come forward with a generous time estimate. However, does he not accept that at present we have nothing on offer at all, and that the Government have the power to decide on whether they ever wish to implement the statutory instrument in question?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising that point. I expected him to do so, and I expect other Members to do so, too. They want the Government to go further and we are not prepared to go that far.

Does the Minister accept that this is not only about the timetable? In proposed new subsection (5B) in amendment No. 10A, the Government give themselves the power to make exceptions to any of the liability provisions—exceptions over which this House will have no say. Therefore, this is not only about timetable, but about the nature of the liability itself.

I know that the right hon. and learned Gentleman takes a great interest in these matters. I hope during the course of my speech to explain the Government’s position and why we have taken it. The Government have moved a great deal on this matter; that has not been acknowledged in all parts of the House.

The Minister keeps on telling the House that the Government have accepted this in principle. However, when we last discussed this matter he said:

“Whether and when the power is to be exercised will need to be considered in light of the other steps that we are taking.”—[Official Report, 16 May 2007; Vol. 460, c. 669.]

So the Government say that they have conceded in principle but they are reserving the option not to go forward with this power. Why did the Minister say that?

If the hon. Gentleman will allow me to make my speech, he will hear why I am pursuing the arguments that I am pursuing. It was clear from his contributions last time round that he does not think the Government have gone far enough. I certainly accept the proposal in principle, but if he bears with me he will hear my reasoning.

The central issue that divides the Government’s position from that set out in the amendments made in the other place is whether, as has been said, the new offence ought now to extend to custody or whether that is an issue for the future. As I have explained on previous occasions, the Bill’s genesis lies in the difficulties that have arisen when prosecuting large organisations for manslaughter in cases where there have been very real concerns about their management of health and safety—in providing safe working systems for their employees or in the workplace, or when performing activities in the services sector. It was never about holding the Government or public bodies to account for the way in which they discharge public or statutory responsibilities. That point has been recognised in all parts of the House during the Bill’s passage, and the operation of various public services is exempt.

However, the Government also recognised from the outset that the logic of the position in respect of health and safety cut the other way, too, which is why we took the step of also applying the new offence to Crown bodies. We have been very clear that, as an employer and an occupier, there is no reason—other than in a very few limited circumstances—why Government Departments and public authorities should not also be open to prosecution for the new offence.

Can the Minister not see that as far as the public are concerned, if the 5,890 people who died of methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus and Clostridium difficile are excluded, and if the 174 people who died in custody in 2005 are excluded—those figures are for a single year—the Bill is a nonsense?

I am grateful for the right hon. Gentleman’s intervention, but I reject the idea that the Bill is a nonsense. As far as I am concerned, it is the missing part of health and safety legislation in respect of corporate manslaughter; indeed, that was the reasoning behind the Bill’s genesis. The whole purpose of removing Crown immunity where the Crown acts as an employer and occupier was to put ourselves in the same position as many of the private sector companies that will be subject to the Bill.

Lifting Crown immunity brings with it difficulties in drawing the line between which public activities should be subject to the new offence and which should not, as well as considerable uncertainty about the consequences of making Government Departments liable to prosecution for the first time. It is simplistic to say that all activities should be subject to the new offence, and it is to the credit of the House that Members were not tempted down that route in our debates on exemptions; the real difficulties in that regard were recognised.

One of those difficulties is that applying the criminal law to the carrying out of public functions could have wider impacts on the way in which those activities are carried out that might not be desirable or in the overall public interest. It might make those services risk-averse—and by that I do not mean managing risks by making sensible judgments, but taking an over-cautious approach that seeks unrealistically to eliminate risk. It might also affect the way in which resources are allocated between competing policy objectives, which I believe is a judgment for Ministers to make.

It is not enough to say that this is about poor management, not matters of policy. There may well be management issues but, when looking at how public services operate, it will frequently be difficult to disentangle management issues from the wider policy context. It is also not good enough to say that policy might be affected by the courts in other ways. It is of course true that public authorities are required under public law to act reasonably and must respect the obligations imposed by the European convention on human rights. That has always been the case, but the new offence will draw the criminal courts into an examination of how and why particular courses of action were followed, and that will represent a step change. In our view, this means that we must adopt a cautious approach to extending the new offence to the discharge of public responsibilities.

We all agreed that, although this was a Bill that all of us wanted to see enacted, it would provide a good opportunity for corporate and public bodies to get their health and safety activities into a reasonable state so that people are not killed by such bodies. The exemptions are applied in a very open way; indeed, we have tried to be very generous in terms of the Bill’s application.

The House will also recognise the pressures that the Prison Service faces both in managing a very difficult environment and a challenging set of individuals at the best of times, and the immediate pressures on the prison estate. It is not our case that these arguments mean that custody must always be beyond the reach of the new offence, but it does mean that the prudent approach is to see how the new offence beds in across the public sector more widely; to see how the courts approach the interaction in these cases of policy and management in areas such as employer and occupier responsibilities; and to provide time to discuss with the Prison Service and others how implementation can be sensibly managed.

I cannot offer a timetable to the House for exactly when and how those issues can be resolved. Because the position may need to be reviewed more than once, and the issues worked through, the more honest course is to include an order-making power in the Bill rather than simply delay implementation.

I am sorry to return to the point that I made earlier, but the Minister says that he is putting a compromise to the House. He has focused on timetables, but should he not focus more precisely on Government amendment (b), which would allow the Secretary of State to exempt whole classes of liability from any order that he may seek to admit? The debate is not only about the timetable, but about the Government’s ability to limit liability as and when the Secretary of State chooses to make the initiating order.

The right hon. and learned Gentleman will find, as we progress, that the Government’s amendment on the relevant duties of care, and the drafting amendment, will take care of that point. The issue is about timetabling, and that point has been raised by Members on both sides of the House. I am trying to offer a compromise and a way forward on the Prison Service and deaths in custody, and I agree that we need to consider how we would bring that forward. Given the Government’s original position, the proper way is to do as I have outlined. I know that that does not meet with Opposition Members’ favour, but I understand their position.

Is the Government’s logic not back to front? I understand the Minister’s argument that he wants time for the provisions to bed in and to consider the special circumstances in relation to custody, but if the provisions apply in a hotel bedroom or a sleeper carriage on a train, they should apply even more in a prison, because it is not only an issue of custody but of the enhanced duty of care that the state owes to the individual in that position.

I understand where the hon. Gentleman is coming from. He has followed the debates and he will know that there are existing routes for the examination of deaths in prison, including through the coroners’ courts or the prisons and probation ombudsman. The Government’s feeling is that those routes are sufficient to deal with the issues, and to address the issue of prevention. The Government have come a long way and now accept the order-making power. Our original position was that there was no need for that. I make the reasonable argument that we should be cautious about how we apply the power and at what time. It is important that we do not lose sight of the wider context, both in terms of the power itself and the movement the Government have made.

The hon. Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve) suggested in our previous debate that the Government’s compromise offered very little other than a short cut to extending the offence to custody in the future, but in fact it represents much more than that. It recognises that it is right in principle for the offence to be capable of going wider than the traditional remit of health and safety issues and encompass the management of custody. Providing for the future extension of the offence in that way is a very significant step, making it explicitly clear that that possibility was specifically foreseen by this House and the other place in passing this legislation.

We would not have gone down that route if it was our intention that the power should never be exercised, but I am also clear that the new offence must be allowed to bed in, in its application to Crown bodies and the wider public sector, and the other measures we are taking must also be allowed to settle in, before we consider applying the new offence more widely.

The Minister’s remarks are slightly different from those he made when we last debated a similar amendment from the Government. Is he saying now that the Government are definitely, certainly and unequivocally going to use the power in the future or not?

I am saying that the Government have accepted the principle. We are putting in place the two other concessions that we have made to develop a route through that will help in dealing with deaths in custody. That issue was not raised in the wider genesis of this Bill by anyone in this House, but was certainly raised in the other place.

I acknowledge that my hon. Friend the Minister has moved a considerable way during the proceedings on the Bill, and I am most grateful for the way in which he personally has handled the Bill, but I would not want him to sit down thinking that the only objections on the issue of a timetable come from those on the Opposition Benches. There are those of us on the Labour Benches, too, who think that some hint of a timetable needs to be offered.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his intervention. I certainly know of his track record of wanting to see the Government move forward. I am grateful that he accepts that the Government have moved a tremendous distance.

I thought my hon. Friend the Minister said before he took the previous intervention that the issue of custody had not been raised in the genesis of the Bill. May I gently remind him that the joint committee of the Home Affairs Committee and the Work and Pensions Committee, which scrutinised the Bill, explicitly made a recommendation on this issue. We could see no reason in principle why it should be excluded. We are grateful to the Government for accepting that principle, but it has been around for quite a long time in the discussions.

Mr. Speaker, I am admonished. I accept my responsibility. I do now recall the joint committee’s recommendation.

Just to complete the picture, the Joint Committee on Human Rights made such a recommendation before the joint scrutiny committee debated it and subsequently.

I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s intervention and his involvement in this issue. I am grateful for the discussion that we have had to enable us to move the Bill forward. I think that everyone recognises that the Bill is necessary; it is an important part of health and safety and it has agreement across the House. I have accepted the principle.

The other two aspects of death in custody need to be looked at and bedded in. We need to discuss the arrangements for independent investigation of deaths in custody. Further steps need to be taken to prevent such deaths from occurring in the first place. Strong practical steps need to be taken to prevent deaths in custody.

Can the Minister give the House an idea of how many deaths last year would have been covered by the provisions and would have led to a prosecution?

The right hon. Gentleman may have read the explanatory notes and seen that we expect 10 or 11 cases. We are talking about corporate manslaughter and gross negligence. The point that he makes about deaths is important. We have to prevent deaths wherever they occur and in whatever way we can. The forum for preventing deaths in custody is an important tool that we need to look at again. We need to consider how we give people support. The issue of the prisons and probation ombudsman and whether he should have statutory powers is also important. We have to allow the measures that will help us to tackle deaths in custody to bed in.

Deaths in custody are a crucial issue. The Government are not saying, “We do not have to do anything about deaths in custody.” Clearly, we do, but we have to consider how the Bill developed and the motivation for it.

The Minister keeps on talking about the motivation for the Bill. I have no idea what the discussions were with the trade unions when the matter started up, but the Minister has to acknowledge that, once he starts a ball rolling, it is perfectly proper for Parliament to look at every aspect of where the law should bite. It started doing so at an early stage, so to suggest that the Bill has been hijacked for nefarious purposes may be something in the mind of the Home Secretary, but he has also been rather delusional on this point.

In a second. The Bill has been well scrutinised, as my hon. Friends have said. It has been welcomed by both sides of industry—by the Confederation of British Industry and the Trades Union Congress, bodies that work actively in this field. The Government’s concession is a major one. I understand why the Opposition are trying to push it further, but if hon. Members look at the details of what we are putting on offer, they will find that it meets their concerns, because the principle has been accepted.

Perhaps my hon. Friend should have given way to me earlier, as I would have said exactly what he has just said. When the Bill began its passage, Members had certain priorities, especially in Committee, so the House should remember that although the process described by the hon. Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve) is correct, and it is an important issue, other Members have different priorities and it is important that we keep up the pressure for them, too.

I agree, and I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his involvement in Committee and in other discussions about the Bill, which has, as has been said, been around for a long time—it was 10 years in the making. The Bill has been well scrutinised.

I am probably being obtuse, but I simply do not understand how the Minister, on behalf of the Government, can accept the principle on custody that the other place has put into the Bill, yet seem to be arguing as though delaying the provision, or never adopting it, and wanting things to bed down—whatever that may mean—in other aspects of the criminal justice system is a principle of almost equal importance to the first one. Listening to the Minister this afternoon, we have no idea what is stopping him, in real terms, introducing what the Lords have agreed to. In a couple of sentences, can he explain the guts of his argument, in so far as it is sustainable, and then we might be able to make progress?

I seem to have difficulty in debates with the hon. and learned Gentleman in getting him to accept my arguments. I will try, but I am not sure that he will accept what I am about to say. Death in custody is a serious issue and the Government take it seriously, which is why we introduced and developed the forum for preventing deaths in custody and why we want to give powers to the prisons and probation ombudsman to investigate such deaths. We believe that a range of issues needs to be looked at. The Government’s original position on corporate manslaughter was that deaths in custody would not apply; we did not see this legislation as an appropriate route for dealing with that important issue. However, we have moved dramatically to accept the principle that it should be in place, but we want to do two other things, too—to improve the operation of the prisons and probation ombudsman and the forum for preventing deaths in custody. If we do that, we shall deal with issues relating to deaths in custody while accepting the principle that if we need to go further—[Hon. Members: “It is not here.”] It is. The House can have the foresight to put that power on the face of the Bill—the power that has come back to the House for it to decide.

We are in the same position as in our previous debates. Opposition Members accept that the Government have moved and I am pleased that my hon. Friends also accept that. We have come a considerable distance. We have offered practical measures to improve the situation on deaths in custody and we have opened a door in the Bill in relation to the new offence applying to such deaths. We have done the right thing. That door is clearly open.

The other place has sent these amendments to us on two occasions, and the Government have made significant efforts to deal with the concerns they raise. It is time for the other place to play its role as a revising Chamber and allow the Bill to pass on to the statute book. Votes in this place reflect the strength of feeling here, so I hope that the other place will accept the will of the Chamber. I commend the Government’s amendments.

This is very nice. The Minister, with his customary charm, has come to the Dispatch Box to argue the unarguable. It is also nice to be described as right in principle—something every politician and Opposition relish—so I take that as a sincere compliment to Opposition Members and, I suppose, to many of the Minister’s Back-Bench colleagues who share our principle. The problem is that I wish the principle to be translated into practice.

The difficulty is that, yes, the Government have moved, if one makes an assessment of a move by virtue of having regard to the pace of a snail, but I never thought that the Government wished to be characterised as an organisation or organism that moved at a snail’s pace. That is all that the Government have achieved. On top of that, it is a very conditional move, because if the Government choose to retreat back into their shell and resist all predators around them, we will never get any movement on this matter at all.

The Minister has one point in his favour: he has made a case—I accept that it is a case—that there should be a time delay before the measures that the other place has introduced are implemented. If he were to come to the House or, I am sure, if the Government were to go to the other place and suggest a sensible timetable, even one that was generous to the Government to enable the current disorder in the Home Office and the Ministry of Justice to sort itself out, it would be viewed with some sympathy, simply out of regard for the Minister, to put him out of his misery of having to come back to the House repeatedly to continue this debate.

I agree with what my hon. Friend has said thus far, but if the compromise enabled the Minister in the implementation to alter the nature of the Lords amendment through the statutory instrument, that would be unacceptable to me.

I could not agree more with my right hon. and learned Friend. Indeed, Back-Bench supporters of the Government who wish to help them out of their difficulty should have regard to that nasty little subsection, because it will allow a Government to claim in future that they have honoured their commitment, while implementing only a fraction of the total package that the House wishes them to introduce.

At the risk of repeating what I said on the last occasion—I think that it bears repeating—we are talking of some 2,000 deaths in custody between 1995 and 2005. We are talking of some 10 verdicts by juries of unlawful killing in relation to such deaths. The case of Zahid Mubarek caused something of a national scandal. Between the time when we debated this matter on an earlier occasion and today, we have had the publicity surrounding the death of Adam Rickwood at Hassockfield, a matter on which I would not seek to make a pronouncement. However, I am sure that the Minister would agree that the death in a cell of a 14-year-old by suicide, using his own shoelaces, a number of hours after he was undoubtedly subjected to a restraint technique that might give cause for concern—although it might have been acceptable—when it was quite clear that there were serious problems with his mental state is precisely the sort of case where public disquiet could properly be met by having such a measure on the statute book that allows for proper prosecution where there has been gross negligence by the organisations concerned.

We are talking of trying to do some good and trying to change culture. It may well be, as the Minister said, that in dreaming up the Bill the Government had other targets in mind, but the process of debate proceeds inexorably and, as it has done so, it has become clear that there were problems in some areas and opportunities in others.

We had a really good debate in Committee, and the Bill has been well handled by the Minister. The problem now seems to be that we have a Government or at least a Home Secretary who is completely obdurate, and it is difficult to escape the conclusion, given the absolute lack of give between this Government amendment in lieu and the previous one that we considered, that the Government are showing inflexibility.

If the principle has been conceded—indeed, I detect in the Minister’s tone of voice and in the way he has presented this matter not just a concession of the principle, but a genuine endorsement of it—and if he genuinely endorses the principle, and I dare say that there may be others in the Ministry of Justice who endorse it as well, are we really going to be left with the only option of continuing this ping-pong with the other place until the Home Secretary has mercifully disappeared off the scene completely? I have to say to the Minister that I think peers of all parties in the other place are very resolute on this matter. The Government will find that the Bill will ping-pong for a long time, and each time that it comes back to the House, their standing will be just a little more diminished.

Although I cannot persuade the Minister today, we will stand by the Lords amendments—they are perfectly sensible measures. I urge the Minister to speak to Lord Falconer and the Home Secretary—if they are still on speaking terms now that the Departments have been split—and point out that this matter will cause the Government increasing embarrassment and damage. The sensible course of action would be to take a deep breath, to tell the Prison Service, the police and other organisations, such as local authorities providing secure accommodation, that they must get their house in order and make an assessment, and to set a date for implementing the measures put forward by the other place. When that happens, I will be able to say lots of pleasant things about the Minister—although I have tried to say lots of pleasant things already because I believe he knows that those who are expressing a contrary view to him on this matter are right. If the Government rise to the occasion, perhaps we can avoid further exchanges like this afternoon’s. The Lords amendments should stand.

There was a lot in what the hon. Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve) said. However, to be fair to the Government, they have moved a great deal, even though a lot of what they have said is not in the Bill or the Government amendments in lieu. Last time, we were offered three things. We were offered a review of the deaths in custody forum, and I was pleased that we were given a timetable of about six months. While the suggestion of a new statutory role and powers for the prison and probation service ombudsman was an old promise rehashed, I hope that we will see a little movement and that my hon. Friend the Minister will be able to tell us a little more about the timetable for that. Of course, the third important issue is what we are discussing now: addressing, in the Bill, deaths in custody. The Government have moved a considerable distance on that since we considered the matter on Report, but the question remains: when will the situation be dealt with?

I would have been happier if Government amendment (b) in lieu had said not

“The Secretary of State may by order”,

but “shall by order”, because that would have given us a degree of certainty that the matter would be continually reviewed and acted on, rather than addressed in a manner that is simply permissive. The absence of the word “shall” means that we need a bit more from the Government on the timetable.

I will not vote against the Government today, because their proposals are similar to what we voted on before. However, as I said to the Minister last time, the discussions that I have held with peers in the other place—members of my Committee and others—suggest that the matter will keep coming back because they feel strongly about it. Deaths in custody have been an issue for the Joint Committee on Human Rights for many years.

Now is the opportunity for my hon. Friend the Minister to put an end to this game of ping-pong. We have only a few weeks before the Bill runs out of time, so sooner or later concessions will have to be made. We do not necessarily need a formal timetable. If we could work to a target date—the Government like targets, and I am quite keen on them, too—that might be a way forward. Without a target, what pressure will there be on the Prison Service and other organisations to encourage them to mend their ways? If we had a date to work towards, at least they would know the time by which they would have to get their house in order.

My hon. Friend accepts that the Government have moved a tremendous distance. The Government accept that deaths in custody represent a key issue. In addition to the amendments, we have offered two important concessions that need to be developed. We have given a time of six months in relation to the forum on deaths in custody and said that the next available piece of legislation will be used to address the subject of the prisons and probation ombudsman. I hope that my hon. Friend understands why it is important for those reasonable steps to bed in before we make further decisions.

I readily accept that those concessions are important, as I did during our previous debate on the Bill. It would be nice to have an idea of when the next available Bill might appear, although I understand that my hon. Friend might not be able to tell us, because of the problems of trying to foresee what will be in the Queen’s Speech. However, the Prison Service needs to know the date by which it needs to get its house in order.

The hon. Gentleman and the Joint Committee on Human Rights, which he chairs, have made a distinguished contribution to the Bill, but will he respond to the point made by the right hon. and learned Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Mr. Hogg)? Subsection (2)(a) in Government amendment (b) in lieu actually makes the amendment far worse than the amendment that the hon. Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore) supported on a previous occasion. Is he not concerned that he is supporting a measure that will deliver something completely different from what his Committee backed?

The hon. Gentleman makes a valid point, as did the right hon. and learned Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Mr. Hogg). The question is what can be considered a reasonable compromise. I would prefer the provision not to be included, but we are in a political world, and we are trying to reach an agreement and a compromise. If the Minister came forward with a timetable, that would be a satisfactory compromise all round; it would satisfy the other place, too, because it would show not just an acceptance of the principle but, as the hon. Member for Beaconsfield said, an acceptance that there are practical steps to follow. That would be an additional token of the Government’s good faith on the issue.

We are talking about a deterrent effect, but that effect cannot take hold until the Bill is in force. How can we ensure that the Prison Service starts to gear up for that effect? The only way is to have a target date on which the part of the Bill that we are discussing will come into force. There should be a target date, so that bodies can get their act together, and a deterrent effect once the provisions have taken effect. The Government have moved a long way, but I suspect that the other place will still kick the Bill back to us, and we will continue to play ping-pong.

A different Department, the Ministry of Justice, is now dealing with the Bill, and that means that there are people who are prepared to look at the issue with fresh eyes. If the Minister cannot set out a timetable or give a target date today, I hope that he will at least reflect once again on what has been said in the House. Perhaps when the Bill goes back to the House of Lords, the Government spokesman there can give us a date to work towards, in respect of the amendments.

This is one of those slightly surreal debates that we have in the House. The Government say that they accept all the arguments, and that they are on our side and agree with us—but Members across the House are not sure whether they trust the Government. Perhaps we are in a surreal moment in British politics; perhaps we are waiting for 27 June, and perhaps then there will be permission from the Prime Minister to go ahead with the concession that Members of all parties want.

I hope that the hon. Member for Hendon and his colleagues will accept that what is on offer is simply not good enough. Some of us think that there is no need to wait to implement the measures that the other place wants, and that we should put measures on deaths in custody on the same footing as all the other measures in the Bill. However, there is a case for a timetable—the hon. Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve) began to outline it—or for a commencement order, as my hon. Friend the Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) suggested. Frankly, I am not immediately attracted by that option, but it is something that the Government could consider, and they could use it to test the views of this House and the other place. The period set out in the timetable should not be too long; it should certainly not be as long as is needed for the Home Office and the Ministry of Justice to get their act together—that would be too long. Certainly, the timetable should be specific and detailed; it might then begin to persuade people on different sides.

We had a small discussion about the timetable in a previous debate. The right hon. Member for Southampton, Itchen (Mr. Denham) was rather more optimistic than others, and he believed that as the power would be set out in the Bill, there would be an unstoppable momentum, which would ensure that what we want would come to pass. I am afraid that it is the House’s job to be rather more sceptical about unstoppable momentum. Let us remember that this Bill had its genesis before the 1997 election. It took more than 10 years to get to this stage, so I do not think that we should be confident that unstoppable momentum will be created if we just accept the power with no timetable. I have huge respect for the Minister, but on three occasions in the previous debate he said that there was no guarantee that the power would ever be used.

The hon. Gentleman does not have to look at the history, as it was only today that the Minister used the word, “if”, which means that the power might not be used.

The right hon. and learned Gentleman is exactly right, so I will not detain the House by reading out the three quotations from the previous debate that back the point that he and the Minister have already made—that we are in the world of “if” and “whether”, not a definite, certain “when”. The Government have left themselves enough wriggle room for a nest of snakes to wriggle out of that so-called concession, and we must ask why. Let us accept for a minute that they intend to introduce the measure some time. Why the delay? The Minister said that the police and the Prison Service needed to get ready, which implies that they are not yet ready, and are in such a state that gross negligence in management is possible.

That is a shocking admission, but let us move on and be charitable. What has to happen before they are ready? Perhaps new protocols need to be written, or extra training needs to take place. Perhaps a change of culture is required. One would hope that that would already have happened after 10 years, but perhaps those are the reasons. If that is the Government’s argument, and at some stage they come up with a timetable, we must ask why that period is needed. What is going to happen between now and then, and why are those actions necessary to ensure that suddenly it is acceptable to apply the offence? Until now, the Government have not even begun to make those arguments, and have tried to swat them aside, which is why we are suspicious about the underlying motive.

There are principles at stake, as we have debated incessantly. Equality before the law, and equal protection under the law: ultimately, those are the principles that we are defending. I am afraid that the Government have not moved anywhere near enough for us to be sure that those principles will be enshrined.

I must confess that intellectually, it is hard to oppose the Lords amendments, which are entirely consistent with the position that I have taken throughout the Bill’s progress and the report of the Joint Committee. However, I take a slightly more optimistic view of the position into which the Minister has put himself. If this particular Minister had not been handling the Bill, we might be in a much worse position on this important issue of principle, because he has won the argument that he put before the House about the principle that lies behind the changes. Much as I would prefer things to appear differently in the Bill, I am optimistic that by making the changes that he proposed we will create an unstoppable momentum in the implementation of that principle.

Once the power to include deaths in custody is on the face of a piece of primary legislation, at the next inquest that declares an unlawful killing of a young person, or an older person, in custody, there will undoubtedly be an expression of regret by the coroner that Parliament and the Government have not yet brought the measure into force. Indeed, may I gently suggest to my hon. Friend that if the Government’s real aim, which is a significant one, is to allow cultural changes to take place in the management of the Prison Service that would equip it to introduce the measure—most of us accept that those changes are not in place; perhaps they should be, but they are certainly not—he might have more control over the timetable if he set one in advance? In a fairly pleasant debate, he has had a slightly uncomfortable time, but if he does not set a timetable—within months, and certainly within the next year—it will be much more uncomfortable for him to appear on the “Today” programme in the wake of a coroner’s complaint that the legislation has not been enacted, making it impossible to follow up a verdict of unlawful killing.

As soon as we have a new ombudsman with statutory powers, it is hard to imagine that any worthwhile ombudsman will not continually draw attention to the failure to commence the legislation or to introduce the principle here, when a particularly tragic case arises. If we had some sense of a timetable to which the Government were publicly committed, it might provide more protection for the management of the Prison Service and more time to adjust than we will otherwise get.

The right hon. Gentleman said that the coroner would blame Parliament and the Government for not bringing in the legislation. Clearly, Parliament will get the blame if it fails now to insist on a better set of amendments, but if the Government get their way in the future it is they who will be to blame, because only they can initiate the process.

Indeed, the Government would get the blame. They would be held responsible when there was an inquest verdict of unlawful killing, and it was impossible to act through the criminal courts on the basis of the Bill because the principle that has now been conceded had not been enacted. For those reasons, I believe that what the Government have conceded is a very real gain for the House, and for the process of scrutiny that we have undertaken.

Like my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore), I think that an indicative timetable would be useful—and might even be sensible from the Minister’s point of view, although I recognise that he is acting today within the constraints that he has been able to achieve so far. I shall support my hon. Friend in the Lobby because I believe that he has in effect created, in a somewhat messy way, the result that most of us have sought to achieve. I support him for the immense efforts that he has made to achieve that result.

It is a pleasure to follow the right hon. Member for Southampton, Itchen (Mr. Denham). He made a sound point—that in the event of a very serious death in custody occurring, the Government will be severely blamed if they have not implemented the provisions of the enacting clause. I want, however, to make a slightly different point—indeed, two or three points, but I shall be brief, as I know that my right hon. Friend the Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood) wishes to speak as well.

It would be churlish not to acknowledge that the Government have made a concession, but it is not a concession which, in my view, goes nearly far enough, nor is it a complete concession on the matters of principle, although it makes some concession on principle. We must begin with the proposition that those in custody are a particularly vulnerable group. I speak as somebody who has served as a special constable, as Under-Secretary of State with responsibility for the Prison Service, as Under-Secretary of State with responsibility for the police service, and as somebody practising the criminal law now.

I know that power is abused. I know, too, that on occasion prison officers and police officers use excessive force, and that injury and death follow that use of excessive force. It is wholly wrong in principle that the public sector should be protected from the kinds of liability that we impose upon the private sector. I make the point again that those in custody are a particularly vulnerable group, and most people tend to avert their eyes from what happens in prisons and police cells. They should not.

Let us deal with the concession. First, there is no certainty that the Government will implement the power that they have given themselves. The Minister used the word “if” on this occasion, and he was good enough to confirm that if means if, not necessarily when, so there is no certainty that the power will be implemented. Secondly, one is entitled to ask in respect of what institutions the power will be implemented, if it is implemented. The House will have noticed from proposed new subsection (5A)(a) that it is a power in respect of

“any specified form of custody or detention”.

In their amendments the Lords specified the institutions to be treated as institutions of custody. The Government have given themselves a power to limit the institutions to which the Lords amendments apply. That is an extremely limiting power, which could constrain their concession to a very high degree.

I have already made the point, with regard to new subsection (5B), that the Government have given themselves the power to specify exceptions to the liability imposed by the Bill, so not only are they not committed to implementing the power at all, but they are not committed to implementing it in respect of the classes of institution to which the Lords want it to apply. Furthermore, they can limit the degree of liability by invoking subsection (5B). In practice, therefore, the compromise is very limited. It is no concession at all, unless the Government want to make it a concession.

If the Government introduce the statutory instrument, let us be under no illusion that we will have any part to play. We will not be able to say that the classes of custody to which the liability attaches should be extended, or that the restrictions on liability are unreasonable and unfair. It is true that the affirmative procedure will be used, but we should always remember that affirmative resolutions are not amendable. The concession is therefore pretty poor. My strong advice to the House is to stand firm and express the hope that the other place will stand by its principles and stick by its amendments.

I support the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve) and my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Mr. Hogg).

The House needs to remind itself of the magnitude of the problem. In the last three years of the Conservative Government—1995 to 1997—there were 116, 122 and 122 deaths in custody in England and Wales. In the most recent three years under this Government for which we have figures—the years up to and including 2005—there were 183, 206 and 174 deaths in custody, which amounts to an increase of more than 50 per cent. That should be of considerable concern to all Members of the House, and particularly to the Ministers responsible for the system. That is why many Opposition Members are reluctant for this area to be excluded so dramatically and prominently when the Bill takes steps to make other parts of the public sector, at least in part, more responsible.

Will the right hon. Gentleman confirm, however, that none of us has ever suggested that the great majority of deaths in custody would be subject to corporate manslaughter legislation? Only that small number of cases in which gross negligence has occurred at a managerial level would be caught.

Of course, when I say that those cases could be covered by the legislation, that would be with a view to investigating whether the—properly stringent—tests in the legislation were met. One hopes that that would be so in no case, or in very few cases, because this is a serious matter. In an intervention on the Minister, I said that I feared that the 5,890 deaths in 2005 from MRSA and C. difficile in hospitals would be excluded, and he seemed to agree. There is some legal feeling, however, that all those might be able to be investigated. Again, one hopes that none, or very few, would result in that kind of prosecution.

To reassure the right hon. Gentleman, I can tell him that if it could be proved that criminal negligence took place, such cases would not be exempt.

I am grateful for that clarification and reassurance. Deaths in custody are therefore among the biggest groups of deaths happening anywhere in the country, under any organisation, for which one would hope that that facility in the legislation would be available, if, in extreme cases, it were found that a case could be brought though the court system. It behoves the Government to lead by example in such sensitive territory, and to show that they, their staff and agents have nothing to hide by making sure that they and the private sector are covered in a similar way.

In an intervention, the Minister also kindly confirmed that, as the supporting documentation to the Bill states, the Government think that there would be only 10 to 13 cases a year. I asked specifically about the private sector, and he seemed to confirm that all those cases were thought to be in the private sector. Therefore, he clearly believes that of all those other cases that could potentially be examined in the public sector, none would produce a prosecution. That might be a convenient fiction for a Government Minister, for obvious reasons, but one would assume that a few more cases might arise if the whole public sector were included in a fair and level playing field with the private sector. My view of the figure work in the supporting documentation is therefore a little at variance with the Minister’s.

Like many Members of the House, I hope that not many cases would result in such serious prosecutions, but the fact that the facility was available would certainly help to concentrate the minds of the public sector agents involved, as surely as the intention of the House is to concentrate the minds of the private sector agents involved, because we take death by gross negligence very seriously, for obvious reasons.

I hope that the Minister will think again. I agree with what my right hon. and hon. Friends said about the need, if this is indeed a proper concession, for a clear timetable. I, too, would be grateful if the Minister would confirm that the Government are not intending to use the facilities in clause 5 to dilute this measure should they eventually get round to implementing it for deaths in custody. There are too many deaths in custody, and this is just one way among many in which we might be able to improve things a little.

I am grateful to hon. Members on both sides of the House for their well-held views on this issue. The Bill has been a long time in coming. I am grateful for Opposition Members’ kind remarks about its progress, although I do not know what that will do for ministerial careers.

Hon. Members will recognise that the Government have listened all the way through the Bill’s passage. We have accepted many of the proposals that were put to us in Committee. We have tried to improve the Bill and make it user friendly in terms of the matters that have been put to us. However, there comes a time when there must be a difference of opinion. I believe that the move that the Government have made in accepting the principle that deaths in custody should be in the Bill is a significant step, but hon. Members do not think that it goes far enough. We would not have gone down that route if we intended that the power should never be exercised. However, we are not prepared to set a timetable for that occurrence, because of the significant measures that we have put in place in relation to the two other elements of the compromise.

The right hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood) asked whether this would relate only to the private sector. No, it would not. The figures are across the board and apply to both the public and the private sector.

On the point raised by the right hon. and learned Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Mr. Hogg), the power to specify exemptions when extending the provisions to custody is not new, as it existed in the previous amendment. We are trying to add a power to disapply exemptions, such as those relating to exclusively public functions. That is necessary to give proper effect to extending clause 2 to custodial duties. We thought that we were improving the situation, but if we have not done so we will need to take another look. This is not about watering down or adding exemptions.

Nevertheless, the Minister also has powers to limit the liability to particular classes of institution.

I am happy to look at that again. It is certainly not our intention to limit or to water down. We had a good debate in Committee about the exemptions that we wanted to apply.

It is important that the concessions bed down, and that we are in a position to monitor them as they take effect. Death in custody is a very serious issue, and I do not want to move away from that. I pay tribute to the work that the Prison Service is doing in trying to avoid deaths in custody. The various stakeholders who are involved in the forum take such matters seriously. Clearly, it is distressing for all concerned that deaths in custody take place.

On the timetable for the prisons and probation ombudsman, we cannot pre-empt the Queen’s Speech, but those powers will certainly be included in the next available legislation.

This issue is not to do with the Home Secretary or the Lord Chancellor. The Government’s position is that we have listened and brought the concession forward, and that the concession is enough at this stage. Hon. Members should look at this in the round. We are as resolute as the other House in terms of where we are now. We are in a difficult position as regards the remaining time scale for the Bill. I hope that the other House and this House recognise that the Government have come a long way, and that they will support us in our endeavour. I do not want to return to this time and again. I hope that we can find a way forward and that people will accept that compromise has been reached. I support the amendments in the Government’s name.

Question put, That this House insists on its disagreement with the Lords in their amendments Nos. 2, 3, 5, 6 and 10, does not insist on its amendment 10A in lieu thereof, and proposes amendments (a) and (b) in lieu of the Lords amendments.

The House proceeded to a Division.

Government amendments in lieu of the Lords amendments agreed to.


Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Cawsey.]

I welcome this debate. The situation in Sudan, and in Darfur in particular, is of immense concern to all of us in this House. More than that, it is a tragedy about which the people of this country and, indeed, people all over the world feel deeply and passionately. They expect—and have the right to expect—that the UK Government and the international community will rise to the challenge and that we will do all that we can to end the suffering of the Sudanese people.

I have no doubt that during today's debate most Members, quite understandably, will choose to focus upon Darfur. However, we cannot afford to neglect the rest of Sudan. The civil war between the north and south lasted 20 years and during that conflict up to 2 million people were killed. A fragile peace was put in place in 2005 with the signing of the comprehensive peace agreement. That agreement provided for a Government of National Unity in Khartoum and for the Government of Southern Sudan under President Salva Kiir in Juba. Since then, the peace has held—but we should not take it for granted, nor assume that we have yet achieved a genuine and lasting settlement.

If the comprehensive peace agreement were to fall apart, Sudan would risk slipping back into a maelstrom of violence and chaos more intense even than that which we see today. So while we focus on Darfur, we cannot forget our responsibility to work and to keep working with international partners to keep the comprehensive peace agreement on the international agenda.

The UN has described the situation in Darfur as the greatest humanitarian crisis in the world—and there is hefty competition for that slot. Many thousands have been killed, raped or wounded, more than 2 million people are displaced, and as many as 4 million people—two thirds of the population—are dependent on international aid for food and basic needs. Stark statistics indeed, but they can convey only a little of the immense human misery that is being visited upon the people of Darfur.

We, the United Nations and the international community have to act. It was only last year that, for the first time, the concept of responsibility to protect was acknowledged in a country-specific UN resolution. That country was Sudan and that region was Darfur. If the concept of responsibility to protect is to mean anything, it must mean something in Darfur. The moral obligation upon the world community to find a way to protect the people of Darfur is heavy. It is both the foundation and the fulcrum of all our actions. However, there are questions of regional and international stability at stake, too. In its search for a way to fulfil that moral obligation, the international community needs the Government of Sudan to be an ally. We need to work together on issues of mutual importance such as migration and counter-terrorism, and we need a stable Sudan for a stable region.

The Secretary of State spoke of 20 years of civil war. Britain has some responsibility for originally drawing up the borders of Sudan, a country that contains a number of very different communities. Has the Secretary of State given any thought to a velvet revolution, allowing Sudan to fragment peacefully rather than through civil war?

Such issues come up for discussion from time to time, and I am sure that the hon. Gentleman is aware that Sudan is only one of many parts of the world where Britain has a responsibility for border issues, which nowadays bedevil many countries. I take on board his point, but it might at present be a diversion to address it. There are higher priorities in tackling the existing situation than the means he suggests.

I commend my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Development on the work that they are doing and on securing the first debate on this matter on the Floor of the House. She expressed frustration at the lack of action by the Government of Sudan, but does she share the frustration felt by me and others at what appears to be a lack of action by some African Governments and at the apparent impotence of the United Nations?

I do, and that is partly why I say that there is a heavy obligation on the international community. I accept that that responsibility has not yet been discharged with the vigour and effectiveness that we would wish.

The conflict in Sudan is already spilling over into Chad and the Central African Republic, and the conflict in Uganda spills into Sudan. If we cannot end the violence, we will not be able to address the underlying issues that must be resolved if there is to be long-term stability in the region. Those issues include resource pressures—which are made worse through climate change—poor governance and economic stagnation.

The UK has done much to help to address the problems of Darfur—not least through my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Development and my Foreign Office colleague Lord Triesman, to both of whom I pay tribute. Our goals are those supported by the United Nations and the African Union and set out in last year’s agreement in Addis Ababa: an immediate and strengthened ceasefire, a renewed political process and an effective hybrid African Union-United Nations peacekeeping force.

No, and I do not think anyone can be. I will return to that matter. The Government of Sudan committed to accepting such a force, but, as with so many other issues, they have not yet followed through on that commitment.

Given that we have undertaken to train soldiers for the Sudanese peacekeeping effort and we have provided comfort for Sudanese Ministers requiring health treatment, if the Sudan Government have not honoured their obligations should we not make it clear that our agreements to support them cannot continue either?

We constantly search for ways to make our concerns clear to the Government of Sudan and also to make those concerns felt—although hitherto without as much success as might be wished.

In support of the goals that I have identified, we have taken specific and targeted action: we have committed more than £73 million of bilateral funds to the African Union peacekeeping force, which is a substantial proportion of its funding; we have contributed more than £250 million in humanitarian assistance to Sudan; and we supported the implementation of an agreement between the Government of Sudan and the UN to allow full humanitarian access for non-governmental organisations operating in Darfur.

The UK has also been a leading voice in building an international consensus on Darfur. We sponsored the UN resolution in March 2005 that referred Darfur to the International Criminal Court, and on 2 May 2007 the ICC announced that it would issue arrest warrants in connection with alleged atrocities in Darfur. We have successfully encouraged China to play a more positive role in Sudan; indeed, that was one of the main themes of my visit to China two weeks ago. We have built up European support for tough measures and persuaded EU partners to give further funding for the African Union peacekeepers. Here, I should say that we are working particularly closely with the new French Government.

We have also made sure that Darfur remains in the international spotlight. During our presidency of the UN Security Council, for example, I hosted a meeting in New York designed to maintain the momentum towards political agreement. The meeting was attended by all the major players in both the African Union—including its chair, Dr. Konaré—and in the UN, including the Secretary-General and his staff and special representatives. Those efforts—and those of many others—have led to some progress in Darfur.

Does the Foreign Secretary think that China will now support a no-fly zone over Darfur? Some progress has been made with China, but the difficulty is that international law is dependent on the most obdurate member of the Security Council. Although progress has been made, it is still very slow.

No, I cannot give the hon. Gentleman that assurance. As he knows, the idea of a no-fly zone has been mooted on many occasions, and there are concerns about, as well as support for, that. Whether the Government of China would support such a move I am not sure, but they certainly are—not for the first time, to be fair—taking more positive steps and have appointed, as the hon. Gentleman will know, a special representative.

I am following my right hon. Friend’s remarks with great interest. Does she accept that in this country, at least, there is very broad support for more effective international action? We realise the difficulties that the Government have in achieving that, because it depends on so many other countries, but even those who are critical of our role in certain other countries are very keen that we should play as positive a role as possible in promoting action here.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that intervention and he is right: many communities across the world are extremely exercised about the position in Darfur and are pressing all of us to be more effective.

The Secretary of State has mentioned the European Union, China and the African Union, but what interaction has she had with the Arab League regarding Sudan? Sudan is, I believe, a member of the Arab League, and that body is obviously likely to be able to put more pressure on Sudan.

I can honestly say that all kinds of people have had interaction with the Arab League about this matter. It, too, has sought to be helpful and supportive and has been engaged in applying pressure, but none of these efforts has hitherto had as much effect as all of us would have wished and hoped. I think that one can honestly say that none of those potential players is indifferent to or opposed to this combination of actions; it is just that it has not yet been effective.

As I was saying, there has been some progress. The first United Nations peacekeeping personnel are already in the region and more are due to arrive shortly, acting in support of the current African Union mission. The next stage, as the House has said, is to build a functioning hybrid UN-AU force of up to 17,000 peacekeepers. Such a hybrid force has never been tried before, and the AU and the UN have been tasked with coming up with proposals on how it should work. We are now pressing those organisations to finalise and agree the details and to communicate them effectively to the Government of Sudan, so that that force can be deployed as quickly as possible.

There has also been some positive movement on the political front. That is important because only a viable political process and peace agreement can resolve the crisis. Envoys for the African Union and the United Nations are now leading a new political process that is designed to bring in all the rebel groups. That is vital because, as the House will recall, the Darfur peace agreement signed in May last year did not get the broad-based support from rebel groups and the Darfur population that it needed.

President Bush recently described the situation in Darfur as being akin to genocide. Is that a term that the Foreign Secretary would use for the situation? If it is genocide, surely we need to up our activity and push for the most robust set of international sanctions possible.

That is not the term that has been used internationally. There are always anxieties, sensitivities and disagreements about whether a set of events amounts to genocide, but whether or not we apply that label, there is no dispute that the course of action that the hon. Gentleman urges is the one that everyone supports and wants to be pursued.

The hon. Gentleman has had one go. If he will forgive me, I wish to make some progress.

We have been in regular contact with the envoys and we have engaged with the key regional players—Libya, Eritrea, Egypt and Chad—to ensure that they support the political process. The envoys have now presented a set of proposals—a draft roadmap—designed to allow all sides, including all the rebel groups, to engage in negotiations. It provides for mechanisms that will give the people of Darfur a say in what the final agreement will look like. However, as I have said already in response to interventions, although there has been some progress, there has not been nearly enough progress. That is what concerns the Government, the House and the people of this country.

Despite President Bashir’s repeated assurances to the international community that he would implement the conclusions of the Addis Ababa meeting, he has not done so. Indeed, he has sent more aircraft to bomb the people of Darfur. There have been continued attacks on civilians, peacekeepers and the humanitarian agencies, and those agencies are now warning that their basic ability to carry out their work is in jeopardy. It is fair to say that the Sudanese Government do not take the sole blame for the appalling situation. I am sorry to tell the House that all sides are violating the ceasefire. As the UN human rights mission to Sudan has reported, all sides are guilty of gross and systematic violations of human rights and breaches of international humanitarian law.

In the face of a tragedy of such horror and complexity, the response of the international community must be to do more, not less—to redouble our efforts, not wash our hands. To that end, we in this country will continue to work in support of the humanitarian agencies so that they can do their vital job helping the people of Darfur. I welcome the recent launch of the Disasters Emergency Committee appeal for Darfur and Chad, and I commend the work of the agencies in what is possibly one of the most challenging environments they face. We will work with partners in the European Union to provide further funding for the African Union mission. At the same time we will keep up the pressure on the African Union and the United Nations—as requested several times in this debate already—to deliver an effective hybrid peacekeeping force. When such a force is agreed, we will help to fund it and encourage others to contribute money and troops. We will also push all sides to make progress on the political process. We will make it clear that there can be no impunity for the atrocities committed in Darfur and we will support the International Criminal Court. We will continue to pressure those who have influence in Sudan—many of whom have been mentioned in the debate today—to play a positive role in resolving the conflict. As I have said, China, Egypt and Libya are key.

In the final analysis, however, it is those involved in the conflict who can and must end it. Only they can ultimately bring peace and security to Darfur. The African Union and the United Nations have drawn up the outlines of a political process. The agreement in Addis Ababa has laid a framework for peacekeeping. Now, all sides in the conflict face a choice—commit to that process and support that framework or face the consequences. For the Government of Sudan, that will mean co-operating fully with the African Union and the United Nations. It means an end to the killing of innocent civilians and a clear signal that those who commit atrocities will be brought to justice. It means helping humanitarian workers to operate freely and securely so that they can bring effective relief to the Sudanese people. We should be clear with the Government of Sudan about what they have to gain if they choose that path. Sudan can be a part of the international community again. That would mean, as a start, an end to sanctions and more money for reconstruction and development. We will not lose interest in Sudan. We will go on doing everything that we can to help the Sudanese people build a better future.

However, we should be just as clear about what will happen if the Government of Sudan choose a different path—if they decide not to honour the agreements into which they have entered. In that case, the UK, with our partners, will seek to table a further sanctions resolution at the UN Security Council. Also, what goes for the Government of Sudan goes for the rebel groups. If they do not co-operate, if they are not willing to enter into a genuine ceasefire, then they, too, should and will be subjected to sanctions.

The question is what will those sanctions say? The Prime Minister in The Economist this week said:

“In the early 1990s we could not summon the will to act in Bosnia. It took 250,000 lives lost before we realised we had no option.”

The international community intervened in the Balkans. Has Darfur not reached a stage at which international intervention needs to be considered?

In a sense, that is what we are talking about. That is what we have been talking about throughout—the nature and form of intervention by the international community to bring these matters to a conclusion. As for what might be in a sanctions resolution, there is obviously a great deal of discussion about would be effective and what could be supported. It is important to maintain the unity of the international community in bringing pressure to bear, but, more important, to avoid having to pass a sanctions resolution if we can because we have moved forward on the hybrid force.

Bringing real and lasting peace to the people of Darfur will not be an easy process and it will not be quick, but it is still possible. The alternative—a continuation of the horrors that we have already witnessed—is no alternative at all. I will not disguise from the House the tragic fact that the international community is failing the people of Darfur. That is why I chaired a meeting of the Security Council in April on this issue. It is why we are funding the running costs of the African Mission in Sudan—AMIS—to ensure that its troops can continue to operate in Darfur, something that has several times almost been in jeopardy. It is why the UK is the second largest bilateral donor to the humanitarian effort in Darfur.

The African Union and the UN have only recently reached agreement on the detailed proposals for the hybrid force to be put to the Government of Sudan. As that Government were supposed to have accepted the principle of such a force many months ago, we are urging very speedy agreement and acceptance of those proposals and I hope that we will hear that that is the case very soon. However, if moves for peace are to succeed, all sides in Sudan and in the international community will need to show the courage to seize the opportunity that we now have and will need the commitment to follow it through for the long term. This Government, this country and, I think, this House will not flinch from that task.

As the Foreign Secretary said, today’s debate is a welcome opportunity to address the international response to the crisis in Darfur—a conflict that has brought such disaster to the people of that region and which is now, tragically, in its fourth year. In that time, the killings, forcible displacements and ethnic cleansing of the Darfurians have continued almost unabated. As a result, by our Government’s estimate, more than 4 million people have been displaced in Sudan and are now dependent on aid; for much of the time they are on the edge of a humanitarian catastrophe.

During a visit to Darfur last year, with my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr. Mitchell), the shadow International Development Secretary, I heard at first hand tales of cruelty and suffering from victims in the refugee camps. Since then, the appalling circumstances and security situation in the region have only deteriorated, with the fragmentation of rebel groups, increased lawlessness around the camps and a heightened climate of danger for refugees and aid workers.

Aid workers and non-governmental organisations from around the world, particularly from Britain, have been engaged in a substantial humanitarian international relief effort. The Foreign Secretary rightly mentioned the latest appeal of the Disasters Emergency Committee, a coalition of 13 leading aid agencies, which has renewed its appeal for support, saying that malnutrition levels are reaching an emergency situation. The coming rainy season could bring an increase in disease as well as logistical difficulties in delivering aid.

Unfortunately, as the Foreign Secretary recognised in her speech, that resolute and determined humanitarian operation has not been matched by the international community as a whole with a diplomatic strategy that is equally resolute. As the Foreign Secretary has just said, the international community has failed the people of Darfur so far. The Opposition agree. For four years the international community, including our Government, have rightly attempted to influence the Sudanese Government with threats of “isolation” or “negative consequences”, but beyond the commitment to a future UN force there has not yet been a clear united strategy and there has been no decisive action. There have been no deadlines and no penalties.

Nine months have passed since the Security Council resolution authorising the deployment of a UN force to Sudan that Khartoum continues to reject—we shall see what the Sudanese response is to the latest agreement between the African Union and the UN, to which the Foreign Secretary referred. In some quarters, however, including at the UN, it seems that there are still calls for the Sudanese Government to be given “more time”, despite the fact that 80,000 people were driven from their homes in February alone, despite the fact that the Government of Sudan continue to conduct aerial bombing campaigns in Darfur and violate the UN arms embargo by using planes disguised in UN colours, and even though the conflict is spreading dangerously to Chad and the Central African Republic.

I am sure that we are agreed in the House about our great concern and about the failure so far of the international community. Let us be clear that Darfur cannot afford another round of toothless diplomacy. It does not appear to be possible to trust the Sudanese Government to keep their promises or to take concrete steps to end the killing. The UK Government have recognised that pattern of behaviour in the Government of Sudan, but have so far been unable, with their international partners, to break the cycle. Although the Opposition wholeheartedly support the Government’s efforts in the region, and acknowledge the immense difficulties surrounding the negotiations for a UN force and all the international negotiations, we believe it is certainly time for Britain, along with its international partners, to adopt a more determined approach to resolve the crisis. The Foreign Secretary says that our efforts must be redoubled and that the Government’s efforts will be redoubled. If that is the case, they will have the strong support of the Opposition.

Time and again, President Bashir has promised to co-operate with international efforts to end the conflict, in order to relieve the diplomatic and economic pressures on him, only to go back on his word and openly obstruct those efforts as soon as international pressure has abated. Those tactics have bought his Government time to conduct military offensives against rebels, to wreak carnage on the people of Darfur, to fund and incite rebellions in neighbouring countries and to impede the delivery of UN aid to internally displaced people. So the task of Britain and the international community must be to elicit a new set of responses by presenting the Sudanese Government with an entirely different political and economic reality.

Regrettably, the Sudanese Government have so far been able to rely on divisions in the international community to shield them from serious penalties. Two years ago, the Security Council ruled that anyone impeding the peace process in Darfur or committing atrocities against civilians would be subject to UN sanctions, including an assets freeze and a travel ban; but to date, only four individuals have been designated and none of them is a member of the Government of Sudan.

The approach of our own Government on one or two aspects—I say this in the context of the general support that we have given them—has appeared inconsistent. In July 2006, the Foreign Secretary said that it was UK policy to pursue an arms embargo for the whole of Sudan. In November 2006, she said in a subsequent written answer to me that there were no plans to extend the arms embargo, only to come full circle again in March this year by stating that the UK would be pushing for a countrywide arms embargo in Sudan. The Secretary of State for International Development shakes his head, and he might want to clear that up in the wind-up, if he disagrees with that analysis.

In April, the Foreign Secretary said:

“If we don’t see progress in days rather than weeks, we have to move ahead with a fresh sanctions resolution.”

Days have now turned into weeks. Of course, we are awaiting the agreement on the deployment of the AU-UN force, but people in refugee camps might be forgiven for finding ministerial words around the world increasingly empty.

In the meantime, hope of progress on an internal political solution has receded. With each week that passes, reaching a political settlement in Darfur seems to become more, not less, difficult, as increasing numbers of people have become displaced and further groups have been drawn into the conflict. According to the US special envoy to Darfur, as many as 15 rebel factions are now operating in Darfur, all of which will need to be coaxed into a peace agreement.

The Sudanese Government appear to believe that the international community lacks the will to make its threats a reality. They will continue to do so, unless the Security Council sends a clear message that there will be specific and escalating costs to their actions. We believe that it is therefore essential that the Security Council make it clear to the Government of Sudan that a clear package of penalties has been prepared and will be implemented if they do not allow a robust peacekeeping force in Darfur. That means swiftly agreeing and implementing, if necessary, a UN resolution that widens the assets freeze and travel ban to include members of the Sudanese leadership, imposes an arms embargo on the whole country, mandates the imposition of a no-fly zone in Darfur and sets a deadline for the Government of Sudan to allow the deployment of the UN forces, in co-operation with the AU. Pressure from the international community should be unrelenting, until the Sudanese Government permanently and verifiably stop all air and ground attacks and allow the deployment of those UN forces.

The right hon. Gentleman’s contribution is, as usual, very interesting. If the UN is unable to pass such a resolution, does he envisage a position where the UK Government, either by themselves or with one or two like-minded countries, take unilateral action without UN support?