House of Commons
Wednesday 20 February 2008
The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock
[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
The Secretary of State was asked—
Independent Monitoring Commission reports provide assessments of paramilitary organisations. The most recent report indicated that dissident republicans continue to pose a real threat, while the Provisional IRA is not involved in terrorist activity. Loyalist organisations clearly need to underpin their encouraging statements with actions.
It is clear that there is still a serious paramilitary problem, as the Secretary of State acknowledges. Would he care to comment on the sad case last week of Andrew Burns, a 27-year-old, who was dragged from Strabane over the border and murdered? Does the Secretary of State have any information that he can give to the House?
I understand the sincerity with which the right hon. Gentleman makes his point in relation to the murder of Andrew Burns last week. He was a 27-year-old single man from Strabane who was shot twice in a church car park on 12 February. The murder was of course roundly condemned by all politicians, including the Deputy First Minister, who very clearly said that he gave his wholehearted support to the Garda and the Police Service of Northern Ireland in their investigation. To date, no arrests have been made, but a police investigation is under way. As soon as I can give the right hon. Gentleman details of the investigation, I will be happy to do so.
Does the Secretary of State agree that loyalist paramilitary activity is still a serious threat to our society and that the refusal of the people involved to call a ceasefire, to disarm and to disband requires immediate and full security and policing attention? What additional actions and pressures does he intend to employ, rather than the continuation of what appears to be the current laissez-faire attitude towards such organisations?
I understand the hon. Gentleman’s remarks about his concern in relation to the threat from dissident loyalists. The most recent IMC report spoke about the pace of change remaining far too slow. I believe none the less that there is a genuine desire to make progress among the communities involved. It is important that, while we are not for one moment complacent about the threat posed by some loyalist individuals, huge advances are none the less being made. It is essential to recognise that the communities that are being held in the grip of paramilitary activity need every encouragement and help that we can find to ensure that they roundly turn on those who refuse to give up the ways of the past.
Does the Secretary of State agree that the continued existence of the IRA’s so-called army council is unacceptable and that it poses a threat to the devolved institutions? Will he join me and my colleagues today in calling for its immediate disbandment?
The hon. Gentleman makes a point that is more than familiar to and shared by many people. I would go as far as to say that all hon. Members and all people want those paramilitary vestiges of the past to be expunged as soon as possible. The critical issue here, though, is cross-community confidence. It is worth reminding him, and indeed all hon. Members, of the IMC’s firm view that PIRA is committed to the political path and of the fact that the IMC has no evidence to believe that PIRA will be diverted from that path. Therefore, the critical issue that has to be addressed is one of confidence.
I believe that there is growing confidence in Northern Ireland that we are now able to move to the second stage of devolution and to devolve policing and criminal justice. The sooner that is done, the sooner we will expunge those vestiges of the past, in every form.
The Secretary of State’s predecessor introduced a scheme for conflict transformation in Northern Ireland to assist loyalist paramilitaries to move away from violence and into peaceful mode. Can he say, on the basis of any security analysis that is available to him, whether he believes that that initiative is working?
I believe that the initiatives, which include the conflict transformation initiative, have been helpful in enabling communities to get themselves out of the grip of paramilitary activity. It is important to distinguish between the individuals who are involved in paramilitary-style behaviour and the communities that are in the grip of that behaviour. The money that was found for the conflict transformation initiative was money to help the latter.
As far as we are able to assess, considerable progress is being made by communities to get out of that grip, but there remains a duty on us all to help in any way we can any community that wants to leave behind the past and those vestiges of the past in relation to paramilitary activity, enabling it to do so and to move into the shared future, and a prosperous, peaceful future too.
In view of the murder last week near Strabane, the attacks on police officers last year and the threats mentioned by the hon. Member for South Down (Mr. McGrady), will the Secretary of State confirm that it is his policy to approve all applications by the police to carry out intercepts?
The hon. Gentleman brings together a number of issues. There is an ongoing threat that we need to tackle, but we also need to understand that interception or any other sort of surveillance will always be done in compliance with the law and the oversight of the relevant commissioners.
In the light of that helpful reply, will the right hon. Gentleman guarantee that intercept evidence will be admissible in Northern Ireland courts, in accordance with the recommendations of the Chilcot review?
The hon. Gentleman is right to refer to Chilcot’s work on intercept evidence. In my view, we should try, as far as we can, to include Northern Ireland in the implementation of the Chilcot recommendations for England and Wales. I am ensuring that those involved in the Chilcot follow-up that now takes place will look at Northern Ireland and, wherever possible, include it in the proposals that are made.
The Secretary of State says that he now wants to move on to the next stage of devolution—the devolution of policing and criminal justice—and my party shares that aspiration, but does he not accept that the continuing failure of some who hold elected office in Northern Ireland to acknowledge and accept the paramilitary involvement in the murder of Paul Quinn and Robert McCartney, and the subsequent disgraceful treatment of their families, makes the realisation of that aspiration very difficult?
Making progress on the next stage of devolution will be difficult. The St. Andrews agreement lays out a way forward and includes a timetable, but, critically, it is a matter for local politicians in Northern Ireland to agree on moving forward to the next stage. There are those in Northern Ireland, however—I do not include any elected politicians—who do not want progress to be made. They are small in number; they have no support in the community; and they are, by and large, characterised by dissident republican activists and those who would be involved in criminal activity—the sort of activity that led to the brutal murder, condemned by everybody, of Paul Quinn. The choice for politicians in Northern Ireland is this: do we allow those who would be involved in crime or the sort of activity that led to the murder of Paul Quinn to determine the future of everyone in Northern Ireland? I do not think that we should. I think that we should move to the next stage and leave those who commit crime and murder to be dealt with by law and put away in prison, where they belong.
The prospects for the economy in Northern Ireland are extremely good as a result of the peace process and stage 1 of the St Andrews agreement. I am sure that the completion of stage 2 will send a strong signal to attract further additional investment to Northern Ireland.
Sir David Varney’s recently published review of tax policy in Northern Ireland highlighted the challenges facing local businesses. What discussions have the Government had with the relevant Northern Ireland Minister on assisting small business to grow and on sustaining that growth, thereby reducing dependency on the public sector for employment?
By and large, those are now matters for the devolved Assembly, the Executive and the Finance Minister and his colleagues in Northern Ireland. However, I say to the hon. Lady that if we look at the economy in Northern Ireland today, we see that unemployment has halved, the growth rate is the second highest in the UK, exports have increased and Belfast today attracts more inward investment than any city in the UK other than London. The Assembly and the Executive are taking enormous strides to attract inward investment, and the Government’s policy is to do all that we can to assist them in future.
My right hon. Friend has outlined the record of the booming economy in Northern Ireland. What specific measures are being taken to ensure that the new-found prosperity in the north is reaching the poorest communities by removing barriers relating to transport and affordable child care, for example, and by upgrading skills?
Many of those issues are now matters for the Assembly and the devolved Departments, and they must make their own decisions about the allocation of money. I commend the budget and the work being done by the Finance Minister in Northern Ireland to ensure that the settlements that are being produced are fair for every Department and that they recognise the need for the prosperity in Northern Ireland to be shared by everyone in all communities and not just by the few.
I and my colleagues in the Northern Ireland Executive have put growing the economy at the centre of the programme for government, and we are putting investment into that objective. We acknowledge the role that the Secretary of State and his colleagues have played in regard to the forthcoming investment conference in May. In relation to fiscal and other tax changes and reforms, does he agree that the Treasury and others could do more to help Northern Ireland, given its unique position in sharing a land border with the Irish Republic, our strongest competitor for foreign direct investment? Does he accept that more could be done to put Northern Ireland on a level playing field in that regard?
I am sure that there is always more that could be done by any of us, in any field of public life. In relation to investment in Northern Ireland, the hon. Gentleman has spearheaded the preparations for the investment conference that is to be held in May, in which my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, and the Government in America, continue to take a close interest. I believe that it will be a very successful conference, and that will be in no small part due to the work of the hon. Gentleman.
In regard to what more we can do, we stand ready to help in every way that we can, but we must recognise that the public sector in Northern Ireland represents more than 70 per cent. of the economy, and bringing those areas into the private sector—as well as the relevant areas remaining in the public sector—will present enormous potential for economic growth.
The regimes available to long-term and life-sentenced prisoners in Northern Ireland include education, skills training and offender behaviour programmes. These prisoners are subject to detailed risk assessments, which inform their resettlement or life sentence plan.
Does the Minister agree that a good quality resettlement programme will not only improve the mental ability of prisoners while they are in prison but cut reoffending? The Northern Ireland Affairs Committee’s first report makes it clear, however, that there are shortages of such provision in prisons such as Maghaberry. Would it not make sense to address such shortages, in order to cut recidivism and to reduce the crime rate overall?
I warmly welcome the report from the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, which was produced after extensive research and many visits to the prisons in Northern Ireland. We are putting the investment in. I announced before Christmas that an additional 400 prison places would be built over the next two years, and we are also putting more investment into the kind of offender behaviour programmes to which the hon. Gentleman refers. He is right: when a prisoner has his or her liberty taken away, that is the punishment, but our responsibility—and that of the Prison Service—is to ensure that they are rehabilitated and that they have the skills and education necessary to enable them to come out of prison and lead normal, law-abiding lives.
Will my hon. Friend say a little more about how the reintegration of released long-term prisoners can play a part in building a new, more inclusive society, and in finally drawing a line under ancient hostilities?
Indeed. It is important that everyone plays their part in building a more cohesive Northern Ireland, not least those who have been subjected to prison sentences. Every prisoner who has been subjected to a long-term or a life sentence is thoroughly assessed some three years before they are released to determine the appropriate plan for them. For some, release by the tariff date set by the judge will not be possible; for others, it will. In every case, however, we must ensure that people have skills, a job and a home to live in, so that they can build and maintain family relationships. All those things are vital for the individual offender, but also for the wider community.
There is great concern in Northern Ireland not only about long-term prisoners but about the number of people who are held for a short term in jail as a result of the non-payment of fines. Given that only 1 per cent. of those who have been brought to court for fuel smuggling ever finish up in jail, and that fine defaulters are regularly put in jail, will the Minister tell us what plans he has to ensure that organised criminals get hefty jail sentences, and to deal with the issue of the fine defaulters who are taking up space in our prisons?
The hon. Gentleman makes a very important point, reflecting some of the recommendations and findings of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, of which he is a member. Urgent and radical action is being taken to ensure that we rebalance the criminal justice system in Northern Ireland to make sure that the dangerous offender spends longer in prison while those who commit less serious offences are dealt with in the community.
The hon. Gentleman raised the issue of fine defaults. It is outrageous that 30 per cent. of all admissions to prison last year in Northern Ireland were for defaults on fines, the majority of which were small fines of just a few hundred pounds. We have to find alternatives in the community to ensure that those people pay back. As to oil fraud and fuel smuggling, I had a meeting yesterday with the Organised Crime Task Force, and I gave officials one month to come back with an action plan to deal with the problem and make sure that the law is properly enforced.
The Minister mentioned that 30 per cent. of prison receptions are for fine defaulters, but the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee report suggests that the figure is 59 per cent. in comparison with just 2.2 per cent. in England and Wales. Some of these people spend as little as 24 hours in prison, causing a complete disruption of the Prison Service of Northern Ireland. Is it not a complete waste of resources to put people in prison on that basis?
I agree, and I am pleased that we are now giving some real focus to this particular issue. The figure is 30 per cent. of prison admissions last year, but the hon. Gentleman is quite right to say that that this is a terrible waste of resources. It costs £1 million or more each year just to administer the system of sending fine defaulters to prison. We will bring forward further proposals to deal with the problem—for example, attachment of benefit orders and attachment of earning orders—to make sure that people pay the fines without the expensive waste of putting them in prison for just a few days.
I am advised that the Bloody Sunday inquiry has so far cost £181 million and that approximately half of that has been spent on legal services.
The Secretary of State should be ashamed to put that grotesque figure before the House. Is it not the case that nothing better demonstrates the Prime Minister’s twisted sense of priorities than the farce of the Saville inquiry, which is now threatening to outrun “The Mousetrap”? Would it not have been better to have spent this nearly £200 million on giving our armed forces the equipment they need, rather than lining the pockets of lawyers?
I understand the excitement that the hon. Gentleman wishes to generate on this issue, but a little less heat and little more light would be appropriate. First of all, it is essential to separate the cost of this inquiry from its value. The decision to hold the inquiry was absolutely critical to engaging Northern Ireland on the peaceful, prosperous and stable path on which it now lies. Costs are, of course, an issue, which is why the Government introduced the Inquiries Act 2005 and why new inquiries are being held under that Act. The Saville inquiry was established under terms before the Inquiry Act, and although we have done what we can to try to control costs, those costs are a matter for the inquiry rather than for the Government, as the hon. Gentleman well knows. He should be careful not to twist the facts and distort the issue, which runs the risk of trampling on the sensitivities of the families who lost their loved ones.
I totally agree with the Secretary of State that it is important to try to get—[Interruption.]
Order. Let the hon. Gentleman speak.
It is important to try to reach an agreed view of the facts, if that is at all possible, but saying that this inquiry has up to now been conducted in a time-consuming, leisurely and unbusinesslike fashion would surely be an understatement. Will the Government introduce some new disciplines—financial disciplines—that those concerned will understand to ensure a greater degree of urgency and focus as the inquiry proceeds?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right to distinguish the value of the inquiry from the cost. Members are also right to want to ask questions about the cost of the legal claims behind the inquiry. However, the legislation establishing the Bloody Sunday inquiry gives the Government no statutory powers to control costs. We have done what we can. We introduced rates for counsel and solicitors in 2004, and I have made representations to Lord Saville, but I am afraid that this remains a matter for him and for the inquiry.
The Secretary of State talks about value. He has told the House that more than £181 million has been spent on the inquiry. Has he considered two points? First, the inquiry will not bring closure. Relatives have already said that they want prosecutions to follow the expenditure of that £181 million. Secondly, the inquiry will not bring back to life the loved ones—more than 2,000 people—of relatives who have already not seen closure. That issue remains unresolved.
The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. As he says, this process will not bring closure of the issues raised; it will simply produce a conclusion to an inquiry into the events of Bloody Sunday. As for all the families who have lost loved ones, it must be said that it is unrealistic to imagine that there will be an inquiry about the people—up to 4,000—who were murdered during the course of the troubles in Northern Ireland.
The work done by the consultation group on the past, chaired by Lord Eames and Denis Bradley, is extremely important in helping us to establish whether we can find a way of dealing with the past that does not involve spending hundreds of millions of pounds on inquiries. Those inquiries have mattered until now, and of course they matter to those who have lost loved ones, but we do not think that they will bring closure to all the families who have suffered such terrible tragedy.
Does the Secretary of State recognise the compound hurt of Bloody Sunday, caused not just by the deaths that day but by the travesty of the Widgery tribunal, which erected lies on stilts and interned the memory of innocent people without truth? The reliance of so many people on Widgery as the true verdict on what happened that day is what necessitated a new inquiry. Can the Secretary of State tell us by how much the legal costs were inflated by the chicane of legal challenges to the Saville inquiry from the military and related interests, and will he tell us what consideration he—
Order. The supplementary question is far too long.
The hon. Gentleman makes an important point about the need to establish the Saville inquiry, and the important role that it has played over the last few years in building confidence in all communities that the justice system will be fair and ensure parity across the board. This is a sensitive issue and I cannot give him answers to his specific legal questions, but he may wish to write to Lord Saville himself.
The security situation in south Armagh is being transformed. Police today operate without military support and enjoy unprecedented co-operation from the local community, especially with Sinn Fein joining both the Policing Board and district policing partnerships.
Does the Secretary of State agree that in spite of those welcome developments and the increasing co-operation between the Police Service of Northern Ireland and the Garda Siochana there are still real worries in south Armagh? Is he not disturbed, as I am, that no one has yet been arrested for the murder of Paul Quinn?
The hon. Gentleman is right about the concern that exists in south Armagh, throughout Northern Ireland and throughout the whole United Kingdom, and indeed in the Republic of Ireland, about the murder of Paul Quinn. We all want to see those responsible for that murder brought to justice. However, let me repeat to him what the district commander of south Armagh told my hon. Friend the Minister of State this morning during a conversation about the issue. The situation in south Armagh is improving. The communities are showing a greater engagement with the police in helping with all inquiries. Let me give just one example: the fact that today we see the police being invited into schools in Crossmaglen is a huge step forward. Notwithstanding the savage, brutal murder of Paul Quinn, we must not lose sight of the progress that is being made.
The Independent Monitoring Commission and the Chief Constable have acknowledged that the dissident republican groups in south Armagh and throughout Northern Ireland pose a major threat. We send troops across the world with a determined goal of crushing terrorism. When will the Government do that in Northern Ireland? Are we consigned to another 30 years of this activity because of a dissident threat from republicanism?
This Government are absolutely determined to bear down on terrorism wherever it happens. We continue to bear down on all paramilitary activity in Northern Ireland, and we will work closely with the police forces in Northern Ireland and in the Republic to ensure that those who pose a threat—it is a small but none the less significant threat—to the lives of ordinary people will be dealt with. We will bring them to justice as soon as we can.
The Prime Minister was asked—
Before I list my engagements, I am sure that the whole House will wish to join me in sending our profound condolences to the family and friends of Corporal Damian Lawrence of 2nd Battalion the Yorkshire Regiment, who was killed in Afghanistan on Sunday evening. We owe him, and others who have lost their lives, a deep debt of gratitude.
This morning, I had meetings with ministerial colleagues and others. In addition to my duties in the House, I shall have further such meetings later today.
I am sure the whole House will wish to add their condolences to those of the Prime Minister.
The fact that Labour Members welcome the decision to bring Northern Rock into public ownership may not come as a surprise. It was the right decision at the right time. However, given that the public purse is now to bear the risk of Northern Rock, can my right hon. Friend give my constituents the guarantee that when Northern Rock goes back into private ownership all the returns will come back to the taxpayer?
Yes, the benefits will return to the taxpayer. I welcome the chance to explain the background to how we will deal with the long-term interests of the taxpayer. Our first decision on Northern Rock was to ensure the stability of the economy, to prevent the problems at Northern Rock from spreading to the rest of the economy in a period of global financial turbulence—that has been achieved. Our second decision was to protect depositors—that has been achieved. Our third decision was to protect the long-term interests of the taxpayer. That is why it was right to invite bids from all quarters, to examine them thoroughly and to make the right decision on the basis of the long-term interests of taxpayers. That is why we will return Northern Rock from temporary public ownership to the private sector only when we can get the best deal for the taxpayer. Stability is our watchword. The interests of taxpayers will come first.
First, may I join the Prime Minister in paying tribute to Corporal Damian Lawrence, who was killed in Afghanistan on Sunday? He died serving our country. May I also take the opportunity to wish the Prime Minister a happy 57th birthday? [Interruption.] Enough of that.
In January last year, the Government were sent details of 4,000 dangerous foreign criminals and for an entire year they did absolutely nothing with that information. Can the Prime Minister explain how such a catastrophic failure to protect the public took place?
The Attorney-General has asked the Crown Prosecution Service to conduct an inquiry into this matter. A request was made by the Dutch authorities for us to look through our DNA records. Some 4,000 names were put to us by the Dutch, and 11 cases have been discovered as a result of the investigation. The inquiry will cover all the details of what happened. I must tell the right hon. Gentleman that it was possible for the Dutch to ask us to look at our DNA records only because we are keeping full DNA records. The Conservatives opposed that legislation.
The Prime Minister tells us that there is an inquiry, but there always is an inquiry with this Government—frequently it is a police inquiry. The Prime Minister is somehow pretending that the fact that 4,000 details were left on a civil servant’s desk for a year was a triumph of Government policy. I must ask some simple questions. He has told us about 11 criminals who have committed crimes in Britain this year. Can he tell us what crimes they committed?
The crimes, as I understand it, were assault and non-payment of fines. Those are the crimes that have been identified. The full report will reveal the final details, but I must ask the right hon. Gentleman again whether he now supports DNA being kept by the Government. The Conservatives voted against the Criminal Justice Act 2003. The Dutch would not have asked us for those details had we not had the DNA, but the right hon. Gentleman was against that measure.
As ever, the Prime Minister is completely wrong. The first DNA legislation was passed when my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard) was Home Secretary and I was working for him. I seem to remember—[Interruption.] Let us be clear: if the Government had acted on the information, crimes could have been prevented. As the Prime Minister said, some of those crimes were serious violent assaults. Why are the Government so incompetent when it comes to processing information about criminals? They failed to deport the foreign criminals; they failed to process the details of 30,000 British citizens who committed crimes overseas; and now we know that information about serious crimes sat on a desk in Whitehall for a year and nothing was done. Should not people conclude that this incompetent Government simply cannot keep them safe?
The right hon. Gentleman is entirely wrong about the deportation of foreign criminals. Two years ago, only 1,500 were deported. Last year, as a result of the action that we have taken, 4,200 were deported. We are now signing agreements with Jamaica and Nigeria, and I have raised the matter with China and Vietnam, so that we can deport foreign criminals. No records of the deportation of foreign criminals were kept under the Conservatives; we have deported 4,200.
I come back to the central question. We have tightened up the law on DNA and that is why the Dutch authorities want the information from us. The right hon. Gentleman opposed that legislation. Has he now changed his mind?
Will my right hon. Friend create a badge of honour for the women Spitfire pilots of the second world war and their male colleagues in the Air Transport Auxiliary, who came from 28 countries to ferry more than 300,000 aircraft to front-line airfields during this country’s direst hour of need?
My hon. Friend has mounted a successful campaign to raise the issue of the women Spitfire pilots in particular. We now have medals for those people who are veterans of the war and for those who served in the Land Army. It is right in my view that we have recognition for the women Spitfire pilots who did so much to protect and defend the Royal Air Force and other military services, and we will go ahead with his proposal for a medal for those people.
I wish to add my own expressions of condolence and sympathy to the family and friends of Corporal Damian Lawrence.
This being the Prime Minister’s birthday, I welcome his belated acceptance of the advice from the Liberal Democrats that the temporary nationalisation of Northern Rock was the only workable option available to him, although he now seems to be jeopardising the interests of British taxpayers all over again by hiving off the bank’s best assets elsewhere. Will he now admit that if he had acted sooner he could have saved the taxpayer the tens of millions of pounds frittered away on bidders’ costs and prevented the untold damage done to this country’s reputation as a world financial centre?
I thank the right hon. Gentleman and the Leader of the Opposition for their best wishes on my birthday.
I also thank the right hon. Gentleman for raising the question of Northern Rock, which the Leader of the Opposition was reticent to raise, given that his party has six policies on the issue and has now decided on the worst possible option. As far as the Liberal Democrats’ policy is concerned, we were right to look at all possible options and we were right to invite private buyers to make offers. Because we will be subject to legal action, we were right to look in detail at every possible bid, and we were right to draw the conclusion, after considering every possible bid, that the temporary public ownership of Northern Rock was the best way forward. As far as Granite is concerned, I can assure the right hon. Gentleman that it will not affect the sale of Northern Rock to a private buyer.
Well, we might agree about the economically illiterate proposals from the Conservative party, but we disagree on why it took the Prime Minister so long to act on Northern Rock. Will he now agree to act in following our lead more urgently on another issue—namely, the scandalous profiteering by UK energy companies at a time when 25,000 people are predicted to die from the cold this winter alone? Does he realise those companies stand to make a £9 billion windfall profit from the European emissions trading scheme? Does he agree that that excess profit, equivalent to about £360 for every British family in this country, should be handed back to the neediest customers through lower energy prices?
I stress to the right hon. Gentleman that we were right to look at all possible options for Northern Rock before we took the decision that we did. If we had not done that, we would be subject to even greater legal action for not looking rigorously at all options. As far as energy is concerned, let me say that we are looking at the advice of the director general of Ofgem on that very matter. I have to say to the right hon. Gentleman that it was the Labour Government who introduced the winter allowance, which is helping thousands of elderly people. It was the Labour Government who raised it to £300 for the over- 80s. It was the Liberal Democrats and the Conservative party who opposed the winter allowance.
The Prime Minister recently completed a successful tour of China to promote better co-operation between the two countries and their economies. Wigan council will shortly be signing an agreement with a Chinese company to bring in £125 million of investment and create 1,000 jobs in the local economy. Will the Prime Minister join me in congratulating the council? May I ask him to use his best offices to ensure that if there are any problems, central Government will play its part in overcoming them to ensure that the development is completed as rapidly as possible?
I was talking to Premier Wen of China by telephone yesterday. I must confess that I did not specifically raise the question of investment in Wigan; I now regret that. We have excellent commercial and trading links with China. What is happening in Wigan and the new attempts at new investment in this area are to be welcomed. We have set a target of increasing trade between ourselves and China by 50 per cent. over the next two years. I believe that Wigan and the whole of the north-west will benefit from that. I shall ensure that in my next telephone call with the Premier I mention the needs of Wigan.
I think it is true to say that in the recent foot and mouth outbreak the British supermarkets helped the farm industry. They tried their best to ensure that British food was being sold in British supermarkets. I agree with the hon. Gentleman that issues have been raised by the Competition Commission. We will look at this matter, and I will write to the hon. Gentleman.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend. She has taken up the issue of climate change both in her constituency and in this House. I agree that we might need to be far more radical in the targets that we set for cutting carbon emissions. We have set a target of 60 per cent. for 2050. We have now set up the new committee on climate change and will ask it to look at a new target of 80 per cent., which is a far bigger cut in carbon emissions than before. We are the first country in the world to have legislation that legally requires the Government to ensure that carbon emissions are cut every decade. In particular, of course, we will take action in the next few years to get a new world climate change agreement.
What about Northern Rock?
Yes, Northern Rock. If the Prime Minister wants a question on Northern Rock, here is one for him. Last night, we learned that Northern Rock will not be subject to the Freedom of Information Act. I have the legislation here, and it says that, for the purposes of the Freedom of Information Act, Northern Rock is
“not…a publicly-owned company.”
What is the Prime Minister trying to hide?
The only reason that the Freedom of Information Act comes into this is that it would be unfair on Northern Rock if other companies knew everything about its business plan. It is surely a matter of commercial confidentiality that Northern Rock should be able to plan its business future. As far as the commercial future of Northern Rock is concerned, we have made it absolutely clear that the bank’s new head, Ron Sandler, will operate in a commercial market. He will be able to decide on repossessions and all other issues, and he will put forward his plan for the restructuring of the company.
However, it may be helpful if the Conservative party would explain its plan—which is now to run down Northern Rock and to have a fire sale of its assets and get less than market value for them. That is the worst possible deal for the taxpayer.
The Prime Minister’s answer is feeble. All other publicly owned companies, such as the Post Office, Scottish Water, the Tote and National Savings and Investments, are subject to the freedom of information legislation. Let me remind the Prime Minister, the supreme leader, of what he said about freedom of information in his lecture about liberty. He said:
“Freedom of information is the right course because government belongs to the people, not the politicians”,
but that it
“can be inconvenient, at times frustrating and indeed embarrassing for governments”.
Is not that why he is covering things up?
Not at all, and perhaps the right hon. Gentleman will publish the reports from the Midlands Industrial Council, which is a Conservative organisation. Everyone in the country will know that, in a competitive mortgage market, it would be ridiculous to ask Northern Rock to publish every detail of its business plans. Commercial confidentiality has to be respected in the running of the company, and he should be the first to support it.
The Government were happy to show Richard Branson all the facts, but they will not tell the British public. Here are some of the questions about Northern Rock that the Prime Minister will not answer. What is the total liability for the taxpayer, and how much money will the taxpayer pay for the business? He will not tell us. How long are we going to hold the business? He cannot say. Should the business get bigger or smaller? He will not tell us.
Last night, at 10 minutes to midnight, we found out that half of the mortgages—the best half—are owned by somebody else. When it comes to this Government and freedom of information, they would make Fidel Castro proud. Why is the Prime Minister covering all that up?
We have acted on Northern Rock for reasons that the country supports—to secure stability and to protect depositors and the best interests of the taxpayer. We are not going to reduce the Northern Rock issue to the student politics that the Leader of the Opposition is indulging in. We are the party of stability; the Opposition would leave Northern Rock and the economy unstable.
The issues that concern the country are mortgages, inflation, our country’s economic growth and jobs. My hon. Friend is right to point out that we have taken action on Northern Rock to preserve the stability of the economy. Over the past six months, when we have seen the worst of global financial turbulence in America and the rest of Europe, we have managed to isolate the problems of Northern Rock so that they have not infected the rest of the economy. The Opposition should at least understand that we are better placed to deal with those problems because of the actions that the Government have taken.
As far the general economy is concerned, we have more people in work than ever before and lower unemployment than at any time since the 1970s. Today, we published the best January figures for the public finances in our history, and inflation and interest rates are half what they were under the Conservatives.
Professor Sir John Tooke, in his inquiry on modernising medical careers, found that the United Kingdom is the only country in the European Union to apply the European working time directive in the way that we do. It is a way that endangers the delivery of consultant-led maternity and children’s services at hospitals such as mine, the Horton general hospital in Banbury. Sir John recommended that the Government look again at how the European working time directive is applied. Will the Government do so?
I believe that we are not the only country in that position, but I can tell the hon. Gentleman that we are going to reply to the Tooke report, and that that will happen in the next few weeks.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and I applaud the way that she has taken up the issue of youth employment in her constituency and in the country. Youth unemployment has fallen by more than 60 per cent. over the last 10 years, but there is more to do. That is why the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions is today putting forward proposals to deal with people who are long-term unemployed. That is also why we are increasing the number of apprenticeships in our economy, and that is also why, for those who are not able to get apprenticeships because they do not have the qualifications, we are going to introduce pre-apprenticeship courses so that young people without qualifications who have left school with nothing can get on apprenticeship courses. Those are the practical ways of making the new deal relevant to the new situation. The worst thing to do would be, as the Opposition want to do, to abolish the new deal.
I share the hon. Gentleman’s concerns. I think it is true to say, as I have looked at it, that the British Board of Film Classification has put a higher category on many films in a different way from that recommended by the distributor, but it is also true to say that he expresses the concerns of many people among the general public. That is why I have agreed to meet him and my right hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, East (Keith Vaz) to talk about the issues, and why we set up the review headed by Dr. Tanya Byron. It will report very soon, and on the basis of that we can make recommendations for the future. As for the Conservatives who say it is wrong to review the issues, I say that the right thing to do is to review them and then make a decision.
I applaud the work of my hon. Friend’s health authority. I visited his constituency and saw at first hand the improvements that have been made. In the north-west, there are 11,000 more nurses than there were when we came to power, but he is absolutely right about access to GPs. Our proposals are for practices to open for three more hours at weekends or in the evenings. That is a sensible proposal to deal with the concerns of millions of families who want access to their GPs at weekends or out of ordinary working hours. I hope that doctors will accept the proposal, which is funded by the Department of Health. That is the right way forward, so that millions of people can have access to their GPs at the time that they want them and need them.
The Prime Minister will be aware that the horrific murder of Paul Quinn casts a serious shadow over the stability of devolved institutions in Northern Ireland. Serious allegations have been made about the involvement of current members of the Provisional IRA in that murder. Will the Prime Minister reiterate the commitment given that if any party—in this case, Sinn Fein—is found to be in default, he will not punish all the parties in Northern Ireland but ensure that devolution continues and that only the party in default is punished? It is absolutely vital to send a clear message to the people of Northern Ireland, who are growing increasingly concerned about the seriousness of the allegations.
I share the hon. Gentleman’s concern that the Quinn murder should be properly investigated. I have reason to believe that that is exactly what is happening, and there is co-operation on both sides of the border for that to happen. There is no evidence that IRA people are involved, but of course that must be investigated in full. Once that is investigated, we will know the full results. I hope the hon. Gentleman would agree that no criminals should be allowed to derail a peace process that has the support of millions of people in Northern Ireland, which he and others have played a great part in moving forward, so let us send out a message that no criminals will be allowed to derail the peace process.
I agree. All those matters will be the subject of debate over the next few months.
According to official Government figures—so it must be true—since 1997 the real cost of travelling by train has gone up 6 per cent. above inflation, the cost of going by bus is up 13 per cent. and the cost of going by car is down 10 per cent. Why does the Prime Minister want to penalise the public transport user? How does that help his climate change objectives and his social exclusion strategy?
We have doubled investment in railways and made it possible for hundreds of millions more people to do rail journeys in a year as a result of those decisions. The railway industry needed modernisation and that is what has been done. With reference to buses, I hope the hon. Gentleman will agree with our policy whereby there is now free national concessionary travel for all pensioners.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising the matter. I know that she works closely with the Community Security Trust. Its recent report shows that there has indeed been a rise in the number of anti-Semitic crimes in this country, which is much to be regretted. It needs the strong action of the police and of course the public to root it out. One area where the rise has been most noted is on the campuses of universities. That is completely unacceptable, so we shall work with the Community Security Trust to do everything we can to deal with what are hate crimes that should be condemned by all sensible people in this country.
Baby Jessica Randall was just 54 days old when she was murdered by her now imprisoned father, after having been repeatedly beaten and sexually assaulted. In her short life, she spent 21 days in Kettering general hospital and was seen by 30 separate health care workers. Is it right that, in cases like Jessica’s, senior and often extremely well-paid directors in our health care services and social services should collectively slope their shoulders and refuse to accept individual responsibility for their failure to protect such vulnerable children?
The hon. Gentleman raises a very sad and tragic case. I will investigate what he has said about Jessica and what happened to her, and I will write to him.
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend. He has taken up the issues of development across Africa and Asia and has done so in a most eloquent way. It is true to say that one of the greatest tragedies which is avoidable is the number of mothers who die in childbirth. That happens to half a million mothers a year. That means that one mother is dying every minute, and in some countries, like Sierra Leone, one in every seven mothers dies in childbirth, compared with one in over 3,000 in countries like ours. Those are avoidable deaths, which harm the very children that are being born. It is therefore vital that we do more about it. That is why we are spending more on health care systems, why we are determined to help countries to reach development goals on maternal mortality, and why we have formed the International Health Partnership. I hope my right hon. Friend will agree that we are pushing forward other countries to do exactly as we are doing—that is, investing in maternal health.
I am not sure whether there is universal agreement about the hon. Gentleman’s interpretation of those figures, but I will certainly look at what he says. The fact of the matter is that this is a consultation process—people are free to put their views, and then a decision will be made.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend. I had a most enjoyable visit to his constituency in the best of weather. I met those at the Valley airfield and congratulated them on the great work that they are doing in air and sea rescue, including a major rescue off Blackpool, which saved many lives a few weeks ago.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Some 100,000 more jobs are being created in Wales, many in his constituency. That depends on having a UK Government who run a successful economic policy. There is no Wales-only, Scotland-only or England-only solution to these issues. It is a United Kingdom economy, and under a Labour Government it will continue to do well.
With permission, Mr. Speaker—[Interruption]
Order. Hon. Members must leave the Chamber quietly.
Thank you, Mr. Speaker. I should like to make a statement on immigration and the path to British citizenship. Today I laid copies of the earned citizenship Green Paper in the Library of the House.
Britain is a tolerant and fair-minded country. The British public know that carefully managed migration brings great benefits for the UK—economic, social and cultural. However, I also recognise and understand concerns about the impact of migration on local public services. At a time of change, we have responded to the need to control migration to the benefit of Britain, and to protect our borders.
We have made substantial progress in recent years, and we are seeing the results: record numbers of foreign national prisoners were deported last year; fingerprint checks are now in place for all visas for those travelling to Britain; and asylum applications are now being processed more quickly than ever before. This year, we are delivering further radical changes to the UK’s immigration system.
First, we are ensuring that those who come to Britain do so in Britain’s interests. The Australian-style points-based system, which goes live at the end of this month, will allow only those whom we need to come to work and study. Secondly, we have strengthened how we police the system and protect our borders. We will soon have systems in place to count people in and out of the country. From 1 April, the UK Border Agency will bring together the work of the Border and Immigration Agency, UKvisas and Customs at British ports of entry. Later this year, we will begin to introduce compulsory identity cards for foreign nationals who wish to stay in the UK, making it clear whether they are allowed to work and how long they can stay.
Building on those measures, today’s Green Paper sets out our plans for the third phase of immigration reform—ensuring that the path to British citizenship reinforces our shared values. Today we are setting out a new deal for citizenship, in which the rights and benefits of British citizenship are matched by the responsibilities and contributions that we expect of newcomers to the UK.
Our proposals are based on the UK-wide programme of listening events that we have conducted over the past five months with the British public, and in framing our proposals, we have taken their views into account. They were clear about what we should expect of newcomers who choose to come to the UK and start on the path to citizenship—that they should speak English; that they should work hard and pay tax; that they should obey the law; and that they should get involved in and contribute to community life.
British people want the system to be fair and transparent, and I am clear that progress to citizenship should be earned. The Green Paper proposes that all migrants coming to the UK will be admitted as temporary residents. A limited number of categories—highly skilled and skilled workers, those joining family and those granted our protection—will then be able to apply to become probationary citizens for a time-limited period. Probationary citizenship is a new and crucial stage in our immigration system, and it will determine whether a migrant can progress to full citizenship or permanent residence.
The Green Paper sets out clear expectations of migrants as they move through the stages of that journey. We will expect the vast majority of highly skilled and skilled workers entering under the points-based system to speak English, and we are consulting on whether spouses entering on marriage visas should be able to speak some English before arrival. In order to become a probationary citizen, we will expect everyone to demonstrate English and knowledge of life in the UK.
Refugees who legitimately require our protection will continue to receive their current entitlements. We will continue to expect temporary residents to support themselves without general access to benefits. We now propose to defer full access to benefits and services until migrants have successfully completed the probationary citizenship phase, so that they are expected to contribute economically and support themselves and their dependants until such time as they become British citizens or permanent residents. It is at that point that they will have full access to our benefits and services.
We expect people coming to this country to obey our laws. As well as deporting record numbers of foreign national prisoners, we will refuse applications to stay or progress from anyone given a prison sentence, so that they will be denied access to British citizenship and will lose their right to stay. There should also be consequences for those given non-custodial sentences. We propose, therefore, that minor offences should slow down progress to the full benefits of citizenship. Such offenders should need to demonstrate compliance with our laws over an extended period to earn the right to progress in the journey to citizenship. I believe that criminality should halt, or slow down, progress on the path to British citizenship, but also that we should reward those who play a more active role in the community. We will therefore enable people to move more quickly through the system where they have made a positive contribution to British life by, for example, volunteering with a charity.
I am today proposing a fund to help local service providers to deal with the impacts on our local communities of rapid changes in population. Money for the fund will come from charging migrants an additional amount on immigration application fees.
At a European level, we are making a concerted effort with member states to deal, for example, with criminal activity by European economic area nationals. We deported 500 EEA nationals last year, and we will continue that robust approach by identifying ways to return them more easily to their countries of origin. I can today announce that we are setting up two new units to work across Departments on how in turn we work with European Union partners to tighten our provisions on criminality and benefits. We will also work closely with employers to ensure that workers can speak the necessary standard of English.
Finally, the Green Paper sets out proposals to simplify and consolidate immigration law, allowing us to increase the efficiency of decision making, strengthen public confidence in the system, and minimise the likelihood of delays and inconsistency in decision making.
Our proposals will make it easier for migrants, decision makers and the public as a whole to understand the rules and have confidence in their operation. This is a comprehensive package of measures to strengthen our immigration system and reinforce our shared values. It will deliver a clear journey to British citizenship that balances rights and benefits with responsibilities and contributions. I commend the statement to the House.
I thank the Home Secretary for early sight of the statement. My I begin by asking her what has happened to the report on citizenship by Lord Goldsmith that was promised in Queen’s Speech? How does that fit in with what she has announced today?
In the Green Paper, the Government are proposing yet another immigration Bill—the seventh under this Government. The Home Secretary says that the current system is too complicated. Who does she think is to blame for that? If merely passing new immigration laws made our borders secure, we would already have the safest borders in the world, which we clearly do not.
I shall start with the issue of citizenship. The Home Secretary now says that she wants to restrict citizenship to those who have earned it. But it was her Government who relaxed the requirements in the first place, when, in 2004, they removed the requirement to provide a passport to support the application. They dropped the standards so far that they awarded citizenship to Muktar Ibrahim after he had spent three years in prison for violent crime, and had been arrested for disseminating extremist literature. He then used his British passport to travel to Pakistan to train as a would-be suicide bomber. At least, I suppose, these new rules—limited and late as they are—would have presumably denied him citizenship. But can the Home Secretary explain how her new system would have stopped Abu Hamza gaining citizenship? He became a citizen through his British wife. Under the new system he might have to wait two years before he became a probationary citizen, then another year if he could demonstrate “active citizenship”. The proposed system would not have stopped him gaining that citizenship.
I would like the Home Secretary to address a serious unresolved issue. In many cases, the granting of UK citizenship, probationary or permanent, will result in the loss of original nationality under the laws of the country that the individual comes from. Does the Home Secretary understand that that could make British citizenship permanent? Under international law, it is not possible to render a person stateless. It is not possible to take away British citizenship from a person if they have lost their original nationality—it is not like a probationary driving licence. Such action could be irreversible and irrevocable under international law and therefore under UK law.
Any period of probation must be a prior condition of citizenship, not a part of it, and I would like the Home Secretary to explain that. Moreover, that period should be much longer than one year; five years would be more appropriate. For a foreign citizen, we should always remember that British citizenship is a privilege, not a right.
Much of what the Home Secretary has said is an attempt to talk tough without taking effective measures, but she has at least finally admitted, for the first time, that public services are affected by large-scale immigration. It is the Government’s first admission of that. She proposes a Government-run fund, paid for by another tax on new arrivals. But let us consider the numbers. It is reported in the Green Paper that the fund will raise tens of millions of pounds. The original Green Paper—last Friday’s version—referred to £15 million. Will she clarify how many tens of millions will be raised? In any case, the amount will not even be enough to pay the policing costs of immigration, an issue raised by the chief constable of Cambridgeshire only a few months ago. It is barely one tenth of the cost to the national health service of immigration, little more than one twentieth of the costs to local government of immigration and it barely scratches the surface of the full public services cost of immigration. It is, in short, a gimmick.
Why not take the very obvious step of limiting the numbers of new arrivals instead? Yet again, the Home Secretary has reached for a complicated and bureaucratic solution when a simple and cheap one is available. Talking of bureaucracy and incompetence, I cannot believe that, today of all days, she had the cheek to stand there and talk about—I think that I am quoting her correctly—working “with EU partners to tighten our provisions on criminality”. Does even she believe, after the catastrophe of the Dutch criminal records being lost by her Department, that such a promise convinces anyone any more?
The fundamental flaw in the Green Paper is plain: it constructs a complicated, expensive and bureaucratic set of mechanisms to deal with the adverse consequences of immigration that is out of control. We have been warning about those consequences for years. The sensible approach is simple: we should deal with the original cause of the problem, put a limit on immigration and bring it down to much more manageable levels. That is simpler, cheaper and better for Britain, and will preserve Britain’s excellent history of good community relations, which is being put at risk by an incompetent and irresponsible immigration policy.
Let me respond to some of the right hon. Gentleman’s specific points. First, he is right to say that there is an important link between the proposals and the work of Lord Goldsmith, on which we expect a report in the next month or so. His work, like the work that I have outlined, clearly embeds the importance and expectations of British citizenship, to which, as the right hon. Gentleman says, many people around the world aspire. We are introducing the proposals to ensure that our immigration system reflects the shared values that are part of British citizenship.
The right hon. Gentleman made a point about the legal simplification that we propose. It builds on a series of Acts since 1971. It is right to consider now the way in which we can bring them together in one simple set of principles and law, which will make life easier for those who come to this country and those who make decisions about them. It is a bit rich of the right hon. Gentleman, whose Government were responsible for ending the practice of counting people in and out of this country, to start criticising us, when we are reintroducing the ability to count people in and out. If he is genuinely worried about the identity of people who come to this country, perhaps he will change his position and support our policy of identity cards for foreign residents.
I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman will examine in more detail our proposals for probationary citizenship. However, I can confirm to him that it is a period prior to full British citizenship, so some of his legal points are wrong. That period of time is necessary to earn the right to British citizenship or permanent residence. He made a point about timing, but probationary citizenship lasts for a minimum of one year. It will build on a period of temporary residence of five years for economic migrants or two years for families and dependants. Even the one year depends on those who take the path to citizenship demonstrating an active contribution to British life. Without that contribution, the period of probationary citizenship would be three years. The minimum is therefore six years for people to demonstrate their commitment to the UK and earn the benefits of full British citizenship.
The right hon. Gentleman commented on the fund that I propose. The Government have already, through £900 million-worth of extra funding for local government next year alone, £50 million of funding for community cohesion and specific education funding for the impact of changes in numbers on school rolls, made an important contribution—[Interruption.]
Order. The right hon. Gentleman must be quiet when he is getting a reply.
The Government have made an important contribution to ensuring that our communities can function effectively. I would have thought that the right hon. Gentleman, like the chair of the Local Government Association, welcomed our proposals for new and innovative ways in which to tackle the transitional impact of migration on communities. The tens of millions of pounds that we believe that we can raise every year will make an important contribution.
The right hon. Gentleman fell back on a rather a vague assertion that we need to place an arbitrary limit on immigration. He did not appear to be clear about the details of that limit and how it would work, but the most recent estimate by the hon. Member for Ashford (Damian Green) is that it could only ever cover one out of five newcomers. Instead of thrashing around for a soundbite approach to limiting migration, it would be better if the right hon. Gentleman engaged seriously in developing the points-based system—which, for the first time, will enable us to be clear that those who come to the UK do so in a way that benefits the country—and responded seriously to our proposals today. Does he believe that the deal for citizenship that we are setting out is the right one and the fair one for Britain, as people throughout the country have told us they believe? Will he support us in our reform? Will he for once engage seriously in looking at the future of our immigration system, as we are today?
The Home Secretary’s statement and her previous speeches rightly mentioned the benefits of migration. When she visits the cities of Leicester and Derby on Thursday, how will she reassure the communities there that the proposals are not discriminatory, in respect of what appears to be a double taxation on migrants into this country and the bureaucracy that will be created around them? They will be asked to do good works to earn citizenship. Will she go out of her way to show communities that this set of proposals is not discriminatory?
My right hon. Friend will know, as I have spelt out, that the proposals are built on our contact with communities around the country and our listening to them. Communities and people in the UK have already told us clearly that they can see the massive benefits of migration. They want people to come to this country, they want them to reach the stage of receiving the full benefits of citizenship and they believe that the process for doing that should be fair and should reflect the sorts of expectations that we would place on ourselves, which are precisely the reasons people want to come to the UK and gain British citizenship in the first place. We have designed the system as we have to build on those issues and concerns.
In respect of the details of the fund, what we are proposing is not a massively bureaucratic system; rather, we are proposing a small premium on fees that will be paid as part of the existing system. My right hon. Friend made the point about good works. Our proposals recognise the massive contribution that many people who come to this country and want to move through to obtaining British citizenship make. We are saying to people that if they make a contribution to building a better local community and a better Britain, that should help to speed them on their way to British citizenship and cement the contribution that they are making to the country.
First, may I thank the Home Secretary for an advance copy of the statement? It acknowledges that the Government are guilty of chronic mishandling of immigration. Their incompetence has created a crisis of public confidence and a strain on public services in some parts of the country. It would appear that immigrants are now to be made the scapegoats for the Government’s failures.
The Liberal Democrats accept the need for reform. The skills that UK plc needs have to be much more closely matched with those of the immigrant population. We therefore support the points-based immigration system. We also accept the need for immigrants to have a strong command of the English language and regret that Government policy on that has been so inconsistent in recent months. Such workers are needed by the UK economy. Does the Home Secretary accept that there will be projects such as Crossrail or the Olympics and fields of employment such as the restaurant sector where staffing requirements will have to be met from much further afield than Europe? Can the Home Secretary confirm that she has assessed her proposals as not having a negative effect on the UK’s ability to attract such people?
Can the Home Secretary explain what benefits and services she expects migrants to be able to access before they become British citizens or permanent residents? Can she confirm that that will not deter genuine and badly needed migrants from coming to the UK? If the Home Secretary is worried about resources going into the system, will she consider a sliding scale of charges to employers for work permits, using the resources thereby raised for training for the domestic work force, to make our workers more able to take up those jobs?
Hardly a day goes by without another initiative, pronouncement or press release on immigration. They come thick and fast. Today is no exception and tomorrow will not be either, because until the Government devise a fair, straightforward and properly resourced system, they will lurch from crisis to catastrophe.
I was not quite clear whether the hon. Gentleman was supporting what we propose or simply having a rant about the issue. First, he asked me whether I recognised the considerable economic benefits to the UK of migration and the contribution that it makes to the UK. Yes, we most definitely do. That is why the points-based system, which I think he said he supported, will be about how we ensure, through a serious look at the economic benefits of migration to this country by the migration advisory committee, that we can welcome into this country those who will earn money for themselves, but also make a contribution to the economy.
The hon. Gentleman also asked what benefits would be available before the full benefits of British citizenship. We will ensure that those who come here for our legal protection as refugees will maintain all their current entitlements to benefits. We will expect those who come here as economic migrants and dependents to be self-sufficient up to the end of the period of probationary citizenship. They will be entitled to benefits to which they have made the necessary contributions. They will be expected to send their children to schools and be facilitated in doing so, and will receive NHS care. At the point at which people become British citizenships, they will receive the full range of benefits.
I hope that the hon. Gentleman will look seriously at the proposals that we are making, which are not about the conditions that we place on migrants coming into the country. They are, as I have explained, about that third stage of reform, which looks seriously at how we need to reform the system to ensure that the path to citizenship and the expectations that we place upon people coming to this country reflect the shared values that are often what attract people to come to Britain in the first place and take the path to citizenship. I believe that our proposals will make our shared values and the contribution that migrants make to this country even clearer, and will demonstrate to everybody in the UK and, more widely, to those around the world how we can reform our system to represent those values.
May I say to my right hon. Friend that there is much in her statement that is worthy of consideration? There is a lot to take in, in respect of the implications, but I have two immediate concerns. The first, which has already been raised, is about probationary citizenship. If people lose it or have to surrender their original citizenship and are not granted British citizenship, where do they stand? An even bigger concern is about fees. Fees have already increased dramatically. My constituents and spouses who come over here do not have the best-paid jobs and are already complaining about the level of fees. I do not see what an additional fee would positively do, but I can see it causing great resentment in constituencies such as mine.
Let me clarify for my hon. Friend that probationary citizenship will not imply that somebody has to give up their other nationality, as I made clear to the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden (David Davis). In addition, we have ensured, through the category of permanent residence, that where people need to maintain dual nationality at the point at which they successfully apply to remain permanently in the country, they will not be forced to give up their other nationality.
On fees, we need to be careful how we consider the whole range of fees for immigration applications, to balance fairness to those coming to this country with ensuring that we can earn the money necessary to run the immigration system. The small premiums to make the transitional impact fund that we are proposing will of course be subject to consultation, and I will want to listen carefully to what my hon. Friend and his constituents say about them.
In 1997, there were 37,000 grants of citizenship. Approximately how many grants of citizenship were made in the last year for which the right hon. Lady has figures?
We will write to the hon. Gentleman with the detailed figures on citizenship.
May I advise my right hon. Friend that one reason why we have such excellent race relations in Britain is that migrants to this country relatively quickly achieve permanent residence, unlike those to other countries in Europe, for example, where their status remains unsecure and unclear for a long time? I am concerned that these proposals might damage those good relations. However, to get to her point about the fund, which will be raised by a levy on migrants, I have looked at the income from visa fees, which was £190 million last year. The fee for settlement is £500, or £650 if the person is in the UK. How can one raise tens of millions of pounds from additional fees? Will they deal with the issue? My local authority, for example, says that it requires a £5 million—
Order. The supplementaries must be brief. This is a statement and the House is questioning the Home Secretary on it.
I strongly agree with my hon. Friend about the benefits of clear status. That is why it is an objective of what we are proposing today that there should be a fair, clear and transparent route through probationary citizenship to British citizenship. She is right to say that we need that system to be clear and fair.
As I said to my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford, West (Mr. Singh), we are talking about an additional fund that will enable us—in ways, for example, that the Migration Impact Forum is already identifying—to deal with short-term transitional issues of migration that might impact on communities. It is, quite rightly, additional to the considerable sums that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government is making available through local government and for community cohesion, and that we are making available across government to support English language teaching and the impact on schools of population changes in areas. We recognise the concerns around this issue, and I think that the additional impact that we can make with the fund will be widely welcomed.
According to the Government Actuary’s Department’s central projection, net immigration to this country will account for nearly 40 per cent. of the additional households for which we will have to build homes in coming years. Can the Home Secretary point out whether, in any of the documents that she has produced that assess the economic benefits of immigration, she has taken account of the cost of building those extra homes? By how much will that cost be reduced or increased as a result of her statement today?
In actual fact, over the past two years net migration to this country has fallen. The proposals are not about the number of people who come into the country; they are about how we ensure that the process and the path to citizenship are clear and fair, and that they represent our values. I am sure that that is something that the right hon. Gentleman would support.
There is a lot to take in from the Green Paper. I am glad that the Home Secretary corrected the impression that she gave in her opening remarks that there is some sort of presumption that immigrants—or, for that matter, those of us who are the children of immigrants—do not want to work hard and pay tax, do not want to obey the law, and do not want to get involved and contribute to community life.
On the question of the fund and the fees, one aspect raised by local authorities concerning incoming persons is paying for issues to do with children and schools, but many children in my primary schools in Hackney are the children of eastern European immigrants. They will not be paying any extra fees. How can it be fair for non-white immigrants, who already face steep fees, to have those fees ratcheted up even higher to pay for issues that relate to the broad immigrant population, including immigrants from European Union and European economic area countries?
My hon. Friend is right. We recognise that many people—including those who are already in this country and those who wish to come here—want to obey the law and wish to make a contribution economically and to their local communities, and we want to acknowledge that in the speed with which they can move through the system to become British citizens.
The point about the fund is of course important. Because of some of the transition issues that my hon. Friend has identified, colleagues in the Department for Children, Schools and Families have ensured through mainstream funding that there is a fund available for, in particular, those schools that experience a quick change in numbers in-year. That is already being recognised. The question is whether, in addition, it makes sense for us to add a small premium to the application fees so that we can further recognise that impact. I believe that that will make a contribution.
Is it fair?
In response to my hon. Friend’s sedentary intervention, I believe that, like the whole of the proposals, it is fair.
There is a great deal of detail in the statement and in the document. May I refer to the need for proficiency in the English language, which was mentioned five times in the statement? I welcome and I am grateful for the fact that Welsh and Gaelic will rank equally. There will be provision for assistance for employers to ensure that people are up to speed in speaking English. Will that apply equally to the Welsh and Gaelic languages?
We have taken responsibility, through my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills, for trebling the investment since 2001 in English for speakers of other languages. I am not sure that I can take direct responsibility for ensuring that there is also provision for Welsh speakers, but, as the hon. Gentleman pointed out, we are clear in the Green Paper that, in communities where Welsh or Scots Gaelic is the language, that should be recognised. I am sure that there will be provision for the Welsh language.
It is also important that, alongside the additional investment that the Government are putting in, employers play their part in helping those people whom they employ, from whose work they benefit and in many cases whom they sponsor to bring into this country, to integrate into our communities by supporting them with English language learning.
I have to say to the Home Secretary that I am very disappointed by her statement. It is a shame that she did not open by welcoming the fact that we live in a multicultural, multilingual society and the fact that migration has benefited this country culturally and economically in ways that would have been unbelievable to previous generations.
More specifically, if the Home Secretary is insisting that all non-European migrants learn English, what does she propose to do and say about the fact that it would be illegal for her to insist on European migrants learning English? To follow the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott), why is the Home Secretary expecting non-European migrants in this country to pay for the economic needs of European migrants, who obviously are having a big and often very beneficial effect on our public services and our society? Can she not be a bit more inclusive and note the fact that we live in a multicultural, multilingual society?
I am sorry, but my hon. Friend appears to have missed the first sentences of my statement, in which I said, “Britain is a tolerant and fair-minded country. The British public know that carefully managed migration brings great benefits for the UK—economic, social and cultural.”
My hon. Friend makes a point about the difference between the conditions of those who are coming from outside the EU and those of people who come from within. Of course, it is a good thing if those coming from within the EU are also supported to learn English, which helps them to integrate in communities. This condition is not some sort of punishment for people. If we want communities in which people can feel safe and secure and in which they can play their full part—I believe that my hon. Friend wants that as well—helping them and expecting them to speak our language are key parts of that.
There are different legal statuses for those coming from within the EU and from outside it, but I made it clear that I think that employers have a role to play and that there is probably more that the Government can do to encourage the learning of English among those coming from within the EU as well as those coming from outside.
Is not my right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice and Howden (David Davis), the shadow Home Secretary, absolutely spot on when he says that this is a gimmick by the Government—a panic response to the huge public concern about the tidal wave of migration over which the Government have presided for the past 10 years?
Can the Home Secretary give us answers on how she intends to restore public confidence and deal with illegals? How does she intend to expedite the decision-making process? My community does not contain a high proportion of migrants, yet in Aldershot I have people who were served with deportation notices five years ago and are still in the country. How can we have confidence in a Home Secretary who fails to deal with such matters?
The hon. Gentleman will not be surprised to hear me say that I do not agree with him that his right hon. Friend the shadow Home Secretary was right. We are taking a serious and long-term approach to reform of the immigration system, following on from reform of the way in which we ensure that those who come here will benefit through the points-based system, and from a new approach to protection and policing the system. Given that the hon. Gentleman belongs to a party whose Members, in Committee, opposed the doubling of the resources that we intend to put into enforcement action, it is a bit rich for him suddenly to criticise the considerably improved enforcement action that we are putting in place. The third stage of the reform is the way in which, in the long term, we make sure that the path to citizenship in this country reflects the values that we share. I am surprised that he does not support that approach.
Did my right hon. Friend see the reports over the weekend that more Poles are leaving Britain now than are coming in? To treat fellow Europeans on a par with other immigrants is not right, because if the 800,000 British immigrants in Spain were to return home overnight, the pressure put on our social services would be extremely serious.
On the fee question, it is little more than we all pay at the frontier if we visit Egypt or Turkey. I welcome it as a gesture by people who come here to settle permanently, to show solidarity with the community they are joining. My right hon. Friend’s statement is reassuring, which is important. The Opposition’s language this afternoon has been intolerant, bordering on xenophobic.
Obviously, I welcome my right hon. Friend’s comments. He recognises the different legal status of those who come from within the EU and those who come from outside it, which I tried to explain earlier. I believe that some of the principles can apply to both groups, but I welcome his sensible and thoughtful words.
The Home Secretary’s Green Paper says that
“Migrants are on average net fiscal”
—I think she means financial—
presumably after the impact on public services is taken into account. Has she provided any evidence to meet the view that migrants are a drain on public services? If not, how can she justify an extra tax on such migrants, who are net contributors? Is not that just prejudice-based policy, rather than evidence-based policy?
We have provided to the House of Lords Committee reviewing this matter detailed information on the fiscal contribution made by migration. We know, however, that there is a transitional impact on communities from high levels of migration, and it is to manage that impact in the short-term that we are proposing the funds. It is important that we respond and make sure that the system maximises the significant economic, social and cultural contribution that we know migration can make, and minimises its impacts. That is what we propose to do through the range of reforms that we are making to the immigration system.
I am able to give a broad welcome to the Home Secretary’s statement. I certainly acknowledge the dramatic difference that the new border controls have had in constituencies such as mine. However, firmness must always be balanced with fairness. Does my right hon. Friend agree that in many of the cases that we deal with, whether they be immigration cases or difficult asylum cases, it is enormously important that we balance firmness with compassion? Will she ensure that her Ministers consider such matters, so that we do not undermine all the good work that is going on at the surface?
My hon. Friend is right. Fairness is a fundamental part of the system, and it is to ensure that we are both clear and fair in the decisions that we make about those who come into this country and how they progress through the system that we are proposing not only the changes to the path to citizenship set out in today’s Green Paper but the radical simplification of the law. People deserve to know that decisions are being made quickly, fairly and transparently, and that is what we are attempting to deliver.
Like my right hon. Friend the shadow Home Secretary, I support many of the proposals, but will the right hon. Lady now answer one of his questions: what will be the costs of this package? Also, can she tell the House how many failed asylum seekers there are in the UK and how many will be deported next year?
This is, of course, a Green Paper. Part of our work will be to examine the costs of the proposals as we build on them. On the hon. Gentleman’s second point, because of the improvements that we have made, we are now processing asylum seekers through the system far more quickly and more effectively, and the figures on asylum seekers coming into the country are at historic lows.
Despite changes to the application process, citizenship ceremonies in my council, Enfield, are often rendered meaningless by applicants’ lack of command of basic English. What assurance does the Green Paper offer that the system will be improved?
I am glad that the hon. Gentleman believes, as I do, that citizenship ceremonies can play an important part in welcoming people to the UK. It is precisely because we feel that being able to speak English is an important part of becoming part of our community that we are proposing not only that highly skilled and skilled workers gain English language qualifications before they arrive in the country, but a requirement at the point at which they enter the probationary citizenship period to progress in English language skills, before moving on to full citizenship.
I very much welcome the recognition again today by the Home Secretary of the enormous benefit that Britain as a whole and constituencies such as mine have gained from those who have chosen in recent decades to make their home in this country. They have enriched our community in every aspect of our lives.
My right hon. Friend will, however, be aware that there is still considerable concern about the backlog of immigration and nationality cases to be dealt with by her Department. Although much improved, there is a long way to go. Can she assure the House that none of the proposals in the Green Paper and the accompanying statement today will exacerbate those problems? Will she assure us that the progress being made towards giving certainty and clarity to people who are already in the country and want to bring their relatives here to settle will be maintained, so that the uncertainty and resulting distress are minimised?
I can assure my hon. Friend that the improvements to processes that we have seen in recent years will continue. Furthermore, the simplification of the law on immigration will ensure even more certainty and fairness in the future.
The hon. Member for Leicester, South (Sir Peter Soulsby) talks about the backlog, and we know that there are about 500,000—perhaps more—illegal immigrants in the United Kingdom. Although I have some interest in the Home Secretary’s idea of probationary citizenship—she rightly says that if people commit a crime they will be expelled, whereas the process will be accelerated for those who do good work—how can we be assured, when she cannot even say how much the system will cost, that those who commit a crime will, in fact, be expelled and will not simply add to those 500,000 people residing illegally in the UK?
The hon. Gentleman is confusing a range of different matters. We have massively improved performance on decision making on asylum cases. Last year, we deported from this country a record number of foreign national prisoners and we shall double the resources that we put into enforcement activity.
I am sorry, Mr. Speaker, but I was wrong earlier. The Conservatives did not oppose the doubling of the enforcement budget; they just sat on their hands and abstained.
I remember my immigrant grandparents telling me how difficult they found it to master the English language. I believe that the reason that they managed to do it was that they had to. Does the Home Secretary, who rightly emphasises the importance of mastering the English language, agree with Trevor Phillips and others, and will she therefore give the authority of her office to a condemnation of those agencies and local authorities that insist on translating documents and other papers into the languages of the countries that people have left, rather than helping them to master the language of the country that they have chosen to come to? Will she give a definite indication that that practice must stop?
My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government has made it clear, as have I, that we probably should refocus resources from translating into supporting people to speak English. That is why we have trebled the support for English for speakers of other languages since 2001 and why we are clear that being able to speak English should be one of the requirements for citizenship, as that will help people to integrate better into our society.
Criminal Justice (Raves)
I beg to move,
That leave be given to bring in a Bill to amend the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994 powers in relation to illegal raves.
Last July, I had an Adjournment debate on illegal raves, in which I described how devastating raves can be for farmers, local residents and the surrounding environment and wildlife. I know that Members on both sides of the House have, like me, received heartfelt complaints from constituents about raves held in their area. This is not just about Norfolk; it is an issue that affects rural communities across the country. My constituents have told me about the appalling mess that those attending raves can leave, including syringes and other drug paraphernalia and even human excrement. Farmers have told me of terrified animals, unbearable noise levels for hour upon hour through the night, and the impact of the antisocial behaviour of rave attendees.
The Government have talked tough on antisocial behaviour, and we have seen the introduction of numerous initiatives designed to tackle antisocial behaviour on our streets and in our towns, but what about our rural communities? Farmers in the country have to endure hundreds of trespassers entering their land in convoys of 50 or more vehicles, rubbish strewn over their fields and drug use on their land. There is huge damage to the environment and property. The clean-up and repair costs reach into the thousands. That cannot be a fair way to treat people who are trying to make an honest living. The countryside is not a theme park, and its residents have every right to protection under the law.
I want to make it clear that I and other Members have not been raising this issue in such a persistent way in order to be killjoys, or to deny others pleasure and fun just for the sake of it. I am sure that those who attend these unlicensed events enjoy themselves enormously, but that enjoyment comes at a very high cost to those living in the area. This is not a victimless crime.
There are excellent venues for licensed live music events—High Lodge in Thetford forest, for example—where people can enjoy concerts that are properly and safely organised. Unlicensed music events have nothing to do with the altruistic values of young people. They are hugely profitable to the organisers, who employ a get-rich-quick formula that tramples on the rural economy. Costs are minimised, no tax is paid and there is no regard for anyone, or for anything but profit. Even if no charge is made for people attending a rave, money changes hands for drugs and alcohol. Rural communities must deal with the terrible repercussions, week in, week out. Last week, it was the village of Weeting in my constituency that suffered. This is simply not fair.
The problem lies in the inadequacy of current police powers. The police in Norfolk are working extremely hard to tackle raves. They are gathering intelligence on organisers, and collaborating with neighbouring forces in order to pool resources. However, the police are looking to the Government to allow them to be more proactive. The Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994 gives the police powers to direct those preparing for a rave away from a site, and to remove any vehicles or property that they may have with them. These powers are not enough.
Despite the distress that an unlicensed music event might cause to local residents, or the damage that it might do in rural areas, the existing definition of a “gathering” stands in the way of appropriate policing in rural areas. The law seems to suggest that because loud, continuous music is disturbing only a relatively small number of people in a rural community, it is acceptable. If successful, my Bill would expand the definition of a rave to address that issue. It would create two new offences: of organising a rave, and of transporting sound equipment for use at a rave. People convicted of organising such events would face a tough penalty, providing a strong deterrent. In short, my Bill would make it much easier to prevent raves from happening in the first place.
The police have told me that they have the necessary intelligence on regular organisers, but that can be frustrating because it is not an offence to organise a rave. I shall illustrate that point. Last week, riot police were called out to disperse more than 1,000 revellers as they congregated in my constituency. More than 100 police officers, with dogs and a police helicopter, were used. The operation was, to Norfolk constabulary’s credit, successful. However, I dread to think how much it cost. Norfolk police are already struggling with a tight financial settlement, without needing to spend an exorbitant percentage of police funds on stopping raves. Under the Bill, the police could have used the intelligence that they clearly have in order to arrest organisers and seize equipment before the event happened.
During my Adjournment debate last year, the Minister was genuine in his support for local residents who suffer the effects of raves, but what positive action has been taken since then? The Minister passed my comments to the sub-group on raves, which has been set up by the Association of Chief Police Officers working group on public order. It has now been six months since that took place, and I have heard nothing more.
In the light of the fact that little progress seems to have been made on this issue since last summer, I am pleased to present my Bill to Parliament in the belief that, if successful, it will make a substantial difference to the lives of those affected by raves. Members of the National Farmers Union and of the Country Land and Business Association have expressed their support for what I am doing, for which I thank them. I now urge the Government to lend their support, so that the police can have the powers that they want, and so that local people can feel protected from this persistent and destructive form of antisocial behaviour.
The Bill’s sponsors come from across the House, which indicates just how widespread the problem is. I commend it to the House.
Question put and agreed to.
Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. Christopher Fraser, Sir Paul Beresford, Mr. Laurence Robertson, Sammy Wilson, Mr. Humfrey Malins, Mr. Julian Brazier, Dr. Tony Wright, Mrs. Siân C. James, Mr. David Drew, David T.C. Davies, Mr. Dai Davies, and Bob Russell.
Criminal Justice (raves)
Mr. Christopher Fraser accordingly presented a Bill to amend the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994 powers in relation to illegal raves: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time on Friday 6 June, and to be printed [Bill 69].
Business of the House (Lisbon Treaty) (No. 4)
Motion made and Question put forthwith, pursuant to Order [28 January],
That the Order of 28th January be further amended as follows: in the Table, in the entry for Allotted Day 5, in the third column:
(a) for ‘4 ½ hours’ substitute ‘3 hours’, and
(b) for ‘1 ½ hours’ substitute ‘3 hours’.—[Mr. Alan Campbell.]
Question agreed to.
Treaty of Lisbon (No. 5)
[5th allotted day]
[Relevant document: Third Report from the Foreign Affairs Committee of Session 2007-08, Foreign Policy Aspects of the Lisbon Treaty, HC 120-I.]
I inform the House that I have selected the amendment in the name of the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague). I also inform the House that I have placed a seven-minute limit on Back-Bench speeches, in order to allow as many Back Benchers as possible to be called.
I beg to move,
That this House approves the Government’s policy towards the Treaty of Lisbon in respect of provisions concerning foreign, security and defence policy.
Today, we have an opportunity to debate the EU’s common foreign and security policy and the improvements to its delivery as a result of the Lisbon treaty. The idea of European foreign policy—it was first called “political co-operation”—goes back almost to the foundation of the European Economic Community in the 1950s. It was given new life in the 1980s and then enshrined in the Maastricht treaty of 1992. It was all but broken by the Balkan wars of the 1990s, so I think it appropriate that, as we discuss the foreign policy aspects of the Lisbon treaty, it should again be on the western Balkans that European eyes are fixed. With your permission, Mr. Speaker, I will say a little about this particular case, which illustrates the value of the common foreign and security policy, before going on to address the detail of the changes envisaged by the treaty.
On Monday, the Government announced their decision to recognise the Kosovo assembly’s declaration of independence. We did so confident that Kosovo’s accession to independence in this way is entirely consistent with UN Security Council resolution 1244, which also continues to provide a sound legal basis for the NATO and EU missions in that area.
The situation on the ground in Kosovo remains calm, but yesterday there was an attack on two border posts in the north of the country. NATO forces intervened robustly, dispersing the crowd and taking control of the crossings. Nobody was hurt, but it is important that we all underline that violence by any side is unacceptable. The Government are concerned by suggestions that some in the Serb Government think that the attack was justified. The atmosphere in Serbia is more tense. Demonstrations in Belgrade on Sunday night inflicted serious damage on the Slovenian embassy, but subsequent demonstrations have passed off without trouble. A mass rally is being planned for Thursday and, to their credit, political leaders in Serbia have called for it to be peaceful.
The Government’s approach has been to promote discussion and dialogue until it was clear that there was no way to bridge the gap between Belgrade and Pristina and in those circumstances to seek the full implementation of the Ahtisaari plan; and to emphasise the need for a regional approach that offers economic and political support to all the countries of the western Balkans.
May I put it to the Foreign Secretary that, important as these matters are, they are not directly relevant to the scrutiny of the treaties that we are discussing? If he wants to make a statement on these matters, he could do so outwith the time for this debate, instead of taking time from Back Benchers who are limited to making seven-minute speeches because he has designed the timetable of the Bill to grandstand on these occasions for his own benefit instead of replying to points put to him by Back Benchers on matters pertaining to the treaty.
Before the Foreign Secretary replies, I should say that if anything irrelevant to the debate had been heard, the Chair would have intervened earlier.
I assure the hon. Gentleman that in the time that he has just taken, I could have concluded the relevant section of my speech.
Fourteen other European countries have joined the UK in recognising Kosovo, as have the US and six others.
Will my right hon. Friend say something about today’s reports that hundreds, if not thousands, of Serbian paramilitary or police officials are being sent into the area around Mitrovica? If that is the case, will he send a positive statement about the future of Serbia and its association with the European Union to try to—[Interruption.] Conservative Members obviously do not think this important, but this is in Europe’s heartland and it is important that we in Europe are able to assess the situation and do something to help the people of that region.
I am sorry to have to intervene a second time on the issue of relevance, but if we pursue that line we will be moving away from the main theme of the debate. Enough has been said on that subject, so the Foreign Secretary should proceed with his speech.
Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker.
I was going on to say that the framework that Sir John Major agreed at Maastricht has, with some improvements, helped the European Union not just in the Balkans, but further afield, too. That is why I am clear that some of the amendments tabled by Opposition Members, which would attack the foundations of common foreign and security policy and European security and defence policy, put ideology before logic. In a world with shared challenges requiring co-ordinated responses, CFSP and ESDP are crucial aspects of our response.
Today, we work with or through the EU on many foreign policy issues. I and the Government believe that we are stronger for it and the world is better for it, too. In the last 12 months, for example, the EU has imposed sanctions on Iran and Zimbabwe beyond those imposed by the UN; mobilised more aid for Palestine than ever before; put 2,000 troops on the ground in the Democratic Republic of the Congo in support of the UN; found €54 million for Iraq; provided financial backing for the African Union mission in Darfur; deployed a stabilisation force to neighbouring Chad to protect refugees from the crisis; delivered emergency aid in Pakistan; and shown genuine solidarity with us over Litvinenko, the closure of British Council offices in Russia and Iran’s seizure of UK naval personnel.
The Foreign Secretary referred to a number of amendments and I am happy to admit that I tabled some of them for a very good reason. Would he accept that, although proper co-operation can be achieved within the framework of an organisation such as the European Union, there is a world of difference between that co-operation and the degree of co-ordination being established within a legal framework, which has been accompanied by mistakes such as those seen in the disarray over a whole raft of matters from Iraq and Kosovo’s standing to many others, where the EU is demonstrating that it cannot meet the challenges that he mentioned?
I believe that the legal framework is being established to strengthen the co-operation that the hon. Gentleman says he supports. Whatever our different views about Iraq, I do not think that the situation there can be put at the door of the European Union.
For the future, we need a European Union not as an alternative to UK foreign policy, but as one means for its implementation. That is why the Government have set out their vision for a global Europe and why we support aspects of the treaty that seek carefully to enhance the existing common foreign and security policy.
I give way to my hon. Friend first.
Is it not the case that the Lisbon treaty does not promise to develop any policy to rival NATO politically or militarily?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Some specific references have been added in respect of NATO, which give added assurance to those willing to look into the issue with an open mind that the development of European policy can complement NATO rather than rival it.
I agree with the Foreign Secretary that when western European countries genuinely agree with each other on some matter of vital foreign interest, it is highly desirable and beneficial that they should work together. However, will not he agree, on reflection, that his statement yesterday that the cobbled-together EU statement on Kosovo showed “clear political leadership” by the European Union was absurd? The issue of Kosovo showed the deepest division on a common foreign policy issue since the divisions on Iraq. He does no service to the genuine desire for European co-operation when he describes a failure to achieve European agreement as if it were a success.
I am surprised to find myself disagreeing on this point with the right hon. and learned Gentleman. It would only have been a failure if it were for the European Union to recognise the new country of Kosovo. There are divisions within EU countries about whether or not to recognise Kosovo, but it is a matter for individual countries to decide. The matter at hand for the EU is not about recognition and I am sure that he would agree with me that it would be quite wrong to move into a world where the EU starts recognising countries when it is in fact a responsibility of member states. In matters that are the responsibility of the EU—first, the deployment of a European mission; secondly, the partnership arrangements between all the countries of the western Balkans; and thirdly, the ultimate objective of EU membership—there should be and is European cohesion.
Does the Foreign Secretary not realise that he is compounding his own foolishness in this respect? How can he seriously argue that a coherent European policy on Kosovo can be achieved when many EU countries have recognised it as an independent state but the remaining EU countries still consider it to be part of Serbia? How can that provide the basis of a common European foreign policy?
Fifteen countries, including the UK, recognised the new country of Kosovo within 72 hours of its creation. I would be happy to lay a wager with the right hon. and learned Gentleman that in due course many more European countries will recognise it. We will see if one or two do not recognise it, but as I explained, it must be a matter for individual nation states to decide on recognition. He is only compounding his error, if I may say so, by confusing the responsibility of the European Union with the responsibilities of nation states.
I am grateful to the Foreign Secretary for giving way to me again, but on that basis, on whose authority did Javier Solana, the high representative of the European Union, visit Kosovo yesterday and announce that it is a good friend of the EU? Of course that does not constitute legal recognition of the independent status of Kosovo, but it is tantamount to it, and demonstrates the dynamic that the high representative gives the foreign policy under which, as he said, 15 states have recognised Kosovo. Is the Foreign Secretary in favour of qualified majority voting on that basis?
I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman, who studies these questions carefully, should destroy his own argument in seeking to make it. Mr. Solana’s visit was on the back of the agreement of the 27 to the statement made at the European General Affairs and External Relations Council on Monday, and was all the better for that. Whatever one’s view of the timing of recognition, the idea that the European Union should not be a friend of Kosovo strikes me as very odd indeed.
Is it not bizarre that Opposition Members should first complain that European Union countries, including ours, are drilled and forced into agreeing with each other on some issue, and then complain that they are not being drilled in that way? Does that not demonstrate a huge absence of consistency and intelligence among that lot over there?
As ever, my right hon. Friend speaks with precision and accuracy on these matters, and I entirely agree with him. Unfortunately, the laughter of Opposition Members suggests that they do not recognise the ridiculous position in which they have put themselves.
I had the privilege, if that is the right word, of being the Minister responsible for the Balkans for five years. We welcome the presence of European Commissioners, Mr. Solana and everyone else in Pristina and all the related lands, and the idea that there should be any criticism of that strikes me as absurd. However, ever since the treaty of Lisbon has been up for debate, I have been told repeatedly that it meant a common foreign policy that would wipe away the autonomy of the nation states of Europe. Spain has just said “Whoa! We cannot agree to recognise Kosovo.” Where is this steamroller telling the nation states of Europe what their policies should be? The Conservative party is in Alice in Wonderland country.
My right hon. Friend is entirely right. Let me proceed with the details to show exactly why that is.
The treaty does not, repeat not, change the fundamental nature of common foreign and security policy co-operation. That continues to be covered in a separate treaty, subject—as is stated in the treaty for the first time—to “specific rules and procedures”. The treaty includes an article—again, it appears for the first time—underlining those distinct arrangements: unanimity as the general rule so a veto for all countries, no legislative acts, and a limited role for Community institutions.
The Foreign Affairs Committee, whose Chairman, my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford, South (Mike Gapes), is present, has welcomed the fact that it is
“highly likely that, under the Lisbon Treaty, the Common Foreign and Security Policy will remain an intergovernmental area, driven by the Member States.”
He is right about that. The European Scrutiny Committee—its Chairman, my hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk (Michael Connarty), is not present at the moment—has said that
“the largely intergovernmental nature of the CFSP and ESDP will be maintained, with no significant departures from the arrangements which currently apply”.
What the treaty will do is enhance the efficiency, effectiveness and coherence of the current arrangements.
Will the Foreign Secretary give way?
If the hon. Gentleman will let me make some progress, I shall be happy to allow him to intervene as I go through the details.
The treaty will make the European Council responsible for setting the EU’s strategic priorities for all external action, thereby underlining member states’ lead responsibility for setting the EU's foreign policy. It will strengthen the coherence of the EU's external action through a high representative, appointed by Heads of State and Heads of Government and straddling the work of the Commission and the CFSP.
Will the Foreign Secretary give way?
I will give way to the hon. Gentleman when I reach the end of this passage.
The treaty will bring together existing Commission and Council officials, augmented by member state secondees, into a single external action service to support the high representative, whose work will be governed by 27 nation states, and it will set clear objectives to guide all areas of external action.
I will go through each of those four areas. Members can intervene now, or they can intervene as I do so.
It is up to the hon. Gentleman to decide whether he wishes to intervene now or later.
The Foreign Secretary said earlier that the EU’s foreign policy would complement that of this country. I know he believes that our relationships with both NATO and the United States are key to our foreign policy, so why does the document presented by the Slovenian presidency and published by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office on the EU’s external relations make no mention of either of those relationships? They were mentioned in the document produced by the last presidency, but have been expunged from this one. That does not sound very complementary to me.
I refer the hon. Gentleman to the details in the treaty that have been added precisely in respect of NATO, for example. For the first time, a treaty will be peppered with references to NATO, which I hope will bring a smile to his face as well as to mine.
The Foreign Secretary has listed a number of aspects of security policy in the treaty. Will he tell us what is NATO’s take on the ESDP, and also whether he considers European common defence policy or NATO to be the cornerstone of Europe’s future defence?
Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, the Secretary-General of NATO, has made clear his welcome for the increased capability envisaged in the treaty, but also for the EU’s ability to complement NATO activity. It is in those areas that we should see progress. Although the cornerstone of our defence is NATO, I believe the development and effect of the ESDP can help us to make that progress.
May I deal with the details of those four areas before I give way? There will be plenty of opportunities for Members to intervene later.
Let me deal first with the establishment of the position of high representative. At present there are two separate roles. The high representative works for the member states, while the External Relations Commissioner works for the Council. In addition, the Foreign Minister of the member state holding the six-month rotating presidency—currently Slovenia, as was pointed out by the hon. Member for Forest of Dean (Mr. Harper)—is responsible for chairing the ministerial meetings. That can be confusing, so the Lisbon treaty merges the roles into a new job, which will give the EU a more coherent voice internationally.
Article 13a of the Lisbon treaty sets out the role and responsibilities of the proposed high representative. He or she will chair the Foreign Affairs Council and ensure effective implementation of the decisions made. He or she will also represent the agreed position of the EU on common foreign and security policy matters, conducting political dialogue—again, when there is unanimous agreement on an EU position—with third parties. He or she will also be able to set out the agreed EU position in international organisations and at international conferences.
Does the Foreign Secretary accept that the problems in practice begin to emerge when a joint action plan is agreed on the basis of unanimity, but that is followed by a move to qualified majority voting?
I will come to the relationship between a specific request from the European Council—the Heads of Government—and an implementing measure presented by the high representative. I assure the hon. Gentleman that I will address precisely that point, but this is not quite the right moment to do so.
As for what we said in the Convention, to which the Opposition motion refers, we make no apology for asking searching questions. We were right to do so, and moreover we received answers.
The high representative will be the servant of the Council of Ministers on CFSP matters. He or she will be appointed by national Governments, and will be responsible to them through the Council. The high representative will be able to propose new CFSP initiatives, but in addition to rather than instead of member states, and it will still be the Council—representing the 27 countries of the EU—rather than the high representative that makes decisions. In short, Britain will continue to decide on its own foreign policy, and where we agree with others in the EU, there can be a common European role in helping to deliver it.
Should not the House be given the details of the position taken by the Government in the European Convention on the constitution in respect of clauses that are identical in the Lisbon treaty? When I raised the matter with the Leader of the House during business questions about 10 days ago, she graciously appeared to accept the point. She said that she would contact the Foreign Secretary and ask him to table, for the purpose of future debates, the position taken by the Government in the European Convention on clauses that are now in the Lisbon treaty, which we are about to debate. Has he done that? Has he discussed the matter with the Leader of the House, and if not, why not?
I am sorry if this has not been transmitted to the right hon. Gentleman, but the details of all the Convention discussions are available on the Convention’s website. There is no hidden agenda in this respect. I assure him that there is a very clear answer to his question.
The Foreign Secretary is a comparatively new Member of the House. There is a convention that Government documents reflecting Government policy are tabled in this House, so that we do not have to go through the Convention website line by line and download them all.
Although I am extremely new to this House, I know that we table documents that are relevant to the treaty and legislation that we are discussing. We do not table documents to do with historic discussions and treaties that are no longer on the table.
I think that the Foreign Secretary will find that the clear answer to which he just referred is that the Government did not want the two posts to merge. Apart from the change of name, is there any difference in substance between what was envisaged in the original constitution—a Union Minister for foreign affairs—and the high representative envisaged in the Lisbon treaty? What is the substantive difference, apart from the name change?
There are several differences. I hope that I will not bore the hon. Gentleman, but I want to read out two new detailed and important treaty articles that might directly address his fears.
I shall read them very slowly, if that would help my right hon. Friend.
The following two articles are new text. New article 10C states:
“The common foreign and security policy is subject to specific rules and procedures.”
That has never been said before. It continues:
“It shall be defined and implemented by the European Council and the Council acting unanimously, except where the Treaties provide otherwise. The adoption of legislative acts shall be excluded…The Court of Justice of the European Union shall not have jurisdiction with respect to these provisions”.
New article 240a states:
“The Court of Justice of the European Union shall not have jurisdiction with respect to the provisions relating to the common foreign and security policy nor with respect to acts adopted on the basis of those provisions.”
In other words, it is not just a matter of the name of the foreign Minister or otherwise; the treaty differs in a range of ways from the proposed constitution, which was abandoned by the 27 Governments of the European Union last June.
I shall put this next question slowly for the benefit of the right hon. Member for Rotherham (Mr. MacShane). What is the difference between the posts of Union Minister for foreign affairs and high representative? Where is the difference in what the person is going to do?
The difference in the posts is that the precision with which the new treaty defines the role of the nation states in governing the Council’s decisions addresses very directly some of the concerns about the original proposals that existed on both sides of the House. The hon. Gentleman will see in treaty language, clearly enunciated—
There is nothing different.
When I say there is something different and the hon. Gentleman says from a sedentary position that there is nothing different, I do not understand how we can come to a meeting of minds. The difference is that the treaty is different, and given that we are debating the treaty, I do not know how we can avoid recognising that.
The Foreign Secretary has lost that one.
No, I think that the hon. Gentleman has just lost the House. [Interruption.]
The posts are different. They differ in the relationships in respect of the Council and the Commission. The Foreign Secretary is discussing the narrow treaty provision, so will he just he