Tuesday 26 February 2008
[Miss Anne Begg in the Chair]
Medals (Armed Forces Personnel)
Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—[Mr. Michael Foster.]
I would like to start by saying how pleased I am to have secured the debate so that we can discuss, quite rightly, the debt of honour that we all owe to those who are fighting and losing their lives in conflicts to secure the freedoms that we take for granted. I shall put the debate in context. The “Honour the Brave” campaign was started by Colonel Richard Kemp, who was head of UK forces in Afghanistan. I first met Richard four years ago when I visited Afghanistan as a member of the Select Committee on Defence. I pay tribute to his tenacity and that of the families supporting him. I also pay tribute to the Daily Mirror for its campaign for a medal and recognition for those who have been wounded or who have, unfortunately, lost their lives in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Last November, the “Honour the Brave” campaign was officially launched in Parliament in Committee Room 9. I was ably assisted on that occasion by the hon. Members for Newark (Patrick Mercer) and for Portsmouth, South (Mr. Hancock) and by many colleagues who came to the launch. The most moving part of that launch was the speeches by Pearl Thrumble and Helen Gray. No one could have failed to be moved by their accounts of the bravery and heroism of their two sons, who were killed in Afghanistan. They explained how proud they were of their sons, the heartache that they had gone through in making the ultimate sacrifice of losing sons in Afghanistan and what recognition would mean to them and their families.
Since then, the campaign has generated quite a lot of support. It has been supported by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, the Leader of the Opposition and the leader of the Liberal Democrat party, the right hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr. Clegg), along with former military figures, including Field Marshal Lord Bramall, Major-General John Holmes and Major-General Patrick Cordingley. I am pleased to say that the campaign also has the support of all parties in the House and support in the wider community. It has been supported by Sir John Major, along with former Labour Defence Secretary Lord Healey.
Last November, I tabled early-day motion 95 on the “Honour the Brave” campaign, which I understand is top among the early-day motions. It is beating early-day motion 423 on the mass extinction of amphibians by nearly 40 names and has on it the signatures of 293 right hon. and hon. Members.
I have spoken to many people, not only in the services but constituents who have members of their family serving in the armed forces, and they are amazed that there is no fitting recognition for those wounded or killed in action. As a member of the Defence Committee, I have visited Selly Oak hospital in Birmingham and seen the horrific wounds that some of our young servicemen have suffered, including amputations, horrible scarring and internal injuries that may not be visible but cause great distress to the individuals affected. That goes on not just for the comparatively short period of their recovery, but for a lifetime. The nation needs to recognise the debt of honour that we owe to those individuals.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on obtaining the debate. I, too, was pleased to attend the launch of the campaign in November. He has said that the nation recognises the heroism of troops in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere, which is certainly true. Can he come up with any rationale as to why the decision on this issue is taken not by the Minister—an excellent Minister, a first-rate Minister—but by bureaucrats in the Ministry of Defence, just 200 yd away, who do not even seem to recognise what is happening? They say that this is a peacekeeping operation, despite the fact that we have lost 174 military personnel in Iraq since March 2003 and 89 in Afghanistan. That is hardly a peacekeeping operation, is it?
I shall return to that subject later. Most people I speak to are amazed that there is no such recognition. I do not wish to criticise individuals, but I concur with some of the sentiments expressed by my hon. Friend.
Under the military covenant, British soldiers must always get fair treatment, be valued and respected as individuals, and be sustained and rewarded by terms of service that match the personal sacrifices that they make. The proposed medal would support the terms of the covenant in helping to show that the troops’ personal sacrifice is valued by the nation.
On 21 September 2007, the Chief of the General Staff, General Sir Richard Dannatt, said:
“The covenant says that we do what we do in the Nation’s name, that’s the way a democracy works—and so soldiers do not ask why; but they do ask for respect and honour for doing what they have been sent to do—which they do with courage and professionalism.”
General Dannatt went on to quote my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Armed Forces:
“There is not an appreciation or even an understanding among wide sections of the community of exactly what we ask our Armed Forces to do, and we’re asking an awful lot of them.”
Awarding a medal for the wounded and the dead would help to explain to the wider community the sacrifices that those young men and women have made on our behalf.
I have spoken to a number of families who have lost loved ones in Iraq and Afghanistan, and I find listening to their stories very moving. To a man and to a woman, they find it hard to understand why some type of recognition is not being given.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on bringing a very important issue before the House. Last Sunday, I was at the Royal British Legion club on Canvey island, where I met an ex-soldier who is having great difficulty in getting medical help—in this case, mental health medical treatment. He would find that just as important as receiving recognition and medals. No doubt the hon. Gentleman will allude to that. I have received a petition from the Royal British Legion on the military covenant, which I will present to the House next week.
I recognise what the hon. Gentleman says and I will refer to it later. I do not think for one minute that awarding a medal is in any way a reason for not providing proper medical care to those who have been wounded in the service of their country. In fact, I was pleased, along with the hon. Member for North Essex (Mr. Jenkin), to be part of the Defence Committee that produced the recent report on medical services, which raised some of the concerns that the hon. Member for Castle Point (Bob Spink) and other hon. Members have mentioned in the House before.
One question relating to the awarding of a medal is who would qualify. I would make things quite simple. Those who had been wounded in a combat zone as a direct result of enemy fire and in honourable circumstances, requiring more than simple battlefield first aid, would be eligible. Those wounded in accidents in a combat zone or in training exercises would not. Those criteria are not new: they were used in the first and second world wars as the criteria for the wound stripe, and they are used today for the wound stripe for the Canadian armed forces. The medal would also be presented to the next of kin of servicemen and women who were killed in action or who died as a direct result of their wounds.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way; I respect him and his campaign, and support it wholeheartedly. Is he not surprised, however, that the purple heart can be awarded to a person who serves with friendly forces? We have the strange situation in which US forces could be awarded a purple heart if they served under British command, yet the proposals from him and the Daily Mirror are more limited, which is interesting.
I shall refer to the purple heart later. Anyone who has met American veterans will know that they are proud to have the purple heart, perhaps more so than some campaign medals. Purple heart veterans can even indicate it on their vehicle licence plate, but I am not sure that we should go to such extremes.
The principle of awarding the medal is more important than the details of how it would be awarded. Some, including the former Minister with responsibility for the armed forces, my right hon. Friend the Member for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow (Mr. Ingram), have said that the medal should be extended to people other than those who have been wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan. I am sympathetic to such a proposal.
There has been some concern about what to call the medal. Some have suggested that it should be called the Elizabeth cross or Elizabeth medal. I understand that “cross” tends to be associated with gallantry, so “medal” would perhaps be more appropriate. I have noted that the star shape is not in use in today’s military, so we could call the medal the Elizabeth star. Again, those details could be worked out once the principle had been agreed.
Some have put forward reasons why such a medal should not be awarded, and it is important to expose them to a little critical thinking. I have heard that the Ministry of Defence supports a medal for the dead but not for the wounded. That would be a great mistake. There is a lot of support in the service community for recognition for those who are wounded, and to divide them from comrades who lost their lives would be an error—it would leave a lot of armed forces personnel feeling that the measure was half-hearted. I urge the Minister not to go down that path when he speaks to his officials.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on introducing the debate—it is an important topic and it captures the mood of the country. I agree that the award should be made to those who are injured and to those who have died. At what point would someone get recognition if they died of their injuries much later? There would be ambiguity. It therefore makes sense to recognise those who suffer injury and those who have died. That is how the campaign should go forward.
I agree with my hon. Friend. Anyone who has met amputees at Headley Court or Selly Oak would find it hard to tell those people that they did not need recognition for the horrific wounds that they have suffered.
Another argument that has been put is that the medal would be divisive. However, all medals are divisive. Certainly, gallantry medals are—people have opinions on whether others should or should not receive them. Clearly, good conduct medals or even service award medals such as the OBE or MBE are divisive because people have opinions on whether others should receive them. I note that the Vice-Chief of the Defence Staff, General Sir Timothy Granville-Chapman, has a KCB and a CBE, as does the Chief of the General Staff, Sir Richard Dannatt. I am sure that those awards were well deserved, but some people would feel that they should not have been given.
I do not think that divisiveness is a good reason for not awarding medals to such individuals, and I do not think that they would have refused to accept those medals on the ground that they were divisive in relation to those people who did not get similar awards.
I am aware of Sir Richard Dannatt’s military cross and that it was well deserved—credit to him for the sacrifice that he made to earn it. However, I am talking about service rather than gallantry awards. I understand that the hon. Gentleman has an OBE, which was given in similar circumstances; I am sure that that award was controversial.
The award that I am talking about would be far less divisive than other types of medal, because people would have to be either severely wounded or killed in action to be eligible. I am sure that there would be no vying for such status.
I have been told that the military do not like to award new medals or honours. If The Sunday Times is anything to go by, the MOD is considering a good conduct badge, which the hon. Gentleman and I support. However, an award or symbol for good conduct could be divisive, which shows up the MOD’s argument. The idea that the proposed medal would divide people in the armed forces does not hold a great deal of water.
Another argument, which comes from traditionalists, is that Britain does not award such medals and that there is no tradition or precedent for it in the British armed forces. However, there is such a tradition. Servicemen and women who were wounded in the first and second world wars were awarded wound stripes, which were vertical stripes worn on the sleeve. Field Marshall Lord Bramall told the Daily Mirror that he was proud to wear his second world war wound stripes. Wound stripes are also awarded to Canadian armed forces and there is a campaign to replace them with a medal. Also, service personnel who were invalided out of the armed forces in the first world war were given a silver war badge; in the second world war, such people were given the King’s badge. The latter was issued more widely than the award I am proposing: it was given to those invalided out for any reason, not only those who were injured during enemy action.
The most astounding fact that I came across in my research for the debate is that, in the first world war, the next of kin of every serviceman and woman killed in action received a letter that was personally signed by George V, a scroll and a bronze plaque. I am told that some of those bronze plaques still adorn mantelpieces up and down the country and that they are rightly handed on as family heirlooms.
Even today, the silver cross is awarded by the Queen as Head of State of Canada and of New Zealand to armed forces personnel who are killed in action. That badge can be worn by the next of kin. Some press comment in Australia says that there is a move for a similar awards to be given to the next of kin of Australian servicemen who are killed in action. If it is fitting for the Queen to award such an honour to the next of kin of Canadians and New Zealanders, a similar award to the next of kin of UK armed forces would be appropriate.
Another argument that has been put is that the award would somehow be difficult to administer; that is a famous argument because we always hear it from the MOD. However, in the first world war, we had 965,703 people killed and 2,272,999 wounded in four years, and every single one received some type of award. The casualties that we suffer today pale in comparison to what happened in 1914.
Another factor has already been alluded to—that the criteria for earning the award would be difficult to establish. The purple heart is one of America’s oldest medals; it dates back to 1782. The important thing is to keep the qualifying criteria simple. Copying or at least considering how the purple heart is awarded is important, because it is simple.
The purple heart is awarded for two reasons, and the first has five criteria. First, it is awarded in the name of the President of the United States to those wounded or killed, or who have died as a result of their wounds, and can be awarded in any action against an enemy of the United States; in any action with an opposing armed force of a foreign country in which the armed forces of the United States are or have been engaged; while serving with friendly forces engaged in an armed conflict against an opposing armed force in which the United States is not a belligerent party; as a result of an act of any such enemy of opposing armed forces; and as the result of an act of any hostile foreign force.
Secondly, the wound for which the award is made must have required treatment by a medical officer. I shall not list the other criteria, because the award was extended in 1963 to those who die in prisoner of war camps and those members of the armed forces who die or are injured as a result of acts of terrorism. However, those simple criteria could be amended.
My hon. Friend covers a point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for North-West Leicestershire (David Taylor), which is that the award is also made for peacekeeping. The criteria are simple; the award applies to service personnel in conflict, including in peacekeeping missions. UK troops would therefore be covered if we adopted similar criteria.
They would. The United States extended the award to acts of terrorism for that reason—for example, because of the more than 200 marines killed in Lebanon in the 1980s.
Another objection to the award was referred to by the hon. Member for Castle Point. It is that rather than making an award we should be arguing for proper compensation, medical treatment, and rehabilitation and resettlement. I completely agree. Making an award should not be seen as a cop-out for the military—having made the award, one can somehow forget about how our armed forces are treated while serving or after they have left the services. The award should not be made instead of that, but should add to it. That is an important point.
I refer to two individuals who would have qualified for the award, although I know that many others would qualify. The first is Tony Rawson, who was fighting in the Helmand province of Afghanistan. He was a 19-year-old private and was known to his mates as Nicey because he would do anything for anyone. He died instantly when a rocket smashed into him. His fellow soldiers launched a counter-attack to retrieve his body, then risked their lives again by moving him more than a kilometre to ensure that his body could be returned to the United Kingdom. Tony’s fiancée was expecting their first child; she is the sort of person who needs recognition.
The second individual is Private Lionel O’Connor, a 21-year-old who lay on a street in Basra in an expanding pool of his own blood, having been blown up by a roadside bomb. In absolute fear, knowing that he had lost his leg and knowing that the only light was the burning Land Rover from which he had been thrown, he directed his comrades to deal with two more seriously wounded colleagues, both of whom died later. Lionel survived that horrific experience, but he faces the rest of his life as an amputee.
Those are two examples of brave young soldiers who need and deserve recognition from us. A medal would help not only the wounded but those families that have lost loved ones. It would show that we, as a nation, care for the sacrifices that they have made on our behalf.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way again so close to the end of his significant contribution. It is important and right to recognise such sacrifices by awarding medals to individuals or their families, but would it not be a boost also to the morale of the military forces in general—forces that have been under such stress in recent times in relation to the military covenant and other factors? Indeed, about 12,500 non-commissioned officers and experienced officers have left the services since Britain invaded Iraq five years ago. Would not the morale of the forces be boosted by the decision to award such a medal?
That would be a clear indication of one simple thing—that we care about those individuals and that we do not take for granted what they do on our behalf.
I know that the Minister is an honourable gentleman, and I do not need to be reminded that it is not Ministers or politicians who make such awards. Indeed, I have heard that from the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State for Defence. It will be argued that the service chiefs and the military decide such things; I understand why and I respect those reasons.
I am using the debate to say to the service chiefs that we politicians are not lecturing them for political reasons to award such a medal. We believe that such young men and women need recognition. If the service chiefs do not listen to my voice or the voices of other politicians, I urge them to listen to Pearl Thrumble and Helen Gray. No one who listens to their moving tributes to their sons or hears about the sacrifice that they made can be in any doubt that such people deserve recognition. The medal or some other recognition should be awarded to those brave people.
I congratulate the hon. Member for North Durham (Mr. Jones) on securing this debate. I am grateful to Colonel Richard Kemp CBE, who is no stranger to war, for pushing this campaign heavily in the Daily Mirror, making it a national issue. I am grateful to the Minister, as I know that he will give us a fair hearing.
I am particularly grateful to the families who are here today. I can only imagine that this sort of debate is not a comfortable experience for them. Their very presence speaks of their courage as well as the courage of their sons, whom they have lost.
Last summer, I buried a friend of mine in Chester. We had served together; he was a colour sergeant when I was commanding the battalion. He was commissioned, and he died as a captain in the Worcestershire and Sherwood Foresters regiment with his face to the enemy, doing his best to kill those who eventually killed him. Captain Sean Dolan was taken with full military honours to his grave just outside Chester, being carried by pallbearers from the regiment, with shots being fired over the coffin. His incredibly brave wife and son were standing by the side of the grave. As the box was lowered into the ground, his sword belt and medals were passed back to his wife, along with the national flag.
The medals, of course, are the point. Not only had he been awarded the standard Northern Ireland medals, his Balkans medals, his long service and good conduct medal and his meritorious service medal but he also had the Afghan campaign medal; he had won it on a previous tour, when the regiment had been in a much quieter part of Afghanistan with hardly a shot fired. Sean went on his second tour and was killed by a direct hit from a Taliban mortar while serving with American special forces. Nothing at all lies in his wife’s hands to say that her husband was killed in action. Yes, she has a campaign medal, but that is a campaign medal from a previous campaign, albeit in Afghanistan. That situation is wrong.
I would like to pick up on a couple of points made by the hon. Gentleman that I think are very telling. The first point is that a lot of opposition will come to this campaign from the heel-dragging community. They will say, “Why on earth should we do this? This is so American, so ‘Purple Hearty’. We have never done anything like this before. Why should we emulate the Yanks?”
All of the Members of Parliament here, Miss Begg, yourself included, will see and hear, if they keep their eyes and ears open, exactly the point that the hon. Gentleman mentioned earlier on, when he referred to the bronze plaques that honoured the dead from the first world war. In my constituency, I appreciate that the sacrifice that was made principally by the Royal Lincolnshire Regiment and the Sherwood Foresters was extraordinary. None the less, if I go round the cottages, farms and working men’s houses in my constituency, those bronze plaques are still there. They cost one shilling and nine pence for King George V, at his personal behest, to issue to the families of the dead. Each plaque is inscribed with the name of the dead soldier. Now, nearly 100 years later, those plaques keep the names of the dead alive. They are shown with huge pride, often alongside the campaign medals that the boys—they were all boys, let’s face it—earned in the first world war. Therefore, anybody who says that there is no precedent for this medal that we are discussing today is simply wrong.
The Army has a great habit of reinventing its own history. Let it look carefully and see what has happened in the past. It has been mentioned already, but I was appalled to see articles in the newspapers about the good conduct badges. Good conduct badges have been worn since 1803. I took great pleasure in awarding them to the soldiers in my battalion who qualified for them and those soldiers were extremely proud of them. How can we suddenly think that these things are being reinvented? They are not. There is a precedent for a plaque for the dead and we have heard, most movingly, about the silver cross, which is awarded in other Commonwealth countries and which I believe sets very useful guidelines.
The second issue is that of the wounded. I appreciate that giving medals to the wounded is less easy to administer than a plaque for the dead. However, I would just like to tell a little anecdote. My grandfather wore four stripes that he had won, principally at Passchendaele. My father wore two stripes, one for Anzio and one for El Alamein. According to my grandfather, my father was a card-carrying coward, because he had only two wound stripes. In fact, it was a source of great pride and even amusement between these two men, who are sadly now both dead. My father actually received 27 wounds when he got his first wound stripe; he was struck by one piece of shrapnel and 26 bits of grit that punctured him. What did he get? He did not get 27 wound stripes—of course not. He got one for that particular incident.
There are all sorts of precedents for the administration and the wearing of some type of symbol for being wounded, be it a medal or a stripe. I would prefer a medal, but most importantly there is precedent for such an award. The British Army, Navy, Royal Air Force and Royal Marines have done this before; this is nothing new.
Obviously, this brings into question the business of what sort of wounds should be recognised. Combat stress is a very difficult issue. It has already been mentioned, and I can see that there will be those who are suffering from combat stress to whom the award of a stripe, medal or badge of one sort or another may be painful. There are ways round that. Perhaps those individuals should be asked, “Do you wish to apply? Do you wish to wear this thing? Will this drag up memories that you do not want to be dragged up?” We can be sensitive about this issue; of course we can.
Reverting to the issue of honouring the dead for a moment, we cannot simply give a plaque, a medal or whatever it is to the families without also giving them some day-to-day symbol. That symbol could be worn or carried in the same way that many people wear a little lapel badge showing that they have been awarded an MBE, OBE, CBE or whatever. I believe that there should be some enduring symbol for the next of kin to wear on a day-to-day basis and not simply at Remembrance day or whenever.
The Yorkshire Regiment is in action at the moment in Helmand in Afghanistan. I have talked to one or two of its soldiers who have come back wounded and when I proposed the idea of this award to them it was very clear to me that they would be extremely keen to have some sort of symbol. They seem to like the idea of a medal rather than anything else, but I accept that there are a number of different solutions to this problem.
What those soldiers say, in stark contrast to what they said during my time in the Army, is that it seems that military fashion has changed. Twenty years ago, people were not keen to wear badges or medals, but that was a different Army. Operational tempo was completely different. We are now fighting on two fronts and they are hot wars. I believe that the vast majority of the soldiery, the sailors, airmen and marines would be very much in favour of this award.
As for the administration of such an award, we cannot be distracted by the footling cost of something such as this; objecting on the ground of cost is simply nonsense. Anybody who says that this award for the dead and wounded would distract from good medical care and proper pastoral care also needs to wake up and smell the coffee, frankly. The administration of this award is a matter of tens of thousands of pounds, tops. We managed to administer awards to millions of dead in the first world war; dead and wounded in the second world war, and even the families of civilians who were killed by enemy aircraft in the second world war. All those dead received recognition and they received it properly.
I can tell those who have not seen the plaques or scrolls that have been awarded by various monarchs, that they really are very moving and the cost of producing them is negligible.
We have already heard about the precedent that was set by the purple heart. Again, people will criticise it because it is American. I do not; I approve of the fact that America, which is a great nation decided in the 18th century that this type of decoration was necessary. It managed to administer an army, navy and air force of millions on a day-to-day basis, and it got that administration right. Furthermore, the families of the dead are treated, quite rightly, as heroes and heroines in their own right, let alone those young men and women who come back horribly scarred and wounded from the fronts that the American forces have been involved in. I think that we have a lesson to learn from America.
Similarly, there is the military covenant. The Minister knows how much we have heard about that. I think that this type of award is part of the deal. We civilians sitting here in comfort should be ready and open-minded to listen to our servicemen and women. There is a groundswell of opinion in favour of this award.
There may be some senior officers inside the Ministry of Defence with unencumbered chests who do not quite understand what it means to be shot at, and to lose and bury comrades. I can see that this award is a nuisance for them; I can see that it is yet another burden on the military budget. Surely, however, those officers can cease to be so narrow-minded and can understand that the kids who are dying in fighting need to have some sort of symbol.
I echo my hon. Friend’s congratulations to the hon. Member for North Durham (Mr. Jones) on securing this debate and pursuing this campaign along with my constituent, to whom he referred earlier and who is running the campaign with the Daily Mirror.
I underline the point that my hon. Friend is making about the fact that this type of award is part of the deal. I think that this type of award should be seen as part of the military covenant. Our failure to honour our dead and injured servicemen and women and their families in this way is actually a failure on our civilian side of the bargain. We, as politicians, have a responsibility to do all that we can to meet that part of the bargain and this type of award is a relatively cost-free way of doing that.
As always, I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who makes the points so much more articulately than I can.
Lastly, people argue that this award is unprecedented and that we are stepping into new territory. Well, I have already made the point about honouring the dead and the point about wound stripes. However, I would just say that decorations do spring up out of nowhere, and quite rightly so. I am sure that nobody here has failed to hear of a woman called Victoria. She established something called the Victoria cross, which is internationally renowned, and so it should be. What, however, about the conspicuous gallantry cross and other decorations that have come into play over the past 10 or 20 years? My platoon sergeant was the first man to earn the Queen’s gallantry medal when it was established. Such honourable, highly thought of and valued decorations may not have been around for long, but so what? We must surely take a step forward and release our minds from the foolish nonsense and narrow-mindedness of the past. We must understand that the dead, the wounded and their families should receive the honours that they deserve.
Sitting at the back of the Chamber—I will embarrass him horribly—is Private Matt Woollard of the first battalion of the Royal Anglian Regiment. The last time I saw him, he was lying in a hospital bed, recovering from horrendous injuries that he received in Helmand province. He is an amputee with several wounds, and I cannot look him in the face and say, “You don’t deserve some form of recognition for what you’ve done for the country.” He does deserve recognition, and so do all his comrades, alive or dead.
Order. I remind hon. Members not to refer to anyone outside this immediate part of the Chamber. I should also say that I wish to move to the Opposition Front-Bench speech at half-past 10. Four hon. Members are standing, so if speakers confine their remarks to five minutes, everyone will get in.
I am grateful to you, Miss Begg, and to my hon. Friend the Member for North Durham (Mr. Jones), whom I congratulate on initiating the debate. If I have one complaint, it is that he was, characteristically, too much of a nice guy. It is inappropriate to excuse Ministers, given that the two most recent conflicts—in Iraq and Afghanistan—have been fought on the instructions, and with the mandate, of this place. The Minister cannot, therefore, hide behind people at the Ministry of Defence, even if he were minded to do so. Action should be taken through, and under pressure from, this democratic institution, which sent our brave servicemen and women to those two theatres.
I have been moved by the debate, because I have been reflecting on my uncle, Private Frank Beanes, of the Lincolnshire Regiment, who obtained a gallantry medal in January 1921, following an ambush in County Tipperary. As a consequence of that ambush, he languished in a psychiatric institution for the rest of his life—the next 40 years. The one thing that my grandparents greatly treasured was his gallantry medal, of which I am the proud inheritor and custodian. My uncle’s two colleagues, Sergeant Brackenbury and Private Staves, were killed but their families got nothing, and I feel for them, even though it was a long time ago. I realise how important some medal or tangible recognition is for families and loved ones and for the individuals who are bravely operating in Afghanistan, Iraq and other theatres, some of whom have lost their lives. It is time that we addressed the issue, and Parliament needs to keep up the pressure on the Minister.
I want to use this occasion to refer to our establishment’s failure to address the issue of Bomber Command. I know that the issue is surrounded by controversy and that the Government’s recent replies indicate that they will not change their minds, but that simply is not good enough, because a wrong has been committed that still cries out to be remedied. I recently read the pamphlet by the distinguished historian Sir Martin Gilbert, who presses the point.
The controversy relates to the operation of Bomber Command, although it would be highly inappropriate to discuss it in detail now because time does not allow me to do so. However, some 55,500 aircrew in Bomber Command, whose average age was 22, lost their lives, but they received no recognition; indeed, political decisions have excluded those brave men from obtaining a medal. I urge the Minister to reflect on that because I would like the issue to be addressed with some dispatch. A number of Bomber Command veterans are still alive, and they, as well as spouses and loved ones, would like some recognition.
One thing that Sir Martin Gilbert’s recent pamphlet revealed was that the controversial bombing of Dresden was authorised by Clem Atlee. I volunteer that information because he was my party’s leader and I greatly respect him. It was a difficult decision, but it had nothing to do with the courage and dedication of the aircrews.
The fact is that many other operations have distinctive medals, but there is no recognition of the fact that Bomber Command was unique. Winston Churchill said that the Spitfires were our salvation, but that the bombers were our means to victory. There is a self-evident case for awarding a medal with some dispatch.
Let me offer one solution, even though it might be inadequate. By coincidence, I am wearing the tie of the Royal Ulster Constabulary George Cross Foundation this morning. In a sense—I would put this in italics—the creation of that foundation was a political act; the role of the RUC was controversial, but everyone recognised that those brave men and women had shown great dedication and made a great sacrifice in recent years and that some had lost their lives. The solution was to create the foundation and to award the George cross to the RUC collectively. At the very least, the Government could consider doing that in respect of Bomber Command.
I do not want to labour that point, however, because this morning’s central theme is the need to press the Government on the issue of those of our servicemen and women who have served and made a sacrifice in Iraq, Afghanistan and other contemporary theatres. The “Honour the Brave” campaign is overwhelmingly supported by Members of Parliament. However, I hope that, in summing up, the Minister will at least be prepared to listen and to look again at the issue of Bomber Command. Will he agree to have a meeting with me, Sir Martin Gilbert and one or two others from the Bomber Command Association so that we could at least present our case to him in his office? If he is agreeable to that, our attendance this morning will have been worth while as far as that issue goes.
I am proud to associate myself with the representations made by my hon. Friend about our contemporary servicemen and women and their families and loved ones, because we, as a Parliament, want the bravery and service of those we are discussing to be recognised. The hon. Member for Newark (Patrick Mercer) referred to the problems of those who might be suffering battle stress. My uncle suffered battle stress and psychiatric illness, and it was of great importance to his family that they had a medal in recognition of his sacrifice and that they could cherish it over the decades.
I offer my congratulations to the hon. Member for North Durham (Mr. Jones), although I share the surprise of the hon. Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay) at his reticence about putting pressure on politicians at the Ministry of Defence. I entirely accept that the Minister, who is very honourable, will do what he can to take the message back from here. However, the men and women we are talking about were sent to war by politicians, and nearly 50 per cent. of the House of Commons has now expressed the view that recognition is overdue. The hon. Member for Chorley (Mr. Hoyle) talked about the mood of the country, and the mood of the country not only says, but demands that proper recognition should be forthcoming.
Like others, I pay tribute to the people in the Gallery. I know that we are not supposed even to admit that we have them with us, but nobody who was present at the launch of the “Honour the Brave” campaign, which the Daily Mirror has done so much to put together, could fail to be impressed by the courage of those who spoke to us. For some, that meeting in a House of Commons Committee Room was the first time that they had spoken in public. The interesting thing was that a sizeable number of Members of Parliament were present; it is a long time since I have been at a meeting where so many hon. Members were present and stayed throughout. It was a very moving experience for everyone concerned.
One need only look at today’s obituaries to see the bizarre way in which we give people recognition. A lady who was a real heroine in the second world war died recently. She was parachuted into France as a Special Operations Executive officer and in the end commanded something like 3,000 resistance fighters and was instrumental in much of the success of the D-day landings. When she returned to the UK she was put forward for the military cross, but the Ministry of Defence said she could not have it, because she was a woman. They could not find a suitable medal for her, so they decided to offer her a civilian MBE, which she rejected. Subsequently, after the war, she was offered a military MBE, which she accepted. Thirty years later, in recognition of the service of that lady, who had been honoured by France and other countries, the Queen awarded her the CBE, and said to her, as reported in the paper today:
“We should have done this a long time ago.”
We are talking about giving such people the recognition that they deserve, today. Bureaucrats got it wrong for a real heroine who put her life on the line as a 22-year-old girl, being parachuted into France and leading a very effective work force. They got it wrong because they said the system could not cope with a woman. Today young men and women are putting their lives on the line and suffering horrendous injuries. I congratulate the hon. Member for North Durham not only on his persistence in this matter, but on the recognition that he has given to the injuries—and the mental injuries—suffered by those returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. Along with other members of the Select Committee on Defence, he has pushed that issue time and again.
I implore the Minister to make, for goodness’ sake, a political decision, and instruct the Ministry of Defence to get on with it. Do not let this be another Arctic convoy saga, which took 50 years, until 55 per cent. of the people who could have received the award were dead. Let the people and their families have what we believe the nation says they deserve: recognition today. Let them have recognition, and let us give it to them with pride. Do not count the cost. We did not count the cost before we sent them.
Let us examine our consciences and say that there is a moral obligation on the state to give those men and women and their families the recognition that they deserve. It will be a good thing for the armed forces generally. No one would begrudge any soldier or the families of the dead and wounded that recognition. I would love the medal to be the Elizabeth star. I share that view with the hon. Member for North Durham. I hope that the Minister will take that point.
I add my congratulations to those that have been given to my hon. Friend the Member for North Durham (Mr. Jones) on securing the debate. It is extremely important and it has been very moving this morning to hear hon. Members talk about families and friends. I pay tribute to the Daily Mirror for the sterling work that it has done on the campaign.
The debate is not about whether people did or did not support conflict in Iraq or Afghanistan. Some people have told me that they did not agree with our military involvement in Iraq. Neither did I. I did not vote to send troops to Iraq, but as soon as the House decided that they should be sent, I supported them wholeheartedly. That is what Members of Parliament do. I supported our sending troops to Afghanistan, so I voted to deploy troops. I have also voted against deploying troops, but once UK forces are deployed Members of Parliament should stand four square behind them. That is what we are doing in this debate. It is not about support for an individual conflict; it is about supporting people from this country who go forward in our name possibly to lay down their lives or be wounded in action. It is important that Parliament should show support for them.
There has been some debate about the purple heart this morning. It is a fantastic award—absolutely stunning—although I think that the highest award in the United States is the congressional medal of honour. In the awards structure for US forces, it is politicians who make decisions. Politicians decided to give the purple heart. The President of the United States decided to award it. Such decisions are something that politicians should be engaged in—not on a party-political basis, but across the board, across all parties and opinion. It is for politicians to declare their support for awards and honours.
The point has been made that before the Victoria cross there was no such award. Interestingly, the metal for the Victoria cross is stored in Shropshire, and I am very proud of that. It is an incredible award with incredible status, but let us not forget that it was a new award when it was first granted.
I intervened on my hon. Friend about the award of the purple heart in relation to UK forces and US forces. It is interesting that when some US forces went into conflict in Iraq they were under British command, so we had a strange situation in which troops from the United States and the UK could be fighting beside each other on the same battle front yet they could not receive similar awards for being killed or wounded in action. That is a strange anomaly. I do not think that we should do everything that the Americans do, but in this case they have got it right, and when they do we should say so. They have got it right in relation to the purple heart.
I congratulate the Government on what they have done in recent years about the award of medals. They have put right a number of wrongs. Enormously good work has been done, too, through some of the badges that have been distributed, such as the veterans badge. My dad has just secured his veterans badge; it is fantastic and people can be very proud of it. I think that he would have liked some kind of award for his grandfather, who was gassed at Passchendaele and received little recognition for an incident that scarred him for the rest of his life. My father would like some recognition for his grandfather’s role there, and as a family we do not have that. Badges have also been given for the land army and the timber corps, which is fantastic.
I should like a medal—a medal of honour, which might be called the Elizabeth star or something else—and a badge that people can wear proudly on their lapel as they go about their business, to show that they have made a sacrifice for this country and that we owe them a debt of gratitude. It is important, and most service personnel would, I think, take the view that the awards are not just for them, but are for their families. They can be passed down through families as a way of remembering the service that was given.
The debate is timely. It is time for the award that we are discussing; it is time to put aside our views about the conflicts and approve the award. I know that the Minister has history, in that members of his family were in the King’s Shropshire Light Infantry. As a Shropshire MP I ask him to ensure that we get the medal.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for North Durham (Mr. Jones) and the Daily Mirror on their campaign, and the way in which it has been led. It is hard to cover this matter in two minutes, but I shall try. The Royal British Legion in Chorley has handed me a petition about the covenant, because of a feeling that the medal is part of the military covenant, which we must respect and honour.
It is important not to forget. I was touched as a constituency MP when we lost Royal Marine Dutch Holland, who was tragically blown up by a roadside bomb. When someone from a small community such as Chorley dies fighting a war in a foreign land it brings things home. We must of course always remember that the Royal Gibraltar Regiment has played its part as well; its members have been serving in Iraq and Afghanistan and earning the military cross. We have other troops from overseas territories who play a major role.
To me the debate is about the families, those who have been injured and those who have died. It is a matter of the respect we owe to them. The only way we can show that respect and honour is by recognition. The best recognition that the House can offer is a medal, and it should be given through the Minister and the Ministry of Defence, and its hierarchy. What should not happen has already been discussed. We should not be seen to be dragging people along to an eventual cave-in, because that becomes an apology. We should not be in that position. We ought to be leading from the front and saying, “Now is the right time—the time is here.” As I said, we must do that for the families. However, we must also recognise the mood of the country. Please do not allow this to happen later. Let us do it now.
I know that the Minister will take back that important and clear message, as he must, and give the necessary recognition to those who have died and been injured in conflict. Some of the latter will have received among the most severe injuries ever seen in military conflict, but have survived owing to the medical care now offered. We ought to go that little bit further and give them the necessary recognition. A good friend of mine, Colonel Harrison, helps to run Selly Oak hospital, which the Minister has visited before. Colonel Harrison knows the importance of such recognition—an importance that nobody can deny. So I ask the Minister please to take back that message. Let us get that message out in order to recognise the families involved.
I congratulate the hon. Member for North Durham (Mr. Jones) on securing this debate and other hon. Members who this morning have made such important contributions. I also pay tribute to the Daily Mirror for its “Honour the Brave” campaign. Were it not for that campaign and early-day motion 95 signed by so many hon. Members, we would not be here this morning.
More than 174 personnel have been killed in Iraq and 89 in Afghanistan during the recent conflicts. At the same time, hundreds have been injured. Last year, I was privileged when a friend of mine brought her son to Rochdale. He was an American soldier educated in Rochdale before joining the American army. He showed me his purple heart, which brought home what he had been through and how proud he and his family were. Those here in the Gallery today, and those whom they represent, deserve similar recognition. I hope that the Minister will agree to a review of the current process for awarding medals, that the recognition that our Army personnel deserve can be given and that we can move forward. I believe that that is what the country and hon. Members here want.
The hon. Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay) mentioned the award of medals for past conflicts. In recent years, as has been said, the Government have gone a considerable way to recognise the need for such medals, with the award of the veterans badge. It would now be appropriate for the Minister to provide similar recognition of those fighting so bravely in Iraq and Afghanistan. The past few years have been unprecedented for our military in the number of conflicts in which they have fought on all levels. Many have said that they have been stretched to breaking point. Recognition is long overdue and I hope that he will agree today to move forward and give them the awards that they deserve.
I draw the attention of the Chamber to my entry in the Register of Members’ Interests. I am a serving officer in the reserve forces. There is a consensus, certainly in this gathering, on the need for a medal to recognise the particular sacrifices of those injured or killed in the service of their country. I cannot remember a more impassioned debate in Westminster Hall, which, frankly, is not known for its passion. I am sure that the Minister will leave this debate with much food for thought.
We generally gather to debate past conflicts, so it is refreshing to be considering contemporary events and serving personnel. However, we need to consider the past as well and, perhaps, debate briefly problems with medals for previous conflicts. Much of this debate revolves around the Committee on the Grant of Honours, Decorations and Medals, which was set up to determine whether medals should be awarded and under what circumstances. On 11 December, when we gathered to debate the Pingat Jasa Malaysia medal, some vitriol was heaped on that committee. However, we must understand that it is a creature of politicians and that those appointed to serve on it do so with the best will in the world according to rules that we give them. It is in our power to consider whether those rules are up-to-date or whether they need to be revised, and whether the committee’s membership needs to be reconsidered. If we do that, perhaps we will avoid the problems that we have unfortunately got ourselves into in recent years.
The committee operates according to two principal rules: the first is the double-medalling rule, which is a curious thing, because it appears to rely on precedent that ignores precedent. I am reminded of the Khedive’s star and the Turkish Crimea medal. They are good examples from the distant past of where double-medalling has applied. I was interested in the comments made by my hon. Friend the Member for Newark (Patrick Mercer) on wound stripes. It is all very well for committees and politicians to say, “Well, we have not done this in the past,” but we have very short memories, do we not? I am sure that most of us are grateful to him for reminding us that in the not very distant past we provided the appropriate recognition of sacrifices made by our servicemen.
The Government resisted approval of the PJM medal when we debated it at great length in December. However, some who served between 1960 and 1962 did not receive the general service medal, including some naval personnel, even though they served afloat off Malaya, because the time qualification was more onerous for them. Thus the double-medalling rule is no ground for failing to approve the medal in their case. Some might say that approval of the PJM medal would circumvent the qualifying period set by the HD committee, but a row of medals reads like a CV and the appearance of the PJM medal, instead of the GSM with a Malaya clasp would tell its own story.
The second rule is the five-year one, which is also curious. It is worth reflecting that we are rapidly approaching the fifth anniversary of the opening shots of Operation Telic 1. The five-year rule ensures that we are contemporary in our recollection of events, but most of us will recall vividly those opening shots and the circumstances surrounding them. I wonder whether the five-year rule is far too prescriptive. I hope that if the Minister could agree to reconsider the rules governing the conduct of the HD committee, he will look at a 10-year rule, which I suggest would be very useful.
It is important to consider equivalence in medalling. Winston Churchill appreciated that the award of medals is an inexact science. In March 1944, he said:
“A medal glitters, but it also casts a shadow”.
I am slightly surprised that that quote has not been used already here. I am rather pleased that it has not, because it means that I can introduce it. However, without articulating those words, a number of hon. Members have referred to those sentiments. In the context of current operations, it means that a clasp for Helmand and Kandahar would disappoint troops in service elsewhere in Afghanistan, many of whom will feel that they have been equally in the thick of it.
Will the Army top brass, who were reported last month to be engineering a U-turn over the southern Afghanistan clasp, reflect on the six bars available to mark particular operations during the second Afghan war of 1878? Will the Minister update us on the skirmish that appears to have broken out between the Chief of the General Staff and the vice-chief of the defence staff on that issue?
I suspect that my hon. Friend’s knowledge of such matters surpasses that of anyone else in the House. I am very grateful to him for adding to my knowledge of the second Afghan war of 1878.
As we struggle to avoid the shadow that Churchill talked about, we might like to give some thought to the disparity in the award of various long service and good conduct medals, which was mentioned briefly earlier. One of the Government’s most vindictive acts was the immediate abolition of the reserve decoration, which several members of my family have been pleased to receive, and the territorial decoration, which several of my hon. Friends hold. Instead, there is the far less aspirational volunteer reserve medal, which has a qualifying period of 10 years, in contrast to the 15 years for long service and good conduct medal for naval ratings. Naval officers and, indeed, officers of all the regular forces, however, are left out. In Ministers’ half-baked attempt to address a particular issue in 1999, they left a great deal of unfinished business, so I hope that in the spirit of “all of one company”, they might like to look again at long service and good conduct medals.
I turn to the main gist of today’s debate, which is the British purple heart. The Prime Minister is no numismatist, as we gathered from his confusion over badges, medals and the difference between the two at the Dispatch Box last Wednesday. However, we learned in November that he is taken by the idea of a British version of the purple heart for those who have been wounded or killed, and it is reasonable to be guided by the wishes, aspirations and feelings of servicemen and those excellent organisations that represent them.
Precedent is important, and my hon. Friend and one or two other hon. Members mentioned that large brass plaques still exist in the possession of proud families, marking the ultimate sacrifice that so many made during the great war. The plaques are not pretty. My family has one, and by the standards of our day, perhaps they are not attractive items. However, the need for them was felt at the time, and I believe that they gave a great deal of comfort and pride to those who were bereaved. In the 21st century, we need to mark the sacrifice of our troops in action. In many cases, they are in a fixed-bayonet situation that would not have been unfamiliar to those who fell in the great war. I agree with my hon. Friend that in the 21st century, it would be far preferable to strike a medal than to award wound stripes, and I hope that the Minister will give it serious consideration.
I must mention mental health, because many of those who were vilified and punished during the great war for what we now call post-traumatic stress disorder or combat stress, would not have been eligible for any award at all; the reverse very much applied. It is important to put on record and recognise that many of the scars from which our servicemen and women suffer now are not physical but mental, and they must be recognised in exactly the same way.
The hon. Member for North Durham (Mr. Jones) has done a great job in prevailing on the Prime Minister and forming his views on the subject. I should be very interested to hear how the Minister feels about the issue, and how he might take forward the tricky and complicated matter of deciding who gets the medal. I ask only that he cracks on and does it quickly out of a sense of self-interest, because I fear that the exercise will be difficult, throw up perversities and certainly, in Winston Churchill’s words, cast some shadows. I should not particularly want to address the issue in office, because I suspect that it will make a determination on matters such as PJMs and Arctic stars seem a little like a walk in the park. That does not mean that the Minister should not attempt it.
I would be cautious, however, because most servicemen and their families want, above all else, a decent deal. We have heard a great deal from the Royal British Legion and others about the broken military covenant, and servicemen and their families will not, in any way, want any deal to be a substitute for proper welfare for them and their families, particularly when personnel are injured.
Before giving the Minister fair time to respond to the many excellent contributions that have been made today, I should like to say a little about the HD committee because it lies at the heart of today’s discussion. It is vital to underscore the importance of impartiality among members of that committee, and their distance from politicians, because we all know what we are like, and the striking of a medal is relatively cheap and very appealing electorally. It is important that we keep our hands off the issue, and that those who are appointed to the task—officials—make a determination against, of course, the rules that we lay down.
I am concerned about those rules, which were instituted in Foreign and Commonwealth Office orders in 1969, all those years ago, and govern what the committee does. I am not going to lay into members of the committee, who at the end of the day are simply tasked with carrying out the rules as best they can. I do not envy them; it must be an extremely difficult job to do.
Finally, why does the Minister make a rod for his own back by getting involved terribly much in what civilians wear? Today’s debate is largely about those who are serving, but we must think about civilians, because all servicemen will ultimately become civilians. My guess is that liberalisation would mean that veterans emulated the practice of those still serving, which would in general be in accordance with uniform regulations. We think about the PJM, for example, in that respect. In any case, however, it would surely be expedient to leave such matters to the discretion of private citizens, and to spare Ministers a considerable amount of grief into the bargain. I hope that when the Minister examines the rules that govern the HD committee, he will bear in mind whether it is appropriate to ordain whether civilians and veterans should be proscribed from wearing particular awards, if they view it as appropriate.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for North Durham (Mr. Jones) on securing this debate on medals for armed forces personnel, and I pay tribute to his work in raising the issue. He made a sensitive, impassioned and balanced speech.
Let me begin by paying tribute to the men and women in our armed forces, who do such an amazing job, particularly out in Iraq and Afghanistan, and are clearly the best armed forces in the world, and to the families of service personnel, whose support is vital during their relatives’ service in theatre, back in the UK and elsewhere.
The debate has been impassioned, and my hon. Friend, the hon. Member for Newark (Patrick Mercer), my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay), the hon. Member for Portsmouth, South (Mr. Hancock), my hon. Friends the Members for Telford (David Wright) and for Chorley (Mr. Hoyle), and the Front-Bench spokesmen, the hon. Members for Rochdale (Paul Rowen) and for Westbury (Dr. Murrison), all made balanced speeches that identified the issues. The underlying issue is the fundamental recognition of the bravery in service of our armed forces personnel, on which we are all absolutely united.
Those personnel who are serving in Afghanistan and Iraq today show enormous bravery. Their commitment to professionalism is second to none, and it is important that we properly recognise their contribution. One way of doing so is through medals. I congratulate also the Daily Mirror on raising regularly the issue of the bravery and sacrifice of our armed forces personnel. It is important that the press do so, and it is important for the families, too.
I shall set out what recognition takes place, because many people reading or watching the debate may not understand the system. Hon. Members will recall the words of the Secretary of State for Defence, when he responded to a question about the topic during the armed forces personnel debate on 10 January:
“As a Minister of the Crown, I am very wary of expressing opinions about individual medals and honours for the very reason that this country has a system that relies on a process that is independent of politicians”.—[Official Report, 10 January 2008; Vol. 470, c. 581.]
Several hon. Members have said that that should not be the case. The Prime Minister, however, in answer to my hon. Friend the Member for North Durham, said on 14 November 2007:
“On the question of whether a new medal is struck for those who have been killed or injured, it is first a matter for the military authorities to make a recommendation.”—[Official Report, 14 November 2007; Vol. 467, c. 659.]
On the subject of current medals, for every campaign or operation, a medal is struck when it is determined that there will be significant risk and rigour for the individuals involved. Today, servicemen and women are deployed in support of operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, and they receive a medal once they have met the qualifying criteria.
Those criteria have some complexities, and have for a number of years. They depend, for example, on where individuals are based. Generally speaking, however, personnel have to complete 30 days of continuous service in theatre to earn either the Iraq campaign medal or the operational service medal Afghanistan. In the case of the Afghanistan medal, a clasp “Afghanistan” is also awarded for operations within the geographic boundary of the country, which reflects the particular risk and rigour of the operations there. To date, more than 100,000 Iraq medals and 42,000 Afghanistan medals have been issued by the MOD medal office. I pay tribute to it for its work in ensuring that medals are sent out on time to the people who have earned them.
Of course, I pay tribute to the families of service personnel who are killed or seriously wounded during combat. They show tremendous bravery and dignity in coping with their loss or in coming to terms with the serious injuries to their loved ones. As hon. Members know, I regularly visit wounded service personnel at the rehabilitation centre and at Selly Oak hospital, but I also meet widows regularly. I talk to families and, in part, understand the pain, suffering and loss that they have to cope with, although no one can fully understand unless they have lost a loved one in such a way.
It is important to talk about the recognition that is given before we mention the medal in question. Those who are sadly killed or injured on operations receive the appropriate theatre medal. It is issued automatically in the event of death or injury that leads to evacuation from theatre, regardless of how long an individual has served on the operation, which could be for as little as one day. In the case of those who are killed, the medal office mounts the new medal with others that the individual had previously earned and gives them all to the next of kin in a special presentation box.
It is important to put on record the other ways in which those who are killed on operational service are recognised. The next of kin of all service personnel who die in service, regardless of the cause, receive letters from the Secretary of State for Defence and the single service chiefs of staff. Her Majesty the Queen sends a letter of condolence to the commanding officer of those killed on operations. The next of kin of personnel who were serving with units with a royal special relationship also receive a letter from the appropriate member of the royal family.
The families of deceased personnel may opt for a military funeral and elect to have a service headstone and grave maintenance in perpetuity. None of that can compensate in any way for the death of a loved one, but those forms of recognition are a mark of the sincere gratitude for their sacrifice that the nation feels.
Some personnel who tragically die during operations are recognised also with gallantry awards, lists of which are published six-monthly, in addition to the new year and birthday honours lists. Such awards have included the conspicuous gallantry cross, the military cross, the George medal and the ultimate British military award, the Victoria cross, which was awarded posthumously to Corporal Bryan Budd of 3rd Battalion, the Parachute Regiment, last year. By such means, we ensure that individuals’ distinguished actions, courage and bravery are honoured by the nation.
Medals are not the only way in which we can recognise the enormous contribution made by our armed forces, and in particular by those who make the ultimate sacrifice. The magnificent new armed forces memorial at the national memorial arboretum in Staffordshire provides fitting recognition for the British servicemen and women killed on duty since the end of the second world war. However, it is not just a war memorial; it also lists the names of those killed on duty in other circumstances. It is designed also to recognise and acknowledge the courage of families and friends left behind, and includes the names of those killed in the recent conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Many of the wounded receive gallantry medals in addition to the medal for the operation on which they were serving, irrespective of whether they complete the requisite qualifying period.
My hon. Friend the Member for North Durham made the point that medical care is not the issue, but it is worth reiterating that our primary aim must be to provide the medical care that our injured service personnel require. The Select Committee on Defence recently paid tribute to that support, stating in a report that clinical care for our servicemen and women seriously injured on operations is second to none, and that Defence Medical Services personnel, working with the NHS, provide world-class care. In addition, we have compensation schemes, particularly the armed forces compensation scheme.
Hon. Members touched on the general issue of medals. As I have discovered in my 18 months or so in my job, medals are a hugely emotive issue. As my hon. Friend said, they can also be divisive. There are a number of ongoing campaigns for new medals to be minted for one reason or another, and it is impossible to satisfy everyone. British campaign medals are awarded not as a record of service, as is the case in some countries, but as a result of particularly difficult circumstances considered over and above the usual conditions of service life. The British military medal system is held in the highest regard around the world, and in many ways it is the special nature of British medals that gives them such great esteem.
Other countries choose to issue more medals, often as a record of an individual’s service rather than to reflect the risks and rigours of a particular campaign. Decisions on new UK medals are not taken lightly, and careful consideration is given to ensure that we do not do anything to undermine the system.
There have been calls for a national defence medal in recognition of service in the armed forces. However, with the exception of long service awards, it has never been Government policy to consider service in the armed forces the sole justification for the institution of a medal. The British armed forces are involved in a wide range of operations, which means that there is a greater opportunity for some individuals to be awarded British, United Nations, European Union and NATO awards. However, joining the armed forces still does not guarantee the award of a medal, and there are no plans to institute one simply for being a serviceman or woman.
The veterans badge, which was introduced a few years ago, was mentioned briefly. It has been highly esteemed, and more than 500,000 have been sent out—I think that the current figure is about 550,000. We also have the merchant’s seaman’s badge and the Arctic emblem. We have done a number of things to recognise veterans.
I wish to make it clear that our minds are not closed to proposals for new medals or other forms of recognition, but decisions are not to be taken lightly or rushed into. It is right and proper that the military chiefs of staff make initial detailed recommendations on proposed forms of recognition. They can truly judge the risk and rigour of any campaign and make proper judgments on what is appropriate and in line with the long-standing military ethos.
Proposals for any new medals are submitted by the MOD to the cross-Government Committee on the Grant of Honours, Decorations and Medals, led by the Cabinet Secretary, for its consideration, before ultimately being submitted to the Queen. It is not within the gift of the MOD to introduce new medals automatically. As I have said, the situation is being considered, and the service chiefs will make their recommendations known at the appropriate time.
If the hon. Gentleman does not mind, I would like to finish my remarks.
We must understand that there are other means of recognition and commemoration. Hon. Members will be aware of the tremendous success of the “Falklands 25” commemorations last year, which were so welcomed by the many service personnel who served in and around the Falklands. We continue to establish whether we can do more to improve the British public’s awareness of the important work done on their behalf by the armed forces, and whether there are ways in which the public can better express their support and gratitude.
Last December, the Government commissioned an independent study on the subject, which is led by my hon. Friend the Member for Grantham and Stamford (Mr. Davies), supported by a team including an air commodore and a senior MOD civil servant. The national recognition study is running in parallel with a cross-Government service personnel strategy, and both initiatives are expected to report in the early spring.
I wish to make it clear that we do not underestimate the enormous contribution that is made by members of our armed forces and their families, and the need for proper recognition of them. We must take the advice of senior military personnel, who are best placed to make recommendations. As I have said, I know that the chiefs of staff are keeping the matter under review, and the House will be kept informed when any changes are proposed.
My hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock asked whether I would agree to meet him and others to discuss a medal for Bomber Command. I am happy to do that—as he knows, I do not refuse hon. Members a meeting on any issue that concerns them. I know that he is greatly respected for his campaigning on service issues.
Mental health was mentioned by a couple of hon. Members. It is important that it be given full focus and attention, which is why the Government have introduced a number of initiatives, including a new pilot scheme with the NHS to treat service people with mental health problems, the new medical assessment programme at St. Thomas’ hospital and the reserves mental health programme. We have considerably increased funding for Combat Stress as part of the process of recognising, treating and caring for those who develop a mental health problem as a result of their service. As the hon. Member for Westbury rightly said, those problems will continue.
May I start by thanking Mr. Speaker for granting me this debate? I have raised the issue before, and I thought that I should perhaps start by apologising to some of my constituents, because although I try to raise a wide variety of subjects for debate, I have had to return to this one from time to time. However, I do not think there is a need for apology, because things that happen some way away can affect their everyday lives.
I strongly regret the fact that the Government have not seen fit to allow any time to discuss this important area of Europe on the Floor of the House—I know that they are busy with other things—so I am grateful for this opportunity. I am also delighted to see many colleagues here today.
There is a need to debate this issue. One thing we can learn from the Balkan area, and so many other areas, is that we should not ignore history. Unfortunately, the fires that start in the Balkans have often led to larger conflagrations elsewhere in Europe. I hope that we are now away from those eras and can move forward.
Many of the worst troubles that have occurred in that region were precipitated by the over-zealous recognition of Croatia, which was described by the then Foreign Minister of Germany, Herr Genscher, as
“the greatest victory for German foreign policy since 1945.”
Does my hon. Friend agree that there are lessons to be learned from not making recognition a matter of precipitous action?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that intervention. Although I have never been described as a diplomat, I shall try to tread a course along that line. However, it must be said that taking early action without thinking things through is not always helpful.
My hon. Friend refers to an area about which he knows a great deal. I was not in the House at that time. I was selling furniture, having pursued my degree in Serbo-Croat, which involved studying the history of the region, as well as its language and literature—but even there, among the nests of tables in Uxbridge, I thought it an unwise move.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. Does he agree that there are also many causes for joy in the west Balkans, particularly in Slovenia, where I recently went with the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs, and which has now taken the European presidency? That is a good example of recognition at the right time and in the right circumstances for west Balkan acceptance into the European Union.
My hon. Friend makes a good point. I do not want to digress too much, but when I was a student in Belgrade, we used to refer to going up to Ljubljana as going to Europe. Even in those days, there was recognition that Slovenia was a slightly different case. Although the break-up of Yugoslavia brought benefits to the individual countries and states that exist now, from a wider historical perspective, it might be seen as not having had 100 per cent. positive benefits. However, I do not want to dwell on history too much, because we have moved on. I shall confine my comments mainly to recent developments in Serbia and Kosovo, but Bosnia and Macedonia will also come into things because they are very much involved in the area.
Two Sundays ago, we had the unilateral declaration of independence by Kosovo, and subsequent recognition by many states around the world. Obviously, the United Nations and the European Union are divided on the issue, and some EU countries have not recognised the new state of Kosovo. Having tried to consider with a balanced view the days leading up to those events, I found it very difficult to find a balanced view in the press. They had been moving quite well in recognising that Serbia had come a long way from the days of Milosevic, but then they seemed to be talking about a Serbia that had gone back to those days. Leader comments in some newspapers made almost no acknowledgment of what happened in the interim.
Only the week before, Serbia held an historic vote in which it re-elected President Tadic, a European-leaning politician with definite aspirations to join the EU. It rejected, albeit narrowly, the candidate of the Radical party, Nikolic, and that party’s narrow, nationalistic and not particularly attractive agenda. Given that when the election took place, it was known that Kosovo was going to declare independence, it is a remarkable commentary on the Serbian people that they took the brave step of re-electing President Tadic, and it is a shame that they have not been given full credit. I am sure that they would welcome an acknowledgement that they took that decision.
There have been problems since then. I condemn utterly the violence in Belgrade and the damage to various embassies in which one life was lost—thankfully not a member of diplomatic staff. That has not helped anyone’s cause. I do not condone what happened for a moment, but, considering the emotions that are in play, that period has passed relatively peacefully. There have been a few incidents here and there, but events show that the Serbian people do not want to revert to the ultra-nationalistic ideas that existed among a few of their population, certainly during the era of which we are all aware.
I understand the aspirations of the Kosovan Albanians. They have been in a majority for some time, and, without going into the history too much, they enjoyed certain autonomy, certainly under Tito’s Yugoslavia. I understand that they wanted their own state; indeed, de facto, they had it, as Belgrade and Serbia recognised that Belgrade would not hold sway in relation to power over that region.
The negotiations seemed to come to something of a stalemate, but if we look at our own case in Northern Ireland, we can see that a forced or rushed agreement would not have helped us to get to the position where we are today, although there are still problems in the area. Deadlines came and went a number of times, and the Government realised that they had to give that extra bit of time to try to get a settlement. The middle east is another area in which negotiations from time to time go into stalemate or end up in conflict, but we should never give up on trying to achieve peace. However, if one side or another were to try to impose a settlement, that would not be a lasting solution.
In previous debates, one thing that always came up was the fact that the boundaries of countries—the frontiers—should never be changed. For example, one cannot suddenly hive off Republic Srpska from Bosnia. If it wanted to join Serbia, we would say, “No, those are the boundaries. We cannot change them because of ethnic areas.” We cannot say that the Presevo valley in Serbia, which has a majority population of Albanians, should somehow be tagged on to something else; the same applies in respect of Macedonia and other areas. A major tenet of British foreign policy and, by dint of that, of the policy of the west, the European Union and NATO has been that boundaries cannot be changed, and I presume that that is still the case.
Of course, as far as the UN is concerned, Kosovo is still a territory of Serbia. If the Minister can tell me something different, I shall be grateful, but that is the case, as far as I am aware. Whether or not one wants to change the situation, things should be done through the UN. I am reasonably consistent on that. I was not happy with the Government’s position, or indeed that of my own Front Benchers, on going into Iraq without a UN resolution. I had to stand down from my Opposition post because I had a different opinion on the matter. I still think that if we in the west are to be the upholders of international law, and if we lecture other countries about adhering to international law if they want to be part of the great democratic process, what on earth are we doing deciding that we will ignore UN resolutions if we do not like them?
Does my hon. Friend agree that Security Council resolution 1244—at the least in how it is being interpreted by the EU, the United States and the United Kingdom—is vulnerable to the argument that it is ultra vires the UN charter, and, furthermore, that a distinction has to be made between partition on the one hand and intervention on the other?
I now know how the Minister feels when my hon. Friend faces him in European debates. My hon. Friend is an expert on such matters; I do not know the full legal implications. However, many colleagues on both sides of the House have told me, because they know of my interest in the region, that, regardless of their opinion—they would not necessarily be seen as particularly pro-Serb or pro-anything—they are concerned about the legal implications of what has been happening. One reason why I would have liked to debate this matter on the Floor of the House was to enable us to discuss the implications.
Another feature of previous debates in which I have tried to highlight the problems that could arise from instant recognition of a Kosovan state was the potential for division within the EU. In the way that Governments do, the Government said that I should not worry about that, that the situation was all sorted out and that there would be no problem at all. Sadly, that does not seem to be the case.
Some EU countries have decided not to recognise Kosovo. We can understand why, and I have a great deal of sympathy for their views. I am not sure whether the situation does the EU many favours. I am not sure what it says about common EU foreign policy or even the concept of a Foreign Minister if all the countries do not agree. However, I do not want to go into that, because I think that the EU offers the best solution for all the states in the area, although it is a medium to long-term solution.
I wholeheartedly agree with everything that the hon. Gentleman has said. On the EU point, the tragedy is that the declaration of independence a fortnight ago means that Kosovo cannot join the EU if Spain, Romania and Slovakia sustain their legitimate reservations and objections. There is a veto there, so Kosovo cannot come in, and even the most moderate, sensible Serbian Government cannot domestically pursue an application to join Europe because it would involve recognition of Kosovo. We can have neither Kosovo nor Serbia in the EU, yet the hon. Gentleman and I would agree that that is the way through the problem. Instead, we will probably have paralysis for the next quarter of a century.
I completely agree with the hon. Gentleman. He points to a problem that perhaps has not been thought through clearly enough in the enthusiasm for recognising Kosovo. I understand that there is a natural feeling among the British people in wanting to identify with those who have such aspirations, but we have to think the matter through. I could mention some neighbours of Serbia, Kosovo, Macedonia and Bosnia. What are we to say if Republic Srpska says that it, too, wants independence? Why should we say that Kosovo is a one-off? That is what the Government repeat endlessly. What do we say to the people of Trans-Dniester, Abkhazia and South Ossetia, or to the Tamils in Sri Lanka? We have opened up that issue.
The Government have said—I have asked various Ministers, and may even have asked one of the two people whom I have known in the role of Prime Minister—that Kosovo is a special case, but I am afraid that their saying so does not make it a special case. If people were trying to get independence for their area, they would not say, “Oh, that was a special case. That’s all right, I will shut up then.” It will not work.
The Foreign Minister of Serbia said that the situation offers a toolkit to all those who want independence. “Toolkit” is an excellent word. That is exactly what is happening.
My hon. Friend is right to point out the dilemma between the aspirations of the Kosovans and the difficulties for the UN and the EU, and the nature of the special case. Does he not think that, now that we are where we are, the only way forward is special help for Serbia? Surely, it is the key to unlocking the area. We must accept what has happened and make progress by helping Serbia as much as possible.
My hon. Friend comes to exactly my point. I can understand why Serbia will not be able to recognise Kosovo. I think that the Minister realises that that would be so politically damaging that we might end up with a Government in that country who leaned towards the east rather than the west.
The independence of Kosovo is not something that can be undone. It is no good saying, “Oh, we got that wrong, we did not mean it.” It is disappointing that we are where we are, but that is the situation. I agree that a huge amount of help must go to Kosovo itself because, as we know, it is not exactly at the top of the list of viable states. The EU will have to send in money and resources. However, the Serbian people and the country of Serbia are being asked to acknowledge the splitting off of their territory. The only way forward is for this country, together with the EU or whoever, to provide help. Britain is a great ally and always has been.
Turning to the question of the legality or otherwise of the EU’s recognition, does my hon. Friend agree that what is de facto is not de jure and that, for all the reasons he has given, a range of further problems might be precipitated down the line with other countries?
We were deprived by the Government’s timing of the debates of discussion on the foreign policy and defence aspects of the Lisbon treaty, which confers legal personality on the EU. In that context, it simply cannot be justified or intra vires—lawful, in other words—for the EU to make decisions that are based only on a percentage of EU member states. Therefore, that raises serious questions about whether the use of resources for this purpose is, first, legitimate and, secondly, legal.
My hon. Friend is leading me down paths where it would be treacherous to try to match his knowledge. However, I am sure that he is right that it is de facto and not de jure.
I am thinking back, long before I was even dusting nests of tables, to the unilateral declaration of independence by Rhodesia against which a Labour Prime Minister stood resolutely. I was only a young man when that happened—actually, I was a boy—and I do not know what the mood of the country was then. However, it was resolute. I remember the discussions on HMS Tiger, which sat somewhere off Gibraltar. That has a wonderful resonance. We stood up for the rule of law then, and we have to do something now. I have suggested a few things, including how we can show Serbia that, despite everything, the United Kingdom remains a good friend of Serbia.
Last year, I took a small group from the Inter-Parliamentary Union to Serbia and Kosovo. We met Kosovan politicians as well as Serbian ones. It would be useful if a similar visit could be arranged, perhaps through the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, although the IPU might not look so quickly at a repeat visit. However, it is important for parliamentarians to meet others, not just people like me who know the area well. It would be a good idea for people who do not know the area well to go and talk to politicians.
I would like to leave one thing with the Minister and my party’s Front-Bench spokesman, because this matter will endure for years.
My hon. Friend has been mild-mannered in addressing the issue. What does he feel about the state of the Kosovan economy? Many people think that the viability of the Kosovan economy, in so far as it has anything, depends on the trafficking of drugs, arms and people. It is propped up by a bit of money from the EU. Beyond that, there is nothing. How can a country such as that be called a country in UN terms and be capable of recognition? It does not have a viable economy.
My hon. Friend is right in that I am trying to be mild mannered. I have said that I do not think that an independent Kosovo heads the list of viable states. I am concerned by what goes on in that country. The EU will have to get a grip on that; we should all be concerned about it.
The hon. Gentleman raises an important point that relates to comments he made earlier. If the boundaries of Kosovo are now those of the historic Kosovo, there is a quarter, or perhaps an Ulster, of Kosovo where the writ of Pristina, or for that matter of Belgrade, does not run. There will be a void in the map of Europe in those areas north of the city of Mitrovica—the north bank—where there will be no police who show adherence to Pristina, because the police are ethnically Serbian, although the writ of Belgrade cannot run there. The prospects for criminality, lawlessness and de facto independence of that particular area have not yet been addressed and that will be a growing problem, which invites the comment that, if the boundaries of Kosovo can be determined by the Kosovans, the people in the north have a right to self-determination as to whether they should go to Serbia.
The hon. Gentleman is right.
I shall conclude shortly to allow others to speak, because a lot of hon. Members want to speak on the subject.
There is also a question about what would happen if the Kosovan state were not viable. If it is not viable, will it want to join Albania? What would our view be on that? In the same way, what if Republic Srpska suddenly said that it wanted independence, but after a while said, “We can’t go it alone, we want to join up with Serbia.”? Those are the things that have been started by the current situation.
I say to the Front-Bench spokesmen and to the wider country, if I can be so bold, that our gaze is on that part of the world only because of recent events. From time to time, things crop up elsewhere and the eyes of the world will go away. That is when I shall fear for the Serbian minority and their religious sites, which are wonderful architecturally but are deeply spiritual sites for the Serbs in Kosovo.
There are Serbs living at this moment in containers, following an incident a few years ago. I have to say to the Minister that it is unacceptable for me to visit a place in Europe—my continent—and see people who have been living for years in containers, regardless of whether they are Serbs or Albanians. Whatever the reason, we have not helped those people. We have a duty to look after minorities, wherever they are and whoever is the majority. We must not think that, because the pendulum has swung the other way, those who suffered can ensure that the minorities under their control are safe, and I am afraid that the idea that people who have suffered know what it is like does not hold true.
I say to the British Government that we have a duty always to keep aware of what is going on in that part of the world. We must not turn a blind eye and say, “This is now sorted. That is it, we can move on. Maybe the Americans will think that we have given it over to Europe.” We must not think that this is sorted. We must carefully watch the situation. We have to give assurances to those people, regardless of who they are, that we in Britain—a traditional good friend of Serbia—and in the EU will look after them and ensure, almost to repeat the words of the dictator Milosevic, that we say, “You shall not be beaten again.”
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge (Mr. Randall) on securing this important debate. One of the most powerful points that he made during the course of his speech was his analysis of the British Government’s stance on Iraq and how they have ignored the United Nations mandate and its views in their illegal war against Iraq. As I have said many times in the past, my hon. Friend took a great principled stand on that by resigning from the Front Bench.
I agree with my hon. Friend when he talks, in a mild-mannered and polite way, about the sheer hypocrisy of the Government’s stance. On one hand, they act against the United Nations mandate yet, on the other, they think that they can somehow impose their own will on Kosovo and Serbia.
I have a few questions. First, why has the matter been resolved so quickly? It has been resolved in the blink of an eye by comparison with some of the major disputes around the world. We talk every day about the problems in Israel and Palestine that have continued for decades. We talk about Cyprus and the terrible problems between the north and the south. Even in Africa—for example, Western Sahara, Morocco and the dispute in Polisario—the difficulties, like many others around the world, have continued for decades, so why have the Government chosen to speed up the process of resolving the conflict in the Balkans, but not other conflicts? Why have the Government selected this conflict over and above all the others?
I believe that one reason is that the Americans have been pushing hard for Kosovan independence. I remember the images of President Bush touring the streets of Tirana a few months ago, when he was waved at and cheered in adulation by Tirana Albanians because of his strong stance on independence for Kosovo. That is one reason why, when Kosovo was celebrating independence two weeks ago, there were almost as many American flags on the streets of Pristina as Kosovan flags.
The Foreign Office, its civil servants and Ministers, as a poodle of the American Administration, have pursued American foreign policy. The Prime Minister may like to appear uncomfortable when President Bush drives him around Camp David in his little golf buggy, but that is just more spin from the Labour Government. If one peels off the surface, how is British foreign policy any different from what it was under the former Prime Minister? Will the Minister explain the difference between United Kingdom and American foreign policy on Kosovo? It is important that we, as a major military power in Europe, show a different stance from that of America.
The United States of America, of course, can easily dictate that Kosovo should be independent, because, luckily, it has no problems with any part of the US wanting to become independent. The United States is lucky to be in that homogeneous situation, and that it is far enough away from Europe that it can make demands and interfere in what is happening in Europe’s back yard.
I concur with my hon. Friend who said that a dangerous precedent has been set. The Government have opened up a Pandora’s box of huge potential conflicts throughout Europe. We have only to look at another part of the Balkans—Romania—and the long, festering sore of the Hungarian minority in Transylvania. Who is to say that there will not be agitation among the Hungarian minority in Transylvania, and a demand for independence or annexation of that territory by Hungary? Corsicans in France may agitate for independence, and my hon. Friend mentioned the Basques in Spain.
What really worries me is that I heard for the first time yesterday that an organisation is going round the House of Commons lobbying MPs for Gdansk to become a German city again. Being of Polish origin, my sensitivities on that point can be imagined. The outbreak of the second world war was in Gdansk when German boats opened fire—
They were on a good-will visit to Gdansk, yet they opened fire in the early hours of 1 September 1939. However, just last night I heard from an organisation that is actively conspiring for Gdansk to be returned to Germany. Many parts of western Poland—the area was given to Poland after the second world war—have large concentrations of Germans who want to become part of Germany. The Government’s actions are deplorable.
I share the hon. Gentleman’s anxieties and fears, but surely the difference, which creates a greater danger, is that all the areas to which he referred—Transylvania, western Silesia, Pomerania and so on—are at least in the European Union, and have free mobility of labour with the right to purchase property and ways of resolving title. Two weekends ago, we allowed the division of Kosovo from Serbia without their being in the European Union. If the energies of the United Kingdom and the United States had been devoted to getting them into the EU first, we would at least have diminished the scale of the problem. In the areas that the hon. Gentleman mentioned, the problem is diminished because of the consequences of European Union membership, free mobility of labour, the right to buy and own property, and so on.
I wholly concur with the hon. Gentleman, and later in my speech I shall come to some of the points that he raised.
It is not politically correct to be antagonistic towards the Kosovans, because we all remember the crowds cheering the former Prime Minister in Kosovo and we all saw on camera how Kosovans suffered, but I shall be critical of them. They started the killing in their revolt against the sovereign country, and drove out between 150,000 and 200,000 Serbs. During the past eight years, 1,248 non-Albanians have been killed with many more kidnapped, now presumed dead; 151 spiritual and cultural monuments in Kosovo have been destroyed by Albanians, and 230 mosques have been built; and 80 per cent. of Christian graveyards have been destroyed or desecrated with no response from the international community. The Albanians have turned Christian graveyards into car parks, playgrounds and rubbish dumps. Anything relating to Serbia or Christianity in public records, books and the names of places and even towns has been wiped out. That is ethnic cleansing on a huge scale.
Absolutely, and we have apparently sent 1,000 troops to the borders of Kosovo recently, so the situation is outrageous. I hope that the Minister listened carefully to my points about the sheer scale of ethnic cleansing against the Serbian people.
I want to make another controversial point before winding up—I know that colleagues are keen to speak. It has been reported in the press that the BND, the German intelligence service, has confirmed that the 2005 terrorist bombings in Britain were organised in Kosovo. That is apparently something that the German intelligence service is putting out. Has the Minister had any discussions with his German counterpart about that?
I want some assurances from the Minister. What protection will the Serbs in Mitrovica receive now that they are cocooned in an artificial statelet? What rights will they have, and what will the Minister do personally to ensure that the thousands of Serbs living in Mitrovica will be protected? I have heard worrying reports in the media that as a result of some of the riots outside the American embassy, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge referred, the wheels might come off Serbia’s application to join the European Union, and that we might do less to help the country to join. Will the Minister give me a guarantee that he will do everything possible to help Serbia to join the European Union?
Does the hon. Gentleman accept that although such violence should not be condoned, it should not, in itself, necessarily be a stumbling block to Serbia joining the EU? The biggest difficulty at the moment is surely the refusal to deal with Ratko Mladic and Radovan Karadzic. That is perhaps one issue that the Government should be pursuing for a quick resolution to Serbia’s entry into the EU.
I am sure that the hon. Lady will want to put that matter to the Minister herself. I am dealing purely with the issue of Kosovo.
Finally, how will Serbia be compensated for the loss of 14 per cent. of her territory? Normally, if there is a divorce, there is some sort of settlement. Even in international disputes, there is arbitration. I remember when Czechoslovakia split apart, decisions were made about assets—who was going to have what, and how much of the national debt each side was going to take. How is Britain helping the Serbian nation in its divorce proceedings?
I will end on a personal note about the Serbian people, whom I greatly admire. They are a truly wonderful race. I remember participating in my first ever political demonstration in 1999. I stood outside Downing street in the cold with my Serbian friends, demonstrating against the bombing of Belgrade. I thought that the Government’s participation in such a bombing was a heinous crime. Why was the crime so heinous? It was simply because the Serbian people had the misfortune of being led by a dictator. Milosevic was the last communist remnant of the iron curtain age, when the countries of eastern Europe had communist dictators. He came to power in 1989 under a communist system and held on to power through various methods of intimidation and ballot-rigging; yet because of the actions of one man, a demagogue and communist, the Serbian people suffered much as a result of our own Government and the bombing that took place.
Many Serbs have lost their homes in Kosovo—as my hon. Friend said, they are living in camper vans. I cannot imagine losing my home or having someone take it away. It happened to my grandfather’s generation in Poland, but I cannot imagine coming back to Shropshire and finding that somebody had taken away my home from me and that I had nowhere to live. People face that reality today; it is all very nice for us in the House of Commons, but they have lost everything as a result of an arbitrary move by the Americans and our Government. I repeat that the liberal elite in the Foreign Office and among civil servants and Ministers have come up with a solution, but the ramifications of their mistakes will long outlast them.
The starting point for my contribution to the debate is very simple. I personally do not feel inclined to take sides between Kosovo and Serbia because we all recognise that a considerable dilemma exists at the heart of this. My position rests on the fact that I believe very strongly that we have to act in accordance with the rule of law. The problems that we had in Iraq, and that we have had periodically over the past 75 years—even going back to the origins of the first world war—have all been associated with problems that have arisen from a failure to recognise the rule of law. I am quite sure that sooner or later, as my hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge (Mr. Randall) said in relation to Northern Ireland, if a decision is taken in a responsible manner over an extended period against a background of extreme opinions, it is possible to arrive at a solution. The solution may not be perfect even when the final settlement is struck. What is certain is that nobody believes with any certainty—whether they are from the UN, the European Union, the United Kingdom, or the United Kingdom Parliament—that what has been decided in the past few days and weeks represents a settlement of any description.
[Mr. David Marshall in the Chair]
At best, it is a de facto recognition. Nobody could say that it was a de jure recognition. It would be extremely unwise of anybody to make that assumption because that in itself would lock the whole of the future of the Balkans, not to mention Serbia and the recognition of Kosovo, into an impossible situation. It would make the dilemma even worse. I would strongly counsel caution in relation to precipitate assumptions about what various declarations so far amount to in practice. Underpinning de facto recognitions is the question whether there are de facto resolutions, solutions and results. I remember Sir John Harrington’s famous observation:
“Treason doth never prosper: what’s the reason? For if it prosper, none dare call it treason.”
Against that background, we need to be extremely careful about what we do.
In specific terms, I would say that when bombs were being dropped on Sarajevo from the hills above, I was one of very few people who went on record to condemn the actions. Furthermore, I strongly urged that we should take military action to stop that bombing, which seemed to be wholly unnecessary and contrary to any kind of humane behaviour. I also believed strongly that it was important that the people in Serbia should be entitled to a proper understanding and recognition of the rule of law. Therefore, I hope that I have an understanding of what the situation is on both sides of the equation. I am not merely trying to sit in the middle and not make a decision.
My ultimate question is about the rule of international law. I find it rather ironic that on 16 February the EU launched EULEX Kosovo, which is
“an EU rule of law mission in Kosovo.”
Its objective is
“to support the Kosovo authorities by monitoring, mentoring and advising on all areas related to the rule of law, in particular in the police, judiciary, customs and correctional services.”
It is also expected to assist the Kosovo institutions, judicial authorities and law-enforcement agencies on a range of other matters. The EU fact sheet goes on to state:
“The key priorities of the mission are to address immediate concerns regarding protection of minority communities”—
which, of course, is enormously important—
“corruption and the fight against organised crime.”
The fact sheet also states:
“EULEX Kosovo will have some limited correctional powers in the broader field of rule of law, in particular to investigate and prosecute serious and sensitive crimes.”
When I see the European Union, through this organisation, apparently assuming powers to investigate and prosecute serious and sensitive crimes, I have to ask myself by what authority? There is no such EU power, as I pointed out earlier. The EU is divided over this question. There is no certainty of any UN Security Council power. I will explain in a moment why that is almost certainly ultra vires. I know that there is a dispute about this, but to jump from a disputed situation to apparently having—I use the words of the European Union fact sheet—
“some limited correctional powers in the broader field of the rule of law, in particular to investigate and prosecute serious and sensitive crimes”
is to make assumptions that there is a rule of law that lies behind the creation of the rule of law mission.
Does my hon. Friend think that that extends to the fraud, corruption and misapplication of EU funds that are so rife in Kosovo at the moment? For example, when I was there as part of a delegation of the Council of Europe looking at the constitutional referendum in Novi Pazar, it was well known that substantial EU funds had been put into a power project in Kosovo. The power project had never been produced, but the funds had been expended.
I do not know about that particular case, but it reinforces my concerns. In relation to the European Union, as we know and as I mentioned yesterday in the debate on international development, the European Court of Auditors stands accused of not being able to balance its books properly. That could be yet another example of that, and from what my hon. Friend says, there appears to be substantial evidence to support that view. Indeed, in relation to the EULEX Kosovo organisation, the European Union fact sheet states:
“The initial mandate is for 2 years…to be terminated when the Kosovo authorities have gained enough experience to guarantee that all members of society benefit from the rule of law. The financial reference amount intended to cover the expenditure related to a period of sixteen months will be €205 million.”
I simply make the point that the whole of the structure has been set up as though there were a legitimate authority for doing so. It goes without saying that I question whether British taxpayers’ money is being legitimately spent in this sort of context. In a parliamentary context, one cannot go through life calling for democracy and for the rule of law, on which the constitutional arrangements of this country are supposed to be based, and then simply say that this case is sui generis, as the United Kingdom representative did in the Security Council. The Security Council minutes state that the United Kingdom representative made the following comments:
“the Council was facing an extraordinary set of circumstances, he said in conclusion. It was not ideal for Kosovo to become independent without the consent of Serbia and without the consensus of the Council. The unique circumstances of the violent break-up of former Yugoslavia had made it a sui generis case, which created no precedent”.
Did the fact that this was a difficult case make it inevitable that recognition would follow? The short answer is no. That is not to say that I do not want the Kosovan or Serbian people to have an entirely fair and peaceful society. Frankly, I recognise that there is a dilemma, but I do not want either the Kosovan or Serbian people to face a repetition of past difficulties. It troubles me when Mr. John Sawers says on behalf of the Government that
“when in the middle of the status process the Government of Serbia had changed its constitution to exclude any future for Kosovo outside Serbia, it had effectively ended any chance of a negotiated settlement. The international community could not be party to a settlement that was opposed by over 90 per cent. of a territory’s population. Apart from anything else, it would be contrary to its overriding priority of upholding peace and security”.
I have mentioned that the recognition of Croatia was a precipitate and fatal move, which Herr Genscher said at the time was the greatest victory for German foreign policy since 1945. Despite hopes that there would eventually be a peaceful situation in Croatia, what happened was a mistake that precipitated the most awful situation. When I see that the centre of gravity of the problem lies in the fact that the Government of Serbia changed their constitution, the question that comes to mind is this: which country determines the constitution of another country? If the Government of Serbia changed their constitution, is it possible, legal or legitimate for any other nation to step in and say that it is not possible for that constitution to be sustainable? I go further on that. John Sawers says that it would be
“contrary to its”—
the United Kingdom’s—
“overriding priority of upholding peace and security.”
I put the problem as simply as this: will it uphold peace and security to precipitate what could be a serious consequence? That is part of the problem. John Sawers goes on to say:
“NATO had agreed to continue to provide security in Kosovo, and the European Union had agreed to deploy a rule of law mission to oversee the build-up of Kosovo’s capacity”
“The European Union was committed to the future of the region as a whole”.
Any responsible person wants to ensure that there is peace and security in the area, but from what I have seen, it is extremely difficult to envisage that the spokesmen for those who recognise Kosovo will be able to justify their arguments. I notice that Belgium spoke up in the Security Council meeting and said that realities on the ground could not be ignored. There are those who are uncertain about the stability of Belgium with respect to international law in terms of its internal arrangements.
As the hon. Gentleman says, it may well be that they need one another, as we all do in an interdependent world. I am striving not to be in any way unfair to those on both sides of the equation, but I strongly counsel that we must remember that might is not right. Forcing a situation does not produce the best results and de facto solutions do not solve problems, as we have found internationally. There is a range of other consequential circumstances in other states. For example, there are difficulties in relation to Cyprus and, as my hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge said, Timor. All over the world it is vital that we stick to the rule of law and if in doubt, stick to the rule of law and do not make assumptions, as the European Union and the Government are doing about the direction in which they must go. I recognise the dilemma, but I also say unequivocally that the European Union itself does not to my understanding have any legitimacy or legal right to recognise Kosovo at this stage. In the case of Croatia, the consequences of recognition led to a very serious situation.
With regard to the acquisition of legal personality by the European Union under the Lisbon treaty, the European Union seems to be operating on that basis irrespective of the fact that, first, it has not gone through yet and, secondly, several member states of the European Union are vigorously opposed, for extremely good reasons within their own countries, to recognising Kosovo. That is critical to the questions that arise in this case. Europe is not, as we are told, a state. The bottom line is, therefore, that the European Union should not be recognising Kosovo and making assertions that it cannot justify.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Uxbridge (Mr. Randall) on securing the debate. Clearly, this is a particularly timely week for us to be holding it. The hon. Gentleman rightly highlighted the historical background, of which we are well aware, and the potential for conflicts in the Balkans to spill over into the rest of Europe. It is true that we need to take great care with foreign policy in that area, which is why the opportunity to scrutinise Government policy and put questions to the Minister is welcome.
I am sure that we all remember the horrors of the ethnic cleansing and violence in the Balkans in the 1990s. It was perhaps all the more shocking because it was taking place so close to home in a country that for many years had been a popular holiday destination for many Brits and was familiar to many of our constituents. It was particularly moving to see such scenes unfolding on our television screens because they were from somewhere so close.
I shall strike a slightly different note from what we have heard so far, because I and my party very much welcome the Kosovan declaration of independence and the recognition of Kosovo by the Government. However, we agree that it must not be allowed to set a precedent, and that must be made very clear indeed.
I am truly bewildered by the statement “We welcome Kosovan independence.” As I said, many of us wish Kosovars well, but how on earth does the hon. Lady expect or hope that Kosovo will come into the European Union, particularly given the fact that if the criteria on war crimes are met and Serbia is admitted, it will have a veto on expansion of the European Union? Kosovo cannot and will not be advanced by the declaration of independence, because it cannot become a member of the United Nations or the European Union. I am bewildered as to how it is a great leap forward for Kosovars.
I believe that it is a step in the right direction. It would be premature to describe it as a great leap forward; these are clearly early days. In the rest of my speech, I shall outline how I hope that in future Kosovo will be able to be a member of the European Union, but the process will not be without difficulties, as it will not be without its difficulties for Serbia. The hon. Gentleman makes a good point that underlines just how difficult and sensitive the issue is. There will be no magic solution to the situation in the Balkans. There never was such a solution during the past century or before it, and it would be far too optimistic of us to imagine that one will suddenly present itself now. The question is more one of judging what the best path forward is, while recognising the difficulties.
If the hon. Gentleman is referring to Kosovo, obviously United Nations resolution 1244 is in place and we very much hoped that it would be possible to get Russia on board. However, it became obvious during the months and years of negotiations that that would not happen. That was similar to the situation when the UK Government, through NATO, took action in Kosovo. We recognise that in some cases, when there is pressing humanitarian need or ethnic cleansing is going on, it will not always be possible to achieve unanimity across the United Nations.
That is certainly true. At the time, we were also keen to preserve international consensus and to follow the international diplomatic process to its end through the inspectors who were in the country under Hans Blix. Of course that process was not followed through to the end. What we have seen in this case is different because there were exhaustive attempts to bring the parties together but it became clear that there was an immovable obstacle that could not be got round, whereas in the Iraq situation there was quite a lot of international consensus on giving Hans Blix much more time to do the job on weapons of mass destruction, which might have led the international community to come to more of a consensus.
I shall return to the subject of today’s debate, as I am sure you would wish me to do, Mr. Marshall. In addition to welcoming the declaration of independence, I shall touch on the importance of preventing ethnic violence and protecting minority rights, as the hon. Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski) in particular mentioned. I shall then touch on the challenges ahead for Kosovo and the future possibilities for it and the other Balkan states within the EU.
The status quo was not an option. UNMIK was always a temporary measure; it would never have been able to continue in perpetuity. It is right that we recognise that and then look for the best solution. For the past seven or eight years, my father has been working in eastern Europe on a variety of regeneration and economic development programmes for the World Bank, the Department for International Development, the EU and so on. Most recently, he has been working in Kosovo for the Ministry of Health, so I have enjoyed many fascinating conversations with him, to try to understand the country and mindset a little better. He has the advantage of being in the interesting position of working in the Ministry with both Kosovans and Serbs, who obviously often have slightly different perspectives on an issue.
The hon. Member for Uxbridge mentioned the apparent parallel with Northern Ireland. However, the situation is very different from that faced in Northern Ireland because of the sheer extent of the ethnic cleansing that took place in Kosovo. This morning, I telephoned one of my dad’s colleagues, Albana, whose story he had mentioned to me, and she told me of her experience. In March 1999, there was a knock on her door. It was soldiers from the Serbian army who told her that she had 24 hours to leave her home and that if they came back in 24 hours and she was still there, she would be killed. She and her husband took their eight-month-old son and drove towards the Macedonian border. They had to abandon their car because of the sheer volume of traffic and queues and walk the final 20 to 30 km across the border into Macedonia. They had to wait at the border for two days before they could finally leave.
The hon. Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham mentioned just how appalling such a situation would be, and I think we all agree that it would be appalling if it happened to anyone, but what I have described was not happening to just one person. Albana’s story is replicated by many, many Kosovars, within such recent living memory—just the past decade—that it becomes clear that it would be impossible for Kosovo to prosper as part of Serbia; it would not be acceptable for it to remain part of Serbia. It is ironic, given the intentions of Milosevic, that many of his actions made it impossible for Kosovo to remain as part of Serbia and to make the case for a very different solution.
Of course, dialogue and a mutually agreed political solution would be the best way forward. That is what everyone aims for and there have been exhaustive attempts to secure it. A well-respected plan was put together by Martti Ahtisaari. When even that seemed to falter, further efforts were made in the later months of 2007 to reach a solution, but it became clear that it would not happen. At such a point, we have a choice. Do we just do nothing and say, “Well, that’s it. It’ll just stay as it is,” or do we act? We have seen sometimes in the past the consequences of inaction in that area.
I do not believe that what we have seen is the best option, but in the absence of the best option, people have to go for the least worst option, which is what I think the declaration represents. That is why I welcome it. Of course no one has a crystal ball; no one can predict every future consequence but, on balance, I believe that it will prove the best way forward.
I would like some clarity from the Minister, particularly about the Foreign Secretary’s written statement on 19 February in which he talked about the situation being the “last remaining issue” in the Balkans. That may be slightly optimistic. Can the Minister tell us whether he really believes that there will not be similar issues in future? It seems to me that we are at the start of the process rather than reaching the end of it, as the phrase “last remaining issue” might suggest.
Clearly, the prevention of the ethnic violence must be a priority. British forces—1st Battalion the Welsh Guards—are on stand-by. We hope that they will not be needed, and it will be interesting to find out whether the Minister believes that they will need to be deployed. It is right that we take that responsibility and that we aid the security of the area. The hon. Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham set out some of the great problems for the Serb population within Kosovo, and it is important that the rights of that minority are safeguarded—it should have guaranteed places in Government, Parliament, and the police and civil service. EU staff have a crucial role to play in that regard.
The challenges ahead for Kosovo are not only political. The economic situation in the country is dire: unemployment is more than 40 per cent., there is little industry, and even electricity and other infrastructure is intermittent. As in so many countries, sadly, corruption is a problem. We clearly do not yet have success. That should be measured not only by peace and security in the general area, but by the development of the Kosovan economy, if the country is truly able to become a stable part of the region.
The future vision is for Kosovo, Serbia and the other Balkan states to join the EU. Even critics of the EU agree that for the past 60 years, it has been good at preserving peace and security among its members.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge (Mr. Randall) on raising the debate. He has considerable experience and knowledge of the area and has spoken frequently on it in the past. I do not have quite the same expertise, although I spent hours preparing lectures at the Army staff college on German anti-partisan operations in the area and recall the names of Ante Pavelic and the Ustase, General Nedic of the Serbian puppet Government, the Waffen SS division Handschar, which was recruited from Bosnian Muslims, and, of course, Mihailovic and Tito. The history of the area is complex; the cultural and racial mixtures, and the capacity of all sides to carry out massacre and counter-massacre, is familiar to us all.
I must begin by disappointing my hon. Friends the Members for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski) and for Stone (Mr. Cash) by saying that it is on record that the Opposition support the Government’s position on the independence of Kosovo, although we recognise, as my hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge pointed out, that there are a series of unanswered questions on the matter, not least on the attitude of the Serbian Government and people. We all accept that Kosovan independence is now a given, so I shall ask the Minister a series of questions on the consequences.
As my hon. Friend mentioned, the British embassy in Belgrade came under attack as protests against Kosovo independence swept the Serbian capital last week. The damage to the building was limited and embassy staff were safe, but will the Minister tell the House what additional measures have been taken to ensure their safety and security?
The Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs stated on Monday that there must be
“a decision based on law and compromise between Belgrade and Pristina”
on the future status of Kosovo. It did not say what compromise Russia has in mind. On the ground in Kosovo, ethnic Serbs in the north, with the support of Serbia and Russia, are making steady efforts to resist the authority of the new state. Will the Minister tell the House what assessment he has made of the Russian statement and does he agree with analysts who believe Kosovo is headed for partition, with the risk of a frozen conflict emerging in the country? Will he assure the House that the Government will oppose that, and does he not agree that our goal must be the promotion of a successful multi-ethnic and democratic Kosovo, and not a new division along ethnic lines?
Last week, the European Union announced the withdrawal of its staff from northern Kosovo because of the security situation. Pieter Feith, the European Union envoy supervising Kosovo, said that was not intended to formalise the current division between north and south Kosovo. Is the Minister confident that that is the case? What conditions have been set for the return of EU staff to the area so that they can continue preparations for the transition to an EU mission in Kosovo? Does the Minister agree that Kosovo should not be allowed to drift into partition and towards the creation of an entity in the north that severs links with the central Government and answers only to Belgrade?
Western officials have accused Slobodan Samardzic, Serbia’s Minister for Kosovo, of inciting disorder, both in Belgrade and along Kosovo’s northern border, since Kosovo Albanian leaders declared independence on 17 February. Do the Government agree with that assessment of the Minister’s actions?
Additionally, does the Minister share my view that any partition of Kosovo along ethnic grounds would create pressure on neighbouring countries such as Macedonia, Montenegro, and even other areas in southern Serbia where Albanians constitute a sizeable minority? I emphasise that point because there is such a patchwork of different ethnic groups in the region that if we start to unravel it we could return ultimately to complete chaos and widespread ethnic cleansing.
The repercussions of Kosovo’s declaration of independence are already being felt in Bosnia and Herzegovina. The leadership of the entity of Republic Srpska has tried to link the independence of Kosovo with their aspirations for secession from Bosnia, which was touched on by some of my hon. Friends. Does the Minister agree that any attempt to undermine the integrity of Bosnia and the Dayton peace accords must be resisted?
The annual threat assessment made by the US director of national intelligence, dated 5 February 2008, states that any move by the Bosnian-Serb entity towards secession would
“put pressure on US and NATO forces in the region to assist”.
With an untested EU military force on the ground in Bosnia, NATO presumably has contingency plans to redeploy in an emergency. Last December, the Conservatives called for deployment of a NATO reserve force in Bosnia to cushion the country from any attempts by separatists to break it. Will the Minister clarify the Government’s policy regarding additional deployments to Bosnia and Herzegovina? Many hon. Members, however they see the situation in Kosovo, fear that if there are insufficient forces to deploy immediately, forces that arrive two or three days later may be too late.
The debate has been excellent and I praise my hon. Friend, who has strong views on the issue, for the way in which he put forward a case that is sympathetic to the Serbs, but which recognised that some of the unfortunate actions in which they took part in the past have not helped their cause. We should be sensitive to Serbia and to the aspirations of its democratic leadership, and to the fact that it rejected some extremists who would only have made the situation much worse.
I am delighted that you are chairing the proceedings, Mr. Marshall, and that Miss Begg oversaw the earlier part of the debate. I congratulate the hon. Member for Uxbridge (Mr. Randall) both on securing the debate and on the way in which he argued his case. All three main parties disagree with him, but the careful way in which he argued his case continues to earn him respect for the sincerity and depth of knowledge that he brings to debates. Perhaps that is a unique feature of debates that we have here in Westminster Hall.
My hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay) has stayed with us—I know that he must leave early, which we all understand—but the last time I had to respond to a debate, he spoke with equal passion and knowledge about international politics in relation to Ireland and the Commonwealth. He encouraged me to read some more. I can confirm that I took up his suggestion: I was up until after 1 o’clock this morning reading about the nature of Ireland and the Commonwealth and got to the meeting of the Irish Cabinet on 8 December 1921. I think I know how it ends, and I am looking forward to reading the last couple of chapters. However, although we should never forget the lessons of history—current dynamics and contemporary decisions should not be motivated exclusively by recent or long-standing history—it is nevertheless incumbent on us all to analyse these issues in much greater detail. In the limited time available to me, I shall try to deal with many of the comments made by the hon. Gentleman for Uxbridge, who made a carefully argued case.
The hon. Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski) argued his case with even more passion, but I hope that he does not mind my saying that his speech was perhaps a little less considered. On occasion, his arguments were lopsided. Hansard will record verbatim what he said, but he suggested that we showed a different policy position from the United States on this issue. If that is the starting point, I passionately disagree. One cannot determine international politics and foreign relations by trying to find ways to disagree with America. I am content that, more often than not, we agree with the USA. It is one of the great democracies of our globe, and I am comfortable, politically and personally, in finding common cause with America more often than I disagree with it. Based on his comments today, the hon. Gentleman does not share that assertion. His trite repetition of international politics being seen through the prism of some contemporary poodle-ism, which he offered again today, was unfounded.
I look forward to debating the European Union with the hon. Member for Stone (Mr. Cash) again this afternoon. In his unique way, he argued on these big issues through the aspect of EU legal personality. I shall respond to his comments if time allows, but I put it on record again, as the hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk (Mr. Simpson) did, that the Government and the major Opposition parties support and recognise Kosovo’s declaration of independence. My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary set that out in more detail in a written statement put before the House on 19 February, giving the rationale and reasoning behind the decision. I understand that 29 countries have recognised Kosovo’s independence, and the number continues to grow almost daily.
Although a good speech has been drafted for me by well-informed civil servants, who do a fantastic job in implementing Ministers’ decisions—I respond to a point made by the hon. Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham—I hope that the House would prefer me to respond to the specific points raised during the debate rather than read a well-crafted speech. It is for hon. Members to decide whether my comments formulate themselves into a well-crafted argument.
The hon. Members for Uxbridge and for Shrewsbury and Atcham asked about the Government’s attitude to Serbia more generally. I say clearly to the House, and therefore more widely—to those in Serbia who listen, and particularly to the Government in Serbia—that the United Kingdom is determined to have strong bilateral and multilateral relations, based on issues of common concern, where Serbia continues to look westwards and joins a family of European nations that respect democracy, human rights, the rule of law and free, open and transparent economic markets—the norms that the European Union increasingly expects member states to follow.
In that regard, if Serbia so wishes, we would certainly support its destiny in Europe, in time—as, of course, we would in respect of Kosovo. Indeed, the hon. Member for Uxbridge was fair enough to say so. We have made it clear that we are willing to sign a political agreement with Serbia, but the violence that we have seen over the past couple of days aimed at diplomatic missions does nothing to help create a conducive environment to enable that to happen. Serbia is damaging her standing across the globe by allowing such events to happen on the streets of her capital. To respond to the question asked by the hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk, we have made it clear to the Serbian Government that those actions are utterly unacceptable. We condemn them without reservation, and we demand that they are not repeated. The Serbian Government have given assurances on these matters; they are determined to ensure that they are not repeated.
In response to further points raised by the hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk, the international community is not interested in partition. We will put in place the necessary investment of people and diplomatic effort to ensure that that does not happen. We are committed, as he and his party’s Front-Bench team are, to a multi-ethnic and democratic Kosovo. Indeed, I have read over the past couple of days that the courts in northern Kosovo are being protected and supported by Portuguese forces, to help ensure that that is happening. It is incumbent on all in positions of responsibility in Kosovo, Serbia and the wider Balkan region, to realise the consequences of their comments. Indeed, the hon. Gentleman raised a particular example that, at best, was unfortunate; reckless is another way of interpreting what he said.
United Nations Security Council resolution 1244. It left Kosovo within Serbia on an interim basis, pending the outcome of a process to determine Kosovo’s final status. The nature of that outcome is not constrained in any way by that resolution. The status process was duly taken forward by the UN special envoy Ahtisaari. It resulted in his proposals for supervised independence. References to the territorial integrity of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia in resolution 1244 are related to that interim stage, but not to Kosovo’s final status.
On the question of EU unity and EU action, on 18 February the General Affairs and External Relations Council set out a clear EU response to developments in Kosovo. It agreed to a range of political and practical assistance to Kosovo, including the deployment of an EU special representative to Kosovo, and the deployment of a European security and defence policy mission to assist with reform of policing and the justice sector. It will also provide support for Kosovo’s political and economic development, in line with the EU perspective for the region. That, the largest EU deployment of its kind, was agreed unanimously. It is not for the European Union or the United Nations to recognise nation states bilaterally. It is for other sovereign nations to do so, which is why the United Kingdom, with 20 other nations thus far, recognises Kosovo’s independence.
The question was posed whether that sets a precedent. I understand the issue clearly. The hon. Member for Uxbridge, fairly and in a measured way, outlined his concerns. I do not wish to disappoint him, but we clearly argued the case at the UN and elsewhere. In the case of Kosovo, given its tragic recent history, there is a range of circumstances that are not replicated anywhere else in the world.
Security Council resolution 1244 has provided for a political process to determine Kosovo’s final status. That process has taken place and it resulted in the proposal for supervised independence. That, of course, was not agreed to unanimously because Russia indicated throughout the process that it would not allow a UN process to be concluded. It has now been agreed that the Ahtisaari proposals should be the bedrock for the principles and specifics of what needs to be delivered on the ground. They propose extensive powers for local government, and they guarantee thresholds of representation in Parliament, a police force, a judiciary and a civil service that reflect Kosovo’s ethnic diversity. The House will be aware that the majority of Serbs in Kosovo do not live in that northern region, but 60 per cent. live in the south.
Marconi Pension Fund
What a pleasure it is to have the opportunity to raise this important issue in the debate today. There are concerns about the so-called defined benefit market and pension buy-outs. The Marconi/Telent pension fund involves an unusual approach by a Guernsey-based company, Pension Corporation, to buy out the whole company to achieve control of the pension fund. Why is that a potential problem? First, it allows for 93 per cent. of the buy-out to be funded on a conventional insurance buy-out basis.
Typically, my hon. Friend makes a strong point, and it raises a question: why is Pension Corporation interested in Marconi/Telent?
As I say, 93 per cent. of the buy-out is to be funded on a conventional insurance buy-out basis, which means that Pension Corporation cannot touch the funds for 12 years. However, questions arise as to how the remaining 7 per cent. of the buy-out is to be funded. If, as many people think will be the case, this shortfall is funded with riskier developments, what would happen if those riskier developments did not pay off? We have seen many examples of that happening and the people who end up suffering are the pension holders.
Similarly, if Pension Corporation exceeds 105 per cent. of the buy-out sum, the corporation has access to the escrow. For the benefit of clarity, I should say that an escrow is an arrangement whereby the employer pays funds into an account, which passes to the pension scheme under certain conditions, but is otherwise returned to the employer. Again, that raises the question of who owns the pension. Is it the pensioners, or is it the company seeking its assets?
Also, what happens after the first 12 years have passed? In the lifetime of a pension fund, that is not a huge amount of time for a well-managed fund. However, any losses during such a period—due to poor investments, for example—can seriously undermine the fund. Again, we have seen examples of that and they have always been to the detriment of the pension holders.
In my view, Pension Corporation’s business model represents a serious potential conflict of interest. In November 2007, the pensions regulator determinations panel noted that the potential conflict of interest in this model was so compelling that it was not clear that it could be resolved. The chief executive of Pension Corporation, Mr. Edmund Truell, has rebutted that and argued that the company’s model is a “hedge” against the “risk” of longevity. By that, I take it that he is referring to the fact that people are living longer and the actuarial arrangements in the fund do not cover that fully. However, to date no successful hedge of this kind has ever been operated. It would be exciting if the claim were true and we would avoid dampening innovation, but it is such a bold claim that it feels like the 21st century financial equivalent of a perpetual motion machine. If it does not work, how can pensioners’ risks be mitigated?
As my hon. Friend is quoting Mr. Truell, is he aware of another quotation from him? In Mr. Truell’s own words, when Pension Corporation took over Threshers:
“We took a number of steps. We replaced the company’s trustees with our own partners.”
Does that sound rather ominous to my hon. Friend?
My hon. Friend has again raised a very pertinent point, and I will cover that issue towards the end of my speech.
So strong are the concerns about the approach of Pension Corporation that a strong case is being put for an urgent review to clarify the regulatory framework for such developments and to identify any outstanding regulatory requirements, including the responsibilities of the Financial Services Authority and the pensions regulator. I have reason to believe that the TUC, among others, shares this concern.
It is also important that we should seek to close the so-called wind-up lump sum legal loophole, which is a very technical matter but one that has profound implications, particularly for low-paid and part-time workers, who are often from vulnerable groups or are women who are already very much at risk.
In addition, there is strong concern about the legal and regulatory issues that govern the relationships between members of schemes that are bought out and the insurance companies that eventually take over responsibility for them. My own trade union, Unite, which has many of the remaining 2,000 workers at Marconi within its membership, has made it clear that it has great concerns about what Pension Corporation is up to. A national officer of Unite, Peter Skyte, put it succinctly:
“The pension fund belongs to the present and former workforce and should not be used as a piggybank to be raided for short-term gain.”
I have complete sympathy with that viewpoint.
I thank my hon. Friend for securing the debate, because it is pertinent to the people who are represented here. I can see four MPs here—one from Coventry, two from Liverpool and me, the MP for Chorley—who have had or who still have in their constituency factories for Telent/Plessis/Marconi, whichever name people want to use.
This issue involves the pension fund. Fine words are not good enough; we need belt-and-braces legal protection to be put in place. I hope my hon. Friend agrees that that is what we need the Minister to reassure us about today.
It is significant that my hon. Friends the Members for Chorley (Mr. Hoyle), for Knowsley, South (Mr. O’Hara) and for Coventry, South (Mr. Cunningham) are here, because we all have large numbers of Marconi pensioners among our constituents. I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Chorley has some current employees of the company among his, and I think that that is also the case for my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry, South. This issue is vital to a number of areas right across the country.
I want to conclude by putting some questions to my hon. and learned Friend the Minister. First, will he commit to a review of the regulatory regime governing schemes such as that of Pension Corporation? If so, will he take into account the following issues, which I believe should be covered by such a review?
The first issue is governance—that is, protecting the role of trustees, including member-nominated trustees, and ensuring that they have clear information and are involved early on and at every step in the process. It is essential that trustees are in a position to ask difficult questions and to get good advice.
Any such review also needs to take into account transparency. It goes without saying that without transparency there is no way that pension holders and those paying into a pension fund can know whether their investment is being properly managed.
There is also the issue of risks and protections for members’ benefits—an enormous concern in undertakings of this kind, which are unproven and untested. Being positive, such undertakings could be called innovative, but there are also a number of risks involved and in those circumstances the protections against those risks are hugely important.
There is the issue of breaking the link between the employer and the pension scheme of its employees. Again, that is a large step to take and one that I believe should be considered by such a review of the regulatory regime.
Of course, there are the potential regulatory gaps. It is important that those gaps are properly reviewed and it is also important that, where such gaps exist, they are closed, so that pensions are much better protected.
Finally, specifically on Marconi, will my hon. and learned Friend put pressure on the pensions regulator to extend the remit of the independent trustees imposed on Pension Corporation, whose term is due to expire in April? That would maintain the protection available to pension holders, which the regulator saw as absolutely necessary as recently as last November.
This is an enormously important issue for those whose pensions will be affected by such schemes. I know that my hon. and learned Friend has concerns and that he took careful note of the issues that were raised in this regard when the Pensions Bill was considered in Committee. I hope that he can give us some reassurance that our fears will be dealt with adequately within the relevant regulatory arrangements.
It is a great pleasure to respond to this important debate under your chairmanship, Mr. Marshall.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Knowsley, North and Sefton, East (Mr. Howarth) and other colleagues have raised an important issue in relation to Telent/Marconi. To lose one’s pension is to suffer an injustice. Through the Pension Protection Fund and the pensions regulator, we have sought to renew confidence in pensions and we have resolved to maintain and deepen that confidence by being vigilant in the face of new challenges. It is incumbent on the Government to guard against any injustice, and my right hon. Friend has played his part by prompting this debate and raising concerns that an injustice might be done.
Let me set out why my right hon. Friend is right to say that this is an important issue, before explaining what I see as the emerging risks and setting out what I intend to do.
I know that my hon. and learned Friend will deal with all the issues, but may I say that we are talking about past pensioners, current employees and future employees? We must also look after future employees, although I do not know whether my hon. and learned Friend can discuss that, too.
My hon. Friend is entirely right that we are talking about all three. However, we are talking about not just the pensioners at Telent, but how the financial services industry has decided to deal with pensions. What concerns me is that that seems to involve treating pensions as just another commodity.
That is exactly the concern. Until now, companies have broadly regarded pensions as a trust or, in the case of an insurance product, something that is backed by capital, and there has been a relationship with an employer or insurance-based capital backing. Pension Corporation has some very reputable people on its board and is backed by significant resources, and my concern is not so much that it is up to no good. The model that is being used raises concerns, however, about the future and about the possibility that pensions will be treated as just another commodity, with losses and gains being arrived at in a way that could put people at greater risk than they should be.
As I said, the Government want to establish confidence in pensions, and we also want to watch out for emerging risks in the financial services industry. I understand that Pension Corporation may still be discussing the Telent case with the regulator, so I will not comment too much on it. As I said, however, my concern is that the model that we are looking at could be used by less reliable parties than those running Pension Corporation, some of whom might not be UK based.
Mention has been made of the fact that Pension Corporation is based in the Channel Islands, although there is some regulatory control here. Organisations dealing in pensions could, however, be based elsewhere, in which case we would want substantial reassurance about their capacity to deal properly with pensions. The issue of people treating pensions as just another commodity—as something with which they can wheel and deal—is one that we need to approach with some caution.
The Telent case has alerted us to the scope for others to use such a business model, which may pose risks not only to the members of pension schemes, but to the PPF. I therefore welcome the support that came from across the pensions industry when the regulator installed independent trustees in the Telent scheme. Those trustees play a critical role in protecting members, and we must continue to support that important control and the regulator’s ability to put independent trustees in place.
I hear what my right hon. Friend says about what will happen in April. The pensions regulator is independent, and it is important that the City and everyone else sees it as independent and as not susceptible to Government pressure or Government intervention in day-to-day decisions on issues such as this. As he said, there are concerns about what will happen after April, which pensioners have voiced directly to me. I will pass his comments to the regulator and ensure that it is aware of his concern.
I am grateful to my hon. and learned Friend for that assurance. I recognise that the relationship between him and the pensions regulator is complicated, but people will be assured that the concern that has been expressed today will be passed on to the regulator.
I will certainly ensure that that is done and that the regulator is also made aware of the concerns that the Government have about protecting the scheme’s future.
As I said, I welcome the support that has come from across the industry for the actions of the pensions regulator. When trustees find themselves in difficulty, they need to know that they are not alone. The regulator provides not only key information and support, but the capacity to intervene. Last week, in the Committee considering the Pensions Bill, I acknowledged the vital role played by the independent pensions regulator by strengthening its powers to install trustees, where that is in members’ interests. That was an important step, but let me tell my right hon. Friend and other colleagues who are concerned about what is happening that it is a first step. I have asked officials at the Department for Work and Pensions to look urgently at what more can be done to maintain confidence and to signal to the City our concern about such models of pensions investment.
I want to consider the views of employers and pensions experts as we examine the options. I am ready to listen, but I also want to signal our willingness to act and to intervene, if necessary, by giving the regulator the legislative ability to deal with such issues.
Again, I am grateful to my hon. and learned Friend for that assurance. Will he confirm that trade unions will be included in the definition of “experts”? He will readily acknowledge that they have a wealth of experience on, and knowledge of, the intricacies of pension funds.
A legitimate vested interest. However, there is also a wider interest, because the pension schemes of members working in other companies and organisations could also be affected by the development of a new model.
I want to ensure that the regulator has the right powers to protect people’s pensions to ensure that confidence in pensions will be strengthened. Traditionally, and rightly, a pension has been backed by the covenant of a sponsoring employer, or by capital resources: that means an employer or capital standing behind the pension. In some new models emerging in the buy-out market, the security of an employer is taken away, but adequate capital has not been put in place to replace the certainty and security that the employer brings. That creates an asymmetry of risk—a business model where the provider benefits if all goes well, but scheme members or the PPF pick up the bill if things go badly.
It would not be fair to members, or to all those schemes that pay the PPF levy, if we allowed new business models to develop in which a provider assembled significant financial risk without having adequate structures in place to manage that risk. Traditionally, if trustees are confident in the employer, they can decide on a funding and investment strategy that reflects the employer’s ability to underpin the risks undertaken. The employer will benefit from lower contributions if the risk pays off, but will pay more if the investments underperform. Under the regulatory regime with respect to insurance companies, they must back their investment, longevity and other risks with capital, so the capital or the employer must stand behind the pension, which provides important security for the members.
For those regulated by the FSA, the capital requirements are clear. Any new approaches to pension scheme risk management should have similar security. There should be capital or other supporting structures underpinning the risks. Where providers are based offshore—outside the UK regulatory regime—that causes concern. If it happens, we need further reassurance that appropriate controls are in place.
My hon. and learned Friend has made a point about the need for capital standing behind the scheme to mitigate risks such as longevity or anticipated longevity, but is not that the problem—the loophole that is not covered by regulatory arrangements in schemes such as Pension Corporation’s?
Of course, Pension Corporation will have its own view on that. As I have said, because there are some quite difficult legal and other issues, I do not want to comment too directly. I want to focus more on the model, and concerns could arise with the model of companies buying, perhaps, an under-priced company with a pension scheme, using either valuation or a bid from an insurance scheme to try to get a grip on the liabilities of the pension scheme and taking the surplus from it. That is essentially to treat the pension scheme merely as a commodity from which to seek a profit.
We need to be careful about our approach, because there are circumstances in which buy-outs are right and work, but there are others where they do not. However, it is important to tell trustees that they need to look carefully at the security of member benefits and involve the regulator early if they have concerns.
I am concerned that the intrinsic risks of the new business models present a real downside. Suppose that investments fail to perform as expected. If the link between the scheme and the employer has been severed without adequate capital being put in place to back the risks of the scheme, there might be no backstop to ensure that benefits will be paid as promised. In a worst-case scenario, the provider could be driven into insolvency and the scheme could enter the PPF with a funding deficit. That would mean scheme members receiving PPF compensation that was lower than the pensions that they had expected, the PPF having to cope with new costs and PPF levy payers—that is, continuing pension schemes—having to pay higher bills.
We cannot avoid every risk, but that does not mean that we should take reckless risks with members’ benefits, or with the finances of the PPF. We need to look critically at new business models to ensure that we have the tools to manage risks proportionately. We should all recognise the potential of confidence and the dividend of stability in the pensions industry. However, I also want to emphasise that we recognise the importance of innovation in financial services. It is important that I say that.
I welcome the innovation that has flowered in the pensions industry in the past couple of years—greater competition, novel product development and, indeed, some of the buy-outs. There are clear benefits in some cases. Innovation can be good, but not all innovation is good, and supporting innovation generally should not mean condoning proposals that could be harmful to pension members’ interests. For example, in another area of pensions policy, I had to judge yesterday whether it was the right time to allow new providers such as Brighton Rock to compete with the PPF by exempting schemes that have bought its products from paying PPF levies. I took the view strongly that this is not the right time to do that. For the moment, I believe that we need stability in the pensions market to strengthen confidence.
My right hon. Friend asked how we can ensure that regulation will be effective in relation to the new models. Paul Thornton’s 2007 review of pensions institutions concluded that current arrangements are working well and made recommendations aimed at strengthening the system, including the relationship between the pensions regulator and the FSA. I am glad that both organisations have taken those recommendations seriously, but I also recognise that changing market environments prompt us to keep the boundary between their remits under review. We are considering whether change is required to clarify which body is responsible for regulating providers in the pension buy-out market.
I welcome innovation and recognise that we need to ensure that regulation keeps pace with a changing market. We are dealing with a fast-changing market, with new models in it. We will need to ensure that key risks are managed effectively by watching what is happening in the market, identifying the risks and being prepared to act early and quickly to demonstrate that the Government are prepared to deal with problems. I am willing to consult formally, and to bring amendments before Parliament to increase the regulator’s powers, if that is the best way forward.
I have already demonstrated that willingness through the changes that I have made to the Pensions Bill as it has progressed through the House, increasing the abilities of the regulator to appoint trustees, as in the case raised by my right hon. Friend.
It may be appropriate to strengthen the regulator’s anti-avoidance powers further, and I am prepared to consider that. Such powers need to be focused on dealing with a particular mischief. Where they are broad because they have to deal with a constantly adapting innovative sector, they need to be targeted by guidance. When the pensions regulator was created, there was concern in the City, but the regulator has done an excellent job of reassuring the City while tackling particular problems.
I have no wish to give the regulator unconstrained powers to reopen old wounds, but I cannot allow the development of business models that raise serious concerns. I know that well-intentioned legislation can bring undesirable consequences if it is not thought through effectively, and we recognise the importance of deregulation, which is why we set up a rolling deregulatory review to strip out unnecessary legislative requirements and costs, but I am keen to continue to discuss the issues to see whether, in the light of changing developments in the relevant area of the market, we need to take further steps in the coming weeks and months.
I want to hear the views of the financial services industry and the pensions industry, trustees, trade unions, employers and business. Our shared aim should be to ensure that pension promises are kept and pensioners are secure in retirement, and that we are in a position to build renewed confidence in UK pensions, for which all hon. Members have a responsibility, so as to protect, deepen and advance the circumstances in which pensioners today and in future—and indeed those who have already retired—can look forward with a degree of confidence and security.
Health Care (Norfolk)
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Marshall, for the second time this morning. We move seamlessly from Kosovo to Norfolk. I welcome this opportunity to speak in this short debate, which I am holding against the background of Norfolk primary care trust’s proposals, published in July 2007, for intermediate care services and, more recently, the Darzi review, which is proposing further reconfiguration of health services, which when firmed up will obviously have an impact on Norfolk and my constituents in Mid-Norfolk.
As in other parts of the country, health care in Norfolk depends very heavily on the work of our health professionals—doctors, nurses, specialists and carers—who do more than just the statutory hours that they are expected to work for the money that they earn. Between February and June last year, Norfolk PCT conducted a review, as I have said, of intermediate care services. There was quite widespread public consultation, which produced considerable local opposition to what was seen as a cost-cutting exercise at a time when Norfolk, along with many other PCTs, was heavily in debt, and to the closure and possible reduction of local community hospitals.
On 16 May last year, I initiated a half-hour debate in Westminster Hall on the future of St. Michael’s hospital in Aylsham in my constituency. On 24 July, Norfolk PCT approved a set of proposals that provided for 178 beds spread over five community hospitals in Norwich, Dearham, Kelling, north Walsham and Swaffham. Unfortunately, St. Michael’s hospital was down to close. On 18 October, Norfolk’s health overview and scrutiny committee effectively put that closure on hold for four months, because it was concerned about the alternative care plans proposed for Aylsham and the surrounding area. I declare an interest in that I live not in Aylsham but eight miles away in Reepham, so for me and my family what happens there is more than just academic.
Since the closure was put on hold, Norfolk PCT and the Aylsham group, which brings together local representatives, and on which I sit, have been in negotiations. I want to lay before the Minister a series of points, which I suspect that he will say are not his direct responsibility to a certain extent, owing to devolving responsibilities down to PCTs on many such matters. Nevertheless, he should have taken a view, not least because of the resource implications and the fact that we might very well be overtaken by the Darzi review.
The PCT is concerned, because St. Michael’s represents the only community hospital serving in the old Broadland PCT area, but has said that an analysis of the usage of the hospital established that only 24 beds on average were used by patients registered with Aylsham practices. It has been considering the most appropriate way in which to sustain the outpatient and therapy services provided at the hospital and to commission beds in the prospective nursing home planned for the site. It points out the requirement for sufficient beds to meet the needs of Aylsham people and that the consideration is for five beds at the nursing home. However, that figure is for guidance rather than prescription.
I consulted with local doctors who believe that the number of beds—five—is far too small, not only for meeting the current criteria but for meeting the likely population growth in the area over the next five to 10 years based on Government statistics, not those provided locally. That last point is important. The re-development of the site has, from the outset, involved a close partnership between Norfolk PCT and the Aylsham care trust. At the beginning of December 2007, the PCT’s provider services made available to Aylsham care trust the spatial requirements for the therapy and outpatient services that could be provided within a community facility, which was to be built for Aylsham care trust with the development of the overall site. Negotiations are now going on between the Aylsham community and Norfolk PCT.
I bring that to the Minister’s attention because my constituency is a microcosm of problems affecting health care throughout Norfolk. Pressures are greater or smaller, and I am not suggesting that Norfolk necessarily has tougher health care challenges than other parts of the country. It has specific health care challenges—not least an ageing population. There is also the sheer size of the area covered. One of the biggest challenges facing the health authorities, as in education, is presented by the distances involved in people getting to some form of health care or in merely transporting them around. It is obviously a different matter for urban areas.
Norfolk PCT has proposed the Aylsham health campus project. I do not think that that would have come about if the scrutiny committee had not deferred the matter for consideration for up to four months—it is fascinating to see what a little pressure does in getting PCTs to introduce proposals. Its objectives are to
“examine the health needs of the population of Aylsham … consider the ways in which a health campus at Aylsham could meet those needs … consider whether a health facility in addition to the Aylsham Care Trust Community Centre is needed or viable …consider how co-ordination can be achieved between the Community Centre, health services and the residential home”
“consider the appropriateness of a ‘well-ness’ facility”.
I have not yet managed to find out what a “well-ness” facility means. Is there such a thing as an “unwell-ness” facility? If there is, I think that I, and many other MPs, would meet every criterion. The final objective is to
“consider the appropriateness of facilities for GP training and other GP activities not necessarily required to be provided at the two practices”
At the moment, therefore, the decision has been made to close St. Michael’s hospital, and many of its supporting facilities, which will affect the health care of an area larger than Aylsham. A number of beds at the hospital have been used by people from as far away as the north Norfolk coast and Norwich, which demonstrates that there is a bed shortage throughout Norfolk, although I accept fully that health services must be flexible. Nevertheless, negotiations are ongoing between the PCT and the local community. As I said, I do not think that, if the scrutiny committee had deferred the decision, we would have reached that stage.
What do we, the local community, want for the future of health care in Aylsham and the surrounding area? That forms part of the negotiations. The Aylsham group believes that the hospital should remain open, but has expressed a willingness to compromise to the extent that
“replacement services should be in place and proved to be effective before the hospital is closed.”
The date for the closure of the hospital is 2009.
The PCT has now been asked to keep the hospital open for five years for the following reasons. If at all possible, I would like the support of the Minister, at least indirectly. The reasons are that the percentage of elderly population in the area is about 30 per cent., which is 10 per cent. above the Norfolk average, which itself has a fairly high percentage nationally, although it cannot beat places such as Bournemouth and Eastbourne, and that we must consider the further projected population growth. Current discussions, as part of the local development framework, indicate additional housing for the town of Aylsham and the surrounding area. I know that from talking to the local authorities.
We have no way of knowing the success of staff recruitment for the nursing home, or indeed for the home care teams. The Minister knows that the combination of looking for savings in health budgets, and the medical assessment that the best way of dealing with many people who are ill or have had an accident is by looking after them in their home, will mean the redeployment of staff, and challenges in recruiting and retaining staff in areas where, given the geography and road communications, many of them will spend a great deal of their time on the road.
My hon. Friend makes a valid point about the diversity of Norfolk; it is a wide area, the use of health care facilities is diverse, and on occasions, people are far away from them. I draw his attention to a story in The Daily Telegraph today, which reports that Norfolk and Norwich university hospital NHS trust, and the Queen Elizabeth hospital in Kings Lynn, have been criticised for
“‘fleecing’ patients and their families”
through high car park charges. Does my hon. Friend agree that if those hospitals were properly funded, they would not have to resort to funding shortfalls through such schemes?
There is a problem. When my father was seriously ill a year ago, and I took my mother regularly to the Norfolk and Norwich university hospital NHS trust, the issue was not just about the financial aspect. Indeed, we MPs, as we know, are well paid, so with all our pay and allowances we can afford car parking charges, but many of my constituents cannot and most of the car parks are not large enough. The car parking aspect has been franchised out, but the Government must re-examine the problem, because I am sure that Norfolk is not the only area where it is an issue.
The issue may be not just about funding but about the whole business of the car parking contracts. I am grateful to my hon. Friend for mentioning the issue.
Bed blocking has been much in the news, including the local news. The Eastern Daily Press ran a series of articles showing that there were bed-blocking crises at the Norfolk and Norwich University Hospital NHS Trust and the Queen Elizabeth hospital in Kings Lynn. St. Michael’s hospital, along with others, has offered a safety net. Sadly, however, bed blocking will remain a problem, and it must be addressed.
Following recent alerts at the Norfolk and Norwich University Hospital NHS Trust, the number of beds at St. Michael’s hospital was increased from 24 to 26—a clear demonstration of the need for community beds in Aylsham and in the county as a whole. Currently, St. Michael’s hospital operates at 80 per cent.-plus capacity, and the effectiveness of the PCT’s alternative intermediate care strategy ought to be measurable by specific endpoints that include a significant reduction to below 50 per cent. in admissions to St. Michael’s hospital. As yet, the evidence is not available.
The PCT and the Aylsham care trust will provide intermediate care. The health campus project is insufficiently developed, and indeed, I do not think that most of us are clear about what the PCT means by a health campus. It has a warm feeling about it, invoking the idea of a multi-disciplined university campus, and it may well be the answer to the area’s health care requirements. However, as yet, I have not seen sufficient details, and I suspect that one will have to pay the money up front in order to deliver such a campus and provide the health care that we want.
The Aylsham group has also been led to believe that there is a strong bid for the stroke unit to be developed in conjunction with the Norfolk and Norwich University Hospital NHS Trust, albeit with a greatly reduced number of beds—24 instead of 40. That, once again, may mean pressure on the local community hospitals.
Home care has been trialled in west Norfolk, and it must work there, because that part of the county lacks community hospitals. The Minister will be only too well aware if he plots health care centres and community hospitals on a map of Norfolk, that owing to its sheer size, little in the way of a safety net exists to deal with any future health care crisis.
Based on the points that I and other people have made, the PCT should at the very least think about postponing its original closure date for St. Michael’s hospital. The Minister should at the very least take an interest in the issue, and perhaps consult the PCT on whether it has enough financial resources to deal not only with that change, but with the impact of the Darzi review. I have been examining health care in Norfolk at the micro level, but I wonder whether the Minister might—to use the old music hall expression—show an ankle and give us some indication of the outlines of the Darzi review. We heard some of it when the Prime Minister, being desperate to recover from the non-election, performed like a clapping seal a few months ago, and Lord Darzi had to rush through with some initial ideas.
In conclusion, the issue is important for my constituents and for myself, but it is not unique to my constituency. There are major challenges throughout Norfolk, and I should therefore be interested in the Minister’s views.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk (Mr. Simpson) on securing this Adjournment debate about an issue that is important not only to his family but to his constituents and the local community.
The description of the dialogue, both in the hon. Gentleman’s presentation today and in my briefing for the debate, is almost an example of best practice. He said that the process would not have happened without the overview and scrutiny committee’s referral, but that is the very reason why the Government gave local authorities for the first time the statutory right to comment on NHS reorganisation proposals locally and, if they were dissatisfied with the proposals, the right, as he knows, to refer them to the Secretary of State, who would then refer them to an independent review configuration panel. Although I agree that it is probably unlikely that those discussions would take place without the role of the overview and scrutiny committee, I hope that the hon. Gentleman agrees that the new role for local government in scrutinising NHS decisions, which can be uncomfortable and difficult, is right.
The hon. Gentleman, understandably, represents the views of the local community, which feels, also understandably, that it would like to preserve what it has. People are attached to the hospital, which they believe provides an excellent service. The hon. Gentleman referred to demographic change, so the issue is not just about the existing situation, but about projections of future need. The local community would like the hospital to be preserved in its current form.
I do not live in the area, so I am less able to comment than the local people who make those decisions and live there, but the vision is for a much wider range of community-based services. The hon. Gentleman rightly raised the question of what a wellness facility is. These days, we use all sorts of jargon in public services, which confuses people, but the principle of a wellness service is the recognition that the modern health service—this is at the heart of Lord Darsi’s review—is as much about preventing sickness and ill health as about intervening once somebody becomes very ill. That can be achieved through better health education, promotion, screening and so on, and by intervening early to prevent people’s health from deteriorating, which is particularly relevant to older people. Once they deteriorate, the danger is that it is difficult to get them back on their feet and living independently. The notion of a wellness approach is about prevention, early intervention and ensuring that people are aware of how best to stay healthy.
We must get the right balance of prevention and early intervention services in the hon. Gentleman’s community and ensure that there are some beds, which is indeed part of the plan. Those beds might not be in the existing hospital environment, but there is a commitment to develop a nursing home-type provision in the community. That seems to me a better outcome for health care provision in Aylsham than the current position. The cynicism and scepticism among residents and professionals may be because they have not yet seen a tangible vision of what the alternative will look like. In defence of the primary care trust, it seems to me that it is trying to develop that vision in partnership with the local community rather than simply impose on it a “managers know best” or “professionals know best” approach.
From all the information I have, from both the hon. Gentleman’s contribution and my briefing for the debate, I think that what is happening is what we would want to happen in communities where change is essential. We want engagement between the health bodies and local communities, and we want the local authority, Members of Parliament and local residents to be involved to try to come up with a solution in the best interests of the relevant community.
The hon. Gentleman asked about resources. It is important to point out that if the PCT can emerge from the process with a credible, sensible vision, which will improve health care and be more up to date, modern and responsive to the needs of the community, and if it puts a credible and robust bid to the strategic health authority, demonstrating improved outcomes for patients, of course resources will be available. There are resources both regionally and nationally—SHAs can seek resources from the Department of Health—to support the reorganisation and reconfiguration of services. The hon. Gentleman says that has not yet happened, so resource problems are not preventing progress. We need a clear vision about a new range of health services that best meet the needs of the Aylsham community.
I will be happy to meet the hon. Gentleman at a later stage if he is dissatisfied with the outcome of the engagement and consultation process. I urge him to show a little leadership in the local community—I am not saying that he is not already doing so, because I have no reason to believe that—and to say that, although not all change is good, if there can be change that leads to a better range of services, focused on prevention, early intervention and ensuring that older people do not deteriorate and need acute hospital care, it will be in the interests of all families in Aylsham. The hon. Gentleman was right about the impact on the work force and on professionals, recruitment and so on, but the changes mean that a different mix of professionals—doctors, community nurses and social care staff—will need to work together to ensure that there is a shift to prevention and early intervention.
I understand that it was originally feared that, under the proposals, the five existing beds would be removed and not replaced, but from what the PCT has said, it seems that as well as an NHS campus with integrated services and a shift from acute to primary health care, there will also be guaranteed protection of at least five beds in any new organisation of services. I ask the hon. Gentleman to see the proposals as a major opportunity, not as a threat. He must consider the range of services currently provided and the consequences for patient care in Aylsham and surrounding areas, and whether the proposed changes would lead to better outcomes in the long term. It is easy to hang on to the status quo and, understandably, people are emotionally attached to existing services. They are not necessarily persuaded of the need for change until it is clear to them what the change will be and whether it will lead to improvement or to the diminution or undermining of existing services.
The hon. Member for South-West Norfolk (Mr. Fraser) made an important contribution, but it is difficult to see how he can argue that we should seek maximum devolution for managers and professionals on the front line and minimal Government interference—his party supported the foundation hospital model on the whole, for example—and then ask the Government to intervene in individual hospitals where he feels the car parking charges are excessive. Although it is acceptable for hospitals to charge for car parking, and there is no law or rule to prevent them from doing so, they certainly should not abuse that right by charging extortionate amounts. The test of reasonableness should be applied to decisions on the matter.
As a Member of Parliament, the hon. Gentleman has the right to make strong statements and representations if it can be demonstrated that the charging regime is either extortionate or disproportionate. I do not know the details of the case that he mentioned, so I cannot make a definitive comment, but charges should be proportionate and reasonable.
I have great respect for the hon. Gentleman, whom I met for the first time over dinner last night—I am not going to show him my ankle during the debate, by the way—but I do not believe that is the case. The NHS has had unprecedented resources in the past eight or nine years, including in Norfolk, and there will be a continued increase in resources over the next three years as part of the comprehensive spending review settlement, so even if it is true that parking charges are extortionate and disproportionate, I do not accept that it is necessary. If the high charges are for resource reasons, why are they not happening in hospitals throughout the country, and why are there such different approaches to charging? There has been unprecedented sustained investment in the NHS, so although car parking charging is perfectly acceptable under current rules, we expect proportionality and fairness.
I say to the hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk that I hope that the PCT’s engagement with the local community leads to a clear vision about how a shift in health services can be provided, with maximum local support, which leads demonstrably to an improved range of services, particularly for older people. I urge him to consider the fact that moving towards prevention and early intervention is, on the whole, in the interests of maintaining the independence of older people. My ankle will not be shown in the debate, but my door will remain open to the hon. Gentleman as the process evolves in case he wishes to discuss it further with me.
Middle East Peace Process
First, I draw hon. Members’ attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Interests. I am pleased that we are having this debate, and it is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr. Marshall. I thank the Speaker for affording me the opportunity to discuss this issue at this important time. There is always a case to be made for debating the peace process, and this topic comes up frequently in parliamentary debates. I am sure that it will not have escaped the Government’s notice that so many Members on both sides of the House display interest in and commitment to this foreign policy issue, and I am pleased that it remains high on the Government’s agenda.
The debate is particularly timely, and I hope that it will refocus attention on the positive developments that are being made following the Annapolis conference. This year got off to a difficult start with the deterioration of the situation in Gaza and the dramatic increase in the number of rocket and mortar attacks being fired into Israel. I will return to that distressing situation a little later. First, I remind the House that, despite the unwelcome developments in Gaza, there have been plenty of good-will gestures and confidence-building measures from both President Abbas and Prime Minister Olmert in an effort to sustain the Annapolis momentum and to ensure that dialogue between both sides continues.
Since Annapolis, Olmert and Abbas have had bi-monthly meetings, and Palestinian and Israeli negotiators have continued to sit and talk through the difficult issues on the table in order to realise the objective of reaching final status talks by the end of 2008. I shall return to some of those developments later. First, I shall discuss my experiences of the conflict, drawing on my trip to the region with the Labour Friends of Israel in September. During that visit, my parliamentary colleagues and I spent time in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and Ramallah. We held extensive meetings with Israeli and Palestinian parliamentarians, academics, opinion formers and Government Ministers. When talking to that wide range of people, the complexities involved in achieving the two-state solution for which we hope were obvious at all times.
The trip took place as early discussions about Annapolis were being considered, and the common message that we got from everyone whom we met was that it was time to act—time to return to the road map and to seize an opportunity for lasting peace. It was obvious why so many felt that way. The deplorable daily suffering of Israelis and Palestinians was making life too hard for too many people, and the impetus was clearly there to seek a sustainable, two-state solution, with both parties living side by side in peace and security. However, despite the renewed efforts made towards peace at the end of 2007, tensions between the parties have been rising in 2008 amid increased violence and casualties.
In January, there was a dramatic increase in mortar and rocket attacks fired from Gaza into Israel, causing several serious injuries, including to an eight-year-old Israeli boy, who lost a leg in a Qassam rocket attack on 9 February. A woman was killed in a suicide bomb attack in Dimona on 4 February—the first suicide attack in Israel for nearly a year. The upsurge in violent attacks on Israel has resulted in mounting pressure on the Israeli Government to take action. As a result, Israel has implemented a number of measures to counter the barrages, and the Israel Defence Forces have launched several incursions into Gaza in the past six weeks, with the intention of targeting militant cells responsible for the rocket attacks. As part of that, Israel closed border crossings into Gaza between 17 and 22 January, and imposed electricity and other fuel restrictions to curb rocket production.
Neither the incursions nor the restrictions have proven effective in stopping the rockets. In the past few weeks, hundreds of Israelis have marched in protest to Jerusalem and Tel Aviv to demonstrate against their Government’s inability to put an end to the Qassam attacks. In the wake of those events, it is all the more important that we sustain momentum in the peace process, and I urge the UK Government to ensure that it remains at the forefront of their international agenda.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing the debate, and I am listening carefully to the powerful case that he is making. Does he agree that the situation for Israeli citizens that he has so movingly described is absolutely intolerable, and that the rocket attacks have continued every day since Hamas took control of Gaza? Should not the international community share some responsibility for holding Hamas to account for causing or permitting those rocket attacks, which are simply intolerable for people in Israel?
I agree entirely. When we went there in September, we saw the effect on ordinary people living in the towns around the Gaza strip in Israel proper. They are experiencing the barrages on a daily basis, and it is quite intolerable. If they were my constituents in this country, I would demand that my Government did something about it. As a member of the international community, the British Government ought to do all that they can to stop the rocket attacks and to secure daily life for ordinary Israelis who live close to the Gaza strip.
In the wake of such events, it is all the more important that we should sustain the momentum in the peace process. We should actively work to build on the achievements of Annapolis. At the conference, the Israelis and Palestinians committed to meeting their obligations as laid out in the first stage of the re-launched road map, and pledged to agree on final status issues by the end of 2008. General James Jones was appointed as US middle east envoy to monitor the situation and to help Israelis and Palestinians to live up to those commitments. We also welcome the work of our former Prime Minister, Tony Blair, who, as the Quartet envoy, has the difficult task of Palestinian institution-building. We met Mr. Blair when we were out there in September, and he was motivated to try to make the most of Annapolis and to engage the international community fully in this challenge. Some of the fruits of his labour are already being realised.
One of the most encouraging outcomes of the diplomatic momentum engendered by Annapolis was the Paris donors conference on 17 December, at which a total of £3.5 billion was pledged by the international community to support Palestinian institution-building and economic recovery in the next three years. I commend the UK Government for pledging £243 million, which will establish the UK as one of the leading world donors to the Palestinians. The UK has long been at the forefront of the economic road map. When he was Chancellor, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister asserted that political progress had to be underpinned with economic development; that has become accepted wisdom for solving the conflict. I hope that, under his leadership, the Government will remain actively engaged in the economics of peace, and will continue to lead the international community in those efforts.
Let us also recognise that both the Israelis and the Palestinians have taken important, confidence-boosting steps to facilitate the negotiations. Israel lifted 25 roadblocks in the west bank in October and released 429 Palestinian prisoners in December. The Palestinian Authority deployed 500 policemen in Nablus in November, which was an important step towards cracking down on militant cells operating in the area. The Fatah-strong force has won local respect for arresting criminals aligned with its own faction as well as with its Hamas rivals. It, along with the rest of the 7,000-strong force in the west bank, has been bolstered by Prime Minister Fayyad’s security plan, which is being implemented incrementally and in co-ordination with Israel.
Despite those measures, the west bank is still far from secure, and Israel continues to police Nablus at night. It will not hand over fully to the Palestinian Authority until it can be sure that their forces are equipped to deal sufficiently with the security threat. Ordinary Palestinians still face daily challenges because of the roadblocks. I can partly understand their frustration as they attempt to go about their daily lives. On the other side, however, Israel is reluctant to remove those security measures until it can be sure that it will not suffer repercussions in the form of terrorist attacks.
I hope that those statistics will be reversed as talks between the Palestinians and Israelis continue and as the process gathers momentum. Clearly, at the forefront of Israel’s concern is ensuring the security of the state of Israel and of the people who live within its boundaries. However, I take on board what my hon. Friend says about those numbers rising.
Since Annapolis, Olmert and Abbas have met twice a month, and high-level negotiations teams have been set up to discuss final status issues. On Sunday, those teams agreed to set up three committees to deal with civil affairs issues: water and the environment, legal matters and economic subjects. That is an encouraging step, and it is vital that the UK Government continue to support the negotiations in every way possible.
There are plenty of sceptics who are doubtful as to what negotiations can achieve. They criticise renewed American interest as President Bush’s search for a legacy. They say that the Israeli and Palestinian leaderships are too weak to deliver, and that the growing political isolation of Gaza spells an end to any peace process. But, in full recognition of the challenges ahead, we cannot let this opportunity pass us by. Whatever the motivations of the Bush Administration, surely the efforts of the United States must be welcomed by us all.
Prime Minister Olmert and President Abbas should be congratulated on the very real work that they are doing to bring the two sides together, and we should do all that we can as British parliamentarians to bolster their efforts. To those who argue that Hamas’s Gaza is now a separate entity in the peace process, we need to re-emphasise that a three-state solution is not on the table for negotiation.
We in the United Kingdom and the European Union need to do all that we can to bring Gaza and the west bank back together under the single entity of the Palestinian Authority. I know that some people say that Israel has to deal formally with Hamas as part of the process, but, if that is to happen, Hamas should accept the Quartet’s three conditions: renouncing violence and terrorism, respecting past agreements and recognising Israel’s right to exist. Until it does, the UK Government should continue to work actively with the Palestinian Authority to strengthen President Abbas and Prime Minister Fayyad, and they should encourage Egypt in its mediation between the different Palestinian factions.
Instead of scepticism, let us recognise and build on the momentum of the past six months. Let us offer our support to all who are working on the plans to exchange land for peace, and let us help to build two viable, democratic states—Israel and Palestine—living side by side in peace and security. Let us be more optimistic about the peace process being back on the agenda.
I am not naively idealistic. Having visited Israel and the Palestinian territories, I am keenly aware of the obstacles that block the road to peace, and of the huge challenges that will need to be overcome to turn hopeful rhetoric into reality. According to the first phase of the road map, the Palestinians must renounce violence in exchange for an Israeli freeze on all settlements. There are many difficulties with that first stage. Prime Minister Olmert has pledged to freeze settlement building in the west bank and immediately dismantle all illegal outposts.
There is, of course, internal settler opposition to the pledges, but more troublesome for the Israeli Government are security fears. Israel’s experience of unilaterally dismantling all settlements in Gaza in August 2005 demonstrated that unilateral gestures are ineffective. Therefore, action in the west bank would need to form part of a comprehensive peace package that would safeguard Israel’s security.
In the past six weeks, Palestinian violence has escalated significantly. In January, there was an increase in rocket attacks launched at Sderot and the western Negev from Gaza, with 241 rockets fired in that month alone. Two thousand rockets have been fired since Hamas took control of the Gaza strip in June 2007. Ninety per cent. of Sderot residents have experienced a Qassam rocket falling on their street, and 70 per cent. suffer from post-traumatic stress. In the past 18 months alone, more than 1,600 cases of trauma have been recorded.
It is the daily rocket barrages that are the biggest short-term obstacle to peace. When we were there, we visited a mother who was clearly traumatised by her experiences. She wanted us, as British parliamentarians, to see how two near-misses that involved her and her young son had destroyed her and her family’s life. It was a truly distressing experience for me, because, as the father of three young children, it brought home the reality of daily life in that part of Israel.
But it is not just the use of Qassam rockets that are of concern. I am particularly concerned about the increasing use of Iranian-produced Katyusha rockets, which are smuggled into Gaza via tunnels from Egypt. They have a maximum range of 20.5 km, and threaten large populations centres in the south of Israel, including the industrial town of Ashkelon, which has a population of 190,000.
Israel has to find a way to halt rockets from Gaza to be able to withdraw from the west bank. One such way is to work closely with Egypt to find, destroy or block smuggling tunnels that run across the border into Gaza by which arms and bomb-making materials are brought into the strip. The British Government must continue to make representations to Egypt and to support the efforts of its authorities.
No sovereign state could reasonably be expected to ignore such daily attacks. Israel has tried everything to protect the civilian population and stop the rockets. Incursions, targeting of rocket-launching cells, fuel blockades and crossing closures have proved futile. Rocket defence systems are expensive and are feared to be incapable of fully preventing attacks. So what is Israel to do?
As domestic pressure mounts on the Israeli Government to take serious action to alleviate the rocket attacks, there is talk of a large-scale ground operation into Gaza as the only option available. Clearly, that concerns me, and I am eager to know how the British Government would respond if Israel was placed in the unfortunate position of having to launch a large-scale operation in Gaza. In the event of such an operation, would the British Government consider supporting a subsequent disengagement of Israel from Gaza, perhaps with the help of a multinational force? I hope that the Minister will shed some light on the British position on the issue.
Israel has been more successful in countering suicide bombings, and there is a clear reason for that—the security barrier. The security barrier is a regrettable consequence of the conflict. I have seen it for myself, and it is ugly and unpleasant. I experienced, for a very short time, some of the discomfort and irritation involved in waiting for hours to cross the fence, and I fully sympathise with those people who have to bear the situation twice a day to go to work or school, or to see their families.
There are areas where the route is contentious, and where the barrier deviates from the internationally recognised green line and cuts Palestinian communities off from each other without any obvious security motivation. Where that is the case, representations have been made to Israel’s Supreme Court, and the Israeli Government have been ordered on several occasions to move the route of the barrier. That does not serve as any sort of justification for it, but I hope that it highlights the strength of Israel’s democratic institutions.
In March 2002, there were 37 suicide bomb attacks in Israel, most of them in the major cities of Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and Netanya. They claimed 135 lives in one month alone. The sad truth is that the barrier has been undeniably effective in preventing suicide attacks. There has been a 90 per cent. reduction in attacks and a 70 per cent. drop in the number of Israelis killed per year.
Finally, I would like to take a moment to consider the regional stage on which the Israel-Palestine conflict is played out, for it does not exist in a vacuum. The flames of the conflict can be fuelled and fanned by the actions of neighbouring countries. I urge the British Government to continue to support those nations that are willing to engage constructively in the peace process to do so. Saudi Arabia played an important role in the creation of a national unity Government, and, together with the Arab League, re-launched the Arab peace initiative to play a role in future negotiations.
Likewise, Egypt has a crucial role to play. I am sure that the Minister is aware that Egypt can play an important role in preventing smuggling and in policing its border with Gaza, as well as in acting as a mediator between the Palestinian factions of Fatah and Hamas.
However, there are people in the region who appear committed to sabotaging the peace process. The regimes in Iran and Syria continue to support, fund and train terrorists who operate in the middle east and threaten regional stability. Groups backed, bankrolled, armed and, in some cases, even controlled by Iran and Syria include Hezbollah, Palestinian Islamic Jihad and Hamas. Iran’s rhetorical attacks against Israel, together with its attempted procurement of nuclear weapons, pose an existential threat to Israel and the wider middle east region.
I commend the British Government for leading efforts to secure a third round of UN sanctions, and I hope that the resolution will be successful when it is voted on in March. It is easy to become cynical about the prospects for resolving the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, which has lasted for decades. We have all witnessed the wax and wane of progress and setback that has characterised the negotiations over the years. However, cynicism and pessimism will achieve nothing. I hope that I have emphasised that our common goal should be to show support for the bilateral peace process, which continues to unfold, between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. The answer to building two viable states—Israel and Palestine—living side by side in peace and security will come from focusing on the positive momentum created by Annapolis, facilitating negotiations between the parties and concentrating on constructive solutions to current problems.
The British Government have shown a laudable commitment to the middle east peace process over the years. I hope that their commitment will continue, in spite of whatever challenges and unwelcome developments lie ahead, for eventually that support and assistance will help in achieving a sustainable resolution with the state of Israel sitting alongside a Palestinian state in peace within the family of nations.
As ever, Mr. Marshall, it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Denton and Reddish (Andrew Gwynne) on securing the debate. The middle east peace process, as he has told us, continues to be a high priority for the Government and a topic of great interest to the House. With the support of our Quartet partners, the United Kingdom is committed to supporting Israel and the Palestinian Authority in their attempts to negotiate a peace. We recognise that there are huge obstacles to be overcome. However, 2008 has the potential to be a significant year in the progress towards peace in the middle east. The UK will do all it can to aid that progress.
Since the Annapolis conference in November, for the first time in seven years we are able to talk about a real process. At the conference we saw substantial political movement on both sides. President Abbas and Prime Minister Olmert committed to fortnightly meetings and both restated their commitment to their road map obligations, meaning the improvement of Palestinian security and a freeze on Israeli settlements. The US undertook to monitor the process and all parties agreed to seek to conclude negotiations by the end of 2008. Furthermore, the conference signalled renewed international commitment to the peace process, led by the United States, and President Bush’s visit to Israel in January has since demonstrated US support. Annapolis was remarkable for the strong Arab attendance, showing that the Arab world is prepared to be involved in the process in a meaningful way.
As my hon. Friend has told us, Annapolis was followed by the donors conference in Paris in December, which matched political engagement with economic support of £3.5 billion raised in donor pledges for the Palestinian reform and development plan devised by Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, including a UK contribution of £243 million over three years, linked to tangible progress in peace negotiations. Significant contributions were also made by several Arab states, including Saudi Arabia. That money will help to create an economic environment that supports peace and allows the formation of an economically viable Palestinian state.
The political barriers remain considerable. Israel must work harder to implement its road map obligations on settlements. We consider settlement building anywhere in the occupied Palestinian territory to be illegal under international law. That includes Israeli settlements in both East Jerusalem and the west bank. Settlement construction is an obstacle to peace. We support President Bush’s view that there should be, first of all, a complete freeze on settlement construction and the removal of outposts. He advocated the removal of outposts and we support him. I have expressed concerns about the issue many times, inside and outside the House. The Foreign Secretary recently made clear our concerns about the matter to his Israeli counterpart, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni.
The Palestinians, too, must step up their efforts towards implementing their road map commitments. A reformed Palestinian security force will continue to be the key to the success of the peace process. The UK has provided senior advisers to the US security mission and the EU’s civil policing mission to help Palestinian security reform. Israeli security and Palestinian hardship can be tackled only through a political process that creates an economically and socially viable Palestinian state at peace with Israel. Those issues must be addressed together.
My hon. Friend asked if we have plans to take part in a multinational force, should Israel decide to mount a large military incursion into Gaza, presumably to help the Israelis retreat from that position after they did whatever they were going to do there. We have no intention of doing that. I saw for myself the situation in southern Lebanon last July during the conflict with Hezbollah. The United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon, which is doing sterling work down in south Lebanon, could never have fought its way in during a bombardment, while parties were firing rockets at each other and slaughter and mayhem were continuing on a huge scale. In those circumstances, it is difficult to get a peacekeeping force in. I reiterate what I said a moment ago: the way forward is through a political process. We intend to try to strengthen the political process and to follow it.
The situation in Gaza makes progress difficult for both sides. Since Hamas seized control of the strip last summer, as my hon. Friend told us, well over 2,000 rockets and mortars—perhaps as many as 2,500—have been fired at Israel from Gaza. We fully accept that Israel has a right to defend itself against rocket attacks. We deplore the fact that Palestinian groups fire rockets out of Gaza with the stated intention of harming civilians; they are not aiming at military targets, but at civilians. However, even in the course of self-defence it is imperative that Israel remains committed to undertaking its obligations in international law.
My hon. Friend knows what it is like inside Gaza—I have heard him speak on the subject before—and that we must find a way forward that protects the interests of innocent Palestinian people living in Gaza as well as looking after the real needs of Israeli citizens in towns and villages in respect of decent security and an absence of bombing. The Foreign Secretary has said clearly that restrictions on fuel or electricity supplies will not achieve Israeli security and that the political aspirations of the Palestinian people will not be furthered by rocket attacks. The UK supports Prime Minister Fayyad’s plan to open the Gaza crossings to relieve the humanitarian suffering of the Palestinians.
I should like to take a moment to deal with the events at Rafah last month, when holes were blown in the wall between Gaza and Egypt, demonstrating that attention must be paid to Gaza. There cannot be a settlement if we choose to try to separate off Gaza. We support the Egyptian Government’s efforts, in response to the influx of tens of thousands of Gazans through Rafah, to find a peaceful and orderly solution to the situation on 28 January. On that date, with his European Union colleagues, the Foreign Secretary announced support for the proposal by the Palestinian Authority to take control of the crossings and we support the Arab League in that respect. The EU is ready to consider resuming its border mission at Rafah, which has been dormant since Hamas took over Gaza last summer, as soon as conditions allow. As I have said, we want Gaza to be included in the peace process.
The international community must send a clear message that, whatever the disappointments of the past, peace is possible. It is the job of all of us to send a strong signal that we are prepared to play our part in achieving peace. The international community needs to work in partnership with the Israeli and Palestinian leaderships to realise the vision of a just and lasting peace in the middle east.
I have just returned from meeting the Saudis and the Omanis. I was glad that my hon. Friend said that we should try to push aside and eclipse the cynicism that exists, because wherever I go in the middle east or elsewhere in the world there is a huge desire among people to see Israel and the Palestinian people living side by side as prosperous, sovereign states in peace. There must be a way of harnessing that good will and energy.
There are countries that are not playing helpful roles. The fact that the Syrians are supporting the rejectionists in Damascus as well as financing other terrorist groups is worrying—
It being Two o’clock, the motion for the Adjournment of the sitting lapsed, without Question put.