Wednesday 27 February 2008
[John Bercow in the Chair]
Israel and Palestinian Territories
Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—[Mr. Khan.]
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Bercow, and to have the opportunity to address this issue.
It is perhaps appropriate to remind the House of my entry in the Register of Members’ Interests, which discloses that in September last year, I was sponsored to visit the Palestinian territories in the west bank and Gaza strip by the Welfare Association UK. It was an eye-opening visit. I have taken an interest in the issue for almost all of my adult life, but I had never been to the area before and the visit made real many of the issues in which I had previously taken only a theoretical interest.
I pay tribute to a few of the people whom I encountered on my visit. I am lost in admiration for the work of Betselm, the Israeli human rights organisation; those working in the field for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency; and the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. The latter’s work on closures in the west bank in particular is essential in providing us with an authoritative and objective analysis of the situation on the ground.
I also place on the record my appreciation of the various interest groups within the Liberal Democrats. Like all parties, we have both a friends of Palestine and a friends of Israel group. My own thinking is influenced by many such groups. I pay tribute to Councillor Monroe Palmer, the chairman of Liberal Democrat friends of Israel. His engagement with the issue and with me is an example from which many in that organisation should take a lead.
I have sought to draw the terms of the debate fairly tightly to the question of settlements within the occupied Palestinian territory and the related question of closures in the area. Obviously and inevitably, the focus of my remarks will be on the application of Israeli Government policy. That lays me open to the accusation that I am not being even-handed in my treatment of the issue, but I ask people not to read into my comments on Israeli policy in this tightly defined debate any significance beyond the generality.
The question of settlement development as an instrument of Israeli Government policy has massive and perhaps fundamental long-term implications for the two-state solution. By its nature, the permanence of the settlements creates that significance.
Will the hon. Gentleman at least acknowledge that the Prime Minister of Israel, Ehud Olmert, has said that if there could be a lasting peace, and if the road map could be achieved, the settlements that the hon. Gentleman is talking about, which are so contentious, would be withdrawn and demolished, as a number already have been in Gaza and north of Jerusalem?
Later on, I shall come to Ehud Olmert’s engagement with the issue following the Annapolis conference. From what the hon. Gentleman says, I take it that he roughly shares my view—I presume that when he talks about settlements, he means both legal and illegal settlements, in Israeli terms. It is my view that those settlements will need to be removed, which will involve a massive displacement of Israelis who are currently in the occupied Palestinian territories. At present, about 450,000 Israelis live there, so what will happen to them if we return to the 1967 boundaries? About 200,000 such people live in the immediate environs of East Jerusalem. Ehud Olmert and others have made a commitment to a two-state solution, but if we judge them on their actions, we might find that that commitment is not as strong as we would wish it to be.
Does the hon. Gentleman recollect that Israelis left all the settlements in Gaza? Indeed, the settlements were demolished and 8,000 settlers were removed, many forcibly, by the Israeli army. However, the consequence was that last year alone 2,000 rockets were fired from Gaza deliberately on civilian targets in Negev.
I hesitate to draw an immediate comparison between the Qassam rockets, which I unreservedly condemn—I have seen the trauma they cause in communities such as Sderot—and the removal of settlers from Gaza. With respect to the hon. Lady, whom I know has long taken an interest in such matters and whose views I listen to carefully, the situation is more complex than that.
The significance of the removal of settlers from Gaza is important for two reasons. First, it has made it clear that there is a difference in the Israeli Government’s attitudes to Gaza and the west bank. Secondly—the real significance—it demonstrates that when there is political will within Israel and the Israeli Government, the removal of settlements is possible. However, political will underpins everything. At present, there is an increase in the amount of settlement building in the west bank, so I see no such political will. As we know from studying conflicts in every part of the globe, without political will, there will be no solution.
The hon. Gentleman is talking about good will and sending messages, but what good will and messages does he see from Hamas? One of its spokesmen said recently:
“The Hour will not take place until the Muslims fight the Jews and the Muslims kill them, and the rock in the tree will say, ‘Oh Muslim, servant of Allah, there is a Jew behind me, kill him!’”
If the hon. Gentleman is looking for an apologist for Hamas or for that sort of statement, he should look elsewhere; he will not find one in me. As ever when dealing with this situation, to pray one extreme as a justification for another does not really advance the argument.
I have spoken for eight minutes already, and I am being tempted by the hon. Gentleman to stray rather wide of the narrow focus of the debate, although I am delighted that so many hon. Members are present. Normally, when I am in Westminster Hall it is to discuss the most recent round of fishing cuts—curiously, that never seems to attract the same sort of audience.
Entrenchment is what concerns me most about settlement, because it makes the medium to long-term solution in the Palestinian territories difficult to achieve. I hope that the Minister for the Middle East will say something about our ongoing engagement in the area, particularly in relation to settlements. I appreciate that he will speak under certain constraints, but I hope that he addresses either today or at some later date the way in which our diplomatic representatives in Tel Aviv engage with the settler community. It was reported to me recently that the ambassador in Tel Aviv had hosted a dinner in the embassy specifically for representatives of settlements. If that is true—I do not know whether it is—such an approach leaves us open to criticism.
Secondly, when one considers the legality of the situation it seems that we should not permit the marketing and sale in the UK of property in the settlements in the present unregulated way.
Constituents of mine who visited the west bank recently raised with me the role of the Jewish National Fund in acquiring and developing land in the west bank. I believe that the company is registered in the UK. Has the hon. Gentleman formed a view of its activities, and does he believe that it would be appropriate for the Government to look into them, as the company is registered in this country?
I know nothing about the company, although there may be grounds for investigation. Structures certainly exist in the UK for the propriety of incorporation to be investigated, particularly of limited companies. The company’s activities will obviously be prescribed by its articles of association and memorandum of incorporation. That will clearly be the basis on which it can operate, and if it runs wide of that it will be open to criticism.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing the debate. During his visit, was he able to discuss the problem of the sale of goods from the settlements in Europe, which is obviously illegal? It follows logically that Israel has put itself in breach of the EU-Israel trade agreement by selling illegally produced goods.
Yes, that issue was discussed; indeed, it was discussed before our departure and has been again since our return. The engagement of the European Union and the way in which its agreements are enforced causes me great concern. It is something to which the EU could bring a great deal more rigour, and it concerns me greatly that that is not the case. At the end of the day, the bottom line is that continued financial support of settlements, direct or indirect, will make the situation more entrenched, and thus more difficult to resolve.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on having secured the debate. Does he agree that the subdivision of the west bank by the settlements, the division wall, the razor-wire fences and the access roads makes a two-state solution impossible for as long as those settlements and that division exist?
That is my concern. Indeed, if my hon. Friend visits the United Nations Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs website, he will see its tremendous maps—I would never have believed how excited people could get about maps until I visited the UNOCHA offices in Jerusalem. When illustrated on a map, the picture is graphic. It is obvious that if the status quo is allowed to persist, there cannot be a two-state solution. We have three Palestinian islands on the west bank—one in the north, one in the centre and one in the south, perhaps linked by tunnels: who knows?—but in no way, shape or form does it appear to be a viable state. For a two-state solution, the two states must be viable within their own boundaries.
I see, Mr. Bercow, that I have taken almost a quarter of an hour. I was concerned that I might not have enough to say; perhaps I should throw away my notes.
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
Yes, but for the last time.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that rather than putting forward a counsel of despair he should give full backing to the Palestinian President in his negotiations with the Israeli Prime Minister, which have the backing of the Quartet envoy, and the potential financial support for major investment in the Palestinian state being planned by our Government and other European countries?
I hope that what I have said so far is not a counsel of despair, although I accept that matters are fairly bleak. From the general situation, I take a degree of hope for this simple reason: the ordinary Palestinian and Israeli citizens whom I met have a will for peace and for a settlement. It comes down to the question of political will to which I referred earlier.
My frustration is that at present neither community has effective political leadership. I am quite happy to support the President of the Palestinian Authority; indeed, I am quite happy to give support to Ehud Olmert as the democratically elected Prime Minister of Israel, but my support does not mean an awful lot. It is necessary for both of them to engage with their own communities and give them leadership to bring about some sort of solution. Frankly, my despair is that I do not see that happening, and my support will not make a great deal of difference.
I turn to the point raised by the hon. Member for Lichfield (Michael Fabricant). According to a report published last week by Peace Now, the Israeli human rights organisation, since the Annapolis conference there has been a dramatic expansion in the amount of building in the settlements on the west bank. In 2002, 315 units were built, and 728 in 2005, and there has been a significant increase since November last year.
The question that comes to mind is whether Ehud Olmert is able, with his Government, to follow through the good intentions that he expresses on the international stage. Does he have the authority to make them work? He says that there is a freeze on Israeli construction in East Jerusalem, yet it is reported in Ha’aretz that the Housing Minister says there is no freeze, which was corroborated by the mayor of Jerusalem, who said that he would not see Jerusalem turned into an illegal outpost.
The Peace Now report to which I referred earlier also deals with demolitions. Settlement construction is only half the story; settlement demolition is the other side. It is apparent from figures published by Peace Now that construction applications from Palestinians to the Israeli authorities result in a 94 per cent. refusal rate, but that 33 per cent. of all demolition orders against Palestinian structures are carried out and only 7 per cent. against Israeli settlements. According to the Israeli central bureau for statistics, only 91 construction permits were granted to Palestinians, yet in the same period 18,472 housing units were constructed in the settlements.
I commend to hon. Members the work of Peace Now and its report, which is thorough and based on the Israeli Government’s own figures. I would have liked to say more about the subject, particularly about the impact of the policy on Palestinian communities, but because of the pressure of time I do not feel able to do so.
I turn—regrettably only briefly—to the issue of closures. Again, I commend to the House the work of UNOCHA in the region, and I share with Members a couple of paragraphs from the report of the special rapporteur, John Dugard, on the state of human rights in the Palestinian territories, which was published on 21 January. In paragraphs 34 and 35 of the report, Mr. Dugard says:
“Checkpoints and roadblocks seriously obstruct the freedom of movement of Palestinians in the West Bank, with disastrous consequences for both personal life and the economy. There are 561 such obstacles to freedom of movement, comprising over 80 manned checkpoints and some 476 unmanned locked gates, earth mounds, concrete blocks and ditches.”
I saw such checkpoints and roadblocks for myself while I was in the west bank. The report continues:
“In addition, thousands of temporary checkpoints, known as flying checkpoints, are set up every year by Israeli army patrols on roads throughout the West Bank for limited periods, ranging from half an hour to several hours. In November 2007 there were 429 flying checkpoints. Palestinians are subjected to numerous prohibitions on travel and to requirements for permits for travel within the West Bank and to East Jerusalem. Checkpoints ensure compliance with the permit regime. These restrictions violate article 12 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights which has been held to be binding on Israel in the OPT”—
the occupied Palestinian territories—
“by the International Court of Justice in its Advisory Opinion on the construction of the wall.”
May I take this opportunity to congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing the debate?
I understand precisely the points that the hon. Gentleman is making about the checkpoints, but does he not also accept that every state has a duty of care to protect its citizens? Since 2000, more than 1,000 people in the region have been killed by suicide bombers and other terrorist attacks. God forbid that a similar situation should exist in the United Kingdom, but if it did would we not have to have checkpoints, too? Would it not be our duty to protect our citizenry?
Of course Israel has a right to protect its citizens. Equally, however, Israel should not be in the west bank in the first place, because that, of course, is an illegal occupation under international law. The hon. Gentleman will also be aware—if he is not, I again commend him to the UNOCHA website and its maps—that a vast number of the checkpoints are well distant from the Israeli border.
There is a question of proportionality. I recognise that there is a threat to Israeli citizens from suicide bombers and of course Israel is entitled to enforce defence against that type of attack. However, the hon. Gentleman must not forget that it is not just Israelis who have been killed since 2000; a substantial number of Palestinians have been killed, too. I do not even know if data on the number are gathered centrally.
Furthermore, the disproportionate effect of the wall, the checkpoints and all the rest of the defences on the daily life of Palestinians living in the west bank really shows, quite graphically, that it is not an even-handed situation. If Israel is serious about achieving a long-term solution, it will have to accept that it will have to live side by side with Palestinians and that oppression of that type will never bring any such long-term solution.
There is a lack of proportionality, particularly in the way that the Israeli defence force operates, as I have seen for myself. I saw how our Palestinian driver, who was in a badged United Nations vehicle, was treated by what looked like a 19-year-old Israeli conscript from the IDF. For me, sitting there with my British passport and all the rest of my identification, it was an intensely frightening and disturbing experience. Goodness alone knows what it must be like for an ordinary Palestinian citizen with none of the protections or the UN-badged vehicles that I was privileged to enjoy.
Mr. Bercow, I have taken rather longer than I intended, but I hope that I have been able to address the issues raised by other hon. Members. There is much more that I would love to say and doubtless I will on other occasions, but in the interests of allowing a wider debate I conclude my remarks at this stage.
Order. No fewer than six Back-Bench Members have indicated to me that they want to speak. Colleagues should be aware that I will need to call the Front-Bench winding-up speakers at, or very close to, 10.30 am. Hon. Members are perfectly capable of doing the arithmetic for themselves; a certain self-denying ordinance is required and I should very much appreciate it if they tailored their contributions accordingly.
Thank you, Mr. Bercow. It is a pleasure to have you in the Chair today.
I start by congratulating the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Carmichael) on securing this debate. I, too, was on the visit of the all-party parliamentary group on Palestine last September, and I would like to thank Welfare Association UK, which enabled that visit to happen. I would also like to commend the United Nations agencies in the region, particularly UNOCHA— the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs—and the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, especially John Ging from UNRWA, who briefed us while we were there and looked after us. I would also like to thank Julia Wickham and Allan Hogarth of Amnesty International, who accompanied us on the visit.
I should also say that, although we were a group of Liberal Democrat and Labour MPs, that was not intentional. There was a Conservative group of MPs that visited the same places the following week, staying in rather better hotels, I think, but they were briefed by exactly the same people. I hope that we will hear from Conservative MPs about their experience during the debate. Of course, the week after their visit there was also a visit by Tony Blair, on behalf of the Quartet, and he was briefed by the same people.
I should say at the outset that I deplore the habit that people have got into of calling other people either pro-Israeli or pro-Palestinian, as though the two were mutually exclusive. I regard myself as a friend of Israel every bit as much as my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Mrs. Ellman) does, and I also regard myself as a friend of Palestine. It is really as a friend of Israel that I think that we should be urging the Israeli Government, in their own interests as much as in the interests of justice, to stop expanding the settlements, because they cannot expect the Palestinians to engage in meaningful negotiations at the same time as they are encroaching every day on yet more Palestinian land. It is like asking people to play football while moving the goalposts.
It is the continuing expansion of settlements that cuts the ground from under the feet of moderate Palestinian politicians, metaphorically as well as literally, and strengthens the extremists. The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, my right hon. Friend the Member for South Shields (David Miliband), saw the bulldozers and cranes still at work building new settlement houses when he travelled from Jerusalem to Jericho last year, through the settlement of Ma’ale Adumim, which is now a town of some 30,000 inhabitants about six miles to the east of Jerusalem. When I asked him about his trip in the Commons, he said that he took comfort from a speech made by the Israeli Prime Minister, Ehud Olmert, the preceding week, in which Mr. Olmert promised, as a confidence-building measure, to fulfil his responsibilities under the first phase of the road map, which my right hon. Friend understood to mean that he would stop building in the settlements.
However, when one looks more closely at what the Israeli Prime Minister said, one finds that he did not actually promise to stop building; what he promised to do was to stop expanding the outer boundaries of settlements, but to continue building within them. Therefore, I fear that that is an empty promise, since all the Israeli settlements have large areas set aside for future building. Next to Ma’ale Adumim, there is an area known on the maps only as E1, which is a military area closed to Palestinians but is also, in fact, reserved for future expansion of Ma’ale Adumim, and it could take more than another 30,000 settlement houses.
All the other settlements also have areas reserved for future expansion. In fact, a study by the World Bank found that, although the built-up areas of settlements cover only 3 per cent. of west bank territory, the municipal areas around them cover 9 per cent., and then there are areas called reserved settlement jurisdiction, which cover a further 9 per cent. When we add the closed military areas and the various other categories, we find that nearly 50 per cent. of the west bank is closed to nearly all Palestinians. The state of Israel already occupies 77 per cent. of the land of the Palestine mandate, so if and when the Palestinians get their own state with the 1967 boundaries, they will be renouncing their claim to 77 per cent. of the mandate area and agreeing to occupy and live in only 23 per cent. of it.
I sometimes wonder how the English would react if we were confined to 23 per cent. of our original country. Let us imagine that the original inhabitants of England were cooped up in an area the size of Wales, which is proportionately the same size as the area that we are talking about.
Mr. Bercow, you are a student of history, so you will know that that is exactly what happened to the Welsh people.
That is the very point that I was about to make. Over the past 2,000 years, that is what has happened to the Welsh, and I look to them to understand how the Palestinians must feel about what has happened in the Palestinian territories.
As well as imagining that the Welsh were confined to Wales, we would have to imagine a wall that sometimes strayed far west of Offa’s dyke, in addition to English-only roads leading to English-only settlements deep inside Wales. We would have to imagine pass laws that prevented Welsh people from visiting their relatives in England, as well as an English Cardiff from which the Welsh people were banned. The Palestinian people see such things every day, but it is difficult to explain that to people in this country without drawing such an analogy.
The hon. Gentleman makes an interesting analogy, with which I identify very much as someone who is half-Welsh. However, he is not making a direct comparison, because his analogy does not suggest that Welsh people would be coming over to England to blow themselves up. That, however, is the reality on the ground in Israel, and it is very different from his analogy.
If the Welsh people were treated in the way that I described, they might do that—I do not know. The only incorrect thing about my analogy is the size, because England is much larger than Israel. Wales is, in fact, exactly the same size as Israel, so if we wanted an analogy that was to scale, we would have imagine that most of the original population of Wales had been squashed into an area the size of the west bank and Gaza.
It so happens that there is a county in Wales that is the same size as the west bank, Powys, and a city the same size as Gaza—Swansea. We could easily imagine all the original inhabitants of Wales being pushed into Powys and Swansea or crammed on to the Gower peninsula and into the mountains of Powys. We would then have to imagine the dominant power—let us leave aside who that might be—building 133 settlements in Powys, with another 100 unofficial outposts and a row of houses on the top of every hill or mountain in the Brecon Beacons. We would have to imagine that most of the roads had been taken over for the exclusive use of settler communities, with the Welsh confined to the mountain roads and the dirt tracks. We would have to imagine the settlements cutting so far into the Usk and Wye valleys that it would be impossible for Welsh people even to get from Brecon into Radnor or from Radnor into Montgomeryshire.
What started as a single country would therefore end up divided into three almost completely separate blocks, and that is exactly what has happened in the west bank. It is almost impossible for Palestinians to travel between the separate parts of the west bank.
Does my hon. Friend not think that he is doing the people of Wales a great disservice? Is not the nub of the Israeli-Palestinian problem that peace has been thwarted by Palestinian terrorists determined to kill as many Israelis as they can, with the deliberate objective of ruining peace initiatives?
We do not have to know much about Welsh history to know that the Welsh would fight tooth and nail to protect the remaining 23 per cent. of their territory if they were put in the position that I described. They would fight even more bitterly if the settlements gradually expanded until they were left with only half their original land. That is what is happening in the west bank, and the Palestinian west bank state as it now exists is only 12 per cent. of the original area of the Palestine mandate.
We must face the fact and make people in this country understand that all settlements in the west bank are illegal under the fourth Geneva convention. On top of that, the Israeli Government have accepted the road map, under which they should—this is a quote from the road map—
“freeze all settlement activity, including the ‘natural growth’ of existing settlements.”
What has actually happened is that the number of settlers in the west bank has doubled since the Oslo agreement from 125,000 to 250,000.
This month’s report from the Israeli organisation Peace Now, which the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland quoted, shows that settlement activity has intensified around East Jerusalem even since the Annapolis conference in November, when the Israeli Prime Minister promised to stop expansion; indeed, activity has increased exponentially, compared with the previous five years. A ring of new Israeli settlements is planned in East Jerusalem, in another clear attempt to change the geographical facts on the ground.
My hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Riverside is right that 8,000 settlers were withdrawn from Gaza, but that number pales into insignificance compared with the 30,000 settlers who have been put into the single settlement of Ma’aleh Adumim in the west bank, and there is room for as many again. That is the litmus test for the Israeli Government. They can defend themselves against most of the accusations thrown at them by talking about security: they need a wall for security, they need checkpoints for security, they need to prevent Palestinians from coming into Israel for security and they need to keep Palestinian cars off the settlers’ roads for security. We may not always accept the argument, but I agree with the hon. Member for Lichfield (Michael Fabricant) that no one can deny the Israeli Government’s right to put Israeli citizens’ security first, at least in their own country, and we would do exactly the same. However, the expansion of settlements has nothing do with the issue of security: building more houses in the west bank does not make Israel more secure and nor does putting Israeli settlers in the centre of a Palestinian city such as Hebron.
So why do the Israelis do it? The BBC “Today” programme asked that very question of the Israeli ambassador last month, and I have a transcript of the conversation. It is an absolute master-class—
Order. I am listening with great interest and respect to the hon. Gentleman, but may I just point out that he has been speaking for 12 minutes? If he were able to finish very quickly, and if everybody else who wanted to speak were able to confine themselves to five minutes each, everyone would be able to speak.
Thank you, Mr. Bercow. I will do my best to draw my remarks to a close.
The transcript of the BBC interview is an absolute master-class in avoiding questions and it should be used as training material for Cabinet Ministers. The point is that there is no answer to the question why the Israelis continue to expand the settlements, and although they remain committed to the road map on paper, it is difficult to believe, looking at the size and number of the settlements and the infrastructure that has been put in place, that they will ever give them all up in practice.
The best thing that I can do in drawing my remarks to a close is to answer the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Riverside about terrorism. Terrorism is a very real threat. We visited Sderot, which is the one town within striking distance of Gaza and which has been suffering a rain of rockets ever since the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza. The Israelis have a perfectly legitimate point when they say that their fear, if they pulled out of the west bank, would be that they would get even more rockets from even closer to main population settlements such as Tel Aviv. I can understand that logic, but I would put another logic against it. They have allowed Gaza to become impoverished, with 80 per cent. unemployment and 80 per cent. reliance on United Nations food rations. That is why the rockets have kept coming. It is not an excuse, but it is an explanation.
If the same policy of impoverishment is followed, by the strangling of the economy of the west bank through the closures, which is what is happening at the moment, the same thing will happen in Gaza and Hamas will be elected there, as well. There are already terrible levels of unemployment among Palestinians in the west bank, and the same process is going on. It is vital that people in this country should understand, and that our Government should make it clear to the Israeli Government, how important it is—I look forward to the Minister’s response on this—that they should stop expanding the settlements, in their and everyone’s interests, as the first step toward removing them.
I shall take three minutes, if I may.
Israel is often criticised for its policy on settlements and the closure of territories. It is easy to make those criticisms, but I believe that they are unfair and that the UK Government must not join in with them. What else is Israel supposed to do? Her actions are essentially defensive, not aggressive. Israel has dismantled settlements in trying to seek a two-state solution, limited the growth of settlements and removed illegal posts. In Gaza Israel went so far as to remove posts, despite considerable criticism within Israel for doing so, and has been paid for that with numerous rocket attacks.
As for the closure of territories, it is easy to portray the erection of the security barrier as a hostile act. We have all seen the photographs of the 5 per cent. of the wall that happens to be made of concrete, but again I believe that Israel’s actions are essentially those of a defensive liberal democracy. It built the security barrier to prevent suicide bombings and sniper attacks. What would the Government of any western democracy do? I believe that, if the United Kingdom bordered not the North sea, St. George’s channel or the Irish sea, but territories that Israel borders, and if there were numerous suicide attacks from within those territories, we would similarly want to put up a security barrier.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree, however, that the natural place to build the security barrier would be on the borders of the neighbouring country, and not within its territories?
That is an easy point to make, but I have visited Israel and the west bank and I found it interesting that, although it is easy to talk about where the barrier should be, and about the 1967 barrier, one is quite often talking about someone’s back garden, where a family happen to spend their afternoon. I simply do not agree about the issue. The barrier needs to be built where it will provide security, not where we, using very outdated maps that take no account of an expansion, think it should go. Having said that, where there are disputes in Israel and Palestinians have objected to the siting of the barrier, there is judicial scrutiny. The process is not arbitrary. There is a mechanism that allows people who are concerned about where the barrier is being built to challenge the decision through the courts.
On judicial scrutiny, the hon. Gentleman will be aware—indeed, I have made reference to it in my speech—of the view of the International Court of Justice about the wall. Is that not judicial scrutiny that should be observed by Israel?
I am not a great fan of that institution. As for the idea that remote international judges should make the decisions for a democracy, Democratic Governments and national judiciaries should make decisions, and should be accountable to the people. When Hamas abides by all the decisions of international bodies I shall be happy to put pressure on democratic Governments to abide by them, but it is slightly unfair to expect one side to conform to international law when another so clearly violates its principles.
When I hear people posturing against Israel, I sometimes wonder if it tells us more about the person doing the posturing than about the reality in the middle east. It is nice, particularly for politicians, to find a righteous cause or a bee in their bonnet to go on about, but Israeli-bashing is no righteous cause. Israel is a liberal democracy. The UK Government’s policy should be to support it against those who want to destroy it. We should stop believing the fallacy that a small country the size of Wales is somehow responsible, and is somehow the big obstacle to peace in the middle east. We should seek peace and should note that Israel has made peace with every neighbour—Egypt and Jordan—that has been willing to do so. Where there are stable and responsible Governments, Israel has made peace. Israel is unable yet to find a lasting peace in the west bank, or with Gaza or south Lebanon. That tells us more about the tyrants who run those territories.
I am utterly astonished by the contribution that we have just heard: it seems that if we are not fans of international institutions and treaties we are free to break those treaties. The reality is that Israel is in breach of international law by the construction of the wall. As for the idea that it is a poor benighted country, I remind the hon. Member for Harwich (Mr. Carswell) that it is the world’s fourth largest arms exporter; it is in possession of 200 nuclear warheads; it is quite capable of taking part in—and frequently does take part in—military attacks on Palestinian places; and, tragic as every death is, including those of Israelis who die in rocket attacks, the death rate is far higher for Palestinians than for Israelis. This is not a struggle of equals, but a war of occupation by Israel of the Palestinian territories.
I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Carmichael) for securing the debate, for going on the visit last year, and for choosing the subject of settlements. Those settlements are not an aberration by a few people in Israel who have chosen to live in the west bank or, in the past, in Gaza. They are part of a long-term strategy. Ariel Sharon, who has been around for a very long time, said this in a letter written in 1973:
“We’ll make a pastrami sandwich of them. We’ll insert a strip of Jewish settlements in between the Palestinians, and then another strip of Jewish settlements right across the West Bank, so that in 25 years, neither the United Nations, nor the USA, nobody, will be able to tear it apart.”
I have visited Gaza and the west bank many times, and have visited many towns in Israel on many occasions. Is it right that those settlements, with their red roofs and red buildings, with walls around them and special settler roads that Palestinians cannot travel on, should increasingly be dotted all over the west bank? Is it right that the Jordan valley near Jericho has now been occupied and taken over by Israeli agricultural settlements? Is it right that Palestinians simply cannot travel from their homes to a place of work without being stopped? Is it right that an army should come in and stop people going about their legitimate business, and hold up farmers for days on end with their produce, so that it rots in the sun and is therefore of no marketable value? That is the reality of the occupation. That is what the settlement policy is about. I hope that every hon. Member of this House would begin to have some sympathy with an ordinary Palestinian who had to endure that humiliation every hour of every day.
Does the hon. Gentleman also agree that another key factor is the domination of the water supply in the region, because the amount of water being used as a result of the building of the new settlements is further impoverishing the Palestinian people?
Absolutely; that is a very good point. The settlements are situated in places with water; that is why they are put there. The water supply is then taken over, preventing neighbouring Palestinian farmers from getting it. The situation in the Jordan valley is disastrous. The massive rate of abstraction of water from the River Jordan—partly by Jordan, but also in large measure by the Israeli settlements—means that the Dead sea is disappearing at the rate of 1m to 2m a year. That is the reality of the question of water in the Jordan valley. On the west bank itself, nearer to Jerusalem, the situation is the same.
I shall be brief, Mr. Bercow, as I can see you nervously looking at your watch and looking around, and I should not want you to be any more stressed than you are now. I just want to make one point to conclude.
From a point when we could have achieved a settlement on a two-state basis, the Israeli settlements in the west bank have grown apace. As the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland pointed out, the increase in the number of settlements in the west bank is far greater than the number withdrawn from Gaza. Bit by bit, day by day, hour by hour, East Jerusalem is being annexed by Israel, so that in a very few years’ time it will no longer be recognisably part of Palestine or a Palestinian city, but an extension of Israel. It is an occupation. Surely to God, everybody can understand that an occupation is wrong and illegal. If a state wants peace, it does not occupy, encircle, impoverish and imprison its neighbours, but talks to and respects them. However, the former is exactly what is happening.
Three people are still seeking to catch my eye. If hon. Members are willing to confine themselves to three or, at most, four minutes each, all three will get in. Members can do the arithmetic for themselves.
I hope that you shall indulge me a little, Mr. Bercow, but I shall try to abide by your wishes.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Carmichael) on securing this important debate, which it definitely is. He made a passionate case based, in part, on his own experience of Israel and the occupied territories. I last visited Israel and the west bank in November last year—a month or so after his visit—and I hope that I, too, hold an informed view of the situation. Nevertheless, this debate is notorious for often generating more heat than light—to use a hackneyed phrase. It is difficult to judge the point at which passion gives way to something less edifying, but it is probably true that, in any debate involving Israel’s settlement and security policies, the more heated the argument becomes, the less enlightened its outcome is likely to be, which is why I found my most recent visit to Israel and the Palestinian territories, organised, but not paid for—I hasten to add—by the Portland Trust, to be a valuable experience.
The Portland Trust’s remit is to promote peace and stability between Palestinians and Israelis through economic co-operation and development. That strikes me as a laudable and pragmatic aim, and one that is well equipped to avoid the worst excesses of both religious ideology and inflammatory rhetoric. The trust employs staff from both the Israeli and Palestinian communities who are able to work together to their mutual benefit, because they believe that building metaphorical bridges is a better alternative to building territorial barriers.
Israel faces a Hobson’s choice. It knows that, whatever policies it pursues in order to guarantee short-term security, the only long-term solution is a viable two-state one. There should be no mistaking that Israel is prepared to live in peace with its neighbours and to go the extra mile to achieve that peace. The Palestinian people face a similar choice, as they have all along—whatever else they do, they must first renounce terrorism in order to secure peace.
Regardless of who holds elected political office, the choices before the Palestinian people can no longer be dictated by article 13 of the Hamas charter, which states that
“there is no solution to the Palestinian problem except by Jihad.”
In the meantime, it is not helpful for hon. Members, or indeed anyone else, to huff and puff about apartheid, or to use similar analogies, which are neither accurate nor warranted, given that 20 per cent. of full Israeli citizens are Arabs and that the country has the benefit of both a free press and an independent judiciary.
Even in an age of ethical relativism, however, some moral certainties are still in play in this debate. One of them is that the state of Israel has the right to peaceful existence within secure borders. It is regrettable that Israel has needed to construct a barrier to control movement across the west bank border, but there can be little doubt that the need was real and that the policy has been a striking success in improving the immediate security situation. Israel has a proven track record in dismantling settlements in the occupied territories, but, as we heard earlier, the withdrawal from Gaza has been repaid with renewed terrorist atrocities. At the current rate of fire, by the end of 2008 4,500 rockets and mortar shells will have been fired by terrorist organisations from Gaza alone. Given those statistics, it is hardly surprising that Israel’s current guiding principle in deciding upon further withdrawals is “once bitten, twice shy”. Another certainty is that Israeli citizens have the right to live without fear of attack. Already this year, 31 Israelis have been killed or wounded and the daily strike rate reached its highest ever level in January.
If we are to achieve peace, we must do it through building economic bridges. The Palestinian reform and development plan was presented to the international community in December last year and will offer both institutional reform and economic and social development, with the support of the World Bank and thanks, in part, to a pledge of $500 million from the British Government. There is an acute lack of affordable housing for Palestinians in the west bank, exacerbated by high levels of unemployment and high construction costs. Some 200,000 housing units are needed in total, with 25,000 needed in the Ramallah region this year alone.
Another significant challenge is the prohibition of new Palestinian building on land designated as area C under the Oslo agreement because such land remains under full Israeli civil and military control. One consequence of that restriction is that in the third quarter of 2007 licences for just 2,109 new dwellings were granted, which is itself a 31 per cent. decrease on the third quarter of 2005.
I appreciate the reasons why the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland called for this debate, but it would be progress indeed if settlements on the west bank included the need for further affordable homes for Palestinian families. I hope that the Minister will join me in recognising that the Palestinian people need more than just the removal of Israeli settlements from the west bank and an easing of travel restrictions. They also need more fresh investment in their own communities, and they deserve the support of the British Government in securing it.
Order. Front-Bench spokesmen have been extremely co-operative, and I am grateful to them. The result is that I need to start the Front-Bench winding-up speeches no later than 10.34 am. I would like two speeches in that time, but I am in the hands of hon. Members, in particular those of the hon. Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Mrs. Ellman).
It is certainly the case that this debate is on a very unpalatable and unpleasant situation. However, it is very important to understand the context, which is the outcome of the defensive war that Israel fought in 1967 when the Arabs threatened to throw the Jews into the sea. At the end of that war, the Khartoum conference was held by the Arab states at which the three “nos”—no recognition, no negotiation and no peace—led to the beginning of the settler movement, which I have always opposed and which has had negative consequences. It is important to accept, however, that since then Palestinians and other Arab states have mainly been unwilling to accept Israel’s existence. Terrorism has deliberately set out to ruin the various attempts to reach a negotiated peace.
Israel has shown itself willing to withdraw from occupied territories: it withdrew from Egypt in 1979 when it dismantled its settlements in Sinai; from west bank towns, such as Jenin, Nablus and Jericho, before the Oslo peace accords were ruined by terrorist attacks; and from Gaza. It is important to recognise that the former representative of Yasser Arafat in Jerusalem, Sari Nusseibeh, stated in his recently published book that the former “blew it” at Taba when the 2000 peace negotiations failed.
It is also important to recognise that there are genuine security concerns. More than 1,100 Israelis have been killed since 2000, many of them through deliberately targeted suicide attacks. The much maligned security barrier—a regrettable necessity—has resulted in a 90 per cent. reduction in the number of people killed by suicide attacks. Incidents such as that at Soroka must be remembered. I refer to a Palestinian woman and her children who were treated for weeks on end at the Soroka hospital in Beersheba. She was stopped at a checkpoint and found to have explosives attached to her. She was on her way to the hospital to blow up the very people who saved her life and those of her children.
We know of many instances in which explosives have been smuggled into the occupied territories. There is the recent example of 6.5 tonnes of potassium nitrate being stopped, disguised as European aid in sugar bags. All those things show that there are genuine security concerns about people who still do not accept the existence of Israel and want simply to kill Israelis. I was pleased that as a good-will gesture, the Israeli Government dismantled a number of checkpoints and barriers prior to the Annapolis negotiations, and I hope that more can be done.
What should happen now? Both sides should honour their commitments. The Palestinians should honour their commitments to cease violence and the Israelis should stop the expansion of settlements and pull down the illegal outposts. The checks required at checkpoints should be commensurate with security and no more should be put in place.
The teaching of hatred by Palestinians towards Jews should end. Particularly disgraceful is the current teaching of hatred to children on Palestinian television stations, where Farfour, the Mickey Mouse figure, advocates martyrdom. Recently, on a young children’s programme, Assud the Bunny stated:
“We are all martyrs. We will get rid of the Jews. I will eat them up.”
A child presenter on the Palestinian TV station al-Aqsa stated that they will liberate the viewers from the “filth of those Zionists”. As long as the Palestinians teach young children such hatred, there cannot be a great deal of hope for the future.
It is essential that the Annapolis negotiations continue and that two states live side by side in peace and security. There must be a political settlement that involves the withdrawal from territories in exchange for peace, a sharing of Jerusalem and the resolution of the refugee issue. It must involve massive economic investment, as the hon. Member for Braintree (Mr. Newmark) stated. I agree with all that he said. To save people’s lives, it is essential that everybody recognises that the only valid way forward is a negotiated peace on the basis of two states. I am sorry that it has been so long in coming, but I sincerely hope that the Annapolis negotiations lead to an end that should have been achieved long ago.
For just under two minutes, I call Mr. Michael Fabricant.
This has been an enlightening but often very polarised debate, as these sorts of debates often are. It has been nice to hear the hon. Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Mrs. Ellman) and my hon. Friend the Member for Braintree (Mr. Newmark) talk about a balanced approach.
I have been somewhat appalled by some things that have been said. The hon. Gentleman over there quoted Ariel Sharon. [Interruption.] What is the constituency?
The hon. Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn) quoted Ariel Sharon from 1973. At that time Ariel Sharon was a general, and it was immediately after a successful invasion by Egypt of the Sinai. At one point, it was thought that the Israeli army would collapse. Yes, what he said was wrong. Yes, it was extreme. However, to apply the comments of Ariel Sharon in the context of the events of 1973 to the present day is ridiculous, extraordinary and completely irrelevant. The point is that the Palestinians need justice. They need to be assured that they will live in peace and security. However, the point that many hon. Members have made today is that Israel equally deserves that assurance.
The hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Carmichael), who initiated the debate, called in aid a quotation from the newspaper Ha’aretz. He is able to quote from that newspaper because Israel is a free, liberal democracy that has a free press. It is interesting that different things are said by different Ministers, but we see that in this country. Is that not a good thing? Perhaps not for the Government, but it is a good thing, because this country, too, enjoys a liberal press.
The hon. Member for Battersea (Martin Linton) drew a strange analogy with the English and the Welsh, but that is not the same situation. There has been talk of a Palestinian mandate. That mandate was created in 1948. It was a very difficult situation then and it has become even worse. There will be peace only when both sides recognise the right to live. That means the prevention and cessation of the Qassam rocket firing and the suicide bombings.
I am very grateful to the hon. Gentleman. I call Willie Rennie.
I see that you are getting more agitated as the debate progresses, Mr. Bercow. You have had to bring your calculator into the debate so that hon. Members know what time limits are required. Leaving them to make their own calculations in the first place was the initial mistake, but I am sure that you will not make it again.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Carmichael) on the way that he introduced the debate. Despite the taunting on numerous occasions, he has managed to de-escalate the debate. As we have seen this morning, passions are very strong on both sides of the argument. The hon. Member for Battersea (Martin Linton) said that it is not mutually exclusive to be a friend of Israel and a friend of Palestine. That is important for us all to remember, because if we are to seek a solution to this problem, which has been protracted over many decades, we will have to be the friend of both.
The hon. Member for Braintree (Mr. Newmark) said that the more heated the debate becomes, the less enlightened it becomes. That, too, is true. We need to de-escalate, as my hon. Friend did on numerous occasions when introducing the debate. He told us about his first visit to Palestine, which was only last September, despite a lifelong commitment to the cause. He set out his case extremely well and said that the visit was not a counsel of despair: it was bleak, but there was a degree of hope.
There have been excellent contributions from the hon. Members for Harwich (Mr. Carswell), for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn), for Liverpool, Riverside (Mrs. Ellman) and for Lichfield (Michael Fabricant). The contributions shortened as time went on. My hon. Friend the Member for Orkney and Shetland alluded to the Palestinians’ difficulties with the 563 physical obstacles that are in place, which include checkpoints, roadblocks, earth mounds, trenches, fences and gates on the roads in the west bank. There are also external closures with 13 designated barrier crossing points, 11 of which are for people.
I found the permits system extremely bizarre. Under it, permits are allowed only for over-35s who are married with at least one child. They must have no security record and they must have an employer within Israel. Each permit lasts for only three months. When people with permits do try to cross the external closure, they have to wait for a very long time. There is also the back-to-back system of passing goods from one side to the other. All those things make it difficult for business and the economy to thrive. In 2006, the crossing points were closed for 91 days, and many are not operational for long periods. That has had a dramatic effect on the number of Palestinians who are able to work in Israel. It has dropped from 140,000 in 1999 to 64,000 in 2006.
We need to ensure that this is a balanced argument and that we also understand the difficulties that people in Israel face. There have been in Israel many rocket attacks and deaths, particularly of children, over a protracted period. Israeli politics is fluid. One coalition partner recently left the coalition, making the whole situation extremely fragile. The Government now have only 67 of 127 seats in the Knesset, so they always have to watch their backs in the politics of their own country. We must be cognisant of both sides’ difficulties in this affair and of the insecurity and fear within the populations on both sides.
We have missed numerous opportunities with the various ceasefires and treaties that have been in place. The fact that there is now a unity Government between Hamas and Fatah does not seem to have delivered any results in terms of a return to peace. The road map was allowed to slip in a hopeless way, and the fact that it took President Bush seven years to consider this issue a priority for his term in office was a disgrace. There has also been a host of initiatives over the years: the Annapolis conference, the Oslo accords, the road map, various UN resolutions, the Quartet and the involvement of our former Prime Minister. However, that never seems to result in much progress, or it is a case of one step forward, two steps back. The Palestinian-Israeli issue is a festering sore in the whole middle east, and we need to prioritise it to ensure that all sides give it the weight that it deserves.
The rhetoric is easy, and we all know the elements that need to be in place: the two-state solution, the ceasefire on both sides, the building up of security and a growing economy and the public sector. Those things are easy to say, and there is no point in trading the number of casualties on either side, which does not get us much further toward finding a solution. We need the Arab League to be more involved, and we need to ensure that the security barrier is not constructed any further and that the number of Israeli settlements is reduced.
In what order those things should happen is a matter for debate—the question is how we implement the policy proposals that the rhetoric is about. No matter in what order we put them, somebody will always say, “They have to do this first before we do this.” There must be common agreement about how to proceed. It is easy to say those things from this Chamber, but much more difficult to implement them in practice.
I welcome you to the Chair, Mr. Bercow, and I congratulate the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Carmichael) on securing the debate. I refer the House to my entry in the Register of Members’ Interests regarding my visit to Israel and the west bank last December.
The House has been divided on many issues today, but underlying the speeches made has been agreement from practically everybody that as part of an overall peace settlement between Israel and the Palestinians, the settlements, roadblocks and road closures need to go. I agree with that for three reasons. First, as a matter of principle, the settlements are unlawful under international law. The relevant United Nations resolutions and the various attempted peace agreements, most notably the road map, have always envisaged that, subject to any agreement between the two parties to vary the complete dismantling of settlements, they should be removed as part of an overall peace agreement.
Secondly, there is a running political sore. The hon. Member for Battersea (Martin Linton) was slightly unfair and underplayed the genuine fears in Israel about security and continuing terrorism. However, he was accurate in his description of how ordinary Palestinians experience roadblocks, the barrier, settlements, closed roads and so on. When I have been to the west bank, I have talked to people whom we would regard as respectable, educated, professional Palestinians, who have described their resentment and humiliation at being bossed around by some 19-year-old conscript who does not want to be on duty at a roadblock, but who makes his or her day a little less tedious by making life miserable for the people coming through it. If that is the reaction of educated professional Palestinians, it must be far worse among resentful, unemployed young men, of whom there are a great many in the occupied territories. Even moderate Palestinians see the expansion of some settlements since Annapolis as evidence of bad faith on Israel’s part.
Thirdly, the existence of the settlements, barriers, roadblocks and so on constricts hopes of economic development. People cannot move goods freely if, every time a lorry gets to a roadblock, it has to be unloaded and its cargo put on to pallets and checked carefully. If people are prevented from travelling and commuting to work, as they are by the barrier and roadblocks, hopes of economic growth in the Palestinian territories are hindered. All the hopes of Tony Blair and those who came from the donors’ conference in Paris will be set at nought if we cannot find a way urgently to tackle the problem.
At the same time, we must address the reality of Israeli fears about security. It is not just a bunch of political leaders who are resisting the dismantling of settlements and roadblocks for their own reasons. Israel’s electorate yearn for peace—every test of opinion shows that—but still have real fears. They observe that although Israel unilaterally withdrew from Gaza and dismantled settlements there, it was rewarded, in their eyes, with Qassam rockets on Sderot and further attempts at suicide bombing. As my hon. Friend the Member for Harwich (Mr. Carswell) and the hon. Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Mrs. Ellman) said, the ending of the settlement has always been seen as part of the final peace agreement, rather than as something to be offered up in advance.
I would challenge the Government of Israel on this point: in every conversation that I have had with officials and politicians, they have been sincere in saying that they want to work with President Abbas and Prime Minister Fayyad to bring about a move towards a comprehensive peace agreement following the Annapolis conference. The trouble is that Mr. Abbas and Mr. Fayyad need to be able to demonstrate quickly to their population that there will be real material and political gains for the Palestinian people as a consequence of engagement and negotiation with Israel. I fear that some of what has happened since Annapolis, particularly the announcements on Har Homa, is sending a different message to the Palestinians and undermining those whom Israelis rightly want to be their partners in the search for a lasting and just peace.
What, then, can a British Government do? I have two suggestions for the Minister. I shall not pretend that he, or whichever Minister or Foreign Secretary is in office, will be able to wave a magic wand and sort out the problem quickly, but our influence could be exercised in a couple of ways. First, one of the keys to progress is sorting out security along with economic development. Can the United Kingdom, together with its Quartet and EU partners, work on a plan to open up particular highways and help train Palestinian police officers and security officials, so that checks can be provided to a standard that will satisfy the Israelis and persuade them to relax the controls, without feeling that it will endanger their own population, thereby allowing economic development? Helping to build the capacity of the Palestinian Authority in that way is something positive that we could do.
Secondly, one of Israel’s great fears is that the Arab world in general is not committed to peace. The hon. Member for Liverpool, Riverside mentioned the Khartoum conference, held many years ago, but since then we have had the Arab peace plan and the attendance of virtually every significant Arab country at Annapolis. Just the other day, a speech by Prince Turki al-Faisal of Saudi Arabia held out a vision of a middle east region co-operating harmoniously and building mutual prosperity—Arab and Israeli together—if a settlement on Palestine can be attained. Anything that the British Government can do to encourage our traditional friends in the Arab world to speak out more, along lines similar to Prince Turki’s, would help to provide the reassurance that the Israelis need, so that we can start to take forward the hopes that were built at Annapolis and not let them crumble to dust, as has happened too often in the past.
It is a great pleasure to take part in this debate under your chairmanship, Mr. Bercow. You are one of the most learned and erudite voices in Parliament, and I know that you will have listened to the debate with great pleasure.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Carmichael) on securing this important debate. We had a debate on the middle east peace process in this very Chamber just yesterday, in which many of these issues were discussed; many of the Members present have debated them many times. As the hon. Gentleman pointed out, one could describe the contributions that we have heard today as testimonies to the past and continuing tragedies that the conflict has generated. He also said that the point is to find a solution.
There has been heat and passion in the Chamber this morning. I always appreciate the insight and experience of my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn), who has visited the area many times and who feels passionately about the issue. I know, too, that some Members sense that progress toward a solution is held up by those who under no circumstances want to see the existence of Israel. They want it wiped off the face of the map, as President Ahmadinejad put it. The apparently irreconcilable positions have been described this morning. I was particularly taken by what the hon. Member for Braintree (Mr. Newmark) said about article 13 of the Hamas charter, which, in a sense, defines the rejectionist view. That is one end of the spectrum—one extreme of the conflict.
The other extreme is what I have seen with my own eyes and what we have heard described this morning: metal containers with gun portals cut into them being taken off the back of trucks, plonked down on a piece of Palestinian land and surrounded with bits of barbed wire. Some Uzi-carrying extremist then says, “This is now Israeli territory.” That is an occupation by any definition, and is illegal. The Government believe that it is illegal and so do the voices we have heard this morning. We cannot state that enough. Those two extremes are what we have to work with. That is the reality of the situation.
There have been other, similar conflicts—some people call them frozen conflicts—in which solutions have been found. We were involved in a conflict in this country for 30 years that often seemed to me to be completely without solution. There seemed to be irreconcilable differences, but we solved it through continuous, professional negotiation and by using our experiences from the Malaya campaign and others. I am absolutely convinced that the situation we are debating is not without solution. I said at the outset that we have to find a way through it, and I think we can do that.
The Government consider Israeli settlement-building anywhere in the occupied Palestinian territories to be illegal under international law. That includes settlements in both East Jerusalem and the west bank. The road map makes it clear that Israel should freeze all settlement activity, including the natural growth of existing settlements, and dismantle all outposts erected since March 2001. That view has been expressed many times both inside and outside the House. I have said it many times, and so have my right hon. Friends the Foreign Secretary and the Prime Minister. We must make the position very clear.
I turn to the arguments that we have heard this morning, which I totally understand, about Israel having to defend itself against the horror of suicide bombings. There is no way of rationalising that: it is the most foolish thing that any defender of the Palestinian cause can do. A few years ago, I heard an hon. Member say, “If I were Palestinian, I’d be a suicide bomber.” That is not what a responsible representative in a democracy should say; such a statement contains elements of the insanity that drives people to do that.
Yes, Israel must defend itself, and if it wants to build a barrier, let it build a barrier, but it must be along the route of the 1967 ceasefire line. It must not arbitrarily incorporate tracts of Palestinian land. It might be that when the final negotiations are conducted, there will be land for peace trading. That was the fundamental theme of discussions, and there is no reason why it should not happen. Perhaps there will be agreement with the representatives of the Palestinian people along the lines of, “That can stay there, but we’ll need a little bit of this.” Similar arguments continue on many borders across the world. When I was in Ottawa recently, I heard that parts of the border between the United States and Canada are still disputed. Those arguments can continue; the issue is finding a way to avoid violence.
We have not had much opportunity today to talk about Gaza. We have heard about the rockets being fired mainly, but not exclusively, from Gaza. As we heard in a recent debate, rockets have also been coming in from south Lebanon, which is very worrying. I was there recently and saw that the situation is fragile. I raise that issue because we have not mentioned today the outside powers that are meddling in the situation, fighting wars of their own by proxy. The influence of Damascus and Tehran is not positive. Nor is the way in which money is given to terrorist organisations when it is known that they will use it to kill innocent Israeli civilians. That cannot help the situation.
Members have expressed their thoughts vividly and in their own ways. They have tried to paint a picture of what life in the area is like and what might happen if a solution can be reached. We must remind Israel of its responsibilities and that it must fulfil criteria under its road map obligations. The Israelis must dismantle their outposts—I will come to the built settlements in a moment. I believe absolutely that if they started to take down those symbols of occupation and oppression—those appalling containers with gun portals and barbed wire—as my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Mrs. Ellman) told us they did in Gaza, that gesture would provide a chance for the Palestinian people to see that the peace process can bring real benefits. I know, from having spoken to President Abbas, Prime Minister Fayyad and others that they are looking for that kind of gesture.
The only way in which the Annapolis process will move forward is if it is seen to bring benefits to ordinary people on the ground. That, in turn, will influence opinion inside Israel. I do not believe that the Israeli people want to live in constant conflict and in fear of suicide bombings and rocket attacks for the rest of that nation’s history. There must be sovereign states living alongside each other. It can be done, and we know that there is a way forward: it is called the road map. There must be concessions on both sides, particularly on the issue of settlement, which must be taken seriously.
I warmly thank colleagues for their co-operation in that debate.
Tanzania (British Investors)
Good morning, Mr. Bercow. It is a genuine pleasure to be permitted the opportunity to speak under your chairmanship.
In sharp contrast with that sentiment, I take no pleasure at all in having to discuss this morning a matter of considerable concern that arises from my failure to protect the interests of two of my constituents, Mrs. Sarah Hermitage and her husband, Mr. Stewart Middleton, who made the mistake of investing in Tanzania. I know and respect the Minister well enough to say that if she has prepared a speech extolling the virtues of Tanzania as an example of a developing African country that is making progress, and the importance of British investment in and overseas aid to that country, I would be grateful if she would do me the courtesy of tearing it up.
I have heard the arguments from Lord Triesman and Lord Malloch-Brown. I shall read their comments into the record and, in the limited time available, I shall explain why I believe that they and the Government of the United Kingdom are misguided in their naive faith. If the Minister does not have enough time or the briefing to respond in full to my observations, I shall completely understand, because I have a great deal to say. I do not seriously expect her to be able to reply to some of the things that I am afraid I need to say this morning, but I would welcome a written response in due course.
I record my appreciation of the assistance of two people: the Tanzanian high commissioner to the United Kingdom, Mrs. Mwanaidi Maajar, and the British high commissioner in Tanzania, Mr. Philip Parham. Mrs. Maajar received me with great courtesy at a time that, following bereavement, was difficult for her family. I believe that she has exhausted her powers as a diplomat, which, of course, are not the same as ministerial powers, in trying to bring about a fair resolution to the problem.
Mr. Philip Parham has proved an exemplary UK representative. He has gone far beyond anything that might reasonably have been expected in seeking to protect the interests of my constituents and of British overseas investors.
Sadly, all that help and my own meagre efforts have been to no avail. My constituents have lost their investment, lives have been placed in danger and, most important of all, innocent people have been imprisoned. I have a file on the matter that is about a foot thick. The case is complex and interwoven with legal contortions. It is inevitable, therefore, that in 20 minutes I shall skate over some facts in a way that will lay me open to charges of being selective and superficial, but I will do my best to state the case simply.
Between 2000 and 2004, the Silverdale farm in Moshi, Tanzania, was owned by Benjamin Mengi, whose brother—this is relevant—is the Tanzanian media magnate Reginald Mengi. Benjamin Mengi received from Vector US $150,000 and a Toyota Land Cruiser in exchange for the use of 10 acres of land leased for genetically modified organism trials for the production of zero-nicotine tobacco.
On 20 May 2004, the lease to the Silverdale and Mbono farms was assigned by Mengi’s company—Fiona (Tanzania) Ltd.—to Silverdale Tanzania for a consideration of $112,000. The money was paid in agreed instalments and formally receipted. Mengi retained a 30 per cent. shareholding and my constituent Stewart Middleton acquired 70 per cent.
Mr. Middleton is a farmer with years of experience in Africa. He embarked on the production of vegetables for export and employed local labour. The African co-operatives that owned the freehold of the land passed a resolution accepting the transfer on 10 May 2004, and they also accepted the rental paid to them at the time.
In January 2005, Benjamin Mengi, having sold the lease once, sought to sell it for a second time to a neighbouring farmer, Konrad Legg. In April 2005, Mengi applied to the courts to have the investors, Stewart Middleton and Sarah Hermitage, evicted. Simultaneously, it would appear that a contract was to be taken out on Middleton’s life. He was to be shot in the head, his body placed in the Kikafu river and his car abandoned at the airport.
In June 2005, Stewart Middleton opened police charges against Mengi for forgery and conspiracy to murder. The Deputy Minister of Home Affairs was informed but the allegations were never investigated. In August 2005, Stewart Middleton and his Tanzanian manager were arrested on the streets of Moshi by armed police and taken before magistrates on complaints made by Mengi. The charges, which do not exist under the penal code of Tanzania, were dropped, and Mr. Middleton was released. No apology was ever offered by the Tanzanian Government.
In November 2005, Mengi declared publicly in front of the Moshi regional crime officer that he would drive the investors out of Tanzania “by any means necessary”. To cut a long story short, he succeeded.
Representations were made to President Jakaya Kikwete in January 2007 by the then Foreign Secretary, the right hon. Member for Derby, South (Margaret Beckett), and an intervention was made by Mrs. Cherie Booth, QC, the wife of the former Prime Minister. She raised the issue with Justice Minister Mary Nagu in February 2007. Those approaches were recorded in Africa Confidential on 25 May 2007 in an article that added:
“Praising the government’s Private Growth Initiative earlier this year at the prestigious United States Yale University, East Africa Tycoon Reginald Mengi stressed the need to be ‘careful’ when choosing a partner.”
“His younger brother, Benjamin Mengi, is trying to obtain the lease to the lucrative Silverdale and Mbono farms in the Kilimanjaro region which in May 2004 he assigned to Silverdale Tanzania owned by British Investors Sarah Hermitage and Stewart Middleton.
Official pledges of support notwithstanding the Moshe district police have twice arrested Middleton after Mengi claimed he had not been paid the full price agreed—despite Mengi signing a receipt to the contrary which Africa Confidential has seen.”
It clearly helps to have a brother who owns newspapers and television stations that are relied upon by the President and the Government for support.
In spite of the Herculean efforts of the British high commissioner, Philip Parham, a three-year campaign of threats and harassment has been waged by a small-time crook. Backed by local police officials, Mengi has been allowed to drive lawful investors from Tanzania in fear for their lives and for the lives of the honest, decent and hard-working Tanzanians whose livelihoods they have fought to protect.
In November 2005, the then British high commissioner, Mr. Andrew Pocock, who is distinguished in his own right, wrote to the director of criminal investigation in Dar es Salaam:
“You will no doubt be concerned, as I am, by what appears to be continuing intimidation of a bona fide investor in Tanzania. Part of this intimidation seems to be coming from the local police force. Mr. Middleton is not a criminal. There is no evidence that he has broken Tanzanian law in any way. Yet he is arrested without charge and taken by armed guard before a magistrate…I am particularly mindful of the efforts of the Government of Tanzania to encourage legitimate investment and concerned that a British National who is the source of such investment—and of local employment and exports—should be subjected to harassment that does not reflect Tanzania’s hospitality.”
Those comments were copied to the Deputy Minister of Home Affairs, Captain John Chiligati, who took no action.
In June 2006, Stewart Middleton found it necessary to write to the Minister for Planning, Economics and Empowerment following the imprisonment, on trumped up charges, of one of his staff. He wrote:
“The entire judiciary here in Moshi is openly against me because of Mengi manipulating the situation by bribery and by telling key people in the judiciary that their jobs are in jeopardy as I have reported these matters to the Ministers concerned. The worst aspect of all of this is that people who are working with me are now suffering the consequences of doing so. Abel”—
“was arrested on the Tuesday and then Mzee Mtenga is attacked in the night of the Wednesday. There can be no doubt that this is a deliberate attempt to eliminate my support and also to have me suffer the guilt that I am responsible for the plight of these two outstanding Tanzanians.”
More was to follow. On 9 October 2006, freelance writer Linda Garner recorded:
“The Republic of Tanzania threatened Stewart Middleton, a British investor living in Moshi in the Kilimanjaro region, with arrest for the third time in nine months. The hearing involved the case surrounding Mr. Middleton’s arrest and committal to prison for fourteen days on 22nd July 2006.”
The article states that three months after that imprisonment, the republic had still not produced prosecution statements and no charges had been laid.
In August 2006, following my representations to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office on these matters, in which I called for a suspension of aid to Tanzania, Lord Triesman of Tottenham, the relevant Minister, replied:
“Tanzania is an increasingly effective State. It has a stable Government committed to reducing poverty and promoting economic growth…To suspend aid would undermine the progress towards improving governance and cause unnecessary hardship for millions of Tanzanians living in extreme poverty”.
I will return to the “extreme poverty” issue later. Lord Triesman had the grace to acknowledge:
“We agree that corruption does remain a problem in Tanzania as it does with many countries in the region.”
He added that
“President Kikwete has emphasised the importance of tackling corruption and addressing its root causes.”
I am not sure that Lord Triesman would have written the same letter after the hour-long meeting that Sarah Hermitage and I subsequently held with him and his officials or after receiving the personal letter, dated 20 March 2007, sent to him by Stewart Middleton’s Tanzanian farm manager, technical manager and field operations manager, which stated:
“We have been imprisoned. We have had false accusations made against us which would have resulted in us being in jail again if it had not been for the efforts of the British High Commissioner, Philip Parham...The rule of law is not being applied in any matter concerning ourselves or our employer and we are very worried for our future.”
On 1 November 2007, I wrote again to the Tanzanian high commissioner, Mwanaidi Maajar to inform her of my disappointment at the lack of progress towards a peaceful resolution of the case and of my intention, if necessary, to seek this debate. The letter was copied to our Foreign Secretary and on 2 December the Minister of State, Lord Malloch-Brown, replied on his behalf:
“We believe we should maintain our efforts to support economic growth and poverty reduction in Tanzania. Those efforts are making a real difference to the lives of poor people…Tanzanian budget procedures are better than in many other countries at similar stages of development. But public financial management including corruption certainly remains a challenge. President Kikwete has spoken strongly about the need to tackle it.”
The “it” presumably relates to what another UK Minister had described in a parliamentary written answer on 25 July 2007 as
“potential irregularities with the Bank of Tanzania external payment arrears account for 2005-06.”—[Official Report, 25 July 2007; Vol. 463, c. 1121W.]
At that time, the Department for International Development revealed that it had already given £345 million in “budget support”, with a further £105 million disbursed in July 2007 in support for 2007-08.
On 15 January 2008, Sarah Hermitage wrote to me:
“All I know is that for now we have to escape the filth that surrounds us. I feel unclean with what they are doing to us and very, very upset that by omission my own Government is condoning it...I am not being melodramatic and I promise I am not in ‘fishwife mode’ but we are truly out of our depth now unless we get back up from Miliband”.
On 26 January, she e-mailed:
“There is no doubt that we are in extreme danger. Our four key Tanzanian staff were arrested and imprisoned for six months yesterday and the remaining two key workers were told they were going to be beheaded…One of the key workers stated as he was being sent off to prison, ‘We will die for this European’. However dangerous it is for us we feel that we cannot go until we have set the appeal for the men in place.”
Following further threats of ambush and violence, Sarah wrote on 29 January:
“We are being sensible but I have to say I am scared now. It is not safe to walk on the farm. We will be out as soon as the appeal is filed—before if we need to be…There is nothing left of our operation. Everything has been stolen from the farm including the tin roofs from the field toilets…Incredibly, we were granted a right to see our men in prison. To see these fine Tanzanians walking in filth and mud and crouching before us like criminals was enough to break the strongest of spirits.”
By that time, our high commissioner, Philip Parham, had persuaded the Chief Justice of Tanzania to meet Stewart Middleton personally. It was too late. On 7 February, I received a message from Stewart and Sarah via a friend saying that they were fleeing to avoid further arrest. And then:
“We have lost the farm. In the end the threats to our lives, the imprisonment of our staff, was placing everyone at risk…the farm is destroyed and now invaded by Mengi…the British Government was told two weeks ago that the Chief Justice had pulled all the civil cases, then he changed his mind...The British Government is taking the arrest and imprisonment of our management team as a direct threat on British investment...Our aim now is for the release of our men. We accept that we have lost everything”.
They have now fled the country.
It would be convenient for those sitting in comfortable ministerial chairs in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to be able to claim, in the interests of diplomacy and covering their own backsides, that this is an isolated case. It is not.
Biwater is a water and sanitation company that operates and manages successful projects worldwide. Anyone who knows anything about developing countries—you do, Mr. Bercow, and I believe that I have a right to claim that I do, too—knows how important water and sanitation are to the development of a nation and the promotion of good health, so it is reasonable to suggest that the Biwater projects are important.
In February 2003, a local joint venture company, City Water, was set up by a Biwater subsidiary in Tanzania. It was awarded a 10-year lease contract to manage the water and sewerage contract for the Dar es Salaam area, providing technical and commercial services for a $143.5 million donor-funded investment programme designed to transform water and sewerage services for the people of Dar es Salaam.
In the run-up to 1 June 2005, City Water’s assets were seized and on 1 June three Biwater executives of City Water were summarily deported by the Government of Tanzania. At the time, Edward Lowassa was the Minister responsible as Minister for Water and Livestock Development. He subsequently became Prime Minister of Tanzania and was then forced into resignation following another corruption scandal relating to an energy deal.
The British Government are pouring millions of pounds of aid into Tanzania and they continue to maintain the pretence that the money is helping the poor. It would seem that the people described by Lord Triesman as “living in extreme poverty” are benefiting little from our aid programme while corrupt Ministers and business men are doing very nicely out of it.
Members do not need to take only my word. I leave the final say to “Joe” who, writing in January this year, adopted an alias to protect friends and associates still working in Tanzania. Joe, who has lost
“only a few thousand pounds”
as a result of corruption in Tanzania, says:
“It’s important to realise…that Tanzania is, in effect, a totalitarian regime. The idea that the system is democratic is a sham—the CCM have been in power since independence and it’s very unlikely that any other party could win an election. This means that all power—including power over the courts and the legal system—is concentrated in the hands of a few, highly corrupt people. There is no doubt that corruption starts at the very top. Although current and past Presidents say the right words in public in an attempt to mollify donors, they are totally responsible for the industrial levels of corruption in Tanzania…I expect you’ve been following the Bank of Tanzania case. My friends in Dar Es Salaam say that the vast sums involved in the fraudulent payments to shell companies are just the tip of the iceberg: vast sums are disappearing from both the Bank of Tanzania and the Tanzania Revenue Authority.
The country is, effectively, being run by gangsters. It’s worth remembering that some of the donors…have, at least until very recently, held Tanzania up as a shining example of what can be achieved in Africa. Our…own Department for International Development has been at the forefront of such organisations…In fact DFID pioneered a dreadful policy called ‘budget support’ in Tanzania”.
That is the programme into which we appear to have pumped £450 million. Joe says:
“The only slight flaw in ‘budget support’ is that it takes no account…of corruption…The result is appalling. DFID have been throwing petrol on the fire of corruption and making a bad problem much, much worse. Things were bad enough under Mkapa but since President Kikwete came to power they have, I think, become a lot worse. Some experienced diplomats from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office have, incidentally, been saying for some time that DFID are very naive and have been causing rather than solving problems.”
In an article in Mwananchi, the Swahili version of The Citizen newspaper, under the heading, “British MP calls for suspension of aid to Tanzania”, the writer says:
“Many a time issues raised by MPs in the House of Commons lead to problems in African countries. That is what happened in Zimbabwe after several MPs in London pressed their Government to act against Robert Mugabe due to what they considered to be human right violations.”
When the “ill treatment” of Robert Mugabe is prayed in aid of a cause I hope we might agree that we have hit rock bottom.
I do not think that the Minister can any longer defend either the promotion of private investment of funds in Tanzania or, under the present regime, the continuation of our aid programme to that country. I rest my case.
I apologise to you, Mr. Bercow, and to the hon. Member for North Thanet (Mr. Gale) for the quality of my voice, but I hope that it will get me through my response.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this debate. His constituents have suffered a grievous experience from investing in Tanzania. We are all aware that the topic is of particular importance to him, and he set out his case clearly. I shall talk first about the general situation in Tanzania, before coming to the specifics of his case.
Tanzania remains one of the poorest countries in Africa. More than 12 million people live below the national poverty line from a total population of about 38 million. Maternal mortality and chronic malnutrition remain stubbornly high, HIV/AIDS remains a major cause of premature death, and life expectancy is 48 years. With UK assistance, Tanzania is trying to tackle poverty, and over the past few years has made significant progress in some areas—for example, by increasing primary school enrolment from less than 60 per cent. to 97 per cent., and by reducing child mortality by a third, largely by making major progress in the fight against measles and malaria.
In many other respects, Tanzania is a good performer. The country remains politically, socially and macro-economically stable, and both domestic revenue and aid have increased significantly over the past five years. Donors recognise Tanzania's achievements in improving economic growth and infrastructure. The Tanzanian Government have made budget management more transparent, increased tax collection, and continued programmes to reform public service and public financial management.
The hon. Gentleman referred to the Department for International Development, which is closely involved in that work in the form of the business environment support in Tanzania programme and the Financial Sector Deepening Trust, which it has supported to the tune of £10 million over the past five years. That is in addition to support of more than £50 million for core public sector reforms in Tanzania over the past five years, which strengthen accountability and the state’s capacity to deliver services to the poorest people. That is why the British Government are committed to continue to help the Tanzanian Government to reduce poverty. Aid flows are a significant part of the economy and equivalent to more than 40 per cent. of the Tanzanian Government’s total spending.
As with all aid programmes, we regularly review our development partnership with Tanzania. The most important criteria must be whether our aid will help to reduce poverty, and to improve the lives of some of the poorest people in the world. However, when reviewing our aid programme, we take several factors into account, one of which is the quality of governance. Unfortunately, as the hon. Gentleman outlined, corruption remains a major issue in Tanzania, as in many other countries. Several cases of grand corruption are being investigated by the Tanzanian authorities, and the hon. Gentleman referred to the Bank of Tanzania. The recent special audit confirmed that more than $100 million was improperly paid from an account operated by the country's central bank. The initial steps taken by President Kikwete are highly commendable, and show that the Government are committed to fighting such cases when they are uncovered. The bank's former governor has been sacked, and a criminal investigation has been ordered to help to recover the money. The Tanzanian Government have made a commitment to produce an action plan, to take forward the recommendations of the special audit, and to strengthen wider public financial management measures.
Budget support donors, including the UK, have delayed confirmation of their aid for the 2008-09 financial year, pending more information from the Government about the way in which the Tanzanian authorities intend to respond to the recommendations of the special audit to strengthen measures to address corruption, and to improve public financial management.
Earlier this month the Tanzanian Prime Minister resigned because of another case of poor governance, as the hon. Gentleman outlined. That resignation led to a Cabinet reshuffle. That suggests that, although corruption remains, perpetrators of corruption or other malfeasance, even at the highest levels, are being held to account for their actions. Those steps towards improved governance should help to rebuild the confidence of budget support donors. Improved governance, and within that an improved judiciary service, is needed in Tanzania to help promote and protect the interests of foreign and local investment, which is desperately needed to help Tanzania lift itself out of poverty. Cases such as Silverdale farm are proof that Tanzania still has a long way to go.
Turning to the specific case of Silverdale farm, I share the hon. Gentleman's deep concern about the events that have unfolded there during the past three years or so. Stewart Middleton and Sarah Hermitage invested in the farm in good faith, and they have suffered from serious harassment in various ways. Since their initial investment in 2004, they and their staff, as the hon. Gentleman rightly emphasised, have been forced to defend themselves against many criminal and civil lawsuits. Mr. Middleton has been arrested, as have the couple’s staff. Several lawsuits remain outstanding, and have been for long periods.
The British high commission and particularly successive high commissioners, Dr. Andrew Pocock and Philip Parham, have been and remain actively engaged with the case. They have provided a lot of support to Mr. Middleton and Miss Hermitage, and have intervened many times and lobbied the Tanzanian Government on the couple’s behalf. That engagement has helped to bring the situation back from the brink on several occasions. British Ministers have also raised the case at the highest levels, most recently when Lord Malloch-Brown raised it with President Kikwete earlier this month during the African Union summit. As a result of those interventions, there are signs of potentially helpful movement from senior members of the Tanzanian Government. The Chief Justice is actively engaged, and has offered to mediate between the two parties in the hope of bringing the case to a just conclusion.
The Silverdale farm case is an example of why it is difficult to invest in Tanzania. It demonstrates the constraints on both the capacity and the integrity of the legal sector, which the Tanzanian authorities recognise and are trying to rectify. We will continue to be engaged on that case, with the aim of bringing it to a satisfactory conclusion. As I made clear, the British Government recognise that there are serious issues for foreign investors in Tanzania. We will continue to work with the Tanzanian Government to address those problems, with the ultimate aim of creating a positive business environment open to investment. The Government believe that that is the right way forward and will enable Tanzania to achieve its potential. We should continue to work towards realising that.
Sitting suspended until half-past Two o’clock.
It is a pleasure to have this debate with you in the Chair, Mr. Bercow—I know that you care more than many people about this issue.
Eradicating child poverty is a bold ambition and in politics it is important to be bold and to say that we can get rid of it. Halving child poverty by 2010-11 and eradicating it by 2020 is necessary because by making bold claims we drive change forward. Without such claims, we bibble along and make the world less worse rather than better. I am glad that we have a target and that we are doing much better than the previous Government; when in power, they managed to double child poverty between 1979 and 1997. In addition, the figures changed from one in six to one in three children living in poverty. The target is not enough; we have to deliver on that target. We know that, if we fail to deliver, we will increase cynicism and a sense of hopelessness about politics, and make poverty seem an ineradicable problem. At a time when the latest figures show that we might be going backwards, it is important carefully to consider what needs to be done to tackle this problem.
The Institute for Fiscal Studies—a body that we all admire for its rigour—predicts that if we just carry on steady as she goes, we will be 700,000 children short of our target. That is not tolerable. All the experts in the field agree that, despite the £2 billion set aside in the 2007 Budget for tax credits and the rise in child benefit to £20 a week by 2010, which adds up to more than £1,000 a year, more money is needed, otherwise we will miss our target. I initiated this debate because I believe that the forthcoming Budget is our last chance to make sure that we do not miss the target.
The recipe is fairly straightforward; we know what needs to be done. For child poverty to fall, the incomes of those at the bottom need to rise faster than average income. It sounds straightforward, but how do we do that? The IFS says that £4 billion is needed. The Government are suggesting that that amount is not available at the moment, although it seemed to be available to deal with inheritance tax issues. It would be nice if we could find some resources to tackle the issue, which I know is this Government’s priority. It is absolutely essential to do so. I wish to use this debate to highlight some of the demands we have, many of which have been proposed and worked though by a range of charities that have campaigned excellently on the subject. I thank them, as I am sure other hon. Members will, for the briefings and information that they have provided us with.
One call that is supported by an alliance of groups against child poverty is for seasonal cash grants for children in poverty. If we could deliver that, it would make a massive difference to the poorest children. There are two seasons when the grant is particularly important. In winter, some parents must choose between keeping their children warm and keeping them fed, and an extra cash grant would make all the difference to the cost of keeping them warm. Fuel poverty is one of the most shocking aspects of child poverty because it is an example of the poorest people paying more for the same services than richer people. It is shocking that, for example, people on an electricity pre-payment meter pay a 10 per cent. premium for their electricity and those on a gas pre-payment meter pay 8 per cent. more for their gas. Nobody who can afford not to have a pre-payment meter has one. The poorest people are paying premium prices for warmth, which is a basic human need.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising this topic at this time. Both in relation to electricity meters and borrowing money—whether from loan sharks who come to the door or through adverts on television—the facts show that the poorest have to pay more to subsidise the rest of us, who are either on direct debit or have cards that we can use at the bank. The poorest are charged a higher tariff throughout so their expenses are actually more. The argument could be made that the poor are subsidising the better off.
My right hon. Friend is right. It is not only in relation to utilities that the difference in charges exists. For example, when purchasing household goods, if someone buys a washing machine—a washing machine that works is critical for a mother of a large family—the cost in Argos might be about £160. In a cheap credit sales shop it will cost more than £400 for the same washing machine, which will be paid for over time. That is another example of the poor paying more.
As I suggested, we could tackle some of the problems with cash seasonal grants, which would help with fuel poverty. We could reform the social fund so that it could become like a national Grameen bank—the nation owns a bank now so perhaps it could deal with some of these proposals. The poor should have access to credit on reasonable terms. That is a no-brainer for all of us who have been involved in making poverty history. We have been proposing such ideas in relation to poor people in Bangladesh, India and Africa. Why do we not make sure that poor people in Britain have access to credit on reasonable terms, instead of having to pay a premium for credit, which is what happens at the moment?
I am listening with interest to the hon. Lady’s remarks. Does she agree that the credit union movement in this country is exactly the kind of excellent initiative that she is describing? It fulfils many of the necessary and vital functions that she has mentioned and is aimed at those at the bottom of the income scale.
It absolutely does aim to do that. If credit unions work, they are excellent. However, let us be honest: many parts of the country do not have a credit union and people often have to be resourceful and energetic to find their local credit union. That is the other burden on the poorest people. The problem is not simply that they pay a premium, but that access to information is more complicated. Poor people do not have broadband web access in their homes so they cannot comparethemarket.com on insurance. As a result, many poor people are uninsured, even though they often live in areas of high crime and are more likely to be victims of burglary and other crimes.
Although the credit unions are capable of providing part of the answer, we have a responsibility to find universal mechanisms through which people can access cheap credit, so they are not dependent on the credit union movement. Through reforms to the social fund and without fundamental cost to the Treasury, it is possible to provide access to affordable credit, which would mean that large expenditure items do not cause problems.
I am going to talk about the other time of the year when cash grants would make a big difference. In the summer, a poor family is faced with feeding children who are eligible for free school meals at other times of the year. Just to give lunch to a child costs a family at least £50 to £100 over the summer. The family also faces the cost of school uniform. In today’s world, they feel that their kids’ clothing must compete with that of the other children so that their kids do not feel socially excluded. Therefore, cash grants at that time of year would tackle a specific problem. We all know how much difference the extra cash grant for heating makes to pensioners just before Christmas. It seems to me that we should follow the Government’s lead on that and look at whether we can give cash at the other end of the age scale so that we can help to tackle child poverty. Save the Children estimates that seasonal grants could lift 440,000 children out of poverty.
My hon. Friend mentioned winter fuel allowances for pensioners. Is she aware that the Every Disabled Child Matters campaign has called for winter fuel allowances to be paid to families with disabled children under the age of five because they incur extra heating costs and extra expense at that time of year?
In whatever strategy that we develop, we should recognise the features that are most associated with poverty. Compelling evidence exists that shows that, where there is a disabled child in a family, there is more poverty. Initiatives that help families with disabled children—for example, by looking at how the disabled living allowance works—might help to deal with some of those in the most dire poverty.
Cash on its own does not deal with the social isolation that poverty brings. That is another issue that needs to be addressed. While cash is critical to tackle child poverty, services are also important.
Before my hon. Friend moves off the subject of money, does she agree that one of the great scandals of child poverty now is the fact that there are 1 million children in poverty whose families are in work? We often equate poverty with people on benefits, but the real tragedy now is that we are encouraging low-income families off benefits and into employment that simply does not pay. Does she think that there is now a strong argument for revising the minimum wage and backing living wage campaigns, particularly in high-cost areas, to give people the chance to get out of poverty through employment?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. There is a compelling case to look at the minimum wage. The minimum wage is £5.52 an hour at present, and there are too many people who exist on that level of pay. Often, minimum wage jobs not only create poverty, but trap people. People on the minimum wage do not usually get annual upratings unless they are forced by increases in the minimum wage. They often do not get anything above minimum holidays. If they have to take time off because their child is sick, they lose pay. One of the things that we need to do in our employment strategy is to follow the Harker report, which states:
“A system which encourages parents to take any job rather than one that offers them good long-term prospects, or leads to parents ‘cycling’ between having a job and being out of work is neither efficient nor effective in tackling child poverty.”
I am glad that the Minister who is replying to this debate is from the Department for Children, Schools and Families. As well as access to better pay in work, we need to give people access to better training and to qualifications. Often, people in the lowest-paid work are expected to train outside working hours. If they have children, that is not possible because of the cost of child care. In our welfare-to-work strategy, we should put some energy into assisting parents in the lowest-paid jobs to raise their capacity to earn more as well as to improve their income. A critical need in my constituency is access to English for speakers of other languages. Such assistance will enable people to step out of the lowest-paid work into potentially better paid work. Often, it is not better paid at the first step but it becomes better paid thereafter.
We should place emphasis on not just getting people into jobs but keeping them in jobs and helping them to get promotion. That can be done by mentoring and supporting people in low-paid work. At the moment, our services do not focus on that. It is not a requirement of the jobcentre, yet assisting women in low pay to hang on to work and to get the skills that they need to get promotion and to improve the quality of their work would do much to sustain levels of employment and to increase their and their families’ income.
The hon. Lady and the hon. Member for Regent's Park and Kensington, North (Ms Buck) made a good point about the importance of helping couples in work. Has she given any thought to ending the couple penalty in the tax credit system to help lift many children out of poverty?
I am not a benefits expert. I think that much has been made of the so-called couple penalty. What I am concerned about, and what this debate is about, is children, particularly the poorest children. The Government need to decide which children constitute the very poor. A lot of our progress to date has been on lifting children who are poor out of relative poverty. However, we have not succeeded in reaching the very poorest children.
A striking fact is that the very poorest children have probably gone backwards compared with the bulk of children who are in poverty. Frankly, I would expect every initiative to be tested against whether it makes a difference to the very poorest children. I would like the Minister to consider creating a measure of extreme poverty and targeting an initiative towards it. That should have a higher priority than pretending to support—or not—the institution of marriage, which I suspect is what the hon. Member for Forest of Dean (Mr. Harper) was getting at.
My hon. Friend has been most generous with her time. May I draw her attention to a set of essays—I am sure that she is already aware of them—published by practitioners and experts called “Why Money Matters”? Two lines in the essays struck me, and they relate to the question from the hon. Member for Forest of Dean (Mr. Harper). One stated:
“Families on low incomes typically manage their money well”,
which is contrary to popular opinion. I would like the Government to focus on the fact that the essays
“point strongly to the need to support family incomes to a far greater extent if we are to eradicate child poverty once and for all.”
Unless we look at how we can get more money to the poor, we will not tackle this problem.
My right hon. Friend is quite right.
Will the hon. Lady give way?
I will not at the moment because I have just found my place, as it were. I had taken quite a detour, so it would be helpful for me to regroup to make the speech that I wanted to make.
I was about to say how services as well as money can change the experience of poverty, and how they are critical to dealing with child poverty. Cash on its own does not deal with the social isolation of poverty, and accessing services can be a struggle for the poorest people. For example, they do not have access to cars so that they can drive their children to the dentist. Indeed, other things that everybody in this Chamber takes for granted are not accessible to those children.
One of the most telling things is that the prosperity premium starts operating very early in children’s lives. Children who are born into poor families who are ahead at age two—the testing could be on child achievement, understanding and so on—would be overtaken by more prosperous, middle-class children by the start of schooling. Children are born with a wide range of abilities, but one group of children descends in the achievement and success scale and the other ascends because of parental income and family prosperity, such is the impact of family poverty by the time a child is two years old.
We must concentrate not only on family income, but on how we give children who are born into poor families access to experiences that will enable them to succeed. I thoroughly praise the Government for investing in access to outdoor play for children. The poorest children often have no access to safe outdoor play areas where they live. More prosperous children have a back garden, but poorer children could be stuck in high-rise homes or, if they have a garden, it is shared or dangerous or tiny. There would be no equipment in those gardens; there would be no lovely trampoline on which children can play adventurously, for example, as one sees in many middle-class households. That makes a real difference to what children achieve and how they behave.
I praise the Government for identifying outdoor play as an important issue in the children’s plan. My local council, which is run by a “barmpot” alliance of every party except Labour, has managed to fail to achieve a grant of a third of a million pounds that was identified by the lottery—it had Slough’s name on it—because its playgrounds policy was to build on them. The council said, “We’ll close the little playgrounds on the council estates, which really make a difference to mums, and put playgrounds in the big parks.” The lottery saw through that and said, “You’re not getting our money so you can do that”.
I am happy to say that today, the Government have identified Slough as a possible play pathfinder, and the town has a one-in-two chance of getting up to £2.5 million to improve its play areas. The campaign that I have been running since the council developed its ineffectual play strategy could give kids in Slough the chance to access safe outdoor play areas.
That is one of the ways in which the children whose parents cannot take them to toddler Tumble Tots, Jungle Gym or ballet lessons could get physical activity that is safe and enjoyable. As a universal service, that would actually make most difference to the poorest children. It is one of the exemplars of how universal services, which do not stigmatise, can make most difference to the most excluded children, and it is useful. Some services should be universal, but we need to target some exclusively at the poorest children at the youngest ages. That is what makes the difference. We know that before the age of two, children have a range of abilities that are not determined by parental income. If we intervene early, we can really make a difference.
There is an example of an excellent scheme in Slough—the nurse family partnership. It works with about 100 families, the women in which became mothers before the age of 20. That is a good way of targeting, because just as we know that families with disabled children are likely to be poorer, we know that children of very young mothers are likely to be poorer. Some 61 babies have been born and only two were premature, which is a much improved statistic. Only one of the 61 babies had a low birth weight, which is a huge difference from the usual situation. The partnership helped mothers to improve their diet—again, that improved the prospects for the children—and to cut down on smoking and drinking. It also alerted them to antenatal appointments by text message, for example. Services are not good enough at doing such things. We need more such early intervention initiatives.
We need to be brave. The High Scope Perry research shows that the payback for intervention with a two or three-year-old is not over five or 10 years, but over 25 or 30 years. In 25 or 30 years’ time, such early intervention will mean that those people will have better jobs, will be less likely to be in the criminal justice system, will themselves be better parents and will be more likely to have degrees. Investment in the first two years of a child’s life really makes a difference.
The hon. Lady may remember, as I am sure the Minister does, that I was arguing for such early intervention many years back and I continue to believe in it. I also agree with what the hon. Lady said about health interventions at an early stage. However, just before she talked about those things, she spoke about those in dire poverty, which we could define as people earning less than 40 per cent. of median income. Does she agree that in that group, the bulk of the immediate problem is that people are not in work? Does she agree that, above all, if we are to deal with people who are in the direst poverty, we need to find means for parents to get into work so that they are not stuck in dependency, often with chaotic lifestyles to go with it?
I spoke about how important work is as a route out of poverty, but my suspicion is that the direst poverty is among people who are not able to take their first step into work at the moment because they or their children are disabled, or because of other complexities. That is one of the reasons why I argued that we need to have a definition of severe poverty, and why we should examine targeted strategies to deal with people in severe poverty. Simply saying to people in the circumstances that I described that their road out of poverty is employment is not, on its own, sufficient for those who cannot take the first step.
I agree with that, too; we are not, on the whole, talking about people who can simply waltz into work. The problem is that there are hurdles to overcome. Does the hon. Lady agree that we need to find a means of getting what many of the third-sector providers provide—a way over the hurdles—if we are to find for people who earn under 40 per cent. of the median income a route into work and out of the chaotic lifestyles of addiction and indebtedness, and the other cycles of deprivation?
I have long been an advocate of third-sector providers. I vividly recall visiting an American project that in this country would be classified as a project that deals with ex-offenders. However, it was an anti-poverty project. It recognised that people who had been in the criminal justice system were the most likely to face massive barriers to employment, ranging from having been locked away for so long that they did not know how to use the equivalent of the Oyster card in New York, to prejudice from employers. By providing targeted support to enable them to get into work, or by providing some element of supported employment as a step towards independent employment, the project was able to demonstrate that it could make a huge difference to the experience of some of the poorest people.
We should not romanticise the capacity of voluntary organisations to deal with these issues. Because state provisions have to be scalable and replicable and to meet targets and so on—that is a democratic imperative—the state can sometimes be what I might call stupid. It does not intend to be, but that is a consequence. However, although voluntary organisations can sometimes be fleet of foot, flexible and imaginative, going round the back door rather than the front, they cannot always do so; there are some groups that they cannot help, and if the state starts stitching the voluntary sector into the statutory system, it can sometimes lose those good qualities.
The romanticism that I sometimes see in Opposition Front Benchers—that such fantastic initiatives, many of which are good, are always available to solve the problem—is just that: romanticism.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way; I shall soon have to leave for a meeting with Mr. Speaker. Although I endorse what my colleagues said about the role of the voluntary sector in supporting vulnerable individuals, let us not be seduced by that argument at the expense of recognising that the real barrier for people getting into work is almost always financial. That is particularly so for families. The real dilemma for those living in London—in inner London, 51 per cent. of children live in poverty—is the barriers of high housing costs and high child care costs. Voluntary organisations can support the individual, but they will not overcome those financial barriers. That needs Government support.
My hon. Friend is right. She has done some excellent work in showing how, in high rent areas such as in her constituency and mine, a massive poverty trap excludes people from work. We need more intelligent mechanisms for housing benefit and so on to help support those who want to take low-paid work. Such people want to take work because they are desperate to get on, but the interaction between rent levels, housing benefit and tax credits means that taking work costs them, which means that they have less time to spend with their children. We should not expect poor people to have to make such a choice.
I hope that I have managed, in what was a longer speech than I had intended, to show that child poverty is a critical issue for the Government, that there are ways of solving the problem, and that we need to admit the difficulties of meeting the interim targets. We need to be as transparent as possible about that, but we must also keep the determination that we had when setting the target—that it is possible to eradicate child poverty and that we intend to do so.
Five or six Members are seeking to catch my eye. It is my intention to call the Front-Bench spokesmen to start winding up at, or close to, 3.30 pm. Members are perfectly capable of doing the mental arithmetic, but a certain self-denying ordinance would be helpful. I would like everyone to have the chance to speak, and I simply observe that if everyone called were content to settle for five minutes, I could probably achieve my objective.
It is a pleasure, Mr. Bercow, to serve with you in the Chair. I shall attempt to comply with your ordinance. I note that the hon. Member for Bradford, North (Mr. Rooney), the Chairman of the Work and Pensions Committee, is here; it would indeed be a shame not to hear from him, as I know that the Committee will be publishing next week its report on child poverty deprivation and social mobility—all issues raised by the hon. Member for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart). I pay tribute to the hon. Lady for securing this debate; it is about an important subject, one on which every Member of the House has views.
I shall touch upon four points, Mr. Bercow, and I shall try to keep as close to five minutes as I can. The first point I do not need to discuss at length. The hon. Member for Slough acknowledged that the Government have made some progress, but not as much as she would have liked. Indeed, their performance has been disappointing by their own standards. The Minister will acknowledge that the Government’s target was to reduce child poverty by a quarter by 2004-05; the next target on that road is to halve child poverty by 2010. I would welcome it if the Minister did as the hon. Member for Slough asked, and was honest about her assessment of the Government’s progress. That issue came up last in questions to the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, when my hon. Friend the Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling) asked whether the Government were on track for hitting that target. The Secretary of State avoided answering the question; he confirmed that the Government were committed to the aspiration of doing so but would not give us a progress report.
My hon. Friend may like to know that when giving evidence to the Select Committee several weeks ago, the Government’s child poverty adviser said that it was her firm opinion that the Government would not hit the interim target in 2010.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that intervention. Given that that assessment was made by a Government adviser, it would help if the Minister shared with us the Government’s assessment, so that we know where we stand. The ultimate aspiration is one that we share. My right hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset (Mr. Letwin) put it on the record in 2006 that we were committed to the aspiration of eliminating child poverty by 2020.
Our party went for that target a long time ago, and then Conservative Front Benchers signed up to it; it took a little longer for the Liberals to join up. I want to be absolutely clear about whether Conservative Front Benchers are still signed up to that target; there is some ambiguity.
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for allowing me to make the position clear. There is no ambiguity at all. Our aspiration is clear.
Yes, it is an aspiration. It has to be an aspiration because we do not know how things will be when we come into office. The hon. Gentleman will know that in the most recent period, between 2004-05 and 2005-06, the number of children below the poverty level increased. There are another two and a half years to go under the present Government, and if we come into office at that point we will not know how things will stand. The hon. Gentleman can make fun of the difference between “aspiration” and “target”, but the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions rather avoided using such specific language when talking about the 2010 target. It would be interesting to hear the Minister’s assessment of whether the Government will hit it. As I said, the Conservative party is committed to the aspiration of ending child poverty by 2020. That point was made clear earlier by my right hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset—and by my hon. Friend the Member for Epsom and Ewell in an excellent article in the press at the weekend, which made our position clear beyond peradventure.
Returning to your injunction, Mr. Bercow, I shall attempt to move on a little more quickly. We have touched on some of the facts. I did not have the chance to intervene at the time, but the hon. Member for Regent's Park and Kensington, North (Ms Buck), who is no longer in her place, referred to the fact that in London more than 50 per cent. of children are in poverty. That is clearly an important issue—one that will no doubt be discussed during the mayoral elections later this year.
In the remaining few moments, I shall touch on what the Conservative party would do in office. First, I pick up on the point made by my right hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset about welfare reform and getting many more people back into work, particularly the several million people on incapacity benefit. As the hon. Member for Slough said, we should not use only the voluntary sector because some things are not scalable; we should use private sector providers as well, as the Government look likely to announce they will this week. As the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions has made clear, they will adopt the Freud report in its entirety to move a significant number of people into work. Nearly 5 million people are on a range of out-of-work benefits, and that is obviously a significant contributor to child poverty.
The second issue, which I mentioned in my intervention, is ending the couple penalty in the tax credits system. In an analysis that it carried out for the social justice policy group chaired by my right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr. Duncan Smith), the Institute for Fiscal Studies said:
“Bringing tax credits fully into line with the rest of the benefit system”
would ensure that
“1.8 million of the poorest couples with children will gain on average £32 a week”,
which would have the direct effect of lifting
“300,000 children in two parent families out of poverty.”
Clearly, that would be a significant achievement. The Conservative party has committed itself to ending the couple penalty in the tax credits system. That would be a powerful tool, and it would be interesting to hear the Minister’s response.
Finally, it would be interesting if the Minister indicated which Department has lead responsibility for the Government’s child poverty target. According to its website, it is the Department for Work and Pensions whose Secretary of State has the objective of ending child poverty. The Department for Children, Schools and Families does not have direct responsibility, but it works across government to achieve that target. It is important to clarify that, because if the Government miss their 2010 target, we want to be clear which Cabinet Minister the Prime Minister will blame.
It is a pleasure to take part in the debate. I should just make one correction regarding the report that my Committee will publish on Monday: it is actually a seminal child poverty report, and I hope that people read and take an interest in it.
I want to focus narrowly on the issue of work because of the limited time available. The absolute fact is that moving people into work increases a household’s income; it might not lead that household totally out of poverty, but it will significantly increase the income available to it, and we need to remember that.
One key issue is that literally tens of thousands of lone parents start work and stop again within three months, which suggests that some of the support mechanisms are not working. When we meet lone-parent groups, the key issue for them is the point of change. Although such people are on a relatively low income, it is secure and it is there every week, so they can pay their rent and keep a roof over their heads. When they move into the uncertain world of being paid a month at a time and having to make a fresh claim for housing benefit—frankly, some local authorities are abysmal at processing new claims—they say, “No. That is too big a risk for my children. I’m not going to do that.”
We can eliminate some of that risk, but the system is, unfortunately, extremely complex, although that is often for good reasons. It is designed to deal with the 0.2 per cent. of people who try to fiddle things, not the 99.8 per cent. who play the game. If a lone parent is willing to take the big step of moving into work, we should pay them 100 per cent. housing benefit for the first three months that they are in work. During that period, the local authority should assess their new level of housing benefit so that it will kick in on the first day after those three months. That would give the individual additional security.
People on incapacity benefit are in exactly the same situation. Many years ago, we had the horrendous system of therapeutic earnings, which was an abuse of individuals’ civil rights. We now have permitted working, which allows people to test work and to keep any earnings that they get up to a certain limit. Unfortunately, we have four different systems of permitted working rules. If somebody gets a job after having been on incapacity benefit for five, eight or 10 years, as people often are, I would say, “Well done. You can carry on getting your incapacity benefit and you can keep all your wages. Come back after three months, and we’ll talk about how it’s going and how we can translate this into a permanent situation.” The benefits system does not allow that, however, and we should not allow a system that has grown up over 60 years to hinder the drive to give people more money.
I want to touch on a longer-term issue. Whether the Government meet their target in 2010 or not is now an arcane debate; the direction of travel is right and the policies are getting better all the time. The issue is whether, come 2020, we have in place the longer-term infrastructure that we need to deal with such issues, in so far as that is possible, and there will always be somebody who accidentally falls temporarily into poverty. The major issue that we face is that benefits are increased by the retail prices index, while poverty is measured against wages. Wages will always go up faster than the RPI, so the gap between earnings and benefits will always increase. By 2020, there will be a cohort of people who cannot work because of disabilities or other factors, and we must ensure that the benefits available are such that they will lift those people out of poverty. That raises the issue of work incentives, and we need to start work now if we are to reach a situation in 10 years’ time where the benefits system does not trap such people in poverty.
There are huge issues relating to child care, and I know how committed the Minister is to promoting child care. Vast sums have been invested in it, and the number of places has increased exponentially, which is fantastic. However, 22 per cent. of places nationally are vacant, which raises a question. Only a third of those who are entitled to the child tax credit take it up, so something structural is obviously not working. We need to marry up those two points, because there is no point in investing in staff and buildings and creating places if they then stand idle.
If I may say so, I think that we have slightly oversold the guarantee on nursery education. We are talking about two and a half hours a day, although it will go up to three hours a day by 2010, but such child care does not assist the welfare-to-work programme or help somebody to move into work. Lots of people—particularly lone parents—will typically want to work evenings and weekends so that they can be around during the school day, but the child care system does not accommodate that. It certainly breaks down totally when we come to disabled children.
There were lots of other things that I could have said, but I have seen the time, so I will sit down.
As far as I can tell, four Members are still seeking to catch my eye from the Back Benches. I would dearly love to call each and every one of them, but I require some pretty exceptional self-discipline from Members at this stage.
I will certainly keep to your guidance, Mr. Bercow.
Before I turn to the issue of child poverty close to home, I shall take one minute to look at the wider problem elsewhere in the world, because the scale of poverty worldwide is hard to imagine. According to a recent UNICEF report, tens of millions of children in developing countries still do not have access to basic human needs such as food, water and sanitation. In many such countries, poverty is increasing, not decreasing, and issues such as malnutrition among the under-fives are particularly significant. Such children are often plunged into poverty through no fault of their own, because of famine, drought, conflict and war, corruption, the scourge of AIDS and natural disasters—the list goes on.
Closer to home, there is a wide variety of reasons why child poverty continues in the midst of wealth in many parts of our country, and I congratulate the hon. Member for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart) on covering many of those issues in her speech. There is no need for any child in the UK to live in poverty. The only thing that is lacking is practical action. A recent report by the Select Committee on Scottish Affairs showed that child poverty levels are at a historical high in Scotland, with 30 per cent. of children living in families whose income fell below the commonly used poverty line of 60 per cent. of median income.
Earlier, several Members touched on the specific issue that I shall concentrate on today: the link between disability and child poverty, which applies all over the world. I hope that the Minister will address some of the relevant issues, as some people have a constant battle every day of their lives and would like to be entitled to the same opportunities that the rest of us take for granted. While we debate today how best to meet the ambitious targets on child poverty, the link between child poverty and disability is a key area that warrants our attention. Indeed, the Government themselves have rightly noted that the 2020 target will be achievable only with targeted help for disabled children and their families.
Disability is both a cause and a consequence of poverty and the link between the two is so strong that policy makers simply cannot afford to ignore it. To tackle it, however, we need a better understanding of why that is the case. I commend the work of the Child Poverty Action Group, Contact a Family and the Every Disabled Child Matters and End Child Poverty campaigns, all of which have played a key part in doing that. According to conservative estimates, there are at least 770,000 disabled children in the UK, although it is likely that there are more than 1 million children living in poverty and affected by disability. A quarter of all poor children have a disabled parent.
On top of the broader social and economic reasons behind child poverty that we have discussed so far today, disabled children face a number of other challenges. Perhaps the most obvious is that they are more likely to live in poverty simply because the incomes of disabled households are 20 to 30 per cent. lower than the income of the average household.
The Government will rightly be commended for recognising the need to re-evaluate the support provided to disabled children, and indeed much has been done. However, there are genuine concerns about the way the current system operates, and a number of changes are necessary to help us to break the link between poverty and disability. I would particularly welcome the Minister’s view on Monday’s forthcoming announcement about the independent living strategy, and the impact that she anticipates it will have on the matter.
At present, a key tool in the context of disability and child poverty is the disability living allowance. When it works it is effective, but there are too many problems; there is too much distrust of the system, too great a lack of awareness and too many other things outwith the scope of today’s debate. Disability living allowance is not having as big an impact as it might. If we are to have any chance of meeting the 2010 target we simply have to do more specifically to target disabled child poverty and to give better support to disabled children and their families.
Child poverty is a national disgrace and a global disaster and is all the more tragic for being preventable. Poverty and disability often go hand in hand, but the link is not inevitable and it will have to break if we are to have any chance of meeting the child poverty targets that we all want to be achieved.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart) on securing this timely debate.
In 1997 the UK had the worst rate of child poverty in Europe, and one of the worst of any industrialised nation. In 1999 the Government set what is widely recognised as a very ambitious policy objective—to eradicate child poverty within a generation—which was reiterated in the children’s plan published by the Department for Children, Schools and Families in December 2007. As I understand it, the target of halving child poverty by 2010 and eradicating it by 2020 remains intact.
It is worth remembering, especially in the light of what I shall say, that through investment in support of children and families the Government have stopped the long-term trend of increase in child poverty, and by April 2009 the poorest families will be an average of £4,000 a year better off. That has meant a reduction of 600,000 in the number of children living in relative poverty in the UK, which is the biggest reduction in any EU country during the period. In the north-east, my region, child poverty has fallen by a massive 26 per cent. However, 31 per cent. of children still live in poor households, which is obviously much too high.
Despite the general downward trend of child poverty, the most recent figures show only a levelling off, or even a slight increase. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation has noted that changes to the child tax credit announced in the previous Budget might lift another 200,000 children out of poverty by 2010, but that would still mean that the Government were falling massively short of reaching the 2010 target. The Institute for Fiscal Studies, which my hon. Friend the Member for Slough mentioned, has estimated that between £3.8 billion and £4 billion is necessary to achieve the target.
The key policies that have been used to reduce child poverty—redistribution of income through the tax and benefits system to provide a safety net for the poorest families, and assistance to make work pay—have been successful so far, but the charity Barnardo’s now believes that those policies will produce diminishing returns, because the families that have so far been lifted out of poverty have been the easiest to reach. We know that the families still experiencing poverty are those with the most stubborn problems and the most complex needs. The Child Poverty Action Group has outlined a range of measures, including increasing child benefit, tax credits, getting more reliable child support through to lone parents and a fairer and more equitable tax system. I am keen to hear what the Minister thinks about those measures, and whether the Government intend to look at the CPAG proposals in detail.
There was discussion earlier of universal services, so I shall mention free school meals. Families living on low incomes have huge financial pressures: rent, council tax, utility bills, debt and social fund repayments. The most flexible part of the budget is often food costs. Before the Liberal Democrats took over and stopped it, Hull had a scheme for universal free school meals. There could be enormous benefits from that for all children in helping them to concentrate at school and learn social skills, but it would be excellent if the Government commissioned some research and perhaps set up some pilots to examine the impact that universal free school meals could have on reducing child poverty.
I join other hon. Members in congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart) on securing the debate. I obtained a similar debate about a year ago and the turnout has roughly tripled since then, which shows the extent to which the issue is now firmly on the political agenda. I welcome that.
Because of the time constraints I want to make just two brief points. First, considering the issue in the context of what the Government are trying to do, particularly through the Department for Work and Pensions, in encouraging more people to get into work, good work is being done on moving people from incapacity benefit into work, and moving lone parents into work. Several other hon. Members have made the point that such movement into work is crucial to tackling child poverty. However, we must make sure that where those measures relate to families with children there is always a child-focused element to them.
For example, the provisions on lone parents having to start work when the youngest child reaches 12 will be introduced later this year—eventually the requirement will be to start work when the youngest child reaches seven. If we do not get the “better off in work” calculations right, or if for example child care arrangements do not stack up, the child will be the one who suffers if sanctions are introduced. I accept that conditionality per se may not be a bad thing, but we must make sure that we do not punish the children because of the parents. Often it is through no fault of their own that the parents are not working. It is not that they do not want to, or that they are undeserving in any respect; it is just that they cannot make all the elements of going back to work stack up. We must make sure that sanctions against the parents do not result in suffering for the children. That is a note of caution that I want to sound.
Secondly, like other hon. Members who are present, I was at yesterday’s launch of Save the Children’s book “Why Money Matters”, which clearly makes the case that, for most children who are living in poverty, household income has a huge impact, not just on the household’s resources but on such things as educational attainment, health and the child’s development.
I welcome the fact that the Government, by having the Department for Children, Schools and Families take a lead on the child poverty issue, are looking at the wider picture. I particularly welcome the Families at Risk review, because all of us who have people coming to our constituency surgeries know that some families have a multitude of problems. It is not just about the fact that there is not enough money coming into the household; there are other issues.
For example, I think that there are about 250,000 to 300,000 children for whom a parent is a problematic drug user. There are also issues associated with parents who are serving prison sentences and there are parents with mental health problems. It is estimated that families in that situation—where they face a number of problems—often deal with eight to 10 agencies in trying to sort out their problems. Therefore, I welcome the fact that the Minister is taking a lead in looking at a whole family-based approach and is not just looking at income.
May I also start by congratulating the hon. Member for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart) on securing this important debate, as we rapidly approach the deadline for the target of halving child poverty by 2010 and also the forthcoming Budget?
A number of organisations must be congratulated on their ongoing campaigning work and I would also like to mention in particular the launch yesterday of “Why Money Matters” by Save the Children, which I was pleased to attend. This has been a wide-ranging debate and in my short contribution I cannot touch upon everything that I would like to, or answer certain points that were made. However, I shall do my best to achieve a wide coverage of the issues.
It is generally accepted that progress has been made by the Government on child poverty targets and we congratulate them on that. We also well remember how rapidly child poverty grew in the 1980s. However, it is clear that more action is needed if both the 2010 target and the longer-term goal of eradicating child poverty by 2020 are to be achieved.
Changes to the benefits and tax credits for families with children have helped to lift a substantial number of children above the poverty line. However, it seems to be a great irony that the policy of tax credits and the complexity of the tax credits system have plunged some families into poverty when they have been overpaid and that money has subsequently been clawed back, sometimes in a very unsympathetic manner. There are also the complexities of the child care element of the working tax credit; I saw today on the website that the guide to that alone is 23 pages long. We need reform and simplification in those areas.
The expansion of child care provision and other policies aimed at reducing the number of out-of-work families has undoubtedly had a positive impact on reducing child poverty. However, as has previously been said, the latest figures tend to show a rise in the number of children living in poverty. I think that it has always been known that, while some families needed only a small change in circumstances to take them out of poverty, the more marginalised families living in persistent poverty would be much harder to reach.
In fact, we have noted today that half of the children living in poverty come from working households. Clearly, there is a need to make progress towards higher-paid work and sustainable work, via education, training and mentoring, as well as by making work pay and making it beneficial for lower-income families. Clearly, there are costs for entering the labour market and we need to look at those.
With the change in policy that requires lone parents with older children to register for work, the extended school programme, which is already operating well, will continue to be important, as are the issues of affordability and parents applying for the tax credits for which they are eligible.
The poorest pay proportionately more tax than the rich and I would like to see some changes in that regard. For example, council tax should be replaced with a local income tax based on the ability to pay.
We have commented today on the “poverty premium” and I am sure that there is more that we can do in that regard across a range of items, particularly utility bills. We have also spoken about securing credit, which is a real drawback for those poorer people who are financially excluded. They pay higher rates of interest, which only increases poverty. Reform could be made to the social fund to make it more accessible to those who need it most. We must also ensure that the poorest people are well advised and supported when they borrow money.
Save the Children has estimated that, at the current rate of progress, the target of halving child poverty will not be met until 2024. We have heard that various organisations have estimated that we need an extra spending commitment of £4 billion annually between now and 2010 to ensure that the 2010 target is met.
The Liberal Democrats have signed up to the child poverty targets, but we were concerned that there should be policies in place showing how those targets might be reached. One policy that we have in place is increasing child benefit, raising it to £5 a week through the elder child rate, which would reduce the number of people living in poverty by 400,000. In due course, we would make further investment in improved child benefit, directed at second and subsequent children, to help to remove larger families from poverty. We would also invest more in the child tax credit and, crucially, we would improve its administration. Furthermore, many benefits available to poor families have poor take-up rates and I feel that we could do much more to improve those rates.
My hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, West (John Barrett) has already said that families with disabled children remain disproportionately likely to be in poverty and he has mentioned a number of the things that we desperately need to do to improve that situation. Of course, anyone with a disabled parent in the family has an increased risk of poverty.
There are other groups, besides families with disabled children, that are most likely to suffer from poverty: large families; black and ethnic minority children; Travellers’ children; children leaving care; and asylum seekers. Children in those groups are the most socially excluded children and are faced with inequality and poor social mobility. Those are issues that we must address if we are going to reduce child poverty permanently.
We can talk about the extra spending that we need, but to have a sustainable reduction in child poverty entails breaking into that vicious cycle of deprivation and inequality. That cycle means that children growing up in poor families are far more likely to be poor themselves. Britain consistently performs poorly in studies of social mobility by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, and, of course, we also had the UNICEF report last year, in which the UK came bottom.
There is a strong relationship between family income and educational attainment, which indicates the desperate need to form policies aimed at tackling inequality across society. That involves targeting funding at the poorest, most disadvantaged sections of society in order to improve opportunities for all.
The Government have made considerable investment in Sure Start, but the latest evaluations are showing that the most disadvantaged are not being reached. The Liberal Democrats would like workless families to receive more support with child care, because that would be a way of providing extra early years provision and thereby breaking into that cycle of deprivation that I referred to earlier. We also propose a pupil premium, which will attach additional funding directly to pupils who are identified as disadvantaged. That funding will follow the pupil to whichever school the pupil attends.
It is well documented in the 2007 UNICEF report that the Scandinavian countries scored highly on all measures, including those dealing with child poverty, in contrast with the UK. So what can we learn from those countries? They have a high proportion of single parents, but a high proportion of them are in work. There must also be lessons that we can learn from them about how to avoid disincentives and how to make it easier and more beneficial for parents to work. Scandinavian countries clearly have a high degree of transfer of earnings between rich and poor and they have high-quality child care, including good early years services and family centres.
Poverty affects so many aspects of a child’s well-being: health, cognitive development, achievement at school, aspirations, relationships and employment. We must identify the action that can be taken quickly to combat poverty. I think that it was alluded to earlier in the debate that it would be a very good idea to have “poverty-proofing” of all new measures. I would like to ask the Minister: to what extent has that been considered?
I add my congratulations to the hon. Member for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart) on securing this debate and also on her frank exposition of some of the problems that are still facing us on the very important issue of child poverty. It is good to see a good turnout from both sides of the House for the debate.
The hon. Lady made some interesting points about the Budget possibly being the last chance to do something about the problem of child poverty, because simply to go on as we are at present will mean that we miss out 700,000 children, as she said. I also thought that her suggestions about seasonal cash grants were interesting.
The hon. Lady began by saying that to eradicate child poverty is a bold ambition. It is a bold ambition and we need to turn it into cold reality rather than just having some of the targets that I fear have failed to be achieved in recent years. Certain matters need to be addressed, therefore, including the couple penalty, which my hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean (Mr. Harper) mentioned. We have to tackle the increased cost of borrowing by the poorest—my hon. Friend the Member for Weston-super-Mare (John Penrose) mentioned credit unions. We have to do something about the bureaucracy involved with benefit claims—a point made by the Chairman of the Work and Pensions Committee, the hon. Member for Bradford, North (Mr. Rooney) and repeated today by the hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke)—which means that the most vulnerable have the most hurdles to straddle when filling in forms and getting benefits that they need more than other people.
The hon. Member for Bristol, East (Kerry McCarthy) made some interesting points about the need for all our policies to be child focused. The hon. Member for City of Durham (Dr. Blackman-Woods) said that the Government have reversed a long-term trend. I fear that the reality is far from agreeing with that supposition. The Government promised to reduce by a quarter the number of children in poverty by 2005, but have failed to do so; after housing costs, they missed the target by a whopping 300,000. Last year, the number of children living in poverty actually rose. Again, using the housing cost figures, it rose by 200,000 to 3.8 million.
If we take the 10 years between 1996 and 2006—the last year for which figures are available—the number of children in poverty has barely shifted, after 10 years of a Government who supposedly made it a priority and pumped an awful lot of money into it. In reality, as mentioned by the hon. Member for Slough, those in the most severe poverty have not been helped at all. In fact things have got worse and that group has actually expanded. However, there has been much tinkering around the margins. Many children in poverty have been lifted to just above the poverty line and in many cases are in danger of falling back below it after a short time. The Government point to some shifts in numbers that do not reflect a significant shift in the fortune of those involved.
It is extraordinary that, under this Government, the number of people living in severe poverty has actually increased by 600,000—from 2.5 million in 1996-97 to 3.1 million in 2004-05—according to a report published last year by the Institute for Fiscal Studies, which has been cited already. Social mobility in the UK is lower than in Canada, Germany, Sweden, Norway, Denmark and Finland. Although the gap in opportunities between the rich and poor is similar in Britain and the US, in the US it is at least static, while in Britain it is getting wider, according to the London School of Economics. According to the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, the number of poor households has grown in the last 15 years and the gap between rich and poor is the biggest it has been for 40 years.
Are the Government backtracking from their target to reduce child poverty by half by 2010? Everyone else seems to think so. The Treasury Committee report on the 2007 comprehensive spending review stated:
“We are concerned that the Government may have drawn back from a whole-hearted commitment to meeting this target.”
Will the Minister reassure us that that is not the case? Will she also tell us why, as the Treasury was forced to admit, the Joint Committee on Child Poverty, which was chaired by the then Chancellor, now the Prime Minister, and was supposed to facilitate liaison between Westminster, the Scottish Executive and the Welsh Executive on the Government’s child poverty strategy, held its last meeting on 18 September 2002? The Government have apparently forgotten what they set out to do and cannot set up even the most essential of meetings.
Why is child poverty so important? A number of Members have touched on many of the issues. More than 2.2 million British children—one in five—now live in households dependent on state benefits. In some inner-city areas, almost half the children are growing up in entirely benefit-funded homes, as the hon. Member for Regent’s Park and Kensington, North (Ms Buck) mentioned earlier with respect to London. Britain has a higher proportion of its children being brought up in workless households than any other nation in Europe, including countries in eastern Europe. In fact, in the past 10 years the number of people aged 16 to 18 estimated to be not in education, employment or training has increased by more than 50,000 to 206,200. The number of homeless families with dependent children in temporary accommodation in England has increased from 54,660 in 2002 to 71,560 in 2006. The instability and inadequacy of bed-and-breakfast accommodation is hardly a way out of poverty.
As we have all said, early intervention is crucial. By the age of three, being in poverty makes a difference equivalent to nine months’ development in school readiness. Children living in poverty lag two years behind their peers by the age of 14 and if they do badly at primary school are less likely to improve at secondary school. Families living in poverty have less than £10 per day to buy everything they need, such as food, heating, toys, electricity and transport. One third of children in the UK are forced by their parents’ poverty to go without at least one of the things that they need, such as three meals a day, essential clothes or adequate heating in the winter, as we have heard. Furthermore, children from disadvantaged backgrounds are less likely to stay on at school and are 10 per cent. more likely than their peers to leave school with absolutely no qualifications.
As we have seen, poverty has an impact on all aspects of children’s lives, from their educational achievements to their personal and social interactions. For a child born into poverty, it is very difficult to escape from the poverty cycle. In fact the chance of escaping from poverty more or less rapidly differs largely in Britain compared with other countries such as Denmark, where between 70 and 75 per cent. of children in poverty do not experience poverty for longer than two consecutive years. That compares with the UK where a lone parent with two young children can expect to spend an average of 4.2 years in poverty—more than double.
When a child lives in poverty their aspirations and expectations for their later life can be so low that their potential goes unexplored and the cycle of poverty is repeated for generation after generation. As Save the Children commented, the extent of the poverty suffered by children in Denmark is considerably less than in our country—that goes back to the severe poverty definitions. The particular impact on families with disabled children has been mentioned. They are more likely to live in debt, face higher child care costs and are more than twice as likely to have no educational qualifications.
That simply is not good enough after 10 years of hearing constantly about how child poverty is a priority for the Government. Reducing child poverty must be a reality in practice, not just in soundbites and manifestos. It will be a priority for the next Conservative Government. We endorse and share the widely held aspiration that child poverty in Britain should be eliminated by 2020, but are profoundly worried about the lack of progress made by the Government. We will reform our welfare state; we want a US and Australian-style back-to-work initiative with special centres across the country, where people on benefits will have help with job applications, IT skills and interview techniques. We also want to increase the support we give to families who are in work but on low incomes, which involves using the savings generated by our welfare reforms to abolish the couple penalty in the tax credit system—mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean—that leaves many couples better off if they live apart. In doing so, we will be directing an additional £3 billion a year towards many of Britain’s poorest families and helping to reduce family breakdown, which is one of the key causes of child poverty. Indeed, children who live with a lone parent have a 48 per cent. chance of living in poverty compared with a 27 per cent. chance for all children. That is not good enough. As the Institute for Fiscal Studies says, that change alone will lift at least 300,000 children out of poverty, and we believe that our radical welfare reform plans will help take the figure towards 500,000.
Furthermore, a report last year by the Frank Buttle Trust found that nearly half the children surveyed who lived in poverty had no grandparents involved in their lives—something not mentioned by Members thus far. Grandparents can make excellent support networks for disadvantaged children, especially after a family split. Why, then, did the Government reject our extended family amendments to the Children and Adoption Act 2006, which would specifically have addressed that problem?
I am keen to hear from the Minister how realistic she thinks her Government’s plans are for reducing child poverty over their remaining years of office. Their plan on child poverty is so far off track as to lack credibility. It was less likely in 2006 that a child of parents in a low income bracket would rise to the top income bracket than it was in 1970. All that despite the fact that the Government have made reducing child poverty one of the main planks of their policy statements. Have all their targets and warm words been merely a gimmick, or is the truth that their approach to child poverty has failed to deliver the significant results that we were promised?
All the evidence suggests that child poverty is at the start of a cycle from which it is difficult to escape. It is a false economy not to tackle it now as a priority, with policies that work at the sharp end and impact on the poorest families most of all. It is not just about ticking boxes or shifting imaginary numbers, but about bringing lasting and practical benefits to the most vulnerable people in our communities, who need them most of all.
I am delighted to see you in the Chair for this important debate, Mr. Bercow. I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart) on securing the debate. With her usual effectiveness, she has secured it at an important time—just before the Budget. She has been a passionate campaigner for the ending of child poverty, as have my other hon. Friends who are present in the Chamber. Many Members have made important contributions to the debate.
There is consensus, at least in this room, about the debilitating effects of poverty, about how early those effects start and how quickly they can become entrenched and affect many dimensions of a child’s development and well-being. I assure my hon. Friend the Member for Slough and other hon. Members that my colleagues in the Government and I need no convincing of the need not just to tackle child poverty, but to work vigorously to end it. That is what we are determined to do.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for City of Durham (Dr. Blackman-Woods) and to the hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke) for reminding us about the context for the debate. In the two decades preceding 1997, we had become the worst country in the European Union for child poverty, which more than doubled between 1979 and 1997. By 1997, 3.4 million children were living in poverty and one in five families had no one in work.
I am sorry to have to tell the Conservative Members present that that eventuality was not an accident, but a direct result of the policies of the Conservative Government during that period. Although I accept that we want to go further and faster, we are the first ever Government who have had the ambition to reduce and eradicate child poverty. We reaffirmed that ambition recently in the child poverty public services agreement that was reached during the latest comprehensive spending review.
I want to correct some of the claims that were made in an article on the issue in The Sunday Telegraph this week by the hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling). He wrote that one in five poor children is still in a workless household. That was the case in 1997, but there has been a reduction of 400,000 in the number of children in workless households. There is confusion about workless households and people claiming out-of-work benefits. The hon. Gentleman also said that 3 million people were living in poverty in 1996-97.
On that point—
I shall finish the point, if I may. The hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell said that 3 million children were living in poverty in 1996-97— 10 years ago. However, the figure was as I have just said—almost 3.5 million children—so that claim is not true either. The figure has now fallen by 600,000. Absolute poverty has reduced by more than half and we expect a further 300,000 children to come out of poverty as a result of the measures in the last Budget.
I understand completely that the Conservative party has a real credibility gap in its record on child poverty and in its current policies. Policies over the 18 years of Conservative Government caused the huge rise—
Will the Minister give way?
No, I shall finish this point. The Conservatives’ policies caused the huge rise during that period. On current policy, it is clear that we cannot trust what the Conservatives are saying because they are committed to using at least half the proceeds of growth for tax cuts, so I am not clear how they can possibly afford even—
I shall finish the point. It is not clear how the Conservatives can possibly afford even the £1 billion that it would cost to improve the couple premium to which they claim to be committed. I give way to the hon. Gentleman.
I am grateful to the Minister for giving way, as she has made some very direct points, which I shall deal with briefly. The UK now has a higher proportion of children in workless households. We did not say that—the Joseph Rowntree Foundation did. My hon. Friend the Member for Epsom and Ewell made it clear that the last set of figures for child poverty were for 2005-06 and they showed an increase. Ten years before, there were 3 million children in poverty, so there was a fall of just 200,000 in that period.
That intervention shows how the Conservative party is prepared to play around with figures. The number of children in poverty when the Conservatives lost office—
Yes. The number was 3.4 million. That was the high point for the number of children in poverty. If the hon. Gentleman is trying to play around with figures and say that a little before that there were only 3 million children in poverty, he is simply pointing out that in the last year of Conservative Government the figure rose by almost half a million children as the cumulative effect of their policies. He has, therefore, not made his point very effectively.
I will look at some of the more constructive points that Members have made. Many Members suggested refining how the welfare state looks after the poorest families and that is right. We need to uphold people’s right to a decent standard of living, particularly if they are in work. There must be an active responsibility for people to take steps to find work and to safeguard their children’s futures.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, West (John Battle) is right to say that we can see clearly from our current work that although being in work is not a guarantee against children being in poverty, it significantly reduces that risk. Work is an important component and we believe that it is the best route out of poverty. However, we must also recognise that some families face additional barriers to work. Some Members rightly said that disability plays a big role in that regard. We must ensure that we can support such families. Achieving a balance between supporting the vulnerable and encouraging the able to return to work is the key, and it underpins our strategy.
We must ensure that measures to end child poverty are sustainable and effective over the long term. It would be a hollow victory if we were to lift children just over the poverty line, only for them to slip back into poverty a generation later. That is why the strategy that we have been pursuing has four important strands, which Members have identified. First, there should be work for those who can do it and we must make work pay. Secondly, there must be direct financial support for those in the most need. Thirdly, there must be a real improvement in public services, particularly for the earliest years and for families, but which goes right the way through the age range for children to ensure that we address issues such as poor educational attainment and general health and well-being, which can be consequences of poverty. We must do all those things at the same time. Fourthly, there must be direct support to help parents to look after their families.
Four recent developments are helping to galvanise our efforts. The creation of the Department for Children, Schools and Families, with its joint responsibilities, is extremely important. As I mentioned, there was a new public service agreement in October, which set a series of tough targets that are laying the foundations for breaking the poverty cycle. Through that PSA, there is real collaboration at the heart of Government between the Treasury, the Department for Work and Pensions and my Department, which includes focused work on how we can narrow the gap between the poorest children and the rest.
Last but not least, there is the children’s plan, which my hon. Friend the Member for Slough mentioned. It is taking the focus on a holistic view of children’s well-being a stage further. My hon. Friend referred to play and I agree about its importance. I commend what she has done in trying to get her local authority to take that issue seriously. I am glad that it will be bidding to be a pathfinder.
My hon. Friend mentioned the £4 billion question. That has now been recalculated as £3.4 million through various stages to help us reach the 2010 target. The Government are actively examining the options and doing a lot of analytical work to understand the various groupings of families with different characteristics and problems.
It is evident that there is no single mechanism that can help all families. We have to respond to the different circumstances of different groups, whether they are in or out of work, whether there is disability or whether there are other barriers to work. We are making a careful analysis and looking at a wide range of options. My hon. Friend mentioned seasonal grants and they may be an option, but we have to look at whether they are sustainable and at how well targeted they will be.
My hon. Friend talked about a severe poverty measure. There was some misunderstanding. The poorest children have been helped the most. My hon. Friend the Member for City of Durham pointed out that they will be £4,000 a year better off by April 2009 and that their weekly income has risen faster than anybody else’s. We need to keep the focus on the poorest children.
Finally, the fight to end child poverty does not end in Westminster and Whitehall. It involves local authorities. We need concerted action across local government, the third sector and business, but I hope that over the coming months Members will not just have to take my assurances of today, but will see real commitment put into practice.
We meet again, Mr. Bercow, under the fortunate circumstances of having a debate that can make a contribution to discussing a serious problem in the national health service.
On average, an air ambulance takes off every 10 minutes in this country, and air ambulances fly 365 days a year. To put it another way, there are seven air ambulances attending accidents and medical traumas every hour of every day. Medical trauma is defined simply as a physical injury that may result in permanent disability or death. There is a long history in war zones of helicopters taking troops to hospitals as quickly as possible, and there is the famous Royal Flying Doctor Service of Australia, which was the first national air ambulance programme and involved a pilot, a nurse and a doctor. The idea is not new; it has been around and is well tried, and it has been pretty effective and can be even more so.
Of course, helicopters are generally more manoeuvrable and flexible than they were and can land practically anywhere, including on many occasions in places that land ambulances cannot get to. They are used in all kinds of air rescue work. Emergency medical service helicopter programmes are established in the United States and in countries in western Europe such as Italy and Austria. Germany has a successful helicopter-based emergency service, the benefits of which have been well documented. A network of helicopters has evolved in the past 20 years and covers the whole of Germany, and the statistics show a dramatic improvement in patient outcomes, particularly in cases of trauma. I shall speak about that later.
The first civil helicopter-based EMS in Britain was opened in Cornwall in 1987, and one can see why: the beaches, inaccessible cliff tops, acres of moorland and farmland and roads that are congested, particularly in the summer, make the work of land vehicles more difficult and time-consuming. The distance to the major hospitals from many parts of Cornwall means that the air ambulance has become a vital, life-saving mode of transport.
The idea was picked up by our national medical institutions, and in 1988 a report by the Royal College of Surgeons recommended setting up a network of trauma centres geared specifically to dealing with the types of injury sustained in major accidents, to which patients would be flown directly by a national fleet of EMS helicopters. That recommendation has not come to fruition, but many counties and authorities have set up their own air ambulance programmes. After Cornwall came Kent, Scotland, the west midlands, London, Devon and many more. Nearly all the schemes are funded by charitable donations from the public, and whopping big donations they are, too.
In 2001 the East Anglia air ambulance operation was set up. It services Cambridgeshire, Norfolk and Suffolk, and in 2007 Bedfordshire was added, which I calculate means that it covers a remarkable 11 per cent. of the total area of England. Just the other day, Anglia One, as we call the helicopter, transferred a trauma-stricken patient who had been struck by a vehicle outside Gorleston, on the coast of Norfolk, to the Norfolk and Norwich hospital. A few hours later it responded to a driver trapped in his van after a collision on the Cromer road at Hevingham, providing support to fire crews at the scene; it then responded to another major collision—there are too many of them—on the M11 highway down Cambridge way. The medical crew attended from the helicopter and gave aid to a male driver and female passenger who had been trapped for some hours.
The helicopter is out four or five times a day. That does not always result in a patient being airlifted, because sometimes something happens to recover the situation. However, the speed of the air ambulance means that it can often arrive at an accident before any land ambulance could, assess and stabilise patients, work with the land crew when they arrive and establish whether anybody needs to be airlifted elsewhere. The speed of the helicopter is clearly paramount to its effectiveness.
Air ambulances are certainly quick to respond to crises and accidents, but there is less responsiveness to the fundraisers and communities from which their funds are drawn. The service in Derbyshire almost collapsed last August, but it was restored and the Derbyshire, Leicestershire and Rutland service will recommence from East Midlands airport on 1 April. Does my hon. Friend believe that there ought to be better co-ordination between the various independent county air ambulances, and that the NHS could perhaps pay a little more towards them?
I thank my hon. Friend, who is spot on. I shall make the case for a proper inquiry to find out how the funding has been in the past few years, where the gaps are, how we can improve the situation and whether we can have co-ordination with the NHS. There is some interaction, as I shall describe, but more needs to be done because the service is essential and will be increasingly necessary to provide the national health service to which we aspire.
The Association of Air Ambulance Charities supports the work of the independent charities involved so that there is some co-ordination, and additional resources such as drugs, skills and suitable vehicles are part of that interaction. The association has 22 active helicopters in 16 of the 18 operational services in the UK, which are estimated to undertake 17,000 missions a year—no mean feat. At the moment, those missions are mainly in response to road traffic collisions and traumatic injuries, but that is changing. I shall say why in a minute.
Air ambulance finances, which, like cancer charities, are marvellously supported by a generous public, are said by some to be in a good state, unlike in the case that my hon. Friend the Member for North-West Leicestershire (David Taylor) mentioned. However, the situation is not sustainable, because charities collect £25 million annually, or £70,000 a day, which is a large undertaking. A charity operating at that level obviously needs a lot of support and help. Money comes to the privately operated charities through public donations.
We have two helicopters in East Anglia, and the charity pays the pilots who serve the east and west of the vast territory that I described. People do not really understand the distances involved. In the west of the region, the charity must also fund attending paramedics on the helicopter out of its pocket; in the east, those costs are paid by the local NHS ambulance trust. There is good co-ordination and interchange among individuals who have learned from work on land ambulances how to conduct themselves with patients who have had accidents.
We must also consider the cost of consumable items such as drugs and medicine, some of which are funded by local NHS trusts, and of the important equipment that is being installed in air ambulances, such as defibrillators, monitoring machines and helicopter maintenance equipment. In many places, those costs are covered by charities. I do not wish to go through a freedom of information document that the Department has provided me with, but it includes a column showing whether, in various parts of the UK, the local NHS trust pays for the full cost of clinical staff. The answers are yes, yes, no, yes, no, yes, yes, yes, yes, no and yes. A column on whether they pay for drugs reads yes, yes, yes, no, yes, yes, yes, no, no, yes. You get the picture, Mr. Bercow—the situation varies depending on the trust involved.
Members will know of the important stories that have put the air ambulance in our living rooms and at the forefront of our awareness. In September 2006, the “Top Gear” presenter Richard Hammond was injured when he was going at 288 mph—not on the public highways, I add. A Yorkshire air ambulance crew stabilised him and transported him to Leeds hospital. He is quite a star and made a full recovery, and he and his friends were so thankful to the air ambulance crew for its service that they collected £400,000 to donate to it. That is a feature of the ambulance world, as of cancer care: celebrity interaction brings forward money.
Also as with cancer care, we have learned that there must be interaction with the state. I traditionally say that funding should be pound for pound, and I sometimes dream that that will happen. We should try to attain that and to get equality of funding from the state and the charity sector, through which people want to put in their efforts. The annual income of air ambulance charities is estimated at £25 million—quite big money and not bad for private charities, given that Government support has been minimal. That is a huge feat.
Over the years, there have been attempts to reform the service. Back in 1996, a critical report said that
“the health benefits are small, and there are limited circumstances in which…pre-hospital performance…can be improved.”
The air ambulance service took that on board and improved its pre-hospital services. There are now better air ambulances, beds and facilities, and there are paramedics and a trained doctor on board who can treat patients at the scene of the accident or calamity. That is important and may mean the difference between life and death. Doctors sometimes carry out certain procedures at the scene of the accident, before they fly to hospital. That may lead to a small delay, but I have not heard of a helicopter going to the wrong hospital, whereas some land ambulances have to search around to find the right hospital because of communication problems.
There have been other important reports since 1996. One pointed out that 41 per cent. of patients attended by helicopter had their airways opened up at the scene by a doctor—a skilled and vital activity. None of them has been recorded as being taken to inappropriate hospitals. Patients picked up by ambulance often have blocked airways, which is not good for their survival. Secondary transfers were reduced in air ambulance cases, because those patients seem to get to the right hospitals; I shall come back to that point. We need a proper audit of what is happening with the air ambulance service right across the UK. It is not good enough to leave it to each ambulance trust or ambulance charity; we need some kind of co-ordinated activity. That could happen.
Strategic health authorities such as the East of England SHA are beginning to wake up regarding their strategies on injuries pertaining to specialist vascular surgery, coronary thrombosis or acute stroke management. Remember that our stroke policy is that patients must be taken to a stroke unit such as that at the Norfolk and Norwich university hospital in double-quick time to ensure that they survive. Given the geography of that area, only air ambulances can do that, so the scene is changing in terms of how such ambulances can make a real difference. Of course, there is also pre-hospital treatment and care.
We must also consider helipads and ensure that they are lit up. I cannot understand why the air ambulance service does not operate 24 hours a day. It could, given the right facilities and equipment. After all, accidents do not happen only during daylight hours; they also happen at night. That would help in traumatic injury cases.
Problems with night flying usually relate to hazards such as power lines. The aggregate cost of the Derbyshire, Leicestershire and Rutland air ambulance service, at £1.3 million a year, is one twentieth of 1 per cent. of what the NHS spends in Derbyshire and Leicestershire—about £3 billion a year. Does my hon. Friend agree that the cost to the NHS would not break the bank, even if it were to meet more of the running costs?
I welcome my hon. Friend’s intervention. I should also like to know how many people have survived because of that low-paid service. It is well worth the money. I invite the Minister to set up an inquiry into the whole service, across the UK, to see how it is performing with all the knowledge that has accrued over the years.
Many colleagues have attempted to support the air ambulance service and have received the usual replies, such as that it is all sorted out in the locality or that “We don’t keep that data centrally”. Those answers are familiar but long gone, in my mind, because we need to keep that data. Different air ambulance services record in different ways, and we need to unify the way in which we get data.
Sitting suspended for Divisions in the House.
Let me try to tie it all up in the last couple of minutes. I would like to encourage trusts to consider funding all the clinical costs of every air ambulance service in the United Kingdom and ensuring that every unit has a pre-hospital care doctor and a paramedic on board, greatly to improve trauma-patient outcomes. I believe that that is possible. Furthermore, if air ambulances are to become an integral part of our national health strategy, we must make sure that every regional hospital has a lit helipad to facilitate safe, speedy inter-hospital transfers.
Lastly, if there are no centrally held data to audit, we must incorporate a national guideline for registering air ambulance records and statistics. We need a good compact to start with between trusts and air ambulance services, and the Department of Health could facilitate that. This service plays an integral role in our health services. It should be recognised and supported and should work throughout the UK. It would be of benefit in respect of vehicular accidents and traumatic events.
I am not talking about a Northern Rock situation—another place and time, perhaps—and I do not advocate nationalisation of the whole service: quite the opposite. I am not asking the Government to step in and save a dying industry, but to help a productive sector survive and thrive. It is doing quite well, but it is still somewhat short of its potential and time is coming up on us fast. Our Government must invest in this life-saving opportunity. I looked forward to the Minister’s saying yes.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, North (Dr. Gibson) on securing this debate and thank him for raising a subject that is close to the hearts of many involved in the delivery of health care. My county is not dissimilar to my hon. Friend’s: it is rural and sparsely populated, with Dartmoor in the middle of it, which means that it is an appropriate county for an air ambulance to work in. I am pleased to say that we have one, too.
We value the work that air ambulances do and the services that they deliver to patients. They have, as my hon. Friend said, demonstrated time and again that they can make a difference, particularly in emergency care and where road access is a problem and where they can get patients to hospital, and between hospitals, faster.
As I am sure that my hon. Friend will appreciate, as somebody who takes a close interest in health matters, particularly funding, we are taking fewer funding decisions nationally for the health service these days as we give more autonomy to local health trusts to decide on their own spending priorities. We have to take into account the public benefit gained from any increase in expenditure. We have to start by considering where the resources that are made available for the health service will make most difference.
I am sure that my hon. Friend will also be aware that it was this Government, in 2002, who issued guidance to trusts saying that they should support the clinical staff on air ambulances. I am concerned to hear about the list of trusts that he mentioned earlier where that is not so. I was aware of one from my own research, but I will go back and check that and, if necessary, reiterate the guidance that we gave in 2002. Of course, no statutory support for air ambulances had been provided by the previous Government. The increase in funding by this Government was part of a general package of increased funding for ambulance and emergency services since 1997 of 135 per cent. However, the current advice available to me on the cost-benefit for patients in terms of lives saved and improvements in care would not currently justify extending statutory funding for air ambulances in further areas. However, my hon. Friend identified one or two areas where that could change. For example, if emergency and particularly trauma services were reorganised in the way that he suggests with fewer major trauma centres and greater distances between them, that equation could change. It could also perhaps change more easily and more effectively in the short term with better co-ordination, and he addressed that in his speech.
Where air ambulance services are targeted more effectively—my hon. Friend referred particularly to major trauma, or blunt trauma, as it is called—the research that we have commissioned from Sheffield university, about which I can write to him with the details, showed that if the average air ambulance service in the country saved four trauma victims’ lives a year, it would change the balance of benefit in terms of public funding. It might be possible to achieve that benefit with better targeting. However, at the moment, there are still quite a lot of air ambulance dispatches for far more minor cases, and the economics do not stack up. Between just 1 and 2 per cent. of overall ambulance responses are conducted by air ambulances in areas that have them.
My hon. Friend also highlighted a number of areas where there are still drawbacks in using air ambulances. He mentioned the lack of landing pads at hospitals, so that air ambulances must sometimes land some distance away from the hospital with subsequent road transfer of the patient. Night flying is another issue, and my hon. Friend the Member for North-West Leicestershire (David Taylor) was right in saying that there are still considerable safety obstacles for air ambulances flying at night. There are also medical reasons why patients with certain injuries and conditions—for example, maternity patients, neonates, and some head trauma patients—should not be transported by air ambulance.
There are a number of challenges. They are not insurmountable for the air ambulance services and charities, but I wanted to outline them to try to explain to my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, North that although we warmly welcome the work of air ambulances, based on the current NICE-based calculations—he is on the record as supporting that institution—it would not be worth spending more taxpayers’ money than at present on air ambulances. However, that does not mean that we should not encourage trusts to follow our guidance. Nor does it mean that we should not encourage better co-ordination, which is variable and patchy throughout the country between statutory trusts and air ambulance services.
My hon. Friend may not be aware of the review of co-ordination between the NHS ambulance trusts and air ambulance, which is due to report in May, and whether that co-ordination could be better and allow more effective targeting with the sort of cost-benefits to which he referred.
I want to put on the record a couple of other figures that my hon. Friend might be interested in. The Sheffield university research to which I referred found that the average cost of an air ambulance journey was around £1,100, compared with the average cost of a land ambulance of between £139 and £231, so the cost multiple is between fivefold and tenfold.
Was the Sheffield inquiry in 1996?
No, I am helpfully informed that it was in 2003. It is a good job that I can lip-read. It was around the same time that we extended public funding that we recommended to local trusts that the salary costs of the clinical staff who crew air ambulances should be met from NHS funds. However, as with everything in the health service, we keep these matters under review.
My hon. Friend knows that there are enormous pressures on the Government constantly to issue diktats from the centre about national framework standards and national priorities. At the same time, we are criticised for having too many targets and too many centrally determined service standards and requirements. The journey of travel is away from that to more devolved decision making at strategic health authority and primary care trust levels. It is important that the PCTs take note of our guidance on their relationships and their funding for their air ambulances, and that they work more effectively and in a more co-ordinated way with them to ensure that existing services are more joined up.
To put the comparative costs of road vehicles and air ambulances into context, will the Minister say whether the cost that he quoted factored in the earlier arrival of assistance, and the improved outcomes that routinely emerge from the use of air ambulances?
I think that I am right in saying that the Sheffield university research came up with the comparison in terms of response times, but it also took into account what would be needed, taking those response times into consideration, to change the policy for supporting air ambulances with statutory funding, which goes back to my point about four avoidable deaths saved per year. The Sheffield study found that if, taking everything into account, an air ambulance could save four or more blunt trauma patients each year, the cost per quality-adjusted life year is, as I am sure my hon. Friends who take an interest in health matters will be aware, likely to be acceptable based on NICE thresholds. The Sheffield study also found that that would require air ambulances to be better targeted than at present.
Does the Minister accept that there may be not just trauma savings, but savings on patients with strokes, thrombosis and so on? That would save a lot of money. My earlier point was that some things are not recorded. An air ambulance may pick up a patient and drop them off, and that is the end of the matter. They do not always say what the cause and effect of treatment was.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right that the way in which we deal with stroke patients needs a great deal of attention, and I am sure that he will be aware that we recently published an updated stroke strategy. He is right in saying that advances in technology and medical knowledge show that in many parts of the country we have not dealt with stroke victims in the most effective way. It is important to get to patients quickly, to get the right drugs to those who have suffered a certain type of stroke, and to do what can be done in an ambulance environment, but while getting them to a specialist stroke centre as quickly as possible. There may be models in future under which specialist stroke centres may benefit from the quick transportation that he is outlining, but that is not currently the case.
I am advised that the best advantage of air ambulances is for serious blunt trauma cases, which is where the main benefit lies. We believe that services have matured and improved since the research to which I referred, and we look forward to any changes and suggestions from hon. Friends on the contribution that air ambulances can make. We value their contribution, and we believe that they should work more closely with the service and with charities to target and deliver the care that patients need. We believe that they have a good future, supported as they are by taxpayers and the fantastic contributions that enthusiasts and volunteers make.
Mr. Brian Peters
I am pleased to have secured this debate and am absolutely delighted that it is under your chairmanship, Mr. Bercow.
On 1 February 2006, I secured a debate on the events in East Timor in 1975. Today’s debate covers the same ground, but it does so in the light of recent events that have revealed additional information. In 1975, Indonesia invaded East Timor and subsequently illegally occupied it for 24 years, until 1999. Following two and a half years of UN administration, East Timor finally celebrated its official independence as Timor-Leste in 2002. Sadly, it remains in the news, not least because of the recent attempts to kill President Ramos-Horte, who is now recovering. His country’s commission on reception, truth and reconciliation found that in the period from the lead-up to the invasion and throughout the invasion and the subsequent time in power of the Indonesians, East Timor endured up to 183,000 more deaths than would have been expected.
All those deaths are important, but I want to concentrate on the so-called Balibo five. In particular, I will argue—just as I did two years ago—that the UK Government at that time and in subsequent years had been involved in a disgraceful cover-up. Before turning to the most recent events, which cast further light on those deaths, a bit of background may be helpful.
Portuguese Timor, as East Timor was then, became the focus for Indonesian destabilisation in 1974. A civil war from August to September 1975 killed more than 1,000 people. In control by then was a left-wing movement, Fretilin. Instability and unrest remained. Into this situation flew two British citizens, Brian Peters and Malcolm Rennie. They worked for the late Kerry Packer’s Channel Nine network. They headed for the East Timorese border town of Balibo. There, on 13 October 1975, they met three other journalists who were working for the rival Channel Seven network. Three days later all five were dead.
As I said in the earlier debate:
“When Britons die abroad we anticipate our Government doing all they can to help the relatives. We expect the Government to seek as much information as possible and to share it with the relatives. Sadly, in this case, the opposite happened. From 1975 until 1995, there was almost complete inaction. The Government were involved in a disgraceful cover-up.”—[Official Report, Westminster Hall, 1 February 2006; Vol. 456, c. 97WH.]
Efforts, by friends, family and campaigners, such as my constituent Hugh Dowson, to uncover the truth about how the Balibo five died were continually frustrated. By the time of my last debate, we knew that plans were in hand for an inquest into the death of Brian Peters, one of the two British journalists, in New South Wales in Australia.
It was an inquest that should have been held long ago and could have been, had our Foreign Office told the British families in 1975 and 1976 what it really knew from its own sources and from Ramos-Horta about the deaths at Balibo. The inquest has now taken place and the state coroner, Dorelle Pinch, issued her report last November. Coroner Pinch’s report and her findings also apply to the other Briton, Malcolm Rennie, the New Zealander and both Australians.
In responding to my 2006 parliamentary debate, the then Minister for Europe, the right hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire, South (Mr. Alexander) hoped the inquest would
“reach a clear conclusion about what happened on 16 October 1975.”—[Official Report, Westminster Hall, 1 February 2006; Vol. 456, c. 103WH.]
The coroner found that Brian Peters was “deliberately killed”, and she named those responsible. She said that Peters died
“from wounds sustained when he was shot and/or stabbed deliberately, and not in the heat of battle, by...Indonesian Special Forces”—
including Christoforus da Silva and Captain Yunus Yosfiah. She said that Brian Peters was killed
“on the orders of Captain Yosfiah, to prevent him from revealing that Indonesian Special Forces had participated in the attack on Balibo.”
She also found
“strong circumstantial evidence that those orders emanated from the Head of the Indonesian Special Forces, Major-General Benny Murdani to Colonel Dading Kalbuadi, Special Forces Group Commander in Timor, and then to Captain Yosfiah.”
Murdani and Kalbuadi are dead. The other two are not. After diplomatic training in Britain, Yosfiah became a general and, later, a Government Minister. The coroner invited him, several times, to give evidence in person or by video link, but he declined.
The coroner concluded that an international conflict was under way once Indonesian forces seized territory in East Timor on 7 October 1975. She stated that thereafter
“the Fourth Geneva Convention (Protection of Civilian Persons in time of War, 1949)”
protected journalists. She said that under that convention, the killings were
“‘grave breaches’ under Article 147 and may be prosecuted as war crimes.”
Thus, by the time the Balibo five were illegally killed, the Geneva convention was applicable and so those responsible are guilty of war crimes. Given that finding, the coroner referred the case to Australia’s Attorney-General. Australia’s Director of Public Prosecutions will determine whether to prosecute. Given the inquest’s thoroughness, the DPP has strong grounds to decide whether the surviving Indonesian nationals have a case to answer and whether they should be brought to justice.
The coroner also helps us to have a better understanding of the role of others, including the British and Australian Governments, at the time. The coroner concluded that in 1975, despite the Balibo murders, the Australian Government continued the “charade” required
“to sustain the myth that there were no Indonesian troops in East Timor.”
Britain had a key role in that myth, as documents released by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in 2002 show. On 15 September 1975, a month before the deaths of the Balibo five, John Ford, our ambassador to Jakarta, told the FCO that Indonesia’s Generals planned
“to step up clandestine intervention designed to look like popular uprisings...The only limitation on clandestine activity now appears to be fear of its exposure.”
Australian documents show that the FCO advised the Australians on 2 October 1975 that the UK Government would not protest over subsequent Indonesian action in East Timor. Two days later, in a “secret” telegram from the ambassador to the FCO and the Ministry of Defence, Mr. Ford described the military forces ready to invade East Timor. He added that Indonesia’s Defence Ministry awaited
“incidents in the next few days that would finally persuade”
Indonesia’s President to authorise “early overt action”.
So, to one of two Indonesian generals whom he knew was in charge of the takeover, Mr. Ford
“stressed the dangers of overt armed intervention particularly so far as Indonesia’s position in the UN and with public opinion in the West was concerned.”
In other words, Britain did nothing to prevent the planned invasion and went further by recommending that it be kept covert. Keeping something covert means keeping journalists out of the way. Indeed, the inquest findings comment on that. Intelligence officials testified under oath at the inquest; sometimes, on national security grounds, that was done in closed session. Also in closed-session deliberations was, on subpoena, intelligence material located by long searches and covered by public interest immunity. The coroner states that the closed testimonies and intelligence material show that “from early October” 1975, the Indonesians were
“highly sensitive to the presence of any journalists (both foreign and domestic) in the border area”.
However, we know that some 20 journalists were in Balibo between mid-September and mid-October 1975. The Balibo five were among them, specifically to investigate whether Indonesian troops took part in the 7 October seizure of a nearby hamlet in East Timor. Balibo was then attacked and the Balibo five were deliberately killed.
The Australians knew of the attack in advance. The Australian Government admitted in 2002 that their officials were informed by the Indonesians on 13 and 15 October 1975 that Balibo would be seized covertly by Indonesian troops on 15 and 16 October, which is what happened. They also quickly found out about the deaths. As the coroner’s report shows, key Australian officials and Ministers knew the main facts about the deaths within 48 hours. From the closed material, including an Australian intelligence review, we can see that they even knew who led the attack. The material reveals that
“Yunus Yosfiah was the field commander in charge of the attack”
What did the British Government know and what did they do to uncover the truth? They knew a lot, but for a long time did very little. Responding in the 2006 debate, the then Minister implied that the UK Government were not aware of the deaths until their embassy’s report of 24 October 1975. The report claimed that the Balibo five were killed
“almost certainly inadvertently”.
Already at that time, and contrary to the truth, comments were being made that reduced any need for further investigation, but, worse, it seems that we did not want to know more. It appears that our diplomats
“suggested to the Australians that…it is pointless to go on demanding information from the Indonesians”.
The report notes that Australia’s embassy was
“inclined to agree but…apparently under pressure from Canberra”.
Our own ambassador, Mr. Ford, suggested that
“we should ourselves avoid representations to the Indonesians about them”,
to which the FCO replied, “We agree”.
From the start, the Australian Government faced press demands to denounce the killings. As a result, Jakarta halted its covert operation to await the response. The Indonesian military was at the time holding on to the British passports of the two dead British journalists, but there was no British response or reaction. Even after 13 November 1975, when the British ambassador informed the FCO that Indonesia’s intelligence supremo had given the British passports to the Australian ambassador, Britain’s silence continued.
It gets worse. How can anyone justify the subsequent advice from Ambassador Ford to the FCO to deny knowledge of atrocities committed by Indonesian troops in December 1975 after the invasion of East Timor? By January 1976, he had even offered advice to the Indonesian Foreign Ministry on how to hide those atrocities. To compound the cover-up and to add insult to injury, his 15 March 1976 in-depth analysis of the East Timor crisis claimed that Britain’s policy
“has so far paid off handsomely. The lack of involvement has largely kept Timor out of the British and US headlines and away from becoming a major public issue”.
That dispatch also confirmed that the Balibo attack was an Indonesian military operation.
The FCO stonewalled. These two examples from FCO documents from 1975 and 1976, which were released in 2002, illustrate that point. First, A Canberra-based British official reported to the FCO on 30 April 1976 that he had suggested to a senior Australian official that
“it would serve little purpose”
if Australian public statements
“made too much of the fact that two of the journalists were British”.
Secondly, one of the Australian officials who was briefed in advance by the Indonesians on the Balibo attack was Allan Taylor. In 1976, the Australian Government chose him to lead a cover-up operation on the Balibo five. His report purported to find no Indonesian involvement.
Our own Government’s lack of interest in seeking the truth also continued for many years, as I said. During the 2006 debate, I was reminded that when Brian Peters’ sister, Maureen Tolfree, was given a range of papers on the issue in 1995, it was to reassure her
“of the Foreign Office’s transparency about this case”.
I was told that
“she was given a collection of unclassified documents detailing what we knew about her brother’s death”.—[Official Report, Westminster Hall, 1 February 2006; Vol. 442, c. 101-102WH.]
Not one of those documents, however, acknowledges what the FCO really knew about the deaths. The papers on that 1995 meeting, which were released to me in 2006 following that debate, show that the FCO’s real concern in 1995 was to persuade Maureen Tolfree and her MP
“that discussion should focus on the consular aspects of the case—the only legitimate claim Mrs Tolfree has to request a call on Ministers”.
There are many other aspects of the cover-up—even apparently less important matters seem to have been subjected to it. For example, until 1999 our Parliament was told that the Balibo five were part of a single TV crew, but the FCO’s documentation for the 1995 meeting with Maureen Tolfree notes that the burial plot in Jakarta for the Balibo five newsmen’s remains is maintained
“at the expense of Channel 7 (the Australian TV channel which employed 3 of the journalists)”.
It was therefore known in 1995 that it was not a single TV crew, yet the public utterances until 1999 said otherwise.
What should be done now that we have had the coroner’s report? The case is closed as far as Indonesia’s Government are concerned. They first did that right back in 1975, because, in part, of the UK stance of doing and saying nothing. However, Australia’s Government are considering action on the findings and recommendations. What about our Government? Our stance was a disaster for Indonesia and East Timor, and it must end. The conduct of the dead journalist’s Government is, for Indonesia’s military, a litmus test on where we stand on the issue of impunity, which matters. The men named in the coroner’s findings are implicated in later atrocities, not only regarding the Balibo five. Moreover, East Timor’s UN-initiated commission for reception, truth and reconciliation concluded, as I mentioned, that between 1974 and 1999, up to 183,000 more East Timorese died than would be expected in normal times.
The commission made 15 calls to the international community. One was for action by the Governments involved, including Britain’s, to resolve the Balibo five case and that of another international journalist killed in East Timor in 1975. The UK stance on Balibo to date means that no effort has been made to bring to justice those directly implicated in the illegal killing of the Balibo five, which was also a war crime. What signal does that send to those who would consider murdering journalists? Around the world, from 1996 to 2006, more than 1,000 journalists were murdered. In 90 per cent. of those cases, no one has faced justice. More has to be done, and action must now be taken.
I have some questions for the Minister. First, will she acknowledge that Brian Peters’ sister had to overcome an FCO smokescreen to obtain the inquest? Surely the FCO should have been working with the relatives. Secondly, will the Minister involve relatives in determining a way forward and agree it with them? Thirdly, as part of that, will she endorse the coroner’s report? Fourthly, will she invite the Indonesian Government to endorse the report? Fifthly, will she insist that those accused of the murders face justice, through, if necessary, a UK initiative for Interpol to issue warrants for the two surviving Indonesians who were named by the coroner? Sixthly, will she institute a fundamental review of the FCO’s conduct of the case?
Finally, will the Minister review the relevant materials on the Balibo deaths? It has been a sorry saga and the way in which it was handled is a disgrace, but I hope that we can at least make progress today.
I apologise to the House for my lack of voice; I hope my voice will last throughout my speech. Indeed, Mr. Bercow, you had to listen to it during a previous debate.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster) on securing the debate. It is on a matter on which he has a long-standing and, as we heard, a passionate interest.
I express my condolences to the family of Brian Peters, as well as to the families of the four other journalists killed—Malcolm Rennie, Greg Shackleton, Tony Stewart and Gary Cunningham. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office followed closely the Australian inquest into the death of Brian Peters, which was concluded on 16 November 2007. Staff from the British consulate-general in Sydney regularly attended hearing days at the Sydney coroner’s court, and were present when the findings were handed down. Throughout, they remained in close touch with the family of Brian Peters.
The circumstances surrounding the tragic deaths of the five journalists have been the subject of some controversy for many years. The Indonesian Government maintained that the men were killed in crossfire between rival Timorese groups. However, as the hon. Gentleman highlighted, there were persistent allegations that the journalists were deliberately killed by Indonesian troops to prevent them from reporting the extent of clandestine Indonesian involvement in what was then ostensibly a civil war.
Public interest in the Balibo case was reawakened in 1994 when John Pilger’s TV documentary “Death of a Nation” was first aired. The documentary was mainly about the 1992 Santa Cruz massacre in East Timor, but it referred to the Balibo five, reporting claims that the journalists had been tortured and killed by Indonesian soldiers.
Papers released by the FCO to the National Archives show that on 17 October 1975 our embassy in Jakarta reported unconfirmed news stories that Balibo had been captured by anti-Fretilin forces. The papers also showed that on 24 October 1975 the embassy reported news received from Australia that journalists had been killed.
The telegram issued by our embassy in Jakarta in 1975 recorded what we then knew of the journalists’ deaths, which included the fact that they had been with Fretilin forces when the house in which they were sheltering was hit and set on fire, that press pictures of the house had been published and that it was understood that they had been
“killed, almost certainly inadvertently, in the course of an attack by Indonesian/UDT forces”.
It was believed then and during the following years that the journalists had been killed in crossfire between opposing groups fighting in East Timor.
The FCO documents from that time, now released to the National Archives, show that the FCO was aware of the fact that there were clandestine operations in East Timor in October 1975, but not of the details of those operations. Our records show that we were not aware of the journalists’ presence in Balibo before their deaths.
We have not withheld any information that would shed further light on how the five journalists died. All the documents that can be released into the public domain by the FCO on the issue have now been released. The FCO has always striven to be as open and transparent as possible about the information that we hold on the incident. That is why, in 2002, documents relating to the incident were released exceptionally early to permit the relatives of Malcolm Rennie and Brian Peters to see at first hand what the FCO knew about the deaths.
The FCO files from the period indicate that the Government’s policy was not to intervene directly in the controversy surrounding the future of East Timor but to engage the Indonesian Government on the need for democratic outcomes. The United Kingdom never recognised the Indonesian annexation of the country. We constantly worked through the United Nations to seek a resolution that would fully protect the interests of the people of East Timor.
The hon. Gentleman spoke of the developments after the coroner’s findings in New South Wales. It is worth clarifying the matter. There have been no inquests into the deaths in the United Kingdom as there is no legal authority for coroners in the UK to look into a death if there are no remains in their jurisdiction. Under New South Wales legislation, however, coroners can conduct an inquest into the death of someone who was resident in the territory, as Mr. Peters was, even in the absence of remains.
The findings of the New South Wales coroner—that the five were killed deliberately by Indonesian troops—were the outcome of an independent judicial process run by the state coroner’s court. The coroner stated that she would refer the matter to the Australian Attorney-General, as the hon. Gentleman said. The Attorney-General has the authority to launch prosecutions, and he will decide how to take matters forward.
The Government have had contact with the families of the two deceased British journalists on a number of occasions since the men’s deaths.
I am grateful to the Minister for giving way; it will give her a slight break. She rightly referred, as I did, to the fact that the Attorney-General would look into the issue and that the Director of Public Prosecutions would decide how to proceed. Will it be the Minister’s intention to urge the DPP to bring prosecutions?
It is not for the United Kingdom Government to take forward the findings of the coroner’s proceedings in Australia or to comment on their accuracy. However, I assure the hon. Gentleman that we have paid close attention to the progress of the inquest, and I plan to ask the Australian authorities at a suitable opportunity how they plan to respond to the inquest’s recommendations.
The Government have had contact with the families of the two deceased British journalists on a number of occasions, including meetings with FCO Ministers. As the hon. Gentleman knows, the Minister for Pensions Reform, my hon. and learned Friend the Member for North Warwickshire (Mr. O’Brien), then Minister of State for Trade, Investment and Foreign Affairs, met the relatives of Mr. Rennie and Mr. Peters in September 2003 and March 2004 to hear their concerns. Our consular officials wrote to the families of Brian Peters and Malcolm Rennie to inform them about developments following the conclusion of the New South Wales coroner’s inquest, and they will continue to liaise with them on any future developments. I believe that that shows how seriously the Government are taking the case. I assure the hon. Gentleman that we will continue to do so.
The hon. Gentleman raised a number of specific questions with me, and to demonstrate our commitment and to look at the issue further, I offer to meet him and, if they wish, the families of the two British journalists killed, to discuss the outcome of the Australian inquest. Once again, I thank the hon. Gentleman for raising this important issue.
Question put and agreed to.
Adjourned accordingly at seventeen minutes past Five o’clock.