House of Commons
Thursday 1 May 2008
The House met at half-past Ten o’clock
[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]
Bournemouth Borough Council Bill [Lords] (By Order)
Canterbury City Council Bill (By Order)
Leeds City Council Bill (By Order)
London Local Authorities (Shopping Bags) Bill (By Order)
Manchester City Council Bill [Lords] (By Order)
Nottingham City Council Bill (By Order)
Reading Borough Council Bill (By Order)
Orders for Second Reading read.
To be read a Second time on Thursday 8 May.
Oral Answers to Questions
environment, food and rural affairs
The Secretary of State was asked—
Total Government funding for England in 2008-09 is £650 million, of which £559 million is flood defence grant in aid disbursed by the Environment Agency and including local authority and internal drainage board capital projects. The Environment Agency flood defence budget includes a further £20.1 million funded from other sources, and there is a planned local levy programme of around £38 million.
As the Minister will know, those who ask for works to be carried out locally are always told that the budget is under pressure, but the Environment Agency is still able to find the funds to sponsor a flood impact study conducted by Cranfield university. My constituent Mr. Jeremy Chamberlayne put it well when he said:
“This everlasting reviewing and impact studying is beginning to get up my nose! It’s action we want and I seriously fear that the Environment Agency is incapable of delivering it”.
What can the Minister tell us today to change my constituent’s mind?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising the issue. I hear people express that sentiment, but it is based on a misunderstanding. The flood defence capital projects and maintenance projects have been enhanced month on month for eight or nine years. Of course the Environment Agency, as a responsible body, seeks to learn more about flood risk—particularly in the light of the lessons learned from surface as opposed to river flooding, which is one of the aspects recognised in the Pitt review.
I can give the hon. Gentleman the reassurance that he seeks. Action certainly is being taken, and if he visits the Environment Agency I am sure that its representatives will show him the projects.
While we are on the subject of misunderstandings and the Environment Agency, may I ask whether the Minister saw a letter in The Daily Telegraph on, I think, Monday or Tuesday from the agency’s chief executive, Lady Young? In that letter, she contradicted “Dod’s Parliamentary Companion” by saying that she was not a Labour peer, which according to “Dod’s” she has been for many years. Can the Minister clear that up for us?
I hope you will forgive me, Mr. Speaker, for not reading The Daily Telegraph on Monday, Tuesday or indeed any other day. I do the crossword—it runs in my family—and it is a fine newspaper, but I do not think that this is really a matter for me. I believe that you would pull me up if I answered the question, Mr. Speaker.
Last year, the Prime Minister said:
“In addition to that”
—the money allocated—
“under the Bellwin scheme, it will be open to local authorities to be reimbursed for the additional costs that they face, and I know that those requests will be looked at sympathetically.”—[Official Report, 27 June 2007; Vol. 462, c. 325.]
In the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean (Mr. Harper), and indeed in the whole of Gloucestershire, there is a £16 million black hole that must be filled by the council. Moreover, I have been informed by the leader of Gloucestershire county council that it has received no new money to reduce the risk of flooding in the county. Can the Minister tell us why the Secretary of State’s constituency and other urban constituencies receive money for flood defences, while all that rural constituencies such as mine and my hon. Friend’s are given is money for flood impact and feasibility studies?
I understand the hon. Lady’s point, but I do not accept that the Government, through either local authorities or the Environment Agency, do not spend money in rural areas. That is simply not the case.
The hon. Lady referred to Gloucestershire county council. I believe the constituency of the hon. Member for Forest of Dean (Mr. Harper) is in Gloucestershire. The Environment Agency provides moneys for flood defences, and, as I think most local authorities recognise, the Bellwin scheme has worked very well. The Minister for Local Government, my hon. Friend the Member for Wentworth (John Healey), has done a terrific job with that scheme, and with the solidarity fund.
I do not accept the idea that we give money to urban areas but not to rural areas. I suspect that there is a bit of 1 May behind that question, and I think it is unfair.
Renewable Electricity Generation
I regularly discuss a range of issues with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform, including the importance of renewable energy in reducing CO2 emissions.
I thank the Secretary of State for that answer. He will be aware that the Government’s performance and innovation unit has said:
“A sustained programme of investment in currently proposed nuclear power plants could adversely affect the development of smaller scale technology.”
When will his and other Departments work together to make sure that renewables are given a fair chance?
In fairness, I think the hon. Gentleman would recognise that since the renewables obligation was introduced in 2002, renewable generation in this country has nearly trebled in size. That is a practical example of change taking place. We have recently consulted on the nature of the renewables obligation certificates, and we will introduce double ROCs, which will encourage some of the newer technologies. We are, of course, a leading country in the world for investment in offshore wind power, and the Government are very committed to a transformation in the investment in renewables. The simple reason why we are where we are is that we had North sea oil and gas. I think that the whole House recognises that, but we are committed to change, and the policies that we are putting in place will ensure that it happens.
I am sure my right hon. Friend will be as concerned as I am at today’s news that Shell is pulling out of the London Array, which will be the UK’s biggest offshore wind farm. When it is ever suggested that there should be a windfall tax on the vast profits of energy companies, they say that they need the money to invest in new technologies. In view of Shell’s announcement today, should that policy be revisited by the Government?
I have to say that I would describe the news that Shell wishes to sell its stake as very disappointing, and that many people would want to understand why that was the case, especially in a week in which the company has announced record profits. What I would say on the Government’s part is that we have given, and will continue to give, full support to this important project, which, when completed, will produce enough electricity to power about one in four homes in Greater London.
The Secretary of State will know that planning applications for wind turbines on industrial estates are beginning to show themselves. I know of one for a 147 m tower on an area containing 161 businesses and covering 8,000 sq ft. Clearly there must be some limit on the number of wind turbines on industrial estates—[Interruption.] Clearly there must be some limit. What is that limit? How does that impact on fair trading, given the recognition that we need to ensure that access to alternative power sources is available to all industry?
What I would say to the hon. Gentleman—I am comparing the two questions that we have just heard—is that we cannot have it both ways; there are choices to be made about how we generate our energy. It is for the planning authorities to take decisions about individual applications, but if we talk to renewable energy companies, including those involved in wind power, they will tell us that in the UK, the regulatory regime is not a big obstacle as far as financial incentive is concerned; they will tell us that the obstacle is the planning system. We need to examine carefully, in the end, the decisions made at local level on whether permission is given or not, because those decisions will have a huge impact on the speed with which we are able significantly to increase our renewable energy generation.
I suspect that the Secretary of State may share the disappointment felt by hon. Members on both sides of the House that the Government felt it necessary yesterday to vote against new clause 4 of the Energy Bill, which would have paved the way for the introduction of renewable energy tariffs. Will he assure the House that he will hold discussions with ministerial colleagues to find alternative ways of ensuring that tariffs are introduced that will enable and encourage decentralised renewable energy generation?
I am very committed, as I know my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform is, to doing precisely that. That is why the Minister for Energy announced a couple of months ago that, as part of the renewable energy strategy, one of the things on which we will consult in the summer, because we are determined to make progress, is, indeed, feed-in tariffs for microgeneration. One has only to look at a country such as Germany to see the impact that such a system has had. We will examine that as part of the strategy, and we will publish our proposals in due course.
I am listening to the Government describing us as leading on offshore wind power, yet Shell is pulling out of key offshore wind farm projects in this morning’s newspapers. When we look further at the Government’s biomass co-firing feedstocks, we find that a fifth of those are coming from palm oil products, which are causing deforestation and loss of habitat for the orang-utan. We know that things are not being sustainably sourced, and we know that we will not even be close to meeting the EU target of 20 per cent. by 2020 if we lose wind farms and Shell’s investment. I do not think that the Minister’s response that it is all very disappointing is good enough. Will he please see what he can do to try to meet these targets, which the whole House would support?
The Government are responsible for many things, but the decision that Shell has taken is not one of them. Shell made it clear in its statement that the regulatory framework that the Government have set is not the reason for its decision. I said in answer to the earlier question that many people would like to know the reason because Shell has spoken previously about its commitment to investment in renewables, and this is an important test. I hope that the project will be sustained.
On offshore wind, 3.3 GW already have permission. Round 2 should deliver another 7 GW. The Government want a further major expansion up to 25 GW, so we are serious about this.
On biofuels, Ed Gallagher is carrying out the review. As far as the climate is concerned, there are good biofuels and bad biofuels, and we have to be able to distinguish between the two. The review will be important, but we need to encourage the right kind of biofuels. We also need to encourage the second generation of biofuels, and we are determined to do that.
When my right hon. Friend meets the Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform, will he remind him that it is profoundly wrong for politicians or political parties who advocate renewable energy to then deny applications involving that technology? That is the case with the nimby Scottish National party Administration in Scotland.
I agree with my hon. Friend, and I made the same point a moment ago. We have a choice to make. It is instructive to compare and contrast the policies advocated from the Opposition Benches with the decisions taken by the representatives of those same political parties when it comes to individual planning applications. In the end, we have to be held to account for our decisions.
Global Food Prices
With ministerial colleagues, I attended the food summit called by the Prime Minister on 22 April 2008. We discussed the causes and the consequences of the rise in food prices, especially for developing countries.
Much of the debate on this issue is focused on the impact of biofuels, but does my right hon. Friend accept that increased meat and dairy consumption, especially in countries such as China and India as they become more prosperous and adopt a western diet, is also a problem? Does he also agree that the introduction of ever more industrialised and intensive farming methods—trying to squeeze more meat or milk out of every animal and more animals into every acre—is not the answer?
There are several factors behind the recent rise in prices, such as the drought, especially in Australia, although it should produce much more wheat this year; the demand for meat and dairy products that is a result of growing prosperity in the developing world; the existing trade restrictions; and the growth in input prices. The rise in oil prices has a huge impact on fertiliser costs. First, the agricultural industry across the world, including in the UK, has to play its part in contributing to the reduction of carbon emissions. The second priority is to ensure that we protect those least able to deal with the consequence of rising food prices, both abroad and here in the UK.
The one bit of encouraging news is that if one looks at the price of wheat on the futures market for November 2008 and for 2009, the price quoted is around £140 a tonne, compared with about £170 currently. There has been a sharp spike, but the predictions are that we will see a decrease, although the price is unlikely to return to previous levels.
A plentiful supply of food for this country and for the world is dependent on the work of bees. Much concern has recently been expressed about the health of bees, certainly in this country. To draw the sting from that argument, the Government have launched a consultation process on bee health. However, that will report after this year’s pollination has been completed. In order to safeguard those food supplies that are dependent on bees, what help will the Secretary of State give to beekeepers now to ensure that the work of bees is undertaken properly this season?
I share the right hon. Gentleman’s concern. That is why DEFRA is contributing £1.3 million to the bee health programme, the Welsh Assembly Government are making a contribution and there is an additional R and D budget.
The European countries are all concerned. We are looking with our European colleagues at what more might be done. The truth is that we do not fully understand the cause of some of the changes that we are seeing, in particular colony collapse disorder, of which reports have come from the United States of America. We are taking the matter seriously. We want to focus our money on research that will help us to find the answer so that we can deal with the problem.
The rise in food prices led to an almost hysterical attack on biofuels as part of the cause. It might be part of the cause. I was pleased to hear what the Secretary of State had to say about the other causes. Will he acknowledge the importance of not completely abandoning the research on sustainable biofuels in the future?
I agree entirely with the hon. Gentleman. We want biofuels that are better than the petrol and diesel that they are replacing. That is why we need better understanding of the facts and to encourage second-generation biofuels, because they will make an important contribution to helping us to meet the renewable energy targets. We do not want to support things that result in the kind of destruction that the hon. Member for Leominster (Bill Wiggin) referred to a moment ago. Three years ago, many Members of the House from all parties were signing early-day motions and encouraging movement on biofuels. We are learning as we go, and that applies to us all. We want to take the right decisions to support the right kind of biofuels.
The recent Government report on food shows that UK self-sufficiency in temperate or indigenous food products has fallen by about 10 per cent. over the past 10 years. That means that as a nation we are going into world markets, pushing up the prices and making food less available for poor countries. The best estimate of climate change suggests that agricultural productivity in northern Europe will remain about the same or even improve. We are a key factor in the production of sufficient food in the world. What are the Government doing to ensure that productivity in this country and across northern Europe is maintained?
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right in terms of the figures that he gives. If one goes back to before the second world war and after, we were less self-sufficient in food than we are today. The reason that production has come down from the peak of a decade or so ago is that we in Europe, along with others, have reformed the common agricultural policy. That is a good thing, too. That kind of production and its cost were not sustainable.
The market is sending a very clear signal. The prospects for the farming industry are, overall, pretty bright, despite some of the difficulties that some sectors are facing. The people in the best position to encourage productivity are those in the farming industry itself, as they have the skills to encourage people to come in. We will need to play our part in helping to feed not just the population of this country—6.2 million human beings—but the 9 billion that we might have in the world in 50 years’ time.
Two years ago, the Government published their “Vision for the CAP”, in which they clearly stated that domestic production was not necessary for the food security of this country because we were a trading nation. Is that still the Government’s policy? If it is, how does it fit with the Secretary of State’s answer to the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Mr. Williams) about the importance of British production? Either the Government have changed their policy over the past two years, in which case they should say so, or they should tell us clearly that they do not believe that British food security involves domestic production.
By definition, British food security is very significantly dependent on domestic production, as the figures to which the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Mr. Williams) just referred clearly show. [Interruption.] For the avoidance of any doubt, may I make it absolutely clear from the Dispatch Box that the Government continue to support a strong, thriving agricultural industry in this country? The hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Paice) raises an important point, because circumstances change and we need to reflect on the implications of that change. The question is: what are the right things to do to ensure that the challenge of the future is met, including by the contribution that British agriculture can make?
I do not think that the answer is to go back to where we were in the form of intervention, and the hon. Gentleman does not either. I make a genuine offer to him and to the farming industry, as I have on a number of occasions. I am open to a conversation and a discussion about the right things to do in response to the changing circumstances in which we find ourselves.
Coastal Flood Defences
Overall, spending in England for flood and coastal erosion risk management will rise from £600 million this year to a minimum of £650 million in 2008-09, £700 million in 2009-10 and £800 million in 2010-11.
The Environment Agency expects to spend approximately £90 million on capital works to address coastal flooding in this period, excluding maintenance work. At least £110 million has been allocated to local authorities for coastal protection, flooding and associated studies in the next three years.
But despite that, the Minister will be aware of the considerable concerns among landowners that the Government intend to abandon the maintenance of some areas of sea wall. Is he also aware that if a landowner wishes to carry out the repairs himself, he is required to obtain permission from the Environment Agency, from Natural England and, in some cases, even from the Marine Fisheries Agency? If the Government are not going to maintain the sea walls, will they please make it easier for landowners to do so?
I take the important point that the hon. Gentleman raises; it is incumbent on us to deal with it. The difficulty is—and I know he understands this because he has made this point—the fact that the schemes interact. A scheme on one part of the coast can impact further down the coast. The Environment Agency and Natural England have different considerations and there is the potential impact on marine life. However, he makes an important point and it is one that we need to address. I will come back to him on it.
Fifteen million people in Britain live near the coastline, which is being eaten away slowly by the impact of erosion, storms and rising sea levels. The Minister has said that he does not read the Telegraph, but did he read the article in The Guardian two weeks ago that suggested that Natural England plans to abandon in the medium term a nine-mile stretch of coastline in Norfolk, much visited by the people of the east midlands and Leicestershire, between the villages of Eccles and Winterton? Therefore, many homes will be lost in that vicinity. Will he deny those reports? We cherish the Wintertons in this place; we should cherish Winterton in Norfolk as well.
First of all, I can assure the hon. Member for Congleton (Ann Winterton) that there is nothing personal in this.
I choose my words carefully as I look at the Gallery upstairs. I did read that article in The Guardian, but I do not read the paper everyday; I cannot do the crossword in The Guardian. I read the article and it caused some upset and worry. It is not the role of Natural England to take such decisions; responsibility is with the Environment Agency. The Government work closely with the other bodies, and this goes back to the point that the hon. Member for Maldon and East Chelmsford (Mr. Whittingdale) made on the previous question. I can give the reassurance that my hon. Friend is looking for. There is no question of an abandonment of the nature that the article suggested.
I thank the Minister for his conciliatory response to my hon. Friend the Member for Maldon and East Chelmsford (Mr. Whittingdale), but may I reinforce the point that my hon. Friend made? There is a ludicrous complication that requires farmers to obtain a waste licence to deposit inert waste on to a sea wall. This is bureaucracy gone mad. Can the Minister confirm that he has received representations on the issue from the National Farmers Union? What action is he taking to resolve this question?
In all honesty, I cannot recall seeing representations from the NFU and I will immediately check the point that the hon. Gentleman makes. I see that there may be a reason for some controls, because not everybody plays by the rules or by the intent of the rules. This is not a partisan point. If farmers are reporting to him that there is a problem, we need to address it and I will do so.
The Minister will know that, like many Labour-led organisations, the Environment Agency is seen as arrogant, undemocratic and unaccountable. Flood-hit communities in the East Riding are enraged by the agency’s insistence that its failure in basic maintenance did not contribute to the extent and damage of last year’s flooding. Will he and the Secretary of State undertake to break up the agency and ensure that those who carry out flood defence in our local communities are democratically accountable and seen to be so?
I do not think that the right hon. Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer), if he were in the Chamber, would accept the premise of the question. The Environment Agency has had broad support for many years; the accusation that it is partisan is unfair. As for the accusation that it is undemocratic, it has a job to do, and part of that job is consultation, but not everybody will agree. I have visited the constituency of the hon. Member for Beverley and Holderness (Mr. Stuart), as he knows, and we are to have a further meeting on the points that he raises. The fact of the matter is that not everybody agrees on the way forward; there are disagreements among the different interest groups. The Environment Agency does a difficult job, and I am more than happy to defend it. On the specifics that the hon. Gentleman raised, we are due to discuss them, and I look forward to that meeting.
May I remind the Minister that in 1953, when the Lincolnshire sea coast defences were last seriously breached, thousands of lives were lost? Considerable numbers of my constituents live in homes that are below high sea levels, and they are not all readers of The Daily Telegraph. Will he give an assurance that the east Lincolnshire coastline defences will remain fully maintained?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his reminder of the events of 1953. The lessons learned then were built into our plans for defence against the recent tidal surge. Thank goodness, the fine county of Lincolnshire was protected. The Government’s policy regarding the coast is of course made more difficult by the issues that my hon. Friend the Member for North-West Leicestershire (David Taylor) raised: by erosion, tilting, which is causing a gradual increase in sea level, and the impact of climate change. That has meant that since 1953 we have had to revisit the policy. That is why the outcome measures, as they are called—I would call them the criteria used—have recently been changed. I think that the hon. Member for Louth and Horncastle (Sir Peter Tapsell) will find, if he studies the criteria, that they are beneficial to his constituents. I am grateful to him for raising the point.
Those who live in coastal communities, especially those communities that are slightly more coastal than they were when people first moved in, want certainty on two points. The first is the issue of abandonment. The Minister’s apparently quite clear statement of a few seconds ago is clearly at variance with what other Government bodies are at least considering as an alternative, so does he speak with the authority of the full Government, and will none of the coastal communities be abandoned? The second point on which people want clarity is compensation. Given that the future of peoples’ homes is entirely dependent on government policy, to the extent that anybody can do anything about the problem, surely there is an issue of compensation. We are talking about individuals who may well have lived in one place for generations. If they choose to live there, do the Government say, “Well, that’s tough; if you live on the coast, you take the consequences”?
The hon. Gentleman raises two very important points. We have the strategy, through the adaptation toolkit, which we are working on, including by having discussions with hon. Members in all parts of the House and local authorities. That is about what specific measures we need to take to ensure that bureaucracies do not get in the way of protecting people’s communities. The adaptation toolkit is very important; I know that it does not sound it, but it is. Secondly, on abandonment, the difficulty in this debate is that, as I said before, the protection of one area of coastline can have an impact on another. It is simply not possible to protect everywhere. The word “abandonment” is, of course, very emotive.
The natural erosion of the coast, or increased erosion caused by climate change, is something that the Government could not stop in every instance, no matter how much money they spent. We need a fair set of criteria that are transparent and acceptable to the House, and that is the policy on which we are working. One can never talk about not abandoning areas if it is nature that is the problem. On the point about compensation, in the adaptation toolkit—
Aviation’s climate change impact is currently responsible for about 6 or 7 per cent. of the UK’s total carbon dioxide emissions and 1.6 per cent. of global CO2 emissions. Recent research in 2000 by the European Commission’s TRADEOFF project suggested that the total climate change impact of aviation up to 2000 was 1.9 times greater than its CO2 impact alone.
Given that the recent National Audit Office report showed that there have been no reductions in UK carbon dioxide emissions
“ if measured on the basis of the Environmental Accounts”,
which means that since 1990, if aviation and shipping emissions are included, we have had no reductions in CO2, may we have an assurance from the Secretary of State that when he talks to Transport Ministers about plans to build extra runways at Heathrow and elsewhere, and when the Climate Change Bill comes back to the House, aviation and shipping emissions will be included, not hidden away to pretend that they do not matter?
There is no question of hiding anything away or saying that it does not matter. As the hon. Gentleman knows, the Bill makes provision to include those emissions once there is international agreement on how to divide up responsibility, for example, for a flight that leaves Heathrow flown by an American airline, refuels in Dubai and ends up in Sydney, or for ships refuelling from bunker fuel ships in international waters with a Panamanian flag. It is a practical problem. The second thing that we are already doing will mean that aviation is included in the EU emissions trading scheme. As the hon. Gentleman will realise, that means that aviation emissions will be capped in Europe at their 2004-06 level and any growth above that will have to be compensated for by reductions elsewhere.
Further to that point, as my right hon. Friend is aware, aviation and shipping are included in the Bill, but he said that international agreement needs to come first. If we do not get international agreement, can he reassure me that we will go down the road of an agreement within the EU, and if that does not go ahead, we will take unilateral decisions and ensure reductions ourselves?
Of course, domestic emissions from aviation are already included in the totals in the Bill, and yes, it is true that Europe is leading because the international air transport organisation has not taken the lead in dealing with emissions from aviation. We are firmly committed to support Europe’s EU emissions trading scheme and aviation’s inclusion in it. That is the best hope we have in the world of making progress on the issue.
When considering carbon emissions from aviation, however, will the Secretary of State ensure that proper regard is given to the comparative emissions from the different modes of transport available to people? Will he bear in mind that in the highlands and islands, where the alternatives are often long road journeys and ferry journeys, aviation with a well-filled plane travelling not too high can be a carbon-efficient way of moving people around? Will he ensure that they are not penalised for using that mode of transport?
The Government have taken a range of initiatives to assist communities in combating climate change. The climate challenge fund has provided assistance to 83 projects led by local authorities and third sector organisations to encourage more positive attitudes towards tackling climate change. For example, it enabled the Women’s Institute to develop successful eco teams to raise awareness and encourage action to reduce emissions. The environmental action fund provided yearly grants of up to £250,000 to voluntary and community sector organisations to help them meet the Government’s sustainable development objectives in England.
Let me give my hon. Friend that assurance. We have introduced new Government performance framework indicators on climate change, which will enable local authorities to reduce their own operations’ emissions and per capita emissions from their community. We are rolling out the green homes service with the Act on CO2 advice line, which will enable householders to tackle their emissions through greater energy savings. We are tackling waste and water usage, and towards the end of the year we will roll out the green neighbourhoods scheme, looking for 100 selected neighbourhoods to help to reduce their carbon footprint by 60 per cent. We are looking for 3,000 households and focusing on the most hard to treat housing stock. I can give my hon. Friend the assurance that we intend to do more, and that we have the co-operation of local authorities.
Notwithstanding what the Minister has just said, should she not be braver and more proactive with regard to encouraging individuals to take action on climate change and their carbon footprints? She will be aware of schemes, operated by some local authorities, in which reductions in council tax are offered for climate change measures taken in the house. Would that not be a more proactive way forward, in encouraging people to get something back in return for taking care of the climate?
I agree with the hon. Lady about initiatives that local authorities can take; we have made it possible for them to do that. Furthermore, probably no Government in the world are more active than ours about messages to individuals. There is, for example, the Act on CO2 campaign. I have just written to the hon. Lady and all other hon. Members about the new nationwide advertising campaign that will begin next week; she will see that a great deal of effort has gone behind that. Some 40 per cent. of our CO2 emissions come from the actions of individuals. The Government are explaining that and we are enabling and encouraging people on how they can reduce their own emissions. That is a vital part of tackling dangerous climate change, and we are extremely active on it.
The United Kingdom is on course to achieve nearly double its commitment under the Kyoto protocol to cut, by 2008 to 2012, greenhouse gas emissions by 12.5 per cent. from the 1990 level. The UK is actively working with countries around the world, including the US, China and India, to secure a future international agreement for action on climate change.
Will my hon. Friend take this opportunity to confirm that the basis of the Kyoto agreement is that it applies to the whole basket of greenhouse gases and not simply to CO2? Incidentally, the matter is of great interest to readers of the Airdrie and Coatbridge Advertiser.
That newspaper is the second most important in the country, after the Oldham Evening Chronicle.
My right hon. Friend has made an important point; CO2 emissions are confused with the total basket of greenhouse gas emissions. CO2 does make up 85 per cent. of the problem, but our Kyoto commitment is about the total basket of the six greenhouse gases. As I have said, the United Kingdom is on course to achieve nearly double its commitment on reducing greenhouse gas emissions. That is extremely important to the international negotiations and our domestic situation.
The Kyoto protocol parties met in Bangkok from 31 March to 4 April to discuss how annexe 1 parties can reduce their emissions. The conclusions will be taken forward at the next United Nations framework convention on climate change meeting, which will take place in Bonn in June.
My hon. Friend’s question gives me the opportunity to express the profound appreciation—of the whole House, I am sure—of Nick Stern’s work on this issue. He has divided the emissions that it seems the world can cope with, if we achieve the global 50 per cent. reduction by 2050, by the expected population, and that is the kind of figure that we have ended up with. Our problem is that the current distribution per capita ranges from about 20 tonnes per head of population in the United States of America to about 0.1 tonnes per head of population in Ethiopia. How we move from where we are now to where we need to be is the great challenge faced in the negotiations.
The demand for recycled plastic is strong, from UK manufactures and overseas markets. The Waste and Resources Action Programme—WRAP—is a delivery body funded by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs that works across the whole of the resource efficiency loop, as I am sure my hon. Friend is aware. WRAP will be helping the Government to deliver several aspects of the waste strategy for England 2007, including a core remit to develop markets for recycled materials, including plastics, such as polyethylene terephthalate.
I am concerned to hear what my hon. Friend has to say, and we will look into the case of that company. I can tell him, however, that a year ago, local authorities were collecting 3 billion plastic bottles from households and WRAP is working towards increasing that collection level by 30 per cent. Landfill tax rises will encourage more recycling, and WRAP has grant-aided and supported a number of plastic bottle recycling plants, addressing one of our major problems. To give two examples, JFC Runcorn has a PET capacity of 10,000 tonnes per annum, and Closed Loop London has a food-grade PET capacity of 15,000 tonnes per annum. We recognise that there has been a problem; we are taking action to correct it, and WRAP is leading that process for the Government.
The responsibility of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs is to enable us all to live within our environmental means. In December, the Government ordered 22.5 million doses of bluetongue vaccine from Intervet to ensure that farmers in England and Wales can protect their livestock. I am pleased to report to the House that the first vaccine was made available yesterday for use in protection zones in England, and 3 million doses of vaccine—1 million in 20-dose bottles and 2 million in 50-dose bottles—are being released for wholesale distribution. Farmers in the protection zone should contact their private vet to purchase vaccine. Batches will be delivered regularly until the end of August and the protection zones will be progressively expanded as the vaccine becomes available. I am confident that the whole industry will give its full support to the vaccination programme.
I am grateful to the Secretary of State for that explanation. Is he aware that among the ideas being put forward for managing Norfolk’s sea defences is a proposal for managed retreat? That will involve the flooding not of marshlands or wetland but of five villages and thousands of acres of arable land. What do the Government have against Norfolk, one of the most loyal communities in the country? Will he give me an undertaking today that those 5,000 year old settlements will not be submerged under a tidal wave of new Labour complacency?
I say to the hon. Gentleman, as my hon. Friend the Minister for the Environment said a moment ago, that I understand entirely the concern generated by the report, but as my hon. Friend made clear in his answer to a previous question, decisions about what we protect and how are taken not by Natural England, but by the Environment Agency, subject to the policy we set out. We are committed to do all that we can to protect communities, which is why we are putting more money in. We all have to recognise, however, that nature is very powerful, and how we manage the transition is a job for all of us to work on together.
I wonder whether my colleagues on the Front Bench are at all nostalgic for the days when we were best when we were boldest? In that regard, are they tempted by the terms of early-day motion 1331, which calls for canoeists in England and Wales to enjoy the same rights of access as they currently enjoy in Scotland, where they co-exist happily with anglers? Will the Secretary of State meet colleagues and me to discuss the issue?
I will be bald—[Laughter.] Slapheads unite.
We want to enable people to have access, but we believe that such arrangements are best agreed on a voluntary basis. I will be happy to meet my hon. Friend to discuss those matters.
I think that the Secretary of State agrees that there is no dispute between us about the science of climate change. Does he believe that the Climate Change Bill should retain its principal aim of ensuring that we do our bit in this country to help keep the average global temperature below the level beyond which, scientists say, we are in dangerous territory and exceeding a safety limit?
I agree with the hon. Gentleman that there is no dispute about what the science tells us and what we need to do. The Government have reflected carefully on the amendments that were passed in another place. However, there is some difficulty about the primary purpose clause because, however bold and powerful the legislation that we pass in this Parliament, we cannot legislate for the global temperature increase. We have to reflect on that because we must ensure that our legislation is credible.
That was a disappointing response. If the Bill does not have a primary purpose, it is fundamentally weakened. Does the Secretary of State accept, given that carbon emissions arise across the economy and his direct responsibilities are for only a minority of carbon emissions, that the Prime Minister should take the lead on tackling climate change, not the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs? I assume that, at some point, we will have a Prime Minister who is capable of taking a lead on anything.
On the second issue, the danger of following that route is that people will argue that the Prime Minister should have all the responsibility in every bit of legislation. The Government’s commitment is in no doubt. I disagree with the premise of the hon. Gentleman’s second question that the Bill’s primary purpose is not clear. It is crystal clear. It is to ensure that the United Kingdom reduces its emissions by at least 60 per cent. by 2050. The figure might be 80 per cent. because, as he knows, the climate change committee is being asked to advise on that point. However, whether we achieve the global limit on the increase in temperature is also down to what other countries do.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising that issue. We published the draft Marine Bill, which is the first of its type anywhere in the world. It is published on the existing settlement of 12 to 200 nautical miles within the UK. Licensing for energy stays with the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform, though the new marine management organisation will provide information, especially when we look to locate important marine conservation zones.
May I begin by thanking the Secretary of State and the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the hon. Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Jonathan Shaw), for meeting me last week to discuss the problems on Longstone Edge? Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that several hon. Members have written to me about the subject and keenly await the decisions that he and the Department for Communities and Local Government have to make in the next few months? Can he say anything further?
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman and many other hon. Members who have raised that important issue, which is a source of concern to us all. As he knows, the Department for Communities and Local Government and the national park authority are seeking leave to appeal against the recent judgment. As he knows from our conversation, I am keen to find a permanent solution to the despoliation of one of the most beautiful parts of our countryside. The Under-Secretary, who has done a lot of work on the matter, and I commit to continue working with the right hon. Gentleman, other hon. Members, the national park authority and local people.
I am very grateful indeed to my hon. Friend for raising that point. Last week we had an important meeting of around 50 organisations and agencies to address the position of those who, for reasons of fuel prices or fear of not being able to pay their bills, face difficult times. Our plans for this winter are being put in place now, so that we can address the issue. We have got the fuel poverty figures down substantially, which, with rising bills, is even more important—God forbid that we should have a severe winter, because then we would face real difficulties. It is right to raise those issues now, in the spring, in advance of the winter.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. The licence for people with disabilities has increased by 33 per cent. Licences are a contribution towards ensuring that the fisheries are accessible, so that people can enjoy this wonderful sport. The Environment Agency has told me that a substantial amount of that money will go towards ensuring more access for people with disabilities. Someone without a disability has access to all the rivers and banks; someone with a disability does not. I have told the Environment Agency that it needs to use a substantial amount of that money to improve the opportunities for people with disabilities to enjoy the wonderful sport of fishing, and I will hold it to that.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his question. Our policy is to encourage the development of carbon capture and storage. It is extremely important to have a demonstration project showing that the technology works not only for the United Kingdom, but for the whole world’s energy transformation. Our policy is to argue for the inclusion of CCS credits in the European trading scheme as an important policy tool. Indeed, I met the company concerned in the United Kingdom only last week.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend. I can confirm that we want a total ban on sealskin products from harp and hooded seals of any age. The Government’s position on seal hunting has been clear for a long time—we want that ban enforced. We operate within a single market in the European Union, which is why it is essential that we have a ban right across the EU. A decision is imminent. We will be writing to the Commission to reinforce our point further and to seek to persuade the other member states.
May I say to the hon. Gentleman that I share his appreciation of those who pursue the sport? I had the opportunity to meet representatives of the sector only last week. On the question of compensation, I have to be straight: there is no prospect of the Government paying compensation in those circumstances, and it has never been the practice of any Government to do so. However, I listened carefully to the concerns that were expressed about the impact of the restrictions that we have to put in place when there are avian flu outbreaks. I was able to reassure the representatives whom I met that we intend to undertake a new veterinary risk assessment in the light of our developing understanding of what the risks are. That risk assessment will consider whether the restrictions that we apply to pigeon racing can be changed in any way. I promised that I would report back to those representatives.
We do, indeed, need to look at how we phase in the new rules, but I assure the hon. Gentleman that that is not to do with any decisions that might be taken in the future about airport capacity. If one looks at the recent figures for air quality, one will see the improvements that have been gained in this country over several years as a result of domestic and European legislation.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his kind words. The answer is that it depends on how quickly we can get on with the vaccination programme. That is why the vaccine becoming available earlier than expected has been so widely welcomed. The degree of uptake within the farming industry is a factor. It came to us and said, “We’d like a voluntary programme, but we will give it our utmost support.” The Joint Action against Bluetongue—JAB—campaign is the result of that, and we are backing it to the fullest extent possible. The message is simple: if people wish to protect their animals and the sector, they should vaccinate their animals. The vaccine supplies are now arriving, and that news has been welcomed by many people.
On fuel poverty, the Government have been able to persuade energy suppliers to pay an extra £175 million to tackle that issue, but would not it be a good idea to ask energy producers, whose vast profits I mentioned earlier, to contribute to Government programmes to tackle fuel poverty?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who has campaigned for many years on the issue, for that suggestion. We believe that we have the right package in place through our energy efficiency measures, which contribute to reducing fuel bills, and direct programmes to address fuel poverty head-on. However, I will reconsider the issue in the light of his point.
May I say to whichever Minister is going to reply that in the county of Cheshire, which I am pleased to say has an abundance of great crested newts, the county council, as the education authority, has had to spend £60,000, at a time of grave financial difficulty, to move just four great crested newts? Is that a sensible way to spend taxpayers’ money? Will the Minister ensure that the EU habitats directive, under which the council is obliged to act in that way, is urgently reviewed?
May I express sympathy with the hon. Gentleman regarding the plight that he considers to have befallen his area? I have to tell him, however, that the habitat regulations make it an offence to capture, injure or kill great crested newts. It is vital that when we consider the preservation of species—
Hold on a moment. Tremendous species loss is occurring globally, and there has been great loss of great crested newts in this country. It is important that we all obey the law.
The habitats directive will not be reviewed in that context, but what has been reviewed—very importantly—is the proportionate approach taken by Natural England. DEFRA and Natural England have reviewed the matter and issued new guidance, which I will share with the hon. Gentleman. However, when he says that a particular sum of money equates to a certain number of great crested newts—it is just four—the truth is that although only those four will have been captured and moved, the moving and preservation of habitats and the way that such action is undertaken will benefit many more of the species than the particular four in question. It is not possible to equate the overall sum of money that is relevant and necessary to the number of newts that are actually moved.
Business of the House
The business for the week commencing 5 May will be:
Monday 5 May—The House will not be sitting.
Tuesday 6 May—Consideration of Lords amendments to the Criminal Justice and Immigration Bill followed by motion to approve a money resolution on the Temporary and Agency Workers (Equal Treatment) Bill.
Wednesday 7 May—Opposition Day [11th Allotted Day][First part]. There will be a debate entitled “Safeguarding the Impartiality of the Civil Service” followed by the Chairman of Ways and Means has named opposed private business for consideration, followed by, if necessary, consideration of Lords amendments.
Thursday 8 May—A general debate on defence in the world. The House will not adjourn until the Speaker has signified Royal Assent.
Friday 9 May—Private Members’ Bills.
The provisional business for the week commencing 12 May will include:
Monday 12 May—Second Reading of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill [Lords].
Tuesday 13 May—Remaining stages of the Education and Skills Bill followed by motion to consider the Statement of Changes in Immigration Rules Order 2008 (HC 321).
Wednesday 14 May—Opposition day [12th Allotted Day] there will be a debate on an Opposition motion.
Thursday 15 May—Topical debate: Subject to be announced followed by, if necessary, consideration of Lords amendments followed by motion to take note of the outstanding reports of the Public Accounts Committee to which the Government has replied. Details will be given in the Official Report.
Friday 16 May—Private Members’ Bills.
I should also like to inform the House that the business in Westminster Hall for 15 May and 22 May will be:
Thursday 15 May—A debate on the report from the Science and Technology Committee on the funding of science and discovery centres.
Thursday 22 May—A debate on “The Road Ahead”: the final report of the independent task group on site provision and enforcement for Gypsies and Travellers.
In respect of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill, which has its Second Reading on Monday 12 May, it is our intention that the Committee stage for provisions relating to saviour siblings, mixed embryos and the need for supportive parenting will be dealt with on the Floor of the House.
Following is the information: The 41st and the 42nd, and the 46th to the 65th, reports of the Committee of Public Accounts of Session 2006-07, and the Treasury Minutes on these reports (Cm 7275, 7276 and 7322); and the 1st to the 4th, the 6th, and the 9th to the 13th reports of the Committee of Public Accounts of Session 2007-08, and the Treasury Minutes on these reports (Cm 7323 and 7364).
I thank the Leader of the House for giving us the forthcoming business, particularly for her statement on how the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill will be handled. Many Members will welcome being able to debate those particular issues on the Floor of the House.
Reports of the presidential election in Zimbabwe suggest that Robert Mugabe has lost. Members in all parts of the House continue to be concerned by the situation in Zimbabwe and its future, so when can we have the promised debate on Zimbabwe?
On Monday, during Defence questions, the Defence Secretary was asked if he would deploy extra troops to Kosovo. No clear answer was given. The very next day, in a written statement, he announced the deployment of extra troops to Kosovo. It is inconceivable that Ministers did not know that on Monday, and it is a disgrace that they were not frank with this House, our armed forces or their families.
On a recent visit to Catterick garrison, I met forces families who are very worried about the overstretch facing our armed forces. Will the Leader of the House guarantee that in future, when our brave servicemen and women are deployed abroad, the Defence Secretary will have the courage to come and face Members of this House?
This week, when challenged about how the Government have let people on low incomes down, the Justice Secretary said:
“Sometimes…there are inadvertent consequences of changes. We put our hands up to that, we should have known more about the impact of the abolition of the 10p rate”.
Does that not show how out of touch this Government are? I have received an e-mail from a constituent who earns £550 a month working for the NHS, and her annual tax bill will increase by £197, putting her under enormous financial strain. I want to be able to write to my constituent and tell her that she will be compensated, but the Government’s position is unclear. Before the Finance Bill returns to the Floor of the House, will the Leader of the House ensure that the Chancellor publishes a clear statement, and sends a copy to all MPs, on who will be compensated, by how much and when?
This week, thousands of car owners have learnt that a Government stealth tax will land them with drastically higher road tax bills and cars that are virtually unsaleable. We are talking not about brand-new 4x4s, but family-sized cars used by hard-working parents. When everyone is worried about soaring prices, is it not typical of this out-of-touch Government to add another stealth tax to the huge financial strain on families? Can we have a debate on the impact of the Government’s actions on hard-working families?
Criminal justice watchdogs claim that our justice system’s nonchalant approach contributed to circumstances in which Richard Whelan, an innocent man, was stabbed to death on a London bus. His murderer, Anthony Joseph, was released on bail only hours before killing him, even though a warrant was out for his arrest. He should never have been released. The prison where he was did not have access to the police national computer, so staff could not check if he was wanted elsewhere. More than two thirds of our prisons do not have access to this national computer, so is it any wonder that the watchdogs have branded the criminal justice system “sloppy”. Can we have a statement from the Justice Secretary on what he will do about that?
We learn today that 150 homes in residential areas will be used to house prisoners on early release. For much of the time, they will not be supervised, yet there has been no consultation with local residents. Therefore, can we also have a statement from the Justice Secretary on why the public are being faced with that unnecessary risk?
The right hon. Member for Norwich, South (Mr. Clarke) has described the Prime Minister as
“dithering, controlling, drifting and tormented”.
Some Labour MPs are reported as saying that the Prime Minister is an
“albatross in a tartan waistcoat”.
On Sky TV last weekend, the Leader of the House said that Labour had been blessed to have two world-class leaders in a generation. One was Tony Blair, but who was the other one?
The right hon. Lady raised the question of Zimbabwe. As she will know, the Prime Minister raised the issue of Mugabe respecting the will of his people, and did so at the United Nations. As she may know, Lord Malloch-Brown, a Foreign Office Minister, will give evidence next week to the Foreign Affairs Committee, and no doubt questions about Zimbabwe will be asked on that occasion. There was also a debate on Zimbabwe in Westminster Hall last Tuesday. The Government are keeping up the pressure on Zimbabwe, and on the other African nations which are so important to the future of Zimbabwe, with regard to respect for that election result. I will consider the right hon. Lady’s request as a proposal for a topical debate.
On the question of the Kosovo deployment, I think that it is fair enough for Secretaries of State to make written ministerial statements or oral statements when they are in a position to do so. The fact that a Secretary of State answered oral questions the day before he or she delivered an oral or written ministerial statement does not necessarily mean anything other than that it was not possible for the statement to be made beforehand.
The right hon. Lady will know that the UK received a request from NATO to deploy a battalion to Kosovo by the end of May, as part of our existing commitment to the NATO-EU pan-Balkans operational reserve force. The UK meets that longstanding commitment in rotation with Italy and Germany, so we are well prepared to meet NATO’s request. However, there will be a defence debate next week, and the House will have an opportunity to raise such matters then.
The shadow Leader of the House will know that in this week’s discussions on the Finance Bill, there was much debate on the Floor of the House about the compensation arrangements for those affected by the abolition of the 10p rate. She will also know that there will be an inquiry into those matters by the Treasury Committee.
The right hon. Lady asked about car owners, but she will know that the cost of motoring has fallen by 13 per cent. across the board over the past 10 years. She will also know that this Government have built new roads, and roads are now safer. We have sought to address motorists’ concerns, but we also have to take care of the environment.
The right hon. Lady mentioned bail hostels and the early release of prisoners. There is an obligation in the contract that Clearsprings has with the Home Office that the company should consult local police and probation services, and the local authority, but I understand that this is not a question of change of use. The situation is similar to what happens when a person is granted bail by a magistrates court or a Crown court and then returns to live with his or her family. We are not talking about big bail hostels to which suspects awaiting trial are committed under certain bail conditions: instead, because the issue is one of housing, the planning consultation—which would normally involve putting up notices and the consultation of neighbours—is not required. Obviously, however, there will be an investigation if the contractual obligation to consult local police and probation services and the local authority is not met.
The Secretary of State for Justice is planning to issue a consultation paper on bail and how it operates. That will be followed by a consultation period, and a report will be brought to the House.
My right hon. and learned Friend the Leader of the House will know that many hon. Members have taken part in visits to Auschwitz arranged for schools in their localities by the Holocaust Educational Trust. Last year, there were two very successful visits by Scottish schools and pupils, and for the first time they went directly from Scotland. However, I regret to say that the Scottish National party Administration in Holyrood has decided not to spend the £150,000 of Barnett consequential money that they received as part of this Government’s funding programme. Will my right hon. and learned Friend ensure that the Secretary of State for Scotland makes a statement to the House about the discussions that he proposes to have with the First Minister to reverse that negative and regressive move, which was also supported by the Tory group in Holyrood?
I thank my hon. Friend for that question. There was a debate in the House recently for Holocaust memorial day, when hon. Members of all parties talked about the importance of the work done by the Holocaust Educational Trust, so it is very disappointing to hear that young school students in Scotland are to be denied the opportunity to learn and understand about the holocaust that the visits provide.
It seems inexplicable that such a decision was made for the sake of £150,000. Perhaps we can understand it only by recognising that it was made by a political party that is inward-looking, narrow and nationalistic, and does not appreciate that we ought to comprehend what is going on in the world and learn lessons from it.
Let me begin on a consensual note by thanking the Leader of the House for her announcement that the most controversial issues in the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill will be dealt with by a Committee of the whole House. I also thank her for rearranging the debate in which the House will decide whether to approve the immigration rules, and for her willingness to think again about the increasingly urgent need for a debate in the Chamber on Zimbabwe.
It looks as though, after four and a half weeks, we may at last learn the Zimbabwe election results from the electoral commission. Once they are public, there can be no reason for us not to debate the implications before anything else happens. The natural caution shown by the Government was understandable, but there is no reason for holding back once the results are announced and we can judge them.
During one of the debates on the Finance Bill on the Floor of the House, the Financial Secretary to the Treasury said she accepted the fact that only a quarter of those on low incomes receive working tax credit. That is an agreed figure, so although the Select Committee on the Treasury is going to do some work on it, may we have a debate in the Chamber on this subject? There is plenty of evidence across constituencies of the feelings of people who are not receiving the money that they, more than anyone else in work, need. That is something that we could usefully do. If it helps the Government out of a hole, so be it, but it is more important for us to help the families who are in a financial hole.
It is 11 years today since the Labour Government were first elected. That implies that we ought do as the Leader of the House has suggested and hold annual debates on how each Department is doing in terms of being open and transparent, answering questions promptly and fully, and complying with Mr. Speaker’s ruling that announcements should be made here and not outside. Will the right hon. and learned Lady give serious consideration to that? Some of us feel strongly that the phrase used 11 years ago applies now: “Things can only get better”.
We have heard from the general secretary of the Royal College of Nursing that, according to his profession’s estimate, nurses spend a million hours a week on paperwork. Given that the police and teachers make the same complaint, may we have a debate about how we can remove the bureaucracy from our front-line professionals using support staff and modern technology, and release the people whom we pay to do the key jobs in this country to do the jobs that they are paid to do?
I fully accept the hon. Gentleman’s points about Zimbabwe, and I think the House will want an early opportunity to return to the issue.
The working tax credit was discussed during debate on the Finance Bill earlier this week. It was also raised in this week’s Treasury questions, and, as the hon. Gentleman said, the Select Committee is conducting an inquiry.
The hon. Gentleman asked about opportunities for Members to scrutinise the work of different Departments. The Green Paper “The Governance of Britain” raised the possibility of annual departmental debate days to enable the House to consider each Department and how it is doing its work. As a member of the Modernisation Committee, the hon. Gentleman will know that the Committee is shortly to produce a report establishing how we can ensure that routine scrutiny of each Department takes place both in the Chamber and in Westminster Hall.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned the Royal College of Nursing, and the requirement for paperwork and accountability for the work done in respect of each patient. Perhaps he will consider raising the issue during next Tuesday’s questions to Health Ministers, but I will say now that of all the health services in the world ours is the least bureaucratic, because it is a national health service based on need rather than a service dominated by form filling for people requiring insurance.
This week some Members had a meeting in the House with the Scotland office of the new Equality and Human Rights Commission. I am sure the Leader of the House agrees that it is important for the commission to become as effective as possible as quickly as possible. In particular, it needs a single equalities Act to underpin its work. We have waited for a long time for such legislation. Can we expect to see it in the near future?
Our commitment to the Equality and Human Rights Commission, and to a new equality Bill, remains on track. At the time of the last Queen’s Speech we made a commitment to introducing such a Bill during the Session that will begin in November this year, and that commitment stands.
Will the Leader of the House ensure that a Minister from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs makes a statement in the House following the conclusion of the Department’s deliberations on the nitrate vulnerable zone proposals? The proposals will probably cost farmers with very small livestock farms about a quarter of a million pounds to implement in order to satisfy the regulations themselves, but a more proportionate response would be ensuring that information technology was used between farmers and the Meteorological Office. That would keep many more livestock farmers in production, rather than putting them out of business altogether.
I am aware that that is a serious issue. I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman had an opportunity to raise it during questions to DEFRA Ministers this morning, but if he did not, I will ask my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State to write to him about it.
At this moment, mothers and young children from across Edinburgh are in the Scottish Parliament protesting to MSPs about the actions of the Liberal Democrat and SNP-controlled Edinburgh council, which have led to the closure of crèches in many swimming-pool and leisure centres run by the council throughout the city, including the crèche at the Leith Victoria centre in my constituency. Will my right hon. and learned Friend send those parents a message of support, and may we have a debate on the importance of emphasising to local authorities and devolved Governments the role played by such facilities in encouraging exercise and healthy living?
That does seem a bizarre decision, at a time when the importance of the link between sport, exercise and good health is so well understood. Those likely to be hit hardest are poorer families who need access to free sports facilities. There is to be a debate about poverty in Scotland this afternoon, and I find it ironic that although the Olympics are to take place in this country in 2012 and Glasgow will host the Commonwealth games in 2014, the Scottish National party is reducing the opportunity for ordinary people and their families to take part in sport.
Has the Leader of the House had time to read a report published recently by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation on the postal voting system, which identifies a number of risks associated with the current regime? Does she agree that, after today’s local elections, it would be a good idea to hold an early debate in Government time on the integrity of the postal voting system?
The Government will be considering that important report, and I shall raise the right hon. Gentleman’s point with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Justice. It is important for everyone to have confidence in the voting system, and to turn out to vote.
As I cycle around the more rural parts of my constituency, it is clear to me that the problem of fly-tipping is starting to reappear on a considerable scale. The Environmental Protection Act 1990, which was introduced by the previous Government, placed responsibilities for public land on the Environment Agency and local authorities, but the poor old farmers and landowners are having to pick up the bill. Will the Leader of the House find time for a debate on fly-tipping, so that we can establish why landowners and farmers are being prosecuted or fined when they have taken all possible steps to prevent rubbish from illegally tipped on their land? It is costing them tens of millions of pounds a year at a very difficult time for them.
I do not know whether my hon. Friend had the opportunity to raise that point during DEFRA questions, which just took place. I know that it is of ongoing concern to the DEFRA team, and I shall raise it with them. In particular, I shall raise it with the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, Deptford (Joan Ruddock), because she is not only now a member of that ministerial team, but introduced the private Member’s Bill on fly-tipping. I know that the issue of major concern to her and to all her ministerial colleagues.
I hope that the Leader of the House can confirm my understanding of her statement, which is that the House will in the near future have an opportunity to debate the Select Committee report dealing with, among other things, the funding of science research. It is important for us to have that debate, because the threat to astronomy and physics research, in particular, as a result of the inept decision making of the Science and Technology Facilities Council, is a major threat to world-leading research undertaken in Britain. I hope that in advance of that debate, if we are to have one, she will encourage her ministerial colleagues to examine ways of putting on hold the cuts being made to that research, rather than just wait until the outcome of the very welcome Wakeham review.
Since we came into government, there has been a two and a half-fold increase in investment in research. Year on year, more support is given to science, because we recognise that it is important both in its own right and for the economy. My hon. Friend may seek on Thursday 15 May to participate in the Westminster Hall debate on the report from the Science and Technology Committee.
Is the Leader of the House aware that, notwithstanding representations made by local authorities, local businesses and local people, which include petitions signed by thousands, the Post Office will tomorrow confirm the closure of a number of post offices in my constituency and, indeed, throughout Oxfordshire? Would it not have been rather more honest to make that announcement before the polling stations closed in today’s local elections, rather than waiting until after they close, only to make it the day after those elections?
The hon. Gentleman will know that many announcements are subject to the purdah rule. As far as being more honest is concerned, it would be more honest if he and his Conservative colleagues said exactly how they would raise the money required for the subsidy to keep open all the post offices that they say they are committed to saving. Would it come from increased taxes, and if so, which taxes? Alternatively, would it come from cuts in services, and in which case, what services?
My right hon. and learned Friend will be aware that a few weeks ago I asked for a debate in Government time on devolved Parliaments’ spending. At that time, about £34 million for disabled children north of border had disappeared into a black hole. My hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, North (Ann McKechin) tabled the excellent early-day motion 1466, on holocaust educational money that had gone missing from children.
[That this House commends the work of the Holocaust Educational Trust in educating school children throughout the United Kingdom on the history of the Holocaust and the ongoing threats of genocide throughout the world; supports the Government's programme to finance these visits and notes that last year the Trust successfully arranged its first direct flights from Scotland to allow more children in Scotland to participate and to share their experiences with their other school colleagues; but is dismayed to note that the SNP-led Scottish Executive supported by the Tory group in the Scottish Parliament have voted this month against the use of the Barnett consequential amounting to £150,000 per annum to continue funding these visits in Scotland; and calls upon the Secretary of State for Scotland when he next meets the First Minister to urge him urgently to reconsider this regressive and narrow-minded decision.]
Following that motion, can we have a debate on this subject urgently, so that we can look after children and ensure that they are not more deprived than they currently are in respect of money from this side of the border?
In fact, hon. Members on both sides of the House have been concerned to ensure, throughout the United Kingdom, that disabled children should not face a postcode lottery. Good services should be available everywhere, and I shall raise the points that my hon. Friend makes with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland.
May I ask the Leader of the House whether we could have a full day’s debate, in Government time, on agriculture, which has not been debated for some considerable time, bearing in mind that food security is looming large on the political radar at present? There are many problems facing agriculture. Two valid and important issues have already been raised during this Question Time, but there are others, such as the supply of protein for the livestock industry in the form of maize and soya, given that the European Union will ban certain new variants. That will cause tremendous problems of supply, which will have an adverse impact on the industry and on food supply in this country.
The hon. Lady makes a number of important points. Food security was the subject of a written ministerial statement last week, and a topical debate on supermarkets took place last week. There are linked and important issues not only for consumers, in respect of waste, but in respect of producers and the supply of food. I shall take what she suggests as a proposal for a topical debate.
I am tempted to ask the Leader of the House how she can justify her comment of a few minutes ago that motoring costs in this country have decreased over the past 10 years, but I shall resist that temptation. Instead, I shall support the hon. Member for Leicester, South (Sir Peter Soulsby), who talked about the cut in funding for science and technology, and put a direct question to the Leader of the House: will she arrange for the appropriate Minister to make a statement to the House on the proposed cutbacks in the resources given to Jodrell Bank, which is partially in my constituency and partially in that of my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Ann Winterton)? The cutbacks could end the e-Merlin project, which is, of course, in the vanguard of research and development, and is crucial to this country. If the Leader of the House is serious about increasing expenditure, surely Jodrell Bank deserves continued support.
I think those points could be the subject of a contribution to the Westminster Hall debate on Thursday 15 May. The figure I gave for the overall cost of motoring includes the cost of cars and insurance, as well as the cost of fuel duties. I am almost 100 per cent. certain that it is an accurate figure, but I will write to the hon. Gentleman. It is no part of my business as Leader of the House to give out wrong statistics. I understand that the figure I gave is accurate. If it is wrong, I shall write to him to say that it is wrong. If I am right, I shall write to him to say, “I told you so.”
I will apologise for coming in late, Mr. Speaker, but I went to the hospital to have a heart monitor fitted. I said, “What have I got to do?” I was told, “Act normally.” So I thought I had better get to the House of Commons sharpish and have a row—the effect is being monitored. Does my right hon. and learned Friend recall that a few weeks ago I asked her about the Government starting some work on ensuring that Members of Parliament have one job and one job only? They should stop the moonlighting and cut out the conflict of interest. More than 100 Tory MPs are making money on the side. What progress—[Interruption.] Yes, I said that there would be a row. What progress is being made on the work that has already started? Can she help me?
Could we have a statement on the accuracy of parliamentary reference books, which we all use and which, indeed, sit on the Table of the House? This week, Baroness Young denied that she takes the Labour Whip, yet “Dod’s” says that she does. We assumed that she was appointed to her job as chief executive of the Environment Agency because she was a Labour supporter. It may be that in her job she has studied those very intelligent rodents that leave sinking ships. Does the Leader of the House think that today’s elections in London and elsewhere may lead to a flood of Labour stooges jumping off the Labour ship?
I am not sure that that is really a point for me to answer as Leader of the House. However, it gives me the opportunity to answer the point about Sessional Orders. I can tell the House that the House has not passed the Sessional resolution in recent Sessions, following a Procedure Committee report suggesting it was ineffective. The whole matter of access can be raised when the Joint Committee that was appointed yesterday considers the Constitutional Renewal Bill.
Yesterday, the Prime Minister made the extraordinary statement that this Government have invested in rural communities, which is about as illuminating as saying that children invest in sweets. The reality over the past 10 years is that the Government have, deliberately and for party political advantage, shifted resources from rural communities into urban communities. Will the Leader of the House provide time for a debate on Government funding of rural communities?
It is not the case that the Government have shifted resources from rural communities into inner-city areas. There has been investment in rural communities in schools, public transport and health services. The Government have been concerned to shift resources into deprived areas, and we are well aware that those include some rural areas.
Throughout DEFRA questions today and in business questions, issues of food security and coastal defence have been raised. I raised with the Leader of the House on 3 April the fact that 2,000 homes and 15,000 hectares of farmland in my constituency are to be abandoned as a matter of Government policy. She commendably replied that that was a matter of great concern and would be suitable for a debate. She said that she would speak to Ministers and come back to me. Imagine my dismay when I followed up with a letter and she wrote back and said that the issue would be kept under review. If an answer like that about an issue of such importance to so many Members cannot lead to Government time being devoted to it, what is the point of this session and what is the point of the Leader of the House?
Yesterday, the Institute for Public Policy Research published a report that stated:
“Migration from the new EU member states has happened on a staggering scale”.
It estimates that 665,000 new migrants have come to this country. With all the pressure that that is putting on public services, and bearing in mind that Northamptonshire has the largest number of migrants outside London, does the Leader of the House think that it would be a suitable issue for a topical debate?
The first topical debate we had was on immigration, but I will consider that as a request for another. I remind the hon. Gentleman that migrants are more likely to provide public services than to use them. They build more houses than they live in and they pick more crops than they eat. We should recognise their contribution to the economy and our public services, while ensuring that they are not exploited and that employment laws apply effectively to those who employ them.
Four years ago, on European election day, the House had a debate in Government time on disabled people. Two years ago, on local election day, a similar debate took place. I had expected a debate on disabled people to take place today, although I am pleased that it did not, because it would have been overshadowed by events elsewhere. When that point was raised with the Minister for disabled people, she suggested that it be raised at business questions. Given that the Government will publish an annual report about their progress on “Aiming high for disabled people”, perhaps the Leader of the House could consider having an annual debate, in Government time and on the Floor of the House, about disabled people and the Government’s policies on disability, so we may debate those important issues.
The question of the equality of, and support and opportunity for, disabled people is one that cuts across several Departments. I will therefore consider the hon. Gentleman’s suggestion and whether we can find time to address the issue across the piece at a single opportunity.
I am grateful that my right hon. and learned Friend has chosen the middle east as the theme for today’s topical debate, especially as my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, South-East (Dr. Iddon) and I requested that at business questions last week. What assessment has she made of the value of topical debates to the work of the House? Is it now set in stone that such debates will continue, or is she still assessing the matter? I have found them to be a valuable use of the time of the House and I hope that she will confirm that that will continue to be the Government’s position.
I thank my hon. Friend for his question. I also thank him for his proposal for a topical debate. I need to consider further how we bring to the attention of hon. Members the question of topical debates. Once the announcement of the subject has been made, everybody thinks of topics that they would have preferred. However, we receive very few proposals, whether by letter, e-mail, phone call or personal requests when people see me going about the House. I will look into the point that he raises.
Points of Order
On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Can you enlighten me about the rules guiding naming people in devolved Parliaments? It would appear that Scottish MPs are being named on the Floor of the Scottish Parliament. Does that mean that we are now permitted to mention Members of the Scottish Parliament in this House and describe what we think they are doing wrong, as they appear to be able to do to us?
In fact, that happens quite often in Scottish questions. Mention may be made of MSPs or Members of any other devolved Parliament, but that mention must be in order and made at a time when we are debating such matters. The name of an individual MSP can be mentioned on the Floor of the House without any difficulty.
On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Yesterday, in response to my point of order about my treatment as a constituency MP by the Home Office, you stated that that Department is not always seeking to give offence to hon. Members. I am pleased to report that I have today had a letter from the Minister concerned, whom I had notified of the point of order, assuring me that no offence was intended. In a letter that included the words “apologise” and “error” twice, as well as “sorry” and “regrettable”, and which he has placed in the Library, he makes one point that I wish to clarify:
“Normally, where there are no outstanding communications from the constituent’s MP, we would not copy such a response to a peer or applicant to the MP.”
The Minister goes on to make it clear that he had had outstanding communications from me that had not been answered. He has not quite put it in absolute terms that MPs will always be answered when there are outstanding communications concerning a constituent, but it is my understanding that that is what the letter really means. I would be grateful if you would confirm that that is your understanding also.
It sounds as though the hon. Gentleman is about 99 per cent. there, with a little help from me. It is up to Ministers how they deal with such matters and it is open to the hon. Gentleman to go and see the Minister concerned and obtain the clarification that he seeks.
Now that the Minister for the Middle East is here, we can move on to the next business.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the matter of the Middle East.
This debate is especially timely. Tomorrow, the United Kingdom and Norway will host a series of major international meetings on the middle east peace process and related issues, the first major international gathering on this topic since Annapolis and the Paris donor conference at the end of last year. Today, I shall speak briefly about five areas—Israel and Palestine, Iraq, the Gulf, Iran, and Lebanon and Syria. Events across the region are intimately linked, of course, and are touched on in all four of the UK’s foreign policy priorities.
I want to start by looking at the middle east peace process. The UK wants a just, lasting and comprehensive peace in the middle east. A solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is an important precondition for long-term peace in the region. The Annapolis conference in November 2007 showed renewed consensus for action and we continue to see Annapolis as the best hope for peace since 2000. However, as the tragic scenes from Gaza and Sderot show only too clearly, much more progress is needed. We continue to push both sides to make real progress in negotiations and to take the necessary steps to improve the everyday lives of ordinary Palestinians and Israelis.
UK policy is based on support for a two-state solution, for those committed to a peaceful process and for economic and social development across the occupied Palestinian territories. Recent violence, especially in Gaza, is a cause of great concern. Israel has real security concerns, but Israeli action must be in line with international humanitarian law. Closures of border crossings in Gaza are having a grave impact on daily life. We call on both sides to refrain from violence and to work urgently to reopen the crossings. Our priority in practical terms is to support the emergence of a stable, viable Palestinian state. Tomorrow’s ad hoc liaison committee meeting will focus on assuring funding for the Palestinian Authority and support for development and reform.
In Iraq, we have seen significant progress since 2003. New democratic political structures are beginning to bear fruit. Local communities have turned against al-Qaeda and are entering the political process. The Iraqi Government have taken tough action against armed groups and militias, regardless of their sect, and Iraqi security forces are delivering on their responsibilities.
In Basra province, since handing over security responsibility to the Iraqis in December last year, we have seen strong evidence of the increasing capabilities of the Iraqi armed forces—as reflected in the recent operations in Basra. We are enhancing our training and mentoring effort with local security forces as they build on their capacity to deliver their own security with only limited coalition support. We remain committed to supporting the work of the Government of Iraq and Basra provincial authorities in returning Basra to its former prosperity through a range of joint UK-Iraqi initiatives to support investment and economic growth.
Sustainable progress in Iraq will be achieved only by continued support from the international community. Important challenges lie ahead, including the need for progress on key nation-building legislation, the provincial elections scheduled for later this year, the humanitarian situation and the need to support the maturing Iraqi democratic structures and Iraq’s security forces. We remain committed to Iraq through our UN and coalition obligations. Above all, we will stand by the commitment we have made to the people of Iraq and will continue to encourage Iraq’s neighbours to do much more to support those positive developments.
The six Gulf Co-operation Council countries are increasingly important to our strategic interests, particularly the need to counter terrorism, radicalisation and the spread of weapons of mass destruction. We need close engagement with Gulf partners to support our efforts to promote a low-carbon, high-growth economy and we welcome their increasingly active role in all the regional issues I shall touch on today. The participation of the Gulf states in the ad hoc liaison committee meeting this week is a welcome example of such activity.
I have visited the Gulf twice recently and have seen the huge opportunities available to UK companies. Dubai alone is now home to 120,000 British citizens and British expertise extends to the significant numbers of workers and businesses found in Qatar, Kuwait, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia.
I agree totally with the Minister about the importance of Saudi Arabia and other countries as market opportunities for our business people. Lord Jones of Birmingham will leave his post as trade emissary at some stage in the future, so would the Minister consider lobbying the Prime Minister for a dedicated envoy to focus on promoting business interests in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states?
I certainly would not want to undermine the position of my noble Friend and colleague by speculating about who might step into his post. He is doing a very good job and he knows the Gulf region very well, but I take the hon. Gentleman’s point. It is very important that, whatever else we do, we do not simply use the Gulf as a point of transit to other parts of the world. It is an extremely important node of the world economy and we must continue to pay great attention to the area. Let me reassure the hon. Gentleman—I am sure that he knows this already—that the Gulf is now one of the parts of the world that is most visited by Ministers, as it ought to be. My noble friend Lord Jones is doing a very good job in co-ordinating those activities.
Let me turn to Iran, where we have particular human rights concerns. The use of the death penalty is rising year on year and the pressures on human rights defenders are mounting. Today, on May day, I want to recall the trade unionists and other activists beaten or imprisoned in Iran for their involvement in last year’s May day demonstrations and urge the Iranian Government to release Mansour Osanloo and Ebrahim Madadi, two leaders of the transport workers union in Tehran.
Iran’s nuclear programme presents the greatest immediate challenge to non-proliferation. Tehran has hidden the most sensitive aspects of its programme for nearly two decades and still refuses International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors the access that they seek. Iran’s role in the region also undermines efforts to resolve conflict and to work towards reconciliation and reconstruction. Support from Iran for extremists in Iraq and the supply of weapons from Iran to the Taliban is wholly unacceptable.
Iran has a long history and great potential and we would like to see it become a trusted partner in the international community and a responsible player in the middle east. Iran’s leaders have a choice between the path of increasing isolation and confrontation with the international community or a transformed relationship with the world, with all the political, economic and technological benefits that would bring. I urge them to make the right choice.
We are deeply concerned by the current political crisis in Lebanon, where there has been no president for five months. The UK continues to support all international efforts to find a solution and the Foreign Secretary took part in an international meeting in Kuwait last week to discuss possible ways forward. We are offering our support to the Government’s attempts to maintain peace and security in Lebanon. The UK has contributed $1 million to support the special tribunal for Lebanon, more than $1.5 million to improve the security of the border with Syria and $1 million of training and equipment to help the Lebanese army maintain public order at times of civil unrest.
Will my hon. Friend give us some indication of the contact that there has been between his office and UN refugee agencies? When the Select Committee on International Development recently met representatives we got the feeling that the approach taken by the refugee office in Jordan and that taken by the office in Damascus were somewhat disjointed. The situation at the moment does not appear to be terribly satisfactory, and I would be grateful if my hon. Friend confirmed what discussions he has recently had with those agencies.
We are very concerned about the dislocation in the organisation of refugees in Syria, Jordan and other countries in the middle east. We want to see much more co-ordination by UN agencies and more money put in by Iraq’s neighbours. We think that that is a very important issue.
My hon. Friend will recall that we debated Lebanon after I visited the country about 18 months ago. One of the things that we were particularly concerned about was the thousands of cluster bomb munitions that remained in place. I know that the British Government have been giving money to programmes to rid southern Lebanon of Israeli cluster bombs, but will he update the House and tell us whether we are anywhere near getting rid of all of them?
The work has been proceeding very well and I congratulate the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon, under the leadership of General Graziano. It has done a superb job in conjunction with the expertise that we and other countries have provided. Although I sense a degree of satisfaction with the progress that has been made, there is a long way to go and we cannot take our eye off the ball. We must continue to ensure that the personnel and expertise are there to clear the cluster bombs.
The next few years could bring positive changes in the region. We will do what we can to support a new, more stable and prosperous middle east, but only the region’s leaders can determine its direction.
I thank the Minister for his speech and, in particular, welcome the emphasis that he placed on the strategic relationship of the United Kingdom with the countries of the Gulf Co-operation Council. Those relationships—both economic and political—are of profound importance to our national interests.
I also offer the Minister the Opposition’s strong support for his call for a political settlement in Lebanon. The recent impact that the failure to find such a settlement had on the Arab League summit in Damascus makes it clear that the continuing delay and stalemate are starting to damage relationships in the region. That is bound to have a knock-on effect on other political questions such as the Israel-Palestine dispute.
I want to say a few words about the Israel-Palestine issue, especially given the importance of tomorrow’s meeting of the ad hoc group. Conservative Members strongly endorse the objective of seeking a two-state solution. One only has to start to contemplate the alternatives and how disastrous they would be to see that, however difficult it will be to make political progress, it is right to move as fast as we can towards an outcome in which Israel, secure behind internationally recognised frontiers, can live at peace with an independent, viable and contiguous Palestinian state.
It seems to me that there are three difficult issues that need to be confronted to make progress on that front, the first of which is Gaza. I just cannot see how any long-term settlement will be possible between Israel and the Palestinians if Gaza remains in its current state or anything like it. Yesterday, I met representatives from the major non-governmental organisations active in providing relief within Gaza and they told me about the humanitarian catastrophe that they are witnessing. They said that the water and sewerage systems are now on the verge of collapse and that 80 per cent. of the people of Gaza are dependent on food aid and that such food aid that exists supplies only 80 per cent. of the required daily calorie intake for the people who receive it.
Given the history of Gaza and Israel in the past few years, it will be incredibly difficult to make progress, but I would be interested to know more of the Government’s assessment of the chances of persuading the Hamas regime in Gaza to stop firing rockets at Sderot and Ashkelon and, in parallel, of persuading Israel to start to relax the blockade to allow some semblance of normal economic life to return to Gaza.
I am sure the whole House agrees with the hon. Gentleman’s comments, but is he aware that the World Bank recently reported that Gaza’s economy recorded zero growth in 2007 and that this could continue only as long as Israel keeps up the economic blockade? Does he agree that it should lift that blockade?
I was aware of the World Bank report. I believe that the blockade needs to be lifted, but that the rocket attacks on Israeli cities need to cease. The two things have to go together. I will be interested to hear from the Government what information they have had from the Egyptian authorities about the talks that the Egyptians have been having with the Hamas rulers of Gaza to see whether progress can be made.
Secondly, we also clearly need to see progress on the west bank itself. If moderate leaders, such as President Abbas and Prime Minister Fayyad, are to succeed, they will have to be able to demonstrate to their citizens that negotiations are bringing political and economic fruits. I will say happily from the Opposition Benches that we very much support the work that Tony Blair is putting in as the Quartet’s representative in trying to secure economic progress for the Palestinians. We hope that tomorrow’s meeting achieves some significant steps forward in pursuit of that objective.
When we talk to anybody in Israeli politics or any citizen of Israel, it becomes clear that the questions of economic progress on the west bank and the security of Israel are intimately connected. There is no doubt that there has been an enormous impact on Israeli domestic opinion from their experience of having left Gaza, dismantling the settlements there and then finding that, instead of being able to leave in peace, they were the recipient of rocket attacks on civilians in their southern cities.
I have seen reports that one possible way of making progress on the west bank that would allow the checkpoints and road blocks to be removed would be to have some kind of international presence on the ground to supervise and enforce a more limited number of rigorous checks on people and goods to a standard sufficient to satisfy the Israeli authorities about the security of their people. Is that, indeed, something that will be considered at tomorrow’s meeting of the ad hoc group? Does the Minister believe that there is a readiness among European countries and in Israel itself for such an international presence to be deployed? Who would provide the personnel for such a presence and what type of people are we talking about? Are we talking about soldiers being deployed and police officers being sent to carry out duties or are we talking about civilian officials? It would be interesting to know more about what is planned.
Thirdly, we need to make further progress in making it clear to the people of Israel, who are very concerned about their security, that a settlement with the Palestinians will indeed lead to a regional settlement in which Israel’s right to exist as a neighbour is fully recognised by the wider Arab world.
I agree with everything that the hon. Gentleman says. However, on the question of Israel’s relations with its neighbour and particularly with the west bank, does he agree that the wall, which is not sited on the internationally accepted green line and which takes 10 per cent. of the west bank, including some of its most fertile land and water sources, cannot remain in place if the settlement is to continue?
Yes, I agree with the hon. Gentleman. If the wall had been constructed along the green line of 1967, the Israeli Government would have a much stronger case than they do at present. The route that the barrier has taken is clearly in breach of international law.
Let me return to the issue of a regional settlement between Israel and her Arab neighbours. I want to put on record my belief that statements such as those made recently by King Abdullah of Jordan and Prince Turki al-Faisal of Saudi Arabia indicate that there are senior, respected figures in the wider Arab world who can see that if a settlement between Israel and the Palestinians can be achieved, the door will be open to normal relationships between neighbouring countries in the region, and to opportunities for co-operation on economic and political development, which will be of huge benefit to Arab countries and to Israel.
The decision by His Highness the Emir of Qatar to invite the Israeli Foreign Minister to attend the recent Doha forum on democracy, development and free trade should be applauded. I hope that many more such gestures will be made by Arab leaders, and that the British Government will encourage our friends in the Arab world to make it clear to Israel that huge regional opportunities will flow from a settlement with Palestine and the Arab world more generally.
Like my hon. Friend, I was at the forum. Was he, like me, impressed by the comments of Mr. Ben-Meir, the lecturer from New York university, who said that the Arab peace plan was of immense importance—indeed, was central—to achieving a solution, but that it needed to be accompanied by soft diplomacy? I think that that was my hon. Friend’s point. That is why the policy of the Arab states needs to be directed very much at the people of Israel, as well as at its Government.
I completely agree with my hon. Friend. Let me move on to the situation in Iraq. The Government recently announced that the planned reduction in the number of British troops in Iraq will be postponed. In his opening speech, the Minister talked about the political progress that still needs to be made in Iraq if a stable, democratic Government are to be established there; that progress will involve political leaders from all the main religious and ethnic groups in that country. He referred specifically to the provincial elections planned for later this year. Is he able to say anything further about the extent to which the continued presence of the current number of British soldiers in Iraq is dependent on that political progress in Baghdad and outside? For example, in the Government’s mind, are they tying the deployment of the current number of British troops to a successful, peaceful outcome in the provincial elections in the autumn?
We know from recent comments by General Petraeus that the Americans believe that the authorities in Iran have been supplying weapons that have been used to attack United States and British soldiers deployed in Iraq. Is it the British Government’s assessment that the Government in Iran have indeed been directly involved in the supply of such weapons, and are actively supporting attacks on members of our country’s armed forces? Clearly, if the Government have evidence that there is such a direct relationship, that has grave implications for the future of our relations with Iran. Like the Minister, I hope that we can establish better relationships with Iran in future—it is an important regional power—but we need progress, both in dealing with the potential threat of Iranian nuclear weapons and on the potential threat to our soldiers on active service in Iraq.
The conflict in the middle east is the biggest challenge that the world faces. Resolution of this issue is the key to peace in the region, and its stability will affect many countries around the world. It is more than 40 years since UN resolution 242. That is 40 years of disappointment, failure, and failed opportunities for peace, for which the entire international community, particularly the United States, should take responsibility.
It is clear that Palestine is in crisis. There is an obvious political crisis in the region, and there is an economic crisis, with few jobs and little prosperity, but more urgently there is a real humanitarian crisis, particularly in Gaza. The UN has declared Gaza to be
“on the threshold of becoming the first territory to be intentionally reduced to a state of abject destitution.”
Israel has closed Gaza’s borders, surrounding it with a wall that, in effect, makes Gaza an open prison with 1.5 million inmates, and placing the area under siege. The shutdown has left the area without fuel, regular electricity, vital medical supplies and food. More than 70 per cent. of the population are unemployed, and 80 per cent. rely on food from UN food programmes.
The largest hospital in the Palestinian territories, the al-Shifa hospital, is on its knees, with scant resources and staff who frequently go unpaid. The hospital has run out of up to 130 of the 450 medicines that the World Health Organisation considers essential, and has less than three months’ supply of another 80. The blockade means that there is a fuel shortage, and fuel is five times more expensive in Gaza than in Jerusalem. Electricity is supplied to Gaza for only 12 hours a day, and the hospital relies on generators, but the fuel shortage means that they, too, will one day stop, with potentially devastating consequences. Dr. Hassan Khalaf, director of the hospital, estimates that if the hospital were to lose all electricity, 80 patients, including 15 premature babies in incubators, would die within 30 minutes. It is not only basic medical supplies that are not being allowed in; vital machinery and spare parts are not getting through, although they would allow maintenance work to be done on damaged equipment that could help to save so many more lives.
Added to that are almost daily air strikes and land incursions from Israeli forces that have targeted homes, schools and hospitals and have killed hundreds of innocent men, women and children. The strikes have also damaged water pipes, meaning that raw sewage is being pumped into the sea, destroying the fishing industry and contaminating any fish that are caught. We must be clear that denying people medicines, fuel, food, employment and hope has nothing to do with security. That unjustified action is collective punishment of 1.5 million people because of the actions of a few individuals.
We must not allow the people of Gaza to feel as though the world has forgotten them or that they are second-class citizens. The international community must do everything that it can to alleviate their sufferings. Peace is not an impossible dream; peace is possible, but only if the international community and those on both sides of the conflict recognise that every life, whether Palestinian or Israeli, is equal. Every life is equal, and every life is precious.
The Israelis must first end the siege, let basic supplies in and show the people that they should have hope. We can then negotiate a fair and just political settlement, so that Palestinians and Israelis can live side by side in peace. If either side is serious about peace, the only way is through dialogue. Bombings and the siege will only prolong the problem.
We must ensure that we support the peacemakers on both sides of the conflict and help them to fend off the radicals and extremists on both sides, who seek to divide for their own ends. The international community, including America, must recognise three basic principles. First, the killing of innocent people in Palestine, Israel and Lebanon by bombs, missile attacks, assassinations or any other form of violence cannot be condoned and must be condemned. Secondly, Israel has the right to exist within recognised borders and live in peace. That must be recognised by all its neighbours. Thirdly, Palestinians must be able to live in peace, dignity and without fear in their own land, as specified by international law. We should give the Palestinians the support that they need to build institutions, and ensure that those institutions are respected by Israel and the rest of the world.
I agreed with much of what the Minister said in his tour de force across the middle east. I hope he will excuse me if I do not comment on all the issues that he dealt with. I shall focus on Israel-Palestine.
The Minister did not mention the Government’s view on reports that Israel and Syria may be thinking about talking and actively pursuing peace negotiations. The worrying intervention by the Americans almost seemed designed to try to stop those talks at first base. Will the Minister support that initiative? It reflects some of the movement with a number of Arab states in the region, to which the hon. Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Lidington) referred.
Many of those states are concerned about the growth in the strength of Iran. We all know that one of the many damaging consequences of the Iraq war has been to strengthen the hand of Iran in the region, whether through the proliferation of their weapons of mass destruction or their influence through funding Hamas, Hezbollah and the rest. The appalling hand of Iran is all over that region, and many of the Arab states are extremely concerned about that. Many of those states are therefore willing to try to go the extra mile to persuade the Palestinians and other Arab countries that they need to act. Part of the solution to stopping Iran is to get a final settlement of the Israel-Palestine situation. Talks between Israel and Syria, which may be symbolic of the movement of many Arab states, should be supported by us. If Israel is keen to go that extra mile, it should be encouraged.
Hon. Members in all parts of the House support a two-state solution, with a Palestinian state that is genuinely viable and sustainable. That is why many will have been concerned to see the recent comments of US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice that she believes the window for a two-state solution is closing fast. I do not think she welcomes that at all; she is merely reflecting some of the concerns on the ground, where the strength of the moderate Palestinians is being undermined. The increasing new settlements and the existing settlements in the west bank make the geography of a Palestinian state there even more difficult, turning that territory into a Swiss cheese, in President Bush’s words.
Peace talks are always urgent, but never more urgent than now. We all recognise the need to make a success of Annapolis. Hopefully, the talks of the Quartet in London tomorrow will go well. There is the prospect of a future conference in Moscow. Let us hope that that can happen. There are continuing talks promoted by Egypt to see whether there can be a ceasefire that Israel is prepared to accept. Let us hope that that happens. Whether through the Egyptian talks or otherwise, it is vital to persuade Hamas to stop firing rockets on Israel. It is equally vital that Israel is persuaded to stop the economic blockade of Gaza.
There are many barriers to progress on those fronts. The weakness of both sides in negotiations is probably the main one. If Hamas could meet the criteria of the Quartet, not least by recognising Israel and ceasing violence, that would be a major step forward, but given that that is unlikely in the immediate future, we must consider some of the small steps that can be made if the sides are to show willing.
One of those small steps relates to the economic blockade. Israel should move first on that. There is a moral case for Israel to move forward on removing parts of the blockade, particularly on health and water and sewage. In Palestine now there are lakes of untreated sewage, which are a massive health hazard and could contaminate water supplies for Israel. It is against their own interests, so I call on the Israeli Government—and on our Government to pressurise them—to enable that sewage to be dealt with urgently, through fuel supplies, electricity supplies or whatever other support is necessary. I was reading a BBC report which referred to a massive lake. If the dykes burst, there would be a tsunami of sewage, potentially swamping an area inhabited by 10,000 people. Do the Israelis want to allow that to happen? We must act on that. It is very much in the Israelis’ interest to do so.
I read another report from the BBC which would be another small step towards building confidence. Former Israeli generals who had responsibility for security on the west bank, working with senior Palestinian officials, proposed dismantling checkpoints. As the Minister knows, there are 500 Israeli checkpoints and roadblocks on the west bank, which throttle the west bank economy. The report, published recently, spoke about dismantling 10 of the main ones. That could give a boost to the west bank economy and be a major step forward in promoting good will.
In the six minutes that we have to cover the middle east, those are a few brief comments, which I hope the Minister finds constructive.
I am grateful to be called in a debate which, as my hon. Friend the Minister said, is timely not just for the reasons that he gave, but because it gives me the opportunity to report back briefly on the trip to the west bank, Gaza and Israel that four of us undertook two weeks ago. I was accompanied by my hon. Friends the Members for Bolton, South-East (Dr. Iddon) and for South Swindon (Anne Snelgrove) and the hon. Member for Brent, East (Sarah Teather).
What we saw in Gaza was exactly as my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Central (Mr. Sarwar) and the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Mr. Davey) described, but it was worse than that. What we saw was a place being starved of aid and help. Ninety-three million dollars of UN money is sitting there in the bank to be spent on housing for homeless people and people in bombed-out houses. The money cannot be used because Israel will not let the cement or the concrete through the border. For the same reason the sewage works that the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton mentioned are not being repaired. It is not lack of money, but the fact that the cement and the concrete are not available.
Gaza is half the size of my High Peak constituency, but there are 1.5 million people living there, of whom 1 million are living in poverty, and it is getting worse. We met two boys in Shifa hospital, an 18-year-old who had had both his legs blown off by an Israeli missile three days earlier, and a 14-year-old with one arm and the whole of his abdomen removed by an Israeli weapon three days earlier who had been denied permission to move to a hospital in Israel in order to get treatment. I am certain, two weeks on, that that young man is dead, like many other victims of the conflict.
Our trip to Gaza was marked in its final seconds by being 50 yd away from a Kassam missile going off as we went through the Erez crossing. That gave us, for a brief moment, a feeling of how people on both sides of the border feel in the pervading air of uncertainty, never knowing when that weapon is going to come across. No notice is given—such things happen out of the blue. I was told that of all those sad and pathetic missiles that are launched by individuals out of Gaza at random at the people over the Israeli border, a third do not even reach Israel and fall on Gaza territory. Things cannot get more sad, pathetic and amateurish than that, against the might of the sophisticated military force deployed by the Israelis in that area.
We made a point of going to Sderot in Israel, where we saw the same thing. It is a city in which 7,000 of those weapons have fallen in recent years. They have killed 11 people. I know that the issue is not one of score cards and scoring off one side against the other, but the day after we were there the Israelis killed 18 in retaliation for the bombs that had been sent over the border. In Sderot, 500 people had been injured and countless houses and property had been damaged. The people there are angry because they do not think that they are getting the support that they want from the Israeli Government; last year, they were in Tel Aviv protesting about that.
I think that there is an insidious reason why those people have to stay and are being kept in Sderot. When the Israelis left Gaza, they destroyed factories and jobs and, in effect, exported the jobs to Israel. Unemployment in Israel is at 8 per cent.; unemployment in Sderot is at only 3 per cent. If someone wants to leave Sderot, how will they find a job elsewhere and sell their house? I think that it is in the Israelis’ interest for the people of Sderot to be sitting ducks next to the border and targets for the sad and pathetic weapons that come over daily. In Israeli eyes, that justifies what my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Central correctly identified as collective punishment.
I want to finish by talking about Azzun, the village that we visited on the west bank. I had never heard of it before; it is a village of 10,000 people just outside Kalkiliya. From the border of Azzun, the Israeli wall, mentioned earlier, can be seen. At that point, the wall is 20 km from the internationally agreed green line. Azzun has lost a third of its agricultural land to new settlers, who have moved in not only from Gaza, having been relocated, but from America, Ukraine and all over the world, and for whom settlements have been built illegally by the Israelis in the occupied territories.
In the centre of Azzun is a fountain, only about 100 m from the main road that passes the village. In January, there were a series of incidents in which children were throwing stones at settlers’ passing cars. That month, Israeli forces came in and set up roadblocks—mounds of earth—on every road around Azzun, put razor wire on top of the mounds and did not let anyone in or out of the village for weeks. Children coming from other villages for their education, and vehicles with food, were turned back. The major employers of the village lost three quarters of their employees within days, and were simply not able to trade.
I do not know whether those children had been put up to throwing stones; my guess is that children will be children, and children in occupied territories tend to express their parents’ frustration. Whether prompted by the stones or anything else, the Israeli forces went in and on 30 separate occasions—both during and prior to that period—imposed a total 24-hour curfew, not letting people out of their houses. Israeli soldiers were smashing street lamps at night and playing loud music after midnight to keep people awake. That really is collective punishment. Thirty-five children from Azzun disappeared during the weeks of the siege. Many were taken without charge to a prison in the Negev desert—taken to another country to be put in prison illegally. Two weeks ago, 15 of them had not returned and they were not allowed visits from their families, or representatives of them, while they were away.
The week before we went to Azzun, most of the roadblocks came down; the day before we arrived, the last of the military patrols left. Although the main roadblock was still in place, pedestrians were at least using that route, and vehicles were using other routes, in and out of the village. It was collective punishment—people were being made to pay the price for having settlers on their doorsteps and daring to live on the route planned for the wall.
Today, the people of Israel are observing Holocaust remembrance day, and it is absolutely right that none of us should ever forget how Jewish people suffered during the holocaust. However, that suffering must never be an excuse for the collective punishment by means of the illegal wall, which takes 10 per cent. of the west bank into Israel. It is not an excuse for illegal settlements with their own road networks and whose economies are split on a principle of separate development—or apartheid, as it used to be called in South Africa. Nor is that suffering an excuse for the economic strangulation of the west bank and Palestine. It is not an excuse for the disrespect for human rights on detention or for collective punishment—which is illegal, whatever form it takes.
I commend my hon. Friend the Minister, his Department and the Department for International Development for their work in trying to get aid through—especially to that prison called Gaza. I am not a religious person, but I do pray that the talks will be successful in the end.
I am pleased to follow the hon. Member for High Peak (Tom Levitt), and I commend his and his colleagues’ initiative in visiting Gaza. I have also done so in the past year. The situation there is one of despair, with all the consequences that come from 1.5 million people living in terrible circumstances. Let me return to that issue later.
This is a topical debate on the middle east, but the middle east is always topical, and it would be interesting to know why it popped up today. I did not envy the Minister or his brilliant advisers at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office having to produce a 10-minute speech to cover the middle east peace process, Iraq, the importance of the Gulf Co-operation Council, Iran, Syria and Lebanon for the edification of the House. It all makes this debate an exchange of headlines as much as anything else. It gives the Minister the opportunity to restate one or two Government positions, but it is almost impossible for us to get into the detail of any middle east issue.
However, let me try to get into the detail of one such issue—the United Kingdom’s representation and understanding in the middle east. Historically, we have an immensely strong position in the region. However, in the past 10 years we have lacked the joined-up thinking, ability and propensity to draw on our understanding as a nation. Part of that has been due to the emasculation of the policy making of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in the first 10 years of the Labour Government. A concentration on policy making within a small cabal inside Downing street characterised the previous Prime Minister’s term in office, and that has wreaked havoc with our reputation in the middle east.
We have the benefit of years of experience among our diplomats and soldiers, who have taken time in their long careers to understand the region and the Arab perspective. The Government have preferred to trust their own dogmatic appreciation of events. In the past 10 years, we have chosen a path that has made our foreign policy on the region seem indistinguishable from that of our American allies. Our interests in the region are, however, profoundly different. We should recognise that.
Furthermore, the previous Prime Minister showed an interest that seemed sometimes childishly simple, and at other times deeply patronising, to those on the receiving end. He had a flair for fleetingly inserting himself into trouble spots as a sort of additional American Secretary of State—one thinks of his charge down the steps on to the tarmac in Syria for what ended up as a disastrous visit and his intervention in Lebanon—but it took him 10 years to visit the United Arab Emirates, which he did right at the end of his premiership.
That is one example of where our priorities were profoundly wrong in those 10 years, quite apart from all the conflicts we got into and the trouble elsewhere. I very much welcome the statement by the Minister that the Gulf Co-operation Council area is the area most visited by Ministers. I would particularly like to applaud the efforts of His Royal Highness the Duke of York in supporting the efforts of Lord Jones of Birmingham. The two of them are doing an immensely important job in fronting our business and trade interests in that region, and I am delighted that their efforts are getting the support from other Ministers that they so richly deserve.
As one of the parliamentary chairmen of the Council for Arab-British Understanding and the Conservative Middle East Council, I, like a scratched record, again ask Members to encourage more engagement with and more understanding of the region. We need to engage in more patient study of the issues and their causes so that we can understand them. We need to spend more time listening to the Arab world, and we need to listen to the Iranians and understand their perspective. I advocate visits by parliamentarians and Ministers to the region, but we should not forget the scale of the British-Arab and the British-Iranian interest in the United Kingdom. Those communities should be better engaged in our domestic processes, which will offer benefits to our foreign policy as well as to community relations in the UK. The obvious benefit is that we will then have a better understanding of how to pursue our interest in the region.
In three or four years’ time, Qatar is likely to have the largest sovereign wealth fund in the world. Where the Qataris decide to invest will be critical to many of our businesses and our country. Indeed, to secure our energy needs, we are engaged in creating important links to get liquid petroleum gas from Qatar. Let us just imagine, however, Iran providing that opportunity as well as Qatar. Along with the United States, we have pursued a policy of confrontation with Iran. I say nothing to defend the deeply unattractive Government of Iran or their position, but our policy is based on a profound lack of understanding of the Iranian perspective. A lot of what they do in their pursuit of diplomacy internationally is unforgivable, but we should at least try to understand why they pursue their aims in such a way. If we understand that better, we can begin the process—it will be long, but we have to start somewhere—of moving to a position where 75 million Iranians are again an effective market for British financial services and manufactured goods. Our oil and gas companies should be able to go in to assist in the development of Iran’s vast oil and gas reserves, for their benefit and ours. There is a massive mutual interest.
The product of our policy on Iran has, ironically, turned this deeply unattractive Government into the leaders of the most significant regional power. The decisions that they take, particularly with regard to the neighbouring conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan that we are engaged in, are immensely important for the United Kingdom and the thousands of our soldiers deployed in the region, whether we like it our not. We have to find a way of improving the outcome of policy on Iran, and we would be able to do that if we understood Iran better.
I briefly return to the Israeli-Arab conflict. We are debating the United Kingdom’s role and involvement in it, and by extension, that of the international community as a whole. I sometimes wonder whether it would not be better for the international community to step back a little. In the end, this conflict has to be resolved by the people of Israel and the Palestinian people. Until the basic insecurity of the state of Israel and the obvious injustice of what has happened to the Palestinians in the past 60 years are addressed—and those two can only be addressed together—the conflict will continue. The message I urge on Arab representatives to whom I speak and on the Palestinians whom I meet in the course of the extra work I do in Parliament is that they should address their policy to the people of Israel.
In the end, the people of Israel will have to vote for a Government who will do an historic deal with the Palestinians. In the same way, the people of Palestine will have to support a Government who do a deal with the people of Israel and their Government. That will happen only when there is a sufficient kernel of opinion in both countries that people want peace and are prepared to go through the pain required to get it. That means the Israelis have to appreciate the importance of the Arab peace plan, rather than just trying to push it away. It also means that the Arab League has to reinforce the statement of the Arab peace plan—an historic offer to live in peace in Israel and to offer it the prospect of normalisation with its neighbours. That peace plan must be driven through and reinforced with a soft diplomacy aimed at the people of Israel. It must convince them that Arab states really mean it when they talk about normalisation.
Once that message is put to the people of Israel, they can begin to address the insecurity at the heart of many Israeli people’s existence, reflected by the experiences referred to by the hon. Member for High Peak. I hope that such a position would give the Israelis confidence to begin to address the terrible injustice that has been meted out to the Palestinians. The story of the past 60 years is a horrifying one, which has overflowed into all the nations that border Palestine and Israel. One has only to look at the catastrophic effect of the involvement of Palestinian refugees on the politics of Lebanon—the awful Lebanese civil war and the enormous complications that that produced—to understand how important it is that the two peoples are reconciled.
I leave the Minister and the House with this thought. The international community is an external actor in this situation, and for the main players, the Israeli and Palestinian people, it tends to be a question of manipulating that community to achieve a particular objective. I sometimes wonder whether the international community should try to remove that opportunity from them, and ensure that the responsibility for resolving this conflict is not something for the Americans to broker, or for other external actors to deliver. This is about Israel getting its security within a region that is Arab, and how the Arabs and the Israelis deal with the situation together. They have to stop looking to the rest of us to sort it out for them. I offer that reflection having spent a long time thinking about how the UK and others can contribute to the situation. I sometimes wonder whether doing a little less might achieve rather more.
I followed with interest the comments of the hon. Member for Reigate (Mr. Blunt). In the context of his comments about Iran, I can tell the House that during the spring recess I met a number of senior Iranian local authority officials who were over on a study tour at Glasgow university. That visit was sponsored by the Foreign Office, and I thought it was a useful way of exchanging views on a wide range of areas that did not involve the more controversial political issues that have bedevilled our relationship with Iran.
In the short time available, I want to highlight the situation in Gaza, which several colleagues have mentioned. The International Development Committee, on which I serve, produced its report on the occupied territories about 15 months ago, and it gives me no comfort to say that the pessimistic conclusions that we reached on the future of Gaza have largely come to pass.
Yesterday, we followed up that inquiry by taking evidence from John Ging, director of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East, and his message about the reality of life today for those who live in Gaza bears repeating. He said:
“Since January this year, 344 people in Gaza including 60 innocent children have been killed and 756 injured. Rockets have been fired into Israel every day and three Israelis have been killed and 20 injured.”
Violence in Gaza between armed groups has become endemic and there is a culture of impunity. We have heard that the economy has effectively collapsed, with 80 per cent. living below the poverty line, and the price of food and basic necessities has rocketed.
We have reached the point where UNICEF is literally trying to stop sewage backing up through the manholes on the streets of Gaza. As colleagues have said, the efforts of the Quartet’s special representative to build the urgently needed sewerage plant in Beit Lahia have been frustrated by Israel’s restrictions on importing concrete and electric motors for generators.
Almost all journeys have to be undertaken by foot, be it to schools, hospitals or work. Medical facilities suffer the consequences of fuel cuts, with no capacity to deal with difficult cases. I read with despair the World Health Organisation list of people who died between October last year and March because they had to wait for permission to leave to seek urgent treatment in Israel or Egypt. Some died while waiting at crossing points, and others, such as a one-year-old female child with liver disease, are refused a permit for security reasons. She died in March. The list is deeply depressing.
John Ging advises that on Tuesday UNWRA received a supply of food to enable it to deliver food aid for roughly six days, after having had to freeze its operations for the previous three. However, there is no promise of future supplies, and half of Gaza’s bakeries have had to close for lack of cooking gas.
As my hon. Friend the Member for High Peak (Tom Levitt) said, the inescapable conclusion is that the residents of Gaza are enduring a collective punishment, as defined in international law, to a horrific extent, and there is apparently no end to it. Does the international community have to wait until an outbreak of cholera occurs before we decide that the current stalemate cannot be left unchallenged?
I join agencies such as Oxfam in praising the efforts of the Foreign Office and Department for International Development staff in Jerusalem, especially their attendance at the Israeli supreme court case on the challenges to the cuts to fuel and electricity, and their engagement with the Israeli authorities on that issue. Having met officials on our visit for our report 18 months ago, I know how hard they work there. However, that is simply not sufficient.
A new strategy is urgently required, and that includes facing up to the realities on the ground. Former President Jimmy Carter recently stated that little progress had been made since the Annapolis peace talks last November, and he is right. Construction of settlements on the west bank has continued, despite the pleas of our Government and others. In its evidence to our inquiry, the Department for International Development states:
“Such actions threaten the viability of the Palestinian state”.
Yet little public comment has been made, nor has there been any indication that there will be consequences for Israel if that course of action continues.
I urge our Ministers and other European Union Governments, as a matter of urgency, to speak up forcefully for the United Nations plan and take every diplomatic avenue to secure the opening of crossings to Gaza and the delivery of humanitarian assistance. The donor meeting tomorrow and the Bethlehem investor conference on 21 May offer two good opportunities this month to raise the issue, and I look forward to the Minister’s response on that point.
We also need to apply more pressure to Israel to uphold its international obligations to protect and provide sufficient humanitarian assistance. I especially urge the Minister to consider using the human rights articles in the EU association agreements to bring an end to policies that breach human rights. If such breaches are proved on either side, we should condemn them unreservedly.
I highlight the recommendation in the International Development Committee on the need to end the isolation of Hamas. That is not to condone its actions or policies, but to recognise that our strategy to date has failed and will not succeed in future. We need to support the moderate voices in the region who are trying to establish a ceasefire and reconciliation between Hamas and Fatah. That requires courage, but let us not forget that until we take those steps, the intolerable suffering in Gaza will simply get worse.
As chairman of the all-party group on Saudi Arabia, I felt that this was an opportune moment to make a few brief comments on that country and share with the Minister some of the reflections on my recent visit to the kingdom with fellow parliamentarians. I led a delegation to Riyadh in February, and I am grateful to Prince Mohammed of the Saudi embassy here and Prince Sultan for their extraordinary efforts to make us feel welcome and ensure that the trip went smoothly.
Saudi Arabia is an important ally, especially in counter-terrorism. During our trip, we received many briefings from Saudi intelligence officers, who started to tell us about the extraordinary exchange of information that goes on between them and our intelligence and security officers. I was pleased to hear about the co-operation and mutual trust on sharing information and fighting terrorism.
As the Minister knows—he spoke so eloquently at the recent two-kingdom dialogue conference—Saudi Arabia is grappling with terrorism and it has equal difficulty in trying to tackle the problem. However, we were shown, as was the Foreign Secretary last week on his visit to Saudi Arabia, many of the pioneering ways in which that country is trying to rehabilitate offenders and dissuade them from wanting to be terrorists.
We also met many Ministers and King Abdullah, the custodian of the two holy mosques. In our discussions, he showed a great fondness and respect for our sovereign. I believe that the two sovereigns have a close working relationship and I was therefore pleased that he came to our country for the state visit. He sincerely wants good links with the United Kingdom and I hope that the Government will continue to promote Anglo-Saudi relations at every opportunity.
As the Minister may know—I have informed the Foreign Secretary—the king is initiating a forum for multi-faith dialogue in Saudi Arabia. Although he is the custodian of the two holy mosques, he wishes to hold more of an inter-faith dialogue between Islam and all the other religions around the world. We should support him in that. The Saudis are slightly dismayed about the total lack of media interest in King Abdullah’s tremendous efforts to initiate that forum. I regret that lack of interest, and I hope that the Minister will do everything possible to ensure that the British media start to report more effectively and more widely the king’s tremendous efforts to pursue the matter.
During our visit, we also heard discussions about the possibility of building the first Christian church in Saudi Arabia. The Minister knows that many Christians live in Saudi Arabia and I spoke up on the issue when I visited the kingdom. Starting to allow Christian communities to build churches would be a healthy step and I hope that the Minister will use his influence with the Saudis to promote that.
Our meetings with Saudi young people showed me their determination to achieve change and modernise their society. Time and again, I refer to the liberal elite—the BBC and most newspapers—who run our media. They like to denigrate Saudi Arabia and always focus on the negative aspects of that society. My hon. Friend the Member for Reigate (Mr. Blunt) talked about being like a scratched record. I for one intend to be like a scratched record in the House of Commons, in putting forward the alternative—the positive side of Saudi Arabian culture—and confronting our liberal elite media, which focus only on negative stories and denigrating Saudi Arabia. Saudi is an oasis of stability in the middle east and we need to support it as much as possible.
I am immensely grateful to my hon. Friend for the way in which he is presenting the positive case for Saudi Arabia. I hope that he will get across the message that we will never again expect British citizens to be treated in the way that Sandy Mitchell and William Sampson, a Canadian-British citizen, were from 2001 to 2002. I hope that my hon. Friend can get that message across, because if we and citizens of other countries cease to have such experiences in Saudi Arabia, the outlook for the positive things that he is describing will be so much better.
I totally agree with my hon. Friend. In fact, the other day I had discussions with the right hon. Member for Leicester, East (Keith Vaz), who is extremely upset about the treatment that one of his constituents has received in Saudi Arabia. I have assured him that I will set up a meeting for him to speak with the Saudi ambassador about the issue. Of course we need to challenge the Saudis. They are our friends and if we are to have a healthy relationship, we will sometimes need to challenge them. That is an intrinsic ingredient of a healthy relationship. We should show mutual respect, but challenge when we need to.
I spoke to the Minister about the huge opportunities that we saw for British companies in Saudi Arabia in construction, finance, mining, oil exploration and education. I was not trying to put him in a tight spot regarding Lord Jones of Birmingham, but I would like him at some stage to consider having an envoy specifically to promote British business in Saudi Arabia.
I am conscious of the time and know that other hon. Members want to get in, so I will make two brief final points. The first is slightly controversial, but as we are speaking on middle east affairs, let me say how concerned I am about the judicial review of BAE Systems’ deals with Saudi Arabia. The Minister may be aware of an organisation called the Campaign Against Arms Trade. Frankly, I am appalled by these unaccountable groups—I do not know who funds CAAT, but it is an extremely murky body. I want to know why CAAT is spending so much money on challenging the Government over BAE Systems, when so many British jobs are dependent on that vital trade and when there are so many problems in our country such as poverty—we are about to talk about poverty in Scotland. This murky organisation is trying to destroy British jobs by challenging the Government and BAE Systems over our vital trade links.
That challenge may have been successful in the courts, but the Minister may want to comment on that—I do not know—and the Government may challenge those initial decisions.
Finally, let me discuss the Arab peace plan. Hon. Members have spoken of the vital importance of the Arab peace plan in securing peace in Palestine and Israel. I, too, would like to express my sincere appreciation for all the hard work that the Arab League is doing, particularly King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia. The Arab League is genuine in its determination to find a credible solution. We must do everything possible to help the Arab League and Saudi Arabia, so that its proposals and imaginative solutions are deliberated on in this House and more Members of Parliament are aware of them.
It is understandable that the focus in this debate and the wider international community has rightly been on the situation in Gaza. However, it is also worth while mentioning again, as other colleagues have, that the situation facing the Palestinian people on the west bank, although not as severe as in Gaza, is nevertheless extremely serious. That situation becomes more serious day by day, primarily because of the activities authorised, initiated and approved by the Israeli Government in extending Israeli settlements on the west bank.
It is also worth remembering to condemn Hamas a little more than we have been today. Some 700 rockets have rained down on Israel since January. I hear what my hon. Friend the Member for High Peak (Tom Levitt) said about many such incidents being a case of somebody trying their best in their back yard. However, Hamas has said that the purpose of the rockets is to cause Israeli migration away from southern Israel, so perhaps we should remember to condemn Hamas a little more.
If my hon. Friend had waited a bit longer, he would have heard me making that condemnation, which I will make now. Clearly everyone in the House would—indeed, does—condemn that activity. However, that should not hold us back from saying that pressure needs to be put not only on Hamas, but on the Israeli Government, to enter into the peace process more substantively than they have too often done in the past.
The settlement activity is an indication of the lack of good faith on the part of the Israeli Government. In spite of the Annapolis peace conference, there has been a continuation of settlement activity on the west bank in the past few months. That activity is in breach of international law and UN resolutions, and goes against the spirit of the Annapolis summit.
The Israeli organisation Peace Now has produced some statistics about settlement activity on the west bank in the past few months. There has been construction in 101 settlements, with construction started on 275 new buildings, while almost 1,000 units have been established in caravan neighbourhoods. At the beginning of March, the Israeli Ministry of the Interior approved the conversion of one local council into a new city. The number of tenders and construction plans in East Jerusalem has leapt. Tenders for the construction of at least 750 housing units in East Jerusalem were issued between December last year and March 2008, yet throughout 2007 and up to Annapolis, only two tenders for 46 housing units were issued. All in all, the Israeli Government are, according to Peace Now, promoting the building of more than 3,500 housing units in the neighbourhoods of Jerusalem located east of the green line.
When that is happening, there is every reason, bluntly, to doubt the good faith of the Israeli Government in working towards a settlement that we all want to see. That is not only why it is so important to put those facts on record, but why the international community needs to put more pressure on the Israeli Government to move towards a settlement that is at least acceptable to all parties in the area. I can understand why, with his lengthy experience in such matters, the hon. Member for Reigate (Mr. Blunt) should feel that the international community should draw back and allow the parties to reach their own resolution of the disputes. However, the experience on both sides, particularly in respect of the approach of the Israeli Government over the past few months, shows that without that pressure we will not move forward to a genuinely acceptable peace settlement.
I hope that the message will go out from the House today that of course we want to see a stop to the rocket attacks by Hamas from Gaza or from anywhere, but equally that we need to see a change in the policies, actions and behaviour of the Israeli Government and in those actions that they authorise and support.
In seeking to apply pressure through the international organisations of which we are a part—I recognise what the Government have done in that respect—we will be reflecting the views of many of our constituents. I am sure that I am not alone in having a number of constituents who are active on the issue locally. Tomorrow, for example, one of the Amnesty International groups in my constituency is opening an exhibition of photographs showing the plight of the Palestinian people.
My constituency also contains the Hadeel fair trade shop, which imports products from Palestinian craft workers and sells them throughout the UK. It also imports olive oil that is produced by Palestinian farmers—sometimes with great difficulty, because of the transport restrictions imposed by the Israeli authorities. I am told by Hadeel that in the past few years, almost 750,000 olive trees have been uprooted in the west bank, largely because of the activity of Israeli military units or because of the expansion of settlements there. That is worth mentioning, because although we talk about and want to see economic progress for the Palestinian people, even existing economic activity is being undermined all the time by activities either promoted directly or authorised by the Israeli Government. That is another example of how the Palestinian people continue to be put under pressure, and why the world needs to take action to relieve the immediate pressure on the Palestinians in Gaza and the west bank. It is also why we need to bring about a long-term settlement that can be accepted by the Israelis and Palestinians alike.
I thank hon. and right hon. Members for their contributions to the debate, which has been good. In particular, I thank the hon. Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Lidington) for his speech, which was, as always, thoughtful and well informed. He posed several questions that were picked up in other hon. Members’ speeches.
We are right to concentrate on the situation in Gaza and Israel. We could, as the hon. Member for Reigate (Mr. Blunt) said, have talked about several issues for some time. He has taken part in our many debates on the middle east, and I share his frustration. This is my first topical debate. I did not know what that was until someone explained it to me this morning, but I know that there certainly is not enough time to deal with subjects such as this.
The hon. Member for Aylesbury asked many extremely relevant questions, and set the scene of the appalling situation in Gaza with vivid descriptions. I say to him that we must keep up the pressure on Israel to see the good political sense in lifting the blockades. I doubt whether there is an hon. Member in the Chamber who would seek to defend the insane actions of Palestinian jihadist extremists. I think that it was my hon. Friend the Member for Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock (Sandra Osborne) who described some of the effects that restrictions on gas supplies have had in Gaza. It is bad enough that the Israelis are restricting the supply of gas, but it was absolute insanity for Palestinian Islamic jihadists to blow up the pumping station at the border and kill two Israeli security personnel. I do not know why that sort of thing happens, although there are many theories, some of which we have heard today. Perhaps there are elements who want the situation to intensify and become worse—I do not know. The situation is doing no one any good. We have to keep making the case for diplomacy instead of those kinds of violent confrontations.
My hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Central (Mr. Sarwar) outlined vividly the dire situation in Gaza, especially regarding key areas such as health care provision. We have heard several distressing accounts of children and others dying because they were not allowed admission to hospitals, in Israel and elsewhere, where they could have received treatment that might have saved their lives. He makes an important point, although I disagree with some of the points that he made. I say to him that it is quite right to emphasise that every time there is a perceived injustice, it creates more enemies for Israel and the peace process. The dilemma is not easy for Israel to solve, or for its defence forces or its Parliament, but it is making a great mistake by taking its eye off the fact that the deaths of children create more enemies. I would never condone the violent attacks on Israel. There is no defence for that approach, which has got people nowhere for the past 60 years. It has simply meant that people have been killed and maimed all over the place.
The hon. Member for Reigate made an interesting speech. He said that the international community should perhaps pull back a little and let the Israeli and Palestinian people face the issues that will determine the fate of both their countries. I have a lot of sympathy with that point of view, although I do not think that any of us can be sure what would happen if we were to do that. There have been attempts to do it in the past, which usually took the form of military invasions of Israel. Those scars are still there in the psychology of that nation and in its approach to its neighbours.
However, there is a kernel of truth in what the hon. Member for Reigate said. He made the important point that Israel and Palestine’s neighbours must wake up to the fact that they hold the key to the future of that region, and that it is no good thinking that the Americans can sort it out or that the British, EU, Russians or Chinese will sort it out. Ultimately, the situation will be changed by the decisions of the people who live in that region.
My hon. Friend the Member for High Peak (Tom Levitt) and the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Mr. Davey) made constructive points, which I was glad to hear. I very much hope that, as a consequence of the debate, the talks that will take place in London from this afternoon onwards—the ad hoc liaison committee talks—will at least keep the momentum going that was started at Annapolis. We have to do that. There is no other show in town as far as the diplomatic community is concerned.
Finally, the hon. Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski) made an important point about King Abdullah, to whom we are all grateful for the renaissance in Saudi international diplomacy that has helped to put more life back into the Arab peace plan. I, too, pay tribute to the Arab League for its work.
It being one and a half hours after the commencement of proceedings, the motion lapsed, without Question put, pursuant to the temporary Standing Order (Topical Debates).
Child Poverty in Scotland
[Relevant documents: The Third Report of the Scottish Affairs Committee, Session 2007-08, on Child Poverty in Scotland, HC 277 and the Government’s response thereto, HC 525.]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the matter of child poverty in Scotland.
I am grateful to have the opportunity to address this issue, and I start by thanking my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Central (Mr. Sarwar) and his colleagues on the Select Committee on Scottish Affairs for their report. I look forward to hearing my hon. Friend’s speech, should he catch your eye, Madam Deputy Speaker.
Let me say at the outset that for members of the Government and Labour Members, a number of issues go to the heart of our involvement in politics. Poverty—crucially, child poverty—is one such issue. The Governments of the 1980s and 1990s were reluctant to talk about poverty and unwilling to accept that it even existed. They presided over the view that unemployment was inevitable and that the economic consequences on workless families and children were unavoidable. As unemployment grew and matters such as schools, hospitals and housing failed to get the investment that they needed, poverty also grew. In particular—in a telling comment on the policies of the previous Government and, dare I say it, to their shame—child poverty not only grew, but doubled. In Scotland, we saw communities devastated by unemployment and the once aspirant working man and woman worn down as they were abandoned by an uncaring and apparently unconcerned Government into an existence based on worklessness and benefits.
When the Government came to power in 1997, they inherited some of the highest rates of child poverty among the industrialised nations. One in four children lived in poverty. Child poverty had doubled between 1979 and 1997 and 3.4 million children were living in poverty across the country. The UK topped the European league for the number of children living in poverty, and the trend was getting worse instead of better.
That inexorable rise in child poverty was the backdrop to what has become one of the boldest and most historic commitments of any new Government coming into power. In 1999, this Government committed to halving child poverty by 2010 and to abolishing it by 2020.
The Minister will know of the widespread concern among the relevant non-governmental organisations that we are probably not going to meet the 2010 target. Since the report was published, we have seen a remarkable rise in the cost of many staple foodstuffs and, indeed, in the price of fuel. What impact have those significant increases had on the Government’s ability to meet the 2010 target, and what assessment has her Department made of that impact?
If the hon. Gentleman will forgive me, I will come on to deal with those issues later. We must recognise the fluctuations in costs and it is quite difficult to carry out an analysis over such a short period. I will deal with the heart of these questions a little later in my speech.
In 1999, the Government committed themselves to halving child poverty by 2010 and abolishing it by 2020. We not only committed to halt the upward trend in child poverty and bring it down but set ourselves on a path to abolish it altogether. I hope that all hon. Members, regardless of their political background, will recognise that our commitment was bold as well as ambitious. I would like to put on record the fact that we made such a powerful commitment because we understood the damage that poverty does to individuals and communities. Poverty not only erodes a person’s self-confidence; it limits their ambition and puts them at a long-term disadvantage.
In childhood, poverty is especially corrosive. During a time of life that should be full of hope and opportunity, a child living and growing up in poverty, is especially vulnerable.
Does my hon. Friend agree that linked with poverty is the issue of education, which provides the way out of poverty? The Government have done an excellent job in that respect, as did the previous Administration in Scotland. What should we say, however, about a party that would deny young people their right to education, particularly at the pre-school under-five level?
That is obviously a question for another Administration of a different political party to answer, so I hope that during this afternoon’s debate we will be able to hear some defence of the more eccentric decisions taken by the new Administration in Holyrood. Although they are good at talking warm words, they are not very good at alerting us to their delivery mechanisms. My hon. Friend thus makes a very good point, and I know that the importance of education is recognised in many parts of his constituency as the key to liberating young people and enabling them to have a career that will give them both fulfilment and finance.
Labour Members—I will be generous and say that this might also apply to some other Members—well know that children who grow up in poverty are likely to see their educational aspirations crushed and their health and development stymied by it. That is why this Government acted and have continued to act on poverty every year since 1999. We want nobody to be left behind, no child’s life blighted before their potential is realised.
I am especially pleased to report that things have improved markedly. Compared with 1997, there are now nearly 3 million more people in employment across the UK and 600,000 fewer children living in poverty. In Scotland, there are more people in work and 90,000 fewer children living in poverty. Since 1997, unemployment in Scotland has fallen by 82,000—nearly 39 per cent.
The hon. Gentleman’s party lacked the commitment to stay up and vote for any of our policies to alleviate poverty. Let me remind him of the national minimum wage, for example—[Interruption.] I will address the issue in general terms, and the hon. Gentleman will be aware that both the Prime Minister and the Chancellor have said that they will do more to help single and older people affected by the abolition of the 10p rate. If he has a fair mind, and I am open to persuasion on that—[Interruption.] The Minister of State says that he has already made up his mind about that. If the hon. Gentleman has a fair mind, he will recognise that over a 10-year period, we have invested in families and children in Scotland. I am coming on to deal with some of the more specific issues.
I am delighted that my hon. Friend has pinpointed the inconsistencies—we have to be careful about the words we use in this Chamber—in the views of SNP Members. [Interruption.] Let me make a little progress, particularly in view of the heckling by the hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Mr. MacNeil).
I was saying that progress has been made on child poverty in Scotland. Thanks to a co-operative and sustained partnership between the UK Government and the previous Scottish Executive, child poverty in Scotland is now lower than the UK average. Between 1998-99 and 2005-06, the proportion of children in relative low income in Scotland fell from 28 per cent. to 21 per cent.—a fall of 90,000—and is now lower than the UK average, as was identified by the recently published Scottish Government discussion paper on tackling poverty.
Those statistics mean that Scotland met the 2004-05 child poverty target to reduce relative child poverty in Great Britain by one quarter and it is no coincidence that, as employment rises and unemployment decreases, we see this marked reduction in child poverty. The Government continue to believe that employment—a job—is the key route out of poverty and that work for those who can remains the most sustainable route in tackling poverty. So, achieving our goals on child poverty will be realised only by making real progress in achieving our goal of employment opportunities for all.
Of course, work must be made to pay, which is why the Government introduced the tax credit system and the national minimum wage in spite of the siren voices on the official Opposition Benches who told us it would cost millions of jobs and in spite of the sleepy heads on the SNP Benches who could not even stay up to vote for it. We know, too, that children living in workless families are much more likely to be poor. [Interruption.] I do not think that the hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar would have stayed up all night, but perhaps he should comment on whether his colleagues were capable of staying up to vote on an important issue that meant a lot to many low-paid families in Scotland. Worklessness disadvantages not only parents, but their children, so to secure progress on employment is to secure progress on child poverty. A Government can do few better things than help a parent to get a job, which will not only help them, but help provide for their children. In lone parent households, or families in which an adult is disabled, employment support is particularly needed. That is why the new deal programme has been so important and successful, helping thousands of people in Scotland into work.