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Commons Chamber

Volume 488: debated on Tuesday 24 February 2009

House of Commons

Tuesday 24 February 2009

The House met at half-past Two o’clock

Prayers

[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions

Foreign and Commonwealth Office

The Secretary of State was asked—

Israel

1. What assessment he has made of the implications of the outcome of the general election in Israel for UK policy in the region; and if he will make a statement. (257913)

The composition of the next Israeli Government is not yet clear. However, at the earliest opportunity, the UK will engage with Israel’s new Government on the important task of reinvigorating a serious political dialogue aimed at establishing a lasting and just regional peace between Israel and its neighbours. Working with and supporting all parties in their efforts to reach that goal will remain a central tenet of the UK’s policy in the region.

With right-wing religious nationalists now vying for control of the Knesset, there appears to be little prospect of peace for the families and friends of the 1,300 Gazans killed and 5,500 injured by Israeli military operations before and during the recent general election campaign. Does my right hon. Friend agree that Hamas’s rocket attacks on Israel can no longer be accepted by our Government or the international community as justification for the Israeli Government’s criminal actions in the slaughter and maiming of innocent Palestinian citizens?

I think that the prospects for peace probably seem very remote for a large number of people in the middle east, which is a reason for us to redouble our efforts to secure that peace. On the second part of my hon. Friend’s question, it is very important that we condemn all loss of innocent civilian life on any side. We should not get into the business of justifying one set of civilian losses because of another. A vital part of our work and, critically, the work of the new US Administration, is to try to build a durable peace that is in the interests of Israelis and Palestinians alike.

Is the Foreign Secretary aware that Israel is one of the most advanced countries in the world in tackling human trafficking? The number of convictions of traffickers is up and the amount of compensation paid to victims and the amount of legislation on the statute book are increasing. Will he take a lead from the Israeli Government and see that all embassies with which we have visa arrangements have leaflets explaining to people applying for visas that they should be aware of the dangers of human trafficking?

I was not aware of Israel’s record in that regard, and I shall certainly find out our own practice in that area. The work against human trafficking brings together all civilised people, and if there is anything that we have to learn from the Israeli approach, we will certainly do so.

I have just come back from Gaza, where I saw whole business districts, villages, hospitals and schools that had been systematically razed to the ground by a Government of the centre left, as we are now told to call them. The prospects for progress on peace and other matters being made by a Government of the far right seem unlikely without pressure from this Government and their international partners. What does my right hon. Friend believe those pressures should be?

The picture that my hon. Friend paints of the situation in Gaza was confirmed to me by Senator Kerry, whom I met on Sunday and who had also recently been in Gaza. He painted a picture of extreme devastation right across Gaza. As I said, there is not yet a Government in Israel, but the most significant thing is that in the latter part of last year, we were talking in the House about the importance of the new US Administration engaging on middle east issues from day one, which has indeed happened.

I will be in Sharm el Sheikh on Monday with Secretary Clinton at the donors conference, talking about not just the narrow issues of humanitarian aid and reconstruction but the wider political issues that are raised. I will be in Cairo later today, where I will certainly take up those wider political issues. Those are the key points that need to be on the table for any Government who emerge in Israel.

Will the Secretary of State and Mrs. Clinton, when they are together next week, make it quietly but firmly plain to those who aspire to power in Israel, first, that indiscriminate slaughter is not an acceptable instrument of policy and, secondly, that a two-state solution is the only viable solution to middle eastern problems?

The hon. Gentleman is right to emphasise the importance of restating a commitment to a two-state solution. It is fair to say that it is an indicator of how dangerous the situation is that the mere repetition of that commitment is in itself important. At this time, it is very important to keep on the table the commitment to a two-state solution, especially by the United States, given that the division between Gaza and the west bank currently threatens the very heart of the idea of a contiguous and viable Palestinian state.

My hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, Acton and Shepherd's Bush (Mr. Slaughter) made the point that a Government of the centre left could not find a road to peace, and it seems likely that we will have a Government of the right in Israel shortly. The Foreign Secretary has made it plain that he, along with the international community, wishes to redouble his efforts to try to get a settlement and agreement in the region. How optimistic is he, given the clear political obstacles that the composition of the new Government presents?

The situation on the ground means that anyone who claims to be optimistic at the moment is not engaging with the facts. It is not an optimistic, but a dangerous moment. The dangers mean that not only European countries and the United States, but—critically—countries throughout the Arab world, as well as Israel, have to peer into the abyss of the idea of a two-state solution disappearing. That is dangerous for Israel and for the whole Arab world. It is one reason for my putting such stress in the past six months on the Arab peace initiative, which offers not only a two-state solution, but the prospect of 23 states—Israel and 22 states of the Arab League—normalising relations with each other on the back of the creation of a Palestinian state. That regional approach is essential at this time.

Does the Foreign Secretary agree that Israel is entitled to insist that the Palestinians and the wider Arab world accept her right to exist? Does he also accept that, when Israeli political leaders talk about refusing to countenance a Palestinian state or make promises about expanding illegal settlements, that undercuts the position of every Arab leader who is genuinely committed to peace?

Yes, it is important—I hope that it is noted—that, in all parties in the House, there is an absolute commitment to the centrality of Israel at the foundation of a stable middle east and to the fact that Israel, never mind the Palestinians, will have safety and justice with the creation of a Palestinian state. It is significant that, across the United Kingdom political spectrum, every party is committed to the goal of a safe Israel alongside a viable Palestinian state in a region that benefits from that co-existence. I think that the cross-party commitment to using all Britain’s assets to further that goal is widely welcomed, and it is something that I carry with me as I travel in the region.

Democratic Republic of Congo

2. What representations he has made to the Governments of Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo on the effects on civilians of the military conflict in eastern DRC. (257914)

The Foreign Secretary and the Minister for Africa urged the Presidents of Rwanda and of the DRC to work to resolve the instability in eastern DRC when they visited the region last year. We have continually raised the protection of civilians with both Governments, directly and through the European Union and the United Nations. Those efforts, as part of international pressure, have led to real political progress.

I thank the Minister for that answer. The current joint operation in eastern Congo is unlikely to eradicate the presence of the Forces Démocratiques de Libération du Rwanda—FDLR—before the Rwandans reach the end of the time that they had allocated for that. Will my hon. Friend press the United Nations mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo—MONUC—and the Congolese Government to ensure that there is a strategy in place to deal robustly with what remains of the movement? Does she agree that it is essential quickly to get the reinforcements for MONUC, which were agreed in December at the UN, to deal with the FDLR and with the Lord’s Resistance Army in northern Congo, where 900 people have recently been killed?

First, I commend my hon. Friend’s work in the region and her assessment of the position. I can give the reassurance that we have continued to press the DRC Government to plan for post-military action, including humanitarian work and stabilisation, in the way that she describes. As she says, MONUC is key to that, as is the DRC Government’s working with MONUC and the reinforcement of MONUC troops. I understand that most of the 3,000 reinforcements have been identified, and that MONUC will soon send extra troops to northern Congo.

May I press the Under-Secretary a little further on the future of the United Nations peacekeeping force in the Congo? It has become clear that the MONUC force is incapable of effectively keeping the peace in eastern Congo. I understand from this morning’s Financial Times that discussions have taken place between the British and the French Governments about the future of UN peacekeeping forces, including the one in the Congo. Will the Under-Secretary give us a little more information about that?

Indeed, there are discussions at the UN about all peacekeeping operations. It is important to emphasise that a successful political process will bring peace and a decent future to the region—the problems cannot be solved by military means alone. However, the role of MONUC troops is essential and that is why we seek and support their reinforcement.

May I draw my hon. Friend’s attention to early-day motion 810, which refers to the sad death of Dr. Alison Des Forges? Dr. Des Forges met a number of hon. Members the day before she was killed a couple of weeks ago. She was unquestionably one of the world’s leading authorities on the great lakes region. Will my hon. Friend join me and the House in sending her condolences to Dr. Des Forges’s family?

I certainly will. I would add that perhaps the greatest tribute that we can give to somebody of such stature is to seek peace and a decent future for the DRC and, indeed, the whole region. I thank my hon. Friend for his contribution, both through the all-party parliamentary group and by drawing the issue to the attention of the House through his early-day motion.

Iran’s Nuclear Programme

The Foreign Secretary and other Ministers regularly discuss Iran and its nuclear programme with our European Union counterparts. The EU has consistently been at the forefront of the international response to the Iran nuclear issue. The E3 plus 3 reaffirmed its unity and commitment on 4 February to achieving a diplomatic resolution to the Iran nuclear issue.

I am grateful for that reply, but will the Minister ensure that those European discussions link closely with the potential of the new President of the United States, who seems to hold the possibility of a more flexible and open approach towards Iran?

We very much welcome the US Administration’s willingness to engage directly with Iran, which I think is what my hon. Friend was referring to. However, no one should be in any doubt that President Obama has made it clear that a nuclear-armed Iran is unacceptable. Iran has to make a choice between, on the one hand, the very generous E3 plus 3 offer and a transformed relationship with the international community and, on the other hand, continuing on the path of confrontation, increasing isolation, and tougher and expanded sanctions.

When the Secretary of State meets the US Secretary of State next week, what will he be able to tell her about what further steps the EU is going to take, given that the International Atomic Energy Agency has confirmed that Iran has now enriched enough uranium to make a nuclear weapon?

The US is reviewing its position with regard to Iran, and we are discussing the issue. However, as I have made clear, President Obama has made it clear that a nuclear-armed Iran is unacceptable. We all need to work together to force Iran to confront that fundamental choice: on the one hand, engagement and all the benefits that it can bring or, on the other, increased isolation.

Does the Minister not agree that this might be a good opportunity to launch the idea of a nuclear-free middle east, which would involve the non-development of nuclear weapons by any existing states in the middle east and, of course, nuclear disarmament by the only nuclear-armed state in the region, namely Israel? Does he not also agree that this year’s forthcoming non-proliferation treaty preparatory committee, or prepcom, would be a good time to launch such an initiative?

I am sure that my hon. Friend would welcome the fact that this country and this Government are the most forward-leaning of the nuclear weapon states in terms of disarmament. We need constantly to reiterate that. We are also very committed to a nuclear-free middle east and have consistently urged the Government of Israel to sign up to the NPT as a non-nuclear weapon state.

The possible formation of a Government under Mr. Netanyahu is a matter of some concern in the context of the Iranian nuclear programme. Will the Minister and EU Ministers impress upon any Government headed by Mr. Netanyahu the vital importance of restraint and of working in concert with the EU countries and the United States, and that his Government should not contemplate any unilateral action?

Let me make it clear to the right hon. and learned Gentleman that we have consistently been 100 per cent. committed to a diplomatic solution. Nevertheless, we face a serious challenge in respect of Iran. The whole international community needs to focus Iran on the choice that it faces.

Carrying on doing what we are doing and expecting it to have a different outcome would seem to be folly. What we are doing now seems in no way to be slowing down the Iranian nuclear programme. If we are to avoid the accusation in two years’ time that we allowed the world to drift into a nightmare, how do we and our EU partners take things to the next level in applying pressure on Iran? In particular, those in the Arab world have just as much to lose from a nuclear-armed Iran, so how do we get them to join us?

My hon. Friend makes an exceedingly pertinent point. In all the discussions that I have in the middle east, there is significant concern, among the Gulf states and other middle east states, about the position of Iran. We need to maximise the consensus and force Iran to face the choice that is before it. The United States Administration have rightly said that they are willing in principle to open a direct dialogue with Iran. We need to reinforce that. We also need to maximise the unity and get Iran to the point where it makes the choice that is necessary.

The latest report from the IAEA states that Iran has now stockpiled more than 1,000 kg of low-enriched uranium. If Iran continues at this pace, it will be a matter not of if, but when, it actually has a nuclear weapons capability. Can the Minister therefore assure the House that the EU will now finally muster the will to impose the key sanctions that the Prime Minister first announced back in 2007 on investment in Iranian oil and gas?

The European Union, as I argued earlier, has been at the forefront of those internationally arguing for and urging sanctions. The latest IAEA report is one of real and serious concern. It underlines the reasons why we have a lack of confidence in that Iran has not responded to the IAEA report and is not allowing legitimate access. We need to keep up the argument that that is what we rightly expect Iran to do.

UK-China Relations

I launched the UK-China framework last month because the Government believe that positive engagement with China is essential to achieving our wider international objectives and to addressing the major global challenges, including the current economic crisis. We welcome the positive response from the Chinese Government to this strategy, we will monitor progress against its detailed objectives, and we will welcome the views of Members and others.

Given my right hon. Friend’s rather special relationship with the US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, can he comment on the US’s new approach to China and inform the House whether that new approach will impact in any way on the policies of the United Kingdom?

My hon. Friend will be pleased to hear that I spoke to my new friend in advance of her trip to China. I think that the messages she gave to the Chinese about the determination of the whole of the American Government to engage with China in a new way is wholly welcome. There was, I think, in Secretary Clinton’s remarks in Beijing an important recognition of the changed balance of power in the world and of China’s centrality to addressing many of the big global problems we face—not least economic and environmental problems and nuclear proliferation.

If we are ever to secure peace in Afghanistan, we are going to have to engage all the countries in the wider region, including China, especially if we are going to seek a final solution in that area. What discussions have the Government had with China about engaging with Iran to provide that solution?

I agree with the hon. Gentleman. We obviously talked about Afghanistan during the visit of Premier Wen and Foreign Minister Yang at the beginning of this month. I was in Afghanistan last week. I believe that the important regional approach taken by the new envoy, Ambassador Holbrooke, is wholly welcome.

As literally millions and millions of Chinese people lose their jobs with the Chinese economy going into even freer fall than the European and American economies, there are political consequences. In my right hon. Friend’s talks with the Chinese, will he gently suggest that the next economic paradigm has to be based on workers being able to earn enough to buy what they produce and to have social and other networks of support? Will he further bring into play the International Labour Organisation to urge the Chinese to develop a much fairer social and wage system in their country?

I think that my right hon. Friend will recognise the irony of China riding to the rescue of international capitalism at this time, but his points about the balance of economic and social stability in China are very well made. Our human rights dialogue certainly provides one opportunity to raise a whole range of social issues with the Chinese Government.

Is the Secretary of State aware that when North Koreans try to leave that dictatorship, they often cross into China, where they are rounded up and sent back to North Korea in defiance of all China’s obligations as a signatory to the UN refugee convention? The fate of these returnees to North Korea is extremely gruesome, so will the Secretary of State ensure that his new love-in with China—whether via Mrs. Clinton or anyone else—does not prevent him and the Government from raising this issue with the Chinese Government as a matter of urgency, or does he think that China is too important and large to merit such criticism?

The right hon. Gentleman raises an important point, which is one that we have raised with the Chinese. I think I should write to him with a report on how those discussions have gone and what the latest stage is. The importance of our engagement with China is precisely that, because we engage with the Chinese, we are able to raise all issues, including human rights issues, openly and frankly. That spirit of candour has been developed over the past few years in our relationship with China. Respect for China does not mean the relegation of our concerns to a subsidiary role. In fact, I would argue that the respect that is afforded to China is the basis for proper engagement on issues that concern us.

Sri Lanka

5. What recent assessment he has made of the political situation in Sri Lanka; and if he will make a statement. (257917)

The recent military advances by the Sri Lankan Government and the subsequent humanitarian crisis are of continuing serious concern. We have repeatedly called for an immediate humanitarian ceasefire. We have made it clear to the Government of Sri Lanka that a political solution that addresses the legitimate concerns of all communities in Sri Lanka is the only way to bring a sustainable end to the conflict.

Our commitment to that goal and our desire to work with the Sri Lankan Government are clear in the appointment of an experienced former Secretary of State, my right hon. Friend the Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Des Browne), as the Prime Minister’s special envoy. I remain in active discussion with the Sri Lankan Government to encourage them to work with him.

I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer and also welcome the appointment of my right hon. Friend the Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun as special envoy to Sri Lanka, as well as the statements made in the House by members of the Government regarding ceasefire, but warm words and good intentions will not protect the civilians of the Vanni.

My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary will be aware that, in the last 24 hours, a ceasefire offer has been made but was rejected out of hand by the Government of Sri Lanka. The situation is grave, with 2,000 civilian deaths since January. Is not now the time for the Government to take the issue up at the highest levels—namely, at a session of the United Nations Human Rights Council or in the Security Council itself, or by seeking the suspension from the Commonwealth of the Government of Sri Lanka?

The situation is indeed extremely serious. For some time, the Sri Lankan authorities were offering a ceasefire and it was rejected by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. Now there is news of an LTTE offer, which has been rejected by the Government. My right hon. Friend will have seen the strong conclusions reached by the European General Affairs and External Relations Council yesterday on the Sri Lankan issue, which are wholly appropriate and welcome, and she can be assured that we continue to press at the highest levels for humanitarian assistance and for a ceasefire.

Further to the point made by the right hon. Member for Enfield, North (Joan Ryan), will the Foreign Secretary explain to the House why the Government have not sought a resolution of the UN Security Council for a ceasefire in Sri Lanka? Indeed, why, when Mexico recently asked for the council to be briefed on Sri Lanka, did the British representative to the UN fail to support that call? Does the Foreign Secretary realise that people get pretty angry when UK Ministers here in London talk about and call for a ceasefire, but British officials in New York do not follow through?

I am sorry to hear the hon. Gentleman talk in that way, because he knows that a failed resolution—one that faces a veto—is worse than no resolution at all, and it would strengthen precisely the forces that he and I oppose. I can assure him that our diplomats, whether in New York or in the region, are all working off the same script, which is one that has been set by the Prime Minister and me.

Can the Foreign Secretary confirm that the problem in the Security Council is not the UK Government, but the Russian Government, who refuse to support the Security Council resolution? Therefore, unlike in Gaza, we are unable to get the Security Council resolution that is so needed.

There certainly is a blockage at the UN. That is why the UN has not been able to opine on this issue.

The Secretary of State will know that there are credible reports of atrocities on both sides. Will he assure the House that the Government will channel their energies into getting this ceasefire before more and more civilians are killed and brought into the conflict?

Yes. The tragedy in Sri Lanka has claimed 70,000 lives in the course of the conflict. That conflict is against the interests of all Sri Lanka’s communities, which could find a way to live together if they had representation that was able to eschew violence and look for a political solution. I assure the hon. Gentleman that we are using all our best efforts to achieve that. It is deeply to be regretted that the appointment of an envoy has not yet been met with a welcome in Colombo, but that is what we are working for.

But will that envoy be able to help us ensure that Ban Ki-Moon’s commitment to supporting a ceasefire that enables civilians to leave the hot areas in Sri Lanka can be realised? Families in Britain are anxious about relatives of whom they have heard nothing for months. We need to help them, and their relatives, to be safe.

My hon. Friend speaks about this issue with knowledge and passion. She is absolutely right about the need for us to do all that we can to protect those civilians, including working with the United Nations. There are very distressing reports of both sides interfering with civilians’ ability to find safety. It is at the heart of our concerns not just to try to provide money, but to try to provide space to which civilians can escape and in which they can be given proper safety. The situation is deeply distressing, not just to people in the region but to many, many people in the United Kingdom.

Some of the signals coming from the Sri Lankan Government imply that they are quite prepared to go ahead with acts of genocide. Time is of the essence. I understand that the right hon. Gentleman is doing what he can, but many of us are deeply worried about what is going on in Sri Lanka and, as time goes by, it is getting worse. The next fortnight may be crucial. May I urge the right hon. Gentleman to think again about every possible avenue that might enable a horrible humanitarian catastrophe to be averted?

The hon. Gentleman has raised an important point. Sri Lanka has a democratic Government, and—as I have said in another context—high standards are rightly expected of democratic Governments, and should be adhered to by every single Government.

What the hon. Gentleman said about the Sri Lankan Government was absolutely right. No one denies that there is a terrorist problem in Sri Lanka. That terrorist problem poses a mortal threat to Sri Lankans in all communities, but the resolution of that terrorist problem cannot be achieved at the expense of the rights of minority communities in Sri Lanka, and that is what we are trying to work on.

As chairman of the all-party parliamentary group on Sri Lanka, I welcome the appointment of my right hon. Friend the Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Des Browne), and wish him well in his discussions with the Government there.

Human Rights Watch reported recently that 2,000 people had died and 5,000 had been injured—innocent civilians caught in the conflict. There are now reports that the so-called safe areas are no longer safe because conflict is proceeding there. I have noted the comments of my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary. Will he redouble his efforts to secure a humanitarian corridor that will allow innocent civilians to escape entirely from the area of conflict in the Vanni?

I recognise the work that my hon. Friend has done as chairman of the all-party group. We will certainly explore all options for the provision of civilian safety, including a ceasefire, a humanitarian corridor and humanitarian safe zones. The situation does indeed get worse day by day. The stories that emerge are of extreme cruelty—cruelty, I have to say, on both sides—and it is very important for the international community to work on the issue. The unanimity of the European Union’s response yesterday is an important indication that the issue is rightly becoming higher on the international agenda.

Obviously we all wish the right hon. Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Des Browne) great success. However, is it not the case that after the Prime Minister had announced the right hon. Gentleman’s appointment, the Sri Lankan Government made it clear that they had not been consulted and that they found the whole thing extremely objectionable, and is it not the case that, on Wednesday 18 February, the Sri Lankan Cabinet met and refused to withdraw its opposition to the right hon. Gentleman’s appointment? If that is so, it must mean either that the right hon. Gentleman personally is unacceptable—which I would find strange—or that a special envoy from the United Kingdom is unacceptable and will therefore be in permanent limbo.

I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman has taken the position that he has, because following a letter from our Prime Minister to the President of Sri Lanka, I spoke to the President of Sri Lanka on 30 January—a long time before the date the hon. Gentleman mentioned—and President Rajapakse said he would engage with a UK envoy. Two meetings between our high commissioner and the President confirmed that position, so it is important that we do not leave on the record the suggestion that there was not consultation. There was, indeed, consultation on this issue, and that is why we are working hard to explain to the Sri Lankan Government not only the virtues of my right hon. Friend the Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun, but the potential benefit of a UK envoy, joining envoys from Japan, Norway and other countries, playing a positive role in the conflict.

Among the civilian deaths in the north of Sri Lanka as a result of the Sri Lankan Government’s military action are 11 relatives of a member of the Milton Keynes Tamil Forum. What she wants to know is what justice there will be for her relatives killed in that action. Can the Foreign Secretary offer any hope of justice?

The constituent my hon. Friend mentions has lost 11 relatives, and it is impossible from this Dispatch Box to say anything that will give someone in such a situation, at a time of such huge distress, any sense of real comfort. She is among a large number of people in this country who have lost large numbers of relatives in this terrible conflict. I can assure her and every person who has Sri Lankan heritage or relatives in Sri Lanka that their Government in the UK are working very hard, internationally and bilaterally, on the issue. There are responsibilities on the LTTE, but there are also responsibilities on the Sri Lankan Government, and both need to fulfil them.

Democratic Republic of Congo

The DRC and its neighbours are co-operating constructively on regional security. The Government have begun work on areas such as security sector reform and development, and the national Parliament is increasingly effective in holding the Government to account. However, much work remains to be done to achieve the lasting progress that we all want to see.

In addition to looking at increasing UN troop numbers, which the Minister mentioned earlier, will she also look at the effectiveness of those troops, particularly given UN commander Bipin Rawat’s comments that he can only get munitions delivered 9 to 5, Monday to Friday, not at the weekends, and that there is no capacity whatever for night flights?

Of course, this is a matter for the UN, and we will discuss it there. The MONUC team is available to the DRC and Rwandan armies to help them with their military planning, and I would encourage them to make full use of that, because what we want to see is the MONUC troops carrying out the highest priority, which is civilian protection.

Developing the justice sector is key to creating political stability in the DRC. We were all delighted to see the arrest of Laurent Nkunda, the warlord who ran CNDP criminals in north Kivu, over Christmas, but what conversations has my hon. Friend had with the Governments of Rwanda and the DRC to ensure that Laurent Nkunda returns to the DRC to face justice for the unspeakable acts committed by him and his troops?

My hon. Friend is right that justice not only has to be done, but has to be seen to be done, and matters such as those are raised regularly both directly with the Governments and through the UN and EU.

That is the estimate that has been made, and, indeed, the UK has supported the United Nations security resolution that brought about that extra reinforcement. What matters is that those reinforcements arrive as soon as possible, that they get on with the job that they are there to do, and that they assist the Rwandan and DRC Governments to protect civilians and to bring about a lasting peace. However, as I said earlier, that cannot be done only by military means. It has to be done through a political process. There has been progress, and we will continue to support that.

Gaza

7. What recent discussions he has had with his international counterparts on peacekeeping initiatives for the Gaza strip. (257920)

The Foreign Secretary and I this morning met special envoy Mitchell to discuss Gaza and the middle east. We reiterated the UK’s determination to support the ceasefire, both by helping to stop arms smuggling into Gaza and by pressing the Israeli Government to open the crossings. The Foreign Secretary will be leading the UK delegation to the Gaza reconstruction conference in Egypt on Monday.

When I recently visited Palestine with the Halifax Friends of Palestine group I saw for myself the atrocities being committed against the people there; day after day, they are terrorised, homes are demolished, concrete walls are built, which prevent children from going to school, and innocent lives are lost. Will the Minister reassure me that he is doing everything he can, working with his international counterparts, to protect the Palestinians and their land, and to find a swift and peaceful solution?

I say to my hon. Friend, who takes a real interest in these issues, that there has clearly been an unacceptable loss of innocent civilian life. The reality is that we have been at the forefront of efforts to press for a ceasefire, including by leading the way at the United Nations Security Council. We are strongly supporting efforts to stop arms smuggling into Gaza and we are strongly pressing the Israeli Government to open the crossings. However, peace will ultimately be secured by the actions of Hamas, on the one hand, and the Government of Israel, on the other.

Is it not the case that Hamas continues to store arms in schools, mosques and civilian areas? The arms are clearly still getting through. Does not the international community have a role to play in stopping things being smuggled from Egypt and in assisting the Egyptian authorities in ensuring that the tunnels are maintained? [Interruption.]

I get the point. The hon. Gentleman is right to say that unless we tackle both sides of this, we will not get the security and the peaceful solution that people seek. That is why we, in concert with other international partners, are doing everything possible to support the Egyptian efforts to tackle smuggling across the borders. We have also, in our own right, made an offer of naval assistance, and that, too, might be able to make a contribution.

My hon. Friend has indicated that the Government will pursue, with vigour, the interception of arms going into Gaza—such arms could threaten Israeli civilians. Could he say precisely what action is being taken to ensure the protection of Palestinian civilians from Israeli attack?

We led the way at the UN Security Council to obtain the ceasefire that has been achieved, fragile though it is, and we have consistently made it abundantly clear that there has been an unacceptable loss of innocent civilian life and that that has to stop. We need to provide security, not only for the Palestinians, but for the Israelis in southern Israel.

I have just returned from an all-party group visit to Gaza, where we witnessed the aftermath of the total destruction of the village of Izbit Abed Rabbo, east of Jabalia, and the consequences of white phosphorus attacks on a children’s centre and music school. In his statement to the House on 12 January, the Foreign Secretary said that he wanted to see an investigation into such abuses. What are the Government doing to ensure that such an investigation takes place?

We have made our view clear and we have also supported the UN Secretary-General’s calls for such investigations into abuses of international humanitarian law. We are certainly concerned about reports on the way in which white phosphorus ammunition has been used in Gaza, and we have made our concerns abundantly clear to the Government of Israel.

In light of a report published by Amnesty International on 10 February detailing extra-judicial executions carried out by Hamas, does my hon. Friend agree that there is an urgent need for the Palestinian Authority to have a presence in Gaza in order to restore the rule of law?

I agree with my hon. Friend. President Abbas is the elected leader of all Palestinians, and I very much hope that next week’s reconstruction conference in Egypt will be able to discuss, among other things, in what way the Palestinian Authority can be involved in the reconstruction of Gaza.

UK-Pakistan Relations

8. What recent discussions he has had with representatives of the Government of Pakistan on UK-Pakistan relations. (257921)

The Foreign Secretary is in regular contact with members of the Pakistani Government and spoke most recently with President Zardari on 9 February and with Foreign Minister Qureshi on 7 February. He discussed a wide range of common issues, including the Mumbai attacks, Afghanistan and counter-terrorism.

We are, of course, aware that the Foreign Secretary recently raised Kashmir with the Government of India, and presume that he also did so with the Government of Pakistan. Is it the Government’s view that a solution in Kashmir is integral to a wider solution in the region as a whole, and does the Minister agree that—in some way and at some time—the people of Kashmir must be involved in any discussions about what is, after all, their future?

The Foreign Secretary has made it clear that our position on Kashmir has not changed. The key priority at the moment is for the Government of Pakistan to act on Lashkar-e-Taiba. That is what we are arguing for both publicly and privately.

Does the Minister agree that some of the sources of instability in Afghanistan lie in Pakistan, including activities on the north-west frontier and the recruiting and training of young Taliban in Pakistani madrassahs? Have those matters been broached with the Pakistan Government?

Yes, there are clearly issues that are of mutual interest between Afghanistan and Pakistan. The increasingly close relationship between the Governments of those two countries is a source of optimism, and we raise those issues with them regularly.

Does the Minister agree that the stability of Pakistan is vital for any progress to be made in that region of the world? If I may pick up on the question put by the hon. Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott), what happens in Pakistan will impact directly on Afghanistan. What hope can the Minister give the House that his discussions with his opposite numbers are progressive, and will contribute to the peace and stability of the region?

It is absolutely our intention to ensure that we do everything that we can to make progress on these issues. It is not within our gift to make that happen, but we are certainly working to that end. Counter-terrorism is a key aspect of our relationship with Pakistan, which is one of our key allies. We will keep working on these issues with Pakistan, in both our interests and those of the whole international community.

Falkland Islands (Transport Links)

10. If he will take steps to improve transport links to the Falkland Islands; and if he will make a statement. (257923)

Negotiations between the FCO and the Ministry of Defence on new terms and conditions for improved civilian use of the south Atlantic air bridge are expected to be concluded shortly. The MOD has already provided a premium economy service, increased the frequency of the flights to twice a week, and given the Falkland Islands Government the number of aircraft seats they requested.

Will my hon. Friend look again at the matter, together with colleagues from the MOD, to ensure that the child concession, which was removed from the air bridge policy, is reinstated so that people from the Falkland Islands can maintain their close links with this country?

I understand the point that my hon. Friend makes. It is probably worth saying that the MOD is charging on a full cost recovery basis, which is consistent with Treasury rules, as he will know. The Falkland Islands Government have the flexibility to take their own decisions about fares and discounts that they offer to their passengers. No doubt they will consider that matter further.

Topical Questions

Today I met with Senator Mitchell to discuss prospects for renewed talks on the future of the middle east. Straight after questions I will travel to Cairo for talks with President Mubarak and Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul-Gheit. In the aftermath of the Gaza war, peace and security for Israelis and Palestinians depends, as ever, on their ability to live side by side. It is now a top priority for the US Administration, and we will do everything in our power to support their efforts.

Will my right hon. Friend tell me what contribution the proposed eastern partnership might make to improving the security of our energy supply and, in the long run, to bringing down the cost of fuel for families and businesses in Britain?

I thank my hon. Friend for raising that important issue. The proposed eastern partnership will engage countries, including Ukraine, which has been in the press most recently, in a strategic discussion about energy security and will help us to secure those dependable supplies. Although Britain does not get any of its energy supplies directly from the eastern partnership countries, insecurity impacts on market prices in the UK, which then has an impact on the prices for families and businesses. That is why it is so important that we engage and are seen to be positive in that engagement, unlike the Conservative party, which chooses not to engage constructively on the European Union.

The Foreign Secretary has made a written statement today on the Binyam Mohamed case. I think that he will agree that the importance of the case is that this country must make it clear that we do not condone or connive in the torture of suspects. Does that not suggest that we should be as transparent as possible in all circumstances? Since the Government’s adviser on terrorism laws, Lord Carlile, has said:

“There is a basis for the UK government to urge the American government that these matters which are of true public interest…should be made public in a way that does not damage…national security”,

will the Foreign Secretary now reconsider his refusal even to ask the US Government for permission to publish the material that the High Court had to withhold?

Across the House and across the Government, we unreservedly condemn the use of torture. Significantly, any allegations are immediately investigated, as has happened in this case—

By the Attorney-General, who is the independent Minister for justice and is the right person to assess whether there has been any criminal wrongdoing. The right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague) is right to say that transparency is important. That is one reason why we argued so strongly that the US Government should give the relevant documents to Binyam Mohamed’s legal team. It is because of those “strenuous efforts”, in the words of the Court, that he has now been released from Guantanamo Bay.

In respect of the decision by the US on the release of the documents, it is not a question of our having permission to release the documents but a question of the Americans deciding whether they should release their own documents. We have made it absolutely clear to the US Administration, most recently in a visit by the senior legal adviser of the Foreign Office to Washington about 10 days ago, that we have absolutely no objection to the release of the documents. The Attorney-General of the US has said that the Americans will review all cases of confidentiality against their national security criteria, and that is right, but our position is absolutely clear. As I said in the House two and a half weeks ago, there is nothing in the contents of the documents that causes us to say that they should be kept secret.

The Foreign Secretary has progressed from saying three weeks ago that he would not go on a lobbying campaign with the US Government about this matter to having no objection to the release of the documents by the US. I am simply asking him to go one step further and to suggest to the US that that is what should be done. The view of the Government’s adviser is that this material should be published and the view of the High Court was that nothing in the relevant paragraphs could be

“described as ‘highly sensitive classified…intelligence’”

and that they should be published. The view of a senior Congressman has been that the secrecy would leave a

“cloud that would haunt both countries”.

The US is in any case reviewing its assertion of state privilege in the courts in every case, as the Foreign Secretary has said, so would it not now be sensible to ask the US to change its approach to the case, to underline our joint commitment to dealing with allegations of torture and to avoid the charges of cover-up that are now flung about?

As I said earlier, far from suppressing documents, it was the action of the Government that got the documents to the defence counsel in this case. The new Administration in the US, in contrast to the previous Administration, have announced that they will review all cases where the confidentiality requirements have been used. A large number—about 240—of legal cases in the US are relevant. I think that it is right that we should make it clear that we have absolutely no objection to the release of those documents. There is nothing in the documents that we think should not be released. It has been discussed in Washington, rightly, and it is now for the US to go through each of the documents and decide whether to release them.

T2. Climate change is top of the agenda throughout the world. The next time that my right hon. Friend has discussions with China, could he ensure that clean coal technology is top of the agenda? There are more than 1 million miners in China. They are producing CO2 emissions continuously. Would it be possible for him and his wee brother to have a discussion with their opposite numbers to ensure that we get a clean coal technology solution, which will be good for the world? (257939)

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change—sometimes known by other names—will travel to China with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform in April, precisely to take forward this issue. My hon. Friend will know that China is building between four and seven—estimates vary—new coal-fired power plants a week. If those coal-fired plants are not equipped with carbon capture and storage technology, the consequences for climate change and the environment of the planet are very grave indeed.

T3. The Foreign Secretary may have seen the recent report from Amnesty International that details the use of white phosphorous artillery shells by the Israeli army against civilians in the recent offensive in Gaza. What action will he and the Government take as a result of those actions? (257940)

It is still unclear exactly what took place and what weapons and munitions were used. We are assessing the situation. The current and recent activities of the Israeli defence force will be taken account of in any future arms export applications, and the Amnesty International report is a helpful contribution to the report that we are compiling.

T4. The EU is perhaps the biggest trading bloc in the world; it has a population of approaching 500 million. Can the Minister assure the House that the EU is using that economic muscle to develop positive policies to help in the current economic climate? (257941)

My hon. Friend quite rightly draws attention to the EU’s importance as a market. When more than half the investment into the United Kingdom comes from other EU countries and contributes to 10 per cent. of our work force, we all realise how important the EU is. Today, the EU must act to shape the global agenda, and that is why, ahead of the London summit on 2 April, it will be working across the member states not only to consider what more can be done to stabilise financial markets and to stimulate our economies, but to look to the future and how to create jobs, particularly green jobs, to ensure that our children and their children have a prosperous future.

The Foreign Secretary’s statement today on Binyam Mohamed made it very plain that intelligence information about Mr. Mohamed given by the United States Government to the United Kingdom Government could not be passed on to a third party without the permission of the US Government. It now transpires that intelligence information about Mr. Mohamed was passed from the UK Government to the US Government and then passed on to the Moroccan Government. Was that done with or without the permission of the British Government?

The point that I made in my statement is not exactly as the right hon. Gentleman said. The point is not about the passing to a third party, although I will address that point; the point about the issue in the statement is that justice did not require the publication of those documents by an English court against the wishes of the American Government. That is a separate issue, and the issue at hand is whether the United States authorities should decide to publish in the open those documents for public consumption. As far as justice for Mr. Mohamed is concerned, they were got to his defence counsel. In respect of all questions in relation to the allegation that British questions were used against Mr. Mohamed or for Mr. Mohamed—even information used in formulating questions—those are precisely the matters that are being addressed by the Attorney-General at the moment. It is right that we wait for her inquiry into whether there has been criminal wrongdoing to be concluded, and then we can debate them at length.

Does my right hon. Friend accept that the House should know as quickly as possible whether the person who returned to the UK yesterday was tortured and, if so, whether it was with the knowledge and support of British officials? Indeed, if the latter were the case, it would be a disgrace and those responsible should be brought to justice. When will the Attorney-General report? I understand that this has been with her since last October.

I entirely share my hon. Friend’s view that this country rightly has very high standards. We unreservedly condemn torture. We never collude or co-operate with torture, and where there are any allegations, we take them extremely seriously and ensure that they are independently investigated. The precise point about an independent investigation by the Attorney-General is that I do not tell her when to come to conclusions. It must be right that the Attorney General, with the Director of Public Prosecutions, should be able to conclude her inquiries. Of course, my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick) is right: in general, everybody wants that to happen as soon as possible. However, it must be for the Attorney-General to set her own timetable.

T5. My Bill, the European Union (Audit of Benefits and Costs of UK Membership) Bill, is due for Second Reading this Friday. It is warmly supported by my party’s Front Benchers, and by the Liberal Democrats. Why do the Government not support that essential tool of democracy and accountability? (257942)

I look forward to debating the hon. Gentleman’s Bill, should we make progress on Friday. We are happy to debate the costs and benefits of European Union membership, but we do not see the need for the expense or bureaucracy of a commission that would do that. There is plenty of material—more than most people want in a lifetime—available on the costs and benefits of EU membership. Also, we should not see our EU membership only in terms of economic costs and benefits, important though they are; it is also about the security that the EU gives us, and the peace that it has provided for us over many years.

T8. Does the Secretary of State accept that a fair and just settlement in the middle east will require the involvement of all the surrounding Arab states, especially in relation to the benefits for Israel? What will he do, in his upcoming visit to Cairo, to advance the cause of the Arab peace initiative? (257945)

My hon. Friend makes a very important point; in the end, the Arab states are vital to giving security to Israel, and vital to supporting a future Palestinian state. As I said earlier, a regional solution must be pursued in the middle east—a so-called 23-state solution, not simply a two-state solution. Certainly, that is what the UK Government argue strongly, not just with Egyptian colleagues, whom I will meet soon, but across the region.

T6. The Government recently changed their long-held historical position on Tibet. They gave the Chinese authorities what they wanted in respect of Tibet, but appeared to secure no concessions in return. Will the Foreign Secretary and his team accept that it is important to make progress in that country? Chinese assurances are not sufficient; we need proper action, including proper access for the Red Cross and others to what is happening in a very difficult situation. (257943)

I say to the hon. Gentleman, who I know takes a real interest in the issue, that it is right that we press the Chinese authorities. The Prime Minister raised the issue of Tibet in a recent state visit. When I was in Beijing a couple of weeks ago, I had detailed discussions about Tibet with the lead negotiator on the Chinese side. I strongly argued that there needs to be a settlement that is negotiated with the representatives of the Dalai Lama. That is our position, and we will continue to argue it strongly.

T9. I have just returned from taking part in an excellent Commonwealth Parliamentary Association delegation to Zambia, in which Zambian parliamentarians made clear to me the importance of, and the value that they place on, their role as members of the Commonwealth. Will the Under-Secretary of State tell the House what attitude the British Government take towards the application of countries such as Angola and Rwanda to join the Commonwealth, and what progress is being made on that front? (257947)

My hon. Friend is right about the Commonwealth. In its 60th year it is right that we celebrate its many achievements and look forward to the next 60 years and beyond. We are supportive of Rwanda’s application. We are not aware of an application by Angola, but of course the Commonwealth is not a closed club, and we are keen to see applications where that will further support and strengthen the Commonwealth.

T7. Will the Secretary of State join me in paying tribute to the new Prime Minister of Zimbabwe, Morgan Tsvangirai, and will he waste no time in opening a dialogue with him? Does he not agree that it is an absolute disgrace that Mugabe continues to imprison Movement for Democratic Change activists, as well as imprisoning, and holding without trial, one of the MDC Cabinet appointees, Roy Bennett? (257944)

Yes, it is welcome that Morgan Tsvangirai is now the Prime Minister of Zimbabwe, but it is far from welcome that he does not yet have all the Executive powers that should go with that office. It is particularly galling that some aspects of the agreement that he signed have not been fulfilled, notably in respect of the distribution of portfolios between the parties to the agreement. The hon. Gentleman is also right to raise the case of Roy Bennett, the Deputy Agriculture Minister, and the charges that have been laid against him. We have been clear that we will not only continue our humanitarian aid to Zimbabwe, but stand ready to engage in a massive reconstruction effort, but that must be on the basis of clean politics, an end to violence and an economic approach that benefits the people of Zimbabwe, rather than the cronies of Robert Mugabe.

Freedom of Information Act 2000

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I should like to make a statement on the use of the ministerial veto under section 53 of the Freedom of Information Act, in respect of minutes of two Cabinet meetings in March 2003 relating to Iraq.

I need first to set out some background. The Freedom of Information Act has profoundly changed the relationship between citizens, and their elected representatives and the media on the one hand, and the Government and public authorities on the other. It has, as intended, made the Executive far more open and accountable. The Act provides a regime for freedom of information which is one of the most open and rigorous in the world.

The Act was the subject of almost three years’ intensive debate, by which the original scheme of the Bill was much improved and strengthened. As initially proposed, decisions of the Information Commissioner would in law have been heavily persuasive, but not binding on Ministers. This reflected the regimes in other countries, such as Canada. In the event, however, that scheme was replaced by a much tougher one.

There was, however, a key balancing measure written into the Act, and accepted by Parliament. This was to provide, in section 53, that in specific circumstances Ministers and certain others could override a decision of the commissioner or tribunal requiring the release of information, if they believed on reasonable grounds that the decision to withhold the information was in accordance with the requirements of the Act. At the time of the passage of the Bill, Ministers in both Houses provided reassurance about the use of this veto. It would not be commonplace. Undertakings were also given that, although section 53 required and requires a certificate by a single Cabinet Minister or Law Officer, any use of the veto would be subject to prior Cabinet consideration.

The Act came into force on 1 January 2005. From then until September 2008, in approximately 78,000 cases where the requested information was held by Government Departments, it has been released in full. Before the Act, some of it would not have been released for 30 years. Since 2006, the Information Commissioner has dealt with more than 1,500 cases involving Government Departments, and the Information Tribunal has dealt with more than 50 such cases. But no section 53 veto has been used to date.

In December 2006, the Cabinet Office received a freedom of information request for Cabinet minutes and records relating to the meetings that it held between 7 and 17 March 2003, where the Attorney-General’s legal advice concerning military action against Iraq was considered and discussed. There were two such meetings, on 13 and 17 March. The Cabinet Office refused the request, citing the Act’s exemptions for information relating to policy development and ministerial communications. In keeping with its statutory obligations, the Cabinet Office had considered the public interest in releasing the information, but found twice, on balance, that there was a greater public interest in withholding it.

The applicant duly exercised his right to ask the Information Commissioner to investigate the handling of his request. In February 2008 the commissioner reasoned, for the first time, that Cabinet minutes—these ones—should be released. The Cabinet Office appealed the commissioner’s decision to the Information Tribunal.

On 27 January 2009, the tribunal published its decision. The tribunal was unanimous in deciding that the informal notes of the Cabinet meetings should be withheld. But, by a majority of two to one, it decided that the public interest balance fell in favour of release of the minutes. It therefore upheld the decision of the Information Commissioner ordering information to be disclosed, subject to some minor redactions.

Following that decision, and having taken the view of Cabinet, I have today issued a certificate under section 53 of the Act in an appropriate form and consistent with the Act, the effect of which is that these Cabinet minutes will not now be disclosed. The conclusion that I have reached rests on the assessment of the public interest in disclosure and non-disclosure. I have laid a copy of my certificate, and a detailed statement of the reasons for my decision, in the Libraries of both Houses. My decision was made in accordance with the Government’s policy criteria, which are annexed to my statement of reasons. Copies of these documents have been sent to the requester and are available in the Vote Office.

To permit the commissioner’s and the tribunal’s view of the public interest to prevail would, in my judgment, risk serious damage to Cabinet government—an essential principle of British parliamentary democracy. That eventuality is not in the public interest. Cabinet is the pinnacle of the decision-making machinery of government. It is the forum in which debates on the issues of greatest significance and complexity are conducted. Whether the nation was to take military action was indisputably of the utmost seriousness. However, I disagree with the reasoning of the majority of the tribunal. In their decision, they refer to the “momentous” nature of the decision taken and to the public interest in understanding the approach to that decision and in the accountability of those who took the decision. They then say:

“In the view of the majority”—

of the tribunal—

“the questions and concerns that remain about the quite exceptional circumstances of the two relevant meetings create a very strong case in favour of the formal records being disclosed.”

But in my judgment, that analysis is not correct. The convention of Cabinet confidentiality and the public interest in its maintenance are especially crucial when the issues at hand are of the greatest importance and sensitivity. Indeed, the minority view of the tribunal—that the minutes should be withheld—was formulated on this basis. It stated:

“The minority view seeks to reach the decision most likely to support continued confidence that Cabinets can explore difficult issues in full and in private”.

It continued:

“publication would, in the minority view, be more likely than not to drive substantive collective discussion or airing of disagreement into informal channels and away from the record. This would over time damage the ability of historians and any inquiries, if constituted, to reconstruct and understand the process Cabinet followed in any particular instance. And it would not be conducive to good government.”

Responsibility for Cabinet decisions is with the Government as a whole, not with individual Ministers; that remains the first principle of the ministerial code. The conventions of Cabinet confidentiality and of collective responsibility do not exist as a convenience for Ministers. They are crucial to the accountability of the Executive to Parliament and to the people.

The concomitant of collective responsibility is that debate is conducted confidentially. Confidentiality serves to promote thorough decision making. Disclosure of the Cabinet minutes in this case jeopardises that space for thought and debate at precisely the point where it has its greatest utility. In short, the damage that disclosure of the minutes in this instance would do far outweighs any corresponding public interest in their disclosure.

What the minutes principally record is the deliberations of Cabinet in reaching its decisions. The actual decision that was made at the later Cabinet, on 17 March, was made public straight away, when I as Foreign Secretary conveyed it to the House in an oral statement within three hours of the Cabinet coming to that conclusion. In that statement, I recounted the recent history leading up to Cabinet’s decision, and I brought to the House’s attention the information that had that day been made available to the House, in order better to inform the following day’s debate.

Despite the powers under the royal prerogative, we put the use of force to a debate on a substantive motion the next day. In opening that debate, our then Prime Minister, Tony Blair, spelt out in considerable detail the reasons for the Cabinet’s decision. The debate ranged across the history of non-compliance of Saddam’s regime, the negotiating history of the two UN resolutions in the run-up to military action, our discussions with allies, and much else besides. I ended that debate by fully setting out the factors that the Government and Parliament had considered and should bear in mind in voting on the substantive motion before them.

The Government subsequently released the Attorney-General’s legal advice. Furthermore, on 25 May 2006 a full disclosure statement was published by the then Attorney-General which set out in considerable detail the considerations taken into account as he reached his opinion on the legality of military action.

A number of inquiries have been conducted. There was the Hutton inquiry into the death of David Kelly, and there was the Butler review of intelligence on weapons of mass destruction. Both those inquiries published detailed reports on aspects of the decision to take military action, and we have acted on their recommendations. There has been yet more scrutiny of the decision by Parliament itself, including by the Intelligence and Security Committee, which published its report on weapons of mass destruction, and both the Foreign Affairs Committee and the Defence Committee have investigated the matter on a number of occasions.

In summary, the decision to take military action has been examined with a fine-toothed comb; we have been held to account for it in this House and elsewhere. We have done much to meet the public interest in openness and accountability. But the duty to advance that interest further cannot supplant the public interest in maintaining the integrity of our system of government. The decision to exercise the veto has been subject to much thought, and it will doubtless—and rightly so—be the object of much scrutiny. I have not taken it lightly, but it is a necessary decision to protect the public interest in effective Cabinet government.

Shortly after he became Prime Minister, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister established a high-level inquiry into the 30-year rule under the chairmanship of Mr. Paul Dacre of the Daily Mail. That report, published last month, proposed a reduction from 30 to 15 years of the time after which Cabinet minutes and other papers would automatically be released. I have already told the House that the Government favour a substantial reduction in the 30-year limit. In that context, the report also recommended that we consider protection under the Act for certain categories of information.

There is a balance to be struck between openness and maintaining aspects of our system of democratic government. This tension is recognised in the fundamental framework of the Freedom of Information Act—and that Act, and much else that we have done, stand testament to the far greater openness and accountability secured under this Government. I commend my statement to the House.

I first thank the Secretary of State for giving me prior sight of his statement.

The Secretary of State’s decision to use his powers of veto in this case classically illustrates what has been wrong with the Government’s approach to freedom of information and good governance generally. The public have had their expectations about openness raised by Labour’s spin and propaganda, only to be brought down to earth by the intrusion of the realities of government. Meanwhile, the inquiry that ought to take place into the origins of the Iraq war has been denied them.

May I first ask the Secretary of State whether there are any circumstances in which this decision of his might be further challenged in the courts?

One must have some sympathy for the Secretary of State. He was, after all, the architect of the Freedom of Information Act, which he is now trying to circumvent. As Foreign Secretary, he was a party to the decision to go to war. Indeed, he was the man who introduced the veto that he now intends to use. Does he recall the words at that time of the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central (Mark Fisher), who said that that veto basically allowed the Home Secretary, as he then was,

“to put a razor through the whole bill”?

Does the Secretary of State appreciate how it will appear to the public for someone so closely involved in the key decisions to be now personally blocking the release of that information?

Is it not also the case that the Government’s self-righteous tone of protecting the public interest is fatally undermined by their past behaviour in releasing information—such as the Conservative Cabinet documents on the exchange rate mechanism—when it suited them, for reasons of the most blatant political advantage?

We are talking about Cabinet minutes and issues of the utmost national interest. As the Secretary of State has told the House that any use of the veto is subject to prior Cabinet consideration and agreement, should it not in fact be for the Prime Minister to justify this decision to Parliament, instead of playing his all-too-usual Macavity role and vanishing at this deeply embarrassing moment?

The code of practice on access to Government information introduced by the Major Government specifically and deliberately excluded minutes of Cabinet and Cabinet Committees, for the very reasons that the Secretary of State sets out in the statement of reasons he placed in the Library, and which plainly extend to all Cabinet minutes in general. Given what the Secretary of State has resorted to today, would it not be sensible to reintroduce that rule? In view of the principles that he has enunciated on the need for confidentiality at the heart of government, why did he have to string the applicant along through an internal review, an appeal to the Information Commissioner and a counter-appeal to the Information Tribunal—all at considerable public and private expense—when it was plainly a foregone conclusion that the Government would block the release of the information anyway? When did the Secretary of State take the decision that he would exercise the veto? Will he tell the House today what this entire process has cost?

The Secretary of State seeks to extol the Government’s good intentions by highlighting their changes to the 30-year rule. Why did the Prime Minister hold a review of the 30-year rule, if not to get the records available for public inspection more swiftly than is currently the case? Did he do so because he hoped that that review would conclude that the limit should be set so that the papers of the Conservative Government would be affected, while the background to the Prime Minister’s own decisions as Chancellor would remain concealed?

We accept, however, that the Secretary of State’s decision is the right one—[Interruption.] Yes, indeed. I am forced to disagree with the Information Commissioner when he says that such requests will have little impact because they will be rare. Quite the opposite. Because Ministers will not know in advance whether it will be deemed in the public interest to release their discussions, all discussions will be treated as though they could be released. It is clear from the Secretary of State’s statement that he agrees that if that were the case, officials would feel unable to give impartial advice freely, and Ministers would feel unable to discuss matters candidly, which would lead to even more sofa government than we have already suffered from him and his colleagues. May I therefore ask the Secretary of State when this damascene conversion by him, the Prime Minister and his Cabinet colleagues to those high principles of collective responsibility first took place? With the spin and briefings still going on today, none of us have noticed it.

Finally, does the Secretary of State agree with Lord Butler of Brockwell, when he found that in the case of the Iraq war,

“wider collective discussion and consideration by the Cabinet”

was limited

“to the frequent but unscripted occasions when the Prime Minister, Foreign Secretary and Defence Secretary briefed the Cabinet orally”,

that

“Excellent quality papers were written by officials, but these were not discussed in Cabinet or in Cabinet committee”

and that

“The absence of papers on the Cabinet agenda so that ministers could obtain briefings in advance from the Cabinet Office, their own departments or from the intelligence agencies plainly reduced their ability to prepare for such discussions”?

Do not those issues go to the heart of public disquiet over the way in which the Iraq war was initiated?

While we believe that it is right for Cabinet minutes to remain confidential for reasons of maintaining candour in government, that does not mean that the decision to go to war does not deserve scrutiny. The Secretary of State half concedes that point when he tries to gloss and explain that certain inquiries have already taken place. In the absence of the release of Cabinet minutes, is there not now an overwhelming case for an inquiry along the lines of that held into the Falklands war? When will the Government face up to their responsibilities in this regard, and stop hiding from their failures?

As the hon. and learned Gentleman blustered, I assumed that at some stage he would get to the point where he expressed agreement, not disagreement, with the issue of my certificate. Perhaps I should have said in my opening statement that we have been grateful for the bipartisan support we have had from senior and distinguished Conservatives, including Lord Hurd of Westwell, who gave evidence to the tribunal, Lord Heseltine and, quite separately, the right hon. and learned Member for Kensington and Chelsea (Sir Malcolm Rifkind).

The hon. and learned Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve) tries to make play of the fact that I was the architect of the Freedom of Information Act, and said that I was now trying to circumvent it. No, I am not trying to circumvent it; I am trying to apply an essential component of it. The Government would never have agreed to the Act, and would have invited the House to vote against the Bill, had it not been for the inclusion of section 53. I see one of the hon. and learned Gentleman’s colleagues on the Benches behind him nodding in assent at that.

The Act was intended to secure a better balance between openness and the protection of some information that is essential to the operation of good government and other matters, and it was intended that that tension should be reflected in the Act itself. This is not a simple matter, as the hon. and learned Gentleman knows, despite his desire—not all that successful—to have it both ways in his bluster. Section 53 is in place precisely to express that tension and to ensure that in certain circumstances, which are very clearly set out, it is possible for a particular Minister to exercise a veto in appropriate and specified cases.

The hon. and learned Gentleman asked why the Prime Minister is not giving this statement. It is a matter of the construction and drafting of all sorts of legislation that decisions of this kind are made by Secretaries of State or Law Officers, not by the Prime Minister. The hon. and learned Gentleman also asked why it was I who made the decision. I made it because it falls under my responsibilities, and I would have been accused of ducking it if I had not. It was also subject to deliberation in Cabinet. He asked me when I finally came to my decision. It was yesterday afternoon, after the final Cabinet discussion of the matter. He asked me what right of appeal there would be. There is no direct right of appeal prescribed in the Act, but it is perfectly possible that some interested party may attempt to secure a judicial review of the decision.

On the issue of an inquiry into aspects of the military action in Iraq and its consequences, as I said, there have already been at least four inquiries. I am well aware that the Prime Minister is on record as saying that once the troops are home he will consider the case for a further inquiry, but, with respect to the hon. and learned Gentleman, that is not and cannot be germane to this decision. Any inquiry established would certainly not be under freedom of information rules.

Can the Secretary of State confirm that the Freedom of Information Act is not to be used like Wikipedia, which people can add to and subtract from, and to which any fraudster can introduce themselves and distort the record? Will he reconfirm what he has just said—that 78,000 documents have been released under the Act? Is it not in accordance with our constitution, going back to Bagehot and others, that we have Cabinet Government and an Executive accountable to this House? If this House is not holding the Executive to account, it is this House that fails, and it does not need any Freedom of Information Act to fulfil its duties.

I agree with my hon. Friend in both respects. The Freedom of Information Act is a package deal. The House would not have been able to have the first establishment of the right of direct access to information without there being some concomitant balancing measure such as section 53. I think that that the House will confirm that, as this is the first time that that section has been exercised in more than four years of the Act being in force, we have kept our word and ensured that its use is exceptional.

The figure of 78,000 that I referred to was the number of requests, so that will cover many more than 78,000 documents. All those requests have been accepted by Government Departments without demur or argument. In the other 1,500 cases that have been before the commissioner, and the 50 before the tribunal, the decision has been accepted in each case as final, however much the Government might have objected to it in the first place. That is the position, and I am proud that we have ensured that freedom of information is subject to a far more open regime than existed under the previous Administration.

I also thank the Secretary of State for an advance copy of his statement. I am fascinated that the coalition that supported the Iraq war seems still to exist in the House. The decision to go to war in Iraq was momentous, controversial and disastrous. It was especially disastrous for the rule of international law and for this country’s reputation as an upholder of international law. It marks the point when the Government decisively endorsed the destructive doctrines of military neo-conservatism.

The Secretary of State says that various inquiries have been held into the Iraq war, but, as the current Foreign Secretary conceded last March, they were all narrow and specific. There has never been a full, comprehensive inquiry into the decision to go to war in Iraq. Will the Secretary of State give his full support for an inquiry, not as and when the Prime Minister decides, but now? We need to learn the lessons of that time as quickly as possible. That is why the Cabinet minutes should be released much earlier than normal.

Does the Secretary of State accept that the much greater threat to Cabinet government is not the release of the minutes, but any repeat of the collapse of Cabinet decision making in the Government of Mr. Blair? The argument against disclosure is that it might undermine full and frank discussion in Cabinet and mean that discussion will take place informally, outside the meeting. However, is not that precisely what happened under Mr. Blair, with the rise of sofa government? At least the prospect of disclosure in exceptional circumstances—the tribunal made it clear that it is not a matter of disclosing Cabinet minutes all the time, only in exceptional circumstances—might persuade future Cabinets to remember that Cabinet discussion should matter.

Am I right that Cabinet minutes do not generally give the names of the speakers, apart from that of the speaker who introduces the discussion? We are not considering the release of the Cabinet Secretary’s notebooks. Am I also right that it is a case not of revealing who agreed and who dissented—though, in this instance, we know that from the memoirs of the dissenters—but only of knowing whether discussion and challenge of any sort took place? That is a matter of great public importance, which goes to the heart of accountability.

The Secretary of State says that he has a good case on its merits. Why, therefore, has he chosen to issue an order—the first of its kind—rather than appealing to the High Court in the ordinary way? Why is he silencing opposition to his position by fiat instead of trying to persuade an objective court of its strength? Does not that show that, in reality, even he suspects that his position is weak, and that the decision has more to do with preventing embarrassment than protecting the system of government?

Well, certainly not the latter. There have been plenty of occasions to discuss the nature of the decision to go to war. I profoundly disagree with the hon. Gentleman’s description of the legal basis for the war and I have—and am happy to do so again in future—argued that the then Attorney-General, Peter Goldsmith, was entirely correct to advise that there was a lawful basis for the decision to go to war. Anybody who had months of intensive negotiation, as I had, about the line-by-line, word-by-word structure of what became resolution 1441 would know its legislative history and why we were justified in making the decision within international law.

The Butler inquiry was extensive and, yes, it criticised some aspects of the way in which the Government had operated. I have never been a fan of so-called sofa government, since the hon. Gentleman asks. What is more, the Government led by Tony Blair and now by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister accepted and implemented the inquiry’s recommendations. However, that is not an argument for releasing the minutes for when the Cabinet was operating effectively; when it was, notwithstanding the criticisms, the final arbiter of the decision to take military action, and when it had discussed military action in not one or two, but, from recollection, 20 meetings.

What Cabinet minutes do is record the details of the deliberations, normally without attribution to individual Ministers, but with more attribution than perhaps the hon. Gentleman believes. In any event, my judgment—and I think that this would be the judgment of anybody who had served in a Cabinet—is that the degree of detail, which is properly and essentially given in Cabinet minutes, is such that if those minutes were published, not least in respect of very important issues and discussions, they would undermine, in the manner that I have described, the whole principle and basis of collective responsibility. As I have said, that is not a convenience for Ministers, but is essential for the accountability of Ministers to the House.

The last point that the hon. Gentleman raised was about why we had not chosen to put in an appeal under what I think is section 56 of the 2000 Act—no, section 59. The answer is this: an appeal to the High Court would arise on a point of law. There is no suggestion whatever in the structure of the Act that one should wait for an appeal to the High Court under section 59 before exercising a veto, effectively, under section 53. Under section 53, the accountable person is essentially substituting his or her judgment for the judgment made by the commissioner or the tribunal.

May I say to my right hon. Friend that it must be a source of considerable regret that the veto has been used for the very first time by the Government in this case? As it happens, I agree with him on the principle—that is, on the importance of the confidentiality of Cabinet proceedings. What I do not agree with him on is the application of that principle in the current case. What the case seems to turn on is not the content of Cabinet proceedings, but their conduct.

The point of the 2000 Act was to set up an elaborate system to get an external and independent determination of where the public interest lies, through commissioner, tribunal and court—it was not to be decided by Ministers, but independently—and they have decided that there is a public interest, in this exceptional case, in knowing about the conduct of Cabinet business during that decisive period when we went to war. I would like to know from my right hon. Friend why it is appropriate in this case to substitute ministerial judgment for that external judgment. Will the effect not simply be to confirm people in the belief that there is something in that period that needs to be hidden?

My hon. Friend took a very close interest in the debates on the Freedom of Information Bill as it was, as he and I will recall with some affection. Indeed, it was partly thanks to his efforts that the Bill as proposed by me originally was changed and strengthened. However, he will also recall that on Report in the Commons—a very long stage—he identified what he regarded as three ingredients for what he described as a compromise veto: first, there should be a collective Cabinet decision in respect of the veto; secondly, the scope should be narrower; and thirdly, such a veto should not apply to local authorities. We have effectively complied with all three of his conditions.

If, in the abstract, there was to be a provision for a veto, there was bound to be an occasion on which it would be used. It was put into the 2000 Act for a purpose. It has, in fact, not been used before, but it was almost inevitable that it would be used in respect of an issue that appeared to be controversial. The Government have bent over backwards, even when, in other circumstances, they believe that the commissioner or the tribunal has come to decisions that are inappropriate, to ensure full compliance with those decisions, because we are very committed to the spirit as well as to the letter of the Act. However, there was bound to be such an occasion, and in my judgment it was exactly this kind of occasion that the House and my hon. Friend had in mind when we agreed section 53.

Given the strength of the tribunal’s argument that this is a unique case setting no precedents, is it not particularly unconvincing for the right hon. Gentleman to argue that if the minutes were released, it would allow Ministers to demonstrate their attachment to any given policy in general, thereby absolving themselves from responsibility for decisions that they have agreed to stand by? Has the Justice Secretary not noticed that he is living in a world, and indeed a Government, where Ministers find all sorts of other ways of doing that, including on this issue?

The tribunal was far less “strong”—to use the right hon. Gentleman’s adjective—than he implied, as it was split 2:1. I urge him to read the minority as well as the majority judgment. Secondly, at no stage that I can recall did the tribunal say that this decision and these circumstances were unique, although it did say that they were of a very unusual nature. It said that the risk of setting a precedent for general application would be reduced, but it went on to say:

“This is not to say that it is only in such an extreme case as the present that disclosure should be ordered.”

So, it was far from saying in practice that the case was unique.

Surely the tribunal was right to recognise that there is no more momentous a decision made by a Parliament than to take its country into a war of choice. That is what makes this issue so specific and unique. The Justice Secretary and all Members will remember that at that time, the then Prime Minister, Tony Blair, frequently told the House that if we only knew what he privately knew, we would understand that the threat was real, that the war was necessary and the action was legal. We had to accept as ordinary Members that we were not privy to the information that was available at a Cabinet level through private security briefings. Cannot the Justice Secretary see that exercising the veto at this point will send out precisely the opposite message that he has tried to convey to the House and that the public will believe that in refusing to clarify whether the Cabinet were among the deceivers or the deceived, nothing is being protected other than their own interests? As such, the integrity of the House is being damaged.

Order. I have to consider other Back Benchers and if questions are too long, it is unfair to others.

I know that my hon. Friend disagrees—and he disagreed at the time—with the decision, but it was made in good faith and communicated immediately to the House with extensive explanation as to why the Cabinet had reached it. Insofar as the intelligence aspects of the war are concerned, they were thoroughly examined by the Butler inquiry. I come back to the point that I have made this decision following discussion and deliberation in Cabinet in order to protect an essential component of our constitution.

I was one who opposed the invasion of Iraq and I put it to the right hon. Gentleman, who was Foreign Secretary before the invasion, that it would be illegal under international law to invade without a second resolution from the United Nations. But I have never been an enthusiast for the Freedom of Information Act, largely for reasons of the working of Cabinet government and collective responsibility. The extraordinary thing about this particular case is that part of the then Attorney-General’s advice was made public and it has been discussed—indeed, the right hon. Gentleman actually gave some indication of what was contained in it. However, the damaging aspect of this case is that the Attorney-General of the day changed his advice between the first of those Cabinet meetings and the second and he did so under political pressure. If he did that, it was utterly disgraceful.

The Attorney-General has explained how he came to that decision. His advice and his further explanation have already been available for two years. That is a further indication of the openness with which we have approached this issue.

We need these minutes because Butler told us that the Cabinet was, in effect, dysfunctional. It did not get the papers that had been prepared by the Departments and Cabinet members did not have full knowledge of what they were being asked to decide. I ask my friend this: what is the point of having another inquiry on Iraq, as promised by the Prime Minister when our troops come home, if that inquiry does not have full access to all the Cabinet minutes and cannot take evidence on oath?

Were there to be an inquiry—I have already referred to the comments made in the House by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister—it is almost certain that such an inquiry would indeed have access to all relevant documents, including Cabinet minutes, just as the Butler inquiry did, but that is a very different matter from whether those documents should be disclosed under the Freedom of Information Act—very different indeed.

The Justice Secretary will recall that I had the extreme pleasure of dealing with the Bill on behalf of the Opposition. I well recall that we warned that this eventuality might arise. My hon. and learned Friend the Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve), who sits on the Front Bench, made the point that Labour Back Benchers were most critical of that aspect of the Bill.

Putting that to one side, I, along with my hon. and learned Friend, agree that the Justice Secretary has made the right judgment, but the problem is with the legislation itself. Can I not encourage him to take advantage of the consensus that clearly exists between him and the major opposition party to put the matter right? I also reinforce the argument that the way to get at that information is through a full inquiry into the reasons to go to war in Iraq, although we must preserve the opportunity for deliberations in Cabinet to remain secret if they are to be frank and candid.

I am very grateful to the hon. Gentleman for what he has said. He has the benefit of being correct and also consistent about this for more than 10 years. So far as an opportunity to look at the Act is concerned, recommendation 8.8 of the Dacre review said, as I indicated in my statement, that if the minimum period for the release of documents generally was reduced, as he recommended, from 30 years to 15, but even if it came down to, say 20, there would need to be consideration of changes to the Freedom of Information Act provision in this respect. We are actively considering that. I am happy to do it in conjunction and co-operation with the Opposition.

Has the Justice Secretary looked behind him to see that there are only two office holders—a Parliamentary Private Secretary and the Church Commissioner—who support him? Not a single one of his hon. Friends is here endorsing him today. Could it be that they are ashamed and embarrassed by this announcement? Will he not reflect on the fact, which really is breathtaking, that he, who clearly was one of the people who piloted this policy and persuaded us—I remember him, as it is photographed on my mind, promising that we would get the second UN resolution—should also decide that those documents should not be available? It is appalling.

It is also a bad day for Parliament when we get synthetic anger from the Opposition, who are cosying up—the Privy Council club closing down debate and discussion on things that must be revealed.

I bear the scars of having trusted the Prime Minister on this matter and I shall take to the grave the fact that I regret having listened to the porky pies and the stories of the Intelligence and Security Committee and of the Prime Minister. I shall regret it to the day I die. I should never, ever have trusted them.

I understand my hon. Friend’s concern, but on the issue of whether it was correct for me to be the person who issued the certificate, I say to him that it is inevitable that, if the section 53 power is to be used in normal circumstances, a Minister may well end up in the position that I am in as the accountable Minister, having been party to a decision some years before. Of course I thought about that, but I was faced with a situation whereby if I had decided to recuse myself, although I do not think that there is an inherent conflict of interest, I would have been accused—no doubt by the hon. and learned Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve)—of dodging my responsibilities, so I was unwilling to do that.

Let me also say to my hon. Friend—through you, Mr. Speaker—that the decision, though it is mine, has been made after very careful discussion by the Cabinet as a whole.

Is not the Secretary of State tilting at false windmills? He knows perfectly well that no sensible person wants to reveal all Cabinet discussions and no sensible person wants to curtail honest discussion in Cabinet, but does he not agree with the commissioner and the tribunal that this is a special case? Surely the people have a legal right to know the legal basis of a war in which up to 600,000 people have died. This whole thing stinks.

We are not trying to curtail discussion. What we accuse the Government of is the absence of any proper discussion of the Attorney-General’s statement and advice. We want to have answers now, and so do the public.

That is the hon. Gentleman’s opinion, and it was also—although slightly more carefully put—the opinion of the majority of the tribunal. However, if the hon. Gentleman refers to paragraph 88 of the tribunal’s decision document, he will see that the minority expressed what was essentially the view that I have taken: that

“Exceptional cases may create an exceptional need for confidence in Cabinet confidentiality to be strong.”

Essentially, the hon. Gentleman is arguing that the more important the issue, the less significant should be Cabinet confidentiality. I do not accept that argument.

When this provision was passed during a highly contentious debate on the Freedom of Information Bill in Committee on the Floor of the House, it was described by the then Home Secretary—the present Lord High Panjandrum—as “Executive override”. We are now seeing the very heart of the defeat of what was that Bill. This is an exercise by the Executive to exclude full and proper debate on matters that go to the very heart of the public interest.

The Secretary of State cited the second paragraph of “Reasons for Decision” in stating that this was an exceptional case. He then invoked a minority decision as justification for his action. The fact is that this “Executive override” defeats the very purpose of an informed public opinion that can make a judgment, in the public interest, on the actions of those who are given the trust of this people to govern this country.

I do not accept what the hon. Gentleman has said for one moment. Along with my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase (Dr. Wright), he was very active in the debates in Committee and on Report nearly 10 years ago, and he should claim some credit for the final position of the Act. He will surely acknowledge, however, that an essential and fundamental component of that Act was a powerful commissioner and a powerful tribunal but also—yes, for use in exceptional cases—a right, under section 53, for the Secretary of State. If he looks at the report of what I said then, he will see that I said that we would not use the provision very often. Well, we certainly have not done so.

The Secretary of State has effectively said today that he is using his exceptional section 53 power to protect elected politicians who attended a Cabinet meeting. Can he confirm that he would not be able to use section 53 in respect of the release of correspondence between the then Chief of the Defence Staff and the Prime Minister, also about the legality of the war? The Chief of the Defence Staff reportedly wrote to the Prime Minister of the day seeking his assurance that British troops would not be hauled before a tribunal for war crimes if the war went ahead.

I hope that the hon. Gentleman will forgive me. I am not going to give legal advice across the Chamber about the application of section 53. It stands there, and he can look at it.

May I remind the Secretary of State that I was one of those who voted against war in Iraq? Indeed, I drafted a motion with the aim of securing a full inquiry. Unlike the Liberal Democratic party, Lord Smith and I were responsible for drafting the anti-war motion that Mr. Speaker selected.

That said, however, I think that the right hon. Gentleman is wholly right. I do not believe that Cabinet documents that reflect Cabinet discussion can be or should be disclosed. The right hon. Gentleman is right in that respect. Where he is wrong is in withholding an early and full inquiry into the war. We are entitled to that. We need to know what happened in the lead-up to the war, we need to know why it was so badly handled, and we need to know the full extent of the legal advice. All that will come out in an inquiry, but the right hon. Gentleman is right on the narrow point: Cabinet documents should not be disclosed.

I am very grateful to the right hon. and learned Gentleman, who took a different view from me in respect of the military action, for what he has said. As the House will understand, this is not the occasion for making decisions about an inquiry into aspects of the military action. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister said in this House on 18 December last year:

“I have always said that this”—

an inquiry—

“is a matter that we will consider once our troops have come home. We are not in that position at present, so it is not right to open the question now. That is the course of action that the Foreign Secretary, I and others have stated to the House on many occasions.”—[Official Report, 18 December 2008; Vol. 485, c. 1239.]

This secrecy has absolutely nothing to do with the public interest and everything to do with the profound embarrassment of the Labour Government, which is why they are suppressing information about going to war. How ironic it is that we have a Justice Secretary making this announcement who only a few short years ago was telling us it was essential to go to war because of weapons of mass destruction when there were none. How can this culture of secrecy, and the delay of an independent inquiry, possibly restore the trust of the public?

The issue of the intelligence failure has already been very well charted, including by the Butler inquiry, which had full access to Cabinet and many other documents.

I am not a supporter of the Freedom of Information Act as currently constituted, although I do not think we should be surprised if there is a right of veto and if it is used. However, given that the then Prime Minister disclosed the thinking in the Cabinet when the decision was made, given that the legal advice was made public, and given that four inquiries were serviced with information, what is the logic behind not taking the final step of revealing the discussions in the Cabinet, if not to hide the Government’s embarrassment on this issue? Does the Secretary of State not accept that if the reasons he has given to the House today are to be consistent, the logical position would be simply to have no Cabinet papers revealed?

I do not accept the hon. Gentleman’s conclusion, and Cabinet documents are routinely released after 30 years, and we are committed to reducing the period following the recommendations of the Dacre report. This is nothing whatever to do with embarrassment, but it is to do with the distinction I drew in my statement between the decisions of Cabinet and the deliberations behind those decisions. In this case, the decision of Cabinet could not have been communicated to this House more quickly; as it happens, it fell to me to make a statement within two hours of the Cabinet coming to its decision on 17 March, and to explain the factors that led the Cabinet to that decision. That is very different from minutes recording the nature of the deliberations.

Is it not ironic that a Government who have for so long made a virtue of taking Cabinet decisions away from Cabinet with spin doctors in tow and undermining Cabinet responsibility have dared to come to this House today to try and uphold the sanctity of Cabinet discussions? If the principle of preserving the sanctity of Cabinet discussions is so important, which I agree with, why did the Secretary of State not exempt it entirely from the Freedom of Information Bill when it went through the House, and why is it that 99 per cent. of the time he is happy for officials and the judiciary to make decisions on freedom of information requests, but on this one occasion he has chosen to use his veto?

I have already explained why, in the unusual circumstances of this case, I have decided that a section 53 certificate is appropriate. Notwithstanding all the bluster from those on the Opposition Benches, it seems to be a mechanism that has been supported in all parts of the House. As for the nature of Cabinet government, the hon. Gentleman has a very short memory. As it happens, in my 12 years of experience, Cabinet government has survived and is thriving. If the hon. Gentleman wants to find a Government where Cabinet government was rather absent, he may like to look at the history of the Thatcher Government and the role of Sir Bernard Ingham.

Points of Order

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. You will know the rules concerning the reporting of contingency liabilities: no contingent is allowed to proceed without examination if a Member of this House formally objects. Given that the Ministry of Defence suggests in a departmental minute dated 17 February that it is looking to increase the initial contingent liability on the defence training review project from £9.5 million to a staggering £40 million, without any ministerial statement, may I ask that it be put on the record that I am formally objecting to this MOD minute and new contingent liability?

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. I, too, have discovered that there are just two copies in existence of a Ministry of Defence departmental minute dated 17 February relating to a contingent liability of £250,000 for which there is no specific statutory authority. The minute states:

“If, during the period of fourteen Parliamentary sitting days beginning on the date on which this Minute was laid before Parliament, a Member signifies an objection by giving notice of a Parliamentary Question or by otherwise raising the matter in Parliament, final approval to proceed with incurring the liability will be withheld”.

I am raising this matter now. This sort of thing is happening too often and only two documents are being produced—it is sneaky and it has to stop.

The hon. Gentleman has put the matter on the record and, as I said previously, I shall leave it at that.

Airport Expansion (Parliamentary Approval)

Motion for leave to introduce a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to amend the Planning Act 2008 to require parliamentary approval for proposals for the building of new major airports and additional runways at existing major airports; and for connected purposes.

The purpose of the Bill is to allow this House, through an amendment to the Planning Act 2008, a vote—the final say—on any new major airport in England or any new runway at a major airport in England. There are three characteristics to this Bill: it is motivated by concern about climate change; it is motivated by concern about the democratic deficit and for the rights of this House, as balanced against the authority of the Executive; and it is genuinely cross-party.

I just wish to mention the timing. My introducing this ten-minute Bill has partly been triggered by proposals for a third runway at Heathrow and the Government’s decision not to allow a full debate in Government time with a vote that will matter so that this House can exercise its genuine opinion.

However, the Bill is about far more than that. Hon. Members will know that an additional runway is proposed for Stansted airport—that issue is being addressed in the High Court today. The constraints on an additional runway at Gatwick expire in 2019, and Hochtief, one of a number of bidders for Gatwick airport, which is up for sale, has expressed its interest—other bidders probably have, too—in an additional runway at Gatwick. The Mayor of London has proposed a new estuary airport which, from the current discussion, would involve four additional runways, in addition to Heathrow, and the potential for expansion to six runways—those would be operated 24 hours a day. In addition, a number of regional airports up and down the country have proposed an expansion of their capacity—the airports at Manchester, Bristol, Bournemouth and Birmingham all have various plans to add various amounts of capacity.

When Heathrow was debated on 28 January, the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change told us that it was an issue about “half” a runway. I suggest that he was being disingenuous, because this is a far broader issue. We are facing one of the biggest expansion plans for aviation capacity ever considered in this country, and we are doing so exactly when climate change is supposed to be somewhere near to the top, or at the top, of our agenda.

May I say a word or two about climate change? This House is overwhelmingly convinced of the importance of climate change as an issue—there may be one or two hold-outs, but in every region, and across every party, this is a major issue of concern. The House has also accepted that we have only an extremely limited time in which to act. Virtually every report that we receive—whether it is on the disappearance of Arctic sea ice, the rate of melting of inland ice in Greenland or the quantity of greenhouse gases emitted—suggests that the past scenarios have woefully understated the problem and that the urgency is far greater than we thought.

As for the consequences of climate change, we have seen a little of the impact of extreme weather conditions in the UK and the rest of the developed world, but we know that the impact on Africa and the developing world will be far more extreme. The potential for conflict across the globe grows, as climate change leads to issues of disappearance and allocation of resources.

The House has accepted that aviation is a significant contributor to climate change. At the moment, some 13 per cent. of the UK’s contribution to climate change emissions comes from aviation, including some 6 per cent. of the UK’s CO2 emissions. We know that that figure will rise to 25 per cent. by 2038 unless we drastically change the direction of policy. Given the role that aviation plays in climate change, are we really saying that we will never again allow Members of Parliament to have a vote on such a significant issue? In effect, that is where Government legislation has left us.

We talk about the democratic deficit, but the Government say, “Don’t worry. We will require that aviation brings CO2 emissions back to 2005 levels by 2050.” But the question is how that will be achieved. The technologies do not exist and the science is not in place, never mind the investment. The Government have also said that aviation is a special case. The Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change has said:

“We must all accept the principle that aviation will not bear as big a burden as other sectors in the economy.”—[Official Report, 28 January 2009; Vol. 487, c. 404.]

Must we really accept that without knowing the impact on other industries, on our regions, and on jobs in our constituencies? Indeed, must we accept that without a vote? On an issue that is crucial to the future of our country and our planet, and when every strategy is untried and uncertain, what are we doing giving up our right, and the right of this House, to decide?

This is a genuinely cross-party Bill. In fact, it is a Back Benchers’ Bill. It has three Labour sponsors, three Conservative sponsors, a Plaid Cymru sponsor and four Liberal Democrat sponsors. If I were able to add more sponsors, the list would continue to reflect the make-up of this House very directly.

I carefully read the speeches made on 28 January in the debate on Heathrow introduced by the Conservatives. Fairly or unfairly, some Labour Members could not bring themselves to vote for an Opposition motion. This Bill is not an Opposition motion, so that inhibition disappears. Some Labour Members thought that the 28 January motion was not clear enough, even though it was based on the early-day motion tabled by the hon. Member for Selby (Mr. Grogan). The hon. Member for Islington, South and Finsbury (Emily Thornberry) said:

“I will go home because there is no motion for Members of Parliament like me who want to halt the expansion of aviation”.—[Official Report, 28 January 2009; Vol. 487, c. 388.]

That does not apply to this Bill. Indeed, I suspect that Members who favour airport expansion but care about the rights of this House can see a way to support this Bill, because it is about the democratic deficit as much as it is about climate change and aviation.

There are times when we have to delegate our responsibilities, but when we are facing the biggest challenge of our lifetime, when our knowledge is so uncertain, and when the cost of a wrong decision is so high, we cannot say, “Oh, the Climate Change Committee will decide.” We cannot say, “The Infrastructure Planning Commission will decide.” We cannot even say that the Government should decide, unchallenged and unchallengeable by any vote. Our constituents expect us to shoulder crucial responsibilities, and on that basis, I ask hon. Members to support this Bill.

Like the majority of my constituents who live along the boundary fence at Heathrow, and like my local borough council, I support the building of another runway at Heathrow. However, as you will rightly remind me if I carry on in this vein, Madam Deputy Speaker, this is not yet another debate about Heathrow, so I shall avoid that subject for the moment; there will be plenty more opportunities.

I oppose the Bill for four reasons. First, I want to ask people to consider whether it is really necessary. For heaven’s sake, we have already had two debates and two votes recently on the questions of aviation and building new runways. How many more do we want?

The second reason why I ask the House not to support the Bill is that it refers only to airports. I would go along with the hon. Member for Richmond Park (Susan Kramer) in that I, too, think that successive Governments have undermined the power of Parliament and I believe that it is right and proper for us to debate whether Parliament should take back some of its power. The time has come for that debate. However, that is a general matter, which we should discuss in the overall pattern of things rather than simply picking on airports. Do I really need to remind the House that going after special issues and using them to make general law results in a dog’s breakfast? The Dangerous Dogs Act 1991 proves the point only too well—to go after one subject and end up with a general law does damage. I would use that argument about why it is wrong simply to pick on airports, even though I support the principle of more power for Parliament.

The third reason why I invite people not to support the Bill is that, as the motion is worded, it is about major airports and the extension of runways at major airports. It states that we have to have a vote if the Government want to build or to expand a major airport. Why pick on major airports? If more flying and more runways are wrong, surely we should include all airports? If we leave out minor airports, the principle of the Bill is undermined. Let us just suppose that instead of having a debate about a third runway at Heathrow, which is undeniably a major airport, we suddenly had a debate about a second runway at Northolt, which is a minor airport and would not be covered by the Bill? Another runway at Northolt would in fact be a third runway at Heathrow, so the Bill as it stands is not sensible.

The fourth reason why I think that the House should not contemplate such a Bill is that we should reflect, just for a moment, on the consequences should the Bill become an Act. If we introduced yet another debate, yet another vote and yet another procedure into the system, we would simply have even more delay in our planning process. It would make it even harder for British airports to respond to foreign competition, and there is enough of that at the moment. We are already suffering from foreign airports’ taking business away from us. That is dangerous.

The second consequence would be that that delay would fatally undermine the fact that the United Kingdom has Europe’s No. 1 hub airport at Heathrow. We would damage Heathrow beyond repair if we allowed that to happen. If that were to happen, the next consequence would be serious damage to the national economy. I doubt that anybody in the House wants to vote for a Bill that would make matters worse for the national economy. Over and above those consequences—I refer to the people who sent me to this House—would be massive unemployment in my constituency. I was not sent here to support that or to vote for it.

The hon. Lady spoke about global warming and climate change. If the Bill became an Act, it would do nothing to help the local environment. All it would do is divert flying to some other airport somewhere else. We would achieve nothing except shooting ourselves in the foot as far as the economy is concerned.

As I have said, I support the principle of more power for Parliament, but the Bill is not the way to do it. All the Bill would do, if it became an Act, is deepen and lengthen the economic crisis that is facing this country and cause even more financial suffering for my constituents and everyone who lives around Heathrow airport.

Question put (Standing Order No. 23).

Ordered,

That Susan Kramer, John McDonnell, Mr. John Randall, Adam Price, Norman Baker, Mr. John Grogan, Justine Greening, Mr. Edward Davey, Martin Salter, Adam Afriyie, Dr. Vincent Cable and Sarah Teather present the Bill.

Susan Kramer accordingly presented the Bill.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 20 March, and to be printed (Bill 63).

Opposition Day

[6th Allotted Day]

Law and Order

I beg to move,

That this House views with great concern the rise in burglary, drug offences and crimes involving knives; is concerned by the Government’s complacency about criminal and anti-social behaviour; and is further concerned that the Government has no long-term strategy to tackle the causes of crime.

Let me start, Madam Deputy Speaker, by telling you a story about life in Britain today. It was told to me by the father of one of our soldiers serving in Afghanistan. The soldier was home on leave and out in his local town centre when he became the victim of an unprovoked attack from behind by two youths. He was able to hold them off and the police were called, but he was left badly bruised by what had been an unpremeditated attack. The two young men were arrested, but then, extraordinarily, they were let off with a caution. After 11 years of this Government, we have become a nation that appears so used to a violent assault of that kind that the police deem it fit only for a caution; we have become a nation in which such attacks are sadly routine and not a rare exception. There can be no clearer example of the fact that our society desperately needs change.

Once upon a time, a few years ago, a now well-known politician used the phrase “Tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime” to great effect. Now, 12 years after that man, Tony Blair, became our Prime Minister—12 years since this Government took office—that phrase is a hollow memory. We have a Government who have simply failed to deliver; they have been soft on crime and soft on the causes of crime. We have another snapshot of a broken society, where antisocial behaviour is endemic, violence has become a norm, offenders do not seem to give a damn, carrying weapons is just routine, families can be terrorised by teenage gangs and many of our older people are in fear for their safety. [Interruption.] I am glad that the Minister for Borders and Immigration agrees with me and that he recognises the problems that we face. I am glad about that, because I think it is important to come and make some key points to this House—not a habit that the Government are used to.

For the past 10 years, we have had a whole string of initiatives from the Government; there have been more in the past few weeks. All are designed to create a sense of activity and action to tackle the problem, but they have simply not worked.

Does my hon. Friend share my dismay that so many Ministers are laughing and sniggering at this most serious issue when they have presided over an enormous rise in crime, whether it is measured by the British crime survey, as recorded crime or by any other means? The fact is that one person is being stabbed on the streets of this country virtually every day. Does my hon. Friend think that that is a laughing matter?

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend. Through his work as a special constable, he knows better than most in the House the real nature of the challenge that we face on our streets; it is only a shame that our Ministers do not also understand the nature of that challenge as well.

The reality is that the things that disrupt our society are just treated as the norm. I do not think that that is good enough, and it is time that we did something about it. That means dealing with the root causes of a broken society, in which, I am afraid, so many of these things are all too often unchallenged. It also means being tough when they happen.

On being tough when things happen, does my hon. Friend agree that it is unacceptable that so many people sent to prison are let out earlier and earlier? Recent figures show that whereas two years ago as many as one in six people were let out earlier than halfway through their sentences, last year more than one in three were. Does my hon. Friend agree that that is totally unacceptable?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. That has been endemic under this Prime Minister. Many of those former offenders let out on to our streets simply go back and offend again, and that is a sign of the Government being soft on crime.

I was as upset as no doubt the hon. Gentleman was to hear about the case that he mentions of violence against the person leading to a caution. Given that within the offence of violence against the person there are several offences such as harassment and assault without injury, for which I imagine that he thinks that a caution would be appropriate, can he tell us what offence was perpetrated?

A young man was attacked from behind, completely motivelessly, by two youths. I may be alone in this, although I am sure not on my own Benches, but I rather believe that in our society we should not tolerate a situation where somebody is out for the evening and gets beaten up on spec by two people who happen to be walking down the street as well. A caution is an unacceptable response to such a crime.

The reality is that we can see many of the root causes that the former Prime Minister talked about back in the 1990s. We have disaffected young men growing up in broken homes, in an environment where there is little structure in their lives and little sense of responsibility in their upbringing. We have endemic educational failure, with these young men often playing truant as they grow up. We have generational worklessness in their families. There is often the growing problem of addiction to drugs or alcohol, which destroys family life and immunises the consciences of many of those people out on our streets when they come to cause the trouble that they do.

Does my hon. Friend agree—I think that he will—that in the case of many young people there is a link between crime and school exclusions, with literacy and numeracy problems leading to frustration and bad behaviour on the streets?

My hon. Friend, with all his legal experience, knows more than most the root causes of many of the law and order problems that we face among our young people. He is absolutely right. Yesterday, I visited Feltham young offenders institution. What comes over loud and clear is how many of the people who end up in such institutions have profound educational failings in their background. That is certainly an issue that we need to address. It is a scandal that after 12 years of this Government’s rhetoric about all the things they were going to do—“My priority is education, education, education”—one in five young people still leave school barely able to read and write. That is not a satisfactory output for years of extra spending in our education system.

At the heart of this challenge is a simple fact in the lives of many young people: nobody really says no to them, so the misdemeanours of youth go unpunished, and they get away with it and do it again and again. The other consequence of people turning against society and becoming ghettoised is a haemorrhaging of the values that once kept crime in check, particularly violent crime. Too many people just do not care and cannot tell the difference between good and bad, and the Government do not know what to do about it.

Would the hon. Gentleman therefore applaud this weekend’s Operation Staysafe, which was pioneered by Merseyside police, although I understand that other police forces followed suit? They picked up young people on the streets who were at risk of becoming victims of crime or on the slippery path to becoming criminals themselves. Some 60 children were picked up, 29 of them in my own borough of Knowsley, and taken to safe places—some of them were even taken to hospital because of their consumption of drink—and their parents were involved. Is not that something practical that the Government are doing to address the issue that he mentions?

I will be in Liverpool tomorrow meeting the chief constable of Merseyside, so I look forward to finding out about what he is doing. It is right and proper that we should give our police greater freedom to do their job properly, and the hon. Gentleman describes good work on the ground from our police. However, they tell us all too often that they cannot do the job that they would like to do because this Government have wrapped them up in red tape and left them sitting in police stations filling in forms.

On that point, one of the things that Government and Opposition Front Benchers have talked about over the last few years is a reduction in bureaucracy. Is the hon. Gentleman satisfied that his proposals for grounding orders will not lead to more bureaucracy? The police would have to visit the youngsters’ homes in order to check that they were still there once they were subject to such orders. Has he considered that possible consequence of what he has suggested?

The right hon. Gentleman refers to my proposal on grounding orders, and I will happily deal now with that issue, about which I have talked extensively to police officers. The big problem is that there is nothing between a police officer meeting a gang of young people on the streets and the criminal justice system except for the Government’s clumsy system of antisocial behaviour orders, which take months, and multiple agencies, to deliver. Police officers say that they want something simple and straightforward that gives them some power to deal immediately with the problems that they face. They do not have such powers today, and I believe that my proposals will grant them in a way that is quick, simple and not bureaucratic.

The Government’s record speaks for itself. There has been a decade of failure to get to grips with law and order problems. Violent crime is up almost 80 per cent., robbery is up 27 per cent., criminal damage is up past 1 million offences, with nearly 3,000 committed every day, fatal stabbings are up by a third, and gun crime has nearly doubled, with injuries from gun crime up almost fourfold—and the Government’s response has been to be soft on crime. They have let people out of prison early, as my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley (Philip Davies) rightly said. Since the Prime Minister came to power, 47,000 people have been released early from prison, including 9,000 convicted of violent offences. Nearly 1,000 crimes have been committed by criminals who have been released early—and they are only the ones who have been caught. Five out of six offenders convicted of knife possession get off without a jail sentence. More and more offenders are let off with penalty notices, half of which are not even paid.

The Government have also been soft on the causes of crime. A culture has been allowed to grow outside society’s mainstream, somewhere alienated and with no hope; it is

“a culture of broken homes, truancy, poor education, drugs, no job, or dead end jobs…when we sow the seeds of such a culture, we should not be surprised at the harvest we reap”.

Those words are not mine, but those of the former Prime Minister Tony Blair, speaking back in 1993. He was right to say what he said then. This Government have utterly failed to get to grips with those challenges.

We are still waiting for real action on welfare reform 10 years on. On family policy, this Government have made it more financially attractive for some couples to live apart. The Government have thrown billions at our education system, but utterly failed to tackle truancy, indiscipline and endemic educational failure.

On the question of education, does my hon. Friend not agree that in the context of our proposal to repeal the Human Rights Act 1998, there is a considerable opportunity for us to consider reintroducing some form of physical punishment in schools to ensure that discipline is carried out, and indeed, to consider doing so outside schools, when we are dealing with thugs who are victimising the elderly and people who cannot help themselves?

I know that my hon. Friend has strong views on these subjects and on what could be done. I am not sure that I agree with all of them, but none the less, we share the aspiration of coming up with the right way of saying no to young people who step out of line without criminalising them.

We have big challenges ahead if we are to deal with the causes of crime, but we also have to be tough on crime itself. We have to tackle youth antisocial behaviour. Plenty of teenagers stray off the straight and narrow sometimes, but today there are no consequences when they do so. That is what has to change. All too often, when we look at the case of a 15 or 16-year-old who is starting to commit serious offences, we find a story of years of minor misdemeanours that have gone unpunished. That cannot be right. At the moment, things are moving in the wrong direction. In 2007-08, more than 93,000 youngsters aged between 10 and 17 received their first caution or conviction, which is up from 78,000 just five years ago—a big jump in the wrong direction.

ASBOs have become a badge of honour for some, and they take months to impose. The Government’s section 30 orders just move young gangs from the streets that they are on to the next potential hot spot. In the police Bill currently being considered, the Government are even talking about moving 10-year-olds on to the next street. I think that 10-year-olds out on the street causing difficulties should be sent home, not just moved on to the next street. That is where my thinking about grounding orders comes from, because they would give the police a power to send an immediate message to such young offenders that they cannot get away with causing trouble on our streets.

Taking on board the point made by the Chairman of the Home Affairs Committee about the need to minimise police bureaucracy, would the hon. Gentleman perhaps consider an alternative to his proposal for grounding orders? Penalty notices could be given by police officers or police community support officers asking young people to clean up things such as graffiti immediately. That would not require the constant supervision that is arguably suggested by the grounding order, and it would be clear and easy to apply.

There is some logic in having tougher community sentences for young offenders, but the simplicity of the grounding order makes it deliverable quickly by the police and local magistrates. It would be a powerful weapon in the armoury of individual officers in trying to deal with such problems.

The second thing that we need to change is the licensing regime. We should be much more robust about binge drinking in our towns and cities. There is a strong case for reviewing Labour’s 24-hour drinking regime, which has not created the continental café culture that we were promised. We should deal systematically with retailers who break licensing laws and clubs that allow drug taking on their premises, and there should be powers to do so simply and quickly. We need to take steps to stop unacceptable practices in the sale of alcohol to young people. I have come across the case of an organisation delivering alcohol to a local park, which cannot be sensible or acceptable.

So would the hon. Gentleman agree with the Home Affairs Committee’s unanimous recommendation that there should be a floor price for alcohol sales at supermarkets?

That is a different point, and I have not had a chance to read the Committee’s report, but I am aware that it has made that recommendation. I do not think that the matter is as straightforward as the Committee suggests, but I will happily read the recommendations and talk to the right hon. Gentleman about them at some point.

The third thing that we need to do is deal with the caution culture that I mentioned earlier. Issuing a caution should not be a case closed, a tick in the box and an extra notch on the list to be sent to the Home Office for the Home Secretary to review. That is not good enough. Giving someone a caution should not be a way of scoring an easy win in the case-closed league table. That has to be a thing of the past. Someone found carrying a knife in a city centre should end up in the courts and then behind bars, not get a caution. Unbelievably, I was told recently of someone getting a £65 penalty notice for carrying a 3 ft-long samurai sword around a city centre. All that has to stop. Someone who attacks a stranger in the street should end up in court and then behind bars, not get a caution and simply be sent on their way.

The fourth change that we desperately need is that oldest of political chestnuts, which we have been promised year after year by this Government: more police on the beat. Still only about 14 per cent. of police officers’ time is spent on patrol, compared with about a fifth on paperwork. If we walk into any police station and ask the officers what is their biggest bugbear, despite all the reports, reviews and announcements, they still tell us that it is the paperwork.

I am sure that my hon. Friend must therefore be as dismayed as I am to read about the cuts in police force numbers. Indeed, 49 police officers will be lost in Hertfordshire alone. I do not think that that can possibly be conducive to being tough on the causes of crime.

My hon. Friend is right. The reality, as we saw in the most recent crime figures, is that there has been a big jump in the number of robberies with knives and a worrying increase in burglary. Because this Government have wrecked our public finances, we will end up with fewer police on our streets, which is not acceptable.

What we have today is a Government who have lost their way. They do not realise that all the criminal justice Bills that they have passed in the past decade have just wrapped up the police in yet more bureaucracy. They do not realise that Acts of Parliament introducing more and more crimes do not actually solve crimes, or that their inability not to interfere is holding the police back. They look like a tired Government who have run out of ideas, and they seem to have little idea of how to solve the problems that we all face. To my mind, that is always a pretty clear sign that what we need in this country is change.

I beg to move an amendment, to leave out from “House” to the end of the Question and add:

“welcomes the unprecedented 39 per cent. fall in crime since 1997, with burglary down by 55 per cent. and violence by 40 per cent; notes that the chance of being a victim of crime is at an historic low; further welcomes the record numbers now entering and staying in drug treatment services; further supports the drive to tackle gangs, including measures in the Policing and Crime Bill to introduce injunctions on gang activity; further welcomes the preventative, educational and enforcement action taken to tackle knife crime, with those carrying a knife now more likely to be caught, prosecuted and imprisoned, if found guilty; considers that the Government’s determination to tackle criminal and antisocial behaviour is demonstrated by the record levels of investment in policing since 1997 and increases in the numbers of police officers and police staff to an all-time high, as well as the Government’s drive to cut police red tape to free up more time for police officers to spend on the beat; is concerned at any proposal to make sudden cuts to the Home Office budget that could lead to reductions in police officer numbers; commends the Government’s determination to stand shoulder to shoulder with local communities in the fight against crime and antisocial behaviour; and deplores talk of a ‘broken society’ as a counsel of despair.”

We might need change, but we have not had much change in the Opposition spokesman’s speech this week. My hon. Friend the Minister for Borders and Immigration describes it as the “single transferable speech”—delivered yesterday, reported yesterday, repeated in the House today. However, I suppose that it is a mark of the new-found commitment of the hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling) to being tough on crime and tough on the causes of crime that at least he has succeeded in making a speech about law and order without once describing the Government’s action as a gimmick.

That, essentially, was the Conservative party’s policy on law and order under the hon. Gentleman’s two predecessors. They told us that the knife scanners in which we had invested were a gimmick. The told us that the ability to call or e-mail neighbourhood policing teams, which now patrol streets in every neighbourhood in this country, was a gimmick. They told us that taking action against young people who persistently drink in public was a gimmick. They told us that educating young people about the dangers of binge drinking was a gimmick—but then the Conservative party has pledged to cut all the advertising that warns young people about the dangers of alcohol, drugs and knives.

I thank the Home Secretary for giving way, and congratulate her on managing to muster one Labour Back Bencher for this important debate. She mentions gimmicks. What has happened to the respect agenda, which hit Bournemouth—we were told that it would help people in Boscombe—like a whirlwind? With a great fanfare, the Home Secretary or one of her colleagues came to Bournemouth to announce the initiative. What has happened to it? I can tell her, before she gets up to reply, that it was a gimmick. We have heard nothing of it since the announcement.

The respect agenda and work on antisocial behaviour throughout the country mean that in nine out of 10 council areas, people believe that antisocial behaviour has decreased. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman wants that to continue.

One of the Home Secretary’s proudest boasts in the past two years—and that of all Labour Home Secretaries—is the increase in police numbers. Is she as alarmed as I am to read in The Times today that the chief constable of Gloucestershire suggests a reduction in the number of police officers, not only in Gloucestershire but in other parts of the country, when we have received figures that show that the number of police officers has increased? We have police community support officers for the first time, and the work force as a whole have increased by 50,000. Where do the figures about the necessity for a reduction come from?

I am not sure where those figures come from, because there were more than 800 more police officers on our streets in September 2008 than there were in September 2007. The chief constable of Gloucestershire leads for the Association of Chief Police Officers on finance, and when we announced our spending review provision for police grant he said:

“The overall settlement is broadly in line with anticipated rises in core costs, and this will help preserve many of the key gains in police officer and police staff numbers made in recent years.”

Police authorities are still working to those budgets, and the Government have invested in increased police numbers.

I shall give way in a moment.

To continue with the point about gimmicks, Conservative Members told us that that seizing drug dealers’ assets on arrest was a gimmick. They also described reviewing the incapacity benefit of drug addicts who are not willing to undergo rehabilitation as a gimmick. So much for the professed interest of the hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell in tackling the causes of crime as well as crime itself.

Hon. Members will remember how the hon. Gentleman’s predecessors were united in their opposition to antisocial behaviour orders. Those were another “gimmick”—one that the hon. Gentleman and his Front-Bench colleagues tried to water down so that an ASBO could apply for only three months rather than two years. I know of many communities throughout the country that are still breathing a sigh of relief that they failed in their attempt.

On the subject of effective policies that the Government have introduced, may I take the Home Secretary back to the time when I revealed to the Committee that considered the Violent Crime Reduction Bill that many thousands of children carried knives into school every day? The Government’s answer then was to introduce a policy allowing head teachers to search children for knives. Has that happened often? Roughly how many prosecutions have resulted from the exercise of that power?

Yes, it has happened. What has also happened is that scanners have been made available in some schools, along with search arches. It is a good thing that knives are hardly ever found in our schools. The point of the policy, as the hon. Gentleman said, is not to get young people into court, but to deter them from carrying knives in the first place, and that is what we have been doing. Thankfully, Opposition Members have failed in their attempts to undermine our determination to stand shoulder to shoulder with local communities in the fight against crime and antisocial behaviour and to give them the powers that they need to stop daily life from being made a misery.

In a moment.

Last December I visited a neighbourhood in Tower Hamlets where the local council and the police had used the new premises closure order powers that this Government introduced to evict the persistent offenders living in one flat and to board it up. That order was made possible only because covert CCTV had helped to capture evidence of antisocial behaviour and illegal activities. We know that CCTV is crucial to protecting the decent law-abiding public from thuggish behaviour, but we do not know where the hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell and his Front-Bench colleagues stand on the issue these days. If he can bring himself to support the use of CCTV to make our streets safe, and the use of the DNA database to catch criminals, that will indeed be a major step forward in Tory thinking.

I will be supporting the Home Secretary’s amendment in the Lobby this evening because it is constructive, rather than simply an example of petty point-scoring like the Opposition’s motion. Does she agree that communities will find nothing gimmicky in the use of technical equipment to recognise car number plates, so that they can know that they will be kept safe by the police? The police can see burglars and other known criminals going into communities in their cars and can take defensive action to stop burglaries and other crimes. There is nothing gimmicky about that; it is just a good example of using technical equipment in policing.