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Commons Chamber

Volume 490: debated on Wednesday 1 April 2009

House of Commons

Wednesday 1 April 2009

The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock

Prayers

[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions

Duchy of Lancaster

The Minister for the Cabinet Office and Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster was asked—

Charities

1. What assessment the Charity Commission has made of the effect of the economic downturn on charities. (267958)

The Charity Commission recently published its second economic survey of charities, which showed that just over half of the charities surveyed are feeling the impact of the downturn. While 30 per cent. of those surveyed have seen their incomes decrease, 32 per cent. say that they have already taken steps to combat the impact of the downturn. The full results of the survey are available in the Library of the House.

As the Minister has indicated, the economic survey revealed that charities were feeling the impact of the downturn, but 20 per cent. of them reported that they were experiencing increasing demand for the services that they offer. Given the increasing importance of the third sector in delivering what are often core services, can he say what the Government are doing to help ensure that those services are maintained in the downturn?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that question. Although the survey showed that 5 per cent. of charities reported that they had had to cut services or were holding off new services as a result of the downturn, only 2 per cent. reported that they had had to reduce staff during the recession. We have introduced our “Real Help Now” recession action plan to meet the demands of organisations in the third sector, as they have made it clear that they are worried about the increase in demand at a time when it is possible that their income will fall. The package includes a modernisation fund to help charities meet the challenges of the recession and a fund to help charities in the front line that are working in the most deprived areas, as well as schemes to increase social enterprise and volunteering.

Although the recession is having an impact on potential funding streams for charities, does my hon. Friend agree that they may also be affected by a rise in the demands made on them by people who become unemployed? Another effect of the recession may be that people leaving jobs might want to contribute their skills to the charitable sector. It is most important that the sector is geared up to maximise the benefit and the potential that it can deliver to both groups. Will he say what is being done about that?

As part of our recession action plan, we have made available, together with the Department for Work and Pensions, up to £10 million to broker volunteering opportunities for people who become redundant during the recession. That will enable them to learn new skills and offer some of the skills that they have already to the charitable sector. That is extremely important, as is the fact that charities must consider how best to modernise themselves as they respond to the downturn. That is why, at their request, we introduced the £16.5 million modernisation fund that will help them to work together more closely, for instance by occasionally sharing back-office functions or possibly, where appropriate, merging operations.

The Prime Minister promised in his Romanes lecture in Oxford that science would somehow be exempt from the recession’s effects. Can the Minister say how that is likely to play out for charities that provide scientific research?

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman is one of those hon. Members—they come from all parties—who agree that charities make a huge contribution to scientific research in this country. The Government have been extremely progressive in creating an environment in which the third sector has been able to develop research, especially in medicine and genetics. The Prime Minister is absolutely committed to ensuring that this country is one of the best countries in the world for scientific research.

I have more than 200 charities in my constituency. Given the success of directgov.uk in corralling websites across Parliament and Government, would it be possible to do the same for charities? Could some of the software used in directgov.uk be made available for charities on a portal?

I am glad that my hon. Friend has given me an opportunity to tell the House that we are introducing a new funding portal. As a single gateway for third sector organisations, it will direct them to appropriate funding. I am working with the Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, my hon. Friend the Member for West Bromwich, East (Mr. Watson), to ensure that it will fit in with the digital programme that the Government already have in place. My hon. Friend’s question also gives me an opportunity to announce that measures being put in place today will enable smaller charities to cut up to £5 million of red tape.

It is clear that many charities are having a really tough time because of the recession. It has now been admitted that the Financial Services Authority knew of the risks with Icelandic banks as long ago as the beginning of last year, at which stage it informed both the Treasury and the Bank of England. Why were charities and the public not warned of the risks of investing in those banks? Will the Minister apologise for that failure, which has accentuated the financial woes that charities now face?

I have had the opportunity to meet representatives of the charities involved in the “Save Our Savings” campaign, and I have also met MPs who have charities in their constituencies that have been affected by the Icelandic bank problems of recent months. The Government are continuing to listen to the concerns of third sector organisations whose investments are tied up in the administrative process. I know that my hon. Friend the Economic Secretary to the Treasury met representatives of some of the affected charities just last week, and that he is considering the outcome of that meeting.

Listening is all very well, but sorry still seems to be the hardest word. Charities face a really tough time, so is it not doubly important that the Charity Commission monitors effectively the links between charities and violent extremists? Charities rightly have special status, which we all support, but at a time when funds for them are limited, it is important that they are bona fide. Will the Minister ensure that action is taken against charities such as Green Crescent, which seems to have been supporting terrorism in Bangladesh?

Links between charities and terrorism are, of course, completely unacceptable, although extremely rare, as I am sure the right hon. Gentleman would agree. The Charity Commission takes any such allegations seriously. It published a counter-terrorism strategy that was updated last year, and it works closely with police and other agencies. Green Crescent, which he mentioned, is subject to an ongoing investigation by the Charity Commission, which has already taken action to freeze the charity’s bank accounts and has suspended a trustee. It is important to maintain investment in the third sector during this downturn. The £100 million cuts to the Cabinet Office budget, which would have come in today, certainly would not be the way to help the third sector at this time.

Women’s Voluntary Organisations

2. What discussions he has had with women’s voluntary organisations on the effect of local authority procurement practices on them; and if he will make a statement. (267959)

I meet a wide range of third sector organisations, including women’s groups, through the Government’s national programme for third sector commissioning. We are engaging with local authority and other public sector commissioners on how to improve practice towards the third sector. That includes recent work with the Women’s National Commission on embedding key messages and sharing good practice on equalities in commissioning and procurement.

I thank the Minister for that reply, but at a recent meeting that I had with a number of women’s voluntary organisations, including Women’s Aid, I heard that the shift from grant-funded services to procurement has actually damaged the sector by requiring a one-size-fits-all response. That has led to a cut from 35 to 15 in black and minority ethnic specialist organisations, and a requirement that Women’s Aid provides for male victims of domestic violence, as well as women victims. Will he, and Department for Communities and Local Government representatives, agree to meet people from that sector to discuss whether we could have a better framework for commissioning those important services?

We already have in place a national programme for improving commissioning, which has had the opportunity to train more than 1,000 commissioners across the country, including on the matters that my hon. Friend mentioned. However, I understand the issue that she raises, and I would be happy to meet her and any representatives that she would like to bring in from Women’s Aid or other organisations to discuss her concerns, possibly on a cross-Government basis, to make sure that the other Departments concerned are represented, and to talk further about the issues that she raised.

Is the Minister aware of the problems facing many women’s voluntary organisations, such as the excellent Cheshire Federation of Women’s Institutes, as a result of the reorganisation of local government in Cheshire? That adds extra expense, and means extra effort, for that organisation and many other voluntary organisations, because whereas they previously had one set of contacts at Cheshire county council, they now have to duplicate all efforts with Cheshire East and Cheshire West councils. Why did the Government go down that path?

I hesitate to revisit the issue of the local government reorganisation that is coming into force today, just as I would hesitate to take on the Cheshire Federation of Women’s Institutes in any way, shape or form, but I note the hon. Lady’s remarks, and I am sure that the House does, too.

Third Sector Organisations

3. What recent discussions he has had with third sector organisations on the effects of the economic downturn on their funding streams; and if he will make a statement. (267960)

My Department is in constant contact with the sector to monitor the effects of the downturn. That is why we are determined to invest £500 million to support the sector over this comprehensive spending review period, and why we committed £42 million in extra targeted help in January.

Does the Minister accept that the double whammy of the economic recession will mean not just reduced charitable donations, but the possibility of reduced lottery moneys for charities as a result of reduced ticket sales? Does he accept that children’s hospices in particular and smaller charities in general will be particularly affected? Will he ensure that appropriate practical advice is given to both children’s hospices and smaller charities so that they can weather the period of the recession?

I congratulate my hon. Friend on the work that he does representing and speaking up for hospices in his constituency. The third sector and charities such as those that he alludes to go into the downturn in stronger health than ever before, because we have doubled public income to the third sector from £5.5 billion to £11 billion. We are determined to do more. That is why we are spending £500 million over the comprehensive spending review period, and why we are determined to bring forward reviews and reform of Gift Aid.[Official Report, 2 April 2009, Vol. 490, c. 10MC.] The tax system is now worth £4 billion to charities. Where there are opportunities for us to bring public services, charities and voluntary groups closer together, and to use that strategy to strengthen charities, we will do that. That is why the Department of Health has asked Futurebuilders to manage £100 million-worth of investment in social enterprises over the next couple of years.

While endorsing what the right hon. Gentleman has said, may I ask him, as he is well known for his memos to his colleagues and his officers—

They may be excellent, but could one go out today outlawing that ridiculous term, “third sector”? I have had a go at him about it before. It causes confusion. Let us have some plain English for once. Let us get rid of downturns and third sectors, and talk the English language.

As ever, I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman’s advice. I will put immediate thought into how such a memo could be drafted and propagated—perhaps through The Mail on Sunday.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that in South Ribble, the Tory council has cut funding to a number of voluntary organisations, including the citizens advice bureau, the women’s refuge, Victim Support and a charity helping young homeless people? Will he agree to look into the problem of cuts in local authority support for the voluntary sector just at the time when extra rather than less support is needed?

I am sad to hear about the lack of support that my hon. Friend’s local authority is showing to the third sector. Local authorities are vital partners in ensuring that the civic strength of this country becomes greater still over the years to come. We are collecting information right the way across the country about how well local councils are supporting, or in my hon. Friend’s case not supporting, their local charities and voluntary groups, and we will publish those data over the next couple of months.

I commend the right hon. Gentleman for setting up the modernisation fund, which we have already heard about. In his discussions with the third sector—a perfectly sensible name, by the way—will he make it clear that in these straitened financial times he will give greater weight to organisations that show that they will collaborate and co-operate with other similar third sector organisations in their locality, so that some of the duplication and waste that we see in the third sector can be cut out?

I will do my best.[Official Report, 2 April 2009, Vol. 490, c. 10MC.] The hon. Member for South-West Devon (Mr. Streeter) is right. Very often it is smaller organisations that make the biggest difference to their communities. That is why we wanted to step up the amount of funding that goes through grassroots grants. In the hon. Gentleman’s constituency, I understand that there are about nine organisations which receive about £27,000-worth of grassroots grants. Often those small amounts of money will make the world of difference, as he knows. When the Charity Commission recently asked the question of the sector—however we choose to define the sector—84 per cent. of respondents said that they were more interested in collaboration in the months to come. That is why the modernisation fund, which I am glad to be able to tell the House opens for business today, will provide £16.5 million not just to organisations seeking to merge and grow stronger, but to those that seek advice on how to collaborate more effectively in order to do the job that they are so passionate about.

What is my right hon. Friend’s Department doing to help voluntary organisations that work with the unemployed?

Volunteering organisations in particular have enormous potential to help people get back to work. We are absolutely determined that long-term unemployment, which so scarred this country during the 1980s, will not be an outcome of this recession. That is why the Prime Minister and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions have set out clear plans to make sure that, after six months, people are given extra training, the opportunity to get extra help to get back to work, or the opportunity to start volunteering in their local communities. That is why the third sector action plan, which we published in January, provided for about £10 million to create about 40,000 volunteering opportunities, to make sure that there is no return to long-term unemployment in this country.

State funding now outstrips donations as the largest source of charities’ funds, especially in health and human services; in some cases, more than 80 per cent. of such charities’ total income is made up of Government funding. Those charities in particular are at real risk at the moment as Government Departments come under increased pressure to save money and cut costs. We have already heard this morning that there is increased demand for those services in particular. Will the Minister commit to talking to other Departments to make sure that vital funds are not cut from charities at this time and that they can carry on providing fundamental public services?

Absolutely. We are trying to strengthen the sector over the years to come; that is why we have provided for such a unique and unprecedented amount of money to go to the sector in the months to come. It is important that we strengthen the role of charities and voluntary groups in delivering public services and helping to deliver public services. That is why Futurebuilders is providing so much money to help exactly with that task, why the Department of Health is investing £100 million to help social enterprises step up to provide public services and why the Department for Children, Schools and Families is also providing £100 million to help. This is already a cross-Government effort.

Charities that work abroad, such as Oxfam and International Service, face the same pressures on fundraising as charities that work in the UK. However, they have an additional pressure because the money that they spend abroad has fallen in value by 20 or 25 per cent. as a result of the change in the value of the pound. Will my right hon. Friend speak to the Department for International Development, and other British Departments of State that fund international charities, to see what additional help can be provided to ensure that those charities’ Government-funded programmes of work continue at the same level as was originally anticipated?

I will, of course, have those conversations on my hon. Friend’s behalf. It is important that we do not just talk about how we can strengthen the role of charities and other groups in delivering international aid, but that we back that with concrete plans to increase funding. That is why so many on the Labour Benches are proud of our commitment to increase overseas aid, despite the difficulties that our economy faces.

It is hard enough to run a voluntary organisation, but now really important community organisations such as churches and sports clubs are facing huge increases in their water bills as a result of new surface water drainage charges. Some clubs are reporting tenfold increases in their bills. It is extraordinary that those changes should have been made without any impact assessment. Surely the one thing that the Government must do in these times is avoid making things even harder for people trying to help their communities. Will they step in now and impose a moratorium on the changes, at least until an impact assessment is done? That would be real help now.

I am grateful for that advice. I understand that Brian Moore in The Daily Telegraph has been leading a campaign on that exact issue, for which I commend him. As the hon. Gentleman knows, we are determined to make sure that there is specific, targeted, focused help for organisations that are facing new pressures, such as a decline in income and a step up in demand for their services. That is why we put £42 million of help on the table in January. Where there are additional pressures and Government action could help, we will, of course, have those conversations with my colleagues across Government.

Public Services

4. What steps he plans to take to maintain the public services for which his Department is responsible during the recession. (267961)

6. What steps he plans to take to maintain the public services for which his Department is responsible during the recession. (267963)

The Government do not believe in cutting back during a downturn. That is why public net investment will rise from £30 billion in 2007 to £40 billion in 2009-10. It is why, in the Cabinet Office, we are providing extra funding to support charities, voluntary groups and social enterprises and the communities that they help.

Does my right hon. Friend share my belief that the public sector needs to be more creative, more ingenious and, most importantly, greener to help us to fight our way out of the recession? If he does agree, would he consider working with Smith Electric Vehicles in my constituency in order to achieve that?

My hon. Friend will also know that my constituency, Birmingham, Hodge Hill, is home to LDV, which is pioneering new products in the electric vehicles market. She can rest assured that that is a mission to which I am also passionately committed.

As my right hon. Friend knows, during the 1980s I worked as part of a primary care psychiatric team. I watched doctors prescribing antidepressants and Valium when they could have prescribed a job—if there had been jobs, people would not have been near the health service. Will he assure me that we do not believe that high unemployment is a price worth paying and that we will invest to ensure that we will not abandon a generation to Valium, videos and vodka?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. That is why, in contrast to the early 1980s, when public net investment fell in real terms from about £16 billion to just £11 billion, we will take precisely the opposite course of action. One cannot cut one’s way out of a recession; one can only grow one’s way out of a recession. That is why this Government are committed to increasing investment, strengthening public services and doing everything possible to help those coming out of work. We do not believe that unemployment is a price worth paying, unlike the Conservative party.

As my right hon. Friend rightly defends the importance of public service, does he agree that the new guiding principle should be that no one employed from the public purse should earn more than the salary of the Prime Minister?

It is vital that public sector pay is constrained. That is why my right hon. Friend the Chancellor has pioneered three-year pay deals, and why it is particularly important that those leaders at the top of public life show an example. The Prime Minister announced yesterday that for the senior civil service and the judiciary we will not accept the recommendations of the Senior Salaries Review Body and we will abate increases this year to 1.5 per cent. It is important for Ministers, in particular, to show restraint, which is why Ministers will not be taking a pay rise either in their ministerial pay or in their pay as Members of this House.

Civil Service

5. What plans the Government have to create additional jobs in the civil service during the recession. (267962)

The Government are committed to helping people and businesses as we fight through the economic downturn. Our priority is to support people back into work. In the hon. Gentleman’s own area of interest, the civil service is playing its part. For example, the Department for Work and Pensions is recruiting 6,000 more front-line staff in Jobcentre Plus.

I am grateful to the Minister for that answer. When he is looking at civil service recruitment, will he consider the fact that every Government Department pays its disabled employees less than its non-disabled employees? The Home Office, which is the worst offender, pays disabled employees a third less than their non-disabled counterparts. Will he take action to stamp out that discrimination?

As I say, I know that the hon. Gentleman has a personal interest in this area. The record on recruitment for civil servants with disabilities is a good one. We have doubled the number of civil servants claiming to be disabled since 2001. I understand the hon. Gentleman’s point and I will take a look at it.

My hon. Friend will be aware that civil and public service workers are just as concerned about their jobs as those in the private sector. Can he assure the House that he will continue to invest in the public services of this country and will not pander to the millionaires’ club who would cut inheritance tax?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We will not pursue policies that benefit the few, not the many. Indeed, this month the Conservatives committed to removing the equivalent of 3,400 police officers from the Home Office budget, taking away £3 billion-worth of critical infrastructure investment that supports our workers through difficult times, and slashing the budget of the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills, which would threaten apprenticeships. There is only one minute to go until the end of April fools’ day, but the real tragedy is that the Conservatives are serious about that.

Prime Minister

The Prime Minister was asked—

Engagements

This morning, on behalf of the whole of the United Kingdom, I welcomed President Obama and the First Lady to Downing street.

This afternoon I will be meeting President Medvedev of Russia, Prime Minister Singh, Prime Minister Aso of Japan, and the President of China. Tonight, the G20 leaders will meet in the first session of the G20 summit. I am proud that our country is hosting the G20 meeting.

The Prime Minister and his noble Friend Lord Myners have now had 24 hours to consider whether they can confirm what Lord Myners said to the Treasury Committee about Sir Fred Goodwin’s pension arrangements. Does the Prime Minister understand that his Ministers are now held in public ridicule and contempt, and is it not time that at least one of them resigned?

I see that the hon. and learned Gentleman has risen to the occasion today. Lord Myners has made it very clear that he was told of something that he was led to believe was a contractual obligation but was a discretionary matter. That is the issue that UK Financial Investments Ltd is taking up with the Royal Bank of Scotland; that is the basis on which we are considering legal action; and that is the basis on which UKFI will use its votes in the annual general meeting to promote legal action.

Q2. The Prime Minister knows that many unfortunate people in this country have been negligently poisoned in the workplace through exposure to asbestos. Every time that their right to compensation has been challenged in the courts by employers, it has been this Labour Government who have stood by them and helped them. What does he intend to do about the thousands of predominantly working-class pleural plaques sufferers who have been robbed of their compensation by unjust decisions in the law courts? (267917)

Asbestosis is a terrible disease, and all those who suffer from it deserve the best of help from the public authorities. It is right that we look again at this as a result of legal actions that have been taken about the obligations of insurance companies. The Justice Secretary will make a statement on this when we return after Easter.

On behalf of all Conservative Members, I join the Prime Minister in welcoming President Obama and the First Lady, and all the other Presidents and Prime Ministers, to our country this week.

Before turning to the G20, may I ask the Prime Minister about the issue of MPs’ expenses? [Interruption.] MPs may groan, but frankly I am fed up with our politics being dragged through the mud. We need a solution that is transparent, costs less than the current arrangements, and restores faith in the political process. Is it not the case that we cannot wait for another review, and that this needs to be agreed now? So instead of another review, will the Prime Minister agree to an urgent meeting between the main party leaders so that we can sort this out once and for all?

I agree and have said on many occasions that this whole system has to be reformed and improved. I think that there is common ground in this House that it brings no repute to MPs if we are continually having to deal with these issues. We have made some changes, by the will of the House, to the way that expenses are documented, to the way that the Green Book is organised, and to the way that people are obliged to account for their expenditures of money. Both the parties agreed that the Committee on Standards in Public Life could do a good job in looking at these issues. Of course I am happy to meet the leaders of the Opposition parties to discuss this, but to restore public confidence in the matter the Committee will have to complete its review as well, and I have asked it to speed up that review so that it is completed as quickly as possible.

Frankly, the problem is that we do not need another review. Let us be clear: this is exactly what happened last time. The Prime Minister supported a review, he sent it a letter and when it came up with conclusions, he did not vote for them. [Hon. Members: “Nor did you.”] I did vote for them. The public are sick and tired of this situation, and it requires political leadership. That means political leaders making decisions, which means the Prime Minister, the leader of the Liberals and me. I ask the Prime Minister again: will he have that meeting of party leaders so that we can sort this out? May we have it, instead of a review, not in six months’ time, not in a year’s time, but right now?

The right hon. Gentleman wrote his question before he heard my first answer. I said I was quite happy to meet him and the leader of the Liberal party to discuss these issues, but he has to remember that if we in this House are to command public confidence for what we do, we need to satisfy the Committee on Standards in Public Life as well as ourselves. The whole purpose of the discussions we have had in recent years is to take MPs’ pay out of politics, so that it is not MPs who are held responsible for the original recommendations on pay, or for voting for them. I believe that we have to satisfy more than ourselves on the standards we apply in public life. Yes, I am prepared to talk to the right hon. Gentleman, but he should agree to what was agreed before: that the Committee on Standards in Public Life should continue to review this issue and report as quickly as possible.

The problem is that we can all hear the rustling of the long grass.

Let me turn to the G20. At the last meeting of the G20 in Washington, the leaders signed up to an important pledge on free trade, but as the CBI said, there were

“airy promises about completing the Doha world trade deal and rejecting protectionism”,

but that

“Since then, the world has moved backwards, with the majority of G20 countries pushing up barriers”.

What assurances can the Prime Minister give us that this time it really will be different?

The significance of the G20 meeting is that the world is coming together to discuss detailed proposals on trade and other issues to deal with the problems of the day. I do not think we have had a situation before where Russia, China, India, Argentina, Brazil, all the European countries, Japan and America have come together to see whether we can agree shared policies. In 1929 we had the Wall street crash, and in 1945 we had the first meeting of world leaders that was successful in discussing the issues. We are not going to wait for 16 years; we are taking action now.

On the specifics of trade, the right hon. Gentleman will agree that we have pushed hard in the last few months to get a trade deal round the world. We were pushing before Christmas, under President Bush, so that an agreement could be reached. The problem that is still outstanding—it will help the discussion if I explain it—is that India wanted assurances about a special safeguard mechanism if there were to be a surge of imports. America wanted an assurance that sectoral agreements would be in line with the general agreement that was to be signed on world trade. The American Administration asked us, as they are a new Administration, for some time in the next few weeks to review their position. Given that they are a new Administration, we have to understand that they will want to look at their position, but I am hopeful about that. I am pressing them on this matter, as I did when I talked to President Obama on the phone yesterday before I met him today. The World Trade Organisation needs an answer, and we need to move forward.

What we will achieve at the summit is this: first of all, we will name and shame countries—[Interruption.] Well, Mr. Speaker—[Interruption.]

Order. Let the Prime Minister speak. [Interruption.] Order. It is always the case that the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition get leeway. Let the Prime Minister speak.

First, we will name and shame countries that are not prepared to abide by the standards that we are setting. Secondly, we will want to provide trade credits for the future so that we can see world trade expanding by supporting it with at least £100 billion of credit, and thirdly, we will push very hard so that the differences that exist, which other countries have resolved, can also be resolved in America and India.

I am grateful for the Prime Minister’s answer, but the fact is that the naming and shaming process was actually agreed in Washington in November at the G20 meeting. Since then, the World Bank has produced a paper stating that 17 of the 20 countries involved have actually implemented measures that have restricted trade. Everyone understands that the new American Administration need time, but clearly the biggest boost for the world economy would be the completion of the Doha trade round, so does the Prime Minister agree with me that the greatest success for the G20 would be to set a credible pathway and a credible timetable to a full Doha agreement?

That is one of the things we are trying to achieve, but I have to tell the right hon. Gentleman that he cannot avoid the difficult questions about this G20. We are in the midst of the biggest fiscal stimulus that the world has ever seen, and only the Conservative party seems to be opposing it. We are in the midst of the biggest cuts in interest rates that the world has seen and we are restructuring our banking system. Yes, I agree that trade is important, and that is why I have pushed for it very hard, but I think he understood that when I said that America wanted some time to consider the position that was a barrier to getting an agreement immediately. We will push forward on trade, but we will also push forward on the other measures that are necessary for an economic recovery. I just repeat that nobody coming to London has a policy of doing nothing.

There is someone right here in London who said that we cannot afford another fiscal stimulus, and that is the Governor of the Bank of England. I do not know whether the Prime Minister fully understands what happened last week. While he was wandering around the rest of the world telling them how to run their economies, the Governor of the Bank of England was saying right here that the Prime Minister did not know how to run ours. The fact is that the Governor of the Bank of England very publicly snipped up his credit card. That is what happened last week.

Does the Prime Minister agree with me that the real test of the G20 is whether confidence returns? So here in Britain, will he agree that with the budget deficit at more than 10 per cent. of GDP, a big, big part of restoring confidence is going to be restoring those public finances?

Once again, the Conservative party is misinterpreting what is happening in the world and getting everything wrong. The stimulus that has been proposed in Germany is £75 billion. In France it is £24 billion, in China £400 billion and in Japan £42 billion. There is not one country in the world following the advice of the Conservative party. The real issue at this summit is that some people are prepared to take the action to get people through what is a global problem that needs global solutions. The Conservative party reveals in its questions that it is still the do nothing party of the past.

I have to say that this “do nothing” attack has done absolutely nothing for the Prime Minister. Ever since he started making it, he has been going down and we have been going up. It says nothing about us, but so much about him and his approach to the dividing-line politics of the past. Of course other countries that did fix the roof while the sun was shining can afford a fiscal stimulus, but the Governor of the Bank of England said, quite rightly, that we cannot afford one here.

On the G20, everyone wants a global agreement on issues such as trade, the IMF and tax havens, but is it not important to understand that once the talks are over, Britain will still be left with the most appalling public finances? We are spending £4 for every £3 that we raise. This is a domestic problem, and no international agreement is going to resolve it. Do not these difficult circumstances teach us one very important lesson? We should never leave Britain this exposed again.

The rehearsals will make no difference, because this is not about the party games that the right hon. Gentleman is talking about. This is about lives, jobs, homes and businesses. I have not heard him once today talk about the problems of the unemployed and the people whom we are trying help. He said that we cannot afford a fiscal stimulus. That is his position, so he would cut the pension, cut child benefit, not go ahead with the help to small businesses or to home owners, not go ahead with advancing public investment—everything that we are doing to take this country through the downturn, he opposes. I hope that people in every constituency know that Conservative party policy is to cut the pension, cut child benefit and cut public works. That is the policy of the Conservative party.

I fully appreciate that the G20 is mainly about economic issues, but should the Prime Minister or any of his colleagues get a chance to talk to our Russian colleagues, will he remind them that human rights remain extremely important, and that action such as raiding the Memorial offices in St. Petersburg or threatening to destroy the Stalin archives is not worthy of a great country?

Every time I meet President Medvedev, I remind him of our differences with Russia over some of those very issues, and I will continue to do so when I meet him this afternoon. There have been difficulties in the relationship between Britain and Russia, but it is important to recognise that we want Russia to work with us on a middle east peace settlement and in dealing with the problems of Iran, and we want to work together with Russia to achieve multilateral disarmament and ensure that the non-proliferation treaty works. Those are all issues on which I believe we can work with Russia.

We all want this G20 summit to succeed. The Prime Minister is right to say that we will not get out of this mess unless world leaders work together. However, the summit will not help anybody here unless he practises at home what he preaches abroad. On his world tour, he railed against tax avoidance, yet he presided over industrial-scale tax avoidance in British banks and British businesses. He now talks about green-collar jobs, yet his fiscal stimulus has less green stimulus than any other fiscal stimulus in the G20. Does he not see that leadership starts at home?

Let me tell the leader of the Liberal party that for the first time we are on the verge of an agreement, which means that every country that was previously a tax haven will have to exchange tax information on request. So with Switzerland, Andorra, Luxembourg, Hong Kong, Singapore—all the countries with which we have been trying to get agreement for 20 years; I do not know whether the Conservative party wants those agreements, but we have been trying to get them for 20 years—we will get agreements at this summit. The issue of tax havens has moved to a new level, where we are dealing with the problem.

On a green stimulus, I hope that the right hon. Gentleman finds that the communiqué reflects the desire in all countries of the world that we do not return to business as usual on the environment, that the recovery is low carbon, and that we will do whatever we can, now and in the Budget, to move that forward.

The words sound good—they always do—but now the Prime Minister has to do what he says. He is the only G20 leader who has blown billions of pounds of borrowed money on a wasteful VAT cut that has not created a single job. Why should any other leader listen to his lessons? Is it not time for him to admit his mistake, announce at the summit tomorrow that he will stop the wasteful VAT cut, and invest the billions of pounds in creating the jobs and homes that this country desperately needs now?

On the environment, we are the first Government in the world to sign climate change legislation that will commit us to statutory cuts in carbon over the next few years. I know that the right hon. Gentleman’s party does not seem to think it important, but we are leading the world, as we should, in the environmental debate.

On VAT and other changes, I have to tell the right hon. Gentleman that one has to use all the weapons at one’s disposal to deal with a global financial crisis. We have cut interest rates, the Bank of England is now putting money into the economy, we have advanced public works in the economy, and we have raised the pension and child benefit beyond the level that was expected in January. At the same time, we are giving income tax cuts, starting this week, by raising personal allowances. We are also helping the unemployed and home owners who find themselves in difficulty. That is the way to deal with the downturn: to take all measures necessary to get through it as quickly as possible.

Arising from what was said earlier, is my right hon. Friend aware that some of us fought against a Conservative private Member’s Bill that would have exempted the House of Commons from the Freedom of Information Act? That being said, does my right hon. Friend agree that it is absolutely essential to have a system of allowances that MPs claim—most of them, of course, are for our staff—so that the public can have confidence that they are legitimate, above board and simply make sense? The sooner we have such a system, the better it will be for the reputation of the House of Commons.

I think I speak for all Members when I say that we want a better system that has proper audit and deals with the outstanding issues that have caused so much controversy. However, I have to say to all Members of the House that for that to command public confidence, it is not enough that one or two of us get together in a room; we have to ensure that the Committee on Standards in Public Life, which we set up to deal with such issues, is also satisfied and can tell the public that the system is working better.

Q3. The Christie hospital, which is a world leader in the treatment of cancer, has recently lost £6.5 million owing to the Icelandic banking crisis—money that was earmarked for new radiography centres in Oldham and Salford. Given the Government’s support for financial institutions, what is the Prime Minister doing to help the Christie to recover that money? (267918)

I have met nurses from the Christie hospital, who do a wonderful job in treating people with cancer. The Christie hospital is a world-class hospital and I praise it for what it does. I have said that I will meet its officials to look at the issues that they raise. Essentially, the issue relates to an Icelandic bank that was regulated not in Britain, but outside. For all banks that are regulated in Britain, we have guaranteed the deposits of savers. We will see what we can do, but I have to tell the hon. Gentleman that the central issue is that the Christie hospital is not a charity with funds in a bank that is regulated in Britain. However, we will look at what we can do, and I once again praise the Christie hospital for what it achieves.

Q4. Will the Prime Minister join me in congratulating Rio Tinto Alcan on the excellent work it is doing in my constituency on carbon capture and storage? The method that it has developed will protect both the environment and valuable local jobs. It is also a world first. Will he share that good news with his G20 colleagues and, more importantly, will he come to Lynemouth at his earliest convenience to see first hand the excellent work that is being done there? (267919)

Yes, I shall be happy to visit to see the progress that is being made in carbon capture and storage and in clean coal. That is an area where we can lead the world. I have been talking to the Norwegian Prime Minister, who has a carbon capture and storage plant under way. We want to work to move the technology forward quickly, and I know that the company in my hon. Friend’s constituency, Rio Tinto Alcan, is doing a great job. I look forward to meeting the company and talking about how we can expand the technology.

Does the Prime Minister recall when he was Chancellor of the Exchequer selling 400 tonnes of gold from the reserves, even though he was warned at the time that gold is a very good store of value when boom turns to bust? Given that today the price of gold is nearly four times higher than it was when he made those sales, what does that tell us about his ability to run any other aspect of the British economy, and will he apologise to the British people for making those enormous losses on their behalf?

I hesitate to say this, but it was a sale agreed with banks round the world, which all wanted to diversify out of gold. The right hon. Gentleman may know that many other countries were doing exactly what we were doing at that time. He loves Europe so much that he will hate me for saying this, but we bought euros and they have gone up in value.

Q5. There are not many traumas worse than being thrown out of one’s home. The Government have rightly concentrated on trying to help the people facing repossession because of mortgage arrears. Yet a constituent of mine who is gravely ill with cancer has been told by Conservative-controlled Westminster council’s housing arm that she is being taken to court, and faces eviction and court costs, for owing just £390. Does my right hon. Friend share my shock at that behaviour? Is it not right that councils and other landlords should concentrate on cracking down on such behaviour and supporting vulnerable people through these difficult times? (267920)

Our duty in these difficult times is to help people who are in difficulty and in need. That is why we have made greater provision available for housing at this difficult time. I do not know the details of the case of my hon. Friend’s constituent, but it seems to me that someone who is suffering from cancer and who is aged should not be evicted, and I shall look into the matter.

The Metropolitan police in London now have dedicated community policing teams consisting of six officers in every local government ward. They have a sergeant, two police constables and three police community support officers. Could the Prime Minister—[Interruption.]

Thank you, Mr. Speaker. Could the Prime Minister please tell me when my constituents in Cheadle and residents across the rest of the country will enjoy the same level of community policing?

I hesitate to say this, because the hon. Gentleman knows what is happening in his constituency, but there is neighbourhood policing in every part of England as a result of the decisions that we have made. I shall certainly look into what he has said, but we have been very keen to set up these neighbourhood policing arrangements so that people can see local police on the beat and consult them. They are informed by the local police about what is happening, and they can text, e-mail or telephone the local police to get information. Our aim is to have neighbourhood policing in every community in the country, and that is possible only because we are ready to invest in the police.

Q6. My right hon. Friend will vividly remember the damage that was done by unemployment as a result of the failed economic policies of previous Tory Governments, when we were told that unemployment was a price worth paying. Will he give my constituents a guarantee that, in his conversations with the G20 and in the Budget, keeping people in work and getting those who are unemployed back into work will be the absolute priority for this Government, even if it is not for the Opposition? (267922)

Like my hon. Friend, I came into politics because I was concerned about unemployment, and unemployment is what we want to address. That is why, in the next few days, we are introducing our programme to help those who have been unemployed for six months to get new chances of training and new chances of getting into work. We are investing substantial sums of money in helping people at the time they become unemployed, to prevent them from becoming unemployed and to help them if they are unemployed. I believe that that is possible only because we are prepared to make the choice and say that it is right not to do nothing, and that it is right to take action and to invest in helping employment in this country.

Q7. But the Government’s working capital scheme, which was supposed to start on 1 March, has so far not produced anything. Unemployment in my constituency has increased by 152 per cent. in a year. Why has no company in my constituency received any money from the working capital scheme set up by the Government? (267923)

First, £1 billion has been agreed for that scheme already. Secondly, 100,000 companies across the country, and many in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency, will be receiving help from the Inland Revenue and from Customs and Excise. That help is now worth about £1.8 billion as a result of the decisions that we made to put public money into these programmes. I cannot see how he can come here and ask us to do more, when the whole policy of his party is to do less.

Q8. Cancer is a devastating diagnosis to receive, but today is a significant day because cancer-related prescriptions will now be free for everyone. This will give comfort to people in that situation. Will my right hon. Friend ensure that, in order to provide excellent services in Crawley and the surrounding area, West Sussex primary care trust delivers on its plan to have a linear accelerator in the community, which will add to those fantastic services? (267924)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We want to help to review and improve radiotherapy capacity in her constituency, and we will be developing a comprehensive business plan that will cover the current and projected needs of her constituency. Let me also say that we have made a decision that is right for patients who are suffering from cancer—that is, to provide free prescriptions. That has been introduced today, and I believe it is a substantial step forward in recognising the pain and suffering that cancer patients have to go through. I hope that it will have support in all parts of the House.

It is not brain surgery to keep a hospital clean or to assist a patient to eat or to drink out of something other than a vase. Will the Prime admit and agree with me that Government targets, while providing substance for spin, have actually damaged nursing priorities and patient care?

If we removed the obligations, cancer patients would not be given the right to be seen by a clinician within two weeks of going to a doctor. If we removed the target, there would not be an 18-week period between the point at which people go to a doctor and the point at which they have an operation. Patients in the national health service have the right to expect the best of treatments, and I think it important to say that if the Opposition will not provide these guarantees, we will provide them to the patients of this country.

Q9. It is 10 years since the introduction of the minimum wage in the UK. It is not in the history syllabus yet, as far as I am aware, but I recollect that not everybody in this place agreed with it. Will the Prime Minister join me in celebrating something that has helped millions of British working people? (267925)

More than 2 million people benefit from the fact that, for the first time, there is a national minimum wage in this country. I believe that the rises in the minimum wage are an important element of giving people decent wages in the workplace. I hope that, despite the disagreements of the past, there is now all-party agreement that a civilised society needs a minimum wage for people who are in work; we are determined to retain it.

Points of Order

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Last Wednesday, there was a House of Commons meeting between Leeds MPs and the Minister for Yorkshire and the Humber to discuss the Leeds Arena scheme. Despite the fact that I tabled an early-day motion in support of the scheme and have been very vocal about it, I was not invited to attend that meeting. As you are aware, this is not the first time it has happened, as the former Prime Minister, Tony Blair, wrongly accused me of not going to a meeting that I was not even invited to. Do you agree that when there is a meeting between Ministers and Leeds MPs, all Leeds MPs should be invited, not just Labour ones?

That is not a matter for me, but I would say that if there were an issue affecting Glasgow, I, as a Glasgow Member of Parliament, would expect to be invited to any meeting. I convey that message: if a meeting is specifically for Leeds Members of Parliament, I would expect every Leeds MP to be invited. That is a simple courtesy that should be extended to every Member of Parliament, no matter what city or region we are talking about.

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Yesterday, Langley Park school for boys in my constituency suffered a cut of 3.7 per cent. in its sixth-form funding for some 600 pupils. That cut takes effect today and I understand that it is not the only school affected in this way. Have you received a request from the Secretary of State for Culture, Schools and Families to come to explain to the House what is wrong with the learning and skills councils and what he plans to do to fix these appalling cuts, which could mean many teachers losing their jobs?

That is not a matter for the Chair. It is up to Ministers to come to the House to make statements.

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. The Home Office has in recent times developed a habit of issuing written parliamentary answers to the media before they are received by Members of Parliament. That was taken to an extreme last weekend when it issued a written parliamentary statement to the media on Sunday, when it would clearly have been impossible for an MP to gain access to it until the following day. May I ask you, if you are in a position to do so, to issue guidance to Departments stating that it is inappropriate to issue formal written parliamentary questions to the media before Members have had a chance to receive and read them?

If the hon. Gentleman is categorically saying that this was a written parliamentary statement, then it should be put to the House of Commons first. I will look further into this matter and I take it very seriously. Let me be specific: a parliamentary statement must not be issued to any body other than this House of Commons.

Further to the point of order, Mr. Speaker. I should make it clear that I was referring to written parliamentary questions. [Hon. Members: “Written answers.”] I mean written parliamentary answers.

A written answer is different from a statement. A written answer should be published for the House of Commons. Obviously, if a Member of Parliament has tabled a question, the answer should go to that Member of Parliament first, and it should not be produced on a Sunday when Members of Parliament are working and doing other things. I shall have to look into the matter, because a rebutting argument may be presented, but that is what I say.

Registration of Births and Deaths (Welsh Language)

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 make provision about the registration of births and deaths where particulars are given in Welsh and English; to permit certificates of particulars of entries of registers of births and deaths to be in Welsh or English only in such circumstances; and for connected purposes.

The Bill would amend the Births and Deaths Registration Act 1953. It aims to allow registration in English and Welsh when a birth or death has occurred in England, and to allow certificates to be issued in either language as well as bilingually. It also provides for the issuing of short death certificates.

The 1953 Act requires that a birth or death be registered by the registrar of the district in which the event takes place, but since 1 April 1969, 40 years ago today, births, stillbirths and deaths in Wales may be registered in both Welsh and English when a qualified informant is able to give information in Welsh to a registrar who can speak and understand Welsh. Certificates may then be issued which are either bilingual or in English only. Welsh-only certificates are not allowed, and registration in England is currently only possible in English. Short birth certificates may be issued, but death certificates are allowed only in the long form.

Some families from Wales travel to England for the birth of a child, either to obtain specialist care at the birth or because their areas are normally served by hospitals in England. I am thinking in particular of families from north Wales who may have to travel to Merseyside and, indeed, beyond in an emergency, and also of families from Powys who might normally cross the border to Shropshire or Herefordshire to obtain hospital care at the birth. Furthermore, some people from Wales receive their end-of-life care in hospitals in England, again because of the need for specialist care or because that is the normal arrangement where they live. Quite reasonably, families in those circumstances may wish to register such significant events in Welsh. The language is both a signifier and a definer of the identity of their loved ones.

In 1999, my colleague Lord Elis-Thomas introduced a Bill similar to this, which was passed in the other place but did not proceed in this House owing to lack of time. A Bill to the same effect was published by our erstwhile colleague Mr. Gareth Thomas, then Member of Parliament for Clwyd, West, but it too proceeded no further, again owing to lack of time. Indeed, the need for at least one of these reforms—the bilingual registration of births in England—was noted as long ago as 1990, in the White Paper “Registration: proposals for change”. Lord Elis-Thomas and Gareth Thomas benefited at that time from the advice of the Office for National Statistics, and also worked closely with the Welsh Language Board. I am glad to acknowledge the help given by the board in the preparation of the Bill.

All three Bills would overcome the deficiency that families face by establishing a central register of births, stillbirths and deaths occurring in England when Welsh speakers wish for a bilingual certificate. In practice, the Welsh-speaking informant would be able to make a declaration of the particulars to be registered, not in the district where the event occurred but before a suitable registrar in Wales. That registrar would then send the declaration to the registrar for the district in England where the event occurred, and it would be registered in the normal way. The declaration would also be forwarded to the Registrar General, who would record the details in the central register in both Welsh and English. A certificate could then be issued. That would enable the details, in future years, always to be available in both languages.

The Bill would also allow certificates to be issued from the bilingual entry in Welsh or English only, thus ensuring that at last both languages would be treated equally—as noted in the Welsh Language Act 1993, passed by the Conservative Administration. Bilingual certificates would continue to be available under this Bill, and I suspect that that would remain the usual choice for most families. The Bill would also allow for short death certificates, so as to exclude details of the cause of death, which sometimes cause great distress to families.

I understand that there are no significant staffing implications for public services from the Bill. The cost of establishing a central register would be minimal and would be paid for by the sale of certificates. The measure raises no human rights issues.

The law concerning the Welsh language has developed over many years, from the Acts of Union in the 16th century whose penalising clauses in effect banished the Welsh language from its previous position in the official domain—as an official language, I would even chance to say—to the modest reform of the Welsh Courts Act 1942, the landmark Welsh Language Act 1967, and subsequently the Act of 1993.

At present the Welsh Affairs Committee, of which I am a member, is taking evidence on a Welsh language legislative competence order. If passed, that will transfer the Welsh language powers from Westminster to the National Assembly for Wales. However, registration of births and deaths is not included in that LCO, hence the need for this Bill.

On 17 March, I proposed a range of suitable amendments to the Welfare Reform Bill on Report, but they were not reached. However, I am glad to say that the Government agree with elements of this Bill and agree that they are needed. I refer the House to an answer from the Under-Secretary of State for Wales:

“the Government remain firmly committed to producing Welsh language certificates, and the General Register Office is exploring the best way to do that...I reiterate that we are firmly committed to pursuing that path. ”—[Official Report, 11 March 2009; Vol. 489, c. 283.]

I also have here a copy of a letter to Mr. Gareth Thomas from a then Minister at the Treasury, the right hon. Member for Leicester, West (Ms Hewitt), in which she shares her disappointment that his

“useful Bill failed to complete its passage through the Commons.”

That was in 1999. She continued:

“The ONS has bid for the Bill to be reintroduced and the Chief Secretary has approved its inclusion on the Treasury's list of Government handout Bills for the next session.

If, by any misfortune, the Bill fails to succeed in the next session, we will take the opportunity to include its provisions within any legislation that follows from the current review of civil registration.”

I am of course glad of the Government's historic support on this issue, but I note that some nine years have passed since that “glad and confident” letter. I hope therefore that their support can now be translated into a commitment of parliamentary time.

I am by nature an optimist, but I am reminded of a point made in Ned Thomas's seminal work “The Welsh Extremist: A Culture in Crisis” in 1971, in which he pointed out that the Welsh language so often had

“high prestige and low priority”.

More poetically, T.H. Parry Williams, in one of his finest sonnets, says of the language:

“Cei ganmol hon fel canmol jwg ar seld

Ond gwna hi'n hanfod ac fe gei di weld”,

which translates as,

“You may praise her as you would a jug on a dresser

But make her essential and then you'll see”.

This Bill has wide support in Wales and I am grateful today for the support of Welsh Members on both sides of the House and Members from across the border—

And the other border.

Birth and death are the most significant events in life, the alpha and the omega. It is proper and humane, and in my view a fundamental right, that these events be marked in one's own language. Those happy parents and those grieving families who by force of circumstance find themselves unable to do so merely by the accident of location have waited fully 40 years for this day and for this reform.

Question put and agreed to.

Ordered,

That Hywel Williams, Mr. Elfyn Llwyd, Adam Price, Mr. Dai Davies, Mark Williams, Dr. Hywel Francis and Michael Fabricant present the Bill.

Hywel Williams accordingly presented the Bill.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 16 October and to be printed (Bill 83).

Geneva Conventions and United Nations Personnel (Protocols) Bill [Lords]

Second Reading

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. This Bill seeks to amend the Geneva Conventions Act 1957, but the Vote Office does not have a copy of that Act. That is a very unfortunate state of affairs. Should not this debate be delayed until the Vote Office has a copy of that Act?

I do not think that we can do that. I will instruct the officials to ensure that the Act is made available in the Vote Office, but we cannot delay the proceedings.

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

The Bill will give effect to two international agreements. The aim of both is to protect those who help others caught up in conflict—those who risk their lives to provide humanitarian support to others. The enactment of the Bill will enable the UK to become a party to the third additional protocol to the Geneva conventions and the optional protocol to the convention on the safety of the United Nations and associated personnel.

This is a fitting moment to seek support for improvements to the Geneva conventions as it is this year that the conventions celebrate their 60th anniversary. They are universally recognised as enshrining the main principles of international humanitarian law. They oblige every state in the world to abide by the rules of war in order to limit the effects of armed conflict. They help to ensure that the wounded and the sick receive treatment; that prisoners and refugees are treated humanely; and that all civilians are protected from unnecessary harm.

The UK has, of course, always been at the forefront of developing and promoting the rules in the Geneva conventions and, by enacting this Bill, we will show the UK’s support for the latest improvements to these rules and our continuing commitment to the development of international humanitarian law.

I am obviously minded to support the Bill. It is a question of process. Often the biggest frustration for free countries is the inability to bring obvious offenders—people such as Robert Mugabe—to justice for violations of civil liberties. Is it the Minister’s view that the Bill will improve our capacity to bring to justice people around the world who clearly have no regard for human rights?

I understand the hon. Gentleman’s point, but it is not within the scope of the Bill, for reasons that I will go on to outline.

I know that right hon. and hon. Members will join me in thanking the British Red Cross Society for the co-operation that it has given us in preparing and promoting this important Bill. Members will also join me in commending the magnificent work done by the British Red Cross, both in the UK and overseas, where it co-operates with other national societies, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, and the International Committee of the Red Cross, to which I also pay tribute.

Hon. Members on both sides of the House would want to associate ourselves with what the Minister has just said about the Red Cross, but will the Bill have any consequences for the name of the Red Cross? For example, in the future, will it have to be called the Red Cross and Red Crystal society?

No, I am assured that the current arrangements will stay, and I will, of course, explain our default position on the use of symbols. I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his support. Of course, we all share a common view of the work that is done on our behalf.

Most people are well aware of the life-saving work done by the Red Cross during times of conflict or when natural disasters strike, but I should like to put on record the kind of work that the Red Cross also does to save and improve lives in many other ways. First, it provides first aid training for thousands of ordinary people, so that they can take the right steps when confronted by serious injury. Secondly, it helps communities vulnerable to natural disasters to prepare for the worst and to work in advance against the possible effects of floods, earthquakes, fires and weather-related disasters. Thirdly, it promotes the international laws that help to minimise the negative effects of wars and other conflicts on civilians and combatants.

In welcoming the work of the Red Cross, will the Minister include the work of the Red Crescent and the Red Star of David—the Magen David Adom?

Of course, I am very happy to do so.

Such work helps us all, of course, and we should be proud of and grateful for it. I very much welcome the sentiments expressed in early-day motion 1224, which was tabled this week by my hon. Friend the Member for Chorley (Mr. Hoyle), to support the “Our World. Your Move” campaign. I am grateful for the eagle-eyed attention of the hon. Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Lidington) in alerting me to the fact that the impact assessment was not, as it should have been, available in good time before the debate. I apologise to the House that that happened due to administrative error, and I assure the House that the impact assessment has now been made available.

I now come to the detail of the Bill. Clause 1 will amend the Geneva Conventions Act 1957 to allow the ratification of the third additional protocol to the Geneva conventions. The protocol provides for the use of a new humanitarian emblem—the red crystal—in addition to the existing emblems, the red cross and the red crescent. The UK Government and the British Red Cross played a significant role in securing international agreement for the adoption of the red crystal. The symbol is already widely accepted, as 38 states have already ratified the third additional protocol. Like the other two emblems, the red crystal is designed to be a protective symbol for humanitarian personnel in armed conflict.

It is interesting to reflect on the fact that the idea of a protective symbol came from a Swiss business man—Henri Dunant—who was travelling on business some 150 years ago and, by chance, happened to witness the battle of Solferino in Italy. During the battle, some 40,000 men from both sides were killed or wounded, and Dunant was shocked to see the wounded left on the battlefield without proper medical care. He therefore broke off his business trip and spent the next few days helping to do all that he could himself and convincing the locals also to help the wounded. He went on to found the Red Cross and establish the emblem of a red cross on a white background to help to identify those providing assistance.

I was fascinated to read the Red Cross literature, which told me that the emblem is a reversal of the colours and design of the Swiss flag. The symbol, as we know, has been used ever since. Its use has undoubtedly saved many lives—the lives of those providing humanitarian assistance, as well as lives saved by humanitarian acts. The red crescent emblem was given the same function in about 1879. Both symbols represent the protection of the medical services of the armed forces and the injured under the Geneva conventions. More recently, that protection has been extended to include civilian medical services.

As we know, however, conflicts have become more complex and the scope for the misunderstanding of those emblems has undoubtedly increased. In some situations, the red cross and the red crescent perhaps can be seen as having a religious, cultural or political connotation, which is not appropriate, accurate or intended in the settings in which it is used. Therefore, the red crystal has been introduced to ensure that a clear and neutral symbol exists for all to use. It can be used wherever the use of the other two symbols might be misinterpreted and therefore may not provide the protection that we would all seek to ensure. The red crystal symbol can also be used by national societies of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement—for example, in Israel and Eritrea—where people may feel unable to identify with either the cross or the crescent or do not want to have to choose between the two.

Who will determine the circumstances in which the red crystal, as distinct from either alternative, will be used?

That is a matter on which the appropriate movement in-country will make a decision. As I will go on to say, our default position will be to use the red cross; but in all cases, we will consider the circumstances of the conflict and make a decision for our own part of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement.

The creation of the red crystal was part of a package that paved the way for the Israeli and the Palestinian national societies to join the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement in 2006. That has offered the movement the opportunity to achieve its goal of universality—again, something that we would all support.

The United Kingdom signed the third protocol in December 2005. Once the protocol is ratified, our Defence Medical Services will be able to use any of the three distinctive emblems. As I have already stated, we will continue to use the red cross as our main humanitarian emblem; but in any conflict, our armed forces will be able to choose the emblem that is likely to afford the maximum protection to their medical services and their patients. For instance, British troops deployed in Afghanistan or Iraq can use the red crystal or the red crescent, rather than the red cross, as a protective symbol for their medical units if they believe that doing so would improve their safety.

Can the Minister help us on the use of the red lion and sun? In 1980, the Islamic Republic of Iran declared that it was waiving its right to use those symbols and would use instead the red crescent as its distinctive symbol, but it reserved the right to return to the red lion and sun if new emblems were recognised. By recognising this new emblem, are we creating the danger that the Islamic Republic of Iran may wish to revert to the use of the red lion and sun, thereby creating another symbol?

We are introducing clarity and reminding ourselves why we have international emblems. The three emblems form the basis of use and protection; they are clearly and absolutely recognised; and there can be no misunderstanding. In-country, for example, if a local society wished to use the red crystal with a red cross inside, it could do so. However, I am talking about—this is what hon. Members are concerned about—the protection provided in conflict situations.

I am grateful to the Minister for giving way again, because I do not think that she understood my point, which is that the Islamic Republic of Iran has given due warning that if symbols in addition to the red cross and red crescent were enacted, it would reserve the right to revert to the use of the red sun. I want to find out from the Minister whether or not that threat from the Islamic Republic of Iran is still on the table.

My understanding is that there has been no indication that Iran would wish to revert to using those symbols, and I hope that that reassures the hon. Gentleman.

Does the Minister accept that using various symbols in different areas gives rise to the problem addressed by my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mr. Chope)? In the future, more symbols may well be introduced because of the circumstances that are presented, and that could cause more confusion, rather than coherence in what the Red Cross is trying to achieve.

No, I do not share that view. Indeed, let us remember that the impetus has come from the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement, which recognises the difficulties and limitations of having two emblems. Therefore, rightly and sensibly, with a lot of hard work and negotiation, we have found that the adoption of the red crystal is getting us through the kind of difficulties that the hon. Gentleman is concerned about.

I have been listening carefully to the Minister, but she has not really answered the question about the people who have been ignoring red crosses and red crescents but who are not going to ignore a red diamond or crystal, or whatever she wants to call it. Will she answer that question now? What evidence is there that the approach has worked in the field of combat?

I have been in discussions with the British Red Cross and I know how much support there is for this Bill. I also know how much support exists internationally, among people who operate in the field. They have requested us to take the legislative action necessary to make available an additional option that they do not have at the moment. That is why we are here today.

This is about sensitivity to the situation. As I said in my opening comments, there are concerns that the red cross or red crescent might be incorrectly interpreted. That is why the international movement has come forward with this proposal for the red crystal symbol. I think that it is the correct option.

I am extremely grateful to the Minister for giving way. She is very reasonable, and is addressing the House in her usual mellifluous tones. I am minded to support the Second Reading of the Bill, but I am a bit befuddled about one thing; I hope that she can release me from my ignorance before long. There are three clauses in the Bill, and clause 3 deals with commencement. It specifies that the other two clauses will come into effect, by statutory instrument, on a date to be decided by Ministers. The measure is important and reasonably urgent, so when will the instrument be brought forward?

I am afraid that I cannot tell the House that at this stage, but I shall be glad to do so in my closing remarks.

By ratifying the third protocol, we will show our continuing commitment to the development of international humanitarian law. As required by the additional protocol, the Bill will amend the Geneva Conventions Act 1957 to make it a criminal offence to misuse the red crystal symbol, as is currently the case with the other two symbols.

Clause 2 amends the United Nations Personnel Act 1997 to give effect to the optional protocol to the convention on the safety of UN and associated personnel.

I am grateful to the Minister, who is being extremely generous in giving way. However, I return to the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (John Bercow). If she cannot answer now, perhaps she will be able to answer at the end of the debate. As I understand it, the red crystal symbol has been in force internationally since 14 January 2007. Why has the Bill taken so long to get here? Why does its commencement provision not use the word “forthwith”?

To do full justice to that question, I shall deal with it in my closing remarks.

The optional protocol allows states to agree to extra measures to increase the legal protection of UN and associated personnel engaged in UN operations. The UN began providing legal protection to its personnel in 1994, when it adopted the convention on the safety of UN and associated personnel in response to rising casualties among UN peacekeepers and others. The convention makes three requirements of member states: that they prevent and punish, through domestic criminal law, attacks on UN personnel and others associated with UN operations; that they extradite the perpetrators of such acts; and that they implement other ancillary measures.

The scope of the convention is relatively narrow, applying to UN operations in only two categories. The first category covers those operations designed to maintain or restore international peace and security, and the second covers those operations that the UN Security Council or General Assembly has declared pose an exceptional risk to the safety of the personnel participating in them. That narrow scope of protection has been heavily criticised, in particular by former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, who called repeatedly for a protocol to extend the protection to those UN personnel not otherwise covered. That call was echoed at the world summit in September 2005.

By passing the Bill, Britain will be setting an example for other nations. Does the Minister agree that the optional protocol must also be adopted by those countries where personnel are at greatest risk?

That is an extremely important point, and the hon. Gentleman is quite right. The Bill is unlikely to have an impact on UK soil, but it will send a very clear message to other nations.

In a moment, but I want to continue explaining how we came to this point.

As I said, the call by Kofi Annan was echoed at the world summit of September 2005. In response, the UN General Assembly adopted an optional protocol to the 1994 convention in December of that year. That protocol extends the scope of protection to two new categories—to operations for the purpose of delivering humanitarian, political or development assistance in peace building, and to operations for the purpose of delivering emergency humanitarian assistance. As the House will be aware, those measures are—sadly—as necessary today as they have been in the past.

Can the Minister tell us about enforcement? Even without the extension, can she assure the House that the existing arrangements are being enforced? Most people know that, although the UN or this Parliament may say something about Darfur, for example, there is outright defiance of these conventions on the ground.

It is true that the protocol has to be applied through domestic criminal law, and that we are not able to track whether there have been prosecutions of people who have attacked UN personnel. However, the protocol is designed to correct the weakness in coverage that does reflect the current situation. That is why the Bill is before the House today.

Thankfully, the global conflicts that typified the first half of the 20th century have been avoided, but continuing regional, bilateral and internal conflicts have brought just as much suffering to the people caught up in them. The Red Cross and Red Crescent has worked to minimise that suffering, but the UN high commissioner for refugees told the Security Council earlier this year that the deliberate targeting of humanitarian workers in such conflicts has increased. As well as being deeply shocking, that worrying new trend puts UN humanitarian staff in an impossibly difficult situation. Do they act to keep themselves and their colleagues safe, or do they continue to try to deliver effective humanitarian assistance to those desperately in need?

I thank the Minister for giving way again. I am asking my questions in interventions rather than in a speech as I have to attend a Select Committee very shortly. When the UN’s sixth committee proposed the terms of the optional protocol to the convention on the safety of UN personnel, there was some concern that the term “peace building” was not properly defined. What does she understand the term to mean now?

The hon. Gentleman is right, and we will miss his presence in the Chamber later. The term “peace building” does not have an agreed definition but, according to the UN, it covers a wide range of activities associated with capacity building, reconciliation and societal transformation. He will know that peace building is a long process that happens after violent conflict has slowed or come to a halt. The Bill is important because it recognises that there has been a change in the work that UN personnel do on our behalf

I said earlier that UN humanitarian workers face an impossible choice, one that none of us would want to make. However, we should do everything possible to make sure that those courageous men and women acting in our name should not have to confront that choice. If they are to continue to fulfil their vital roles in the most difficult of situations, they must have the full weight of international law behind them. When we held the EU presidency, we played a leading role in securing the adoption of the optional protocol by the General Assembly. By ratifying the optional protocol, the UK will once again demonstrate its commitment to protecting humanitarian aid workers—a commitment that I know all right hon. and hon. Members share.

Before the Minister concludes, will she make reference to the European convention on human rights? If my memory is correct, clause 1 of the Bill might be seen as a control on the use of property within that convention, and the clause might therefore fall foul of the convention.

I can assure the House that the Bill stands alone, and gives effect to the points that I have outlined. As hon. Members have pointed out, ratifying will encourage other states to sign and ratify the optional protocol. It will help to convince yet more states to become parties to the 1994 convention. We have the opportunity today to set an example. I commend the Bill to the House.

I very much welcome the Bill, which fills two gaps in the domestic application of international humanitarian law. If, by any chance, there should be a Division later today, I shall certainly support the Government in voting in favour of a Second Reading.

As there is to be no separate debate on the programme motion that the Government tabled today alongside the motion on Second Reading, I hope that the Minister will forgive me if I start by making a few brief comments on that programme motion. I welcome the Government’s decision that the Bill be committed to a Committee of the whole House. That is a welcome departure from a practice that has been too frequent in recent years; Bills that once would have been open to debate in Committee by all right hon. and hon. Member have been shunted upstairs for truncated scrutiny there, so this is a welcome change. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office rarely has primary legislation before the House, and I am glad that it is, on this occasion, setting an example to other Departments. I hope that the Foreign Secretary and the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, the hon. Member for Lincoln (Gillian Merron), are able to persuade their fellow Ministers that it is an example that other Departments would do well to follow.

I temper my welcome just a little bit by expressing disappointment that the programme motion provides for proceedings in Committee, on Report and on Third Reading to be completed all within a single parliamentary day. The Bill has cross-party support, but in my experience, we could improve our understanding of most Bills through detailed scrutiny and questioning, and the tabling of new clauses and amendments that are intended to probe, rather than to overthrow the principles of the Bill in question. The House of Lords is very insistent on maintaining intervals of a few days between each stage of primary legislation; that is an example that we in this House might profitably seek to emulate.

I note that the programme motion not only provides for Committee and all subsequent proceedings to be taken in a single day, but makes no guarantee that those proceedings will not be strictly timetabled so that they take less than an entire parliamentary day. The Government perhaps need to reconsider that point. I hope that there will be further reflection on that subject before we get to the subsequent stages of the Bill.

As the Minister said in her opening speech, we are debating the application in domestic law of two protocols in international law. The additional protocol was adopted by parties to the Geneva convention as long ago as 2005. That is true, too, of the optional protocol to the UN convention on the protection of United Nations and associated personnel, which was adopted by the General Assembly in December of that year. It is slightly odd that we should have had to wait from the end of 2005 until the spring of 2009 for the Government to decide finally to bring forward the legislation to give effect to their decision to sign and ratify those important pieces of international legislation.

I hope that when the Minister responds to the debate she will elucidate the distinction between the two conventions, which intrigues me. When we talk about the red crystal, we are talking about the ratification of the third additional protocol to the Geneva conventions, whereas in the case of the amendment to the United Nations convention on the safety of United Nations and associated personnel, we are talking about the ratification of an optional protocol to the original convention of 1994. I am no lawyer, let alone an international lawyer, and I am genuinely intrigued to hear whether the Minister can elucidate the distinction between an additional protocol and an optional protocol. That is not an academic inquiry. We need to be clear in our minds, when we enact the legislation, about whether the difference in title means that there is a difference in the legal effect of the two parts of legislative reform in the Bill.

I wonder whether my hon. Friend could help the House. Who will decide whether the cross or the crystal is used? Will the Foreign Office have a list of sensitive souls who may be offended by the cross, and will it advise aid workers on when to use the crystal, or will someone on the field of battle make that decision? Does he know the answer to that? The Bill does not make it clear.

No. That is a point that I want to come on to in a little while. My right hon. Friend asks a serious question. My understanding—I am sure that the Minister will correct me if I am mistaken—is that in respect of British servicemen and women participating in a humanitarian enterprise conducted under the auspices of the United Nations and falling within the scope of the optional protocol, it would be for the British authorities, or the appropriate commander, to decide what symbol was used. On the general use of emblems more widely than in United Nations humanitarian and other operations, I assume that the decision would be taken by the national society concerned, as it is now. In our case, that is the British Red Cross. It will be for the Red Cross and Red Crescent societies of various countries to decide the symbol, or combination of symbols, that they wish to employ.

It is Bill, Mr. Speaker, but that is perfectly all right. My father would love to have been called. He longs to be back here, but it seems a prudent family decision that there should be one Wiggin in the House at a time. Thank you anyway, Mr. Speaker.

Does my hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Lidington) agree with me that the Bill is not about deciding which symbol—a red cross, crescent or crystal—is used, but about making sure that legislation is in place to prosecute people who ignore that symbol? The Bill is about prosecuting people in the UK; that is why it applies to our Government. It therefore matters very much who decides whether our troops open fire on somebody displaying a diamond shape. Does he feel that the measure will really help British troops in their peace-making efforts, or could it simply add to the confusion in the heat of battle, thus putting British servicemen in the dock for trying to do the right thing, which they usually do?

There are two elements to my response to my hon. Friend’s question. As I understand the Bill, the provision will permit the use of the red crystal alongside or in place of the red cross and red crescent, and will therefore provide an additional symbol that will attract international protection and the respect for that protective function by means of criminal sanctions for those who breach it and for those who, in the terms of the original convention, make “perfidious use” of it—in other words, those who use the protective symbol when they are engaged in military or terrorist operations.

The Bill also provides protection in British domestic law against the use of the red crystal symbol for any purpose other than to designate a genuinely protective humanitarian body—in our case, the British Red Cross. So, as I understand it, the legislation would outlaw the use of the red crystal for any kind of business or commercial purpose. Again, if I am mistaken, I am sure the Minister will intervene or address the point in her concluding remarks.

My understanding is that the additional protocol concerning the red crystal has taken a great many years to negotiate and that there have been many false starts. I hope that when the Minister responds to the debate, she will be able to spell out in a little more detail exactly how the additional protocol will finally allow the vexed issue of the red star of David or red shield of David—I have seen both terms used—to be treated in future.

My understanding is that, under the additional protocol, the red star of David will not be treated as on a par with the red cross, crescent or crystal, in that its display will not automatically invoke the right to protection which those other symbols guarantee, but that it will be open to Israeli and, if they so choose, other humanitarian organisations to use the red star of David as an additional indicative symbol of their humanitarian purpose, so that, for example, an Israeli ambulance or relief lorry might travel into an area where there might be a threat of violence displaying the red star of David on the side of the vehicle, but with the crystal clearly displayed on the roof of the vehicle as a signal to aircraft that it was entitled to international protection. That is my understanding, having read the briefing on the Bill, but if the Minister wishes to correct me, I am happy to let her do so.

In any humanitarian operation, relief workers or troops escorting them are right to be alert to the prospect of attack from any direction, including from aircraft. If my hon. Friend looks into this, I think he will find that there have been occasions where there has been so-called friendly fire, where humanitarian vehicles have been attacked, deliberately or inadvertently, from the air. Clearly, the purpose of displaying the humanitarian symbols prominently is to deter and prevent any such attack.

My hon. Friend is making the point beautifully. That is why I turned up this afternoon. If the air power in question is Israeli, which it will be, because there is no air force presenting any sort of threat to an Israeli humanitarian effort, surely the right sort of symbols will be the ones that are most familiar to Israeli pilots. That is true throughout the world. We all know why the red cross is so important. If we were combatants of any sort, we would want to be protected if we were injured. We need to make sure that the sort of people who would ignore that do not take part in such conflicts. Therefore putting a diamond shape on the roof of an Israeli truck to prevent Israelis from blowing up their own truck is unnecessary. They could stick with any sort of Israeli symbol for the red cross, whether it was a star of David, a red crescent or any other symbol. The provision is entirely unnecessary in that example.

A new symbol, agreement on which has allowed the vexed question of the position of the Israeli and Palestinian humanitarian relief societies to be settled, and allowed them to become part of the global family of Red Cross and Red Crescent societies, is a compromise worth having.

Although my hon. Friend is tempting me into my other responsibilities as middle east spokesman, I will not go down that track too far, but I shall respond to the point that he made. If I can look forward to the future of the middle east with greater optimism than he was able to voice in his question, perhaps we could see a day when Israeli vehicles participated in UN multinational humanitarian operations. If the legal framework that we have provided for in the protocol and now in the Bill makes it possible for that to happen, that is a constructive step.

I have two other questions to the Minister about the use of the red crystal—

Before my hon. Friend moves on to that point, can he give me some assurance that the red shield of David, which was specifically outlawed following the 1949 diplomatic conference, will not be brought back into the equation?

It is for the Minister to give a detailed response to my hon. Friend’s question. My understanding is that it will be possible to use the red shield as an indicative symbol, but that it would not have the status of a protective symbol. It would have to be used alongside the red crystal, which would have to have the greater prominence, particularly on the roofs of buildings or vehicles, in order to make sure that that protected status was understood.

In that case, does my hon. Friend share my concern that the provision is an unnecessary complication? We are talking about introducing a third symbol, the crystal, but he seems to be saying that notwithstanding that, the Israelis and other countries will carry on using other symbols as well.

That is a complication, but it is a necessary one. The more I delve into the politics of the middle east, the more I find the need for unavoidable complications. One’s wish that the world were simpler is very often defeated when looking at that region.

My second question to the Minister about the red crystal concerns its relationship with the red cross and the red crescent. I heard her say that the intention was that the crystal should not displace those traditional symbols, and I know, too, that in terms of indicative domestic use it will be a matter not for the Government, but for the British Red Cross to decide how to use the symbols in this country. However, I want to put on the record my strong hope that it will not use the opportunity provided by the inclusion of the red crystal in the list of protective symbols to go down the route of saying, “Let’s have that instead of the red cross.”

The British Red Cross and the International Committee of the Red Cross do a first class job. However, the one thing that I find niggling about the British Red Cross from time to time is its neuralgia about even the slightest reference to religion—right down to banning Christmas cribs from the windows of its charity shops. That is unnecessary; I do not think for a moment that such displays bring its impartiality into question. I hope that it will stick to a tried and trusted symbol that the overwhelming majority of the British public respect and value, regardless of their ethnic and religious traditions. The symbol is also regarded with great pride by the army of volunteers and fundraisers who have participated in the work of the British Red Cross for so many years.

My final comment about this element of the Bill takes me to the point raised by my right hon. Friend the Member for East Yorkshire (Mr. Knight) about the Human Rights Act 1998. As I understand it, the Bill prohibits the use of the red crystal for any business or commercial purpose. I would like an assurance from the Government that they truly did their homework on that issue before bringing the Bill to the House. Can the Minister say in terms that the Government have checked that they will not be knowingly extinguishing the patent rights of any individual or company, and that the Bill will not suddenly cripple the trade of some small business that has been innocently using the red crystal as a marketing device or a symbol of its corporate image for many years, only to find itself overtaken by this legislation?

Clause 2 deals with the optional protocol to the convention on the safety of United Nations and associated personnel. In terms of British law, we are talking about an amendment of the United Nations Personnel Act 1997. The amendment is designed to address the fact that the protection given by the current convention is fairly narrow. However, articles 1 and 2 of the original convention show that the definition of a United Nations operation is tightly drafted. To qualify for the protection of personnel, the operation has to be

“for the purpose of maintaining or restoring international peace and security; or…Where the Security Council or the General Assembly has declared, for the purposes of this Convention, that there exists an exceptional risk to the safety of the personnel participating in the operation”.

Clearly, that phraseology rules United Nations humanitarian assistance and relief operations outwith the scope of the original convention. Although it could be argued that there is a safeguard in the reference to the power that the Security Council and General Assembly have to declare that there is an exceptional risk to the personnel participating in the operation, I believe that there have been only about four occasions since the convention came into force when that saving clause has been applied in practice.

Everyone is clear and agrees that there are plenty of United Nations operations that do not qualify for protection but ought to. I gladly join the tribute paid by the Minister to the courage of military personnel and civilian workers who work under the United Nations banner in the most difficult circumstances, trying to bring aid and humanitarian relief to people in desperate straits and often in the midst of the most savage conflicts in different parts of the world.

The Bill is extraterritorial in scope; it creates offences in the United Kingdom in respect of offences committed elsewhere in the world. Section 1 of the United Nations Personnel Act 1997 defines the offences as ones committed outside the United Kingdom. One detail that troubles me is that the Bill does not seek to amend the list of criminal offences included in sections 1 and 2 of the 1997 Act. I am sure that the Minister knows only too well that since 1997 there has been a long series of criminal justice Acts. We have seen the creation of a long list of new offences and the redefinition of others. I am therefore genuinely puzzled about why the Bill does not seek to amend the list of offences in sections 1 and 2 of the 1997 Act, to bring that Act up to date. New terrorism offences have been created and I would have thought that they would apply to the Bill, especially as the terrorism legislation brought in by the Government specifically includes offences committed overseas and not just those committed here. Why has there been no amendment to the original list of offences in the 1997 legislation?

My second area of questioning is about the definition of United Nations operations. The Bill amends the definition of a UN operation to add in the category of

“delivering humanitarian, political or development assistance in peacebuilding and delivering…humanitarian assistance.”

We deserve more detail from the Government about what is meant by “peacebuilding”. The original UN convention carefully defines peacekeeping operations. There was much argument and debate among the members of the United Nations before agreement was reached on the precise wording of the optional protocol. It would help us to understand the reference to “peacebuilding” if the Minister filled us in later about what happened during those negotiations and about what the member states of the UN had in mind collectively when they agreed on the use of that term.

Thirdly, I would be grateful if the Minister could explain the reasoning for the opt-out that is explicitly included in clause 2(4) in respect of operations to deliver emergency humanitarian assistance in response to natural disaster. I know that the Government have simply imported it; it is an opt-out that is included in the text of the optional protocol. What are the reasons for that opt-out? I simply cannot understand why any country in any part of the world should think it necessary to disapply the protection of international law from people who are working on behalf of the UN to deliver emergency humanitarian assistance following an earthquake or some other natural disaster.

We had a fairly recent case of that; as I understand it, one reason that people became so dissatisfied with the tight definitions of the convention was that it failed to offer protection to the relief workers who supplied food, medicines and emergency accommodation to the victims of the Boxing day tsunami a few years ago. The optional protocol and the Bill that implements it would appear to provide an opt-out that any country could exercise, applied to its territory, when people were sent in to respond to just such an emergency. I do not understand the logic of any country’s seeking to have such an opt-out.

It seems to me that there are still some problems with the definition of UN operations, because, even with the additions proposed in the Bill, they basically remain the same as those set out in articles 1 and 2 of the convention. Let me give a few illustrations of those outstanding problems. The Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade Committee of the New Zealand Parliament, which investigated the optional protocol, pointed out that the original convention

“only covers United Nations operations, and”—

this seems to me to be the important point—

“excludes regional peacekeeping operations or peacekeeping operations authorised by the Security Council to be conducted under national or regional command and control.”

That is a significant lacuna in the optional protocol and therefore, presumably, in the scope of the Bill.

We are now in a world where the UN in Sudan is seeking to work in concert with regional organisations. In the future, the UN might wish to work together with or to give authority to the African Union or other regional bodies to co-ordinate and lead both peacebuilding and humanitarian operations in particular parts of the world. If the concerns expressed by the New Zealand Parliament are correct, we have a gap in the protection we are offering to the people involved in such operations. That might be the product of a diplomatic compromise that was necessary to obtain agreement on the protocol, but I would be grateful for some further information on that point, especially given that the New Zealand Parliament concludes:

“The majority of casualties continue to be among personnel serving in operations not covered by the automatic application of the Convention.”

Another criticism was made by the international lawyer, Mr. Huw Llewellyn, who is quoted at length in the helpful research paper provided by the House of Commons Library. He said in an article published in International and Comparative Law Quarterly in July 2006:

“Emergency humanitarian assistance operations established by autonomous organizations within the UN system and by the Specialised Agencies do not fall within Article II(1)(b)”

of the optional protocol because

“They are not established by UN Charter bodies”

and the protocol makes specific reference to the charter. Mr. Llewellyn also pointed out:

“for example, operations established by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), or by the World Health Organization (WHO) would not be within the scope of the Protocol.”

So those organisations would not be within the scope of the Bill, either.

Surely my hon. Friend is highlighting a very good reason why the remaining stages of the Bill should be continued on another day so that he can table amendments to deal with that very issue.

My right hon. Friend makes the good point that those are precisely the sort of issues that we ought to be able to explore with probing amendments and proper time allowed for debate and detailed ministerial response point by point, rather than today’s debate being truncated by the use of a guillotine.

Does my hon. Friend think that the problems he has highlighted in those examples arise from a drafting error on the part of someone who has not thought the issue through or does he think they convey the true intention behind the legislation?

My hon. Friend asks a perfectly serious question. I do not know the answer. I suspect that it is not a drafting error, because it seems to me that the Bill closely reflects the words of the protocol. I would expect that the gaps in the protection are the product of the diplomatic wrangling that was needed to get the UN General Assembly to agree to the optional protocol. It is worth further exploring that point, but of course I understand the diplomatic dilemmas that our Government might have faced in deciding that they had to settle for half a loaf when they might have wanted something rather more ambitious.

Does my hon. Friend agree that however laudable it is to accept half a loaf rather than no loaf, it waters down and hampers the general intention behind the legislation?

That is certainly the case. My hon. Friend and I have learned from our years in this place that one sometimes has to settle for half a loaf or even less and that one advances little by little towards the state of affairs that one hopes to achieve.

My final set of questions about this element of the Bill concerns the practical impact that it might have on existing UN operations. I am clear in my mind that the Bill is binding on British domestic law in respect of offences committed against UN and associated personnel overseas provided that those operations come within the scope of the original convention or the optional protocol. I am not altogether clear about which current UN operations would be covered by the Bill. Some UN operations are extremely controversial and could give rise to some tricky issues of litigation here.

We all watched with horror some of the events in Gaza in recent months. When, a couple of weeks ago, I met Mr. John Ging, the head of the United Nations operation in Gaza, he told me about shelling that had damaged his headquarters building in the Gaza strip. He also told me about military operations in the near vicinity of schools, or attacks on schools, run by the United Nations. I am deliberately trying to keep my language as neutral as possible because there are conflicting accounts of what happened, who was responsible and whether those actions were deliberate or inadvertent, or were in response to attacks on troops.

The basic point is that the Bill creates new offences in British domestic law in respect of attacks on UN and associated personnel operating overseas. If Gaza, to take the most obvious recent high-profile example, is covered by the scope of the additional protocol and the Bill, it surely follows that allegations could be made in the United Kingdom against individual Israeli political or military leaders. I note that the Bill provides a safeguard in that the Attorney-General must give permission for a prosecution to take place. However, one can well imagine that it would be an extremely controversial decision either to initiate or to deny such a prosecution given how the Bill represents and embodies our commitment to the United Nations and to the duty to protect all its personnel.

What troubles me about my hon. Friend’s comments is that they might be interpreted as suggesting that it is more dastardly to kill children who are in a United Nations-sponsored school than in any other school. Surely he is not suggesting that.

No, I am not. The Bill gives particular protection to United Nations and associated personnel; other civilians are covered by the duties of protection that are guaranteed under more general international law, with which my hon. Friend is familiar. The Geneva conventions and the other forms of humanitarian protection that have been agreed between nations continue to apply. The Bill and the convention protocol on which it is based give additional protection to UN personnel in recognition of the particular duties that they carry out on our behalf.

Would not those protections extend to dissuading Israeli defence forces from murdering UK citizens who are part of a UN peacekeeping force in that part of the world, just as, for example, Israeli defence forces murdered the UK citizen Tom Hurndall?

The hon. Gentleman makes his point forcefully, and the Minister and Members will have heard what he says.

It is disappointing that more than 10 years after the convention was adopted, fewer than half the member states of the United Nations have signed up to it. Does the Minister have reason to believe that the addition of the optional protocol will encourage more states to become parties both to the original convention and to the protocol? That would be encouraging. I hope that she can also clarify whether the offences created in the Bill exist only in respect of acts committed on the territory of a country that is a party to the protocol and to the convention, or whether those offences are more strictly defined so that if an attack that qualified under the Bill as a criminal offence took place on UN personnel in any country of the world, the individuals responsible could be brought to justice here. That is an important point that we need to understand not only in appreciating the virtues of the Bill but in judging its practical efficacy in the immediate future.

I am sorry to have detained the Minister for so long with detailed questions, but I wanted to take this opportunity to probe some of the details of the Bill, which, after all, creates new criminal offences that are binding on all our citizens. However, I strongly support the principle of the Bill, and I will support it if we vote on it.

I should like to add the Liberal Democrats’ support for the Bill. I am pleased that the cross-party consensus seems to be that it is the right way for the Government to go. I do not think that I need detain the House for three quarters of an hour in order to put my views across and ask a few questions that I hope that the Minister will be able to deal with in her summing up.

I echo the commendation that the Minister and the hon. Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Lidington) gave to the British Red Cross for the service it has provided in the 100-plus years of its operations. It is wonderful to see such an institution with such a long and successful history—the International Committee of the Red Cross has an even longer history of nearly 150 years—doing incredibly important work. The need to protect medical workers and respect the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies wherever it is operating is absolutely universal, and I am sure that nobody would disagree with the requirement to do so.

One learns something new every day, as the adage goes, and I certainly did so when I read the Hansard report of the debate in the Lords, which the Minister outlined. I was surprised to learn that the origin of the red cross was a reversal of the Swiss flag as a symbol of the neutrality of Switzerland. It must be recalled that despite it being called the red cross, it is not a religious symbol—although, sadly, it has been taken to mean that in some circumstances. The difficulties that have arisen with the red cross and the red crescent being perceived as symbols that are not neutral have led to the need to adopt a new symbol. The adoption of the red crystal is a sensible way forward in such sensitive areas, although it is sad that that choice may have to be made.

I welcome the Minister’s confirmation that the Foreign Office’s default option—I hope the same applies to the British Red Cross—will be to continue to use the red cross, which is most familiar in this country in terms of brand recognition. There must, however, be flexibility so that a crystal can be used too, ensuring that it is entirely clear that the medical aid is neutral.

In what circumstances does the hon. Lady envisage the red crystal being used instead of the red cross?

I understand that it has already been used in several war zones where it was felt that the red cross or the red crescent might be perceived as religious symbols rather than neutral medical symbols. Although that might be regrettable, it is sensible that we ensure that an alternative symbol can be used. There has been discussion about who should make that decision, and the Minister has already stated that the default would be the Red Cross, but that decision has to be made by those on the ground who are able properly to assess the situation and any sensitivities.

Clause 2 calls for additional protection for those who do vital and dangerous work. We should salute those who courageously do an incredibly difficult job in providing a service to us and to the whole international community. Legal protection for UN personnel on peacebuilding and emergency humanitarian work is long overdue. Unfortunately, with the deliberate targeting of humanitarian and UN personnel in recent conflicts, it is more needed than ever.

I should like the Minister to clarify a point that was made today, and in the other place. My noble Friend Baroness Northover asked whether missions of sister organisations—the World Health Organisation or the Food and Agriculture Organisation—in conflict areas would be included. The Minister’s summing up in the other place suggests that any UN agency would be included and that any agency undertaking work with the UN under that umbrella would be included, but that humanitarian agencies would not. The hon. Member for Aylesbury suggested that the WHO and FAO would not be included, so clarity from the Minister would be helpful.

I agree with a lot of what the hon. Lady is saying. Does she think that, historically, sufficient sanctions have been taken against those who have abused the Red Cross—or, most recently, those who abused the United Nations Works and Relief Agency in Gaza? What does she think can be done to beef up that process beyond what is in the Bill?

I would certainly agree that sanctions have not been effective enough. Indeed, I was just about to say that it is all very well passing a Bill, but if the protection is available but is not used we are providing words rather than action. It is important that legislation is available and provides a first step, but the international community needs the political will to act against breaches. In the recent events in Gaza, the UN gave all the co-ordinates of its facilities to the Israeli authorities, but it still ended up being bombed, and that clearly requires an international investigation.

The difficulty with organisations such as the UN is whether independent investigations will be subject to a veto. Where there is evidence that war crimes might have occurred, I strongly feel that they should be investigated and people held to account, regardless of what country they are from or, indeed, in what country the offences were committed. Legal protection does not solve the problem, but having it on the statute book helps to provide a deterrent and gives us the tools to pursue justice. However, there must be the political will to pursue that justice.

If a deterrent is to be effective, surely there has to be an effective sanction against non-compliance. Are we not in danger of engaging again in gesture politics, where the substance does not follow what we are saying?

The hon. Gentleman will know that getting agreement in international organisations is not easy—it is an art rather than a science. I hope that our passing this Bill will send a message to other countries and encourage them to ratify the protocols, but that does not automatically mean that international organisations will work as perfectly as we want. However, that is not an argument for not giving the Bill a Second Reading, or for the Government not to propose legislation. If the Government are encouraging other countries to sign and to ratify the protocols and the initial convention, as I hope they are, their task will be made a bit difficult if they have not ratified them.

When we talk about the protection of UN personnel under the Bill, we are talking about UN personnel in the UK, where we hope there would never be the sort of problems to which the Bill applies. The message that this Parliament sends will give us the basis on which we can, through our diplomatic efforts, encourage other countries to sign and ratify. I hope that the Minister will update the House on the current situation; I understand that 87 countries ratified the original convention, but that 34 had signed and 16 had ratified the protocols. Those were the figures given in the other place in January. Two months on, it would be interesting to know whether the figures have increased, the number of ratifications needed for the protocols to come into force and how far away we are from that.

The Minister said that the Government signed the protocol in 2005, yet four years later we are finally scrutinising the legislation. It is not exactly the weightiest measure for which the Government have needed to find parliamentary time, so I find it difficult to understand why it has taken so long. Given that the red crystal has been in use since 2007, it would be helpful if the House had put things in order beforehand. I should like the Minister to outline the difficulties.

Lord Malloch-Brown wrote a letter to my noble Friend, Lord Wallace of Saltaire, in which he seemed to suggest that even when states had failed, international courts might be able to uphold this law. I wanted to press the Minister on how that could be the case if the states in question had not ratified the protocols. Clearly, some of the states we most want to ratify the protocols are those for which the issue might not be top of the agenda. Any information on the Government’s efforts to encourage them would be welcome.

Finally, much as I welcome additional legal protection for UN personnel, we need to remember non-governmental organisations, such as Oxfam, Médecins sans Frontières, Save the Children and so on. Other humanitarian agencies are delivering aid and relief efforts but will not be protected. A lot of those organisations work in conflict zones where even the UN has pulled out, deeming it too dangerous to work. I hope that the Government will pursue legal protection for aid workers who work in a neutral capacity, providing humanitarian assistance and not getting involved in the politics of individual countries. On 11 March, three staff were kidnapped from Médecins sans Frontières in Darfur, and I am sure that the whole House hopes they will be safely returned. Attacks against humanitarian workers can never be justified, but we should be concerned that our valued international institutions are sometimes regarded with hostility. It is incumbent on all of us, particularly the Government, to do everything possible to uphold the United Nations and its partners as just and non-partisan.

I hope that the Minister will address my points, and I am delighted to support the Second Reading of the Bill.

Thank you for calling me to speak, Madam Deputy Speaker. I am delighted to be here today, supporting the Red Cross. Let us remember that the Red Cross wants the new international sign of the red crystal to protect its operatives in the field. It is wonderful to reflect at this time of huge global tension that the Red Cross operates to the highest ideals possible. We live in times when we have to be religiously sensitive—and when the cross and the crescent can unintentionally ignite religious passions—but the Red Cross is free of any ideology. When people are in need, it does not question who they are, their reasons for being on a battlefield, or their reasons for being in that location—it offers help at the direst time of need and emergency.

We live in dark and dangerous times. The Red Cross was founded nearly 140 years ago, but the need for the Red Cross, the Red Crescent and the derivatives of those organisations is greater than ever before. We have a number of global conflicts, in places such as the Congo, Sudan, Afghanistan and Iraq. There are numerous flashpoints in the middle east, where aid is needed daily. We also have the spectre of global climatic events impacting on people living near sea shores. A few years ago the tsunami laid waste to large parts of Asia. Again, the Red Cross was at the forefront of delivering aid. The need is greater than ever, and if the Red Cross believes that it needs a new global symbol to protect its people in the field, it should have our full support. I am pleased that there seems to be a consensus about that today, as there was in the other place.

We must examine the Bill carefully to ensure that it is as good as it can be. I have one concern, which I think many Members will share. The red crystal will come into force, and I imagine that our troops whom we send to far-flung parts of the world will understand exactly what it means very early on. They will be educated to recognise it. But will people in the Congo, for example, understand what the red crystal is? We will be dealing with youngsters who have had no formal education at all, as they have been denied it. They are taken from their homes, conscripted into youth armies and brutalised. What will the red crystal mean to them? Will it offer any protection to those who fly the flag? Terrible events are also unfolding in Swat valley in Pakistan.

Surely in the scenario that my hon. Friend paints, another symbol would be used. Does he not think that the Foreign Office would have a list of countries where it is most appropriate to use a different symbol, and that the UN would be guided accordingly?

My right hon. Friend makes an excellent point, and that is why Parliament has such an important role to play through the Bill. When concerns are raised, parliamentarians turn their attention to addressing them, and I hope that the most appropriate symbol will be used. We have a duty to ensure that the brave men and women who go into dangerous places get the maximum possible protection. That is an absolute, and we must never shy away from trying to ensure it.

My hon. Friend is, of course, entirely right about the proliferation around the world of events at which the Red Cross or its derivatives are needed. Does he share a corresponding concern about the abuse of the symbols in the countries where those events are taking place? I understand that under the existing 1957 legislation, unauthorised use of the emblem is punishable by a fine up to level 5 on the standard scale, which is currently £5,000. I do not know whether he knows how many times that has been enforced, but does he regard that as a sufficient penalty?

The penalty sounds very small and out of date, but as my hon. Friend will know, we can have all the penalties in the world, but if they cannot be enforced they amount to absolutely nothing. In response to the intervention by my right hon. Friend the Member for East Yorkshire (Mr. Knight), I point out that there are too many parts of the world where the Red Cross and the Red Crescent are abused, and where people no longer respect the mission of those brave organisations. Like many other Members, I have read the Library briefing and watched the news. Unfortunately, brave men and women working tirelessly for the benefit of others under the flag of the Red Cross or the Red Crescent are losing their lives.

My hon. Friend the Member for East Devon (Mr. Swire) will know, as he is a former soldier, that the battlefield is a dangerous place to be. We see that week in and week out, when we hear of journalists and other non-combatants being killed. Deliberate attacks on people flying an international symbol of aid and help must no longer be tolerated. The Liberal Democrat spokesman, the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire (Jo Swinson), touched on the fact that when people working for the Red Cross come under deliberate attack, there must be global indignation and those responsible must feel the full weight of global law fall upon their shoulders.

I am sorry that I was not here at the outset of the debate, but I have thus far followed it with interest from a distance, and I have read all the materials provided. My hon. Friend talks about indignation, but that must find its form in the appropriate reaction of Government. If they do not take a lead on these things, he is fanciful in expecting others to do so in their place. The Government must take a lead, and there is not much evidence that they are.

I shall be more charitable than my hon. Friend to the Government, because I think that there is a desire and a mood in all parties to provide the necessary protection to men and women operating in the field under the red cross and the red crescent. However, my hon. Friend makes a valuable point. Today, we have the G20, and 66 per cent. of the world’s population is represented by the global leaders who are in London. The economy is absolutely critical and deserves their attention, but they should also focus on how to alleviate the suffering of the hundreds of millions of people who are living in war-torn parts of the world. I mentioned the Congo earlier, and it is outrageous that more than 6 million people have been allowed to perish there. How many more would there have been without the Red Cross?

Order. I have been pleased to hear the hon. Gentleman relating his remarks and concerns to the Bill, and I hope that he will continue to do that.

Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker.

How many more would have perished without the Red Cross, and how many more would be suffering? The organisations, guerrilla groups and people who wilfully attack the Red Cross must be brought before a court of international law and tried. If convicted, they must serve time in prison for their crimes against not just the Red Cross but humanity.

I conclude my short speech by paying tribute to those who work for the Red Cross and Red Crescent. They are ordinary men and women who do extraordinary things. We normally hear about them only when a tragedy occurs, but day in and day out they bring aid to parts of the world where there are unimaginable levels of suffering. We in this House need to do as much as possible to ensure that the Red Cross and its people can continue to deliver on their mission, and I am pleased that the Bill is before the House today and that we are supporting the Red Cross in its aims and objectives.

May I say how nice it is to see how many colleagues are present who also served on the Apprenticeships, Skills, Children and Learning Public Bill Committee, including the Government Whip, the hon. Member for Brent, South (Ms Butler), who unfortunately cannot speak for herself today?

I begin by welcoming the tireless efforts of the humanitarian personnel who act selflessly to save lives and alleviate suffering. Humanitarian workers operate in the most hostile and dangerous parts of the world and show compassion and bravery that, along with the character of our armed forces, is unparalleled. We must of course do what we can to protect them and ensure that those who risk their lives are reassured of our support.

However, emblems and conventions may not be enough. It saddens me that in recent years there have been many examples of humanitarian workers being harmed and killed, often in the most callous and brutal ways. I am concerned that those involved in the conflicts in which the UN and humanitarian personnel are engaged are already failing to respect the existing laws of war and morality. Whatever we legislate for in this Parliament, and across the world in other decent and democratic countries that respect the laws of war and the Geneva conventions, that does not mean that others will necessarily extend the same protection and respect. There are immoral people in conflict zones across the world who show utter disregard for the laws of war. They make no distinction between those acting in a humanitarian capacity and military personnel, who may be viewed as being legitimate targets.

A number of high-profile examples have been brought to my attention that highlight the need for the international community, the United Nations and other international organisations to take action against those who refuse to be bound by the letter and the spirit of the conventions.

In October, we were all horrified by the actions of the Taliban gunmen who brutally murdered three women aid workers, including one Briton, 40-year-old Jacqueline Kirk. The aid workers were ambushed by gunmen 30 miles outside Kabul in the province of Logar, while travelling from Gardez in the east of Afghanistan to Kabul. The gunmen ignored the laws of war and did not feel bound by conventions. Ms Kirk and her colleagues were working for the International Rescue Committee. They were not soldiers, part of the coalition of the willing or there to wipe out the Taliban—that is the job of our soldiers. Ms Kirk was there to support innocent civilians. She had no knowledge of warfare, but expertise in children’s education programmes. The Taliban gunmen did not care. Their spokesman went as far as to claim that they attacked the vehicle in which Ms Kirk and her colleagues travelled because it was carrying military personnel, “most of them women.” He added to the Associated Press by phone:

“They were not working for the interests of Afghanistan and they belonged to those countries whose forces… took Afghanistan’s freedom.”

Although the introduction of the red crystal symbol is welcome, I do not believe that the Taliban would show it any more respect than it has shown existing aid workers. It is not clear that the red crystal would have protected the five international aid workers who were kidnapped or held hostage in Afghanistan in the first half of 2008, or the dozens of Afghan aid staff working daily for non-governmental organisations.

There are other examples of aid workers being brutally attacked and mistreated in conflicts. Sadly, the case involving Ms Kirk is not a one-off, but an all-too-regular occurrence. In 1996, three International Committee of the Red Cross relief workers were killed in Burundi, despite travelling in a vehicle that was clearly marked with the red cross emblem. Four ICRC staff were killed in south Sudan by the Sudan People’s Liberation Army in 1999—they were abducted in February and executed a few weeks later in April. In the Democratic Republic of the Congo in 2001, two vehicles clearly marked with the red cross emblems were attacked, resulting in the deaths of six ICRC workers. The co-pilot of a Red Cross plane was killed after his plane was shot down in Sudan in 2001. Peace activist Ken Bigley was brutally beheaded in Iraq. In March 2007, a German aid worker was shot dead by gunmen in northern Afghanistan. In July 2007, two South Korean aid workers were shot dead. Suicide bombers in Iraq have attacked ICRC headquarters. In February, two aid workers for French organisation Aide Médicale Internationale were ambushed and shot dead south of Darfur. Only last week, a 39-year-old Sudanese relief worker was shot by gunmen in Sudan, who were attempting to steal a satellite phone facility. In Sri Lanka, a CARE International humanitarian worker was killed in a no-fire zone in the Vanni area in the north.

The Agency Co-ordinating Body for Afghan Relief—ACBR—has reported that there was a 50 per cent. increase in insurgent attacks in 2008 compared with the previous year. Those actions and the contempt that some show towards humanitarian workers and the emblems under which they act undermine efforts to bring peace to areas of conflict.

The ghastly list that my hon. Friend has read out will cause everybody much concern, but to what extent have the perpetrators been prosecuted?

I do not think that there have been any prosecutions. The Government’s efforts in the legislation enable British people to be prosecuted, but not the perpetrators of the atrocities. Although it is right to have the legislation in place here, I emphasise that no one has been punished for the atrocities.

Let me repeat my earlier point. Although it is important that the international community comes down hard on those who ignore the symbols—incidences of that have unfortunately increased of late—it should also come down hard on those who misuse the symbols in times of war. Does my hon. Friend agree that existing provisions for fines and so on are woefully inadequate unless they are enforced, and also, as they stand, inadequate law?

I agree with my hon. Friend—I usually do; he is very wise—but, tragically, enforcement is not possible. Aid workers are needed and they go into those areas because there is lawlessness, no enforcement and humanitarian need. Food for the world exists; bad governance means that it does not get to the people who need it most.

Is not it a sad fact of life that the legislation could include as harsh a punishment as one wanted, but many areas are so lawless and experience such a breakdown of law and order that, unless one catches the perpetrators of the atrocities, little can be done?

My hon. Friend is right. However, all that should not stop members of the ICRC making the sacrifice, taking the risk and putting themselves in danger to deliver humanitarian aid because that is what they do, and we should support them. It is sad that whatever we say and do here is unlikely to have an impact. I hope that I am wrong, but I fear I am not.

We must do what we can to ensure that vital aid and resources get to innocent civilians who need it. In Afghanistan, our aid workers and those who wear the respective red cross, red crescent and red crystal emblems would have their safety and the security in which to operate and carry on with their tremendous work strengthened if the Taliban were further weakened. That means that our military personnel must receive the right equipment to ensure that they can do their job to the best of their abilities. It also means that the many other countries that have an interest in peace and security in Afghanistan, including members of NATO and the EU, commit their fair share of military resources to that conflict zone. By improving the security situation on the ground for aid and humanitarian workers, we can reduce the dangers posed to them and the threats and brutal actions of those who show no regard for the emblems that we are debating today.

When my constituents donate money to the Red Cross or to Oxfam, they expect their aid workers and the operations that they fund with their contributions to be protected. When our constituents decide to become aid workers, often as volunteers, while aware of the risks, they nevertheless expect that the purpose for their presence in conflict zones affords them some protection. People support aid agencies because they want to see them bring kindness and good to parts of the world where conflict has turned lives upside down and left innocent civilians—men, women and children—with little or nothing.

Whether in Palestine, Sudan, Afghanistan, Somalia or Iraq the work that humanitarian workers and aid agencies undertake needs to be supported. I therefore press on the Under-Secretary the importance of taking the appropriate steps to ensure that those who disregard the laws of war and deliberately bring harm to aid workers are brought to justice and do not undermine the great efforts taken to support civilian populations.

We also need to know from the Government that, aside from the introduction of the red crystal, more is being done to protect aid workers. How can we guarantee protection for our aid workers and humanitarian personnel when there are people in conflict areas prepared to disregard the rules of warfare, morality and decency? In lawless Somalia and large parts of Afghanistan, the conventions may carry little force or protection. Delivering further measures to protect humanitarian workers through the amendments to protocols and introducing a new emblem may look adequate on paper, but their true test will be seen in the conflict areas.

The Geneva conventions and the protocols relating to UN personnel are not only designed to protect aid and humanitarian workers and civilians. The Geneva conventions were originally established to provide protection to wounded soldiers and military personnel—to ensure that those who need help and medical aid are given it.

My constituency is home to the finest soldiers anywhere in the world. Their record of achievement and their skills are unparalleled anywhere in the world. They are the bravest and they are the best. As with aid workers, however, when our soldiers are wounded in battle, there are those in some conflict areas who will not abide by international conventions. How confident can we be that our injured soldiers will be afforded the same rights, the same dignity and the same care by the enemy as those whom we capture are? When the Taliban or the insurgency in Iraq capture our soldiers, abiding by international law and those conventions does not appear to be at the forefront of their thoughts. The best way we can protect our military personnel in some conflict zones is not necessarily by relying on the enemy to observe international law, but by providing our personnel with the equipment and resources they need to protect themselves.

Our efforts to promote international law and those conventions are, however, undermined by some of the actions in which this Government may have been involved. The Government’s alleged complicity in acts of extraordinary rendition and the recent allegations made concerning torture are deeply worrying. We cannot go around lecturing others about international law and protecting civilians when there are questions that the Government may have to answer about not upholding such rules themselves. Such matters must be resolved to restore this country’s credibility. The UK has a proud tradition of upholding and promoting international law. This Government must not be allowed to undermine it.

As I understand it, the Bill has two objectives: to amend the Geneva Conventions Act 1957 and to amend the United Nations Personnel Act 1997. That is extremely relevant. Only a few weeks ago, I was with my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for East Devon (Mr. Swire) in Gaza, looking at, among other things, the enormous damage done to the UN compound in Gaza city and hearing about the deaths of about a dozen UN personnel during the recent conflict there. Also, as a television reporter at ITN, I spent considerable time in Bosnia, where I saw the importance of UN organisations operating effectively and saving many lives. I am therefore acutely aware of the need for both unambiguous markings and the protection of personnel.

The first aim marks a new stage in the use of protective and distinctive emblems to cover the work of people who bring relief to the victims of battle, whether civilian or military—the scenes are all too familiar on our television sets. The legislation does that by introducing and legalising the new additional emblem, which is intended to be both protective and indicative, being marked on vehicles and on the armbands and uniforms of personnel in the field. As we have discussed, the legislation also covers penalties for the misuse or abuse of the new symbol and, as I understand it, the existing symbols.

Does my hon. Friend share my slight concern that the new symbol could be mistaken for a military marking?

My hon. Friend raises an interesting point, which I shall come to a little later in my speech, but I absolutely agree. The first time that I saw the symbol, it took me back to the platoon commander’s battle course at Warminster and the sort of markings that people might put on maps in an operations room, as well as the sort of markings used for directing military convoys. My hon. Friend makes an interesting point to which I shall return.

The second aim is to strengthen the safety of the UN and associated personnel by extending their legal protection against attack in a wide range of operations. Both those aims are obviously thoroughly commendable and, as has been said, extremely relevant to the modern world. The bravery of those who work under those badges and emblems of neutrality and mercy is clear; they do a fantastic job. I strongly support the aims, but I have a number of questions for the Minister, which I hope that she can answer. The expansion of symbols from the simple red cross to the red crescent comes down to us from the 19th century, as she has said. We have also heard that at one point there was the red lion and sun for the Persians, and I think that there was even a red flame at one time for Thailand. All manner of religious and ethnic concerns have been reflected by such symbols.

Let us remember, however, that the original red cross was never intended to be a religious symbol. As the Minister has said, it was simply the reversal of the Swiss flag, which is a white cross on a red background. The red cross became the emblem of that precious and nowadays abused concept of true neutrality. That was a long time ago, but this is where we are today. If the cross and the crescent have served us so well, I do not really see the reasoning for the new symbol.

My hon. Friend might be understating the risk. It is true that part of that risk lies in confusion of the type that he has described, which might arise. However, the history of the subject, which he will have looked at in some detail, shows that it has previously been suggested not simply that there should be one or two more symbols but, as he has implied, that there should be a multitude of symbols. Indeed, it has been suggested in debates on such matters since the 19th century that each nation might have its own symbol. That would lead to a disaster, whereby the universality that he has described would be lost for ever.

That is an interesting point. Indeed, my very next line is about whether the essential quality is in any way weakened or diluted by a third or more symbols.

I have been listening carefully to my hon. Friend. Does he accept that if one were to have too many symbols, it would dilute recognition and understanding? To answer an earlier point, it may well be a problem for Jewish people from Israel to have a red crescent and, possibly, a red cross. It may also be a problem for Hindus in India to have a red crescent or a red cross. Surely the way forward is to have a third, all-embracing symbol for those cultures and peoples who find Christianity and Islam not acceptable, but not to dilute it by having regional, religious or ethnic variations, which could cause total incomprehension.

I am now concerned that the Whips Office is breaking into my hard drive, because the very next line of my speech is about the Israeli preference for the star of David. Now that the Israelis will be or have been admitted—I am not sure which—into the international federation, the idea seems to be that they can have the star of David with the crystal around it. If that is correct, I assume that that symbol would provide exactly the same protection under international law as the red crescent.

Who exactly decides who can use the new symbol and where? Will the combination of emblems, such as the star of David and the crescent, be fully operative for indicative and protective purposes in all cases? How will the new emblem affect the International Committee of the Red Cross, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies and the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement? Will the crystal be included in any of their titles in future? Will there be a new international crystal organisation?

How do we get the message out there that the symbol means what it means? There are two issues, the first of which is recognition. When I was with ITN in Bosnia, I remember that we had four white, armoured Land Rovers that said “ITN unit” on the side, but the word “unit” was bigger than “ITN”. I remember people in a village one day assuming that we were a military unit because the Land Rover had the word “unit” on the side, so whether or not people recognise the new symbol is not a trite point.

My hon. Friend has raised some interesting points, particularly about how we should educate people about the new symbol. We must not forget, however, that the Red Cross is in favour of the