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Commons Chamber

Volume 510: debated on Wednesday 2 June 2010

House of Commons

Wednesday 2 June 2010

The House met at half-past Two o’clock

Prayers

[Mr Speaker in the Chair]

Member Sworn

The following Member took and subscribed the Oath required by law:

Anne Caroline Ballingall McIntosh for Thirsk and Malton

Oral Answers to Questions

International Development

The Secretary of State was asked—

Departmental Expenditure

We will fundamentally change the way in which we look at the value for money of aid, moving from a focus on inputs to what our money achieves—the outputs and outcomes we secure. We will gain maximum value for money for every pound through greater transparency, rigorous independent evaluation and an unremitting focus on results.

May I take this opportunity to welcome my right hon. Friend to the Dispatch Box and to congratulate him on his new and important role? I am sure that Members on both sides of the House recognise the important work he has done and will wish him well in these very difficult economic times. Will he reassure the House and my constituents that value for money will be at the heart of his Department’s vital work in tackling poverty in the poorest countries in the world?

I thank my hon. Friend for his kind remarks. As I look around the House, I see Members on both sides who are passionate and knowledgeable about international development. I look forward to building on the progress made by the previous Government on this important agenda and I pay tribute to my predecessor, the shadow Secretary of State, the right hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire South (Mr Alexander), for his work in particular on international aid effectiveness and co-ordination.

In respect of my hon. Friend’s question, value for money will be at the heart of everything we do. We are examining all expenditure in every single country, starting with our country review shortly.

With your permission, Mr Speaker, let me return the compliment offered to me by the Secretary of State by extending my congratulations to him and his team of Ministers. The Department for International Development is one of Labour’s proudest achievements and I wish him well in his stewardship of that important Ministry. I welcome the answer that he just gave emphasising value for money. May I ask whether he regards educating young girls in Afghanistan as a valuable part of that comprehensive approach or whether he agrees with the Defence Secretary that it is simply

“education policy in a broken 13th-century country”?

I thank the shadow Secretary of State for his kind remarks. It is a tremendous advantage in the House and outside it that international development is regarded as a British policy and not a policy of any one of the three main political parties. On his point about education in Afghanistan, education is vital to the future of Afghanistan and to building the capacity of that state. He will know that we now have more than 2 million girls in education in Afghanistan.

I welcome the fact that the Secretary of State may have achieved the forced re-education of the Defence Secretary on the issue of value for money in DFID expenditure. Has he also secured the re-education of the new Secretary of State for Scotland, the hon. Member for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk (Michael Moore), who, according to correspondence that has now come into my possession, described as recently as 20 April “the very real danger” of Conservative proposals to divert aid to military control? Who has got it wrong—the Secretary of State for International Development or the Scottish Secretary?

I am afraid that I cannot comment on leaked documents that the shadow Secretary of State has got. On his first point about the Secretary of State for Defence, perhaps I could draw his attention to the press conference that was given in Kabul by me and my right hon. Friends the Secretary of State for Defence and the Foreign Secretary. If the right hon. Gentleman looks carefully at the text of that press conference, he will see that one could not get a cigarette paper between my views and those of the Secretary of State for Defence.

May I just say how delighted we all are to see my right hon. Friend and his colleagues on the Treasury Bench? They are a fantastic team: he did brilliant work in opposition, and I am sure that he will do brilliant work in government.

However much value for money my right hon. Friend manages to get out of his Department, our colleagues in the G8 must also do their bit. The UK has met the targets that we set ourselves at Gleneagles, but does he not find it a matter of concern that France, Germany and Italy are so substantially lagging behind what they promised at Gleneagles that they would do to meet those targets?

My hon. Friend is right that everyone who signed up to those commitments at Gleneagles in 2005, in front of the international cameras of the world, must honour them. We will be at pains to make it clear that the vital development budget, which is so important, should be supported by all the G8 countries. It is difficult to probe and indeed question countries in the developing world that do not live up to their commitments to their people if countries of the G8 do not live up to the solemn commitments that they too have made in front of the world.

Sudan

The British Government are deeply concerned by the humanitarian emergency in Sudan. Recent fighting, particularly in Darfur and southern Sudan, is causing further suffering and displacement. In 2010, we will provide emergency food, medicine, shelter, water and sanitation for up to 5 million people. We continue to urge the Government of Sudan and rebel movements to improve access and security for humanitarian workers.

In congratulating the right hon. Gentleman on his appointment, may I ask that he assures the House that, as a priority, this Government will continue to focus on Sudan? Will he bring the House up to date by giving us his assessment of the current situation in east Sudan?

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his comments, and I pay tribute to his consistent work on Sudan over recent years. He will be aware that nearly 300,000 people have died in Darfur as a result of this emergency: 2 million people are displaced, 2.4 million are on food aid, and fighting is still going on in Jebel Mara and Jebel Moon. He will also be aware that this conflict has internationalised itself across the border into Chad, where there are already 250,000 Sudanese refugees, as well as into the Central African Republic.

Tomorrow, the UN emergency relief co-ordinator will brief the UN Security Council on his recent visit. The British Government will look carefully at what he says about the humanitarian situation in Sudan, and consider whether further action is necessary.

I congratulate my right hon. Friend on his appointment to the Cabinet. What is Her Majesty’s Government’s view on next year’s national referendum? He will no doubt have taken soundings from Ministers throughout Europe. It is absolutely vital that the referendum is undertaken in the correct way, in order to bring stable Government so that we can see that humanitarian relief and aid are put in the right place.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right about the critical importance of the referendum on the border between southern and northern Sudan, and we are watching the position extremely carefully. He will be aware that the situation in Darfur that I have described is in many ways mirrored by what is going on in the south, where he will know that there has been an acute rise in food shortage and where more than £70 million of British humanitarian relief is going in this year. I can give him the undertaking that we will continue to work hard to ensure that the referendum is conducted freely, fairly and successfully, and that we are prepared for the results.

I add my own congratulations to the right hon. Gentleman, and send best wishes to him and his team—for now. Given that we are still a long way from meeting the millennium development goals, particularly in Sudan, how will he and his colleagues use the remaining four months before the UN’s poverty summit to help rebuild the international momentum needed to achieve the goals? Will not one telling signal of the new Government’s willingness to show leadership on this issue be whether they bring forward legislation to put the UN’s aid target of 0.7% on the statute book before that September summit?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his warm wishes for now. On the second part of his question, he will have seen in the coalition document that we are committed to enshrining in legislation our commitment to an aid target of 0.7 % of gross national income by 2013. If he will bide his time in patience, he will see that that is precisely what we will do. On his first point about the critical importance of taking forward the agenda on the MDGs, which is so off-track at present, he will be interested to hear that the Prime Minister will meet the Prime Minister of Canada tomorrow to discuss the approach of the G8 to the MDGs. In particular, in respect of MDG 5 concerning maternal mortality, which is so off-track, we have specific plans to try and give that a boost.

Russian Federation

3. What his Department's policy is on the provision of aid to the Russian Federation; and if he will make a statement. (443)

DFID’s bilateral project work in Russia totalled £1.5 million in 2009-10 and is estimated to be some £1.4 million in 2010-11. The new Government will wind down bilateral spending in Russia as soon as is practical and responsible.

I thank the Minister for his response and offer my congratulations to him on his position. Those of us who have been involved in our commercial careers in Russia would certainly agree that giving aid to such a prominent G8 country could risk confidence in the aid programme as a whole, but Russia still has a long way to go in developing a full civil society. Will the Minister look at how non-governmental organisations in Russia working towards civil society might be encouraged to do their job?

I thank my hon. Friend for his kind words. I am well aware of his work in the past on the know how fund and I appreciate his continuing interest in the matter. As I said, we intend to wind down bilateral aid to Russia in an orderly way. Ministers and officials regularly discuss with Russia both bilaterally and as part of the EU a range of issues, including human rights and freedom of expression. We remain committed to maintaining our dialogue with Russia as a donor colleague in the global effort to provide good quality aid.

Further to that answer, will my hon. Friend also consider moving the aid that has been going to Russia to Russia’s former satellites in central Asia? For example, in Tajikistan more than 1 million people are living on less than $1 a day, and five years on from the Andijan massacre, Uzbekistan is desperately in need of help for rebuilding civil society and democratisation.

As I said, we intend to wind down bilateral aid to Russia in an orderly way, and we are carrying out a review of all bilateral programmes so that we can better prioritise the United Kingdom’s development assistance. At this stage in the review, I cannot make commitments to increase aid in the areas that my hon. Friend proposes, but I am happy to take his comments on board.

I welcome the hon. Gentleman to his post. A moment ago he mentioned raising the issue of human rights with the Russians. He will be aware of the disgraceful and homophobic comments of the mayor of Moscow in his various attempts to ban gay rights marches in Moscow. What message can the Minister take to the Russians and to all the recipients of UK aid money that such disgraceful homophobic attacks and oppression will not be tolerated?

The hon. Gentleman may be surprised to know that that is the one homophobic comment of which I had not been fully aware. I am usually well on top of these matters. We take human rights issues in Russia very seriously and they will continue to be an important part of the dialogue between our diplomats and members of the Foreign Office and our Russian counterparts.

Departmental Aid Programmes

4. What steps he is taking to ensure maximum transparency in the distribution of aid under his Department’s programmes. (444)

The public in the UK and in the countries where we work have a right to access information about the aid that we provide. We will introduce full transparency in aid and publish details of all UK aid spending online, increasing the range and extent of the information published.

I congratulate my right hon. Friend and his team on the jobs that they are to do, because I know that they are all passionate about the subject. Will the Secretary of State please let the House know that the benefits of the increased transparency will extend not just to UK taxpayers, but to the poor of the countries that the aid is intended to help?

My hon. Friend knows a great deal about these issues from her experience, not least in Uganda, and I thank her for her question. She is quite right about the importance of transparency, enabling people in poor countries to hold their own politicians to account, and it is a very important aspect of both transparency and our development budget that we help build up the capacity of civil society in countries that we are assisting so that they can do just that.

Given the increasing importance of the European Union in aid funding, does the Secretary of State agree that there needs to be greater harmonisation of aid priorities within the EU?

The hon. Lady makes an important point about the EU aid programme, which, as she knows, is conducted in two different ways—through own resources and through the European development fund. I had the opportunity of speaking to the commissioner who is responsible for these matters last week about the importance of aid effectiveness and transparency in the EU. There may be a case in some aspects of the programme for greater harmonisation, and we will always look at that through the prism of greater effectiveness.

I commend my right hon. Friend for the proactive approach that he is taking in ensuring that the UK takes the lead in providing greater transparency, but does he agree that it is equally important that our international partners follow suit, and, if so, could he share with the House how he intends to encourage them to do so?

As my hon. Friend will be aware, this is an important aspect of the work that we intend our newly established, or to be established, independent evaluation programme to champion. An independent evaluation is not only about looking at the money that we spend from DFID, it is also about looking at how British taxpayers’ money is spent through the multilaterals and some of the brilliant non-governmental organisations that we are funding. All of them need to be subject to the same independent audit so that we ensure that we get value for money for the hard-pressed taxpayers who are providing it.

The Minister may be aware of the incredibly good work that many charities and church-based groups are carrying out in east Africa, particularly in regard to transparency and combating corruption there. Will he try to understand and take information from those charitable groups and ensure that that is replicated in the aid that goes to that region?

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right in the importance that he attaches to the work of some of these brilliant NGOs, not only in the part of Africa that he mentioned, but all around the world, which during the last four years I have had the privilege of seeing in action. We have every intention of introducing a poverty impact fund targeted precisely at enabling such charities to double the output of what they are producing, and I will be able to give the House further details of that in due course.

Malaria

The Government are committed to a significant increase in our support to help reduce the terrible scourge of over 800,000 known deaths from malaria each year—all of which are preventable. Research is essential to develop new drugs and tools and identify the best way to deliver them in a cost-effective way, and will play a part in our meeting this commitment as we increase our focus and activity on malaria.

In welcoming the Minister to his place at the Dispatch Box, may I offer my congratulations to the Secretary of State who got into the Conservative party manifesto a commitment to £500 million spending per year on malaria, which in particular includes research into a malaria vaccine? Does that commitment still stand, because it will gain support on both sides of the House?

I am very grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his kind remarks, and he is aware that we are committed to spending up to £500 million as he notes, in particular in relation to developing an effective malaria vaccine. Theoretically, there is a real hope of such a vaccine in the future, and we believe that vaccine research therefore plays in important part, but at the same time should not detract from the need to get better at delivering what we know works now. Work on a future vaccine will be focused on what will be capable of being safely delivered, accessible to the poor and with sufficient efficacy to be one of the key tools in the armoury that will continue to have to be used in the battle against malaria.

Further to that answer, what commitment can the Minister give to the Government’s approach to the talks on the replenishment of the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, which will take place in September?

I am very grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his question. He will be aware that that issue is currently being considered, and we are looking at all the representations received not only to work towards a negotiation of the replenishment of the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, but most importantly to build on the very good work that that fund, which is now the world’s largest health fund, has already demonstrated to date.

Pakistan

6. What proportion of his Department’s aid to Pakistan was intended for minority groups in the federally administered tribal areas of Pakistan in the last 12 months. (446)

Of £140 million in assistance to Pakistan between April 2009 and March 2010, my Department provided £40.2 million in humanitarian aid for people displaced by conflict in federally administered tribal areas and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province. The UK’s humanitarian assistance targets those most in need, regardless of population group, following internationally agreed principles of neutrality and impartiality.

I thank the Secretary of State for his response, and I add my congratulations to him on his appointment as Secretary of State and to his team. Does he agree that it is not only essential to win hearts and minds among the general populace, but vital to try to assist minority groups in those regions through our aid efforts?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question and underline the point that I made in my answer—that our humanitarian assistance targets those most in need, following internationally agreed principles of neutrality and impartiality. I can tell him that I shall shortly be going to Pakistan, and I shall look very specifically at the point that he has made. I can tell him also that since the 2008 conflict, the UK has given humanitarian support, providing shelter, food, health care, clean water and sanitation in order to help people recover their livelihoods when they return to their home. I know that that has been a matter of concern to him.

Female Genital Mutilation

7. What steps he plans to take to ensure that projects to prevent female genital mutilation have access to internet-based funding programmes. (447)

The Government condemn female genital mutilation as an extreme violation of women’s and girls’ human rights. An estimated 140 million women and girls have been subjected to that practice. Internet-based funding, such as GlobalGiving, is increasingly helping civil society organisations to access funding for programmes to prevent female genital mutilation. We will look at that area over the next year as we design the poverty impact fund, which will support innovative ways of working.

Genital mutilation is condemned by most humanitarian organisations, so how does the Minister plan to ensure that his “My Aid” programme will not disadvantage unpopular programmes? As I understand it, his party’s green paper says that if 25% of people vote for Malawi, that country’s programme will get 25% of the funding. But how will he protect vital programmes that do not have the X factor and do not receive an internet vote?

I am very grateful to the hon. Gentleman for identifying the key issue of FGM. We will certainly consider carefully what he has said, as we look to roll forward the programmes, in order to ensure that we deal in the most effective way by bearing down not only on the activity, which is clearly intolerable, but on the societal and cultural drivers that lie behind it. That is what will be most influential in driving the funds to help the programmes.

Departmental Aid Programmes

9. What steps he is taking to ensure maximum effectiveness in respect of the aid provided under his Department’s programmes. (449)

It is essential that we spend every pound of aid effectively. We will do that through rigorous independent evaluation, greater transparency and an unremitting focus on results. We will transform the transparency of aid information, ensuring accountability to UK taxpayers and people in developing countries. The UK will review all aid to focus it on results and on outputs.

I am grateful for that reply and welcome my right hon. Friend to his new appointment. He stressed that Afghanistan is our main foreign challenge. How will he ensure that the money that is poured into Ministries in Kabul is able to make its way all the way down to the front line—to those communities that need it most?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who knows a great deal about those issues. We have looked very carefully at the mechanism for delivering that aid, which is vital to the development effort in Afghanistan, and independent analysis suggests that the World Bank trust fund, which, as he will appreciate, pays out on the basis of receipts for work carried out by the Government and Government employees, is a highly effective way of getting money through to the front line.

Caucasus

12. What recent assessment he has made of the effectiveness of his Department’s work to promote stability and the development of civil society in the Caucasus. (452)

DFID no longer has bilateral aid programmes in the Caucasus region. The UK Government’s conflict prevention pool, including civil society support, remains active in the region. The UK also continues to support development in the Caucasus region through its membership of multilateral institutions, including the EU.

I thank the Minister for his reply. Does he agree that given the continued progress towards a resolution of conflicts in the region, particularly in respect of Nagorno-Karabakh, it is very important that, at a multilateral and primary level, the Government give support to those sorts of activities?

We will look very closely at the hon. Gentleman’s representations in the context of all the reviews that we are currently making.

Prime Minister

The Prime Minister was asked—

Engagements

I am sure that the whole House will wish to join me in paying tribute to the soldiers who have died in Afghanistan in the last week: from 40 Commando Royal Marines, Corporal Stephen Curley and Marine Scott Taylor; and from the 4th Regiment Royal Artillery, Gunner Zak Cusack. These were men of outstanding courage, skill and selflessness. We must never forget their sacrifice.

The House will also be alarmed and shocked by the events unfolding in Cumbria today. Police were called to Whitehaven at 10.35 this morning after shots were fired by a man, and I regret to report that a number of people have been shot and at least five people have died. I can confirm that the body of a gunman has been found by the police. The chief constable of Cumbria is working closely with other forces and other emergency services to ensure a co-ordinated response to these rapidly moving events. The Government will do everything that they possibly can to help the local community and those affected, and to keep the House informed. A full statement will be made to Parliament tomorrow. When lives and communities are suddenly shattered in this way, our thoughts should be with all those caught up in these tragic events, especially the families and friends of those killed or injured.

All parties in this House will welcome the coalition’s proposals to eliminate quangos and shift power away from unelected functionaries to elected representatives. The biggest quango of the lot is, of course—[Hon. Members: “The House of Lords.”] It is the other place, a legislative Chamber largely appointed by the Executive. Will my right hon. Friend confirm that he will bring forward proposals in the next 12 months to make all our law-makers accountable through the ballot box?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for asking that question. I do not always give him answers that make him happy, but this time I can. There will be a draft motion, by December, which the House can vote on. I have always supported a predominantly elected House of Lords, and I am delighted that agreement has been reached on the coalition programme. [Interruption.] I can already hear what a challenge around the House it is going to be to achieve the consensus that we need, but I hope that after all the promises of reform, this time we can move towards a predominantly elected second Chamber.

I join the Prime Minister in paying tribute to Corporal Stephen Curley and Marine Scott Taylor from 40 Commando Royal Marines, and to Gunner Zak Cusack from the 4th Regiment Royal Artillery. As the Prime Minister said, they were brave men who died in the service of our country. We must never forget the sacrifice that they made.

I strongly support what the Prime Minister has said about the dreadful shootings in Cumbria. We offer our deepest sympathies to the families of those who have been killed and our strong support for the police, the emergency services and the local communities in Cumbria.

May I ask the Prime Minister about the Israeli interception of the Gaza flotilla? I am sure that he agrees that there has been a tragic loss of life, which has angered the Palestinians and dismayed friends of Israel, too. Can he tell the House what is the current position of the British nationals who have been detained by the Israelis? Will he tell us how the Government can contribute to international efforts to make the Israelis recognise that the blockade of Gaza is prolonging the suffering of the Palestinians and making peace in the middle east even harder to achieve? This blockade must end.

I thank the right hon. and learned Lady for what she said about our troops, and also for raising the issue of the events off the coast of Gaza. What has happened is completely unacceptable; we should be clear about that. We should also deplore the loss of life. Indeed, I have spoken to the Prime Minister of Turkey to extend our condolences for the Turkish citizens who have been lost. We should do everything we can to make sure this does not happen again; I stressed this point in a conversation with Prime Minister Netanyahu of Israel.

In answer to the right hon. and learned Lady’s specific questions about British nationals, 42 British nationals are caught up in this. I believe that around 37 of them have had consular access and that all of them will be coming home, and we need to make sure that they are reunited with their families as fast as possible.

The right hon. and learned Lady also raised the issue of international efforts to get the blockade open. As she knows, and as the shadow Foreign Secretary will know, we should do everything we can through the United Nations, where resolution 1860 is absolutely clear about the need to end the blockade and to open up Gaza. I would say in addition that friends of Israel—and I count myself a friend of Israel—should be saying to the Israelis that the blockade actually strengthens Hamas’s grip on the economy and on Gaza, and it is in their own interests to lift it and to allow these vital supplies to get through.

I thank the Prime Minister for that answer, and I know that we will be hearing more from the Foreign Secretary in a statement immediately after these questions.

Can the Prime Minister give me an answer on another important issue—one that I raised with him last Tuesday—about prosecuting rape? We know that it is often only after many rapes that a defendant is finally brought to court, and it is often only at that point that previous victims find the courage to come forward. By making rape defendants anonymous, he is going to make it harder to bring rapists to justice.

I know that the right hon. and learned Lady cares very deeply about this issue, as do I. The fact that rape convictions are so low in this country is a scandal, and we need to improve on that. That means working with the police, and also doing more to help rape victims, including backing rape crisis centres.

On the issue of anonymity, I sat on the Home Affairs Committee that examined this issue; it was of course a Committee in a previous Parliament, dominated by Labour Members, and very ably chaired by Chris Mullin. We came to the conclusion that there was a case for saying that between arrest and charge there was a case for anonymity. The coalition agreement mentions the issue of anonymity, and we will of course be bringing forward proposals, which the House can then examine and debate. I think that there is a case for this to happen, but I understand what the right hon. and learned Lady says—that it is important that the publicity around a case can help to bring forward other people who have been raped. I understand her case, but I think that this does represent a good way forward.

I welcome the Prime Minister’s recognition of the first point. However, does he not also recognise that to single out rape defendants, which is what he is proposing to do, sends a very powerful message to juries in rape cases that the rape victim is not to be believed, and sends a devastating message to rape victims that, uniquely of all victims, they are not to be believed?

I do not accept that. The Home Affairs Committee looked at this very carefully and came to conclusion that in this case there was a case for extending anonymity, also because in rape cases, obviously, those who have been raped have anonymity themselves, and that was the case with this limited extension. We will be bringing forward proposals that can be debated and discussed in the House of Commons. We all want the same thing, which is to increase the number of successful rape prosecutions and to send more rapists to jail: that is what this is about.

I am sorry, but I think that that is a disappointing answer, because the Prime Minister shows no understanding of the progress that has been made on prosecuting rape, and he does not realise how seriously this will turn the clock back.

May I turn to another subject that I believe the Government should reconsider—the married man’s tax allowance? It would go to only one in three married couples, and would cost half a billion pounds a year. Can the Prime Minister tell the House how that would contribute to cutting the deficit?

I am an unashamed supporter of families and marriage, and I simply do not understand why, when so many other European countries—I remember often being lectured when I was on the other side of the House about how we should follow European examples—recognise marriage in the tax system, we do not. I believe that we should bring forward proposals to recognise marriage in the tax system. Those in our happy coalition will have the right to abstain on them, I am happy to say, but I support marriage. We support so many other things in the tax system, including Christmas parties and parking bicycles at work, so why do we not recognise marriage?

The Prime Minister knows that this will not keep couples together; he is just hoping that it will keep his Back Benchers on side. He has not answered the question: how will this planned tax cut help reduce the deficit?

If we are going to get control of public spending in the long term in this country, we should target the causes of higher spending, one of which is family breakdown. We should do far more to recognise the importance of families, commitment and marriage—and let me just say that any recognition of marriage that we put in the tax system will also be recognition of civil partnerships, because commitment is important, whether someone is straight or gay.

So the Prime Minister is seriously saying that he expects us to believe that he thinks a £3 a week tax break, which will cost the Exchequer half a billion pounds a year, will keep families together. No wonder the Deputy Prime Minister is sitting so quietly by his side—because on this one, Nick agrees with me. We do not need it, it will not work, and they should drop it.

I am afraid the right hon. and learned Lady has a slightly short memory, because when she was sitting over here on the Government Benches, an enormous recognition of marriage in the tax system was introduced by the Labour Government in—wait for it—inheritance tax. [Hon. Members: “Oh!”] Yes, they massively increased the threshold for inheritance tax that can be transferred between husband and wife. If recognising marriage in the tax system is such a good thing for the better-off, why do we not do it for the less well-off? [Interruption.]

May I associate my right hon. and hon. Friends with the tributes that the Prime Minister paid to those who have lost their lives in Afghanistan and in the dreadful events in Cumbria?

What means does the Prime Minister hope to use to achieve his stated and very necessary objective of allowing the private sector to expand in the parts of the country, such as the north-east, that depend heavily on public sector jobs?

The right hon. Gentleman raises an extremely important issue, because we will have to take difficult decisions about public spending; everybody knows that. Let me be clear: no region of the country should be singled out, but he is right to say that some parts of the country have a very high dependence on public sector jobs. In the Budget on 22 June we will need to bring forward ideas that will fire up the private sector—for instance, the idea that any new firm established does not have to pay national insurance for the first 10 employees. I think that will help, but the right hon. Gentleman is right to say that we should also think about ways in which, as we get the private sector growing and make difficult decisions in the public sector, we can help regions that could be adversely affected. The Government are looking seriously at that idea, because we want to take the whole country with us as we deal with the £160 billion deficit bequeathed to us by the Opposition.

Q2. I wholeheartedly support what the Prime Minister said earlier about our armed forces, not least because a lot of young men and women from the Rhondda and the other south Wales valleys are serving in Afghanistan and elsewhere at the moment. He will know that one of the most important things for protecting our armed forces is ensuring that they have the best training possible, technically and in military expertise. Will he therefore commit himself and his Government unambiguously today to the new defence training college in St Athan in south Wales, which would save lives in our armed forces and provide 5,000 jobs in south Wales? (427)

I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman’s question. Everyone who has spent time in south Wales with the military knows that there is an incredibly strong case for the St Athan defence training establishment. I have heard that case on all the visits that I have made, but he will understand that we must have a proper strategic defence review. We have not had one since 1998, and everything has to be included in that review. I would just say to him, as he feels so strongly about this, that he was in the last Government, and that there was an opportunity to give that project the go-ahead before the election, but they did not do it.

Q3. Now that we know that the last Government spent £1 billion on advertising and “invested” £12,000 in golf balls, is the Prime Minister surprised that there is no money left? (428)

We are not really surprised, not least because of the letter that we got from the former Chief Secretary to the Treasury. I am glad to see that he has apologised for the letter, although he has not yet apologised for the legacy. My hon. Friend makes a good point. In addition, we have discovered that £320 million was spent on hotels, £1.5 billion on consultants and—this really did amaze me—one Department spent more than £140 per person on cut flowers and pot plants. Perhaps we could have a lottery to find out which one it was.

Q4. Four high schools in my constituency are in the last throes of the Building Schools for the Future programme: Matthew Moss high school in Castleton, Siddal Moor sports college, Holy Family—a new joint-faith school—and Middleton technology college in Middleton. Can the Prime Minister guarantee that that programme will be seen through to its completion, which would also help many of the construction workers in my constituency? (429)

I know that the hon. Gentleman will be pleased to see that in making the £6 billion in-year reductions—many warnings were given about what that would mean—we have protected the schools budget, and ensured that schools and Sure Start are protected. In terms of building schools for the future, let me be clear: our plans—and our passion, when it comes to education—are to ensure that new schools are provided so that we have real excellence, in the secondary sector in particular. That is what it is about. Building schools for the future is exactly what our plans involve.

Is the Prime Minister aware of the case of my constituent Mr Edmond Arapi, who is facing extradition to Italy, having been tried in his absence? Will my right hon. Friend look into the matter urgently and accelerate the review of extradition cases before Mr Arapi is taken from his family and sent to an Italian jail?

I am happy to look at this case, and I will discuss it with my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary, who is working on the issue of deportations. Legal processes have to be followed, but I will discuss this with my right hon. Friend, and perhaps then contact my hon. Friend.

Q5. Now that the banks—some of them, anyway—are coming into profit, and the taxpayers are getting a small return on the enormous amount of money that they put in, when does the Prime Minister envisage selling the shares off to his friends in the City? (430)

I would much rather sell the shares in the banks to the hon. Gentleman’s constituents. I believe in popular capitalism, and there might be an opportunity to do that. Clearly, important decisions will have to be made to ensure that we get the maximum amount of money back for the taxpayer, who has had to put so much money into the banks, and that we have a fully competitive banking system that serves business in this country so that it does not get ripped off by the banks. At the same time, privatising those banks back into the private sector where they belong can help encourage popular capitalism once again.

Q6. Will the Prime Minister join me in congratulating Denys Shortt of Stratford-on-Avon on his nomination as entrepreneur of the year in the Ernst & Young competition—a well-earned accolade? On the question of earnings, was the Prime Minister surprised to learn that so many people in the public sector earn more than he does? (431)

I join my hon. Friend in congratulating his constituent. Transparency on pay is an important principle, because it is good for democracy and accountability if we know how much people in the public sector are earning. I also think that it will help us to control public spending. When people see how much people are paid in the public sector, the pressure will be on to keep top pay levels down. It would also be worth while having a maximum multiple of 20 times earnings; we are holding a review to get that done. People at the top of a public sector organisation should not earn more than 20 times what people at the bottom earn. It is that sort of progressive idea that we are looking forward to introducing.

Q7. Does the Prime Minister share the concerns of two schoolteachers from Chesterfield who came to see me this weekend, that children from areas of greater deprivation will suffer disproportionately from his plans to cut 10,000 university places? (432)

First, I welcome the hon. Gentleman to his place as the Member of Parliament for Chesterfield. We can all remember one of his predecessors in that seat, Tony Benn, who left this House saying that he wanted to spend more time doing politics.

What I would say to the hon. Gentleman is that we want to help children from less well-off backgrounds by having a pupil premium. We will take money from outside the education budget to ensure that the pupil premium is well funded, so that children from the poorest homes get to go to the best schools and the money follows the pupil into those schools. As for university places, let me say this to the hon. Gentleman: we are expanding the number of university places by 10,000, compared with the legacy that we were left.

May I press the Prime Minister a little further on excessive pay? My constituents are outraged at the amount of money that some senior NHS managers are receiving. What can the coalition do to reduce such excessive expenditure?

My hon. Friend makes a good point. By having transparency, we are able to see for the first time who is earning what in the public sector. That will create pressure on top people’s pay in the public sector, to keep that pay down. That is the first thing. In the NHS specifically, as he knows, our plans are all about removing the centralised bureaucracy, partly by removing many of the centralised targets that have caused that bureaucracy to grow. Our ambition is to ensure that the priority is the people on the front line—the nurses, the doctors, the people involved in clinical care—instead of the endless increase in management that we have seen in recent years.

Q8. Many of my constituents are employed by Nissan and in supply chain jobs. Can the Prime Minister confirm that the £20 million grant awarded to Nissan under the previous Government in March will be honoured, in order to develop the next generation of electric cars? (433)

Let me welcome the hon. Lady to her place and say that I, too, have visited the Nissan plant near Sunderland. It is an absolute wonder to see the incredible investment that has gone in there and the many jobs that have been created, not just at that plant but in the supply chain. I want to see electric cars being developed, and when I was at Nissan we discussed that specifically. As for the grant, I do not have a specific answer for her—[Hon. Members: “Ah!”] It’s a funny old thing: I’m going to give accurate answers, rather than make them up on the spot. I shall be delighted to let the hon. Lady know via a letter as soon as possible.

Q9. Noting the very high standards of professional care in the NHS in Stroud, may I ask the Prime Minister to lend his support to the Stroud maternity unit? (434)

I welcome my hon. Friend, and thank him for that question. I understand that the Stroud maternity unit was under threat under a previous Administration, but I am happy to say that with our plans, under which the money in the NHS will follow the decisions that local people make with their doctors about where to be treated, we will find that community hospitals across our country can once again breathe easily.

May I associate my right hon. and hon. Friends with the tributes that were paid earlier to our fallen heroes in Afghanistan? We should always remember them. In that spirit, may I ask the Prime Minister, right at the outset of a new Parliament and a new Administration, to give a categorical assurance to our troops that they will always get the equipment and resources that they need on operational duty, to our servicemen and women returning home that they will always get the help and advice that they need to return to civilian life, and to our maimed and wounded that, despite all the budgetary pressures, they will always get the care and compassion that they need and deserve, for however long it takes?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question—and the way that he put it—about ensuring that we protect and help those at the front line with everything that they need, looking after their families and helping those who are injured. That is what our focus should be. It is all those things, and it is all through the lifetime of those people. I have visited places such as Headley Court and seen the incredible work now being done. However, what we have to realise as a country is that this is not just about getting the equipment or renewing the military covenant, so that we serve our armed services properly, but about recognising that the people who have been injured so badly in Iraq and Afghanistan will need a lifetime of help. I do not think that the health service has yet fully woken up to the—quite rightly—very high demands that those people will place on the health services. That is why I have a strong defence team and a strong health team, who are going to work together to ensure that we deliver for those people, who have done so much for us.

Afghanistan

Afghanistan is my top priority. That is why we have set up the National Security Council and why it met on the first full day of the new Government. In terms of the military strategy, we are six months into the troop surge ordered by President Obama. That surge is to provide a proper counter-insurgency campaign, protecting the people while tackling the insurgents. We back that strategy, and we must give it time to work. There are some signs of progress, such as markets opening up again and better district governance. As I said in the debate on the Queen’s Speech, we have to support that military strategy with a political surge, of which the peace jirga being launched in Kabul today is an example. I spoke to President Karzai about this yesterday, and stressed to him the importance of working towards a political solution in which everyone in Afghanistan feels that the Government of Afghanistan are a Government for them.

Is my right hon. Friend aware of the concept of a sovereign base bridgehead area, which could meet our needs in Afghanistan for a fraction of the cost in life, limb and expenditure? Would he consider taking a briefing on this subject, if possible in the presence of the service chiefs of staff?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for asking that question; I know that he has great expertise in this area. I have understood the idea of a bridgehead, but while it is worth examining, there are difficulties with it. The current strategy of counter-insurgency is about trying to protect the public in Afghanistan from the insurgency and enlarge the area of that country in which normal life can continue. What is in our national interest—that is what we should focus on—is an Afghanistan stable and secure enough for us to bring our troops home. That is what we want to achieve. I will listen to my hon. Friend’s ideas, but we have to give the current strategy time to work.

Comrade Premier—[Laughter.] I am surprised by that reaction. I mean, are we not all in this together? Are not the vast majority of us—apart from a small sect—in favour of strengthening the Union of the United Kingdom? And do not the vast majority of us dislike, distrust and despise the Liberal Democrats? On the subject of safe bases, does the right hon. Gentleman agree that there is no base safer than an aircraft carrier—

Order. I apologise for having to interrupt the hon. Gentleman. On this closed question, I was eagerly anticipating an inquiry about Afghanistan, but sadly it was not forthcoming.

Engagements

Q11. What will my right hon. Friend be doing to ensure that foreign nationals engaged in terrorist-related activity in this country will be deported back to their country of origin when their evil plots are detected? (436)

I really am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising that question. When foreign nationals threaten our country but we do not have the evidence necessary to prosecute them, it is essential for us to be able to deport them back to their country of origin. I have asked the Home Secretary to work with the Foreign Secretary to draw up agreements with as many countries as possible, so that we can deport those people and keep our country safe. All diplomatic efforts, including efforts by me, will be made to ensure that we keep our country safe.

Q12. I heard what the Prime Minister said about the military covenant in answer to a previous question, and as chair of the all-party veterans group, I was relieved to see a commitment in the coalition’s document to providing extra support for veterans’ mental health needs. I was alarmed, however, to read that the £2 million set aside by the previous Government to support Combat Stress had been placed under review by the present Government. Is the Prime Minister able to renew that commitment to Combat Stress, or will it fall at the first hurdle? (437)

First of all, let me congratulate the hon. Gentleman on his work for veterans, which is extremely important, and I welcome it. It is important, as I have said, that we have a very strong ministerial team at the Department of Health and at the Ministry of Defence, and I understand the huge pressure that will be put on our health services because of the mental health stress of people who have fought in combat. We will do everything we can to help them; the hon. Gentleman has my word that that will happen. It needs to happen not just this year, while our troops are still in Afghanistan, but for all the years into the future. There are figures that suggest that more people committed suicide after the Falklands war than were killed in combat. I take this issue extremely seriously; the hon. Gentleman has my word that those services will be properly looked after.

I was greatly encouraged by the Prime Minister’s response to my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering (Mr Hollobone) about the deportation of terrorist suspects. Does not my right hon. Friend agree that the most effective way to get rid of these people is to scrap the Human Rights Act?

My hon. Friend, as so often, is tempting me. He knows that my view is very clear that we would be better off with a British Bill of Rights rather than with the Human Rights Act, and that matter is being examined. Enthusiastic though I am personally for that policy, I have to say that what is really needed for urgent action is individual agreements with countries like Pakistan in order to get a guarantee that people we send back there will not be mistreated. With countries like Pakistan, we should be able to achieve that. We are a major aid donor and a major partner; we should be able to encourage them to give us that guarantee so that we do not have to keep in our country foreign nationals that threaten to do us harm.

Q13. I welcome the Prime Minister’s recognition of the progress made in the north-east economy. In the economic context, it is said that when the United States sneezes, the United Kingdom catches cold and the north-east of England gets pneumonia. I was therefore sad to learn at the weekend that the regional development agency One NorthEast is preparing budgets within year for 40% cuts in operational output. Does the Prime Minister think that is good medicine for that sort of pneumonia? (438)

First, may I welcome the hon. Gentleman on his election to this place? I well remember taking the Conservative party’s bi-annual conference to Gateshead. It was received all right, given what might have been expected.

How can I refuse an offer like that?

On regional development agencies, what we have said is that in areas of the country where they work well and where local authorities want to keep them as they are, they can. We believe, however, that in many parts of the country, including the part I represent, there is a huge amount of waste in the system and it would be better to have local enterprise partnerships, with councils coming together to support business. Wherever regional assemblies—or rather, regional development agencies— are, we think there is a large amount of waste within them. We think some of the planning and transport functions should be given back to local authorities where they belong. That is what people will see from this Government: yes, we want to generate enterprise and help businesses to get going, but we also want proper local government that controls the things that local government should do.

Gaza Flotilla

With permission, I will report to the House on the events surrounding the interception of boats in the “Free Gaza” flotilla, on the immediate action that the Government have taken, and on our planned next steps.

In the early hours of 31 May, the Israeli defence forces intercepted six of the eight boats sailing in the “Free Gaza” flotilla. The incident led to injury and deaths of a number of passengers, mainly on one of the vessels. We await details of all the casualties and fatalities, but it is clear that many will be Turkish citizens. The Prime Minister and I have spoken to the Turkish Prime Minister and Foreign Minister respectively to offer our condolences. The six intercepted vessels were brought to shore in the Israeli port of Ashdod. Two of the boats have been delayed by mechanical difficulties and remain at sea. We believe that they are en route to Gaza.

I can inform the House that it now appears that a total of 37 British nationals were involved in Sunday’s events. That is different from the number given by the Prime Minister a short time ago, which was based on what the Israeli ambassador had said previously. I spoke to our ambassador in Tel Aviv in the past 45 minutes or so before coming to the Chamber, and I repeat that the latest figures are of 37 British nationals, including 11 dual nationals. We have so far received access to 28 of those individuals, one of whom was deported yesterday. We understand that four more British nationals agreed to be deported this morning and that the remaining British nationals are likely to be transferred to the airport soon. We have expressed our disappointment to the Israeli Government about the levels of preparedness on their part, and the fact that we have not yet been given full information about British nationals detained and access to all of them. We are urgently pressing the Israeli Government to resolve the situation within hours.

There is real, understandable and justified anger at the events that have unfolded. The Government’s position is as follows. Our clear advice to British nationals is not to travel to Gaza. However, we have made clear in public and to the Israeli Government that we deeply deplore the loss of life, and look to Israel to do everything possible to avoid a repeat of this unacceptable situation. The United Nations Security Council and the European Union have rightly condemned the violence that resulted in the loss of these lives. We continue to demand urgent information and access to all United Kingdom nationals involved. Their welfare is our top priority at this time, along with support for the families, who are understandably very worried. We are seriously concerned about the seizure of British nationals in international waters, and that aspect of the Israeli operation must form a key part of the investigation into the events.

The Prime Minister has spoken to the Israeli Prime Minister, I have spoken to the Israeli Foreign Minister, and the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for North East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt), has been in close contact with the Israeli ambassador in London. The embassy in Tel Aviv has been in constant contact with the Israeli authorities. I am grateful to right hon. and hon. Members who have already been in contact with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office about their constituents and their families, and who have provided information. We recognise the intense concern for those involved, and the need to keep Members updated.

Israel has told us that it wants to move as quickly as possible to deport people from the flotilla who are currently held in Israel. If they agree, they will be deported very quickly. Those who remain unwilling to leave will be allowed to stay for 72 hours in detention, which is the time limit allowed for them to appeal against deportation. Our understanding is that they will be deported after that. We also understand that the Israelis have begun to transfer to Jordan detainees from countries that are not represented in Israel. We understand that the individuals who were allegedly involved in violence against Israeli servicemen during the boarding will have their cases examined in line with Israeli legal advice. We do not currently believe that there are any British nationals in that last category, although I hope the House will appreciate that this is a fluid situation.

Our partners in the international community are working, as we are, to facilitate the swift release of those detained. Turkey is sending six planes to fly out their nationals, and the Turkish authorities have indicated that detainees of other countries may join those flights. We believe that some of the British nationals to whom I referred earlier are on those flights now.

The United Kingdom has played its full part in the European Union and the United Nations in agreeing on the need for a full, credible, impartial and independent investigation into these events. Our goal is a process that ensures full accountability for the events that occurred and commands the confidence of the international community, including international participation. Further discussions are taking place in other international forums, including NATO and the United Nations Human Rights Council. We will take the same principled stand in all our diplomatic efforts, and will stress to the Israeli Government the need for them to act with restraint and in line with their international obligations, given that their actions appear to have gone beyond what was warranted or proportionate. We need to know whether more could have been done to minimise the risks, or to reduce the number of deaths and injuries.

The events aboard the flotilla were very serious and have captured the world’s attention, but they should not be viewed in isolation. They arise from the unacceptable and unsustainable situation in Gaza, which is a cause of public concern here in the United Kingdom and around the world. It has long been the view of the British Government—including the previous Government—that restrictions on Gaza should be lifted, a view confirmed in United Nations Security Council resolution 1860, which called for

“sustained delivery of humanitarian aid”

and called on states to

“to alleviate the humanitarian and economic situation”.

The fact that that has not happened is a tragedy. It is essential that there be unfettered access not only to meet the humanitarian needs of the people of Gaza, but to enable the reconstruction of homes and livelihoods and permit trade to take place. The Palestinian economy, whether in Gaza or on the west bank, is an essential part of a viable Palestinian state which I hope will one day live alongside Israel in peace and security.

As the once productive private sector has been decimated and ordinary Gazans have lost their jobs and their incomes, it is tunnel entrepreneurs and their Hamas backers who benefit. Hamas now has near total control of the economy. Other groups, even more radical and violent, are finding a place amid the misery and frustration felt by a generation of young people. In this context, current Israeli restrictions are counter-productive to Israel’s long-term security. We will therefore continue to press the Israeli Government to lift the closure of Gaza, and plan early discussions with Israel as well as with our other international partners about what more can be done to ensure an unfettered flow of aid while also ensuring that aid reaches those who need it and is not abused. I discussed that with Secretary Clinton last night, and we will be taking forward our discussions on the subject urgently.

The House should not forget the role played by Hamas in this conflict. It continues to pursue an ideology of violence and directly to undermine prospects for peace in the region. Violence has continued in recent days, with rocket fire from militants in Gaza and Israeli military incursions and air strikes in response. We call on Hamas to take immediate and concrete steps towards the Quartet principles, unconditionally to release Gilad Shalit, who has been held in captivity for four years, and to end its interference with the operations of non-governmental organisations and UN agencies in Gaza.

It is more clear than ever that the only long-term and sustainable solution to the conflict that produced these tragic events is a two-state solution that achieves a viable and sovereign Palestinian state alongside a secure Israel, with its right to live in peace and security recognised by all its neighbours. The proximity talks that are under way are more important than ever. These events should not undermine those talks, but instead should underline just how important they are, and the Government will make it an urgent priority to give British diplomatic support to buttress that process. The Government will continue to keep the House informed of developments.

I am grateful to the Foreign Secretary for his statement, and for advance sight of it.

I said in the Queen’s Speech debate last week that a policy of ignoring Gaza in the search for peace will not work. In the early hours of Monday morning, we saw why the blockade of Gaza is a barrier not only to vital aid and reconstruction materials, but to any hope of peace at all. The attack by the Israeli defence forces is the latest in a series of self-defeating and deadly moves by successive Israeli Governments in Gaza. We on the Opposition Benches join the international condemnation of an operation that was not self-defence but defence of a failed policy. Israel does have rights to security against terrorism, but we are talking here about a policy that has done nothing to defeat terrorism. Until the people of Gaza can be confident of an education for their children in schools not crumbling around them, of being able to feed and clothe their families adequately, and of being able to live without a prescribed list of what they can and cannot use in their kitchens, there is no way that the call of negotiation and peace will be heard.

As Foreign Secretary, I negotiated UK-sponsored UN Security Council resolution 1860 in January 2009, which eventually brought the Gaza war to an end. It demanded the full flow of humanitarian and reconstruction materials into Gaza, and an end to the trafficking of weapons into Gaza, and its implementation by all sides must be the central demand of the international community. That needs UN, EU and Quartet pressure, not just engagement.

The continuation of the blockade, not just by Israel but until yesterday by Egypt too, brings misery to Palestinians and does nothing to weaken the hold of Hamas on the territory—the alleged aim of the policy. In fact, revenue from smuggling taxes funds Hamas. The latest episode cost innocent lives, undermines Palestinians and Arabs who believe in co-existence and the peaceful path to statehood, and further isolates Israel in the international community. The only people smiling are the rejectionists. The answer to them is a political process with drive and momentum. I was glad to hear the Foreign Secretary talk about proximity talks, but proximity talks are worth having only as a short prelude to substantive negotiations, and, frankly, they have gone on for too long already without getting to the big issues.

I have five sets of questions for the Foreign Secretary, the first of which is about the welfare of British citizens. The lack of clarity about the position of British nationals is completely unacceptable. We are talking about 37 people, not 37,000 people. They have a right to consular support; it says so in their passports. They should be given that support immediately. If it is being denied, we should be denouncing that, not saying that we are disappointed by it.

Secondly, on the legality of the action, I spoke to the Turkish Foreign Minister in New York last night, and it is clear that the Turkish Government intend to pursue that question. Can the Foreign Secretary tell the House whether he believes that the action, which took place in international waters, was illegal, whether he has discussed the issue with the Turkish Government, and if not, why not?

Thirdly, the Foreign Secretary says that he wants to know whether more could have been done to minimise the risks or to reduce the number of deaths during the raid on the flotilla, but surely the question to ask is why on earth armed and lethal force was used at all. A fundamental principle is involved; the language of condemnation is used very sparingly in international relations, but it is the view of those on the Opposition Benches that the loss of innocent civilian life should always be condemned. We have done so since Monday, and the language was repeated in the United Nations presidential statement on Monday night, which said that the Security Council

“condemns those acts which resulted in the loss of at least 10 civilians and many wounded”.

We welcome that, but the Foreign Secretary and the Prime Minister have not used that language themselves. We call on them to say loudly and clearly that the British Government do condemn the loss of innocent civilian life. If they will not do that, they are setting a very dangerous precedent and sending a very bad message indeed.

Fourthly, on the Government’s intentions, we note the UN’s calls for an independent investigation, and of course we welcome them, but there are outstanding requests for investigations into incidents that took place during the Gaza war 18 months ago. Will the Foreign Secretary therefore explain to the House whether Her Majesty’s Government argued in the UN on Monday night for a UN investigation now? If not, why not? In that context, can he tell us how long he will give the Israeli Government to agree to an independent inquiry before he supports a UN inquiry?

Finally, the argument that opening borders only benefits Hamas has been exposed, because the present situation only costs innocent lives and actually damages Israel. What action does the Foreign Secretary propose to take through the UN and the European Union to drive forward improvements in the daily lives of people living in Gaza? Is it not the case that the EU has standing capacity waiting to be deployed to man checkpoints into and out of Gaza? Do we not need urgent engagement to get an agreement, as per resolution 1860, for those forces to be deployed?

This is a political crisis, not just a humanitarian one. Rocket attacks will be defeated only by a substantive political process towards a Palestinian state. That is where the greatest responsibility lies for all the parties. We will support all efforts on the part of the Government to make Gaza part of a wider international drive for peace in the middle east, backed by the UN and the EU, in support of US leadership, because without such an effort there will be no peace in the middle east.

I am grateful to the shadow Foreign Secretary for his broad support for what is clearly a bipartisan policy shared across the Floor of the House. His concern for the people of Gaza is felt very deeply in all parts of the House. As he reminded the House, he played an instrumental part in the negotiation of UN resolution 1860 and he has always argued, as we have argued, that ignoring Gaza will not work; this problem must be addressed. I am grateful for the implicit support that he has given to the Government’s position and for the argument that he makes that the Israeli policy towards Gaza does not loosen but tightens the grip of Hamas on the people of Gaza.

I shall now respond to the right hon. Gentleman’s specific questions. He can tell that I am disappointed and very dissatisfied with the Israeli response, as it has gone on over recent hours, on consular access. The reason why I do not condemn the Israelis unequivocally is because there is a complicating factor: many people on board the ships did not have their passports or had destroyed all their papers, so it is not necessarily immediately obvious to which nationality they belong. In addition, there has been a clear lack of preparedness by Israel for handling this number of people and dealing with this number of consular inquiries. That is why, in some cases, our consular staff, who have been working extremely hard, have had to go to the prison at Beersheba to hammer on doors and ask people whether they are British. It has been chaotic, it is completely unsatisfactory and I am glad that some of the people are now able to leave the country. None the less, it is the most immediately urgent part of our work to ensure that that is put right and that all the British nationals have been identified and seen.

The right hon. Gentleman asked whether I had spoken to the Turkish Foreign Minister. I did speak to him. Of course, one reason for an investigation will be to learn more about the legality of what may have happened. However, to connect this to one of the right hon. Gentleman’s other questions, the Turkish Foreign Minister particularly thanked me for the role played by our ambassador at the UN Security Council, because the presidential statement delivered to the council was, of course, made on behalf of the members of the council, including Britain, so it is very much our language as well. We certainly condemn acts that lead to the deaths of civilians—I have done that before, but if the right hon. Gentleman has not heard me do so, I do so again—so there need be no difference between us on that point.

Critically, an investigation must be prompt, independent, credible and transparent. It is my view and, from the discussions that I had last night, the view of the United States that the investigation should as a minimum have an international presence. It is possible for Israel to establish such an investigation and inquiry. The right hon. Gentleman will recall that commissions or inquiries have on occasion been established in Israel that have delivered stinging criticism of the Israeli Government and armed forces, although on other occasions such inquiries have not done so when we might have thought it was merited. However, we look to them to heed the international calls for such an inquiry and investigation, and if they simply refuse to do so—to answer his question—it would not be long before we added our voice for one conducted under international auspices.

The right hon. Gentleman is right that urgent work needs to be taken forward on providing the mechanism for access to aid into Gaza, and for trade in and out of Gaza, while giving the Israelis sufficient assurance that it will not be used for the smuggling of arms, which none of us wants taken into Gaza. We are now taking forward that urgent work with our partners in the EU and the United States, and it is something on which we will need to return to the House.

It is easy to be condemnatory of Israel and to argue for the raising of the blockade, but we must ask ourselves whether these things, taken by themselves, will bring about the solution that we all seek. Drawing on our colonial experience and recent experience in Northern Ireland, is it not clear that sooner or later, however controversial it may be, Hamas will have to be brought into the circle of discussions?

I always listen to my right hon. and learned Friend—I think I can now call him that, given that we are sitting on the same side of the House—with great care on these matters. He will be aware of the Quartet principles, which have been very clear for some years: Hamas must forswear violence, accept previous agreements and recognise the state of Israel. That has been the long-standing position of British Governments, the United Nations and the whole of the Quartet, including the United States, the European Union and Russia. I referred earlier to the need for Hamas to make concrete movement towards those principles in order for the rest of the international community to engage with it, and I continue to believe that that is the right position. It is a long-standing position and one that we have in common with our allies and the rest of the international community acting on the affairs of the middle east. That position must be sustained.

In welcoming the tone of the Foreign Secretary’s statement and his condemnation of the loss of innocent life, may I ask whether he recognises that those innocent lives might well have included any of the 37 United Kingdom citizens present when the Israelis committed a war crime of piracy in international waters, kidnapping and murder—and all in pursuit of upholding an illegal blockade on Gaza that amounts to collective punishment, as I saw for myself when I led an international parliamentary delegation there early this year? Will he assure the House that, if the Israelis fail to comply with the perfectly modest and satisfactory request that he has made of them, further action will be taken to make Israel rejoin the international community?

Yes, it is very important that Israel responds to the call from across the whole world, to which we have added our voice, for a prompt, independent, credible and transparent investigation or inquiry. As I mentioned earlier, in my response to the shadow Foreign Secretary, if no such investigation or inquiry is forthcoming, we will want to advocate such an inquiry under international auspices. The right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Sir Gerald Kaufman) is right that whatever precise words we use, a blockade of Gaza is counter-productive; it is wrong and it does not even serve the interests of the security of Israel. He is also right to point out that fatalities could have occurred among the British nationals who were caught up in this. It is our strong advice to British nationals, as it has been in the past and will be in the future, not to travel to Gaza—let me make that absolutely clear—as they would be going into a dangerous situation, but it is absolutely wrong to maintain the blockade. That is the clear position of the Government.

Order. Another 29 right hon. and hon. Members are seeking to catch my eye, and the debate to follow this statement is very heavily subscribed, so I need short questions and short answers.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that those of us who were able to enter Gaza in the aftermath of the last Israeli incursion could only come to the conclusion that there had been a wholly disproportionate use of lethal force of very, very dubious legality? Does he agree that there has now been a repeat of precisely that? What will the British Government do to try to ensure that there is not the same repetition again and again and again?

Hopefully, I covered that point in my statement. I referred to the actions that have been taken by Israel as appearing to go beyond what was warranted or proportionate, and I weigh those words very carefully. I also said that that is unacceptable and that Israel must act with restraint and in line with its international obligations, so we have given a very strong message to Israel. In the conversations that I had with the Israeli Foreign Minister and that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister had with the Israeli Prime Minister, there could be no mistaking how strongly we feel. My right hon. Friend the Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Sir John Stanley) adds force to how we feel.

Bearing in mind that the ship was a peace ship in international waters, is not attacking such a ship against international law and should it not be condemned by the Foreign Secretary as an illegal act?

One has to agree that to board a ship in international waters can legally happen only in the most exceptional and extraordinary circumstances, so that is the basis we are working from.

My constituent Hasan Nowarah was injured when the flotilla came under attack, although he is now, thankfully, safely at home with his family. He was motivated by a desire to help people in the most dire need, but the 45 tonnes of medical equipment that he helped to collect is currently floating aboard the ship, the Rachel Corrie, in the Mediterranean. Will the Foreign Secretary use his diplomatic efforts to persuade the Israeli Government to let that vital medical aid be delivered to hospitals in Gaza?

Yes, I very much take that point. The Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for North East Bedfordshire, has just undertaken, as we were listening to the hon. Lady’s question, to look into what is happening to that specific shipment. I believe that some of the aid on some of the ships involved is now arriving in Gaza, but we will look into the shipment that she mentions.

This is a dreadful and deplorable tragedy, but will the Foreign Secretary tell us what urgent steps he will take to ease the transfer of essential goods through the crossings so that Israel’s security needs can be met? Does he accept that Israel has legitimate security needs against the enemy that is determined to destroy it?

Of course Israel has legitimate security needs. That is why I stressed in my statement the role and responsibility of Hamas and the need for it and anyone else in Gaza to end rocket attacks on Israel. That is a very important part of the entire situation as well. We need to find a way in which Israel can be assured that the smuggling of arms into Gaza does not take place while the flow of humanitarian aid and general economic trade can take place. Clearly, some additional assurance is going to be necessary for that to happen, and that is what we are working on urgently.

May I welcome the clear but restrained way in which the Foreign Secretary dealt with this very difficult matter? May I ask him a very precise question: has it not been clear for a long time now that the blockade of Gaza is illegal? Does it not therefore amount to cruel and unusual punishment, and is it not contrary to all international law and the Geneva convention?

The argument that I make is that, whatever the arguments about the blockade’s legality, it is unwise—it does not achieve its objective. In a practical world, it is not the right thing for Israel to do. No doubt, the Government of Israel would make a different legal argument from that of my hon. Friend: they maintain that the blockade is lawful because they are acting in their own self-defence. Therefore, the thing that they must be persuaded of is that the blockade does not serve their security interests and that a change of policy is urgently required.

I note the Foreign Secretary’s demand for free and unfettered access to Gaza but, in the absence of a blockade of shipping into Gaza, how does he believe that the people of Israel can be protected from the unprovoked assaults by rockets and other armaments that are being imported into Gaza by the supporters of Hamas terrorists?

That is why I have referred to the international work that needs to take place to try to give assurance that such importation of arms cannot take place while humanitarian and economic aid, and general economic trade, is going on. However, I stress again that it does not serve the interests of Israel’s security to maintain the current position, which is putting more power into the hands of Hamas and driving the people of Gaza into its arms. That does not serve the security of Israel.

Will my right hon. Friend use his good offices to ask Israel to desist from using selective footage to make its case through the media rather than engaging in the full inquiry into this terrible incident that should take place?

My hon. Friend makes a very powerful point, although we will be doing very well in the world if we can persuade everyone to stop using selective footage in the media. It may be a little ambitious to think that we will be able to persuade Israel to do that, but that underlines the need for the impartial and credible inquiry for which we have called.

In the past 18 months, Israel has killed 1,400 people during Operation Cast Lead. It has also carried out an assassination in Dubai using false passports, and now it has killed people on the high seas. On each occasion, there has been ritual condemnation, as there is today. I support that condemnation, but is it not time for us to take sanctions against Israel, such as lifting the EU-Israel trade agreement? Israel must understand that it cannot act illegally with impunity, and that it cannot kill people on the high seas in the way that it has just done.

Israel will be listening to the condemnation in this House, including from the hon. Gentleman. There is no doubt about that, but I do not think that the right policy is to impose sanctions. I think that the right policy is to urge on Israel the course of action that I have set out today. The restrictions and the blockade of Gaza should be lifted, and a truly credible and independent investigation should be set up. They are part of the practical way forward that we should concentrate on, and therefore they are the right foreign policy for this country.

I welcome my right hon. Friend’s statement, but does he agree that the effect of the brutal Israeli blockade of Gaza is to drive all trade into the tunnels? Some of the tunnels are now large enough to accommodate 4x4 vehicles, and of course there is no restriction whatever on the importation of weapons through them.

Yes, and my hon. Friend makes a very powerful point. What in effect happens is that Hamas is able to tax the importation of goods through the tunnels, providing funds for itself while further impoverishing the people of Gaza. That is a further reminder that the blockade is not an effective policy.

Is it at all possible that the Israelis are aware of the worldwide revulsion at what has happened this week? The killings on the high seas had no justification whatsoever, and my hon. Friend the Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn) spoke about other measures that Israel has taken. Is it not clear that Israel seems to show no concern at all for international opinion, and that it is out of control? Unless firm action is taken by the international community, will we not see further tragedies of this kind?

I would not necessarily reach the conclusion that there is no awareness or concern about international opinion in Israel. In fact, there has been a good deal of criticism of the Israeli Government in the Israeli media over the past couple of days. Remember that Israel is a democracy. There is free expression of opinion. Sometimes that is bitterly critical of their own Ministers, and sometimes of their own armed forces. We saw that in the aftermath of the Lebanon war four years ago. I think it would be over-simplifying the situation to describe it as the hon. Gentleman did a few moments ago. There is a consciousness in Israel of international opinion. That is why we have to express ourselves in a way that is forceful but responsible, and ask them to do reasonable things that are in their own best interest. That is the position that we have taken.

Will the Foreign Secretary acknowledge that there has been up to 1 million tonnes of aid from Israel to Gaza since January 2009? Will he also acknowledge that the reason for the blockade, which we all want to end, is continued terrorism by Hamas, the hijacking of aid convoys and the smuggling of arms from Iran into Gaza?

It is very important to remember the role played by Hamas. It is important to remind people all the time, as I did in my statement, that we need to see an end to the rocket fire from Gaza into Israel, as well as the other measures that we have called on Israel to take. My hon. Friend brings that necessary balance to the questions asked today.

The Foreign Secretary will know that the terrible siege of Gaza has been ongoing now for three years, with huge suffering caused to people, but given that the condemnations and criticisms of Israel never seem to change the Israeli authorities’ actions, what further action does he propose to take? In the EU association agreement with Israel, for example, there is a clause that provides for its suspension in the light of human rights abuses on either side. Will not his refusal to consider suspending that EU association agreement give the message that we are not serious about taking action with Israel, and that we are not serious about our EU agreements either?

I do not think Israel will be in any doubt about the seriousness of the message. The fact that a Security Council statement was agreed so rapidly, with the support of the United States as well as of the United Kingdom, will have made an impact on Israel; the hon. Lady can be sure of that. If she could have heard the conversations that we have had with out Israeli counterparts, she could also be very confident that they are aware of the strength of opinion and our deep concern about these issues.

The EU-Israel agreement is not exactly progressing at the moment anyway. I take the point that she makes about that, but it is not an additional measure for this particular situation. As I have explained in answer to previous questions, I want to concentrate on trying to make sure that that credible and independent investigation takes place, and that the case is understood in Israel for the lifting of the blockade of Gaza in their own best interests. It is important that we put it in that way.

The flotilla, which was probably doomed to fail, was an expression of the frustration of ordinary people at the failure of the United Nations, and in particular of the Quartet, to get Israel to comply with its UN obligations. The Foreign Secretary has had conversations with Mrs Clinton. I understand that he is also meeting the EU High Representative. Does he believe that between us we can encourage the Quartet to take firmer action with Israel, which still in its statements today seems not to understand the gravity of the situation?

There is a real international focus on these matters now, and that is true in the United States. I was with the EU High Representative, Baroness Ashton, last night in Sarajevo, and she certainly has the same focus on these issues, as do many other EU Foreign Ministers. This morning I was at the EU-western Balkans high-level meeting in Sarajevo, and many of the Foreign Ministers discussed the issue in the margins of that. One of the results of the action was to bring the issue centre stage. It has shone a spotlight on the problems of Gaza, to which so many right hon. and hon. Members have referred. It is now important for us to take the momentum from that and make sure that the necessary work continues over the coming weeks and months to improve the situation.

Will the Foreign Secretary not accept that what he said today really amounts to saying that the United States, Britain and Europe will continue to tolerate the Israeli blockade of Gaza? Does he not agree that this toleration should be brought to an end, and, if necessary, Britain and the other European members of NATO should say that if another flotilla sets off for Gaza, we are willing to give it naval protection, with the Royal Navy reverting to its traditional role of protecting the freedom of the seas?

I understand, in every case in which right hon. and hon. Members express their outrage at what has happened, the strength of feeling in many parts of the House and of the country. As I have explained, in the pursuit of practical foreign policy we should concentrate on the two things that I have identified—the setting up of the right kind of investigation and inquiry, and doing so quickly, and making the coherent case, including to the Israelis, for lifting the blockade on Gaza. Those are the right things to concentrate on. The right hon. Gentleman refers to British naval protection and deployment, but the previous Prime Minister promised a British naval deployment in the Mediterranean to try to stop arms smuggling to Gaza, and no ship was ever sent. I will not make empty promises; we will concentrate on the two issues that we have identified as necessary.

Given the importance of the investigation that the Foreign Secretary referred to, does he not also believe that there is a very powerful case for referring this to international arbitration and/or the international court at The Hague? After all, this involves not only questions of international law. The political causes are well known, but they have not yet been resolved by the political intervention of the Quartet, and so forth, and international arbitration may well be a very good move to adopt.

The position that we have taken does not exclude those things, but they are quite difficult things to bring about and seek agreement to, so the priority is to have an inquiry and investigation established as soon as possible that meets the criteria that I have set out. However, we have not excluded advocating other courses of action if that is not heeded.

I think that we have pussy-footed around Israel for long enough. The only language that it understands is not the language of diplomacy but the language of the hobnail boot, by which I mean sanctions, telling it to stop building any more settlements, and insisting that it has talks with people—both sides—who represent the Palestinian people, as the right hon. and learned Member for North East Fife (Sir Menzies Campbell) said. I hope that the Foreign Secretary will develop a much more robust foreign policy towards Israel.

Again, the right hon. Lady illustrates the strength of feeling in the House. I have not immediately donned my hobnail boots, because the right way to approach the matter, which will make sense to people in Israel as well as to the rest of the world, is to advocate the measures that I have called for today. That is a crucial ingredient for Israelis themselves to see—that this needs to be properly investigated to international standards in a way that the international community can respect and take seriously, and that the blockade of Gaza makes no sense even from their own point of view. Israel is a democratic country. It is possible to make these arguments and to have them heard there, so I favour concentrating on that method of proceeding rather than the hobnail boots that she wants me to put on.

My right hon. Friend has made it quite clear this afternoon that he thinks that the blockade is counter-productive because of the suffering that it causes to the people of Gaza. Will he therefore press the international community to lift the blockade as a precursor to a full middle east peace settlement?

It is a very important part of any middle east peace settlement, and my hon. Friend’s question reminds us that it is very important to continue the work on a middle east peace settlement overall. The proximity talks have been taking place and we want them to become much more serious. European nations now have to look to how we can buttress the efforts of the United States to push those talks forward. It is one of the things that I want to discuss around European capitals next week. Ending this blockade of Gaza is an integral part of finding any such durable solution.

Is it not clear that Israel believes that it has done absolutely nothing wrong when it sends armed commandos to attack in international waters ships carrying humanitarian supplies to a tiny strip of land where more than 60% of the population are food-insecure? Could that not be because, for many years now, Israel has put itself above international law, without consequence from the international community? What does the Foreign Secretary think the practical consequences should be if Israel does not abide by the will of the international community this time?

We will see whether Israel thinks, in the end, that it has done nothing wrong. The Israeli Cabinet is, as I understand it, meeting this afternoon for the first time since the incident and since Mr Netanyahu returned from north America, and we will see what, if indeed anything, comes out of that in terms of the investigation—the inquiry—that we and most of the rest of the world have called for. Again, I stress that it is important to make the case for those two things, the investigation and the lifting of the blockade, because it would be wrong to characterise everyone in Israel as insensitive to international opinion. This is an argument that has to be won within Israel, as well as in the rest of the world. That is why I am taking the approach that we are taking and, indeed, previous Governments, broadly, have taken; and I am sure that, for now, that is the right approach.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is a little rich for the Israeli Government to justify their behaviour on the ground that they are denying matériel to a terrorist organisation when they have in the recent past shown themselves perfectly willing to import proscribed munitions for use against civilian targets?

Again, my hon. Friend adds to a strength of feeling and to points made that will be widely noticed and, I hope, taken note of in Israel itself.

The Foreign Secretary has quite rightly said that we need a credible and independent inquiry. This was an illegal act in international waters, involving citizens from many countries throughout the world. Surely the only way in which we can have a credible and independent inquiry is if it is an international, credible inquiry. Does the Foreign Secretary support that? If not, why not?

We shall see about that. The hon. Gentleman may be right in the end, but, in answering his right hon. Friend the Member for South Shields (David Miliband), I referred to the fact that Israel has previously held inquiries—into some of the events in Lebanon in the 1980s and into the Lebanon war in 2006—that certainly were independent and credible by international standards, and that meted out considerable and, sometimes, severe criticism to the authorities in Israel. It is possible for them to do that. Today I have made the additional case that such an inquiry and investigation should have an international presence and, therefore, be not just an Israeli inquiry. But I have also not excluded this Government from advocating the sort of inquiry that the hon. Gentleman would prefer to see, if no other action is taken in the meantime.

Behind Hamas lurks the spectre of both Syria and Iran. Were the Gaza blockade to be lifted at some point in the future, what practical assistance could Her Majesty’s Government, the European Union or NATO offer to Israel in order to stop the smuggling of weaponry from those two rogue states?

Such assistance and such assurance is very important, and that is why we are now consulting other nations on the best vehicle for providing it: whether that is best done under United Nations’ auspices, and how much more the European Union can do. There have, of course, been previous attempts to provide it under EU auspices, but it is very important to be able to stop the flow of arms into Gaza, just as it is so vital to be able to open up Gaza to humanitarian aid and to more normal economic activity. My hon. Friend makes a very powerful point.

I join my colleagues in condemning the actions of the Israeli Government. Two of my constituents, Sarah Colbourne and one other woman, are currently in detention in Israel. I thank the consulate for its work with them, but I am concerned about their position. I agree with the Foreign Secretary that an international flavour to an investigation, and an independent investigation, are important. Notwithstanding that, will he or the Under-Secretary of State, the hon. Member for North East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt), agree to meet my constituents and others who were there—because nothing beats hearing it from the horse’s mouth—in an attempt to shape this Government’s foreign policy towards Israel?

Yes. In fact, my hon. Friend is already working on plans to meet such a group when they have returned, if they desire such a meeting.

I welcome the Foreign Secretary’s statement, in particular the call for an international and impartial element to an investigation. However, is it not crucial to ensure that the peace talks resume and that the role of Turkey, which had been an important regional ally of Israel’s, is both supported and encouraged?

Yes, that is very important. It is important that the proximity talks turn into something much more than proximity talks. Turkey has become very active diplomatically in the whole region, and in a very welcome way; in our proceedings this afternoon, we have referred several times to the role of the Turkish Foreign Minister. Turkey has tried hard in recent years to bring Syria and Israel closer together and it has sometimes come within an ace of bringing permanent peace between the two countries. In general, Turkey has played a very constructive role in the region, and I am sure that she will want to do so in future.

The unauthorised boarding of a vessel in international waters by armed combatants is normally referred to as piracy. The Foreign Secretary is a Yorkshireman noted for his blunt speaking. Will he not use that word on this occasion?

The blunt Yorkshireman has been converted into a Foreign Secretary who weighs his words carefully, dramatic transition though that may be. As we are advocating a prompt, independent, credible and transparent investigation and inquiry, in the terms that I have put forward, it is important for us to be prepared to see what it produces before feeling that we need to add any other language to how I have expressed things today.

This afternoon, the Secretary of State appears to have ruled out a number of options for dealing with Israel within a European Union context. What exactly is the United Kingdom doing within the European Union to maximise diplomatic pressure to end the blockade on Gaza?

I am not conscious of ruling anything out, and I am not ruling anything out. But again I must stress that there is an enormous amount of pressure. I had dinner with many of the European Foreign Ministers in Sarajevo last night and I have seen many more of them this morning. They are all expressing themselves in very similar ways, and very emphatically, to the Government of Israel. There is no doubt about the intensity of the feeling and pressure from the European Union. Clearly, we will now want to discuss as a body what more we can do and, most importantly, what we can do working with the United States to try to give new momentum to the middle east peace process as a whole. The issue is right up there on the agenda and in the minds of European Foreign Ministers, and there will be a great deal of pressure.

As someone who has been to Gaza twice since Operation Cast Lead, I ask the Foreign Secretary to exempt Members of the House, at least, and other people who can bear witness, from the advice not to travel to Gaza. Perhaps he would like to go himself. Having a news blackout and hiding the appalling situation is exactly what the Israeli Government want, as they did during Operation Cast Lead. May I add that the Foreign Secretary’s testy conversations with Mr Lieberman are not going to get us anywhere? We need sanctions if Israel is to lift the blockade at all.

Testy conversations with Mr Lieberman are part of what we need to do. I have explained our overall approach and my reaction to the suggestion of sanctions. I understand the hon. Gentleman’s strength of feeling and knowledge about the situation in Gaza. Our general travel advice is not to go to Gaza, but sometimes Members of Parliament are able to go in a privileged and particularly safe way. Such visits must happen and are welcome; it is important for this House to have as much knowledge and information as possible about what is happening on the ground. I am not discouraging right hon. and hon. Members from going under the right circumstances, but let us not mistake that for our general travel advice to the British public.

As the Foreign Secretary mentioned, under Israeli law aid workers may face charges. Should not the killers of the aid workers face charges under international law?

Since we have called for an investigation, I do not think that we can pre-empt such matters. I stress that, as far as we know, the aid workers, activists, or people who were aboard the ship—however we want to describe them—and who may be in that position do not include any of the British nationals. Again, the hon. Gentleman makes a point that illustrates the strength of feeling in this House. That is one reason why we need to continue to call so strongly for the credible investigation to which I have referred.

The Foreign Secretary has rightly referred to the strength of feeling in this House, and, indeed, almost on a global basis. However, he will be as aware as anyone that Israel has a well-founded reputation for toughing out these crises, hoping that they will go away, and has been very successful in doing that. He made the point, again rightly, that these events are the recruiting sergeants for terrorism. Can he tell the House—this is a serious question—what will be different this time?

I cannot guarantee to the hon. Gentleman what the course of events will now be. I can say, slightly reiterating what I said earlier, that these incidents have shone a particular spotlight on to the situation in Gaza. The speed and unity of the diplomatic response is unusual. I referred earlier to the ease with which the UN Security Council statement was agreed, including with the United States—I stress that point. I think that that will have been duly noted in Israel; in fact, I know that it has been duly noted in Israel. Can I promise what reaction the Israelis will now provide? No, I cannot, but we will watch it very closely and minutely, and we will argue very strongly for the measures that I have set out today, not excluding other courses of action in the future.

It is an unusual and impressive sight to see a Yorkshireman linguistically restrained, but I thank the Foreign Secretary for what was, in the main, a robust and refreshing statement. I also include the shadow Foreign Secretary in that.

The Foreign Secretary mentioned that the Rafah crossing has been reopened. We have been told in the past that that will open up an enormous amount of access for munitions and weapons of war. If some good has come from this bloodstained horror, it is the opening of the Rafah crossing. Will this be monitored, will there be a report to the House, and will we be able to consider, in this House, whether the truth of the Rafah crossing is that it is simply another border crossing, and not an access point for matériel for Hamas?

Yes, it is very important that this is monitored, and I certainly welcome other opportunities for the House to discuss these matters and to be updated on these events.

Is it not the case that resolution 1860, as well as calling for an end to the blockade, acknowledges that the international community itself has responsibility to ensure that weapons are not smuggled into Gaza? We know that the Foreign Secretary does not want to send a gunboat to ensure that this happens—[Interruption.] I think that a gunboat has a rather different aim from what my right hon. Friend the Member for Holborn and St Pancras (Frank Dobson) wanted. Given that, what practical steps can the international community take to offer assistance not only to Israel, but to Egypt, to ensure that weapons are not getting into the Gaza strip, which will reassure the great mass of Israeli public opinion, which I believe will be as horrified about these events as are people in this House?

The hon. Gentleman puts his finger on what is required. There have been previous attempts at various forms of international presence and activity around Gaza that were meant to give assurance. Clearly, that has not worked, so we now have to find a new mechanism for doing so. Britain stands ready to help in many ways. When the hon. Gentleman referred to needing a gunboat, one of my right hon. Friends said, “We haven’t got one.” That was indeed how it turned out under the previous Government, when such a thing was offered but never materialised. That is why I am not making any rash promises. However, given the huge importance of this issue in international affairs, the United Kingdom will do whatever we can to assist.

My constituents want more than pressure. Will the Foreign Secretary come back to the House and report on a timetable for the discussions on a diplomatic solution, just as we did on Ireland?

I think that there will be many more discussions in this House. I am not offering a timetable today, but I have indicated that we have not excluded other actions and pressures in the future. I would be very disappointed if we did not have a further opportunity to discuss these things.

Thank you, Mr Speaker. I welcome the robust condemnations and statements from the Foreign Secretary and from my right hon. Friend the shadow Foreign Secretary, but is the Foreign Secretary aware that the Hamas charter states:

“There is no solution to the Palestinian problem except by Jihad. The initiatives, proposals and International Conferences are but a waste of time, an exercise in futility”,

that

“our struggle against the Jews is extremely wide-ranging”

and that

“Israel…will remain erect until Islam eliminates it”?

Such anti-Semitic, anti-Jewish language is the official doctrine and policy of Hamas. I share in all the points that the Foreign Secretary made and wish him well, but Hamas is part of the problem, not yet part of the solution.

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman—I never thought I would say those words, but I am. I hope that I made that point in my statement in a slightly different way, by referring to the ideological motives of Hamas and reminding the House that there is a Hamas dimension to the whole problem. It has refused to forswear violence, recognise previous agreements and recognise Israel’s right to exist, and until it starts making some concrete movement towards those things, it will be very difficult for the international community to discuss the future with it. The right hon. Gentleman adds force to that argument.

I am grateful to right hon. and hon. Members for their co-operation, as a result of which everyone who wanted to contribute on the statement was given the opportunity to do so.

Debate on the Address

[4th day]

Debate resumed (Order, 27 May).

Question again proposed,

That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty, as follows:

Most Gracious Sovereign,

We, Your Majesty’s most dutiful and loyal subjects, the Commons of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland in Parliament assembled, beg leave to offer our humble thanks to Your Majesty for the Gracious Speech which Your Majesty has addressed to both Houses of Parliament.

Education and Health

It is a great honour to be asked to speak in support of the Gracious Speech this afternoon. As the right hon. Member for Morley and Outwood (Ed Balls) will know, there are few greater honours and few more daunting invitations than being asked to lead the Government Department responsible for the country’s schools. I am grateful beyond words for the chance to serve my country in this job.

I am grateful also to have a team alongside me that is distinguished and dedicated to ensuring that every child has a better start in life. I am grateful that my hon. Friends the Members for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton (Mr Gibb), for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) and for Brent Central (Sarah Teather) have agreed to serve in this partnership Government. I look forward to working with them in the years ahead.

This Gracious Speech contains two education Bills. Those measures will grant more freedom to teachers, give more choice to parents, reduce bureaucracy for all schools and provide additional help for the weakest. They will ensure that standards rise for all children and will specifically target resources on the most disadvantaged, so that we narrow the gap between the rich and the poor.

In due course. This is a progressive programme and, as I am sure my hon. Friend the Member for Colchester (Bob Russell) appreciates, it comes from a partnership Government. I know that our programme commands support from hon. Members on both sides of the House. It also owes a great deal in its design to someone I am proud to call a right hon. Friend. Before I say anymore, may I therefore say a few words about my right hon. Friend the Member for Yeovil (Mr Laws), who was for three years the Liberal Democrat spokesman on education? During that time I, like the right hon. Member for Morley and Outwood, got to know, like and admire my right hon. Friend. In all our dealings, he was unfailingly honest, considerate, thoughtful and principled. He never, ever sought personal advantage, but instead sought at all times to do the right thing, consistent with his principles.

My right hon. Friend always sought to deploy his considerable personal gifts—his intelligence and capacity for hard work—in the service of those who were less fortunate. In particular, he championed the interests of poorer children, making the case for more investment in their education and for more freedom for teachers to close the gap in performance between the poorest and the rest. It is thanks to him more than anyone that a commitment to investing more in the education of the poorest—a pupil premium—is at the heart of this coalition Government’s plans for schools. In securing that reform, he has already secured an achievement in government of which he and his many friends can be proud. It is my profound hope that he will very soon have the chance to serve again, and I am sure the whole House will join me in wishing him well at this time.

Although we might disagree about much, I know that the right hon. Member for Morley and Outwood is wholeheartedly in agreement with me on that issue. I pay tribute to him, too, for the work he did in office. He is a pugnacious political operator, as his rivals for the Labour leadership—including the right hon. Member for Leigh (Andy Burnham)—are about to find out if they do not already know. Having shadowed him for three years, I know that his pugnacity is matched by passion. He came into politics for the right reason: to help the underdog. During his time at the Treasury, although we may have argued with much that he did, it is to his credit that he never forgot to prioritise the fight against child poverty.

During his time as Secretary of State, the right hon. Gentleman secured real achievements. He secured a better deal for children living with disabilities, with more respite care for parents and progress on improving the education of children with special needs. The separation of exam regulation from curriculum design, with the creation of a new regulator, Ofqual, which has the potential to play a part in restoring confidence in exam standards, was a real step forward. He also showed real leadership on child protection, with swift action in the aftermath of the terrible tragedy of baby Peter Connelly’s death. The right hon. Gentleman also took constructive steps to help social workers in the vital task that they perform. The coalition Government will build on his initiative in this area, in particular taking forward the recommendations of the social work task force.

I also thank the right hon. Gentleman for the robust way in which he made the case for the continuation of key stage 2 tests to mark and monitor the achievement and attainment of children in primary schools. These are a vital accountability measure, and his robust case for their continuation ensured a consensus across the House for more data, greater parental accountability and a relentless drive for improvement in early years education. We are all in his debt, and I hope that we can maintain that consensus in months to come.

The right hon. Gentleman also always made the case robustly for his Department in budget rounds. He fought with determination, and he was never reticent in letting the Treasury know just how it should discharge its responsibilities towards our schools. That is perhaps why the shadow Chancellor has today come out in favour of the David Miliband leadership campaign.

On the subject of negotiations with the Treasury, can the Secretary of State tell us what negotiations he is having about the future of the Building Schools for the Future programme? Four secondary schools in my constituency are waiting for a decision. They badly need to be renewed and rebuilt: will he deliver?

We will seek to deliver at every stage. I am delighted that the hon. Gentleman is in his place and that I had the opportunity to visit two superb schools in his constituency, including Madeley school, which has recently been rebuilt. I know that Building Schools for the Future makes a distinguished contribution to ensuring that we renovate and refurbish the schools estate, but I have concerns that under my predecessor the programme was not allocating resources to the front line in the most efficient way. It is critical that we ensure that taxpayers’ money is spent on the front line improving education, and not on consultants, architects or bureaucracy. I am sure the hon. Gentleman will agree that we all have a duty to ensure that money goes to the front line, and I am sure that the right hon. Member for Morley and Outwood will agree that we should congratulate the Chancellor and the Treasury on the agreement that was reached in the spending round just concluded. For the remainder of this financial year, we will guarantee that there will be no cuts in front-line funding for schools, Sure Start and sixth forms. I hope that both sides of the House approve of that.

My right hon. Friend is setting out his stall eloquently and is being generous in his remarks. He mentions his discussions with the Treasury. Will he accept that the county of Leicestershire is bottom of the pile when it comes to funding, and will he reconsider the funding formula, as we asked the previous Government to do throughout the last two Parliaments?

My hon. Friend makes a passionate case, and I know that Leicestershire is one of the F40 local authorities that have had to do a remarkable amount with not enough. I will listen sympathetically to him and to other colleagues from both sides of the House who represent areas that need a fairer funding formula.

Will any revenue and capital funding for the so-called free schools come from existing education budgets?

I know how committed my hon. Friend is to the education of children in Colchester and, indeed, to that of children throughout the country. He will be relieved to learn that we will ensure that front-line funding for existing schools will not be damaged by the reforms that we intend to make.

Will the Secretary of State confirm that he is aware of some of the successful pilots that have been attempted in recent years to provide free school meals on a universal basis in some of our primary schools? Will he confirm that the educational and health gains that have been seen as a result of those pilots will now be taken forward, and that his Government will commit to continuing the pilots that the previous Government announced?

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her question. I know that in her previous incarnation, in the Child Poverty Action Group, she was a committed fighter for the very poorest children. We are now looking to ensure that we can guarantee that those children most in need receive support with free school meals, and we are examining the evidence that has come in from the pilots that she has mentioned.

Can the right hon. Gentleman comment on the closure of BECTA, the British Educational Communications and Technology Agency, and the QCDA, the Qualifications and Curriculum Development Agency, in Coventry, costing probably 600 jobs, and the potential impact not only in Coventry but on education for poorer families? A letter was sent out announcing the closure arbitrarily, so what will happen to those staff?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question. He, too, is a dedicated fighter for his constituency, and I know how hard he has fought for the interests of the people of Coventry. However, given the difficult state of the public finances and the situation that we inherited from the Government whom he supported, we have had to make some tough decisions. My judgment was that we had to prioritise spending on the front line. That has meant that those bodies—BECTA and the QCDA, which were responsible for spending money not on the front line, but in an arm’s length way, as quangos—have had to accept that economies are necessary. I have ensured, by writing to those responsible for both organisations, that we handle any redeployment and any redundancy in the most sensitive way possible.

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his kind words. Before the interventions started, he confirmed that he had agreed with the Treasury to match the previous plans for spending in the current financial year—2010-11 —for Sure Start, schools and 16-to-19 education. Can he confirm to the House that he has reached a similar agreement with the Chancellor of the Exchequer to match funding for 2011-12 and 2012-13 as well?

The right hon. Gentleman, I am sure with admirable zeal, wants to look into the crystal ball and find out what will happen in future. However, I have to remind him that just six weeks ago, during the general election campaign, he was engaging in his own form of future forecasting. Just six weeks ago, he said that if we took office, there would be 38,000 fewer staff working in our schools, 6,900 fewer teachers in primaries and nurseries, and 7,300 fewer teachers in secondary schools. Those redundancies have not taken place. The Nostradamus of Morley and Outwood was found out. His predictions did not come true. For that reason, I will not enter into any forecasting about what will happen in future years.

What I will say is that unlike the right hon. Gentleman’s Government, we have secured additional funding from outside the education budget, as confirmed by the Prime Minister at this Dispatch Box just an hour ago, in order to fund our pupil premium—something that the right hon. Gentleman was never able to do, but that we have been able to do in partnership—to ensure that funding goes to the very poorest children. I would have hoped that he would find it in himself to show the grace to applaud that achievement for our very poorest children. I would also have hoped that he would applaud the Chancellor for protecting front-line funding for Sure Start, 16-to-19 education and schools.

The Secretary of State has been talking about protecting front-line spending in education. Can he confirm that that includes important services such as special educational needs provision and school transport, which are of great value to our constituents?

I could not agree more. School transport is covered by the revenue support grant in almost all circumstances and has not been affected. With respect to special educational needs, we are ensuring that the commitment is there to fund the services that our most vulnerable children need.

What I would say to all hon. Gentlemen on the Labour Benches—[Interruption]—and hon. Ladies too—is that in their requests for more spending, however passionately constructed, they should remember one thing. Who were the Government until just a few weeks ago? Who was responsible for the financial situation that we inherited? Who was responsible for writing a letter to the Treasury saying, “There is no money”? None of us in this House wants to see front-line spending on our schools reduced, but none of us on the Government Benches would have wanted the public finances to be reduced to the state that we inherited after the election. As the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Hodge Hill (Mr Byrne) put it, in a rare moment of candour when he left the Treasury, there is no money left. In fact, as the markets are all too aware, there is less than no money left. We are currently spending £163 billion every year more than we take in taxes—

In the right hon. Gentleman’s desire to be sensible about money, which we would all want to see, will he think about the extended schools programme? What connections is he making with other Departments? That extension to school hours really helps working parents, and working parents help to tackle child poverty. That should be at the centre of his agenda, and I hope that it is.